Richard Henry Tawney

The British economic historian and social philosopher Richard Henry Tawney (1880-1962) was an in fluential Fabian socialist and an adviser to governments.

Richard Tawney was born in Calcutta, India, on Nov. 30, 1880, the son of a distinguished civil servant and Sanskrit scholar. Educated at Rugby and Balliol College, Oxford, he graduated in classics in 1903 and then lived and worked at Toynbee Hall settlement in London. From 1906 to 1908 he lectured in economics at Glasgow University and then was a pioneer teacher for the Oxford University Tutorial Classes Committee until the outbreak of war in 1914. He was wounded at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.

Tawney was an ardent supporter of the Workers' Educational Association, serving as a member of its executive (1905) and president (1928-1944). His adult teaching, especially at Rochdale, is now legendary. His first seminal work of scholarship was The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (1912), dedicated to his tutorial classes, in which he traced the impact of commercialism on English agriculture and society.

In 1918 Tawney became a fellow of Balliol. The following year he was appointed reader in economic history at the London School of Economics; he was professor of economic history there from 1931 to 1949. He was a founder member and later president of the Economic History Society and, for 7 years, joint editor of its Review. His editions of economic documents became standard sources for students, as did his two studies of economic morality and practice in Tudor and Stuart England: his edition of Thomas Wilson's Discourse upon Usury (1925) and his classic Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926). Like his other major works, including The Rise of the Gentry (1954), Religion and the Rise of Capitalism was substantially criticized by later scholars, and its conclusions were later modified. Nevertheless, its power and seminal influence were universally recognized, so much so that the 17th century is often described as "Tawney's century." In 1958 he published his long-awaited study Lionel Cranfield: Business and Politics under James I, which was generally acclaimed by scholars.

Throughout Tawney's life, scholarship and action were interconnected. His 1914 monograph on wage rates in the chain-making industry led to his presidency of the Chain-Making Trade Board (1919-1922). In 1919 he was a leading figure on the Sankey Coal Commission, and subsequently he served as adviser on educational matters to the Labour party, member of the Consultative Committee of the Board of Education and the Cotton Trade Conciliation Board, and Labour attaché at the British embassy in Washington during World War II. His ideas exerted a profound influence on the philosophy of the British left. His expanded Fabian Society pamphlet The Acquisitive Society (1922) and his essay "Equality" (1931) contained severe moral condemnations of the capitalist economic and social system.

Tawney possessed a rare combination of qualities: humility, personal asceticism bordering on eccentricity, exceptional literary skills, deep scholarship, and a rare capacity to inspire his fellowmen with ideals of humanity and social justice. He died in London on Jan. 16, 1962.


Further Reading on Richard Henry Tawney

There is no book on Tawney's life and work. A chapter on him by W. H. Nelson is in Herman Ausubel, J. Bartlet Brebner, and Erling M. Hunt, eds., Some Modern Historians of Britain (1951). Tawney is also discussed in W. H. B. Court, Scarcity and Choice in History (1970).

Additional Biography Sources

Terrill, Ross, R. H. Tawney and his times: socialism as fellowship, London: Deutsch, 1974.

Wright, Anthony, R.H. Tawney, Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1987.