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Propaganda: Power and Persuasion exhibition misses the point

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Issue 2355
Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan, a propaganda poster from the Cultural Revolution

Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan, a propaganda poster from the Cultural Revolution

Does propaganda really allow dictators to control people’s minds?

That seems to be the conclusion of this major exhibition which speeds us from the 16th century origins of this pervasive art form in Europe through to today.

The curators claim that this is the first exhibition to explore international state propaganda from the 20th and 21st centuries.

The posters, films and documents dwell on Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China and Hitler’s Germany to make their point.

The curators’ key themes are that propaganda helps to establish authority by spreading fear, and leadership cults by being selective about the truth.

The assumption is that most people—particularly those poorly educated—are susceptible to a constant barrage of well packaged lies.

But is that really true?

There are hints among some of the exhibits that human beings are much more complicated than this.


The 1968 painting Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan is a good example. In it we see a young Mao off to organise a miners’ strike in the 1920s. This determined Mao is youthful in spirit and willing to travel anywhere to side with industrial workers. 

The combination of attributes is not accidental.

Late 1960s China was in the grip of the Cultural Revolution. Different sections of the Communist ruling class were fighting over the future direction of the country’s state capitalist economy. 

To hold onto power, Mao needed to distinguish himself by alluding to the origins of Communist rule 20 years before.  At the same time he had to appear to share the anger at exploitation  of workers and young people today.

The fact that this poster would need to be so carefully drafted and reproduced over nine million times—a record for any artwork—speaks volumes of the fears of the ruling class.

The Chinese ruling class knew that their hold over the masses was fragile—that workers’ real life experiences trumped those projected onto them by their leaders. 

The failure to grasp this point is the exhibition’s central flaw. 

Many of the dictatorships that it dwells upon fell after popular uprisings.


There’s a tradition which is barely acknowledged here—that people in rebellion forged their own propaganda tools against their oppressors.

The truly revolutionary posters of Russia until 1926, or France in 1968 weren’t trying to exaggerate the abilities of leaders, but instead to empower ordinary people.

The small number of cartoons and leaflets shown do give us a glimpse into the radical propaganda alternative.

The works on display, sometimes clever and occasionally inspired, are not so much an expression of ruling class power but rather a reflection of its justifiable paranoia. 

Propaganda: power and persuasion
Until 17 September. Tickets from £9, under 18s free. British Library, London, NW1 2DB

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