By Marion Smith
One hundred years ago, Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Party seized control of Russia in the October Revolution and founded the Soviet Union. As with all good revolutionaries, one of the first things that Lenin’s gun-toting Red Guards did was seize the post offices and telegraph stations throughout the capital of Petrograd.
Once his power was secured, Lenin started prohibiting “bourgeois” and “counterrevolutionary” publications. Within two months, the Bolshevik forces had seized 90 printing presses. By the middle of the 1918, the following year, the non-communist press had been completely shut down. These measures were supposedly “temporary.” In reality, they lasted for seven decades.
The aim of communism is to completely remake society: control of information has always been an element of this. In their 1848 Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels recommended the “centralization of the means of communication ... in the hands of the State” as one of the basic actions to be taken after a communist revolution.
Lenin and his Bolshevik Party clearly understood the danger that free speech posed to their totalitarian mission — and therefore the imperative of complete control over the dissemination of information within the Soviet Union. Once they were in power, they denounced minority voices as counterrevolutionaries, spies, and criminals.
The Soviet Union sought to completely manage the information environment; to this end, the publishing industry was fully state-owned and state-regulated.
The General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press, or “Glavlit,” a body reporting directly to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, exercised rigorous control over the content of news and broadcasting — and reviewed every book manuscript before it could be published, including non-fiction, novels, and poetry.
National newspapers functioned only as organs of the state or the Communist Party, and reported their stories along guidelines dictated by the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department at meetings known as “instructional conferences.”
If anything, that was Soviet censorship at its most mundane. During Joseph Stalin’s paranoid reign, history books were aggressively edited to remove all trace of his enemies. Pages were cut out of books after publication. “Non-persons” were erased from official photos. At least twice during the Soviet Union’s history, all history final exams were cancelled because the government was busy “rewriting” history.
Unfortunately, the communist war on the free exchange of ideas is not just an artifact of the past. In too many places, it continues to this day.
In Raúl Castro’s Cuba, all media is state-owned and state-controlled, and many Cubans risk imprisonment by erecting satellite antennae to pick up DirecTV signals.
In Vietnam, state security routinely arrests bloggers, recently condemning a prominent blogger who wrote about parenting tips, human rights, and environmental issues to 10 years in prison.
The communist regime in Laos passed a law in 2015 criminalizing the dissemination of “false information” over the Internet and prohibiting anonymity on social media.
In North Korea, the regime exerts such totalitarian control of information coming into the country that human rights groups have resorted to attaching flash drives of Western television shows to balloons and floating them over the Demilitarized Zone.
Even Putin’s Russia is conveniently reviving the Soviet legacy of political censorship: Last year, the Russian supreme court upheld the conviction of a blogger who reposted an article about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact — the alliance between Stalin’s USSR and Nazi Germany that divided Poland and began World War II.
Perhaps the most dangerous contemporary example of the censorship state is the People’s Republic of China. Though often lauded as a “reformed” and “rising power,” the plain fact is that China is a communist dictatorship run by a single party.
The Chinese Communist Party is intent on preserving its iron grip on power by suppressing all negative information about its regime both inside and outside of China.
The “Golden Shield Project” is a nationwide information management system that monitors nearly all communications within China. By some accounts, Beijing employs two million people to monitor the digital thoughts and communications of its subjects. That is roughly the same size as the People’s Liberation Army. Recently, they have demonstrated the ability to censor the transmission of images in real time on messaging platforms like WeChat and WhatsApp.
Despite hopes to the contrary, 21st century technology is not helping circumvent censorship, but enabling it in ways George Orwell couldn’t even imagine.
For Americans, this is not an abstract problem overseas. China’s so-called “soft power” and obsessive need to control the information narrative is penetrating the United States, too. Increasingly, American corporations, media organizations, film studios, and academic institutions are self-censoring any criticism of China to prevent losing access to Chinese cash.
Recently, Cambridge University Press announced that it would self-censor by denying Chinese audiences access to academic works that were critical of the communist government. It only recanted after facing a firestorm of controversy.
Confucius Institutes, academic centers funded directly by Beijing, are cropping up in colleges across the world — and vigorously molding any discussion of Chinese politics or Chinese history into a shape favorable to their communist overlords.
When many Americans think of communism, they think of something outdated, retro, filmed in black-and-white. It may seem obvious that communism is a relic of the past that could not possibly survive in an age of instant, worldwide electronic communication. But today’s technology provides new and powerful tools to determined adversaries who want to manipulate and control public opinion, both in their own countries and in ours.