Category Archives: Ellul: Propaganda


Propaganda in Modern Democracies

by Neil Godfrey
Ellul, author of Propaganda, The Formation of Men's Attitudes

Ellul, author of Propaganda, The Formation of Men’s Attitudes

It is a remarkable fact worthy of attention that modem propaganda should have begun in the democratic States. During World Was I we saw the combined use of the mass media for the first time; the application of publicity and advertising methods to political affairs, the search for the most effective psychological methods. But in those days German propaganda was mediocre: the French, English, and American democracies launched big propaganda. Similarly, the Leninist movement, undeniably democratic at the start, developed and perfected all propaganda methods. Contrary to some belief, the authoritarian regimes were not the first to resort to this type of action, though they eventually employed it beyond all limits. This statement should make us think about the relationship between democracy and propaganda. (Ellul 1973:232f)

Propaganda began in modern democratic states? Surely those of us who are so fortunate to live in open democracies are free to think for ourselves and make informed decisions for the greater good. We have a free press, publicly accountable education and the secret ballot. After all . . .

In 1942 Henry Wallace coined the phrase ‘the century of the common man’ to epitomize his belief that American (and world) society would come under the influence of the needs and aspirations of the great mass of ordinary people. He foresaw a society where education, science, technology, corporate power and natural resources would, to an unprecedented extent, be controlled and used in the service of large humane ends rather than in the service of individual power and class privilege (Blum 1973:635-40 cited in Carey 1997:11).

Comparable predictions have been made of the age of the internet.

“If you want to see propaganda in action look at North Korea,” we think. The idea that those of us living in free and open democratic societies are influenced by propaganda seems laughable by comparison.

There’s a catch, however. Crude propaganda is a very blunt instrument. It’s the sort of obvious propaganda we could see practiced by the Soviet leadership. It made little use of social science or psychology to shape its techniques and many of its intended targets could see right through it. People would in private roll their eyes or seek out foreign media instead. When the authoritarian system collapsed people no longer had to pretend to believe it. As I’ll discuss in future posts, sophisticated propaganda techniques that did make use of research in the social sciences and psychology began in the United States and they have proved far more effective. Expensive policing, spying and dictatorial intimidation and coercion are not needed. In place of a Goebbels-led Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda we have Public Relations and Human Relations departments. We have the ever-helpful Press Releases put out by corporations and government departments. Media Management has become a major part of political party and corporate business. Not that “information services” are themselves propaganda. There is more to it than that.

So let’s back up and understand what propaganda is.

Harold Lasswell

Harold Lasswell

A leading figure in the development of propaganda in the United States was Harold Lasswell. We’ll talk more about him later. For now, here is his definition:

Propaganda is the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of significant symbols . . . Collective attitudes are amenable to many modes of alteration . . . But their arrangement and rearrangement occurs principally under the impetus of significant symbols; and the technique of using significant symbols for this purpose is propaganda. . . .

Literacy and the physical channels of communication have quickened the connection between those who rule and the ruled. Conventions have arisen which favor the ventilation of opinions and the taking of votes. Most of that which formerly could be done by violence and intimidation must now be done by argument and persuasion. Democracy has proclaimed the dictatorship of palaver, and the technique of dictating to the dictator is named propaganda.

(Lasswell 1927:627-631)

The public may believe it is the ultimate ruler (dictator) in a democracy but Laswell is saying that those in power, business, corporate and political, have the means to shape the public’s values, beliefs, actions by methods far more sophisticated than those used by Goebbels.

Lest the comparison with Goebbels sound overblown, note what Drew Dudley (1947: 107) wrote for the American Academy of Political and Social Science shortly after the war:

It is rather amazing that during all the war years of government advertising, virtually no one raised the cry, Propaganda! One might have expected to hear someone label the use of advertising techniques by government as “Hitlerism.” Actually, Hitler did employ the technique of advertising during the prewar and war years, frequently referring to America’s advertising in glowing and admiring terms in Mein Kampf, and later utilizing advertising’s powerful repetitive force to the utmost.

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