During the middle of the 20th century, Homero Rómulo Cristalli Frasnelli, better known by his pen name, J. Posadas, was one of the most prominent Trotskyists in the Western Hemisphere. He unionized workers across Latin America and supported Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement. He led the Latin American bureau of the Fourth International, but eventually split from the revolutionary socialist organization in 1962 and created his own Posadist Fourth International.
Then, in 1968, he published an essay arguing that extraterrestrials would play a crucial role in a global anticapitalist revolution. By that point, Castro had already denounced him and Posadas was advocating a nuclear war to demolish capitalist states, leaving the working class to rise from the ashes. Still, his cult-like following grew—despite his increasing interest in communicating with dolphins.
Today, Posadas is largely known by young socialists through online memes featuring aliens, mushroom clouds, and dolphins, but even as he’s ridiculed on Twitter, Posadas’s followers in Argentina continue to publish and spread his beliefs. A.M Gittlitz, author of I Want To Believe: Posadism, UFOs and Apocalypse Communism, argues that he shouldn’t only be seen as a joke. Leftists in these dark times may seek solidarity in his early writings about grounding the movement in the material interests of the working class. And amid pandemic, economic failure, and climate disaster, readers can take comfort in his optimism about the working class’s ability to emerge victorious from an apocalypse.
A.M. Gittlitz: Yes, there was a core group of this Trotskyist sect called the Grupo Cuarta Internacional, and they signed their writings as J. Posadas, with their leader Homero Cristalli using that pseudonym. I argue in the book that eventually Homero Cristalli and J. Posadas became the same person, culminating in Cristalli kicking out all of the original intellectual members of the movement. He was one of the few Trotskyist leaders who had a firmly working-class background. He grew up in poverty in the aftermath of the Semana Tragica, which was a great working class uprising in Argentina.
One aspect of Posadas that’s hard to grasp from his lengthy essays is that he was an incredibly charismatic figure, and people who were around him really saw him as a leader, even from a young age. Not only did he have a good intellectual grasp of the Trotskyist program, but he was willing to fight and was good at organizing people to fight. This was especially clear in meetings, where he used humor and music to really bring people in, in a way that eventually became cult-like. He filled a role in people’s lives, like L. Ron Hubbard or Jim Jones. He was a father figure, who, through one-on-one sessions, convinced them their entire lives were for this class struggle that Posadas was uniquely able to analyze and push forward.
EB: In one of his first pamphlets, Posadas critiqued the Popular Front’s antifacist slogans as utopian and not grounded in material benefits to the working class. How did the division between the intellectuals and the workers affect Posadas’s role in the movement?
AG: When Posadas was recruited by the Trotskyists, it only had an intellectual side. They did not have a lot of connections with the working class. There were a few dozen of them, and most of their activity was chatting in coffee houses in central Buenos Aires about art, literature, and politics. I think they saw Homero Cristalli as a way to connect to the working class. And one of the major issues at the time was the question of anti-fascism. So Posadas’s first texts were critiquing the idea that communists and socialists should align with liberals to preserve liberal democracy against fascism, instead of fighting liberal democracy and fascism at the same time, which was a position of Trotsky throughout the ’30s.
EB: Posadism had become relatively obscure in the US before it reappeared as a meme around 2016. Were you already familiar with Posadas at that point? What inspired you to write this book?
AG: I think I first heard of Posadism in the early 2010s. I think Posadism was repopularized in the English speaking world by Fortean Times in an article calling it a UFO cult. There’s always been a tendency of leftists to be fascinated with very marginal groups, but Posadism was only folkloric within this sort of nerdy, leftist subculture. I first heard about it there in connection with something I was very interested in, another forgotten socialist sect, which was the bio-cosmic mortalists. This was a faction of the Bolshevik Party that believed that for us to truly have communism, people would need to travel freely throughout the universe to meet extraterrestrials and enter into political relationships with them. Before there was a lot of information out there about it, Posadism was kind of connected with this movement. So I kind of approached him in this sort of cartoonish folkloric manner, but as I investigated him more, I realized there’s a lot more to the story than just the fantastic fantasies about him.
EB: The way you contextualize those beliefs within the time period, with people like Alexander Bogdanov and Carl Sagan, makes them sound more commonplace. What is the left’s history with cosmism, and what is Posadas’s role in that?
AG: It begins in the period between 1905 and 1917 in Russia. Bogdanov had written about his lessons from the 1905 revolution in a book called Red Star, which is a work of science fiction about a socialist society on Mars. There were other Russian socialists who were interested in the work of Nikolai Fyodorov, who was a Russian cosmist, who proposed these ideas of traveling into space and abolishing death. After the revolution, one of Fyodorov’s students popularized the idea amongst the Russian people, so there’s this sort of space craze in the Russian public in the mid-1920s that didn’t really match what the Russian government was really attempting to do. They weren’t pursuing these sort of fantastical quasi-utopian visions of cosmism. Nonetheless, a lot of the cosmists had kept this hope alive and continued to work on the technology necessary to launch humans into orbit.
Among them was Sergei Korolev. He helped reverse engineer intercontinental ballistic missiles from from Nazi technology, and along the way, he created the initiative for the Soviet space program and launched Sputnik. So cosmism, the fantastical mystical idea, does end up staying alive through a number of different periods in Soviet history to end up in the reality of the space race. And I think Posadas and the people around him were really inspired by the launch of Sputnik and the subsequent Soviet space program and saw the political aspect of it—the very radical freedom inherent in the idea of going to space—and always emphasized this in their newspapers leading up to their famous UFO essay in 1969.
EB: Aside from the memes, you make a point in the book about how in our time, when climate disaster is practically a certainty, it’s fitting to see the resurgence of someone who, during the Cold War, believed utopia would immediately follow mutually assured destruction. Can you talk more about that theory and the function of those beliefs today?
AG: The theory behind Posadas’s catastrophism was based in the prediction of Trotsky in the years before World War II, that since World War I had resulted in a Communist revolution that almost swept through Europe and World War II would be so much worse than World War I, that the revolution that followed World War II would be so much better. Probably, it would be the international proletarian revolution that the communists were waiting for. But a lot of Trotskyists after the war didn’t accept that the war had ended, or they believed that a new world war would begin at any moment. They believed that capitalism was in a stage of terminal collapse after the war, and before it collapsed, it would launch a nuclear war against the Soviet Union and China and the other newly formed workers states. So this idea of there being a final nuclear war between the imperialist states and the worker states was not Posadas’s. At this point he was a leader of the Latin American Fourth International, and he dutifully cosigned this line, but then he held onto it for far longer than the rest of the Trotskyists, who largely abandoned it between ’55 and ’59. He and his emissaries from South America would visit young European leftists and say, “Posadas is the one who isn’t afraid of doing what is necessary to create global communism,” which is a nuclear war. And a fair amount of young people were drawn to this extreme image of their home countries being nuked, them dying, but Communism spreading through the world in the aftermath
As the pandemic, economic crisis, and George Floyd uprising hit the United States, I’ve noticed a strange attitude disparity in which the older generations couldn’t believe what they were seeing, but those my age [Gittlitz is 32] and younger seemed to have expected something like it. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many hoped this was the long promised resolution of liberal democracy unifying the world in peace, but soon this society’s secular decline was on full display. The economy hit crisis after crisis, and apocalyptic scenarios of climate catastrophe became scientific consensus, and began to play out day-to-day. Worst of all, the most powerful states had no real interest in solving these problems besides transferring more power to those causing them. There’s a perverse appeal to Posadas’s combination of catastrophism and utopianism.
EB: In the mid-1960s Posadas ends up exiled to Rome, right? How did the movement fare after that?
AG: Yeah, as a result of supporting guerrilla struggles throughout Latin America, Posadas was a target of the Uruguayan police, because his International was based in Montevideo. In 1968 there were student and worker uprisings throughout Latin America. Some students had been killed in the riots, and there was a sudden ban on revolutionary political parties. So a meeting of Posadists just outside of Montevideo was raided by the Uruguayan police in November of 1968, and Posadas and his wife and secretary, along with a couple dozen other young militants were arrested. Posadas worked out an asylum deal to go to Italy, where he was technically a citizen since his parents were Italian.
The movement really starts to disintegrate in the mid ’60s, and by 1969, Posadas had really abandoned this kind of aggressive, almost Guevarist stance of pushing towards the final conflict with capitalism through guerrilla struggle, and basically changed the policy of the International to be kind of this think tank. At this point, the movement is no longer about class struggle. It’s about developing a worldwide team that can effectively disseminate the ideas of Posadas.
EB: Near the end of your book, you write that the Uruguayan Posadists have “little interest in capitalizing on the memetic reappearance of their leader.” While name recognition is certainly up, has the movement itself actually grown?
AG: As far as I can tell, it’s the same people who were around when Posadas died that seem to continue calling themselves Posadists. It seemed to me that they were content not expanding or rejuvenating the party in any way, although they do continue to publish and spread the word of Posadas. In my opinion, the ironic reappearance of Posadism, although it’s not entirely faithful to the history of it, is going to be a larger influence on how Posadas is remembered than those who have continued on in the tradition of his of the Posadist Fourth International. I note in the book that since the publication of the Fortean Times essay, the translation of the UFO essay by David Broder, and the appearance of Posadist memes in 2016, Posadas has become one of the most searched for Trotskyist figures. So a young person who’s interested in learning about socialism will go into a socialist Facebook group or a meme page, and Posadas will be one of the first faces they see. I think the appeal of those memes is going to make Posadas a uniquely revered historical figure in revolutionary socialism. The question is: Will it only be as shallow as those memes, or will people look into what motivated Posadas to believe these extreme things and hundreds and thousands of his followers to fight and many of them die for that cause?