America has long been considered a place welcoming to bizarre and outré ideas. Cults, New Age philosophies, gurus, mind-positivity movements—the United States has always welcomed the weird, particularly California, which Archie Bunker referred to as “the land of fruits and nuts.”
As it turns out, the human capacity for the bizarre is not restricted to the West. Take the case of Posadism, the subject of a new book, I Want To Believe: Posadism, UFOs and Apocalypse Communism by A.M. Gittlitz. Described as “apocalyptic communism,” Posadism is based on the vision of an Argentine Trotskyist known as J. Posadas (1912-1981). Posadas, whose real name was Homero Rómulo Cristalli Frasnelli, was one of the 20th century’s most prominent Trotskyists in the West. Posadas was a working-class militant from Buenos Aires who grew up poor, joined a group of Trotskyist intellectuals in the late 1930s, led the Latin American bureau of the Fourth International, and came to believe that extraterrestrials and nuclear war would play a crucial role in a global anticapitalist revolution.
Those might seem like wildly different worlds, but they all have something in common: the desire for a utopian answer, whether from the state or from the skies, to the problems of inequality and human suffering. A final, totalizing answer to life’s difficulties has been proposed by not only Joseph Stalin and Fidel Castro and Bernie Sanders, but L. Ron Hubbard. It is largely forgotten that in 1908 Marxist revolutionary Alexander Bogdanov wrote Red Star, a story of how Martians take a young Russian student back to Mars, a planet that is a communist utopia in which women have escaped “domestic slavery.” Bogdanov would become a rival to Lenin for the leadership of the Russian Revolution. Bogdanov’s style of science fiction was banned after the Soviet Union was established in 1922.
In 1919, Homero Cristalli was seven years old and living in his working-class neighborhood of Boedo when he witnessed a revolution from his front door. A workers strike at the nearby Vasena metalworks plant turned bloody, with six people killed, and the funeral procession turning into a mass demonstration and riot. The country’s 1919 workers and intellectuals had been inspired by the recent revolution in Russia. The words of anarchist-communist forefather Mikhail Bakunin were in the air: “The passion for destruction is a creative passion, too!” It was intoxicating to Cristallil, the son of two poor cobblers who had immigrated from Italy. His parents, Emanuel and Elvira Cristalli, were members of Argentine Regional Workers’ Federation, an anarchist group.
After a brief period as a soccer player, Cristalli joined a socialist party youth group. He was an enthusiastic “newsie,” distributing newspapers while working odd jobs. In the 1930s he came to the attention of the International Communist League, described as “a small circle of bohemian intellectuals that include members of the Argentine Communist Party, avant-garde artists, and existential philosophers.” In the 1950s he led the Latin American bureau of the Fourth International, a socialist group. Posadas, who would eventually grow into a cult leader, demanded that his followers live on light sleep and constantly produce party texts and newspapers. In Cristalli the party saw an authentic proletarian worker who had grown up poor and understood the class struggle. To one comrade, Cristalli was both street smart and ignorant: “He didn’t know much about politics, economics or world parties, and his shortcomings in the scientific field made him believe anything.” As Gittlitz notes, Posadas’s gift was enthusiasm and charisma, not analytical thinking: “His perceived role as figurehead and leader stemmed from his long experience, intuition used to arbitrate debates, working-class legitimacy and the charisma needed to win new militants to the organization.” Physically, he was described by one young follower as “quite impressive…the prophet Jonah as painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.”
Posadas’s tendency to be more emotive than rational made him gullible not only in terms of politics, but with regard to the plausibility of occult science fiction ideas. In the winter of 1947, his colleague Dante Minazzoli came to a socialist coffeehouse meeting with an article about flying saucers that had been seen in America: “Minazzoli had been enamored with science fiction, cosmic philosophy, and the Bolshevik futurists who believed that humans were only one race song many in our galaxy.”
While the other Trotskyites tried to ban talk of UFOs from their conferences, Posadas found in aliens the true great leap forward that would bring heaven on earth. They argued that the first Marxists, particularly Alexander Bogdanov, author of Red Star and co-founder of the Bolsheviks, had “demonstrated reality to ultimately be a function of intersubjective human consciousness.” Posodists considered themselves the true heirs of the First International. It was through aliens and atomic war that the old world would be wiped out and the utopian future would be established. The title of one Posada essay at the time helps summarize this unique worldview: “Flying Saucers, The Process of Matter and Energy, Science, the Revolutionary and Working Class Struggle and the Socialist Future of Mankind.”
In 1961 Posadas was denied the leadership of the Fourth International, so in 1962 he formed his own group. At a 1967 meeting, Posadas delivered a speech in which he discussed UFO sightings and extraterrestrial life, arguing that aliens could be capable of harnessing “all the energy existing in matter.” At his group’s 1962 founding, Posadas claimed: “Atomic war is inevitable. It will destroy half of humanity. It is going to destroy immense human riches. It is very possible. The atomic war is going to provide a true inferno on Earth. But it will not impede communism.” By now Castro was denouncing Posadas, although, as Gittlitz notes, mainstream Marxist dogma was no more stable than belief in UFOs: “Until then, Posadism was so similar to other Trotskyist groups that they had little ammunition to politically attack Posadas, as his cult-of-personality, abuse of militants, rabid anti-imperialism, paranoia, extreme zigzagging, and catastrophism were features more or less present in nearly every other tendency.”
By the late 1960s, Posadas had become a full-blown cult leader. He began to demand excessive discipline from his followers, including austere living conditions and proscriptions on non-reproductive sex, homosexuality, and abortion. One leader described an encounter with Posadas this way: “Meetings with Posadas often became psychoanalytic sessions…somewhat like a confessor, a little priest, Militants always walked away feeling that Posadas had some incredible insight into their character.” Gittlitz compares it to a combination of L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology “audits” and cult leader Jim Jones’s “mixture of empathetic salesmanship and gospel,” with a dash of Marshall Applewhite’s “soul-piercing confidence.”
Marxist groups, whether in politics, journalism or academia, tend to splinter and attack each other for ideological impurity. This is the long and tragic story of leftism, and it’s what happened to Posadas as his cult became smaller and more marginalized in the 1970s, even as the Posadas grew more intense in his beliefs. It’s amazing the number of groups, sub-groups, and communities Gittlitz itemizes in I Want to Believe, all fighting with greater and greater intensity about smaller and smaller things —not unlike today’s social justice warriors and academics. In the end, Posadism became a splinter of a splinter. As Trotskyite Michael Pablo noted in an article written after Posadas’s death in 1981, the leader became so insular and fanatic that he saw permanent revolution “everywhere simultaneously, to the point of giving it an interplanetary dimension.” When socialists can’t create heaven on earth, the only place to go is the stars.