The Blog

Useful Idiots: Captive Minds, Empty Heads

The causes and cures of a common political disorder.

3:10 PM, Sep 3, 2010 • By MICHAEL WEISS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The BBC World Service recently broadcast a two-part investigative documentary, hosted by John Sweeney, on the useful idiot, a concept that Lenin didn’t invent so much as expropriate to denote the semi-witting accomplices of Western imperialism.  Although more frequently employed in the service of deriding apologists of the totalitarian system Lenin created, the phenomenon to which useful idiocy alludes is transferable to any and all modern tyrannies.  (The closely related concept of ‘fellow traveler’ is not nearly as fungible because it still retains the definition Trotsky intended in Literature and Revolution—that of being a halfway-there Bolshevik whose political future was as yet undecided by historical circumstances.)  The Sweeney documentary examines the Soviet Union, Red China, apartheid South Africa, and Ba’athist Iraq, and while all interviewees and case studies are well chosen, one is still left feeling unenlightened as to the etiology of this troubling condition. What causes useful idiocy, and how is it that so many sufferers are eventually cured? 

Useful Idiots: Captive Minds, Empty Heads

A common precipitant is a broad ideological sympathy with the long-term goals of a tyrannical state matched by an incuriosity about measuring its touted claims with tangible reality. Very often this isn’t entirely the sympathizer’s fault as the state makes every effort to mask its deformities and keep the fantasy in tact. “I was taken around and shown things,” a very candid Doris Lessing tells Sweeney. “I can’t understand why I was so gullible.” The Potemkin dupe may have begun with Catherine the Great, but it is a more rampant species in the twentieth century. None has grimly excelled or exceeded the category better than Maxim Gorky.

Lenin’s favorite novelist had spent the formative early years of the Soviet Union on the isle of Capri and thus counts as something of a Westernized observer to his native Russia. After being welcomed home by an ingratiating Stalin, then badly in need of writers who hadn’t been arrested or shot, Gorky paid a visit to the notorious penal colony at Solovki in order to see how counter-revolutionaries were being rehabilitated by the state. The wretched reality of the place been masked in advance—with well-fed guards dressed up as prisoners—save for one minor oversight. Within three hundred yards of where Gorky and his retinue had alighted, a ship docked at Popov Island was being loaded up by a visibly bedraggled gang of real inmates. Of this infamous episode in useful idiocy, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes:

Where can this disgraceful spectacle—these men dressed in sacks—be hidden?  The entire journey of the great Humanist will have been for naught if he sees them now. Well, of course, he will try hard not to notice them, but help him! Drown them in the sea? They will wail and flounder. Bury them in the earth? There’s no time. No, only a worthy son of the Archipelago could find a way out of this one. The work assigner ordered, “Stop work! Close ranks! Still closer! Sit down on the ground! Sit still!” And a tarpaulin was thrown over them. “Anyone who moves will be shot!”

This crude deception may have gone unnoticed by Gorky (though it'd be good to know what he thought those human-shaped objects under the tarpaulin were), but the unscripted encounter that followed left little to the airbrushed imagination. While touring the children’s quarters, he was cornered by a fourteen year-old prisoner who proceeded to tell him of the day-to-day horrors of Solovki being kept from view. Gorky, writes Solzhenitsyn, left in tears, only then to register in the visitor’s book his ecstatic praise for the “vigilant and tireless sentinels of the Revolution.” (The boy was later shot.)  Gorky had managed to work himself out and then back into a fantasy within the space of minutes or hours. How?  We can see the self-preservation instinct easily enough in his decision: He knew that popularizing what he’d been told would result in his own imprisonment or death. But, like all artists in a patronage system, Gorky probably also felt that his reputation rested on catering to certain level of expectation. The very fact of his celebrity under Stalinism was proof enough against his possessing the courage needed to put that celebrity to good use. Gorky went on to author a famously bad book about the White Sea-Baltic Canal, built wholly by slave labor and to little economic benefit to the state, that argued in favor of the rehabilitation of enemies of the people, a claim, needless to say, never borne out by Soviet parole statistics.

Gorky is an extreme case since he was granted relatively unrestricted access to the Soviet Union. Yet for most Western comrades eager to see exactly what they’d come to see in the workers’ paradise, their powers of deduction seldom make it through customs. And for those who did return unimpressed or horrified, posterity owes them a great deal of credit for peering beyond an illusion or cretinous euphemism to provide much needed evidence against interest. “All right, I see all the broken eggs,” the Romanian fellow traveler Panait Istrati was given to remark to his minders in tour of Russia in 1927. “Now where’s this omelet of yours?”  The resentment that accrues in a certain type of personality that senses it is being flattered or taken advantage of, as if by a conjurer’s trick, is an indispensable expedient in curing useful idiocy.  Not by coincidence, the greatest example of a dupe turned skeptic of Communism was himself an amateur magician.

Edmund Wilson toured the Soviet Union in 1936 for the purpose of writing a book whose problematic premise advertised itself in the very title, Travels in Two Democracies. The first half was devoted to the United States, the second half to its imminent wartime ally. Wilson, who during the Depression had advocated the state ownership of the means of production—“tak[ing] Communism away from the Communists,” as he put it in Herbert Croly’s New Republic—described Moscow as “the moral top of the world where the light never really goes out.” By that he did not refer to the interrogation lamps in the Lubyanka.  Such progressive fever was followed and enabled by a literal one. Having taken ill on his sojourn, Wilson spent some time in a hospital, which experience led him to write favorably about the Soviet health care system. Still, the great critic was capable of some lucidity. Wilson spotted the early contours of Stalin’s personality cult, at one point joking to the photographer Paul Strand at a Moscow travel agency that “Comrade Stalin has just stepped out of the toilet,” “Comrade Stalin is at home with a severe headache.” A professional apprehension of bad writing also gave him the ability to see what an orchestrated deceit the Moscow Show Trials were and to guess correctly that Stalin was behind the murder of state functionary Sergey Kirov, whose assassination curtain-raised the Great Terror.  Though Wilson would go on to write To the Finland Station, a brilliant intellectual survey of socialist thought that hewed closely to a determinist conception of history, his overall impressions of the Soviet Union were sufficiently cold that the authorities informed him that he needn’t apply for a visa again.  (He still admired Lenin, however, earning him a stern rebuke from his friend and correspondent Vladimir Nabokov, who described the founding Bolshevik as “a pail of the milk of human kindness with a dead rat floating at the bottom.”)  After Travels in Two Democracies came out, Wilson repudiated Communism tout court, spending the remainder of the thirties persuading—or failing to persuade—the New York smart set that Russia hadn’t “even the beginnings of democratic institutions” and was instead subject to “totalitarian domination by a political machine.”  He took his rejection of state power so far that he ineptly applied the moral lessons of Stalinism to the American Civil War, comparing the Kremlin mountaineer to another perceived dictator working on behalf of a better tomorrow: Abraham Lincoln. 

Of course, domination by a political machine, or a single politician, is precisely what some people liked about Stalinism. Another mutation of the useful idiot gene, found especially among members of the left-wing intelligentsia, evinces a secret lust for gangsterism or brutality.  Malcolm Muggeridge’s friend and biographer Richard Ingrams tells Sweeney of how the famous journalist made an abortive attempt to emigrate to Russia in 1932 only to realize upon arrival that he was far off the mark of utopia. When Muggeridge complained that people were being arrested and killed willy-nilly in Moscow, this vice was swiftly transmuted into a virtue by his relative, Beatrice Webb, co-author with her husband Sidney of Soviet Communism: A new civilisation?, whose subsequent editions dropped that tremulous question mark.  According to Ingrams, “Malcolm thought that actually she was quite keen about that because she would like to have the same power.... The idea that if people disagreed with you or made a lot of trouble, they could disappear - from her point of view, that was quite nice.”  And of the myriad ways in which Alger Hiss disappointed Whittaker Chambers during their common stint as Soviet spies was to say about all those “liquidations” in the motherland, “Joe Stalin certainly plays for keeps.” This not only underscored Hiss’s raw ignorance of the Marxist diminution of the role of the individual in history, it also indicated a wolfish satisfaction with how opponents were dispensed with in undemocratic regimes.

“If only I could do that!” is the most sadistic motive in a useful idiot’s tool-kit.  However, masochism can also play a part, particularly in the age of sacred terror. Those who want to hurt themselves are very more likely to want to hurt others like themselves. Is it a coincidence that the British journalist Yvonne Ridley converted to Islam after being taken hostage by the Taliban, and then wrote enviously of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s terrorist-murders of fellow Jordanians who were ‘collaborating’ with the West?  Now, as if to embody the truest marriage between the captive mind and the empty head, Ridley presents on the Iranian state-controlled Press TV, the mullahs’ answer to CNN, which forces all women presenters and guests to don a hijab. This channel, which has a bureau in London, once featured excerpts of an interview with Maziar Bahari, the Newsweek journalist who was jailed and tortured in Tehran for 118 days for doing his job—covering the June 2009 presidential “election.” Bahari explained to Sweeney that he was under severe duress, blindfolded and on his knees, when this charade of journalism took place and that many of the questions his interviewer asked in fact came from his interrogator. As for the Green Revolution, Press TV considered the democratic protesters who were bludgeoned and shot and arrested the true instigators of violence.

By nice coincidence, one of the surest psychological safeguards against useful idiocy is the ability to diagnose oneself with just this sort of latent predisposition toward violence and to find a healthier outlet for it. George Orwell once told Arthur Koestler that when he lay in the bath in the morning he thought of tortures for his enemies, which is about what one would expect to hear of the inventor of Room 101’s paralyzing torments. Yet Koestler’s reply was more revealing still coming from the creator of Nicholas Salmanovich Rubashov: “That’s funny, because when I’m lying in my bath I think of tortures for myself.”

Finally, there is simply the matter of a mendacious or mercenary character, which judges lying as more expedient or profitable than telling the truth. Mendacious ideologues won’t ‘break’ simply because evidence and argument don’t matter to them; theirs is a metaphysical politics that typically worsens with age. In this category we find Jean-Paul Sartre once saying that even if all the worst disclosures about the gulag could be verified, they should be shut up because knowledge of them would drive the French proletariat into a state of despair.  More recently, Tony Blair’s sister-in-law, Lauren Booth, has described Gaza as a ‘concentration camp’ where there currently exists ‘a humanitarian crisis on the scale of Darfur’, doing so just back from a trip to the Hamas-run littoral where she was photographed patronising a well-stocked food shop. 

As for the mercenary tendency of the useful idiot, it is perhaps worth recalling that paid agents were considered the lowest form of “illegals” by even the unscrupulous theorists of Russian intelligence. The NKVD and the GPU preferred their spies to be romantic radicals, New Dealers and antifascists needing that extra little push to become accomplices of the Kremlin. One such case was that of Laurence Duggan, a State Department official who began passing sensitive documents to his Russian handler in 1936 after a much belaboured ‘recruitment’ effort. But when the purges of so many ‘Trotskyite-fascist’ elements who yesterday were considered great heroes of the Revolution stirred Duggan’s conscience, he decided to quit the double life altogether. A cynic might conclude that buying him off would have been easier, but in fact he took grave offense at the insinuated offer to do so.  Cultivating principled useful idiots has always been a higher priority for tyrannies than investing in hirelings, not just because the former don’t charge for their services but because they’re not going to take their business to a higher bidder or provide bogus material to keep a nice sinecure going. Moscow Centre discovered to its chagrin a few months ago the risk that accompanies such compensation. The use value was negligible while the only real idiot was Russia herself.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers