Protester during the siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University – November 17, 2019. Photo: PaulWong / Shutterstock.com
Towards the beginning of our most recent global catastrophe, writer A.M. Gittlitz published I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs and Apocalypse Communism, the result of his years-long research on the infamous theorist of revolutionary disaster J. Posadas (1912-1981). Combining intellectual biography and cultural analysis, Gittlitz’s book tells the story of Argentine Trotskyist Homero Rómulo Cristalli Frasnelli — better known under the pseudonym J. Posadas — and his many dedicated followers, traversing multiple continents across decades.
I Want to Believe is a cautionary political tale of a radical post-war tendency marked by zealous fanaticism, an enigmatic insurgent horizon caught between utopia and annihilation and the cruelest of gaps separating sincere revolutionary desire and delusional irrelevance.
Matt Peterson spoke with the A.M. Gittlitz about his interviews with ex-Posadists and extensive international archival research uncovering this story, as well as the meaning of its contemporary revival as a meme — where aliens, dolphins and nuclear war become the avatars heralding communism. Together they discuss belief and nihilism, irony and youth culture, commitment and defeat, revolution and millenarianism and the dual popularity today of both socialism and cults.
As catastrophe remains ever-present in our lives, what can the Posadists tell us about the moment we’re in?
Matt Peterson: Beginning with the title, your book is very much about belief and our present struggle between hope and despair, cynicism and irony. You trace a history of the 20th century where despite — or even because of — its brutal and devastating horrors of world wars, civil wars and cold wars, there remained for many the certainty that proletarian socialist revolution was inevitable. But you write that now mass action and communism are “ideas which, like first contact with aliens, have been long-regarded as equally ridiculous, impossible, or insane.”
How did your study of Posadism help you reflect on our contemporary conflict with apathy and nihilism, or our present need to believe?
A.M. Gittlitz: In my time in the anarchist milieu we often made fun of Trotskyists for having centralist organization, selling their weird papers, constantly arguing about stuff that happened 100 years ago. But until I began researching for this book, I realized they had something we lacked: a clear vision of what revolution was, a strategy on how to make it happen, and total commitment to move in that direction, no matter how dangerous or cringey it’s likely to be.
A few years ago, I attended a panel with four anarchist activists and I asked if they believed in revolution and how it might happen. One said it would be bad security culture to answer, another agreed, alluding to the need to train in firearms, and a third changed the subject to solidarity with Palestine.
I think a lot of radicals are reluctant to answer these questions because it’s hard to say the fight is worth it given the unknown barbarity likely to come from seriously challenging state power. Both the classical anarchist and Trotskyist modes of militancy are dependent on the historical workers’ movement for relevance. Posadas’ parents were anarchists and he was a socialist because these were the major political formations in their working class neighborhood at the time. While people might like the idea of anarchism or communism, they don’t see the organizations committed to these ideas being of much use, especially given the horrors that await were we to move towards revolution.
So, for many, revolutionary politics has become a joke. In the enthusiasm for Posadism among memesters — mostly teenagers radicalized around the chaos of the 2016 election — I interpreted a reconceptualization of revolutionary socialism via this ironic humor. It wasn’t the aliens, dolphins and nuclear war that people were mocking — but Posadas’ Leninist orthodoxy. Unlike the memes about Stalin and Hitler, no one seriously argued for the refoundation of historical Posadism. They are instead looking to break with the nightmare of past generations by rescuing characters like Posadas for their own purposes — to imagine the catastrophe that we are living through leading somewhere other than continued dystopia.
The book is a sober, generous and often fascinating history of Trotskyism — of both the life of Trotsky himself and his final decade in exile, as well as the many entities which took up his legacy throughout the 20th century — in which Posadas and his followers played a surprisingly large role. But unlike the devotees of Lenin, Mao, or even Stalin, all of whom represent the experience of victory and power, Trotsky’s followers always felt closer to defeat. Even the recent rise in popularity for the term “socialism” has seemingly done little to rehabilitate Trotskyism. You mention the historical conditions have now changed, but like Trotsky we remain stuck between social democracy and Stalinism.
Coming from an anarchist background, what lessons did you take from your research on these questions of vision, strategy, organization and commitment?
An essential element of Trotsky’s thought is permanent revolution, the idea that popular uprisings like those he witnessed in 1905, and what we are witnessing now, create irreversible changes within society that also reverberate internationally. He writes: “[T]he day and the hour when power will pass into the hands of the working class depends directly not upon the level attained by the productive forces but upon relations in the class struggle, upon the international situation, and, finally, upon a number of subjective factors: the traditions, the initiative and the readiness to fight of the workers.”
Analyzing the forms of struggle and lasting impacts of the Gilet Jaunes, Hong Kong, Chile, Sudan, Haiti, Lebanon, Iraq and the George Floyd Uprising, to name just a few, are thus crucial to developing a theory of how our current cycle of struggle will progress. Noticeable in New York has been the proliferation of mutual aid groups and the ubiquity of the slogan “ACAB.” Some orthodox communists who think we should put all efforts into electing a leftist clique or reorganizing the workers’ movement from scratch perceive these things — even BLM and the uprising itself — as juvenile anarchism or radical liberalism.
These same critiques were made of the worker councils, or soviets, formed after 1905. Twelve years later, Lenin shocked revolutionary Russia by demanding the transitional government be abolished, all power transferred to the soviets and that the police be abolished and replaced with a peoples’ militia. The irrelevance of revolutionary politics today comes from the perception of the struggles in motion as being impotent if they do not conform to a recognizable historical pattern. Revolutionaries should instead commit to the success of these proletarian offensives on their own terms.
In the book you write, “Posadas is the folkloric forefather of cosmic socialism, a Patron Saint of maniacal hope against rational hopelessness, whose futurist strain of apocalyptic communism and radical xenophilia represents a synthesis of barbarism and socialism, tragedy and farce.” For Posadas and others during the Cold War, there was a sense that conditions of mutually assured destruction were providing the true messianic opening for communism.
This idea of “apocalyptic communism” also shows up in Sabu Kohso’s recent book Radiation and Revolution, in his thinking through the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. You write that for Posadas, “[b]eing a revolutionary meant not turning away from the coming catastrophe but charging into it head-on.”
In our time of generalized deterioration, if not collapse — more than a year into a pandemic and “continued dystopia”, as you say — how do you think a positive vision of communism can be put forward?
Posadas did not invent the nuclear catastrophism for which he is known today, it comes from the belief of Michel Pablo. As the leader of the postwar Fourth International until 1960, Pablo believed that capitalism was on the brink of collapse and would launch World War III against the Soviet Union and China in a desperate struggle to maintain the world order. The Trotskyists believed that the “workers’ states” would win the war, and with imperialist structures destroyed, the global proletariat could — under leadership of a Fourth International that had prepared for this event — rebuild the world communist.
This millenarian conception of a final reckoning can also be found throughout revolutionary socialist history: in the breakdown theory of the Erfurt program, the war-revolution of the Bolsheviks and even in Marx. Posadas took this logic to the extreme, believing in the 1960s we should hasten nuclear war. Their Cuban section protested the denouement of the Cuban missile crisis, for instance.
There are a lot of problems with catastrophism, the view that catastrophe is both inevitable and desirable. A major problem for us today is it imagines a sudden event like a mushroom cloud changing reality all at once. Nuclear war is certainly still on the table, and the consequence of it would likely be an unsurvivable nuclear winter, but the catastrophes of pandemic and climate change we are currently experiencing are slow enough for capitalism to manage. It almost seems like nothing has changed.
It’s important to take note of what we don’t see: not total resignation, civil war, reversion to a Hobbesian state of nature of war of all against all, but rather neighbors who previously may not have known each other coming together to share their resources and skills. This kind of self-organization can be seen after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the earthquakes in Mexico, within the caravans and camps of refugees in Europe and North America, the pandemic response in New York — basically everywhere. Common people do figure out how to survive without the state or political dogma — and it tends to look more like communism than capitalism.
The challenge, then, becomes preventing a return to normal. Part of facing that challenge is recognizing the catastrophe isn’t coming, it’s here, and figuring out what to do right now. As Marx wrote in The German Ideology, “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. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”
Finally, on the question of organization, your recounting of the Posadists becomes the story of a political cult and you make a connection between sectarian groupuscules and new religious movements, referencing Scientology, Peoples Temple and Heaven’s Gate. There’s been a revived interest in cults, with popular films and television series on the Branch Davidians, the Manson Family, NXIVM and Rajneesh.
They all point to this intense need for belief, as well as to belong to something bigger than yourself, with a new narrative of the world and our role in it. But where does it all go wrong?
It’s really fascinating the way these cults are talked about. There’s usually a lot of sympathy for the followers, alongside a narrative about how the group was misunderstood. Often there’s a fantasy of how good things could have been if it weren’t for the abuses of its leaders. Some even declare their envy for the communal lifestyle of Rajneeshpuram, Jonestown or Waco.
At the same time, there’s a tendency to suspect that any sort of close-knit community with its own beliefs and initiatives must be an abusive cult. Recently I saw a trending story about a Tennessee commune called “The Garden.” From what I could gather, this group was promoting themselves on TikTok with short interviews of the members and since they were dorky Rainbow Gathering hippies the video went viral. Then came a wave of accusations that it must be a cult, only made worse when they replied,: “we’re not a cult at all!” As far as I could tell there was no real evidence, aside from one member having some awful-but-common new-age beliefs. But a ton of influential TikTok users insisted it was dangerous and now they’re under investigation by law enforcement.
Ari Aster’s film Midsommar sums up the tension of these two popular imaginations of cults. The protagonist is simultaneously seduced and horrified by the bizarre, violent rituals of the ancestral commune. When she’s given the choice, the commune wins out over the misery of modern life.
This is something I explore in the conclusion of my book. Most revolutionaries believe that something like an international party or mass organization is necessary and there must be someone out there stopping them from building it. In reality, it doesn’t exist largely because no one actually trusts leadership enough to submit themselves to militant discipline. No one really wants to be a cult member or a militant in a revolutionary sect. These are actually desires for the kind of freedom that only comes through a community that coordinates itself for a greater cause, that inserts itself into history. Guy Debord in Society of the Spectacle says this “desire for consciousness” is identical to the “consciousness of desire,” which “seeks the abolition of classes, the workers’ direct possession of every aspect of their activity.”
Posadas believed the masses were already ready to start living communism, they only needed the “nuclear charco,” the destruction of all bourgeois and bureaucratic institutions in nuclear war. Leninist discipline and Trotskyist catastrophism were his best ideas for what to do until then. Hopefully we can come up with better ideas today.