Essay/History

The new authoritarians

Last century’s dictators wanted to reinvent their subjects as ‘new men’. This century’s strongmen just don’t care. Why?

Holly Case

A huge image of president Erdogan hangs on the main street of Rize, Turkey. Photo by Ivor Prickett/Panos

Holly Case

is associate professor of history at Brown University and the author of Between States: The Transylvanian Question and the European Idea during the Second World War (2009).

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3,400 words

Edited by Sam Dresser

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We might take the demonstrative demise of strongmen such as Nicolae Ceaușescu in Romania, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and – more recently and unobtrusively – Fidel Castro in Cuba to indicate that the day of the dictator has largely passed. Alas, authoritarianism is staging a comeback. Yet it is clear to poets and political scientists alike that the new authoritarians – Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Viktor Orbán in Hungary – are not like the old ones. In his recent poem ‘Some Advice for the New Government’, the poet Adam Zagajewski gave Poland’s newly elected cabinet some mock advice on how to be a new authoritarian:

All professors of constitutional law should be interned for life.
Poets can be left alone. No one reads them anyway.
You’ll need isolation camps, but gentle ones that won’t annoy the United Nations.
Most journalists should be sent to Madagascar.

These new strongmen seem milder, less openly brutal than the likes of Stalin or Hitler. In the words of the Austrian publicist and historian Hans Rauscher: ‘Brutal, naked mass violence against subjects is, at least in Europe and around Europe, no longer declared, insofar as Putins, Erdoğans, and Orbáns govern with the consent of a becalmed people, “freed” from all critical voices.’

But the difference goes well beyond their choice of whom to oppress and how. The autocrat of the mid-20th century was a strict and demanding father out to shape you into an ideal. He wanted you to modernise, learn self-discipline and, above all, self-sacrifice. When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk addressed soldiers during the Entente attack on Ottoman-held Gallipoli in 1915, he told them: ‘I am not ordering you to fight. I am ordering you to die.’ ‘In the Soviet army,’ said Stalin, ‘it takes more courage to retreat than to advance.’

Tough love was thus the signature attribute of the 20th-century dictator. Even when he wasn’t demanding the ultimate sacrifice, he wanted you to lose a few pounds, mothball your fez, lay some more bricks, join a state-run youth organisation (or five), learn a new alphabet (or even a new language) and call it your own, memorise some poems, songs or passages penned by the supreme leader and call them ‘history’. Even democratic heads of state once had higher expectations of their citizenry. That line from John F Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural speech – ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’ – now sounds like an admonition from an earlier, distant century.

And dictators undeniably wielded more power to transform their subjects during that era of greater expectations. The titles applied to them made it clear who was in charge: Mussolini was called Il Duce, Hitler der Führer, and Stalin Vozhd (the leader), Atatürk’s very name, granted uniquely to him in 1934, meant ‘father of the Turks,’ and paintings and statues offered idealised images of them all. Like a stern father, the dictator seemed to be everywhere at once: omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, an Ersatz-god if ever there was one. His image was on the wall of every government office and every schoolroom, statues and busts of him adorned desks, nooks and squares, and everything from streets to towns to schools were named after him.

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Today’s authoritarians, by contrast, expect very little of their ‘children’. They do not seek to transform their subjects or mould them into an ideal. They might lightly admonish them to stop smoking and drinking (Erdoğan), or to have more kids (Orbán, Putin, and Erdoğan), but they won’t generally send them to camps or prisons, or even tell them flat-out what to do or what to think. To be sure, some things are forbidden: trying to form an alternative fiefdom, initiating a coup, betraying the inner circle, etc. Try one of these and you will quickly learn that old-school tyranny still has its safe spaces. But if you criticise the government, its policies, or the person of the leader (especially in a place – such as Twitter or the international media – where someone might actually read it), you’re more likely to be trolled and harassed by the new authoritarian’s (often subsidised) supporters than sent to the mines.

For the most part, today’s authoritarians are more like the fathers of our time who, instead of demanding that their children live up to a set of idealistic expectations, are likely to send a message in the vein of: ‘Don’t listen to what those bullies are saying about you! You’ve been misunderstood and pushed around for too long. I know the real you and will see to it that you don’t have to conform to their expectations.’ Daddy understands what Junior thinks and feels: namely slighted.

They are what happens when the aspiration to betterment is conflated with a corrupt utopianism: it dies

Remarkably, although these new dictators endeavour to place themselves above everyday politics by securing a leadership position for life, or at least for indefinite duration, they tread softly around the cult of personality. None of them have assumed new titles, and Poland’s new authoritarian éminence grise Jarosław Kaczyński even seems satisfied to hold no formal leadership position whatsoever beyond that of party leader. What’s more, none of these men seems to have a vision for a ‘new man’, or even a ‘new society’. Quite the contrary. They are what happens when the aspiration to betterment is conflated with a corrupt utopianism: it dies. 

And what a death. Twentieth-century attempts to create the ‘new man’ did not end well, and that legacy has made Europeans and their neighbours especially averse to visionary politics. Beyond the Nazi Übermensch, who felt entitled by virtue of his racial superiority to conquer and enslave or otherwise render subservient the entire world, there was also the Soviet ‘new man’, who was supposed to be reproduced across the globe, the harbinger of a world united under the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Übermensch died an inglorious death with Germany’s defeat in the Second World War. By Hitler’s own standards, a losing army deserved to lose. ‘In this war there can be no compromise, there can only be victory or destruction,’ he said in 1944. ‘And if the German people cannot wrest victory from the enemy, then they shall be destroyed. Yes, then they deserve to perish.’ Ironically, Germany’s defeat at the hands of the Allies, and above all the Soviets, left a crucial aspect of the Nazi worldview intact: a real Übermensch doesn’t lose. Germany lost. Ergo, Germans could not have been so ‘über alles’ after all.

The Soviet ‘new man’ was destined to die a slower but all the more significant death. In fact, insofar as the new authoritarianism has its roots in former socialist countries, among them Yugoslavia and Russia, the story of the ‘new socialist man’s’ particular and ironic demise goes a long way toward explaining the new leader type we see in Europe and its surroundings.

The ‘new man’ has a long history in Russia, from the ideal ‘new people’ imagined by the 19th-century Russian utopian socialist Nikolai Chernyshevsky, to the Bolshevik writer Maxim Gorky, who declared that Lenin and the Bolsheviks were ‘producing a most severe scientific experiment on the body of Russia’, the purpose of which was ‘the modification of human material’. In 1919, the cinematic artist Dziga Vertov wrote a manifesto detailing his own means of creating ‘a man more perfect than Adam’:

I create thousands of different people in accordance with preliminary blueprints and diagrams of different kinds … From one person I take the hands, the strongest and most dexterous; from another I take the legs, the swiftest and most shapely; from the third, the most beautiful and expressive head – and through montage I create a new, perfect man. 

Vertov’s new man was an abstraction: a product of visionary montage. But under Stalin’s dictatorship, which lasted from 1922 until his death in 1953, the ‘new man’ became flesh and blood. He even had a name: Alexei Stakhanov, a miner who in 1935 supposedly mined 227 tonnes of coal in a six-hour shift, more than doubling his own earlier record. That name became synonymous with both a movement (of ‘Stakhanovite’ workers who exceeded their established production and work quotas by massive margins, generally by factors of 10 and higher), and a personality type (Stakhanovite: ‘An exceptionally hard-working or zealous person’). Stalin himself supposedly rarely slept and is often pictured bent over his desk.

In 1940, the grande dame of Soviet cinema Lyubov Orlova starred in the musical Shining Path. Her character was a Soviet Cinderella who rises from domestic service to become a record-breaking Stakhanovite weaver. In an especially climactic scene, a factory full of mechanically surging looms sets the rhythm for her triumphant anthem to the new Soviet person:

Comrade, don’t lose heart
Be confident and make your own story
Labour is our honour, our honour and our glory

Stalinism marked the height of the ‘new man’-mania, but it was also the beginning of the end of the idea. The state propaganda around Stakhanov and other worker-heroes was meant to put a valiant face on the human cost of the second Five-Year Plan (1933-37), which set a ferocious pace for industrialisation. It is hardly a coincidence that the Stalinist purges began in 1935, the year when Stakhanov broke the national and then his own mining record. During the years to come, some of the more well-known Stakhanovites denounced managers, facilitating the spread of the purges in which more than a million were imprisoned and hundreds of thousands killed. The opposite of a Stakhanovite at the time was a ‘wrecker’, a designation that practically guaranteed imprisonment and often execution or deportation to the gulag during the height of the purges. Even in Shining Path, in the scene that follows her inspiring one-woman record weaving shift, Orlova’s character delights – along with her fellow weavers – at the news that the factory manager has been ‘fired’ and replaced by the engineer.

If the ‘new man’ wanted to stay in the party’s good graces, he had to denounce the very father who had birthed him 

The ‘new man’ was becoming a ‘yes man’, hardly a courageous and visionary figure. And it did not stop there. In 1956, at the 20th party congress of the Soviet Union, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, denounced the deceased dictator in a ‘secret speech’ that did not stay secret for very long. ‘[W]e are concerned with a question which has immense importance for the Party now and for the future,’ he told those gathered – namely, ‘how the cult of the person of Stalin … became at a certain specific stage the source of a whole series of exceedingly serious and grave perversions of Party principles, of Party democracy, of revolutionary legality.’

The subtext of Khrushchev’s speech was that, if the ‘new man’ wanted to stay in the good graces of the party, he had to reverse all his earlier beliefs and pieties, denouncing the very father who had birthed him. This is precisely what the ‘new man’ did, participating duly and enthusiastically in the purge of the purger: melting down Stalin statues, renaming streets and squares named after Stalin, and rehabilitating his former targets. Meanwhile, as Khrushchev shifted the emphasis of the Soviet economy from heavy industry to consumer goods, the Stakhanovites went from being model producers to ‘model consumers’. 

By the 1970s, the ‘new man’ appeared to have become the ironic reversal of everything he had once been. The sociologist and writer Alexander Zinoviev popularised a name for the ‘new man’ 2.0: Homo sovieticus, or ‘Homosos’ for short. Zinoviev wrote Homo Sovieticus (1982), describing his love-hate relationship with the combined idealism and subservience of the new ‘new man’:

I myself am a Homosos. Therefore I am merciless and cruel when I describe him. Judge us, because you yourselves will be judged by us.

The Homosos was conscientious in carrying out the minimum of what was expected of him, cynical about power and money, and knew how to pilfer his way to a bearable existence. He was, in short, ‘an extreme reactionary marching in the van of extreme progress. How can this be? For the Homosos, nothing is impossible.’ The Polish philosopher and historian Leszek Kołakowski wrote in 1978 of this ‘new Soviet man’ that he was an ‘ideological schizophrenic, a liar who believed what he was saying, a man capable of incessant, voluntary acts of intellectual self-mutilation’. 

The personal trajectory of Zinoviev is also revealing of the ‘new man’s’ dilemma. Having spent many years in exile in Munich, writing books and doing radio broadcasts critical of Soviet communism (as well as of the West), Zinoviev later turned his efforts to defending Soviet communism – including Stalin – and blaming the West for its demise. In 1999, he returned to Russia, where he remained until his death in 2006. One of his last political causes was a spirited and outspoken defence of the Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević, charged with war crimes and sent to the international tribunal at The Hague in 2002. Zinoviev formed the Russian National Committee to Defend Slobodan Milošević, which described the tribunal as ‘a lynch law’.

Zinoviev’s defence of Milošević is revealing for another reason: Milošević was arguably one of the few authoritarians to cross over from the old form of visionary and transformative dictatorship to the new authoritarianism. His trajectory is one of the most agonising examples of what happened to the idea of the ‘new man’ at the turn of the previous century. It’s even possible to pinpoint one of the precise moments when the old type yielded to the new: a speech Milošević delivered in 1987 at Kosovo Polje, on the anniversary of an epic battle that took place there in 1389. Most of the speech was about socialism and a standard defence of a multi-national Yugoslav idea, solidarity among the Yugoslav peoples, calling for ‘heroic’ behaviour, and for a progressive, new and better world.

The future was about strength through vanity: a giant presidential palace, opulent inauguration ceremonies dripping with gold

But at one point that day, Milošević said something to which the crowd reacted with genuine enthusiasm rather than polite applause. It was a phrase that moved the tone in an altogether different direction, and Milošević along with it. A group of Serbs who had tried to reach Milošević and were pushed back by police with nightsticks began chanting: ‘They’re beating us!’ Milošević, who was not on the high podium from which he delivered the speech, but standing amid the crowd said: ‘No one is allowed to beat you!’ This statement straddled two meanings – one regarding the concrete situation with the police, another a general declaration of defence of the nation – and was the bridge from the old utopian authoritarianism to the new.

Thereafter, Milošević’s speeches came to be increasingly focused on the matter of national sovereignty and defence, a favourite topic of the new authoritarians, and fixated on the idea – borrowed from Soviet rhetoric – that the West, meaning mostly the United States and ever more so Europe, was the real problem, an oppressor engaged in a conspiracy to undermine and destroy the nation. The speech was also one of the last in which Milošević spoke of a ‘new, better future’. In a speech he gave on 24 December 1996, the Serbian leader declared that ‘a powerful Serbia is not wanted by many forces beyond our country, which is why they are joining forces with a fifth column here that seeks to weaken [Serbia]. Of course we won’t allow this.’

Milošević made it clear that the new authoritarianism was no longer going to be oriented toward the future and the creation of a ‘new man’, but toward the past: past glories, defeats, and ‘lessons’ of history. The future would be about defending against enemies of ‘national sovereignty’, and demonstrating strength through vanity projects of the leader: a giant presidential palace (Erdoğan), a soccer stadium (Orbán), opulent inauguration ceremonies dripping with gold and livery (Putin), and military parades on an unprecedented scale (Putin again).

Although history is their element, the new authoritarians are not historians. The strongmen of the previous century tended to both read and write history themselves: Stalin with the History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks): Short Course (1938), Hitler with Mein Kampf (1925), Atatürk with Nutuk (1927) and the alignment of his chosen birthday with the beginning of the Turkish War of Independence, Mao’s Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung (1964), also known as the ‘Little Red Book’. Today’s authoritarians, by contrast, are not ideological and will even ignore entire scenes from the historic nationalist playbook (anti-Semitism, territorial revisionism, longstanding national rivalries) at will. As Kołakowski wrote in Modernity on Endless Trial (1990), constructing an ideologised cult of personality is nearly impossible in the wake of all the 20th-century foment around ‘totalitarianism’:

There is much less willingness to offer unconditional support to existing ideologies, and more inclination to keep a distance from political matters, with a consequent tendency to withdraw into more secure and specialised areas. As a result, we probably now have fewer influential lunatics and swindlers, but also fewer intellectual teachers.

In lieu of ideology, the new authoritarian offers the paradox of state-sanctioned dissent. To the predominant liberalism he sees in the EU, he counter-poses illiberalism. ‘The Hungarian nation is not a simple sum of individuals,’ said the one-time anti-communist dissident, now Hungarian prime minister Orbán, in a 2014 speech, ‘but a community that needs to be organised, strengthened and developed, and in this sense, the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.’ This rhetoric is less about inspiring the polity to great achievements than it is about explaining who has prevented the people from achieving great things. ‘A confidence problem exists on the part of the people of the region who desire democratic rule in principle, but remain suspicious of both the fashion with which democratisation is presented and the purposes of the democratic world,’ said Erdoğan in a 2003 speech. 

The new authoritarian does not pretend to make you better, only to make you feel better about not wanting to change

The new authoritarians are thus a product of the epic flame-out of the ideological cult of the ‘new man’, paired with the success of Cold War dissidents. From the Hungarian dissident György Konrád’s book Antipolitics (1982): ‘A society does not become politically conscious when it shares some political philosophy, but rather when it refuses to be fooled by any of them.’ In yet another ironic twist, the anti-political dissident starts to resemble the Homo sovieticus. In Homo Sovieticus – published the same year as Antipolitics – Zinoviev wrote: ‘And here’s yet another mystery for you: what I’m saying here doesn’t express my convictions. And, what is more, it’s only an apparent mystery: I haven’t got any convictions.’ The Homososes, he declared, were at once ‘born administrators, critics of the regime and secret service agents’. Perhaps this opposite-in-one combination of yes-man and dissident is why Zinoviev described Putin’s Russia as a ‘hybrid’ and a ‘hare with horns’.

Zinoviev hated Putin viscerally, but the Homosos was already possessed by some of the non-convictions, ideological skepticism and sense of grievance that made him easy prey to the new authoritarian. An entropic stasis emerged: the father stopped expecting anything beyond lukewarm love from the child, and the child stopped expecting anything beyond lukewarm love from the father.

The new authoritarian does not pretend to make you better, only to make you feel better about not wanting to change. In this respect, he has tapped a gusher in the Zeitgeist that reaches well beyond the domain of state socialism, an attitude that the writer Marilynne Robinson disparages as ‘nonfailure’, and that the writer Walter Mosley elevates to a virtue: ‘We need to raise our imperfections to a political platform that says: “My flaws need attention too.” This is what I call the “untopia”.’ Welcome to the not-so-brave new world.

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