Mar 7, 2014
Allen Barra on Winston Churchill
Posted on Jan 1, 2010
By Allen Barra
“There’s nothing much in that field left unplowed,” Winston Churchill told a prospective biographer in 1950. Since then, the field, large enough even then, has been expanded to almost insane proportions. Churchill’s is far and away the best-documented life of the 20th century. He left in excess of 15 tons of papers not including the estimated 8 million to 10 million words of his collected speeches, all plumbed by nearly 700 biographers and perhaps 10 times as many historians. It isn’t merely the number of biographies but their size that intimidates—those by William Manchester, Martin Gilbert and Roy Jenkins alone would almost be heavy enough to take the submarine HMS Churchill to the bottom.
“History will bear me out,” he famously declared, “particularly as I shall write that history myself.” And he did. His “History of World War II,” nearly twice as long as all three volumes of Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” is still regarded as a valuable if not impeccable source. Given the mountain of material by and on Churchill, the first question about any new book with his name on the cover should be: Why do we need a new one? The answer, of course, is that a book is needed for people who want an introduction to the key political figure of the 20th century and don’t know where to start.
As if to mock all those massive Churchillian tomes, Paul Johnson’s “Churchill” checks in at a neat 192 pages. It’s a good primer, a book for someone who wants to know something about Churchill without trying to learn everything. It’s no small accomplishment to do a concise life of Churchill, and Johnson clearly relishes the task: “Of all the towering figures of the twentieth century ... Winston Churchill was the most valuable to humanity and also the most likeable. It is a joy to write his life. ...”
Winnie is a perfect subject for the author of “Intellectuals,” Johnson’s 1988 compendium of the wickedness and hypocrisy of left-wing icons. Churchill was dynamic, patriotic and decidedly nonintellectual, an autodidact who, in the words of one biographer, “was incapable of rigorous analysis, and after making his conclusions, clung to them too stubbornly.” At the same time he was a pragmatist with no discernible political philosophy and no higher motive than saving his country in its darkest hour.
The closest thing Churchill had to a religion was, in Johnson’s words, “the British constitution, spirit and letter. Parliament was the church in which he worshipped and whose decisions he obeyed.” He was certainly no ideologue and had no discernible political philosophy: “He was not a party man. ... His loyalty belonged to the national interest, and his own. At one time or another, he stood for Parliament under six labels: Conservative, Liberal, Coalition, Constituents, Unionists and National Conservative.” Still, “If Churchill was ever anything, he was a Liberal (as well as a Seditionist and a small ‘c’ conservative.”)
Certainly Churchill was no conservative in the sense that a modern American would recognize; indeed, as John Lukacs has maintained, he is more accurately seen as a reactionary. He certainly wasn’t a liberal as most modern Brits and Americans understand the term. (A judgment confirmed by such statements as “I’m quite satisfied with my views on India, and I don’t want them disturbed by any bloody Indian.”) Johnson means liberal in an older and broader sense, as exemplified by Churchill’s oft-quoted distinction between socialism and liberalism: “Socialism seeks to pull down wealth. Liberalism seeks to raise up poverty. Socialism would destroy private interests—Liberalism would preserve private interests in the only way in which they can be safely and justly preserved, namely by reconciling them with public right. Socialism would kill enterprise; Liberalism would rescue enterprise from the trammels of privilege and preference.” (Why hasn’t someone in the Obama administration made use of this quote?)
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