From International Socialism, No.18, Autumn 1964, pp.19-21.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
So the old man is retired, really at long last gone. With him goes the world of Stalin, Roosevelt, and even John Foster Dulles; the world of Hitler and Chamberlain, of Lloyd George and even Gladstone: a world that spans history from middle to managerial capitalism.
Churchill’s fame is the reward paid to him by a grateful bourgeoisie for services rendered over half a century. Those services were to act as the ruling-class’ trouble-shooter at any time of crisis, to be a sort of national Pinkerton, ready at any moment for any job that needed merely strength, tenacity and force, rather than tact and sympathy. Modern bourgeoisies do not often require such services – in general, they rather need intelligence, tact, sympathy for the minute and mutual adjustment of day to day claims. But when they do need a toughie, the rewards are very high if he succeeds. Churchill was never a sharp man, and had little intellectual depth: he was always observably an amateur in day to day routine, dependent in his career on the manouevring of professional politicians to create and sustain his power. He could not build an organisation from scratch, work alone and isolated over a long period towards given ends, nor even offer a new and original platform to defend the status quo (as did, for example, Roosevelt). But he did have the ability to make up his mind quickly, and stick to some course of action through all obstacles – even if he was wrong. In time of war that ability was at a premium, and whatever his weakness for routine or system, Churchill could supply a strong and positive centrepiece to the ideology of national war. In time of peace and quiet, he had nothing to offer but rather dated rhetoric, but in a crisis, he offered the decision that better men could not. Like Hitler’s disposal of the dithering Weimar politicians, Churchill seemed able to impose order and simplicity on bewildering complexity: that imposition was rather characterological than based on a genuine ability to comprehend the complex. When the flair seemed to pay off, the man became a god.
Victorian bourgeois society offered little at home of adventure and excitement, and many men consequently sought uninhibited action in less regulated parts of the world – as local colonial autocrats, explorers, adventurers and mercenaries. Too much of an aristocrat for trade, too little talented for academic life, Churchill as a youth was a sort of soldier of fortune who revelled in the zest of war. He was in Cuba for the destruction of the guerilla rebels (did he think of it when Castro finished the job?), at Khartoum with Kitchener, on the North-West Frontier with the Pathans, and in the Boer War as fighter and reporter. With these wild oats behind, he became a Tory MP in the Khaki elections of 1900. As could be expected, he was a rebel on defence, and became a Liberal at just the time when it was the Liberals who were being called upon to defend the status quo by some measure of more radical social reform. Under Asquith, he took the Board of Trade, and then as a Lloyd George lieutenant, the Home Office. It was as Home Secretary that he had the job of clearly demarcating the limits of Liberal radicalism – when the Cambrian Combine pits locked out some 12,000 miners (who retaliated), Churchill ordered into South Wales some 800 Metropolitan police and 3,000 troops. The army was also moved in to quell the 1911 dock ‘strike, and also the sympathetic railway strike – two strikers were shot directly, and five others killed when a gelignite railway truck exploded under fire. Overall, some 58,000 troops were deployed for the strikes.
This initial effort, plus his callous treatment of a suffragette who fainted in Downing Sreet, and the clumsy bullying of two anarchists trapped in Sidney Street (he refused to let the fire be extinguished in the building where the two had taken refuge) earned him the reputation of a thug. The quickness with which he resorted to the use of soldiers against unarmed strikers, his delight in the use of direct power, his total lack of sympathy with any sort of ‘underdog’ alienated even the liberals. However, the record meant that Churchill naturally should play an important role in the War organisation, where brutality is legitimised. He went to the Admiralty, the front-line service in view of the naval rivalry with Germany, in 1911, and in the War, again to the key Ministry, that of Munitions – here Churchill’s brand of militancy could be put to maximum effect (compare Beaverbrook who played the same role in the Second World War). From here he also dabbled in an amateur way in overall strategy, and later began pressing for action to kill the Russian Revolution, a campaign more effectively prosecuted after the jingo election of 1918. With the Irish revolution in full spate, Churchill was called to the War Office, both to tackle Ireland, and the serious mutinies over demobilisation – there were riots in Glasgow, Belfast, Luton and Calais, and Churchill ordered out the troops once more to intern some 3,000 demonstrators.
Help to Denikin in Southern Russia was expanded and British officers despatched (task forces had earlier been landed at Archangel and elsewhere). Britain recognised the puppet Government of Omsk. But all this was small stuff against what could be done, and the War Lord was frustrated by the dithering of the politicians at Versailles – he complained to Lloyd George in 1920:
‘Since the Armistice my policy would have been “Peace with the German people, war on the Bolshevik tyranny” ... We may well be within measurable distance of universal collapse and anarchy throughout Europe and Asia. Russia has gone into ruin. What is left of her is the power of these deadly snakes.’
He proposed independent British action against Russia – a buccaneering raid on the prostrate country. The approach was one of the earliest signs of that rallying cry for the lunatic Right, in particular, Hitler. Despite the co-operation of the War, it was Churchill who publicly turned the attention of the Western bourgeoisies back to Russia in 1947 at Fulton, Missouri, when he coined the phrase, ‘the iron curtain’, having sought so consistently for so long to raise just such a curtain round Russia.
His pre-war record, repression in Ireland and Russia, the dirt piled up: and when Churchill went to the polls with his Coalition Government, he shared their fate to an exaggerated degree. Hostile crowds shouted down his speeches in Dundee and sang The Red Flag in his face. His 1918 majority of 15,000 was cut to defeat by 10,000, and he was out in the wilderness with a Liberal Party already showing signs of severe decay. The year following, the police had to protect his election campaign at West Leicester, but this did not prevent his meetings being wrecked nor his defeat. The causes for which he stood seemed in disintegration, and he called despairingly for the formation of a strong ‘middle’ party, the old Wartime Coalition, united now not by war on Germany but by the sole issue of war on socialism and bolshevism. Churchill was no politician and no organiser – without his divisions ordered by others, he had no power and no ability to create it. Despite some Conservative support, he was again defeated in the Abbey division of Westminster when he stood as a mere ‘anti-socialist’. The sojourn in the wilderness was brief – unlike Lloyd George who continued through until the end as a Liberal, Churchill swallowed his pride and realistically made his peace with the new hardened political front of the bourgeoisie – and joined the Conservatives. In the Zinoviev letter election of 1924, the ex-Liberal returned to the Commons to present himself for new duties.
The duties required were as onerous as any Churchill had earlier faced – to lower real wages sufficiently to expand British exports, to restore the pre-war conditions of financial freedom, to enable capital to move as it wished. As Chancellor, Churchill approached the problem directly and accepted the word of his immediate advisers – he lowered taxation on industry, and helped towards protecting industry from foreign competition. Both were to be ‘matched’ by Chamberlain’s social reform measures, the concessions intended to bribe the workers into accepting the help to industry. The attempt to free rentier capital from State control could not however be garnished in the same way, and Churchill as a consequence introduced the return to the Gold Standard in one swoop. ‘Mr. Churchill’s policy’, Keynes wrote, ‘of improving the exchange by 10 per cent was, sooner or later, a policy of reducing everyone’s wages by two shillings in the pound. He who wills the end wills the means. What now faces the Government is the ticklish task of carrying out their own dangerous and unnecessary decision; the miners’, he went on, ‘represent in the flesh the “fundamental adjustments” engineered by the Treasury and the Bank of England to satisfy the impatience of the City Fathers.’
With considerable care, the Government postponed the inevitable General Strike in order to make military and civil preparations to break it. The militants in the Cabinet demanded that when the conflict came, it should be a ‘final solution’ to the question of the class-struggle – the unions must be settled once and for all. ‘It is a conflict’, Churchill said, ‘which if it is fought out to a conclusion, can only end in the overthrow of Parliamentary Government or its decisive victory.’ Baldwin restrained his hotheads until the strike actually broke out, when, like all the peacetime men, he became ‘a passenger’ while stronger men took over. But those stronger men could not include Churchill – the situation was so delicate that he would have been more menace than help; diplomacy was needed to woo the coy members of the General Council, rather than blood and thunder. So he was diverted into editing the British Gazette, making it into the flag of militancy around which the young patriotic bourgeoisie could gather. But even here his militancy was an embarrassment, particularly when he wrote in the May 8 issue: ‘All ranks of the armed forces of the Crown are hereby notified that any action which they may find necessary to take in an honest endeavour to aid the Civil Power will receive both now and afterwards the full support of His Majesty’s Government.’ Even George the Fifth protested.
But times were changing and already leaving the soldier of fortune high and dry. Bureaucratic organisation, State control and some forms of rudimentary planning, the lineaments of State capitalism, had already substantially overtaken the ‘freedom’ of pre-War days. The War pushed the process forward further than it could ever retract, and despite the efforts in the twenties to turn the clock back, the great 1929 slump settled the issue conclusively. While it did not in Britain precipitate the explicit managerialism of Roosevelt’s New Deal, nor the aggressive étatisme of Nazism, it did however decisively circumscribe the area of ‘free’ political and economic activity. Now the bureaucrat, the professional politician, the manager, cautious and moderate, stressing the overall interests of the bourgeoisie rather than those of a particular section (and coldly sacrificing such sections when the need arose – for example, the rentiers), stressing the need for radical reform to defend the status quo – these were the ascendant types, not the old soldier of fortune, romantic demagogue, aggressive entrepreneur. In times of peace, in such a world Churchill was redundant– his only appeal was for the decaying remnants of Victorianism, and he offered in return only symbols of a romantic past. Had it not been for the War, his break with the Baldwin Government over some increased measure of self-determination for India might have been bis permanent retirement; like Lloyd George, he would have remained an extinct volcano from which only periodic gusts of smoke suggested continued life.
As it was, his opposition to Baldwin on India led him to a more generalised opposition, and brought him into association with radical Tories far removed from opposing the Party’s India stand. Despite his earlier concern solely with Bolshevism, he was able from the Right to attack Baldwin on defence, and develop a critique of German rearmament (his information on German arms is said to be based on his sources as a shareholder of Metallgesellschaft). Thus when the time came for War, not only was he one of the most forceful and war-experienced members of the Commons, but also he was not associated with the record of the Baldwin-Chamberlain Government. Again, relying on a Conservative revolt, his chance came: the bourgeoisie turned once more to him for protection. His record in the War, much as might be imagined considering his earlier record and too well-known to be recounted here, overshadowed all that had gone before. The terrors of entire classes can only be answered by men seen as demi-gods, and in the Coalition that governed the War, both political parties cosily agreed that Churchill was neither a trouble-maker nor a nasty warmonger nor an enemy of the workers, but really a divinity.
That war-record, however, posed very serious problems for the Conservatives; for when the fighting was done they discovered that, like Sinbad, they were burdened with a leader who had only heavily dated rhetoric to offer the peacetime electorate. Churchill for his part did not fancy a return to the complexities of politics – he made a determined bid to form his old ‘middle’ party, united only by its hatreds, and labelled ‘National’. Fortunately, the Labour Party Conference ensured the Labour leadership did not accept the offer, so Churchill was forced back into being a ‘sectional’ politician, and leaning heavily on Edwardian notions of political conflict. His notorious speech comparing Labour to the Gestapo, his foolishly extravagant attempts to ignite fears long since dead in the bourgeoisie, his vague imputations against Laski (with a slightly anti-semitic undertone – however, the marriage of one of Churchill’s daughters to a Rothschild shows he was not really anti-semitic), all helped to speed the disaster that annihilated the Tories at the polls. After the election, a salutary lesson to the leadership on the dangers of trusting Churchill and his immediate followers (Beaverbrook, Bracken etc), the Party revived insofar as Churchill left all practical domestic issues to his professional aides, Butler, Macmillan, Stanley. They could draw Party policy into line with the new postwar scene, refashion a welfare image, and leave the Leader to fulminate on foreign affairs (even here, Churchill was slightly overshadowed by Labour’s own Churchill, Ernest Bevin). The taste of defeat died, and the old man retired into the grandiose eminence of acting as aide to and extraordinary ambassador of what had now become the front line, the United States. Occasionally he reminded people of his pure anti-Bolshevist consistency: ‘I think the day will come’, he said in 1949, ‘when it will be recognised without doubt, not only on one side of the House but throughout the civilised world, that the strangling of Bolshevism at its birth would have been an untold blessing to the human race.’ Bolshevism and all its terrors never dampened Churchill’s respect for Stalin. In 1951, carefully controlled by his lieutenants (who publicly rejected Beaverbrook this time), the tired old man had some semblance of being a politician: ‘I have always been a friend of the miners,’ he protested innocently, ‘those who work in these hard and dangerous conditions far from the light of the sun have the right to receive exceptional benefits from the nation which they serve.’ The Tories returned to office, more by reason of Labour’s failing than any positive policy of their own. Churchill was again shunted (or wisely shunted himself) into foreign affairs, leaving the management of the economy to the professionals. Thus is was possible for Churchill, despite all the bombast, to preside over a Government domestically labelled Butskellite, bipartisan, coloured the terrible Labour pink. He was too old to care, and Britain too big to change – and Bolshevism was still there to conjure up his choicest images. For the first time, Churchill became not much more than a passive Chairman – his days of fighting were done.
Churchill’s politics were undistinguished, conventionally Right-wing. Like others, he would have preferred strong one-party government (whenever defeated, he demanded a new ‘middle’ party), and, commensurately, always stressed the need for ‘unity’, ‘loyalty’, ‘obedience’ and so on. The War offered him the means and rationale for all this – virtually one-party government with his own personal dictatorship, a reason for absolute loyalty and the masochism of simple hierarchic subordination. Listen to his account of the impact of the first World War, redolent with self-righteous flagellation and the demand to dominate or be dominated in one simple aggressive activity:
‘We have been living in a sheltered valley for generations. We have been too comfortable and too indulgent ... and the stern hand of fate has scourged us to an elevation where we can see the great everlasting things that matter for a nation – the great peaks we have forgotten of Honour, Duty, Patriotism, and, clad in glittering white, the great pinnacle of Sacrifice.’
Instinctively, the ruling-class militant reaches for the key ethics – loyalty to the status quo, and willingness to die for it. The only mildly distinctive suggestion made by Churchill was his 1930 advocacy of an Industrial Parliament. This proposal, for a third Parliamentary House in which trade union leaders, employers, professions and Civil Servants would sit, has a long pedigree, and periodically crops up again in the Conservative Party. It demonstrates the continuing need to assimilate trade union leaders fully into the bourgeoisie, and the attempt to use the unions as means to organise workers rather than defend them. It was a central idea in Mussolini’s corporatism. Churchill’s use of the idea was momentary – he never made any attempt to actually achieve it. He was an orthodox imperialist, vaguely favoured free-trade and competition, was not wildly bothered about nationalisation of industry, and, in general, was fairly conventional. In his later years, before retirement, Churchill did little politically except deprive the people of Woodford of representation. Periodic reports showed him basking on an Onassis yacht in the Mediterranean, receiving yet another superfluous medal, or returning periodically to bask in the painful and vulgar adulation of the House of Commons, only too delighted to find an opportunity for bi-partisan cheering. His last illness knocked away the remaining struts that had sustained his genuine courage and vigour. His War record will ensure he is remembered, and the memory of the people on crimes against them will fade even more than it has now. But, perhaps more Chan most, events made Churchill – the gallery of national gods would be one less without the last War.
Last updated on 20.8.2007