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Churchill on Class, Race, Empire & War

At the Tehran Conference in 1943, Churchill told Stalin and Roosevelt that history would be kind to him, as he would write that history. He set about doing this in the aftermath of World War II. Between both world wars, whilst being a politician, he made his living off of writing. As a paid writer of the bourgeoisie he created a powerful myth around himself. History has indeed been kind to Churchill, his name being more revered today than in his lifetime. In 2002 he topped a BBC poll as the "Greatest Briton." In the long history of Great Britain, no scientist, thinker, politician, or cultural icon could come close to Churchill.

This writer's task is to challenge dominant historical conceptions of Churchill. This will be done by looking at his key actions and attitudes, with specific attention paid to social classes, race, empire, and war. It will be shown that Churchill was no far-sighted anti-fascist and that he failed on his own terms many times over. He was a particularly poor war leader who managed to con history into thinking otherwise. His views on empire and race were not so far removed from those of the fascists he made his name seemingly opposing. Finally, as the "Greatest Briton," he was a man with a hatred of the vast majority of Britons, specifically the working class.

Suffice to say this piece is not intended as (nor could it be) an overview of the life of the man. However, his formative years do provide some insight into the material conditions which shaped his values. This should provide some added insight when analysing later events.

The son of Lord Randolph, Churchill was born into a life of privilege on November 30, 1874. His mother Jennie was the daughter of a wealthy American family. A descendant of the Duke of Marlborough, young Winston always believed he was destined for greatness and to return his family name to glory, following generations who achieved relatively little and were generally content to live a life of leisure spending the family fortune.

The Churchill family had been opposed to the marriage of Randolph and Jennie, believing that an American, no matter how wealthy, was beneath marrying a Churchill. Indeed the marriage was only allowed to occur after the personal intervention of the Prince of Wales and future King, Edward VII. Interestingly, it is worth remembering that Edward VII was the father of Edward VIII, the notorious Nazi king, who himself abdicated the throne after marrying the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Winston Churchill would be Edward VIII's most loyal defender, having never forgotten his debt of gratitude to Edward's father. As Edward VIII himself told Lord Esher regarding Churchill, "If it had not been for me, that young man would not have been in existence."

The official historians paint a picture of a young boy who idolised his father (Randolph was a leading tory politician) and longed for his mother's approval and love. This was not forthcoming. Instead his closest relationship in his younger years was with the family nanny, Mrs. Everest, from whom he was indoctrinated with a visceral hatred of Roman Catholics at an early age—the "wicked men called fenians," she would tell him of (Morgan 1984: p28).

There can be no doubt that his father's politics and values were a huge influence on the young Winston. Randolph was once arrested and fined only 10 shillings for assaulting a police officer. During his 1874 election campaign he complained of having to mix with the "unwashed." He felt the working class were not to be trusted with the vote. After being heckled by a working man he was so angry that he wished he was an Ashanti king and could have the man summarily executed (Morgan 1984: p22). The idea of being above the people, and even above the law was not an alien notion to the young Winston. Randolph would meet his end whilst Winston was studying at Sandhurst. This was a result of long-term syphillis he likely contracted from relations with an elderly prostitute (Morgan 1984: p24).

His mother Jennie was a similarly negative influence. She was prone to bouts of overspending, something Winston would undoubtedly inherit. Whilst Randolph, like Winston had a thing for prostitutes, his mother was thought to be too attractive for Randolph and had over 200 lovers, a notable example was the Austrian Charles Kinsky, thought to be her true love. The relationship was known to Randolph, and bizarrely he and Kinsky were friends. The relationship became known as the Austrian alliance (Morgan 1984: p40). Jennie was also thought to have had an affair with Edward VII; such was her gratitude for his intervention in her marital affairs. From another extra-marital affairs, Jennie gave birth to a son called Jack, giving Winston a younger step-brother. Jack was noted to have been more cut out for school than his older brother.

When starting school Winston struggled massively, being ranked 4th bottom of his class. As his divisional master would say "he does not quite understand the meaning of hard work. The following year his school report would read: "Very bad - is a constant trouble to everybody and is always in some sort of scrape or other," (Morgan 1984: p33). Following this the family withdrew Winston and found him a new school. At the new school trouble miraculously followed the boy, with him starting a fight and taking a small stabbing to the chest with a pen knife. Jennie herself hoped this would serve as his lesson to grow up and behave. It was not.

When it came to moving to the elite school of Harrow, Churchill did not get one solitary question correct in his entrance exam. "But miracles happen, particularly to the sons of prominent men...and Winston (was) placed in the school's bottom class" (Morgan 1984: p45). The exact details of what occurred at Harrow are unknown, although rumours persist, with reason. However, it is known that illegal homosexual relations were rife among the rich boys of the school, and a former head teacher had resigned after being caught in an improper relation with a boy (Morgan 1984: p46).

Finding himself lagging behind again, this time in French class, he was sent by his father for a months trip to Paris. It seems that he was never able to pull himself up by the boot straps (as was the only option of a working class child), but always relied on the perks of being the son of the aristocracy. With every failure, another chance, another advantage, another helping hand was always to be had. Whilst in Paris he stayed with Lord Randolph's friend, a wealthy industrialist, Baron Hirsch. His attempts to get into Sandhurst were not going well, this must have grated with a youngster so self assured that he was destined for greatness.

"The boy was some sort of incompetent, not only could he not get into Oxford or Cambridge, he could not even get into the army, the dunces refuge" (Morgan 1984:p55)

Having twice failed his exams at Sandhurst he was sent to the elite school of Captain Walter H. James. This was basically the use of a private military tutor as a result of his failures to pass on merit. The Captain had this to say of Churchill:

"He is distinctly inclined to be inattentive and to think too much of his own abilities" (D'Este 2009: p35).

Clearly, Churchill was an unreliable witness. This was particularly true of events in which he was involved. He was quite unable and/or unwilling to provide any degree of impartiality in matters involving himself.

Perhaps nothing highlights this more than the events of 10th January 1893. At this time Churchill was now enrolled at Sandhurst and injured himself playing war games. In true Churchill fashion he told quite the lie, desperately wishing to glamorise what had happened. Having suffered minor injuries he could not resist claiming that he had ruptured a kidney and remained unconscious for 3 days. Had this actually happened, internal bleeding would have likely killed him within the hour. He would certainly have died. His own father had grown weary of his son's bouts of fantasy. This occasion proved to be a tipping point, he replied in a letter to Winston:

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I no longer attach the slightest weight to anything you may say about your own...exploits (D'Este 2009: pp34-35).

Whilst Captain James tutoring had been enough to get Winston into Sandhurst, he was not quite a miracle worker. The aim of Churchill was to get an exam score high enough to gain entrance to the Infantry, but with his obvious intellectual limitations he was able to scrape into the Cavalry only. Although this would encourage his indulgences, being a polo enthusiast. Polo also allowed him to further another keen interest, spending money. Begging letters to his parents were a frequent thing, despite him being regularly sent large amounts of money from a variety of familial parties. His mother would remind him on multiple occasions that he had to learn to live within his means - of course this was a bout of hypocrisy. But the pleas fell on deaf ears and huge debts were built up, with much expense going on purchasing ponies - to such an extent that it took him 6 years to pay his tailors bill (Morgan 1984: p78).

Another noticeable incident occurred at Sandhurst and is relative to the rumours from Harrow. Second Lieutenant Alan Bruce of the 4th Hussars was to be Churchill's victim. Churchill schemed against Bruce, having him thrown out the military and arrested. He achieved this by luring Bruce to the officers mess where he was offered a drink by an officer friendly to Churchill. In 3 days time Bruce was arrested on trumped up charges of "improperly associating with non commissioned officers." Why? According to Bruce, he had knowledge of an illegal homosexual relationship involving Churchill and another student (Morgan 1984: pp81-83). His career was to be ruined, Churchill's was saved.

And so we have the picture of a boy of the landed gentry - steeped in glories of imperial decadence, raised from birth with a superiority complex - one which vastly outweighed his limited talents. He was of his time and his class. A patriot when it suited, he had total disregard for the law when it did not suit. His love of the nation did not mean love of the nation's people, particularly those of the working class and catholic persuasion. He was a bigot born to a family of bigots, but he was exceptional in being the bigot among bigots. He was of a privileged family, but even his privileged family tried to curb his excesses, excesses even relative to theirs.

churchill-on-class-race-empire-war

Churchill: the class warrior

The so-called greatest ever Briton's soon-to-be explored hatred for the people of the colonies could only be rivalled by that for the domestic working class. His political career was not short of domestic controversies, usually involving violent attacks on the working class. The self-styled man of the people, cannot be viewed as anything other than a sworn enemy of the people by virtue of deed.

Firstly, whilst Home Secretary in 1911, it fell under his remit to deal with the Liverpool General Transport Strike. Desperate for better pay and conditions, as well as union recognition, 250,000 people went on strike that August. The 13th of the month became known as Bloody Sunday. Some 80,000 people marched to the city's St. George's Hall. An entirely unprovoked attack on the workers by police ensued. 96 arrests were made and 196 people hospitalised. The workers of Liverpool fought back in hand-to-hand combat with the police. Ever the opportunist, Churchill used this to give the working class a kicking. 3,500 troops were brought into Liverpool to quell the workers. He also took the measure of positioning the gunboat HMS Antrim in the Mersey. Two murders were reported at the hands of the army, and at least 3 others were shot. As workers across the country came out in support of the Liverpool strikers, Churchill mobilised over 50,000 troops. More shootings of workers were recorded in Llanelli (BBC News, 16 August 2011).

Churchill had previous for such actions. A year prior he had taken similar steps in Tonypandy. The Cambrian Combine (collection of local mining companies) opened a new mine seam in Penygraig. They ran a short test period using 70 miners in order to decide what the target extraction rate ought to be. The bosses were unhappy with the rate of extraction of the 70 test workers and accused them of taking it easy. This was a ridiculous accusation given that the men were paid based on extraction rather than an hourly rate (Garradice, BBC Blog, 3 November 2010). On Septemper 1st all 950 workers at the Ely Pit went to work, only to discover they had been locked out. By November only 1 of the Cambrian Combine pits remained open. On November 8th a miners demonstration was attacked by police. Once again the would-be warlord sent in the troops. Again there was one reported murder of a worker and over 500 casualties (BBC News 22 September 2010).

The story was repeated once more in 1919. This time Glasgow workers became acquainted with the brutal Home Secretary. After World War 1, workers returned home from conscription in the imperialist war with the hope of a better life. Having lived through the horrors of the front they returned to unemployment and poverty. The 40-hour strike was aimed at reducing workers hours in order to create more job openings and alleviate unemployment. By January 31st there were 60,000 workers on the streets of Glasgow and the red flag flew in George Square. 14 months following the Great October Revolution in Russia, the British ruling class now feared the power of the workers. The response was brutal suppression of the movement. There were a host of arrests including that of the gallant Willie Gallacher.

Government officials referred to the strike as a Bolshevik uprising and Churchill acted accordingly. He decided to send 10,000 troops to Glasgow to crush the workers. They were supported by tanks and armed with machine guns.

"Organised Labour challenging the authority of the state brought out in him the same spirit which the Russian revolution had aroused: once the barricades were erected, Churchill knew which side of them he was on" (Charmley 1993: p216).

The General Strike in 1926 gave Churchill a war to fight at home, the barricades were erected. The strike has been well covered by comrade Harpal Brar in the CPGB-ML pamphlet 'the 1926 British General Strike'. For a full account all readers are referred to this work. Narrowly looking at Churchill's role in the strike, on May 2nd workers refused to print the Daily Mail's anti-worker articles. This infuriated Churchill who decried that:

"A great organ of the press (has been) muzzled by strikers" (Charmley 1993: p217).

He said this to fellow ministers, and it was rather clear to them that Churchill was brimming with excitement for the battle ahead. A fight with the unions would give Churchill an avenue to pursue his fantasies, with an approach more related to Mussolini. The strike began the following day, and 2 days later a state propaganda newspaper 'the British Gazette' was launched with Churchill as editor. He was given the position by PM Stanley Baldwin apparently on the context of keeping him out of harms way as Baldwin confessed, he was:

"Terrified of what Winston is going to be like" (Charmley 1993: p218).

As well as being in charge of the state propaganda newspaper, he also co-opted the supply of the TUC's 'the British Worker'. Churchill was absolutely certain that no compromise could be made regarding the strikers. He arguably treated them with more contempt than the Germans during the war, or at the very least akin to the Nazi's. He furiously declared on May 7:

"We are at war" (Charmley 1993: p218).

This was a war started by Churchill and company. Soon-to-be editor of the 'New Statesman' Kingsley Martin explained:

"Churchill and other militants in the cabinet were eager for a strike, knowing that they had built a national organization in the six months grace won by the subsidy of the mining industry. Churchill himself told me...I asked Winston what he thought of the Samuel Coal Commission...when Winston said that the subsidy had been granted to enable the government to smash the unions...my picture of Winston was confirmed" (Knight 2008: p34).

Again he wanted to enlist the army against the workers and had to be talked down from publishing an article calling for such. During the strike he would refer to the workers as fire and the state as the fire brigade.

The only end he was willing to accept was the unconditional surrender of the TUC. Fortunately for him the TUC leadership were only to keen to roll over and have their bellies tickled. As the conservative historian John Charmley correctly says:

"To have written about the TUC leaders as though they were potential Lenin's....said more about the state of Churchill's imagination than it did about his judgement" (Charmley 1993: p219).

Regarding the attempt to strangle the Russian Revolution at birth, D'Este sums up:

"It was also Churchill who before the dead had been counted from the First World War, was advocating another war, against the Bolsheviks in Russia... seek to avoid war he preached, but should war be the last resort, then wage it vigorously and win, he failed to apply these principles to Russia" (D'Este 2009: p343).

We can explain this double standard with ease. Firstly, it is entirely fitting with his penchant for discrepancy between word and deed. Secondly, Soviet Russia was the ultimate manifestation of everything he hated and feared in the domestic working class. Bolshevism had paved the way to make Churchill's class history. The Russian Revolution was a living, breathing example to the working class of how to win political power. Never once did he attempt to strangle a fascist state at birth. But then fascism never represented a threat to his class interests. His aggression against the Soviet Union was an extension of his aggression against the domestic working class.

A final area where Churchill was a proven reactionary and marching against history was with regards to women. Whilst his position flip flopped according to political expediency, generally he stood against the right of women even to vote. At his most belligerent, he viewed women's political emancipation as a "ridiculous movement." Furthermore it ran:

"contrary to natural law and the practice of civilized states" (Rose 2009: p66).

When disturbed on an election campaign in Dundee he responded:

"Nothing would induce me to vote for giving votes to women" (Gristwood, Huffington Post, 30 September 2015).

After this, whilst Home Secretary, he oversaw 'Black Friday' in November 1910. A suffragette demo in Parliament Square was attacked by police. Battles ran for 6 hours and 200 people were arrested. 4 days later a disturbance at Downing Street involving protesters saw Churchill order the arrest of the "ringleader".

Finally, once women had the vote and could even become MP's, he could not help but register his discomfort. He felt they reduced the quality of parliament. He described seeing a woman in parliament as so:

"It was as embarrassing as if she burst into my bathroom when I had nothing on with which to defend myself" (BBC News, 6 February 1998).

Even after the war, the British working class did not accept Churchill. History may tell us differently, but in his own time the people despised him. There is no greater example of the disdain held for him than what transpired whilst campaigning for the 1945 general election in Walthamstow. The event is recalled in the BBC documentary 'When Britain said no'. Lionel King was a child in the assembled crowd that day. His family were among the tiny pro-Churchill contingency in the audience. He recalls:

"What stunned me: there were large numbers of people carrying posters proclaiming the merits of Soviet Russia. There were hammers and sickles on banners, and pictures of Stalin. The poor chap could hardly make himself heard".

Churchill's history tells us that he, almost single-handedly, was responsible for defeating Nazism. His far-sightedness and resoluteness saw our country and the world through those darkest hours. How it must have crushed the old man to see the symbols of the revolution he admittedly tried to strangle at birth, on display among his own electorate, with himself hated and Stalin loved by the British people. Working people of the time had lived through it and knew the truth. The heroic efforts of the Soviet leadership and people had won the day. Churchill's manoeuvring and refusal to open a second front could not be purged from the collective memory quite so quickly. Similarly, his crimes against the working class before the war were not forgotten. His name had passed down the generations as a brutal class warrior. The war had merely brought a ceasefire between him and the British working class. The ceasefire was now over. John Charmley describes it as:

"Walthamstow shows something we have forgot, which is there is a whole section of the electorate, particularly the working class, particularly the trade union electorate, that never had any time for Churchill. He thinks Walthamstow is a one off. It is not. It is a general expression of a working class revulsion for what Churchill stood for in terms of working class politics".

Battle of George Square

Battle of George Square

On Race

On the issue of race, it is fairly safe to say that Churchill held some fairly robust views. He saw society as a racial hierarchy. Unsurprisingly, as a white protestant himself, white protestants rested at the top of that hierarchy. He thought less of Catholics, and even less of brown people, and black even less again. Whilst history is indeed written by the victor, and has so been kind to Churchill, the reality is that our supposed saviour from fascism, held views not so dissimilar to the Nazis. The point of this section is to present an accurate representation of Churchill's views on the races, primarily by use of his own words.

Bourgeois historians have attempted en masse to absolve Churchill's clear racism. For them he was a man of his time, and a man of his class. To expect anything else is to think anachronistically. A typically weak defence is given by Richard Holmes who argues by race Churchill simply meant culture, and that critics are guilty of selective quoting. Furthermore, he claims it was only after Nazism that a change of vocabulary emerges (Holmes 2006: p14). Finally, in quite the contradiction, Churchill may have been prejudiced, but he was not a bigot (Holmes 2006: p15).

Such arguments fall down in multiple ways. Firstly, as the historian Richard Toye has said:

"We are being asked to believe two contradictory things simultaneously. On the one hand, it is suggested, the seemingly unpleasant aspects of his racial thinking can be excused on the grounds that he could not have been expected to escape from the mentality prevailing during his youth. On the other hand, we are told, he did escape it and is to be praised because he was actually unusually enlightened" (Toye 2010: pxv).

Progressives of his time certainly did not share his views on race or what Holmes calls culture. To find such an example one only needs to read Stalin's writing on the national question and/or races to see a progressive politics did exist at the time. For instance:

"National and racial chauvinism is a vestige of the misanthropic customs characteristic of the period of cannibalism" (Stalin, 1931).

The one truth this reveals in the general "defence" of the bourgeois historian, is Churchill was indeed a man of his class - and Stalin a man of his for that matter.

With all the sophistry typical of Churchill, he was clearly not averse to the Goebbels big lie. In the words of the racist PM:

"Stalin and the Soviet armies are developing the same prejudices against the chosen people as are so painfully evident in Germany" (Holmes 2006: p191).

In fact the reality of the situation was much different:

"Communists, as consistent internationalists, cannot but be irreconcilable, sworn enemies of anti-semitism. In the U.S.S.R. anti-semitism is punishable with the utmost severity of the law as a phenomenon deeply hostile to the Soviet system. Under U.S.S.R. law active anti-semites are liable to the death penalty" (Stalin, 1931).

In contrast, Churchill put Jewish refugees from the holocaust in camps, such as that in the Isle of Mann. Indeed Churchill's own secretary of state for India Leopold Amery revealed who was in fact more like Hitler. In his private diaries he wrote that:

"On the subject of India, Winston is not quite sane...(I do not) see much difference between (Churchill's) outlook and Hitler's" (Tharoor, 2015).

Any school history student would struggle to tell the difference between a Churchill or Hitler quote. With history having been so kind who would expect the world's seeming saviour of such atrocious words:

"Keep (insert country) white, is a good slogan" (Macmillan 2003: p382).

Of course these are the words of Winston Churchill, not Adolf Hitler. The country is England, not Germany. Similarly, the following is not an extract from Mein Kampf, but the words of Winston:

"The Aryan stock is bound to triumph" (Hari, 28 October 2010).

In common with Hitler, genocide was justifiable, if not outright morally imperative. Post-WW2 he may have presented himself as the saviour of the Jewish people, but ethnic cleansing and annihilation were far from objectionable to him. To the Palestine Royal Commission in 1937 he made this crystal clear.

"I do not admit... that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia... by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race... has come in and taken its place" (Heyden, BBC News Magazine, 26 January 2015).

He thoroughly believed in the "Genius of the English race" (Edmonds 1991: p45). Furthermore:

"I cannot pretend to be impartial about the colours. I rejoice with the brilliant ones, and am genuinely sorry for the poor browns" (Churchill, Strand Magazine, Painting as a Pastime, 1921).

The best we can possibly say is, at least the latter is not quite hate-filled, just dismissive and entirely patronising. This is the calibre of person the greatest ever Briton was. Such was his world view and sense of justice.

A glimpse into the national chauvinism of the man is even given on another rare occasion of compassion. During the horrors of World War 1 he passionately told his fellow MP's:

"While we sit here....Nearly 1000 men - Englishmen, Britishers, men of our own race - are knocked into bundles and bloody rags" (D'Este 2009: pp333-334).

Even an apologist for Churchill's racism, Richard Holmes admits that:

"There is no denying that he mouthed the cliches of eugenics when he was young, that he regarded native peoples as inferior, or that he appealed to racial prejudices in his speeches against Indian self government" (Holmes 2006: p15).