- Creating the “New Man”: From Enlightenment Ideals to Socialist Realities
For a variety of reasons, the core of world history as a field has focused largely on the economic and political history of the world before 1900. The strength of Yinghong Cheng’s Creating the “New Man” lies in the author’s attempt to contribute to a world history of twentieth-century ideas. Like the concept of the New Man itself, this book is a bold experiment based on an old idea that never quite realizes its ambitious goals.
Cheng’s main goal is to revive “world communism” as an object of comparative world historical study through the example of the idea of the New Man. He traces the concept (understood as “New Human,” he points out, in most languages except English) from its theoretical origins in the Enlightenment to its praxis in the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and Castro’s Cuba. The New Man, in Cheng’s definition, is the “idea of remaking people” combined “with a belief in human malleability facilitated by environmental determinism” (p. 46). Twentieth-century communists hoped to build a new society through the cultivation of a new human being whose consciousness would be oriented toward socialist values rather than old values of materialism and individuality. Cheng believes that this effort was a major aspect of communist ideology, culture, and policy across the globe.
The main empirical conclusions of Cheng’s work are convincing. Communists in different countries interpreted the New Man idea slightly differently to achieve larger ideological and practical tasks. The Soviets weakened it in the narrow context of increasing efficiency in a technical and bureaucratic socialist economy, while the Maoists, mindful of the Soviet experience, sought to uphold the broader vision of remaking human nature to complete the revolution. The Cubans, tellingly, were attracted to the Maoist vision despite Cuba’s official alliance with the Soviet Union. In both countries, the goal of the New Man informed educational, ideological, and other government projects. The twentieth-century communist idea of the New Man, by implication, [End Page 423] was therefore most important in countries that still needed to develop socialism after a nationalist or nonsocialist revolution. China and Cuba viewed the idea as a way to revolutionize aspects of society that were still unrevolutionized, whereas the Soviets found the concept less useful in an already revolutionized and stable industrial economy. A section on its influence in the developing world drives this point home.
In many ways, Creating the “New Man” is a traditional history of political ideas, and some will find that its approach has an anachronistic, old-fashioned feel. Although the book is a comparative history, Cheng appears to have no other language besides Chinese and relies upon translations and secondary sources for the non-Chinese material. The main sources are the published works of famous politicians or party functionaries in official publications, and no archival sources in any language appear to have been consulted. As might be expected, there are occasional errors or oversimplifications, most often in the non-Chinese areas where Cheng is not an expert. The discussions of the nineteenth-century background and the Soviet Union are scanty.
Most expert readers will probably find the book’s broader conclusions less convincing than its discussion of the variations of the New Man in communist ideology. Cheng asserts that the New Man was critically important in the implementation of policies in China and Cuba, but the discussion of the concept as an idea located in the words of important thinkers makes it difficult, if not impossible, to bridge the gap between idea and reality. The author’s assertions about the importance of the New Man idea seem to be based mostly on the assertions of its importance by propagators of the idea, not an analysis that links the idea to praxis. Missing are detailed discussions of how intermediaries such as the news media, political parties, or other public institutions might have shaped the understanding or implementation of the New Man idea...