People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
November 11, 2007
The Abiding Relevance Of Socialism
THIS issue of People’s Democracy is dedicated to our observations of the 90th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution. Though the USSR no longer exists (our analysis of this development is contained elsewhere in the issue), the impact of the socialist revolution was such that it left an inedible mark in shaping the contours of human civilisation in the 20th century. In the past, we had the opportunity to extensively discuss the political significance and the abiding relevance of the October Revolution in creating for the first time in human history a state and society without the exploitation of man by man. In the process of building this new society gigantic leaps in human endeavour and creativity were achieved. In this issue we explore the contributions made by socialism and the October Revolution in various fields of creative human endeavour. From extending the frontiers of science to deepening the aesthetic foundations of arts, literature and cinema, the Soviet Union left behind irreversible contributions to advance human civilisation.
In this context, it is indeed surprising that the golden jubilee of the launch of the Sputnik by the erstwhile USSR had been widely commented upon in the international media. The surprise lies not in the fact that this event does not deserve to be applauded. If the cold war was still on then this would simply have been impossible and for the West to acknowledge the superiority of the socialist system in stretching the limits of human endeavour and knowledge would have been simply unacceptable.
The launch of the Sputnik was indeed a path breaking scientific accomplishment. It unleashed forays into outer space that continue to breach the borders of human knowledge and epistemological frontiers. It was indeed refreshing to hear Michael Griffin, head of the US space agency, NASA at a ceremony marking this occasion at the Russian Academy of Sciences: “I am convinced that the Sputnik accomplishment by the Russian people was responsible for the creation of the American space programme that I head today.”
Discoveries and inventions based on researches in fundamental sciences always have implications and consequences that can never be anticipated at that time. Einstein’s theory of relativity, Edison’s electric bulb, Marconi’s radio or Graham Bell’s telephone, for instance have all led to consequential technological advances without which the modern world would have been impossible.
The launch of the Sputnik likewise led to tremendous spin offs that continues even today with the exploration of outer space. Satellites today in many ways ensure the way we live. Television pictures, telephone calls, email messages, cell phones etc. function through signals beamed from satellites and have virtually turned the world into a global village. A global positioning system which today can be put in any modern communication instrument will ensure that on this globe nobody can ever get lost. Weather forecasts and climate changes would have been impossible without the satellites as the discovery of new underground mineral riches. Not to mention the international space station and the Hubble space telescope that have vastly enriched our understanding of this planet and the universe. Since the Sputnik was launched, over 6600 satellites have been launched. Of these close to a thousand are in active operation and close to 600 are exclusively for communications. The degree of dependence on this for modern civilisation can be gauged from the fact that in May 1998 with just one communication satellite malfunctioning more than 30 million pagers in the USA went silent, credit card payment accruals did not work, radio and television networks went off air.
Today in the 90 thanniversary of the emergence of the socialist Soviet Union, despite the fact that it no longer exists, it needs to be realised that all this would not have been possible but for a pumpkin sized polished sphere that orbited the earth for 23 days. In other spheres of human endeavour as well, the socialist system made equally path breaking contributions like Sergei Eisenstein redefined the grammer of cinematography.
The announcement by the Soviet Union on the Sputnik’s successful launch said, “Artificial earth satellites will pave the way for space travel and it seems that the present generation will witness how the freed and conscious labour of the people of the new socialist society turns even the most daring of man’s dreams into reality.” The Soviet Union followed this with the launch of Sputnik II which carried the dog Laika to observe the effect of weightlessness on life.
Instead of using these scientific advances for the benefit of humanity as a whole and for achieving higher levels of civilisational advance, the US reactions were predictably panicky based on their diehard anti-communism. This was a period when some of the brightest intellectuals and creative people were harassed and hunted by the committee of un-American activities headed by McCarthy. McCarthism, as this period is infamously known, nurtured a mindset in the USA which was summarised by Lindon B Johnson the then Senate majority leader. He said the launch of the Sputnik was the warning that the Soviets would soon build space platforms and drop bombs on America, “like kids dropping rocks on to cars from freeway overpasses”. The world was being told that more than the significance of this foray into outer space was the R-7 rocket that delivered the Sputnik. This provided the USSR with the capability of nuclear intercontinental missiles which it did not possess till then unlike the USA. Thus, the cold war, which was launched by the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was intensified through a mindless nuclear arms race which was carried to outer space as well.
The United States tried to launch its own satellite soon after, Vanguard. But as the nation watched on live television, the rocket rose just four feet and exploded. Johnson called this “one of the best publicised and most humiliating failures in our history”. The panic reached a frenzy in 1961 when the USSR successfully sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit. President Kennedy is reported to have assured the Americans on the national television that by the end of the sixties USA would put the man on the moon. It finally did in 1969. In the meanwhile the Soviets had softlanded a remote craft on the moon.
Though the cold war may have provided the urge for a competitive edge in space exploration what is required to derive the maximum benefit for humanity is cooperation in these efforts. The Hubble telescope continuously keeps sending us fascinating photographs and information of the universe. Snuggled into a huge belt of warm dust an earthlike planet appears to be forming some 424 light years away, says a recent dispatch. This planet apparently will take a 100 million years before being fully formed and a billion years for the first signs of life, if at all, to appear. Why all this is important for us is because most of the universe, 96 per cent to be exact is made of dark matter that we simply are unable to fathom today. “We think we understand the universe, but we only understand 4 per cent of everything” said James Watson Cronin, the 1980 Nobel laureate for physics. It is this 96 per cent of matter which is pervasive but unidentified which holds the universe together and accelerates its expansion. Thus, leave alone the question of whether life exists anywhere else in this universe, even how the matter on which we shaped our civilisation came about in the first place, is still not known. To carry forward this man-nature dialectic what is required is cooperation in such scientific endeavours.
Instead, what we see today is a renewed aggression by the USA to use space as a theatre to display its military might and thus browbeat the world. In 2002, it withdrew from the thirty year old ABM Treaty freeing itself from the commitment not to deploy missile defences in outer space. It was the only country in the UN to vote against a ban on space weapons in 2005. In 2006 President Bush approved the new space policy rejecting any future space arms controls agreements and working to deny access to space to anyone, hostile to US interests. Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” is being given a tangible shape by US imperialism today.
Those who oppose such US hegemonic designs are often castigated as viewing the world through `ideological blinkers’. The boot, as always, is on the other foot. It is US imperialism that is not permitting humanity to draw greater advantages through cooperation in scientific endeavours in outer space given its hegemonic urge. Look who is wearing `ideological’ blinkers.
The abiding relevance of socialism’s experience in the 20th century lies in its endeavour to extend the benefits of scientific and technological advances for the advance of human civilisation and for the entire humanity. Imperialism and capitalism on the contrary seek to confine such advances for the benefit of imposing its hegemony on the world and exclusively for corporate profit. Even though the USSR does not exist any longer, this is a struggle that continues to engage humanity. It only underlines, forcefully, the need to sharpen the struggle against and thus to weaken imperialism and its efforts to impose global hegemony.
On this occasion of the 90th anniversary of the October Revolution the need is to redouble our resolve in strengthening the global anti-imperialist struggles.