Alexander Bogdanov Was One of Russia’s Great Revolutionary Thinkers and a Sci-Fi Pioneer

Alexander Bogdanov played a key role in Russia's socialist movement in the years leading up to the 1917 revolution. He was also a remarkably creative thinker who wrote a sci-fi novel about a socialist civilization on Mars.

Portrait of Alexander Bogdanov in 1903. (Wikimedia Commons)

Alexander Bogdanov was one of the most versatile and creative thinkers of Russia in the revolutionary era. Besides being a political activist, he was a prolific writer on philosophy, economics, education, and culture, whose works included a science-fiction novel about a socialist civilization on the planet Mars.

Due to his conflict with Vladimir Lenin, however, he was almost entirely written out of the historical record. When Bogdanov was mentioned in Soviet times, it was exclusively from the Leninist viewpoint. Only recently has Bogdanov’s life and works become the subject of academic study. Bogdanov deserves to be remembered as one of the most intriguing figures from the Russian socialist movement in a tumultuous time.

Early Life

“Bogdanov” was the pseudonym of Alexander Alexandrovich Malinovsky, who was born in the village of Sokółka, in the province of Grodno on August 22, 1873. His childhood and youth were spent in Tula, a town near Moscow, where his father was a school inspector. In 1892, Bogdanov entered Moscow University to study the natural sciences, specializing in biology, but two years later he was expelled for his presence at a student demonstration and banished to his home town of Tula.

Being an industrial center, Tula was home to a large number of workers, some of whom had organized study groups. Bogdanov was invited by one of the workers to teach a class on economics. It was from this class on economics that Bogdanov’s first publication emerged — his A Short Course of Economic Science, published in 1894.

The Short Course is in effect an exposition of Karl Marx’s economic ideas, though this is not stated explicitly in the book. The approach is historical, beginning with the collectivism of primitive society and progressing through slave society and feudalism to the capitalist era. In subsequent editions of his book, Bogdanov added refinements that were inspired by his philosophical writings.

An important example of this was the conception that as society progressed, it ceased to be undifferentiated, but divided into two basic groups: those who gave orders and those who carried them out. In later historical periods, society divided even further as trades and professions emerged, each with its own particular fund of experience.

Bogdanov envisaged that with the increased mechanization of industry, machines would carry out routine operations, leaving the workers to perform mainly supervisory functions. In this way, the worker would acquire the characteristics of an organizer as well as of a person who carried out orders. Consequently, the age-old division of functions would be overcome.

Theorizing in Exile

Although he was barred from returning to his studies at Moscow University, Bogdanov was able to gain permission to study medicine at Kiev University and to qualify as a doctor. For conducting socialist propaganda among the workers, he was arrested in November 1899. After six months’ imprisonment in Moscow, he was exiled first to Kaluga, and then to Vologda, where he spent three years.

Bogdanov’s Vologda exile was an important period in his intellectual development. In the process of debating with other political exiles there, particularly with Sergei Berdyaev, he formulated some of his most characteristic ideas. One of these was the conception of socialism as a state of continuous development, a vision that he incorporated into his science-fiction novel Red Star.

Red Star, which was published in 1908, depicted a high-tech socialist civilization on Mars through the eyes of its narrator, a Russian scientist and revolutionary who is brought to the planet by a Martian emissary. It inspired later writers of science fiction, both in the Soviet Union and in the West.

While in Vologda, Bogdanov also wrote the first of the three volumes of his main work of the period, Empiriomonism. The second volume appeared during the 1905 revolution and the third in 1906.

Bogdanov’s training as a natural scientist and a physician reinforced his conviction that philosophy must incorporate the two most important scientific discoveries of the times: the theory of natural selection and the conservation of energy. He found inspiration in the works of the writers who had adopted this approach, Richard Avenarius and Ernst Mach.

Bogdanov took Avenarius’s Critique of Pure Experience as a starting point for the development of his own philosophical ideas. He considered a shortcoming of Avenarius’s work to be that it approached the question of knowledge from the point of view of the human individual, rather than that of society as a whole.

For Bogdanov, the criterion of objective truth was its “social validity.” The idea of the human collective was the viewpoint from which the validity of knowledge should be judged. The corollary of this argument was that the standpoint of the isolated individual gave a fragmented view of reality and engendered all kinds of fetishism, including commodity fetishism in Marx’s sense of the term.

Bogdanov and Lenin

The Second Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), with its division into Bolshevik and Menshevik factions, had taken place while Bogdanov was in his Vologda exile. However, he had been able to keep abreast of events through correspondence with Lenin. In the spring of 1904, he visited Lenin and his wife in Geneva.

Bogdanov took the side of the Bolsheviks because he considered the Mensheviks to be in the wrong for having flouted the resolutions of the Congress. He did not agree with the conception that Lenin had advanced in his pamphlet What is to be Done?, according to which the workers were incapable of coming to the socialist ideal without the help of the socialist intelligentsia. To Bogdanov’s mind, it was the unruly intelligentsia that needed the input of discipline that the workers could provide.

At the time of Bogdanov’s visit, Lenin was isolated politically, the Mensheviks having gained control of the party institutions and its newspaper, Iskra. Bogdanov helped Lenin make the Bolsheviks a serious political force by finding finance for a newspaper which Lenin could edit, by enlisting his contacts to contribute articles to the paper, and by organizing a Third Party Congress, which only Bolsheviks attended.

At the outbreak of the revolution in January 1905, while Lenin was in Geneva editing the newspaper Vpered (Forward), Bogdanov was in St Petersburg heading the Bolshevik organization in Russia. Although the circumstances demanded a centralized leadership, Bogdanov insisted that it should still be subject to the democratic control of party members — that is, there should be what he termed “democratic centralism.”

As a member of the Executive Committee of the St Petersburg Soviet, Bogdanov was arrested in December 1905 and was only released from prison in May 1906. Increasing political repression by the tsarist regime made it necessary for Bogdanov and Lenin to leave Russia for Western Europe at the end of 1907.

Between Two Revolutions

In the aftermath of the 1905 revolution, serious disagreements emerged between Bogdanov and Lenin. Bogdanov believed that the factors that had brought about the 1905 revolution still operated and that a new revolutionary wave would emerge before long. This meant that cadres of workers should be trained in party schools in preparation for the future revolution.

Lenin, on the other hand, argued that the revolutionary period had come to an end. The best tactic to employ now was parliamentarianism, taking advantage of the parliament (Duma) that the tsarist government had been forced to concede. Bogdanov objected that participation in the Duma should not be the only tactic of the Bolsheviks and that the Duma fraction of the RSDLP should not be allowed to act in defiance of party policy.

He demanded that the fraction be given an ultimatum: either adhere to party policy or be recalled from the Duma. Lenin, for his part, accused Bogdanov of the heresies of “recallism” and “ultimatumism” and of creating a political base in the party school that he organized on the island of Capri.

In order to undermine Bogdanov’s standing as a philosopher, Lenin published the polemical work Materialism and Empirio-Criticism in 1909. This work did not confront Bogdanov’s ideas directly, but attacked thinkers that Lenin claimed to have influenced Bogdanov, primarily Mach and Avenarius.

In his bid to show that Bogdanov was an idealist, not a Marxist, Lenin attributed to Bogdanov ideas that he did not hold. In reply, Bogdanov published the pamphlet Faith and Knowledge, which pointed out Lenin’s distortions and also the quasi-theological attitude that both Lenin and Georgii Plekhanov had toward the writings of Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Although Bogdanov held his own in theoretical debate, Lenin was able to defeat him politically. At a specially convened meeting of the Bolshevik Centre in June 1909, Lenin and his associates expelled Bogdanov from the Bolshevik fraction of the RSDLP. Although the action was illegitimate, the expected party congress at which it could be overturned failed to materialize. From then on, Bogdanov remained outside any political party.

Responding to War

Taking advantage of the amnesty granted in 1913 to mark the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty, Bogdanov returned to Russia and settled in Moscow. When war broke out in 1914, he was mobilized into the army as a junior doctor. He was shocked by the collapse of the Second International and the propensity of the working class to succumb to the war fever that engulfed the belligerent countries.

Lenin famously explained this phenomenon in terms of the presence within the proletariat of an “aristocracy,” which benefited from the profits of imperialism. For Bogdanov, however, the reaction of the workers to the war signified that they had been overwhelmed by the force of bourgeois culture. He believed that a collectivist proletarian culture existed in embryo but needed to be developed considerably in order to withstand the individualist environment fostered by the bourgeoisie.

A recurring theme in Bogdanov’s writings is the fragmentation of human knowledge brought about by the division of labor and the emergence of trades and professions. His chief work is Tectology, the Universal Science of Organization, which he began in 1913. It seeks to overcome this fragmentation by revealing patterns that cut across disciplines and are equally applicable to things, people, and ideas.

For Bogdanov, examples of these patterns were “Selection” and “Law of the Leasts.” In the case of the former, he held that the principle of selection was applicable not only in biology, but in all spheres of existence, since every system survived or perished depending on its relationship to the environment, according to its capacity or incapacity for adaptation.

The Law of the Leasts also had a universal application: in any system, the whole was dependent on the weakest of its component elements. The strength of a chain was determined by its weakest link; a squadron could only sail as fast as its slowest ship; a logical chain of argument would collapse if one of its links could not stand up to criticism. Bogdanov saw Tectology as a proletarian encyclopedia — a work that integrated knowledge and experience in a way that a future collectivist society would need.

While many socialists were optimistic that a socialist society would emerge from the centralized war economies that were established in the belligerent countries during World War I, Bogdanov did not share this view. He regarded these economies as a form of “war communism” and a symptom of an economy in decline.

Cultural Revolution

When the tsarist regime collapsed in February 1917, he hoped that this would usher in a new democratic order in Russia. In the Bolsheviks, however, he saw the same authoritarian features that had characterized tsarism. The remedy, in Bogdanov’s view, was a “cultural revolution,” a movement that would at least school Russian society in democracy.

In 1918, Bogdanov refused an invitation to join the new Soviet government, deeming it too authoritarian and lacking in “comradely cooperation.” Nevertheless, he made an important contribution to the Soviet system in 1921 by formulating the principles of Soviet economic planning.

Bogdanov held that since all branches of the economy were interdependent, an equilibrium should be maintained between the various sectors. In conformity with the tectological Law of the Leasts, he argued that the growth of an economy was constrained by the size of the most backward of the basic branches of production. It was these branches that should be prioritized by directing resources and labor power into them. These principles underlay Soviet economic planning until Joseph Stalin renounced them in 1929.

Between 1918 and 1920, Bogdanov’s influence was at its height. His writings were the standard works on socialist and Marxist theory, while his novel Red Star contained the only vision of a socialist society that the Bolsheviks had at their disposal.

His ideas inspired the Proletkult, a popular organization with branches throughout the Soviet republic and boasting an international section. In 1920, Lenin contrived to end the independence of Proletkult by subordinating it to the Commissariat of Education. In the same year, he launched a campaign against Bogdanov personally by arranging to have his book Materialism and Empiriocriticism republished with an introduction denouncing Tectology and other theoretical works by Bogdanov.

The anti-Bogdanov campaign culminated in Bogdanov’s arrest by the State Political Administration (GPU) in September 1923. He was suspected of having ideological connections with the opposition group Workers’ Truth, but was able to convince Felix Dzerzhinsky, the head of the GPU, of his innocence. In all, Bogdanov spent five weeks in prison and considered himself lucky to have escaped with his life. Following this incident, it became more difficult for Bogdanov to publish his writings or engage in any academic activity.

Bogdanov’s Legacy

These restrictions left Bogdanov with medical research as his main sphere of activity. At his suggestion, the Soviet Commissariat of Health established an Institute of Haematology and Blood Transfusion in 1926 and appointed Bogdanov as its director. At that time, the procedure of blood transfusion was in its early stages and much about the characteristics of blood remained unknown.

For Bogdanov, blood transfusion had a special significance as he regarded it as a form of social integration and had described it in this way in Red Star. In March 1928, Bogdanov attempted to perform an exchange of blood with a student from Moscow University, a standard procedure at the institute. However, incompatibilities in the blood of Bogdanov and the student, which could not have been foreseen at that time, caused the operation to fail. Bogdanov suffered fifteen days of painful illness and died on April 7, 1926.

Bogdanov is an outstanding figure in the history of the Russian revolutionary movement and the early years of the Soviet state. As a socialist thinker his works are of abiding interest. Because he fell foul of Lenin and became a nonperson from 1920 onward, his existence has been barely noticed by historians.

In recent years, however, Bogdanov’s intellectual legacy has begun to be rediscovered and his role as a pioneer of system theory recognized. But much still has to be done in according Bogdanov the place in modern Russian history that he truly merits.