Archive for the ‘Space’ Category

Reaching for the Stars: Science & Socialism

October 11, 2010

At a time when neo-liberal governments the world over are taking the axe to public services, when warfare in central Asia continues to mete out destruction and when billions of people the world over live in poverty the issue of space exploration is, quite fairly, seen as an obscenely expensive distraction from tasks much closer to home.

Indeed, the news that NASA may not be able to host an independent fleet of space craft, relying instead on the Russian space agency for the next five years, signals that even America, whose space programme has long been the jewel in its crown of supremacy, is choosing economic pragmatism over utopian science.

However, when the daughter of US astronaut Scott Kelly watched her father climb aboard the Russian Soyuz rocket at the the Baikonur cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan yesterday she saw in the rocket, its design unchanged for four decades, a connection to a forgotten age. She told the assembled press that this was the place where Soviet Cosmonaut Major Yuri Gagarin had flown his historic first mission into space in 1961, and that she concluded was ‘pretty neat.’

Ms Kelly was enjoying the history of the moment, and was clearly taking great pride in her father’s space mission, but unwittingly by mentioning Major Gagarin she reminded the world that it was the Soviet Union, not the capitalist west, which had first conquered the stars. A painful memory for a nation who are forced to hitch lifts to the international space station from the Russians, their once great rivals in the space race of the mid 20th century.

21st century Socialists are often at pains to distance themselves from the historical legacy of Stalinism and the cold war. The USSR is the millstone around our necks and the charge sheet often read gleefully against us by our opponents.

Some groups respond to this simply by deny that the Soviet Union had any socialist characteristics at all, falling back on the theory of State Capitalism. A historical sidestepping of responsibility. Others point to the systems decay and degeneration from its embryonic early years following the revolution to a disfigured and perverted system transformed following Lenin’s death, the rise of Joseph Stalin and the establishment of ‘Stalinism.’

Whatever the crimes, faults and tragedies of Stalinism, of which there are many millions, it would be wrong to overlook some of the very real gains of the centrally planned economic system, the first to truly divorce itself from capitalism. By looking at what the Soviet Union achieved Socialists can say: if that can be achieved under an imperfect and degenerated form of socialism, just imagine the potential of a genuine socialist state founded on strong democratic foundations.

Today a parallel still exists with China which through its own Stalinist version of authoritarian capitalism, has been able to transform itself from a developing nation into the second largest economy on earth, with the greatest reduction of poverty in a population in history.

In the same way the Soviet Union was able to transform itself from a backward, peasant economy torn apart by civil war and invasion to be a global superpower, which not only defeated Nazi Germany in the Second World War, but outstripped the capitalist west in terms of production and scientific achievements long into the 1950’s and 60’s.

The Soviet space programme, personified in Major Yuri Gagarin, epitomised this rapid advancement, marking the moment of historical change. When one generation of Russians had known only serfdom and toil in mud and dirt, their children were able to gaze at the stars in the age of technology.

As Iina Kohonen says in The Space race and Soviet Utopian Thinking:

“The list of ‘firsts’ is admirable: the first satellite, Sputnik 1, in October 1957; the first living being in orbit, Layka in Sputnik 2 in November 1957; the first human-made object to escape Earth’s gravity and be placed in orbit around the Sun, Luna 1 in January 1959; 3 the first pictures of the far side of the Moon, Luna 3 in October 1959; the first return of living creatures from orbital flight, Sputnik 5 in August 1960, carrying the dogs Strelka and Belka.4.

The concept of space flight was visible everywhere; science fiction novels and films were extremely popular, while pictures of sputniks and space dogs could be found on every possible product from cigarette boxes to tea cups – the Soviets clearly knew how to merchandize these early achievements in space travel. Visually the Soviet Union was a society living in the Space Age.”

Capitalism today is in a period of historical crisis. Through massive state intervention in the US, Europe and China the system has been saved from degenerating further from crisis and recession to full global depression. While the immediate crisis of 2008 may have passed capitalism remains at an impasse, it offers little but economic stagnation and an era of austerity as the rich seek to defend and rebuild their wealth at the cost of working people.

While political consciousness and awareness of socialist ideas remains at a historically low point the idea that there must be a better way, that this system cannot be the best humanity can do, will once again take root. It is our historic task to prompt that questioning, to say that there can be an alternative, to say that under a different system mankind could achieve anything. If an imperfect system over 40 years ago can put a man in space what could a better system, of genuine democratic socialism, achieve in the 21st century?

While space travel itself is not a priority, we should still remember Yuri Gagarin, the son of a peasant family from the Urals, and by remembering the scientific and social potential an alternative system can herald, we too can be the generation who allow our children to look up to the stars.