Commentary Magazine

The Radical Tradition, by R. H. Tawney

The Moral Society

The Radical Tradition.
by R. H. Tawney.
Pantheon. 214 pp. $4.95.

R. H. Tawney, who died two years ago, was the last of the great English socialist intellectuals. An eminent economic historian, author of the famous Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, he was also a distinguished moralist. Throughout his long life he labored to persuade England of the Tightness of socialism, and to prevent the socialists from forgetting their socialism while trying to acquire power. Unlike his fellow-workers—Shaw, the Webbs, H. G. Wells, Harold Laski—he experienced no startling shifts and reversals of thought or sympathy. It could even be said that Tawney never really changed his mind. From first to last, he was a gradualist reformer, a democratic socialist, an unembarrassed patriot. His intelligence was constantly disciplined by his moral interests; his moral interests were constantly impelling him to consider political possibilities and reckon political costs. To the vulgar, this moderation and steadfastness may appear to be boring, philosophically innocent, perhaps pseudo-radical. But when the late Hugh Gaitskell said in a memorial speech that Tawney's “two great socialist books—The Acquisitive Society and Equality—made a tremendous impact upon my generation,” he was not indulging in the extravagances of eulogy. Tawney's writings are deeply passionate, and arouse an answering passion in the reader. The present book, the second collection of Tawney's occasional writings, ranges in time from 1914 to 1953, and in subject from John Ruskin to adult education, from the nature of liberty to the sociological uses of literature. And in the midst of all this variety we hear a steady sound: the true voice of political humanitarianism.

Tawney resembles Orwell more than he does anyone else. Their styles are remarkably similar: hurried without being breathless, lucid, bare of involutions—though Tawney sometimes allows himself a string of long words or an artful formulation to show that, after all, he is a scholar. The real resemblance is in their view of morality. Some years ago, in his introduction to Homage to Catalonia, Lionel Trilling said that as a writer Orwell “seems to be serving not some dashing daimon but the plain, solid Gods of the Copybook Maxims,” and referred to Orwell's “simple ability to look at things in a downright, undeceived way.” These remarks apply with equal force to Tawney, with the proviso that the trace of self-conscious tough-guy moral simplicity in Orwell is wholly missing in Tawney.

For Tawney there is no doubt that the most ordinary canons of morality require an Englishman to be a socialist. Much of Tawney's writing was aimed at reminding clergymen and bourgeois alike that the short sentences that summed up their moral duties were to be taken literally; and that the gradual reformation of society had as its mission to draw reality ever closer to the standards that everyone accepted or said he accepted. The real problem was not to preach a new gospel or to construct a new political theory. It was to make customary beliefs more vivid, and to demonstrate with both patient knowledge and unforced passion that the time was ripe for those beliefs to be acted on in social life.

The marvel is that combined with this moral directness, this resolute rejection of worldliness as a corrective to the hopeless wish of taking the world's protestations at face value, is a great awareness of “the lion in the path” of reform. There was not a single important obstacle that escaped Tawney's attention, whether established interests, ingrained snobberies, the deficiencies of socialist leadership, or the drag of habit. True to his own morality, his analysis of English society is strong in condemnation, but absolutely without rancor. He was quite aware that in earlier times the ruling classes feared education, leisure, and prosperity as subversive of the docility of the masses; even now, he knew, prejudice and vague anxiety led to resistance to reformist proposals. But he was confident that with time things would improve. He shrewdly saw that two terrible wars, by the economic planning they necessitated, the common sacrifices they imposed, the loyalties they elicited, had provided the strongest force working toward a socialist society. Like Orwell, he believed that the English people were a family, but with the wrong members in charge.


Of all the moral banalities to which he proudly subscribed, and which he so beautifully burnished, the central one was: “The foundation of Socialism is, in my view, a decision that certain types of life and society are fit for human beings and others not.” (These words come from an essay reprinted in The Radical Tradition.) He was always insisting on the idiotically simple distinction between means and ends. There was only one end: the fully human personality. Everything else—all the proposals for the nationalization of industry, the provision of welfare services, the redistribution of income, the growth of production—was instrumental. He worked hard for the means, but never forgot they were means. Wherever he saw instances of the flowering of human personality in the past, he praised without regard to his socialism. The present collection of essays ends with a stunning lyrical appreciation of Elizabethan England. There is no guilty conscience here, no moral heaviness—just a worship of beauty tinged but not sickened by the barbarities of the age. Years before, in The Acquisitive Society, he wrote as a fervent socialist: “Whatever the future may contain, the past has shown no more excellent social order than that in which the mass of the people were the masters of the holdings which they plowed and of the tools with which they worked, and could boast, with the English freeholder, that ‘it is a quietness to a man's mind to live upon his own and to know his heir certain.’” He wanted England to become an “Opportunity State,” where talents would be liberated, and all men given a fair chance. But he also was concerned that all the untalented be assured their decencies: his defense of individuality is free of insolence.

He carried his humanism so far as to cherish political democracy more even than socialism. The values he saw embodied in representative government he took as ultimate; he wished to see them prevail in economic relations as well. He advocated in his writings early and late—and some are in this volume—that workers share in the management of their firms. He thought greater efficiency would result; but more important than that, the principle of self-determination would be served, and with it the fully human personality. As for political democracy itself, he wrote: “It is not certain, though it is probable, that Socialism can in England be achieved by the methods proper to democracy. It is certain that it cannot be achieved by any other; nor even if it could, should the supreme goods of civil and political liberty, in whose absence no Socialism worthy of the name can breathe, be part of the price.” If at times Tawney appears to be a tepid socialist, it is because he was more than a socialist. He could not be ruthless about any socialist policy for the reason that fanaticism and democracy are incompatible. His view of power supported his defense of democracy. He thought any exercise of power morally harmful to the subject; he suspected the state; he hoped that under state socialism the people would not lose that disquiet concerning authority which is one of the underlying democratic sentiments. And behind these practical considerations in democracy's favor is the view that more than any other system, it both honors one's privacy and allows some involvement in the public processes shaping one's life. The deepest argument for democracy is again a moral one, a Copybook Maxim, an open assertion of the rights of personality.

At a time when humanist political thought is in disarray, reading Tawney may seem to add to the malaise. There may be a suspicion that his economic views are outmoded, have lost their thrust, and that if socialism still deserves to exist, it must be much more sophisticated than Tawney's version of it. There may be the worry that Tawney is too eager to be conciliatory, too afraid of losing good things for the sake of getting better; and that when his intellectual generosity is translated into action, profound but unsettling reforms will be avoided. There may be debilitating nostalgia for a period in which it was apparently possible to feel something like Tawney's moral certainty, in which reformers knew that one of their best allies was the guilt of the established interests. In short, one may be tempted to accord Tawney respect, praise him for his past services, and then put him aside. That would be, I think, a great mistake. Whatever his present relevance on technical or tactical matters, his writings as a whole achieve one permanent thing. They formulate the reasons for being radical, reasons which are moral and will inevitably be simple, and which it is pitifully easy even for radicals to despise or ignore. The Copybook must have the last word, and Tawney makes us see just that.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.