‘Red Hamlet: The Life and Ideas of Alexander Bogdanov’ by James D White,’Empiriomonism: Essays in Philosophy, Books 1-3′ by Alexander Bogdanov reviewed by Nicholas Bujalski


Red Hamlet: The Life and Ideas of Alexander Bogdanov

Brill, Leiden and Boston, 2018. 494 pp., €170.00 hb
ISBN 9789004268906


Empiriomonism: Essays in Philosophy, Books 1-3

David G. Rowley (ed. and trans.), Brill, Leiden and Boston, 2020. 450 pp., €165.00 hb
ISBN 9789004300315

Reviewed by Nicholas Bujalski

About the reviewer

Nicholas Bujalski is Visiting Assistant Professor in Russian and East European Studies and Mellon …

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It has been thirty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet today, despite the efforts of its many gravediggers and eulogists, the short twentieth century has never felt more open, contingent and ambiguously alive. From the uneasy centenary of the Russian Revolution in 2017, to the epistemological dynamite of 2020-2021, there is clearly something to October that resists enshrinement as dead heritage – that exceeds the ability of state projects or conservative scholarship to domesticate it into a usable past. There has never been, in recent memory, a more interesting time to study revolutionary history – a time to reconsider fixed narratives, to crack open the potentialities of past socio-political rebellion, to recompose new histories of the Soviet experiment.

This is the context for several recent initiatives in the study of Russian Marxism. Particular attention should be paid to the Historical Materialism Book Series, where a group of scholars have begun to reevaluate the life and work of Alexander Bogdanov: a curious leftist polymath, science fiction author, medical adventurer and party ‘heretic’ of the Russian Revolution. Possessing one of the most original Bolshevik voices, Bogdanov has unfortunately been long neglected in histories of the period by both supporters and Cold War opponents alike.

Brill has recently released a new biography of Bogdanov as well as the first English translation of his most foundational philosophical work. Taken together, these two texts represent an ideal occasion for a reconsideration of this curious leftist. To meet with Bogdanov is to meet with the Russian Revolution in all its contingency, openness and risk – to encounter an unorthodox perspective on Bolshevism alongside an unorthodox Bolshevik; to begin the labor of unsettling our histories of Russian Marxism for our unsettled present.

James D. White’s Red Hamlet: The Life and Ideas of Alexander Bogdanov is the first English-language biography of this Bolshevik outsider, and the volume stands as a worthy introduction to his life and thought.

Our protagonist was born Alexander Alexandrovich Malinovskii in the province of Grodno in 1873 – the child of a raznochinets father and a mother from the minor provincial gentry. White does a superb job of narrating the development of this young man during the declining decades of the tsarist empire: his early education, radicalization and exile. Bogdanov’s path first began to separate from his collective generational narrative in 1897. As a political exile in Tula, he started giving lectures among worker study groups – lectures that proved so popular that it was decided to sneak them into legal publication. This is the moment where our story truly begins; where Bogdanov became Bogdanov, both figuratively and literally – Malinovskii adopted the pseudonym ‘Bogdanov’ from his wife’s patronymic for these early writings.

These texts’ success propelled Bogdanov into a period of fervent activity. He quickly contacted Iskra and the RSDLP (the émigré nerve-center of Russian Marxism at the time), traveling to Switzerland to meet Lenin in 1904 and siding with the Bolsheviks in their ongoing party disputes. Bogdanov was received as a powerful intellectual ally – his prodigious pen had already begun to roam from the sphere of political economy to larger questions of philosophy, physiology and psychology. However, this very breadth of his interests would soon lead to a series of acrimonious conflicts.

As an exile in Tula, Bogdanov had been introduced to the thought of the European positivists Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius by way of A.V. Lunacharsky. In their work, he saw the possibility of grounding Marxism in a new philosophical idiom. His attempt to do so – in Empiriomonism (1904-1906) – sparked a heated battle between Neo-Positivist and Hegelian tendencies in Russian Marxism that would follow him for the rest of his revolutionary career. We will return to this text (and this conflict) shortly. For now, let this just be highlighted as evidence of the oft-ignored philosophical ferment that defined so much of Bolshevism’s history, as well as a sign of Bogdanov’s own wide intellectual independence and omnivorous interests.

Indeed, Red Hamlet presents us with a picture of what could only be called a Bolshevik polymath. Beyond philosophy, in the melancholy years following the failed Revolution of 1905 Bogdanov tried his hand at belletrism – producing two fascinating pieces of early science fiction describing a socialist society on Mars. These literary works gained a wide readership and served as vehicles for imaginative visions of post-capitalist material relations, social roles and psychic life.

From literature, Bogdanov would then move to systems theory. His intellectual impulse towards totality found perhaps its highest expression in his work on a field he termed tektology. In a series of publications from 1913 onward, Bogdanov explicated a ‘universal science of organization’ (287): an attempt to grasp every element of the material and nonmaterial world as a series of interlocking systems following a set of repeating, scaling patterns. This massive project has recently been heralded as a missed forerunner of modern cybernetics and general systems theory. Fittingly, White paints a rich picture of tektology as the culmination of Bogdanov’s entire oeuvre. However, the reader may be left disappointed at the absence of political context here – how a Bolshevik systems theory oriented towards the harmonious organization of a future socialist world stands as a lost alternative to modern systems theory, which instead emerged out of the fascist Von Bertalanffy’s naturalization of the debased world of capitalist modernity.

Then, the revolution came. While Bogdanov had been sidelined from practical politics after the acrimonious Empiriomonism conflict of 1904-1909 (describing himself as ‘excommunicated’ from the party), from 1918-1920 he suddenly found his thought at its highest ascendance. One of the more poignant sections of Red Hamlet explores this period immediately following October. In the creative foment that swept over the ruins of the tsarist state, a powerful if idiosyncratic intellectual like Bogdanov immediately found a role – collaborating with such high-ranking figures as Lunacharsky and N.I. Bukharin. His texts were republished to high acclaim, and he immediately set to work in two discreet spheres: pursuing a ‘tektological’ organization of socialist industry and shaping new proletarian cultures and psychologies with Proletkult. Unfortunately, this influence proved ephemeral. The exigencies of the NEP scuttled Bogdanov’s economic modelings, and resurfaced debates regarding his crypto-idealism soon saw him distanced from early-Soviet pedagogical institutions.

Demoralized by this renewed persecution, he found solace in the pursuit of one of his many side interests: the fledgling science of blood transfusion. At the core of his medical project was a faith in the possibility of using regular blood transfers to dramatically prolong the lives of individuals – a state of ‘physiological collectivism’ that he had first envisioned in his science fiction novels and now sought to put into practice (444, 449). In one of the many fascinating asides that punctuate Red Hamlet, White relates how Bogdanov first began to develop his experiments after reading a book on blood by Geoffrey Keynes – the brother of John Maynard. A strange history of ‘circulation’ in the twentieth century seems to lie latent in this constellation.

While he was given the political blessings of the Soviet state, which appointed him the director of the world’s first institute of blood transfusion in 1926, this did not guard Bogdanov against the dangers of this untested science. In 1927 he would die after conducting a risky transfer between himself and a malarial patient. Thus stands the strange, yet somehow fitting end to Bogdanov’s Promethean, striving life – one both symptomatic and constitutive of the Bolshevik project as a whole.

As the first comprehensive English-language biography of Bogdanov, Red Hamlet is a welcome addition to the literature on Russian Marxism. While no new archival materials are unearthed for this volume, the author musters an exhaustive list of rare Russian publications (as well as secondary literatures in five languages) to paint a compelling picture of a long-neglected Bolshevik. As such, White’s work will surely contribute to the goal of ‘restoring Bogdanov to his rightful place in the history of Russia’s revolutionary era’ (465).

However, if the strength of Red Hamlet is to be found in its scholarly synthesis, then it is less successful as a work of historico-political interpretation. White is an intellectual biographer of the old school. Red Hamlet possesses a clean, linear geometry – it is a compartmentalized catalogue of an individual’s life and thought as they unfurl along a chronological continuum. This approach to intellectual history hampers the study in two ways. First, a tendency towards discreet atomization prevents more involved discussions of the dialectical entwinement of Bogdanov’s philosophy with the material conditions, political forces and ideational landscape of his time. Positivism, Hegelianism and Neo-Kantianism appear as dry dossiers wielded by particular intellectuals, with little account of the political stakes or lived implications of these contrasting systems. A more rooted approach could have more successfully gestured towards the lasting potentialities of Bogdanov’s thought against the impasses of his present (and our own).

Second – and more problematically – the hermetic qualities of Red Hamlet end up perpetuating several outdated narratives of the nature of the Soviet project. Grammatically, to ‘rescue’ someone always holds a particular intentionality – to rescue someone from something. In the case of White’s redemptive historiography, we do not need to look far to discover the enemy. In Red Hamlet, the major antagonist of Bogdanov’s life story – even more so than the industrial capitalism or tsarist empire to whose defeat he dedicated his life – is V.I. Lenin.

Bogdanov did possess a complex and often rancorous relationship with Lenin, which reached open intellectual conflict after the Revolution of 1905. These private disagreements and public debates clearly deserve space in a biography of Bogdanov. However, instead of using them as sites to reflect upon the plurality and contingency of Russian Marxist thought both before and after 1917, White weaves these conflicts into an all-too-simple political parable. In his telling, Lenin is a devious and vindicative figure who feels personally threatened by Bogdanov’s brilliant philosophical labors. This caricature structures all of Red Hamlet, reaching its unfortunate heights in the conclusion, where Lenin becomes a mediocre theorist, an intellectual vandal, a ‘sinister character’ driven to discredit Bogdanov’s achievements by a pathological lust for authority (460-65).

This framing is truly unfortunate for several reasons. On one level, we must note that it is simply inaccurate. Red Hamlet reduplicates the Cold War commonplace of an ‘authoritarian Lenin’ that scholars such as Lars T. Lih have recently unpacked and dismissed. Furthermore, the notion that this conflict was not a question of ideas but rather of petty demands for organizational allegiance makes very little sense when we recall that, in his intellectual debates with Bogdanov after the 1905 Revolution, Lenin openly sided with Plekhanov (at that time a Menshevik and fierce political critic of Lenin).

This interpretative patina clouds some of the promising potential of White’s work. One of the most common narrative framings in our histories of the Soviet Union is a simplistic genre that could be called: ‘Where did everything go wrong?’ Vast amounts of scholarship on the Bolshevik project resolve into amateur autopsies – it was with the rise of Stalin, or the suppression of Kronstadt, or the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, ad infinitum, that the Russian Marxists went astray. The exact moment chosen differs according to one’s historiographical lens and political commitments, but the procedure is still the same. And, unfortunately, this worn-out mechanism is placed right at the center of Red Hamlet. In his quest to ‘redeem’ Bogdanov, White produces a caricature of the Bolshevik party leadership that ultimately reperforms this old genre in its most conservative Cold War form. A Machiavellian Lenin had always worked to suppress the best elements of Russian Marxism (i.e. Bogdanov), and thus the Soviet Union was doomed from its very inception. It is in this fashion that White’s valuable study of Bogdanov is forced into an outdated historiographical and political paradigm. New wine in old bottles; new blood in old vessels.

What would it mean to admit instead that history – especially revolutionary history – is a very messy affair? That moments of radical upheaval are accompanied by raging storms of conflicting concepts, practices and visions of the future? And that it is not the task of the historian to relitigate the past, but rather to see in this maelstrom a rich assemblage of competing views on anti-capitalist struggle and the building of a new world, whose variegated historical existence can give rise to political praxis in the present?

This would be a different sort of ‘redemption’ – not posthumous side-taking in an old inter-party struggle, but the recovery of a powerful Marxist voice with all its brilliance and contradiction, as part of the recovery of a vision of Bolshevism freed from ideological ossification and revealed once more in its truly plural, open, contingent circumstances.

Such an alternate path will be well-served by another publishing endeavor – the Bogdanov Library. Also part of the Historical Materialism Book Series, this ongoing project aims to issue ten volumes of Bogdanov’s key works in new English translations. In 2020, it released its second text: Bogdanov’s Empiriomonism: Essays in Philosophy, Books 1-3 (1904-1906), in a fine edition ably compiled and translated by David G. Rowley.

While Empiriomonism is the closest thing that Bogdanov wrote to a programmatic philosophical document, it is chiefly remembered today as a target of withering criticism in Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1909). In this context, this translation promises to illuminate a neglected corner of the Marxist philosophical tradition. And indeed, it illuminates much. One encounters a curious, idiosyncratic, yet highly rigorous project. This is a Bolshevik attempt to establish a new epistemological-ontological foundation for Marxism through contemporary European positivism – an attempt which encourages new considerations of the intellectual histories of Bolshevism and twentieth-century Marxism as a whole.

Published individually between 1904 and 1906, the three books of Empiriomonism arose from Bogdanov’s encounter with the work of Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius. These were fashionable positivist scholars straddling the line between fin-de-siècle science and philosophy. Their project was known as empiriocriticism – a ‘critical-evolutionary theory of cognition’ (6) which posited life and the world as a collection of energetic elements of experience (sensations, perceptions, emotions), entering into parallelisms and mutual relationships with one another, assimilating into higher structures, and decomposing into isolated fragments: a whirling flow that composed all physical and psychical reality. Bogdanov was wholly smitten with the synthetic, totalizing promise of this now-forgotten movement. He envisioned here a firm philosophical fundament upon which the latest generation of Russian activists could build their work – a Marxism as clean and scientific as the principle of the transformation and conservation of energy (283-284).

This is the underlying goal that Empiriomonism sets for itself, and the central framing for Book One in particular. Let us note that the text is not ‘systematic.’ Rather, it is composed of a series of compact sections geared towards elaborating particular elements of Bogdanov’s worldview, confronting anticipated criticisms from both traditional idealist and materialist perspectives, and revising various elements of the philosophy of Mach and Avenarius. Especially important was this last task: Bogdanov believed that for their new flavor of positivism to take on the role of a universal Marxist philosophy, it needed to be reworked in two crucial directions.

First was the question of dualism. Mach and Avenarius’s reduction of all reality into complex flows of the elements of experience was intended as a positivist ontology beyond all binaries of self and world, of idealism and materialism. However, each believed that ‘physical series’ and ‘psychical series,’ while composed of the same basic elements, self-organized in different ways. Seeing this as a tenacious persistence of old binaries (no longer in reality, but in ‘cognition’), Bogdanov aimed to philosophize away this last remnant in his own work.

In brief, Empiriomonism casts all reality and cognition as a ‘fluid equilibrium of energy [podvizhnoe ravnovesie energii]’ moving as an ‘endless series of complexes’ (66, 412), in which phenomena we usually apprehend as distinct are, in fact, particular organizations of experience constantly self-structuring, self-dissolving, and moving between systems and environments (an ‘infinitely unfolding series of groupings’ (124)). From this starting point, Bogdanov argues that the only thing truly separating the ‘physical’ and the ‘psychical’ is the way in which they are treated by historical human communities. Thus, Bogdanov defines the ‘subjective’ world as ‘individually-organized experience,’ and the ‘objective’ world as ‘socially-valid experience’ (290) – and in doing so, claims to have finally arrived at a truly non-dualist position. For, in his philosophy, both individuals and nature are simply further organizations of experiential elements in motion – systems differing in complexity, not in kind, exerting certain pressures upon (yet themselves just as much composed by) reality’s total monist fluidity.

For much of the first two books of Empiriomonism, Bogdanov expands on this point and explores the organizational structures and systemic interrelations of the subject, the environment and the psyche as complexes of elements. This is a vast ‘philosophy of scale’ that aims to comprehend everything – from an individual feeling and a budding tree to class structures and global industrial production – as particular yet related flows of organized energy, of social energetics.

Next, Bogdanov’s evocation of ‘the social’ as a further fluid system (exercising an important feedback function) undergirds his second revision of the empiriocriticism of Mach and Avenarius. For in his solution to the dualism of these earlier thinkers, Bogdanov believed that he had established a new theory – that is, empiriomonism. But empiriomonism was not just meant as a model of all reality. It was also, in Bogdanov’s words, an ‘ideal of cognition’ – the truest way of viewing life and the world. Why then, however, was this truth not self-evident to human individuals in the year 1906? For Bogdanov, its actuality was obscured by millennia of disequilibriums and faulty systems – unbalances, archaisms and structures of domination which bred dualist illusions and philosophical contradictions in our apprehension of the world. Thus, Bogdanov’s empiriomonism possesses an aspiration towards social theory far beyond its foundations in Mach and Avenarius.

Bogdanov conducts empiriomonist analyses of past knowledge systems and social formations to unravel exactly how they obscured the truth of cognition – diagnoses of the pathologies embodied in the ‘definite, mutually connected, psychophysiological adaptations of people’ in their distinct social-historical conjectures (305). These fascinating discussions amount to a set of idiosyncratic historical-materialist genealogies. Appearing throughout all three books, these episodes hold much of interest beyond their grounds in obscure fin-de-siècle positivist debates.

For example, Bogdanov argues that abstract conceptions of space and time arise out of a particular historical moment’s ‘social organization of experience’ (18-24). At another juncture, the psychic atomization of the individual in the world – the alienation of their language, their thoughts, their social life – is directly tied to the ontological violence of the division of labor (40-43). The notion of ‘causality’ is itself historicized – explored as arising in its various manifestations out of the inequalities of particular social-historical junctures. (134-141). Indeed, Bogdanov even develops a critique of early scientific positivism and nineteenth-century idealism as themselves peculiar outgrowths of the disequilibrium between petite bourgeois and industrial bourgeois life in post-French Revolutionary Europe (287).

In total, ‘empiriomonism’ is thus intended not solely as a philosophical standpoint or an ontological model – it is also a critical historical method, as well as a state of cognition whose final realization in everyday life is its own political project and its own political goal. For Bogdanov, actual ‘empiriomonist’ existence could only arrive in a liberated future. The destruction of the social order that separates and degrades us will remove all false divisions between subject and object, self and world, idea and matter. The task of revolutionary activism was to burn away all the frictions to the unification of the ‘whole sum of human experiences in harmoniously-whole, infinitely-plastic forms, in which the experience of each person flows organically together with the experience of everyone else’ (43). The true empiriomonist immanence of the world would finally be achieved through the social-energetic-cognitive-hematic-psychic victory of communism.

And in this unity of critical philosophical exegesis and prescriptive political future, I believe we can locate the true animus for the disagreements between Bogdanov and Lenin. Upon its publication, Book One of Empiriomonism had already attracted a dialectical materialist critique from G.V. Plekhanov – and Books Two and Three contain Bogdanov’s rebuttal. In his empiriomonist idiom, Bogdanov accuses his critics’ philosophy of possessing undigested noumenal elements that had turned the ‘matter’ of their materialism into a mystical, animistic, metaphysical category. In return, Lenin’s reply in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism would accuse Bogdanov of holding an epistemological eclecticism that obscured the fundamental boundary between materialism and idealism – and thus, having ‘fallen into the swamp of reactionary philosophy,’ unwittingly become a defender of a variety of Berkeleyan subjectivism given a trendy positivist gloss. In his misguided attempt to equate social consciousness and social being, ‘the dead philosophy of idealism lays hold of the living Marxist Bogdanov’ (Lenin 1952: 134-5; 340).

Thus did empiriomonism and a renewed dialectical materialism enter into open struggle for the philosophical soul of Bolshevism in the first decade of the twentieth century. The debate would be messy and polemical, with its participants often speaking past one another. However, the uneven nature of this conversation is, itself, the crux of the matter.

In their debates, Lenin would not strive to meet Bogdanov on the latter’s empiricist-monist discursive terrain, but rather would question the ability of this terrain itself to successfully serve as a philosophical ground for revolutionary activism. Attempting to reinvigorate the ancestry of Marxist thought (indeed, one could argue that Lenin’s first ‘[re-]turn to Hegel’ began in response to this challenge from Bogdanov, not in the Bern notebooks of 1914-15), dialectical materialism is defended as the necessary corollary of the anti-capitalist struggle – and Lenin does not hesitate to treat philosophical disagreement as something just as partisan as radical politics. For readers of Bogdanov’s Empiriomonism today, we could locate the fundamental site of their dispute as that between Bogdanovist ‘energetic equilibriums’ on the one hand and the Leninist dialectic on the other. While the former possesses a totalizing character that allowed Bogdanov to sophisticatedly integrate the very act of philosophical cognition into his system’s functioning (‘practice’ as ‘theory’); the latter allows Lenin to argue for the partisan character of all philosophy and posit a central epistemological function to revolutionary activism itself (‘theory’ as ‘practice’).

In this way, Rowley’s excellent translation will not only permit a wide new audience to explore the grand systems and historical forays of Bogdanov’s Empiriomonism – it also illuminates a particular moment where various strains of Marxism debated the very relationship between understanding and changing the world: a generative conflict between Bogdanov and Lenin.

The Bogdanov Library and Red Hamlet will certainly attract a particular readership of academics, philosophers, and historically-minded activists – and promise a series of general interventions in Marxist circles. First, returning to Bogdanov’s life and thought helps us reconsider Bolshevism as a contingent political-intellectual project. Far from the monolithic, ‘authoritarian’ Leninism that White’s Red Hamlet uses as a narrative foil, the strange systems of Empiriomonism attracted the polemics they did precisely because the field of revolutionary Russian Marxism was such an open, plural terrain. Empiriomonism was not rejected for any ‘orthodox’ party line, but it was in fact through polemics with Bogdanov that Plekhanov and Lenin developed a Russian Marxist reconsideration of the German Idealist inheritance and a certain ‘return to Hegel’ in the face of scientific positivism.

That is, even in his political-intellectual defeat, Bogdanov’s philosophical project fertilized many unexpected corners of the Bolshevik experiment. Its science-fiction popularization in the novel Red Star gave a certain timbre to the moment’s utopian imagination; its notion of energetic equilibriums influenced the NEP practice of Bukharin and others; the ‘communal ontology’ underlying its systems engrained itself in much of the revolutionary worldview. If empiriomonism never became the reigning Soviet philosophical framework, this does not make Empiriomonism a historical dead end – it should be viewed as an explicit artifact of Bolshevik pluralism in the pre-revolutionary period, and a subterranean source of Bolshevik pluralism in the post-revolutionary period.

Second, Empiriomonism asks us to rethink several commonplaces regarding the Marxist philosophical tradition as a whole. Namely, for all of the intellectual richness gained through the New Left rediscovery of a discreet ‘Western Marxism’ in the 1970s, the terms of this return often involve flat schema whereby Soviet thought is depicted as little more than a reductive terrain that needed to be overcome – a strain of Marxism more poverty than philosophy.

Reading Bogdanov’s Empiriomonism alongside Lenin’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism today, however, puts this commonplace firmly to rest. We find here no monolithic naïve realism or crude base-superstructure models – instead, we are treated to rival debates on the very nature of the ‘material’ in materialism. This is a strange shore buffeted by the winds of unorthodox Hegelianisms, Spinozan reconsiderations and a variant of positivism that Bogdanov pushes almost to the point of Husserlian phenomenology. The way in which Bogdanov speaks of the subtle relationship between class society and cognitive forms anticipates certain arguments of the Frankfurt School; the way in which Bogdanov speaks of experience before essence recalls several elements of post-war Marxist existentialism; the way in which Bogdanov speaks of cognitive reification evokes thinkers such as Sohn-Rethel. These are early strains of Eastern Marxist speculation that deserve to be put back into conversation with later Western European thinkers – and rich lines of thought that deserve to be used as resources in the present.

Always at stake in these early Bolshevik debates is not just the nature of existence, but also our ability to epistemologically apprehend it and politically change it. This, in the last instance, would lead to the defeat of Bogdanov’s philosophical project in Russian Marxist circles. Bogdanov’s neo-positivism led to an ontology of energetic equilibriums within which systems constantly flow and find new balance; while Plekhanov and Lenin’s reaffirmation of the Hegelian dialectic centered leaps, ruptures and qualitative shifts arcing between revolutionary philosophy and revolutionary activism. As brilliant as it is, Bogdanov’s systems-building does possess a degree of sterility: a complex, crystalline vision of the harmonious ordering of human activity – yet one missing a picture of the messy, bloody, messianic activity needed to begin its construction.

Returning to these texts thus holds the promise of not only burying myths of Russian Marxism’s ‘tutelary’ position vis-à-vis Western European traditions – but also of unearthing new pathways for considering the interrelationship of theory and practice today. In a moment of new political energies, but one where the forces of social domination seem more consistent than the left in maintaining a materialist worldview, the sophisticated searchings of a Russian Marxist polymath promise valuable lessons.

To conclude: White calls Bogdanov a ‘Red Hamlet’ – a title that he sees as suggesting ‘the synthesis of ideas and political action that was central to Bogdanov’s character’ (xi). A striking name – but has our review suggested an alternate title?

Perhaps the best way to greet Bogdanov today is not as a Red Hamlet, but rather a Red Quixote. This juxtaposition of Shakespeare and Cervantes is not a move of my own invention, but comes from the thought of Russian novelist I.S. Turgenev (a writer towards whom Bogdanov always held a special affinity). In his classic 1860 speech ‘Hamlet and Don Quixote’, Turgenev divided the individuals of his age into two categories. The ‘Hamlets’ are the critical personalities of modernity – analysts and cynics who ‘cannot find anything in the entire world to which [their] souls can cling.’ Don Quixotes, on the other hand, are the ‘eccentric explorers’ of the present – people of strange yet lofty ‘faith in something eternal and immutable [in a] truth that demands service and sacrifice, but is worthy of constant service and profound sacrifice’ (549-50).

In this framework, do not Red Hamlet and Empiriomonism reveal far less a Shakespearean skeptic than a Quixotic wanderer? A thinker of lofty, utopian, total scientific-philosophical dreams who devoted each stage of his life to their elaboration and realization? Bogdanov as the ‘Bolshevik of Sorrowful Countenance’ – one of the many characters of that plural, open, contingent Russian Marxism given new perspective by these two publications?

If there is much that seems alien to us in Bogdanov’s moment in revolutionary history – positivist hermeneutics and polemical strife, Martian utopias and communist blood – it remains a rich fund of ethical force in the present. If anything, the contemporary left needs more, not less, Red Quixotism. Each stage of Bogdanov’s life and thought was part of a larger struggle for human liberation from the social and material conditions that degrade us. As Ilya Ehrenburg once wrote, in a different yet related context: the moral beauty of Don Quixote is that while he may have confused dead windmills for living individuals, he never once mistook living individuals for dead machines.

15 June 2021

References

  • Lenin, V.I. 1952 Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy [1909] Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.
  • • Turgenev, I.S. 1994 Hamlet and Don Quixote [1860] The Essential Turgenev ed. and trans. Elizabeth Cheresh Allen, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, pp. 547-64.

10 comments

  1. The reviewer rightfully excoriates White’s ‘caricature’ of Lenin. However, that caricature is not an idiosyncrasy of the author, as the reviewer appears to think, but faithfully reflects what Bogdanov himself thought of Lenin.

  2. This is a thoughtful review which, on balance, should encourage the growing worldwide interest in Bogdanov. One or two comments:

    The author’s occasionally patronising tone is out of place. He describes Bogdanov as “a curious leftist polymath, science fiction author, medical adventurer and party ‘heretic’ of the Russian Revolution.” Ultimately he is a “Don Quixote”. One might ask what is curious about being a polymath or science fiction author; and why experimentation in exchange blood transfusion should be considered peculiar (in an age in which organ transplants are common). Also, who gets to decide what is orthodox and what is heretical? Usually I would suggest, the officials of the superstructure, in Bogdanov’s case the officials of the Communist party that created the Lenin cult.

    The myths surrounding the life and work of Lenin die hard: for example, it is inexact to say that Bogdanov “travelled to Switzerland to meet Lenin in 1904 and sided with the Bolsheviks in their ongoing party disputes”. In fact, Bogdanov was a co-founder of the Bolshevik fraction, on an equal footing with Lenin, at the Conference of the 22, held in Geneva in August 1904. He drafted the “Declaration” produced at the end of this conference. It was later attributed to Lenin.

    I do not think that James D. White’s depiction of Lenin as “a mediocre theorist, an intellectual vandal, a ‘sinister character’ driven to discredit Bogdanov’s achievements by a pathological lust for authority” is a caricature. That the depiction became a “Cold War commonplace” does not meant that it is inaccurate. In fact, Lenin was widely so regarded in Social-Democratic circles before 1917. He had difficulty finding a publisher for Materialism and Empiriocriticism given its low level of argumentation and recourse to personal abuse.

    White does not argue that the conflict between Bogdanov and Lenin was “not a question of ideas but rather of petty demands for organizational allegiance”. He shows that it was very much a question of ideas, as Lenin’s persistent attempts to discredit Bogdanov’s philosophy and Tektology, up to the very end of his life, make clear. For “petty demands for organizational allegiance” one should read the struggle for influence and, if possible, dominance within an organization — what politics is about, after all.

    It is not clear what point is being made in the statement that “in his intellectual debates with Bogdanov after the 1905 Revolution, Lenin openly sided with Plekhanov (at that time a Menshevik and fierce political critic of Lenin).” Yes, Plekhanov was also an adversary of Bogdanov, intellectually and politically; however, that Plekhanov was a “big gun” does not validate his position in the philosophical debate. Also, Lenin and Plekhanov fell into and out of alliances when it suited them.

    Nicholas Bujalski invites us to “admit instead that history – especially revolutionary history – is a very messy affair… maelstrom a rich assemblage of competing views on anti-capitalist struggle and the building of a new world”. Yes indeed, the French Revolution, the Chinese Revolution were “messy affairs”, but can one ever arrive at an understanding. Marxist or other, of historical processes through a kind of relativism that puts all positions, political and philosophical on an equal footing? The task of the historian is to attempt to create order out of chaos. Yes it will be the order for our times, but it will not be simply “on the one hand, on the other hand”.

    In a similar vein, Bujalski writes that “The exigencies of the NEP scuttled Bogdanov’s economic modelings, and resurfaced debates regarding his crypto-idealism soon saw him distanced from early-Soviet pedagogical institutions.” However, history is not like the weather. And debates do not rise to the surface through the laws of flotation. Those who decide what the “exigencies” are, are those who hold the balance of power. For example, those who run the Agitprop Department of the Central Committee of the RKP, or the editorial board of “Under the Banner of Marxism”.

    Bujalski describes Mach and Avenarius as “fashionable positivist scholars”, engaged in obscure fin-de-siècle positivist debates”. He maintains that “Bogdanov was wholly smitten (sic) with the synthetic, totalizing promise of this now-forgotten movement”. Not so forgotten: I recommend Carlo Rovelli, Helgoland (English edition, 2021) where the case is made for the contemporary relevance of their ideas and of the epistemology and systems thinking of Bogdanov.

    Bujalski writes that “Empiriomonism … is chiefly remembered today as a target of withering criticism in Lenin’s Materialism and Empiriocriticism (1909). Yes indeed, but not least because Bogdanov’s Fall of the Great Fetishism (1910) figured in the Communist Party’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum. It was not until 1991 that ‘Faith and Science’ the chapter in Bogdanov’s work that criticized Materialism and Empiriocriticism, was re-published in Russia. Publication of translations of this work in will enable readers throughout the world, after one hundred and twenty years, to evaluate Bogdanov’s position in the debate.

    ENDS

  3. Biggart: “I do not think that James D. White’s depiction of Lenin as “a mediocre theorist, an intellectual vandal, a ‘sinister character’ driven to discredit Bogdanov’s achievements by a pathological lust for authority” is a caricature. That the depiction became a “Cold War commonplace” does not mean that it is inaccurate. In fact, Lenin was widely so regarded in Social-Democratic circles before 1917. He had difficulty finding a publisher for Materialism and Empiriocriticism given its low level of argumentation and recourse to personal abuse.” Further proof of my comment, posted above, that Bogdanov thought this way about Lenin — but only after Bogdanov fell out politically with Lenin after the 1905 Revolution. Bogdanov then took umbrage at Lenin’s ‘authoritarianism’ — a dubious rationale given that Bogdanov was the ‘co-founder’ (he wasn’t) with Lenin of the ‘authoritarian’ Bolshevik faction. Or was Lenin a freedom-loving democrat only when Bogdanov was partnering with Lenin?

  4. The question whether Bogdanov was a co-founder of the Bolshevik fraction depends upon whether one dates the “founding” from the voting patterns of the Second Congress of the RSDRP (Brussels and London, July—August 1903), which Bogdanov did not attend, or from the organizational meeting held in August 1904 to muster support for a Third Congress and publish a fractional paper. In an autobiography written for the Lenin Institute in 1924/25, Bogdanov wrote that: “In the autumn of 1903 I joined the Bolsheviks and, my exile completed, in the early spring of 1904 I went to Switzerland where I met up with Lenin. At the Conference of the 22 I was elected to the Bureau of Committees of the Majority, the first Bolshevik Centre.” Krupskaya describes the meeting in Switzerland in August 1904 as follows: “With the Bogdanovs we discussed a plan of work. Bogdanov proposed co-opting Lunacharsky, Stepanov and Bazarov for literary work. Our plan was to publish our own organ abroad and agitate in Russia for the Congress”.

    Whatever one thinks of Lenin, one would not describe the Bolshevik “fraction” as authoritarian, given that there were three Bolshevik fractions by the eve of the First World War: the Lenin group, the Left-Bolsheviks (Vpered) and the Bolshevik-Conciliators (Primirentsy). The Mensheviks divided into the Golos group around Martov, Dan and Martynov, and the Party-Menshevik supporters of Plekhanov (who insisted that he did not belong to any fraction). The old “Bolshevik-Menshevik” dichotomy and identification of Bolshevism with the Lenin group can no longer be sustained.

  5. The notion that Lenin was a mediocre theoretician is pretty silly. But each to their own.

  6. ”’As far as Scotland—the most aristocratic place for hunting and other sports—is concerned, it is said that “it lives on its past and on Mr. Carnegie” (the American multimillionaire).” Lenin in his ”Imperialism” on Scottish parasitism at a time, 1913, when Glasgow produced one third of the locomotives and one fifth of the steel in Britain, and the Clyde 23% of ALL the ships in the world!

  7. But Lenin was right, it was living on the past. As was the whole of the British empire.

    1. “it lives on its past and on Mr. Carnegie” Certainly Carnegie gave his native town a number of places of recreation (albeit,not suitable for grouse shooting), for example Pittencrief Park. Here was the first recorded reference to coal mining in Scotland, when in 1191 the lord of Pittencrief granted to the Abbott and monks of Dunfermine Abbey to dig for coal on his estate provided it is for their own use and not for sale. As one enters the town from the north one passes on the right the entrance to the last calming in the area, defunct from the 1960’s. Then one proceeds through the old mining village of Townhill, where about 1805 the last tied mining families were freed from their inherited semi-slavery as compulsory miners. Then one enters the town proper, where opposite the Carnegie baths stands the enormous edifice of an 1849 textile works, still functioning as late as the 21st century. In short whatever amenities Carnegie provided his native townsfolk, the wealth of the town was founded on coal and textiles. Jefferies’ fallacious and embarrassing comment is the direct result of adherence to the cult of Leninism!

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