Useful idiot

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A useful idiot or useful fool is a person perceived as propagandizing for a cause—particularly a bad cause originating from a devious, ruthless source—without fully comprehending the cause's goals, and who is cynically being used by the cause's leaders.[1][2] Erroneously attributed to Vladimir Lenin, the term was often used during the Cold War to describe non-communists regarded as susceptible to communist propaganda and psychological manipulation.[1] Similar terms also exist in other languages.

Early usages[edit]

The term useful idiot, for a foolish person whose views can be taken advantage of for political purposes, was used in a British periodical as early as 1864.[3] In relation to the Cold War, the term appeared in a June 1948 New York Times article on contemporary Italian politics ("Communist shift is seen in Europe"),[1] citing the Italian Democratic Socialist Party's newspaper L'Umanità [it].[4] L'Umanità argued that the Italian Socialist Party, which had entered into a popular front with the Italian Communist Party (PCI) known as the Popular Democratic Front during the 1948 Italian general election, would be given the option to either merge with the PCI or leave the alliance.[4] The term was later used in a 1955 article in the American Federation of Labor News-Reporter to refer to Italians who supported Communist causes.[5] Time first used the phrase in January 1958, writing that some members of Christian Democracy considered social activist Danilo Dolci a useful idiot for Communist causes.[6] It has since recurred in that periodical's articles, from the 1970s,[7] to the 1980s,[8] to the 2000s,[9] and 2010s.[10][11]

In the Russian language, the 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".[12] This term (singular: полезный дурак) was attributed to Lenin by some Russian writers, e.g., by Vladimir Bukovsky (1984).[13]

Related terms[edit]

A similar term, useful innocents, appears in a 1946 Reader's Digest article titled "Yugoslavia's Tragic Lesson to the World", written by Bogdan Raditsa. Raditsa had served the Yugoslav government-in-exile during World War II, supported Josip Broz Tito's partisans but was not a Communist himself, and briefly served in Tito's led Provisional Government of the Democratic Federal Yugoslavia before leaving for New York.[14] Raditsa said: "In the Serbo-Croat language, the communists have a phrase for true democrats who consent to collaborate with them for [the sake of] 'democracy'. It is Korisne Budale [budale actually means fools in his language], or Useful Innocents."[15] In his 1947 book Planned Chaos, Austrian-American economist Ludwig von Mises wrote that the term useful innocents was used by Communists for those whom von Mises describes as "confused and misguided sympathizers [of the revolutionary idea]".[16]

False attribution to Lenin[edit]

The phrase useful idiot has often been attributed to Vladimir Lenin; he is not documented as ever having used the phrase.[17][18] In a 1987 article for The New York Times, American journalist William Safire investigated the origin of the term, commenting that a senior reference librarian at the Library of Congress had been unable to find the phrase in Lenin's works, and concluded that, in the absence of new evidence, the term could not be attributed to Lenin.[17][18] In defining useful idiot, the Oxford English Dictionary wrote: "The phrase does not seem to reflect any expression used within the Soviet Union."[1]

Select usage[edit]

Writing in The New York Times in 1987, Safire discussed the increasing use of the term useful idiot against "anybody insufficiently anti-Communist in the view of the phrase's user", including Congressmen who supported the anti-Contras led by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Labour Party in the Netherlands.[17] After United States president Ronald Reagan concluded negotiations with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, conservative political leader Howard Phillips declared Reagan a "useful idiot for Soviet propaganda".[18][19]

The Economist published a 2023 article titled "Vladimir Putin's useful idiots"; it describes "Useful Idiot narratives" pushed by Putinversteher that support Putin's aims and denigrate his perceived enemies.[20]

Mistaken usage[edit]

In 1959, Congressman Ed Derwinski of Illinois entered an editorial by the Chicago Daily Calumet into the Congressional record, referring to Americans who travelled to the Soviet Union to promote peace as "what Lenin calls useful idiots in the Communist game".[21] In 1961, American journalist Frank Gibney wrote that Lenin had coined the phrase useful idiot. Gibney wrote that the phrase was a good description of "Communist follower[s]" from Jean-Paul Sartre to Japan Socialist Party to members of the Popular Front in Chile.[22] In a speech in 1965, American diplomat Spruille Braden said the term was used by Joseph Stalin to refer to what Braden called "countless innocent although well-intentioned sentimentalists or idealists" who aided the Soviet agenda.[23]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d "useful idiot". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2017.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ "'useful idiot': Meaning and origin". 26 March 2021.
  4. ^ a b Cortesi, Arnold (21 June 1948). "Communist Shift is seen in Europe; Tour of Two Italian Leaders Behind Iron Curtain Held to Doom Popular Fronts". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 December 2018.
  5. ^ Stogel, Syd (1955). "'Useful Idiots' Keep Italy Reds Strong". American Federation of Labor News-Reporter.
  6. ^ "Italy: From the Slums". Time. 13 January 1958.
  7. ^ "WORLD: The City as a Battlefield: A Global Concern". Time. 2 November 1970.
  8. ^ Lamar, Jr., Jacob V. (14 December 1987). "An Offer They Can Refuse". Time.
  9. ^ Poniewozik, James (3 November 2009). "TV Marks Obama Anniversary with Documentaries, Aliens". Time.
  10. ^ Klein, Joe (26 November 2010). "Israel First, Yet Again". Time. Retrieved 12 March 2018.
  11. ^ Steinmetz, Katy (14 March 2012). "Wednesday Words: Useful Idiots, Don 'Draping' and More". Time. Retrieved 12 March 2018.
  12. ^ 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", Государственное издательство Карело-Финской ССР, 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.
  13. ^ Vladimir Bukovsky. "Пацифисты против мира". В партийном жаргоне существует такое выражение, как "полезный дурак", запущенное в обращение еще Лениным.<...> Слов нет, в рядах движения за мир есть огромное количество искренне обеспокоенных, испуганных людей со вполне благими намерениями. <...> Но нет также никакого сомнения, что вся эта пестрая толпа успешно манипулируется горсткой негодяев, получающих инструкции непосредственно из Москвы
  14. ^ "Yugoslavia Run by Russia, says Ex-Aide of Tito". Chicago Daily Tribune. 24 September 1946. p. 6.
  15. ^ Raditsa, Bogdan (1946). "Yugoslavia's Tragic Lesson to the World". Reader's Digest Service. Vol. 49.
  16. ^ Ludwig von Mises, Planned Chaos, Foundation for Economic Education, 1947, p. 17 in electronic document.
  17. ^ a b c Safire, William (12 April 1987). "On Language: Useful Idiots Of the West". The New York Times. Retrieved 19 July 2017.
  18. ^ a b c Boller, Paul F.; George, John H. (1989). They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes. Barnes & Nobles Books. ISBN 9781566191050.
  19. ^ Smith, Hendrick (17 January 1988). "The Right Against Reagan". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 12 March 2018.
  20. ^ "Vladimir Putin's useful idiots". The Economist. 3 July 2023. Retrieved 12 August 2023.
  21. ^ 1959 Congressional Record, Vol. 105, Page A5653 (30 June)
  22. ^ Gibney, Frank (1961). The Khrushchev Pattern. Duell, Sloan and Pearce. p. 8.
  23. ^ Braden, Spruille (1971). Diplomats and Demagogues: the Memoirs of Spruille Braden. Arlington House. p. 496. ISBN 9780870001253.

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