A vicious reactionary—racist and brutal. That is the epitaph of Winston Churchill.
But the ruling class are desperate for us to celebrate a myth. From stained glass windows to stamps—the nauseating commemoration of Churchill 50 years after his death is underway.
Leading the charge is Tory London mayor Boris Johnson who recently published a biography of Churchill just in time to cash in. He declares that Churchill was, “The best for work rate, for rhetorical skills, for humour, for insight, for technical originality and sheer blind bravery”. David Cameron has spoken of how Churchill is his “favourite” prime minister.
As those at the top queue to doff their hats to the dead Tory, they tell us that he was the great resistor of tyranny. They argue that through the sheer power of his speeches he inspired the people of Britain to rise up against the fascist threat during the Second World War.
This is a lie. Churchill was not an anti-Nazi hero, he was a staunch defender of his class—and expressed admiration for fascist leaders. Speaking to Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in Rome in 1927 he said, “Your movement has rendered a service to the whole world.
“If I had been an Italian I should have been wholeheartedly with you from start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial passions of Leninism.”
What motivated many people to fight against Adolf Hitler was vastly different to the motivations of Churchill. During the war he wasn’t against Hitler because he was a Nazi. It was because he threatened Britain.
He wrote that Hitler “had a perfect right to be a patriotic German if he chose. I also wanted England, Germany and France to be friends.”
Churchill was a skilful representative of the interests of his class, and he led the battle inside the ruling class to enter the war to defend such interests. Throughout the war the radicalism of the resistance movements proved a real threat to those at the top.
As Donny Gluckstein puts it, “The Allies fought for imperialism—their imperialism against a rival imperialism. The masses fought against imperialism (of the Axis variety). They frequently discovered that this brought them into conflict with Allied imperialism too.”
This is why Churchill made manoeuvres to undermine resistance movements which emerged. In Greece most of the population wanted to see the back of the pro-fascist king—but Churchill had other ideas. He rearmed the fascist troops, and British soldiers took on the resistance.
In the half century since his death, the truth about the extent of Churchill’s role in many atrocities is slowly emerging. During the Bengal famine in 1943 it is now estimated that over five million people died.
The famine was a product of the war. Imports of food grains from Burma were cut off by the Japanese occupation and as a result the price of food rose sharply. There was grain stored in India—but this was not released to the people.
The poor could not afford to feed themselves and began to starve. Churchill was fully aware of the situation and refused to send emergency famine relief. Instead he said Indians were used to starving.
His racism didn’t stop there. He said “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion”. And also that Hindus were a foul race “protected by their mere pullulation [fast breeding] from the doom that is their due.”
But Churchill’s tyranny wasn’t just felt in India. In 1951 the Egyptian government demanded the British evacuate and end its occupation of the country. The then the Labour government responded with force —putting more troops in the country in an attempt to intimidate the Egyptians.
But it was when Churchill was re-elected in the same year the repression escalated significantly. Troop levels rose to some 80,000 and a brutal policy on Egyptian guerilla attacks was authorised. A month after his election a British commander ordered a village to be almost completely levelled because it was being used by snipers to harass the Suez water filtration plant.
Such actions against forces which threatened Britain’s imperial interests was not new to Churchill. In 1920 he ordered the RAF to use poison gas against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq. He said, “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.” This was the first use of chemical weapons in Iraq.
At the same time he was ordering rebels to be gassed in Iraq, he was playing a key role in the war that was being waged on Irish people fighting against British rule.
He was secretary of state for war when Britain formed the paramilitary “Black and Tans” and the Auxiliaries in Ireland. This was to strengthen the role of the police against Republicans.
The Tans and the Auxiliaries became a byword for brutality —for rape and murder. They rampaged across the country carrying out reprisals against insurrection. But Churchill described them as “honourable and gallant officers”.
He took the officer in charge of these murder gangs, Major General Henry Tudor, to meet prime minister Lloyd George, saying he would stick with him through thick and thin.
Just as Churchill fought fiercely against those who threatened his class internationally, he waged a war at home against the working class in Britain. In 1911 transport workers including dockers, seamen, railway and tram workers walked out on strike for better pay, conditions and for union recognition.
Their action sent shockwaves through the ruling class. Churchill said, “Accounts from Liverpool show that the situation there is more like revolution than a strike.” In response he sent in unprecedented military enforcements to help rail bosses. A gun boat, HMS Antrim, was positioned in the river Mersey. More than 50,000 troops were mobilised across the country. They opened fire on civilians in Liverpool.
Two workers, John Sutcliffe and Michael Prendergast, were killed. Five days later two more civilians were shot in Llanelli. These are the last occasions when British soldiers have killed civilians on the streets of Britain. Just a year earlier Churchill sent troops to threaten striking miners in Tonypandy in Wales.
Straight away the Churchill government acted to whitewash what had happened. No inquiry was called and parliament was adjourned to halt any awkward questions arising.
One of the biggest myths about Churchill, other than his supposed anti-fascist credentials, is that he was a leader dear to the people. The main celebrations to commemorate Churchill will be taking place on the anniversary of his state funeral—an attempt to appeal to the idea of his popularity.
It’s true that he has often been polled as the greatest Briton—but then again last year he was beaten by Mr Bean.
A real example of his popularity among working people can be seen when he came to address east Londoners at Walthamstow stadium in 1945. He was jeered by 20,000 people. And when he went to Ladbroke Grove in west London in the same year he was pelted with stones.
Churchill was 90 when he finally died. In his lifetime he played a key role in major events that are still playing out today. He was a fierce opponent of any sort of freedom to Palestinians, and his actions in northern Iraq are also still felt.
When he is commemorated he is celebrated for everything he stood for—imperialism, oppression and deep hatred of the working class.
We have to fight against the myth of Churchill and those that seek to emulate him.