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Lenin versus the God-Builders

REVIEW ESSAY
Red Hamlet:
The Life and Ideas of Alexander Bogdanov
by James D. White
Brill, 2018, 508 pages

In the second and third centuries, the world was lousy with prophets, magicians, mystery cults and heretical religious sects. Christianity was a swirl of competing tendencies, its fate as yet undetermined. Groups like the Marcionites, the Basilideans, and the Valentinians mounted a serious challenge to efforts to centralize the church. Early monks moved into the Egyptian wastes, some founding monasteries, others living in cemeteries or in holes they had dug in the ground. Stylites spent decades living on top of stone pillars, being pecked by vultures, trying to be dead in life. A central preoccupation of early Church fathers like Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Hippolytus was the study and refutation of heresy. With polemics like Against Heresies, Against Marcion, and A Refutation of All Heresies, they stomped out alternative doctrines, slowly laying the groundwork for an orthodox institution. The theology of Gnostic figures like Marcion, Basilides, Valentinus was so effectively snuffed out that for centuries it was known only in the quotes of their adversaries.

In the early twentieth century, the fate of Marxism was also embryonic and as yet undetermined. Mensheviks, Bundists, Socialist-Revolutionaries, and Bolsheviks battled for control of the working-class movement in journals and party congresses. Lenin, a ruthless organizer and political tactician, worked to forge an institution out of disparate strands. Even after Lenin outflanked and dispatched his various competitors, the task remained of purifying the Bolshevik faction.

Lenin cofounded the Bolsheviks with a fascinating and largely forgotten political economist named Alexander Bogdanov. He was a Renaissance man, a sort of Marxist Benjamin Franklin. One of the reasons for Bogdanov’s relative neglect is probably that he was too many things: revolutionary, doctor, philosopher, scientist, economic theorist, pioneer of the modern blood transfusion. It is hard, especially for academics, to write about such people, who excel across multiple disciplines. The subject always comes across like an all-you-can-eat buffet, with something for everyone. Even more off-putting is someone who was ahead of his time in multiple fields—an unrecognized, unsung pioneer. Those ahead of their time are usually not recognized for it; they often have only a limited following. People interested in forgotten communists already tend to be fetishists of the obscure, collecting forgotten and overlooked political figures like ultra-rare vinyl LPs. The forgotten are generally forgotten for a reason. The thing about losers is that they lost. No one cares why.

In addition to being a founder of the Bolshevik party, Bogdanov was a pioneer of science fiction and Russian cosmism. As if this weren’t enough, his late-in-life opus on the principles of human and animal organization, Tektology, is considered the predecessor of general systems theory. His life’s work was making the arcane realm of Marxist philosophy and economics accessible to working people, so they could be the central figures in building socialism, rather than being spoken for by a vanguard. He pursued this vision by writing popular, accessible tracts and textbooks as well as dense volumes of philosophy and theory.

Alongside Maxim Gorky and Anatoly Lunacharsky, Bogdanov was one of the founders of the tendency known as “God-Building”—an esoteric, heretical Bolshevism that hoped to harness the human impulse toward faith and channel it into the service of socialism.

James D. White’s Red Hamlet: The Life and Ideas of Alexander Bogdanov is the first comprehensive English-language biography of Bogdanov. In it, White alternates chapters of straight biography with dense chapters that rehash Bogdanov’s philosophy and the debates surrounding it. The volume meticulously provides an inside-baseball look at the evolution of the Bolshevik organism and makes clear the degree to which Bolshevism’s path was not predetermined—it could have been different. But as with any fight for the soul of an institution, it is the debates, the politics, the meetings, and the personalities that determine the outcome—the thousands of small decisions, errors, sleights, moments of charisma, and missed opportunities on the part of all involved.

Bogdanov was born on the Polish periphery of the Russian empire in 1873. He and Lenin were the same age and had similar backgrounds: both were sons of provincial schoolteachers, and both became revolutionaries only after their promising careers were curtailed by Tsarist repression. Bogdanov received a medical degree, but his real education took place during prolonged periods of imprisonment, exile, and banishment. He joined the Social Democrats and became passionate about workers’ education, giving clandestine lectures on political economy in cemeteries and forests. He began to view the intelligentsia with hostility and to see specialized education as a bulwark of oppression, a guild that turned curious students into isolated, alienated intellectuals. He pursued his pedagogical vision by writing texts like Short Course of Economic Science, which became the prime textbook of the early Russian Marxist movement.

Bogdanov met Anatoly Lunacharsky, who was to become his main collaborator, best friend, and brother-in-law, while in exile. Together the two became Marxists, defining an idiosyncratic position against the Tolstoyan populists. They shared a passion for the philosopher-scientist duo, Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius, who in the vein of Hegel were attempting to transcend disciplines and build a unified theory of everything. Avenarius’s A Critique of Pure Experience was so dense and impenetrable that apparently his collaborator Mach wasn’t even able to get through it. Exiled for three years in the northern outpost of Volgoda, Bogdanov worked at a psychiatric hospital and penned a philosophical tract, Perception from the Historical Point of View. This was soon followed by the first volume of a three-volume opus inspired by Mach and Avenarius, Empiriomonism.

It is strange that for all Bogdanov’s zeal for popular, accessible writing, when it came to philosophy, he chose some of the most heady, dense stuff to anchor his work. His thought veered toward grand, unifying theories of organization, based on the separation of the body from the soul and a corresponding vision of a society made up of “organizers” and “executors.” All biological existence was seen as fragmented and specialized along similar lines: all life had its own little role, and was alone and isolated in that role. He foresaw the coming time of automation, when workers would give orders to machines and no longer be mere bodies used by a ruling elite. Machine automation, then, presented a grand opportunity for workers to transcend their specialized jobs and seize control of the machines they alone knew how to operate.  

This interest in democratic planning has been making a comeback in recent years with books like Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism and Leigh Phillips and Michael Rozworksi’s People’s Republic of Walmart: How the World’s Biggest Corporations Are Laying the Foundations for Socialism. The contrarian claim made by Bogdanov and his descendants is essentially that massive, highly automated tech monopolies can be the hothouse where workers’ movements blossom. In the time of pandemic and responsible “social distance” this dynamic has only been accelerated. Bogdanov’s thesis was that “it is easier for the workers to take over a few large firms than a great many small ones.”

Lenin followed Bogdanov’s career with great interest. Isolated in Geneva and without a platform, he needed an ally with an established literary reputation. In 1904 Bogdanov traveled to the Swiss village of Puidoux, and the two made a political pact. Bogdanov became the de facto head of the Bolsheviks in Russia during the 1905 revolution. But as White outlines in detail, he was largely scrubbed out of its history, which was largely written by his detractors.

In the midst of war, revolution, and exile, it is frankly remarkable that Bolsheviks found so much time to quibble with one another over philosophy; they had seemingly endless energy to debate and fracture themselves over oh-so-pressing questions like the nature of matter, perception, consciousness, and the term thing-in-itself. Bogdanov’s Empiriomonism was controversial on the Bolshevik scene, garnering him many followers and many detractors. After 1905, Bogdanov and his wife fled across the Finnish border, where they moved in with Lenin and Krupskaya. After their cohabitation, Bogdanov gave Lenin a copy of the third volume of Empiriomonism. Lenin filled up three notebooks denouncing the text and sadistically mailed them to his friend. Bogdanov was shocked. He told Lenin that if they were to remain friends, he would have to regard the letter as “unwritten, unsent, and unread.”

In 1908, Gorky published his hallucinatory short novel, A Confession. The book, which reads like a kind of ultragrim Russian Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, follows the devout orphan Matvei on his spiritual journey as he hobos among criminals, thieving archbishops, evil landlords, and revolutionaries. Alongside Bogdanov’s Empiriomonism and Lunacharsky’s Religion and Socialism, Gorky’s A Confession was one of the founding documents of God-Building. It’s hard to say what God-Building stood for in concrete terms, but the animating spirit is probably best expressed in Gorky’s magnificent novel:

This vile life . . . began on that day when the first individual tore himself away from the miraculous strength of the people, from the masses, from his mother, and frightened by his isolation and weakness, pitied himself and grew to be a futile and evil master of petty desires, a mass of which called himself “I.” It is this same “I” that is the worst enemy of man.

In Religion and Socialism, Lunacharsky continued a project begun by Engels of trying to find the intersection on the Venn diagram of Marxism and Christianity. He could clearly see that the cold scientific materialism of Lenin and Marx needed to be blended with a stronger spiritual force, one previously expressed through the ages in various religions, but now redirected toward socialism.

The God-Builders set up shop on the Neapolitan island of Capri, where Gorky lived, and founded a party school for cadres. Bogdanov taught political economy and Gorky taught literature. Students were instructed in public speaking, printing techniques, and congress organization. Incensed, Lenin founded his own party school in Paris. He informed Gorky that he planned to smash their spiritually tinged deviation and ventured to Capri to tell them so in person. After sampling the local wines and touring Tiberius’s villa, Lenin informed the group that he would be writing something against them, triggering a near-blowup with Bogdanov. Gorky, ever one to smooth out differences, accompanied Lenin back to mainland Italy, where they hiked Mount Vesuvius together and ate well, before parting ways.

The result of this split was Lenin’s book Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, which did for Bolshevism what Irenaeus’s second-century work Against Heresies did for Christianity: defined orthodoxy and declared which sects and outlooks were heretical. The bulk of the book was dedicated to repudiating Bogdanov’s philosophical beliefs. Lenin and the God-Builders spent much of 1908–12 locked in a grinding battle for the fate of Bolshevism. Lenin had his papers and platforms, and the God-Builders had their own, Vpered (Forward). The God-Builders opened a cultural school in Bologna; Lenin responded with a more practical, guerilla-minded school in Longjumeau. Lenin still sounded panicked in 1911: “The Vperyodists [God-Builders] are very strong. They have a school=a conference=agents. We (and the C[entral] C[ommittee]) have not. They have money—some 80,000 rubles. You think they will give it to you? Are you really so naïve?”

Crucially, Lenin had control of the party funds, as well as a political animal’s talent for ratfucking. He withheld money from the God-Builders and anyone who supported them, while keeping his loyalists well supplied. Even future heretics and oppositionists like Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg stayed in line, afraid of falling out of Lenin’s good graces. The details are too tedious to rehash at length, but the God-Builders were eventually beaten. It was not a great time to have an expansive, humanist view of religion and culture—the Russian revolutionaries were wildly hostile to the church. “However good your intentions may be, Comrade Lunacharsky, it is not a smile, but disgust your flirtation with religion provokes,” Lenin wrote acidly in the footnotes of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism.

With the help of Gorky’s wife, who thought her husband’s literary talents were being wasted on political infighting, Lenin got Gorky to abandon Bogdanov. “It seems to me that he [Bogdanov] does not have the temperament of a revolutionary, but that he is a maker of systems,” Gorky wrote in a letter. “As far as other people are concerned—he despises them all, because he thinks himself incomparably more intelligent and significant than them, hence his arrogant attitude towards them.” Clearly there was also something repellant in Bogdanov’s personality.

At the Prague conference in 1912, Lenin finally seized full control of the Bolshevik faction and cast Bogdanov into premature political retirement. With his name removed from the Pravda masthead, White writes, “a final door had been slammed in Bogdanov’s face.” He was no longer part of Marxism.

Though Bogdanov continued to teach, write, and live, he remained a political pariah for the rest of his life, eventually turning to scientific research. In 1921, while on a trip with a delegation to London, he picked up a copy of Blood Transfusions, a book by John Maynard Keynes’s brother, Geoffrey. He and a close group of friends began performing experimental blood transfusions on one another, and he eventually established the world’s first blood-transfusion clinic in the Soviet Union. While Keynes had been mostly interested in blood transfusions to save lives, Bogdanov was interested in reversing the aging process—using the blood of the young to revitalize the blood of the old.

He died of a botched blood transfusion performed on himself in 1928. Even after Bogdanov’s death, Lenin’s relentless judgment held sway. Bogdanov’s philosophical and theoretical work largely rotted in oblivion until the 1970s and is just recently beginning to be reexamined. There is a sense of Bogdanov the extremely talented thinker and intellectual, convinced that people can be won over by good-faith debate and open battle of ideas. But he seems to have lacked the charisma, the interpersonal skill, and the organizational and political talents necessary to win.

White’s book, while providing a valuable new resource, suffers much from Verso Academic Marxist Syndrome: the cloistered, limited appeal of books that are supposed to study the immortal science of the people. While the biographical sections are intelligible, the casual reader comes to dread the long discussions of obscure philosophy. Reading the latter is often like listening to New School graduate students discuss Hegel: the terms and the grounds of debate are so broad and vague as to make no sense. It is a shame that White didn’t just use his well-researched biographical material to produce a mainstream biography and then publish the philosophical sections in an academic journal. He might have been able to produce a work both popular and accessible, as Bogdanov might have preferred.

This article is an American Affairs online exclusive, published May 20, 2020.


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