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Nowhere to retvrn: how far-right revisionism spreads online

The right has always tried to control historical narratives to uphold its values, says Eleanor Janega. Now ‘trads’ are taking it online

5 to 6 minute read

A marble statue of a bearded man, Plato, wearing a robe is offset against a bright blue sky

It is said that history is written by the winners, but increasingly it is being interpreted by those who see themselves as modernity’s cultural losers. Collectively, these individuals are referred to as ‘trads’, who call for a return – or, as they sometimes style it, a ‘retvrn’ – to an imagined past that meshes with their far-right sensibilities.

These include so-called ‘tradwives’ who centre themselves within the supposedly ‘traditionally’ feminine roles of mothers and homemakers as well as the veritable army of ‘statue avi guys’, who present themselves on social media with pictures of classical statues and calls to uphold what they see as a hyper-masculine, pre-modern social norm.

The prelapsarian past

This is nothing new. The far right has always held an interest in controlling historical narratives to uphold its own values. The so-called American founding fathers are one such example. In order to justify a brutal colonial genocidal state based on slave labour, the Americans made a conscious decision to emulate the Roman Empire in their architecture, and to reify the period at an institutional level.

Empires were meant to be understood as the epitome of culture and reason. In Rome, the Americans had a perfect foil. Some two-fifths of the population on the Italian peninsula under Rome were enslaved, after all, and the rapacious empire sustained itself through military intervention and the subjugation of more and more people under its imperium.

The same interest in reifying empire is seen in more modern examples such as the Nazis and the Italian fascists of the 20th century. The Nazis intentionally styled themselves as the ‘Third Reich’ identifying the first as the Holy Roman Empire, and the second as the German empire. Historically speaking, the Holy Roman Empire was the largest contiguous medieval power bloc, containing the Czech lands, modern Germany, the Dutch and Belgian lowlands, parts of Italy and of France. The Nazis used this as justification for their rule over the lands they annexed.

Mussolini, meanwhile, took a page out of the American playbook, advocating that the newly formed Italy should emulate his ideal Roman world. His own transformation of the Italian executive role from that of a prime minister to a dictator in his mind mirrored the transformation of Rome from a republic to an empire and could be justified much as Julius Caesar had previously done.

Those posting online about the imagined glories of the European imperial past look specifically to narratives created by these brutal regimes and in doing so perpetuate them further, arguing that the world was a happier and simpler place during a particular period of imperial violence. The violence inflicted on the global south was, and is, an acceptable price for the comfort of the imperial core.

Mythologised labour

At times the reactionary politics of such accounts can seem harmless, as in the ahistorical assertion that medieval peasants had more free time than we do. This idea hinges on the fact that peasants were exempted from forced labour (the corveé) on religious holidays. While we should not reduce the medieval past to a time of unending hardship, it is problematic, to say the least, to argue that unfree workers had a happier time than we do now.

Calls for a ‘return’ to a non-existent past are seductive precisely because it did not exist

This view also overlooks the domestic work that was expressly feminised and required day in and day out of peasant women. This is ignored by the ‘tradwife’ accounts that have proliferated online. These are generally women who believe that they are returning to a ‘traditional’ form of domesticity by eschewing work outside the home, and generally home-schooling their children and seeing to all domestic labour.

The tradwife movement is particularly tragic not only because it lends credence to those who want to define womanhood as a biological state that necessitates childbearing, but because of the idea that women working outside the home is modern and bourgeois. Most women until the 19th century held jobs such as farm workers or specialist artisans, though they were generally expected to see to the children and home when they returned from work. The idea that women had no business outside the home not only erases working-class women but was also a short-lived one that peaked in the later Victorian and early Edwardian eras.

Reject reaction, embrace history

Calls for a ‘return’ to a non-existent past are seductive precisely because it did not exist. In an increasingly hostile world, it is tempting to believe that things were easier before the onset of a nebulous ‘modernity’. These individuals hint that if we simply traded in social changes, such as gender equality, we would be rewarded with more acceptable material conditions. However, such ideas are born more out of a yearning for an imagined idea of the Fordist consensus and that such conditions must project backwards into the pre-modern world.

Such yearnings are compounded by the fact that the history that most people are taught is rudimentary and often provides an unproblematised version of our countries’ past. These narratives help to shore up the power of our own governments and obfuscate the very real benefits that we still enjoy as a result of imperial plunder.

Trad accounts, meanwhile, are encouraged by the very platforms they appear on. It is common for them to present themselves as ‘tutors’ or accounts promoting ‘classical’ art, architecture or philosophy. The unsuspecting see a picture of a lovely old church, click follow and then are slowly drip-fed pseudo-history.

Engaging with bad faith actors is still engaging, and it can spread the message further

They are also introduced, algorithmically, to the host of other trad accounts, which will feed them the same ahistorical pablum, establishing a consensus that is blissfully free from fact and heavy on nostalgia. Even those, such as myself, who seek to argue against these falsehoods fall prey to the algorithmic churn.

Engaging with bad faith actors is still engaging and it can spread the message further, allowing reactionaries to find others in their cohort. This all translates into money for the platforms, which thrive off engagement – positive or negative. The only answer to the tradposting conundrum is education.

All of their arguments fall down in the face of even the slightest scrutiny, but sadly the left is also complicit in upholding them through sheer ignorance. This is intentional. Here in the UK, the government expressly derides the study of history and is currently in the process of attempting to push students at university level into STEM subjects.

If we are not well versed in history, we cede ground to the nostalgia and jingoism of the ruling class and the far right. History is full of stories of principled resistance, joyful collectivity, and queer and feminine love and acceptance. To counter far-right nostalgia the left needs to embrace this fierce complexity and make it our own, the algorithm be damned.

This article first appeared in issue #240, Summer 2023, Debt. Subscribe today to get your magazine delivered hot off the press!

Eleanor Janega is a medieval historian and author of The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society (Blackwells, 2023)

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