The twentieth century was a century of unparalleled barbarism in the history of humanity. In an epoch dominated by the defeat of the first world revolution and the massacre of millions of human beings in two global imperialist wars, certain bourgeois leaders arose who, in their own way, best expressed the interests of their respective national capitals and the need for ruthlessness and cunning in dealing with their common enemy, the proletariat.
Throughout his long career of service to the British state, Winston Churchill demonstrated the intelligence demanded of a representative of a ruling class confronted by the decadence of its own social system and the need to survive on a saturated world market:
- He understood the need for state capitalist measures to ensure the survival of the capitalist system.
- He understood the need to avert the threat of proletarian revolution and use repression against the working class.
- Above all, he understood the need to use terror to defend the interests of British imperialism against its rivals.
While other ‘great leaders’ of the capitalist class in the twentieth century – Hitler, Stalin, Mao – demonstrated similar qualities in defence of their own imperialist interests, what distinguishes Churchill is that his reputation is still relatively intact.
Today, in the English-speaking world at least, the bourgeoisie hails Churchill as a ‘man of the century’ – and given that the century in question was dominated by the murder of millions on the altar of decadent capitalism, this is, in a sense, quite appropriate!
For the British bourgeoisie, of course, Churchill is still revered as a great war leader, who led the country during the darkest days of the second world war – and given that Churchill was always distinguished by his advocacy of utterly ruthless policies and the use of mass terror in defence of British imperialism, this is also, in a sense, fitting...
As Marxists, we do not believe that history is made by ‘great leaders’. But by examining the role that Churchill played for the British bourgeoisie, we can learn something about the intelligence, viciousness and tricks of a ruling class faced with the historic bankruptcy of its system, and therefore about the nature of the enemy facing the proletariat in the 21st century. And if Churchill was able to demonstrate a degree of historical understanding of the issues facing the ruling class, and to know how to employ the most Machiavellian tactics to defend its interests, this only emphasises the dangers we will face in the class confrontations of tomorrow.
In a year marking the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the second world war, it is also timely to look at Churchill’s role in the second world war and what it reveals about Britain’s real motives and interests in a war supposedly fought for democracy against the evils of Nazism.
In this first part, we will look at Churchill’s role in the British state up until 1939.
The need for state capitalist measures to ensure the survival of the capitalist system
Churchill began his political career in the Conservative Party, identifying with those elements that were less wedded to landed interests and recognised the need for more state intervention in the economy. Displaying a characteristic opportunism and lack of deep ideological attachment, he ‘crossed the floor’ to the Liberal Party in 1904, later ‘re-ratting’, in his words, back to the Conservatives, in 1925.
By the turn of the century, the most advanced sections of the British bourgeoisie recognised the need for social welfare programmes to ensure the survival of British capital and divert dangerous class militancy into safe channels. The trade unions were given an increasing role in the running of the capitalist economy and union officials were drawn into the whole machinery of collective bargaining and conciliation set up by employers to more tightly control dangerous class militancy and divert it into safer channels.
As President of the Board of Trade from 1908 to 1910, Churchill played an important role in implementing this strategy. The Board of Trade was in the advance guard of the bourgeoisie’s state capitalist defences, gathering vital intelligence on the working class in the factories, intervening directly into labour disputes and incorporating a growing army of union officials into the state’s everyday activity.
Churchill was also prominent in the Liberals’ social welfare programmes, introducing labour exchanges and unemployment insurance schemes, with advice from the Fabian Sydney Webb, as mechanisms to increase the competitiveness of British capital and control the working class more effectively. A key feature of these repressive measures was that the trade unions were given a role in administering them, thus further incorporating the unions and the Labour Party into the running of the capitalist state.
Without such state capitalist measures, Churchill warned the ruling class, “there is nothing before us but the savage strife between class and class.”
The need to avert the threat of proletarian revolution and use repression against the working class
When the working class threatened to break out of these state-imposed bounds, the bourgeoisie was quick to use ruthless repression. As Home Secretary during the pre-war mass strikes in Britain, when the workers’ struggles began to go beyond and against the official unions, Churchill directed operations in the South Wales coalfields and in the London docks, bringing in police reinforcements and mobilising military units in a massive show of force designed to intimidate the workers and their supporters. He was quite prepared to use the army if necessary, as at Llanelli in 1911 when two workers were shot dead, but he also knew that the police could be relied upon in most situations to mete out repression; or as he put it, to “scatter the rioters” and give them “a good dusting”.
When the Russian workers seized political power in October 1917 it was shocking proof to the bourgeoisie internationally that it now faced a mortal threat from its class enemy. At first the British bourgeoisie thought it could use its guile and cunning to negotiate with the Bolsheviks to keep Russia in the war, but quickly realised its mistake; Churchill exploded with fury when he realised that Lenin and Trotsky were not interested in making a sordid deal with the Entente powers, denouncing the Bolsheviks as “bloody baboons” and “foul murderers” in an expression of visceral hatred which masked the bourgeoisie’s real fear.
Churchill was convinced of the need to destroy the Russian bastion before the world revolution spread, declaring that Bolshevism must be “strangled in its cradle”. Despite a lack of real commitment from other factions of the British bourgeoisie, and against strong resistance from the working class, he was responsible for escalating and extending British military intervention in Russia, and fought against the withdrawal of British support to the counter-revolutionary forces. Only belatedly did he come round to the preferred strategy of accommodation with the Russian state in the context of a downturn in the revolutionary wave, and the use of trade deals to advance British capitalist interests.
During the General Strike in 1926 Churchill was again a strong advocate of ruthless measures against any threat from the working class. He personally edited the British Gazette, the government’s anti-strike paper, and is reported to have suggested that machine guns should be used against striking workers. Despite the fact that by 1926 the international conditions for a proletarian threat to the state were receding, he recognised at least the potential for the class struggle in this period to develop into a confrontation with the state.
As part of its counter-revolutionary strategy in this period the British bourgeoisie also gave its support to fascism in Italy as a bulwark against the threat of revolution. Speaking in Rome on 20 January, 1927, Churchill praised Mussolini’s fascist regime, which had rendered a service to the whole world for its “triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism’. This gives the lie to the British bourgeoisie’s later rally to the banner of anti-fascism as a war ideology to cover its own sordid interests.
The need to use terror to defend the interests of British imperialism against its rivals
British capitalism’s emergence from the first world war as a ‘victor’ could not disguise the underlying weakness of its economy, which was dependent on the empire for raw materials and as a protected market for British commodities. In the 1920s, Britain faced various threats to its imperial rule, in Ireland, Iraq, India… As Secretary of State for the Colonies, Churchill devised a strategy aimed at maintaining British domination with stretched resources, by proposing the use of air power as a cheap way of garrisoning the empire rather than stationing costly ground troops. From the beginning, air power was intended as an offensive weapon of terror against potential rivals; it was from this time that Churchill began a lifelong enthusiasm for the use of poison gas, suggesting that British air squadrons should be equipped with mustard gas bombs to “inflict punishment upon recalcitrant natives.”
Churchill vehemently opposed Home Rule for India, seeing it as a direct threat to the continued existence of the Empire. The more intelligent, far-sighted factions of the British bourgeoisie, on the other hand, could see that the only way to preserve British imperialism in the longer term was by granting a degree of autonomy to those national bourgeoisies who were attempting to defend their own local capitalist interests. It was this issue that led to his estrangement from the Conservative Party; when he returned, it was because his short-term view of the need for an intransigent struggle to defend British imperialism was put on the immediate agenda by the direct threat from Germany.
For the British bourgeoisie, Churchill’s reputation is above all as a ‘lone voice’ calling for re-armament against Germany, and as a ‘fierce critic’ of the appeasement of Hitler. Contrary to this myth, however, Churchill was not opposed to making concessions to Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s. In fact, he was openly admiring of Hitler as a German nationalist: “One may dislike Hitler’s system and yet admire his patriotic achievement… If our country were defeated I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.” Churchill wanted to be able to deal with Hitler from a position of strength, by building up Britain’s air force to rival Germany’s. Far from being anti-German, he was quick to stress that he was simply following the traditional policy of the British bourgeoisie, which was to oppose the emergence of any stronger rival on the European mainland:
“British policy for four hundred years has been to oppose the strongest power in Europe by weaving together a combination of other countries strong enough to face the bully. Sometimes it is Spain, sometimes the French monarchy, sometimes the French Empire, sometimes Germany. I have no doubt who it is now. But if France set up to claim the over-lordship of Europe, I should equally endeavour to oppose them.”
Churchill was an aggressive ‘continentalist’, who argued that the best interests of British imperialism were served by its active intervention in mainland Europe and the construction of military alliances to prevent the emergence of a military rival. Lacking a large land army of its own, Britain traditionally preferred to get other European powers, large and small, to do its fighting for it...
The leading faction of the British bourgeoisie, around Baldwin (later Chamberlain) and the Conservative Party, represented an ‘isolationist’ tendency, which foresaw that Britain’s involvement in a war against Germany would inevitably lead to the break up of the empire and the final eclipse of British power by America. It therefore sought to avoid getting British imperialism entangled in alliances that would drag it into a disastrous European war.
Up until the late 1930s, the ‘appeasers’ still hoped that German expansionism would be directed eastwards and therefore not directly threaten British imperialist interests; with any luck it would result in a war between Germany and Russia, thus removing two military rivals. For the British bourgeoisie, there was also a good economic argument for appeasement: the historically weak and uncompetitive British economy was wholly dependent for its survival on foreign trade. Any large-scale re-armament programme would be at the expense of the already weakened and uncompetitive economy. The stark choice was between saving the empire or fighting a European war.
Churchill had no solution to this dilemma, which is why he remained isolated from the rest of the British bourgeoisie until the direct threat from German imperialism became unavoidable. In the end, German interventions in Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, combined with the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, meant that further German expansion would be towards the west, and by 1938 a ‘war party’ began to cohere around Churchill. To begin with, his supporters were in those sections of the state apparatus charged with protecting British interests from external threats: the military, the Foreign Office and the intelligence services. They were later joined by the Labour Party and the trade unions, which actively supported re-armament but more importantly provided the ideological cover for British imperialism’s war effort under the banner of anti-fascism.
By finally appointing Churchill prime minister in 1940, the British bourgeoisie was admitting that it no longer had any choice but to fight a major European war, even though this would lead to economic ruin and Britain’s eclipse as a world power. Its aim in fighting the war was to ensure the very survival of British imperialism; an aim it knew Churchill was guaranteed to pursue with the utmost ruthlessness.
The second part of this article will focus on Churchill’s role for British imperialism in the Second World War.