Life of R. H. Tawney

Socialists in Retrospect: R. H. Tawney

“What is required is not simply to limit the power of Capital to impose terms upon Labour, but to make the worker not the . capitalist, the centre of industrial authority subject to such limitations upon their sovereignty as may be imposed in the interests of the community as a whole.”  R.H. Tawney.

R.H. Tawney was a man who held impressive credentials within the Labour Movement.· Described by Hugh Gaitskell as “a man of such stature that anything one says about him must be inadequate”‘ he accomplished·. far more of a positive nature for British socialism than most of the pseudo-intellectuals upon whom the modern Labour Party bestows its favours.

Tawney was an economic historian who rose to become a Professor. Emeritus at the University of London, but he was more than just a Leftist academic who . gave lectures and wrote books (Religion and the Rise of Capitalism was probably his best known work).

He was also an influential member of the Workers’ Educational Association, and served on the University Grants Committee, the Education Committee of the LCC, and the Consultative Committee of the Board of Education.

Just as important, he was a member of the Sankey Coal Commission which in 1919 reported ·in favour of the nationalisation of the coal industry ..

Tawney therefore possessed substantial knowledge of the workings of industry, and placed his intellectual weight firmly behind the demand for the nationalisation of major industries in the interests of the people.

Industrial Democracy

However what is probably not as well known is that Tawney also advocated industrial democracy. He felt it was not enough merely to nationalise industry in order to make it responsive to the needs of the community. Tawney was actually in favour of workers’ control of industry.

In recent years Tawney’s memory has been more cherished by the SDP than by Labour. And the SDP have used his writings to provide support for their own wishywashy schemes for industrial democracy.

This is part of the present-day problem regarding industrial democracy: almost everyone from the Tories;JfO. the Labour Party is in favour of it, but very few are actually in favour of real substantial industrial democracy in the form of workers’ control.

Heroes and Villains

Like Ernest Bevin, Tawney was a committed socialist and like Bevin he has now become the hero of those opposed to the Labour Movement, mainly because today’s Labour Party is no longer concerned with individuals who made positive progress in the working class interest.

Phrasemongers and rigid ideologues are much more popular on the left these days, and the left is very resistant towards learning anything from those whose pragmatic contribution to politics has established the workers as the most important class in modern British society.

Few remember who in practice were the real revolutionaries.

Tawney’s Vision

It can be seen from an article written by Tawney in 1918 entitled The Conditions of Economic Liberty ( reprinted in a collection of his essays, The Radical Tradition, Pelican Books 1966) that he held a similar view of the transfer of industrial power from capital to labour as do the producers of The Labour & Trade Union Review.

That is to say that he believed that the workers should actually control their industries, not be content just to be consulted by management, but should actually run it for themselves.

He could see that if they did not assume responsibility for themselves nothing approaching an economic revolution would occur in Britain.

Instead the division between management and unions would merely stifle movement towards socialism perpetually, and the capitalist would continue on top for evermore.

The whole thrust of Tawney’s vision is that the kind of values which dominated thinking on industry before the First World War had to be replaced by newer ideas which transferred power on the factory-floor, and in society at large, to the proletariat.

He felt that after the experience of a . global conflict in which the importance of the worker at home had been underlined, and in which working men had proved themselves on the battlefields of Europe, there was no way in which the pre-war status quo could be restored.

In fact he was ahead of his time in his call for the Labour Movement to reject its old pol icy of class struggle and adopt new tactics, the object of which would be not simply a recognition of the workers as a force, but their ascendancy to .become the leading class in British society.

It was only after the Second World War that Bevin succeeded in establishing a hew modus vivendi for Labour poli ties. Clearly, therefore, Tawney was nearly thirty years ahead of most of his comrades when writing The Conditions of Economic Liberty in 1919.

The Revolutionary Intention

What is, however, disturbing, is that after Bevin’s death, the Labour Party and the unions became the epitome of conservatism, and a great deal of what Tawney advocated as sounding the death-knell of capitalism has yet to occur.

Tawney describes the “fundamental grievance” in our society thus:

“the government of industry and the utilisation of both capital and land are autocratic. From men’s exclusion from control [my emphasis C.R.] over the organisation and apparatus of industry flow· the particular grievances which are the spur to their discontent.” (p.106)

However, this analysis did not develop into some tame argument for increased collective bargaining powers for the unions.

Tawney, had he been leader of the NUM in our own day, would never have turned down the opportunity for workers’ control as Arthur Scargill did, and then whined about the effects of his accepting management’s “right to manage”.

The thoroughgoing revolutionary intention behind Tawney’s ideas can be gauged .from the following extract:

‘”What touches all should be approved by all. ‘ It need not be denied that an authority which is irresponsible is nevertheless often humane and farsighted. But the claim of the employer, as it is sometimes interpreted, ‘to manage his business as he pleases’, not only involves in effect a demand that he should be free to impose upon men conditions of work against their will, but can also be used to undermine ihe control by trade unionism over wages and hours of labour in which most employers have at length, after a century of struggle, acquiesced. If a firm can introduce into the organisation of its work what changes it will, if it can alter piece rates as it pleases without having to justify the alteration to those affected by it, if it can rearrange processes and introduce new machinery without the workers being consulted, if it can dismiss whom it chooses without being obliged to give any account of its decision, it can, in effect, stultify trade unionism, even while according it a nominal recognition.” (pp.109110)

It is a pity for the NUM that Arthur Scargill’s pre-Second World War mentality did not lend itself to reading up on Tawney’s writings of the period, around the time of the NUM’s Harrogate debate on workers’ control.

Form and Content

Tawney realised that the situation would not change overnight. For a start, the Labour Movement would have to be won round to this dramatic new concept (and it was new in 1919, aren’t we today vacillating just a little?), and the values of a reformist Labour Party and Movement would have to be challenged by a serious revolutionary programme, as opposed to the imaginary programmes which are sadly still with us.

(These just concentrate on power for the Labour Movement without any accompanying sense of responsibility or purpose.)

I apologise for the length of the following quotation, but I feel it is necessary to demonstrate in full the revolutionary content of Tawney’s scheme:

“The details of the transformation may be complex, but the principle is simple. It is that, instead of the workers being used by the owners of capital with the object of producing profits for its owners, capital should be used by the workers with the object of producing services for the community. At present, the power of directing industry rests with the owners of capital and their agents. The measure of their success is personal gain; the method by which they attain it is the organisation of power, power which is mechanical and power which is human. Reformist movements, whether on the part of the workers or of the State, have acquiesced in that situation and conformed to the strategy which it imposes. Accepting as unalterable the mastery of Capital and the subordination of Labour, they have aimed at limiting the former, or at making the letter less intolerable, by fixing a minimum of wages, sanitation, and education, and a maximum of hours, beyond which the workers should not be driven.

“Such a policy is sound in what it attacks and mischievous in what it accepts. For it assumes the relationship between capitalist employer and hired waged-worker, and that relationship itself is a vicious one. It is vicious because it classifies human beings as a part, and a subordinate part, of the mechanism of production, instead of treating that mechanism merely as an auxiliary to the labour of human beings. As long as that postulate is maintained, it serves as a permanent force to override and pervert all individual reforms which, while leaving it undisturbed on its throne, seek merely to curb its excesses by incidental and external intervention.

“What is required is not simply to limit the power of Capital to impose terms upon Labour, but to make the workers, not the capitalist, the centre of industrial authority [emphasis added], subject to such limitations upon their sovereignty as may be imposed in the interests of the community as a whole. It is to employ things in the service of persons, instead of employing persons in the service of things and of the owners of things. The character ‘of the modern reformist legislation is, indeed, an indication of the perversion of the relationships to which it is applied. If the human element occupied in industry the position of supremacy and direction which should belong to it, it might be necessary to fix a minimum wage for Capital. It would certainly not be necessary to fix a minimum wage for Labour. For Labour, in conjunction with the community, would determine what part.of the product of industry it was worthwhile to pay in order that sufficient capital might be hired.

“Such a reorganisation of industry would obviously involve fundamental changes in the relation of employer to worker, and of both to the owner of capital. The employer would cease to be a capitalist or ‘master’, and would become an organiser, who, as organiser, would take his proper place as one worker among others, and would be, with them, a fellow-servant of the community. The workman would cease to be a ‘hand’, and would become a citizen of industry, who, like the organiser, had his own special work, and, like the organiser, had a voice in industrial policy and administration. The workers in each industry, including craftsmen, organisers, officials, and scientists, would be responsible to the community, through their representatives, for the service which the whole industry supplied.” (pp.113-5)

It is rather questionable, given the implications for capitalism in that section of the essay, whether the nice reformist devotees of Tawney in the SDP actually realise what an extreme piece of left-wing work he really was beneath his academic qualifications.

Can you seriously imagine Shirley Williams advocating anything like that?

Trade Unions’ Role

Tawney’s other condition for the i1’1itlementation of workers’ control was that some kind of concrete plan of action should be drawn up in which the unions would be the basis for moving towards industrial democracy:

“The alternative to industrial autocracy must be found in the development of associations through which the mass of the workers, in each industry as a whole, and in the units which comprise it, can take part in its policy and organisation through representatives whom they choose … The starting-point for such a development must obviously be trade unionism. A beginning would be made if the principle of trade unionism were applied not merely, as at present, to questions of wages and hours, but to all questions of industrial policy and workshop organisation. Such a change involves a readjustment of the fluctuating boundary which at present separates ‘labour’ from ‘management’. The readjustment will often be difficult, but it is imperative. It is imperative not because management is unimportant, but because its importance is so crucial that it is vital that it should have behind it the confidence of all who are affected by it.” (p.109)

Obviously Tawney, as a pragmatist, had his own reasons foi; weaving his plan into the frameworks then popular within the Labour Movement, but he pointed out that no perfect scheme had as yet been designed, and that movement towards workers’ control should be vigorously maintained, and not allowed to freeze in its tracks:

“If mutual confidence is to be the basis of industry, the organisation of industry must be such as to deserve it. It must be based on some kind of constitution. Precisely what form an industrial constitution should take is a question which will be answered differently in different industries. Nor will any one answer be final.” (p.110)

Chances Missed

In our own time the Bullock Report on Industrial Democracy (1977) provided an excellent starting-point for workers’ control with its proposals for worker directors, but, just as the Labour Movement proved resistant to change between the World Wars, the proposals never got any further than the drawing-board due to the objections of a timid left.

A conservative ethos which is at times more reactionary than even the Tories seems to permeate the Labour Movement and prevent progress towards further socialist measures.

What is even more disheartening is the fact that nationalised industries exist which would, if a Labour government had the gumption to make them, provide ideal piloting grounds for workers’ control.

The State & Workers’ Control

Certainly that was Tawney’s idea. He believed that when an industry like coalmining, upon which the community depends, was nationalised, the workers ought to be running it in everybody’s interests, instead of just being consulted about only some aspects of their work.

And as to the hoary old myth which is always thrown up against workers’ control, namely that workers would not actually know how to manage, Tawney believed that free access to the information which is necessary to administer any enterprise would make all the difference in that respect.

Indeed he felt that the government ought to ensure that this was the case:

“If the conception of industry as a social function is to be effective, it must, then, be a spirit working within it not merely a body of rules imposed by an external authority. But in the revolution needed to make the development of that spirit a possibility, the State can, if it pleases, play a considerable part. In the first place, it can insist that industry shall be conducted upon a basis of complete publicity, except in so far as paramount national interests make publicity undesirable in exceptional cases. If industry is carried on to serve the public, not merely for the personal profit of those who supply the capital for it, the community has the right to satisfy itself that the service is faithfully discharged. Unless there is complete publicity with regard to profits and costs, it is impossible to form any judgement either of the reasonableness of the prices which are charged or of the claims to remuneration of the different parties engaged in production. In the present ignorance of these crucial elements in the economic situation, most industrial disputes are battles in the dark where ‘ignorant armies clash by night’. “(pp.117-8)

Liberty·& Workers’ Control

Industrial democracy was to Tawney about more than collective rights, it was about individual liberty too.

To him socialism was the fullest form of democracy, and socialists ought to introduce democratic procedures into every walk of life, including the work-place.

To continue to do otherwise was an abrogation of the individual’s civil rights:

“…freedom of management carries with it a control over the worker which is incompatible with civil liberty.” (p.110)

The only way to guarantee that “civil liberty” was to extend the worker’s voice into the corridors of industrial power:

“The conditions of economic liberty require, in fact, … to be restated… Economic freedom must develop, in short, through the application of representative institutions to industry.” (p.107)

Message to Kinnock & Co.

Socialists these days often ,rattle on about developing a positive philosophy of rights in the workplace, and so on. Neil Kinnock and Norman Willis – if they really want to guarantee he rights of workers. – should imply opt for workers’ control.

That particular option would accomplish a great deal in 1rthering the development of Socialism.

I could write volumes on the subject in an attempt to persuade them, but I feel that if I leave the last word to R. H. Tawney, he can explain to them quite adequately, and concisely, how the demise of capitalism and the rise of the proletariat might occur:

“A negative voice in matters of workshop management is better than no voice at all. But there is no finality in the mere systematisation of the right of criticism, and its value consists in the opportunity which it offers for a more radical transformation of industrial relationships. That transformation must be found in substituting a relationship of community, for the present subordination of the hired wage-earner to a master who employs him for the purposes of profit. The work of the community must be done, and it ought to be done with the aid of the ever-changing improvements made possible by science and invention. If, therefore, the workers are to be able to veto the solution of industrial problems propounded by the employer, their status in industry must be such that they can offer an alternative solution themselves. If they are to resist effectively the types of organisation which menace them, they must not merely resist; they must take their pan in discovering equally effective types of organisation which do not. If they are to exercise corporate freedom, they must be ready to undertake corporate responsibility. The truth is, that both the industrial tyranny denounced by the workers, and the industrial friction and inefficiency deplored by the public, are inseparable from the system under which the employer, instead of being with the workers a fellow-servant of the community has a direct interest in extracting the maximum of profit from the latter and the maximum of work from the former.” (p.112)

Colin Robinson


This appeared in April 1987, in Issue 2 of Labour and Trade Union Review.