A Short History of Useful Idiots

Daniel Kalder examines the phenomenon of otherwise intelligent people falling head-over-heels for murderous tyrants…

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.

8 thoughts on “A Short History of Useful Idiots

  1. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    July 22, 2014 at 10:52

    Does Duranty really fit in with the others?

    As for the intellectuals, the common thread seems to be strong ideas about the way the world should run, with not aptitude or interest for the tedious and dirty work of politics. The dream of being adviser to the strong man is simple; a plan that starts in the state legislature and words up through Congress has too many details and shows its weaknesses openly.

    Plato and Aristotle served tyrants in various ways, didn’t they? I don’t remember Plato’s patron, but Alexander left some impressive piles of dead behind him. Napoleon exercised great fascination on persons who should have known better, and one can go on multiplying examples.

  2. Worm
    July 22, 2014 at 13:48

    Can it not be said that there’s a higher chance of this stuff happening when the old ‘ivory tower’ thing comes into play, and otherwise intelligent people like the ones mentioned, who live in academia or similar fields, propound their ideas in an echo-chamber of other equally removed souls, until they collectively come to incredibly stupid outcomes

    • george.jansen55@gmail.com'
      July 22, 2014 at 18:21

      Some of the classic cases from the 1930s were expensively educated, but the names one thinks of were not affiliated with universities: one thinks of Shaw, Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Malcolm Cowley, none of them academics One could add the Webbs, but on the other hand Muggeridge said that the Mrs. thought a bit of disappearance did society good.

  3. srk35@cam.ac.uk'
    Sophie King
    July 22, 2014 at 15:28

    If you want a steady supply of useful idiots to gawp at I can’t recommend Russia Today highly enough.

    • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
      July 22, 2014 at 16:45

      Idiots indeed Sophie, usefully turning the Ukraine into a Detroit in the east and lessening the chances of it being allowed into the European union, unless those less than useful idiots in Brussels allow them in. Idiocy goes around and comes around, generally with a BA after it’s name, in the worst possible scenario an MA when we best head for the fallout shelter.

      Well educated and balanced four rungs further up the ladder than their ability is a useful description.

        • johngjobling@googlemail.com'
          July 22, 2014 at 18:18

          For good measure, throw in the Harvard MBA, a piece of paper entitling it’s owners to wreck the balance sheet.

  4. pete_williamson@hotmail.co.uk'
    July 28, 2014 at 23:30

    Here’s dear old Tony Benn on dear old Mao Tse Tung –

    Had a long talk to the Chinese First Secretary at the embassy — a very charming man called Liao Dong — and said how much I admired Mao Tse tung or Zedong, the greatest man of the twentieth century. He said that I couldn’t admire Mao more than he did. I asked him how Mao was viewed now. He said Mao was 70 per cent right and 30 per cent wrong; the Cultural Revolution didn’t work. He said he had been named after Mao — it was amusing.

    Journal entry for 6 June 1996 in Free at Last!: Diaries, 1991-2001 (2003) p.371

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