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Books You Should Know ...

(January 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 2, 12 January 1948, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
by R.H. Tawney
Penguin Books, 280 pp., 35¢

Here is probably the best book buy of the year. Penguin Books is to be congratulated on reissuing Tawney’s classic study of the relationship between the Protestant Reformation and the rise of modern capitalism. Since this scholarly work can hardly be expected to gain mass circulation, Penguin’s willingness to publish this inexpensive edition is cause for gratitude.

Tawney’s book is concerned with one of the most interesting and revealing of modern historical problems: what is the relationship between the rise of Protestantism in all its various branches and the simultaneous rise of capitalist society? To what extent are Luther’s heterodoxy, for instance, or Calvin’s system reflections of a still young but nonetheless developing capitalist economy that pushed its way through feudal restrictions? Or, for that matter, is developing capitalism rather the result of the new concepts that the Reformation elevated into systems of Protestant theology?

These are the questions that Tawney poses and answers. He answers them more satisfactorily perhaps than any other historian who has approached the subject. With a firm grasp on the actual realities of the economic transformation from feudalism to capitalism that rocked Europe for several centuries – Tawney places the decisive appearance of capitalism in Europe in the 16th century – he skillfully examines the interpenetration of economic situation and economic need with theological doctrine. He does not succumb to the error of the “idealist” historians who ascribe to theological conceptions or philosophical notions an independent role in initiating the historical transformation to capitalism. On the other hand, he does not see each shift in religious doctrine as a direct and immediate reflection of some brute economic need. Tawney shows how both economic transformation, and religious rebellion were part of a total social revolution that lasted hundreds of years and broke out into sporadic clashes of which the great climax was the French Revolution of 1789.

The Catholic Church

The first part of Tawney’s book is a brief but excellent account of medieval society in relation to the then Catholic Church. He examines in detail the social doctrines of the medieval church – the concept of society as an organism in which various classes served different but harmonious functions but were not to usurp the functions or rights of the other; the concept of “just price” as a means both of explaining and modulating economic practice; the church’s objection to usury, more often honored in the breach than in the observance, which was significant as an expression of its feudal, anti-capitalist outlook. Tawney shows how medieval doctrine was both a rationalization and defense of the feudal status quo, as well as an attempt to modulate and make harmonious the oppressive society in which the church – the greatest landowner of the time – had such a tremendous stake.

Tawney then proceeds to a direct examination of the social revolution which transformed western society from stagnant feudalism to a then progressive capitalism. He places the Protestant movements within this context, though he does not make the error of seeing them as mere mechanical reflexes of this social revolution. Luther’s doctrine he sees as a conservative moral rebellion against the laxness of the Catholic Church, the objective though not the deliberate effect of which was to destroy still further the hold of the regressive society to which the church was tied.

Much more influential and revolutionary than Luther was Calvin and the tremendous organization he built up. Calvin enunciated a system of theology that in its spirit and purpose served as both incentive and balm to rising capitalism; it expressed the world outlook of the new dominant class in theological terms. Though this was certainly not the subjective intent of Calvin and his theological brethren, it was nonetheless the objective consequence of their work. Tawney then rounds out his book with a detailed study of the Reformation in England, in which a particularly excellent section is devoted to the Puritan movement and its ethical system.

No doubt there are certain criticisms that can validly be made of Tawney’s book – but this is not the place for them and the present reviewer is not equipped for the task, But despite the weaknesses it may have, Tawney’s book is a first-rate work and an important contribution to the study of the origin of capitalist society.

It may therefore seem in bad taste to end this notice with an objection, but the truth is that the Penguin edition, inexpensive though it is, has one serious deficiency: its type is so small and its paper so grey and its pages so crowded that the book is terribly difficult to read. Penguin of course faces a problem here: how to get out for 35 cents a large book that is certain to have a limited sale. Perhaps that problem could be solved by striking a compromise between the expensive $3.00 and $4.00 editions, which so many people can’t afford to buy, and the present Penguin editions, which so many people find too difficult to read. Could Penguin put out paper-covered editions of those books that are not likely to sell in mass quantities, using larger type, slightly better paper and either more or larger pages, and then charging, say, 75 cents or $1.00 for them? People who want to own Tawney’s book, and others like it, might not find that TOO expensive and they would certainly find it more attractive.

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