Red star shines on

Fifty years ago today, Yuri Gagarin climbed into a small capsule atop a Vostok rocket and blasted off to become the first human in space. The Soviet programme had previously launched a few dogs into orbit, and had brought most of them back alive, but, even so, Gagarin must have known that his mission was insanely risky, and his courage is still inspiring today.

Gagarin’s historic flight resonated far beyond science, deep into general culture and Cold War politics. This wasn’t just a man going into space; it was the frontier of humanity being expanded by the son of a farmer from Smolensk, the technological triumph of a nation that just half a century before had been a pre-industrial backwater, the ultimate demonstration of the superiority of Soviet planning over the capitalist economies left struggling in its wake.

Of course we now know that this confidence was misplaced, for a number of reasons. The drawn-out failure of the Soviet experiment ushered in an era where it became accepted wisdom, even on much of the left, that inequality and injustice were the natural state of the world, and talk of building a new society freed from want by the application of human intellect was utopian. The best we could do, we were told, was to let the market run free, and trust to the charity of our rulers, with some light government regulation, to spare us from the worst excesses of unrestrained capital.

The financial crisis of the past few years has seriously undermined this theory, as living standards for the mass of the population have plummeted, while the rich have continued to get richer. People are again wondering whether there may be a more efficient way of organising society; the hope of a better future embodied by Gagarin and his fellow cosmonauts still has some life in it. The Soviet model of a planned economy may not have lived up to its initial promise, but the next iteration could still take us to the stars.

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