Crafting controversy for propaganda purposes

by Chris Zappone

Below are some edited sections of an academic paper on a group called the International Red Aid, which was formed as part of the Soviet Union’s Communist International (or Comintern). The Comintern was essentially the Soviet Union’s outreach arm, which ran front groups in the West designed to attract new members, raise money, and give the Soviet Union influence over the West.

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Poster for IRA (in Russian)

The IRA was designed to genuinely help victims of capitalism in the West, until of course, those countries eventually had communist revolutions of their own. As you may know: those revolutions never happened. So the IRA’s focused changed, which is in part the subject of this paper.

The reason to read this today is to understand the long history of cultivating controversy which can be profited from. This is all well-travelled ground for Russia’s propagandists and their like minded comrades.

It lives on today.

But consider how the IRA adapted to their changing environment in the 1920s.

Now, consider for a moment, how rapidly such changes can happen for propaganda campaigns today. Today, it’s not a matter of years or months, but days and hours.

The excerpt is below:  (Emphasis mine)

Relief work continued throughout the history of [International Red Aid] to be the
organization’s ostensible purpose, and the aid given political prisoners and exiles always provided the basic content of IRA agitprop. After the important Fifth and Sixth ECCI Plenums, however, the aid activities were subordinated to agitprop. It no longer mattered whether the prisoner or exile receiving aid actually benefited, for now the focus shifted from the recipient to the donor. Seeking to exploit the maximum
propaganda mileage from its generosity, International Red Aid made every effort to publicize the aid it rendered. IRA did not, of course, stop collecting and spending money for those “persecuted by bourgeois class justice”; the seemingly humanitarian values which these activities reflected gave the organization its most effective appeal to the unaffiliated masses.

Other than publishing, the most successful form of agitprop was the international campaign, introduced in the first quarter of 1925. The international campaigns were episodic in nature, unlike earlier Red Aid campaigns that had been annual affairs commemorating such revolutionary anniversaries as May Day, November 7, and March 18.

The new type of campaign might last several days, weeks, or even years. It was organized around a specific issue and continued until the issue was won or lost or until the campaign no longer could draw mass support…Perhaps it was the success of the Lanzutski campaign [in 1925] that encouraged the Executive Committee of IRA to embark upon more ambitious ventures of this type, for the number of international campaigns increased virtually every year from 1925 to 1931. Six were conducted in 1925, forty-one in 1931, and a total of 138 during the
seven years.

In the agitation to free Nicola Sacco and Bartolemeo Vanzetti, the international IRA campaign came of age. Sacco and Vanzetti were condemned in 1921, accused of slaying the paymaster of a Massachusetts shoe factory. The movement to save their lives was begun at that time by American and European liberals and anarchists who believed that the evidence produced against the two Italian immigrants was insufficient to warrant conviction. IRA first took up the cause early in 1925 in co-operation with the American Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee. In 1926 IRA launched an independent campaign, attempting to depict itself as the leading defender of the oppressed in their struggle against “bourgeois class justice”.

The methods of agitation and protest developed in this campaign exemplified the practical means by which IRA sought to envelop the broad masses and were adapted to most campaigns later conducted by IRA. In every country where the campaign was undertaken. “Committees of Defense” were set up. Formed on the initiative of the Red Aid section but including representatives of other organizations as well, these committees planned and directed a number of protest activities – demonstrations, petitions, picket lines, fund collections, and any other appropriate actions. A petition circulated in France in protest against the death sentence given Sacco and Vanzetti allegedly was signed by three million persons; rallies of protest in London were claimed to have drawn as many as twenty thousand sympathizers; letters and telegrams of protest sent to Governor Fuller of Massachusetts by individuals and organizations supposedly represented some fifty million persons.

It is extremely difficult to determine whether the Sacco-Vanzetti campaign accomplished the purposes for which it was designed. If the major objective had been merely to save the accused men’s lives, the efforts of IRA obviously failed dismally. In fact, however, the lives of the two men counted for little; the ill fate of Sacco and Vanzetti became grist for the Red Aid propaganda mill. The struggle in their defense was undertaken primarily “to create even in the most backward
masses a natural revulsion toward bourgeois class justice”, a goal much
too subjective to allow any rational appraisal of the degree to which it was achieved. A second purpose was to place IRA indisputably “at the head of the united movement of the toiling masses against the white terror”.

Progress toward attaining this end was perhaps evidenced, for the membership of IRA increased dramatically, especially outside the Soviet Union, during the course of the campaign. At the end of 1925 almost six million Red Aid members were claimed, and of these only one million (20%) lived outside the USSR. Only two years later the total membership had swelled to eight million, of which about one-half were found in the “capitalist” world.

The Sacco-Vanzetti campaign would seem to have helped IRA markedly to expand its influence among the “toiling masses”.

The international campaigns provided IRA with an effective weapon of agitation and propaganda because they enabled the front to attach itself to emotional issues that were current, but the campaigns were by no means the only such weapon.

The Comintern apparatus by 1926 had determined that agitation and propaganda, the means by which IRA made contact with and attempted to gain influence over the masses, would become the central work of the organization. The activities of aid that had inspired creation of International Red Aid certainly were not ignored in 1926 or
later; the ostensible and widely proclaimed purpose was still to “render material, moral, and legal aid to all victims of bourgeois class justice and the white terror”…. The primary concern, however, was no longer the fate of the “victim”, but rather creation of widespread sympathy for Communism, organized under the banner of International Red Aid.

Source: International Red Aid and Comintern Strategy 1922-26, J. Martin Ryle, International Review of Social History, 1970

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