Useful idiot

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For other uses, see Useful idiot (disambiguation).

In political jargon, a useful idiot is a person perceived as a propagandist for a cause whose goals they are not fully aware of, and who is 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]

Use in Russian[edit]

In the Russian language, the equivalent term "useful fools" (Russian: полезные дураки, tr. polezniye duraki) was already in use in 1941. It was mockingly used against Russian "nihilists" of 1860s who, for Polish agents, were said to be no more than "useful fools and silly enthusiasts".[3]

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

Use in English[edit]

In the memoir of actor Alexander Granach, the phrase was used in the description of 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'Umanità.[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]

In 2016, the term was used by the Editorial Board of The New York Times to describe President-elect Donald Trump.[20]

Also in 2016, polezni durak, the singular of the Russian term, was used by Michael Hayden, former NSA director and former CIA director to describe Trump, "That’s the useful fool, some naif, manipulated by Moscow, secretly held in contempt, but whose blind support is happily accepted and exploited."[21]

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".[22] 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."[23] Although Raditsa translates the phrase as "Useful Innocents", the word budala (plural: budale) actually translates as "fool" and synonyms thereof.

The French equivalent, "Innocents utiles" or Useful innocents, was used in a newspaper article title in 1946.[24][25]

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. ^ The Editorial Board (December 15, 2016), Donald Trump’s Denial About Russia, The New York Times, retrieved December 15, 2016, 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. 
  21. ^ Michael Hayden (3 November 2016). "Former CIA chief: Trump is Russia's useful fool". The Washington Post - Opinions. The Washington Post. Retrieved 7 January 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. 
  22. ^ Ludwig von Mises; "PLANNED CHAOS" p.17 in electronic document
  23. ^ "Reader's Digest Service" article titled "Yugoslavia's Tragic Lesson to the World"; p.138 in electronic document; Bogdan Radista
  24. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on December 23, 2012. Retrieved June 12, 2012. [full citation needed]
  25. ^

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