War on progress by other means
General Secretary of the Communist Party of Australia
US and other imperialist intelligence organisations faced a mighty challenge at the end of what has been called the Cold War. With the demise of the Soviet Union, the “Evil Empire” whose image they had created in the minds of the “western” public with decades of misinformation, capitalist intelligence agencies would struggle to survive. They faced worsening economic conditions, tightening budgets and the public’s expectations of a “peace dividend”. For a time, leading bureaucrats from these organisations argued that necessary funding cuts should come from the military. They claimed intelligence agencies should be spared because they had achieved or greatly expedited the defeat of socialism in the USSR and Eastern Europe without a shot being fired.
This argument ignores the hugely destructive impact on the economies of the socialist countries of the arms race imposed on them by the US and its allies. In any case, the events in the US of September 11, 2001 settled the funding and influence contest for good. Both strategies would be pursued – “enemies” (countries resisting US economic and political domination) would be toppled by both direct military intervention and/or subversion from within.
The military quickly mounted a “shock and awe” display of its capability in Iraq and the pressure was on intelligence agencies to refine their repertoire for “non-violent” regime change. It should be noted that while “non-violence” and several other wholesome-sounding principles have become trademarks of US regime change projects, the change they effect is usually accompanied by considerable violence and the re-establishment or intensification of exploitation and the violence inherent in the state power of the capitalist class. Their activities don’t usher in an era of popular empowerment or “democracy”. We needn’t be distracted by the self-promoting terms used by these organisations.
The package developed by US intelligence came to be known as “Colour Revolutions”. It is true that similar tactics had been used against socialist countries and other progressive governments for decades. The government headed by Dr Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran succumbed to similar methods in 1953. President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala was toppled in 1954 and Chilean President Salvador Allende died resisting the brown tide of US-sponsored reaction in his country. In Australia, US meddling was evident in the ousting of reforming Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975. There was a “Velvet Revolution” against socialism in Czechoslovakia and a “Singing Revolution” launched against Soviet power in Estonia. A veritable catalogue of destabilising techniques going back to the end of WW1 is available in The Great Conspiracy (against the USSR) by Michael Sayers and Albert E Kahn first published in 1946.
What is new about Colour Revolutions is the completeness of the package. It focuses on the need for an authentic “grass-roots” appearance, the holding up to ridicule of the government and leading figures, elected or otherwise. Students and other upwardly mobile social groups are targeted for the simplistic, sloganised messages concerning “democracy” and “freedom”. The use of these terms is based on bland, class context-free assumptions that are never questioned in the documentaries sponsored by the Ford Foundation, the essays receiving prizes from the National Endowment for Democracy, the handbooks published by the Albert Einstein Foundation or interviews with the founders of the Otpor organisation in Belgrade.
This contribution assumes people’s familiarity with recent “Colour Revolutions” in Serbia, the Ukraine, Georgia, Egypt, Libya, Venezuela, Hong Kong and elsewhere. It won’t provide the abundant detail available about the finances, training and other assistance provided to the beneficiaries of this generosity from backers based in the US. The penetration of these forces into the student populations, educational institutions, NGOs and even the administration of the target countries is also well documented and well known.
The question less often considered in articles expressing concern at the spread of the use of these camouflaged imperialist methods is why they are effective. Especially in the case of socialist or former socialist countries, why would such a facile approach to the questions of “democracy” and “freedom” be successful? Why does an education grounded in the world outlook of socialism fail to provide effective immunity from the manipulative propaganda of these so-called “revolutions” in so many cases?
A quote from a study by US science journal editor Jeff Schmidt* stands out in this connection. His book Disciplined Minds deals very thoroughly with the conditioning of salaried professionals to support the institutions of corporate dominated societies. In passing, he commented on why their counterparts in the USSR, while it existed, were often trusted to view and hear, uncensored, capitalist propaganda considered harmful to the broader population. Why were they not affected by the implicit or explicit messages contained in that, mostly English language, media?
“The Soviets never censored the English language broadcasts because those who spoke English were a select group who were trusted to maintain ideological discipline in their work (even if they were not enthusiastic about the assigned ideology). As Robert C. Tucker, a long time student of the Soviet Union, told me, ‘They were more likely to be establishment people, and not dangerous.’ Many of these people, such as journalists, academics and foreign service professionals, were not only trusted to hear the US government’s viewpoint, but were also expected to know it so they could answer it and not get caught off guard by it.”
Schmidt leaves open the question of whether or not the foreign broadcast messages had an impact on their “elite” Soviet audiences. It is not clear from the chapter in Schmidt’s book introducing this comparison if the same type of ideological conditioning was invested in Soviet intellectuals as was imposed on their “western” counterparts. Though Schmidt doesn’t delve into this question, it could be assumed the loyalty of these Soviet intellectuals could be totally sincere, adopted so as to avoid a type of “cognitive dissonance” or simply, though dishonestly, professed. And while Schmidt doesn’t explore the internal world of this third category of Soviet worker in the field of ideas, it isn’t strictly relevant to the main thesis of his book, it is definitely worth further consideration.
With the benefit of hindsight and the ability to observe how quickly large numbers from intellectual social strata transitioned quickly from being outwardly loyal Soviet citizens to champions of “free enterprise” and multi-party capitalist “democracy”, some conclusions can be drawn. The first conclusion is that decades of socialist education and membership in socialist mass organisations ultimately failed decisive numbers of people. These institutions left them vulnerable to messages cloaking the restoration of class exploitation and all that goes with it.
Another reasonable assumption is that many of the individuals reviewing bourgeois propaganda or otherwise coming into contact with the “democracy” and “freedom” message from the Soviet Union’s imperialist adversaries were, in fact, deeply affected by their content. This is in spite of the comparative realities of the different types of societies. Socialist citizens had much more control of their collective and individual destinies than those in the most advanced capitalist countries, let alone those enduring the hellish social conditions of the capitalist “south”.
This isn’t to deny the many frustrating shortcomings of socialist societies. It is not to deny the many grave errors made in the development of current and former socialist countries and the disappointing example of some of its “leaders”. But it is also clear something larger is at play when considering the fragility of the socialist convictions of many citizens of socialist countries. This inevitably raises the question of cultural ideological hegemony at the national and international level.
Lenin observed that the force of habit of millions of people developed over hundreds of years is a mighty one. Socialism set itself the task of the revolutionary uprooting of the awful consensus that had built up around bourgeois class rule. What are the origins of the appeal of the slogans of such an outdated and doomed social order? Why does it continue to appeal even after the establishment of more just social relations and a humanitarian ethos? Some say it it is the power of the media and the sophistication of the products of the modern “media industrial complex”.
That is certainly a factor but it is only part of the soft power used to restore the very hard power of capitalist rule. That rule was established by revolutions, the foot soldiers for which came from the toiling masses. Because bourgeois state power is still the rule of a small majority over an exploited majority, an inherently unstable condition, its early “princes” heeded the advice of Machiavelli that the “legitimacy” of their rule must be stamped in the mind of populations decisively and violently before relaxing into conditions based on its acceptance.
Capitalism has had over three centuries to settle into and exploit this long period of “legitimacy”. This can be observed most easily in the oldest and most developed capitalist countries. Antonio Gramsci, founding member of the Italian Communist party and early victim of Mussolini’s fascism, made a study of this question of capitalist cultural hegemony. He pointed out that the capitalists’ control of the ideological apparatus of the state allowed it to dominate social development without frequent resort to the coercive apparatus that, more or less stable conditions notwithstanding, remains available.
Most of the people of the world don’t experience tolerant liberalism as an accompaniment to capitalism. For most of the world’s population, life under capitalism is characterised by extreme insecurity and varying degrees of authoritarian rule. However, capitalism’s cultural and ideological power over the thinking of these same people is also considerable. Most progressive observers would give credit to Cuba for its success in carrying out socialist construction in very adverse conditions. The island is nestled right near the underbelly of the imperialist beast and it has not had a minute’s rest from attacks originating from the US. Those attacks have been launched from within and without.
Some people suggest that Cuba is “exceptional”, that its revolution was not betrayed by venal characters or unchecked self-interested forces that came to the fore in virtually every other socialist society. The legitimacy of the revolution is, in this narrative, not compromised and so the consensus in support of it is all but total. The attacks on the revolution have galvanised the entire population in defence of its gains. There is no doubt that support for the Cuban revolution is overwhelming and it is a credit to the Communist Party of Cuba that the support has withstood such a long series of arduous tests. But even here it is foolish to underestimate the influence of global capitalist cultural and ideological hegemony.
In the final years of the presidency of Fidel Castro, there was a frank recognition of this reality in spite of five successful decades of building Cuban socialism. Cuba’s “Battle of Ideas” was a counter-attack against the ideological assault on the island by an enemy using many of the techniques of Colour Revolution. The Cuban Party was correct in its assessment of the cultural and ideological power of capitalism even under conditions of a people’s dictatorship against the promotion of exploitation, racism, sexism and other socially destructive ideas.
By contrast, there has long been an overestimation in the international Communist movement of the capacity of socialism to establish its own ideological and cultural hegemony, or counter-hegemony, favouring the interests of the working class and other previously exploited classes. There was a mechanistic approach to the question of which is the dominant ideology in society. It was held that the dominant ideology would automatically be that of the ruling class. If the working class has achieved state power, the dominant ideology belongs to them. But declarations by the Soviet Party about the completion of more and more advanced stages of socialism and all that should follow stood in contrast to the realities observed by many visitors.
Luis Prestes, the exiled General Secretary of the Brazilian Communist Party, confided to future wife Olga Benario his shock at the extent of the sabotage against the Soviet government in the 1930s. Pioneering surgeon, the Canadian Communist Norman Bethune was appalled at the chaos in the countryside in the USSR and the weakness of the hold the Party had on power in the same period. Both of these historic personalities were utterly sympathetic to the cause of Soviet power and devoted their whole lives to the breaking of capitalist power, including its global cultural and ideological hegemony.
Because it is so old, capitalist hegemony seems “natural”. A departure from its embrace is often felt to be temporary by significant numbers of people in countries seeking to break away from the global system of capitalism. Ambitious Soviet professionals of the sort mentioned by Schmidt may well have been banking on the restoration of the previous order and considering their position in it at the very same time as providing lip service and work of doubtful quality to the revolutionary institutions that employed them. They had an expectation that the “grown ups”, the financially, militarily and ideologically powerful outsiders and their local lackeys, would return to quell the rebellion of the “children”.
So what can be done about the massive cultural and ideological hegemonic power of imperialism and its application through Colour Revolutions? How can socialist societies defend themselves against such destabilisation? The former socialist countries had considerable experience and capacity in this regard but, in the final analysis, not enough. The People’s Republic of China and the other existing socialist countries have another 25 years-worth of experience of challenges to socialism to draw from.
It was the ambition of this contribution to raise the question of the extension of considerable capitalist cultural hegemonic influence into socialist societies and whether the former socialist countries ever achieved hegemony for socialist ideas. The attainment of socialist ideological hegemony is strategic for the completion of the construction of socialism and the advance to classless, Communist society. A stateless society is not possible without such a consciousness among the people of the world.
Discussion of the subjective and objective conditions necessary for such an outcome would fill several libraries but a realistic discussion has to start with an honest assessment of the effectiveness of ideological education in socialist countries and people’s experience of the integrity of their teachers and leaders. The huge preliminary task for those of us living in imperialist countries is to choke off this corrupting hegemonic influence by transforming their homelands into socialist societies.
* Schmidt, Jeff Disciplined Minds: a critical look at salaried professionals and the soul-battering system that shapes their lives, 2000, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham, p.17