Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Saturday, January 31, 2015

C.L.R. James on Winston Churchill - Tory War-dog

Winston Churchill - a reactionary prize-fighter for the British ruling class

...Long before 1939, when the outbreak of war saved his career, Winston Churchill had established himself as the most discredited, the most untrustworthy, and the most irresponsible of all the senior politicians in England. The rulers of Britain did not take him seriously on the politics of war because, except for his capabilities as a war minister, they did not take him seriously on anything except his capacity to make a serious nuisance of himself.

Churchill was born the son of Lord Randolph Churchill, a brilliant young nobleman who reached the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer and seemed headed for the premiership but wrecked his career by his erratic political behavior. His character was adequately summed up in the phrase “the boy who would not grow up.” It was the kind of heritage that a careful politician would take care to live down. It is characteristic of Winston Churchill that he lived up to it.

He joined the army as a cavalry officer and thus began his lifelong and passionate interest in war. He became a war correspondent, was captured by the Boers and escaped. When he lectured in New York in 1906, at the age of twenty-six, he was billed as “the hero of five wars.” He was already actively interested in politics. In the early years of the century, liberalism seemed in the ascendancy in Britain. Churchill made a spectacular break with the Tory Party and joined the Liberals.

He became Home Secretary and distinguished himself by what is derisively known as the Battle of Sidney Street.  A group of foreign anarchists well supplied with arms refused to give themselves up to the police. Churchill converted a police operation into a battle. He went down himself to take charge of the “struggle” (or as privileged observer), was nearly killed and created a scandal among his colleagues and the sober-minded British people. In 1911 he went over to the Admiralty and there did his best work, preparing the fleet for 1914.

But the war of 1914 had no sooner begun than Churchill was at it again. A critical situation at Antwerp found Churchill, still head of the Admiralty, persuading the reluctant Sir Edward Grey to let him go to Belgium in person. He found himself as usual under fire. The battle stimulated him to offer, from Antwerp, his resignation from the Admiralty to take command of the British land forces at Antwerp. The transfer was not made but as one of his biographers (Philip Guedalla) says of the unsatisfactory outcome: “There was a vague feeling that Mr. Churchill’s restlessness might be to blame ... that it was Sidney Street over again ...”

By 1915, despite his competence, he had lost his post at the Admiralty. He held other posts, but it is related of him that at one time while a minister in London he did most of the work in a chateau in France so as to be near the firing line. After World War I he was the moving spirit in the military intervention against Russia. It is known that in 1944 to keep Churchill from joining the cross-channel expedition the present king had to threaten that he would also join it if Churchill insisted on going; baffled here, nevertheless Churchill turned up with the invading army in the last stages of the victory against Germany.

That is the man. Every British politician knew him and his Napoleonic complex, his preoccupation with war and war preparations, his extraordinary capacity for making a fool of himself on critical occasions. Asquith, Prime Minister in 1914, wrote of him “Winston, who has got on all his war-paint, is longing for a sea-fight in the early hours of the morning to result in the sinking of the Goeben.” Someone who saw him at the beginning of the 1914 war remarked on his “happy face”...

In the cabinet reshuffle of 1936, everyone expected him to be included because of his audacity as a war minister. Baldwin left him out. Churchill writes: "He thought no doubt, that he had given me a politically fatal stroke, and I felt he might well be right.” He says too, “There was much mockery in the press about my exclusion.” Exactly. His career was always in danger. His adventures were the subject of perpetual mockery. We can now judge with a little more sense of proportion Churchill’s claim that on a question vital to the world he was the purveyor of wisdom to fatuous idiots and fouls. If the words idiot and fatuity, etc., were to be applied up to 1936, the chief candidate would have been Churchill himself.

Never at any time did he behave like a man who had a serious point of view, knew what was at stake and fought seriously for it. These erratic habits of his were intimately connected with the failure of his supposedly correct policy on the war. It was precisely during the time that he was supposed to be fighting this life-and-death struggle to prevent the unnecessary war, that Churchill showed that age had not withered nor custom staled the infinite variety of what the novelist, Arnold Bennett, called his “incurable foolishness” ... it is clear that to this day he is not fully aware of the folly of his procedure in relation to his war policy...

In 1931, British imperialism began the colossal, and as it has proved, the impossible task of reconciling India to British rule by binding the Indian bourgeoisie and the feudal lords to the British system. After Hitler’s accession to power in Germany this was an urgent task precisely because of the uncertain world situation. Churchill, however, for years rallied the worst of the Daily Mail type of Conservatives and led a struggle against Baldwin which for intemperance and unscrupulousness even he has rarely surpassed. He was ignominiously defeated as he was bound to be ... any level-headed capitalist politician could not but see that some sort of settlement and pacification of India was necessary for any British government that contemplated war.

 By the end of his battle of India, the Conservative Party had no use whatever for him. However by 1936 he had built around himself a little group around a policy he called “Arms and the Covenant,” the Covenant being the League of Nations. The sharpening international situation was giving weight to their attacks upon the policy of the Baldwin government. Nothing is more illuminating of what Britain’s rulers thought of Churchill than his account of how, all through his years of political exile, every British Prime Minister saw to it that he was well informed of the latest military and scientific developments; he was even placed on some of the most secret war committees. This explains his place in British politics. He was a kind of national strong-arm man who was kept well trained and in shape, for the day when blows were needed. Until then nobody wanted to have anything to do with him. And this book shows that no one had worked more assiduously to build this reputation than himself.

But perhaps, it may be said, that despite all his follies Churchill was right in his consistent opposition on the war issue. His book explodes that fable. Churchill’s opposition on the actual issue of the war was no different from his shrill opposition on other issues. He spoke with more authority perhaps on this, and he certainly impressed outsiders and the general public. But he did not impress the politicians and for one very good reason. They knew that they could have shut up his mouth at any time by giving him office. The measure of their contempt for him can be judged by the fact that eloquent and active as he was they refused to do this.

History is full of men who felt that a certain policy was essential to the life of their country or their class and fought for it to the end, reckless of victory, defeat or their personal fate. Such for instance was the uncompromising struggle of Clemenceau for leadership of France in the days of 1914-18 when the government was in such a crisis that at one lime his attacks upon the government sounded like treason to the bourgeoisie. No such mantle can be hung on Winston Churchill despite all the assiduous tailoring of Henry Luce. Churchill knows better than to make any great claims for himself on this matter. There are too many men alive who could tear him to bits if he tried to do this. It was not principled opposition which kept him out of the ministry in 1936 and thus saved him from getting himself as thoroughly compromised as Baldwin and Chamberlain. It was his bad reputation and habits...

Until the war came Churchill was nobody, played no heroic role, opposed the government but was always ready to enter it...But maybe Churchill did have the correct policy, if even he did not make any heroic battle for it. Now this is precisely what was in dispute all the time and is still in dispute. And here, above all, Churchill’s policy, in so far as he had a policy, seemed to his colleagues the quintessence and crown of his irresponsibility.

Let us try to get clear exactly what Churchill’s policy was not. First of all Churchill was not and today is no enemy of either dictatorship or fascism. He is an enemy of all who threaten the British Empire and the “pleasant life” he leads and refers to so often. That is all.

On January 30, 1939, this stern opponent of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasing the dictators wrote as follows:

“Up till a few years ago many people in Britain admired the work which the extraordinary man Signor Mussolini had done for his country. He had brought it out of incipient anarchy into a position of dignity and order which was admired even by those who regretted the suspension of Italian freedom.” (Step by Step, 1936-1939, by Winston Churchill, p. 285.)

On February 23, 1939 he wrote of Franco:

 “He now has the opportunity of becoming a great Spaniard of whom it may be written a hundred years hence: ‘He united his country and rebuilt its greatness. Apart from that he reconciled the past with the present, and broadened the life of the working people while preserving the faith and structure of the Spanish nation.’ Such an achievement would rank in history with the work of Ferdinand and Isabella and the glories of Charles V.”(Ibid, p.285.)

As far as the record goes in this book he makes an extraordinarily good case for himself on the question of the air-race with Germany. But that is not enough to build the pedestal for his statue. And beyond this it is difficult to find out exactly what at any precise moment, he concretely stood for....

From all this it must not be considered that Churchill is a negligible person. That would be stupidity. Put him in a war department, or give him a war to lead, and from all the evidence he is far above his colleagues, in energy, in knowledge, in attention to business and curiously enough, in tempering his audacity with sobriety of judgment. He has also developed another valuable gift. His famous sense of history is famous nonsense. He has none, as I shall show in a moment. What he does have in his head is the writings of the great British historians and the speeches of the great British orators. This and his single-mindedness, his operatic consciousness of playing a great role in historic conflicts, enable him at times to rise to great heights of rhetoric.

At times his words can be singularly effective, especially when people are frightened and bewildered by the complex class, national and international currents of modern war. Churchill has no doubts, as a bull in a China shop has no doubts. He has a great gift of phrase, and long training as a journalist gives him an eye for the salient facts in a military or political situation. At all points he is equipped for war, to shout for war, to glamorize past wars, to explain a war that is going on, to make new ones look like a defense of civilization.

Politically he is as stupid a reactionary as ever. The war was no sooner over than he aroused universal execration in Britain by saying on the radio that the victory of the Labour Party would mean a Gestapo for Britain. He himself lost thousands of votes in his own constituency.... It is a measure of the degeneration of our society that such a man should be its most notable spokesman; above all it is a scandal that he should be represented ... as a defender of democracy and civilization. In reality the evidence is thick ... that Churchill is not merely a conservative, but is today as ever a vicious reactionary.

A few examples will suffice... writing about Hitler in 1932 he uses these sentences: “I admire men who stand up for their country in defeat, even though I am on the other side. He had a perfect right, to be a patriotic German if he chose. I always wanted England, Germany, and France to be friends.” Hitler attacked Britain. That is all that concerned Churchill. But for that he would have admired him to this day... 

Admiration for dictatorship and military and feudal elements, racial arrogance, anti-Semitism, these and much more stare you in the face as soon as you shake yourself free of bourgeois propaganda ... It is one of the urgent tasks of the struggle against war to expose ... the pretensions of this reactionary prize-fighter to be a defender of democracy and civilization.

C.L.R. James, 'Winston Churchill - Tory war-dog', Fourth International, 10, no. 2 (February 1949), pp.41-46

See also this poem, Great Britain's Greatest Beast by Heathcote Williams and this piece - Winston Churchill: The Imperial Monster  

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