the red star

Regina Silveira, "To Be Continued... (Latin American Puzzle)", 2001.


Reflections on the Science Fiction of the Bolshevik Leader Alexandr Bogdanov

Alexandr Bogdánov (1873-1928) was a co-founder of the Russian Bolshevik social-democratic party, along with Vladimir Lenin (his file was No. 2). He took an active part in the 1905 revolution. After 1917, he was among the founders of what would become the USSR Academy of Sciences, whose Politburo he was part of it from 1918 to 1926. And he even created what may have been the first hematology center in the world, in Soviet Russia, in 1926. A doctor and biologist, he would, however, wage a tough epistemological, theoretical and ethical dispute with Lenin and Plekhanov. , at the end of the policy, from which he leaves defeated but not convinced.

Certainly because of this, his name was almost completely erased from history, along with the consolidation of Stalinism and what would come to be known as Marxism-Leninism. Despite the indisputable importance of his theoretical and political presence in the first two decades of the XNUMXth century, very few people today know who Bogdanov was and what his brilliant theoretical and political contribution was to Marxist thought.

Bogdanov developed a whole theory which he called tektology: in Greek, the noun tekton means “carpenter”, “builder”, hence the verb tektainen, “build”, “structure”. Epistemologically, therefore, Bogdanov, already pointed to what, today, we call constructivism. Scientifically, it can be demonstrated, as many scholars of his thought have already done, that his theory was simply a precursor to the General Theory of Systems by Ludwig von Bertallanffy (1901-1972); Norbert Wiener's Cybernetics (1894-1964) and even the far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics of Ilya Prigogine (1917.-2003).[I]

Ou seja, o establishment The Soviet Marxist, by ostracizing Bogdanov and his ideas, simply missed an enormous opportunity to anticipate and come to lead epistemological and theoretical programs that are now widely accepted in Western academia (albeit, of course, without further reference to materialist dialectics). and even in our everyday life: after all, the cell phones in our hands (just to cite a simple example) are nothing more than cybernetic equipment. The Soviets preferred Lysenko to Bogdanov…

This article, however, will deal mainly with another facet of the philosopher, scientist, revolutionary politician, Alexandr Bogdanov: the novelist. From the political point of view, he maintained that the revolution would advance through the progressive cultural-ideological development of the working masses, in this also differentiating himself from Lenin whose program, as we know, aimed at the revolutionary assault on power.[ii] Bogdanov, in this respect, may have been a forerunner of Gramsci. Seeking to put his ideas into practice, among so many activities he still dedicated himself to producing didactic works and pamphlets aimed at educating workers; he organized training courses and, after the 1917 revolution, together with Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875-1933), he developed a movement of “Proletarian Culture” (Proletkult) which sought to bring art and literature to the Russian working masses. It is in this context that his novel takes place. the red star, science fiction in which he describes what could become some future communist society. First published in 1908, the novel gained a Brazilian translation in 2020 by Editora Boitempo.

the script of the red star takes place on the planet Mars. The main character, Leonid, is a Russian Marxist revolutionary who, contacted and invited by Martians, spends time on that planet. On Mars, a society much more advanced than the terrestrial one would have developed, with production and social relations that would be communist, in the terms of the terrestrial Marxist definitions. The objective of the Martians was to open a channel of dialogue with some human group that could represent the most historically advanced thinking on Earth. Leonid will thus have the opportunity to get to know, even experience, the different social and cultural dimensions of the Martian communist society of which he would become a kind of “ambassador” when he returned to Earth.

Reading this fiction more than 100 years after it was published, having already experienced the entire history of the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, etc. in concrete social reality, raises interesting questions and some emotions. Part of Bogdanov's descriptions obviously express his personal vision, albeit as a political leader – an “opinion maker”, we would say today – of what the communist society for which he and his comrades fought so hard, should become. until sacrifice. But it is possible to assume that some ideas there also reflect a certain common sense, among social democratic revolutionaries in the early XNUMXth century, about future communism. Could it be that, in some idle moment, between one vodka and another, one wine and another, or even at a tea party, they didn't allow themselves to daydream about the world they intended to build?... If so, between the intention and the gesture, which was it the distance?

On the other hand, it is safe to say that the book displays, in easy-to-understand colloquial language, typical of a work addressed to the “ordinary” reader, the main topics of disagreement between Bogdanov and his Bolshevik comrades, Lenin above all. In many dialogues, Leonid is shown to be a somewhat skeptical or surprised questioner, in the face of patient, friendly, sometimes seeming condescending, Martian interlocutors. Through the lips of the Martian men and women, Bogdanov responded to his critics.

the red star it is usually situated in the field of literary utopias: the first socialist or communist utopia. Some critics question. Authentic utopias such as those of Thomas Morus (1478-1535) or Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639) are fictions in which their authors expose and defend ethical values ​​through the description of some society out of time and place. The aim of the utopian work is the moral critique of real society. But if Bogdanov's fiction propagates ethical values ​​(after all, any fiction does too), it is anchored in a historical time and even in a context of place. Martian society is a product of the evolution of history: before, Mars, like Earth, had experienced feudalism and capitalism. It also results from the contradiction between human beings and Nature, which is one of the most surprising – and controversial – aspects of the book. The development of Civilization puts more and more pressure on natural resources causing depletion of resources, therefore demanding innovative solutions in the name of the survival of the already civilized human species. This process leads to productive and therefore social transformations, which eventually led the Martians to build a communist system of living as a condition for their own survival. Communism will therefore not be the consequence of a (possibly) bloody revolution, but of an evolutionary process determined, ultimately, by the relations between human beings and their environment. However, as we will see below, even this evolution can come to a difficult crossroads.

At the time Bogdanov lived and wrote, European capitalist societies and, in part, other societies into which capitalism penetrated, were really being shaken by some radical inventions, and also by radical scientific discoveries accompanying these inventions. Electric power began to reach factories, streets and homes. Marie Curie (1867-1934) announced the discovery of radium and radioactivity. Einstein (1879-1955), of the laws of relativity. Pasteur (1822-1895), of microbiology. Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910) published, in 1877, the first map of the surface of Mars, which would provoke many other lucubrations and fantasies.

In such an environment, literature would also discover science fiction: adventures that projected – rather, imagined – new possibilities for scientific and technological developments, many of them without failing to point to the limits or shortcomings of the human condition. Authors such as Jules Verne (1828-1905) or HG Wells (1866-1946) were successful. Bogdanov's fiction could be inserted in this movement, already pointing it in a direction that, in Marxist terms, would be historic. It should be recalled, as mentioned above, that Bogdanov was a scientist. His universe of readings and influences, therefore, went beyond the philosophical or political-economic references of almost all of his socialist comrades. He closely followed, studied, understood well the most recent advances in Physics, Chemistry, especially Biology. This specific intellectual competence will most likely have been another factor, subjective, psychological, unconscious, that differentiated him, until he reached the break, from Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders, devoid of the same training. With all certainty, it was essential for him to have elaborated his Tektologia.

Life on Mars

In the midst of the revolutionary struggles of 1905, Leonid, 27 years old, is contacted by a certain Menny who had read his scientific article on electrons and matter. In this article, Leonid raised the hypothesis of the existence of “anti-matter” in the universe. If so, the repulsive forces of this antimatter could be used to allow the development of ultra-fast transport vehicles, including for interstellar travel. Menny reveals that this technology was already dominated by a "secret society" and invites Leonid to join it.

so it begins the red star. A few pages later, Leonid, narrating in the first person, is already aware that this “secret society” is formed by Martians infiltrated in terrestrial life; enters his radioactivity-powered vehicles that escape gravity due to anti-matter; and travels to Mars. At this stage, we are introduced to the other main Martian characters, in addition to Menny: Netty, Enno, Sterny. All are scientists. About the first two, Bogdanov reserves for us, in the second half of the book, a big surprise that we don't need to undo here. As for Sterny, mathematician and logician, described as an extremely objective type, direct, dry, of few words and scarce emotions, Leonid, from the beginning, manifested his reservations.

It makes no sense to summarize the whole story here. We are interested in pointing out, as suggested before, the points of encounter or disagreement between Bogdanov's narrative and the political and cultural developments that we experienced throughout the century during which his utopian vision coexisted with real socialist experiences. In the red star, Bogdanov discusses school and education; factory and production; arts, including architecture; aspects of everyday life. And, of course, he debates theory. Therefore, we can assume that, in addition to his own ideas, he provides us with a generic map of the mentality of the revolutionaries of his time.

Clothing, for example. Men and women wear standardized clothes, without “useless” adornments, which barely allow to distinguish their sexes. The famous “Mao tunics” from the times of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, soon come to mind… The buildings, including the residential ones, were also simple, straight, functional, not seeking to distinguish themselves from each other by aesthetic ornaments. In a museum, Leonid was able to get to know and compare the different phases of the architectural history of Mars, noting that, “in previous times, it was very common, as with us, that refinement was achieved at the expense of comfort, that ornaments undermined durability. , that art committed violence against the direct fate of the usefulness of objects”. He adds: “my eyes caught none of that in the works of the modern age: neither in their furniture, nor in their instruments, nor in their constructions”.

He asks Enno if “modern architecture accepted the deviation from the functional perfection of objects in the name of beauty”. Answer: “Never, it would be a false beauty, artificial, and not art”. Right ahead, the stripped and functional lines of the machines are presented to us as o model of aesthetic beauty in communist society, which would remind us of the huge murals painted in 1933 by the Mexican communist artist Diego Rivera (1887-1957), at Ford headquarters in Detroit. In another dialogue, Enno adds: “even less do we adorn our houses”. We have the impression that, a few decades after these lines were written, these spartan ideas would guide much of the urban architecture and even the unadorned domestic decoration that prevailed in Soviet life. Possibly they expressed a worldview, an ethical-aesthetic commitment, already widespread among revolutionary leaders and militants, critics of capitalist ostentation. Seeds of “socialist realism”?

They are veritable cities where around 20 children and young people and their teachers live, inside each one, spread over houses with 200 to 300 children, young people and adult teachers. Again, standardized clothing makes it almost impossible to distinguish between genders. There are no serial classes, but thematic classes with the presence and joint participation of children and young people. The young people help the teachers in the tasks of educating the children. Otherwise, “there would be no real education”, explains Nella, a teacher, to Leonid: “to receive education for society, a child must live in society. Most of life experience and knowledge, children get from each other. Isolating one age from another would mean creating for them a one-sided and narrow way of life, in which the development of the future person would proceed in a slow, feeble and monotonous way... educators of the most different ages and the most different practical specialties for each Children's House”. Learning processes mediated by the proximity between those who teach and those who learn. A practical preview of the ideas that, in the 1920s, would be announced and experimented with in the Soviet Union by a still unknown 1908-year-old teenager named Lev Vygotsky (12-1896) in 1934?

Of course, production is the core of it all. Leonid is first introduced to a factory and later decides to work as a laborer himself. We have the opportunity not only to get to know Bogdanov's technological foresights (among them, synthetic fabric), but also the intellectual and technical profile of the communist worker. Factories are powered "by the finer but mightier force of electricity." The workers are among the machines without showing tension, in a “calm attention. They seemed curious, educated observers… they were only interested in observing”. The production process is coordinated in a large room whose “black walls were covered with bright white signs” – yes, Bogdanov introduces us to a large automatic control room, nowadays, and for a long time now, common in any large industrial plant.

Through wires connected to the machines, that is, a computer network as we would say today, the cybernetic technological system monitors, controls and plans production. The screens inform where there is surplus or deficit of daily hours of work in the different factories, all over the planet. Individuals, consciously aware of the data on screens scattered around the factories and aware of the professional profiles demanded in each case, move from factories with surpluses to those with deficits.

At the top, the entire system is coordinated by the Statistics Institute: politics seems absent, with it the State. The numbers and the self-conscious management of the workers are enough. Many factors affect these numbers, but networked technology can respond quickly to changes that cause imbalance: scarcity of an ore, innovation in a machine, variations in consumption. Hence, given fluctuations in supply or demand, there may appear a deficit of labor in one factory, or a surplus in another. The conscious responses of individuals would restore balance. Bogdanov is also offering practical lessons from his Tektology here.

By deciding to work in a factory, Leonid shows us the knowledge necessary for a communist worker: scientific knowledge. “I had to study the factory organization principles, in general, elaborated by science, and to get to know, in particular, the disposition of that factory in which I would work: I had to deal, above all, with its organization of work, to unveil, in general terms, also the structure of all the machines used in it and, of course, all the details, especially that machine I had to deal with. Furthermore, I found it necessary to learn beforehand some areas of applied mechanics and general technology, and even mathematical analysis.” Nothing to do with the Taylorized worker that, in a text written ten years later, Lenin would maintain that it was necessary to introduce in the newly founded Soviet Russia.[iii]

On the other hand, it takes us back to the nowadays famous “Fragments of the machinery” of the floorplans of Marx, although, certainly, at that time, Bogdanov and his contemporaries could not have even the slightest idea of ​​the existence of these fundamental drafts for the understanding of Marxian thought and method. In the brain of Bogdanov's communist worker “there is the accumulated knowledge of society” which “is related to the production process much more as a supervisor and regulator”, as Marx had already written.[iv] Individual intellect that absorbs and also generates the general social knowledge necessary for the production and reproduction of human social life.

The crisis

Not everything is flowers. By the way, on Mars, the leaves are red, the flowers are very colorful. There are crises. Children often reveal individualistic motivations or tendencies towards violence. It is human nature, even Martian, corrected by Education. Although they only need to work two to three hours a day, workers are not uncommon (it seems) to be so obsessed with work and with “their” machine that they remain hours and hours inside the factories, developing dangerous psychological disorders, including suicidal tendencies. Diseases, of course, exist – and hospitals. Leonid himself, given more and more desperately to the task (by this time self-imposed) of learning everything about that civilization (language, literature, history, science, habits) ends up a victim of stress and, feeling incapable of reaching the intellectual and ethical “superior” of his new friends, plunges into a state that, according to Bogdanov's description, we can identify with depression.

But the biggest crisis already appears towards the end and climax of the novel. Mars is an increasingly dry planet, whose energy and mineral resources are running out faster and faster. Martians need to find a solution. Here emerges a discussion that seems to express the view of any European, including Bogdanov, on nature at the beginning of the XNUMXth century. The relationship with Nature is the great contradiction of the human species. This is the basic contradiction, driving all the others, the Brazilian Marxist philosopher Álvaro Vieira Pinto would argue, in a posthumously published work, at the end of the XNUMXth century.[v] Techniques and technological development result from the solutions that Humanity is finding to resolve the challenges posed by this contradiction. However, in the words of the Martian Menny, “the more closely our humanity closes ranks for the conquest of nature, the more closely the elements of nature close to take revenge for [our] victories”. Covid is right there, seeming to prove Menny right…

Leonid asks: wouldn't it be the case, then, to reduce the birth rate? slow down growth? “But then it would be precisely the victory of the elements of nature”, contests Menny. “It would be the refusal of life's unlimited growth, its inevitable stop at one of the lowest rungs. We win while we attack. If we refuse to grow our army of people, it would mean that we are besieged by the elements of nature. Then it would weaken faith in our collective strength, in our great community life.”

For our current mentality, this speech is surprising. Nature, there, not only seems external to the human being, but is his enemy. It exists to be conquered. However, this speech does not seem consistent with Bogdanov's own tektological system either! Studying a Martian History book, Leonid learns, right in its first chapter, that the “Universe is a Unique Whole”. Further on, in the tough debate leading up to the end of the novel, Netty states that Philosophy will be overcome by the “monism of science”. These passages, which, for an unsuspecting reader, may not even call attention, nevertheless contain the whole essence of Bogdanov's epistemological project.

As Lucien Sfez teaches us,[vi] contemporary thought, especially when related to cybernetic, cognitivist or info-communicational theories, can be divided into two main trunks: dual-objectivist or mono-constructivist. The first refers to the Cartesian subject-object dualism, largely dominant in the theories and methodologies of the Natural Sciences but also underlying positivism in the Social Sciences, among them structuralism. The second refers to the Spinozian subject-object identity (or unit), which, although secondary or marginal in Western thought throughout the 1885th and 1971th centuries, comes to us through Hegel and Marx, and is also found in Gyorgy Lukács (XNUMX-XNUMX) in History and class consciousness, a work, as we know, contemporary with Bogdanov and also published in index prohibitorum of Marxism-Leninism.

Since the second half of the last century, this monist thinking has expanded through the School of Palo Alto led by Gregory Bateson (1904-1980); the biology of Henri Atlan or Humberto Maturana (1928-2021); or even the entire contemporary ecological debate. Bogdanov's monist Tektology, harshly criticized by Lenin's dualist mind, is part of this lineage, even more justifying, nowadays, the search to recover it and better understand it.

However, if the “universe is a single whole”, how to explain that vision of struggle, as if it were war, between human beings and Nature? Perhaps here Bogdanov stumbled upon the intellectual limits of man in his time; fallen into contradiction with himself due to faith – and it could only be faith – in Humanity as the manifest destiny of progress. A Promethean faith embedded to the core in European arrogance that hadn't even experienced the tragedy of the First World War, and also embraced and professed by generations of Marxists engaged in the revolutions of the XNUMXth century.

Facing the ecological crisis projected with all the scientific-technological security by the Institute of Statistics, the Martians gather in a Congress to debate the future. Leonid, not being a Martian, is not even allowed to attend this meeting but, in a library, he manages, via typically Terran cunning, to listen to the recordings – yes, recordings, phonograms – of the speeches. And what he tells us seems frightening, knowing what happened in the USSR in the decades immediately following the October Revolution.

There were two alternatives. Moving to Earth, with its resources still abundant, or exploring ores on Venus at a very high cost, not least because the planet is inhospitable for human life. Moving to Earth seemed like the best solution, except for one small problem… the Earthlings.

What to do?

That question...

Sterny takes the floor and makes a speech that occupies almost 10 pages of the Brazilian edition of the book. Colonizing Venus, impossible. Exclusively exploiting its mineral sources would require a very high cost in energy, investments, even Martian lives. Earth remains. But this planet is inhabited by a backward humanity. Peoples who live at war with each other, dominated by patriotic ideologies, divided by languages, clinging to their territories and traditions. They will not willingly give up any space to the Martians, they will not share their resources with extraterrestrials. Earthlings would still have a long history to go before reaching the level of civilization, that is, communism, of the Martians. If installed on Earth, the Martians would need to occupy some well-defined territory and dedicate a good part of their efforts to defending that territory. “What would our comrades' existence be like amid these dangers and this eternal apprehension?” asks Sterny. “Not only would all their joys of life be poisoned, but the type itself would quickly be perverted and degraded. Distrust, revenge, the selfish thirst for self-preservation and the cruelty that is intrinsic to it would penetrate them little by little. This colony would cease to be ours and become a military republic amidst the defeated and hostile tribes. Repeated attacks and the resulting victims would not only generate the feeling of revenge and anger that distort the human image we hold dear, but would also objectively force a shift from self-defence to ruthless offensive”. That said, Sterny presents and defends the logical solution (for he is logical): "the colonization of the Earth demands the complete extermination of the terrestrial humanity".

In very blunt words, the proto-Gramstian Bogdanov gave his clear message to the Bolshevik Jacobins. He anticipated the drama of communism in one country.

Netty responded to Sterny with an extraordinarily topical speech. Yes, the Earth's history has followed other routes largely due to the conditions of terrestrial nature: unlike the endless Martian plains, the Earth is fragmented by oceans, seas, mountain ranges, valleys, countless ecosystems, hence the diversity of its cultures and peoples . These are "forms different (Bogdanov's italics) of those we have: in them the history of another nature, of another struggle, was reflected and concentrated; another force of nature is hidden in them, they contain other contradictions, other possibilities of development”. The praise of difference! Netty sees in the peoples of Earth, not inferior beings or cultures, but, under certain aspects, even superior due to the greater efforts, due to the struggles that they need to fight in order to develop and evolve. The earthlings' road to communism will therefore be slower and harder than it was for the Martians.

This debate exposes the great controversy within the Bolshevik party between a Lenin and his other companions eager to experience the revolutionary conquest of power, and an almost solitary Bogdanov defending handing over the process to the social forces of History, even if sown and fertilized by political militancy -cultural of the socialist movement.

The final decision was to look for minerals on Venus, building workstations there that could resemble our current oil platforms, extracting a source of energy from the deep and inhospitable conditions of the ocean. And thither Menny, Netty, a great team traveled, leaving Leonid, alone, on Mars. As said, he already had his mental health shaken. He reacted very badly to Sterny's speech. She sought him out in his lab and murdered him. And, in the midst of delusions, without knowing very well how it happened, he was returned to Earth. He convalesced in a psychiatric hospital, convinced that “the task [he was] entrusted with turned out to be superior to [his] strength.” The Martians had selected him considering his political commitment and, especially, his cultural level, as a scientist. For Leonid, that is where they went wrong, “by attributing more importance to the cultural level than to the cultural strength of development”. More importance to the “vanguard” than to the political and cultural evolution of the people.

In the political field, this debate, inconclusive, continues today. And it should go on as long as there is history... But in the epistemological and theoretical field, Bogdanov's monist Tektologia has already confirmed its original and precursory place in the history of philosophical and scientific thought. Even without references to him (there are those who say that Bertallanffy plagiarized him), his basic constructivist ideas are projected and are nowadays reaffirmed in the different branches of frontier investigations, both in natural and social sciences, in this XNUMXst century.

*Marcos Dantas He is a professor at the School of Communication at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of The logic of capital-information (Contraponto).


Alexandr Bogdanov. the red star. Translation: Paula Vaz de Almeida and Ekaterina Vólkova Américo. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2020, 184 pages.


[I] Peter DUDLEY, “Editor's Introduction”, in Bogdanov's Tektology, Book 1, Hull, UK: Center for Systems Study Press, 1996, pp. xxxi-xlvi.

[ii] Zenovia A. SOCHOR, Revolution and Culture: the Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy, Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 1988.

[iii] VI LENIN, The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Power. In: Selected Works, V. 2, São Paulo: Alfa-Omega, 1980 [1918], pp. 559-591.

[iv] Karl Marx, floorplans, São Paulo: Boitempo, 2011, pp. 588-594 passim.

[v] Alvaro VIEIRA PINTO, The concept of technology, Rio de Janeiro: Counterpoint, 2005.

[vi] Lucien SFEZ, Communication criticism, São Paulo: Loyola.

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