Useful idiot

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A useful idiot (also useful fool[1], Russian: полезный идиот) is "a dupe of the Communists", usually a citizen of a non-communist country sympathetic to the Soviet Union who is susceptible to propaganda and is cynically misused.[1][2] The phrase was used by Soviet communists and the KGB to refer to persons in the West their country had successfully manipulated.[1] The phrase is often attributed to Vladimir Lenin, but it remains controversial whether he used this term in his publications.

Origin of the term[edit]

The quotation "useful idiot" is widely attributed to Vladimir Lenin[3][4]. It is frequently discussed in the literature in connection with two other quotations known as "the rope" ("The capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them") and the "deaf, dumb and blind". For example, William J. Bennett wrote that "'Useful idiot' was the term Lenin had used for credulous Western businessmen", giving as an example Armand Hammer "who helped build up the Soviet Communist state".[5] Bennett recounted a famous story wherein Lenin was asked, "How will we hang the Capitalists, we don't have enough rope!"[5] Lenin was reported to have "famously replied" with the rejoinder, "They will sell it to us — on credit."[5] However, according to William Safire, these quotations, which were "making the rounds ... since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917"[6] were not found in published written works by Lenin.[7]

The wording from written works by Lenin about the "rope" was as follows[8]

They [capitalists] will furnish credits which will serve us for the support of the Communist Party in their countries and, by supplying us materials and technical equipment which we lack, will restore our military industry necessary for our future attacks against our suppliers. To put it in other words, they will work on the preparation of their own suicide.

and the "dumb and blind" version of the quotation (from handwritten notes by Lenin) was the following[7]:

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 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.

According to book The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture[8], even if the origin of these quotations might not be reliably established, they are not misquotations because these phrases belong to the public image of Lenin, define exactly his ideas, and use wording that would be actually used by Lenin and his comrades, such as the "ropes", "idiots" or "deaf, dumb and blind". In her book, Useful Idiots, author Mona Charen commented, "Lenin is widely credited with the prediction that liberals and other weak-minded souls in the West could be relied upon to be 'useful idiots' as far as the Soviet Union was concerned."[9] According to her, "Though Lenin may never have actually uttered the phrase, it was consistent with his cynical style. And ... liberals managed, time after time during the Cold War, to live down to this sour prediction."[9]

The term appears in English language literature in the 1940s[2]. In the 1945 memoir of actor Alexander Granach, the phrase was used to describe a boyhood incident in a shtetl in Western Ukraine.[10] In June 1948, the term appeared in The New York Times in an article on contemporary Italian politics ("Communist shift is seen in Europe"), citing the social-democratic Italian paper L'Umanità.[11][12][2] Time first employed the phrase in January 1958, writing that some Italian Christian Democrats considered social activist Danilo Dolci to be a "useful idiot" for Communist causes, and it has recurred thereafter in the periodical's articles.[13][14][15][16][17][18]

A similar term, useful innocents, appears in Austrian-American economist Ludwig von Mises' 1947 book, Planned Chaos. Von Mises wrote that the term was used by communists for liberals, whom von Mises describes as "confused and misguided sympathizers".[19] The term useful innocents also appears in a Readers Digest article (1946) titled "Yugoslavia's Tragic Lesson to the World", written by a "high ranking official of the Yugoslav Government", Bogdan Raditsa (Bogdan Radica). "In the Serbo-Croat language", says Raditsa, "the communists have a phrase for true democrats who consent to collaborate with them for [the sake of] 'democracy.' It is Korisne Budale, or Useful Innocents."[20] Note, however, that budala in Serbo-Croat translates as "a fool", not "an innocent".

Use of the term[edit]

Time first employed the phrase in January 1958 and it has recurred thereafter in the periodical's articles.[13][14][15][16][17] The term was applied to American journalist Walter Duranty and playwright George Bernard Shaw who denied the existence of Holodomor,[21] to writer Lion Feuchtwanger who observed Moscow Trials and came to conclusion that the Bolshevik leaders were actually guilty of conspiracy and treason,[22] and to many others. A book entitled Wednesday Words: Useful Idiots, Don 'Draping' and More was published by Katy Steinmetz in 2012.[23]

The expression was used in the Soviet Union[22] and appears in books Dezinformatsia: Active Measures in Soviet Strategy by Richard H. Shultz and KGB Lexicon: The Soviet Intelligence Officer's Handbook by KGB defector Vasili Mitrokhin. According to the KGB terminology, all their agents of influence could be divided into three categories: (a) "Intelligence Directorate operatives and their recruited agents", (b) Fellow travelers, and (c) "unwitting agents", ones they called “useful idiots”. [24] According to Spruille Braden, the term was used by Joseph Stalin to refer to what Braden called "countless innocent although well-intentioned sentimentalists or idealists" who aided the Russian agenda.[25] However, the Oxford English Dictionary tells that "The phrase does not seem to reflect any expression used within the Soviet Union".[2]

In the end of 2016, the former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright[26] and the Editorial Board of The New York Times applied the term to President-elect Donald Trump.[27] Michael Hayden, former director of both the US National Security Agency and the CIA, writing in The Washington Post in November 2016, described Donald Trump as a polezni durak, and he cited as translation of the term: "the useful fool, some naif, manipulated by Moscow, secretly held in contempt, but whose blind support is happily accepted and exploited".[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Holder, R. W. (2008), "useful fool", Oxford Dictionary of Euphemisms, Oxford University Press, p. 394, ISBN 978-0199235179, useful fool – a dupe of the Communists. Lenin's phrase for the shallow thinkers in the West whom the Communists manipulated. Also as useful idiot. 
  2. ^ a b c d "useful idiot". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2017. 
  3. ^ Prell, Michael (2011), "Chapter 13", Underdogma, BenBella Books, pp. 259–277, ISBN 978-1935618133 
  4. ^ Bukovsky, Vladimir (1982), "The Soviet Role in the Peace Movement: Moscow's 'Useful Idiots'", in Lefever, Ernest W.; Hunt, E. Stephen, The Apocalyptic Premise: Nuclear Arms Debated, University Press of America, p. 191, ISBN 978-0896330627 
  5. ^ a b c Bennett, William J., America: The Last Best Hope (Volume II): From a World at War to the Triumph of Freedom, Thomas Nelson, p. 618, ISBN 978-1595550576 
  6. ^ They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions
  7. ^ a b Safire, William (12 April 1987). "On Language: Useful Idiots Of the West". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 July 2017. 
  8. ^ a b The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture by Gary Saul Morson, Yale University Press, 2011, page 98.
  9. ^ a b Charen, Mona (2003), Useful Idiots, Regnery Publishing, p. 10, ISBN 978-0895261397 
  10. ^ Granach, Alexander (1945). There Goes an Actor. Doubleday, Doran. p. 60. 
  11. ^ "Communist Shift is seen in Europe; Tour of Two Italian Leaders Behind Iron Curtain Held to Doom Popular Fronts", Arnold Cortesi, The New York Times, 21 June 1948, p. 14
  12. ^ "Communist Shift is seen in Europe; Tour of Two Italian Leaders Behind Iron Curtain Held to Doom Popular Fronts", Arnold Cortesi, The New York Times, 21 June 1948, p. 14
  13. ^ a b "Italy: From the Slums". Time. 13 January 1958. 
  14. ^ a b "WORLD: The City as a Battlefield: A Global Concern". Time. 2 November 1970. 
  15. ^ a b Lamar, Jr., Jacob V. (14 December 1987). "An Offer They Can Refuse". Time. 
  16. ^ a b Poniewozik, James (3 November 2009). "TV Marks Obama Anniversary with Documentaries, Aliens". Time. 
  17. ^ a b Klein, Joe (26 November 2010). "Israel First, Yet Again". Time. 
  18. ^ "Wednesday Words: Useful Idiots, Don 'Draping' and More", Time, 14 March 2012.
  19. ^ Ludwig von Mises, Planned Chaos, Foundation for Economic Education, 1947, p. 17 in electronic document.
  20. ^ Bogdan Raditsa, "Yugoslavia's Tragic Lesson to the World", Reader's Digest Service, p. 138 in electronic document.
  21. ^ Expelled: A Journalist's Descent into the Russian Mafia State by Luke Harding, page 104.
  22. ^ a b The East German Social Courts: Law and Popular Justice in a Marxist-Leninist Society, by Peter W. Sperlich, page 17-19
  23. ^ "Wednesday Words: Useful Idiots, Don 'Draping' and More", Time, 14 March 2012
  24. ^ Russian political warfare: origin, evolution, and application by Dickey, Jeffrey V., Monterey, California: Naval Postgraduate School, pages 55-56
  25. ^ Diplomats and Demagogues: the Memoirs of Spruille Braden, Spruille Braden, Arlington House, 1971
  26. ^ Albright: Trump fits the mold of Russia's 'useful idiot' by Madeleine Albright
  27. ^ The Editorial Board (15 December 2016), "Donald Trump's Denial About Russia", The New York Times, retrieved 19 July 2017, There could be no more 'useful idiot,' to use Lenin's term of art, than an American president who doesn't know he's being played by a wily foreign power. 
  28. ^ Hayden, Michael (3 November 2016). "Former CIA chief: Trump is Russia's useful fool". The Washington Post. Retrieved 19 July 2017. We have really never seen anything like this. Former acting CIA director Michael Morell says that Putin has cleverly recruited Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation. I'd prefer another term drawn from the arcana of the Soviet era: polezni durak. That's the useful fool, some naif, manipulated by Moscow, secretly held in contempt, but whose blind support is happily accepted and exploited. That's a pretty harsh term, and Trump supporters will no doubt be offended. But, frankly, it's the most benign interpretation of all this that I can come up with right now. 

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