Was Churchill a Closet Socialist?

Was Churchill a Closet Socialist?

Q: Churchill as Socialist?

Mr. Ran­dall Brown writes: “I’ve just read Ralph Raico‘s arti­cle ‘Rethink­ing Churchill,’ dat­ing back over 20  years. He was I believe a voice for the Mis­es Insti­tute. He makes Churchill sound like a war-mon­ger­ing, fum­ing social­ist lib­er­al, a cheap pow­er-mad oppor­tunist! It real­ly upset me. How do you answer writ­ers like this?

A: Not quite the right fit

(Updat­ed from 2009.) That cer­tain­ly is an eclec­tic mix­ture of sins! For­tu­nate­ly, I don’t have to answer, because I pub­lished a response to the late Pro­fes­sor Raico (as para­phrased by Adam Young) in Finest Hour 18 years ago by my col­league Michael McMe­namin. It is avail­able to inter­est­ed read­ers. Dr. Raico was a dis­tin­guished lib­er­tar­i­an schol­ar, but his the­sis was one-dimen­sion­al. He sim­ply could not get over Churchill’s reliance on the State where he thought it had a role. That often trou­bles lib­er­tar­i­ans who oth­er­wise admire Churchill. He was not an oppo­nent of State inter­ven­tion under cer­tain cir­cum­stances. But what cir­cum­stances? That is a com­pli­cat­ed ques­tion. We still wres­tle with it today.

Churchill was a cru­sad­ing mem­ber of Britain’s Lib­er­al Par­ty from 1904 to 1922. He was adamant­ly anti-social­ist (if by social­ist we mean some­one who favors gov­ern­ment con­trol of all means of pro­duc­tion). Churchill was how­ev­er appalled by the pover­ty in parts of Edwar­dian Britain. He pro­mot­ed what he called a  “Min­i­mum Stan­dard” to address the legit­i­mate needs of the cit­i­zen with­out com­pro­mis­ing con­sti­tu­tion­al lib­er­ties. That is a fine line to walk, but his aim was to fore­stall social­ism, and thus to avoid its evils: the sti­fling of ini­tia­tive, the con­cen­tra­tion of pow­er out of the hands of the people.

Many who appre­ci­ate Churchill as a states­man less often rec­og­nize that he was also a seri­ous polit­i­cal philoso­pher. He learned from expe­ri­ence and, as William Man­ches­ter wrote, “usu­al­ly improved as he went along.” His ideas are still relevant—not because his­to­ry repeats, which it doesn’t. Churchill was a keen observ­er of human nature—and that nev­er changes. The best account in print of Churchill’s polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy is by Lar­ry P. Arnn, Pres­i­dent Hills­dale Col­lege, which I rec­om­mend to read­ers: Churchill’s Tri­al: Win­ston Churchill and the Sur­vival of Free Government.

Toward a just society

I referred your ques­tion to Dr. Arnn, who knows far more about it than I. His com­ments are reprint­ed here by kind permission:

Churchill was a polit­i­cal thinker. He under­stood that the first divi­sion in pol­i­tics is between the few rich and the many poor. He looked for a way to ame­lio­rate that divi­sion, and to make the soci­ety sta­ble. The Unit­ed States pro­vid­ed a mod­el for much of this. Churchill was then pur­su­ing jus­tice, the arrange­ment of goods, offices, and hon­ors accord­ing to the mer­it of those receiv­ing them, and the inter­est of the State.

He was pro­found­ly for a lib­er­al soci­ety, in which the econ­o­my is dri­ven by pri­vate enter­prise, and in which mon­ey is allowed to “fruc­ti­fy,” as he quot­ed John Mor­ley, “in the pock­ets of the peo­ple.” The mod­ern world, the world that requires free­dom of reli­gion and lim­it­ed gov­ern­ment, can abide no oth­er kind of pol­i­tics. But this kind of pol­i­tics is demon­stra­bly vul­ner­a­ble to war. It is also vul­ner­a­ble domes­ti­cal­ly. If a dis­af­fect­ed major­i­ty, nec­es­sar­i­ly made up of the many who are poor, or rel­a­tive­ly poor, expro­pri­ate the wealth of the few, it is a tragedy that will destroy jus­tice in the state—even if the poor have a griev­ance against the rich.

Churchill was try­ing to pre­vent that. How? There one must under­stand what he meant by “Con­sti­tu­tion­al­ism.” For Churchill, this is a very rich sub­ject, rather like the writ­ings of James Madi­son.He saw the prob­lem of bureau­cra­cy, and of excess­es by the major­i­ty, very clear­ly from an ear­ly day. The prob­lem is more mature now than it was in his time. That is why it is easy for some of Churchill’s solu­tions to look left­ish from our mod­ern van­tage point.

Liberty

The answer to your ques­tion, then, is that not a “clos­et social­ist.” He thought social­ism, a far milder form than what we know today, incom­pat­i­ble with human lib­er­ty and an obstruc­tion to human progress. Care­ful study of Churchill’s com­plex views will show that above all he regard­ed lib­er­ty as the most impor­tant char­ac­ter­is­tic of a just society.

Further reading

Soren Geiger, “Churchill: What We Mean by ‘Civ­i­liza­tion,'” 2019

Richard Lang­worth, “Democ­ra­cy is the worst form of gov­ern­ment….,” 2009

_____ _____, “A Life Devot­ed to Con­sti­tu­tion­al Lib­er­ty,” 2021

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