Supertext: The textbook that changed my life

May 26, 2000

International history, I realise with hindsight, is a discipline strikingly bereft of Big Books, though it was unmistakably in thrall to Dead White Diplomats when I was an undergraduate. My degree did, however, offer one course that changed my life. It was entitled "Propaganda in the second world war". To the envy of other students, and the derision of some faculty, we got to watch films; and we were exposed to the cultural, sociological and psychological dimensions of international history that have interested me ever since.

One of our texts engaged, infuriated and provoked me: Jacques Ellul's Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes . Published in French in 1962, it now seems of another age. Part of its attraction lay in penetrating multiple barriers of strangeness, not to mention a rather stilted translation. Ellul himself emerged as both an insightful thinker and a wild generaliser, with a taste for grand, unsubstantiated assertions of the kind that undergraduate essayists are sternly warned against. Many of his aperçus , such as "those who go to the movies three times a week are not those who read the newspapers with care", were highly questionable. Yet he combined imperiousness towards the mass subjects of modernity with scepticism about their intellectuals and experts. It was precisely those who thought themselves most immune to propaganda who were in fact most susceptible, he said.

This was refreshing. Many authors on propaganda seemed all too willing to concur that "the masses" alone were vulnerable. The task of intellectuals was either (if one followed Harold Lasswell) to manipulate lesser minds in directions that a technocratic elite knew to be in their best interests, or (if one preferred the liberal approach pioneered by the United States's Institute for Propaganda Analysis) to alert innocent minds to the dangers of propaganda, thereby destroying its potency.

What was especially striking in Ellul was his insistence that propaganda was not solely about the planned and deliberate manipulation of others for particular political ends. He was more troubled by the pervasive phenomenon that he termed "sociological propaganda": the way in which ideologies naturalise themselves as common sense without a person being aware that they have done so.

Some critics have dismissed Ellul's widening of the concept on the grounds that "if everything is propaganda, then nothing is". But though one may prefer to give embedded sociological processes some other name, there is no doubt that Ellul broached more profound issues than the average preoccupations of the "propaganda" scholar, dissecting the techniques of Goebbels or Stalin.

I now see you can obtain Ellul's book with "one-click" from Amazon, garnished with five-star reader reviews. I feel surprised and pleased that he still attracts receptive readers.

Susan Carruthers is senior lecturer in international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

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