When, on this day 50 years ago, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth, it seemed to many observers that the Soviet Union was destined to triumph over – or at least equal – capitalist countries like the United States.
Gagarin’s good looks and film-star charisma helped make him perhaps the world’s first global hero. Crowds gathered in the streets of London and other cities to catch a glimpse of Gagarin after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sent him on a world tour.
Khrushchev himself had initiated a partial de-Stalinisation of the Soviet Union with his 1956 secret speech. Shocked delegates at a closed session of the country’s Communist Party heard Khrushchev denounce Stalin and his crimes against the people.
It had been a spectacular conversion. Khrushchev was an enthusiastic supporter of Stalin and the pre-war show trials which had destroyed the party’s Bolshevik old guard, the Red Army’s leadership and millions of others. He had backed the disastrous Nazi-Soviet pact which made World War Two a certainty.
But within three years of Gagarin’s pioneering flight in Vostok, Khrushchev had been ousted and replaced by the arch-conservative Leonid Brezhnev. Gagarin himself died in a plane crash aged 34 in 1968. The Soviet Union went back to being a tightly-controlled Stalinist regime.
Instead of Khrushchev’s boast that the Soviet Union would out-perform the United States in economic terms, the new leadership reverted to a classic Stalinist mentality. This assumed that the only way to defeat imperialism was to arm yourself to the teeth.
Revolutionary change in the West was definitely off the agenda (it had been since Stalin’s rise to power) in favour of working for peaceful co-existence if possible and war if not. The nuclear arms race took off in a spectacular fashion as the USSR and the USA built enough inter-continental ballistic missiles to blow up the world many times over.
Moscow’s essentially isolationist policy, the dedication of huge resources to military hardware, was ultimately a significant factor in the eventual demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. Cut off from the advanced technology of the global economy and encircled by capitalist states, the USSR stagnated on many indicators. Suffocated by a parallel world of state and party bureaucracies, economic productivity failed to increase. A distorted accounting system based on reporting to Moscow what it wanted to read only deepened the problems.
A little over 20 years after Khrushchev’s fall from power, a further attempt was made to resuscitate the country through deeper de-Stalinisation. Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost opened up the political process for the first time since the early 1920s. But the entrenched Stalinists in the party struck back in an abortive coup, facilitating Boris Yeltsin’s rise to power and an eventual capitalist overthrow.
Nevertheless, Gagarin’s heroic flight reminds us of some essential lessons of 20th century history. The 1917 Russian Revolution, whatever the country’s later horrific twists and turns, did demonstrate that it is possible to develop a country without capitalist ownership and the profit motive. What is not possible is the creation of a socialist economy, one based on common ownership and control, rather than bureaucratic state entities, in isolation from the rest of the world.
Today, Stalinism is gone and the “triumph” of the West has proved illusory. The “end of history” famously forecast by philosopher Francis Fukuyama after the demise of the Soviet Union turned out to be more than premature. Global capitalism is in its deepest-ever crisis and its political system discredited in the eyes of many. Gagarin’s one orbit of the planet broke free of physical laws. It’s up to us to liberate ourselves from oppressive social constraints.