Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A Note on Useful Idiots

Lenin did not, in fact, coin the phrase "useful idiots" to describe his supporters in the West. He is not known to have used the phrase at all. The fact that the legend is so widely believed and recited by conservative commentators suggests that it is a form of projection, reflecting their own belief that dissent is treason. It might sometimes be that, and treason is usually perfectly legitimate, but in most cases dissent is just that and no more. The thought that, whatever one’s (implicitly idle) moral claims for doing so, to oppose the government is to be objectively for the other side, was frequently aired after 11 September 2001. The Daily Telegraph even briefly gave space to a semi-regular column charting the statements of various ‘useful idiots’ who opposed military intervention in Afghanistan. Mona Charen, a neoconservative dimwit, has written one of those books in the vein of 'how treasonous liberals give aid and comfort to bin Laden', called Useful Idiots. There are similar books devoted to Fidel Castro and his "useful idiots" in Hollywood or Che Guevara's "useful idiots". Those who supported the Sandinistas were communism's "useful idiots". A popular charge among Islamophobes is that one is a 'Dhimmi', which amounts to pretty much the same thing.

And then there is the use of the term "objectively", which is drawn from the same discursive detritus. Christopher Hitchens, scholar of Orwell on top of everything else, once felt compelled to point out that those who opposed war with Iraq and didn't trust the INC were "objectively" pro-Saddam. Andrew Sullivan, citing Orwell, repeated the charge and still cleaves to it, although he has diluted the force it somewhat by saying that he is objectively pro-Kim Jong Il. This sort of language was once used by Stalinist scribes in thrall to a crude stageist version of historical materialism, in which history is an 'objective' process. The moralising illusions of the petit-bourgeois "Trotskyite" intelligentsia who think they can attack the Five Year Plan without opposing themselves to historical progress were a source of confident scorn back in the day. It is true that George Orwell himself was once caught up in this idiotic logic, when he wrote to the Partisan Review in 1942:

Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help out that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, 'he that is not with me is against me.'

He revised his position in 1944, denouncing such a logic as "dishonest" among other things:

We are told that it is only people’s objective actions that matter, and their subjective feelings are of no importance. Thus pacifists, by obstructing the war effort, are ‘objectively’ aiding the Nazis; and therefore the fact that they may be personally hostile to Fascism is irrelevant. I have been guilty of saying this myself more than once. The same argument is applied to Trotskyism. Trotskyists are often credited, at any rate by Communists, with being active and conscious agents of Hitler; but when you point out the many and obvious reasons why this is unlikely to be true, the ‘objectively’ line of talk is brought forward again. To criticize the Soviet Union helps Hitler: therefore ‘Trotskyism is Fascism’. And when this has been established, the accusation of conscious treachery is usually repeated. This is not only dishonest; it also carries a severe penalty with it. If you disregard people’s motives, it becomes much harder to foresee their actions ... To admit that an opponent might be both honest and intelligent is felt to be intolerable. It is more immediately satisfying to shout that he is a fool or a scoundrel, or both, than to find out what he is really like.

A caveat. To even talk about what Orwell said during the war is almost to invite endless rounds of humiliating idolatry and scholasticism. For those who like Orwell the patriot and anti-communist, there is some reactionary drivel written by him in different contexts to support their claim; for those who like Orwell the revolutionary, there is a great deal to support that too. I simply mention him in this context because he is frequently cited as an authority by Cold War liberals who rather fancy the idea that anyone who opposes them is a fool or a scoundrel, and because it puts Hitchens' own claim in an interesting light. Well, anyway, it so happens that the phrase and the conceptual clutter it entails is a cynosure of right-wing discourse, and it has nothing to do with the Left, or with Lenin. The language corresponds to a highly authoritarian political purview. Decoupling one's statements from any social reality that they may refer to, the terminology is usually an attempt to shift the argument from anything to do with truth-claims to one about loyalty and one's entitlement to speak and be taken seriously. It could loftily be described as 'testimonial injustice', since it is an attempt to determine the outcome of a debate according to the priorities of power and since it deflates the validity of certain claims on a basis other than their truth or otherwise. But the usual, and more mundane, term is 'bad faith'.