How the Soviet imaginations put us on the moon.
Once upon a time, science fiction writers told stories of two possible interplanetary futures over the next horizon. What lay ahead for us was either sublime or terrifying, triumphant or dismal. Often these writers would set two powerful states in opposition, each organized around distinct and opposed visions of modernity, or the way we should be.
But they shared a common goal: the realization of the space fabulists’ dreams, which everyone acknowledged were in line with the way things must and will be.
We got as far as the moon, and then things changed.
The dreams were jettisoned, and the horizon with them, while the fabulists took to writing about alternate pasts rather than gleaming futures, shifting from space opera to the “steampunk” genre—an increasingly hegemonic subgenre in Anglophone science fiction.
Steampunk, inaugurated by William Gibson’s and Bruce Sterling’s jointly authored The Difference Engine, imagines an alternate, notably Victorian past, in which Charles Babbage successfully fabricated his steam-powered proto-computer in early nineteenth-century Britain.
This alternate nineteenth-century history, in which landed aristocrats, disgruntled Chartists, and Sherlock Holmes-like heroes use computers and other recognizably modern technologies powered by steam, mimics the discontinuous texture of our own late capitalist moment, where past and future uneasily coexist, like bourgeoisie and proletariat, in a perpetual present without hope of decisive historical resolution.
Robert Charles Wilson’s 2009 post-apocalyptic steampunk novel Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, represents a notably dystopian adaptation of this subgenre, as he imagines a theocratic, 22nd century United States through the prism of a counterfactual, American nineteenth century where the United States of the future is the Confederate States of the past, now victorious, founded by John Calhoun, the freedom-loving father of his country.
In the course of the novel’s first few pages, narrator Adam Hazard, the title character’s side-kick and an indentured servant, visits the “tip” at the edge of town. Tips, which dot the warped, pastoral landscape of Wilson’s 22nd-Century North America, are ersatz excavation sites where desperate Americans scavenge the detritus of a long ago twentieth century, also known as the “efflorescence of oil,” when the corrupt “secular ancients” flouted both the laws of God and nature, according to the evangelical/military ruling class who blend the rhetoric of environmental and religious apocalypse in their moral denunciations of a long-vanished modernity.
Julian and Adam discover A History of Mankind in Space, a children’s picture history of NASA in its Apollo heyday, which provokes an argument: “People have walked there, Julian would say, pointing at that celestial body. The first time he made that claim I laughed at him; the second time I said, ‘Yes, certainly: I climbed there myself , on a greased rainbow.’”
Despite Adam’s public scoffing—with its tongue-in-cheek invocation of present-day conspiracy theorizing—he hangs onto the battered volume like a talisman of lost possibility through the rest of the book “wondering if it was truly possible that men had visited the celestial orb. Whether, as the pictures implied, they had ridden there on rockets, rockets a thousand times larger than our familiar Independence Day fireworks? But if men had visited the moon, why hadn’t they stayed there? Was it so inhospitable a place that no one wanted to remain?”
We might ask ourselves the same question, since, as Martin Robbins noted in his recent Guardian polemic, “nobody born after 1935” has walked on the moon, let alone Mars. And, with the recent death of Neil Armstrong, that small group of moonwalkers is passing away into a history that seems as increasingly distant and fantastical to us, in this age of austerity, as it does to those fictional characters living under a dystopian regime of generalized “freeganism,” a kind of neo-feudalism.
Buzz Aldrin gives voice to this sentiment in eulogizing his crewmate: “I had truly hoped that on July 20th, 2019, Neil, Mike and I would be standing together to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of our moon landing, as we also anticipated the continued expansion of humanity into space, that our small mission helped make possible. Regrettably, this is not to be.”
It is no coincidence that the decline of manned space flight and a related program for interstellar exploration coincided with both the waning of the Cold War and the neoliberal retrenchment that has characterized the last forty years. While satellite technology, computerization, and miniaturization have driven profitability in the developed capitalist world, during this era, our social and technological landscape looks remarkably similar to the world of the nineteen sixties, I-phones and internet techno-evangelism aside. It is, in any case, nothing like those Cold War-era visions of lunar colonies and flying cars that once constituted the future.
One historical irony of this transition from the intensive, state-coordinated investment in these grand projects (with their significant blue-sky R&D components) to our current model (with its emphasis on “results,” i.e., profitable applications) is the extent to which the current crop of profitable technologies came out of that previous era of state development .
Rather than a mystical substance exuded through the pores of entrepreneurial ubermenschen, like Steve Jobs, most of the actual innovations that have driven capitalist profitability over the last several decades—including computerization and the internet—were first developed through research intensive, collective state projects, like NASA or DARPA.
Entrepreneurial “innovation” in our neoliberal period could be likened to a process of enclosure, whereby, in John Gulick’s words, corporate capitalists and a reconfigured neoliberal capitalist state commodify and reapportion already existing technical infrastructure and cultural wealth, “rather than creating anything new.” Leigh Philips details these more recent uses of space technology in “Put Whitey Back On The Moon,” in the process of advocating a return to manned space exploration as part of a comprehensively social democratic program that includes “guaranteed incomes, well-funded pensions, a transformation to a low-carbon (or even carbon-negative) economy, and investment in space exploration.”
In other words, rather than ceding the utopian legacy of space travel to the likes of Newt Gingrich, while offering a standard neoliberal “austerian” justification for such a rejection, leftists should wholeheartedly embrace the old dream of modernity. The specter of communism, in interstellar form, haunts this call.
Communism put human beings in space. The Moon landing was the Soviets’ greatest accomplishment: a quip that transcends its most immediate nationalist point of reference, as evinced—Newt Gingrich aside—in the American right-wing’s longstanding antipathy toward the space program, or “big government” in space (unless it’s say Ronald Reagan touting a Star Wars-style space weapons program run by conservatives’ command economy of choice).
Jerry Pournelle, an advocate of privatized space flight, in this way declares that the “the three great failures of socialism in the 20th century are Soviet agriculture, U.S. education, and NASA.” This last “failure” put human beings on the moon, among other feats, but laying aside the ideational tics that pass for critical thought among libertarians, Pournelle is right in identifying the space program as a highly centralized program that, in certain ways, reproduced the structure of its Soviet rival.
This large, centralized structure suits these, and many other, Promethean tasks, as Leigh Philips writes: “But we should admit that space is indeed vastly expensive and requires the kind of state-led economy coordination that the near-sighted and risk-averse market will never be able to deliver.”
The exploration, and eventual colonization of the solar system and beyond is a technical feat of sublime proportions that entails collective effort and, with it, a certain emancipatory vision of human agency and prospects. This vision was central to the Soviet imagination at its best. Bolshevik writer Alexander Bogdanov best exemplifies this perspective, prior to the 1917 revolution, in his Red Star (1908), written in the wake of the Revolution of 1905 and the Czarist restoration of 1907. Bogdanov imagines a notably abundant communist society on Mars, which would remain a central trope in Soviet science fiction through the 1970s.
It is space exploration in the service of this utopia that shaped official Soviet policy, and with it the US response, by way of the space race through the Apollo moon landing and beyond. Even David Graeber, that principled enemy of the state, acknowledges this in a recent and remarkable essay on the future that failed to materialize: “Surely, the United States would never have contemplated such a feat had it not been for the cosmic ambitions of the Soviet Politburo. We are used to thinking of the Politburo as a group of unimaginative gray bureaucrats, but they were bureaucrats who dared to dream astounding dreams.”
The Soviets rightfully embraced space exploration as one central component in the transition out of the “prehistory of human society” and into communism. These aspirations might be linked to Marx’s much-criticized (and caricatured) “Prometheanism” whereby human beings realize their species potential in collectively overcoming scarcity and necessity.
The crude Stalinist version of this project, which animated the collectivization of agriculture and the concurrent drive to industrialize agrarian Russia, still prompts prophylactic caveats on the part of those who praise the USSR in the most circumspect manner, so Philips lets us know that the Soviet Union was a “monstrous system,” lest we forget.
Soviet Prometheanism, with its authoritarian structures of command, did represent a profound betrayal of Marx’s program. For Marx, socialism, and the communism that is its endpoint, revolve around the self-emancipation and organization of the working class. But do the complex and centralized structures that enormous tasks, like the human exploration of space or, for that matter, the management of a global postcapitalist economy, necessarily entail programmatic coercion, authoritarianism, or even the bureaucracy that weighs down NASA or the US military?
Why can’t we imagine these large and necessarily centralized organizational structures, engaged in vast collective enterprises, performing these tasks in a democratic fashion?
One of my anarcho-syndicalist interlocutors, disturbed by the seeming centrality of the state in various red accounts of space exploration, protested that anarcho-syndicalism is a libertarian communist project that, while rejecting “the state,” is very much dedicated to collective modes of organization and planning, executed in a “nonstatist” or—is it?— radically democratic fashion, begging the question of what distinguishes statism from other modes of organizations in a post-capitalist and theoretically classless scenario.
I was reminded of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974)—a novel that depicts a colony of anarchists who have established a global society run along anarchist lines on Annares, their home planet’s moon. The scenario, as LeGuin presents it in her “ambiguous utopia,” is not without problems, and those problems drive the plot, but Annares works. And it works largely due to the central supercomputer that coordinates the work activities of the various syndicates on a planetary scale.
Leguin’s anarcho-syndicalist vision— which, as critical admirers like Samuel Delaney and Fredric Jameson note, has its roots in Marxist theory—offers a certain degree of central planning and organization as necessary, even in a decentralized, stateless utopia. This is very far from the anarcho-liberal left ethos that by-and-large dominated Occupy Wall Street, many of whose proponents fetishize the local, the decentralized, and the spontaneous, and automatically equate planning, especially of the centralized variety, with a reified “state”—a totalitarian bogeyman beyond Hannah Arendt’s most febrile Cold War hallucinations.
That this decentralized and spontaneous social order overlaps with neoliberal fantasies of the market is telling. We apparently have no choice other than Stalinist tyranny or the tyranny of endless, uncoordinated, choice. The horizon has vanished.
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