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Useful Idiots: Captive Minds, Empty Heads

The causes and cures of a common political disorder.

3:10 PM, Sep 3, 2010 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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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. 

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