Friday, June 04, 2021

Useful idiots from Bernard Shaw to President Michael D Higgins

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), Irish playwright, at home on his deathbed. A picture of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin is on the mantelpiece. Associated Press

Below, John McDonnell MP, then a senior British Labour Party politician in the House of Commons in 2015, reading quotes from Chinese dictator Mao Zedong's Little Red Book

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2007 was awarded to Doris Lessing (1919-2013), "that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny."

In 1952 the British writer was part of a delegation visiting the Soviet Union. Her memories of the trip were clear and unforgiving according to a BBC documentary in 2010: “I was taken around and shown things as a ‘useful idiot’... that’s what my role was. I can’t understand why I was so gullible.”

Lessing was a member of the Communist Party in British-ruled Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1942-1944, and a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1952-1956.

When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in the October Revolution of 1917, Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), the British philosopher, logician, essayist and social critic, saw it as “one of the great heroic events of the world’s history.”

Russell was a socialist and he visited Russia in May 1920 as part of a British Labour delegation. The group was in the country for a month. He understood that the new rulers were facing huge challenges but the problem was not communism in itself, he questioned the wisdom of holding a creed such as Marxism so firmly that for its sake men are willing to inflict widespread misery.

Russell would later write in the second volume of his autobiography that his time in Soviet Russia was one of “continually increasing nightmare:”

"Cruelty, poverty, suspicion, persecution, formed the very air we breathed. Our conversations were continually spied upon. In the middle of the night one would hear shots, and know that idealists were being killed in prison. There was a hypocritical pretence of equality, and everybody was called ‘tovarisch’ [comrade], but it was amazing how differently this word could be pronounced according as the person who was addressed was Lenin or a lazy servant.

...I am compelled to reject Bolshevism for two reasons: First, because the price mankind must pay to achieve communism by Bolshevik methods is too terrible; and secondly because, even after paying the price, I do not believe the result would be what the Bolsheviks profess to desire.”

In contrast, the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw was a useful idiot despite his literary accomplishments. The red carpet was rolled out for him in Moscow in 1931 and a state banquet was held to honour his 75th birthday. “I expected to see a Russian worker and I found a Georgian gentleman,” said Shaw following his audience with Josef Stalin (1878-1953). He was delighted with his trip and before leaving the USSR he said: “Tomorrow I leave this land of hope and return to our Western countries – the countries of despair.”

The Soviet Union was on the cusp of a man-made famine that would kill about 5m people. Among them, according to a study conducted by a team of Ukrainian demographers, were at least 3.9m Ukrainians.

A few days later in London held a press conference about his trip. To dispel the myth about severe hunger in the Soviet Union he said that in Russia he “ate the most slashing dinner in his life.”

The Anglo-Irish writer supported mass murder in Russia and he also was an admirer of Hitler.

In the Shaw group that went to Russia was Conservative MP Nancy Astor (1879-1964), who in 1919 became the first woman to sit in the House of Commons. With her was Waldorf Astor (1879-1952), her wealthy American husband who had got the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York as a wedding gift from his father, and their son David, who would become the future editor of the Observer newspaper.

Painting from a fake photo of Lenin and Stalin in 1922. After Lenin's first stroke in that year, Stalin wanted to suggest that he was Lenin's heir apparent. Lenin had a third stroke in March 1923 and he died in early 1924

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), the French existential philosopher, was an admirer of the Soviet Union and Communist China and was another useful idiot.“You don't arrest Voltaire,” ― Charles de Gaulle, the French president, said while ordering a pardon for Sartre during the big protests in Paris in 1968.

In the early 1950s, Sartre excused Soviet totalitarianism while Albert Cambus rejected mass violence.

Ethnic cleansing and other human rights abuses were for the cause in Sartre's opinion.

In 1954 Sartre visited Moscow and argued that the Soviet citizen enjoys complete freedom to criticise the system. “He criticises more frequently and more effectively than us.” “Nowhere have I ever witnessed such solidarity and such care,” he wrote about his first visit to China in 1955.

Tony Judt (1948-2010), descended from East European Jews and raised in England before moving to New York, in his 1993 book 'Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956' noted that "Sartre never spoke out against Soviet anti-Semitism or in defence of the victims of show trials, nor was he ever held to account by his followers and heirs for this, any more than for his more egregiously silly pronouncements from the early fifties."

When Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) in 1956 denounced his predecessor, Josef Stalin who had died in 1953, it was of course a shock for the useful idiots and fellow travellers.

Sartre criticised the brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising in late 1956 but on postwar Stalinism, he wrote that communist analyses “are just: the errors, ignorance, and weaknesses of the moment, do not affect that.” He was writing in 'Les Temps modernes' weeks after the crushing of the uprising.

He finally had enough of the Russians when they invaded the then Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

France's renowned philosopher had become a Maoist.

Two years before, the ‘Great Helmsman’ had unleashed the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to purify the ranks of the Communist Party. The terror was subsequently called an "error" and cost the lives of 500,000 to 2m people. Based on Communist Party records the Great Leap Forward project of 1958-1962 had resulted in up to 45m deaths through murder and starvation (see below).

Eric Blair / George Orwell (1903-1950) called Sartre "a wind bag."

New York Times 1933
Orwell would write two novels for posterity on totalitarianism, 'Animal Farm' (1945) and '1984' (1949), before succumbing to tuberculosis (TB). He too had his inconsistencies.

Born in India, he won a scholarship to Eton College but he embraced the struggle of the working class.

However, when he applied to join the International Brigades in 1936 to protect Spain's Popular Front Republican government, Harry Pollitt, the secretary-general of the British Communist Party rejected Orwell in particular because of his “cut-glass Eton accent.” Another disliked the “supercilious bastard” on sight: “He really didn’t like the workers.”

Orwell joined POUM, the Partido Obrero Unificado Marxista (‘Workers Party of Marxist Unification) in Barcelona. Stalin considered the group to be allied with his rival Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) who had been exiled from Russia and was living in Norway at the time (he was murdered by Russian agents in Mexico in 1940).

Orwell was a revolutionary socialist and he had little confidence in the Labour Party. He hoped that there would be a socialist revolution in England, and if violence was necessary, violence there should be. "I dare say the London gutters will have to run with blood," he wrote in 'My Country Right or Left,' in 1940. He envisaged a classless society with virtually no private property. The State would own everything, and would require "that nobody shall live without working." Fifteen acres of land, "at the very most," might be permitted, presumably to allow subsistence farming.

This was the Marxist vision and the Bolsheviks achieved this goal through a reign of terror and famine.

Orwell opposed an attack on Nazi Germany but when Hitler and Stalin agreed to carve up Poland, he supported Britain's declaration of war. In the 1941 essay, 'The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius,' Orwell accused British antiwar intellectuals of "sabotage." He was against imperialism, fascism, and Stalinism but he argued that any Englishman who boasted of liberty and wealth while India was still a colony, was a hypocrite. But he also did not think India was ready for self-government while small countries like Ireland needed protectors.

George Orwell was familiar with Eoin O'Duffy (1890-1944), who had aspirations to be an Irish fascist leader. The Blueshirts had been founded (Army Comrades Association) in 1932 and Duffy became the leader in 1933. He founded the Greenshirts in 1935. In 1936 he led the Irish Brigade of 700 volunteers who arrived in Spain to assist General Francisco Franco (1892-1975), the military dictator. The brigade engaged in little military activity and Franco told them to go home in mid-1937.

Orwell wrote in 1943 on the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) who had died in 1939, "Yeats’s tendency is fascist...He is a great hater of democracy, of the modern world, science, machinery, the concept of progress — above all, of the idea of human equality. Much of the imagery of his work is feudal, and it is clear that he was not altogether free from ordinary snobbishness."

Yeats wrote 3 marching songs for the Blueshirts in 1932-1934.

"What's equality but — Muck in the yard:

Historic nations grow

From above to below."

Roy Foster, one of the poet's biographers, noted "In fact, as one Blueshirt recalled later, 'Yeats was not fascist but he was authoritarian...Yeats’s beliefs that Mussolini represented 'the rise of the individual man against the anti-human party machine' and that German legislation in 1934 was intended to allow old families to continue living in their ancestral places (rather than to expropriate Jews) suggest that his contact with the reality of fascism was shaky in the extreme."

The late Seamus Deane noted in a review in 1981 "Going back to July 1933, we read Yeats saying: ‘I find myself constantly urging the despotic rule of the educated classes as the only end to our troubles. (Let all this sleep in your ear.) I know half a dozen men any one of whom may be Caesar – or Catiline ...’ With Hitler in power and O’Duffy preening himself at the head of his Blueshirt army, we might indeed have used the poet’s line against himself ‘and wondered what was left for massacre to save.’"

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler - Wikimedia Commons

Nazi troops occupying Italy and their fascist allies executed about 22,000 people, significantly more than previously estimated during World War II, a historical study financed by the German government reported in 2016.

Rather than being a useful idiot like Bernard Shaw who actively promoted his admiration for the Soviet murderous regime while turning a blind eye to genocide, William Butler Yeats, could be called a fellow traveller, who was sympathetic to strongman rule.

Useful idiots

The term useful idiot has been misattributed to Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) the first leader of Soviet Russia. However, the communists did welcome naïve Westerners who believed that a new model of society was in the works.

In the main, they lived comfortably in their own countries while either ignoring or excusing mass terror.

Karl Marx (1820-1883), the godfather of communism, and his wealthy benefactor Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) acknowledged that in the dictatorship of the proletariat intermediate stage called, socialism, between the fall of capitalism and the development of a utopian communist society, violence would be necessary.

Months after the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia, Lenin ordered a reign of terror against class enemies including children and sex workers, who were called non-persons. The 'Hanging Order' of 1918 was to be used for mass public executions of recalcitrant peasants.

'Useful idiot' was used in the London weekly The Saturday Review in 1864 in reference to a French voter, and after the second world war, variants such as 'useful innocents' have been found.

William Safire (1929-2009), a New York Times columnist, in 1987 reported that a librarian at the Library of Congress said that there was no reference in Lenin's papers to poleznyye idioty (useful idiot). However, an official in Moscow who had been given the task of organising Lenin's political comments produced this: ''To speak the truth is a petit-bourgeois habit. To lie, on the contrary, is often justified by the lie's aim. The whole world's capitalists and their governments, as they pant (plan) to win the Soviet market, will close their eyes to the above-mentioned reality and will thus transform themselves into men who are deaf, dumb and blind. They will give us credits . . . they will toil to prepare their own suicide.''

John Gray, a former professor of politics at Oxford, has written "The gaggles of bien-pensant writers and journalists, liberal teachers and academics, radical aristocrats and businessmen who flocked to the Soviet Union and later Mao’s China went to these countries convinced that their own societies were stuck in the past. They believed that only a thinking minority – themselves – could see the outlines of a better future. Plainly, it was these advanced minds that could direct the new society that was coming into being."

Sidney and Beatrice Webb, respectively Sidney James Webb, Baron Passfield of Passfield Corner, and Martha Beatrice Webb were English socialist economists (husband and wife), early members of the Fabian Society, co-founders of the London School of Economics and Political Science and the New Statesman weekly.

Beatrice was wealthy and she became famous for boasting that her class “habitually gave orders."

According to Dr Gray, Stalin’s regime had been eulogised by the Webbs in their book 'The Soviet Union: a New Civilisation?' published in 1935, after visits to the USSR from which they returned gushing with enthusiasm. In this, they were not unusual. "Throughout the 1930s – the most savage and bloodstained period in the history of the Soviet state, though Stalin’s methods were only those of Lenin applied on a larger scale – streams of Western fellow-travellers went to the Soviet Union and came back convinced that it embodied humankind’s best hopes for the future. By way of testimony to this ardent faith, the Webbs removed the question mark from later editions of the book."

Herbert George (HG) Wells, the writer in 1934 had an interview with Stalin published in the New Statesman. It was much more positive than his account of his 1920 visit to Russia.

George Bernard Shaw and John Maynard Keynes, the well-known economist, were asked for comments – Shaw predictably suggested that the interview fell short in its support for Stalin, while Keynes suggested that it was the failure of Fabian economics (a reference to the socialist organisation) that had led Shaw to offer political support to a demagogue.

Walter Duranty, a native of Liverpool, who was the Moscow Bureau Chief of the New York Times, had no mythical aspirations that a classless society could be magicked up by the communists. He was given a large flat, a car and women by the Soviet propaganda machine, and in August 1933 he reported, “Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda,” instead he wrote that there was a “food shortage” in the famine regions that have “caused heavy loss of life.” Years later, the New York Times denounced Duranty’s reporting as Stalinist propaganda.

Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe wrote in 2013: “In the 1930s, as millions were being murdered in Stalin’s terror-famine and Great Purge, Walter Duranty was assuring readers of The New York Times that the Soviet ruler was “giving the Russian people . . . what they really want, namely joint effort, communal effort.

"The renowned literary critic Edmund Wilson extolled Stalinist Russia as the 'moral light at the top of the world.' Upton Sinclair, who later won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, vigorously defended the integrity of the 'confessions” extracted by the secret police from many of Stalin’s victims: It 'seems obvious,' Sinclair wrote, that they would not have 'confessed to actions which they had not committed.'"

In Britain, the 1938 Munich Agreement between Hitler and Neville Chamberlain, British prime minister, was greeted with public acclaim as another war had been averted. However, Winston Churchill, then a critic of the government and one of the few to oppose the appeasement of Hitler, called it "an unmitigated disaster."

In France, in 1945 the Communist Party got 26% of the National Assembly vote; 21% in 1973 and 2.7% in 2017. In Italy in 1948, the Communist Party got 31% of the vote for the Lower House of Parliament; 34% in 1976 and in 1990 it merged with a social democratic party.

Mao and his Little Red Book

The Cult of Maoism

Frank Dikötter, a Dutch historian, in his 2010 book 'Mao's Great Famine' — a stunning chronicle of the greatest crime in the history of humanity estimates that Mao's Great Leap Forward 1958-1962 project resulted in the deaths of 45m people, caused by starvation and murder.

Dikötter based his estimate on detailed Communist Party records.

Private small plots of land were confiscated and people were herded into communes that became slave camps.

Prof Dikötter writes "Between 2 and 3 million of these victims were tortured to death or summarily executed, often for the slightest infraction. People accused of not working hard enough were hung and beaten; sometimes they were bound and thrown into ponds. Punishments for the least violations included mutilation and forcing people to eat excrement."

One report dated Nov. 30, 1960, and circulated to the top leadership — most likely including Mao — tells how a man named Wang Ziyou had one of his ears chopped off, his legs tied up with iron wire and a 10-kilogram stone dropped on his back before he was branded with a sizzling tool. His crime: digging up a potato.

When a boy stole a handful of grain in a Hunan village, the local boss, Xiong Dechang, forced his father to bury the child alive on the spot.

Sartre in 1970 after his Maoist newspaper was banned

The report of the investigative team sent by the provincial leadership in 1969 to interview survivors of the famine records that the man died of grief three weeks later.

Starvation was the punishment of first resort. As report after report shows, food was distributed by the spoonful according to merit and used to force people to obey the party. One inspector in Sichuan wrote that "commune members too sick to work are deprived of food. It hastens their death.'"

Mao was sent reports on progress and critics within the Communist Party were targeted. This is the origin of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

The Red Guards in the city of Xi’an put Xi Zhongxun, a leader of the Communist Revolution on a truck to publicly humiliate and beat him as he had criticised Mao. His wife was forced to publicly denounce their son — Xi Jinping, China’s current president. The young Xi lived in a cave-dwelling, one of 16m youths exiled to the countryside by Mao.

Mao became a cult figure in the West among students and leftists as the American involvement in the Vietnam War became a quagmire.

The English version of Mao's 'Little Red Book' of aphorisms became popular in the West.

In September 1970, the British pop group, the Rolling Stones, invited a French Maoist called Serge July onstage at their concert in Paris.

Some people may claim ignorance of what was going on in China but the havoc being caused by Mao's Red Guards was a regular item on TV news in Europe.

In 1973 Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn's (1918-2008) searing account of the Soviet labour camp system, 'The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–1956,' was published in Paris. In 1974 the Russian writer was exiled to West Germany.

Sartre called him a "dangerous element" but the Russian writer had no time for distinctions between Marxism and Marxism-Leninism. It simply was "the doctrine in whose name the Bolsheviks seized power, destroyed first political parties, then the peasantry, set up concentration camps and murdered millions upon millions of ordinary citizens.”

It is the Marxist ideology that “gives the criminal a clear conscience,” Solzhenitsyn wrote in 'The Gulag Archipelago,' “thanks to ideology the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions.”


After the death of Mao Zedong (1893-1976) in 1976, Tony Benn, a member of the British Cabinet, went to the Chinese embassy in London to tender his condolences. He recorded in his diaries that Mao was "one of the greatest — if not the greatest — figures of the twentieth century: a schoolteacher who transformed China, released it from civil war and foreign attack and constructed a new society there."

He added that "he certainly towers above any twentieth-century figure I can think of in his philosophical contribution and military genius."

Benn also recorded in his diaries that he himself was "a great admirer of Mao," while admitting that "he made mistakes because everybody does."

This is a classic example of the useful idiot, who minimises the monumental human carnage.

The Khmer Rouge, (French: “Red Khmer”) was a radical communist movement that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 after a guerrilla war. The group was responsible for a genocide where 1.2m to 2.8m people were murdered — 13% to 30% of the population at the time. See also.

Here is another example of a useful idiot's myopia on a grand scale:

Alain Badiou (born 1937) a French philosopher, in a January 1979 opinion piece in Le Monde titled “Kampuchea will overcome!” asserted that the “simple desire to rely on their own resources and not to be anyone's subjects clarifies a great many aspects of the Cambodian revolution, including the incorporation of terror."


When John McDonnell MP quoted Mao in 2015 it was from a 1949 speech referring to help from Russia.

"We must learn to do economic work from all who know-how, no matter who they are, we must esteem them as teachers, learning from them respectfully and conscientiously, but we must not pretend to know what we do not know."

The Beatles sang in their 1968 song Revolution, "But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao/ You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow."

The Beatles would have called McDonnell a useful idiot!

Frank Dikötter says "To me, praising Mao's achievements is like saying Adolf Hitler built highways or was kind to his dog."

When Michael D Higgins, president of Ireland, on the death of Fidel Castro, the former Cuban leader, in 2016 called him "a giant among global leaders whose view was not only one of freedom for his people but for all of the oppressed and excluded peoples on the planet" he fell right into the useful idiot trap.

Higgins avoided referring to human rights in the statement but obliquely acknowledged that "The economic and social reforms introduced were at the price of a restriction of civil society, which brought its critics."

In 2007 I wrote a blog post on Mario Chanes de Armas, who had died at the age of 80 in the US. He had been a close comrade of Fidel Castro during the revolt against the Battista kleptocracy in the 1950s. But when Castro decided to establish a communist state in Cuba, Chanes de Armas returned to his family business.

Castro had him sentenced to 30 years in jail with 6 years in solitary confinement. Chanes de Armas' son was born while he was in prison and he died at 24 without his father being able to attend his funeral.

On his decades in jail, he said: “I watched men get shot, point-blank, beaten with bayonets, arbitrarily pulled out and punished. But we were alone. The world didn’t know.”

Cuba ended illiteracy and developed a professional health service. However, some tributes to Castro misjudged the balance, said Dr Christopher Sabatini, a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House.

“Unfortunately, his human rights record will not get the weight it deserves. You see that in many of the declarations of presidents calling him a revolutionary icon. Let’s be honest: this was a regime which when it came to power lined up its opponents and shot them.”

“As other countries in the region turned away from authoritarian rule, only Fidel Castro’s Cuba continued to repress virtually all civil and political rights,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Castro’s draconian rule and the harsh punishments he meted out to dissidents kept his repressive system rooted firmly in place for decades.”

Human Rights Watch said that the repression was codified in law and enforced by security forces, groups of civilian sympathizers tied to the state, and a judiciary that lacked independence. Such abusive practices generated a pervasive climate of fear in Cuba, which hindered the exercise of fundamental rights, and pressured Cubans to show their allegiance to the state while discouraging criticism.

President Michael D Higgins merits being called a useful idiot for his lack of balance.

“Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated are confident they are acting on their own free will,” Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda chief, may have said that or not, but it's true.

Authoritarian leaders of left or right should not be sugar-coated.

SEE: The Big Lies of Adolph Hitler and Donald Trump

Last year I wrote on 'Cognitive dissonance and the flawed American democracy' and I quoted a psychologist who wrote this 65 years ago: "A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.

We have all experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief. We are familiar with the variety of ingenious defenses with which people protect their convictions, managing to keep them unscathed through the most devastating attacks."

Intelligent or not, people have biases. Useful idiots either silently accept that mass terror is for the greater good or they stupidly believe the official propaganda.

In July 2003 Sotheby's in London auctioned a 1934 document in which a journalist Dorothy Royal had summarised the attitudes of Britains leading Stalin sympathisers, to show trials of Stalin’s former colleagues.

Bernard Shaw commented that "the top of the ladder is a very trying place for old revolutionists who have had no administrative experience...They often have to be pushed off the ladder with a rope around their necks."

Useful idiots acknowledging that they were fools is rare while flattery from tyrants can be a potent drug. Earning money and prestige from writing books about their experiences can also be part of their Faustian Bargains.

The focus of this piece is on communism and the mass murder of civilians (ex-wars) by their own governments in about 100 years. The record including man-made famines is up to 100m deaths.

The total deaths associated with wars of the 20th century have been estimated at 187m.

SEE: EU at 60 - the longest period of peace in Europe in over 2,000 years