Human Nature and History: Churchill versus the Socialists
Winston Churchill believed history served many critical functions for humanity and civilization. “Knowledge of the past,” he told Americans after the Second World War, “is the only foundation we have from which to peer into and try to measure the future.”
History serves as a guide to making political decisions in light of present events and outcomes. In times of turmoil, historic knowledge serves as an invaluable foundation for preserving the cultural identity of a free people.1 Finally, history is an instructive authority on the merits of current political regimes. From each of these functions, Churchill understood that there was something absolute and objective in the nature of history. Nevertheless, he disagreed with the early British socialists or Fabians, who saw history as having an absolute, predetermined end state which “inevitabl[y]” tended towards a more equitable and prosperous future for mankind.2 For Churchill, history was a dynamic process—not an inevitable course.
Because they believed human nature was constantly improving, the Fabians asserted that historical progress was the engine by which man gradually creates a better society and state of being. They argued that “principle[s] of social organization,” or socialism, would inevitably succeed “democracy and the Industrial Revolution,” in this upward historical trend. The socialist thinker Graham Wallace maintained that mankind’s progress depended on the successful progress of the nature of man as a whole but all instances of failure to improve were disregarded: “If human nature should break down, then Socialism will break down…But Humanity will not break down…. Under healthier and happier conditions, humanity will rise to heights undreamed of now.”3 It was this naïve faith in human nature’s constant improvement that marked the core difference between Churchill and his Fabian compatriots.
Democracy’s growth in Britain
Since the dawn of time, Churchill explained, “the nature of man has hitherto remained practically unchanged…. No material progress even though it takes shapes we cannot now conceive, or however it may expand the faculties of man, can bring comfort to his soul.” For Churchill, human nature remains, as it always has, in a state of imperfection. Thus the premises of socialists when analyzing history are, at best, fantasy. Churchill’s view of static human nature greatly contrasted with his dynamic view of human history and the progress of Western democracy.4
Writing of Britain’s history and the development of democratic civilization, Churchill described historical currents as“accidents” rather than inevitable tides. The first step toward democracy was Magna Carta (1215), which explicitly limited the power of the King. Unfortunately, the King and barons remained primarily concerned with their own interests, rather than those of their subjects. Eventually, Churchill explained, lesser gentry and burgesses, knowledgeable in local affairs, were employed to influence national decisions. Thus were sown the seeds of Parliament and representative government.
“It is a very delicate plant, this Parliament,” Churchill wrote. “There is nothing inevitable about its growth and it might have been dropped as an experiment not worth going on with.” Yet “in two or three generations a prudent statesman would no more think of governing England without Parliament than without a King.”
Over the coming centuries, Lords and Crown yielded more and more power to the Commons through wars and internal struggles. These changes were further stabilized out of England’s ability to “avoid the major upheavals of Continental Europe.” Thus “the English were able to develop a unique set of institutions and laws relative to the continental powers.5 All these circumstances together produced one of the freest and most civilized nations in world.6
In the hands of the people
Because Churchill saw history as an unplanned, complex network of interacting events, individuals, and circumstances, he understood that liberty was a rare and precious thing. Liberty in Britain was not predestined or planned, but the conditions necessary for it to thrive had developed over centuries. Yet just as circumstances had secured British liberty, so could destroy it.
In January, 1950, with the socialists still in power, Churchill warned: “We may be at the parting of the ways. The wisdom of our forebears for more than 300 years has sought the division of power in the Constitution. Crown, Lords and Commons have been checks and restraints upon one another.” Churchill feared the growing support among the British voters for the socialists an “all-powerful State.” He held this a “reactionary step” against the whole “trend” of British institutions and history. Catastrophe would follow if the state regulated everything, down to “the smallest detail of the life and conduct of the individual,” in a vain effort to “plan and shape” society for the better.
But the fate of democratic Britain was not bound to the inevitable path laid out by the Fabians. It rested, as always in the hands of present circumstances and the vote of the British people. Churchill explained to his compatriots that the British nation had before it one of the most “momentous choices in its history.” They must choose between “two ways of life; between individual liberty and state dominion.” He encouraged the people to consider carefully their choice of leadership as their decision would “determine the course of British history” and have significant consequences for the “immediate future of the world.” As long as the British maintained their “ancient strength” as a free people, the course of their nation and way of life remained in their hands.7
In nature unchanged
Churchill’s static view of human nature reinforced his dynamic view of human history. The socialist dream of a better society rested upon the foundation of human nature’s perfectibility. This, for Churchill, was an unproven myth. Because man himself is imperfect by nature, so too are his means of achieving perfection. Any attempts to perfect an imperfect human society, or humanity itself, would require a great leap of faith.
This is not to say that mankind is incapable of improvement. It was clear to Churchill that mankind had made incredible progress in the development of democracy and other free institutions. But such progress was not sufficient evidence that these trends were eternal—or that human nature, the foundation of human behavior, had ever been altered. Indeed, the subversion of freedom by brutal regimes like the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany made it clear that history often moves in cycles. Between those two tyrannies, the cycle was from barbarism to civilization and then back to barbarism.
Freedom: A fragile, precious flower
Churchill held that the future is not “a mere extension of the past” because history remains “full of unexpected turns and retrogressions.”8 British democracy took 800 years to develop, through a myriad of accidents and random factors, not intentional design by experts or governments. Even in 20th century, British freedom had to be protected—not through coercion or the silencing of the Fabians or other socialists, but through public debate and persuasion. To protect freedom by force may well require the destruction of the very freedom a society intends to protect.
For Churchill, history does not guarantee the success of human liberty, democracy, or even a socialist state. History provides insight for man into the nature and trends of current events and their likely ends if the aforementioned trends should continue. History is not bound to any particular path. No outcome, including human liberty, is inevitable.
Freedom remains a fragile, precious flower. It can only survive if it is planted in good, rich soil, nourished by a nation’s core institutions and ideas. Winston Churchill knew that some of the greatest threats to liberty come not from tyrannies abroad but from internal dissension. Its survival requires that a nation’s cultural soil be enriched constantly—by a thorough understanding of the happy accidents that gave it birth. The survival of freedom requires a knowledge of history.
1 Winston S. Churchill, hereinfter “WSC,” “Education,” 26 February 1946, in Robert Rhodes James, ed., Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 8 vols. (New York: Bowker, 1974), VII 7283-85.
4 WSC, “Shall We All Commit Suicide?” in Thoughts and Adventures (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2009), 294.
5 WSC, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, vol. 1, The Birth of Britain (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1956), xv-xvii.
6 WSC, “What Good’s a Constitution?” (1936) in The U.S. Constitution: A Reader, (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2012), 740.
7 WSC, “Woodford Adoption Meeting,” 18 January 1950, in Complete Speeches, VIII 7912-14.
8 Martin Gilbert, “A Party Divided,” in Winston S. Churchill: Prophet of Truth 1922-1939, (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2008), 479-81.