Red Star

Image: Antonio Lizarraga


Commentary on the newly translated book by Aleksandr Bogdanov

Posting Red Star presents the Brazilian public with two novelties. On the one hand, it brings to Portuguese a work that, until then, had only one recent translation, in English, which unfortunately deviates substantially from the original text.. The Brazilian edition has the careful and competent translation of Ekaterina Vólkova Américo and Paula Vaz de Almeida, who are notable for the sensitive and faithful way in which they treated the original text.

On the other hand, it presents to the Portuguese-speaking community the author Aleksandr Bogdánov, practically unknown in these tropics, and whose vast intellectual work exerted great influence on the intelligentsia Russian radical who stormed the skies in October 1917, falling into the limbo of Stalinist censorship after his death in 1928. That silence has been broken in recent years, thanks to the growing interest in her ideas. The publication of Boitempo adds yet another effort to this rehabilitation.

A founding member of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party (RSDLP), Bogdanov was noted for intense revolutionary activity in the early years of the RSDLP. His prestige with the Bolshevik faction can be attested by the prominent role he played in several of its instances: he was elected to the Central Committee of the RSDLP in 1905, 1906 and 1907; during the Revolution of 1905 he was the Bolshevik representative to the St. Petersburg soviet; moreover, he worked intensely in the writing of several Bolshevik information vehicles such as the newspapers Vpered (Onwards) proletarian (Proletarians) to Novaia Zhizn'(New life) (Jensen, 1978: 36).

Influenced by natural philosophy at the end of the XNUMXth century, Bogdanov sought to revise Marxist theory based on Ernst Mach's empiriocriticism. Based on the Machian concept of experience, Bogdanov rejected absolute and dichotomous categories – subject and object, physical and psychic, matter and spirit –, defining reality from the interface between the external world and consciousness: the realm of experience, whose degree would actually be determined by the organizational level at which such experience takes place.

Reality becomes determined by the collective experience of a society (science) that constantly organizes nature based on the ideas that men produce of it based on their collective labor activity. From social activity, complexes of elements of an organizational nature develop in cognition, helping to organize these same social activities. Between 1904 and 1906, Bogdanov published his theory in three volumes entitled Empiriomonism: essays in philosophy (Rowley, 1996: 8).

Bogdanov's revisionist efforts did not impede close collaboration between him and Lenin for most of the first decade of the twentieth century. However, from 1907 onwards, tactical (the RSDLP's participation in the parliamentary process for the 3rd Duma) and philosophical (the growing influence of Bogdanov's revisionism on the intelligentsia) have become unavoidable. The publication, in 1909, of Materialism and Empiriocriticism, a work in which Lenin attacked Bogdanov's positions as subjective, reactionary and fideistic, marked the definitive break between the two leaders. Later that year, Bogdanov would be expelled from the Bolshevik faction, to which he would never return (Sochor, 1978: 43).

It was in the midst of the established controversy with Lenin that Bogdanov, in 1908, wrote Red Star. The first work of a trilogy, the book begins and ends between the barricades of the revolution. The adventure is presented to us in the form of a diary belonging to Leonid, a young scientist and Bolshevik revolutionary, whose whereabouts are unknown after he disappeared from a psychiatric hospital. Leonid begins his journey in the midst of the 1905 Revolution, in which he meets a fellow named Menny, who proposes to introduce him to a secret society of scientists. After going through a romantic breakup, Leonid accepts the invitation and travels with Menny to a base located in Finland, from where he leaves in a nuclear-powered vehicle for Mars, the “Red Star”.

There, Leonid acts as an observer of a society that, in the distant past, had undergone a global socialist revolution, resulting from an environmental catastrophe that led to the desertification of the planet (Bogdánov, 2020 [1908]: 70). The revolution and consequent destruction of the capitalist system led to the construction, through the efforts of the working class, of a collectivist, egalitarian and amonnetary society, where the State does not exist and whose planned production operates in accordance with the laws of economic equilibrium, supervised by powerful statistical organizational systems (Bogdanov, 2020 [1908]: 84).

Treated by the Martians as an ambassador between the two worlds, Leonid is taken to know several Martian institutions: an educational colony; a museum; a machinery factory; a hospital. As the narrative progresses, Leonid becomes increasingly unstable, demonstrating increasing difficulty adjusting to the collectivist nature of Martian socialism.

After suffering several nervous breakdowns, always under the care of Menny and Netty, his doctor and lover, Leonid awakens, back on Earth, in a psychiatric hospital, where he runs away alongside Vladimir, a street fighter worker and his pupil, and once again launches himself into the revolutionary struggle, now knowing that it would not be up to his generation of intellectuals to guide the revolutionary process. His task would be to prepare Vladimir – the working class – for the final victory (Bogdanov, 2020 [1908]: 178).

Three important traditions present themselves immediately in Red Star: Science Fiction (SF); the utopian genre; and the condition of the work as a tribute to a long-standing radical literature. From the point of view of CF studies, Red Star is part of a consolidated lineage of works whose narrative space takes place on Mars, the red planet. The privileged place of Mars in CF is due to the possibilities of intelligent life that populated the imagination of writers since the first description of the planet by the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, in 1877, who used the term “canali” to describe a network of perpendicular lines at the southern latitude of the planet (Stableford, 2006: 29-33).

From the point of view of utopian studies, Red Star was considered by Darko Suvin (1971: 117) to be the first utopian SF novel completely freed from literary elements typical of the fantastic genre. It is important to emphasize that, unlike the canonical form of the genre – which presents a critical portrait of reality based on the construction of a perfect and non-historical enclave – Red Star presents a society in crisis, whose history did not end with the advent of utopia. The book is perhaps the first realization of what Tom Moylan came to call “Critical Utopia”, since it is less the scheme of an intentional community than an intransigent dream that guides the future of that society based on its conflicts and the permanence of differences (Moylan, 1986:10).

Finally, we must contextualize the work within a long aesthetically radical and politically subversive tradition of the intelligentsia Russian. This was a tradition initially influenced by the German idealism of Schiller and Hegel and which, as it became more radical, came closer and closer to the materialist currents of Feuerbach and, finally, Marx (Branco, 2014: 122). Like this, Red Star is part of a literary tradition whose history cannot be disconnected from the history of intelligentsia that produced it.

Branco (2008: 24) demonstrates the correlation between the aesthetic positioning of Russian literary production and its authors and the growing political radicalization of this art. Authors such as Turgenev, Goncharov, Chernichevsky, Pissarev, Gogol, Dobrolyubov and Tolstoy produced a literary art whose role largely sought to reflect the objective conditions of Russian life under the weight of the autocratic state, demanding an actively transforming role from this art.

Red Star, as the translators point out in the preface, joins the publicist school of Tchernichevsky, in which art submits itself to the demands of life. It matters less to the author its aesthetic-literary characteristics and more its engaged nature, the form of manifesto that hides behind the utopian narrative at the same time that it highlights it. Bogdanov does not just write for his peers. His work has a pedagogical meaning, aimed at the working class. When expressing his insecurity about abandoning the revolutionary struggle, Leonid hears from Netty: “There (in Russia) blood is being shed for a better future, but, in order to carry forward the struggle itself, it is necessary to know the future better. And it is for this knowledge that you are here.” (Bogdanov, 2020 [1908]: 59)

In keeping with this publicist tradition, Bogdanov used Red Star as a propaganda vehicle for their ideas and reflections. The author introduced several persona, whose papers voiced part of his ideas, many of them still in an embryonic stage and which, years later, would take on mature forms and greatly influence the Soviet cultural universe.

In Menny we find the tektological scientist, the proletarian science that would unify all experience, breaking the fetish of specializations; in Netty, the doctor who presents the blood transfusion as the ultimate act of camaraderie, capable of solving even mortality; in Sterny, the critic of the individualistic and fragmented nature of earthly humanity, whose consciousness was irremediably fractured by the causality of bourgeois fetishism; in Leonid, the revolutionary who is transformed by his experience on Mars and who returns skeptical about the role of a revolutionary vanguard composed of intellectuals steeped in individualism, incapable of expressing the collectivist worldview of the proletariat.

Em Red Star, Bogdanov demonstrated that he had broken with Bolshevism even before its expulsion: the role of the avant-garde of the present would be to serve as a guide for the formation of a new intelligentsia, straight out of the working class and who would make up the true revolutionary vanguard in the future. No wonder, after his expulsion, Bogdanov gradually withdrew from militant activity, concentrating on educational and scientific activities, which will later bear fruit in the form of the Proletkult and of Tektology, the Universal Organizational Science.

Red Star it is finally a canvas on which Bogdanov brushed his utopia as a critique of his own historical moment. The history of the Mars revolution is, to a certain extent, the utopian projection of the history of the Russian Revolution of 1905. As an example, we can cite the serious economic crisis that followed the end of the great works on the Martian canals. Bogdanov seems to transpose into his novel the crisis that befell Russia after the construction of the Trans-Siberian railway, whose completion served as a factor for the strikes that spread across Russia in 1905 (Pokrovski, 1907 [1944]: 34).

Bogdanov sought to expose his reflections and prescribe solutions for the various problems faced by Russian socialists based on the successful example of Martian socialists. In the work, Bogdanov's opinions about some characters of the intelligentsia from the RSDLP, mainly those with whom Bogdanov was in debate at that moment: Mirsky, would be at the same time Plekhanov, a philosopher who “has the professional habit of placing himself in the most diverse points of view and trying to appease them”; the poet would be Górky, a man who “lived through too many torments, wandering through all the layers of his world so that it would be easy for him to live, even the passage to ours”; and Lenin, the Old Man of the Mountain, “a person exclusively for struggle and revolution, […] a person of iron, and people of iron are not flexible. There is a lot of spontaneous conservatism in them” (Bogdanov, 2020 [1908]: 176).

It is from the interface between these three traditions that Red Star tells us many stories. The work tells us a political-economic history of Russia between the passage of the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries; tells us a history of the constitutive intellectual debates of intelligentsia and its contradictions; tells us a story of the appropriation and transformation of thought by Russian radicalism. It is not an original work in its form or content. On the contrary, it is a derivative work whose originality is contextual, characterized by the background, position and intention of its author. All these stories intersect and are transformed through the lens of an original intellectual who lived them and who actively participated in their plots, whose point of view is only now being reconstituted.

Red Star it is not only the inaugural work of Soviet SF, although it is also; it is not just a work of Marxist SF, an attempt that was at least unusual for the time. Its unique nature also extends to the history of utopian literature through its open teleological character, in which the conflict is not removed, but transposed from the relationship between men to the confrontation against nature. History continues its movement, in the form of an unavoidable environmental catastrophe that the entirety of Mars faces.

This open and tragic dimension of utopia serves as a negative for the tragedy of class struggle on Earth and the difficult decisions that fall to generations on both planets. Red Star provides a glimpse of the richness and diversity of the debates undertaken by the intelligentsia Russia in its pre-revolutionary period, characterized by a constant groping in search of ideas and programs that would take into account the specificities of Russia and its people.

Red Star thus, it presents us with a broad panorama of Aleksandr Bogdanov's political and economic thought, giving an account of his contributions in various fields of Russian revolutionary intellectual activity. More than fruitful, Bogdanov was above all a promiscuous intellectual, whose work sought to amalgamate Marxian theory with what he understood to be most modern in the philosophy of science of his time. As a result, he ended up producing a unique form of phenomenological Marxism, empirically monistic and based on a sophisticated functionalist model.

It was from this unique path, heterodox at its limit, that Bogdanov sought to understand the role of ideological systems in the formation of conscience and in the resilience of bourgeois authoritarian relations. More than any other intellectual of his time, Bogdanov devoted central attention to Marx's theory of fetishism and based on it elaborated his critical about the fragmentary nature of consciousness and the risks inherent in a intelligentsia laden with individualism, making it the guiding line of his vast work and the foundation of his theory of knowledge.

The struggle against the Russian autocracy, allied to a century-old radical tradition, produced an intellectually fertile and diverse generation in the passage between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, and Bogdanov was perhaps the intellectual who most faithfully represented that moment. Bogdanov moved between Marxism and positivism; between politics and culture; between science and philosophy; between art and revolution. This transitional character is perhaps the strength and weakness of his work: strength for the originality of the answers he elaborated to the questions of his time and weakness for the inadequacy of these ideas in a time when he called for political action.

Read Red Star it is like navigating the “revolt and beautiful ocean” (Bogdanov, 2020 [1908]: 156) of Bogdanov's ideas, a polymathic intellectual, whose thought is still relevant to understanding our very dark times.

* Pedro Ramos de Toledo Master in History from USP.


BOGDÁNOV, Aleksandr. Red Star: a utopia. Sao Paulo, Boitempo, 2020.

JENSEN, KM Beyond Marx and Mach: Aleksandr Bogdanov's Philosophy of Living Experience. Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1978.

MOYLAN, Tom. Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination. Bern: Peter Lang, 2014.

POKROVSKI, MN Economic Causes of the Russian Revolution. Rio de Janeiro: Ed. Calvin, 1944.

ROWLEY, David G. “Bogdanov and Lenin: Epistemology and Revolution.” Studies in East European Thought, vol. 48(1), 1-19, 1996.

SOCHOR, Zenovia. Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin Controverse. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

STABLEFORD, Brian. “The origins of Science Fiction.” In: The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, pp. 13-31. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversityPress, 2006.

SUVIN, Darko. “The Utopian Tradition of Russian Science Fiction”.  The Modern Language Review, Vol. 2(1), 112-137, 1971.

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