R. H. Tawney

R. H. Tawney books and biography

R. H. Tawney

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Richard Henry Tawney (R.H. Tawney) (1880 - 1962) was an English writer, economist, historian, social critic and university professor and a leading advocate of Christian Socialism.

Born in Calcutta, India, Tawney was educated at Rugby School and Balliol College, Oxford where he studied modern history.

Richard Tawney has been called “the patron saint of adult education” [1]. After leaving Oxford in 1903, he and 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. For more than forty years, from 1905 to 1947, Tawney served on the WEA’s executive, holding the office of vice-president (1920 – 28) before being elected president (1928 – 44). For three years from January 1908, Tawney taught the first WEA tutorial classes at Longton, Stoke-on-Trent and Rochdale, Lancashire. 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.

During World War One, Tawney served as a Sergeant in the 22nd Manchester Regiment. He turned down an offer of a commiission as an officer due to his political beliefs. He served at the Battle of the Somme, where he was wounded twice on the first day and had to lie in a field until the next day for evacuation. He was transported to a French field hospital and later evacuated to England.

He became a lecturer at the London School of Economics in 1917 where he remained for the rest of his career becoming professor of economic history in 1931. In 1926 he helped found The Economic History Society with Sir William Ashley, amongst others. He retired in 1949.

A leading socialist, Tawney helped to formulate the economic and ethical views of the British Labour party through his many essays and books, and he participated in numerous government bodies concerned with education, trade, and industry. He was a member of the Fabian Society from 1906.

He supported the Republic during the Spanish Civil War among other political causes.

Among his books are The Acquisitive Society (1921), Secondary Education for All (1922), Education: the Socialist Policy (1924), Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), Equality (1931) and Land and Labour in China (1932).

He twice ran for a seat in the House of Commons for the Labour Party without success.

R. H. Tawney lends his name to the Tawney society at Rugby School, and the R. H. Tawney student society at the London School of Economics.


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. (Religion and the rise of Capitalism, page 195)


  1. ^ Elsey, B. (1987) ‘R. H. Tawney – Patron saint of adult education’, in P. Jarvis (ed.) “Twentieth Century Thinkers in Adult Education”, Beckenham: Croom Helm

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