Did Winston Churchill Say Socialism is the Philosophy of Failure?
Unrelated quotes from the former British prime minister have been cobbled together to critique Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
On February 8 2019, a Facebook user shared the following meme, featuring images of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez above a purported quote from British wartime leader Winston Churchill:
Underneath two identical images of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it featured a photograph of Churchill and a quote:
CHURCHILL ON SOCIALISM:
“Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.”
The Equal Sharing Of Misery
Although the meme appeared to be a simple quote-based assertion, it actually involved implicit statements as well, presupposing that Ocasio-Cortez espoused “the equal sharing of misery” as well as suggesting that Churchill’s positions lay in stark contrast to the freshman congresswoman from New York.
As it turned out, the quote has circulated before. A July 2015 page published by The Churchill Project at the conservative-leaning Hillsdale College commented on an iteration of the quote circulating at the time (“Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery”). They noted that the quote was cobbled together from two separate purported comments:
It is more or less correct, but it’s a run-together, truncated version of two separate comments:
“Socialism is the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy.” —Perth, Scotland, 28 May 1948, in Churchill, Europe Unite: Speeches 1947 & 1948 (London: Cassell, 1950), 347.
“The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. The inherent virtue of Socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” —House of Commons, 22 October 1945.
As noted, the quotation appeared in Europe Unite: Speeches 1947 and 1948. But the larger context of the quote from a speech given by Churchill in May 1948 was British dependence on American aid in the post-war period. What Churchill actually said was:
It may be necessary for us to seek and accept American aid in the plight into which we have fallen, but it should be the first aim of every Briton to free ourselves from that condition at the earliest moment, not only by hard work but by laying aside every impediment and above all by not allowing party doctrines and party fads to impede the national effort and rob the people of the fruits of their exertions and sacrifices.
How Socialist ministers can go about bragging of their social programme and of the nationalisation of industry on Party grounds, how they can deride the system of free enterprise and capitalism which makes America so great and wealthy, and then at the same time eagerly seek the aid which has hitherto been so generously granted from across the Atlantic, is a position which baffles the limitations of [our] language to explain.
We are oppressed by a deadly fallacy. Socialism is the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance and the gospel of envy. Unless we free our country while time remains from the perverse doctrines of Socialism, there can be no hope for recovery. This island cannot maintain its population as a great power. The most energetic and the nimblest ‘will emigrate, and we shall be left here with a board of safe officials brooding over a vast mass of worried, hungry and broken human beings. Our place in the world will be lost forever, and not only our individual self-respect but our national independence will be gone. These hard-won privileges have been dear to us in the past. But all this structure of obstinacy and unwisdom erected for Party and not national aims must be viewed in the light of the supreme and dominating fact of our present position. The Socialist Government in London has become dependent upon the generosity of the capitalist system of the United States.
We are not earning our own living or paying our way, nor do the Government hold out any prospect of our doing so in the immediate future. It is this terrible fact which glares upon us all.
I had hoped that the thousand million loan we borrowed from the United States in 1945 would be used to tide us over the transition from war to peace and that it would give us at least 4 years’ breathing-space to adjust our affairs after the exhaustions of the war. It was spent and largely squandered in 2 years and we are now dependent upon further American generosity and also eating up from hand to mouth the remaining overseas investments and assets accumulated under the capitalist system of former years.
As my friend in the corner so naively said in the House of Commons the other day, “We are eating the Argentine Railways this year, what are we going to eat next year?
The quotation was authentic, but still deeply divorced from the context in which Churchill was speaking, and more to the point, the context in which it was later placed — the specific policies espoused by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Churchill railed against growing dependency in Britain on the United States in the post-war period, a condition which hinged on differences between the two world superpowers in the wake of the second world war:
In that same year, the American Secretary of State, George Marshall, proposed his European Recovery Programme to rebuild a war-shattered Europe. For Britain herself, the offer of the Marshall Aid dollars presented a last chance to modernise herself as an industrial power before her old trade rivals could recover from defeat and occupation. Instead, all the illusions and follies of post-war British policy now reached their climax in the wasting of Britain’s Marshall Aid.
In fact, far from Marshall Aid boosting British investment, planned programmes were heavily cut after the debacle of a Sterling devaluation in 1949, caused by a balance-of-payments crisis. In what had been intended as the ‘decisive’ Marshall Aid years of 1949 and 1950, investment was only a little higher than in 1948 – barely ahead of inflation.
The second portion of the amalgamated quote was also derived from a lengthier set of remarks given in the House of Commons in October 1945. Once again, Churchill was speaking in the larger context of a broader aim of retaining Britain’s position as a world superpower. In that earlier statement, Churchill was debating other Parliament members on the topic of drawing down troops and returning to civilian life. In initial remarks in the same session, he said:
We have asked for this Debate upon demobilisation, because demobilisation is the foundation upon which, at this moment, everything else stands, and also, because tardy, inadequate demobilisation is the fountain-head of all our domestic difficulties. Whatever view may be taken of Socialism or free enterprise, surely it is common ground between us all, that we should get all the great wheels and the little wheels of life and industry in this country turning as soon as possible. For this we need the men. Without the men, and also the women, now held in the Services, there can be no speedy revival. The woeful shortage of consumer goods will continue. The Government will be afraid to allow people to spend their savings, for fear of undue rise in prices. Scarcity will be used as justification for controls, and controls will become the fatal means of prolonging scarcity. Get all the great wheels turning, and all the little cog wheels too. Let them rotate and revolve, spin and hum, and we shall have taken a long step forward towards our deliverance. In order to get them turning, we must bring the men home, and set the men free.
Here I will make a digression. It seems most urgent, and, indeed, vital, that the Government should put forward their proposals, in outline at any rate, for the permanent scale at which all three of our Armed Services are to be maintained, let us say, in the next 10 years. Men and women in all the three Forces ought to know, now, the conditions under which they can continue in the Services, or can transfer from “hostilities only” to longer or full-time engagements. I am inclined to agree with a remark which I saw attributed to the Minister of Labour and National Service the other day, to the effect that there is not the same universal general desire to leave the Services now, which was encountered after the first great war.
Churchill’s remarks were made once again in the context of Britain’s post-war economy, not on the subject of “socialism” or “capitalism” absent any context. He went on to assert “in a philosophic vein” that freeing citizens up to find “useful work” ought to be a priority:
With considerable responsibility and after much heart searching, I am making a positive contribution to this Debate. It can be knocked about from all quarters, but I hope to see at any rate a foundation for thought and discussion on a matter in which we cannot afford to rest in a half paralysed deadlock. Supposing every man were given double pay for every day he was kept beyond his proper priority, that would be a small burden on the State compared with the enormous waste such as is going on now. Certainly a great effort should be made to solve this problem. If it makes possible a far larger rate of releases, the general rejoicing will sweep away many invidious reflections.
I understand — perhaps I am wrongly informed — that it was thought necessary to hold their opposite numbers here at home, who are a much greater number, beyond their time. After all, the officers who are kept are kept because there is vital work for them to do while similar officers, whose release is retarded at home, are kept without useful work. There is a great difference between being kept to do something, and being kept to do nothing. As for the women, many of them want to stay, but surely those who have nothing to do, and are not wanted for any purpose under the sun, should be set free now.
I earnestly hope that the Government will give unprejudiced attention to the suggestions I have ventured to make. They are put forward in no spirit of controversy but in the general interest. If we do not get this country going again pretty soon, if we do not get the great wheels turning, we may lose for ever our rightful place in the post-war economic world and we may involve our finances in dire and irretrievable confusion. It is no party matter, but one in which the House as a whole should make its opinion felt in a way that will override all hesitations and obstacles which are found in the path. In order to bring us all together, I will end this practical discourse in a philosophic vein. The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings. The inherent virtue of Socialism is the equal sharing of miseries. In the present case, where an overwhelming majority of Service men and women would gain the blessings, can we not unite on the broad democratic principle of “the greatest good of the greatest number”?
Recontextualizing Churchill’s positions on “socialism” in 2019 almost always occurred without mention of the statesman’s actual legacy. A quotation from Churchill from May 1908 illustrated dissonance between his anti-socialist rhetoric as contrasted with “liberalism”:
Liberalism is not Socialism, and never will be. There is a great gulf fixed. It is not a gulf of method, it is a gulf of principle … 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 … Socialism exalts the rule; Liberalism exalts the man. Socialism attacks capital; Liberalism attacks monopoly.
The meme set up an inherent disagreement between Churchill and Ocasio-Cortez, the latter of whom champions such social safety net features as a public health care system. The process of administrating health care remained a cornerstone of debates related to “socialism” in 2019, which made the comparison curious given Churchill’s role as Prime Minister at the advent of England’s National Health Service:
By the end of the Second World War, there was overwhelming support from all political parties for some sort of health service. The ordeal of war had had a levelling effect. The Beveridge Report, which proposed widespread reforms to the system of social welfare to address what William Beveridge identified as five “giant evils” in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. Published in the midst of World War II, the report promised rewards for everyone’s sacrifices. It was overwhelmingly popular with the public.
Finally, Sir Winston Churchill, speaking as prime minister in the spring of 1944, affirmed that it was the policy of the government to establish a national health service that would make accessible to all, irrespective of social class or means, adequate and modern social care. The high and rising cost of medical care was the key consideration. Healthcare shouldn’t be rationed by price.
A 2009 political analysis of the NHS’s introduction credited three parties of the time with its establishment, noting that British conservatives of the era vociferously supported the initiative:
The NHS owes its existence to the climate of wartime British politics, not least the vastly expanded access to basic healthcare which came with conscription, and the subsequent rise in expectations. As Paul Addison outlined over 30 years ago in his landmark The Road to 1945, the wartime coalition of 1940-5 fostered a remarkable degree of consensus. In social policy, this resulted in the seminal 1942 report Social Insurance and Allied Services, chaired by the Liberal economist William Beveridge – better known as the Beveridge Report. In this, Beveridge set out a comprehensive state plan of social care. Section 19 of the report is the first public mention of a “National Health Service.”
The report was enormously influential, and what cannot be stressed enough is that in the subsequent 1945 general election, all three parties endorsed the Beveridge Report.
Revealingly, all three parties had NHS proposals in their 1945 manifestoes. The Conservatives actually had the longest section in their manifesto, pledging:
The health services of the country will be made available to all citizens. Everyone will contribute to the cost, and no one will be denied the attention, the treatment or the appliances he requires because he cannot afford them. We propose to create a comprehensive health service covering the whole range of medical treatment from the general practitioner to the specialist, and from the hospital to convalescence and rehabilitation.
The point is that a Conservative post-war government under Churchill was fully signed up to introducing the NHS. A Liberal post-war government under Sinclair was fully signed up to introducing the NHS. The NHS was not Labour’s great achievement, it was an inescapable conclusion. And it was only the colossal Labour majority of 1945 which made it possible for Clement Attlee’s government to confidently embark on an NHS scheme that was deeply controversial among its own members.
Another position of Ocasio-Cortez’s that had an analogue in positions held by Churchill during his career was taxation — the congresswoman has expressed support for a 70 percent tax on incomes over $10 million. In 1920, Churchill espoused an unpopular approach to a tax on “war-time increases in wealth” and taxation of “unearned” gains.
The statement in the meme was correctly identified as an amalgam of Winston Churchill’s words in 2015, prior to the 2019 juxtaposition with the positions of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Although the words were words said by Churchill during broader remarks in 1945 and 1948, they were presented far enough out of their context and the context of history as to be meaningless. Although Churchill regularly railed against “socialism” as he viewed in throughout his career, many of the positions and initiatives he espoused were quite similar to those of Ocasio-Cortez — most prominently, perhaps, in support for a national healthcare system. But the quoted remarks attributed to Churchill were almost exclusively about and regarding his commentary on the acceptance and use of United States aid in postwar Britain.