Dozens of talented writers in Western countries (as well as scores of negligible scribblers) declared their sympathy with the Stalinist 'experiment' while it was in progress, without themselves becoming communists. The more eminent of them were taken on Potemkin tours of the Soviet Union and, if their enthusiasm survived the experience (as in some cases, such as André Gide's, it did not), they returned to serve on committees dedicated to pro-Soviet causes and to the justification of Stalinism. They were called fellow-travellers.
David Caute has told the story of the British, American, French and some of the German fellow-travellers between 1928 and 1956 in [The Fellow-Travellers], a bulky but very readable book. The time span is not arbitrary. In Mr. Caute's view there were few examples of the type before 1928 because fellow-travellers generally feared and detested Trotsky, permanent revolution and the idea that communism might one day arrive in the West. What they admired was Stalinism, socialism in one other country. And what they admired about it was orderly scientific government, the submission of society to the philosopher-tyrant. By 1956 it had become clear to even the most enthusiastic, thanks to the Khrushchev Report and the Budapest rising, that Stalinism was not scientific, nor even orderly. A few unrepentant fellow-travellers then transferred their fixation to Maoism, and they get a chapter in Caute's book, too. He thinks, however, that this was a brief phase and that fellow-travelling has now ceased. It has been driven out by its exact opposite, the New Left, which does not adore le prince lointain for his science of order but wants a rebellion against established government right here.
Caute's method resembles that of Dos Passos's novels. He marshals his immense cast in successive scenes that are only roughly in chronological order, and repeatedly zooms in one one of them for a close-up. This keeps the reader engrossed, allows some useful repetition of key themes, and leaves the impression of familiarity with a vast chunk of intellectual history.
Those featured in the close-ups include Gide, Bernard Shaw, the Webbs, Sartre, Romain Rolland, André Malraux, Lion Feuchtwanger, Theodore Dreiser, Heinrich Mann, Sean O'Casey and many others. That one cannot spare space to list them all shows the enormous amount of work that has gone into this book. What was typical of such people, says Caute (apropos of Professor Joan Robinson) was a combination of gullibility and latent authoritarianism. He provides priceless examples of both….
The fellow-travellers' indifference to the fate of Stalin's victims … must even qualify a little the sympathy one feels for those of them caught in the McCarthy witch-hunts…. Still, as he also shows, the word 'fellow-traveller' became a dangerous bludgeon, of which hysterical or malicious misuse was enough to ruin careers and reputations. So it is more than a care for precision that leads him to try to define the notion, to say just what fellow-travelling was. Caute claims to destroy the myth that the fellow-traveller was a milk-and-water communist who lacked the courage to join the party. He argues that he was, rather, another sort of person altogether: not a Marxist or revolutionary but a man quite opposed to Trotsky, to the Comintern and to his local CP, an anti-Hegelian positivist, an heir to the Enlightenment and its faith in the benevolent despotism of disinterested pedagogues working for the common good. Bolshevism, apart from making its own recruits in the West (the communists) also awakened some of our native sleeping beauties. It stimulated a return to an earlier stage of our own Western history, the Enlightenment.
This is an interesting theory, though I am afraid that if one really went into it, it might simply turn out to be a cute way of saying that Bolshevism is more Western, more a part of our cultural heritage from the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, than diatribes about oriental despotism would suggest. (p. 92)
Quarrels about definitions are mostly futile, but what is involved here is that one cannot understand fellow-travelling by trying to define a fellow-traveller. Fellow-travelling, as the name implies, is a dynamic situation, so that, in addition to the characters of the people who got involved in it, one must grasp certain larger political relationships. The main consideration, the crucial one, is the fact that fellow-travellers were used, manoeuvred, manipulated, exploited by a Soviet agency. All sorts of people got into this situation, which is why it is so hard to find their ideal type. Some were cynically aware of being used, of lending their literary glory to the advancement of Soviet foreign policy. Others were mere dupes, political innocents who didn't know which end was up. All of them abhorred political action and party discipline, and preferred to show that they also serve who only stand and prate. They were to be contrasted not with card-carrying party members but with crypto-communists, i.e., dedicated activists who were free of the masochistic desire to be used and wanted to do the using, to pull strings from behind the curtain, to manipulate fellow-travellers…. To understand [fellow-travellers], one must see who was manipulating them and describe the overall historical situation in each case, rather than the characters who drifted in and out of it.
Material to supply the basis for this and other different approaches can be found in Caute's book, so rich is its fund of fascinating information. (p. 93)
Neil McInnes, "Fraud Squad," in New Statesman (© 1973 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 85, No. 2183, January 19, 1973, pp. 92-3.