Forgetting Orwell’s Lessons for the Left: Useful Idiots and Fellow Travelers in the 21st Century



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George Orwell was a complex individual whose political ideology is difficult to precisely define. His writings have been usurped and his statements rehashed by countless polemicists on the left and right. His most well-known works—Animal Farm and 1984—describe dystopian worlds where the state has sublimated the individual. Orwell was a British imperial civil-servant in Burma, a volunteer in the international struggle against Spanish fascism and a propagandist for the U.K. during WWII. He was also a socialist. These experiences influenced his perception of political events and his writings about these events.

After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, left-wing activists and authors flocked to the insurgent Soviet Union to view the accomplishments of the revolution first-hand. John Reed is the most well known but numerous authors, intellectuals and journalists made their way to the USSR. A few were not pleased with what they saw.

In the U.K., a distinctly anti-Leninist, democratic socialist milieu allowed the space for critique of capitalism and Soviet totalitarianism. In addition to democratic socialists like Orwell, anarchists including Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman and Vsevolod Mikhailovich Eichenbaum (“Voline“) penned numerous articles, pamphlets and books decrying the emergence of a totalitarian regime in Russia (Voline’s, The Persecutions of the Anarchists in Soviet Russia, was published in 1922 [?], Goldman’s My Disillusionment in Russia in 1923, Berkman’s The Bolshevik Myth in 1925.)

Lenin thought so highly of Western apologists for the Soviet Union that he evidently coined a term for them, “useful idiots,” while Communists in the West were deemed “fellow travelers.” Both groups provided intellectual, moral and material support to totalitarians: the former unwittingly, the latter willingly. Those in the socialist camp who disagreed with Lenin were denigrated as “infantile leftists” just as Marx had belittled his libertarian opponents as “utopian.”

Orwell’s experiences in Spain led him to be highly critical of Stalinism. When he returned to the U.K. he wondered why relatively wealthy people who enjoyed economic and political freedom would support radical ideologies that would render both individual wealth and human freedom an impossibility. His personal experiences led him to write Homage to Catalonia (1938) while his concern with the broader questions of totalitarianism and democracy led him to write both Animal Farm (1946) and 1984 (1949).

For Orwell, the obvious threat was totalitarianism in both its left and right wing guises. Concurrently, he felt that British passivity in the face of Nazism amounted to appeasement: “Appeasement is like feeding a crocodile in the hope that he will eat you last.” In Orwell’s time, most of the opposition to fighting Nazism was emanating from British pacifists and Communists. In an essay titled “Pacifism and the War” he argues that pacifism in the face of fascist aggression is pro-fascist, “Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you
automatically help that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one…”

Orwell’s critics remarked that “according to this type of reasoning, a German or Japanese pacifist would be ‘objectively pro-British.’”

What was Orwell’s reply?

“[O]f course it would be! That is why pacifist activities are not permitted in those countries (in both of them the penalty is, or can be, beheading) while both the Germans and the Japanese do all they can to encourage the spread of fascism in Britain and American territories…In so far as it takes effect at all, pacifist propaganda can only be effective against those countries where a certain amount of freedom of speech is permitted; in other words it is helpful to totalitarianism.”

For Orwell, such reasoning is the result of a “bourgeois illusion bred of money and security.” Orwell did not disparage middle-class Englishmen who supported a military power that sought to destroy them and their way of life. To the contrary, he supported their right to free speech. However, he was incensed by the “intellectual cowardice” of those who were objectively—if not actually—pro-fascist but ignored this intellectual linkage and instead took “refuge behind the formula ‘I am just as anti-fascist as anyone but…’” Today, the extreme left doesn’t even bother claiming, “I do not support Islamist extremists but…” Instead, they call for victory by the “resistance”.

In a similar fashion, some who support the GWOT —particularly those on the right—have been claiming that those who voice their opposition to the current war are appeasers of Islamic fascism. To a certain extent, I agree. However, I think a more apt analogy than appeasers would be “fellow travelers” or “useful idiots.” The appeaser believes that the best way to ensure international peace—or at least peace in his neck of the woods—is to allow totalitarians to oppress their own domestic populations.

The useful idiot and fellow traveler, by contrast, truly believe that western capitalist democracies are qualitatively and quantitatively worse than authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. Mention political prisoners in the PRC and they bring up Guantanamo. Mention the hundreds of thousands killed in a Darfur and they bring up police misconduct in the inner cities. Mention kangaroo courts in Cuba and they bring up Lynne Stuart. And so it goes…

By the 1960s, the New Left was burned out on Soviet-style totalitarianism and became enticed by the national liberation struggles occurring in the Third World. Organizations like the Beider-Menhoff gang/Red Army Faction (RAF) in Germany and Revolutionary Cells in Italy engaged in terrorism against democratic states they denigrated as “fascist.” At the same time the German RAF supported Palestinian terrorists in their murders of Israelis at home (Munich, 1972) and abroad (Entebbe, 1976).

Like Lenin and the Communists—from the Russian Revolution until the collapse of the USSR in the 1990s—Islamists have their contingents of useful idiots and fellow travelers in the halls of academia and the press. Granted, the situation in the US is not nearly as bad as in Europe. However, the familiar knee-jerk anti-American rhetoric of Noam Chomsky and Arundati Roy has crept into mainstream political discourse. Today, people like Chomsky, Roy, Michael Moore, Tariq Ali and Alexander Cockburn may best be described as the lslamists useful idiots and fellow travelers. Moore is a particularly easy target, “The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not “insurgents” or “terrorists” or “The Enemy.” They are the REVOLUTION, the Minutemen, and their numbers will grow — and they will win.”

And of course there are no lack of pundits on the far left—Cockburn, Ward Churchill—who claim that America got what it deserved in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. London’s useful idiots and fellow travelers are making similar claims today. Never mind the fact that a majority of the victims in both attacks were working class folks and that a good percentage of those murdered were immigrants or people of color.

While he may not have recognized its importance at the time, Orwell—and the UK in general—was privileged in having a libertarian, anti-Leninist, socialist tradition. This led some socialists and most anarchists to have a healthy dose of skepticism when the Bolsheviks were victorious in Russia. By the time The Bolshevik Myth and My Disillusionment in Russia were published, one would be hard-pressed to find any anarchist who empathized with the revolutionary vision of the Bolsheviks. For the socialists it would take a bit more than the polemics of disenchanted anarchists. But when Hitler began the Blitz and the bombs started raining down on London only the most suicidal would claim that the best policy was neutrality in the face of fascist aggression.

One wonders where the anarchists and other libertarian socialists are today? Yes there are some voices of reason, Paul Berman, the Eustonites, the writers at Democratiya and a few other places. What’s most interesting is the visibility of intellectuals who experienced totalitarianism first-hand and their perceptions of the current war against Islamic totalitarianism. Most of these individuals support it.

Of course one can see the left-wing anarchists at the rallies and demonstrations organized by the totalitarian left. One can read their polemics against American imperialism and transnational capitalism. However, when it comes to Islamist imperialism and transnational terrorism–i.e actually existing totalitarianism–the silence is deafening. Where are the Goldmans, the Berkmans, the Volines of today?

8 responses »

  1. I don’t think your characterization of the anarchist position–that we’re silent “Islamist imperialism and transnational terrorism”–is fair. For example, here’s a piece that I co-authored after September 11 that advances a fuller position: I also think that Bill Weinberg is a good example of someone who opposes authoritarianism in all its forms (I haven’t read much of his work, but I’m pretty sure). Anarchists typically focus on fighting their own governments. So, if you’re reading material in English, you’ll read more about the American government than the Iranian (for example), but that doesn’t mean that anarchists aren’t fighting back in Iran (they are).

  2. Thanks for the comment, Chuck. I’ll definitely have a look at your post.

    I was involved with the anarchist movement for quite a while and am simply speaking from my experience(s). My first general point is that anarchists are marching, rallying and engaging in protests with the totalitarian left whereas in the past, anarchists would have been fighting these scumbags in the streets. My second point is anarchists seem more concerned about liberal capitalism than Islamist totalitarianism. A big mistake, IMHO.

    Yes, Bill is definitely against all forms of authoritarianism and is a swell guy. I linked to Bill’s website and “Three Way Fight” (you should check them out) in another article. I disagree with both of them but think they are good folks.

    Here is the article:

    Does Anti-Imperialism Trump Anti-Totalitarianism?

    A more contentious point–and I think this is much more important–is that liberal capitalist regimes provide the breathing space for libertarian socialists to “create a new world in the shell of the old.” I realize this is a controversial claim.

    “This is not to argue that liberal capitalism is the end all, be all. However, liberal capitalism at least provides the opportunity for the construction of that free space that libertarians strive to provide as an example of building a new world in the shell of the old, to borrow that wonderful I.W.W. slogan. Liberal capitalism provides the potential to start a revolutionary-syndicalist local, infoshops, and other counter-institutions that many libertarian socialists view as necessary.”

  3. Yah, I read this piece when it first came out and just read it again. Your point is of course valid (at least in my opinion) and is also something that anyone remotely familiar with Orwell would realize as likely being his position today.

    I do however believe that there are two major lacuna in all of our ramblings on the subject.

    1. Chickenhawking.

    It’s easy as hell being in favor of this war when you don’t have to pay any price for it. The “volunteer” army is actually no such thing, it’s an army composed almost entirely of people who would not join were they members of the wealthier classes. These, in fact, are people who are submitting to temporary slavery, extreme discomfort and a strong likelihood of being casualitied because they see all of the wonders of what they’re told by every media venue is “The American Dream” and they know that their best chance of getting within ogling distance of it is by joining up with the armed forces. Were they the daughters or sons of the architects of the war – all people of some means – they would be “fighting for their country” by going off to some ivy league school and writing for the “Campus Republican” or they might inherit some cushy job handed to them on a platter and rail with patriotism and a bosom full of freedom about the need to fight Islamo-fascism while they righteously write a big check to some soldiers’ cause.

    2. Competence.

    Capitalists or not, we all know that if your goal is the generation of wealth and the invention of cooler and cooler gadgets for cheaper – aint nothin’ gonna work like free-market capitalism. Or at least, to be exact, nothing to date has been shown to work even remotely as well as capitalism. Why? Because greed is good. Cut-throat competition is Darwin smiling from ear to ear. The best ideas are selected and the rest allowed to languish until they die. Heartwarming it may not be, but you can’t argue with its effectiveness.

    Our political system however ensures that no such “fight for survival” takes place in the halls of power when it comes to deciding how the war will be won. The Congresscritters have precious few of their (precious) critters in this fight and thus the safety of our troops and decisive victory are matters that may be appreciated by these men but they are rarely matters that keep them awake at night with a knot in their stomachs and an urge to heave.

    The political system is awash with the only sort of characters who can survive it – careerist hacks. Competence in governance is unimportant, fundraising is. The ability to grant favors to wealthy political supporters without ending up behind bars in the single most important talent required for becoming an elected official. Being able to lambast your opponents through the carefully crafted words of your professional “opponent researcher” is more importance than any innate eloquence or erudition of your own. Tactics are rewarded with electoral success and character is worth less than a plug nickel.

    And eventually, after years and years of standing by idly watching this political system play kingmaker we arrive its pinnacle of success, George Walker Bush.

    It takes a special man to have so successfully fucked up what should indeed have been something approximating a cake walk. His inability is stupendous. The breadth of his knowledge microscopic. His bona fides for being our Commander in Chief – nil.

    And no one with the ability to do so tries to stop him. No one pushes him from the saddle. No one speaks a bad word about him (what with their being them dirty Democrats out there to argue with).

    And so –

    we arrive at a situation where we are indeed stuck in a quagmire of the most disgusting sort and the dumber among our human relatives fail to see our failure (that IS what it is, btw) as being the result of an incompetent leadership but rather as our having fought a war that was unwinable and that should never have been started in the first place. Yes, they’re dumb. Had we have had a Churchill, a Begin or a Washington at our helm and would thus have been victorious and ushered in a truly new age in the Middle East, these same people would be greater supporters of that war than any of us are today. They’d be throwing parades, wearing flag pins, traveling the world in order to be admired in person and liberating despotic countries around the globe. But they don’t realize that. They have little imagination for that. They know what is, know that it sucks and believe that this is the very best that it could possibly have been. They know that we have cut-throat capitalism in this land when it comes to selling widgets so they assume that this must be the case (only more so) when it comes to the question of who assumes the thrones of power in our “Democracy” – the absolutely Most Qualified is invariably elected. It’s the less qualified ones that are all weeded out by the electoral process. And furthermore – in the great halls of power, all of the finest and smartest and most learned and most experienced minds come together to decide on our war strategies. And again, it’s the very best ideas that prevail and it’s the very best and most capable people who subsequently implement them.

    And, despite this, Iraq is failing. And That’s why they believe that we should fight this war no more.

    If we are to convince them otherwise, these two issues must be addressed, and must be rectified.


  4. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, mnunez.

    However, I think the term “chickenhawk” is, frankly, pretty weak. The vast majority of the people who use this term feel you can’t be pro-military if you don’t (or didn’t) serve in the military. This is nonsensical. After all, to be for “law and order” must one serve in the police? Of course not. Same with the military.

    As you are aware, many officials in the Pentagon are civilians. We can debate whether this is good or bad. I think it is more preferable than having the military dictate policy (as opposed to military strategy and tactics), as was often the case in Latin America.

    Your claim about the class composition of the military does not hold up to close scrutiny. If you have any evidence to support your claim, I am very interested.

    Have a look at this report produced by The Heritage Foundation:

    Who Bears the Burden? Demographic Characteristics of U.S. Military Recruits Before and After 9/11
    by Tim Kane, Ph.D.
    Center for Data Analysis Report #05-08

    In a New York Times op-ed on Decem­ber 31, 2002, Representative Charles Rangel (D, NY) claimed, “A disproportionate number of the poor and members of minority groups make up the enlisted ranks of the military, while most priv­ileged Americans are underrepresented or absent.” This claim is frequently repeated by crit­ics of the war in Iraq. Aside from the logical fal­lacy that a draft is less offensive to justice than a voluntary policy, Rangel’s assertions about the demographic makeup of the enlisted military are not grounded in fact…

    We found that recruits tend to come from mid­dle-class areas, with disproportionately fewer from low-income areas. Overall, the income dis­tribution of military enlistees is more similar to than different from the income distribution of the general population…

    According to the 2000 Census, the national median income per household in 1999 was $41,994 in 1999 dollars. By assigning each recruit the median 1999 household income for his hometown ZIP code, we calculated that the mean 1999 income for 1999 recruits before entering the military was $41,141 (in 1999 dollars). The mean 1999 income for 2003 recruits was $42,822 (in 1999 dollars). In other words, on average, recruits in 2003 were from wealthier neighborhoods than were recruits in 1999.”

    Check it out. There are other reports with similar findings. As far as data and evidence supporting the other side, I am not aware of it. Lots of unfounded claims, but very little evidence. If you know of any studies produced by social scientists, please let me know.

    Take it easy and have a nice weekend.

  5. “We found that recruits…”

    Jesus Horatio Christ. I hope that’s part of a cut n’ paste and you aren’t implying that you personally engaged in this research. That would be a pretty long journey for a former anarchist to have taken, bro!

    Anyhow, I was of course aware of this study and therefore – despite the fact that I find it to be at least a little bit disingenuous – I said absolutely nothing in my comment that would be contradicted by it. If you read my post closely I think that you’ll see that.

    I know that politicians are supposed to answer the question that they “wish they had been asked” but, as you of course know, that would be nothing more than propping up a strawman to demolish. And I fear that in your haste to defend the economic system that makes this sad human state possible (of people risking life and limb so that they can pay for college) you seem to have engaged in this sort of rhetorical political maneuver.

    So again, though I don’t buy the impression that this study aims to foster, I won’t spend any time refuting any of those impressions being as nothing in my comment was in any way dependant on its findings not being accurate.



    P.S. It saddens me to see you walking down Hitchens Lane. Just because the “Left” appears to have some really loud voices of insanity emanating from its midst nowadays doesn’t mean that it’s intellectually wise to start identifying with the Right. When almost all of Hitch’s writings regarding current affairs pertain to the Single issue where the right happens to be correct, you can’t blame people for miscategorizing him.

    As for me, I don’t care for what labels or directions happen to be attached to any particular view at any time but I do recognize that just because I happen to be allied with the Michigan Militia on the matter of Iraq or with Ayn Rand on the matter of one’s personal attitude or with Hugo Chavez on the dangers and evils of capitalism – doesn’t make any of these people my friend and in no way makes it even slightly likely that I’ll start to see other issues their way as well, simply because we happen to be allied together against the world on any single particular issue.

  6. As you may have noticed, rhetoric is not that impressive to me, data and evidence are.

    You write:

    “So again, though I don’t buy the impression that this study aims to foster, I won’t spend any time refuting any of those impressions being as nothing in my comment was in any way dependant on its findings not being accurate.”

    Check it out, these are your words:

    “The “volunteer” army is actually no such thing, it’s an army composed almost entirely of people who would not join were they members of the wealthier classes. These, in fact, are people who are submitting to temporary slavery…”

    Your position is pretty clear to me and the study I linked to certainly challenges this perspective. There are others. This is just one of many. Again, if you know of *any* studies that refute this–studies by social scientists, not simply opinion–I am very open to changing my mind. Just because something conforms or confirms our particular ideological perspective does not mean it is correct.

    If not, we can agree to disagree.

    • Hi,

      thanks for the article. I found it looking for some answers to a question which haunts me.

      Why are othetwise hardcore libertarians so willing to cut some slack to Mr. Putin & Co ?

      Even those who otherwise appear reasonable are just useful idiots parroting Russian disinformation and demagoguery. Same can be told about Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya.

      Easy political points? from all sorts of” disidents”?
      Common enemy – western democracy?
      Simple cowardice or naivete?

      Well, you helped answer a few. Thanks

  7. Pingback: Meaningless Terms: Chickenhawk « The New Centrist

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