The 20th Century was the era of the “new man,” and leftist leaders are preaching the same failed sermon again today. From Mussolini to Mao, the totalitarians of both left and right recognized that their ideologies required a basic change in human nature. Italian fascism, emerging from the Great War, insisted that the heroes of the battlefield were the only ones qualified to lead Italy to new glories. As time passed, Mussolini maintained that it was imperative to train a new generation, with the qualities demonstrated by the war fighters, to govern the country. Fascist Italy needed a new kind of human being, a new fascist man. This imperative gave rise to the well-known fascist institutions, from ideologically-driven schools to youth organizations and paramilitary bands, as well as the mass rallies that fused individual Italians into a fascist mob.
Mussolini set the model for the others. Hitler permitted only Aryans to hold high office, and though this practice was often observed in the breach (Goering famously quipped, “I decide who is an Aryan"), it was certainly official doctrine, and was relentlessly preached to the German people. Like the fascists, the Nazis herded the people into officially approved groups, from the Hitler Youth to the schools and the many ideological bands. Hitler ritualized the relationship between leader and masses in his famous rallies. You can see the dynamic in the celebrated film The Triumph of the Will.
Stalin officially called for the creation of a “new socialist man,” stripped of “bourgeois” thought and habits. This required extensive indoctrination, both in didactic settings—schools and Communist Party meetings and discussions--and in the interminable speeches from the rulers.
It is therefore no surprise that perhaps the most brilliant book of the 20th century was Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power, which is still in print, and is an indispensable guide to mass movements. Canetti, who won the Nobel prize for literature, traces the steps in the creation of the modern crowd, the prototypical form of organization for totalitarian states. The totalitarian regimes wanted nothing less than a reworking of human nature, and they were notably successful. It alarms me, therefore, when our contemporary political leaders speak in the same terms, as when Senator Kamala Harris says we must change people in order to successfully enact her climate change schemes. They are the new totalitarians. It is no accident that mass rallies are so popular among our radical leftists. That, like their doctrines, are textbook cases of the totalitarian impulse, and like the mass movements of the last century, have developed political rituals to hail their leaders and denigrate their enemies. Like the fascists, Nazis, and Communists, contemporary totalitarians have declared ideological warfare against Jews and capitalism. They need a “new man” to swell their ranks.
Can they win? They might. Their predecessors were exceedingly successful. Twentieth-century totalitarians dominated much of the West for quite a long time, and only two desperate wars—one hot, one cold—defeated them. Before that, the Communists, fascists and Nazis were supported with the sort of wild enthusiasm that we can see in today’s mass demonstrations and rallies. They were tough to beat. We didn’t reason the Germans and Italians out of Nazism and fascism; we crushed them on the battlefield. We had to rally the opposition against the Soviet Empire after seventy years. In all three cases, there were millions of Americans who supported out enemies, and we had to fight them as well.
The search for the “new man” has been going on for a century, and it was quite a hit the last time it was tried. It will be a tough fight once again. We are more corrupt and less educated than we once were. The would-be totalitarians today generate myths that would have been the envy of the ideologues of the last century. Can we muster the resolve to take them on and defeat them?
That this question is very much unanswered shows how hard it’s going to be.