Saturday, 27 September 2014

Red Star Gazing and the Inevitability of Full Space Communism

Part Two

Under Stalin, what remained of the Soviet communist dream turned into a nightmare of international proportions. Nevertheless, many people outside of the USSR in the 30s, even anti-Stalinist communists who managed to avoid being murdered by the GPU, went along with Trotsky’s formulation in 1936 that 'socialism has demonstrated its right to victory, not on the pages of Das Kapital, but in an industrial arena comprising a sixth part of the earth’s surface-not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity'. In other words, the productive capacity of the supposedly socialist Soviet Union was sufficient justification for its existence. When this system was belatedly mobilised for the fight against Nazism, those who still dreamed of a communist future were further comforted that there remained something to be said for the USSR’s 'socialism'. Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate provide novelistic depictions of how believers in very different contexts convinced themselves that the sacrifices required by this system were worthwhile.

The twin shocks of Khrushchev’s 'secret speech' and the bloody suppression of the Hungary uprising in 1956 put paid to such illusions in the West and gave birth to the so-called New Left. This created a space for a questioning of the determinist Marxism that had until then been given a free pass on the left (except in isolated and disparate cases), and which held that technological advance = progress = creating the conditions for socialism. This led to a re-evaluation (particularly among English new-left historians) of such awkwardly un-scientific tendencies as 19th century utopian socialism, 17th century millenarian proto-communism and Luddism. However, while the de-Stalinisation of the left in the West led, in many cases, to a rejection of technological determinism and laid the ground for the rise of CND and the green movement, this historical conjuncture gave technological determinism a new lease of life in the Soviet Union. In an echo of Trotsky’s logic, the Soviet Union would have to justify the horrors of the Stalinist era by delivering on the techno-utopian dream that had seemingly been side-lined along with constructivism and the abandonment of the revolution’s internationalism.

Francis Spufford takes this post-Stalin Soviet panorama as the backdrop of his novelised history book Red Plenty. In it, he has Khrushchev musing on the current situation of the USSR: 'fortunately, the hard part of the task was nearly done. They had almost completed the heavy lifting, they had heaved and shoved and (yes) driven people on with kicks and curses, and they had built the basis for the good life, their very own horn of plenty', and translates him as claiming in 1959 that 'in our day, the dreams mankind cherished for ages, dreams expressed in fairytales which seemed sheer fantasy, are being translated into fantasy by man’s own hands'. Of course, the utopian dreams of the planned economy were rather more prosaic than the electrifying explosion of creativity that might have been heralded by world soviet revolution in 1917-21. Nevertheless, in the context of the space race, they did provide a boost to the Soviet sci-fi imagination, as the the Soviet images featured on io9 and Dark Roasted Blend attest.

From Tekhnika Molodezhi journal

While the illustrations here don’t have the eerie parallel universe feel that art and sci-fi had in the Russian Revolution’s heroic period, they still pack a punch, particularly the depiction of the communal living space under the surface of the moon from the journal Tekhnika Molodezhi, whose on-line archive is available here:

Sunday, 14 September 2014

How the Future was Imagined 100 Years Ago...

Le Petit Journal, 30 December 1923
The Spanish arm of the RT news network recently featured images from Le Petit Journal, part of the digital collection at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. These illustrate the most exciting scientific and technological innovations of the future, as imagined by people in the 20s and 30s. Amazing to think that this is now close to 100 years ago!

Published from 1863 to 1944, Le Petit Journal was a middle-brow daily Parisian newspaper that satirised social and political events of the day. The images featured on RT include underwater cities, towering skyscrapers and airborne tram networks. This faith in technology is indicative of a general optimism about the future, in common with other accounts from around the turn of the century.

For instance, in 1902 The Atlantic Monthly published the American economist John Bates Clark's mock retrospective of the coming era, which envisages 'the building of good dwellings, and of parks and playgrounds many stories in height, with their frames of massive steel' and the seas full with 'passenger vessels so vast as to seem like floating cities'. However, as we can see from the examples in Le Petit Journal, twenty years on the First World War has left its mark. Illustrations such as 'Les Tanks Amphibies' from 30 December 1923 (see above) depict sinister modifications to the weapons of destruction that were developed during WWI, and hint at the dark side of technological progress.