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 …

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