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

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 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers