2017, the Russian Revolution, and the idea of utopia

This article was first published on Sceptical Scot.

Billed as a year of imagination and possibility to mark the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s Utopia, 2016 didn’t quite work out that way.

2017 offers another opportunity to consider the meaning and value of the idea of utopia, marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution, the most significant utopian enterprise since the American and French revolutions.

For most, the Soviet experiment, like 2016, will be remembered for its dystopian character: the bloody civil war that followed the Revolution; the swift suffocation of the nascent workers’ democracy by an overbearing bureaucracy; the immense suffering of forced-march collectivisation and industrialisation; the terrors of the 1930s police state; and the chronic misfiring of an economic engine that finally sputtered and died. The hulking edifice of the USSR stands as a ruined dream factory, utopia’s tombstone.

And yet the idea of the Revolution remains entangled in the radical imagination, recalling a time when the possibility of ‘socialism’, however understood, seemed tangible. 1917 promised to realise the hopes of a powerful labour movement fired by a century of radical literature.

Something of the raw excitement – and foreboding – that accompanied the Revolution is captured in Boris Dralyuk’s new collection of poetry written as the Bolsheviks seized power, a rupture that for true believers such as Vladimir Mayakovsky heralded the creation of a new world:

The courses of planets,
The existence of states:
all are subordinate to our wills.
The earth is ours.
The air is ours.
Ours is the diamond mine of the stars.

Those shining hopes were obscured by authoritarianism and economic stagnation, but the utopian light that inspired the Revolution continued to glimmer – sometimes brightly – through Soviet history, leaving a legacy of dreams that, though troubled, continue to inform the aspirations of today’s left for some kind of future world that might transcend established economic and political orthodoxies.

The light of artificial suns

A perennial Soviet preoccupation that continues to haunt 21st century progressives is the tantalising promise technology seems to hold for facilitating a transition to a postcapitalist economy. It was an obsession that predated the Revolution, animating Bolshevik sci-fi such as Alexander Bogdanov’s 1909 parable Red Star, which imagined the achievement of communist abundance on Mars through an automated economy run by prototype computing devices.

The early Soviet Union rushed to appropriate the technologies of capitalist modernity for socialist ends: Lenin famously equated the achievement of ‘full communism’ with electrification, Fordist production techniques were adapted in pursuit of rapid industrialisation, and designers, engineers, architects and filmmakers celebrated the aesthetics of the machine. Worker poets such as Vladimir Kirillov boasted:

We are the conquerors of seas, of oceans and of land.
We’ve lit the city with the light of artificial suns

By the 1950s technology seemed to be catching up with those visions, advances in computing, mathematical modelling and the new science of cybernetics suggesting possibilities for automating the planning of a vast, creaking, command economy. A fascinating new book by Benjamin Peters reveals the full extent of Soviet proposals to reimagine their economy as a vast command and control system through the development of a nationwide network of mainframe computers with some 20,000 access points, through which managers and workers could input economic data. The system would recalibrate itself in real time in response to new information, much as an open market reacts to price signals.

Like so many bold Soviet proposals the plan was never implemented, and the promise of ‘Red Plenty’ (memorably imagined by Francis Spufford) went unfulfilled. But the idea anticipated a rich seam of 21st century progressive thought exploring how modern digital networks are opening new forms of economic relations that transcend the price mechanism, the sharing of information and technologies such as 3D printing facilitating the sharing of low cost – or entirely free – goods and services.

And those old visions of a fully mechanised economy, production lines humming away, overseen by clipboard-wielding socialist engineers in lab coats, foreshadowed today’s intense debates about the opportunities and dangers presented by automation, a trend that, if it can be oriented towards the collective good, promises both greater wealth and leisure for all.

Promethean dreams

Hopes for an ‘electronic socialism’ ran alongside the great era of Soviet space exploration, symbolised by Sputnik, Gagarin and the design of the Mir space station. The programme flowed from the mystical visions of the Russian cosmists for whom the possibility of flight promised both physical and spiritual liberation from the bonds of the Earth.

That compulsion to push boundaries resonates with a popular contemporary desire to reinvigorate the golden era of post-war space exploration, manifested by huge public interest in robotic missions to the planets and outer regions of the solar system, and the possibility of a manned journey to Mars.

Those grand projects continue to appeal to a Promethean element in the socialist tradition that seeks to direct technological progress away from capitalist accumulation towards collective enterprises, which today might include the rollout of renewable energy sources, decarbonisation, the distribution of cheap medicine, and the wise application of artificial intelligence and automative technologies.

There has also been a intriguing surge of interest in another mode of Soviet dreaming: architecture. Lenin’s mass nationalisation of land, whether considered an act of liberation or theft, created the space for Soviet planners to develop a distinctively socialist architecture.

Designing public space

The earliest communist architecture has proved, perhaps, the most influential, the sleek geometry of the Constructivist designs of the 1920s (very few of which were actually built) informing the work of contemporary architects such as Sir Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid. It is a striking irony of architectural history that those avant-garde projections for socialist cities were finally realised in the megastructures that form the skylines of the world’s financial centres. And today’s increasingly urgent concern with the possibility of reviving the modernist ideal of good public architecture – exemplified in the fascination with Brutalism and social housing – has drawn inspiration from Eastern Bloc experiments with egalitarian space: libraries, theatres, squares, and the remarkable Soviet metro.

Alternative futures

The sober reality of the Soviet project fell – infinitely – short of the soaring expectations of its proletarian poets. But amidst the darkness some windows, cracked and stained as they were, looked out onto a different world.

The final collapse of the USSR hardened the left against any vestigial utopianism. But perhaps the idea of utopia might still have value if conceived as a process rather than a place, desire rather than blueprint, a recognition of a natural human impulse to imagine some other, better, design for life.

The mainstream left’s suppression of its old inclination to imagine alternative futures has created a space in which the right has projected its own utopias. The long neoliberal project has been a sustained effort to unleash the magical possibilities of market forces, and the populist nationalism that may well succeed it employs an unashamedly utopian rhetoric to conjure the prospect of return to a lost Golden Age in which jobs were secure, social and gender hierarchies clear, faith ubiquitous, and borders closed.

The right’s ease with grand narratives has allowed it to appeal to the imagination in a way the left’s reserved, utilitarian, technocratic language cannot. Progressives need to find the resolve to offer visions of their own that resonate with a popular desire for significant change. The left would be wise to imagine different utopias than those that inspired the revolutionaries of 1917, but, like them, it should not be afraid to dream. If not, others will not hesitate to pursue utopias – and dystopias – of their own.

Main image: To the defence of the USSR, Valentina Kulagina, 1931