Some years ago, I took part in a BBC radio documentary by John Sweeney titled Useful Idiots. With contributions from such notable figures as the Nobel laureate Doris Lessing and the Russian scholar Donald Rayfield, the programme traced the baneful history of the Left’s attachment to repressive regimes. The Western propagandists for Lenin, Stalin, Mao and other revolutionary figures are popularly known as “useful idiots” for their service to the cause of despotism.
The programme bears listening to again, for – as I wouldn’t have predicted – the Labour Party is now under the sway of people who expound such destructive delusions. On the BBC’s Newsnight on Wednesday, a shadow minister called Chris Williamson found it impossible to answer a direct question about whether he was closer to the politics of Tony Blair or the revolutionary regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.
Just reflect on that. The policies of Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez are directly responsible for economic collapse, widespread child malnutrition and an emerging refugee crisis. In the last few days the regime has been caught in systematic ballot-rigging and has arrested opposition leaders. Yet as recently as 2013, Jeremy Corbyn declared Venezuela “an inspiration to all of us fighting back against austerity and neoliberal economics in Europe”. Corbyn was then an obscure backbencher; now that he’s Labour leader, in title if little else, he apparently has nothing further to say on the subject.
Williamson, whom I’ve occasionally corresponded with on Twitter, is admittedly the embodiment of the term “idiot”, but many of the useful idiots cited in Sweeney’s history were people of the highest intelligence. David Caute’s influential book The Fellow-Travellers: Intellectual Friends of Communism (revised edition, 1988) features the same cast of the credulous. George Bernard Shaw admired Lenin for disposing of ballot-box democracy. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the great Fabian theorists, insisted that there was no other country “in which there is actually so much widespread public criticism of the government, and such incessant revelations of its shortcomings, as in the USSR”. The Dean of Canterbury, Hewlett Johnson, spoke of the “effective franchise” enjoyed by all Soviet citizens under Stalin.
On and on goes this grim history of sycophancy, genuflection and moral evasion before brutal regimes. Noam Chomsky, a seminal figure in modern linguistics, declared in 1967: “There are many things to object to in any society. But take China, modern China; one also finds many things that are really quite admirable.” This was while the Cultural Revolution, in which over a million people perished, was in full flight.
Even the most murderous of postwar regimes, that of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s, has had its leftist apologists. A self-described “historian and independent investigative journalist”, Gareth Porter, won the Martha Gellhorn journalism prize in 2012 (the winner the previous year was Julian Assange, which tells you something about the award’s standards). Back in 1975, Porter co-authored a study that denied the atrocity reports then emerging from Cambodia and maintained that the evacuation of Phnom Penh “was carried out only after careful planning for provision of food, water, rest and medical care”. Porter and his co-author, George Hildebrand, wrote this pernicious bilge without ever having visited Cambodia (according to Samantha Power, US ambassador to the UN under President Obama, in her book A Problem From Hell: American and the Age of Genocide).
Porter’s work influenced Chomsky, who with Edward Herman wrote an article for The Nation magazine in 1977 pointedly referring to “alleged Khmer Rouge atrocities” and rubbishing refugees’ accounts of the Cambodian genocide. More recently, Herman has disgraced himself even further by being the most prominent of a tiny band of polemicists who deny the genocide of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in July 1995 – though the remains of the victims have been located, excavated and identified.
I need hardly add, but will anyway, that Corbyn too has disputed that the documented Serb atrocities in the Balkan wars of the 1990s ever happened. He put his name to an early day motion in the House of Commons in 2004 that explicitly denied the war crimes of the Milosevic regime in Belgrade, referring to the “the fraudulent justifications for [Nato] intervening in a ‘genocide’ that never really existed in Kosovo”.
Why do they do this? In a landmark study in the 1970s of left-wing radicals’ reverence for brutal regimes, the sociologist Paul Hollander coined the term “political pilgrims”. His insight into this perverse phenomenon has not been bettered: there is more than a trace of religious fervour in the pilgrims’ propaganda for what they see as new societies and in the way they thereby abandon critical faculties.
The issue for them – whether scholars like Chomsky or intellectually nugatory figures like Corbyn – is not strictly the regimes they admire and exculpate but the free societies they live in. They are not friends of Stalin, Pol Pot and Milosevic so much as enemies of the United States and its allies. To this impulse, it needs to be said: a liberal political order has many flaws and injustices; it may even commit sins and crimes of its own, like the US war in Vietnam; but it has the capacity for introspection, contrition and reform. It doesn’t aspire to create a unified social order; rather, it embraces value pluralism, in which citizens are free to pursue the goals that matter to them.
In this respect, the political pilgrims’ ideological apologetics are different from those of conservatives who defend repressive right-wing regimes. In Sweeney’s documentary you’ll hear the political columnist Bruce Anderson and me taking sharply different views on the indulgent policies of Margaret Thatcher towards the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile and the apartheid regime in South Africa.
Conservatives like Anderson have historically misinterpreted the cause of anti-communism as identical to, as opposed to coterminous with, the cause of liberty. Theirs is a conceptually incoherent and morally disastrous realpolitik. They don’t, however, see in autocratic regimes a vision of a new society, in which all know their place and subsume personal choice to the general will.
It’s a tragedy that the Labour Party – which played a crucial historical role in forming Nato and identified the Left with the cause of anti-totalitarianism – is now led by people who, with ideological conviction, have abandoned constitutionalism in favour of the myths of Maduro and the needless suffering he’s inflicted on a people with a proud history and a nation with abundant natural resources.
More than a tragedy, it’s a monstrous disgrace.