(This post might best be regarded as a companion piece to the post on Totalitarianism that recently appeared.)
During the early years of the twentieth century Communism was exported around the world as part of the Bolsheviks’ attempts to initiate a world-wide revolution and guarantee that their way of life would be adopted (one way or another) by all countries. As a political and economic program it had many attractions — especially for the disenfranchised and, surprisingly, for intellectuals as well.
In this country many intellectuals and artists who taught at universities, wrote poetry or novels, or acted on the stage or screen were duped into thinking that Communism was the answer to the world’s problems. After all, it resembles Christianity in many ways — while Christianity had become inoperative for a great many people. It proposes a society in which the greedy capitalist pig is ground under foot; no one goes without; everyone is equal and free and all participate in their own futures. Or at least that was what thinkers like Karl Marx and Lenin promised. The reality was that millions of lives were sacrificed for the cause, even innocent lives, at the hands of the Cheka established by Lenin who acted with no restraints whatever. The lives of the innocent were said to be, with no regrets, “an example.” However, the messages coming out of Russia suggested to the unwary that Marx’s dream was being realized: the people were being set free and were in the process of determining their own futures. And the reason the blissful message was coming across the ocean and around the world was because the Bolsheviks had discovered the power of propaganda.
One of the intellectuals to be taken in by the blatant falsehoods coming out of Russia was Lionel Trilling, the brilliant essayist and teacher at Columbia University. He flirted with Communism, as did so many of his liberal colleagues (including George Orwell and my advisor at Northwestern as it happens) and eventually after he became aware of the huge gap between theory and practice in Russia he wrote a novel that reflected his own experience. In that novel, The Middle of The journey, one of the main characters is a powerful figure in the Communist party in America who has seen the light and wants to disengage himself from the Party and the atrocities that have been committed in its name. But he fears for his life, because such is the reality of the Bolshevik mentality: you are either with us or you are against us.
We struggle to understand how so many brilliant minds could have been easily duped into thinking that a political program would deliver on its promises and create heaven on earth. As suggested above, it was because of the fact that the Bolsheviks controlled the media in Russia and they didn’t allow journalists from other countries into theirs without a guarantee that they would control what was said and/or written. The only newspaper to refuse those conditions was the London Times. The rest of the world accepted the lies because they wanted to believe them. Moreover, it gave them hope. They could not accept the fact that what was told them was carefully selected and colored to present the best possible picture.
In his study of the Russian Revolution, Richard Pipes gives us an insight into just how effective this propaganda machine was (one which the Nazis later copied almost exactly):
“Communist propaganda strove, and to a surprising extent succeeded, in creating a fictitious world side by side with that of everyday experience and in stark contrast to it, in which the Soviet citizens were required to believe or pretend to believe. To this end the Communist Party asserted a monopoly over every source of information and opinion and, in time, severed all contacts of its subjects with the outside world. The effort was undertaken on such a vast scale, with such ingenuity and determination, that the imaginary universe it projected eclipsed for many Soviet citizens the living reality, inflicting on them something akin to intellectual schizophrenia.”
Now, this was how propaganda worked within Russia. It was not this successful when transported to other countries. But for those, like Trilling, who cared about their fellow human beings who were starving on long lines waiting for a cup of soup, especially during the depressions that were not uncommon within numerous capitalist countries, what they heard about Communism sounded like the answer to their prayers. Karl Marx was, after all, an ethicist more than an economist. His message in Capital, for example, was about the exploitation of the workers by greedy, selfish owners who cared only about profits. The intellectuals in this country and In Spain and England, especially, saw this going on around them. There was enough truth in the messages they were allowed to read and hear from Russia to cause many of them to join the Party that promised to deliver the franchise to the chronically disenfranchised. Or at least, they would have a piece of the pie they were themselves making.
We now live in different times, but there are powerful political forces in this country, and others as well, who would silence a free press, dismiss unpleasant truths as “false news,” and control the information we receive, colored and flavored to their taste. There are those who would silence opposing points of view. There are those who lie as a matter of course in order to convince the faithful that they have all the answers. There are those who have convinced themselves and a coterie of followers that the end justifies the means, any means. Thus is a free press more important now than ever before, as is an alert and even a suspicious citizenry.
While we are not in Russia during the 20s and 30s, we are in a country where the freedom we prize and which so much defines us is under threat by some who would make us prisoners of their minds — not unlike Lenin and, later, Stalin. We must avoid exaggeration and paranoia, but we would be well advised to be on our guard.