WEA

Remarking on the surprisingly interesting life of the great Anglican Socialist R.H. Tawney’s, A. J. P. Taylor observes,

Professors of history do not usually begin their careers as social workers in London’s East End. Relatively few of them go out to teach history and economics to workers. They do not usually fight at the Somme; they rarely devote themselves for several years to the interests of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain and to the wider cause of industrial justice. Few of them are parliamentary candidates or sit on royal commissions of enquiry; even fewer write a general election manifesto for one of the two major political parties in modern British politics, or, if they are historians of England, write a classic work on the economy and society of modern China. They tend not to know prime ministers and leaders of the Labour Party, or to find themselves in the British embassy in Washington D.C. at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Their closest friends tend not to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, Temple, or the man who did most to design the British welfare state, William Beveridge, whose sister Tawney married. Tawney was, and did, all these things and more. He was no ordinary professor of history but one who believed that scholarship and the service of society should go together. He was, indeed, no ordinary great man.

Clearly there is much that can be said about Tawney’s life. Yet there is one crucial detail that stands out here: his teaching experience at the Workers Educational Association. After becoming disillusioned with Toynbee Hall and its evangelical approach toward addressing poverty, Tawney becoming more interested in radical social movements that looked to empower the working classes through education and organizing. This he was able to do at the WEA.

Reading through Tawney’s Commonplace book it’s evident that his working class students shaped his thought and inspired some of his most important works. For instance, while at the WEA Tawney noted in his diary, “a great many poor people are ‘inefficient.’ This means that they do not correspond to a standard of efficiency erected by their masters, the rich. Why the devil should they?”

In his biographical study on Tawney, Ross Terrill recounts an illuminating story about Tawney and his students.

Tawny did not look down on these men, for they were teaching him the facts of economic life. His immense, detailed, correspondence with them – they would life for him the family budget, or describe incidents in the mine – shows Tawney on the way to becoming an economic historian. He was tough with them, insisting that they write essays regularly, and some grumbled at this. He would not allow left wing eagerness to excuse error. A student writes that “profit should be done away with.” Tawney comments: “Under any ‘scientific’ socialism, production would be carried on for profit – necessarily – tho’ the profit is taken by the state for the common good 41-42).

The influence of early Christian Socialists like Gore and Holland, along with his WEA students, helped Tawney understand that economic privileges and modern property rights were the root causes of social ills. His students were encouraged not only to move up the economic ladder, but to question the ladder itself. Moving beyond the soup kitchen approach toward fighting poverty, Tawney went directly toward the source: the uncritical deference we pay to the elite class, to those control the rungs of the economic ladder. If humankind “is to respect each other for what they are,” writes Tawney,”they must cease to respect each other for what they own. They must abolish, in short, the reverence for riches… And, human nature being what it is, in order to abolish the reverence for riches, they must make impossible the existence of a class which is important merely because it is rich” (Equality, 87).

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