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The US hard right are Putin’s useful idiots

The appeal of brutal Moscow governments is nothing new

Image: The New European/Getty

During the decades following the Russian revolution, streams of westerners went to Russia. They ignored the regular murderous purges, the political repression and the man-made famines that killed millions, and returned convinced that the new Soviet experiment embodied humankind’s best hopes for the future. 

These people were not formal members of the Russian communist party, but sympathetic to its ideology and supportive of its politics. They became known as “fellow travellers.” 

Today, as an autocratic leader is again sacrificing Russian lives on an industrial scale, a new group of western sympathisers has emerged. These new fellow travellers might be better described by another phrase used during that time.

Often attributed to Lenin, “useful idiot” describes a person perceived as propagandising for a cause without fully understanding its goals, while being exploited by the cause’s leaders. 

Some of the original fellow travellers included Arthur Ransome, author of Swallows and Amazons, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, who founded the New Statesman, and literary figures including Arthur Koestler and Ernest Hemingway. Today, useful idiots include Senator Marjorie Taylor Greene, who voted against the newly passed $95 billion foreign aid package, including $61 billion for Ukraine.

Another is the journalist Tucker Carlson, who recently travelled to Moscow to interview president Putin. Then there is former president Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, and all those at the Heritage Foundation, an American conservative think tank, who are campaigning for the end of US military aid to Ukraine. 

There are similarities between the two groups. Both are driven by a disillusionment with their own society. Both see – or saw – in Russia the realisation of ideologies and values that they believe their own societies have let slip. Both have been drawn towards the Russian regime, believing it to be an ideological ally in a universal movement. 

As a result, both have adopted a wilful blindness to the fact that much of what they claimed to value is anathema to these regimes. Most callously of all, this blindness extended to the suffering of the people.  

The Webbs were influential figures in the Fabian Society which participated in the founding of the Labour Party in 1900. Beatrice had inherited wealth and thought of herself as belonging to the class that gave the orders. For those in the top strata of Britain in the 1930s, it was clear that British imperial power was in decline as the social problems of industrialised cities were rising. 

The Webbs were believers in the doctrine of progress, but while they had no doubt that Soviet collectivism represented the next phase in history, they were not doctrinal Marxists. Lenin described them as “me-too communists.” 

Trotsky believed that many of the leftist intelligentsia that turned their eyes eastwards were more focused on the opportunity to recreate the world, rather than the promotion of those at the bottom of their society. They saw the suffering of the Russian peasantry as a justified price to pay for the social evolution they expected to witness. 

Ransome took a job with the Daily News in Russia. In 1917 he was one of the few western journalists left behind to witness the revolution, which he defended in his dispatches. He saw the spontaneous uprising as an inexorable blow for democracy, throwing off the yoke of the tsar.

Yet in his support of this democratic blow, during the campaign of political repression and executions from 1918 to 1922 known as the Red Terror, he wrote in defence of censorship of the press, arbitrary arrests, and even execution without trial. 

Many back home considered Ransome a passionate Bolshevik, but as he was one of the few on the ground when diplomatic ties had been cut, MI6 recruited him in 1918. Despite this, the following year he was arrested by Special Branch under the Defence of the Realm Act. It took until 1937 for MI5 to be satisfied with Ransome’s loyalty. 

Released KGB files claim Hemingway was also recruited as an intelligence asset, meeting Soviet agents in Havana and London in the 1940s. During that time, reports suggest that he repeatedly expressed his desire and willingness to help. However, the files state that he failed to pass on anything useful. 

Today, Greene doesn’t think that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a threat to the rest of Europe. She also thinks that we should all stop discussing it, claiming on Bannon’s TV show, “This whole thing is the most repulsive, disgusting thing happening, and the American people are the ones writing the cheque… the reality is Ukraine is not even a NATO member…” 

The rant prompted former representative Liz Cheney to ask, “Is she a useful idiot or is she intentionally spreading Putin’s lies?” 

Senator Chris Murphy recently claimed that “[T]here’s literally a wing of the Republican Party that is lifting up Putin as an example to follow… claiming that he’s involved in a righteous fight.” Carlson attempted to find common ground between Putin’s Orthodox ethno-nationalism and the Christian right of the Republican Party, encouraging Putin to speak of his Christian faith and asked him if he saw God at work in the world. 

Bannon, claims that Putin is the leader of a global anti-woke fight, while conspiracy theory websites linked to the QAnon movement link Russia’s war in Ukraine to a righteous wider war on a shady corrupt elite of global sex traffickers. 

The most pronounced difference between the fellow travellers of the past was that they were on the left – the current crop are on the extreme right. The travellers of the 20th century thought that their own countries were stuck in the past and the Soviet Union represented a dawning future that never arrived. In contrast, the useful idiots of today see Russia as representing a greater, purer past, to which they wish to return – a past that, needless to say, never existed. 

There are further differences. While fellow travellers were primarily driven by ideological motivations, some of the modern-day useful idiots are more cynical, supporting a foreign adversary in order to hurt a domestic political rival. The ultimately thwarted attempts in Congress to stall the military aid bill is a case in point. 

To them it is worth the cost of damaging the US’s reputation and relationships with its allies and creating dangerous geopolitical instability – anything is worth it, so long as it hurts Biden. 

Arthur Koestler eventually recognised the horror of the Soviet project. While travelling in Ukraine, he encountered the effects of the man-made famine engineered by Joseph Stalin, the Holodomor: 

“At every station there was a crowd of peasants in rags… The women were lifting up their infants to the compartment windows – infants pitiful and terrifying with limbs like sticks, puffed bellies, big cadaverous heads lolling on thin necks. I had arrived, unsuspecting, at the peak of the famine of 1932-33 which had depopulated entire districts and claimed several million victims.”

Koestler co-conceived The God That Failed, a collection of essays by writers who had lost their illusions about Russian communism. We are unlikely to one day hear Carlson’s concession that the Russian supermarkets he visited during his trip to Moscow weren’t as great as he made out. 

After the invasion of Ukraine, the former UKIP leader Nigel Farage admitted he was “wrong” about Putin, having said in 2014 that he was the politician he most admired. And yet Farage is still parroting Russian talking points and he recently encouraged western leaders to negotiate with Putin. These comments were described by the former defence minister Tobias Ellwood as “dangerous, defeatist and unpatriotic”.

Putin agreed to Carlson’s interview not in order to influence the political mainstream but to appeal to his ideological allies: Greene, Bannon, Farage, and Trump. A second Trump presidency would likely further undermine alliances that have provided post-1945 security for the West. It would also deprive Ukraine of US support. 

It would be wrong, however, to see Trump as a fellow traveller or a useful idiot. Trump’s primary ideological driver is his own promotion. 

Like Putin, he dresses himself in religious robes primarily for his own political advantage, and he is no believer. While he clearly admires Putin’s style, any relationship would ultimately be pragmatic and dependent on their respective goals aligning. 

Putin wants a US that is open to carving up the world into zones of interest and control. Trump’s isolationist instincts on foreign policy could well be a match for Putin’s ambitions. 

The 20th-century travellers were more complex characters than their modern equivalents, maybe none more so than Ransome, who fell in love not only with Russia he also with a Russian. When he first met Evgenia Petrovna Shelepina, whom he later married, she was Trotsky’s personal secretary. Recently opened KGB files suggest Evgenia was involved in smuggling diamonds from Russia to help fund the Communist Party long after they moved to England. 

At different points, and sometimes simultaneously, Ransome was: an uncritical defender of the revolution and committed to the Bolshevik ideology; a spy for MI6, patriotic to his own vision of Britain described in his children’s books that harked back to a simpler time; devoted to Evgenia; and motivated by self-interest. 

Despite the uniqueness of his well-lived life, Ransome’s journey has similarities to that of other fellow travellers. Inspired by disillusionment at home, he travelled east to seek a better world. His desire to see this world led him to turn a blind eye to much that should have conflicted with his values. 

In the end, the gap between the reality he experienced and the reality he desired was too great. He returned home and retreated into fictional worlds of his own creation, cheerful utopias with the moral simplicity he never found in the real world. 

Today’s useful idiots don’t have Ransome’s imagination, but live in their own fictional dystopian worlds. Hopefully, as reporting of Russia’s violent disdain towards Ukraine, dissenters at home and even their own soldiers, makes clear, it is plain to see that these worlds are as far from reality as the old travellers’ dream of a Soviet utopia that never was.  

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