LeftCentral interview with Professor Jonathan Rose


“I do not want to impair the vigour of competition, but we can do much to mitigate the causes of failure.  We want to draw a line below which we will not allow persons to live and labour, yet above which they may compete with all their strength of their manhood.  We do not want to pull down the structure of science and civilisation – but to spread a net above the abyss.”  Winston Churchill, January 1906

Jonathan Rose is William R. Kenan Jr Professor of History at Drew University. His 2001 book for Yale, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, was winner of many prizes including the Jacques Barzun Prize in Cultural History and was named a Book of the Year by The Economist magazine. Professor Jonathan Rose has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his forthcoming publication, The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor

LC:  The well deserved praise for ‘The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class` encompassed all strands of opinion.  It`s a remarkable book that gains an enthusiastic recommendation from Professor Noam Chomsky (who described it as a great book) and UK Education Secretary Michael Gove (his new favourite book, which at least proves that Michael Gove cannot be wrong about everything).  Do you think that The Literary Churchill` will unite left and right in agreement?

JR: In this book I suggest that Churchill in sense anticipated Keynesian economics, gay rights, postmodern historiography, deconstruction, and postcolonial criticism.  That might well unite left and right in derision.

LC:  Churchill once said that, “History will bear me out, particularly as I shall write that history myself”.  Do you think modern interpretations of the political Churchill are uniquely (for a politician) shaped by the subjects own narrative?

JR: Churchill’s The Second World War was the starting point for historians of that conflict, but we have long since learned to treat it skeptically.  And in fairness to the author, he never intended it to be the “definitive” history of the war: he simply presented it as his personal story.

LC:  Clearly Churchill`s prodigious output as a writer earned him great wealth and praise, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.  How do you rate Churchill as a writer and historian?

JR: It’s often said that he really deserved the Nobel Peace Prize, but as that was hardly appropriate for a war leader, he was given the literature prize as a substitute.  But in my opinion, the literature prize was exactly right.  True, he couldn’t write fiction to save his life, but his reportage was brilliant, and his biography Marlborough was the work of a remarkably sophisticated research historian.

LC:  Gladstone read 240 books a year from the age of sixteen to eighty and published articles on Homer and Theology while PM.   How does Churchill`s reading schedule compare with this – both in quality and volume?

JR: I doubt any British politician could have matched Gladstone as a reader, but Churchill consumed books voraciously all his life, though his tastes were more middlebrow and contemporary.

LC: Bevan and Churchill were both self educated.  However, Bevan (discounting his journalism) only wrote, `In Place Of Fear` and `Why Not Trust the Tories `.  Michael Foot said that Bevan “could always talk better than he wrote”.  Churchill was also a great talker but by the age of twenty-five had he claimed “written as many books as Moses”.  Was Churchill`s confidence in his writing ability simply a by-product of cultural capital, his elite class position or did it have more to do with necessity and circumstances?

JR: The fact that he was the son of Lord Randolph Churchill no doubt gave him an entree into journalism and politics, but no more than that.  He couldn’t have succeeded in either field without ability, drive, and sheer nerve.

LC:  How reliant, if at all, was Churchill on researchers and editors?

JR: All writers rely on editors, and Churchill owed a lot to his literary agent, Emery Reves.  The Second World War and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples both depended heavily on researchers, but it was Churchill who ultimately decided how the books were structured and what went into them.

LC:  `The Literary Churchill` promises to highlight a more left-wing Churchill.  This does appear audacious, especially if one examines Churchill`s journalism and editorial position during 1926, via the British Gazette.   Do you think Churchill`s political position should be judged by the output of this paper at this time?

JR: That’s highly selective evidence.  In fact Churchill was ideologically ambidextrous.  On the General Strike and Indian self-government he could be a diehard Tory, but on other issues (such as prison reform) he was a crusading bleeding-heart Liberal.

LC:  The British left associate (the pre-Second World War) Churchill with Sidney Street, the suppression of the suffragettes, the introduction of the Black and Tans in Ireland and the General Strike 1926.  Perhaps less well known; is his involvement in the development of the embryonic welfare state, whilst President of the Board of Trade and at the Home Office.  However, promoting Churchill as a figure of the left seems a major challenge – could you give us some indication as to how you have achieved this?

JR: Churchill’s politics was inspired by his reading, and more often than not writers tend to be lefties.  He read Upton Sinclair and denounced crony capitalism.  He knew Bernard Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island and supported Irish home rule.  And the prognostications of H. G. Wells led him to support nuclear arms control.  However, as a devotee of the Victorian stage, he was also a fan of imperialist melodrama, so on that issue he was far more conservative.

LC:  Churchill took Marxism seriously in the early 1900s, a fact reflected in his reading habits at the time.  Do you think his reading of Marx shaped his interest in social reform, perhaps emanating from a fear of proletarian revolution? Or did his ideas have more to do with national chauvinism and Bismarkian liberalism?

JR: Regarding Marx, Churchill had little knowledge and less sympathy.  He was, in the Edwardian years, a left-wing Liberal, who supported personal liberties and the free market tempered by welfare state measures.  He was never a socialist.

LC:  Do you think Churchill`s writing heavily influenced the foreign policy of the post 1945 Democrat Party and the Cold War liberal agenda?  (e.g. JFK`s `Profiles In Courage`).

JR: Churchill’s wartime speeches, The Second World War, and his “Iron Curtain” speech certainly molded the views of American Cold War liberals, Kennedy especially.  But if you read Profiles in Courage carefully, it becomes clear that Kennedy was rather more cautious and pragmatic than Churchill, however much he admired the Great Briton.

LC:  Kennedy was also intrigued by the British Aristocracy especially the Duke of Marlborough; did JFK obtain his information from reading Churchill?

JR: Yes, but as Harold Macmillan was happy to discover, Kennedy read widely in British political history, such as David Cecil’s biography of Lord Melbourne.  In many ways JFK had more in common with Melbourne than with Churchill.


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