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Prop Art

This is a very scrappy subject, and only a lucky unifying insight or un-scholarly sensationalism could make it otherwise. Incapable of the latter, Dr. Barghoorn has been denied the former. He has therefore not been able to impose unity on his subject. Most of the information one would demand of such a book is somewhere between these covers, but the arrangement is baffling, and there are some rather surprising omissions: Sacco and Vanzetti, the Rosenbergs, germ warfare, the Reichstag fire. Here are the great classic moments of Soviet propaganda: surely the reader is entitled to an authorative account of them. It is as if an incomplete card index had been laid end to end and typed out.

Basically, the subject, not the author, is at fault. Propaganda, the effect of so many causes, carried on by so many independent agencies, amongst so many different people, and dealing with so many different things, is a subject like “communications,” unified only by the word itself. It is almost impossible to imagine a satisfactory set of chapter headings for a book on propaganda, and the main desideratum is a good index (which there is). The author’s analysis proceeds mainly by subject; the image of capitalism, peace and war, nationalism, the applicability of the Soviet economic model to backward countries. But perhaps a historical division would have been better: the heroic period, the NEP, the Popular Front…? Or a division according to social techniques: the front organization, the fellow-traveling journal, the local party, the Soviet diplomatic corps…? Or according to psychological techniques: the lie, the threat, the martyrdom, the high moral line…? Or even according to communications media: radio, rumor by word of mouth, resounding diplomatic démarche…?

Professor Barghoorn uses all these other schemata to a small extent, rightly not letting himself be bound by the one he prefers. Yet one kind of analysis I miss, surely the most valuable of them all: the comparative. Did the Nazis manage better, and how did their style differ? Above all it would have been nice to know how Willi Münzenberg, the Communist impresario, defeated Goebbels, the Nazi impresario, and turned the Retchstag Fire trial into an accusation of the accusers—when all the while the truth was with neither protagonist. Then again the French have been in the propaganda game, or at least the less vulgar parts of it, for longer than Communism has existed. And today above all one thinks of the United States….

It is a well known injustice in reviewing a book to reproach it for not being something else. Yet the comparative method would have done more than order the material and give us some sense of the total field, including the possibilities that Soviet propaganda neglects. It would have damped the rather Messianic tone that arises not at all from Professor Barghoorn’s recent experiences (the book was written before he left for Moscow), nor yet surely from his innate propensities; but from treating Soviet propaganda in isolation, as if no other great power made propaganda. In the play of powers and ideologies there are better and worse ends, but hardly means. They lie about germ warfare, we use the U2; they invade Hungary, we invade Cuba, etc. etc. If we look very carefully at all the means used, it is probable that the West will emerge with a slight moral superiority, but the thing is touch and go. The hint that the U2 was justified by Soviet secrecy (p. 114) is gratuitous and irrelevant in this context, though this reviewer shares the author’s judgment. It is true that Soviet propaganda exploits other people’s nationalism (ch. 5), but surely not gratuitous or irrelevant to admit that so does ours. And the best adjective for the following passage (p. 74) might seem to be “ungracious”:

However, as early as December 11, 1960, one broadcast to eastern North America charged the Central Intelligence Agency with plotting an attack on Cuba. Also, numerous broadcasts attempted to create the impression that the United States and its western European allies were continuously becoming less trustful of one another. Beginning in April, and especially after the abottive anti-Castro landing in Cuba, the Soviet radio began to attack the Kennedy administration and the president himself.

Similarly the placing of Soviet rockets in Cuba is called aggression (p. 318). The fact is that at the level of weapons both sides are forced to approximate each other. It is the war aims that differ—decisively.

Propaganda, then, is a necessary weapon, which all belligerents use nowadays. There is of course an ethics of weapons choice as well as of war aims, and our moral advantage is in fact particularly great just here, in the kind of propaganda we choose to make. But even this crucial point is made clear only obiter, since the author has precluded it by his avoidance of all comparisons. The superiority is of course that most Western propagandists have passed, as Goebbels and Lenin never did, the pons asinorum of the game: it pays to tell the truth in the long run.

For the Sovietologist, objectivity defines a permanent tension. He must be intuitive and emphathetic with the object of his study. Yet that object’s features are predominantly most unpleasant and he must not pull his punches. He must not call a lie a mistake but yet again he must not call a mistake a lie. He must remember that Communism is in part a reaction against something itself highly imperfect: his own side.

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