How Churchill Saw the Future: Prescient Essays, 1924-1931

How Churchill Saw the Future: Prescient Essays, 1924-1931

Future Shock

In four essays in his 1932 book Thoughts and Adven­tures (tak­en from ear­li­er writ­ings), Churchill con­tem­plat­ed the future. He iden­ti­fied future trends which would affect the evo­lu­tion of democ­ra­cy, con­sti­tu­tion­al gov­ern­ment, and the evo­lu­tion of soci­ety. Those essays were remark­ably pre­scient. More­over, they offer reflec­tions upon issues as promi­nent today as they were eight decades ago. Excerpt­ed from the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. To read the com­plete arti­cle click here.

“The rel­e­vance of the life of Win­ston Churchill to our time is appar­ent in the news­pa­per any day,” writes Hills­dale Col­lege Pres­i­dent Dr. Lar­ry Arnn. “It is not so much that the great world wars and the Cold War shaped the future, although they did. The prob­lem of rule, say the old philoso­phers, is fun­da­men­tal. If this is our prob­lem, then Churchill is a man to study.”

“Mass Effects in Modern Life,” 1931

Many an advance in sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy and com­mu­ni­ca­tion, Churchill argued, “sup­press­es the indi­vid­ual achieve­ment.” He deplored the rise of the col­lec­tive at the expense of the individual.

The news­pa­pers do a lot of think­ing for us, Churchill wrote. Sub­sti­tute “media” for “news­pa­pers” and he could be speak­ing today. He wor­ried about super­fi­cial­i­ty. True, media pro­vides “a tremen­dous edu­cat­ing process. But it is an edu­ca­tion which pass­es in at one ear and out at the oth­er. It is an edu­ca­tion at once uni­ver­sal and super­fi­cial.” Such a process, tak­en to its ulti­mate ends, would pro­duce “stan­dard­ized cit­i­zens, all equipped with reg­u­la­tion opin­ions, prej­u­dices and sen­ti­ments, accord­ing to their class or party.”

“Consistency in Politics,” 1927

Here Churchill dis­cuss­es polit­i­cal conduct—something that con­cerns, or should con­cern, us today. Con­sis­ten­cy is a virtue, he declared—but the key to con­sis­ten­cy amid chang­ing cir­cum­stances “is to change with them while pre­serv­ing the same dom­i­nat­ing pur­pose.” In part here, as John Grigg wrote, Churchill was “explain­ing away his own falls from grace. [He] had learned from bit­ter expe­ri­ence that there are lim­its beyond which no min­is­ter, how­ev­er tal­ent­ed, ener­getic, or mas­ter­ful, dare ignore his offi­cials’ advice.”

This essay illus­trates the dif­fer­ences between prin­ci­ple and action. Exam­ples abound today. There is ener­gy pro­duc­tion, Putin’s Rus­sia, the eco­nom­ic chal­lenge of Asia, the Euro­pean Union’s attempt to replace tra­di­tion­al nation-states, trade rela­tion­ships amidst sub­si­dized or nation­al­ized indus­tries, the grow­ing role of the State in the econ­o­my. Say an offi­cial comes out for tar­iffs, but lat­er exempts cer­tain coun­tries out of friend­ship or nego­ti­a­tion. If he main­tains the same dom­i­nat­ing purpose—in this case free and fair trade—he is, or may be, adapt­ing to circumstances.

Churchill could have been think­ing of opin­ion polls when he added: “The stim­u­lus of a vast con­cen­tra­tion of pub­lic sup­port is almost irre­sistible in its poten­cy.” Are not ideas that con­tribute to the growth of the col­lec­tive dan­ger­ous to lib­er­al democracy?

A states­man, he con­clud­ed, “should always try to do what he believes is best in the long view for his coun­try, and he should not be dis­suad­ed from so act­ing by hav­ing to divorce him­self from a great body of doc­trine to which he for­mer­ly sin­cere­ly adhered.”

“Shall We All Commit Suicide?,” 1924

This essay fore­casts the hope and dan­ger of a future nuclear age. Writ­ten fif­teen years before Ein­stein sent his famous let­ter to Roo­sevelt, warn­ing of impli­ca­tions of split­ting the atom, Churchill’s mes­sage thun­ders to us across the years. We face the specter of nuclear weapons in the hands of peo­ple we think might actu­al­ly use them:

May there not be meth­ods of using explo­sive ener­gy incom­pa­ra­bly more intense than any­thing hereto­fore dis­cov­ered? Might not a bomb no big­ger than an orange be found to pos­sess a secret pow­er to destroy a whole block of buildings—nay, to con­cen­trate the force of a thou­sand tons of cordite and blast a town­ship at a stroke?

Mankind, Churchill continues,

has nev­er been in this posi­tion before. With­out hav­ing improved appre­cia­bly in virtue or enjoy­ing wis­er guid­ance, it has got into its hands for the first time the tools by which it can unfail­ing­ly accom­plish its own extermination….Death stands at atten­tion, obe­di­ent, expec­tant, ready to serve, ready to shear away the peo­ples en masse; ready, if called on, to pul­ver­ize, with­out hope of repair, what is left of civ­i­liza­tion. He awaits only the word of com­mand. He awaits it from a frail, bewil­dered being, long his vic­tim, now—for one occa­sion only—his Master.

 “Fifty Years Hence,” 1931

Churchill antic­i­pat­ed the effects of sci­ence and communication—biotechnology, cell phones, tele­vi­sion, air trav­el, the dig­i­tal age of instant infor­ma­tion. They were “projects undreamed of by past gen­er­a­tions.” They rep­re­sent­ed “forces ter­rif­ic and devastating…comforts, activ­i­ties, ameni­ties, plea­sures.” Jux­ta­posed with them is the unchang­ing nature of man:

Cer­tain it is that while men are gath­er­ing knowl­edge and pow­er with ever-increas­ing and mea­sure­less speed, their virtues and their wis­dom have not shown any notable improve­ment as the cen­turies have rolled. The brain of mod­ern man does not dif­fer in essen­tials from that of the human beings who fought and loved here mil­lions of years ago. The nature of man has remained hith­er­to prac­ti­cal­ly unchanged. Under suf­fi­cient stress—starvation, ter­ror, war­like pas­sion, or even cold intel­lec­tu­al frenzy—the mod­ern man we know so well will do the most ter­ri­ble deeds, and his mod­ern woman will back him up.

Can humans change their nature suf­fi­cient­ly to pros­per in a future world where plea­sures and dan­gers crowd in upon them? Gov­ern­ments, Churchill writes, in lines that seem appo­site now,

drift along the line of least resis­tance, tak­ing short views, pay­ing their way with sops and doles, and smooth­ing their path with pleas­ant-sound­ing plat­i­tudes. Nev­er was there less con­ti­nu­ity or design in their affairs, and yet towards them are com­ing swift­ly changes which will rev­o­lu­tion­ize for good or ill not only the whole eco­nom­ic struc­ture of the world but the social habits and moral out­look of every family.

Thoughts for today

Again this is remind­ful of a lat­er time. Crit­ics say we are replac­ing the moral com­pass of reli­gion with a kind of sec­u­lar human­ism. Vague inter­na­tion­al­ism, an urge sim­ply to do right, is weak with­out a moral under­pin­ning. Churchill fears such devel­op­ments. It was vital, he writes, “that the moral phi­los­o­phy and spir­i­tu­al con­cep­tions of men and nations should hold their own amid these for­mi­da­ble sci­en­tif­ic evo­lu­tions.” It would be bet­ter, in his view, even to call a halt to mate­r­i­al progress, “than to be mas­tered by our own appa­ra­tus and the forces which it directs.”

Today’s chal­lenges are not the same as those of Churchill’s era. It is fool­ish, wrote Pro­fes­sor Paul Alkon, to believe our times are sim­ply a replay of his. Churchill’s last­ing val­ue lies in his approach. Not pre­cise­ly to what he did, but to the broad prin­ci­ples that moti­vat­ed him. He lived by these con­cepts: lib­er­ty, indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, courage, mag­na­nim­i­ty. They are pre­cepts of his coun­try and its rel­a­tives across the seas. Com­bined, he saw them as a force for good.

Further Reading

“Three Aspects of Mod­ern Life That Kept Win­ston Churchill Up at Night,” by Bre Pay­ton in The Fed­er­al­ist. This is review of the lat­est install­ment of Dr. Arnn’s “Win­ston Churchill and States­man­ship” course, which you may take free online: click here.

Churchill’s Tri­al: Win­ston Churchill and the Sal­va­tion of Free Gov­ern­ment, by Dr. Lar­ry P. Arnn, is a schol­ar­ly expo­si­tion of these and oth­er Churchill thoughts on the future of con­sti­tu­tion­al democracy.

Thoughts and Adven­tures by Win­ston S. Churchill. “It is like being invit­ed to din­ner at Chartwell… The soup was limpid, the cham­pagne flowed, the pud­ding had a theme, and Churchill held forth in vivid conversation.”

2 thoughts on “How Churchill Saw the Future: Prescient Essays, 1924-1931

  1. The Ein­stein let­ter, as I recall was in 1939 so more than ten years . Slight quib­ble. Still a remark­able piece of vision by WSC

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