The Return of the ‘Useful Idiot’

by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, COMMENTARY

The Hamas charter calls for killing all Jews (not just Israelis), so how could it be that there are Jewish groups, such as If Not Now and  Jewish Voice for Peace, who carry water for Hamas? Hamas and other Islamist groups punish gays with death, so why are there LGBTQ+ groups that are pro-Hamas? Given the way that Iran and Islamists treat women, why do some feminists back them?

The Jewish groups are the most perplexing. Placing the blame for the barbaric terrorist attack of October 7th squarely on Israel, they are busy lobbying Congress to stop sending military aid. Anti-semitic harassment does not seem to concern them, and their rallies have led to headlines that surely make Hamas leaders gleeful: “Progressive Jewish Groups Blame Israeli ‘Apartheid’ for Hamas Violence” (Newsweek) and “Hundreds Arrested as US Jews Protest Against Israel’s Gaza Assault” (The Guardian) are but two examples.

This phenomenon is not new. Lenin supposedly called people of this sort “useful idiots” and, as the phrase suggests, he had utter contempt for them, especially the liberals of the Kadet (Constitutional Democratic) party. Although they did not themselves practice terrorism, the Kadets apologized for, even applauded, it. As with Hamas, Russian terrorists of the early 20th century reveled in cruelty. It was common to disfigure a person, often chosen at random, by throwing sulphuric acid in his face. Another favorite was to toss bombs laced with nails into a crowded café “to see how the foul bourgeois will squirm in death agony.” One group threw “traitors” into vats of boiling water.  As the leading scholar of Russian terrorism, Anna Geifman, explained, “the need to inflict pain was transformed from an abnormal irrational compulsion experienced by unbalanced personalities into a formally verbalized obligation for all revolutionaries,” as it apparently was for ISIS and is for Hamas.

How could the liberals have stomached such cruelty? Paul Milyukov, the Kadet leader, declared that “all means are now legitimate… and all means should be tried,” much as apologists for Hamas favor decolonization “by any means necessary,” including, it would seem, burning babies alive. Another Kadet official, asked to condemn such terrorism, famously replied: “Condemn terror?  That would be the moral death of our party!”

No sooner had Lenin seized power than the Bolsheviks proclaimed Kadets “outside the law,” which meant anything could be done to them. Right away two Kadet leaders were murdered in their hospital beds. Since Lenin made no secret of his plans—again, like Hamas—why did the liberals not oppose him? Even Russian capitalists contributed to the Bolsheviks and other parties sworn to destroy them!

As if not to be outdone by their Russian predecessors, some American liberals justified Stalin’s purges, the Gulag, and the starvation of millions of peasants. Other liberals objected, and so a split reminiscent of what seems to be developing today took place. Closer to our time, the radical gay cultural theorist Michel Foucault, whose ideas helped form the current academic ethos, came to back Ayatollah Khomeini. In short, we are witnessing a familiar pattern.

What explains it? What makes people useful idiots? It isn’t lack of intelligence. One is most likely to find useful idiots on the campuses of elite colleges and universities. Nor is it ignorance: Hamas is proud to broadcast its atrocities. So what then is it?

In his cycle of novels about the Russian Revolution, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn poses this very question. In one memorable scene, he describes the novel’s hero, Vorotyntsev, at a meeting of the Kadets. “They were all overwhelmingly certain that they were right, yet they needed these exchanges to reinforce their certainty,” he thinks.  And despite his better judgment, Vorotyntsev goes along with them as if he were hypnotized—not because he felt he was wrong, but out of fear of saying something reactionary.”  Today, many are unwilling to risk being called “conservative” or worse, not just to avoid the consequences that such a reputation might entail, but so as not to tarnish their sense of self, which is inextricably tied up with being on the progressive side of everything. At last, Vorotyntsev breaks free from ”the bewitchment” and speaks his mind. How wonderful it would be to get people to do the same in the present day.

Perhaps supporters of Hamas terror naively imagine that they will never find themselves the target of it. “There is reason to fear that the Revolution may, like Saturn, devour each of her children one by one,” declared the French revolutionary Pierre Verginaud at his trial, and it wasn’t long before the guillotine also claimed the revolutionaries who condemned him. Useful idiots need to use their heads before they lose their heads.

November 17, 2023 | 7 Comments »

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  1. re: NION, JVP
    There comes point where ‘useful idiot’ becomes outright enemy.
    Also, I have a book by Paul Hollander, “Political Pilgrims- Western Intellectuals in Search of the Good Society”. From 1981, but a very worthwhile read. It deals with western intellectuals (actually, mainly Gentile) who fell in love with communism from the 1920s onward and just what made them tick.

  2. Useful idiots are no joke and are as big a problem as Islamic zealots. Here in Canada we are led by the boy Trudeau, arguably the ne plus ultra of useful idiots. This is the land of only one respectable opinion in any given subject and I have reason to believe that among the CBC crowd of ignorant and righteous bien pensants, if you just scratch the surface, opinion is weighted heavily against Israel. Although their numbers are relatively small their opinions carry great weight and spread to the rest of the population like malignant cells that won’t die and won’t stop replicating. I would submit there is at least a plurality of useful idiots in Canada, perhaps a majority and if things go into the toilet the useful idiots could determine our direction.