Saturday, 7 November 2015

The Life of R. H. Tawney: Socialism and History- Lawrence Goldman-Bloomsbury 2013

The fact that Lawrence Goldman’s biography is the first for well over half a century is an indication of how far R H Tawney’s reputation and influence has declined. It is hoped that this book is the start of a revival of interest in Tawney’s writings. The book is almost entirely drawn from the archive based at the London School of Economics(LSE) and from personal material from his family. Goldman takes an essential broadly chronological approach, and tries but does not always succeed to work in the more serious political and history issues that arose during his lifetime. The book delves heavily into Tawney’s life to the detriment of a more in-depth study of his politics and historiography.

Perhaps the most striking thought when reading the book is the fact that Tawney’s archive has hardly been touched. Goldman does not attempt to answer this conundrum, but I believe that despite Tawney being a Christian Socialist, not a Marxist his work has falling victim to the onslaught in academia led by scores of revisionist historians who have sought to bury Marxist historiography under a large number of dead dogs.

Early Life

Tawney came from a family that was academic and comfortably well off. Like scores of his class, he was privately educated in Tawney’s case at Rugby and later went on to Balliol. It is without doubt Tawney’s social background that profoundly influenced his political and historical writings. As one writer pointed out he  “ brought a late Victorian and Edwardian ethical sensibility to the economic and industrial troubles of the 1920s and 30s,”[1]

It is clear that it was his “ethical sensibility” that drove him to give something back to society in the form of educating the working class. Tawney clearly had an empathy with the poor. While rejecting Marxist theory, he started the first Workers’ Educational Association courses in Lancashire and the Black Country.

The education of working people and the unemployed through Workers Educational Associations in one form or another was an international phenomenon. The German Workers’ Educational Society in London was started in 1840 by a group of political refugees, who were members of the League of the Just.

When the Communist League was founded in 1847, its members played leading roles in the society. Creating branches in many workings areas of London. The importance of the community attracted Marx and Engels in 1849-50 who took more responsibility for the political direction of the society. 

The Society, unfortunately, was closed 1918, by the British Government.
Goldman believes that Tawney chooses his field of study carefully. His study of economics was clearly motivated by his attempt to understand the origins of capitalism.  Unfortunately, not by using a Marxist methodology, rejecting using historical materialism as a method of examining capitalism.

Goldman is not really interested in looking into Tawney’s philosophy of history. While rejecting Marxism, Tawney adopted a radically utopian approach to politics and for that matter history.

This method can be seen in one of his most important and famous books. He states “The distinction made by the philosophers of classical antiquity between liberal and servile occupations, the medieval insistence that riches exist for man, not man for riches, Ruskin’s famous outburst, “there is no wealth but life”, the argument of the Socialist who urges that production be organized for service, not for profit, are but different attempts to emphasize the instrumental character of economic activities, by reference to an ideal which is held to express the true nature of man.”[2]

Compare this to Marx “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely [the] relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure, and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness”[3]

Tawney rejected Marx’s linking of base and superstructure. Tawney never believed that socialism should have a material base. While he believed that working men and women should have strong convictions his appeal was to the heart and not the head.

He was fond of quoting Oliver Cromwell who during the English revolution commented on the type of person he wanted in the New Model Army a “plain russet-coated Captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows.”

Tawney’s socialism was suffused with Christian morality. According to Goldman Tawney gave out good will and expected in return. Declaring that “no political creed will ever capture their hearts which begins by saying simply ‘we will give you a little more money’”. It is quite striking that Tawney had a very low goal for socialism.

Would he have been a better historian if he had embraced Marxist methodology I believe he would have been? But despite this handicap so great was his influence at the time that his study of the period 1540-1640 became known as “Tawney’s Century”.


Probably the weakest part of the book is the treatment or lack of it of the furious battles Tawney had with predominately right-wing historians. While it would have clear to even an O Level history or politics student that Tawney was not a Marxist this did not stop him being attacked for his perceived Marxist orientation.

He was involved in certainly the biggest and nastiest discussion of the 20th century. While some of the today’s historians have treated this debate as arcane, they are wrong and do so for mainly ideological reasons.

The start of the battle occurred when in The Economic History Review of 1941, Tawney published ‘The Rise of the Gentry’ as Goldman puts it he “argued that a change occurred in the ownership of property in the century before the Civil War, with a new class of gentry replacing the old land-owing classes. Tawney’s most important piece of empirical evidence was what later came to be referred to as the ‘counting of manors’ – between 1561 and 1680 ‘the number of landholders owning more than 10 manors fell from 612 to 347. Impressionistically, the number of lesser landholders grew, but the wealthiest landholders were losing their grip and declining in numbers and wealth’ (p. 234).

While Goldman is light on historiography, the book would have been significantly improved if he devoted more time and space to this debate, which he did not see as an actual exchange of opinions. Personal prejudice and petty jealousy were to intercede. American historian Lawrence Stone became involved in the debate. Stone visited Tawney during the second world war.
The story goes that Hugh Trevor-Roper, who was covering the same ground as Tawney gave Stone some papers on the subject. Whether Stone deliberately gave Tawney papers to further his research is open to conjecture. Trevor-Roper saw this as a slight and decided to ‘smash’ Stone.

According to the National, Oxford Biography Stone had an “impatience to get on with ‘real’ history earned him a reputation for arrogance during his post-war undergraduate year; on one occasion he stormed out of a revision class conducted by a newly appointed Christ Church tutor, Hugh Trevor-Roper.”

It would appear that Roper never forgave him for this but does not explain Roper's vitriolic attack. Trevor-Roper accused Stone of failing to understand the technological nature of the documents he studied and had substantially exaggerated the level of indebtedness of the Aristocracy. See also C Thompson Critic of Stone’s work) This ‘mistake’ did not warrant Roper’s “academic vituperation”. Tawney was moved to defend Stone saying that ‘an erring colleague is not an Amalakite to be smitten hip and thigh’.

On a broader point while Stone himself described his early career as being a young Marxist perhaps his mistakes were the product of an incomplete assimilation of the Marxist method of Historical Materialism. Stone had a major problem in that he never really understood the difference between genuine Marxism and a crude form of economic determinism.

In fact, Stone himself soon moved away from any link with Marxist historiography and in his own words became as he put it in an interview in 1987, "an old-fashioned Whig."
Stone never really deepens the reader’s knowledge of the political persuasion of Roper or other historians such as J H Dexter who also weighed in heavily to the debate with Tawney. Stone mistakenly described him as a Liberal.

Hexter’s work is very readable but here is not the place to evaluate its merit but it does warrant me to say that Hexter’s close links to the American Encounter magazine which in turn had close links to the CIA could have been exposed to Stone.

In the 1950s Hugh Trevor-Roper went to a conference in Berlin which was primarily made up of anti-communists, I am not sure if J H Hexter went to as well but writer and some Stalinist intellectuals such as Sidney Hook, Melvin J. Lasky, Ignazio Silone, and Arthur Koestler. The result of this conference was the founding of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and its magazine Encounter. Trevor-Roper wrote extensively for the magazine Encounter, is it any wonder that Stone who was mistakenly described as a Marxist historian would get such a hostile treatment

This would in my opinion armed his readers with an understanding of the fact that attacks on Stone’s and Tawney’s work were not just motivated by historical accuracy but had a very right wing political undertone.

The attack on Stone was unwarranted for some reasons. The main one being that after writing the Cause of the English Revolution he was moving away from any link to a Marxist analysis of the English Revolution.

But it became apparent that roper’s real target was Tawney. Goldman to his credit does question whether Trevor-Roper was justified in attacking both in this manner– ‘why, if he had killed the child, did Trevor-Roper go on to kill the father?’ (p. 237). He chides Roper ‘for all the huffing and puffing Trevor-Roper had merely offered an alternative and admittedly better model of social structures in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries … Trevor-Roper had not vanquished Tawney, merely corrected him … The judgment that he had delivered an ‘annihilating opusculum’ to Tawney’s article is in need of revision. Trevor-Roper’s motivation was clearly ideological driven. He saw Tawney as a Marxist that must be vanquished.


It is impossible in the space of this review, to sum up the importance of Tawney’s work or his legacy. To the modern reader Tawney was clearly the archetypal absent-minded scholar, As Goldman points out, he lived in chaos. Goldman recounts a story that when Tawney invited William Temple (a future Archbishop of Canterbury) for a meal “and removed three musty volumes from his bookshelf to reveal two cold chops on a plate” (p. 139).

A L Rowse also recounts a visit to Tawney ‘When I penetrated his study in Mecklenburg Square I was amazed: not only the litter of books and papers on every chair, table or ledge but trays with scraps of food, unwashed teacups, etc. …Tawney sat imperturbably in the midst of the mess, he didn’t seem to notice the squalor’, Historians I Have Known, pp. 93–4.

These anecdotes while amusing should not be an excuse for ignoring an outstanding historian. The least he deserves is a proper re-evaluation of his work.  Indeed the “Storm Over the Gentry” debate needs to be put in a more appropriate context. Hopefully, Goldman’s book will rekindle not just an interest but provokes other historians into doing some long overdue work on Tawney.

[1]   For the Common Good-Stefan Collini
[2]  Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926),

[3]K. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, with some notes by R. Rojas.