The appalling scenes emerging from Venezuela – where the citizens of the most oil-rich country in the world have been reduced to scavenging in rubbish bins for food – should act as a cautionary tale to those inclined to project utopian aspirations onto societies they do not understand.
Just a handful of years ago the Venezuelan government was praised uncritically by much of the Western left. Today it is an embarrassment – every emaciated Venezuelan a testament to the credulity of those who once lauded Hugo Chavez as the leader of a “progressive, populist government that says no to neo-liberalism”.1
The silence that has descended upon these former revolutionary tourists has been described appositely by Jack Staples-Butler as the “great forgetting”.
The phrase ‘useful idiot’ has long been in circulation to describe naive revolutionary tourists and other ignorant dupes of foreign dictatorships. The term is commonly attributed to Lenin, though there is little evidence he ever actually used it. Instead the expression seems to have originated in the mid-twentieth century to describe social democrats who entered into popular fronts and electoral pacts with Stalinist communist parties.
Why, though, do people become full blown ‘useful idiots’ in the first place? Western admirers of despotic governments are invariably useful to said governments, hence the name. But it is more than mere stupidity that explains why citizens of relatively open societies are willing to offer up glowing appraisals of brutal political systems. The following is a rough sketch of some of the forms that this ‘useful idiocy’ frequently takes.
A commonly heard phrase – that a particular politician or movement has provided a person with ‘something to believe in’ – embodies our post-religious longing for a cause or higher purpose. Indeed, it’s not easy to shake off the framework of system-based thinking even in an avowedly secular age.
In The God That Failed the ex-communist Arthur Koestler wrote of the inner peace and serenity which settled on the mind of the communist when he or she embraced the dialectic: “The whole universe falls into pattern like the stray pieces of a jigsaw puzzle assembled by magic at one stroke”. An embrace of ideology ensures that the answer to every question is available at a stroke, with the newly acquired world view akin to a flashlight in a darkened room.
The search for meaning in an unpredictable world is probably inevitable up to a point. What is contemptible is the relegation of other human beings to pawns in the supposed historical process. The latter results in people uttering glib phrases about “omelettes not being possible without broken eggs” when bouts of mass killing threaten to undermine a favoured cause. Or ignoring inconvenient stories in countries such as Venezuela. Indeed, the rise and fall Venezuela-mania in certain circles of the Left stands as a tragic rejoinder to those who are inclined to unthinkingly seek out worthy causes overseas.
If history has a purpose, then any crime may be explained away as a necessary evil on the march to utopia. Moreover, teleological thinking of this kind can endow the believer with what Dostoevsky called the “right to dishonour”: the granting of permission to oneself to behave badly in the name of some higher ideal.
The wars unleashed during the twentieth century to prevent the Vietnamese and others from ‘going communist’ – to the point where it “became necessary to destroy the town to save it” as one United States army major famously put it – reflect this attitude. As did the Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell’s declaration in 2012 of his “huge admiration” for Augusto Pinochet on the basis that the Chilean dictator “ousted a communist regime”. Never mind that General Pinochet subsequently tortured and murdered thousands of his own people. Yet Rosindell’s logic is unimpeachable if one accepts the legitimacy of injustice in the present in the service of justice in the distant future.
Utopian thinking – whether it venerates the market or the command economy – is always liable to turn apocalyptic. During the Cuban missile crisis the Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara called on the Soviet Union to launch a first nuclear strike against the United States in order to“save the blood of more people in the future”.[4. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, Jon Lee Anderson]
The Power Worshipper
A government which grants foreign journalists privileged access to territory that is off limits to more critical voices does so because it believes they will return to their own countries and make the case for the regime in question. This tends to work because any journalist or politician singled out for such an invitation is typically vain enough to believe that they have been chosen for their fearless scepticism rather than for their credulity.
A notorious example from the twentieth century is that of George Bernard Shaw, a prominent British author and playwright. Shaw was feted by the communist authorities on his journeyings around Russia and granted a two-hour long private audience with Joseph Stalin. In October 1931 Shaw – who made a great deal of his ‘scepticism’ so far as it concerned the actions of his own government – appeared on the BBC to talk of the Soviet Union’s “atmosphere of such hope and security for the poorest as has never before been seen in a civilised country on earth”.
While Shaw was singing the praises of Stalinism the Soviet Union was gripped by a terrible – and entirely avoidable – famine. Yet the spell cast by Stalin’s flattery overpowered any potential concern on Shaw’s part for the starving peasantry.
In more recent times fringe journalists such as Vanessa Beeley have travelled to Syria only to return to Britain toeing the regime line that President Bashar al Assad is engaged in a manichean struggle against the terrorists of the Islamic State. In return for such obsequies, those like Beeley, the daughter of the late British diplomat Sir Harold Beeley, have received access to parts of Syria such as Aleppo usually denied to independent journalists.2
In normal circumstances Beeley would be considered a crank. She believes that the deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine in 2015 was a false flag operation and that Al Qaeda was not responsible for 9/11. But Beeley is useful to the Russians and their client state in Syria, and appears regularly on English language Russian State media.
The willingness of Beeley – as well as other activist-cum-journalists including Neil Clarke and John Pilger – to champion the Kremlin line has the happy side effect (for those in question at least) of opening up large media platforms denied to them by the mainstream, spreading disinformation about Russia’s blood-soaked foreign policy.
The Relativist is a person who expects other people to adhere to rules which they have little intention of abiding by themselves, or who sees no hypocrisy in viewing other people (typically foreigners) as undeserving of the rights one takes for granted for oneself.
One example is the late Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez. A long-time admirer and friend of the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, García Márquez once told The New York Times that although he supported the Cuban revolution he could never live under the communist system himself:
“I would miss too many things. I couldn’t live with the lack of information. I am a voracious reader of newspapers and magazines from around the world.”
Which begs the question: did the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude ever wonder if there were Cubans who felt the same way? Koestler likened such people to peeping toms, peering through a hole in the wall at ‘history’ while not having to experience it themselves.
There are many such people around today. They are bleeding heart moralists when it comes to the actions of the United States but cool rationalists – forever unearthing some mitigating ‘context’ – when informed about the crimes of America’s enemies.
This attitude came to the fore particularly forcefully after the attacks of 9/11. Who can forget the editorial in the New Statesman of 17 September 2001, written by the then editor Peter Wilby, which included the following passage:
“American bond traders [killed in the World Trade Center], you may say, are as innocent and undeserving of terror as Vietnamese and Iraqi peasants. Well, yes and no… They preferred George Bush to Al Gore and Ralph Nader.”
Both left-wing ‘anti-imperialism’ and traditional realism can be filed under this category. Each represents a different face of an attitude which views people as mere chess pieces in the great game of international statecraft.
For many left-wing anti-imperialists a murderous regime such as that of Bashar al Assad in Syria ought to be defended on the basis of its hostility to the United States. The latter being the most powerful capitalist – and by extension imperialist – country in the world, this logic runs that any state or movement which points an AK47 in its direction cannot be altogether bad.
A rush to exculpate the Assad regime each time it uses chemical weapons against civilians has thus become a hallmark of the anti-imperialist left,3 with pundits seeking to cast doubt on any official narrative which draws attention to the brutality of an anti-Western power. Something similar occurred in the aftermath of the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury, with activists of the far-right and far-left quickly out the blocks to cast doubt on the official narrative that the Russian state was responsible.4
The ‘realist’ on the other hand is likely to defend the likes of President Assad as a stable bulwark against the ‘chaos’ which could be unleashed along with the Syrian people’s desire for democracy. Left-wing anti-imperialism – with its all-encompassing hostility to ‘regime change’ – is often indistinguishable from this worldly-wise realism.
The appeal of Russia to many in the West is harder to comprehend today than it was during the Soviet era. For while those like Sidney and Beatrice Webb who wrote paeans in the thirties to the ‘New Civilisation’ in Moscow were credulous dupes who ought to have known better, there was at least a degree of progress hanging over the Soviet Union.
Today Russia is an economically stagnant backwater characterised by palm-greasing at home and violent chauvinism abroad. But to some, Russia’s attraction lies in the image of a pure and untainted ‘Russian Bear’ holding out against the decadent and feeble west.
As such, prominent figures from the contemporary ‘alt-right’ can be frequently heard paying tribute to Vladimir Putin who is said to embody traditional masculine virtues; virtues which have been undermined in the West by feminism and homosexuality. “I really believe that Russia is the leader of the free world right now,” the prominent American neo-Nazi Matthew Heimbach told Business Insider in 2016.
While this list is by no means exhaustive, most bouts of useful idiocy can be understood with reference to at least one of these roughly drawn ‘types’. Although, of course, many who are susceptible to one category are often also drawn to another.
I suspect many readers will wonder whether any of this matters – isn’t it obvious that such people are foolish and irresponsible? Does it really need pointing out?
The only persuasive answer to this objection is to say that it isn’t as obvious as it ought to be. There are still those left-wing politicians and activists who, to paraphrase Orwell, will flock to anything emitting a whiff of revolution “like bluebottles to a dead cat”.
The Labour leadership will faithfully turn up at a Cuba Solidarity meeting (solidarity with the dictatorship rather than the people of Cuba), while these ‘solidarity’ campaigns are propped up by some of Britain’s largest trade unions. Meanwhile, on the right of politics you are rarely far from someone who will rightly condemn any number of anti-western regimes before suddenly transforming into a cool rationalist when informed about the crimes of Saudi Arabia or the Israeli occupation.
We are probably all guilty of similar double standards from time to time. But only an incorrigible ideologue – or perhaps a congenital fool – would be entirely unconcerned by the tendency on the part of those living in liberal democracies to slip into the malignant state of useful idiocy.