Military history

Chapter 22

Formulas, Myths, and Propaganda

Frankly to manufacture thought

Is like a masterpiece by a weaver wrought.

—Goethe, Faust

Whereas weber and Dewey represented distinctive strands of the liberal critique of Marxism, there was a more conservative critique developed by the so-called Italian school of neo-Machiavellians. Notable among them were the Sicilian Gaetano Mosca, who held a number of academic and political positions within Italy during a long life; the German sociologist Robert Michels, who spent most of his career in Italy; and the Italian Vilfredo Pareto, who began his career in Italy but then decamped to Geneva. Their ideas developed as an explicit correction to expectations of a progressively more equal and democratic society, and were marked less by strategic considerations than by a keen sense of the limits of what strategy might achieve. They were part of a movement away from political economy and into sociology, as explanations were sought for the less rational aspects of social behavior. They were described as the heirs of Machiavelli,1 not only because of the Italian link but also because they took him to be a model of an unsentimental approach to the study of politics, accepting the harsh realities of its practice and refusing to take at face value the comforting rhetoric of its practitioners.

The core proposition was that a minority would always rule over a majority. The key questions therefore revolved around the means by which the elite sustained its position and how it might be displaced. The most significant empirical work on the impact of organizational needs on democratic claims was undertaken by Robert Michels, a student of Weber’s. As an active member of the German Social Democrat Party, Michels had come to recognize the importance of the party bureaucracy in shaping its goals and strategy. While nobody doubted that capitalist parties were non-democratic, whatever they might say about the “will of the people,”2 socialist parties posed a sharper test for the democratic principle because of their proclaimed egalitarianism. Michels’s analysis fitted in perfectly with Weber’s theories of bureaucratization. Unlike his radical student, however, Weber was content with the consequential loss of revolutionary élan. Concepts such as the “genuine will of the people,” he explained to Michels, “have long since ceased to exist for me; they are fictitious notions.”3

Michels’s study of the pre-war SPD demonstrated how growth and electoral success drained the party of militancy: “Organization becomes the vital essence of the party.” So long as the party was growing the leadership was content, reluctant to put the organization at risk by taking any bold steps that might challenge the state. As they developed an interest in their own self-perpetuation, Michels noted, “from a means, organization becomes an end.”4 Organization was demanding and complicated, requiring specialist skills. Those who knew how to manage finances, look after members, produce literature, and direct campaigns acquired superior knowledge and controlled both the form and content of communications. So long as they stayed united, the relatively incompetent masses had no chance to impose their will. “Who says organization, says oligarchy.” This was Michels’s “iron law.”

Beyond this law, and his consequential disillusionment with socialism, Michels did not offer much of a general theory. In this respect, Mosca was more important. His starting point was simple: in all political systems, at all times and places, there was a ruling class, a “minority of influential persons, to which management, willingly or unwillingly, the majority defer.”5 Mosca considered rule by a single individual to be as unlikely as by the majority. This was because of the necessity of organization. Majorities were inherently disorganized and individuals by definition lacked organization. So only minorities could stay organized, which meant that key political struggles must also take place within the elite. To become preeminent, hard work and ambition made a difference, more so than a sense of justice and altruism. Most important were “perspicacity, a ready intuition of individual and mass psychology, strength of will and, especially confidence in oneself.”6 Changing circumstances influenced the rise and fall of elites—priests would fare best in a religious society and warriors in one at war. If a particular social force declined in importance so would those who derived their power from it.

Pareto followed closely on Mosca (not always, Mosca suggested, with full attribution). Trained in engineering and after a spell in industry, Pareto first made his name in economics and then in sociology. As an economist at the University of Lausanne he worked in the neoclassical tradition. Here he followed Léon Walras, the father of general equilibrium theory, responsible for the proposition that if all other markets in an economy are in equilibrium, then any specific market must also be in equilibrium. In his 1885 book Elements of Pure Economics, Walras proved this mathematically, thereby setting a precedent for economic theory that would be picked up enthusiastically in the middle of the next century, particularly in the United States.

Pareto gave his name to two contributions. The Pareto principle suggested that 80 percent of effects came from 20 percent of the causes. This rough rule of thumb indicated that a minority of inputs could be responsible for a disproportionate share of outputs, in itself a challenge to notions of equality. Secondly, and more substantively, he gave his name to the concept of Pareto efficiency, which also influenced later economic thought. In 1902 he published a critique of Marxism, which marked his move away from economics toward sociology. Pareto appreciated Marx’s idea of class conflict and his hard-edged approach to the analysis of human behavior, but parted company on the belief that class conflict would be transcended through proletarian victory. The people might well believe that they were fighting for a great cause, and maybe the leaders did too. In practice, however, the elite would look after itself. Even in a collectivist society there would still be conflict— for example between intellectuals and non-intellectuals. One of Pareto’s most important and influential themes, derived from his background in engineering and economics, was that of social equilibrium. He argued that societies were inherently resistant to change. When disturbed by either internal or external forces, some counteracting movement developed and they tended to return to their original state. His elitism was reflected in his view of the masses as the body of humanity left over after the elite have been subtracted (“the incompetent, those lacking energy, character and intelligence”),7 just as most conduct was in a residual nonlogical category once the logical had been subtracted.

An intriguing aspect of Pareto’s work was his analysis of the role of strategy in political systems. This was not quite how he phrased the issue, but it is a reasonable decoding of the rather idiosyncratic language he adopted, notably in his most important work, the four-volume study published in English as The Mind and Society.8 Rather than talk of strategy Pareto referred to “logical conduct.” This was essentially procedural rationality: action should be oriented to an attainable goal using means appropriate to that goal. In his terminology, that would mean that the objective end (what was achieved) and the subjective purpose (what was intended) would be identical. This set a very high standard for logicality. With “nonlogical conduct,” by contrast, objective ends and subjective purposes would diverge. Here, either action lacked purpose, or the claimed purpose was out of reach or could not be attained by the methods employed. Not surprisingly, he found this to be common. Examples of nonlogical conduct might be the practice of magic, reliance on superstition, dependence on routine, yearnings for utopias, and exaggerated confidence in the competence of individuals and organizations or in the effectiveness of particular tactics.

Pareto saw the roots of nonlogical action in “residues” (what is left over when the logical is taken away). These were constant, instinctive factors influencing behavior, while “derivations” changed over time and space. The analysis of residues began in the second of a four-volume work and soon became extraordinarily discursive and complicated. Well into volume four, the previous six residues were effectively reduced to two, and these were shown to match Machiavelli’s distinction between lions and foxes, as representatives of force and guile. The residue associated with foxes, Pareto’s Class I, reflected the “instinct of combinations”—the impulse to make connections between disparate elements and events, to think imaginatively, encourage attempts to outwit others, maneuver out of trouble, generate ideologies, and form expedient coalitions.

By contrast, Class II residues, those associated with lions, reflected the “persistence of aggregates,” referred to tendencies to consolidate established positions, instincts for permanence, stability, and order. The lions would demonstrate an attachment to family, class, nation, and religion and make their appeals to solidarity, order, discipline, property, or family. Pareto associated lions with a greater readiness to use force. Although the lions seemed to be more conservative and foxes more radical, this was not necessarily the case. In Pareto’s terminology, ideology was a derivation and thus a rationalization for something deeper. Force might be used to protect the status quo as well as to overthrow it. In this way Pareto represented as “residues” the two poles of classic strategy, force and guile, one solving problems with physical strength and the other with brainpower. Pareto did not present these characteristics as matters of degree but as distinctive and exclusive types.

The elite was more likely to be composed of intelligent foxes, maintaining their position through cunning and deceit, with the more stolid and unimaginative lions found among the masses, bound by a sense of group loyalty. Foxes would seek to govern through consent, and so would devise ideologies to keep the masses satisfied and seek short-term fixes to crises rather than use force. Here lay the vulnerability of the foxes. Their readiness to compromise and squeamishness when it came to using force would weaken the regime. At some point, their maneuvers would no longer work and they would face hard opponents who could no longer be outwitted. When the more tough-minded lions governed, they tended to rely on force and would be uninterested in compromise, claiming to be defending higher values. As neither group would endure on its own, the most stable regime would have a mixture of both types. In practice, each would tend to recruit their own kind. Fox regimes would degenerate over time and become vulnerable to a sudden show of force; lion regimes would more likely be infiltrated by foxes and would thus experience more gradual decline. Out of all of this Pareto postulated the “circulation of elites.” There was always an elite, but it could change in composition. The advantage should be with the shrewd and the cunning, but not to the point where violence could never be advised.

The idea that political history can be viewed as a dialectic between practitioners of force and guile had a certain appeal. But Pareto was generalizing out of his own political context, reflecting his skepticism of democratic claims and distaste for the corrupt and cynical politics of his time, and then looking for historical parallels to bolster his theory, playing down the impact of material changes and the growing importance of bureaucratic organiza- tion.9 This did not, as we shall see, prevent his ideas from influencing conservative circles as they looked for intellectually robust alternatives to socialism and Marx.

Crowds and Publics

Conservatives might assume that elites were always present; radicals might be convinced that they could be overthrown. Both had an interest in how they managed to hold on to power when force was used so rarely. Both looked to ideology as the explanation. Whether or not elites were vulnerable would depend on the strength of the ideological hold over the masses. Marx assumed that such a challenge would develop with the class struggle. A growing selfconsciousness would lead the working class to acquire a political identity and become more than an analytical category. Unfortunately for the theory, not only had the class structure developed in more complex ways than Marx envisaged but workers had also persistently embraced incorrect thoughts.

The challenge for socialists was to demonstrate the scientific correctness as well as the political potential of a true class consciousness. They must battle with the purveyors of false consciousness, from the clergy filling workers’ minds with religious nonsense to reformers—possibly even more pernicious—claiming that they could make the system responsive to the needs of workers without revolution. For the conservative elitists, political stability did not depend on whether beliefs were false or correct but whether they kept the masses satisfied, or else encouraged insurrectionary sentiments.

Mosca wrote of a “political formula” that would serve the ruling class by providing a persuasive link to broader concepts that were generally understood and appreciated. Examples might be racial superiority, divine right, or the “will of the people.” The formula needed to be more than “tricks and quackeries,” deliberate deceptions by cynical rulers. Instead, it should reflect a popular need. Mosca assumed a mass preference to be “governed not on the basis of mere material or intellectual force, but on the basis of a moral principle.” A formula might not correspond to “truth” but it needed acceptance: should skepticism about its validity become widespread, then the effect would be to undermine the social order.

The fascination with consciousness was boosted by the developing field of social psychology. A particularly influential book was Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, which we have already encountered as an influence on the military thinker “Boney” Fuller. Published in France in 1895 but soon widely translated, it was in many respects another deeply conservative, elitist lament about the unraveling of hierarchy, about how the “divine right of the masses” had displaced the “divine right of kings.” Le Bon was hostile to socialism and labor unions as examples of how the masses could be exploited by malign demagogues. What caught attention was his exploration of the sources of irrationality in the psychology of crowds. Le Bon argued, in a theme that was to become ever more prominent in social thought, that a far more important influence on conscious acts than deliberate reason was “an unconscious substratum created in the mind in the main by hereditary influences.” Such influences became strong as individuals turned into crowds, and irrationality was given full rein.

Moreover, by the mere fact that he forms part of an organized crowd, a man descends several rungs in the ladder of civilization. Isolated, he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian—that is, a creature acting by instinct. He possesses the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings, whom he further tends to resemble by the facility with which he allows himself to be impressed by words and images—which would be entirely without action on each of the isolated individuals composing the crowd—and to be induced to commit acts contrary to his most obvious interests and his best-known habits. An individual in a crowd is a grain of sand amid other grains of sand, which the wind stirs up at will.10

Le Bon’s tone was pessimistic but he held out a possibility for getting a grip on the masses. Because their views did not reflect their interests, or indeed any serious thought, the same impressionable crowd that could fall prey to the nonsensical notions of socialist demagogues might be just as suggestible to contrary notions put forward by a shrewd elite that had studied group psychology. Making appeals to reason was pointless when illusion was the key. The requirement was for drama, for a compelling and startling image— “absolute, uncompromising and simple”—that “fills and bests the mind.” Mastering the “art of impressing the imagination of crowds is to know at the same time the art of governing them.” Le Bon became essential reading for governing elites.

A subversive version of a similar idea came from the Frenchman Georges Sorel, a provincial engineer who turned in middle age to study and writing. His politics veered wildly during his life, although his contempt for rationalism and moderation was a constant. Hughes described his mind as “a windy crossroads by which there blew nearly every new social doctrine of the early twentieth century.”11 His critical stance turned him into a perceptive social theorist who was taken seriously in his time.12 He embraced Marx idiosyncratically, presenting him as less the prophet of capitalism’s economic collapse and more the predictor of the bourgeoisie’s moral collapse.13 He took from Le Bon the conviction that the rationality of man was lost among the masses, which meant that he was unable to place a faith in mass political movements.

Disgusted with decadent elites, cowards, and humbugs who lacked the gumption to fight for their privileges and were eager to make accommodations with their adversaries, he imagined them being swept away in an act of decisive, cleansing violence. The model he had in mind was a Napoleonic battle, ending with the utter defeat of the enemy. He is largely remembered for one book, Reflections on Violence, written during his syndicalist phase, a movement which appealed to him partly because it did not involve political parties. Here he developed his most potent idea, that of the myth. In its content, a myth need be neither analytical nor programmatic. It could be beyond refutation, nonlogical and irrational, a composition of images as much as words, which “by intuition alone, before any considered analyses are made, is capable of evoking as an undivided whole the mass of sentiments which correspond to the different manifestations of the war undertaken by socialism against modern society.”

The stress on the importance of intuition betrays the influence of the French philosopher Henri Bergson, whose lectures Sorel attended in Paris. The only real test of a myth was whether it could drive a political movement forward. It would be more about conviction and motivation than the expositions of systematic ideas. A successful myth would compel men to act in a great radical cause, convincing them of their ultimate triumph. Myths were negative in their inspiration—more about destruction than creation. Sorel had a particular aversion to utopianism and claims that men would act out of goodness. Examples were primitive Christianity or Mazzinian nationalism. At the time of Reflections, the myth that he had in mind was a syndicalist general strike. He had lost confidence in a Marxist revolution. Later he was prepared to accept either Lenin’s Bolshevism or Benito Mussolini’s Fascism. Arguably, the focus on finding a myth that worked and evaluating ideas by their ideological effects could be considered pragmatic, even if this was not quite what the pragmatists had in mind.


One of those influenced by Sorel was Antonio Gramsci. A childhood accident had left him short, hunchbacked, and sickly, but his formidable intellect and wide-ranging interests enabled him to get a scholarship to university and then establish himself as a radical journalist. He was active in the Factory Council movement in Turin, supported by Sorel, and then helped found the Italian Communist Party (PCI) after it split from the socialists in 1921. After spending eighteen months in Moscow as Italian delegate to the Communist International, Gramsci watched with dismay as disunity on the left allowed for the rise of Fascism in Italy. Though initially spared prison as a member of the Chamber of Deputies, and so almost by default becoming general secretary of the PCI, he was eventually arrested in November 1926. Aged 35, he was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment by the Fascists. By the time of his release, his health was shattered and he died in 1937.

While in prison he filled numerous notebooks with notes on a vast range of issues, stimulated by voracious reading. His thoughts were intended to be developed more systematically once he regained his freedom. They remained notes, however—sketchy, incomplete, and often deliberately lacking in clarity to confuse his jailors. As a body of work they are now considered to represent an important contribution to both Marxist and non-Marxist theory. Gramsci was not truly “discovered” until after the Second World War, long after his death, when he was acclaimed as a humane and non-dogmatic Marxist. He challenged the mechanistic formulations inherited from the days of the Second International, arguing against reliance on historic laws of progress to produce a happy socialist conclusion and taking account of culture as much as economics. Of particular note was his attempt to address the docility of the working classes in the face of their evident exploitation.

He was aware of the neo-Machiavellians and shared some of their conclusions. For example, he accepted that for the moment, while there were classes, there really were “rulers and ruled, leaders and led.” Any politics that ignored this “primordial, irreducible” fact was doomed to failure.14 For the rulers, consent was preferable to coercion. This could only be achieved by convincing the ruled that the established political order served their interests. The ability to dominate through the power of ideas rather than brute force Gramsci called “hegemony.” He was not the first to use the word, derived from the Greek hegeisthai (to lead), and the underlying proposition was not new. The Communist Manifesto observed that “the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of the ruling class.” Lenin had warned that trade unionism served bourgeois rather than proletarian ideology, and used “hegemony” in its original sense as leadership.15 Gramsci’s explorations into the sources of hegemonic rule, however, enriched the concept to the point where it became part of the mainstream political lexicon.

The problem for Marxism was the supposedly close relationship between economics and politics, so that a change in material conditions should lead inexorably to changes in political consciousness. Yet, noted Gramsci, “at certain moments the automatic drive produced by the economic factor is slowed down, obstructed or even broken up momentarily by traditional ideological elements.”16 To take the obvious example, bourgeois claims that democracy and equality could be achieved through parliamentary means had proved persuasive. So long as this continued, the ruling class could avoid force. Only when they lost hegemonic ground would more authoritarian measures be necessary. This would be tested at times of crisis, when governments seeking to deflect popular anger would need to find ways of manipulating thoughts and creating an acquiescent public.

Gramsci divided society into its political and civil components. Political society, the realm of force, included the instruments of the state: government, the judiciary, the military, and the police. Civil society, the realm of ideas, included all those other bodies, from religious, media, and educational institutions to clubs and political parties relevant to the development of political and social consciousness. Here the ruling class must market its ideas if it was to achieve the appearance of rule by consent. Successful hegemony was evident in shared patterns of thought, concepts of reality, and notions of what was commonsensical. This would be reflected in language, customs, and morality. The ruled were persuaded that their society could and should be integrated rather than divided by class conflict.

This did not happen by cynically implanting a big idea in the popular consciousness. The ruling class could naturally draw on tradition, patriotic symbols and rituals, linguistic forms, and the authority of the Church and schools. The elite’s vulnerability was that there still had to be a relationship to actual experience. For this reason, the effort to sustain hegemonic consent might well involve concessions. Even so there was still a puzzle, for the working classes might be expected to have a conception of the world reflecting their condition. Gramsci believed that they did, but it might only be embryonic. It would manifest itself in action, but this would be “occasionally, by fits and starts,” when “the group is acting as an organic totality.” This conception could coexist, “for reasons of submission and intellectual subordination,” with one derived from the ruling class.17 Thus two theoretical consciousnesses almost competed with each other, one reflected in practical activity, binding workers together, the other inherited from the past and uncritically accepted, reinforced through language, education, politics, and the mass media. True consciousness was therefore obscured or deflected. Given the opportunity, however, it would assert itself.

It was not necessary for hegemonic thoughts to be truly believed; their presence could be sufficient to cause confusion and thereby paralysis. The challenge for communists was to engage in counter-hegemonic work, to provide the conceptual tools to enable the workers to appreciate the causes of their discontents. This would require activity in all the relevant arenas of civil society. Indeed, until this was complete, the party would not really be ready for power. It must first turn the tables on the ruling class and become itself hegemonic. Gramsci presented the party as a Machiavellian prince acting for a group: “The modern prince . . . cannot be a real person, a concrete individual. It can only be an organism, a complex element of society in which the cementing of a collective will, recognized and partially asserted in action, has already begun. This organism is already provided by historical development and it is the political party.”18 This would only work, however, if it remained closely in touch with those whose will it was seeking to forge and direct. Gramsci was no fan of democratic centralism, which was geared to seizing dictatorial power. He wrote doubtfully about how this would require of the masses a “generic loyalty, of a military kind, to a visible or invisible political center.” This would be sustained, ready for the moment when direct action could be taken, by means of “moralizing sermons, emotional stimuli, and messianic myths of an awaited golden age in which all present contradictions and miseries will be automatically resolved and made well.”19

To explain what he had in mind he used a military analogy. The ruling classes’ intellectual domination of civil society could be understood as a series of trenches and fortresses that could only be undermined and subverted by a patient but relentless war of position. The alternative, a war of maneuver—actually a form of frontal attack on the state—had long been the revolutionaries’ dream and had recently been successful in Russia. But Lenin was able to mount an opportunistic campaign to seize power by taking advantage of an organized party, a disorganized state, and a feeble civil society. These, Gramsci believed, were exceptional and peculiarly “eastern” conditions, quite different from the complex civil societies and structures of Western states, where the only course was first to fight the battle of ideas. “The war of position in politics,” he insisted, “is the concept of hegemony.”

This was, according to one authority, “a capsule description of his entire strategic argument.20

Gramsci never got the chance to complete his analysis, let alone put it into practice. Nonetheless, there was a tension at its heart that flowed from his core Marxism. He would not abandon the idea that, ultimately, economics drove politics, that class struggle was real and could shape consciousness, and that there would come a time when a majority working class would be able to attain power and rule with genuine hegemonic consent. Yet his analysis suggested a much more fluid set of relationships and possibilities, and patterns of thought that were disjointed and incoherent. It was problematic for a Marxist to accept that politics was an arena autonomous from economics, with its own tendencies and passions, but allowing the possibility of a range of factors intervening between the two rendered their relationship tenuous. If ideas had consequences of their own and were more than reflections of shifts in the means of production and the composition of classes, how could it be assumed that the battle for ideas would remain linked with the underlying class struggle? Once it was admitted that individuals could hold notionally contradictory thoughts in their heads, why stop with the contest between the hegemonic ideas of the ruling class or the incipient counter-hegemony of the ruled? What about normal muddle and confusion, or ideas which cut across those linked to class struggle, or inaction resulting from calculations based on prudence, a fear of unemployment, recollections of past failures, or distrust of party leaders?21

The military analogy Gramsci adopted was essentially that first introduced by Delbrück, between strategies of annihilation and exhaustion. It had been employed by Kautsky in 1910, and then Lenin in his argument for preparatory work and building up strength. Gramsci may have been updating the metaphor to take account of the past war, comparing the failed maneuvers of the war’s early stages with the hard slog that followed, including the trenches and fortifications, but the underlying point was the same. A strategy of annihilation or overthrow or—for Gramsci—maneuver promised a quick and decisive outcome but required surprise and an unprepared opponent. Given the advantages of the state in such a contest, it was only prudent to think in the long term. Gramsci argued therefore for an extended campaign for hegemonic influence. By the time state power came, socialism would already be on its way to being achieved.

As a prescription, this was barely different from Kautsky’s, except that Gramsci envisaged a broader advance in the field of ideas and was more skeptical about the parliamentary route. His starting point was also weak. Notably, his ideas on how a war of position might be fought seemed designed to avoid early violence, with a focus on demonstrations, boycotts, propaganda, and political education. The problem of how successful counter-hegemonic work in the civil sphere would eventually translate into a transfer of power in the political sphere was left ambiguous, presuming a point at which the ruling class would be dominant but no longer hegemonic. It was hard to see how a war of maneuver could be avoided at this point. Nor did Gramsci deal with the even larger problem of how this new hegemony would develop in circumstances where economic and social structures were becoming more variegated.

Outside of prison, this strategy would have appeared moderate and patient, avoiding the charges of authoritarianism attracted by Leninists, but effectively putting off the revolution and leading inevitably to pacts and compromises with other parties. In practice, Gramsci was himself the intellectual prisoner of the party line just as he was a physical prisoner of the Fascists. He was fighting a hegemonic war within himself. Every time he acknowledged that the way men thought affected the way they acted and that thoughts would by no means necessarily follow the imperatives of class, he was subverting the intellectual and political tradition in which he had been reared but which, consciously or subconsciously, he was coming to challenge.

Gramsci’s situation was poignant. Not only would he never get the chance to apply his ideas in practice, but also he would have been thwarted if he had tried. He would probably have been expelled from the party if he had propounded his ideas as an activist. When his work was eventually published posthumously, it initially included only those selections the PCI considered safe to release. Once confidence was lost in Marxism as a scientific revelation of the laws of history, Gramsci’s project would unravel or at least go off in directions that had little to do with his original purpose (which is what happened after the war when it inspired academic cultural studies).

The Communist Party turned into a project to maintain hegemony. Party members were required to be faithful to the prevailing line and to explain it without hesitation or any hint of incredulity to followers, however inconsistent, contradictory, or at odds with the evidence it might seem. Official ideologists engaged in whatever intellectual contortions were necessary to support the leadership and knew they were in trouble if they showed signs of doubt or independent thought. As the ideologies moved from the streets to government, ideological discipline was extended to the population as a whole. As the party line was tested daily against everyday experience and divergences had to be explained away, the requisite shifts in the official position caused confusion. An ideology that claimed to explain everything had to have positions on everything and sometimes these could be risible. Even with core support among the population, doubts were bound to develop and hegemony was in the end maintained less by the credibility of the case than by threats of retribution against doubters, apostates, critics, and deviants. In this way, the extremism of the original propositions on class consciousness, political formulas, myths, and hegemony came to be matched by the extremism of their implementation by totalitarian states.

The Nazis in Germany, possibly with Le Bon and Sorel in mind, provided the most disturbing example of how a ruling elite, with ruthlessness and little intellectual shame, could work to shape the thoughts of the masses. They used modern forms of propaganda, from staged rallies to controlled radio broadcasts. Although neither Adolf Hitler nor his propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels ever admitted that they would stoop to what they called the “big lie,” their descriptions of how their enemies could do so left little doubt about their views. In explaining the success of Jews in deflecting blame for Germany’s defeat in the Great War away from themselves, Hitler drew attention to “the principle—which is quite true within itself—that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily.” Because of “the primitive simplicity of their minds,” they were more likely to fall victim to the big lie than the small lie as it “would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.”22


The impact of Stalinism on leftist thought in open societies can be seen in the United States as questions were raised as to whether Western capitalist societies really were following the path set down by Marx or might instead be becoming more durable and less self-destructive. The Communist Party, following the Soviet line, dominated far-left politics during the 1930s. Trotsky, in exile in nearby Mexico, became a rallying point for those who remained attracted by Marxism, especially during the terrible economic conditions of the Great Depression, yet were appalled by Stalinism’s vicious and devious nature. The Trotskyist group in the United States was the largest of any (although at about one thousand members, it was not enormous). Many of the key figures attracted to a Marxism independent of Moscow came together in New York, a redoubtable intellectual grouping in terms of its vitality, if not political influence. Eventually practically all abandoned their Marxism, and many became conservatives, driven by their anti-Stalinism. Out of this group came some of the most formidable intellectuals and writers of postwar America. This included the contemporary neoconservative movement, initially composed of leftist veterans, often deploying the polemical skills developed during the faction fights of the 1930s.

One of the key figures to emerge from this milieu was James Burnham, a professor at New York University. He was one of the sharpest Trotskyist brains until he broke away over Trotsky’s support for Stalin’s pact with Hitler, which Burnham saw as a complete betrayal. This was coupled with a more esoteric dispute over the philosophical validity of dialectical materialism. From that point anti-communism dominated his thoughts and he moved firmly to the right. In 1941, during the early stages of this journey, without changing his rigorous, quasi-scientific, predictive style, and still focusing on the means of production to see where power lay, Burnham published a highly influential book, entitled The Managerial Revolution. He identified a new class—not the proletariat—moving into a dominant position. As the title implied, the book’s core thesis was that the managers, who provided the technical direction and coordination of production, were now in charge, replacing capitalists and communists alike. Within this trend he saw both Nazi Germany (at the time assuming a German victory in Europe) and President Roosevelt’s New Deal.23 After the war he was accused of plagiarism, possibly with some justice, by Bruno Rizzi, an eccentric leftist who earned his living as a traveling shoe salesman. Even if he had not read Rizzi’s 1939 The Bureaucratization of the World,24 he would have been aware of it. Trotsky felt the need to address it because it drew on his own critique of the Soviet Union and then took it further than any good Marxist could allow, in identifying a bureaucratic class controlling the state apparatus in diverse types of society.

Burnham’s next book, The Machiavellians, attempted to give a more political dimension to the economic analysis of The Managerial Revolution. This drew explicitly on Mosca, Sorel, Michels, and Pareto. It sought to reassert Machiavelli’s candor about the role of elemental interests and instincts in politics, with power exercised for its own sake, maintained if necessary by force and fraud. He asserted the possibility of an objective science of politics, neutral with respect to any political goal, undertaken independent of personal preferences, considering the struggle for social power “in its diverse open and concealed forms.” This could not rely on taking what was said at face value; everything that was said and done needed to be related to a broader social context to appreciate its meaning. Much of the book was given over to an exposition of the theories associated with the neo-Machiavellians, stressing the core division between the rulers and the ruled. His summation was a mixture of Pareto and Sorel. He took from the former the minor role played by logical or rational action in political and social change. “For the most part it is a delusion to believe that in social life men take deliberate steps to achieve consciously held goals.” More frequent was nonlogical action “spurred by environmental changes, instinct, impulse, interest.” Sorel came in with the proposition that to maintain its own power and privilege, the elite depended on a political formula, “which is usually correlated with a generally accepted religion, ideology or myth.”

Burnham identified the new elite as the men “able to control contemporary mass industry, the massed labor force, and a supra-national form of political organization.” He assumed that this control could be exercised by means of a compelling political formula. So, rational behavior for the elite would be to get the masses to accept unscientific myths. If they failed to sustain beliefs in the myths, the fabric of society would crack and they would be overthrown. In short, the leaders—if they themselves were scientific—must lie.25

This was the nub of the problem with Burnham’s analysis. Under a Nazi or Stalinist state, myths could be manufactured and sustained as a means of social control. In both these cases, the underlying ideology was rooted in the leadership but it could also be sustained by coercive means. Dissent could be punished. Certain ideas played an important role in Western societies, but this role required a much more subtle analysis than Burnham’s because the marketplace of ideas was much larger. Critics objected to Burnham’s cynical approach to American democracy as if it were comparable to totalitarianism, and to his muddled analysis of power and where it was located.26 The proposition that a political formula could be developed by an elite and then just handed down to the masses was far too simplistic. Ideas were far more difficult to control than physical conditions. Not all of the original message would be picked up even by a willing recipient.

Experts and Propaganda

Up to the point when the Nazis moved the art of propaganda to a new and disturbing level, great strides had been made in developing the theory and practice in the United States. Because of the totalitarian experience, it became very difficult to read earlier claims about what might be achieved by propaganda without a painful sense of where it could all lead. Given the importance attached to influencing the way people thought about their condition, which continued into the twenty-first century, it is important to consider the earlier development of Western theories of public opinion.

Robert Park provides a starting point. He was a former student of Dewey’s who went on to succeed Small as head of the Chicago Sociology Department. His doctoral dissertation was written in Germany in 1904 on “The Crowd and the Public.”27 He contrasted Le Bon’s vivid descriptions of how individuals joining a crowd lost their personalities and instead acquired a collective mind with the views of Gabriel Tarde, another Frenchman who thought Le Bon outdated. Tarde was interested in how power could flow from some individuals as they were imitated by many others. In addition to imposed, coercive power, this imitation gave society its coherence. The developing print media had special significance because it made possible simultaneous and similar conversations without regard for geography. Views could be packaged like commodities and then transmitted to millions, a capability which he recognized to be a powerful weapon.

As he reflected on the Dreyfus affair in France during the 1890s (the controversy surrounding a Jewish officer’s conviction of spying for Germany), Tarde observed a collective opinion developing without individuals gathering together. From this came his view of the public as a “spiritual collectivity, a dispersion of individuals who are physically separated and whose cohesion is entirely mental.”28 For this reason he could not agree “with that solid writer, Dr. Le Bon, that this was ‘the age of the crowd.’ ” It was the “age of the public, or the publics—and that is quite different.”29An individual could only join one crowd but could be part of many publics. A crowd might be excitable but a public would be less emotional with calmer opinions.

Park developed this idea of a dichotomy between crowds—homogenous, simple, and impulsive, responding emotionally to perceptions of events—and the much more admirable public—heterogeneous and critical, addressing facts, comfortable with complexity. The hope for an ordered and progressive society depended on the public, which “precisely because it is composed of individuals with different opinions—is guided by prudence and rational reflection.”30 Once the public ceased to be critical, it became tantamount to a crowd, with all feelings moving in the same direction.

Whether the crowd or the public would predominate depended on the role of the media. The so-called muckraking journalists saw the newspapers as an agent of enlightenment and democracy. “Publicity,” wrote one in the 1880s, is “the great moral disinfectant.”31 But if the media lost its higher role and pandered to the crowd, the public could be pulled down with it. The possibility that the suggestibility of crowds could be magnified rather than countered was underlined by the experience of the First World War. The U.S. Government’s Committee on Public Information (CPI), set up as the country entered the war in 1917, impressed all those involved with the apparent ease with which a bellicose opinion could be shaped by using every available means to put out the word about the danger of German militarism and the need for a robust response. Led by former progressive journalist George Creely, who famously observed that “people do not live by bread alone: they live mostly by catch phrases,” the CPI used all media from townhall meetings to movies to get across core messages.

One of those who had urged the formation of the CPI, was involved in its activities, and was impressed by its performance was Walter Lippmann.32 A precocious, high-minded, articulate, and influential journalist, Lippmann was alive to the intellectual currents of the time. Before the war, he had struck up a friendship with the elderly William James and was intrigued by the psychoanalytical movement’s insights regarding the development of consciousness and the sources of irrationality. He had become uneasy about how the popular press was always pointing to conspiracies and searching for sensationalist revelations. He saw this as fomenting unrest and making rational debate impossible. In 1922 he published his landmark book Public Opinion. What people knew, he argued, was only through a “picture in their heads” of the “pseudo-environment” to be found between people and their real environment. Understanding the way these pictures were formed, sustained, and challenged was important because it affected behavior. “But because it is behavior,” Lippmann observed, “the consequences, if they are acts, operate not in the pseudo-environment where the behavior is stimulated, but in the real environment where action eventuates.” Or, as Chicago sociologist William Thomas put it a few years later in a theorem which came to bear his name: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”33

Lippmann also noted the extent to which individuals clung on to their “system of stereotypes” because it provided an “ordered, more or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves.” Because of this, any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of the universe. It is an attack upon the foundations of OUR universe, and, where big things are at stake, we do not readily admit that there is any distinction between our universe and the universe.

A world which turns out to be one in which those we honor are unworthy, and those we despise are noble, is nerve-racking. There is anarchy if our order of precedence is not the only possible one.34

In addition to the familiar perceptual problems of prejudicial stereotypes, most people lacked the time and the inclination to engage in a more disciplined search for the truth. If they relied on newspapers, then what they got was selective and simplified.

Some form of picture was unavoidable but, picking up on a standard progressive theme, Lippmann feared that the pictures would be drawn by sectional interests or by a press which played to natural selfishness, supported by dubious advertising. All this meant that “public opinion” was suspect. Contrary to the notion of a “common will” emerging naturally from the people, public opinion in practice was a construct and democratic consent could therefore be manufactured. The test of good government was not the degree of public participation in the process but the quality of the output. Unlike Dewey, who was confident that people were the best judges of their own interests and participatory democracy the best means of creating a sense of shared community, Lippmann was firmly on the side of representative democracy. He was, however, with Dewey in his optimism about science, including the social sciences, as a motor of progress.

Lippmann regretted that the social scientist was not yet playing this role, whereas the engineer had been doing so for some time. He put this down to a lack of confidence. The social scientist was unable to “prove his theories before offering them to the public,” yet “if his advice is followed, and he is wrong, the consequences may be incalculable. He is in the nature of things far more responsible, and far less certain.” Social scientists were therefore explaining decisions already taken but not influencing those yet to be taken. “The real sequence,” according to Lippmann, “should be one where the disinterested expert first finds and formulates the facts for the man of action, and later makes what wisdom he can out of comparison between the decision, which he understands, and the facts, which he organized.” They could bring another dimension to government, representing “the unseen” with a “constituency of intangibles,” covering “events that are out of sight, mute people, unborn people, relations between things and people.” Contrary to later suggestions that he wanted experts to rule, Lippmann’s prescription went no further than encouraging them to tutor governments in what would make for wise policy. Nor was he arguing that experts were superior to ordinary people. They were required not so much as a counter to the masses but to the standard progressive bugbears—the urban party machines, the big trusts, and a press that was driven more by advertising revenue than a mission to inform.35

One form of expertise that he saw coming to the fore was “persuasion” as “a self-conscious art and a regular organ of popular government.” He continued with what turned out to be understatement: “None of us begins to understand the consequences, but it is no daring prophecy to say that the knowledge of how we create consent will alter every political premise.” Like many others writing on this topic at this time, he was prepared to describe this as “propaganda” without necessarily implying a sinister meaning. The term’s origins lay in the Catholic Church’s methods of taking its teaching to those who were not yet converted. The standard definition of the time simply saw propaganda as any method “for the propagation of a particular doctrine or practice.”

During the Great War, it had acquired its more sinister meaning as accusations were made of deliberate lying in order to bolster morale or to confuse or slander enemies. Harold Lasswell, who was to become a major figure in U.S. political science, made his name with a theory of propaganda. By his definition it involved “the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols” and was socially “indispensable” given the unavoidable gap between the public and the elite. He deplored the negative connotations the concept had acquired. It was no more moral or immoral than a “pump handle.” It was necessary because individuals were poor judges of their own interests and so had to be helped by officially sanctioned communication. With experts on the mobilization of opinion, what could once “be done by violence and intimidation must now be done by argument and persuasion.”36 The strategic challenge for the propagandist was “to intensify the attitudes favorable to his purpose, to reverse the attitudes hostile to it, and to attract the indifferent, or, at the worst, to prevent them from assuming a hostile bent.”

This sense of a struggle between reason and emotion, evident in the individual but now elevated to a feature of a whole society, was become increasingly influenced by Freudian theories. Freud challenged the distinction between individual and group psychology. After the war he moved on from his dialectic of the unconscious and the conscious to a more complex structure.37 Now he identified the “Id,” reflecting those unconscious, instinctual, passionate, amoral, disorganized aspects of the personality, seeking pleasure, “a cauldron full of seething excitations,” which the organized, conscious, knowing ego seeks to manage by bringing in line with reality. It represented reason and common sense, acting on the Id like “a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse.” Its task was complicated by the super-ego, which brought to bear considerations of conscience and morality—a legacy of the father figure and a reflection of external influences such as teachers—posing socially appropriate behavior against whatever instant gratification was sought by the Id.

An example of Freud’s influence was William Trotter, a British surgeon who became an early follower. In 1916, Trotter published his book on the “herd instinct,” based on articles written in 1908 and 1909 but reinforced by the experience of war. Trotter argued that human beings were naturally gregarious, and so were insecure and feared loneliness. This led to a fourth instinct—in addition to self-preservation, nutrition, and sex—which had the distinction of exercising “a controlling power upon the individual from without” so that it impelled people to do things they would not otherwise wish to do. Trotter saw this as a source of the tension between individuals and society, between commonsense and prevailing norms, the source of senses of sin and guilt. The idea of the “mass mind” and a fascination with the psychology of crowds was not new, but those who had written on it before were apt to see it as a negative force, the source of mob actions, whereas Trotter encouraged a more positive view. Freud respected Trotter’s views, although he judged that they took too little account of the role of leadership and the need of members of a group to be “loved” by their leader.38

The practical possibilities of these various ideas were demonstrated by Edward Bernays, the best available example of the working propagandist at this time. He was a nephew of Sigmund Freud and he traded on this relationship when explaining his understanding of emotions and irrationality. After getting involved in the CPI, Bernays set himself up in 1919 as a public relations counsel (he was the first to use the descriptor). Though his methods were all his own, both Lippmann and Freud were major influences on his thinking. Politically he was a progressive and optimistic that the techniques he was describing could be used for the betterment of society, although this optimism was shaken when he discovered that Goebbels’s library contained his books. His first book, Crystallizing Public Opinion, was published in 1923, a year after Lippmann’s Public Opinion, from which Bernays quoted liberally. He sought to demonstrate that his was a respectable profession with serious credentials, rooted in social science and psychiatry. In a complex society, governments, corporations, parties, charities, and a number of other groups were constantly striving to gain favor and advantage. Even if they had wanted to ignore public opinion, the public had an interest in what they were up to. He noted that large corporations and labor unions were now seen as “semipublic services” and that the public, now enjoying the benefits of education and democracy, expected a voice in their conduct. Given this, there was a requirement for expert advice about how to do this effectively.39

This much in Bernay’s argument was unexceptional. What was striking was the blunt language he used to describe what public relations professionals could offer, and the presumption of success. In Crystallizing Public Opinion, Bernays explained how “the natural inherent flexibility of individual human nature” made it possible for governments to “regiment the mind like the military regiments the body.” He opened a 1928 book, entitled Propaganda , by asserting that: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society.” Those responsible constituted “an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” As a result, “we are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.” He argued for a strict ethical code for his profession, including that the needs of society as a whole come first. He insisted that the masses could not be made to act against their core interests and that political leaders were by far the most important influences when it came to creating “the established point of view.” Nonetheless, his formulations aggravated the sense of an affront to democracy. If, as Lippmann also appeared to be saying, opinions were shaped from the top down, this undermined the view that in democracies, power should come from the bottom up. The conclusion that Bernays drew from this was that by understanding the “mechanism and motives of the group mind” it might be possible “to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it.” This he thought could be done “at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.”40

Bernays as an advisor to governments, charities, and corporations was a natural strategist. He distinguished himself from advertising men, whom he portrayed as special pleaders seeking to get people to accept a particular commodity. His approach was more holistic (advising his clients on their complete relationship with their environment) and indirect (seeking to get people to view the world in different ways). In a later article with the provocative title “The Engineering of Consent,”41 he explicitly discussed the strategy of public relations. He also adopted the military metaphor. Having urged careful preparation in terms of available budget, clarity of objectives, and a survey of current thinking, attention must be given to the major themes, which he described as “ever present but intangible,” comparable to the “story line” in fiction, appealing to both the conscious and subconscious of the public. Then came the campaign: “The situation may call for a blitzkrieg or a continuing battle, a combination of both, or some other strategy.” An election might be close and need something quick. It would take longer to get people to think differently about a health issue. When it came to tactics, he emphasized that the aim was not simply to get an article into a newspaper or get a radio slot but “to create news,” by which he meant something that “juts out of the pattern of routine.” Events which made news could be communicated to “infinitely more people than those actually participating, and such events vividly dramatize ideas for those who do not witness the events.” His more famous campaigns were encouraging “bacon and eggs” for breakfast by getting leading physicians to endorse the need for a “hearty” breakfast, having famous figures from vaudeville meet with President Calvin Coolidge in an attempt to boost his image, and—notably—an imaginative stunt for the American Tobacco Company. He persuaded ten debutantes to light up with their cigarettes during the 1929 Easter Parade, thereby notionally striking a blow for feminism by undermining the taboo against women smoking in public. The cigarettes became “torches of freedom.”42

Bernays invited obvious criticisms: usurping the role of democracy by taking upon himself to shape peoples’ thoughts, encouraging mass effects rather than individual responsibility, and relying on cliché and emotional attitudes rather than intellectual challenge. Bernays argued that in an age of mass media, the techniques were unavoidable and propaganda was ubiquitous. People and groups had a right to promote their ideas and the competition in doing so was healthy for both democracy and capitalism. He also invited an exaggerated response, because of the exaggerated claims he made for his profession and his eager embrace of the mantle of propagandist.43 While after the Second World War this was a mantle few would accept, the issue of how political consciousness developed and could be influenced was well established. Bernays’s contribution was to demonstrate that the impulses need not only be to shape thinking about underlying political ideologies but also to frame more specific issues. During the course of the political struggles of the 1950s and 1960s over race and war, strategies came to focus increasingly on how to create the right impression.

The totalitarian ideologies of Communism and Nazism attempted to demonstrate in practice the suggestibility of the broad masses to political formulas devised by a privileged elite. They sought deliberately to insert coherent worldviews into the consciousness of whole populations and enforce their dictates, sliding over the evident anomalies and inconsistencies and gaps that developed with lived experience. Their success, moreover, owed much to the fearful consequences of any shows of dissent, doubt, or deviation from the party line. Once the coercive spell was broken, the underlying ideas struggled to survive on their own. Belief systems turned out to be more complex and varied and public opinion less malleable than the elite theorists had supposed. What Bernays was pointing to was something more subtle, at levels below grand ideological confrontations, where the attitudes involved were more specific and the behavioral consequences less demanding. Rather than words governing deeds, as anticipated by the ideologists, there was a close relationship between the two, and successful politicians and campaigners realized that this needed to be understood if even fleeting victories were to be achieved, never mind lasting change.

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