Joan Tumblety has recently published an essay on the concept of the ‘fascist new man’ in an edited volume on the topic.* Spoiler alert: she is not convinced that he exists.
Who can think of fascism without seeing in one’s mind’s eye the hallmarks of its political style? Mass rallies that appear to bind the ‘people’ to the man behind the podium, bold insignia that seem to shout ‘we mean business’, and the flexing of masculine muscle whether by uniformed street fighters or in the glossy idealisations of propaganda posters that heralded a so-called ‘new man’. The ‘look’ of fascism is indeed so eye-catching, so compelling—at least in the most well-known and politically successful European movements on the radical right in the interwar years, the Italian Fascists and the German Nazis—that we risk mistaking it for the political formulation itself.
That, in my opinion, is the trap that many scholars have fallen into, including such famed commentators as Susan Sontag, whose influential views on the fascist aesthetic appeared in the New York Times in 1975. Just because the novelty of fascism as a political language leaves its greatest impression on the visual sense—at least for outsiders looking in—it does not follow that there is something intrinsically ‘fascist’ about such visually arresting features as the mass rally, the political symbol, or the celebration of an aesthetic manly ideal. The style alone cannot compel us to use the ‘fascist’ label for any movement, party or artistic expression that happens to deploy it. Neither—in ways that we would do well to remember—does it mean that far-right movements must deploy a similar aesthetic to qualify as ‘fascist’, or to be similarly destructive of liberal democracy.
We should not, in any case, be so dazzled by the outward trappings of political movements as to forget to ask questions about their less visible features. Whatever the populist rhetoric of interwar fascists, for instance, in general it was established business interests that funded them. Industrialists hoped that doing so would fend off leftist threats to the bourgeois political order. As one of Mussolini’s former socialist friends wryly asked on hearing of the former’s political conversion to the right just after the First World War—‘who’s paying?’
For historians of interwar Europe what is so striking is just how widely used across the political spectrum the visual and symbolic elements identified by Susan Sontag as part of a ‘fascist aesthetic’ actually were. As the historian George Mosse once wrote about the preference for masculine muscle among European radical rightists, fascism borrowed both from bourgeois ideas of beauty and from the rituals of modern nationalism. The same goes for the use of flags, rituals, and symbols of all kinds.
That fascists were not unique in their political language, style or ideas is one of the problems we explore on the Alternative Histories module, HIST3224 Fascism and the Far Right. A crucial part of the challenge is to understand the relationship between ‘fascism’ and the much wider fields of thought, culture and politics from which such rightist political ideology and practice emerged.
In an essay published earlier this year, I use the case of France to argue that the apparent ubiquity of the cultural and political fascination with the ‘new man’ in the 1920s and 1930s forces us to reconsider how we understand its political meaning. What does it say for the presumptive link between the ‘new man’ and the authoritarian politics on the radical right that the idea seemed to resonate much more broadly in this European democracy?
There were, most obviously, communist deployments of the ‘new man’ in this period. The newly formed French communist party (PCF) signalled their populist revolutionary intent by creating a vanguard of young athletic males, whose role was both to represent and to force into being the imagined communist utopia at the party’s rallies and festivals, as well as in the streets.
Less intuitively, one finds the ‘new man’ figure also in the enormous realm of Catholic youth mobilisation; at times even the non-populist political centre flirted with it. I argue in my essay that we must locate the ‘new man’ more firmly in the wider political and cultural landscape of France between 1919 and 1945 if we are to understand better why the radical right, too, reached for it.
The interwar upsurge in athletic associative life and spectator sport; the greater visual treatment in the popular press of beauty and the prospect of bodily transformation through surgery, exercise, or natural remedies; the prevalence of youth movements and a general concern with the possibility of rejuvenation all created relatable models that were ripe for political investment. In this, it is important to realise that the ‘fascists’ were fishing in the same cultural pool as everyone else.
It was precisely in the process of investing common cultural tropes with new meaning that the radical right across Europe sought to embed their supposedly novel political solutions in the ‘common sense’ of acceptable traditions. This was just one strategy of political persuasion among many, of course, but it was an important one. Put another way, the articulation of a ‘new man’ within the political language of the radical right was a means by which ‘fascism’ sought to normalise itself. That such a thing was possible at all testifies to the wide purchase of the figure in interwar European culture.
* Source details: Joan Tumblety, ‘The fascist new man in France, 1919-1945’, in Jorge Dagnino, Matthew Feldman, and Paul Stocker, (eds.), The ‘New Man’ in radical right ideology and practice, 1919-1945’, (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), pp. 252-72. [https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/the-new-man-in-radical-right-ideology-and-practice-1919-45-9781474281096/]