Imperialism and space exploration
I wrote this in 2009 on the 40th anniversary of humanity walking on the moon. It has relevance even today I believe as we celebrate the landing of Curiosity on Mars. Now the imperialist competition is between an economically declining but militarily powerful US and a rapidly growing China.
The race to the moon 40 years ago was a battle between Russian and American imperialism.
The landing itself shows both the capacity of humanity to achieve greatness and the baseness that drives it to do so under capitalism.
As Marx and Engels said in the Communist Manifesto, the bourgeoisie:
… has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.
But like the pyramids, the moon landing was built on slavery – wage slavery, the most productive form of organisation humanity has so far known.
What drove the Americans to send men to the moon in 1969 was competition with the Russians. This competition was ideological, political, economic and military.
The American ruling class went into shock when the Russians sent the unmanned Sputnik into space in 1957. That was compounded in 1961 when Yuri Gagarin made the first manned space flight.
It seemingly showed that Russian state capitalism was not only viable but was outstripping the American version of capitalism.
The impact was not only ideological. It meant that Russian capacity, economic and military, was more formidable than the Americans had thought or imagined.
So in 1961 President Kennedy committed US imperialism to landing on the moon before the Russians.
They poured billions of the surplus that workers create into that project. The Russians responded by increasing their space spending.
In addition both sides spent more and more on their arms race. Indeed the space race was an adjunct of the arms race, begin in part driven by the need for technological spin-offs for military use.
This battle between the two major blocs of capital was known as the Cold War because their military competition was mediated through the fact that both sides had the capacity to destroy each other many times over with nuclear weapons.
This means there were often proxy wars between the two – Vietnam being a major example. (I’ll leave aside nuances arising from the China/Russia contretemps.)
The Stalinist version of capitalism was successful in dragging Russia out of the mire of feudalism to become a major economic power within 40 years.
For example the Russian economy between 1945 and 1970 was, after Japan, the fastest growing of any industrialised or industrialising country.
It was this success which laid the ground work for the magnificent velvet revolutions between 1989 and 1991 and destroyed the grotesque Stalinist dictatorships parading under the banner of socialism and replaced one form of capitalism with another.
The inefficiency of state capitalism in direct competition with western capitalism (not in building up to a competitive level but actually being competitive) helped destroy the ancien regimes of stalinism.
The Cold War meant that while each side spent roughly the same on arms and space competition, the Russian economy, at about half the size of the American, bore a disproportionately greater burden.
Spending on the space race was a contributing factor to the economic destruction of Russia and its satellite states.
At the same time that President Kennedy was overseeing imperialist competition with Russia in space, he was doing the same on Earth. He sent more and more ’advisers’ into Vietnam.
His assassination meant that the task of fully defeating ‘communist’ influence in Asia fell to Lyndon Johnson. By the end of 1965, under his rule, the US had over 200,000 troops in the country.
The imperialist logic that drove the US ruling class to invade Vietnam also drove it to invade the moon.
The 1960s were a period of rebellion. Demonstrations and protests against Vietnam grew over time.
In France in May 68 French workers went on strike, the biggest general strike in history at that time. They shook French capitalism to its core.
The Tet Offensive in Vietnam was a military failure but a political success. It showed to millions of working people in the West that the US could not win the war in Vietnam.
Revolution was in the air in the East too.
In the Stalinist countries, resistance had erupted in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
The Polish working class continued its ongoing struggle against the Stalinist dictators with major challenges in 1956, 1970 and throughout the 80s.
On the ground people were fighting for a better world against the ruling class of both blocs. In space those classes were battling each other for supremacy.
That battle continues today. it is no accident that as Chinese imperialism develops and begins to seriously challenge US global dominance, the Chinese ruling class is now talking about putting a man on the moon by 2020.
While the achievement of walking on the moon shows the great capacity and potential of humanity, its driving force – imperialist competition - shows we have far to go before we are all astronauts of our own earth.
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