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Aliens and Alienation

On extraterrestrial thinking in apocalyptic times

I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs and Apocalypse Communism by A.M. Gittlitz. Pluto Press, 272 pages.

Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO by David J. Halperin. Stanford University Press, 304 pages.

The world is ending. At the time of this writing, the novel coronavirus has infected over 1.5 million people and killed almost 90,000, with few signs yet of stopping. In the United States, the business closures and hours reductions attendant upon indefinite quarantine have spelled economic ruin for many of society’s most vulnerable as lawmakers do everything in their power to avoid lifting a finger to help. When the global pandemic inevitably recedes, those who’ve been spared the worst of its effects will put aside their sourdough starters and emerge at last from their quarantine cocoons, blinking against the sunlight, only to find that the world they so missed during this long confinement is still warming and governments across the globe show little interest in expending more than platitudes to save it.

But what if I told you that all of this––this disease and its attendant catastrophes, climate disasters past, present, and future––was in fact the painful but necessary prelude to a radiant future? What if I told you that the grimmest visions of what may come to pass in fact contain within them the key to our salvation? These, at any rate, are the kinds of apocalypse-positive arguments that might be put forward by the subjects of A.M. Gittlitz’s new book I Want to Believe, a deep dive into the birth and rebirth of a small millenarian Trotskyist movement known as Posadism. Named for the nom de guerre of its cotton-swab-haired leader J. Posadas ( Homero Cristalli), Posadism emerged in 1940s Buenos Aires and grew to encompass fanatically devoted sections across Latin America and Europe before splintering, novalike, under the weight of Posadas’s mounting paranoia and ever-looser grip on reality. If much of Gittlitz’s book is devoted to chronicling the infighting of an alphabet soup of leftist cells in the 1960s and ’70s, I Want to Believe is most compelling in its consideration of how Posadist ideals live on today, beyond the meme-centric irony and vaporwave aesthetics of the extremely online left.

Contemporary readers familiar with Posadism likely know it by its more bizarre tenets—and there are many—which have collectively turned the movement into something of a lefty punchline: that global thermonuclear war is an inevitable precursor to socialist revolution; that dolphins have the potential to become our comrades; that humans in a classless utopia may be able to live many hundreds of years, our bodily needs taken care of by technology; and perhaps most famously, that aliens are not only real but have achieved peaceful, post-capitalist harmony they can teach us, once they’re sure we won’t kill them. If out-there ideas about space––ufology, moon landing skepticism––are more commonly associated with conspiracy-minded strains of the right, the left, as Gittlitz points out, has long nurtured an interest of its own in the cosmos, imagining far-off worlds not as the homes of fearsome, probe-wielding invaders but as rich staging grounds for possible utopias.

Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902), often referred to as the first sci-fi film, contains anti-imperialist themes, while Alexander Bogdanov’s 1908 novel Red Star transported readers to a Mars whose residents have achieved full socialism, abolished gender, and established polyamory as a cultural norm. Nor were such interests limited to the realm of science fiction writers and filmmakers. Recluse-turned-rocket-scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, whose jet propulsion models laid the groundwork for the Soviet space program, predicted that the dawn of the space age would allow humans to attain the same social harmony and moral development of the “perfect heavenly animals” that surely populated other planets. While Gittlitz acknowledges at the outset of I Want to Believe that his chosen topic is something “many regard as marginal, cultish, weird, and silly,” his extensive history of leftist sci-fi flirtation before Posadism makes the case that even the strangest facets of the movement were in some ways an outgrowth of what was already in the air.

Gittlitz also does a lot of work to temper readers’ preconceptions of the movement with a more holistic picture of their project. I Want to Believe highlights several concrete political struggles Posadists engaged in during their more lucid moments, such as operating a covert munitions factory that supplied Algeria’s National Liberation Front with weapons during the war of independence. Perhaps most surprising is the book’s claim that the position for which the group is arguably best known––its belief in aliens––has been misconstrued. As Gittlitz has it, Posadas’s statements on the topic of extraterrestrial life––later published in pamphlet form as “Flying Saucers, the Process of Matter and Energy, Science, the Revolutionary and Working-Class Struggle, and the Socialist Future of Mankind”––were not heartfelt declarations of his own, but the influence of his friend Dante Minazzoli, another group member and fervent UFO believer for whom the idea that humans were the only intelligent lifeforms was just another manifestation of the “bourgeois idealism that holds capitalist class society as natural and the best of all possible worlds.”

We laugh at these images because we recognize our own position in them, and beneath the irony is both sincere fear and sincere yearning.

All the same, it’s difficult to get away from what the movement became, and what it became known as: a cult of personality governed by a cruel system of discipline and subjected to the passing personal whims of its leader. I Want to Believe’s account of life in a Posadist compound documents couples forcibly separated (in the belief that this would hone revolutionary zeal), bans on abortions and non-procreative sex, and paranoiac accusations that would lead to baseless mass expulsions. So why read about Posadism––a movement that largely petered out after its leader’s death in 1981, a movement that embraced nuclear war with little acknowledgment of nuclear winter, a movement that, in Gittlitz’s interpretation, never truly expounded the “belief” they’re most known for? Because, he argues, the popularity of space communism imagery online over the last few years––most prominently in massive Facebook meme groups––owes a debt to the movement and speaks to disturbing affinities between our time and that of Posadas. Posting that “it’s always May 1st on Mercury” or superimposing atomic bombs and UFOs on illustrations of the trolley problem are obviously jokes––but they’re jokes motivated, perhaps unconsciously, by a recognition that Posadism’s strangest ideas represent “vibrant disruptions in the bleak history of socialist struggle and the hopeless banality of the present.”

Just what accounts for this upswing in millennials’ love of UFOs, especially if they come emblazoned with a hammer and sickle? Gittlitz has an answer to this question, if not exactly a cheery one: “It cannot be a coincidence,” he writes,

that the loudest voice during the Cold War preaching that utopia would follow mutually assured destruction speaks again in a moment when climate catastrophe emerges as scientific consensus. Nor is it perplexing to see the fantasies of socialist cosmism resurrected at the dawn of a New Space Age offering salvation for the bourgeois class alone.

We laugh at these images because we recognize our own position in them, and beneath the irony is both sincere fear and sincere yearning. It is to I Want to Believe’s credit that it does much more than point out the comical parts of both Posadism and its digital reincarnation, taking seriously the feelings out of which they arose.

A similar desire to explore the social and emotional terrain of belief in the paranormal can be found in David J. Halperin’s Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO. Halperin, by his own admission, comes at the subject as a former ufologist himself: at only fifteen years of age, he managed to get himself appointed director of the New Jersey Association on Aerial Phenomena, juggling deadlines for English papers alongside his duties as editor-in-chief of the organization’s news bulletin. His boyhood fascination having long since fallen away in favor of an academic career in religious studies, Halperin has returned to writing about aliens with neither the believer’s need to convince nor the cynic’s desire to disprove. What he provides instead, as he guides readers through the history and jargon of UFO spotting with the easy, almost loving familiarity of an apostate, is an exploration of the psycho-social phenomena surrounding reported sightings. “The UFO doesn’t happen only, or even primarily, or even authentically in the sky,” he writes; it is instead “a psychic construction . . . [a] bearer of meaning within [the viewer’s] symbolic universe.”

If that sounds dismissive, it’s not meant to. Halperin is a sympathetic listener––just not a credulous one. Drawing parallels to Old Testament stories and Jewish mystical practices, Halperin echoes one self-proclaimed abductee’s description of UFO experiences as journeys “outward and at the same time inward,” often rooted in feelings of deep alienation. In accounts of flying saucer sightings and harrowing abductions, he reads traces of Cold War anxieties and legacies of America’s history of racial violence. And if some of his interpretations themselves feel like stretches of the imagination, the approach itself stands on its merits. Ultimately, Halperin argues that his subjects use the imagery of UFOs as a means of expressing the fears and traumas engendered by the power structures of the present day––the same power structures Gittlitz’s subjects imagine the UFO pilots to be capable of destroying.

In his memoir of working-class struggle in Britain, former Posadist David John Douglass recalls an argument with a Trotskyist of another stripe about the group’s belief that full socialism could only be achieved following a nuclear war. “I think Posadas is trying to be realistic,” Douglass recalls saying in his defense, “and say imperialism will never abandon the planet to the communists. They would destroy it first.” The line is a stark departure from the comedic reappropriation of Posadist imagery we’re more familiar with today, focusing as it does not on the utopia to come but on the suicidal cruelty of a system that would rather ruin the world than see its power diminished. As I look out my window at the world around me now––as I think about how that world will look in a few weeks, a few months, a few years––it’s a sentiment I find difficult to argue with.