28 May 2017

Tawney’s classically-minded conservative socialism

RH Tawney

I just finished reading The Acquisitive Society by Richard Henry Tawney, the Indian-born English soldier-scholar, historian, critic and Fabian socialist. Given my own interests, this read has been long overdue. Indeed, I came upon The Acquisitive Society and began reading it after having read the introduction to Alasdair MacIntyre’s review of another of his books, The Radical Tradition. Tawney’s book, then, does not disappoint, but instead bridges several of my interests both old and new. He was clearly influenced by Ruskin. He writes from an awareness of Homer and Plato (and indeed uses them in interesting ways). He critiques, with devastating moral clarity, not only capitalism as an œconomic system but also the liberal-democratic belief that an expansive structure of ‘rights’ will secure happiness and dignity for the vast majority of people living under it. In its place, he advocates a ‘functional’ society where duty – or rather, virtue, since what he means by ‘duty’ or ‘function’ refers to a certain standard of excellence as applied to a common good – is considered prior to rights. He advocates for essential worker rights including a democratic restructuring of the workplace. But, not being an anarchist, he is emphatic that, even in such a workplace democracy:
There would be subordination. But it would be profoundly different from that which exists today. For it would not be the subordination of one man to another, but of all men to the purpose for which industry is carried on.

There would be authority. But it would not be the authority of the individual who imposes rules in virtue of his economic power for the attainment of his economic advantage. It would be the authority springing from the necessity of combining different duties to attain a common end.

There would be discipline. But it would be the discipline involved in pursuing that end, not the discipline enforced upon one man for the convenience or profit of another.
After all:
Rights without functions are like the shades in Homer which drank blood but scattered trembling at the voice of a man.
Tawney’s criticism of rights stretches so deep, in fact, that he even characterises the claims of the workman upon productive property and wages not in terms of right but in terms of virtue. Though he doesn’t here make the connexion explicit, his insistence that ‘[w]hat he has a right to demand, and what concerns his fellow-men to see that he gets, is enough to enable him to perform his work’, indeed reflects broadly the concerns of Socrates and Adeimantus when they are discussing the means by which excesses of poverty and wealth curtail the excellence (or, again to use Tawney’s own language, ‘function’) of a craftsman’s work!

One may thus expect that his critique of property is multifaceted and far from straightforward. In fact, the ideal to which he points is a society of smallholders and coöperative industrial ventures, to the point that it isn’t always easy to tell if he’s advocating for socialism or, indeed, for something more akin to distributism. Indeed, Tawney has left a deep influence on some of the modern distributists. As he writes:
The real analogy to many kinds of modern property is not the simple property of the small landowner or the craftsman, still less the household goods and dear domestic amenities, which is what the word suggests to the guileless minds of clerks and shopkeepers, and which stampede them into displaying the ferocity of terrified sheep when the cry is raised that “Property” is threatened. It is the feudal dues which robbed the French peasant of part of his produce till the Revolution abolished them.
Or, more laconically:
Property is not theft. But a good deal of theft becomes property.
And he distinguishes himself very clearly as well, both from Marxists, anarchists and other utopians who would abolish property altogether, as well as from bourgeois defenders of ‘property’ per se as legally defined under capitalist modes of production:
Those who value [energy, thought, the creative spirit] will try to promote them by relieving property of its perversions, and thus enabling it to return to its true nature. They will not desire to establish any visionary communism, for they will realise that the free disposal of a sufficiency of personal possessions is the condition of a healthy and self-respecting life, and will seek to distribute more widely the property rights which make them today the privilege of a minority. But they will refuse to submit to the naïve philosophy which would treat all proprietary rights as equal in sanctity merely because they are identical in name. They will distinguish sharply between property which is used by its owner for the conduct of his profession or the upkeep of his household, and property which is merely a claim on wealth produced by another’s labour.
Here Tawney manages to highlight both the similarities of his thought to distributism, and also a key difference. Very much like Chesterton, Penty and Belloc, he wants to see productive property not concentrated in the hands of a small class of people (whether public or private), but as widely and as creatively dispersed as possible. On the other hand, he wants to be very clear about what ought to count as property and what oughtn’t, and this is where distributist readers of Tawney may hit a snag if they are not reading him carefully. Not only does he want to return property into the hands of the smallholder, the artisan, the shopkeeper, the workman and even the brain-worker; he wants to make property both intelligible to them and functional for human flourishing; that is, directed toward a virtuous social life. He reacts with indignation to the idea that the passive property of the stockholder, who speaks in the language of derivatives and interest, is even of the same ontological order of things as the farmer’s plough, the artisan’s tools or the workman’s factory machine. In fact, he places the defenders of the former, æthereal ‘property’ unfavourably on the same plane as the sans-culottes of the French Revolution: ‘The theory that property is an absolute, which is held by many modern Conservatives, is identical, if only they knew it, with that not only of the men of 1789, but of the Convention itself.’ This is a reaction with which the distributists should sympathise, even if they may disagree with some of his state-heavy methods of achieving the same goals.

It would also be quite wrong to dismiss Tawney as some kind of utopian – even though in The Acquisitive Society he includes an apt, if rather cheeky, reference to the utopian designs of the ‘city-in-speech’ in Plato’s Republic. Tawney, a historian by training, was no immanentiser of eschatons. He was quite clear both from his Anglican Christian convictions and from his own sound observations, that society is not perfectible as long as sin exists in human nature. However, even with these convictions firmly in mind, he refused to give ground to the bland panglossianism which now characterises much too much of business-conservative thinking:
It is obvious, indeed, that no change of system or machinery can avert those causes of social malaise which consist in the egotism, greed or quarrelsomeness of human nature. What it can do is to create an environment where those are not the qualities which are encouraged. It cannot secure that men live up to their principles. What it can do is to establish their social order upon principles to which, if they please, they can live up and not live down. It cannot control their actions. It can offer them an end on which to fix their minds.
There is indeed much that recommends itself to both leftists of a realist bent, and conservatives in the mould of Kirk, in The Acquisitive Society. He points to a better order, appealing not to unattainable goals but instead to certain aspects of England’s own history and experience with industrialisation. Many of his prescriptions (like that for an intellectual ordering of œconomic psychology which does not rely on brute œconomism and sophistry) have gone largely unheeded in the nearly 100 years since he wrote it. There is, therefore, much still to be gained from considering it.


  1. Well-considered. Again, we come to the same forks-in the-road: one can take the Christian-Platonist path, or the Lockean highway. The pathway leads to a vale of peace, order, and good government, and the highway leads to technological materialism and a detached individualism.

    Only one of these choices leads to oligarchy - and eventually to disorder and anarchy. Can you guess which one that is?

  2. Thank you for the comment, Shaftesbury!

    As it happens, I quite agree with you, and I also have a decided opinion as to which of the two options is ultimately better.

  3. Have you read is Religion and the rise of capitalism?

    It probably has a better explanation of the religious support for the likes of Donald Trump than most others I've read.

  4. Hello, Steve! Welcome back and thanks for the comment!

    No, haven't read that one yet - but it's on my list. That is a high recommendation, though; thank you!

  5. Minneapolis Orthodox tory socialist here!

  6. Fr. Cassian here. Thanks for this. It is years since I read Tawney (as an older teen in the Malawian branch of the British Reading Room). Clearly we need to get reacquainted.

  7. Fr. Cassian here. Thanks for this. It is years since I read Tawney (as an older teen in the Malawian branch of the British Reading Room). Clearly we need to get reacquainted.

  8. Bless, Father! Thank you for the comment!

    Glad that this blog post rekindled an old interest; I found Tawney well worth the read. A socialist, of course - he sees far greater worth than you might in the beneficial powers of the state. But his reasoning, and some of his conclusions, are conservative and third-way in a way you may appreciate!

    Cheers, and please do keep reading, commenting on and even criticising my blog. I welcome it!

    - Matthew