Lawrence Goldman. the Life of R.H. Tawney: Socialism and History

By Drakakis, John | Style, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

Lawrence Goldman. the Life of R.H. Tawney: Socialism and History


Drakakis, John, Style


Lawrence Goldman. The Life of R.H. Tawney: Socialism and History. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. xi + 411 pp. ISBN 978-1-78093-704-5. Hardcover, 63.77 [pounds sterling] ($120); ISBN 978-1472577429. Paperback, 16.99 [pounds sterling] ($29.95).

Writing in 1987 in a series entitled Lives of the Left, the biographer Anthony Wright observed that some two decades after his death in 1962 R.H. Tawney "was again the centre of political argument" and for two reasons: first, the emergence of the breakaway British Social Democratic Party in 1981 that "not only seceded from the Labour Party, but claimed to have taken Tawney with them," (131) and second, in relation to the Labour leadership elections of 1983 where "Tawney seemed to be the ubiquitous presence" (132). Wright also resurrected "the rabid charge by G.R. Elton that Religion and the Rise of Capitalism ('one of the most harmful books written in the years between the wars') had exercised a pernicious influence" and that "[a]t least one generation, and that a crucial one, was given grounds for believing that everything that contributed to the greatness and success of their country derived from sinful selfishness and money-grubbing wickedness" (133-34).

In his own Commonplace Book, a diary that Tawney kept from 1912-1914, in his The Acquisitive Society (1920), in his carefully documented but controversial The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (1912), in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), and later in Equality (1931), Tawney's own historically derived brand of "socialism" was clearly in evidence. Lawrence Goldman's substantial biography, The Life of R.H. Tawney: Socialism and History, published in the wake of the fiftieth anniversary of Tawney's death, attempts a balanced historical assessment of his contribution to the history of Socialism that seeks both to eschew partisan polemics, and to avoid the production of a hagiography. Of course, no reader of Hayden White's The Tropics of Discourse (1978) can fail to acknowledge the rhetorical burden of historical discourse, or to recognize in Goldman's narrative the abiding claim that the University of Oxford played a major role in the adult education movement. Tawney himself was clearly an Oxford don in aspiration, demeanor, and achievement, but like George Orwell, his sympathy for those less fortunate than himself was genuine, and informed both his political and historical writing. As one of the editors of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Goldman is very well placed to take on a biography of R.H. Tawney in which contradictions--many of them never fully resolved--abound. Indeed, Goldman's own contributions to the history of the role of Oxford in the adult education movement helps him to establish a deep, but not entirely uncritical, sympathy with his biographical subject; but his continued insistence on the neutrality of historical discourse, and his reticence in matters worthy of some reasoned speculation, imposes limits to the evaluation of the scope of Tawney's work. Indeed, Tawney's influence extended well beyond the historian's restricted view.

R.H. Tawney was an historian, although in a manner that now resonates with contemporary literary "presentism," to the extent that his investigation of the past derived from his pressing concerns with "the present." Goldman's quest, however, is to get "closer to the essential Tawney" (4), and to provide "a properly historical and contextual account of Tawney's life," a life that was "always beyond the reach of faction or sect" (9). Fortunately, this conservative vocabulary is not consistent or sustained, as Goldman draws widely on correspondence and a wealth of archival material that indicates that Tawney was a product both of his time and his social class. Goldman is at pains to distinguish between Tawney's own "socialism" and "today's variants of socialism" (9) and he concedes from the beginning that he was part of "the late-Victorian 'intellectual aristocracy'" that "moved easily within the overlapping worlds of the British intellectual elite" (6). …

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