The term agitprop originated in the Russian SFSR (which later joined the Soviet Union), as a shortened form of отдел агитации и пропаганды (otdel agitatsii i propagandy), i.e., Department for Agitation and Propaganda, which was part of the Central and regional committees of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The department was later renamed Ideological Department.
In the case of agitprop, the ideas to be disseminated were those of communism, including explanations of the policy of the Communist Party and the Soviet state. In other contexts, propaganda could mean dissemination of any kind of beneficial knowledge, e.g., of new methods in agriculture. Agitation meant urging people to do what Soviet leaders expected them to do; again, at various levels. In other words, propaganda was supposed to act on the mind, while agitation acted on emotions, although both usually went together, thus giving rise to the cliché "propaganda and agitation".
The term agitprop gave rise to agitprop theatre, a highly politicized leftist theatre originated in 1920s Europe and spread to America; the plays of Bertolt Brecht being a notable example. Russian agitprop theater was noted for its cardboard characters of perfect virtue and complete evil, and its coarse ridicule. Gradually the term agitprop came to describe any kind of highly politicized art.
In the Western world, agitprop often has a negative connotation.
After the October Revolution of 1917, an agitprop train toured the country, with artists and actors performing simple plays and broadcasting propaganda. It had a printing press on board the train to allow posters to be reproduced and thrown out of the windows if it passed through villages.
During Russian Civil War agitprop took various forms:
- Censorship of the Press: Bolshevik strategy from the beginning was to introduce censorship over the main media form in 1917 Russia, the newspaper. The Provisional Government born out of the March Revolution against the tsarist regime, abolished the age old practice of censoring the press. This created free newspapers that survived on their own revenue. The Bolsheviks power over the Provisional Government lay in the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, because they could shut down industry and government by calling in workers and soldiers to strike and demonstrate. This ability to orchestrate strikes was especially helpful in the newspaper printing factories because a strike would mean a large loss in revenue, and the inability to continue to operate. The capability of strikes allowed the Bolsheviks to shut down any newspaper it wanted, creating a highly effective censorship mechanism that put a stop to the voice of the opposition. Lenin took control of the socialist newspaper Pravda, making it an outlet to spread the Lenin’s Agitprop. Pravda was effective in delivering Agitprop because Lenin used the Bolshevik’s power of censorship to silence all opposition and other socialist papers, making Pravda the only voice heard by the masses.
- Oral-Agitation Networks: The Bolshevik leadership understood that to build a lasting regime, they would need to win the support of the mass population of Russian peasants. To do this, Lenin organized a Communist party that attracted demobilized soldiers and others to become indoctrinated in Bolshevik ideology, dressed up in uniforms and sent to travel the countryside as agitators to the peasants. The oral-agitation networks established a Communist presence in the isolated rural areas of Russia, expanding Lenin’s power.
- Agitational Trains and Ships: To expand the reach of the oral-agitation networks, the Bolsheviks pioneered using modern transportation to reach deeper into Russia. The trains and ships carried agitators armed with leaflets, posters and other various forms of Agitprop. The agitational trains expanded the reach of agitators into Eastern Europe, and allowed for the establishment of agitprop stations, consisting of libraries of propaganda material. The trains were also equipped with radios, and their own printing press, so they could report to Moscow the political climate of the given region, and receive instruction on how to custom print propaganda on the spot to better take advantage of the situation.
- Literacy Campaign: Lenin understood that in order to increase the effectiveness of his propaganda, the cultural level of the Russian people would have to be raised by bringing down the illiteracy rate. The peasant society of Russia in 1917 was largely illiterate making it difficult to reach them through printed agitprop. Lenin created the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment to spearhead the war on illiteracy. Instructors were trained in 1919, and sent to the countryside to create more instructors and expand the operation into a network of illiteracy centers. New textbooks were created, containing Bolshevik ideology to indoctrinate the newly literate members of Soviet society, and the literacy training in the army was expanded.
- The Blue Blouse
- Communist propaganda
- Propaganda in the Soviet Union
- Left Column (theater troupe)
- Russian Telegraph Agency
- Definition by dictionary.com
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