Usefully Idiotic

peter hitchensin Daily Mail 

by Peter Hitchens

A recent rather silly article in ‘The Times’ (of London), which I cannot reproduce because of a pay-wall, irritated me so much that I sent a letter to that newspaper to express my disagreement. I don’t think it will be published, but, as debate so often does, the argument gave me a new insight into something I had previously known only vaguely. 

The author was angry with those who thought Russia was the wronged party in the current EU/NATO/US attempt to de-neutralise Ukraine and place it firmly into a NATO and EU alignment (not membership, that’s currently impossible, but the Association Agreement is clearly and explicitly politico-military as well as economic).

Well, we’re all familiar with this. But he chose to suggest that there was a continuity between those who took this position and those who had been the mental servants of the old USSR. He used the expression ‘Useful Idiots’, said to have been employed by Lenin to describe the willing regurgitators of Soviet Communist propaganda in the West , whose support was welcome but who were secretly scorned by the cynics in the Kremlin for being gullible dupes.

It’s actually rather a good phrase, and immediately conveys its message – though at the last count there was no evidence that Lenin himself had ever used it.

I would myself be tempted to apply it to quite a lot of leftist intellectuals taken in by Soviet lies, from Beatrice and Sidney Webb to George Bernard Shaw,  and indeed many of the stalwarts of various disarmament and ‘peace’ campaigns in the Cold War period. These people, in person herbivorous and gentle, unknowingly did the work of the violent and homicidal Bolshevik state, in many cases almost up the moment of its dissolution.

Having very much not been one of these people (at least not since I was about 15 years old)  I found the suggestion ridiculous. Indeed, if there is anything that the defenders of Mr Putin’s foreign policy have in common, it is a certain amount of social conservatism, and/or opposition to the European Union. Personally I think this is tangential, and if genuine, the result of a misunderstanding.

I have no affection for any aspect of the modern Russian state, though I have noted the paradox that thought and speech on matters of political correctness are probably freer in that dingy polity than they are here or in the USA. This is despite the great lack of freedom in real political choice, and the almost total suppression of real dissent.

This is mainly because Russia simply missed the great PC re-education programmes that swept North America and most of Europe from about 1985 onwards, and its current isolation keeps it that way. It is also because patriotism and religion were persecuted or perverted by the Soviet regime, and so have strongly revived in the years since it fell. Both therefore exist in a much more potent high-octane form than is to be found in most of the ‘West’. Their strength prevents any current moves in the politically correct direction, though one cannot really be sure that this suits the Russian government. And I am sure that the Russian state would leap at the chance to join the EU, with all the compulsory political correctness that would require,  in the highly unlikely event that it was offered.  It is precisely because such an offer is more or less impossible that things are as they are.

So there isn’t really any idealistic or dogmatic element in the position that Russia is (in this case) on the receiving end of diplomatic aggression by the EU/NATO/US . It’s just a matter of observable, measurable fact.

Some sentimental old leftists, who still yearn for the old red flag,  and have always found Eurocommunism too weak a brew, may enjoy the apparent revival of the old conflict. But they are as ill-informed as those in the West who kid themselves that Vladimir Putin is the product of a KGB plot to win back the world for Marxist-Leninism, and revive the USSR, and is poised to invade the Baltic states and Poland.

The point of all this follows: those in this argument who are moved by a utopian ideology , and are its ‘useful idiots’, are not the cynical realpolitik-loving critics of the Euromaidan. Anything but.

The ones whose shining, joy-filled (and naïve) faces  belong on a propaganda poster are the young idealists of the Euromaidan, with their flags and their songs and their ludicrous hopes that they can begin the world over again with mass demonstrations and the storming of palaces.

It is they who, like the Bolsheviks of a century ago, dream of a new world order, a borderless planet of peace, love and honesty, in which corruption is swept away by nobility, and we all live happily ever after. Such utopianism always attracts its share of foreign admirers, who long for something similar in their own slow-moving, non-idealist and conservative nations. From such dreamers are useful idiots created.

Such people no longer look to the dead and buried USSR, nor to the Kremlin. They are inspired instead by the USA as the new liberator. These are the people who thought they could install freedom in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia etc.  Why, they even thought they had installed it in Russia via Boris Yeltsin (big mistake).chris hitchens

And, oddly enough, such ideas have the same Utopian roots as Bolshevism. American neo-conservatism, which allied itself with George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld (in the form of the Project for the New American Century) is neatly embodied in the figure of William Kristol, himself the worthy son of that powerful thinker Irving Kristol, who had begun his intellectual life as a Trotskyist. It’s a fundamentally idealist view of the world, not necessarily much to do with the basic interests of the USA, much more to do with a conception of a re-ordered planet, ruled by democratism.

Victoria Nuland, the US Assistant Secretary of State prominent in the encouragement of the Euromaidan, is married to Robert Kagan, who prefers to be called a liberal interventionist but whom many regard as a prominent neo-conservative in the Kristol tradition.  Another rather good example of this continuity was of course my late brother, Christopher who never abandoned his admiration for Leon Trotsky and yet managed to combine this with militant support for George W.Bush’s invasion of Iraq . He became an enthusiastic US citizen partly to demonstrate his sympathy for the USA’s new role as the headquarters of world revolution. Once people have puzzled out this equation, they are a lot closer to understanding what is actually going on.  Those who still think in pre-1989 categories have no idea what is happening. Anyway, the utopian idealists are all on the other side now. The conservative cynics are around here somewhere.


1 Comment

  1. The Westphalian Post said,

    The new East-West divide: multiculturalism vs sovereignty
    by Ed West

    The East-West divide is no longer between capitalism and communism, nor even democracy and authoritarianism, but multiculturalism and sovereignty.

    We all know that relations with Russia are at their lowest ebb since 1991, when Boris Yeltsin brought down Communism during one of his alcoholic blackouts. What’s becoming increasingly clear, though, is that there is a new ideological cold war – and I’m not sure we’ll win this one.

    The German approach to dissent over these past few months has been revealing. Earlier this month, a leading eurocrat chided the Hungarians for refusing to accept that ‘diversity is inevitable’, using that strange Marxist language these people love. Another accused that small central European country of being ‘on the wrong side of history’. Meanwhile Angela Merkel compared those who lock others out to the Communists who once locked their own people in.

    It is not just that Germany wants central Europeans to accept refugees for convenience sake, or for humanitarian reasons; it is that the West now defines itself by the ideology of multiculturalism. To be a European is to believe that national borders are a thing of the past and ‘diversity is inevitable’.

    In contrast to the West, Russia is increasingly identified by an old-fashioned idea of nationhood, while its foreign policy is based on the Westphalian concept of sovereignty (even if they are not always in practice respectful of their neighbours’ borders). Last month Russia held a ‘sovereignty conference’ in which various separatist groups – some by the looks of it total fantasists – were invited to talk about their plans for the future.

    So the East-West divide this time is not between capitalism and communism, nor even democracy and authoritarianism, but multiculturalism and sovereignty.

    Just as the US led the liberal democracies against Communism, so it is the most idealistically multicultural country. America now identifies itself as a ‘proposition nation’ and being American is not characterised by any historical attachment to the country. Despite what people assume, this a relatively recent idea; ‘nation of immigrants’ did not become a common phrase until JFK’s time.

    Across western Europe the establishment now accepts multiculturalism as the state creed, with Merkel employing a task force to arrest people who make disparaging comments about migrants on Facebook, while the current government’s ‘British values’ agenda identifies Britishness not by history, but a set of political beliefs.

    This is, of course, how the Soviet Union marked membership of their polity, and ironically it is now the West that has adopted a utopian creed – one in which, rather than possessions being shared by humanity, nations are. I wonder if this has ever occurred to Chancellor Merkel when she tells off the small nations of central Europe.

    Who will win this new cold war? The West had a huge head start, but it’s certainly true that multicultural states are more vulnerable than those that believe in older ideas of nationhood. Since the Immigration Act was passed 50 years ago, America has become internally a far weaker country; trust has declined sharply, a sure sign of declining social capital, while politics has become more extreme and bitter. The America of 2015 would be far less equipped to face a major world rival than the America of 1965 or 1941; that, I believe, is a direct product of the idea of a proposition nation.

    Likewise Europe is not strengthened by the cult of diversity, as the last few months have illustrated. Central European nations, seeing what has happened in London, Paris and Malmo, are put off by multiculturalism. Meanwhile large minorities – if not majorities – of western Europe still believe in a more traditional idea of nationhood, one not defined by ‘values’ but by the paradoxically more liberal definition of history and borders.

    All of this puts western conservatives in a difficult position, being not just out of step with polite opinion but at risk of being identified with our political enemy.

    Putin runs a thuggish regime, whose enemies tend to kill themselves accidentally in mysterious circumstances. Its nationalism (not to mention its view of homosexuality) is unpleasant. Russia’s is a conservatism without western political institutions, but in its attachment to tradition, Christianity, sovereignty and posterity, it looks superficially closer to Burkean conservatism than western politics. This is probably bad news for conservatives. After all, if we like Russia so much, why don’t we go and live there?

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