Quote: useful idiot (antedating attrib Vladimir Lenin 1961)

Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Wed Aug 11 07:02:55 UTC 2010

  This is a very interesting observation. I've always cringed at the
putative attribution of the phrase to Lenin, particularly from
conservatives (the likes of Laura Ingraham, who uses the term freely, or
Mona Charen, who used it in the title of her book). There are two
reasons for this. First, it's not the kind of phrase that you would find
in Russian, particularly in Lenin's writings. It may have been someone's
free translation from the original, but, then, the attribution to Lenin
is obviously questionable.

But the second reason--and I don't claim to be an expert in Lenin--the
phrase does not sound like one of Lenin's coinages. He was much more
inventive in broad strokes than in fine details. For example, one
coinage was the parliamentary "swamp"--the "centrist" unprincipled
members who swing to the right or to the left depending on the prevalent
popular opinion (if they have any reason at all), but mostly serve to
kill any initiative that has any hope of being productive. If anyone
would have been the target of the "useful idiot" moniker, it would have
been the "swamp". But why two coinages? To emphasize different aspects
of the same group? Another group that the phrase might have referred is
"poputchiki" == fellow travelers. But, again, the latter term appears to
be much more vividly descriptive.

More importantly, the word "idiot" has a different social status in
Russian than it does in English. So it is possible that the concept
existed, but the specific English phrasing is very likely to have been a
new invention.

It is useful to compare the treatment in the Russian Wiki. The
suggestion that the phrase was coined by Lenin is seen as preposterous,
as it supposedly applied to the Western allies of the Bolsheviks. The
problem is that this make no sense historically, as by 1924, there would
not have been any substantial allies in the West--other than those who
already shared the party with them--in historical terms, these "useful
idiots" did not exist /at least/ until the late 1920s, if not later, so
they would not have been thus insulted by Lenin. Wiki quotes one source
that ascribed the coinage to Karl Radek. It only traces the English (US)
usage to 1948 (specifically, NYT), then suggests that no evidence of
such phrasing has ever been found in any of Lenin's published works or
heard in any of his speeches. The article then quotes (but without
citation) Grant Harris (LoC consultant, as it says) claiming that LoC
could find no evidence of any phrase in any way resembling "useful
idiots" in any of Lenin's papers. Given the description and temporal
placement (spring 1987), the quote probably appeared in Safire's column.

The main point remains that referring to Lenin and Stalin as treating
Western allies as "useful idiots" is not the same as claiming that they
used the actual phrase. Given that the search has been quite exhaustive
by quite a few authorities with access to all the relevant documents,
the conclusion seems to be rather definitive.

In fact, Garson refers to finding references in the "40s and 50s". If he
can predate the Russian Wiki citation (which gives the year, the
location--NYT, and the context--a unflattering description of an Italian
politician, but not the actual citation), it would already be
interesting. If any Russian leaders did use the phrase, it might have
been Khrushchev, not Lenin or Stalin. But, by then, the phrase may well
have been in use. By the 1970s, the phrase came to symbolize "idealism
based on ignorance" (http://bit.ly/b51XGR) and was mainly used by
conservative writers in reference to the left-leaning opponents as a way
of tarring them with both treason and stupidity.

I did come across one interesting suggestion (http://bit.ly/c73hBx) that
"useful idiots" was "invented by Willi M├╝nzenberg immediately after the
1917 revolution".

Interestingly, I only found two GB sources with dates unambiguously
preceding the 1948 article--one a novel from 1864, and the other
Alexander Granach's  autobiography from 1945. Neither one deals with
Lenin (1870-1924), nor with Communists. [Two other sources with earlier
tags are clearly misdated.]


PS: Here's what appears to be the 1948 NYT article identified by Russian

COMMUNIST SHIFT IS SEEN IN EUROPE; Tour of Two Italian Leaders ...
$3.95 - New York Times - Jun 21, 1948
L'Umanita said the Communists would give the "useful idiots" of the
left-wing Socialist party the choice of merging with the Communist party
or getting out. ...

Perhaps the original source of the phrase (in this context) is Italian?

On 8/11/2010 12:19 AM, Garson O'Toole wrote:
> The term "useful idiot" has been attributed to Vladimir Lenin and
> Joseph Stalin. The earliest citation in the Yale Book of Quotations is
> dated 1981. YBQ also says "Like many other putative Leninisms, it
> seems to be a myth."
> Wikipedia has an entry for "Useful idiot":
> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Useful_idiot
> William Safire investigated the term in an "On Language" column dated
> 1987 April 12:
> http://www.nytimes.com/1987/04/12/magazine/on-language.html
> Barry Popik has an entry for the term:
> http://www.barrypopik.com/index.php/new_york_city/entry/useful_idiot/
> I have located a variety of citations containing the term "useful
> idiot" and "useful idiots" in the 1940s and 1950s. Lenin died in 1924.
> This post just presents the earliest citation I found in which the
> term is attributed to Lenin:
> Cite: 1961 (Copyright 1960), The Khrushchev Pattern by Frank Gibney,
> Page 8, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York. (Google Books snippet view;
> Verified on paper)
> Historically, the hard core of Communist believers have always
> needed a spongelike mass support around them, to swell their tri-
> umphs and to cushion their adverse moments.
> Lenin first coined the term "useful idiots" for them. First applied
> specifically to the Socialists, it is a good phrase for describing the
> Communist follower, whether he is a left-wing Socialist in Japan,
> a member of the Chilean Popular Front, a professional humani-
> tarian like Jean-Paul Sartre, or an idealistic student from Guinea
> who plans to organize a new chapter of the World Federation of
> Democratic Youth.
> http://books.google.com/books?id=re1oAAAAMAAJ&q=coined#search_anchor
> The obituary of the author of "The Khrushchev Pattern" appeared in the
> New York Times on 2006 April 14.
> Frank Gibney, 81, Writer and Authority on Asia, Dies
> http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/14/us/14gibney.html
> Garson

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