I am reading the Wikipedia page on the Cold War, where I found these lines

The US government supported anti-communist and right-wing governments and uprisings across the world, while the Soviet government funded left-wing parties and revolutions around the world.

This appeared to me as both nations wanted other nations to be either left wing or right wing respectively. We can perhaps say both nations wanted other nations to be either socialist/communist and capitalist respectively.

I understand it's not the case today.

Back then, was it a "cold war" of ideology? Why was ideology important?

  • I'm asking it here instead of History because of the political theory that lies in this question.
    – Gary 2
    Oct 12, 2022 at 15:13
  • 1
    It is rarely about ideology, and all about power, influence and "interest" (of the powerful). Ideology is just a convenient tool to convince the masses so they don't rise up against those in power.
    – whoisit
    Oct 12, 2022 at 17:29
  • @KB That looks like an answer. You can answer if you wish.
    – Gary 2
    Oct 12, 2022 at 17:31
  • Because USSR was built on Marxist-Leninist ideology, with values radically different from that of western liberal democracies. Thus, the conflicts could not be resolved merely by settling difference - for the USSR it was about the final victory of the communism. This is not unlike modern confrontation with religious fanatics, which makes important preaching secularism and universal human values as opposed to belief that certain religious viewpoint is bound to triumph, whatever are the means.
    – Roger V.
    Oct 12, 2022 at 19:00
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    "I understand it's not the case today." Are you sure? There's still a lot of governments going around trying to control the direction of other countries' governments.
    – Erik
    Oct 13, 2022 at 9:02

4 Answers 4


There is always the question if individual leaders sincerely believe the ideology they preach, or if they use ideology as a justification of their rule. But it seems clear to me that significant numbers, on both sides, truly believed.

The communist belief system is that historical development follows a natural progression, from primitive societies to communism. According to them, social progress follows a scientifically proven ladder where each society creates the preconditions for progress to the next stage: For instance, it takes a feudal society to make people realize that capitalism is a better idea, and it takes a capitalist society to make people realize that communism is a better idea. At each stage, those individuals who benefit from the old system fight the change that would benefit society as a whole.

Critically, Leninism believed that it would take a revolutionary party at the vanguard of the working classes, because those classes were too un-educated to understand their self-interest. (Kept un-educated by the capitalists, according to the communists).

By contrast, the capitalist/democratic belief system is that society has reached a kind of pinnacle when free citizens can work and trade in their own interest, as determined by themselves and the invisible hand of the market.

The concept of individual self-determination (liberty) as a fundamental right means that not even an elected majority would be allowed to introduce communism, should the communists ever get such a majority.

So communists believed that they had a duty to overthrow capitalism everywhere, for the benefit of all mankind, while capitalists believed that they had a duty to suppress communism everywhere, for the benefit of all mankind. Each side believed that the followers of the other side were either deluded and evil, and was willing to kill the other side for the benefit of future generations.


Because both systems benefited from being able to engage local people who wanted to change things. On the world stage, not a regional contest, that is a powerful thing and a force multiplier far past sheer ability to win by force of arms.

If you can get outsiders to care for and adopt your cause, and to be ready to fight for it, it becomes very powerful.

To provide a counter example, traditional Nazism was not really a very exportable way of thinking, it really only could motivate Germans. So winning WW2 required Germany and Japan to impose their will exclusively by force of arms.

Contrast that with Communism which was polling in the low 20s in France, a NATO member during the early 60s. Add to it a fairly sympathetic French Socialist Party. Or the Bader Meinhof or Red Brigades in Italy. Or the Maoist insurgency in Peru. The successful Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

People, good people, truly believed in Communism. Revelations like The Gulag Archipelago and the ongoing inability of the USSR to provide a better life for its citizens, including for its workers, gradually made Communism less attractive to many however.

On the flip side, US-style democracy also could hold appeal at the time and destabilize a Soviet dominion. Hungary and Czechoslovakia (perhaps, not very familiar with their causes).

In a way, the appeal of said Western-style democracy was somewhat diluted at the time by backing dictatorships when convenient: South Korea and Taiwan were late to become democracies. Bloody coups and dictators in Latin America.

All of those insurgencies and popular uprisings presented the opponent with a dilemma: accept a gradual encroachment. Or commit forces in near-unwinnable guerrilla wars.

Currently, neither Russia nor China have much capability in this - having essentially ditched Communism their ideology is mostly not exportable to others, though they can enter into alliances.

Globally, fundamentalist Islam has the same issue, only even more so. On a localized basis however, the opposite is true and proves the power of ideology: witness the ongoing takeover or at least insecurity challenges by jihadists in sub-Saharan Africa.

The US and Western way of life on the other hand have tremendous, though diluted, "soft power", much more so than in the Cold War, when it doesn't go out of its way to make itself look bad. * Look at all those cell phones, TV shows, influencers, K-Pop. Vapid? Perhaps. Attractive to many though.

* I'll nominate covid vaccine equity for a good foot shooting episode. Or the ongoing embarrassment that is the GOP's handling of the Jan 6th crowd.

  • 1
    I disagree on the current capability for ideology-based power projection of Russia. Currently Russia seems to follow some kind of neo-fascist ideology, and seems to do okay in getting similarly minded political factions to support them (eg Trumpist GOP, AfD).
    – Arno
    Oct 12, 2022 at 17:52
  • K-Pop is the Western way of life? ;) You can't go much further east than South Korea.
    – Obie 2.0
    Oct 12, 2022 at 18:04
  • @Obie2.0 Oops, my bad 😢. No, seriously, I did use K-Pop on purpose: its appeal and SK's general alignment with the West (like Japan) proves that a diffuse ideology/soft power is exportable. We've had a "what's the West?" Q here before and I am more in the camp that believes it's defined by democracy and free market. i.e. ideology, more than geography or ethnicity. politics.stackexchange.com/questions/75275/… (which btw quickly evolved into "we're the good guys" shoulder-patting). Oct 12, 2022 at 18:09
  • I think the statement "revelations .. and the ongoing inability ... gradually lessened its appeal" is not true. Rather the opposite. From the 1930s to about mid-50s plenty of truly "good people" were USSR sympathisers (G.B.Shaw et al, almost the entire Left (minus G.Orwell)). This gradually waned later, in a big part due to these "revelations" and "ongoing inability".
    – Zeus
    Oct 13, 2022 at 1:03
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    @Zeus. I am confused then. What you say is exactly what I meant to say. Maybe I should simplify that sentence, but yes, as people got more info many of them got more critical of Soviet Communism. Oct 13, 2022 at 1:05

I mean it's called a "cold war" but that's just because the two parties didn't directly fight each other (due to having so many nukes that it would have ended them both and much of the rest of the world), but that doesn't mean that it wasn't hot around the perimeters.

They both fought each other on various other battlefields in various countries and whenever you fight any war, propaganda is important. After all for any particular individual it's plain stupid to fight a war. Think about it most soldiers are relatively poor and aren't really fighting for "their country" (in a material sense) and even a fight for their families is stupid as they'd probably need them more at home than on any front, so any nation fighting a war needs a narrative that is bigger than the individual, something worth dying for that persists if you don't.

Also communism has a pretty compelling narrative. Like a free and equal society that cooperates without social hierarchies and oppression. Sounds pretty nice especially when you're not rich or in power, which is true for the vast majority of the world and even in rich countries most people are poor in relation to what they see is actually possible.

So the U.S. had to step up their propaganda game because capitalism itself has a way less compelling narrative. Sure calling it "economic freedom" makes it sound nice, but economic freedom largely scales with property so having none, means having none. And it had long been convincingly conjectured, that capital also scales with capital, so the more you got the more you can play "invisible hand of the market" and manipulate things in your favor to even faster accumulate it.

So the U.S. basically came up with the idea of the American Dream, "we have more and better stuff and if you work hard you can get that too". So instead of actual equality they basically advertised the lottery model of distribution where all contribute, the majority loses and one wins big, but that one person could be anyone (at least according to that narrative). While meanwhile actually investing in social policies, education, infrastructure and whatnot so that people actually get the impression that things are working that way.

Now whether people actually drank their respective kool-aid of propaganda or if it was just dealt out to make the masses compliant is a larger more difficult discussion. But practically with the decline of the British Empire and the emergence of the U.S. and the USSR as it's successors they tried to pick up were Britain left off and tried to gain the favors of the newly emerging states adding them to their sphere of influence. Especially for the USSR a lot of it's trade relations where block intern and they often needed hard currencies that are convertible and allow access to required stuff, so having countries on the perimeter that do them favors is nice, while likewise the U.S. is reliant on raw material to produced manufactured goods and having new countries be part of the global market and sell them for cheap because they need the money is also nice.

Now just for completion, while the communist narrative as-is sounds pretty neat. The Marxist-Leninist countries also used their narrative more as a fig-leaf. Like out of the experience of the 19th century where the inability to perform revolutions and not be directly overthrown afterwards, arose a tendency of Marxism towards authoritarian ideas. Unlike their anarchist counterparts Marx became more "pragmatic" seeing the power of tool that would seize to exit once no longer necessary. Though unlike Marx's prediction the industrialized nations didn't let their workers impoverish but upon resistance resorted to social policies and some redistribution to deter revolutions. So Lenin didn't count on the masses to bring about the revolution but rather on some ideologically pure vanguard party uncorruptable by just better conditions and not settling for less than the control of the means of production. So when the revolution happened, he didn't face the tzar and the oppressive old regime but overthrow a Russia that was already in the aftermath of a revolution that was in a transitioning process and already reorganizing. So it's questionable whether Marx even have advocated for a revolution there. A) it the country wasn't economically ready (not fully industrialized) and B) there might not have been even a need for a revolution. But Lenin did it anyway and based his reign in force, terror and a minority support and a majority tolerance. Leading to resistance from both the conservatives but also other socialists... So they entrenched themselves in a narrative that everyone is out to get them and with the civil war, the attempted U.S. regime change and the second world war that narrative that justified everything (dictatorship, economic exploitation, failures in production and distribution) could be maintained to some degree. Which has many features of the fascist narrative which also makes it a fight "us vs them", "do or die", "life or death" which demands total conviction to the goal and is meant to conceal all shortcomings of the system and is really a narrative without goal. So in that regard it's a little different as communism would have a goal while fascism is just self-asserting. So in reality the system that they created were often far lacking towards the ideal that they espoused to follow.


Attention Span

It is somewhat surprising that the knowledge which is common to software developers in the context of software development does not readily translate itself to the views expressed on this site. This is, after all (if we are honest), largely an extension of a site dedicated to questions about software development.

It is central to many software development methodologies to pay attention to the issues arising out of managing complexities, and human ability to grapple with them, due to limited capacity of the human attention span.

Much of what propaganda deals with is overwhelming the capacity of the attention span in order to make difficult for most people to grasp ideas which go counter to the propaganda's narrative.

The Conflict

Open societies (like the liberal democracies ) are based on the principle that allowing any ideas to air will make the cost of isolating most people from good ideas insurmountable. So the people end up being exposed to both good ideas and bad ideas and only retain the good ones.

Closed societies (like 1-party states and other societies with heavily-censored public discourse) are based on the principle that the society can be motivated to go along with the central government's premises as long as other ideas simply don't get an airing.

Communist countries (i.e. the ones ruled by the Communist Party and referring to themselves as "socialist"), during the Cold War, were a perfect test-bed for limiting access to information. Not only because the cheapest means of communication during those times were largely broadcast-based, but also because their languages were too different from the languages spoken in the West.

The Role of Language

The language barrier acted as an additional information barrier of entry for most information from the West to the Communist societies. Most information that was allowed through was technical and could be understood by producing professional translations or (for the more cutting edge specialists) by allowing reading to be done with a dictionary by one's side.

This created an asymmetrical influence model. In which the Communist countries could learn Western European languages and exhort attention span bombardment of the impressionable Westerners, while the West had no such ability to influence the impressionable residents of the Communist countries.

Because the Communist countries saw the World Revolution as the ultimate ideological goal, this appeared to create an advantage. Although it didn't quite materialize because they didn't correctly estimate just how much the language barrier was part of the influence. Possibly because they overestimated the objective value of their ideology.

For example, the Communists had a lot of sympathies in India (Gandhi called himself a socialist ). But the socialist notions could not silence all messages because, as a former British colony, it had many educated Indian citizens who had access to all that which was said English.

I don't want to sound like I am pretending that English colonialism was a positive thing for India. I think of it more as a disease which immunized India from the scourge.

The West Played Catch-up

Because the Communist countries had the additional information warfare advantage of language, they were more successful at infiltrating open societies of the West.

Once the West realized that they were being targeted for an ideological destruction (because again, the Communists' stated goal was a World Revolution, they launched both domestic programs to remind its residents of the values which made Western societies what they were (thereby regaining some of the ground of the collective attention span) and limited distribution of translations of news/books/etc. into languages native to the Communist countries. Although I believe there was more emphasis on Eastern Europe than on China. But I could be wrong about that.

Why Did it Break

One of the main factors for the collapse of the closed societies' propaganda model was the rapid expansion of cheap means of reproduction of recorded communications (both audio and print). Xerox machines and tape recorders made it much cheaper to share Western messaging in previously-closed societies.

The development of the Internet had some of the reverse effect. It erased so much of the language barrier that it made it possible for the previously-closed societies to influence the open societies. And it made reproduction of information accessible to all.

This has led to what is now known as "information warfare." Which is an attempt by all societies to gain footing in the collective attention span of others. Rather than a conversation, it is now a competition of shouting matches.

How It's Getting Fixed

But the attention span is still limited. So people cannot process more than a small fragment of the available information. This created a market for services curating information in the sea of all available information.

There are competing claims that

  • curation now serves the role that the censors used to do
  • or that the curation simply filters out the noise

Unfortunately it does both and, while it has its problems, it's also a necessary tool to deal with the fact that the attention span is limited.

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    "the people end up being exposed to both good ideas and bad ideas and only retain the good ones." - This seems to be getting proven false right now. We're in the same ideological battle again and the former USSR is winning. Oct 13, 2022 at 12:35

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