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R. H. Tawney (Richard Henry Tawney) Biography

(1880–1962), (Richard Henry Tawney), Religion and the Rise of Capitalism

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Sir Rabindranath Tagore Biography to James Thomson Biography

British economic historian and political philosopher, born in Calcutta, educated at Balliol College, Oxford; he became Professor of Economic History at the London School of Economics (1931). He was also a long-time supporter of the Workers' Educational Association in Lancashire and North Staffordshire, and was for sixteen years President of the Association. His best-known book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), is an analysis of the impact of economic expansion on the development of religious thought in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In contrast to Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, from which it is often wrongly said to have been derivative, Tawney was concerned to chart how religious opinion on economic and social questions was materially adjusted to suit new social realities. It was in The Agrarian Problem in the Sixteenth Century (1912), his first book, that Tawney first displayed his mastery of the historical method that he was to deploy in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Although deeply influenced by Marx, it was not Marxist in any orthodox sense; the great divide between the economic ‘base’ and the political and religious ‘super-structure’, which had become the cornerstone of orthodox Marxist historiography, was dismantled by Tawney in the course of his analysis. In two other books, The Acquisitive Society (1921) and Equality (1931), Tawney set out his own opinion of capitalism, which he found anathema. He was fond of quoting Keynes to the effect that modern capitalism was ‘absolutely irreligious, without internal union, without much public spirit, often, though not always, a mere congeries of possessors and pursuers’.

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