This archived book review (from 2004) of Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First, by Mona Charen in the Claremont Magazine examines the connection.
The collapse of Europe’s Christian monarchies in the aftermath of the Enlightenment resulted in at least three distinct solutions to the problem of how to organize society in a post-Christian world. One, which ultimately won approval in most Western nations, stressed the freedom of the individual, and gave rise to institutions that favored it, both politically (democracy) and economically (the free-market economy, or capitalism). Another, drawing on atavistic impulses allegedly resident in particular societies, and fueled by the Romantic rebellion against Enlightenment rationalism, resulted in the totalitarian regimes we know as “fascist”: Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, and their imitators.
The third, insisting on its strictly scientific origins, professed to have discovered “the laws of history,” under which capitalism (defined as the exploitation of workers by those owning the means of production) would be overthrown by the workers and replaced by a state which would itself control the means of production. This “socialist” state would then plan the national economy scientifically, on the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
It would be foolish to underestimate the appeal of this third solution to the modern mind. The Enlightenment’s central achievement, after all, had been to replace faith with reason—to make mankind, with the aid of science, the arbiter of its own destiny. Socialism, as described above, seemed to many a 19th- and 20th-century mind nothing more than the application of this technique to the problem of economics on a national scale.
A century on, we have learned better. The challenge posed by the fascist nations was faced and disposed of in the first half of the 20th century. The second half was consumed in a decisive struggle between the heirs of the Enlightenment’s two competing traditions: the tradition of freedom, and the tradition of state power, which, it soon transpired, inevitably resulted in the enslavement of the people the state purported to serve.
But it should not be surprising that many people in the Western world have always found it difficult to condemn Communism quite as wholeheartedly as they condemned fascism. Communism, and socialism more generally, at least assertedly appealed to science for their justification. Perhaps (many thought) their totalitarian tendencies were not inevitable but simply the result of circumstances.
Even capitalism had its problems. Capitalism, after all, did not even pretend that its own motivating impulses were high-minded: It argued only that each individual’s desire for his own economic benefit would collectively result in a benefit to society at large. Surely socialism, and even Communism, deserved some credit for at least having a higher motivation than that.
Such, at any rate, was the frame of mind of many Western intellectuals when World War II ended in the decisive defeat of fascism, and left free societies and socialist ones (and more particularly Communism) squarely in contention for the leadership of the world.
In addition, and even worse, a good many intellectuals in the West were simply blind to the negative aspects of Communism. In the 1920s and 1930s they had become convinced that Communism was actually superior to Western societies, and no amount of evidence to the contrary—even eyewitness evidence—could change their minds. World War II, in which Britain and the United States became the military allies of “good old Joe,” briefly made this mindset even easier to maintain, and the outbreak of the Cold War between the former allies found these people silently (or in some cases quite vocally) sympathetic to the Communist cause. As a result, the world’s free societies were forced to wage the Cold War with far less than the wholehearted support of many liberal and leftist intellectuals. In one way or another, and to one degree or another, they effectively supported the policies and purposes of the Soviet Union.
Lenin reputedly referred to these Western intellectual defenders of Communism as “useful idiots,” and this is the sobriquet Mona Charen confers on them in the title of her book chronicling their statements and activities. As a reference source, it will be absolutely invaluable to scholars for generations to come. For the rest of us, it provides a sharp reminder of just how stubbornly many liberals resisted this country’s efforts to contain, and ultimately defeat, the deadly threat of international Communism.