Useful Idiot

Vladimir Lenin? Joseph Stalin? Bogdan Raditsa? Ludwig Von Mises? Mario Scelba? Edward Derwinski? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Historically, the term “useful idiot” has referred to a naive or unwitting ally of a ruthless political movement especially a communist movement. Supposedly, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin used this expression contemptuously of non-communists who aligned themselves with their political positions. Yet, I am skeptical of these ascriptions because I have not seen any good citations. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: A significant precursor appeared in an article titled “Yugoslavia’s Tragic Lesson to the World” by Bogdan Raditsa published in “The Reader’s Digest” of October 1946. Raditsa joined the Yugoslav government of communist Josip Broz Tito, and by 1945 he had become the chief of the foreign press section of the Ministry of Information. As the communists consolidated their power in Yugoslavia, Raditsa became disillusioned. He watched as individuals he respected were being arrested, imprisoned, and executed. He believed that his decision to join the government of Tito had been naive and misguided. The communists employed a sardonic label that prompted the shudder of self-recognition. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

In the Serbo-Croat language the communists have a phrase for true democrats who consent to collaborate with them for “democracy.” It is Koristne Budale, or Useful Innocents.

Raditsa rendered this crucial phrase as “Useful Innocents”, but a more direct translation of “Koristne Budale” into English yields “Useful Fools”.

Raditsa asserted that the recently held elections in the country were not genuinely democratic: 2

Some “Useful Innocents” in the onlooking democratic world were impressed by these elections. They can learn their true nature from General Rankovich of OZNA. Addressing the elected National Assembly of Yugoslavia on March 24 of this year, he said:

“Those who oppose the policy of the present regime cannot possibly put themselves into power through free elections. They cannot participate in the government. And they cannot even exist as a tolerated opposition.”

The conclusion of Raditsa’s piece included another use of the phrase: 3

Be careful about people whose vocabulary is yours but whose record wherever they hold power is your destruction. Do not be Koristne Budale. Do not be “Useful Innocents.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Useful Idiot

Notes:

  1. 1946 October, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 49, Yugoslavia’s Tragic Lesson to the World by Bogdan Raditsa (Condensed from a forthcoming book), Start Page 138, Quote Page 138, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1946 October, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 49, Yugoslavia’s Tragic Lesson to the World by Bogdan Raditsa (Condensed from a forthcoming book), Start Page 138, Quote Page 144, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1946 October, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 49, Yugoslavia’s Tragic Lesson to the World by Bogdan Raditsa (Condensed from a forthcoming book), Start Page 138, Quote Page 150, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper)

The Capitalists Will Sell Us the Rope with Which We Will Hang Them

Vladimir Lenin? Joseph Stalin? Karl Marx? George Racey Jordan? Samuel E. Keeble? S. Dmitrijewski? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A quotation about imprudent greed and near-sightedness has been attributed to three prominent communists: Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Karl Marx. Here are three versions of the statement:

  • The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.
  • When it comes time to hang the capitalists, they will sell us the rope.
  • The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.

Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in 1955 within a periodical called “The Commonwealth: Official Journal of the Commonwealth Club of California”. The club is a non-profit public affairs organization. The quotation appeared as a filler item. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Lenin wrote, “When it comes time to hang the capitalists, they will vie with each other for the rope contract.”
—Major George Racey Jordan

Jordan was a U.S. military officer who became a fierce anti-communist. Lenin had died in 1924; hence, the 1955 date was quite late. No documentary source was specified, and multiple researchers have been unable to find a match in Lenin’s writings. The Congressional Research Service did report a thematically pertinent passage ascribed to Lenin. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Capitalists Will Sell Us the Rope with Which We Will Hang Them

Notes:

  1. 1955 October 31, The Commonwealth: Official Journal of the Commonwealth Club of California, Volume 31, Number 44, (Freestanding quotation), Page 268, Column 2, Published by Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco, California. (Verified with scans; thanks to John McChesney-Young and the University of California, Berkeley library system)

Why Should Any Man Be Allowed to Buy a Printing Press and Disseminate Pernicious Opinions?

Vladimir Lenin? Winston Churchill? George Riddell? H. L. Mencken? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: I was thumbing through The Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations to try and find a good saying about freedom of the press and I was stunned to see this hostile sentence [OPQ]:

As to freedom of the press, why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?

These words were attributed to Winston Churchill based on a 1984 biography by Piers Brendon [WPB]. But these same words were attributed to Vladimir Lenin in another collection of quotations I read recently and that is why I was astounded. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the name of the book. Now I am starting to doubt my memory. Could you research this quote?

Quote Investigator: Thanks for a fascinating puzzle. Indeed, most of this sentence does appear as part of a longer passage that is attributed to Vladimir Lenin in a famous compilation published in 1942 called “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken”. The name Nikolai Lenin is used instead of Vladimir Lenin in Mencken’s reference work [NQL]:

Why should freedom of speech and freedom of the press be allowed? Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticized? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinions calculated to embarrass the government?

NIKOLAI LENIN: Speech in Moscow, 1920

QI has traced this expression back to a diary entry that was written in 1920 by George Riddell who was a powerful newspaperman and close friend of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom David Lloyd George. Riddell later became the 1st Baron Riddell. The text in Mencken’s reference is very similar to the text in Riddell’s diary, but it is not identical.

Riddell mentioned both Churchill and Lenin in a crucial passage of his diary. But QI believes that Riddell was describing a speech by Lenin and not the words of Churchill. Hence, QI thinks that the ascription to Churchill is almost certainly incorrect.

Continue reading Why Should Any Man Be Allowed to Buy a Printing Press and Disseminate Pernicious Opinions?