Now here's a fascinating two-part series from the BBC on "useful idiots," a term mistakenly attributed to Lenin, who enjoyed the favor of many such examples of this species of semi-witting accomplices to tyranny. The documentary is hosted by John Sweeney and features a collection of insightful speakers, including Doris Lessing, whose voice reminds me of what the granny-tricked-out wolf in Little Red Riding Hood would sound like, but who, post-Nobel, is fiercely honest and self-critical about her pourparler with Josef Stalin: “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.”
"I hate being taken round to be shown things," the waspish Kingsley Amis, himself an ex-Communist but one who never toured the Soviet Union, once wrote to Philip Larkin in a slightly different context, giving what I think is a covert virtue of notorious English incuriosity: a reluctance to be persuaded by people with ulterior motives. The evidence of things unseen under totalitarianism is closer to the truth than guided tours of Potemkin villages and labour camps where the guards are dressed up as inmates.
Donald Rayfield, who wrote a not-bad book about Stalin's willing executioners, also makes a not-bad point about George Bernard Shaw, who especially liked being taken round to be shown things that didn't actually exist. About the author of Man and Superman, it cannot quite be said that the sinister politics found no expression in the art. Henry Higgins, Rayfield tells Sweeney, is a "bit of a Stalin," and what he tries to do to Eliza Doolittle is nothing short of what Soviet Communism attempted to do to the proletariat. Many readers of Pygmalion may only have come away wishing that the guttersnipe flower merchant had been shot or sent to Siberia, but such are the softeners of Fabian parlor fiction.... Though it must also be claimed for Shaw, as against socialist realists, that he made no attempt to glorify the working-class even before it became a utopian work-in-progress. No indomitable, brawny builders and austere womenfolk here, comrades. One imagines that a wisp of classic English empiricism slipped out from beneath the bonnet of grim ideology.
Part one of the Sweeney documentary also includes this observation by Malcolm Muggeridge's biographer that when the one-time fellow traveler and aspiring emigre to the Soviet Union realized what a mistake he'd made and then tried to persuade his relatives, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, to do the same, the Webbs were resistant. Not, you see, because they hadn't realized that people were being disappeared or murdered in Russia but because disappearing and murdering people in England was what Beatrice most wanted to do herself.
The closet bully, the fetishist of strongman politics is an ongoing feature of faux radicalism on these shores, as evidenced by Tony Benn's sad Sinology:
Benn: “Mao’s role in preventing China from being permanently occupied by the Americans was, I think, a significant role, and I think China’s development strategy, of going to the countryside and building it up there, has played a significant role of building China up as a major power. So I think he would have to rank as a great figure in Chinese history.”
Sweeney: “Mao was a mass murderer. Surely in the balance, if he’s a great man, he’s also a great monster.”
Benn: “I have no doubt that there were aspects of Mao’s life and record that I would deeply deplore. But…”
When agricultural outreach ranks higher in your admiration than mass murder does in your reprehension, it's safe to say you aren't all that bothered by the latter.
Benn's not alone. Seamus Milne, the current politics editor of The Guardian, extols the jihadist "resistance" of Iraq and Afghanistan. Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist who converted to Islam after being kidnapped and released by the Taliban, presents on the Iranian state-controlled propaganda organ PressTV. George Galloway, who refused to be interviewed by Sweeney, pimps for Hamas as he has done for every Middle Eastern despot of the last quarter century. And Alistair Crooke, a former British spy under the Blair government who now runs a Beirut-based public relations firm for the Islamic Republic known as Conflicts Forum, explains his sympathies with the rocketeers and human shield-warriors of Gaza like this: "As for terrorism, I hate that word...People cannot tolerate the sight of babies being killed, and that triggers an emotional response."
Not so for those who have seen the future and declare it to already be upon us.