November 7 marks the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. There are many reasons beyond the historical to ponder the legacy of communism. Ever since Vladimir Lenin overthrew Russia’s nascent parliamentary democracy in 1917 to establish a brutal dictatorship, many other nations have fallen for the bait-and-switch scheme called communism, and often labelled socialism.
Communism promises equality but delivers scarcity for all but the elites in its apparatus. It pitches social justice and delivers mass enslavement, widespread misery, social distrust, and severe punishment for all who might dissent. We’ve seen these phenomena happen all over the world, in China, North Korea, Southeast Asia, post-World War II Eastern Europe, Cuba, Central America, and perhaps most notably visible today in the starvation and chaos of Venezuela.
During the twentieth century—and let’s remember this is recent history—communist regimes murdered more than 100 million people. This sort of astounding cruelty is in the very nature of the beast called communism. It happens when too much power gets concentrated into the hands of too few people.
Yet Americans have a sad history of flirting with this disaster and many American elites, from 1930s intellectuals to 1960s radicals, have accepted it completely. We’re seeing another revival today: Bernie Sanders is a self-professed socialist, and The New York Times recently ran an article doting on the good old days when communism inspired so many in America.
So, the questions Americans might best ask themselves today are as follows: How might a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” ever buy into the lies of communism, a system tailor-made for state mass murder? How might a free people ever allow the abolition of a Constitution that guarantees individual rights, the rule of law, due process, and is designed to thwart elites from gaining absolute power over others? Why would anyone, except an advocate of slavery, throw away a document designed from its very inception to abolish slavery in all of its forms?
In a recent article, I sketched out six phases on the road to communism, and summarized the trends in each phase: 1.) Laying the groundwork; 2.) Propaganda; 3.) Agitating the masses; 4.) Consolidating control over society’s institutions; 5.) Coercing conformity; and 6.) Final solutions. This follow-up article will examine the trends in the three earlier phases. The third article in this series will examine the trends most associated with the three latter phases.
Several of these phases, which are roughly sequential, overlap a lot. But I think it’s useful to at least try to understand how a phenomenon that can cause so much human misery and mass murder can possibly gain a foothold in a free nation. If we can dissect it and study it all more closely, perhaps we can sidestep some of the pitfalls that drag us down communism’s path of human cruelty and evil.
Phase 1: Trends that Lay Groundwork for Tyranny
The first phase towards tyranny in a free society is a generational or decades-long process. It’s a period in which minds can be closed to reason and more influenced by emotion and propaganda. Even at institutions of supposedly higher learning, students start to lose their capacity to think independent thoughts. We might summarize this as the conditioning phase—maybe the “programming” stage—that paves the way for groupthink to solidify. Below I list some of the trends in this phase.
Creep of social policies that promote polarization, dependency, and human isolation. All so-called progressive policies cause division and isolation among people. For example, economic policies that promote dependency create more class divisions and hostility. When we codify policies that bow down to identity politics, we fuel divisions by race, class, sex, religion, and so forth. All such policies tend to wreak havoc on personal relationships.
The metastasizing of the welfare state under President Lyndon Johnson caused a lot of dependency. Some of its offshoots, such as “Aid to Families with Dependent Children,” perpetuated family breakdown with a carrot-and-stick effect that rewarded single motherhood then financially punished the family if the mother married.
The list of policies that breed human isolation goes on: Policies that promote the sexual revolution discourage bonds of marriage and family; No-fault divorce promotes the separation of spouses. Policies that punish married parents and reward single parenthood promote the separation of children from their parents. Also, no matter how you feel about abortion, you can’t deny that it erodes the social value given to the mother-child bond.
Broken families lead to broken communities. We can see how those earlier policies that promoted isolation continue to proliferate today, from the threat of rationing from state-run health care to euthanasia as a byproduct of abortion on demand. The effects of such policies include the loneliness epidemic we’re seeing today, demoralization, and social chaos.
Disabling of independent thought. Nothing is more threatening to petty dictators than a citizenry’s widespread ability to think clearly and independently. Radical education reformers have sought for generations to drum the capacity for independent thought out of students. “Critical thinking” has been made into a garbage term for fads that have students doing anything but gain content knowledge.
Most college students today probably could not answer even a fraction of the questions on an eighth grade general knowledge exam from 1912. Without core knowledge, people have a difficult time putting any knowledge into its proper context. After decades of such politicizing reforms, you can end up with college students so muddled in their thinking that they need “trigger warnings” before reading anything that might conflict with the social and emotional programming they’ve experienced. In the propaganda phase, we’ll see how political correctness compounds this problem by cultivating the fear of rejection for expressing one’s thoughts.
Ever more bureaucratization. Human freedom is inversely proportional to the bloat of the administrative state. I’m not sure who should be credited with first making this observation. It resounds in the work of the American Founders, Alexis de Tocqueville, Friedrich Hayek, and even the psychiatrist Carl Jung, among many others. But the piles of regulations that put businesses, as well as personal lives, into straitjackets attest to this destabilizing trend for human freedom.
You can trace this back quite a ways, particularly with President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs put into place to address the Great Depression. But it certainly helped put into high gear the bloat we see today. Compounding the problem is the notion that immigration should be limitless and the nation borderless, despite a national debt of $20 trillion. The metastasis of bureaucracy is a huge indicator we’ve been on the path to centralized power that feeds corruption and lays groundwork for communism.
Erasure of collective memory. Another crime of radical education reform is its attack on the study of history, civics, and the classics of literature. Today we can see the bitter fruits of such 1960s radical education reform, which has roots going back to 1920s with John Dewey. If we are no longer able to place ourselves and society into the context of historical events, our vision going forward will be blurred at best.
It gets even worse if we don’t learn how our form of government functions. Today fewer and fewer college students have the capacity to understand that the First Amendment serves as a buffer against totalitarianism, not something to be abolished under the pretext of “hate speech.” And depriving students exposure to literary classics like Shakespeare (based on the charge that such works are “Western” and therefore ethnocentric) prevents them from discussing the universal human condition and our common humanity.
Instead, students are increasingly fed grievance studies and identity politics. As universities go this route, it trickles down to K-12 education. As a result, we are losing the social glue of our common traditions and heritage—not just as a nation, but as human beings. This cultivation of ignorance by the education establishment over the years compounds the isolating effect on people. It makes youth especially vulnerable to becoming fodder for power elites.
Hoarding of knowledge about group dynamics. Are you tuned in to how the laws of social psychology drive your behavior? Or how the manipulation of the primal human fear of being isolated and rejected allows for PC-induced self-censorship that fuels conformity? How groupthink affects us? Probably not.
Thirty years ago, Nobel laureate Doris Lessing wrote about this deficit in general knowledge. In her book, “Prisons We Choose to Live Inside,” Lessing theorized that power elites have actually hoarded knowledge of mass psychology so they can better control the masses. Her thesis makes sense: If everyone understood the manipulators’ game, the game would be over for them.
Phase 2: Manufacturing Propaganda
Propaganda is not so much a phase as an ever-present nuisance. But once its groundwork has been laid in the minds of men, propaganda’s intensity and effectiveness increases in direct proportion to the ignorance out there. You’ll find many definitions of propaganda, but my definition goes like this: Propaganda is the process by which power elites condition individuals through psychological manipulation to adapt to an agenda. Some of its trends are as follows.
Language manipulation. The whole point of the totalitarian abuse of language is to prevent independent thought, the subject of George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” When people accept the abuse of language, and incorporate it into their own vocabularies without thinking about it, they can be easily ventriloquized by power elites.
Victor Klemperer addressed this phenomenon in his book “Language of the Third Reich.” His thesis was that the Nazi regime’s abuse of language was its primary means of turning all German people into Nazis. He writes, “They found it difficult to think about life and morality in any other way. . . .Words are like tiny doses of arsenic, swallowed unnoticed, and then after a while the toxic reaction sets in.”
Consider all the weaponized memes and slogans we swallow today that shape how we think: “woke,” “bend the knee,” and “cisgender” are just a few. All are meant to modify our thoughts and behaviors in everyday life. An especially aggressive abuse of language are new laws that enforce strange pronoun usages that destabilize the structure of our language. By passing laws that punish the “misgendering” of someone as “hate speech,” we veer into kangaroo court territory, as well as force unnatural changes in our language.
Revising history. A byproduct of watering down of the study of history is the revision and mockery of history, such as is evident in the late Howard Zinn’s textbook, “The People’s History of the United States.” His basic thesis appears to be that our constitutional system of checks and balances needs to be replaced by an oligarchy of dictators such as himself who know better. It seems to teach students that everything that ever happened at the founding of America is bad, bad, bad. Such revisionism also serves to perpetuate identity politics that stokes resentments rather than building any sense of unity among Americans.
Journalism becomes propaganda. There was once a quaint notion that reporting should be objective and fact-based rather than biased and opinion-based. Journalists tend to view themselves as watchdogs, yet over the years have become increasingly unaccountable to anyone. As the profession’s political shift to the Left has crystallized to beyond 90 percent, it’s now so monolithic in its perspective that it can hardly help but churn out propaganda.
When I wrote a Federalist article entitled “How Journalism Turns into Propaganda,” I focused on the story “Angi Vera,” from a Hungarian film. It revealed how the communists in Hungary, once they seized power in 1947, used education camps to develop a compliant class of leaders to replace the old order. The title character quickly learned the art of propaganda compliance, with all of the subtle backstabbing it entailed, and she was rewarded by the authorities with a lifelong career in journalism.
New technologies promote political correctness and cult-like mindsets. In 1962, when Daniel Boorstin published “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America,” he warned how glomming onto new technologies like television was making us more susceptible to accepting images as reality. We were losing our ability to thoughtfully deliberate about ideas and events. He anticipated this would get worse as then-yet-to-be-invented technologies would shift us even more quickly into substituting pseudo-reality for reality.
Wow, was he ever right. No doubt the Internet, cell phone technologies, and social media endlessly present illusions in place of reality. At the same time, they solidify political correctness. And since the main purpose of political correctness is to achieve conformity of thought, we ought to ask: Where does conformity of thought takes us, if left to its own devices? It’s a dream-come-true for totalitarians who no doubt hope for a conformity that would allow them to remake the world in their own image.
Such conformity would morph into a globalized cult mindset that crosses through all segments of society: politics, education, medicine, the media, and the corporate world, to name just a few sectors. Psychiatrist and cult expert Margaret Thaler Singer called this “the psycho-technology of thought reform,” and warned it was very real and not going to go away, adding that “Education, information, and vigilance are needed to keep us and our minds free.”
Phase 3: Agitation and Mass Mobilization
The whole point of propaganda is to drive people to action, according to Jacques Ellul, author of the 1962 classic “Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes.” Such action isn’t about freedom of peaceful assembly, which is an American tradition as well as a First Amendment right. From the suffragettes of the early twentieth century to the civil rights marches in the 1960s to the March for Life that began in 1974, Americans tend to gather with those of like mind to march against injustice. But today we can see growing trends towards something very different: street theater that actually serves to shut down freedom of expression. Trends in agitation including the following.
Cultivation of hate and frustration. Can you feel it? There’s a lot of frustration and alienation out there, thanks to groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center who seem deeply invested in perpetuating hate and resentment. Americans are traditionally a big-hearted and happy people, filled with enthusiasm over innovation and goodwill towards all. In part, that’s exactly why the SPLC’s propaganda has worked in the past: because it fulfills the Saul Alinsky rule of using people’s goodwill against them to gain political power.
Alinsky also advocated for the intense polarization we see today, telling “community organizers” to rub victims’ resentments raw, to cultivate intense anger against their perceived oppressors in order to energize mob action. Of course, such power elites who strive for totalitarian rule have always been invested in maintaining a large underclass of people who are kept dependent and ignorant since that builds a sense of frustration and alienation that can be channeled into mobilizing them into mob action.
Mass mobilization. This is the craft of getting the alienated and frustrated masses, programmed by propaganda, to do the bidding of power elites. We saw it happen in Charlottesville, as well as in Berkeley, at Middlebury College, and Dartmouth and many other places. Today the goal is to shut down speech and real conversation. Such mobs generally make a lot of noise and create a lot of action so that they get their way, even if they represent a small minority.
The history of the recent twentieth century is filled with mass action that led to totalitarian dictatorships. Peasants and workers were mobilized to respond to Lenin’s mantra for “peace, land, and bread” as Russians suffered during World War I. It happened as Germans took part en masse to participate in rallies for the Third Reich. Always the Enemy was invoked, whether a class enemy, a race enemy, or any other sort.
Today the term of choice is “white supremacist.” Demagogues stoke resentments until lawlessness and mass violence became the order of the day. But let’s also consider a smaller but significant American example of mob action from 2015: after former governor Mike Pence signed into law Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, mobs of protesters were mobilized to show up and shout his action down, as though they represented majority opinion, when they most certainly did not. Corporations pressured Pence as well.
Sadly, that organized mob action worked, and Republican leadership including Pence altered the bill to suit the protesters. America is now seeing a lot more street theater and violent riots aimed at shutting down conversation on college campuses as well as shutting down law enforcement in cities suffering from high crime rates.
Iconoclasm. The attack on historical monuments may seem to have started with Confederate statues. But it is certainly not ending there. From World War I monuments to statues of Abraham Lincoln and memorials to George Washington, just about any historical monument these days is subject to attack or defacement by agitators induced to action by propaganda. It’s another trend that hastens the erasure of national memory and social cohesion.
Enlisting and confusing the youth. Statist youth leagues have always been a staple of dictators who wish to eliminate family loyalties and religious influences. Although we may not see a Soviet-styled Komsomol in America just yet, there has been an ongoing attack against youth programs that promote self-reliance, independent thought, and the integrity of the family. It’s not just that the Boy Scouts have gone soft. School boards in major districts across the nation are pushing curricula and policies that force children to cater to identity politics, environmentalism, transgenderism, and so much more than children should ever be forced to grapple with.
As children attempt to navigate the perceptions of their peers and the authorities, they learn how they can score points and avoid rejection if they agitate for those agenda items. Children tend to imitate. They will playact various personas at the expense of developing unique personalities, if they are led to believe that is how to gain peer acceptance. Likewise, in higher education students participate in mob action—in particular, shutting down the speech of the politically incorrect—so they can don the persona of “social change agent” or something else the authorities deem acceptable.
All of the above sets the scene for the latter phases in the road to communism and other forms of totalitarianism. Those phases are: consolidating the takeover of society’s institutions; forcing conformity; and final solutions. To be continued.