Jacques Ellul: how modern propaganda works


Richard Moore

[this material courtesy of Ed Goertzen]

The following six pages of excerpts from: 
Propagandas, by Jacques Ellul, pub Vintage Books 1965

“There are two types of Propaganda, agitation propaganda and integration propaganda. 

The former leads men from mere resentment to rebellion; the latter aims at making them adjust to desired patterns… Integration propaganda is needed especially for the technological society to flourish,…

A related point, central to Ellul’s thesis, is that modern propaganda cannot work without “education”. Thus he reverses the widespread notion that education is the best prophylactic against propaganda. On the contrary, he says, education, or what usually goes by that word in the modern world, is the absolute prerequisite for propaganda. In fact, education is largely identical – the conditioning of minds with vast amounts of incoherent information, already dispensed for ulterior purposes and posing as “facts” and as “education.” Ellul follows through by designating intellectuals as virtually the most vulnerable of all to modern propaganda, for three reasons: (1) they absorb the largest amounts of second hand, unverifiable information; (2) they feel a compelling need to have an opinion on every important question of our time, and thus easily succumb to opinions offered to them by propaganda on all such indigestible pieces of information; (3) they feel themselves capable of “judging for themselves.” They literally need propaganda. 
Jacques Ellul Propagandas (1965) Introduction PpVI

In the midst of increasing mechanization and technological organization, propaganda is simply the means used to prevent these things from being felt as too oppressive and to persuade man to submit with good grace. When man will be fully adapted to this technological society, when he will end by obeying with enthusiasm, convinced of the excellence of what he is forced to do, the constraint of the organization will no longer be felt by him; the truth is, it will no longer be a constraint and the police will have nothing to do. The civic and technological good will and the enthusiasm for the right social myths – both created by propaganda – will finally have solved the problem of man. Jacques Ellul Propagandas (1965) Introduction Pp XVIII
     The philosopher Schopenhauer has said that a reader, to really understand a book, must read it twice because no page of the book could be understood without knowledge of the whole.

…for opinion leaves the individual a mere spectator who may eventually, but not necessarily, resort to action. 

To view propaganda as still being what it was in 1850 is to cling to an obsolete concept of man and of the means to influence him; it is to condemn oneself to understand nothing about modern propaganda. The aim of modem propaganda is no longer to modify ideas, but to provoke action. It is no longer to change adherence to a doctrine, but to make the individual cling irrationally to a process of action. It is no longer to lead to a choice, but to loosen the reflexes. It is no longer to transform an opinion, but to arouse, active and mythical belief. Jacques Ellul, Propagandas (1965) Pp25 

Let us note here in passing how badly equipped opinion surveys are to gauge propaganda. We will have to come back to this point in the study of propaganda effects. Simply to ask an individual if he believes this or that, or if he has this or that idea, gives absolutely no indication of what behavior he will adopt or what action he will take; only action is of concern to modem propaganda, for its aim is to precipitate an individuals action, with maximum effectiveness and economy.” Jacques Ellul Propagandas (1965) Pp25 

What is visible in propaganda, what is spectacular and seems to us often incomprehensible or unbelievable is possible only because of …such slow and not very explicit preparation; without it nothing would be possible. Jacques Ellul Propagandas.(1965) Pp31

… we can now advance a definition of propaganda — not an exclusive definition, unique and exclusive of all others, but at least a partial one: Propaganda is a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about an active or passive participation in it’s actions of a mass of individuals, psychologically unified through psychological manipulation and incorporated in an organization. Jacques Ellul Propagandas (1965) . Pp 61

A surfeit of data, far from permitting people to make judgments and form opinions, prevents them from doing so and actually paralyses them. Jacques Ellul, Propagandas (1965). Pp 87

For propaganda to succeed, a society must first have two complementary qualities: it must be both an individualist and a mass society. These two qualities are often considered contradictory. It is believed that an individualist society, in which the individual is thought to have a higher value than the group, tends to destroy groups that limit the individual’s range of action, whereas a mass society negates the individual and reduces him to a cipher. 

But this contradiction is purely theoretical and a delusion. In actual fact, an individualist society must be a mass society, because the first move toward the liberation of the individual is to break up the small groups that are an organic fact for the entire society. In this process the individual frees himself from family, village, parish, or brotherhood bonds – only to find himself directly vis-à-vis the entire society. 

When individuals are not held together by local structures, the only form in which they can live together is an unstructured mass society. Similarly, a mass society can only be based on individuals – that is, on men in their isolation, whose identities are determined by their relationships with one another. Precisely because the individual claims to be equal to all other individuals, he becomes an abstraction and is in effect reduced to a cipher. Jacques Ellul, Propagandas (1965) Pp90

In individualist theory the individual has eminent value, man himself is master of his life; in individualist reality each human being is subject to innumerable forces and influences, and is not at all a master of his own life. Jacques Ellul Propagandas.(1965) Pp91

An individual can be influenced by forces such as propaganda only when he is cut off from membership in local groups. Because such groups are organic and have well structured material, spiritual and emotional life, they are not easily penetrated by propaganda. Jacques Ellul, Propagandas (1965) Pp91

To make the organization of propaganda possible, the media must be concentrated, the number of news agencies reduced, the press brought under single control, and radio and film monopolies established. The effect will be still greater if the various media are concentrated in the same hands. When a newspaper trust also extends its control over films and radio, propaganda can be directed at the masses and the individual caught in the wide web of media. Jacques Ellul Propagandas.(1965) Pp102 & 103

Ergo: even in a democracy, a government that is honest, serious, benevolent, and respects the voter cannot follow public opinion.

But it cannot escape it either. The masses are there; they are interested in politics. The government cannot act without them, so, what can it do?

Only one solution is possible: as the government cannot follow opinion, opinion must follow the government. One must convince this present, ponderous, impassioned mass that the governments’ decisions are legitimate and good and that its foreign policy is correct. 

The democratic state, precisely because it believes in the expression of public opinion and does not gag it, must channel and shape that opinion if it wants to be realistic and not follow an ideological dream. 

The Gordian knot cannot be cut any other way. Of course, the political parties already have the role of adjusting public opinion to that of the government. Numerous studies have shown that political parties often do not agree with that opinion, that the voters and even party members frequently do not know their parties’ doctrines, and that people belong to parties for reasons other than ideological ones. 

But the parties channel free-floating opinion into existing formulas, polarizing it on opposites that do not necessarily correspond to the original tenets of such opinion. Because parties are so rigid, because they deal with only a part of any question, and because they are purely politically motivated (to rule – note: Ed G), they distort public opinion and prevent it from forming naturally. But even beyond party influence, which is already propaganda influence, government action exists in and by itself. Jacques Ellul, Propagandas (1965) Pp126

Second – and this is a subtler process-governmental propaganda suggests that public opinion demand this or that decision; it provokes the will of a people, who spontaneously would say nothing. But, once evoked, formed, and crystallized on a point, that will becomes the peoples will; and whereas the government really acts on its own, it gives the impression of obeying public opinion-after first having built that public opinion. The point is to make the masses demand of the government what the government has already decided to do. Jacques Ellul, Propagandas (1965) Pp132

The Objective Solution

We have stressed that the State can no longer govern without the masses, which now-days are closely involved in politics. But these masses are composed of individuals. From their point of view, the problem is slightly different: they are interested in politics and consider themselves concerned with politics; even if they are not forced to participate actively because they live in a democracy, they embrace politics as soon as somebody wants to take the democratic regime away from them. But this presents them with problems that are way over their heads. 

They are faced with choices and decisions which demand maturity, knowledge, and a range of information which they do not and cannot have. Elections are limited to the selection of individuals, which reduces the problem of participation to its simplest form. But the individual wishes to participate in other ways than just elections. He wants to be conversant with economic questions. 

In fact, his government asks him to be. He wants to form an opinion on foreign policy. But in reality he can’t. He is caught between his desire and his inability, which he refuses to accept. For no citizen will believe that he is unable to have opinions. Public opinion surveys always reveal that people have opinions even on the most complicated questions, except for a small minority (usually the most informed and those who have reflected most). The majority prefers expressing stupidities to not expressing any opinion: this gives them the feeling of participation. For this they need simple thoughts, elementary explanations, a key that will permit them to take a position, and even ready-made opinions. 

As most people have the desire and at the same time the incapacity to participate, they are ready to accept a propaganda that will permit them to participate, and which hides their incapacity beneath explanations, judgments, and news, enabling them to satisfy their desire without eliminating their incompetence. The more complex, general, and accelerated political and economic phenomena become, the more do individuals feel concerned, the more do they want to be involved. In a certain sense this is democracy’s gain, but it also leads to more propaganda. And the individual does not want information, but only value judgments and preconceived positions. 

Here one must also take into account the individual’s laziness, which plays a decisive role in the entire propaganda phenomenon, and the impossibility of transmitting all information fast enough to keep up with developments in the modern world. Besides, the developments are not merely beyond mans intellectual scope; they are also beyond him in volume and intensity; he simply cannot grasp the world’s economic and political problems. Faced with such matters, he feels his weakness, his inconsistency, his lack of effectiveness. He realizes that he depends on decisions over which he has no control, and that realization drives him to despair. Man cannot stay in this situation too long. He needs an ideological veil to cover the harsh reality, some consolation, a raison d’être, a sense of values. And only propaganda offers him a remedy for a basically intolerable situation. Jacques Ellul Propagandas (1965) Pp 139 – 140

“Attitudes affect external behavior if their force is so great as to be irreducible except by action. This force, which may be weak or strong in the beginning, accumulates when the individual feels that action is necessary, when he is shown the action in which he might engage, when he thinks such action will be profitable or rewarded. In short, the achievement of a prepared response is only the last of a series of preliminary stages, which, though necessary for the final action to take place, do not guarantee that it will.”

Seen in this perspective, action is the result of a certain number of coordinated influences created by propaganda. Propaganda can make the individual feel the urgency, the necessity, of some action, its unique character. And at the same time propaganda shows him what to do. The individual who burns with desire for action but does not know what to do is a common type in our society. 

He wants to act for the sake of justice, peace, progress, but does not know how. If propaganda can show him this “how,” it has won the game; action-will surely follows. Jacques Ellul, Propagandas (1965) Pp209

Effects on Political Parties

What happens when a political party stops acting more or less haphazardly, starts to make systematic propaganda, and instead of trying to win votes at election time, begins to mobilize public opinion in a more permanent fashion? Actually, in the democratic nations, practically no party has tried this. But we can see the emergence of parties grafting themselves onto old ones, or replacing them; and these new parties have such aims, which their predecessors did not have. 

A transformation is taking place in the political parties of the United States; for about a dozen years now they have been making systematic propaganda. But it is still too early to tell what transformations it may entail in the parties themselves.

Therefore, we will study instead those parties that make propaganda, as distinguished from those that do not, and consider that their structure derives partially from their need to make propaganda.

A party that makes propaganda must, first of all, have the means to express it strongly. It is necessary that the party presents itself as a community in which everybody has a set function, and that its members at the bottom be rigorously organized and strictly obedient. If one wants to reach public opinion constantly, one must proceed with the help of sections and cells; the system of committees, which express themselves weakly, leads only to sporadic and fragmentary action.

In addition propaganda demands vertical liaison among the party’s organizations. This vertical liaison permits both homogeneity of propaganda and speed of application; and we have seen that speed of action or reaction is essential to propaganda. Conversely, in view of the effect of propaganda in creating isolated social and local groups, any horizontal liaison inside the party would be disastrous. 

Those at the base of the party would not understand why one propaganda is made in one place, another elsewhere. On the contrary, the partitioning by propaganda must correspond to a partitioning within the party, and the only liaison system must be vertical.

More important still is a system of executive cadres….. Jacques Ellul, Propagandas (1965) Pp216

Propaganda needs both repetition and diversity. So far, democracy’s inability to use motion pictures for its propaganda has not seemed serious, the aim being a secondary arm. But it seems that TV is destined to become a principal arm, for it can totally mobilize the individual without demanding the slightest effort from him. 

TV reaches him at home, like radio, in his own setting, his private life. It asks no decision, no a priori participation, and no move from him (such as going to a meeting). But it holds him completely and leaves him no possibility of engaging in other activities (whereas radio leaves a good part of the individual unoccupied) Moreover, TV has the shock effect of the picture, which is much greater than that of sound.

But in order to use this remarkable arm, one must have something to show. A government official giving a speech is not a spectacle. Democracies have nothing to show that can compare with what is available to a dictatorship. If they do not want to be left behind in this domain, which would be extremely dangerous, they must find propaganda spectacles to televise. 

But nothing is better than massive ceremonies, popular marches – the Hitler youth and the Komsomols — or an entire population enthusiastically assembled to build new ships or a new university (as in Yugoslavia). The exigencies of TV will lead democracy to engage in such hardly democratic demonstrations.

We are now reaching the most important problem. Earlier, I examined the psychological transformations that the individual undergoes when subjected to an intense and continuous propaganda. We have also seen that the existence of two contradictory propagandas is no solution at all, as it in no way leads to a ‘democratic” situation: the individual is not independent in the presence of two combatants between whom he must choose. 

He is not a spectator comparing two posters, or a supreme arbiter when he decides in favor of the more honest and convincing one. To look at things this way is childish idealism. The individual is seized, manipulated, attacked from every side; the combatants of two propaganda systems do not fight each other, but try to capture him, as a result, the individual suffers the most profound psychological influences and distortions. 

Man modified in this fashion demands simple solutions, catchwords, certainties, continuity, commitment, a clear and simple division of the world into Good and Evil, efficiency, and unity of thought. He cannot bear ambiguity. He cannot bear that the opponent should in any way whatever represent what is right or good. An additional effect of contradictory propagandas is that the individual will escape either into passivity or into total and unthinking support of one of the two sides.

It is striking to see how this current, which is the point of departure of totalitarian parties, is beginning to take hold in the United States. These two different ‘reactions-passivity’ or ‘total commitment’ are completely anti-democratic. But they are the consequence of some democratic types of propaganda. Here is the hub of the problem. Propaganda ruins not only democratic ideas but also democratic behavior – the foundation of democracy, the very quality without which it cannot exist.

The question is not to reject propaganda in the name of freedom of public opinion-which, as we well know, is never virginal – or in the name of freedom of individual opinion, which is formed of everything and nothing – but to reject it in the name of a very profound reality: the possibility of choice and differentiation, which is the fundamental characteristic of the individual in the democratic society.

Whatever the doctrine promulgated by propaganda, its psycho-sociological results are the same. To be sure, some doctrines are more coherent subject matter for propaganda than others, and lead to a more efficient and insistent propaganda; other doctrines – republican and democratic – are rather paralyzing and less suitable. But the only result is the progressive weakening of the doctrine by propaganda.

Conversely, what gives propaganda its destructive character is not the singleness of some propagated doctrine; it is the instrument of propaganda itself. Although it acts differently, according to whether it promulgates a closed system or a diversity of opinions, it has profound and destructive effects.

What am I saying then? That propaganda can promulgate a democratic doctrine? Absolutely! That it can be used by a government elected by majority vote? Absolutely! But gives us no guarantee that we are still dealing with a democracy. Jacques Ellul, Propagandas (1965) Pp254 -255


Seen in this perspective, action is the result of a certain number of coordinated influences created by propaganda. Propaganda can make the individual feel the urgency, the necessity, of some action, its unique character. And at the same time propaganda shows him what to do. The individual who burns with desire for action but does not know what to do is a common type in our society.

The urgency      The action
‘global warming’ accept carbon trading & taxes
‘pandemic’ accept experimental vaccine
‘peak oil’ accept high fuel prices & biofuels
‘terrorism’ accept torture, concentration camps, airports, and endless wars
resurgent ‘right’ accept whatever Obama says
health care crisis assume ‘reform’ means improvement
‘too big to fail’ accept absurd bailouts
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