In 2020, I published a book about the Posadists, a communist sect from Argentina who believed that the extraterrestrial pilots of UFOs had come in peace to help us overcome the suicidal capitalist order that rules Earth. The Posadists were an apocalyptic cult with absurd ideas about nuclear war and comradeship with dolphins, but their party line on aliens was pretty sound.
In this one respect, the Posadists’ view overlapped with that of Carl Sagan, the American cosmologist who helped provide a scientific rationale for the belief that our galaxy is full of advanced civilizations. (He guessed somewhere between 50,000 and 1 million.) Sagan’s estimate was based on his assumptions about the Drake equation, which multiplies the number of planets that can sustain life (R* · ƒp · ne · ƒl) by the likelihood that intelligent life is able to signal its existence across space (ƒi · ƒc) and the length of time these civilizations can send such detectable signals (L) to arrive at the number of civilizations that are capable of interplanetary messaging (N). We have one data point for N: humanity.
Humans have been inadvertently communicating our existence to the galaxy since the first radio broadcast in 1920. But given the nuclear and environmental dangers we pose to ourselves, how much longer will that be true? If alien fans of the 1930s radio show Fibber McGee and Molly arrive in a few hundred years, they may not find anyone left.
The longevity term (ƒi · ƒc) of the Drake equation proved to be the most divisive factor between Sagan and his contemporaries in the emerging field of SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Intent on justifying his optimism for humanity and aliens alike, Sagan partnered with the Soviet astronomer Iosif Shklovsky to write Intelligent Life in the Universe in 1966. They argued that while some civilizations would self-destruct before first contact, many others would reach a self-sustaining, harmonious relationship with nature and the cosmos, linking up with like-minded civilizations in a Star Trek–like “galactic community of societies.”
The purpose of the book was not purely theoretical; it was also aspirational. In the Soviet edition, Shklovsky argued that a society built on Marxist ideals would overcome the destructive tendencies of capitalism and unify humanity around common creative goals. While Sagan did not quite cosign this point with his communist coauthor, he agreed that humanity must advance to a stage that surpassed “the political dichotomies of the 20th century” to achieve world peace and improve our capacity for interstellar communication for the hundreds of years it would take to make contact.
The book was hugely persuasive. SETI became a major international effort, leading to the construction of telescope arrays searching for alien signals and the inclusion on the Voyager spacecraft of a gold-plated record containing greetings in 55 languages and a map to Earth.
But why should we expect aliens to come in peace at all? While Sagan and Shklovsky acknowledged that aliens might treat us the way the conquistadors treated Native Americans, that risk had already been triggered once we began radio communication. “The signal has already been sent,” they wrote. “If there are beings out there, scanning their skies for the tidings of a new technical civilization, they will know of it, whether for good or for ill.”
J. Posadas, the leader of the Posadists, offered a political and economic defense of our future alien visitors in his 1968 “Flying Saucers” essay. For alien civilizations to travel hundreds of light years to Earth, he wrote, they would need to have an “infinitely superior” form of social organization, “without struggle and antagonisms.” Marxists call the type of society that has advanced beyond our current divisions of nation, class, race, and gender—a society in which each gives according to their ability and takes according to their needs—socialist.
There is no evidence that aliens are visiting Earth or that they exist at all, let alone anything indicating where they might fall on the political compass. Most theories about UFOs should be read as thinly veiled political metaphors for our shortcomings today and where society might be headed. Depictions of aliens as insectoid invaders or rapacious scientists, for example, reflect the traumas of colonialism and war and the systemic cruelty in our history and society. But the internal contradictions of our current world order mean it cannot exist for much longer.
Marxists believe that future societies will be based on the cooperation and creativity already in the proletariat. Just as coworkers, neighbors, and families support one another in order to survive the harshness of poverty and class oppression, the poor and working classes unchained from capitalist exploitation will be able to work together to solve the challenges facing human civilization. And then they will emerge to set new goals—perhaps interstellar travel. In short, aliens will be socialist, because if we are ever to traverse the galaxy, we will have to be too.
Listen, I’ve given this a lot of thought. Since December 2017, when The New York Times revealed the existence of a Pentagon program studying so-called Unidentified Aerial Phenomena that exhibit astonishing capabilities, I have been preoccupied with a subject I previously dismissed as ridiculous.
Believe it or not, the US government hasn’t ruled out extraterrestrial visitation as an explanation for UAP. Let’s roll with that. If the objects are controlled by ETs, are they friend or foe? If they are a threat, why haven’t they attacked? If they are friendly, why haven’t they introduced themselves? Who knows. There are thousands of conceivable explanations for the abstruse behavior of aliens. Maybe they’ve observed human governments and decided they all lack legitimacy.
Unless the aliens land on Lenin’s tomb and say, “Greetings, comrades,” we should not assume they are socialists. Even then, it would be unwise to take their word for it. How might we verify the ETs’ socialist bona fides? Are we to point a telescope at their home world and look for evidence of high-speed rail and ample public housing? Must we demand receipts for their magazine subscriptions?
Anyway, why assume aliens would be uniform in outlook? Perhaps they are like us—diverse—with liberal reptilians, communist Klaatus, and reactionaries from the planet Ork.
It’s been suggested that any civilization that survives the invention of atomic weapons and ventures into the stars must have embraced peaceful cooperation, or else it would have destroyed itself. There’s something to that. As we behold capitalism driving mass extinction, it seems unlikely that advanced alien visitors would be preoccupied with quarterly profits. But technological innovation is not a linear process, nor does it dictate political outcomes. Developing space travel does not imply the elimination of right-wing forces—just consider Wernher von Braun or Elon Musk.
The most we can say is that alien visitors are likely to seem socialist; if they come in peace and propose that we all share, you can bet people will call them that. I also think it’s likely that alien visitors would prefer to deal with human socialists over imperialists. None of that would mean the aliens are socialists, only that we’d label them as such.
Socialism is a human concept tied to historical circumstances, ultimately owing to human biology. Humans perceive reality in certain ways that inform our political ideas. And the only thing we can really know about aliens is that they wouldn’t be human. We shouldn’t anthropomorphize them, even if they possess a humanoid form. We certainly shouldn’t saddle them with the baggage of our own bloody history. Marx’s conception of the stages of social development might not survive contact with an alien species whose history took an entirely unforeseeable trajectory. Still, I like to think he’d be excited by the chance to assess the peculiar base and superstructure of a spacefaring civilization.
Science fiction has warped our expectations when it comes to the possibilities of alien life and culture, typically portraying space travel as a naval expedition and reducing alien civilizations to stereotypes of earthly nations. Likewise, we cannot rely on the accounts of people who claim to have communicated with angelic “space brothers” or been abducted by menacing mantids. Even if some humans have actually had alien contact, their impressions of the experience would form a poor basis for interplanetary diplomacy. A human’s interpretation of alien behavior may be as reliable as a house cat’s explanation of television. ETs might see and understand things we don’t.
Absent any specifics on alien society, earthly comparisons are futile. Let’s say the aliens have cracked free energy—what does that mean for labor? Do the aliens have jobs, and who assigns them? What if the same technology that allows them to zip through space also bends time? Might they act with knowledge of future events?
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” implies a linear causality that may not apply to every life-form in this universe or in parallel dimensions. I expect that the aliens’ relationships to space, time, matter, and energy will strain our imaginations.
Even if the aliens own property in common, it would be a mistake to classify them as socialists. Their system could be better than socialism. There might also be aspects of alien society that strike us as abhorrent, but which, to them, are perfectly agreeable. Should aliens visit, we should first seek to learn and understand, and resist the urge to force them into existing taxonomies.
Until then, picturing what socialism might entail on an alien planet can help us think about how to achieve it here on Earth. Human history constrains our actions, but it need not limit our imaginations or our aspirations. We shouldn’t expect space comrades to deliver us from capitalism, but we can ponder how to welcome alien life-forms, however like or unlike us, to a new world without exploitation.