Literature and Propaganda

Reading Time: 10min

“The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951

The ability to influence and control people’s thinking is deeply rooted in the legitimisation of power structures. Propaganda is the dispersion of ideas and information, especially of a misleading or biased nature, to reinforce or prompt a point of view about a belief, cause, institute, or person. It is associated with creating a standard pattern of conviction among people. It can also be presented under the garb of fortification of popular, albeit problematic, deeply embedded societal stereotypes and myths. While it is most popularly used by governments in times of war, with the advent of technology and the influence of mass media, political organisations, the world over, have created a lethal cocktail of misinformation and disinformation by controlling the channels of information, to safeguard their positions of power.  

Harold Lasswell, in his book, Propaganda Technique in the World War defines propaganda as, “the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols”. Propaganda techniques aim to mould the minds, wants, and needs of malleable masses, to influence them into behaving in a manner that suits the propagandist. These techniques, either persuade people to accept and submit to oppressive and questionable governance or work towards distracting the people by creating an easy enemy. The French philosopher Jacques Ellul believed that propaganda was a greater threat to humankind than nuclear weapons. While the balance of truth and persuasion is a technique used by most, including advertisers to successfully sell their products, the dangers of propaganda become explicit when it is used to ruthlessly suggest harm to a group of people and to tear the social fabric of a state whilst projecting oneself with superiority and silencing dissent.

Propagandists aim to control the media since it acts as a direct channel to influence people’s opinions. To successfully change people’s thinking, the message should be such that it is – seen, understood, remembered, and acted upon by the audience. Through the effective use of media, propagandists can employ persuasion tactics to push forth their agenda. Unlike the historical in your face propaganda, like uncle Sam asking Americans to enlist for the war, modern propaganda is subtle and can go undetected to the untrained eye. It is based on a fact that can be presented as evidence, in case of any backlash. It connects ideas and feelings that a majority of people recognise as true and aims to instigate viciousness or aggression in an otherwise passive citizenry. By creating an environment of violence or by targeting an easy enemy, propagandists aim to mould the minds of the people so as to divert their attention from the propagandist’s ineffectiveness whilst successfully creating a façade about themselves and manipulating people into accepting things the way they are. To further ensure their hold on the public, propagandists synthesise an environment of fear where anyone who questions, speaks against, or points out their use of coercive tactics, is cast in a negative light and branded as a threat to social harmony, in order to successfully deter dissent.  

With the help of a social belief, religion, historical fact, or a custom, political propagandists successfully construct the notion of the ideal to push forth their agenda. The other, the enemy who does not subscribe to this narrative is deemed as barbaric, animalistic, crude, or uncivilised. In most cases, the enemy is further rendered as an enemy of the state and a threat to the national security or the well-being of a country. Juxtaposed against the enemy, the ideal represents the valuable citizen who will pioneer change. The ideal citizen is presented as the torchbearer who has achieved superiority by following the propagandist; he does not just believe the propagandist but is ready to incite violence, against both the enemy as well as the undecided, to successfully protect his standing as the ideal, in the eyes of the propagandists; this behaviour is rewarded by the state, thereby creating a vicious cycle of mutual benefit.  

1919: “Death to capital, or death under the heel of capitalism!” Source: Huffington Post

Joseph Stalin, the former Soviet leader, described writers as “the engineers of the human soul”. Stalin heavily relied on propaganda during his administration; he was also responsible for the execution of those authors and works that were deemed as traitorous to the Soviet Union. The government’s censor authority was employed to not only abolish unwanted material but to also ensure that the correct ideological spin was cast on every piece published. Under Stalin’s rule, all the literature produced was state-approved and recognised as war literature, it focussed on the theme of the ‘struggle for the fatherland’ and the creation of the ‘new Soviet Man’. The government’s efforts were directed towards the glorification of its policies; literature also had a role to play in it. The literary tone at the time, emphasised upon the heroic acts and valour of those who believed in and fought for the government’s agenda. The function of literature was to emphasise on the patriotic duty of the citizens to readily sacrifice themselves for their country and to instil unwavering obedience towards the government and its decisions. With its austere censorship laws, the state prevented the public from being exposed to anything that was not approved by them and thereby tried to create an information bubble. The citizens were repeatedly told that by defending and protecting the Soviet Union and by acting in a state-sanctioned manner, they were fighting for the well-being of mankind against barbarity.  

The children’s novel The Young Guard written by Alexander Fadeyev in 1951 was a very popular book. The Young Guard was an underground Soviet Operation against the Germans, in the German-occupied city of Kransodon. Fadeyev’s novel describes the valour of the Young Guard, their resistance to the Germans, and their sacrifice for their country, since most of the Young Guard soldiers were executed by the German forces. Fadeyev’s protagonists were actual soldiers of the Young Guard, however, he fictionalised some of their accomplishments, actions, and dialogues. By doing this, Fadeyev convincingly created an exaggerated account of heroism that would appeal to the minds of children who would absorb it without questioning its authenticity. Fadeyev wrote the first version of the novel in 1946, however, it was criticised by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the political party of the Communist government. The party did not find the book acceptable; Fadeyev was criticised for just focussing on the bravery of the soldiers of the Young Guard and not highlighting the role of Communist Party as the guiding force responsible for the soldier’s bravery. In 1951, Fadeyev wrote the second version of the book, which was eventually approved for publication. The book became a part of the patriotic education designed by the state for children; it was considered appropriate to be included in the school curriculum. The second version of the book was justified on the grounds of historical accuracy rather than due to the coercion by the party, furthermore, within a few years, the original version of the book was withdrawn from circulation. In The Young Guard, Fadeyev wrote, 

The Soviet soldier was better than that of the enemy, not only in the sense of moral superiority… but simply in the military sense. Soviet commanders were immeasurably superior not only for their political consciousness but also their military training and their way of rapidly seizing on what was new and making practical and wide use of their experience. Soviet weapons and equipment were no worse and in certain respects even better, than those of the enemy. (…) Maybe our dad won’t come back, maybe he will die in battle, but we will know what he died for! And when Soviet power comes back again, it will be like a father to my children. 

In addition to this, the book described the enemy as, “the filthy breed of swaggering fascists! They are worse than animal; they are degenerates!” By the end of the 1980s, the novel had successfully placed itself as part of the mainstream ideology; its characters were decorated with medals and had streets named after them. The Young Guard was the second most popular book for children between the period of 1918-1986, with more than 26,143,000 copies sold. 

Celebrating their victory over the Germans forces, the Soviet Union continued to indoctrinate its citizens even during the Cold War. At its peak, the Cold War period was rife with propaganda. Both, the Soviet Union as well as the United States heavily engaged in propaganda to win the ideological war. An understanding of the use of propaganda is especially helpful with regard to the Cold War as both countries were pushing for opposite ideologies; they both supported their claims with evidence, and tactfully demonised the other. The Cold War is an exploration of the grey area between the absolute right and wrong. Both countries tried to project their ideology as the ultimate truth whilst openly condemning and criticising those who did not subscribe to it. Using the same methods of mass manipulation, violence, fear, and ostracisation, the two countries fought to establish their superiority. Since the two countries were fighting for ideologies placed on opposite ends of the political spectrum, the study of the Cold War highlights the dangers of deploying the state machinery to influence people’s thinking, however righteous be the political cause that the state claims to be fighting for.  

The 1950s and the 1960s in the United States saw a massive rise in the production of cheap pulp-fiction novels that criticised communism and were often laced with lewd themes and violence. The literature produced during this time focussed on the suspicion and anxieties of communism. Through a steady diet of state-sponsored propaganda, there was an active utilisation of literary tools to create an aversion towards the Soviet Union and the communist ideology. The American population was constantly subjected to the idea of a dystopian future where the communists would restrain the American freedom, rape American women, make men and women work as slaves, and pillage their country, if the Soviets won the war. Those sympathetic to the communist cause were shunned by society. McCarthyism, named after the Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, was the tyrannical practice of branding people (who showed an inclination towards anything related to communism) as traitors without a trial or even the presence of any proper evidence. Through the well-crafted combination of preying on people’s existing fear or prejudice and creating an environment of intimidation against dissent, the movement quickly became popular among Americans. Strict political repression ensured that every information in the public domain was in accord with the state’s ideology. Ironically, this behaviour of exercising excess control and censorship was exactly what the United States was criticising the Soviet Union of doing.   

A Cold War comic book, depicting a Soviet invasion of the United States

The comic book titled ‘Is This Tomorrow, America Under Communism’ started in 1947 by the Catechetical Guild Educational Society in St. Paul, Minnesota was put out as a warning against communist infiltration. It was used to educate children about the horrors of communism. The cover of the book read, 

“IS THIS TOMORROW is published for the one purpose – TO MAKE YOU THINK! To make you more alert to the menace of Communism.   Today, there are approximately 85,000 official members of the Communist Party in the United States. There are hundreds of additional members whose names are not carried on the Party roles but are acting as disciplined fifth columnists of the Kremlin, they have wormed their way into key positions in government offices, trade unions, and other positions of public trust. Communists themselves claim that for every official Party member, there are ten others ready, willing, and able to do the Party’s bidding. These people are working day and night – laying the groundwork to overthrow YOUR GOVERNMENT! The average American is prone to say, “It Can’t Happen Here.” Millions of people in other countries used to say the same thing. Today, they are dead – or living in Communist slavery. IT MUST NOT HAPPEN HERE!”

Not very different from the Americans’ anti-Soviet propaganda, the Soviet had their version of anti-America propaganda. They also applied the philosophy of ‘us’ vs ‘them’ to fire flames of hysteria among their citizens. The elasticity and confidentiality of the term ‘national security’ allowed both nations to behave horrendously with their citizens and enforce authoritarian laws. The Soviets, under Stalin, tried to disrupt the United States’ foreign relations with other nations by undermining the appeal of democracy. By highlighting the racial inequality in America, they questioned their narrative of America As the land of Equal Opportunities and their feat of The American Freedom. America was referred to as The Decaying West or The Rotten West, alleging that it was rampantly corrupt and rapidly eroding further. According to the Soviet propaganda, Americans were immoral being who had no sense of self-control, they were destroyed by their greed for money along with their insatiable sexual and material desires; they were egoists and sinners. Just like the Americans, the Soviets (until Nikita Khrushchev’s political reforms) ensured that all the information that reached the public worked towards accomplishing the state’s goal of demonising the Americans. The Soviet’s had internalised the belief that socialism and nationalism go hand in hand; one cannot exist without the other. Therefore, they understood that the American capitalist-consumer culture was deficient. The Soviet propaganda was successful and until the mid-80s, the Soviet citizens believed America to be a vile, unjust, and a depraved country.   

Like their American counterparts, the Soviets also targeted children to spread anti-capitalist propaganda. Samuil Marshak was a Soviet writer, translator, and poet. Between the period of 1942-1951, he was awarded the Stalin Prize 4 times for his contributions to children’s literature. He was also a recipient of the Lenin Prize along with being bestowed with the Order of the Patriotic War Award and Order of the Red Banner of Labour Award, awards given by the state to authors whose work they approved and appreciated. His poem Mister Twister, written in 1933, is a satire about an evil wealthy American and his spoiled wife and daughter. Marshak describes their travel to the Soviet State. The poem gained immense popularity and was enjoyed by several generations of Soviet children until the 1980s. It was a spoof against the American way of life, their desire for excess, the American aspiration for travel, and the American imperial tradition. Marshak writes, 

At Cook’s  M’lad! Reserve  Four Staterooms: New York – Leningrad. With a bath And a pool, And a garden, Begrad! And listen, Be sure The crowd  Isn’t low-brow No Negros Or Hindos, Or riffraff From “Ho-Chow”! Old Twister, He’s touchy Concerning Dark faces. He can’t stand the sight Of those coloured races”(…)“Again,” Whispered Suzie, “Go automobiling? I won’t!” She wailed. “It’s a wild-goose chase. If we can’t Get a suite here, Then buy out the place!” “With pleasure,” Said Twister, And dolefully sighed, “But, darling, Remember, You’re not in Chicago Or even,” He added, “In old Santiago. In Leningrad People Just simply don’t sell— You can’t buy a house, Let alone A hotel!” 

The similarities between the American and the Soviet model identify the true nature of state-sponsored political propaganda. The ultimate aim of those spreading the propaganda is to ensure complacency and submission of the citizens against an oppressive and manipulative government. While the horrors of propaganda are palpable, the greater challenge is in being able to identify violent or manipulative propaganda. What is considered as political propaganda by a collective of people can be understood as patriotic duty by another. While those spreading the propaganda benefit from the tension caused by this polarisation of thought, the violence instigated as a result of this, ultimately, only harms the ordinary people who are used as pawns by those in power.  

Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.

Primo Levi

Adhishree Adulkar is an editor at Catharsis Magazine. 

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