Today, sometimes, it can be hard to look at the future other than through the gaps between our fingers. But a little over a century ago, there was a confident expectation that it was ours to map and manage. Utopia was less a nebulous, dangerous desire than a design problem, a puzzle that would soon be solved.
The new technologies that powered the Second Industrial Revolution, including electric light, flight, radio and film, seemed to promise a new era of abundance for all, if only they could be directed towards the collective good. Taylorist organisational theory worked out processes for their efficient employment, suggesting how, as Lenin put, an entire economy might be ordered as ‘a single office and a single factory’. And the brutal effectiveness with which Europe’s market economies were transformed into centrally organised war machines during the First World War encouraged a gathering confidence that economic development could be consciously shaped rather than left to capricious market cycles.
For the left, the possibility that rapid technological and economic progress might be guided by a benign technocracy promised to realise the advanced post-capitalist society to which the writings of the 19th century socialists had pointed. HG Wells thrilled European readers with shimmering visions of the city of the future in essays such as A Modern Utopia (1905), Men Like Gods (1923) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933). In Russia, Alexander Bogdanov heralded the tradition of Bolshevik sci-fi with Red Star (1909), a vision of an advanced, rationally-planned Martian economy that influenced generations of Soviet economists who, like the Bolshevik commissar Anatoly Lunacharsky, were inspired by the ‘crystal atmosphere of rationality that reigns on Mars’.1Movements such as the Bauhaus and Constructivists sought to direct design and architecture towards the building of sophisticated new egalitarian worlds.
Though the faith in rational progress also generated unease, expressed in literary and cinematic dystopias such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Wells’s own The Sleeper Wakes (1910), the intellectual tide seemed to be moving with a confident wave of left futurism. The future wasn’t just going to happen: it would unfold according to a carefully designed blueprint.