Bridging the Gap: Science as a Means for Unity in Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star
For eons before mankind, even his most fundamental iteration, nature has been. Beyond having shaped the world and birthed the human being, nature is the all-powerful mother that has controlled and molded the human existence throughout its history. Whether responding to disease or storm, or to simple topographical realities, mankind has forever been subject to nature, creating a reactionary relationship between the two whereby man must constantly adjust to the environment in which he lives. Aware of this reality, Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star accounts for nature, incorporating it as the driving force behind the socio-political structures of the Earthly and Martian societies about which he writes. Between these two civilizations, nature is the shared, maternal omnipresence that framed customs and influenced politics, resulting in a violent and capitalist Earth and a homogenous, peaceful and communist Mars. Positing Mars as the communist and scientific utopia towards which mankind should strive, Bogdanov constructs his Martian society as a role model and an “elder brother” (Bogdanov, 56) not just for his contemporary Russia, which at the time of his writing was fraught with revolutionary angst, but for the Earth entire.
To this end, the novel’s protagonist Leonid, a communist scientist, leaves his mother Russia, traveling to Mars to “serve as the initial link” (86) between the two otherwise segregated planets. A prescient construction that foreshadows communism’s turbulent future on Earth, Leonid’s time on red planet is burdensome, marred by a difficult transition and an insurmountable inability to assimilate to Martian culture or to leave his own behind. Ultimately, even a fictional utopia must deal with the powers of nature, and by wielding these as a threat to the Martian society he designed, Bogdanov communicates a simple message: just as nature shapes civilizations, so too can it destroy them, and in the end, it will not be political ideology that saves mankind, but science.
To first establish the creational powers of nature, Bogdanov narrates the Martian’s history, focusing particularly on the environmental factors that necessitated the transition from capitalism to communism. In their beginnings, the Martians lead a tribal life similar to that on Earth wherein they exchanged commodities and established intercommunal ties, which over time lead to the development of warring nation-states with varying dialects. (54). This period of disunity was short lived, ameliorated by a “free and spontaneous” unification of dialects into language that inhibited Martians from evolving into different races and nations. (54). Whereas high mountains and vast oceans separate Terran countries and continents from one another, Mars’s topography is altogether more amenable to unity, lacking “walls and barriers” and occupying just a fourth of Earth’s surface area. (54). Though united by geography and language, these early Martians still experienced conflict, most of which arose from class distinctions and all of which was allayed by nature. As the absorption of moisture into the planet’s crust increasingly dried out Martian soil (54), irrigation became increasingly necessary and expensive, forcing small farmers to either form co-ops with one another or to sell their land to the few powerful agricultural capitalists. (55). Still, the problem persisted, and the government was forced to intervene, instituting the “Great Project,” a masterfully-engineered and publically-funded canal system that broke landlords’ power, forced the nationalization of land and first proved the capacity of science to overcome natural obstacles. (55). Though the “Great Project” provided Martian civilization with a period of economic stimulus and widespread employment, its completion brought about a period of revolt and industrial crises that would ultimately raze all vestiges of capitalism.
By contrast to similar eras in Earthly history, this time of revolution was relatively peaceful, realized mostly in strikes but occasionally in isolated uprisings against landowners. (56). As the rebellious grew in numbers and consciousness, the once-powerful capitalists retreated and, lacking financial backing, the government fell into the hands of the workers’ party, eventually socializing all means of production. (56). Having sparked the revolution that resulted in Martian communism, nature played an undeniably formative role in the culture that Leonid now experiences. One could even argue that all aspects of Mars–which have been since molded by the communist system–are a direct product of the arid Martian soil that encumbered private property and afforded opportunity for revolt. Generally ending in violence and resultant loss of human life, Earth’s conflicts are systematically more acute. But in the same manner that nature accounts for Martian peace, so too does it explain Earthly violence, which, according to Martian doctor Netti, can be explained by a rich endowment of natural resources and the “life-giving energy of the sun” (56). Exacerbating these factors, the Earth is composed of continents separated by entire oceans or mountain ranges; its peoples are divided by distinct races and languages; and its history is marred by struggles between factions and classes. This cocktail has inhibited earthlings from forming the same, united consciousness as Mars, where there is no individual. There, the individual exists only insofar as the whole exists within him or he within the whole (80), for all his contributions to society are impersonal and valuable only for their effect, not for his role. (43) Such a self-effacing notion is antithetical to Earthly capitalism, in which every individual competes against another to maximize his own potential, but is entirely necessary to a communist society wherein “there is no difference between workers” (44). And perhaps it is this extreme collectivism that inhibits Leonid’s assimilation into Martian society, for even though he is a communist, he is also an earthling, a reality that, try as he may, he cannot erase.
Placing Leonid at an immediate disadvantage, the breed of collectivism practiced on Mars can’t be adopted over night, but is inculcated in each citizen from childhood (70). Upon entering the “Children’s Colony,” children are dressed androgynously and educated collectively (70) in an attempt to begin the creation of the whole man in the child. (52). Still, individualism may arise naturally and it isn’t until adolescence, when “the social environment finally conquers the vestiges of the past” (70). These “vestiges of the past” seem to refer to a baser existence, perhaps to Martian society pre-communism; an interpretation validated by the colony’s superintendent, Nella, who notes that the “the development of the individual repeats that of society” (70). Just as Mars was individualistic capitalist before it was collectivist and communist, so too does each Martian child have to efface his individuality before entering Martian adulthood. Never having been exposed to such collectivism, Leonid struggles to adjust to it, trying at once to integrate himself into the Martian culture and to forget his past. But, in the same manner that nature shapes culture, culture shapes the individual, and so has Leonid been shaped by the earth, evidenced by his struggles with integration. Whether by the “intensely businesslike character of the Martian’s meetings” or by the “incompressibility” of Martian theater (87), Leonid is constantly reminded of his foreignness and inability to understand the alien lifestyle. Defending itself from absolute isolation, Leonid’s mind returns to that which it knows, the earth: ….I was overwhelmed by a veritable orgy of phantoms….All kinds of people I had met in my life and even some I did not know came and went or simply appeared for a moment and vanished. There were no Martians among them, however; they were all from Earth, mostly people I had not seen for a long time…” (90) Physically in Mars, his mind remains across the galaxy in Earth, where things and people are recognizable and comprehensible. Though he’s once confronted with the phantom of his ex-girlfriend (90), the majority of Leonid’s hallucinations are impersonal and quotidian, ranging from a passenger haggling with a driver to a salesman pressuring a customer (91), but always reminding him of earthly life. Ultimately, these hallucinations reveal a subconscious connection between Leonid and Earth, which, until broken, will prevent him from thoroughly assimilating into Martian life.
Desiring total rupture, Leonid seeks help, finding it in the form of a doctor, Netti, who prescribes him nothing more than bed rest. As his “sense of duty to mankind” recedes into the background, Leonid begins to relax, settling into his environment and accepting his circumstance: “One evening I was standing at the window looking down at the mysterious red ‘greenery’ darkening below me in the park. It was a beautiful scene that no longer struck me as strange or alien” (93). Whereas Mars’s red, “socialist” vegetation struck Leonoid upon arrival (60), it now provides him with a source of beauty. With Leonid’s bed-rest and time with Netti having tranquilized his previously preoccupied mind, here begins momentous transition in his Martian life, one brought to fruition by a budding romance: upon discovering that Netti is actually a woman, Leonid kisses her and finds himself overcome by “joyous insanity” and his eyes filled with “involuntary tears of gratitude” (93). Bringing this emotional climax to a head, Netti confesses her love for her Terran patient: “…it seemed to me just now that I was holding your whole youthful world in my arms. Its despotism, its egotism, its desperate hunger for happiness—I felt all of that in your caresses. Your love is like murder. But..I love you, Lenni ” (93). Netti conveys Leonid as a synechdochical representation of the greater human race of which he is a part, rendering their romance all the more symbolic: indeed, the interplanetary couple foreshadows a brighter future for the relations of their two races. Finally, Netti’s nomenclature of Leonid, “Lenni,” finalizes his transition into Martian life; his human name no longer holds weight, but has been replaced by a more-typically Martian one that’s phonetically similar to his peers’: short, with repeated consonants and ending in a vowel.
And with this romance, a new chapter of “Happiness” begins, not just in the novel itself, but in Leonid ’s Martian life. Comforted by the arrival of a “strong and reliable ally,” Leonid finally relinquishes the past to which he had been clinging, allowing him to “set about mastering” the alien planet. (94). Even so, this period of happiness is brief, brought to abrupt conclusion by nature: “The Martian reserves of minus-matter, needed for interplanetary travel and for decomposing and synthesizing elements, are nearly exhausted, and there was no way to replenish them. It had been established beyond doubt that very near the surface of Venus…there were colossal deposits of still active substances” (95). Despite its technological superiority, Martian society is still encumbered by nature’s realities, forcing Netti to leave her home and her lover for the greater good of her society. Not entirely convinced, Leonid is nagged by “a feeling that she was withholding something” (95), but ultimately dismisses his suspicions because of his certainty in their love. Still, his doubt itself reveals the instability of his circumstance; even in the face of love, his human instinct maintains and reminds him of his foreignness, which is in turn aggravated by Netti’s departure.
Requiring a distraction from Netti’s absence, Leonid resumes his purpose and implements his “main plan, which was to become a productive worker in Martian society” (96). Rather than giving lectures about Earth and its inhabitants, which would have “artificially restricted [his] attention to images of the past” (97), Leonid looks to conquer his future and to integrate into Martian society, electing therefore to join the ranks of a clothing factory. Though the work is “among the easiest there was” (96), the factory reminds Leonid of the inherent disadvantages of his humanity: I tried as hard as I could to work ‘no worse’ than my comrades, and for the most part I was successful. I could not help noticing, however, that it cost me much greater effort than it did them…It became increasingly obvious to me that what I lacked was the culture of concentration…Evidently it took several generations to develop this capability to a degree the Martians would consider ordinary and average. (99) In the same manner that the Martian whole is born in the child and brought out by the Children’s Colony, the Martian work ethic, here termed a “culture of concentration,” has been developing over generations, being passed down from each to each. Consequently, there is no depth of preparation than can bring Leonid to par with his comrades, for whom work “is a natural need” (66). With this, Bogdanov communicates a genetically-enhanced communism whereby a desire to work has become a dominant trait, made inherent by centuries of Martian heritage and manifested in the story of the hammerer: “Take, for example, the comrade operating the main hammer. He is so fascinated by his job that he refuses to be relieved….” (67). On the verge of causing himself involuntary suicide, this worker is hypnotized by the mundane, a unique and inhuman condition of the Martian existence that reveals an obsession with labor. (68). Engrossed as they may seem, these workers are actually acutely aware of their surroundings, “inevitably and infallibly” correcting all of Leonid ’s mistakes, of which there are many. This solicitude, Leonid believes, is a direct product of his humanity, a manifestation of the inferiority of his condition. In truth, such a perception is incorrect, for the “comrades at the factory helped each other in the same way…” (100), and stems from the individualistic background that forces Leonid to unconsciously single himself out from his peers, a notion contradictory to the Martian communist mantra. While he could once turn to Netti for companionship, Leonid is now on his own, causing an aversion to Martians and a consequent reversion to Earth.
As winter brings the cold, so too does a chill in Leonid ’s heart renew “doubts and moral solitude,” which, in turn, remind him that he is nothing more than “a stranger from another world” (100). More sensitive than ever to his inferiority, Leonid begins “to detect a note of almost contemptuous condescension” (100) in all his interactions, planting a seed of paranoia that would consume him and cloud his judgments. This paranoia, then, drives him to investigate his earlier suspicions about Netti’s departure, uncovering an unfortunate truth: Given the present growth rate of the population, if the Martians restricted themselves to the exploitation of their own planet, a food shortage would begin to make itself felt within thirty years….For that reason it had become absolutely imperative for the Colonial Group to shift its attention from purely scientific interplanetary expeditions to the organization of mass resettlement. (109) Again retarded by their environment, the Martians are faced with their impending doom, a dearth of resources that will bring about famine and the ultimate destruction of the utopia if not for resettlement. To this end, the Colonial Group convenes to discuss potential locations for re-colonization. Of these, there are two: Earth and Venus. As for the former, one scientist, the particularly cold Sterni, suggests the annihilation of all humans and the subsequent colonization of Earth. To Sterni, painless and complete genocide is the only option, for humans will not only defend their planet through guerilla warfare (111), but will resist Martian communist because of their proclivities for individualism and capitalism. Though the committee rejects the proposal, deciding instead to colonize Venus, which is less amenable to Martian civilization but is presently unpopulated, it galvanizes Leonid ’s humanism. Aside from Netti, he has no personal ties to Martian society and not even the communism at which he marvels can uproot him from his Earthly connections.
Whereas his convalescence allowed him to move forward from his past, the proposed annihilation thereof tortures his psyche: “The pain, however, did not cease, and my thoughts went grinding slowly on: ‘They will all die…Anna Nikolaevna…and Vanya the worker…” (122). Ultimately, Leonid assumes the blame for these impending deaths, believing that he has failed in his capacity as a liaison between worlds, and kills Sterni to retaliate. In this murder, Leonid manifests the same patriotism that Sterni believes would inhibit a peaceful and bloodless colonization of earth: This indefinite but strong and deep-seated emotion includes a spiteful distrust of all other peoples a races, a visceral attachment to a particular way of life—especially to the territory with which each people has fused, like a turtle with its shell—a certain collective self-conceit and often, evidently, a simple thirst for destruction, violence and plunder. (111) A communist and a scientist he may be, Leonid is above all an earthling, the individualistic nature of which brings about a reactionary territorialism.
Even if he identifies with the pillars of Martian society, Leonid simply cannot let his own go, a reality that proves the overpowering influence of man’s environment. No matter how devout his communist beliefs, Leonid was raised on Earth, and in the end, it is this background that prohibits his integration into Martian society, for the sort of communism practiced there is by this time more of a characteristic and a lifestyle than an ideology. Combining overt comparisons between Mars and Earth with Leonid’s transitional struggles, Bogdanov foreshadows the inevitably turbulent and violent course of communism on Earth. After all, Earth and Mars are related, sharing nature as a mother, but the former is younger by a “few tens of thousands of years” (56), expected to follow in Mars’ footsteps and perhaps therefore to learn from its failures, especially in regard to allocation of resources. Nature, then, becomes the invisible hand that directs the course of mankind and shapes his very existence. Prophecies aside, Bogdanov intentionally sustains Leonid’s connection to Earth throughout the novel, attempting to urge the reader towards unity in spite of difference. But, if not race and politics, then around what can men unite? To Bogdanov, the answer is simple: science.