Tag Archives: Robert Owen

Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker & ‘The dread but vital whole of things’

fig. 1. Photograph of William Olaf Stapledon

Recently I’ve been rereading Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker. I last read it in the late 1990s, not long after reading Stapledon’s Last and First Men. The grand scale of the latter is restaged in Star Maker, but on an even grander scale: this time the story of the entire cosmos across time and space rather than the mere 2-billion-year future history of homo sapiens and its various descendants.

However, this time around I was immediately struck upon reading Stapledon’s preface to Star Marker. In the late 1990s the preface seemed somewhat anachronistic, lost to me in its historical specificity. Today, we have unfortunately caught up with Stapledon’s concerns, as the passage of time brings us once again to the verge of a crisis not unlike that faced by Europeans and the wider world in the nineteen thirties.

Dated 1937, Stapledon wonders if Star Maker, and its apparent disengagement with its temporal and social context, is in truth “a distraction from the desperately urgent defence of civilisation against modern barbarism.” He goes on to contrast his perspective with those writers and intellectuals who were more obviously engaged in a partisan struggle with fascist barbarism, in particular, and capitalism, more generally. One cannot help but think of the Spanish Civil War that was then raging—even though Stapledon does not mention it.

Stapledon declares, for himself and others like him: “though we are inactive or ineffective as direct supporters of the cause, we do not ignore it.” Indeed, the threat of barbarism seems every present in his work in the 1930s. The first third of Star Marker is taken up by the spectral narrator’s visit to numerous far-flung worlds of barely human “men”, whose civilisations also stand at the crux of barbarism and those that would oppose it. However, he further poses in the preface that perhaps something is lost to those who are too immersed in the struggle, as if the future that they fight for recedes beyond their grasp precisely because of their focus upon the battles and brutalities of the present:

Those who are in the thick of the struggle inevitably tend to become, though in a great and just cause, partisan. They nobly forgo something of that detachment, that power of cold assessment, which is, after all, among the most valuable human capacities. In their case this is perhaps as it should be; for a desperate struggle demands less of detachment than of devotion. But some who have the cause at heart must serve by striving to maintain, along with human loyalty, a more dispassionate spirit. And perhaps the attempt to see our turbulent world against a background of stars may, after all, increase, not lessen the significance of the present human crisis. It may also strengthen our charity toward one another.

It may seem common sensical to pose, like Stapledon, that to be engaged and to be dispassionate can at best be complementary and at worst opposed. Thus, he can both laud those partisans driven by the demands of the “desperate struggle” against fascism, and equally his own somewhat more detached position. However, something else is in operation here that may not be immediately obvious unless we cast an eye over the historical context of Stapledon’s words. As I mentioned above, Stapledon never mentions the Spanish Civil War, even though he wrote his preface amidst the first year of this conflict.

The Spanish Civil War was by no means a simple or straightforward conflict. Today, most commentators accept that Hitler and Mussolini used it as a training group for the world war they were even then preparing. Lesser known is the story of the radical proletarian revolution that erupted at its origin in July 1936. Even less well known is that this revolution was not only ultimately defeated by the victory of General Franco and his Nationalist army in 1939, but rather had already been crushed by erstwhile allies and comrades as early as 1937. Operating under the orders of Stalin and with the connivance of the broad left Spanish Republican government, member of the Stalinist Socialist Party, alongside of Russian NKVD agents, hunted down, tortured, and murdered all those communists and anarchists who refused to bend to their leadership.

This is not the place to enter into the minutiae of the Spanish Revolution, and the counter revolution led by Stalinists. Some good places to start, but definitely not end, can be found in George Orwell’s first-hand account, Homage to Catalonia, Ken Loach’s 1995 film, Land and Freedom, and Vicente Aranda’s 1996 film, Libertarias.

Stapledon’s was what was known as a “fellow traveller” of the so-called communist regime in Russia and its various “communist” parties spread throughout Europe and the world. Though he was reticent to fully commit and was perhaps somewhat squeamish when confronted with the reality of their practice, he nonetheless broadly supported the USSR and its branches as bearers of a project that pointed beyond capitalism. This perhaps explains his generalities and effective silence on the events of 1936 and 1937 in his preface to Star Maker, preferring to neither condemn nor fully endorse Stalinist practice in Spain.

Indeed, I believe we can detect in Stapledon’s opposition of the “partisan” and the “detached” sympathiser, an argument somewhat analogous to that used by the Stalinists to justify their grab for power in Spain. There, and throughout Europe at the time, the Stalinist catechism was something like this: first, we deal with fascism, and then—and only then—we stage the revolution. With hindsight, we know that the committed Stalinist was always terrified of revolution and worked tirelessly to destroy any real or potential revolution that threatened to escape their control (for example: in China, 1926; Spain, 1936-37; France & Italy, 1944; East Germany, 1953; Poland & Hungary, 1956; Czechoslovakia, 1968; Poland, 1981). However, in the 1930s, Stalinism, insofar as it was apparently something to do with workers’ power and revolution, was attractive to many of those battered or outraged by the reality of capitalist crisis, economic depression, and the rise of fascism. In the face of the appeasement of the fascists by liberal and conservative politicians alike, not to mention the allure fascism held for many capitalists, it could seem that one must focus first on the fascist threat above all else. However, even if we forget for the moment the reality of Stalinist counter-revolution in Spain, we cannot simply ignore the role that capitalists and capitalism, liberal or otherwise, played in preparing the way for fascism. Today, as we again face fascism under new brands and names, it is the lesson of the other Spanish revolutionaries, the anarchist and the dissident communists, not the Stalinists, that we must relearn: the struggle against fascism begins and ends with the struggle against capitalism.

Stapledon, by accepting that his own utopian speculations, spread across many of his works, constituted a disengaged idealism in the face of partisan pragmatism, merely reinforced that great error known as Stalinism. As he notes in his defence, “an imaginative sketch of the dread but vital whole of things” as contained in Star Maker, for example, may in fact “increase, not lessen” the chances of success of the struggle against fascist barbarism. And yet he fumbled a real solution to the dilemma he presented: which is to say, there is no dilemma, the partisan struggle and utopian speculation must be united, otherwise we lose sight of precisely what it is that we struggle for.

Take for instance Stapledon’s “spiritual” speculations. IN the preface to Star Maker he appears somewhat circumspect about this dimension of his work, with an eye to his materialist comrades. However, his “spirituality” is far from religious, in the conventional sense. He notes that the “spiritual life” that he proposes as an aim beyond the competitive and individualistic ethos of capitalism, “seems to be in essence the attempt to discover and adopt the attitude which is in fact appropriate to our experience as a whole, just as admiration is felt to be in fact appropriate toward a well-grown human being.” In Star Maker, as elsewhere, Stapledon conceived of the movement from capitalist individualism to the communalism of communism as not merely a vital necessity—for species survival as much as its potential flourishing and ongoing creativity. He also saw it as the basis for the true flourishing of “spirit”, in the sense of the trans- and super-individual nature of the social body through history. Elsewhere, I have called Stapledon’s concern with spirit in this sense, evidence of his being a “pulp Hegel”. However, unlike Hegel, Stapledon’s spirit bears a passing resemblance to Marx’s, insofar as Stapledon’s spirit is the result of history rather than its presupposition (though, to be fair to Hegel, it is both result and presupposition in the latter’s work). Stapledon’s spirit is an emergent principle and essence, a marker of the further spiritualisation of the human that finally wakes, through and beyond capitalism, not only to the vast dimensions of its species capabilities, but increasingly to the cosmic stage of a burgeoning social consciousness become aware of its new breadth and powers.

In my experience, communists and anarchists have often been singularly incompetent in fostering a relationship between their present means and methods, and their future aims and ends. It is as if the more we focus upon the demands of the present, the future that we struggle for recedes and finally disappears. To that end, Stapledon’s speculations on the future course of spirit helps us draw attention to the emergence of spirit—in his sense—in the here and now. The outline of the future social being must surely appear in the present, even if its contours are often sketched in the negative of the capitalist society we struggle against and reject.

Indeed, Marx and Engels posed that the future aimed at—which is to say communism—is already present, immanent as it were, in the struggles of workers and others in the here and now, rather than being simply a fantastic ideal forever put off until the day after the revolution:

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. (Marx & Engels, The German Ideology)

In part, Marx and Engels were here refuting mere utopian socialist speculation (of the likes of Charles Fourier, Henri de Saint-Simon and Robert Owen), not in order to simply dismiss them, but rather to draw attention instead to the utopian dreams and desires of the exploited and oppressed. By their reckoning, the mistake of the utopian socialists was not their utopianism so much as the failure of their imagination when it came to the question of how to bring about their ideal palaces. Today’s anarchists and socialists often have the reverse problem. Bogged down by the minutiae of demanding more crumbs from the capitalist’s table (no matter how necessary such struggles are), they have forgotten that there is a world beyond said table.

To return to where I began. Stapledon’s dilemma, that between the partisans of the anti-capitalist struggle, and the detached dreamers of which he numbers himself, is in truth no dilemma at all. Indeed, in order to counter the purported alternative that fascism, for example, offers, we cannot dispense with our dreams and desires for a better world on the basis of an ill-conceived pragmatism. To do so is to concede the impossibility of making such aims a living moment of our present practice. Indeed, if the present struggle disengages us from the “dread but vital whole of things” in the name of a narrow pragmatism, we have already lost.

We struggle for a better world, a different world, not merely this one with a few more bells and trinkets. In this sense, and as noted above, communism is immanent to our needs and desire, both as individuals and as moments of our historical and social heritage. Indeed—and again taking a leaf from Marx and Engels—the question is not one of dismissing the likes of Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen, or even Stapledon (insert favourite contemporary speculative fiction author here), but rather one of taking up their speculations as a part of our present struggles and demands. Contrary to Stapledon’s fear that speculative works like his novel, Star Marker, or Last and First Men, are mere distractions from the “real” problems of our day, we should rather consider them as blueprints of the possible, as necessary to the struggle as aim and inspiration, as the struggle itself.

fig. 2. Front cover flyleaf of the first, 1937 edition of Star Maker