A Short History of Useful Idiots

There don’t seem to be as many of them as in the past – or have they all just been displaced?

Mussolini: you might think he was just a blustering fool in a fez, but once upon a time many people took him very seriously. I remember my shock when, aged 15 or so, I learned from my history teacher that Churchill had spoken approvingly of the black shirts in the 1920s. This week however I was reading a biography of the first Fascist and learned that Winston was not alone. Franklin Roosevelt praised the Italian dictator as a gentleman; Chiang Kai-shek asked for a signed photograph; and even Gandhi (yes lovely, non-violent, vegetable-munching Gandhi) described him as the “Savior of Italy.” Hmm. That’ll be the guy who let his soldiers use live Ethiopians for target practice and ended his political career shipping Jews to Hitler for extermination? All right then!

The phenomenon of intelligent people saying stupid things about tyrants is a constant of 20th century history. The USSR under Stalin is a Klondike of intellectual embarrassment and/or mendacity, ranging from the reporting of Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer Prize Winner who defended Stalin’s show trials and denied the Ukrainian famine, to the bumptious witterings of George Bernard Shaw (top) who in 1932 declared (as millions were starving) that reports of a famine in the USSR were “nonsense.” How did he know? “I have never eaten as well as during my trip to the Soviet Union.”

It was Lenin who first identified the genus of Western intellectual known as “the useful idiot,” but it was Stalin who showed how incredibly easy it was to seduce them: a free holiday, dinner, a little flattery and wa-hey- the knickers are off! But then Stalin died, the USSR became much less violent and the useful idiots lost interest.

Searching for a new utopia, many pinned their hopes on revolutionary Cuba, where a bearded mega-bore named Fidel Castro was in the process of transforming a corrupt satellite of America into a corrupt satellite of the USSR, even poorer and less free than before. Like Papa Joe, Fidel knew how to flatter and soon he had the likes of Picasso, Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag (“the Cuban revolution is astonishingly free of repression”) eating out of his palm. My favorite Castro quote comes from Abbie Hoffman, a justly forgotten 60s radical bed-wetter who compared Castro to… well, read for yourself:

Fidel sits on the side of a tank rumbling into Havana on New Year’s Day… girls throw flowers at the tank and rush to tug playfully at this black beard. He laughs joyously and pinches a few rumps. .. He is like a mighty penis coming to life, and when he is tall and straight, the crowd immediately is transformed.

Ahem. Then there was Castro’s pal, Wee Ernie Guevara, a totalitarian loon who praised Mao, invaded the Congo and died in Bolivia after attempting to inspire revolution among people he knew nothing about. Sartre declared him “the most complete human being of our age.”

Speaking of Mao, he had his celebrity admirers, too. In 1973, Shirley MacLaine, who was very good in The Apartment with Jack Lemmon, went on a tour of some Potemkin villages in China and wrote a glowing report afterwards. She was especially approving of the absence of advertising billboards, and the general atmosphere of calm which left her feeling “serene.” She never thought that perhaps China was quiet because 60 million people had just been murdered and everyone was very, very scared. Mao was a big hit among 60s students and one of his erstwhile fanboys, Jose Manuel Barroso, is today president of the European Commission.

But Mao and Castro weren’t the only totalitarian despots considered groovy in the 60s and 70s. Eldridge Cleaver, a prominent Black Panther leader, declared that while America was a hell-hole of oppression, North Korea under Kim Il-sung was the best place in the world. In the run up to the Iranian revolution, Michel Foucault, a Frenchman, paid several visits to Iran and later praised the “political spirituality” of the Ayatollah Khomeini who, given the chance, would have had him executed for his homosexuality.

And so on, and so on. These days, it’s not quite as bad though I hear Hitler has his fans in the Middle East and Hollywood morons, inspired by 60s nostalgia, still show up in Cuba from time to time. But it’s hard to find the pure strain of tyrant admiration, though for a while I was fascinated by a blog entitled Reflections on the Ruhnama, written by “Steve from Wisconsin” who apparently took at face value all the gibberish the deceased Turkmen tyrant Saparmurat Niyazov had scrawled with a colored crayon in his notorious book.

Maybe it has something to do with the loss of religious faith. You know, these intellectuals no longer believe in paradise, so they project their yearning for redemption onto some exotic place, then climb through the wardrobe of their imaginations and emerge in magical lands governed by wise talking lions. Yes, I like that, though surely vanity also comes into it. It pleases certain intellectuals to adopt counter-intuitive positions, believing it gives them “depth” and “sophistication.”  And thus clever people are often the easiest to fool.

(RIA Novosti previously published a version of this post).

Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at www.danielkalder.com.
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Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist. Visit him online at www.danielkalder.com.

31 thoughts on “A Short History of Useful Idiots

  1. Mr Bleaney
    July 4, 2012 at 09:23

    Ah, but you have omitted the worship of Hugo Chavez by the standard roster of useful idiots from Hollywood. Although, come to think of it, since you are speaking of “intelligent people saying stupid things about tyrants,” the omission is understandable.

  2. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    July 4, 2012 at 09:54

    Strange, how the liberal left intelligentsia go weak at the knees when in the presence of murderous dictators, as long as the label on the tin says the masses must own the means of production the goings on inside of the tin can be ignored.
    Uncle Addie led in the fascist stakes, old Winnie Wagner would rip off her bodice at the mere mention of his name, as did that Mitford gel, you know, the one who was a poor shot.
    There was no finer example of myopia than Frankie Pakenham, leader of the tribe who-would-do-good, for their own ego that is. Show him a child murdering devious lunatic and watch him go, dewy eyed hand wringing redemption chasing of the highest order. Conversions to left footedness at no extra cost.

    • jgslang@gmail.com'
      July 4, 2012 at 16:25

      Far be it from me…but Unity Mitford – the poor shot – can in no way be characterized as ‘liberal left intelligentsia’. Indeed, which particular one of those descriptions would you like to dispose of first? And sister Diana was married – to Oswald Moseley – chez Goebbels in ’36 with the Fuhrer as guest of honour. The genuine leftie sister, Jessica, to her credit never got sucked into that one. Hitler, on the whole, found his fans on the right, starting with Edward VIII, his toady the odious ‘Chips’ Channon and many more nobs besides. None of which is to deny the essential premise, but it is perhaps because the right lacks many intellectuals that its members don’t top the useful idiot lists..

      • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
        July 4, 2012 at 17:21

        Perhaps thats why I said Uncle Addie led in the fascist stakes

      • danielkalder@yahoo.com'
        July 4, 2012 at 20:30

        There were plenty of right wing intellectuals in the mid 20th century, but only Ezra Pound really went nuts for Fascism.

  3. Brit
    July 4, 2012 at 13:57

    There isn’t the quite the same quality of evil dictators around these days. I mean, Sean Penn (for my money Hollywood’s most consistent Useful Idiot) has been really scratching around for an idiotic cause to support and has been reduced to the Falkland Islands.

  4. nigeandrew@gmail.com'
    July 4, 2012 at 17:23

    I’ve got an uneasy feeling that virtually the whole of the well-meaning West and its commentariat are serving as one big Useful Idiot for Islamism, endlessly cheering on these supposed ‘democratic uprisings’ in the Middle East. We’ll know when we see where the pieces fall, I suppose…

    • danielkalder@yahoo.com'
      July 4, 2012 at 20:23

      You’re right there, Nige, of that I have little doubt.

    • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
      July 4, 2012 at 21:55

      Yes the Beeb and news generally has been absurdly eager to present all rebels as goodies.

    • Gaw
      July 5, 2012 at 07:46

      On the other hand, it might turn out all right.

      • markcfdbailey@gmail.com'
        July 5, 2012 at 11:03

        Tell that to the Copts in Egypt or the Christians in Homs.

  5. Worm
    July 4, 2012 at 17:44

    I don’t suppose Ken Livingstone or George Galloway count as intelligentsia either..Noam chomsky is a bit of a wally though

    There is a new tribe of lefties in the ascendency though, the twitterati, led by Stephen fry and various comedians, who like to loudly take on various contrarian positions that stick it to The Man

    • danielkalder@yahoo.com'
      July 4, 2012 at 20:27

      Chomsky made some highly interesting comments on Pol Pot that don’t get nearly enough play whenever the old fool pops up in the Guardian or wherever.

  6. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    July 4, 2012 at 18:06

    Indeed, a collection of Time Magazine’s “man of the year” covers from the early days on would make interesting reading.

    I will remark that when the US business community discovered the potential of Chinese markets (and then Chinese factories), Shirley MacLaine had company. In the newsletter of a business association (ca. 1983) I saw a reference to Mao having at the age of umpty-bump swum 15 kilometers of the Yellow River in under an hour, a time that would have been decent for a fit man of thirty to run that distance.

    And that raises the question whether lip service is as helpful as machine tools, etc. The US and other countries did plenty of business with Il Duce, Uncle Joe, and their like. Mussolini may have been dim enough to suppose that praise was an equivalent for loans and factories, but I bet Hitler would have traded the praises of Unity Mitford and Charles Lindbergh for hardware.

    • danielkalder@yahoo.com'
      July 4, 2012 at 20:29

      Both are ideal- the useful idiots gave intellectual cover for the USSR in the 20s and 30s which in turn made it more respectable for Germans and Americans to show up in Magnitogorsk and other such industrial paradises to oversee construction of huge blast furnaces, etc.

      • george.jansen55@gmail.com'
        July 5, 2012 at 11:29

        I doubt Henry Ford felt any strong need for intellectual cover. Still, your general point is sound: if one is going to make pronouncements on world affairs, one should not utter stupidities.

        • danielkalder@yahoo.com'
          July 5, 2012 at 16:16

          Henry Ford maybe not, but there were plenty of others, and it was Lenin’s self-declared strategy- gull fools, exploit propaganda benefits.

  7. Gaw
    July 5, 2012 at 08:05

    I suppose intellectuals like seeing big historical forces at work as this requires a level of theoretical aptitude and application. These forces create progress, which also allows them to be in favour of a bright new future and take the moral high ground. The worldlier of them then look for people and ideas which might bring forth such.

    I’ve just been reading Kedourie on Arnold Toynbee, one of the most influential foreign policy big wigs of the first half of the 20th century, and his almost mystical belief in the progressive nature of Arab nationalism. If you took his writings and substituted Europe for Arab you could have attributed them quite comfortably to the windier sort of Europhile intellectual. Both of these progressive – and supposedly ineluctable – historical forces now seem to have run into the sand but at less cost than communism and fascism.

    Regarding the Arab Springs, it’s clear that if you want to politically involve the bulk of the people there ain’t much to work with in the Middle East beyond Islam. However, it may well be an Islam that is amenable to modernisation on the lines of the West. To most of the world, the life we live here still looks very desirable.

    • danielkalder@yahoo.com'
      July 5, 2012 at 18:04

      I think, as VS Naipaul points out in his books on ye topic, that the Islamists are highly interested in western technology, but not very interested in the values of the cultures that created them, and don’t even seem to make the connection.

      Certainly in the Iranian revolution there were quite a few sophisticated Mullahs, one of whom (I forget the name) fused Marx with Sartre and Islam, but they got steamrolled by the violent thugs.

      I point out meanwhile that even Turkey is currently putting a concert pianist on trial for some very tame Tweets. What hope then for the much less educated, largely rural, Egypt?

      Maybe in a few decades, after the inevitable catastrophic failure, it will burn itself out like Arab Nationalism, Bolshevism etc. Then we’ll see what happens.

      • Gaw
        July 5, 2012 at 19:21

        As Islam is the only political concern still going in many countries it’s sure to attract all sorts of people on the make. I bet many of them will want to come to some sort of accommodation with western ways.

        The majority of people want to live stable and prosperous lives whatever their religion; and this is a desire to be reckoned with, especially as, more than ever, they can see how things are done in the richer part of the world. As this desire is capable of moving huge numbers of enterprising people to emigrate illegally to the West, might it also move them to change how they do things at home?

        • danielkalder@yahoo.com'
          July 5, 2012 at 20:40

          Possibly, but (for example) Sayyid Qutb, the major ideologue of Islamism was educated in the US, and it left him with a horror of girls in bobby socks and American ways in general. Mursi, Egypt’s new president was educated in the US, and his wife wears the full body gown type Islamic clothing, so he was definitely not made moderate by his experience of the West. And so on.

          I agree, people want the good life, but they also want to square it with what God wants, and so much comes down to who is interpreting the will of God, and who is willing to use violence.

  8. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    July 5, 2012 at 15:12

    Of all of the befuddled judgement brigades European objects of desire the very worst has to be Gudrun Esselin and her mates. No more than a group of murderers talking gibberish, they were, and still are in some quarters, held in high esteem. Even Gerhard Richter’s over-painted photographs of the grisly crew shows sympathy, although he denies this.
    Seen by many as an inevitable backlash against an imagined police state, this seemed to excuse their behaviour. Even today some among us underpin the creepy nothingness that is Assange, for his stand against the imagined Antichrist, America.

  9. Worm
    July 5, 2012 at 18:21

    ps. lets not mention the Zizek word

    • Gaw
      July 5, 2012 at 18:56

      ‘Bollocks’! There done it.

  10. john.hh43@googlemail.com'
    John Halliwell
    July 5, 2012 at 19:22

    Michael Holroyd, in the third and final part of his magnificent biography of Bernard Shaw which, perhaps significantly, is sub-titled ‘The Lure of Fantasy’, examines his subject’s visit to Russia in 1931:

    ‘Shaw’s account of Touring in Russia is as happy a fantasy as his Joy Riding at the Front had been during the war. ‘The reason why I talk so much,’ he explained to nervous Soviet officials, ‘is not to have to listen to what other people say.’ He had grown so ingenuous at manufacturing optimism that other people’s paler ideological exercises merely stirred his ridicule. He likened the penal colony at Bolshevo to Battersea Park, salivating over its menus, applauding its entertainments and sympathizing with the criminals who ‘will not leave at the expiration of their sentences’. He congratulated all Soviet citizens engaged in compulsory labour on working for the public service and not for the private profits of a few individuals: ‘I wish we had forced labour in England,’ he added, ‘in which case we would not have 2,000,000 unemployed.’ His imagination bleached away all signs of pain and horror.’

    Shaw was accompanied on the trip by, among others, Nancy Astor and her son, David: ‘He seemed to treat this foreign country, David Astor noticed, as if it were an extension of his sitting-room. All his evidence appeared to come to him from reading rather than from observation. On train journeys he never looked out of the window at ‘the light of the sky and the sight of the fields and flowers’ without which his Saint Joan could not have continued to live.’

    My apologies to Michael Holroyd for taking a few sentences from his book, and in so doing neglecting a mass of background contained in the biography which would have set Shaw’s comments in a full and proper context. But those few sentences will hopefully give a little understanding of the background to that outrageous comment Shaw made about a famine in the Soviet Union – to which you refer, Daniel.

    GBS was clearly a remarkable man, a literary genius who, not infrequently, made a complete tit of himself.

    • danielkalder@yahoo.com'
      July 5, 2012 at 20:34

      Quality quotes, John, many thanks.

  11. Worm
    July 5, 2012 at 19:36

    Commenting doesnt get much better than that John!!

  12. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    July 5, 2012 at 20:14

    I think we can all forgive people making a tit of themselves at the time, without the full facts or benefit of hindsight. But it’s the ones who still believe in Communism after Stalin and Mao…

    • Gaw
      July 5, 2012 at 20:37

      Eric Hobsbawm for example. I once heard him say that if there actually had been a communist utopia at the end of it, Stalin’s crimes would have been worth it. I believe he’s repeated this sentiment at other times. Part of its special, perhaps psychopathic, wickedness is that it misses the moral point on at least a couple of levels.

    • danielkalder@yahoo.com'
      July 5, 2012 at 20:42

      Yes, there is idiocy, which is not a moral failing, and then there are the likes of Hobsbawm.

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