Richard Tawney

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Richard Henry Tawney (November 30, 1880 – January 16, 1962) was an English writer, economist, historian, social critic, and a leading advocate of Christian Socialism. Tawney influenced the British Labour Party through his writings, his work on committees, advising government bodies, and campaigns for social reforms. He was staunchly opposed to Capitalism, arguing that acquisitiveness was a corrupting moral influence, and that it deprived work of its own value, since it was regarded only as a means to achieving a different end. He also feared that capitalist societies had lost the spiritual understanding of the purpose of human society. A man of strong Christian faith, Tawney believed that Socialism was the vehicle for the establishment of God's kingdom on the earth, a utopian society in which wealth would be spread evenly among all people. His concept of equality was a brotherhood of all people, under God as their parent, who offered their talents for the benefit of the whole. In order for people to develop their talents to their full potential, Tawney advocated universal education, an idea that was achieved through the Education Act of 1944, in England.


Richard Henry Tawney was born on November 30, 1880, in Calcutta, India, the son of a respected Sanskrit scholar. He was educated at Rugby High School and later attended Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied modern history. In high school, he became a good friend of William Temple, later to be Archbishop of Canterbury. While at Balliol, Tawney joined the Christian Social Union, starting his lifelong involvement with social issues of the nineteenth century English society.

After his graduation in 1903, Tawney left Oxford, and together with William Beveridge, his colleague from Oxford, moved to Toynbee Hall. There, he came in contact with the Workers' Educational Association (WEA), an organization that was involved in research on different social issues, including adult education. He joined the staff of the WEA in 1905, serving later as its president (1928-1944), and remaining with the organization until 1947.

In 1906, Tawney joined the Fabian society and accepted a position at the University of Glasgow to become an assistant lecturer in economics. Three years later, he married Jeanette Beveridge, sister of his friend William Beveridge. The couple moved to Manchester in 1909, where Tawney started to work on his first book, The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (1912). He lectured at the University of Glasgow until 1912, when he moved back to London and took up an appointment as director of the Ratan Tata Foundation. The Foundation was based at the London School of Economics and did research on fighting poverty in India.

During World War I, Tawney served in the British army, as a sergeant in the Manchester Regiment. In 1916, he was badly wounded at the Battle of the Somme. He wrote about the whole experience in his essay The Attack (published in 1916). Following his recovery, he worked at the British Ministry of Reconstruction, and was elected a fellow at Balliol College in 1918.

In 1920, Tawney became a lecturer at the London School of Economics, where he remained for the rest of his career. He was appointed professor of economic history in 1931. In 1926, he helped found the Economic History Society with Sir William Ashley, and worked for seven years as joint editor of its publication, Review. Among his important works from that period are The Acquisitive Society (1921), Secondary Education for All (1922), Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), and Equality (1931).

Tawney was politically and socially active. He served on numerous committees and public bodies, including Sankey Coal Commission, the Consultative Committee of the Board of Education, and the Education Committee of the London County Council. He was also involved within the Church of England, writing on the social teachings of the church. He twice ran for a seat in the House of Commons for the Labour Party, without success.

Tawney retired from teaching in 1949, but continued to write. He died on January 16, 1962, in a nursing home in Fitzroy Square, London, England.


A famous socialist, Tawney helped to formulate the economic and ethical views of the British Labour party through his many essays and books. He participated in numerous government bodies concerned with education, trade, and industry. His views on capitalism, democratic values, socialism, and education, are of particular interest.


Tawney published two influential books, The Acquisitive Society (1926) and Equality (1931), which contained harsh moral condemnations of the capitalist economic and social system. Tawney believed that acquisitiveness, which capitalism is rooted in, is morally wrong, and as such has a harmful effect on society. It creates, among other things, inequality, which contradicts Christian ethics.

Tawney proposed, in Equality, a theory, often regarded as utopian, on how to establish a just society, where economic inequalities would be eliminated. He believed that the solution for inequality lay in spreading of wealth evenly among social classes. This would eliminate the problem that only a minority elite hold wealth and power while the majority struggles to survive. To accomplish this, Tawney suggested that government bring laws that would impose income limits on all individuals. He also proposed extended government role in providing social services to people.

Capitalism and Protestant ethics

In his Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), Tawney surveyed the relationship between religion and the political and economic developments in the sixteenth and seventeenth century that precipitated the rise of capitalism. Tawney was heavily influenced by Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), who saw a direct causation between Calvinistic Protestantism and modern capitalism. Although Tawney generally agreed with Weber, he was rather cautious to draw the direct causation between the two. He believed that capitalism emerged long before the Protestant Reformation, and that the two developed in parallel, albeit interdependently. Since both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches had close relationships with the upper classes, namely the aristocracy and landlords, protestant theology, as well as capitalist ethics, took strong roots in middle class society. It was thus in the middle class that both ideologies perfectly took root, and they propelled each other forward.


Tawney believed that a just society could be established in the modern world, and he proposed socialism as the base for such a society. Combining Christianity with socialism, he claimed that through socialism God's rule on earth could be extended. He expressed skepticism that capitalistic society was capable of creating truly democratic society:

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 favor 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 (Keeping Left manifesto, 1950).

Tawney was essentially worried about the loss of social and spiritual purpose in society, saying that capitalist society legalizes inequality and domination of one individual over the other. He proposed a society that would be based on more human values. Equality, for example, is one such value, which he saw as resting on three pillars:

  1. Brotherhood of all people, with God as a common parent.
  2. Society based on optimal use of people’s talents, where education plays important role in establishing those talents.
  3. Rewards based on social service and benefit to the community.

Tawney believed that in a just society, industry and social institutions would be organized around the promotion of human happiness and social good, rather than the production and accumulation of goods. Tawney called such a society "socialism."


Tawney thought that education should be open to all, and that government assistance was necessary to make it become a reality. He believed that education is a spiritual activity, and as such is of utmost importance for society:

The fundamental obstacle in the way of education in England is simple. It is that education is a spiritual activity, much of which is not commercially profitable, and that the prevailing temper of Englishmen is to regard as most important that which is commercially profitable, and as of only inferior importance that which is not. The task of those who believe in education is correspondingly simple. It is to induce a larger number of their countrymen to believe, and, if they believe it themselves, to believe more intently, that spiritual activity is of primary importance and worth any sacrifice of material goods, and that, in fostering such activity, education, if not the most powerful, is at least the most readily available agency (A National College of all Souls, 1917).

Tawney advocated for the reform of the educational system in Britain. He was an educator himself, and implemented some of his ideas in practice. The most notable was his view of adult education. He worked for years as a tutor, giving lectures to manual workers and all those who were interested in different political and social subjects. The purpose of the classes was not certificate or a degree, but a pure interest in a particular topic. Tawney’s work on adult education became the foundation for work organized by the Workers' Educational Association and other similar organizations in Britain.


Tawney’s ideas and work had a profound influence on the philosophy of the British left wing. He is sometimes regarded as the "patron saint" of twentieth century British socialism. Although for a period of almost thirty years following his retirement his ideas ceased to be influential in Britain, the formation of the Social Democratic Party in 1981 brought his work again to the center of discussion.

His advocacy of the idea that secondary education needs to be universal came to life in England 1944, with the Education Act.

His former school, Rugby, named their Tawney society in his honor.


  • Tawney, Richard H. [1912] 1967. The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century. Harper & Row. ISBN 0061313157
  • Tawney, Richard H. 1917. Times Educational Supplement. A National College of all Souls.
  • Tawney, Richard H. [1920] 2004. The Acquisitive Society. Dover Publications. ISBN 0486436292
  • Tawney, Richard H. [1922] 2003. Secondary Education for All. Hambledon & London. ISBN 0907628990
  • Tawney, Richard H. [1926] 1998. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 0765804557
  • Tawney, Richard H. [1931] 1964. Equality. HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 0043230148
  • Tawney, Richard H. 1940. Why the British People Fight. Workers Education Bureau Press.
  • Tawney, Richard H. [1953] 1971. The Attack and Other Papers. Books for Libraries Press. ISBN 0836923766
  • Tawney, Richard H. 1953. The W.E.A. and Adult Education. University of London. Athlone Press.
  • Tawney, Richard H. 1977. Agrarian China Selected Source Materials from Chinese Authors. University Publications of America. ISBN 0890930848
  • Tawney, Richard H. 1978. History and Society: Essays. Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN 0710089538
  • Tawney, Richard H. 1978. Land and Labor in China. M.E.Sharpe. ISBN 0873321065
  • Tawney, Richard H. 1978. Social History and Literature. Norwood Editions. ISBN 0848227034
  • Tawney, Richard H. 1979. The American Labour Movement. St Martins Press. ISBN 0312025033

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Ashton, T. S. 1962. Richard Henry Tawney, 1880-1962. Proceedings.
  • Elsey, B. 1987. R. H. "Tawney—Patron saint of adult education" In Twentieth Century Thinkers in Adult Education. Routledge Kegan & Paul. ISBN 0709914822
  • Terrill, Ross. 1974. R. H. Tawney and His Times: Socialism as Fellowship. Deutsch. ISBN 0233965610
  • Weber, Max. 2001. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Routledge. ISBN 0415255597
  • Wright, Anthony. 1988. R.H. Tawney. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0719019990

External links

All links retrieved December 13, 2022.


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