The term “useful idiots” was originally coined – purportedly by Lenin – to describe Western admirers of the Soviet Union. They were idiots because they projected their utopian delusions from afar: few actually bothered to visit Russia. But they were useful in that they acted as vectors of Soviet propaganda to Western audiences.
It is important to understand the 20th century’s useful idiots in order to understand what motivates the credulous flatterers of dictatorship in our own century. They are similar in some ways: both look longingly overseas for political salvation. But they also have important differences.
This is apparent when it comes to China. China is a Leninist dictatorship in which party apparatchiks have taken to heart the Bolshevik politician Nikolai Bukharin’s dictum to “enrich yourselves”. China’s legislature contains over 100 billionaires. Jack Ma, the CEO of Alibaba and a member of the Chinese Communist Party, is worth around $40bn. Income inequality in China now exceeds that of the United States.
Rather than economic socialism, what the CCP seeks to create is a unanimous society. Ultimately this is the aim of all totalitarian political movements. Leninist parties begin with the claim that they – and only they – can speak on behalf of the people; yet they typically end up pursuing power for its own sake. In this vein, Chinese president-for life Xi Jinping is pioneering an algorithmic panopticon which enables levels of social control straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four or Black Mirror.
This obsession with unanimity underlies the ongoing persecution of the Uighurs by the Chinese state, which can be accurately described as a cultural geocide. Upwards of a million Uighurs and Kazakhs are estimated to be languishing in Chinese forced labour camps.
Human rights abuses against the Uighurs are by now well documented. The UN has said it is “deeply concerned” about the situation in Xinjiang. David Brophy, author of Uyghur Nation, reported from Xinjiang in 2018 some of the “repressive policy innovations” that have been enacted in Uighur-populated areas in recent years:
“Police stations at every major intersection, ubiquitous checkpoints where Chinese sail through as Uyghurs line up for humiliating inspections, elderly men and women trudging through the streets on anti-terror drills, television and radio broadcasts haranguing the Uyghurs to love the party and blame themselves for their second-class status”.
[See also: China’s Covid cover-up?]
Against this backdrop you would not expect to see the left-wing fellow travelling that afflicted certain intellectuals during the Soviet era. Unlike in the USSR, utopia is not even conceivably on the horizon in China, where rapacious capitalism exists alongside the persecution of minorities.
Yet you would be wrong to think that. The influential US leftist Max Blumenthal recently appeared on Russian state television to rubbish claims of Uighur persecution in Xinjiang. “We examined the source data on the claims of millions of Uighurs in so-called concentration camps,” Blumenthal said on RT last year. “We haven’t seen the evidence for these massive claims,” he went on to say.
In an echo of the way dictatorships publish the flattery of credulous foreign dupes in their state newspapers, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespeople have approvingly tweeted articles from Blumenthal’s online magazine The Grayzone which have sought to deny the persecution of China’s Uighur population.
It’s easy to dismiss individuals such as Blumenthal as cranks. But what starts out on the fringes has a tendency to seep into the mainstream. Perhaps that explains how the Progressive International – an organisation launched in 2018 by prominent leftists including Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and former Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa – has managed to align itself with the Qiao Collective, a group that denies the persecution of Uighur Muslims and promotes authoritarian (Chinese) nationalism – despite the latter being something the Progressive International says it stands against.
Elsewhere the Morning Star, which remains a popular newspaper on the British left (former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is a regular reader), published a piece describing evidence of Chinese persecution of the Uighurs as “laughably weak”, despite mountains of material from independent human rights organisations demonstrating the veracity of the claims.
It is difficult to attribute this soft peddling – some might say whitewashing – of CCP crimes to ideological fervour. To be sure, ideological fanaticism does not excuse the dupes who once flattered Stalin and talked on the BBC of the Soviet Union’s “atmosphere of such hope and security for the poorest” (George Bernard Shaw). But it does make such stupidity easier to comprehend. During the 1930s Western countries were beset by economic stagnation and the rise of fascism, whereas the Soviet Union appeared to be bucking these global trends.
There was also a convoluted ethical argument at the disposal of Western intellectuals to explain away Stalin’s brutality. The British historian Robert Conquest laid out the reasoning in his book Reflections on a Ravaged Century:
“There is much injustice under capitalism;
socialism will end this injustice;
therefore anything that furthers socialism is to be supported;
including any amount of injustice.”
Today’s flatterers of China possess no such reasoning. The Chinese state exists to facilitate the enrichment of loyal businessmen and apparatchiks while imposing homogeneity on the rest of the population. The idea that the CCP will swap capitalism for egalitarianism at some point in the distant future is a fantastical notion that misunderstands the logic of power. The state does not wither away of its own accord as Marx predicted it would. Instead, wherever it has been tried, the communist project has been the precursor of a new system of exploitation in which state actors pursue their own bureaucratic interests.
Thankfully a majority of the Western left harbours few illusions about contemporary China. But to those that do, idealism appears to have been replaced by moral nihilism and a particularly pernicious lie: that if there is only one Satan (the US) then anyone against that Satan cannot be a devil himself.