The question that John Sweeney’s programme posed was interesting: why have so many seemingly intelligent people turned themselves into apologists for terrible, brutal, murderous regimes?
Harold Pinter defended Slobodan Milosevic. Noam Chomsky sided with Pol Pot’s Cambodian regime. Tony Benn doubted Solidarnosc’s trade union credentials. Jean-Paul Sartre refused to back an investigation into Russian slave labour camps. Vanessa Redgrave’s WRP took Libyan money. The SWP explained away the Taleban’s policy on women. George Galloway prostrated himself in front of Saddam.
There is a long list of “useful idiots” — prominent people who either directly, or effectively, place themselves at the disposal of monsters, and use their reputations as cover for brutality.
But even before Sweeney’s radio programme starts there is irony. The BBC’s blurb attributes the term “useful idiots” to Lenin. They say it is, “supposedly Lenin’s [phrase]”. In fact there is no evidence that Lenin ever said or used the term “useful idiots”.
The blurb says that the term “refers to Westerners duped into saying good things about bad regimes.” Which implies Lenin “duped people” into supporting a “regime” — the early Soviet Russian state — which he knew to be bad.
Hence the BBC’s listings writer has turned his or herself into a “useful idiot” of all those who want to make Lenin a Stalinist. In fact cultivating useful idiots was a project of the Stalinist states and their outposts in the West, the “Communist” parties, not Lenin. “Useful idiot” implies cynicism, contempt and manipulation, and has Stalinist roots.
Self-confessed former “useful idiot” Jonathan Mirsky described a visit to Mao’s China and being shown “Potemkin” schools during the Cultural Revolution. Apparently all schools were shut in China, except for these model schools, open to show gullible Westerners how good life was. He says he was told that there was no crime in China — and dutifully he and other (highly educated) journalists wrote it down and believed (or at least regurgitated) the lie. A guide from that tour later admitted that the state had wanted to “put rings in your noses, and you helped us.”
So the question is: why would intelligent people allow themselves to become propaganda tools of a state which allowed at least 30 million people to starve to death during the “Great Leap Forward”? Clearly part of the answer is that some “useful idiots” have wanted to believe the lies they are told. Which begs a further question: why would someone want to believe that the deranged Mao regime, for example, deserved their complicit silence or support from direct lies? Sweeney’s programme suggests that left-influenced intellectuals who see imperfections in their own societies find comfort in the belief that something better exists elsewhere.
Sweeney claims useful idiots are not just from the left. Ted Heath, Tory Prime Minister, enjoyed the flattery of the Chinese state enough to become their useful idiot in the 1970s. Listening, I am vaguely reminded of the obsequiousness, bag carrying and platform-providing that Socialist Action use to manipulate labour movement figures in the UK.
Sweeney is less convincing when he presents right-wing commentator Bruce Anderson as a useful idiot for Pinochet’s Chilean fascist regime. What Anderson says is genuinely shocking: that the overthrow of democracy and murder of “less than 4000” people (including some who “were innocent”) was a price worth paying to stop the spread of Communism. Nevertheless Anderson is neither naive nor in anyway conflicted — two things that might mark out a real “useful idiot” — he just is a nasty, rational right-winger.
Tony Benn provides a crystal-clear example of the verbal method of the bog-standard useful idiot when he praises Mao and his economic/social policy for developing China. Leaving aside the fact that this is laughable jibberish (for example, the Cultural Revolution destroyed the Chinese education system), Benn only offers mealy-mouthed criticism when pushed hard (Wasn’t Mao a mass murderer? It turns out Benn did not approve of everything Mao did).
In another category of useful idiot is George Galloway. Galloway is different because of the way self-interest and self-promotion is bound up with his toadying. Sweeney considers his relationship with Press TV, the English-language voice of the barbaric Iranian state (Galloway has a programme on Press TV). An Iranian journalist explained how he was tortured in jail and how Press TV collaborated with his interrogators inside the prison. A former Press TV worker stated that the station only presents the regime’s viewpoint.
Galloway refused to appear on the programme, as did Galloway’s comrade, Yvonne Ridley. In a written statement Ridley used an argument that is often heard on the British left: that the BBC’s Director General has turned himself into a useful idiot for the British state and its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a defence of Press TV it is pretty stupid (because it admits Press TV is a voice of the Iranian state, simply alleging that the BBC is just as bad). As John Sweeney points out as he ends the programme, the BBC does not only give the government’s point of view, and does not collaborate with torturers. One-nil to Sweeney.