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Propaganda: Eward Bernays and Harold Lasswell


I decided to source Chomky’s quotes from Bernays and Lasswell. Turns out Chomsky was right.

Edward Bernays (November 22, 1891 − March 9, 1995) was an Austrian-American pioneer in the field of public relations and propaganda, referred to in his obituary as “the father of public relations”. Bernays was named one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century by Life magazine. He was the subject of a full length biography by Larry Tye called The Father of Spin (1999) and later an award-winning 2002 documentary for the BBC by Adam Curtis called The Century of the Self.

His best-known campaigns include a 1929 effort to promote female smoking by branding cigarettes as feminist “Torches of Freedom” and his work for the United Fruit Company connected with the overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1954. He worked for dozens of major American corporations including Procter & Gamble and General Electric, and for government agencies, politicians, and non-profit organizations.

Of his many books, Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda (1928) gained special attention as early efforts to define and theorize the field of public relations. Citing works of writers such as Gustave Le Bon, Wilfred Trotter, Walter Lippmann, and his own double uncle Sigmund Freud, he described the masses as irrational and subject to herd instinct—and outlined how skilled practitioners could use crowd psychology and psychoanalysis to control them in desirable ways.

Barney’s wrote in Propaganda (1928):

Chapter 1: Organizing Chaos:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate the unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.

We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.

It remains a fact that in almost every act of our lives whether in the sphere of politics or business in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons — a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty million — who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind,

As civilization has become more complex, and as the need for invisible government has been increasingly demonstrated, the technical means have been invented and developed by which opinion may be regimented.

Chapter 2: The New Propaganda:

Whatever of social importance is done to-day, whether in politics, finance, manufacture, agriculture, charity, education, or other fields, must be done with the help of propaganda. Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government.

This practice of creating circumstances and of creating pictures in the minds of millions of persons is very common. Virtually no important undertaking is now carried on without it, whether that enterprise be building a cathedral, endowing a university, marketing a moving picture, floating a large bond issue, or electing a president. Sometimes the effect on the public is created by a professional propagandist, sometimes by an amateur deputed for the job. The important thing is that it is universal and continuous; and in its sum total it is regimenting the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments the bodies of its soldiers.

Chapter 6: Propaganda and Political Leadership:

Ours must be a leadership democracy administered by the intelligent minority who know how to regiment and guide the masses. Is this government by propaganda? Call it, if you prefer, government by education. But education, in the academic sense of the word, is not sufficient. It must be enlightened expert propaganda through the creation of circumstances, through the high-spotting of significant events, and the dramatization of important issues. The statesman of the future will thus be enabled to focus the public mind on crucial points of policy, and regiment a vast, heterogeneous mass of voters to clear understanding and intelligent action.

By now, propaganda was a respected academic social and political science. The founder of what’s called communications and academic political science is Harold Lasswell.

Harold Dwight Lasswell (February 13, 1902 – December 18, 1978) was a leading American political scientist and communications theorist. He was a PhD student at the University of Chicago, and he was a professor of law at Yale University. He served as president of the American Political Science Association (APSA), of the American Society of International Law and of the World Academy of Art and Science (WAAS).

Lasswell’s work was important in the post-World War II development of behavioralism. Similarly, his definition of propaganda was also viewed as an important development to understanding the goal of propaganda. Lasswell’s studies on propaganda produced breakthroughs on the subject which broadened current views on the means and stated objectives that could be achieved through propaganda to include not only the change of opinions but also change in actions. He inspired the definition given by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis:

Propaganda is the expression of opinions or actions carried out deliberately by individuals or groups with a view to influence the opinions or actions of other individuals or groups for predetermined ends through psychological manipulations

Lasswell was credited with being the founder of the field of political psychology and was the man at which the concepts of psychology and political science intersected.

In 1937, now established as one of the leading American political scientists, Lasswell wrote in the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, Vol. 12, Propaganda:

Pg. 523:

Military writers were among the first to see how greatly the displacement of cults of simple obedience by democratic assertiveness complicated the problem of eliciting concerted action. Warfare reached a phase calling for the cooperation of the whole population in military action, munition production and the supply services. As older sentiments gave way to nationalism, the spread of schooling augmented the prestige of national heroes, legends, virtues and emblems at the expense of local symbols. It did not release the masses from ignorance and superstition but altered the nature of both and compelled the development of a whole new technique of control, largely through propaganda.

Since the World War accelerated social change has fostered new perplexities, disintegrated old loyalties and spread a new self-will. Merely automatic and historically hallowed ways of handling social adjustments have been rendered obsolete by shifts in technology and by strange new conditions of human contact. The programs of contending leaders, duly sanctified by theocratic or aristocratic connections, are confuted by one another. When lords fall out, commoners come into their own. Simultaneously with the fading away of old loyalties, the scale of collective activities has broadened. As proposals for action along new lines arise to compete for the moral and physical support of masses, propaganda attains eminence as the one means of mass mobilization which is cheaper than violence, bribery or other possible control techniques.

Pg. 526:

Propaganda is surely here to stay; the modern world is peculiarly dependent upon it for the coordination of atomized components in times of crisis and for the conduct of large scale “normal” operations.

Pg. 527:

This regard for men in the mass rests upon no democratic dogmatism about men being the best judges of their own interests. The modern propagandist, like the modern psychologist, recognizes that men are often poor judges of their own interests. . . . With respect to those adjustments which do require mass action the task of the propagandist is that of inventing goal symbols which serve the double function of facilitating adoption and adaptation.

This involves the cultivation of sensitiveness to those concentrations of motive which are implicit and available for rapid mobilization when the appropriate symbol is offered.

The ruling class recognized that the country was getting more democratized and it wouldn’t be a private men’s club for much longer. They concluded politics has to become political warfare, applying the mechanisms of propaganda that worked so brilliantly during the first World War towards controlling people’s thoughts.

By 1947, the war for the control of the American mind had all but been won. Objection to democratic propaganda on ethical grounds had almost completely disappeared by this time. One of the reasons for this silence was that by 1947 large numbers of social scientists and university departments were actively engaged in promoting the practices of consent engineering – largely because they worked on behalf of corporations.

In 1947, Bernays writes an article in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science titled The Engineering of Consent:

Pg. 114

This phrase [Engineering of Consent] quite simply means the use of an engineering approach—that is, action based only on thorough knowledge of the situation and on the application of scientific principles and tried practices to the task of getting people to support ideas and programs.

The engineering of consent is the very essence of the democratic process, the freedom to persuade and suggest.

The average American adult has only six years of schooling behind him. With pressing crises and decisions to be faced, a leader frequently cannot wait for the people to arrive at even general understanding. In certain cases, democratic leaders must play their part in leading the public through the engineering of consent to socially constructive goals and values.

In 1949, the leading business journal, Fortune Magazine, published pg. 69 of their May issue:

It is as impossible to imagine a genuine democracy without the science of persuasion as it is to think of a totalitarian state without coercion.

By the time of the second World War, we have a clear picture of one major role of the “responsible men” in a capitalist democracy. These “responsible men” conduct mass mobilization in a way that is, as Lasswell observed, cheaper than violence or bribery and much better suited to the image of democracy.

Thanks for reading,


Propaganda (1928) PDF

Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Vol 11-12 (1937), PDF

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