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?
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.