At VDARE.com Editor Peter Brimelow’s urging, I recently read Winston Churchill’s biography of his great ancestor John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough. One of the great captains of history, Marlborough is not well known in the Anglosphere today. Some might know of him because of a frivolous film, The Favorite, that reduced extraordinary figures like Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill into sexually depraved, petty gossips [The Favorite: From Queen Anne to Sarah Churchill, does the film do justice to the real women it portrays? FirstPost, March 6, 2019]. The true story is, as usual, far better than what today’s degenerate culture can give us.
Still, anonymity or being turned into a character in a piece of smut might be a better fate than outright demonization. And that’s where Winston Churchill is going as the United Kingdom continues frantically to pile up its own funeral pyre. The sacrifices the British made to save their Empire in World War II were, in retrospect, pointless at best and counter-productive at worst. The Empire, Churchill’s one consistent love in his long political career, is gone, and “English liberty” can only be considered as a sick joke [Once Great Britain Under Occupation, by Gregory Hood, American Renaissance, December 1, 2017]. Churchill himself seems doomed to go down as just another racist white male. One wonders if he would have made the same choices if he could see what he was unleashing on his country and Empire.
But literature lives on, whether a civilization or people rises or falls. And whatever else one may say about Winston Spencer Churchill, the man could write. I strongly urge everyone to read this book as much to learn about politics as history.
Indeed, the comparisons to our own time are striking. Brimelow pointed out that we appear to have regressed to a world in which, as in Marlborough’s time, imprisonment, financial ruin, lawfare, and death are just occupational hazards of engaging in public life. Personally, I think this degeneration is a necessary phase, though I am cowardly enough to wish it didn’t have to be this way: there’s no way out but through. We all must suffer for the betrayals and failures of our leaders.
Beyond that, I want to make some informal observations I took from this book—some of the ideas I'm working on in my own current book and also topics I hope to discuss with some of you when we address Marlborough in the Book Club.
I’ve created the term “State Usurpation” to describe what happens when the machinery of the state is captured, not by just an opposing political faction, but by a different ethnos. The captured state essentially wars against the people who created the original state. I’d argue that’s what happened to South Africa since 1994 and what is happening (or has already happened) to the USA [Whose Democracy?, by Gregory Hood, American Renaissance, February 12, 2021].
However, when Marlborough was fighting his battles, the idea of a Regime connected to a particular people was essentially unknown. The nation-state, the political expression of a particular people, hadn’t been fully developed as a concept. The idea of “nationalism,” originally considered as a progressive concept against the previous norms of hereditary monarchies, didn’t really emerge until after the French Revolution and the Napoleonic conquests. Marlborough’s whole life was defined by the battles against France’s King Louis XIV, who of course famously said: “L'état, c'est moi.”
Yet ordinary people, or at least the politically active classes, had some conception of unity and identity that went beyond loyalty to a particular monarch. Religion was a major part of it. European nationalism would not have emerged without the Protestant Reformation, and the loss of the ideal of one Empire, united by one Faith. (I myself mourn this process, but that’s because I see a Western Civilization-State, the Empire that was the classical and medieval ideal, as the ultimate goal [The Attack of the Civilization-State, by Bruno Macaes, Noema, June 15, 2020]).
However, it wasn’t simply religion. Nationalism can’t just be reduced to an outgrowth of a particular creed. After all, Marlborough’s vast alliances didn’t simply consist of “Protestants” versus “Catholics.”
Indeed, the Catholic Holy Roman Empire (most of it anyway) was on Marlborough’s side (and he was even—briefly—created a Prince); Louis XIV couldn’t even count on the consistent support of the Papacy. We can’t say that nationalism had been fully developed, but the idea of being part of a people distinct from other peoples and holding loyalty to that people instead of a particular monarch, was already in place to some degree.
This was a time when alliances could shift quickly. After all, Marlborough’s military career began with French forces against the Dutch. The two champions of Protestantism in Western Europe, England and the Netherlands, fought a whole series of savage naval wars against each other rather than “uniting” on the basis of religion against Catholics.
Yet religion was still definitive when it came to how individuals behaved. However, while wars weren’t just a private contest between kings anymore, there was still a code of chivalrous conduct that transcended national loyalties. Men on opposing sides could correspond with each other and provide information in ways that would be considered treasonous today.
Marlborough ultimately sided with the Dutch Protestant William III in the Glorious Revolution, abandoning the Catholic King James II and VII, whom he had served since youth. His negative reputation in some circles derives mostly from this apparent betrayal. One thing that Winston Churchill’s book points out is that the Glorious Revolution really was a Dutch conquest of England, in ways we might not fully appreciate today. Marlborough was excluded from the Dutch governing circle that surrounded William III. He didn’t reach the pinnacle of power until Queen Anne ascended to the throne. Here, his wife Sarah’s close friendship with Anne since childhood was key to his advancement.
Thus, even at this early time, there was already a vague conception of a perceived need for unity between sovereign and people. The English didn’t rise to defend James II because they believed he was imposing Catholicism and French-style absolutism. This was more to be feared than living under William, a foreign prince (albeit one married to the English Queen Mary) who would protect the interests of England’s “native” religion. Unless we consider Marlborough a rogue, we must conclude that his genuine commitment to his Protestant faith and a desire to see England free from French domination were what compelled him to abandon King James. Indeed, England under James was essentially becoming a client state of Louis XIV’s France.
Of course, many people think Marlborough really was an unprincipled, disloyal rogue, the great Victorian historian Lord Macaulay among them [Politics and War in Churchill’s Life of the Duke of Marlborough, by James Muller, The Imaginative Conservative, March 10, 2014]. Winston Churchill may be partial, but he makes a strong case that Marlborough always held devotion to his faith higher than his allegiance to a Catholic sovereign. After the Glorious Revolution, the Crown went from gradually trying to undo the Protestant Reformation to defending it (even in Catholic territories like Ireland). He also (effectively in my view) defends Marlborough from charges of avarice.
The Glorious Revolution was an overthrow of a government and even the installation of a foreign prince. However, it wasn’t “State Usurpation,” because the English were deeply Protestant to the point that it defined them as a people. The takeover was considered a liberation by almost everyone who wasn’t an English Catholic (or Irish).
Every Regime needs multiple sources of legitimacy. Part of it must be rational—the Regime is “legitimate” because it protects rights, delivers economic growth, and “represents” the bulk of the people in some vague way. Thus James II wasn’t legitimate to many English because of his Catholicism and his subordinate status to the French monarchy.
But legitimacy also must come from deeper, even mystical sources. Joseph de Maistre argued that no constitution could endure unless it was supported by God—in essence, no authority is truly legitimate unless it comes from a non-rational, supernatural source. Julius Evola argued something similar. Men don’t fully believe in something they create themselves because the next person could simply undo it.
In America, the Conservative Movement has turned the Constitution and the Founding Fathers into semi-divine entities; thus the current attacks upon them by Leftists are iconoclasm. In England’s Glorious Revolution, the monarch was replaced but the larger principle of monarchy and the legitimacy of Queen Anne was confirmed through the “Warming Pan Myth,” the idea that James II’s son, born in 1688 and the putative Catholic heir to the throne, was illegitimate. Many people needed to believe this, or at least say they believed it, to justify what they were doing. Even in the “Glorious Revolution,” the supposed event when England became the model of a rational, limited, constitutional state, a myth (or Jacobites would say, an outright lie) was still necessary for people to believe in the Regime.
In the USA, one of our cherished myths is the idea of civilian control of the military. Schoolchildren know (or, before public education became the joke it is today, used to know) the story about George Washington surrendering his command of the army after the American Revolution. He also used his credibility to prevent the nascent American military from marching on Washington to demand back pay, reducing men to tears by telling them: “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for, I have grown not only gray, but almost blind in the service of my country.”
However, while Washington didn’t become the next Oliver Cromwell, there was never a complete disconnect between the military and civilian power. George Washington did become the first president and (nominally) led the militia that ended the Whiskey Rebellion.
President Donald Trump’s struggles showed us that the elected leadership of this country doesn’t really control the military and the National Security bureaucracy. As serious countries like China know, it is the “Deep State” and the forces that control it that really run American foreign policy, regardless of what puppet sits behind the Resolute Desk.
President Trump failed because he did not have the will or the capability to bring in a group of loyalists to take control of the bureaucracy and ensure that his orders were carried out.
In my view, one of Marlborough’s remarkable qualities was his ability to maintain political backing at home while serving as Captain-General of an international alliance. Here, his wife Sarah’s friendship with Queen Anne was critical. When that friendship collapsed, so did his position. The result was catastrophic, practically undoing many of Marlborough’s conquests and allowing Louis XIV to escape his wars, if not as a winner, still not quite a loser. The sacrifices of British and allied soldiers were thrown away because of the collapse of the British government’s will to finish the war.
Any coherent national policy needs a united military/civilian command. An “apolitical” military is a lie, as we can see after the Trump Administration. The military leadership constantly undermined President Trump during his term. As for what we now call the “intelligence community,” Senator Chuck Schumer breathtakingly declared on national television that it has “six ways from Sunday at getting back at you” [Schumer: Trump ‘really dumb’ for attacking intelligence agencies, by Mallory Shelbourne, The Hill, January 3, 2017]. If this is true, and there’s no reason to think it isn’t, these agencies should be abolished as subversive.
If that can’t be done (and it probably can’t), any leader needs to purge the military and intelligence services upon taking power to ensure that will be loyal to him. President Biden’s ideological purge of the military may have seemed bizarre to citizens of a free country, but we aren’t in a free country. We haven’t been for some time. What President Biden is doing is rational, and it’s what President Trump should have done from Day One.
Part of Marlborough’s genius lay in his ability to create what Winston Churchill calls “combinations” both political and military. In international alliances and domestic politics, he was unmatched in terms of getting people to work together for concrete ends based upon serving the self-interest of each party. He also made sure that no party or individual was mightier than himself.
Some of this might seem treacherous. Marlborough corresponded with the Jacobite court after the Glorious Revolution, occasionally hinting that he might be persuaded to support a return of the Stuarts. Winston Churchill denies this was dishonorable: at the time, corresponding with political enemies was simply part of the social code. Churchill also argues that the intelligence Marlborough gave the Jacobites was nothing they didn’t know already. The bottom line: Marlborough never wished to overthrow Queen Anne or restore the Stuarts after her death. He was firmly committed to the Protestant Succession. However, keeping his political independence was vital to his freedom of action.
What was far more critical was Marlborough’s refusal to be tied down by the emerging party system—he kept connections with both Whigs and Tories. In the end, the problem was that his wife Sarah, who was as instrumental in building his political career as she was in inadvertently destroying it, was a committed Whig, which ultimately alienated her from Queen Ann, who was a Tory. When his balancing act broke down, Marlborough actually had to seek refuge on the Continent. His allies could not believe that Britain had turned out its greatest general.
I was reminded of what Brimelow said when Donald Trump first ran for office, of his almost “kingly” appeal. He ran against both parties, conquering each in turn. The “lion” flag that was popping up during the campaign (no, it wasn’t the VDARE flag, you idiot journalists) seemed like it could be a rival to the Donkey and the Elephant, a Third Force, if not a Third Party. Tragically, Donald Trump immediately threw all his political capital behind Speaker Paul Ryan’s unpopular Conservative Inc. agenda. From the moment Donald Trump became just another Republican, the fate of his presidency was sealed.
We know the cliché about strange bedfellows in politics, but it has limits. For example, King James II tried to maintain his power by ostensibly advancing religious freedom in England—tolerating non-Church of England dissenting Protestants as well as Catholics. Of course, this alliance makes no objective sense—whatever short-term tactical gain on paper these parties might have had allying with each other, they didn’t have a real common interest. The victory of either party would destroy the legitimacy of the other. Indeed, the King’s action galvanized the traditional supporters of the Church of England, who wanted royalism, Protestantism, and English independence from overweening Catholic France.
A political leader needs to be flexible, but there must be a certain core to his actions or people won’t follow him. If all that remains are clever short-term maneuvers to maintain one’s own power, people eventually become cynical. A leader must be flexible yet have a core of sincerity that can’t be challenged. Marlborough made many shifts in tactics and arguably betrayed many people (not least, King James II). However, over the course of his entire life, there was never any doubt that he stood for an England free from French domination, Protestantism in England, and a strong, independent monarchy.
This didn’t mean that he wouldn’t work with Catholics or even the Papacy. However, no one can seriously believe that Marlborough would ever have acquiesced to the restoration of Catholic government in England or the subordination of England to France.
Marlborough’s correspondence with the Jacobites following the Glorious Revolution were, by the standards of our time, treasonous. But at that time, things were different. The flexibility of powerful individuals, kings, generals, and sovereigns was bewildering by modern standards. Marlborough became, after all, a prince of the Holy Roman Empire (briefly) and at one point was offered the governorship of the Spanish Netherlands. He was also commander of the Dutch forces. We have plenty of examples of generals wielding power over diverse coalitions in our own day, but eyebrows would be raised if whoever oversaw CENTCOM was awarded sovereignty over Dubai.
One of the great ironies of American history is that if Benedict Arnold had been killed at Saratoga, he would undoubtedly be regarded as the greatest hero of the American Revolution. His alienation from the colonial cause was prompted by the utter contempt with which civilian authorities treated him after all his sacrifices, as well as by his relationship with a Loyalist woman.
Today, we hear condemnations of Confederate leaders like Jefferson Davis or General Robert E. Lee as “traitors,” even though they acted no differently than the Founding Fathers by siding with their local authorities rather than a more distant central authority. Similarly, you could argue that Marlborough committed the most unforgivable kind of treason by not only betraying his king but his friend in James II, with religion being a rationale for opportunism. Without reading his mind, we can’t be sure what his real motivations were.
Marlborough could also have gone down very differently. His victories at Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde and Malplaquet didn’t just save his cause, but his political career. Like Napoleon, his political power came from his military victories. If he had lost a military engagement and so lost political power, it’s easy to imagine scenarios when he would have been cast out of power and arguably labeled a traitor.
Today, we hear terms like “traitor,” “insurrectionist,” “seditionist,” or “enemy of the people” all the time. These charges seem arbitrary if we’re just looking at a political system. One is reminded of Talleyrand’s quip that treason is just a “matter of dates,” because one day’s hero becomes another’s traitor based on the rise and fall of governments and political combinations. Of course, if that’s true, then what does being a “patriot” really mean?
Loyalty is the supreme virtue. Whatever his religious scruples (or even the hopelessness of the Jacobite cause), I personally can’t overlook John Churchill betraying James II. (My residual Catholicism makes me something of a Jacobite.)
That said, what impressed me most about Winston Churchill’s Marlborough was the way he related the story of his ancestor to England’s national story.
The specific causes Marlborough fought for are largely forgotten now—the states and principalities he saved or doomed no longer exist and many of Europe’s royal houses are extinct or have little temporal power. But Churchill argued that Marlborough laid the foundation for the British Empire’s future glories. By preventing French hegemony over Europe (and, earlier, checking the Dutch in the competition for control at sea), British leaders of this time made it possible for English-speakers to prevent England from being a puppet state controlled by a powerful French court, to colonize the New World, control India, and allow for the rise of classical liberalism and Anglo-American institutions. (Whether those institutions were really such a good thing remains to be answered by history, but when Churchill was writing in the 1930s, it seemed self-evident.)
What’s important here is that Churchill is hinting towards a definition of patriotism that goes beyond loyalty to a regime, a faith, or even a person. Instead, it’s subordinating your own life to the collective destiny of your people. The specifics of what a war is about may not matter in a hundred years, or even ten. Today’s enemy may become tomorrow’s ally, or vice versa. However, we recognize that someone who fights or dies for his country is making a sacrifice that goes beyond whatever is the cause of the day. By sacrificing his own life to his people’s power and glory, he’s doing something transcendent, something that goes beyond any political party, war aim, or sectarian ambition.
Of course, this is also why Open Borders is not just treason but the supreme form of treason. Mass immigration in its current form is and is intended to be a deliberate effort to unmake a people.
A people can rise from economic recession, military defeat, plague, and even from outright conquest and occupation. However, it cannot recover from being deconstructed. When a people is ripped away from its roots, stripped of its identity, and unmade as an ethnos, no recovery is possible. It is genocide and is defined by the United Nations as such.
That’s why loyalty to one’s people must be the beginning of political virtue and subversion of it the supreme crime.
One of those interesting episodes that show the thin lines between patriot and traitor in the eighteenth century was that Catholic Englishmen often fought with the “enemies” of their country against the Protestant regime (or what they would consider the usurpers). After the French Revolution, the émigrés fought against the Republic with foreign armies, presumably to restore what they thought in their mind was the “true” France. The Catholic and Royal Army in the Vendee allied with foreign powers against the Republic.
Ideologically, I sympathize with these reactionaries and traditionalists. If I were French, I’d be a Legitimist. During the time of Marlborough, I’d be a Jacobite.
Yet I can’t but recall the sneers of the Parisians about Louis XVII, that when he was returned to the throne, he arrived in the baggage train of the enemy. There comes a point that you must fight alongside your people even if you hate the people who are running the government. Otherwise you lose all connection and credibility with those you are trying to serve and lead. This is what Enoch Powell meant when he told Margaret Thatcher that he would fight for Britain even if Britain had a Communist government—and the Iron Lady was so baffled by this statement she had no idea how to respond.
In terms of values, I’m not sure this is the “right” way to conduct oneself. I don’t know if it’s the way I would act—after all, I’ve argued that the Potomac Regime is hostile to the real Historic American Nation and not really “our” government.
You could also think of counter-examples. Carl von Clausewitz, embracing the concept of “double patriotism,” sided with the nominal enemies of the Prussian king and army because Prussia was subordinated to Napoleon.
In the end, Clausewitz was remembered as a Prussian patriot and a liberator. At the same time, you never want to put yourself alongside those who took up arms with foreigners against your own people.
But such horrific choices may be upon us if the Potomac Regime continues to dismantle the U.S. and the ruling powers of the world continue their dismantling of Western Civilization.
I’m not sure there is a “right” answer. It would depend on the specifics of the situation. However, I do know that all else being equal, it’s best to stick with your own, even in service of a bad cause or an unworthy government.
Note Winston Churchill’s (backhanded) praise of Louis XIV. Throughout much of his book, Churchill is positively scathing towards Louis XIV and succeeds in taking away much of the Sun King’s luster. However, towards the end of the book, he admits that Louis XIV’s sheer persistence and refusal to give in helped him to turn catastrophic defeat into an honorable peace. Sometimes, even the most hopeless of circumstances can be reversed by an unexpected event—like an adversary throwing its best general out of power for stupid reasons.
Therefore, it’s not just a theological imperative (as Peter Brimelow keeps reminding me) not to give in to despair. It’s practical to fight until the utter finish, because until the last breath, one simply doesn’t know if victory is beyond reach. There’s also nothing to be gained from surrender.
I think of someone like Robert E. Lee, who peacefully surrendered to save the country from horror—but today receives no honor for what he did.
This doesn’t mean go all in always—after all, Napoleon could have saved his throne even after the Russia campaign, but he insisted on trying to keep all his conquests. However, in some situations, when you know they are coming for you and intend to finish you off and take everything, there’s no reason to even contemplate surrender.
There’s a great example in Churchill’s Marlborough. In 1672, the Netherlands experienced Het Rampjaar (the Disaster Year) when, to put it crudely, the little country was basically invaded by everyone at once. An infuriated and desperate populace lynched the De Witt brothers in gruesome form. Check out the 2015 Dutch film Admiral for a (simplified and sensationalized) glimpse at some of the same issues Marlborough confronted; the great Dutch admiral Michel de Ruyter is a prominent figure in the first part of Churchill’s book).
William III (basically trashed in Admiral but clearly a skilled and effective leader) ended up in control of the Netherlands—before he later came to control England. Whether or not he incited or was involved in the butchery of the De Witts, one can’t help but admire what he said about the Dutch situation: “There is one certain means by which I can be sure never to see my country’s ruin: I will die in the last ditch.”
Leo Strauss may have been overstating it when he suggested that Churchill’s biography of Marlborough may be the greatest work of political science produced in the 20th century, but not by much. It’s especially worth reading during these times when the foundations of states, governments, and peoples are in turmoil and we seem on the brink of revolutionary changes. There are opportunities for men of courage who are willing to put themselves forward to save a people from ruin.
I think Churchill is overrated as a political leader. He effectively destroyed the British Empire. Arguably, he ensured the death of Britain itself. Powerful cases about the unnecessary entry of Great Britain into World War II have been made by Peter Hitchens and Pat Buchanan, among others.
However, as a historian and a writer in the English language, Churchill is unsurpassed.
At some point in the Book Club, I’ll make sure this book will be the selection we’ll discuss. (Just another reason to join us!)