Contemplating with his customary scorn the artists who had embraced the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky wondered what it would take to break their attachment to a cause that would eventually murder many of them — and kill Trotsky too, although he was yet to know it. “As regards a fellow-traveller,” he said, “the question always comes up — how far will he go?” Would the barbarism of the dictatorship of the proletariat persuade him to “change at one of the stations on to the train going the other way”? Or would he stay on for the rest of the ride?
As Trotsky implied, fellow-travelling with communism was not always akin to endorsing the creed. Communists accepted crimes committed in the name of the revolution without hesitation. The fellow-traveller looked away from communism’s victims and invited others to do the same. Communists damned “bourgeois democracy”. It disillusioned communism’s fellow-travellers, too, but not enough to persuade them to give up on democratic politics completely and join the revolution. They wished the Soviet Union well and found its experiments on the human race bracing. But in the words of David Caute, the best historian of fellow-travelling, their support was a “commitment at a distance”.
The reception given to Tariq Ramadan when he arrived in New York in April showed that today a type of fellow-travelling with radical Islam has spread from Europe to America. From the applause he drew, it seemed to me that no one involved would be changing trains for a while.