Alexander A. Bogdanov’s novel Red Star was published in 1908 as an attempt to reenergize the dejected revolutionaries whose efforts had been crushed during the 1905 Russian Revolution. The protagonist, Leonid, is a Russian revolutionary chosen, in the midst of the revolution, by the Martian expedition to visit their planet and learn about the centuries-old advanced form of communism there. Since the triumph of communism in Russia was the cause to which Leonid had decided to devote his life, he agrees to visit Mars so that he can absorb their ideas and principles.
Red Star is divided into short sections in which a particular aspect of a desired communist society is described directly and clearly, with limited literary frills. Bogdanov primarily uses dialogue to express his thoughts about the kind of cultural and political ends to which revolutionaries should aspire. The participants of these dialogues are experienced and knowledgeable Martians (Bogdanov himself) and a fledgling Earthling (the Russian revolutionaries in the first decade of the twentieth century).
A Recipe for a Sustainable Society
Bogdanov’s Martian society is a socialist utopia, but it is not utopian socialism. Bogdanov’s conception is not a product of “men’s better insight into eternal truth and justice,” but rather of the materialist conception of history (albeit slightly altered due to different environmental conditions on Mars), which affirms that “the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged.”1
Bogdanov’s Martians live in a fully realized communist society; it is classless, founded on working according to ability and consumption according to desire. Their history never knew slavery. Feudalism was comparatively brief and never violent or overly militaristic. The creation of capitalism intensified when large-scale producers displaced the small peasants due to the latter’s inability to cope with the aridity of the soil. Only the large-scale farmers and cooperatives who pooled their resources together were able to tackle the issue of irrigation, but even they became prey to unsustainable credit traps and their land was seized and transferred to a small number of elite agricultural capitalists. The Martian population grew and more arable land was needed. The epoch of digging canals ensued. Big capitalists employed most of the population and large-scale projects temporarily solved the problem of unemployment. However, the completion of the projects brought an economic crisis and a class conflict, which the proletariat won with strikes and uprisings. The bourgeoisie resisted until the tide turned, after which they retreated without ever attempting any counterrevolutionary measures. Some of them were pensioned off and others joined the state enterprises, willfully adopting proletarian class consciousness. Communism followed, and because there were no external threats or internal sabotage, the new system based on egalitarianism and collective labor was perfected over time.
When Leonid, a revolutionary witness to the violence and gore of 1905, learns about Martian historical development, he thinks to himself: “I could not help feeling a certain envy as I viewed this picture of steady social evolution free from fire and blood of our own history.”2 Martians highlight the uniqueness of their physical environment as the reason for the more peaceful transition to an equitable society. Their natural and cultural barriers were few to begin with. Mountain ranges and vast oceans are not as pronounced as they are on Earth. Gravity also played a favorable role, allowing Martians to move with greater freedom and speed. Language was also similar all over Mars, and it too became a unifying force. All of these factors prevented separation into different nations and races, which continues to be a scourge on the peoples of Earth, where, according to Martians, fragmentation is caused by “the richness and variety of its natural environment, which together have produced a multitude of different world-views.”3 It is the reason why “the art of destruction on Earth is much more advanced than any other aspect of their peculiar culture.”4
“The tighter our humanity closes ranks to conquer nature, the tighter the elements close theirs to avenge the victory.”5 The conquest of nature became a shared goal and it, more than anything else, helped shape the uniformity of Martian communism. It allowed them to experience their humanity as a single whole, a necessary component in the process of addressing selfish impulses and appetites. Individual Martians differ in inclinations and ability, but “neither the private lives nor the public activities…are circumscribed in any way, so long as the activity of the society as a whole is not jeopardized.”6 They labor for the collective good in different industries and adhere to the instructions of the Central Institute of Statistics and its agencies, which “keep track of the flow of goods into and out of the stockpiles and monitor the production of all enterprises and the changes in their work forces.”7 If one industry requires additional labor for the production of necessities, workers relocate voluntarily until equilibrium is established. Such labor practices provide Martians with varied work, shorter working days, and reduced alienation.
The characteristics of Martian cultural habits are products of their collective labor practices. Scientific thought on all matters reigns on Mars. Practicality is the primary quality of their housing, clothing, language, social interactions, art, and education. Their residences and attires are simple, comfortable, and devoid of embellishments. They are designed to strictly serve their purpose and stimulate productivity. Their language, just like their clothing, is simple and genderless. Their interactions are goal oriented and social pleasantries are completely foreign to them: “They never greeted one another, never said goodbye or thank you, never dragged out a conversation just to be polite if its immediate goal had already been reached.”8 Self-sacrifice for the common good is prevalent and the elimination of “an egoistic thirst for self-preservation, and the cruelty which that instinct inevitably breeds” has been fully realized.9 Romantic love is cherished, sobs for the departed are “muffled,” and one’s work and contribution to society outweighs all of the above.10 Monuments on Mars are never erected to a single individual but rather to historic events and collective achievements (such as the eradication of disease), for no Martian lives in a vacuum and has had at their “disposal the experience amassed by preceding generations and contemporary researchers.”11 One’s identity is marked by profession, expertise, and contribution to society. No Martian has the undisputed power of command, and leadership roles are rotated according to task and talent. Education is carried out in the Children’s Colony, where children are never separated by age groups and learning is initiated by pupils’ proclivities and augmented by reading materials and instruction carried out by professional educators as well as older students.
All aspects of Martian life are directed toward anonymity, equality, and collective creation. Martians are aware that these ideas are foreign to humanity on Earth, and they explain to Leonid that this is so only because “the common cause of mankind is not yet really a common cause among you. It has become so splintered in the illusions generated by the struggle among men that it seems to belong to individual persons rather than to mankind as a whole.”12 Costly periods of trial and error of different modes of production have helped the Martians conclude that the only way to prevent shortages of necessities is through collective labor and distribution. This, in turn, has fostered a particular psychological makeup that allows them to perceive their species as a whole. However, the barriers they have consciously erected between humanity and nature—the superordinate goal of battling and mastering their environment—are both the foundation of their progressive virtues as well as the root of their doom. By perceiving nature as a separate entity rather than a part of the whole, Martians have agreed to participate in an unwinnable war in which each success is the birth of another struggle. Exploitation of one resource is the strategy they employ to combat the shortage of another, which inevitably creates additional scarcities and battlefronts. Crises can only be postponed and never entirely resolved. And in a world of finite resources, the destruction of the natural world is what brings nature its final victory over humanity.
Unity with the Natural World Is Survival
Bogdanov’s Red Star warns that sustainable development of a society depends not just on a mutual understanding of a common goal, but also on careful consideration and a comprehensive analysis of the relationship between humanity and the natural environment it inhabits. The novel echoes both a well-known Marxist view that equitable production driven by technological innovation can serve as a vehicle to avoid human suffering, as well as a perhaps less-rehearsed Marxist view that an equitable and sustainable society depends on establishing a common goal and restoring unity between humanity and its natural surroundings.13
Despite the general criticism that Marx held a so-called Promethean view of nature, which has recently been challenged and rejected by a series of Marxist scholars, Marxism provides a framework to understand and analyze humans’ relation to nature.14 In their texts on alienation in the context of a growth-oriented mode of production, early Marxists provided us with a detailed account of how humans were separated from the land on which they work and the environment in which they live.15 The realization of a symbiotic relationship between humans and nature motivated Marx to call for a human reconnection with nature: “Man lives on nature – means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.”16 This serves as a reminder that separation from an ecosystem that living organisms are part of, as well as utilization of nature for the purpose of production, can and will lead to overreach and, ultimately, extinction.
It can be argued that Martian society, in this particular aspect, mimics past human societies that, while operating under different ideologies (both socialism and capitalism), have historically perceived nature as a source of resources to be exploited.17 Martian mastery over technology allows society to utilize resources by strictly planning production to accommodate the needs and wants of the growing population. Martians live in strictly planned urban areas, fly to their places of work, and use antimatter to reach other planets. Factories run methodically on electricity and are equipped with automated machinery.
However, not only do the Martians perceive nature for the purpose of utility, but their relationship with nature is adversarial: “there cannot be peace with the natural elements. Even a victory over such a foe can pose a new threat.”18 Thus, force and coercion have not been completely uprooted from the Martian way of life. In fact, they are sometimes thought of as the optimal ways to subdue their environment. This rift between Martian society and nature (the universe can be observed as a large ecosystem) is also exemplified in the plans to colonize and exploit other planets in order to uphold their system. Colonizing in search of resources is promoted by Sterni, a Martian scientist, and used as a progression toward the climax of the novel. In his speech, Sterni reminds his audience about the dwindling resources of their planet—namely, food and the radioactive ore used to fly their spaceships. Since these resources are essential for the continuation of progress and a respectable life, Martians are left with two choices: they could either try to synthesize protein from inorganic matter for food and colonize Venus to extract the radioactive ore, or to occupy Earth, annihilate its people, and take their abundant resources. Fortunately for the Earthlings and unfortunately for Sterni (whom Leonid murders after he learns about his plan), Sterni’s proposition is outvoted by other Martian scientists who decide that a more ethical and sustainable choice would be to colonize Venus, which is exponentially more dangerous, but not populated by humanity. Knowing that extracting valuable resources in the hostile climate of Venus will inevitably result in many Martian deaths, they nevertheless decide to pursue this option and allow the further development of a nascent socialism on Earth.
Martian society manages to thrive and stay unified due to their resolve to outdo the enemy: “We can triumph as long as we are on the offensive, but if we do not permit our army to grow, we will be besieged on all sides by the elements, and that will in turn weaken faith in our collective strength, in our great common life. The meaning of each individual life will vanish together with that faith, because the whole lives in each and every one of us, in each tiny cell of the great organism, and each one of us lives through the whole.”19 Nevertheless, the decision to remain on the offensive prevented Martians from ever questioning their role of conqueror and developing an alternative that includes nature as a part of the whole.
The concrete material problems and moral dilemmas that Martians face stem from their continuous struggle with the forces of nature. However, one cannot help but wonder what would have happened if they had considered an alternative path of sustainability and conservation (strategies Martians consciously reject due to fear that they would impede progress). While technologically and psychologically advanced, the Martian system never proactively assesses the planet’s carrying capacity. With nature as an external threat and a common enemy, Martians were able to coalesce their efforts to provide limitless consumption, an ever-increasing population, and unlimited extraction of natural resources, but their system of production and outlook that nature is separate from humanity eventually leads to the overexploitation of their planet and systemic failure.
Growth Always Has Ecological Limits
Although a work of fiction, Red Star reads more like a manual with general schemes for the construction of a utopian communist society. The first step toward achieving a sustainable society, as illustrated by the novel, is to work toward building a “humanistic,” equitable, and rational community of comrades that celebrates cooperation over individualism and competition. Such a mindset, coupled with the dedication to always being on the offensive in the never-ending war against nature, is what propelled both the psychological and social evolutions on Mars.
However, Red Star omits an analysis of how the inevitable climate calamity caused by unconstrained resource exploitation can be averted or, at very least, postponed. The omission is understandable, because the novel would have to include a discussion on Martian eventual alignment and cooperation with their long-term foe, during which Martians would learn how to coexist with nature by reducing consumption and exploitation to hold off resource depletion as long as possible. In this, a different superordinate goal would need to appear, a problem or an aim whose solution could only be attained through collective struggle.
Martian technological advancements were used as tools to avert imminent catastrophes instead of as devices of a more proactive approach to achieve long-term sustainability. It also appears that the Martian inability to produce and consume sustainably stems from an original lack of understanding that unity and togetherness should also apply to the living world around them. The Martian claim that “wherever there is life the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” seems to apply only to the Martian population and not to the natural ecosystem.20 Perhaps the biggest lesson we can take away from the Martian failure to acknowledge an organism’s interconnectedness with the planet on which it lives is that, without symbiosis with nature, Martians cannot avoid climate catastrophe. Only a restoration of unity between Martians and their natural surroundings, coupled with planning in relation to the planet’s carrying capacity, could save their society from inevitable collapse.
In many ways, the novel echoes the present. Humanity, faced with depleting natural resources and climate change, is in dire need of creative solutions. Living in a growth-oriented system, given the human history of exploitation and the demands that a post-industrial society imposes on the natural environment, makes it hard to imagine human production without excessive exploitation. Capitalism is an ideology with goals of infinite resource exploitation in a finite system; the goal of socialism is collective production to satisfy human needs. At least theoretically, socialism acknowledges the limits of growth and is compatible with the search for sustainable alternatives.
Ecosocialism provides a useful framework to assess modern human alienation from nature, best exemplified in the intensifying battle with the climate crisis, which is directly linked to the long-term exploitation of natural resources for the purpose of growth under capitalism.21 Marxist scholarship offers a line of readily applicable principles for the development of an ecological society, including: the interconnectedness of living organisms and nature, grounding socialism in assessments of the possibilities given particular historical and material conditions, establishing a democratic and equitable social and economic order, and promoting a sustainable model of development, as well as sustainable means and methods of production.22
- ↩ Frederick Engels, “The Rise of Capitalism and the Working Class,” in Essential Works of Socialism, ed. Irving Howe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 43.
- ↩ Alexander Bogdanov, Red Star, in Red Star: The First Bolshevik Utopia, ed. Loren R. Graham and Richard Stites (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 56.
- ↩ Bogdanov, Red Star, 118.
- ↩ Bogdanov, Red Star, 111–12.
- ↩ Bogdanov, Red Star, 79.
- ↩ Bogdanov, Red Star, 29.
- ↩ Bogdanov, Red Star, 66.
- ↩ Bogdanov, Red Star, 47.
- ↩ Bogdanov, Red Star, 112.
- ↩ Bogdanov, Red Star, 50.
- ↩ Bogdanov, Red Star, 43.
- ↩ Bogdanov, Red Star, 44.
- ↩ Karl Marx, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, in Karl Marx: A Reader, ed. Jon Elster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 35–46.
- ↩ This term was often used to explain an industry-driven development strategy. John Bellamy Foster, “Marx’s Ecology in Historical Perspective,” International Socialism 2, no. 96 (2002). See also Paul Burkett, Marxism and Ecological Economics: Toward a Red and Green Political Economy (Leiden: Brill, 2006); John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000); James O’Connor, “Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Theoretical Introduction,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 1, no. 1 (1988): 11–38; John Bellamy Foster interviewed by Alejandro Pedregal, “The Return of Nature and Marx’s Ecology,” Monthly Review 72, no. 7 (December 2020): 2–5.
- ↩ Marx, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.
- ↩ Marx, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, 41.
- ↩ Bogdanov, Red Star; Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (London: Penguin, 1972); Marx, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.
- ↩ Bogdanov, Red Star, 79.
- ↩ Bogdanov, Red Star, 80.
- ↩ Bogdanov, Red Star, 45.
- ↩ Foster, “Marx’s Ecology in Historical Perspective.”
- ↩ Foster, “Marx’s Ecology in Historical Perspective”; Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (New York: International Publishers, 1935); Marx, The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844; Burkett, Marxism and Ecological Economics.