Useful Idiots

Useful Idiots

by Mr Eugenides
article from Saturday 9, March, 2013

The Guardian has this week been a newspaper in mourning. The death of Hugo Chavez has hit morale hard, with the newspaper all but running a black band around its website in deference to the passing of the man it clearly regarded as the leader of all progressive forces south of the Equator, if not the Watford Gap.

The early signs, let us be clear, had been encouraging: the first major piece the paper published was an admirably balanced, detailed and fair assessment by their man in Caracas, Rory Carroll, in which he weighed Chavez’s achievements against his failures and found the bloviating strongman severely wanting. “Venezuela is a peeling, flaking ruin of a country now… institutions have been hollowed, the currency has been devalued five times,” he warned in the weekly politics podcast. “The productive capacity of the economy has basically been destroyed.”

This was too much for Seumas Milne, the Groan’s resident high-born Communist (son of a BBC D-G, Winchester and Balliol College… the usual workers’ CV), who airily dismissed Carroll’s report as balderdash and spent the rest of the podcast eulogizing the “progressive tide” sweeping South America, in the process drawing a sharp rebuke from an irritated Nick Cohen, sitting next to him: “I have to say, one thing commentators really should not do is diss the man on the ground… I’m sorry, Seumas, but I trust him more than I trust you.” But Milne was unrepentant, because his type always are.

It is Lenin, appropriately, who is usually credited (though perhaps apocryphally) with coining the phrase “useful idiots” to describe those fellow travellers on the European Left who did the Comintern’s dirty work for them. David Pryce-Jones penned a splendid diatribe in the Spectator last month against the phenomenon, decrying the stupidity of the celebrity Chavistas who have been popping up since the New Year to sing pre-emptory requiems of praise to the great man. It’s worth searching out in full, but I particularly wish I had written this paragraph: “In most of the world, a dissenting attitude of that kind puts the individual’s liberty and life at risk. In the West, the fellow traveller is free to praise what ought to be blamed and blame what ought to be praised, and be rewarded for this with money and a reputation for courage.” Quite so.

In the pantheon of great political thinkers of our times, of course, Chavez barely registered. A pantomime character beloved by supporters and loathed by enemies, he was out of depth in any serious company, little more than a prancing tit in green fatigues and a nice line in winding up the opposition; more Neil Lennon than Lenin, if we’re being honest. His death lowers the blood pressure of Latin American politics but probably raises its average IQ.

More interesting, to me at least, are the armchair revolutionaries who will fly the flag for El Comandante long after the rest of the circus has moved on. Tariq Ali’s piece in this week’s online mausoleum of Guardian mourning was a masterpiece of its kind, a full-throated encomium of praise that made Chavez sound like a world-historical colossus, a one-in-a-million fusion of two parts Gandhi, one part Bolivar and a dash of Han Solo, instead of the vaudevillian punchline that he was by the end. No mention was made of the gigantic failures, the petty thuggery and intimidation of opponents, the contempt for the constitution or the rule of law. Why should there have been? To these people, everything is about speaking so-called truth to power, even if it means singing the praises of dickheads like Chavez one week and then with a straight face labeling Rupert Murdoch a horrifying threat to democracy the next.

I suppose we shouldn’t expect too much in the way of intellectual acumen from the sort of people who maintain shrines to Fidel Castro while calling for a smoking ban, but there you are. Your Alis and Milnes, your Red Kens and Vanessa Redgraves, your, ( of course! ) George Galloways, are a fascinating species, missing links with the distant past who belong in museums like those mosquitos trapped in amber for a million years, but who instead reside in North London homes that would usually have taken an average Venezuelan family about that long to afford.

These lackwitted numpties share a remarkable worldview encompassing the revolutions of 1917 and the barricades of ’68, imperialism and neo-liberalism, Sabra and Shatila, the blessed Che and the cursed Cheney, the “living wage” and the “Tory cuts”, and where the bodies of Syrian orphans are as irrelevant as the corpse of Venezuelan democracy.

These people used to make me angry, and for a while after that they used to simply make me sad. Now I see them merely as an odd historical footnote. The ageing lions of the socialist vanguard are an evolutionary dead end, curiosities which once served a purpose but now are redundant, like my appendix, perhaps. Chavez is gone, but make no mistake; his cheerleaders will not, in the broad sweep of history, long outlive him. Enjoy them while you can, because you’ll miss them when they’re gone. Honest.

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