Useful idiot

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For other uses, see Useful idiot (disambiguation).

In political jargon, useful idiot is a term for people perceived as propagandists for a cause whose goals they are not fully aware of, and who are used cynically by the leaders of the cause.


The phrase is often attributed to Lenin in the West. However, in a 1987 article, American journalist William Safire noted that a Library of Congress librarian had not been able to find the phrase in Lenin's works.[1] The book They Never Said It also suggests the attribution is false.[2]

Russian since 1941[edit]

In the Russian language, the equivalent term "useful fools" (полезные дураки, tr. polezniye duraki) was already in use in 1941. It was mockingly used against Russian "nihilists" who, for Polish agents, were said to be no more than "useful fools and silly enthusiasts".[3]

This term (singular: полезный дурак) was attributed to Lenin by some Russian writers, e.g., by Vladimir Bukovsky (1984).[4]

English since 1948[edit]

The term has been pejoratively used in the West for fellow travellers and other revolutionary communist sympathizers during the Cold War. The underlying accusation was that, despite the people in question thinking of themselves as standing for a benign socialist ideological cause, and as valued allies of the Soviet Union; they were actually held in contempt and were being cynically used by the Soviets for political purposes. The use of the term in political discourse has since been extended to other alleged propagandists, especially those who are seen to unwittingly support a supposedly malignant cause which they believe to be a just one.[citation needed]

Outside of political discourse, the phrase may have started hitting mass audiences in the memoir of actor Alexander Granach, though used in that case about a boyhood incident in a shtetl in Western Ukraine.[5]

In 1948 (June), New York Times used the term in an article on contemporary Italian politics, citing the social-democratic Italian paper L'Umanita.[6]

In 1958 (January), Time magazine started to use the phrase.[7][8][9][10][11][12]

In 1959, the Economic Research Council's journal Economic Digest not only mentions the phrase but attributes it to Lenin.[13][14][14]

In 1961, the term appears in an American magazine when referring to Jean-Paul Sartre.[15]

In 1962, the term appeared (also attributed to Lenin) in the book Red Herring by retired U.S. Army Col. Gunther E. Hartel.[16][17][18]

In 1969, American political magazine Dissent had begun to use the term.[19]

English since 2000[edit]

A 2010 BBC radio documentary titled Useful Idiots listed among "useful idiots" of Joseph Stalin several prominent British writers including H. G. Wells and Doris Lessing, the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw, the American journalist Walter Duranty, and the singer Paul Robeson.[20]

In 2013 the term was used several times in reference of the former National Security Administration contractor Edward Snowden. Soon after his leaks of classified materials became public, American critics maintained he was unwittingly helping the governments of China and Russia score a propaganda victory by fleeing from the United States to Hong Kong and, subsequently, Moscow.[21] The accusation followed Snowden to Russia, and gained further adherence after an appearance on Russian State TV during a question/answer program with Russian President Vladimir Putin in April 2014. An American commentator on Russian affairs said that "liberals who support Edward Snowden have given succour to the Kremlin as it seeks to crush Ukrainian protesters".[22][23] Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First is a 2003 book by Mona Charen.[24]

Useful innocents[edit]

A similar term, useful innocents, appears in Austrian-American economist Ludwig von Mises' "Planned Chaos" (1947). Von Mises claims the term was used by communists for liberals that von Mises describes as "confused and misguided sympathizers".[25] The term useful innocents also appears in a Readers Digest article (1946) titled "Yugoslavia's Tragic Lesson to the World", authored by Bogdan Raditsa (Bogdan Radica), a "high ranking official of the Yugoslav Government". Raditsa says: "In the Serbo-Croat language the communists have a phrase for true democrats who consent to collaborate with them for 'democracy.' It is Korisne Budale, or Useful Innocents."[26]

The French equivalent, "Innocents utiles" or Useful innocents, was used in a newspaper article title in 1946.[27][28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Safire, William (12 April 1987). "On Language: Useful Idiots Of the West". New York Times. 
  2. ^ Boller, Jr., Paul F.; George, John (1989). They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505541-1. 
  3. ^ The expression was used, e.g., by Russian literary critic Vasily Bazanov (ru), when commenting on Nikolai Leskov's anti-nihilistic novels: "Русские «нигилисты» в руках польских агентов, судя по роману Лескова, были не больше как «полезные дураки» и глупые энтузиасты, которых можно заставить итти в огонь и в воду" ("According to Leskov's novel, Russian 'nihilists' were for Polish agents no more than useful fools and silly enthusiasts, which could be goaded to go through fire and water."), citing from Bazanov's monograph "Из литературной полемики 60-х годов", Petrozavodsk, 1941 p. 80 The phrase refers to a contemporary opinion that Russian revolutionary movement (colloquially called "nihilists") was a result of anti-Russian agitation by the Polish insurgents.
  4. ^ "Pacifisty protiv mira". 
  5. ^ Granach, Alexander (1945). There Goes an Actor. Doubleday, Doran. p. 60. 
  6. ^ "COMMUNIST SHIFT IS SEEN IN EUROPE; Tour of Two Italian Leaders Behind Iron Curtain Held to Doom Popular Fronts", Arnold Cortesi, New York Times, June 21, 1948 p. 14
  7. ^ "ITALY: From the Slums". TIME Magazine. 13 January 1958. 
  8. ^ "WORLD: The City as a Battlefield: A Global Concern". TIME Magazine. 2 November 1970. 
  9. ^ Lamar, Jr., Jacob V. (14 December 1987). "An Offer They Can Refuse". TIME Magazine. 
  10. ^ Poniewozik, James (3 November 2009). "TV Marks Obama Anniversary with Documentaries, Aliens". TIME Magazine. 
  11. ^ Klein, Joe (26 November 2010). "Israel First, Yet Again". TIME Magazine. 
  12. ^ Steinmetz, Katy (14 March 2012). "Wednesday Words: Useful Idiots, Don ‘Draping’ and More". TIME Magazine. 
  13. ^ Cameron, M. (1959). "Trade with Russia and China (paid subscription)" (PDF). Economic Digest (Volume 12, Aug/Sep 1959). 
  14. ^ a b "About the ERC". London: Economic Research Council. Retrieved 25 October 2015. 
  15. ^ "(unclear — article mentions Sartre)". America Press. 1961. p. 112. 
  16. ^ Hartel, Gunther E. (1962). "Red Herring". I. Obolensky. pp. 155–156, 169. 
  17. ^ "Sad Sacking in Salzburg". Life Magazine. 25 June 1951. p. 30. 
  18. ^ "(mentions Hartel)". The Rotarian. August 1961. p. 30. 
  19. ^ "(references "useful idiots")". New York: Dissent. 1969. Retrieved 25 October 2015. 
  20. ^ Sweeney, John (4 August 2010). "Useful Idiots — Episode 1 of 2". Useful Idiots: The Documentary (Podcast). BBC World Service. Retrieved 2015-06-01.  External link in |website= (help)
  21. ^ Schiavenza, Matt. "Edward Snowden: China's Useful Idiot?". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2016-04-06. 
  22. ^ Lucas, Edward. "Putin's useful idiots: Eminent Russia expert says liberals who support Edward Snowden have given succour to the Kremlin as it seeks to crush Ukrainian protesters". The Daily Mail Online. Retrieved 2016-04-06. 
  23. ^ Tracinski, Robert. "Edward Snowden Is Vladimir Putin’s Useful Idiot". The Federalist. Retrieved 2016-04-06. 
  24. ^ Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First, Mona Charen, Regnery Publishing, 2003
  25. ^ Ludwig von Mises; "PLANNED CHAOS" p.17 in electronic document
  26. ^ "Reader's Digest Service" article titled "Yugoslavia's Tragic Lesson to the World"; p.138 in electronic document; Bogdan Radista; Although Raditsa translates the phrase as "Useful Innocents", the word budala (plural: budale) actually translates as "fool" and synonyms thereof.
  27. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on December 23, 2012. Retrieved June 12, 2012. [full citation needed]
  28. ^