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R. H. Tawney
Born Richard Henry Tawney
(1880-11-30)30 November 1880
Calcutta, British India
Died 16 January 1962(1962-01-16) (aged 81)
Nationality British
Education Rugby School and Balliol College, Oxford
Occupation Professor of Economic history at London School of Economics
Known for Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926)
Religion Christian
Denomination Anglican
Spouse(s) Jeanette

Richard Henry "R. H." Tawney (30 November 1880 – 16 January 1962) was an English economic historian,[1][2] social critic,[3][4] ethical socialist,[5] Christian socialist,[6][7] and an important proponent of adult education.[8][9]

The Oxford Companion to British History (1997) explained that Tawney made a “significant impact” in all four of these “interrelated roles”.[10] A. L. Rowse goes further by insisting that, “Tawney exercised the widest influence of any historian of his time, politically, socially and, above all, educationally”.[11]

Tawney is buried in Highgate Cemetery.[12]

Early life and Christian faith[]

Born in Calcutta, India, Tawney was educated at Rugby School. He arrived at Rugby on the same day as William Temple, a future Archbishop of Canterbury, they remained friends for life.[13] He studied modern history at Balliol College, Oxford. The College’s “strong ethic of social service” combined with Tawney’s own “deep and enduring Anglicanism” helped shape his sense of social responsibility.[14] After graduating from Oxford in 1903, he and his friend William Beveridge lived at Toynbee Hall, then the home of the recently formed Workers Educational Association. The experience was to have a profound effect upon him. He realised that charity was insufficient and major structural change was required to bring about social justice for the poor.[15]

Whilst Tawney remained a regular Churchgoer, his Christian faith remained a personal affair, and he rarely spoke publicly about the basis of his beliefs.[16] In keeping with his social radicalism, Tawney came to regard the Church of England as a “class institution, making respectful salaams to property and gentility, and with too little faith in its own creed to call a spade a spade in the vulgar manner of the New Testament”.[17]

For three years from January 1908, Tawney taught the first Workers’ Educational Association tutorial classes at Longton, Stoke-on-Trent and Rochdale, Lancashire.[18] For a time, until he moved to Manchester after marrying Jeanette (William Beveridge’s sister), Tawney was working as part-time economics lecturer at Glasgow University. To fulfil his teaching commitments to the WEA, he travelled first to Longton for the evening class every Friday, before travelling north to Rochdale for the Saturday afternoon class. Tawney clearly saw these classes as a two-way learning process. “The friendly smitings of weavers, potters, miners and engineers, have taught me much about the problem of political and economic sciences which cannot easily be learned from books”.[19]

During World War I, Tawney served as a Sergeant in the 22nd Manchester Regiment.[20] He turned down an offer of a commission as an officer as a result of his political beliefs. He served at the Battle of the Somme (1916), where he was wounded twice on the first day and had to lie in no man's land for 30 hours until a medical officer evacuated him. He was transported to a French field hospital and later evacuated to England.

The War led Tawney to grapple with the nature of Original sin. “The goodness we have reached is a house built on piles driven into black slime and always slipping down into it unless we are building night and day”.[21] It also heightened his sense of urgency for meaningful social, economic and political change. In 1918, he largely wrote Christianity and Industrial Problems, the fifth report (the other four were on more ecclesiastical matters) from a Church of England commission which included a number of bishops.[22] Notable for its socialist flavour, the report “set the tone for most Anglican post-war social thinking”.[23]

The academic historian[]

Tawney’s first important work as a historian was The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (1912).[24] He was elected Fellow of Balliol College in 1918.[20] From 1917 to 1931, he was a lecturer at the London School of Economics.[25] In 1926 he helped found The Economic History Society with Sir William Ashley, amongst others, and became the joint editor of its journal, The Economic History Review.[26] From 1931 until retirement in 1949, he was a professor of economic history at the LSE[20] and Professor Emeritus after 1949. He was an Honorary Doctor of the universities of Oxford, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, London, Chicago, Melbourne, and Paris.[27]

Tawney's historical works reflected his ethical concerns and preoccupations in economic history. He was profoundly interested in the issue of the enclosure of land in the English countryside in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and in Max Weber's thesis on the connection between the appearance of Protestantism and the rise of capitalism. His belief in the rise of the gentry in the century before the outbreak of the Civil War in England provoked the 'Storm over the Gentry' in which his methods were subjected to severe criticisms by Hugh Trevor-Roper and John Cooper.

Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926) was his classic work[28] and made his reputation as an historian.[29] It explored the relationship between Protestantism and economic development in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Tawney “bemoaned the division between commerce and social morality brought about by the Protestant Reformation, leading as it did to the subordination of Christian teaching to the pursuit of material wealth”.[30]

The Oxford historian Valerie Pearl once described Tawney as having appeared to those in his presence as having an "aura of sanctity". He lent his name to the Tawney society at Rugby School, the R. H. Tawney Economic History society at the London School of Economics, the annual Tawney Memorial Lectures (Christian Socialist Movement) and the R. H. Tawney Building at Keele University. Adrian Hastings wrote: “Behind the list of major publications was the mind of a man tirelessly guiding government, Labour movement, Church and academic community towards a new society, at once fully democratic, consciously socialistic and fully in accord with Christian belief. In effective intellectual terms it is doubtful whether anyone else had remotely comparable influence in the evolution of British society in his generation”.[13]


Social criticism[]

Two of Tawney’s books stand out as his most influential social criticism:[29] The Acquisitive Society (1920), Richard Crossman’s “socialist bible”,[13] and Equality (1931), “his seminal work”.[31] The former, one of his most widely read books,[26] criticised the selfish individualism of modern society. Capitalism, he insisted, encourages acquisitiveness and thereby corrupts everyone. In the latter book, Tawney argues for an egalitarian society.

Both works reflected Tawney’s Christian moral values, “exercised a profound influence” in Britain and abroad, and “anticipated the Welfare state”.[29] As Dr. David Ormrod, of the University of Kent, stresses, “intermittent opposition from the Churches to the new idolatry of wealth surfaced from time to time but no individual critics have arisen with a combination of political wisdom, historical insight and moral force to match that of R.H. Tawney, the prophet who denounced acquisitiveness”.[32]

Christian socialist politics[]

Historian Geoffrey Foote, University of Teesside, has highlighted Tawney’s “political shifts”: “From an endorsement of a radical Guild socialism in 1921 through his authorship of the gradualist Labour & the Nation in 1928, his savage attacks on gradualism in the 1930s to his endorsement of revisionism in the 1950s”. Nevertheless, the same author also argues that “Tawney’s importance lies in his ability to propose a malleable yet coherent socialist philosophy which transcends any particular political situation. In this sense, his mature political thought never really changed”.[33]

In 1906, Tawney joined the Fabian Society and was elected to its executive from 1921 to 1933.[14] His fellow Fabian Beatrice Webb described him as a “saint of socialism” exercising influence without rancour.[34] He joined the Independent Labour Party in 1909[35] and the Labour Party in 1918.[36] He three times stood unsuccessfully for election for a seat in the House of Commons, in Rochdale in 1919, Tottenham South in 1922, and Swindon in 1924.[37] In 1935, Tawney refused the offer of a ‘safe seat’, believing that being an M.P. was now not the most effective contribution he could make to the Labour Party.[38]

Tawney participated in numerous government bodies concerned with industry and education. In 1919, he and Sidney Webb were among the trade union side representatives on the First Royal Commission on the Coal Mining Industry, chaired by Sir John Sankey. Equal division of membership between union and employer representatives resulted in opposing recommendations on the future organisation of the industry.[39] The union side recommended nationalisation and this was largely due to Tawney and Webb.[23]

Tawney’s Secondary Education For All (1922) “informed Labour policy for a generation”[29] and he was also largely responsible for the Party document Labour & the Nation (1928) which formed the basis of 1931 General Election manifesto.[26]

Geoffrey Foote believes “Tawney’s importance in the realm of political thought, and his contribution to the Labour Party, cannot be overestimated. His call for specific reforms in health and education were important in laying the basis of Labour’s plans for the welfare state, while his criticisms of acquisitive morality were an important intellectual and emotional basis for many future politicians who were committed to social reform. However, the reforms in the social services which were eventually to be put into effect by the 1945 Labour government took place within the confines of the acquisitive society condemned by Tawney. The social advances made by the Labour Party were not to be as permanent as many believed”[40]

Adult education advocacy[]

For more than forty years, from 1905 to 1948, Tawney served on the Workers’ Educational Association executive, holding the offices of Vice-President (1920–28; 1944–48) and President (1928–44).[20] He also served on the Consultative Committee of the Board of Education (1912–31),[35] the education Committee of the London County Council, and the University Grants Committee. He also contributed to several government reports on education. Tawney's thinking was influential in the creation of the University College of North Staffordshire which opened in 1950 and received its University Charter in 1962 as the University of Keele. The new Teaching Block was renamed the Tawney Building in May 1960 in recognition of Tawney's impact on the educational ideals and principles that inspired the "Keele Experiment".


  • The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (1912), London: Longman, Green and Co.
  • The Acquisitive Society (1920), New York, Harcourt Brace and Howe (1920); Mineola, NY, Dover (2004) ISBN 0-486-43629-2
  • Secondary Education for All (1922)
  • Education: the Socialist Policy (1924)
  • Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), Mentor (1953) ISBN 0-7658-0455-7, Peter Smith (1962)
  • Equality (1931) ISBN 0-04-323014-8
  • Land and Labour in China (1932).
  • The Radical Tradition: Twelve Essays on Politics, Education and Literature, (1964), Harmondsworth, Penguin, ISBN 0-14-020834-8


In Equality (1931):

  • "Freedom for the pike is death to the minnows"

In Keeping Left (1950):

Democracy is unstable as a political system as long as it remains a political system and nothing more, instead of being, as it should be, not only a form of government but a type of society, and a manner of life which is in harmony with that type. To make it a type of society requires an advance along two lines. It involves, in the first place, the resolute elimination of all forms of special privilege which favour some groups and depress other, whether their source be differences of environment, of education, or of pecuniary income. It involves, in the second place, the conversion of economic power, now often an irresponsible tyrant, into a servant of society, working within clearly defined limits and accountable for its actions to a public authority.

Interpreting Adam Smith in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism:

If preachers have not yet overtly identified themselves with the view of the natural man, expressed by an eighteenth-century writer in the words, trade is one thing and religion is another, they imply a not very different conclusion by their silence as to the possibility of collisions between them. The characteristic doctrine was one, in fact, which left little room for religious teaching as to economic morality, because it anticipated the theory, later epitomized by Adam Smith in his famous reference to the invisible hand, which saw in economic self-interest the operation of a providential plan… The existing order, except in so far as the short-sighted enactments of Governments interfered with it, was the natural order, and the order established by nature was the order established by God. Most educated men, in the middle of the [18th] century, would have found their philosophy expressed in the lines of Pope:
Thus God and Nature formed the general frame,
And bade self-love and social be the same.

Naturally, again, such an attitude precluded a critical examination of institutions, and left as the sphere of Christian charity only those parts of life which could be reserved for philanthropy, precisely because they fell outside that larger area of normal human relations, in which the promptings of self-interest provided an all-sufficient motive and rule of conduct.[41]


  1. Magnússon, M. (ed.) (1996, fifth ed. reprint), Chambers Biographical Dictionary, Chambers, Edinburgh, ISBN 0-550-16041-8 paperback, p. 1435
  2. Rose Benét, William (1988, third ed.). The Reader’s Encyclopedia. London: Guild Publishing (by arrangement with A.C. Black). p. 961. "One of the foremost students of the development of capitalism." 
  3. Nicholls, C.S. (1996). The Hutchinson Encyclopedia of Biography. Oxford: Helicon. p. 836. ISBN 1-85986-157-1. 
  4. Thane, Pat (2001). Cassell’s Companion to Twentieth Century Britain. London: Cassell & Co.. p. 378. ISBN 0-304-34794-9. "Tawney remained an influential social thinker from the interwar years through to the 1950s." 
  5. Noel W. Thompson. Political economy and the Labour Party: the economics of democratic socialism, 1884-2005. 2nd edition. Oxon, England, UK; New York, New York, USA: Routledge, 2006.
  6. Gardiner, Juliet (ed.) et al. (1995). The History Today Companion to British History. London: Collins & Brown. p. 734. ISBN 1-85585-261-6. 
  7. Ormrod, David (1990). Fellowship, Freedom & Equality: Lectures in Memory of R.H. Tawney. London: Christian Socialist Movement. p. 9. ISBN 0-900286-01-6. "Tawney’s was undoubtedly the most forceful and authentic voice of Christian socialist prophecy to be raised during the 1920s and 30s, echoing into the 1950s." 
  8. Drabble, M. (ed.) (1987), The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 965
  9. Elsey, B. (1987) "R. H. Tawney – Patron saint of adult education", in P. Jarvis (ed.) Twentieth Century Thinkers in Adult Education, Croom Helm, Beckenham: Tawney is “the patron saint of adult education”
  10. Cannon, John (ed.) (1997). The Oxford Companion to British History. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Softback Preview ed.). p. 909. 
  11. Rowse, A. L. (1995), Historians I Have Known, Gerald Duckworth & Co., London, p. 92
  12. Ramsden, John (ed.) (2005). Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century British Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 634. 
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Hastings, A. (1991, third ed.), A History of English Christianity 1920 - 1990, SCM Press, London, ISBN 0-334-02496-X paperback, p. 184
  14. 14.0 14.1 Thane, P. (2001) p. 377
  15. Dale, Graham (2000). God’s Politicians: The Christian Contribution to 100 Years of Labour. London: Harper Collins. p. 91. ISBN 0-00-710064-7. 
  16. Dale, G. (2000) p. 95
  17. Ormrod, D. (1990) p. 10
  18. Dale, G. (2000) p. 91
  19. Davies, A. J. (1996 rev. ed.). To Build A New Jerusalem: The British Labour Party from Keir Hardie to Tony Blair. London: Abacus. p. 176. ISBN 0-349-10809-9. 
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 20.3 Magnusson, M. (1996) p. 1435
  21. Dale, G. (2000) p. 93
  22. Hastings, A. (1991) p. 178
  23. 23.0 23.1 Hastings, A. (1991) p. 183
  24. William Rose Benét (1988) p. 961
  25. Drabble, M. (1987) p. 996
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Nicholls, C.S. (1996) p. 836
  27. Tawney, R. H. (1977 print). Religion & the Rise of Capitalism. Harmondsworth: Pelican (Penguin Books). pp. inside page. 
  28. Rose Benét, W. (1988) p. 961
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 Cannon, J. (1997) p. 909
  30. Foote, Geoffrey (1997, third ed.). The Labour Party’s Political Thought: A History. London: Macmillan Press. p. 74. ISBN 0-333-66945-2. 
  31. Foote, G. (1997) p. 76
  32. Ormrod, D. (1990) p. 9
  33. Foote, G. (1997) p. 72
  34. Ramsden, J. (2005) p. 633
  35. 35.0 35.1 Thane, P. (2001) p. 378
  36. Dale, G. (2000) p. 91
  37. Craig, F.W.S., British Parliamentary Election Results, 1919-1949 (1969), pp. 224, 258, 498.
  38. Dale, G. (2000) p. 90
  39. Ramsden, J. (2005) p. 580
  40. Foote, G. (1997) p. 80
  41. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, p.191-192

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