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Alexander Bogdanov’s Secret History of Martian Socialism

Long before writers like Kim Stanley Robinson used science fiction to explore socialist ideas, the Russian Marxist Alexander Bogdanov published a remarkable novel about the Martian road to socialism. Bogdanov’s Red Star is finally getting the attention it deserves.

Alexander Bogdanov used science fiction to hold up a mirror to our own world, depicting intelligent beings on Mars and the highly advanced socialist society they had created. (Getty Images)

An early scene in Alexander Bogdanov’s novel Red Star describes a meeting between a mysterious character and a revolutionary scientist. The scientist is Lenni, a mathematician, sometime surgeon, and active fighter in the first of the twentieth-century Russian revolutions, in 1905. Lenni has been contacted by Metti, another scientist, philosopher, and social critic.

What starts as a seeming invitation to join an earthly secret society quickly escalates into a trip off of the planet. Metti, we learn, has come from Mars to find a suitable human ambassador between the two planets and the societies they host. The Martians in the book recognize that the bloody conflict in which Lenni, and the Russian working class, is engaged will help lead to the establishment of socialism.

Metti discusses with Lenni the idea that organisms, and indeed societies, tend to converge on certain characteristics as they evolve along with their worlds. The Martians and the Earthling humans, it turns out, don’t look so different from one another.

Metti’s people are taller, and they have larger eyes, as they’ve adapted to their planet’s lighter gravity and dimmer sunlight. But other than that, they are recognizable to one another as “higher types,” that is, organisms who have evolved to use and shape the conditions presented by their worlds to a greater degree than any other, “the one which masters the planet.”

So it goes with political and social forms, as well. The course of history on Mars, though less full of brutal conflicts like the revolution they have left behind in St Petersburg, tends inexorably toward socialism, as does the course of history on Earth.

Lenni, Bogdanov’s narrator, presents himself with a concrete image of this isomorphism — the eye of the octopus. Octopuses, marine Cephalopoda that represent the highest organisms of an entire branch of evolution, have eyes which are unusually similar to those of the animals on our branch, the vertebrates. Yet the origin and development of the eyes of the vertebrates are completely different.

Strife on Mars

This conceit allows Bogdanov to use his novel to serve one of the primary functions of science fiction and utopian literature in general. His Mars is an opportunity to create an outside from which to examine the givens that are taken for granted on Earth.

Mars is distant in space, and it is only thanks to the recent development of advanced propulsion systems to make the trip that the Martians have discovered that Earth is inhabited by “higher” creatures like themselves. But Mars is also distant in time, further along an inevitable teleological pathway that will end in a better, “higher” society.

Lenni learns, from Metti and the other Martians he meets once they arrive on the planet, that Martians had once been distant from one another — geographically, culturally, socially, and economically. As Metti tells him:

At one time, peoples from different countries on Mars could not understand each other either. Long ago, however, several centuries before the socialist revolution, all the various dialects drew closer to one another and merged in a single common language. This occurred freely and spontaneously.

However, this convergence of equals was followed by the introduction of class hierarchy, which led to resource exploitation, followed by the eventual resolution of the conflict through the introduction of global Martian socialism. The tectonics of Martian history and society are a consequence of that planet’s own relationships between its geological parts and wholes. Mars, we learn, has no great oceans or huge mountain ranges, for it has no plate tectonics.

On Earth, on the other hand, the division of the whole planet into component parts created an initial blissful ignorance; individual cultures could live without concern for one another. But eventually, as these peoples grew and migrated, they met one another, and instead of cultural similarity, reinforced by the sameness of their lands, they found heightened difference. It is that difference that has led to the extreme conflict and war that defines Earth’s history. On Mars, in contrast, unity in geology is of a piece with political and social unity.

In the history that the novel’s Martians present, this unity represents a kind of closing of the Martian frontier. The subsequent competition for newly scarce resources creates new divisions — this time not across the horizontal landscape, but vertically, between class and income levels. The crisis is brought to a head when water begins to run out, and the Martians begin the construction of what would have been, at the time of Red Star’s publication, Mars’s best-known features, its canals.

Red Plenty

Their seeming existence was announced in 1877 by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, and much has been made of the subsequent translation of his word for what he had observed, canali — which could mean any kind of channel, natural or otherwise — into a word in English that more directly connoted intelligent design: canals. The idea of an engineering project that spanned an entire planet was humbling and frightening to cultures on Earth, at a time when the construction of canals in Panama and Suez was already staggeringly ambitious, and even more shockingly expensive.

The popular assumption was that any intelligent culture on Mars must be much older than Earth’s, in order to have achieved such a thing. This was the root of H. G. Wells’s 1897 novel The War of the Worlds, in which the more technologically advanced Martians invade Earth, and of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom series, begun in 1912, in which Martian culture has become decadent and violently degraded to almost medieval levels.

Bogdanov expertly turns these tropes around in Red Star. His canals are another resurgence of horizontal connections, a new tectonic system that had originally been intended to recuperate the last drops of a failing resource, but whose difficult construction and expense instead precipitated a new period of shared infrastructure and shared resources that led to a postcapitalist Martian golden age.

In Bogdanov’s Martian planetary imagination, this golden age is an era regulated by numbers and statistics. Netti, another of Lenni’s Martian comrades, suggests that humanity’s failure so far to embark on this effort represents a failure of the parts to form a whole:

That is 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.

The Martians have learned to use information science and computation to regulate these tectonic relationships, so that each individual effort on the part of each Martian citizen contributes to the greater good and greater advancement. The “exact computation of available labor” organizes every possible connection between what a person is able and willing to do, and what is needed to be done, in a system not unlike the “sharing” and “gig” economy systems of the early twenty-first century, albeit with three important differences.

Firstly, there is no profit motive on Mars; in the second place, all consumer goods are free; and finally, participation in this statistically regulated workforce is entirely voluntary: The tables are meant to affect the distribution of labor. If they are to do that, everyone must be able to see where there is a labor shortage and just how big it is.

Assuming that an individual has the same or an approximately equal aptitude for two vocations, he can then choose the one with the greater shortage. As to labor surpluses, exact data on them need be indicated only where such a surplus actually exists, so that each worker in that branch can take into consideration both the size of the surplus and his own inclination to change vocations.

Planetary Conflict

The human Lenni discovers that all is not quite as it seems in the Martian utopia. Their society is on the verge of a Malthusian crisis, as available resources are not growing fast enough to supply their growing population. But still, they adhere to a logic that values expansion above all else. As one Martian says to him:

Check the birth rate? Why, that would be tantamount to capitulating to the elements. It would mean denying the unlimited growth of life and would inevitably imply bringing it to a halt in the very near future.

The Martians believe in a creed that equates the existence of each tiny part and particle with the existence of the totality. “The meaning of each individual life,” one says, “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 of us lives through the whole.”

As we noted above, Mars is a planet without plate tectonics, and the Martian worldview is likewise one of a social and political life whose seams are smoothed over, without fault lines. But once Bogdanov’s Martians discover an outside to their own totality — the existence of other nearby planets with resources, Venus and Earth — difference reappears in the scenario. And once they develop the capability of reaching those planets, in the form of the experimental space drive that had allowed Metti’s expedition to collect Lenni, that initial difference between planetary parts leads to potential conflict, and the threat of a Martian invasion of Earth.

In his work Cosmos, codeveloped as a book and a TV series, astronomer and planetary scientist Carl Sagan frequently invokes the image of a “cosmic ocean” to give his ideas about space exploration a concrete metaphorical frame. As he remarks in the first episode of the show:

The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore, we’ve learned most of what we know. Recently, we’ve waded a little way out, maybe ankle-deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.

Are there other ways of knowing besides colonization and conquest? Venus, in Red Star, is depicted in a way that would be as familiar to readers of early twentieth-century science fiction as the famous canals of Mars. It is a hot, humid, suffocating jungle world, overflowing with energy, resources, and a prosperous, hostile, and “primitive” life. When a character lecturing on Venus hears proposals to devote Martian science and engineering to tame this jungle and make it productive for “higher forms” of life, he dismisses them as naive.

The main Martian proponent of an Earth invasion rejects the idea that Martians could go to Earth and live peacefully with the humans there. The Earthlings are too violent and debased for that, he argues, due to the history of difficulty and difference on their world; moreover, the distance between the two planets — socially and spatially — is too great and dangerous. Therefore, invasion and extermination is the only option:

We must understand this necessity and look it squarely in the eye, however grim it might seem. We have only two alternatives: either we halt the development of our civilization, or we destroy the alien civilization on Earth. There is no third possibility. . . . We must choose, and I say that we have but one choice. A higher form of life cannot be sacrificed for the sake of a lower one. Among all the people on Earth there are not even a few million who are consciously striving for a truly human type of life. For the sake of these embryonic human beings we cannot deny the birth and development of tens, maybe hundreds of millions of our own people, who are humans in an incomparably fuller sense of the word. We will not be guilty of cruelty, because we can destroy them with far less suffering than they are constantly causing each other. There is but one Life in the Universe, and it will be enriched rather than impoverished if it is our socialism rather than the distant, semi-barbaric Earthly variant that is allowed to develop, for thanks to its unbroken evolution and boundless potential, our life is infinitely more harmonious.

Direct Exchange

In an important speech, Netti, the narrator’s Martian love interest, delivers a rebuke to these paradigms of total hierarchy and instrumentality. “These forms are not identical with ours,” she insists. “The history of a different natural environment and a different struggle is reflected in them; they conceal a different play of spontaneous forces, other contradictions, other possibilities of development.”

For Netti, and for Bogdanov, this difference is precisely the point:

They and their civilization are not simply lower and weaker than ours — they are different. If we eliminate them we will not replace them in the process of universal evolution but will merely fill in mechanically the vacuum we have created in the world of life forms.

There is a precedent in Martian society for this alternate scheme of valuable productive difference: in order to prolong their lives, they practice mutual blood transfusions with one another. These are undertaken not to cure the sick, but rather to smooth out difference between individuals, so that they may share what is best from each, in “regular comradely exchanges of life.”

Bogdanov’s Martians need to be renewed by interaction with something outside themselves, through the transfer of information, art, radio waves, thought patterns, or bodily essences. These connections rely on difference without hierarchy, signaling a recognition that disparate parts can form a new whole, even if it is a hybrid, such as a cyborg. So, the “way for the cosmos to know itself” that Sagan waxed about has as much to do with difference, difficulty, and even accident as it does with some teleological march of progress.

Bogdanov valued direct exchange as a way to engage with spontaneity and contradiction, putting his speculations into material and bodily practice: he experimented with actual blood transfusions as a physician. Tragically, he was brought down by his faith in the power of “comradely exchange”: he died in 1928 after a transfusion experiment exposed him to malaria, tuberculosis, and an incompatible blood type.