50th Anniversary of the Sputnik launch: Soviet science and the advances of the planned economy

50 years ago on 4 October 1957, the Soviet Union launched the world's first artificial satellite into space - Sputnik 1. The launch came as a complete surprise, even to the US intelligence community which was caught completely unawares. The launching of the satellite not only shocked the world, it completely changed it by ushering in a new age - the Space Age.

Beyond that, the launching of Sputnik shocked and terrified the ruling class of the United States. After the Second World War, the US ruling class feared the sheer size and strength of the Soviet military, which had after all defeated the Nazis and effectively taken control of half of Europe.

However, despite the fact that the Soviets had developed the a-bomb just a few years after the US, many US leaders and military apparatchiks believed that the Soviets were incapable of developing high tech, sophisticated equipment. Sure, the Soviets could exploit a massive amount of natural resources and produce massive amounts of steel (and tanks), but they could do nothing resembling the sophistication of American production techniques. This all changed in 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, revealing that the Soviet Union had the ability to launch nuclear missiles and strike targets anywhere in the world. Before Sputnik, the average person in the US would have believed that the US was superior in all fields of technology - especially rocket and space technology.

Soviet superiority

This was a major propaganda victory for the Soviet Union. They were the first into space. Fear and panic gripped the American ruling class. "Could the 'communists' really overtake us?" they wondered aloud. The launching of the satellite and the spectacular televised failure of the first US launch attempt (the Vanguard TV3 was dubbed "Flopnik" and "Stayputnik") ushered in what became known as the Sputnik crisis in the US. In fact, the first 19 attempts by the US to get into space failed. The confidence of the US ruling class was shaken - there was a crisis of confidence in US technology, values, politics, and the military. One congresswoman, referring to Sputnik's signal, stated that it was "an intercontinental outer-space raspberry to a decade of American pretensions that the American way of life was a gilt-edged guarantee of our national superiority."

Of course, the US would finally launch their first satellite, Explorer 1 in January 1958 and their second satellite Vanguard 1 in March, but by then the Soviets had launched Sputnik 2, and launched a dog into space. In 1961 the Soviet Union launched the first man in space. They were winning the space race.

This prompted a big response from the US military industrial complex. The US reorganized its military research and development, created NASA, changed school curriculums and pumped money into R&D programs to develop engineers, etc.

Suddenly the US ruling class saw weakness everywhere, and feared the Soviets would technologically swamp them and overtake them. Kennedy was able to use the so-called "bomber gap" and "missile gap" to pump millions into US military spending. Fear was used to whip up hysteria and paranoia amongst the population to justify all manner of military spending and projects.

Of course, eventually the US would "win" the space race - putting a man on the moon in 1969. The Soviets attempted to compete with the US shuttle programme with their own Burna programme, but this was cancelled in 1990 due to lack of funds and the disintegration of the USSR. 

Advances of the planned economy

The launching of Sputnik was a remarkable achievement that irrevocably changed the world forever - this is undoubted (today there are some 900 satellites orbiting earth providing weather, telephone, GPS, television, and military services). However, today it is fashionable to dismiss this and other achievements of the Soviet Union. Looking through the press coverage on the anniversary of the Sputnik launch one can see the open contempt for the Soviet Union and its achievements. The Soviets were never ahead, never a threat, the US was never far behind, etc. For example, we see this in the Washington Post:

"At the time, all thoughts were about the Soviets overwhelming us technologically. But the panic turned out to be unwarranted. Sputnik was not subtle science. The Soviets were making up for their inability to miniaturize nuclear warheads -- something that does require sophistication -- by developing massive rockets. And they had managed to develop one just massive enough to hurl a ball into Earth orbit."

Or in another article:

"Sputnik didn't put America's world supremacy in the military domain in question for long. After all, in 1957, Russia was still devastated by the millions of deaths it had suffered during the Second World War, and the Stalinists in the Kremlin had little control over what had long been a totally chaotic economy. That a country in such a condition could briefly appear to overtake the US did cause a serious upset."

The most remarkable thing about the launching of Sputnik is the fact that it was launched in Russia. The first country to launch a satellite into space was not an advanced capitalist country like the US, Britain, France or Germany - but Russia.

Despite the dismissal, denial and belittling of the achievements of the Soviet Union in the press, and despite the problems, deficiencies and crimes in the USSR, it must be said that these achievements were reached in the Soviet Union in a remarkably short space of time. It was completely unprecedented in history, and these miraculous achievements were a direct result of the nationalised planned economy.

We must remember what we are speaking about. We are speaking about a country, Russia, which in 1917 was one of the most backward, underdeveloped countries in the world. Within the span of 30 years, the Soviet Union was able to achieve what took the advanced capitalist countries hundreds of years to do and what many countries have as yet been unable to do. By the end of the Second World War the Soviet Union had gone from a backward, semi-feudal, illiterate country with little to no infrastructure to become a modern, industrialized, developed economy. By the end of World War II, the Soviet Union had become one of the world's superpowers, militarily and economically, second only to the United States. A quarter of the world's scientists were found in the Soviet Union, which also had a health and educational system equal or superior to anything found in the West - to the extent that she was able to launch the first space satellite and put the first man into space. 

As Alan Woods explains in his introduction to Russia: from Revolution to Counter-Revolution:

"In a period of 50 years, the USSR increased its gross domestic product nine times over. Despite the terrible destruction of the Second World War, it increased its GDP five times over from 1945 to 1979. In 1950, the GDP of the USSR was only 33 per cent that of the USA. By 1979, it was already 58 per cent. By the late 1970s, the Soviet Union was a formidable industrial power, which in absolute terms had already overtaken the rest of the world in a whole series of key sectors. The USSR was the world's second biggest industrial producer after the USA and was the biggest producer of oil, steel, cement, asbestos, tractors, and many machine tools. The Soviet space programme was the envy of the world.

"Nor is the full extent of the achievement expressed in these figures. All this was achieved virtually without unemployment or inflation. Unemployment like that in the West was unknown in the Soviet Union. In fact, it was legally a crime. (Ironically, this law still remains on the statute books today, although it means nothing.) There might be examples of cases arising from bungling or individuals who came into conflict with the authorities being deprived of their jobs. But such phenomena did not flow from the nature of a nationalised planned economy, and need not have existed. They had nothing in common with either the cyclical unemployment of capitalism or the organic cancer which now affects the whole of the Western world and which currently condemns 35 million people in the OECD countries to a life of enforced idleness."

It may be fashionable to belittle these achievements now, but at the time the strategists of capital were genuinely terrified. And the Soviet bureaucracy was brimming with confidence. On the basis of the remarkable advances, Khrushchev famously declared in 1961 that the Soviet Union would overtake the United States by 1980, famously declaring "we will bury you!".

The strategists of capital were not laughing. At the time the Soviet economy was growing by about 10% a year, and based on these rates the target of overtaking the US by the 1980s was entirely realizable - and the ruling classes in the West knew it.

As Ted Grant explains in the Russia: from Revolution to Counterrevolution:

"Nowadays, this is ironically dismissed as an idle boast. On the contrary. On the basis of Soviet growth rates of 10 per cent the target of overtaking America in 20 years would have been entirely possible. That, of course, would not have meant that socialism had been built in the USSR, let alone communism, a classless society, in which inequality, the state and money had become distant memories of the past, and laws and coercion are replaced by an association of free producers. Nevertheless, under the planned economy, formerly backward Russia had developed industry, science and technique to a point where the material conditions now existed for beginning to move in the direction of socialism, which, as Marx explained, requires a level of development at least as high as the most advanced capitalist country. Now the Soviet Union was within striking distance of drawing level with the USA. Only the bureaucracy stood in the way. And the bureaucracy had shown in Hungary that it had no intention of withering away.

"Despite what they now say, the meteoric advance of the Soviet economy seriously alarmed the ruling class of the West. Russian industrial production had reached 75 per cent of the US level during the 1960s. The bureaucracy believed it could rule forever. It seemed the Stalinist regime thought things could only go forward. Nothing could stand in their way. The continuous high rate of growth served to explain the stability enjoyed by the bureaucratic regime for the last period. Under Stalin, the bureaucracy ruled by naked terror. But for the last three decades or more, it was able to maintain its rule mainly because of the inertia of the working class. This, in turn, was explained by two factors: on the one hand, the fear of imperialist intervention, and on the other because the masses felt that, in spite of everything, the bureaucracy was still capable of carrying society forward. But now, all the factors which enabled the bureaucracy to survive for so long dialectically turned into their opposite."

The Soviet Union made great advances in the realms of science and technology. Soviet science, despite the lies of the current press, was very advanced - particularly in the spheres of theoretical physics and mathematics. The Soviets were well in advance of the West in the field of chaos theory, and its other programmes, save perhaps computer technology, were either better than or at least equal to Western programmes.

After the launching of Sputnik Eisenhower famously declared: "it was one small ball in the air" that was only made possible because Russia had ‘captured all the German scientists' at the end of the Second World War. This was an out and out lie. In fact, it was the US who had captured all the German scientists after the war, including Wernher von Braun, the chief architect of the Nazi rocket programme and developer of the V2. The Soviets had carted away several thousand German rocketry workers and technicians, but these were just that - lower level technicians.

The Bureaucracy and science

What is remarkable is that Soviet science was advanced as it was despite the insanity of the Stalinism - and Stalin himself. There is the famous example of Lysenko, who used his political connections to peddle his erroneous and mad biological theories. In fact, his theories became dominant in the field of biology, setting back Soviet biology programmes for years. Despite this, after correcting itself, Soviet biology made great advances and developed quickly. He also used his connections to eliminate his rivals and opponents.

Even Sergey Korolyov, father of the Soviet rocket programme and architect of Sputnik, was jailed and put in the gulag during the Great Purges. This was because his main sponsor was Mikhail Tukhachevsky, who also ran rocketry research. When Tukhachevsky was purged, all scientists under him were arrested. This just goes to show the madness of Stalinism and the purges. Even after the war, the Soviet bureaucracy, a section of which had favoured the development of cavalry over tanks just before the war, saw no value in rocketry. Many of the Soviet rocket scientists essentially worked in underground conditions until they could convince the ruling elite of the importance of the field.

Even later on, one of the reasons why the Soviet Union lagged behind in computer technology was because the Party elite denounced cybernetics, modern genetics and even certain aspects of Einsteinian relativity as bourgeois theories that were "contrary to Communist orthodoxy". Computers were out because "automated machinery would interfere with the dignity of labor and rob workers of their jobs". This may very well be true, but not producing computers is no response to the problem, especially from the Marxist point of view. In the end, once the importance of computers were recognized, Soviet computer technology made great strides and again advanced quickly. 

What this proves is that the remarkable successes of the planned economy were achieved despite the bureaucracy, and not because of it, showing the potential of a genuinely democratically planned economy under socialism. 

The achievements of the Soviet Union cannot be erased from history. Despite the crimes, the gross bureaucratic inefficiencies, the planned economy of the Soviet Union achieved historically unprecedented results. Russia was transformed in the span of 30 years from a poor, underdeveloped country languishing in the middle ages into a modern superpower.

This was a direct result of the planned economy, despite the bureaucracy, which acted like a massive parasite on the economy, which eventually plugged the pours of the economy, causing the economy to stagnate and eventually resulting in the collapse of the Soviet Union (for a more in depth analysis please see Russia: from Revolution to Counterrevolution).

The Soviet Union is no more. But its historical achievements still stand. We can only imagine the possibilities, we can only imagine what could have been achieved if the planned economy had been freed from the dead weight and heavy hand of the bureaucracy. Had the working class overthrown the bureaucracy, and reinstated genuine workers' democracy, including a genuine democratic plan, the possibilities would have been limitless.

This is why the bourgeois media scoffs at the achievement that was Sputnik, and denies the other achievements of the Soviet Union. They wish to destroy the memory of what was done, with so little, in such a short amount of time. This is what they fear and we know - the limits of capitalism, and the possibilities under genuine socialism.