SMOKERS’ CORNER: IN SEARCH OF THE 'NEW MAN'

Published March 31, 2024
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Till the 1960s, the idea of engineering an ideal society was an earnest endeavour. It did not draw the kind of cynical ridicule or even dread that it often evokes today. The concept of ‘social engineering’ is now understood as a rather sinister idea — but it just might be making a comeback. 

The study of social engineering is often tied to the study of ‘ideologemes’ (a way of expression or representation of a particular ideology), such as the ‘New Man.’ The concept of the ‘New Man’ was a popular unit of various ideologies in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The concept first emerged during the 18th century French Revolution, when radicals (the Jacobins) took control of the revolutionary regime and looked to create a whole new society by completely destroying the old. To do this, the regime felt it needed to shape a new kind of citizen through a new set of knowledge and morals. This pursuit led to excesses, in which hundreds of ‘bad citizens’ were brutally executed. 

In the 19th century, two books — one in Czarist Russia and the other in Germany — would go a long way in popularising the idea of the New Man. The first was a novel written by the Russian philosopher Nikolay Chernyshevsky. He called it The Story About The New Man.

After gaining prominence in the 19th century and its proliferation in the 20th century, the concept of ‘social engineering’ in order to create an ‘ideal society’ seems to be on the rise once more

The protagonist of the novel sees himself as one of the “new breed of men” in Russia entirely dedicated to forming a new society. He is a self-appointed messiah, envisioning a utopia. He even suppresses his sexual urges for this and is inclined to treat women as equals, as long as they are willing to work towards creating a new society.

The second book was by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, called Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In it, a ‘prophet’ tells the people about the coming of a new kind of man, the Übermensch (or the ‘overman’).

The Übermensch was to rise by shattering established ideas of morality, destroying the ‘decadence’ of the modern world, and would fill the void created by the figurative “death of God” with a new set of morals. The Übermensch was passionate, intuitive and unabashedly egotistical in his pursuit for power and glory.

These two tomes went on to influence experiments in social engineering in the 20th century, mainly in the communist Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The founder of communist Russia, Vladimir Lenin, was a great admirer of Chernyshevsky’s novel.

Lenin’s Bolshevik party set out to create the ‘New Soviet Man’ and the ‘New Soviet Woman.’ Lenin understood the Russian society to be ignorant and emotional due to the manner in which it was ‘brutalised’ by the old order. 

Policies were launched to engineer a society that preferred consciousness over instinct and emotion, and worked towards creating classlessness. The ‘New Soviet Man’ had to be physically and mentally strong, disciplined by Marxist-Leninist ideology. He had to completely forgo his ethnic and racial identity. 

The ‘New Soviet Woman’ was to be his equal — a fellow comrade, a securer of the Revolution but also a wife and mother. Lenin’s successor, Joseph Stalin, asked the party to become “engineers of the human soul.” He said that society needed to be remoulded, “just as a gardener cultivates a tree.” 

To Stalin, this required rapid industrialisation. Plans to do this were put into action. But whereas the Soviet Union achieved industrialisation at an impressive pace, this was at the cost of millions of deaths in the countryside, due to food extortion by the state to feed the cities, and the introduction of forced labour to build factories, roads and dams. The period also witnessed the mass execution and exile of thousands of “socially harmful elements.” 

In Nazi Germany (1933-45), initiatives were launched to create the ‘New Aryan Man.’ He was to use instinct and intuition over reason and consciousness. He was to be a man of sheer will — not as an individual, but as an extension of a collective striving to serve a new Aryan society. The New Aryan Woman was to be a mother, the breeder of children of “pure German blood.” 

Crude experiments in eugenics were carried out, millions from “undesired races” were exterminated, brutal military invasions were undertaken, and a bloody world war was fought to hasten the creation and supremacy of the ‘New Aryan Man.’ 

Nietzsche’s Übermensch was an inspiration to the Nazis, especially the Übermensch’s amoral and passionate impulse for power through grand military means and an unabashed lust for glory, even if this meant causing outright destruction. 

The Chinese communist ideologue Mao Zedong tried to create a ‘New Chinese Man.’ The New Chinese Man was to be engineered to construct a new Chinese society. For this, Mao launched a campaign of “thought reform” in the cities. “Bourgeois thoughts” had to be expelled from the mind and replaced with thoughts of communist ‘sages’, such as Mao. 

Then, reforms were initiated to create ‘New Chinese Men’ in the countryside. For this, peasants were forcibly organised into large collectives. ‘New Chinese Women’ were to be equals of men. In fact, they were treated as men and given similar tasks.

In 1966, Mao launched a ‘Cultural Revolution’ to galvanise Chinese youth to lead the way in persecuting those who had supposedly retained “bourgeois thoughts” and habits. Some 30 million people starved to death due to the collectivisation policies in the countryside, and the death toll during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) is said to have been two million. Many were killed by young men and women who were turned into fanatical believers of “the thoughts of Chairman Mao.”  

In South Asia, the Muslim poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal wrote about the need to create a ‘New Muslim Man.’ Iqbal took the romanticised and mythologised dimensions of Islamic history to conceptualise the New Muslim Man, who was to be intuitive. He would passionately seek to shatter orthodoxy as well as ‘decadent’ modernity. A kind of Islamic Übermensch.

Iqbal’s ideas, in this context, went on to inspire Islamist ideologues such as Abul Ala Maududi, Islamic modernists such as Ghulam Ahmad Parvez, Islamist revolutionaries such as Ali Shariati and Ruhollah Khomeini, and populists such as Imran Khan. 

The Hindu nationalist V.D. Savarkar sought to create a new kind of Hindu who was militant and proudly chauvinistic, or the opposite of the archetypal ‘peaceful Hindu.’ Decades later, Savarkar’s status suddenly rose to that of a ‘sage’ with the rise of populist Hindu nationalism in India.

A fascination with ideas of social engineering is clearly present in the political populism that has engulfed various regions of the world from 2010 onwards — a dreadful development.

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 31st, 2024

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