From R. H. Tawney’s Commonplace Book

From R. H. Tawney’s Commonplace Book

In the early 1970s, I taught a course at Harvard on the moral arguments for capitalism and socialism. It was easy to find readings in defense of
capitalism. The rights of entrepreneurs, contractual freedom, contribution and “desert” as the basis of reward: these were topics that had long interested philosophers and philosophically inclined economists. But I had real difficulty finding any serious philosophical defenses of even statements of socialist values. Marxist historicism long ago replaced moral philosophy among committed socialists. On one level, Marxism was a science; on another level, it was a tactics. And in the (connected) worlds of scientists and tacticians, any sort of moral reflectiveness became an object of disdain. It suggested a lack of confidence in historical development or an unwillingness to do what had to be done to help that development along.

In Anglo-American political life, moral argument survived most clearly among the Christian socialists, the greatest of whom was R. H. Tawney.
By the time I finished putting my reading list together, I had decided that Tawney was also the most important socialist moralist of the 20th century. But Tawney was not a systematic philosopher, and his two best books,

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