Sunday 7 March 2010

Why Tawney was not a Red Tory

In this guest post, Ben Jackson, author of Equality and the British Left and Lecturer in Modern History at Oxford University, continues Next Left's ideas battle of the blogs with the new 'Red Tory' think-tank ResPublica.

Here, Jackson examines John Milbank's claim that Red Toryism's defence of virtue and champions the authentic egalitarian tradition of the socialist thinker RH Tawney against the 'alien intrusion' of the Fabian influence on the Labour tradition.


The most recent round of the ongoing ideological fracas between Next Left and the Red Tories – Stuart White versus John Milbank on equality – has thrown up an intriguing historical subplot.

Milbank has argued that his defence of inequality ‘in terms of the idea of nobility in its ancient sense’ – that is, as justifiable if it helps to foster a virtuous educative elite – draws on the tradition of socialist thought inspired by R. H. Tawney. Milbank sees this strand of the British left’s ideological heritage as quite distinct from the liberal socialism of Crosland and more generally from ‘the Whig/Fabian legacy that is the alien intruder into the Labour tradition.’ What should we make of this historical analysis?

As far as the debate about equality is concerned, I don’t think Milbank’s interpretation works. Tawney, Crosland and virtually ever other major theorist associated with the labour movement up to circa 1994 shared the same distributive objectives and they articulated similar arguments in favour of them.

One way to think about this Labour tradition is to see it as disavowing the right’s traditional portrayal of the debate about social justice as necessarily polarised between a moderate and socially tolerable ideal of ‘equality of opportunity’ and a radical and socially ruinous principle of ‘equality of outcome.’ Both Tawney and Crosland argued that if the aspiration of equality of opportunity was taken seriously, as the ambition to neutralise the impact of individuals’ social class background on their life chances, then it would in fact require a significant reduction in inequality of condition. As long as privileged elites were capable of greatly advantaging their children in terms of education, financial assets and cultural resources, equality of opportunity would remain a sham, since such inequalities would place citizens from different social classes into vastly unequal starting positions. It would be, as Tawney memorably put it, ‘the impertinent courtesy of an invitation to unwelcome guests, in the certainty that circumstances would prevent them from accepting it’ (Tawney, Equality, 1964 edition, p. 110).

Crosland likewise rejected attempts to conceptualise equality of opportunity ‘in terms of a narrow ladder up which only a few exceptional individuals, hauled out of their class by society’s talent scouts, can ever climb.’ Echoing Tawney, Crosland argued that his ideal of ‘strong’ equality of opportunity would place less emphasis on social mobility and greater stress on ‘an immensely high standard of universal provision.’ This ‘would carry us a distinctly long way towards equality and a socialist society’ since ‘a high degree of equality is a pre-condition of equal opportunity’ (Crosland, The Conservative Enemy, 1962, pp. 173-4).

But, as Crosland’s remarks suggest, in addition to taking seriously the need for ‘strong’ equality of opportunity, the socialist objective of a classless society was also influential on the Labour tradition. That is to say, equality was conceived not only in terms of enabling promising individuals to get on in life regardless of their class backgrounds, but also in terms of fostering social solidarity by reducing the size of the economic gulf between social classes. Social well-being, thought Tawney, required ‘a strong sense of common interests, and the diffusion throughout society of a conviction that civilisation is not the business of an elite alone, but a common enterprise which is the concern of all’ (Tawney, Equality, p. 108). A society focused only on class mobility as a means of improving the quality of the elite, Labour thinkers maintained, would be unbalanced and distorted: it would accord excessive power, massive financial reward, and ultimately greater personal fulfillment to those who were fortunate enough to possess a rather narrow set of skills. Opportunities to rise up the occupational hierarchy, they concluded, must therefore be complemented by greater equality of condition in order to ensure that the majority, and not just the exceptional few, have the opportunity to live fulfilling lives. In short, as Crosland famously put it in The Future of Socialism, the idea of granting every citizen an equal chance to compete within a given hierarchical order of positions and rewards was ‘not, from a socialist point of view, sufficient’ (Crosland, Future, p. 237).

The historical Labour tradition of thinking about equality – say from Tawney to Crosland – is therefore characterised by a consistent and radical anti-elitism. There are of course differences between the various figures situated within this tradition, and between Tawney and Crosland in particular, but what seems more striking in relation to the debate over equality is how much they share in common.

Finally, as good Fabians, we should note that Tawney’s most influential book, Equality, is dedicated to his friends ‘Sydney and Beatrice Webb with gratitude and affection.’ Tawney himself did not feel that Fabianism was an ‘alien intruder’ into the labour movement.

Guest post from Ben Jackson, who is Lecturer in Modern History at Oxford University. He is the author of Equality and the British Left (Manchester, 2007).


Previously on Next Left ...

Stuart White critiqued Red Tory ideas about virtue, expressed in a Phillip Blond and John Milbank Guardian commentary.

Both White and John Milbank then joined Sunder's Next Left thread on equality of outcome and opportunity.

John Milbank responded on the ResPublica Disraeli Room blog (part one and part two, challenging liberalism as values-free and (in part two) opening a new flank by asserting the superior virtues of cricket over football, and proper music over pop and punk, countered by our arguments in that thread for the merits of football and punk.

Sunder Katwala questioned Milbank's account of egalitarian motivations, while Stuart White argued that, in caricaturing modern liberalism, this account contributed to a new strand of Rawlsaphobia in public debate.


Paul Bickley said...

Interesting discussion - I can see both sides.

It's wrong to suggest that Tawney and Crosland shared the same end game. The distinction is this: Tawney wanted more than redistribution, and - according to Tony Wright - was disenchanted with the Crosland's contraction of socialist aspirations until "they could be reconciled with what an expansive and domesticated capitalism could plausibly provide". And he would have been profoundly disenchanted with where the Labour Party is now, since it has reconciled itself to getting more 'quantity', with no change to the system itself - no more, 'quality'. In that respect, Milbank stands with Tawney.

Clearly though, to use Tawney to justify any defence of inequality is absurd and against the general flow of his thought. He was a 'virtue thinker', but his primary theological commitment was the treatment of all as ends, not means: "The essence of all morality is this: to believe that every human being is of infinite importance, and therefore that no consideration of expediency can justify the oppression of one by another. But to believe this it is necessary to belive in God... It is only when we realise that each individuall soul is related to a power above other men, that we are able to regard each as an end in itself".

As for the 'alien intruder' of Fabianism - I don't quite understand where Milbank is coming from on this?

Stuart White said...

On the specific question of equality, Tawney and Crosland were very close. In an early part of this exchange, John Milbank drew a contrast between Tawney and the allegedly meritocratic Crosland. But, as Ben's book shows, Crosland did not advocate meritocracy. Both Tawney and Crosland believed in 'equality of opportunity' as one requirement, but both also thought that by itself it would result in unfair material inequalities. They wanted to limit inequality of reward between workers of different skills - a meritocrat would not. And both were sensitive to incentives considerations in thinking about how far such equality of reward could go. Both, in short, were proto-Rawlsians on the specific issue of equality.

The difference, I think, is that Tawney was more concerned with 'fellowship' as a corollary of equality. Crosland, by contrast, argues in The Future of Socialism that the communitarian aspect of socialist thought is maybe old hat. But Tawneyeseque fellowship is, in my view, somewhat removed from Milbank's neo-aristocratic position. On a social level, Tawney was a democrat - despite being from the upper class, he joined the army in WW1 as an 'enlisted man' and fought as an NCO. Had he been of Milbankian persuasion, he would have happily swanned into the officers' mess and persuaded himself that his privileges were perfectly fine so long as he exrecised them 'in accordance with virtue'....

Sunder Katwala said...


Thanks for your detailed comment, and seeing both sides of the argument. Tawney's argument about the necessity of belief in God to see the idea of every human being as an end, and not a means, is interesting but would be challenged. The idea of human rights is an attempt to enshrine this Kantian idea as a secular doctrine. (We recently referenced Attlee's account of his socialism as Christian ethics without "the mumbo-jumbo")

I somewhat suspect the alien Whig/Fabian point was something of a rhetorical flourish, in an interview with the ResPublica blog, though perhaps it means much more than that.

Paul Bickley said...

Hi Sunder,

Yes - it would be challenged, and Tawney would have not have articulated himself like that in public argument. I guess I was trying to make a point about Milbank's reading of Tawney (i.e., that he was a virtue thinker on account of his Anglicanism, and would be comfortable with certain social inequalities). It was exactly on account of his Christianity that he was a thoroughgoing egalitarian, and hence would probably have disagreed with Milbank's synthesis of equality/inequality.

Milbank does lodge a legitimate complaint in the original guardian article, which any member of the Labour Party should find uncomfortable - that the we have contented ourselves with a vague hostility to economic inequality, while 'functionless capital' sits pretty and inequality grows! I think Tawney would have been with him on that.

Ref, Atlee - he stands in a long line of Labour politicians who want the ethics without the metaphysics, ontology or eschatology. I can understand that, but I'm not convinced it can create sustained ethical engagement. You ref. London Citizens in the blog - from my limited involvement, what strikes me is that the religious communities that participate in LCs really do believe, and it's their beliefs that really do sustain their action. There's no Atlean deracination - yet they share civic space, and a project, with the secular. I think there's a Tawneyan lesson there too.

Unknown said...

Thanks everyone for the comments. My view on these points is pretty much as Stuart summarised it: I don't see much difference between, say, Tawney and Crosland on equality (Crosland would agree with Paul's critique of 'functionless capital', for example). However, Crosland did side-line community as a central aspiration for the left, partly because in the social context of the 1940s and 1950s he was anxious about the implications of socialist 'communitarianism' for individual liberty. But as Stuart also suggests, it's not at all clear that Tawney's vision of community coheres with the Milbank-Blond view. Finally, though, there has been some recent research on Tawney that sees him as somewhat less rooted in Christian morality than earlier interpretations (eg Tony Wright), and more of an advocate of a kind of decentralised, value pluralist socialism, which Tawney explicitly allied to the guild socialism of G. D. H. Cole. I recommend here my colleague Marc Stears's book 'Progressives, Pluralists and the Problems of the State' (Oxford, 2002), which makes this case in more detail.