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A fellow traveller (UK English) or fellow traveler (US English) is a person who sympathizes with the beliefs of an organization or cooperates in its activities without maintaining formal membership in that particular group. In the early Soviet Union the approximate term was used without negative connotation to describe writers and artists sympathetic to the goals of the Russian Revolution who declined to join the Communist Party. The English-language phrase came into vogue in the United States during the 1940s and 1950s as a pejorative term for a sympathizer of Communism or particular Communist states, who was nonetheless not a "card-carrying member" of a Communist party.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the term "fellow traveller" (Russian: попутчик, poputchik; literally: "one who travels the same path") was sometimes applied to Russian writers who accepted the revolution but were not active participants. The term became famous because of Trotsky's 1924 book Literature and Revolution, in which he discussed "fellow-travellers" in Chapter 2: "The Literary 'Fellow-Travellers' of the Revolution." Trotsky wrote:
Between bourgeois art, which is wasting away either in repetitions or in silences, and the new art which is as yet unborn, there is being created a transitional art which is more or less organically connected with the Revolution, but which is not at the same time the art of the Revolution. Boris Pilnyak, Vsevolod Ivanov, Nicolai Tikhonov, the “Serapion Fraternity”, Yesenin and his group of Imagists and, to some extent, Kliuev – all of them were impossible without the Revolution, either as a group, or separately. ... They are not the artists of the proletarian Revolution, but her artist “fellow-travellers”, in the sense in which this word was used by the old Socialists. ... As regards a “fellow-traveller”, the question always comes up – how far will he go? This question cannot be answered in advance, not even approximately. The solution of it depends not so much on the personal qualities of this or that “fellow-traveller”, but mainly on the objective trend of things during the coming decade.
Throughout Europe, the term was used as a translation of the German Mitläufer, one who was not charged with Nazi crimes but whose involvement with the Nazis was considered significant. It may also have been used to describe those who, without being Communist Party members of their respective countries, had Communist sympathies. They may have attended communist meetings, written in communist journals, and fought alongside communists against Franco's fascist government in Spain (in the 1930s), and similar rightist governments in Greece (in the late 1940s).
Many French journalists, intellectuals and writers in the 1930s and 1940s were described (and sometimes referred to themselves) as fellow travellers, including André Gide, André Malraux, Romain Rolland, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. American writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn were also called fellow travellers.
The Greek military junta of 1967–1974 used the term Synodiporia (literally: The ones walking the street together or fellow travellers) as an umbrella term to denote leftist sympathisers and in general all domestic democratic opponents of the junta. Diethnis (i. e. international) Synodiporia was used by the Greek junta for the international supporters of the domestic leftist sympathisers and their allies.
In the United States, the term was adapted from Europe to describe those who, while not Communist Party members, may hold views shared by Communists. Given the economic and social problems in the U.S. and the world in the 1920s and 1930s, many younger people, artists and intellectuals, had sympathy for the Communist cause and hoped that it could lead to better societies. Some African Americans joined because the Communist Party held political positions sympathetic to their struggle for civil rights and social justice.
As in Europe, in the 1920s and 1930s numerous American intellectuals sympathized or joined the Communist Party in the United States as young activists. In part this also reflected people's search for answers to social problems during the drastic dislocations of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years, when the inequities of American society seemed overwhelming. Columnist Max Lerner included the term in his 1936 article for The Nation called "Mr. Roosevelt and His Fellow Travelers." Future HUAC chief investigator J. B. Matthews would use the term in the title of his last book, Odyssey of a Fellow Traveler (1938). (In The Age of Roosevelt (1957), Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. would call Matthews in turn a "Social Gospel fellow traveler.") Time Magazine's review of Daniel Aron's Writers on the Left states that "among the famous fellows who traveled were Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and Theodore Dreiser." Dos Passos was probably the most notorious of all: in 1940, he was already being cited as "Number One Literary Fellow Traveler." Whittaker Chambers used the term in a satirical 1941 article for TIME Magazine: "As the Red Express hooted off into the shades of a closing decade, ex-fellow travelers rubbed their bruises, wondered how they had ever come to get aboard... With the exception of Granville Hicks, probably none of these people was a Communist. They were fellow travelers who wanted to help fight fascism."
Following World War II, membership in the U.S. Communist Party experienced a dramatic decline. Information reached the West about the widespread purges and show trials conducted by Joseph Stalin. Together with information about millions of deaths during collectivization, many adherents rethought their commitments. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union exercised power over much of Central and Eastern Europe, through puppet governments and its Red Army. Revelations about Soviet use of espionage to expedite development of an atomic bomb in competition with the U.S. led to widespread feelings of threat throughout the U.S., which some historians have described as the Second Red Scare.
Some in the political establishment were quick to capitalize upon it.
With the House Committee on Un-American Activities becoming a permanent Congressional Committee in 1945, and in the penumbra of its subsequent investigations, a new round of Congressional hearings were held after Senator Joseph McCarthy became chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate Government Operations Committee in the 1953 83rd Congress. The hearings attempted to detail the extent of Soviet influence in American government and society and its cultural institutions, and it was during this super-heated period that the term "fellow traveler" came into common use as a political pejorative. McCarthy claimed there were numerous public and secret sympathizers of the Soviet regime within the State Department and US Army. Many individuals in publishing, film, TV and theater were blacklisted on mere suspicion of Communist sympathies, even when any active affiliation was decades in the past.
In Masters of Deceit (1958), J. Edgar Hoover, longtime director of the FBI, defined a "fellow traveler" as one of five types of dangerous subversives. He believed any of them might promote the goal of a Communist overthrow of the United States government. The five types were:
In Safire's Political Dictionary (1978), William Safire defined "fellow traveler" as "one who accepted most Communist doctrine, but was not a member of the Communist party; in current use, one who agrees with a philosophy or group but does not publicly work for it."