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  • The Moral Economists: R. H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, E. P. Thompson and the Critique of Capitalism by Tim Rogan
  • Peter Stansky
The Moral Economists: R. H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, E. P. Thompson and the Critique of Capitalism. By Tim Rogan ( Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2017) 283 pp. $39.95

This highly intelligent and sophisticated work is primarily a discussion of three commentators on capitalism, two British and one Hungarian, although Polanyi wrote The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (New York, 1944) after coming to Britain. [End Page 490] A good number of other significant figures also appear in the book: Karl Mannheim, F. R. Leavis, T. S. Eliot, Evan Durbin. Anthony Crosland. Ernst F. Schumacher, and Maurice Dobb. Oddly, Rogan has little to say about John Maynard Keynes' attempt to preserve capitalism and create a better life for all through such entities as the Arts Council.

At present, the dominant intellectual assumption seems to be that capitalism is here to stay and its chief problem is a vast disparity of income. The three earlier critics featured in this book were far more skeptical about the system itself. Although Karl Marx was clearly important in their thinking, they tended not to follow him in believing that the system should be totally overthrown. In a way, the title is misleading. These men were not so much economists as critics of capitalism, in the sense that it did not produce a "moral economy" and did not treat those who lived within it fairly. They wrote fully in the British tradition, trying to steer a middle course between the excesses of individualism and collectivism, though not totally abandoning a commitment to individual worth while trying to improve the lot of the working class. The danger was such actions would go too far in the direction of authoritarian collectivism.

What does seem to be missing in Rogan's perceptive discussion of his three major figures is that, particularly in the case of Tawney and Thompson, he does not pay enough attention to their anger at what capitalism has wrought, the price that the working class has paid for the prosperity of Britain. Rogan writes perceptively about the importance that Tawney and Thompson attached to the strength of local communities (based on their experiences teaching in the workers' education movement), particularly in the north of England, where people paid the price for Britain's prosperity. He also has an excellent sense of the significance of Christianity for all three writers, explicitly so with Tawney and Polanyi (who was born Jewish). Thompson was the son of Methodist missionaries, although his father abandoned his mission in favor of assisting the Indian independence movement. Thompson was the most politically active of the three, a committed Communist until the suppression of the uprising in Hungary in 1956. But even afterward, unlike many others, he remained an activist on the political left, notably on behalf of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. These writers rejected the idea that the prosperity of some eventually helped all.

Rogan's analysis of Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963) is particularly rich, claiming extravagantly but probably accurately that it "was surely the most widely read and most influential work of history published in English in the twentieth century" (158). Rogan's biographical material about his three authors shows the degree to which the course of their lives influenced their work. He is particularly insightful about the importance of literature for Thompson, tracing the influence of Leavis' belief in the moral role of literature in community values and social criticism. The contribution of literature and socialist activity to the improvement of society is key in the work of [End Page 491] William Morris and in Thompson's biography of him that integrated all of Morris' activities.1

This book serves as a splendid reminder that capitalism may be morally wrong and that socialism need not be a brutal system. The British welfare state moved in a socialist direction, as did other European countries. But as the present state of capitalism testifies, worldwide, the misery of the many may be worse than it was in the...


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