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Labour needs a moral revival

Credit: Christopher Furlong / Getty

February 28, 2019   5 mins

Is there another way of being Labour? The party is in a mess. Many MPs are dissatisfied by the direction in which Jeremy Corbyn is taking them. So what ideological alternatives are available? If Corbynism looks to Marx as its inspiration and guide, to whom – or to what – can the rest of the party look for inspiration other than to Tony Blair and his contested legacy?

It’s a question being asked with renewed urgency at the moment. Is there a way of being Labour that doesn’t fall into the centrist liberalism of the TIG’s new breakaway party – “Blairites” has understandably become a term of abuse – yet one that avoids the excesses of the Marxist analysis?

A possibility could lie in the retrieval of one of the original strands of Labour’s historic formation, now almost forgotten: that of moral socialism. And there can be no better figure to remind us of that once important aspect of Labour socialism than the economic historian and educationalist R H Tawney – a Labour man to his core, and one described by his biographer, Laurence Goldman in his biography The Life of RH Tawney: Socialism and History, as “the most influential theorist and exponent of socialism in Britain in the twentieth century”.

It was nearly a century ago that Tawney, described the empty moral centre of capitalism in his classic The Acquisitive Society (1920):

“To the strong it promises unfettered freedom for the exercise of their strength; to the weak the hope that they too one day may be strong. Before the eyes of both it suspends a golden prize, which not all can attain, but for which each may strive, the enchanting vision of infinite expansion. It assures men that there are no ends other than their ends, no law other than their desires, no limit other than that which they think advisable. Thus it makes the individual the centre of his own universe, and dissolves moral principles into a choice of expediences.”

Tawney is often described as a Christian socialist, though he wore his Anglo-Catholic faith lightly in public. For him, socialism was primarily a moral project; one, above all, concerned with the moral betterment of all of society. His quarrel with Marxism, and indeed with the utilitarianism of the Fabians too, was that both were unremittingly materialist in outlook, concerned with the redistribution of wealth – something of which he wholeheartedly approved – but without any accompanying interrogation of what money was supposed to be for and the part it played in a fulfilled life.

There is something “devilish”, Tawney insisted, in the idea that “human life, justice etc should be measured as items on a balance sheet”. Like Ruskin, one of his great heroes, Tawney maintained a distinction between wealth and “illth”, as Ruskin called it – the sort of wealth that is not conducive to human flourishing.

“It will be said ‘abolish economic privileges, and there will be enough wealth for all to live, and for all to lead a spiritual life’. This, I take it, is the Webbs’ view. Now economic privileges must be abolished, not primarily because they hinder the production of wealth, but because they produce wickedness.”

In his Commonplace Book (or diary, kept between 1912 and 1914) Tawney also attacks “Marxian socialists” as “not revolutionary enough”. Goldman explains: “By this he meant that they too accepted the conventional ends of life and merely argued over the distribution of spoils.”

Not that Tawney drew back from the need for wholesale redistribution of wealth or from a thoroughgoing egalitarianism. Indeed, he was among the first to recognise that capitalism cleverly seeks to buy off revolutionary politics with the offer of social mobility – the “golden prize” – for a few clever and talented individuals.

For Tawney, social mobility was “merely converting into doctors, barristers and professors a certain number of people who would otherwise have been manual workers” (The Radical Tradition, 1964) – something that is fair enough for those who get ahead, but as a substitute for social justice it is woefully inadequate, since it leaves the underlying structures of inequality fundamentally intact.1

As an academic historian, Tawney argued that rot set in way back in the 17th century.

In his classic study, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1922), Tawney described how Calvinists transformed Christianity from a religion that, from its very beginnings, had been (in theory, at least) thoroughly suspicious of money and material wealth into one in which being rich became a mark of inner virtue. For these puritans, wealth was understood as the consequence of hard work and thrift, of Christian asceticism. And thus it became an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace: salvation.

“The shrewd, calculating commercialism which tries all human relations by pecuniary standards, the acquisitiveness which cannot rest while there are competitors to be conquered or profits to be won, the love of social power and hunger for economic gain—these irrepressible appetites had evoked from time immemorial the warnings and denunciations of saints and sages. Plunged in the cleansing waters of later Puritanism, the qualities which less enlightened ages had denounced as social vices emerged as economic virtues. They emerged as moral virtues as well. For the world exists not to be enjoyed, but to be conquered. Only its conqueror deserves the name of Christian. For such a philosophy, the question, ‘What shall it profit a man?’ carries no sting. In winning the world, he wins the salvation of his own soul as well.” (Religion and the Rise of Capitalism)

This, argued Tawney, was a pivotal moment in social and economic history – and a disastrous one – his reference to “less enlightened ages” is sarcasm. The world of the middle ages, founded on God and the institutions of the church, ideologically suspicious of individual wealth and its corrupting power, was transformed into the beginnings of modernity where the individual is king and money is the mark of his or her majesty.

Mr Morgan Phillips, when he was General Secretary of the Labour Party, said that the Labour movement “owed more to Methodism than to Marx”. It was an unhelpful and misleading comment. Methodism took many of the Puritan assumptions for granted.

Rather, it was the Anglo-Catholic/Gothic revival of the 19th century that provided Labour with many of its core values. John Ruskin, William Morris, Charles Gore, F D Maurice and so on – these were the key thinkers. They shared a sense that that the reformation – and the subsequent industrialisation of capitalism that it paved the way for – had broken a whole way of life in which human beings were understood as flourishing within a settled stable and mutually supportive community. They looked back to a world of guilds and collectives, where economic activity was not divorced from a sense of social good and moral purpose. And it was Tawney who became their most eloquent spokesman:

“The revolt of ordinary men against Capitalism has had its source neither in its obvious deficiencies as an economic engine, nor in the conviction that it represents a stage in social evolution now outgrown, but in the straight-forward hatred of a system which stunts personality and corrupts human relations by permitting the use of man by man as an instrument of pecuniary gain.” (The Radical Tradition, 1964)

Can any of this be revived? Or is it a world lost forever? Frank Field is the most obvious inheritor of this tradition. And Blue Labour has its roots here too, though it is rightly more ecumenical in scale. It may be that, as both a churchman and a socialist, I look back with an unhelpful nostalgia to a time when Christianity played a greater role in the thinking of the Left.

But trying, if I can, to set such personal preferences aside, it still strikes me that the Labour party could do with a moral revival of the sort described by Tawney. It certainly needs a moral revival of some sort. “Tawney reminds us that there was a socialism that aspired to ‘the higher life,’” writes Goldman. It would be hard to say that of socialism today.

  1. Professor Diane Reay from the University of Cambridge has done important work in this area.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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