Fellow traveler is a common expression suggesting solidarity between individuals who have similar interests or affiliations. It is used in a variety of settings. Sometimes Christian groups use it to reference the fact that all people travel together on this earth before reaching an eternal life. Members of the same club, political affiliation, company, profession, and et cetera, might use the term too. There is solidarity and a sense of togetherness that is conjured when people say they are fellow travelers.
The ideas expressed behind someone being a fellow traveler long predate the term. The pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Dickens’ descriptions of long rides in coaches or of the solidarity among men are examples of this concept. Yet the term itself did not gain widespread use until later and its origins are often dated to the beginnings of Communist Russia in the early 20th century. Initial use is often credited to Leon Trotsky, a Russian writer, who spoke of writers and other artists who supported the communist regime change but weren’t as directly involved in participating in the Russian Revolution. It should be noted Trotsky credits the term to earlier socialist writing.
For a time, the idea of the fellow traveler had a unique association with communism. Just after World War II in the US, Americans particularly, in their fear of communism, described members or suspected members of the American communist party as fellow travelers. This was a deep insult, given American sentiment about communism and the era of McCarthyism that proliferated during this time period.
As a pejorative, the idea of the fellow traveler has very much faded with the years, and unless people know the origin of the term, they may more likely see it as a positive and connecting description. Now there are many people who align themselves with others as fellows. As always, the term expresses solidarity and connectedness, but it’s more absent the taint of its earlier negative associations. Even Trotsky had been concerned about the artists who hadn’t been active in the Communist Revolution and he wondered how far they would be supportive of a new Communist Russia, but the basic anxiety connected to the term has since resolved itself.
Today it is more common to hear of people somehow connected to each other in positive ways described as fellow travelers. Some people take an all-inclusive view of the fellow traveler and insist that everyone on earth travels together, even if they have many disagreements. The common fact that we live on the same planet, circling the sun, may mean we all to a degree share a destiny or a destination.