The Life of RH Tawney, by Lawrence Goldman, Bloomsbury, 426 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1472577429
This new life of economic historian and adult education champion RH Tawney often leans, as is the fashion, in favour of biographical intricacy – especially in its focus on subject’s troubled marriage (brought at times uncomfortably to life through letters). But it also features enough engagement with Tawney’s ideas and politics for it to be considered a most significant piece of work.
Like many a British (and Irish) biographer, Lawrence Goldman tends to go in to bat for his subject and to give him/her when possible the benefit of the doubt. This only occurs, however, after a fair hearing is granted to those Tawney clashed with along the way, which turns out to be admirably many for a mild-mannered Christian socialist.
Richard Henry Tawney was born in the Empire’s jewel in the crown, Calcutta, before shuttling back to public school and Oxford. The latter was a vital element in his early formation and there is something impressive about his ambivalence about it, as well as his desire to change the elite from within. He realised he liked Oxford a little too much and knew he would do well to move on and expand his reach. He wrote his first book in the Bodleian library during Edwardian summers and was also to find “many notable and powerful allies for workers’ higher education within its walls”. An aspect of his later adult educational initiatives, we can infer, was an attempt to recreate some of Oxford’s better qualities for all, expanding the access out. While he experienced its inefficiency and despaired in many respects of its wasted potential, “[w]ithout Oxford there would have been no alliance of higher learning with the working class”.
Goldman succeeds in framing Oxford as more integral to Tawney’s development than his brutal experiences on the Somme, when in July 1916 he led a battalion of men over the top and was shot through the abdomen. Given that half of his battalion (ten men out of twenty) were killed that day, he was considered lucky to survive, though he was badly wounded.
Before the war, Tawney had set in place the foundations of the original Workers’ Educational Association, forging a partnership with Oxford and other British universities in tandem with the tutorial classes movement. In this, Goldman correctly notes, he emerged “not only as the central figure in these negotiations and experiments, but also as the movement’s greatest teacher, it deepest thinker, and its most impatient reformer”. He also immersed himself in the groundwork, taking hundreds of WEA classes himself and impressing the working men in his tutorials with his fine temperament. One such recalled:
He impressed us at once by his humility, and let me say this quite humbly, his nobility. I don’t think I’ve ever met a more humble yet at the same time a more noble creature. He was the type of man with whom his students never could become familiar, because he was too much the friend to become familiar with, and at the same time so aloof from the academic and scholarly point of view as to make you realise that here was true greatness. It’s the man that impressed us, it was the impact of this man on the whole life of the district.
In this wise and lucid judgment– a fine summation of the import of the entire WEA enterprise by one of its beneficiaries – we can read the effects of education in its proper sense: the impact on the whole life of the district. When students wrote to Tawney expressing their thanks for and admiration of his classes, he wrote back unfailingly. In the municipal classrooms and frosty churches where he took his small groups of mature working class students, there are no dissenting voices as to his grace. It is as if they saw the best of him.
One of the virtues of Goldman’s biography is that it shows the foibles of the private man constantly coming into conflict with the brilliance of the public contribution. Tawney’s problems in life lay in a separate, personal sphere: he much preferred the workers in his classes to the academics in the universities. He needed the latter to reach the former and (just about) won enough people to his side to carry it through. Nonetheless his earnest WEA colleague Ernest Green confirmed that Tawney’s tendency to haughtiness could get the better of him when it came to demands made on practical administrators, whom he dealt with impatiently and often with a short fuse. In public political life he would go on to gain the trust and respectful ears of Labour leaders Clement Attlee and Hugh Gaitskell, in many ways his protégé, particularly in terms of the latter’s tough reformism. It is fair for Goldman to place Tawney in line with those “figures in history who have thrown themselves into public work to salve or evade an unhappy personal life”. One of Tawney’s great heroes, socialist pioneer William Morris, could fall into this category too. Goldman’s biography, in its early framing of a “bad marriage”, takes pains to highlight his wife, Jeanette’s, perspective, observing that she “had much more depth and colour than has been recognized”. Tawney’s great intellectual capacity was often matched with an emotional immaturity, especially in his dealings with women.
If Goldman’s early chapters on the creation of the WEA are brilliantly pieced together, his treatments of Tawney’s visits to America and post-First World War involvement in the reconstruction of coal industry feel more perfunctory. They do, however, reflect the slightness of their subject’s interest in international affairs. Tawney was not an international socialist to any degree and – as one of the more important later chapters makes clear – more a Christian adherent of the left than a Marxist. His was an “individual” kind of socialism which did not overtly emphasise either state ownership or doctrine. In an obituary published by the New Statesman on his passing, Tawney was said to have,
understood the nature of capitalism as well as any Marxist and knew that a change in economic power was the condition of his political objectives. In all his books and pamphlets he drove that point home brilliantly. Yet, in an age when socialism of a kind has become a respectable means of regulating economic behaviour, he continued to insist that socialism was fundamentally about human behaviour. He rejected the fallacy – shared by the Webbs and the communists – that a change in the machinery of government was itself enough to change men.
This judgment accurately locates Tawney morally based socialism, a creed built around and best pursued through people and “how people lived and dealt with others”. In this way it was something to be worked on and cultivated in a grass-roots sense, rather than simply delivered by an administration.
Tawney’s moralistic vein was particularly pronounced in the 1930s, when he criticised the Labour Party for its past mistakes in office and the then leadership’s lacklustre response to the rise of fascism (unlike many on the left he always had a soft spot for Churchill). His strongly held Christian views and his Bible-reading – coupled with his intimate knowledge of classical texts – informed his writing style, lending his pamphlets a Miltonic air and enabling him “to exploit and deploy a rich language and style which is no longer a part of our culture”. Tawney went so far as to stand as a Labour candidate for Rochdale in the “Coupon election” of 1918 – where he had a typically bad experience with party heavyweight Philip Snowden – but he generally disliked the Labour left throughout his life (Nye Bevan was “a loud and self-important romantic who was plain wrong on most questions”). Tawney thought Labour lacked real strategic thinking, above all when it reached power. It came as no surprise then that towards the end of his life, in 1981, the Social Democratic Party attempted to co-opt him into its project. But he rejected the approach and remained true to a promise he had made in 1960 that he would continue to be a member of Labour “whatever its momentary imbecilities”. Like Denis Healey and others he was regarded as a moderate, centrist – or even centre-right – figure under the umbrella, but he always felt comfortable enough to remain within. In fact it was under the leadership of left-winger Michael Foot that Tawney was symbolically claimed back by the party in 1982.
Tawney’s writing was both stylish and punchy, well-suited to the form of the political pamphlet he was eventually to cease writing. Strong biblical flourishes could be detected. Together with his classical and religious influences – he once described the Labour Party in office as walking “as delicately as Agag, like cats on ice” – Tawney was profoundly influenced by the works of secular prophets like Ruskin and Morris, exemplars of the kind of ethical anti-capitalism he continued to propagate. The spiritual and ethical tenets of socialism remained as important for him as the redistribution of wealth and higher public expenditure. To concentrate solely on the latter was to squander the ethical anti-materialism shared by so many within the British left, an emphasis which may also explain the artistic elements in Tawney’s credo (culture was prized as “an energy of the soul”). Socialisation and education across the arts and humanities were key elements in encouraging “generosity and social conscience” in men and women, something which may have a contemporary resonance. On this subject Goldman remarks that “[f]or the past two generations Labour governments have enlarged the competence of the state and multiplied its agencies, but neglected the ‘education of socialists’, the theme of Tawney’s speech at the celebratory dinner in the House of Commons to mark his 80th birthday”. This strain of thought within the Labour movement is worthy of further exploration alongside its more fashionable, militant tendencies.
If Tawney is remembered by his working class students for his generosity it is a quality he seemed to lack in some of his later academic disputes, which are charted by Goldman in diligent and sometimes amusing detail. Like many, he came into conflict with Hugh Trevor-Roper, defending his historical exegesis that had taken the gentry as evidence of a rising bourgeoisie, which in turn preceded a bourgeois revolution in the 1640s. Tawney appeared to get the better of this scuffle, though some of his other opponents were more perplexing. He reacted poorly to Eric Hobsbawm’s manuscript to an unknown publisher entitled “Fabianism and the Fabians 1884-1914”, based on his Cambridge doctorate. Dwelling pedantically on some factual errors scaled up to discredit the entire enterprise, Tawney appeared irritated by Hobsbawm treading on his toes. Specifically objecting to his slightly mocking and none too reverential tone as regards Beatrice Webb, Tawney was more generally “suspicious of Marxists in English academic life and cut himself off from some of those who became the next generation of social and economic historians, distrusting not only their politics but also their intellectual honesty”.
In his later years Tawney was said to be “disturbed by the world situation” as well as by his own sense of decline – “he hated falling asleep over his books”. His battles against poverty, injustice and ignorance may have been unresolved. Nonetheless, in the judgment of The Guardian, “Tawney lived to see the victory of most of the things he had fought for: the minimum wage, the raising of the school leaving age, the extension of workers’ education, the Labour party in office or in strong Opposition, the rise of his subject to full academic status”. In his biographer’s own view Tawney “represents the maturity of the British left, not its capitulation”. He may better be seen to have represented an older theme; of the nobility of public service and its superiority over personal fulfilment and gain, his life highlighting so many of the tensions between the two poles. When all is said and done he saved his best self for the workers and their classes.
Coda: In that small province to the northeast of Ireland which continues to raise the important questions, the Workers’ Educational Association wound itself up last May. Visitors to the WEA website of Northern Ireland were directed to a simple notice saying operations were irrevocably ceasing “due to circumstances completely beyond our control”. But of course nothing ever happens in Northern Ireland for no reason. As it forgets its own working class history and pretends to the outside world that it is open for businesses – which can enjoy exciting opportunities in the shadow of giant peace walls – the WEA represents a past profile that would strike many as quaint. The shipyard and other industries have gone and so has the old working class. Yet the concept of education – that impact on the whole life of the district – has never been more urgent, especially as the universities are forced to follow Stormont budget cuts and austerity, happily implemented by two formerly working class political parties. The Department of Education – a portfolio held since the Executive’s pained reconstitution by Sinn Féin – withdrew the WEA’s core funding in 2008, an illustration of that party’s commitment to both education and socialism.
Tens of thousands of workers had passed through the WEA in Northern Ireland from 1910 to 2014, aware that it was never too late to learn and broaden intellectual horizons. In conjunction many of Ulster’s finest writers gave up their time and knowledge in order to – in Alan Bennett’s encapsulation – “pass it on”. In one sublime nexus, shipyard worker Sam Thompson was tutored by poet John Hewitt in one of its “Appreciation of Art” classes. It was said by another attendee of this tutorial – composed of white-collar workers and tradesmen – that Thompson was in many ways “a product of the Workers’ Educational Association”, with veteran socialist Hewitt guiding the men to “a new view. He showed us how to look at visual art, guiding the class to an understanding that our minds and eyes had not known”. Thompson started writing thereafter and delivered the play Over the Bridge, rocking the Unionist establishment in 1960, inflicting blows on theatrical censorship and prime minister Brookeborough, neither of which quite recovered. Others such as Sam Burnside began writing poetry, later turning teacher himself. Another tutor, Michael Longley, wrote in a specially published anthology of writing by WEA students that “Art, like charity, begins at home. These writers demonstrate that everyone’s back yard is a potential gold mine; that writing, though a wonderful inner adventure, can also in the outside world bring us into contact with like minds – whether in a workshop or through wider readership.” Never has the founder of the WEA’s own aspiration that the organisation should “speak for those who can’t speak for themselves” been more necessary. And for that voice, speaking what needs to be said, “the more unpleasant that is, the more readily it should do it”. Which is why it gets shut down.
Connal Parr was awarded his PhD from Queen’s University Belfast in December 2013 and has published articles in Irish Political Studies, Fortnight and the detail. He is a board member of Etcetera Theatre Company, established in September 2012 to stage plays and generate artistic initiative in working class Protestant areas.