British imperialist propaganda has created the myth that Churchill was the foremost fighter against fascism. The truth, however, is that he was a racist, rabidly anti-communist, reactionary with considerable sympathies for fascism. His main concern was the defence of the British empire. Circumstances forced him to align, albeit insincerely and half-heartedly, with the Soviet Union in the war against Hitlerite Germany. The only country on the western front fighting against fascism was the Soviet Union, which made the most significant contribution in the defeat of Nazi Germany. Those interested in the details of this ought to look at the CPGB-ML pamphlet The Soviet Victory Against Fascism. This short article is an attempt to give an accurate portrayal of Churchill.
At the Tehran Conference in 1943, Churchill had 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 2.
Between both world wars he had gained experience on this front, 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’s status as a national treasure.
The aim of this article is to challenge such absurd conceptions of Churchill. This will be done by looking at his key actions and attitudes, with specific attention paid to the questions of social class, race, empire and war. It will be shown that Churchill was no farsighted antifascist; that he failed on his own terms many times over. His views on empire and race were not so far removed from the fascists he made his name seemingly opposing and then defeating. Finally, as the ‘Greatest Briton’, he was a man with a hatred of the vast majority of Britons, such were his views on the working class.
This piece is not an overview of his life. However, it is important to give some context, insofar as events in his earlier life shed an element of light on the character of the man and provide some added insight when analysing later events. With that in mind, it is worth revisiting 10th January 1893.
At that time Churchill, enrolled at Sandhurst, injured himself playing war games. In true Churchill fashion he resorted to lies, desperately anxious to glamorise what had happened. Though he had suffered only minor injuries he could not resist claiming that he had ruptured a kidney and had remained unconscious for 3 days. Had this actually happened, internal bleeding would have probably killed him within the hour. His own father grow weary of his son’s bouts of fantasy. This occasion proved to be a tipping point, and the father wrote in a letter to Winston: “I no longer attach the slightest weight to anything you may say about your own…exploits” (D’Este 2009: pp3435).
Having twice failed his exams at Sandhurst, he was sent to the elite school of Captain Walter H. James. He had the use of a private military tutor as a result of his failures to pass without special help. 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). What this little piece of scene-setting shows is that Churchill was an unreliable witness. This was particularly true of events involving himself. He was quite unable and/or unwilling to provide any degree of impartiality in matters involving himself.
The hatred of the so-called greatest-ever Briton for the people of the colonies could only be rivalled by that he had for the domestic working class. His political career was not lacking in 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. For example, 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-tohand combat with the police. Ever the opportunist, Churchill used these events to give the working class a kicking. 3,500 troops were brought into Liverpool to quell the workers, while at the same time the gunboat HMS Antrim was positioned in the Mersey. Two murders were reported at the hands of the army, and at least three other workers were shot. As workers across the country came out in support of the Liverpool strikers, Churchill mobilised over 50,000 troops. Further shootings of workers were recorded in Llanelli (BBC News, 16 August 2011).
This was not the first time Churchill was responsible for such actions. A year prior to these events he had taken similar steps in Tonypandy. The Cambrian Combine (collection of local mining companies) had opened a new mine seam in Penygraig. They ran a short test period with 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 amounts extracted rather than at an hourly rate (Garradice, BBC Blog, 3 November 2010). On September 1st all 950 workers at the Ely Pit turned up for work, only to discover they had been locked out. By November only one of the Cambrian Combine pits remained open. On 8 November, a miners’ demonstration was attacked by police. Once again the would-be warlord had 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 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, however, they returned to unemployment and poverty. A 40hour strike was called with the demand that workers’ hours should be reduced in order to create more job openings and alleviate unemployment. By 31 January there were 60,000 workers on the streets of Glasgow and the red flag flew in George Square. 14 months following the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia, the British ruling class greatly feared the power of the workers. Its response was brutal suppression of the movement. There were a host of arrests including that of communist leader, 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 Churchill the same aggressive spirit which the Russian revolution had aroused: once the barricades were erected, Churchill of course knew which side of them he was on (Charmley , p. 216).
The General Strike in 1926 gave Churchill a war to fight at home, and the barricades were erected. The strike has been well covered by comrade Harpal Brar in the CPGBML pamphlet The 1926 British General Strike. For wider context all readers are referred to this work. Narrowly, looking at Churchill’s role in the strike, on 2 May, workers refused to print the Daily Mail‘s anti-worker articles. This infuriated Churchill who decried as outrageous that: “A great organ of the press (has been) muzzled by strikers” (Charmley, p.217). This he said to fellow ministers, and it was rather clear to them that Churchill was brimming with excitement at the prospect of the battle ahead. A fight with the unions would give Churchill an avenue to pursue his fantasy of being a British Mussolini.
The strike began the following day, and two days later a state propaganda newspaper The British Gazette was launched, with Churchill as editor. He was given the position by Baldwin apparently in the context of keeping him out of harm’s way, for Baldwin confessed he was “terrified of what Winston is going to be like” (Charmley, p.218). As well as being in charge of the state propaganda newspaper, Churchill also confiscated 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 British imperialists had treated the Germans during the war, in a manner akin to Nazism. He furiously declared on May 7: “We are at war” (Charmley, p.218).
This was a war that was 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, p34). Again he wanted to enlist the army against the workers and had to be talked out of 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 and Labour Party leaderships were only to keen to roll over and have their bellies tickled. As Charmley correctly says: “To have written about the TUC leaders as though they were potential Lenins….said more about the state of Churchill’s imagination than it did about his judgement” (Charmley, p.219).
Hatred of Soviet power
Of his attempts 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… [though he preached the principles] ‘seek to avoid war’ .. but should war be the last resort, then wage it vigorously and win’, he failed to apply these principles to Russia” (D’Este, p.343), against which he most definitely sought to engage in war, not to avoid it. We can explain this double standard with ease. Firstly, it fits entirely 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 making his class, the bourgeoisie, history. The Russian Revolution was a living, breathing example to the working class of how to win political power, absolutely intolerable to a scion of the bourgeoisie. On the other hand, never once did Churchill 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 marching against the tide of 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 the movement for women’s political emancipation as a "ridiculous." Furthermore he considered that this movement ran “contrary to natural law and the practice of civilized states” (Rose, p.66). When challenged during an election campaign in Dundee he responded: “Nothing would induce me to vote for giving votes to women” (Sarah Gristwood, ’Winston versus the women’, Huffington Post, 30 September 2015).
After this, in November 1910 when he was Home Secretary, ‘Black Friday’ occurred. A suffragette demonstration in Parliament Square was attacked by police. Battles ran for 6 hours and 200 people were arrested. Four days later, a disturbance in Downing Street involving protesters saw Churchill order the arrest of the ‘ringleader’. Finally, once women had the vote and could even become MPs, he could not help but register his discomfort. He felt they reduced the quality of parliament. He described seeing a woman in parliament as being “as embarrassing as if she burst into my bathroom when I had nothing on with which to defend myself” (BBC News, 6 February 1998).
Contemporary response of the British working class
Even after the war, the British working class did not accept Churchill. Official 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 singlehandedly, was responsible for defeating Nazism. His far-sightedness and resoluteness saw our country and the world through those darkest hours. But the 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 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. As John Charmley describes it “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 was an isolated incident . It was not. It was a general expression of a working class revulsion for what Churchill stood for in terms of working class politics.
When it came to the issue of race, it is fairly safe to say that Churchill held some 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 of the black even less again. Whilst history is indeed written by the victor, and has been kind to Churchill, the reality is that our supposed saviour from fascism held views not so dissimilar to those of the Nazis. The point of this section is to present an accurate representation of Churchill’s views on race, primarily by use of his own words. Bourgeois historians attempt 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 that by ‘race’ Churchill simply meant ‘culture’, and that critics are guilty of quoting selectively. Furthermore, he claims it was only in response to Nazism that a change of vocabulary emerged. Finally, contradictorily, he asserts that Churchill may have been prejudiced, but he was not a bigot (Holmes, pp.1415).
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, p.xv). 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 race to see that progressive politics did exist at the time. For instance: Stalin had pointed out that national and racial chauvinism were a vestige of the misanthropic customs characteristic of the period of cannibalism (Stalin, ‘Anti-Semitism’, 1931, CW Vol 13).
The one truth revealed in the general ‘defence’ made by this bourgeois historian is that 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: for example, in the words of this racist PM: “Stalin and the Soviet armies are developing the same prejudices against the chosen people as are so painfully evident in Germany” (Holmes, p.191). In fact the reality of the situation was much different: Communists, as consistent internationalists, cannot but be irreconcilable, sworn enemies of antisemitism. In the USSR anti-semitism was punishable with the utmost severity of the law as a phenomenon deeply hostile to the Soviet system. Under Soviet law, active anti-semites could face the death penalty (Stalin, op.cit.). Churchill’s own secretary of state for India, Leopold Amery, revealed who was in fact most 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, p.382). 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” (see Johann Hari, ‘Not his finest hour: the dark side of Winston Churcheill, The Independent, 27 October 2010).
In common with Hitler, he considered genocide could be justifiable, if not an outright moral imperative. PostWW2 he may have presented himself as the saviour of the Jewish people, but to him ethnic cleansing and annihilation were far from objectionable. 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, p.45). 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 quotation is not quite hate-filled, but merely 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: “what is going on while we sit here….Nearly 1000 men Englishmen, Britishers, men of our own race are knocked into bundles and bloody rags” (D’Este, pp.333334). Even an apologist for Churchill’s racism, Richard Holmes admits that: “There is no denying that he mouthed the clichés 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, p.15).
What must be asked of the Churchill apologist mainstream historians, such as Holmes himself, is just how many times can one man have an "out of context" racist/xenophobic comment? Either he is ridiculously unlucky in managing to have words taken out of context to such an extent, or these words are very much in context and keeping with Churchill’s character. Their position is quite untenable. It boils down to Churchill was no racist, he just said many racist things.
In contrast, the BBC’s refreshing documentary ‘When Britain said no’, saw historians make much more honest appraisals of Churchill. These appraisals were entirely in line with the picture being presented here. Firstly, professor John Charmley stated: “Churchill is not fighting a war against fascism”. In fact, a lot of Churchill’s views in the 1930s were rather sympathetic to fascism. He admired Mussolini. He admired Franco. And at least until 1938 he had said obliging things about Hitler as well. Indeed, Churchill had openly said he admired Hitler’s "patriotic achievements" and referred to him as an "indomitable champion", when writing in the Strand magazine in the 1930’s. He gushed over Mussolini to whom he said: “If I had been an Italian, I am sure I would have been entirely with you from the beginning to the end of your victorious struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism” (Gilbert, 1992).
In the same documentary Max Hastings challenged the false idea of Churchill as champion of democracy. He highlighted the simple fact that people of colour were entirely excluded from Churchill’s vision of freedom and human rights. This fact was displayed throughout his entire career, from the Bengal famine to boasting of killing three "savages " in the Sudan (Tharoor, 2015). Of Gandhi he said: “He ought to be lain bound and foot at the gates of Delhi, and be trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new viceroy seated on his back” (Toye, p.172). Furthermore in a speech to the West Essex Conservative Association he remarked: “It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir…striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace” (Toye 2010: p176). It is interesting to note that not once did Churchill speak so passionately or with such contempt regarding Hitler. Finally, Charmley summed him up as: “The equivalent of Nigel Farage, and we forget because of the myth…someone so far to the right that the next stop was Oswald Mosley and the blackshirts.”
Charmley, John, Churchill, the end of glory, Faber & Faber, London, 2011
D’Este, Carlo, Warlord – a life of Winston Churchill at War, HarperCollins, New York, 2009
Robin Edmonds The Big Three: Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin in Peace and War, Hamish Hamilton, 1991
Gilbert, Martin, Churchill – a Life, Henry Holt & Company, New York, 1992
Holmes, Richard, In the Footsteps of Churchill, BBC Books, London, 2006
Knight, Nigel, The greatest Briton unmasked, David & Charles, Cincinatti, 2008
Macmillan, Harold, The Macmillan Diaries, Pan Macmillan, London, 2003
Rose, Norman, Churchill, an unruly life, Taurus Parke, London, 2009
Tharoor, Shashi, Inglorious Empire, Hurst Publishers, London, 2017
Toye, Richard, Churchill’s Empire, Pan Macmillan, London, 2010