<<

. 64
( 115 .)



>>

nothing less than the liberation of all humanity, the Nazis sought to create a
master race in order to organize a new racial hierarchy in Europe. Yet both
regimes cast their policies as answers and solutions to a perceived crisis of
the contemporary world. Both identi¬ed the “bourgeois” world as an “old,”
obsolescent order against which they deployed their visions of a New Man.
As a result, both regimes stood in dialogue “ sometimes implicitly, sometimes
explicitly “ with each other. Taken together, the visions and policies of these
regimes represented a radical and total rejection of liberalism and its pursuit
of the freedoms and rights of the individual. The New Man emerged as a
constituent of an insistently collective subject, in the case of the Soviet Union,
a classless, Communist society; in the case of the Third Reich, the racial union
of Aryans. Although they were illiberal, both regimes were profoundly modern
precisely because of their dedication to remaking and rede¬ning the human
species. Their project encompassed an alternative, illiberal modernity.
The New Man was an alternative, but not completely unfamiliar ¬gure
because he was designed with the tools of science and rationality and in accord
with basic premises of Western “progress.” In exploring this design, we ulti-
mately pose the question about the still dominant assumption that liberalism
is the basic default position of the West. We show that liberalism is a highly
contingent position, under furious attack for much of the twentieth century.1
And we follow the deployment of alternative ideals of being and methods of


Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe™s Twentieth Century (New York: Vintage Books,
1

1999).

302
The New Man in Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany 303

striving that will strike readers as unfamiliar, but are contemporaneous to and
as modern as the liberal self.
Our essay pursues two goals. While its main focus is on Stalinist and
National Socialist practices of remaking man, it also investigates the phe-
nomenon of the modern New Man as such. The New Man was pursued by both
regimes but was never exclusively their property. In examining this broader
issue of the New Man, we seek to leave behind the totalitarian paradigm that
links the New Man and the radical utopian impulses he represents exclusively
to the ambitions of Nazism and Stalinism. Instead we present the New Man
as a variant of modernity, at home in the Third Reich and the Soviet Union,
but rooted in paradigms of bourgeois, liberal society in the nineteenth and
twentieth centuries. To show this, our contribution explores the prehistory of
Stalinism and Nazism. In Russia, the ¬gure of the New Man was intensely
discussed and tried on prior to the revolution of 1917; the same holds true for
Germany before 1933. This prehistory exposes the ideological trajectories on
which Stalinism and Nazism rested but also the deeper interrelations between
the New Man and modern times.
Throughout this essay, our emphasis is on transformation of humanity as
project and process. In writing or talking about the New Man, his ideolo-
gists had in mind ¬rst and foremost the transformation over time of physical
human beings. Yet this physical, day-to-day commitment gets lost in most
studies of the New Man, which investigate the ¬gure as a merely rhetorical
or aesthetic construct and follow the debates about the New Man without
delving into the actual work of creating such a ¬gure. Similarly, most schol-
ars conceive this agenda as a top-down narrative in which artists envision
or political regimes decree but otherwise sideline the actual life and exer-
tions of the New Man. By contrast, we will pay attention to the labor of
doing, and to the incentives, appeals, and the strivings of individuals engaged
in their own self-transformation. In other words, we stress the predicates as
well as the objects of design. We propose to investigate closely the intersection
between verbal or artistic representation and life itself, between political and
cultural prescriptions and individual appropriations and accounts of working
through.
Illiberal modernity not only demands close attention to the particular his-
toriography and placement of Russia and Germany, it also reveals drastic
con¬gurations of time and space. In the case of Russia, early conceptions of
the New Man originated from an acute sense of civilizational backwardness,
and in the subsequent implementation of the New Man, Soviet Russia claimed
for itself the role of humanity™s vanguard. In large measure it was the ¬gure
of the New Man which justi¬ed this temporal leap from de¬cient modernity
to modernity consummated. Germany, by contrast, organized itself spatially
against the rest of a racially degenerate Europe. Already after World War I, it
conceived of European space as a vast zone of danger which at once needed
to be managed and exploited carefully in order to create a greater German
empire. The German New Man was not available for the rest of humanity or
Peter Fritzsche and Jochen Hellbeck
304

for the future, but stood as the most able type in the eternal present of the
“thousand-year” Reich.
The arrival of the “New Man” depended on an epistemological break with
familiar ideas about nature and possibility. It presumed an apprehension of
the lightness of being, the startling realization that men and women were not
necessarily formed in nature or molded by reason and thus basically alike. The
“New Man” appeared as a de¬antly secular ¬gure, one who was no longer
concerned with religious or moral puri¬cation but available nonetheless for
the wholesale transformation of both the soul and the body in projects of
this worldly transcendence. The “New Man” was also only conceivable after
con¬dence in the Enlightenment project in discovering “Man” had given way
to doubt as to the unity nature of social existence. His appearance was thus
deeply entangled in the French Revolution, which had left observers uncertain
about the compass of human behavior or the direction of history. Burke, for
example, found the revolution to be “the most astonishing that has hitherto
happened in the world,” precisely because it de¬ed “common maxims” and
“common means.” Robespierre himself declared that “the theory of revolu-
tionary government is as new as the revolution which brought it into being.
It is not necessary to search for it in the books of political writers, who did
not foresee this revolution.”2 Both the enthusiasts for and detractors of the
revolution repeatedly referred to the “new epoch” in human history whose
signature was the audacious repudiation of the “common maxims” of the past
in the name of the unde¬ned potential of the future.
The New Man outlived the French Revolution because he gained new de¬ni-
tion and new prowess amid the energetic motions of nineteenth-century indus-
trial development. What the Industrial Revolution revealed was both the maka-
bility and the fragility of the world. If nineteenth-century Europeans served the
general cause of improvement, surveying wilderness, clearing forests, draining
swamps, digging mines, they also worried obsessively about the imminence of
revolution, the breakability of the social order, the disease and poverty of the
new industrial cities, and the biological degeneration of the modern individual.
At the turn of the twentieth century, it was technological and scienti¬c advance,
rather than revolutionary virtue, that invigorated the construction projects of
collective subjectivity. Engineers, scientists, as well as intellectuals assembled
an array of ef¬cient and eugenic bodies designed to overcome degenerative
cycles of history. Social pathology and social experimentation went hand in
hand, but, as recent histories of psychiatry, social welfare, public health, and
universal education have shown, these efforts were more preoccupied with ren-
ovation than transformation and they functioned to discipline, not transcend.
A new generation of vitalist and youth groups did seek at this time to transcend
the material limits of bourgeois society and to found new postliberal commu-
nities based on faith and sentiment rather than interest or civic responsibility.

Quoted in Lynn Avery Hunt, Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution (Berkeley:
2

University of California Press, 1984), 54.
The New Man in Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany 305

Although these remained con¬ned to small and scattered groups, they retained
the transformative idea of the New Man, which socialists had for the most part
discarded; by 1914, the most immediate heir to the French revolutionary tradi-
tion, the Second International, no longer conceived of a postapocalyptic “new
time” or cherished the “New Men” and “New Women” who might inhabit it.
The nineteenth century thus ended on a very different note than it began, with
more emphasis on up-to-date but nonetheless reliable “common maxims” and
“common means” and much less value placed on the potential of revolution to
fundamentally remake the world.
Where the idea of the New Man continued to ¬‚ourish was on the perceived
margins of Europe, in Russia, where the notion of fashioning new beings out
of nature acquired more and more urgency. Russian thought in the nineteenth
century gave the most sustained attention to the New Man as a prototype for a
new humanity ¬rst glimpsed during the French Revolution and later reanimated
by the Communist revolution. Elsewhere, the New Man only inhabited the
literary imagination or was con¬ned to small utopian communities. It is only
in World War I that a new, authoritative version of the New Man reappeared,
this time in Germany, and one designed to secure the survival of a particular
racial collective that is eventually realized in National Socialism and therefore
quite unlike the universal ambitions of Communism™s New Man. Collective
responsibilities shaped both the Soviet and the Nazi New Man, but the types
were fundamentally different. Whereas the Soviet New Man created himself
inside a humanist tradition and offered himself as a prototype to the West, the
Nazi New Man fashioned himself against the threats that allegedly besieged
the German nation and considered his appearance the guarantee of German
survival. He had nothing to offer the West. The very physical conception of
danger and possibility meant that the New Man in Germany more resembled
a warrior and worked on his body, whereas the New Man in the Soviet Union
was to approximate the ideal of a total man, which involved the soul as well
as the body.
There was also more stress on the individual process of becoming a New
Man in Soviet Russia, whereas the responsibility to accept the larger demands
of the racial collective always predominated in Germany. But both visions held
out the possibility of transcending liberalism, of working on the self, and of
serving larger social entities. In Russia, the New Man expressed the ful¬llment
of universal potential; he stood out as an exemplar to the rest of the world.
The German New Man, by contrast, stood duty-bound to the imperatives
of the Aryan race; he was its representative alone. Neither in Russia nor in
Germany was the New Man conceived of as a gendered being, as the English
translation may lead one to think. Chelovek and Mensch, the Russian and
German renderings of “man” in this context, refer to the generic features of
humanity. In spite of the gendered misreadings that the English rendering of
novyi chelovek or Neuer Mensch as New Man may invite, this translation is
historically more precise than other variants, such as “new men and women,”
which projects a gender sensitivity onto historical actors that they lacked, or
Peter Fritzsche and Jochen Hellbeck
306

“new person,” which individualizes the transformative vision and elides the
principal subject and object of transformation: the collective.3
The ¬gure of the New Man has a tradition in Russia dating back to the
mid-nineteenth century. It is primarily associated with a lineage of radical
thought born of a sense of the country™s particularly oppressive social and
political structures, which were held responsible for the underdevelopment of
personality and society. This diagnosis was tied to visions of individual and
social liberation that would restore to Russian citizens their humanity and
advance the Russian state along the road of historical progress. The New Man
invited more radical expressions as well: the longing for revolution and for
the creation of a new world that would catapult Russia into a radiant future.
Such visions, and the ethical investment that was required for their realiza-
tion, were central to the aspirations and the self-legitimation of the radical
intelligentsia, a professionally and socially disparate group of people united by
their profound disenchantment with the existing sociopolitical order and their
overriding moral commitment to changing it. Intellectually the radical intelli-
gentsia stood in the tradition of German idealism, notably the left Hegelian
tradition, from which they derived a ¬rm belief in the lawful progression of
history according to a scheme of progressive rationality, self-consciousness,
and human liberation. The principal task of the intelligentsia was to educate
and enlighten, to raise individuals to the stature of true “human beings” (che-
lovek) and critically thinking “personalities” (lichnost™), who would then rise
up against their oppressors and thus move history along on its preordained
emancipatory path.
The enormous “backwardness” inherent in this diagnosis posed no hin-
drance to the New Man; on the contrary: in dialectical fashion, to conceive
Russia as a negation helped clear the way for envisioning a totally different
future, a negation of the negation. Similarly the marginal position occupied
by the radical intelligentsia in Russian society “ their stigma as “super¬‚uous
people” in the existing order “ could easily be reverted in gestures of self-
signi¬cation, as these individuals refashioned themselves into exemplars of the
New Man, the vanguard of the future. Literature in particular was conceived
of as a “socially transformative practice,” less to provide aesthetic edi¬ca-
tion than to show the road to progress and liberation. The ultimate standard
for the aesthetic evaluation of a given work of art was History itself. As the
in¬‚uential critic Vissarion Belinskii maintained, “Only the results of the histor-
ical development of society” revealed whether a piece of writing was true or
false, useful or worthless, good or bad. This was the standard with which the
writer Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Belinskii™s contemporary, wanted his works to
be read and which also shaped the reception of his book What Is to Be Done?


See Lynne Attwood and Catriona Kelly, “Programmes for Identity: the ˜New Man™ and the ˜New
3

Woman,™” in Constructing Russian Culture in the Age of Revolution, 1881“1940, eds. Catriona
Kelly and David Shepherd (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 256“90.
The New Man in Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany 307

(1863), one of the very ¬rst Russian publications to address the “New Man”
by name.4
Chernyshevsky regarded himself as acting as an “enlightener and a benefac-
tor of humanity.” His novel indulged in a vision of a rational and technicized
world closely patterned on prescripts formulated by the French utopian social-
ists St. Simon and Charles Fourier. The focus of the novel was on the “new
people” “ a group of morally pure and rationally harmonious individuals who
were rendered almost indistinguishable from one another, precisely because
they were meant as allegorical representations of liberated humanity. The New
Man as advocated by Chernyshevsky and other members of his generation was
an abstraction standing for the liberated human being of the future. Cherny-
shevsky greatly shaped the ¬rst generations of Russian Marxists and their
notions of subjectivity and ideal humanity. What Is to be Done? was a virtual
bible for Lenin™s older brother, Aleksandr Ul™ianov, until his execution for his
unsuccessful attempt to kill the tsar. Lenin then became interested in the novel
and later declared that it had “overturned” his life. Chernyshevsky™s greatest
service, according to Lenin, was that his novel showed the particular type of
man that a revolutionary should be and speci¬ed ways to attain this ideal.5
The restless activity, the worship of rational consciousness and mastery over
the “spontaneous” forces of the body, and the proclivity to interpret human
psychology in physiological terms that the Soviets cherished were pre¬gured by
Chernyshevsky. Lenin™s indebtedness to Chernyshevsky showed most clearly
in a book which he conceived of as a program of political action in the spirit
of Chernyshevsky™s novel. Lenin™s “What Is to Be Done?” (1902) outlined the
vanguard of party cadres who by the strength of their consciousness and will
were to guide the proletariat to self-knowledge and revolution.
Nevertheless, Lenin and other Russian Marxists at all times stressed their
adherence to Marx over any other intellectual in¬‚uence. Marxism, Lenin
declared, was in¬nitely superior to early, “utopian” socialist theories, includ-
ing the ideas of Chernyshevsky, because it contained a “scienti¬cally” valid
interpretation of man™s historical destiny and provided the historical dialectics
necessary for reaching the ideal future.6 The historical nature of the New Man
was now buttressed with a “scienti¬c” foundation. Furthermore, no Russian
Marxist imagined the road to the New Man separate from the proletariat.
Representations of the factory, factory workers, and scenes of collective labor

V. G. Belinskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, vol. 7 (Moscow: Akademiia Nauk, 1955), 101. What
4

Is to Be Done? bore the subtitle: “Tales about New People.” We capitalize the term “History”
when seeking to convey the actorial sense that Chernyshevsky and other Russian progenitors of
the New Man (many of them standing in a Hegelian tradition) connoted with its usage.
Irina Paperno, Chernyshevsky and the Age of Realism: A Study in the Semiotics of Behav-
5

<<

. 64
( 115 .)



>>