The Soviet Union had a propaganda machine that for decades smartly leveraged existing cultural staples like Russian nationalism to prop up the communist regime. And for decades, it worked. When you have full control of the media, education and means of communication, failure should not be possible, ever. So what went wrong?
As a background for millennials, here are two videos that give an overview of Soviet communist propaganda, about themselves and about America, for mostly internal consumption. These videos were produced by the CIA, and certainly have their own slant, however, there have been copious amounts of independent corroboration of details in these videos.
In summary the first video focuses on how the communist Soviet Union lauded the accomplishments of the U.S.S.R. and the latter narrowly focused on the failures of America, either real or fabricated by the propagandists. So with all of this wind at their backs, why does the Soviet Union not still exist today? The propaganda ultimately failed because propaganda is not always backed by facts.
Notice how so many of these American 'problems' are echoed by the left of today:
- Select capitalists get richer, while there is literal starvation in the economy otherwise (the 1% vs. the 99%)
- Americans are deprived of the right to work, and capitalism does not meet basic human needs (the living/minimum wage argument)
- communism works better by providing economic security (this is the argument behind Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, food stamps, public education, and every other social program being underfunded or not even available)
- Raging American militarism is responsible for arms race, international terrorism ("banditry") and is the cause of the American deficit (it's the same argument used by everyone from Code Pink to Sean Penn to any other progressive looking for a government handout)
- America is inherently racist, and discrimination vs African Americans and Hispanics. White racists drive this problem. (systemic racism is constantly argued and refuted in America, most notably refuted by Dinesh D'Souza)
- There is no equality of opportunity in America (while this is arguably true, such is the case everywhere, and America tries to facilitate it more than anywhere else in the world. Ironically, the Soviet Union and today's left in America often conflate inequality of opportunity with inequality of outcome)
- People in America are lulled by talking heads paid for by capital. (Sounds a lot like the fake news arguments of today).
This is why these people were (and likely are) regarded as useful idiots. They argue for a weakened American military and a society that more closely resembles that of Soviet style socialism. You can argue that there are some chicken and egg issues here - America has had issues, and is not perfect - but that is not the point. The point is by dialling up the rhetoric the goal is to inflame people's passions towards change (in America) and stasis (in the Soviet Union).
But notice also the tactics employed by the American left follow the propaganda tactics of the Soviet Union. They use control of education, control of the media, talking heads in the news media and instead of lecture series extolling the virtues of communism we have instead media like Saturday Night Live trying to eviscerate president Trump and conservatives in general. We have every actor and musician given the chance to accept an award using their platform to libel the president and talk about what a terrible country America has become since president Obama left office. They act as if they are the freedom fighters depicted in the Soviet propaganda films and news reports, and not multi-millionaires, with no understanding of economic reality who have thrived off the same society the disparage. There is no sense of irony in what they do because they are dogmatically driven and they do not grasp that they seek to destroy what has raised them up: capitalism. but their ideas will not die. Once an idea takes hold it can become an ember but never be extinguished. Want proof of that? There are thousands of videos like this one (warning - don't be fooled. Please.):
Wow. Ideas from centuries ago, cobbled back together, are making a ridiculous comeback.
Getting back to why the Soviet propaganda ultimately failed, in the first video above there is a mention about Russians being curious about the West. Curiosity is a fundamental component of the human condition. No matter how much you are distracted, or imbued with propaganda disguised as facts, if you have not experienced something firsthand, you are naturally going to be curious about it to some degree. Some people will be more curious than others and will seek to discover more. As they discover more, they will question more. This is what has driven human intervention and exploration for millennia. It is what has grown our brains and what drives us to go see movies or to travel. It's what drives clickbait on the Internet. In other words, propaganda, no matter how pervasive, cannot overcome human curiosity. This is important to remember and it is a powerful tool to be able to subvert propaganda and it's a key factor if not the key factor in what caused Soviet propaganda to ultimately fail. The other factor is the human need for self-determination. The Soviet Union was built on control, and restrictions put on individual self-determination and that is another part of human nature that no external imposition can contain across an entire populace indefinitely. Once the collapse of the system began with glasnost, the only question remaining was how long the Soviet Union would take to collapse.
There is yet one other major factor in the failure of Soviet propaganda. Reality. Facts versus lies. When one sees as in the video second video above African Americans being evicted by ruthless landlords and they are moving furniture into the street one cannot help but see that they have belongings. They are not starving to death. So the facts about america become suspect. Worse still is the propaganda about how great the Soviet Union is doing and yet people were standing in line for hours for pairs of shoes that might not even fit them. Food shortages were common thanks to central planning. These failures in the personal lives of Russians were tangible yet they were being told otherwise. Facts outshine lies when personal, tangible visceral evidence indicates that lies are being told.
Propaganda ultimately can only delay the truth for a finite period of time. In the case of the Soviet Union it was for decades. Arguably it could last for centuries. The lesson is that propaganda can be overcome because human nature includes both curiosity and a desire for self-determinism, but he speed at which truth overcomes propaganda is dependent on how much truth is able to shine through.