Bogdanov

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Jun 2 12:00:46 MDT 2000


H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-Russia at h-net.msu.edu (May, 2000)

John Biggart, Georgii Glovelli, and Avraham Yassour.  _Bogdanov and
His Work: A Guide to the Published and Unpublished Works of
Alexander A.  Bogdanov (Malinovsky) 1873-1928_.  Aldershot, England
and Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate, 1998.  vii + 495 pp.  Notes and
appendices.  $85.95 (cloth), ISBN 1-85972-623-2.

John Biggart, Peter Dudley, and Francis King, eds.  _Alexander
Bogdanov and the Origins of Systems Thinking in Russia_.  Aldershot,
England and Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate, 1998.  x + 362 pp.
Figures, notes, appendices, and index.  $72.95 (cloth), ISBN
1-85972-678-X.

Reviewed for H-Russia by David G. Rowley <rowleyd at uwplatt.edu>,
Department of Social Science, University of Wisconsin-Platteville

How Important Was Alexander Bogdanov?

Alexander Bogdanov (1873-1928) -- scientist, philosopher, economist,
physician, novelist, poet, and Marxist revolutionary -- is mostly
ignored by general histories of Europe and Russia and generally
appears only as a minor character in the more specialized works of
Russian philosophy and the Russian Social-Democratic movement.  Yet
it seems that no one who becomes familiar with his work fails to be
utterly impressed by it.  Most Bogdanov scholars believe him to be
one of the most creative and profound European thinkers of his age.

Bogdanov was an original philosopher who attempted to reconstruct
Marxism upon a modern epistemological footing (replacing Plekhanov's
correspondence theory of knowledge with a sophisticated
reinterpretation of Ernst Mach's Empiriocriticism).[1] His
conception of the role that culture would play in building Communism
bears a striking resemblance to Antonio Gramsci's notion of cultural
hegemony.[2] Most importantly of all, in his _Tektology: Universal
Organization Science_, Bogdanov ambitiously proposed that all
physical, biological, and human sciences could be unified by
treating them as systems of relationships and by seeking the
organizational principles that underlie all systems.  His work
anticipated in many important ways Norbert Weiner's _Cybernetics_
and Ludwig von Bertalanffy's _General Systems Theory_.[3]

Bogdanov also had the potential of making important and humane
contributions to Russia.  His idea of Proletarian Culture suggested
a non-violent path to Communism,[4] his political principles were
far more moderate than Lenin's,[5] and his contributions to the
theory of economic planning, if taken into account by Soviet
planners, might have produced a viable and humane economic
system.[6] Bogdanov was a practicing medical doctor throughout his
career and helped to organize the Soviet Union's pioneering
Institute for Blood Transfusion.  (He died in the course of an
experimental transfusion in which he exchanged his blood with that
of a patient.)[7] Finally, Bogdanov was a poet and a novelist --
once again a pioneer -- in the genre of science fiction.[8]

Nevertheless Bogdanov's fame in the West has never extended beyond a
rather small group of specialists on Russian and Soviet intellectual
history.  Perhaps because he was an active Marxist revolutionary, he
was ignored by his contemporary European philosophers and
scientists, and his impact on the development of Western philosophy
and science was nil.

In the Soviet Union, conversely, Bogdanov was very well known indeed
-- as a Bolshevik pariah.  Ever after their famous break in 1909,
when Lenin engineered Bogdanov's ouster from the leadership of the
Bolshevik faction, Lenin relentlessly attacked and denigrated
Bogdanov's ideas.  He saw to it that Bogdanov's philosophy would
always be branded as false, anti-Marxist, and anathema for Russian
Communists.  Bogdanov's works were published in the Soviet Union in
the 1920s, but their influence is difficult to gauge. Because the
accusation of "Bogdanovism"  was career-ending, anyone who had been
influenced by Bogdanov's thought would have attempted to conceal it.

Thus, the general tendency of works on Bogdanov has been to consider
the "might-have-beens." How much more humane might the Communist
regime have been had Bogdanov's political, cultural, and economic
ideas been put into practice?

The ease of Western research on Soviet history has always depended
on not only accessibility to Soviet archives but also the interests
of Soviet archivists and bibliographers.  The fact that Soviet
historians took a negative view of Bogdanov was not important in
itself (Western and Soviet scholars often disagreed on points of
interpretation); what was crucial was the lack of interest in the
gathering of information on Bogdanov's life and unpublished works.
Research on Bogdanov's career was extremely difficult.

Like many another aspect of Russian life and culture, it was only at
the end of the Brezhnev era that Russian scholars began to take an
interest in Bogdanov and finally to appreciate his contributions to
science and philosophy and his potential contributions to Soviet
society.[9] In the late 1980s two international conferences on
Bogdanov (the first in Moscow and the second in London) brought
Russian and Western scholars together, and the Institute of
Economics of the Russian Academy of Sciences established an
International Commission on the Legacy of A. A. Bogdanov.

This collaboration of Russian and Western scholars has produced two
volumes that will begin a new era in Bogdanov-studies: the first a
bibliography and handbook for research, the second, an appraisal of
Bogdanov's contributions to science.

I cannot find words adequately to praise John Biggart, Georgii
Gloveli, and Avraham Yassour's collaborative work:  _Bogdanov and
His Work: A Guide to the Published and Unpublished Works of
Alexander A. Bogdanov (Malinovsky) 1973-1928_.  This exhaustive
bibliography, archive guide, and research handbook more than
fulfills the most utopian dreams of any scholar interested in the
life and thought of Bogdanov.

The book begins with three introductory chapters.  In "The
Rehabilitation of Bogdanov," John Biggart surveys not only the
evolution of attitudes toward Bogdanov in the Soviet Union and
Russia but also Bogdanov historiography and bibliography in the
West.  Georgii Gloveli outlines the chief features of Bogdanov's
intellectual development in "Bogdanov as Scientist and Utopian."
Finally, Nina S. Antonova and Natalya V. Drozdova describe and
discuss the "Collection of the Central Party Archive."

The heart of the work is a chronological bibliography of every known
piece of writing to have come from Bogdanov's hand -- not only his
published writings (including books, articles, book reviews, and
letters to the editor), but unpublished notes, letters, drafts, and
even cartoons.  For each item we are provided the Russian title (if
titled), English translation of the title or description of item (if
untitled), and where that item can be found.  If the item was
published, full citations are provided (if an article appeared in
more than one journal, all references are given); the archival
holding of the draft manuscript, if extant, is also given.  For all
unpublished manuscripts, complete archival information is provided
for both Russian and foreign archives.  Whenever one of Bogdanov's
books was reviewed or one of his articles commented upon by his
contemporaries, those reviews or comments are cited as well. For
most of Bogdanov's letters or unpublished manuscripts, an English
summary is given (and frequently an English summary of responses to
Bogdanov's letters).  Cross references are made to previously
published bibliographies.  The yearly bibliography is followed by
"Undated Materials," "Political Cartoons," "New Editions,
1989-1998," and "Works in Translation" (in 22 languages from
Armenian to Yiddish).

Three appendices are also invaluable.  "Bogdanov: A Biographical
Chronicle," by Peter Alexandrovich Plyutto presents the key events
of Bogdanov's life, from birth to death, along with sources
documenting those events (and, of course, the archival or published
location of those sources).  In "Aliases and Pseudonyms," Maya
Davydovna Dvorkina lists all Bogdanov's aliases in chronological
order and indicates the sources of the information.  In Appendix 3,
"Archives, Libraries, Sources,"  John Biggart provides a
cross-reference to the former and contemporary names of Russian
state archives and libraries.  He lists and describes private
collections of papers relating to Bogdanov, lists the relevant
holdings of the Central Party Archive, discusses the nature and
locations of Boris Nikolaevsky's six-volume collection of
"Materialy" relative to Bogdanov's struggle with Lenin for the
leadership of Bolshevism, lists the full names of the Russian and
foreign libraries referred to in the bibliography, notes important
relevant reference works, and concludes with a bibliography of
publication of scholarly studies of Bogdanov in Western languages.

All in all, this is a monumental achievement.  John Biggart, Georgii
Gloveli, and Avraham Yassour will have the gratitude of all present
and future Bogdanov scholars.

If _Bogdanov and His Work_ provides the tools necessary for
researching the life and thought of Alexander Bogdanov, its
companion volume provides both explanations of why Bogdanov is worth
study and suggestions of further avenues of inquiry.

_Alexander Bogdanov and the Origins of Systems Thinking in Russia_,
is the product of a conference on "The Origins of Organization
Theory in Russia and the Soviet Union" held at the University of
East Anglia, UK in 1995.  The Russian and Ukrainian scholars who
attended the conference more than confirm the attitudes long held by
Bogdanov enthusiasts in the West.  Their papers, though disagreeing
on certain points of interpretation, are all tributes to Bogdanov's
brilliance and creativity.

As the title suggests, the principal interest of the contributors is
the nature and importance of what Bogdanov considered to be his
greatest achievement: _Tektology: General Organization Science_, but
they also comment insightfully and productively on other aspects of
his philosophic and economic thought.[10]

The section on Bogdanov's philosophical foundations both evaluates
Bogdanov's epistemology (Empiriomonism) and investigates its
relation to Russian and Western European thought.  To mention a few
examples: James White discusses Bogdanov's intellectual debt to
Ludwig Noire, and both White and Vadim Sadovsky show that Bogdanov
was struggling with the relation between exterior reality and inner
consciousness in very modern ways.  Simona Poustilnik discusses
Darwin's influence on Bogdanov's thought, and Peter Plyutto compares
Bogdanov with the Russian systems-builder V. I. Vernadsky.

The section "Applications in Economics" covers an aspect of
Bogdanov's career that has to my knowledge been ignored in the
Anglophone academic world-his contribution to the theory of economic
planning.  Andrei Belykh argues that Bogdanov made a profound impact
on Soviet economic thought and particularly on planning in the early
1920s.  Saltan Dzarasov suggests that Bogdanov was a forerunner of
the theory of convergence because he proposed that economic planning
and use of market relations should coexist in a collectivist
society.

"General Theory of Systems" discusses the central issues of
Tektology, Bogdanov's project to uncover the unity of the physical,
biological, and human sciences by analyzing the basic patterns of
organization that are common among them.  Bogdanov posited a
fundamental oneness of reality, asserted that scientific laws and
processes are isomorphic among all fields of science, and that the
apparent diversity among the various branches of science is due only
to narrow specialization and incommensurable terminology.  The
scholars in this section recognize Bogdanov's _Tektology_ as a
revolutionary work that anticipated both cybernetics (automatic
information processing and control) and general systems theory (the
idea that all systems--physical, biological, and social--operate
according to the same principles).  Some of the most intriguing
implications of Bogdanov's thought are raised in Peter Dudley,
"Tektology:  Birth of a Discipline?" Yunir Urmantsev, "Tektology and
GST:  A Comparative Analysis," Nemil Gorelik, "Tektology and
Organizational Systems," David Schapiro, "A Tektological Approach to
Multi-Connectivity and Dualism in Complicated Systems."

One of the most impressive aspects of this book is the stature of
the scholars who participated in the conference.  Some of the most
respected names in Russia appear--indeed, almost half of the
contributors are members of the Russian Academy of Sciences.  They
come from a wide variety of disciplines, including history,
sociology, economics, synergetics, systems analysis, and history of
the natural sciences.  Moreover, it is a mark of contemporary
Russian fascination with Bogdanov that both of these works will be
published in Russian translation under the auspices of the
"International Bogdanov Institute" which was founded late last year
in Moscow with the support of the Institute of Economics of the
Russian Academy of Sciences.

However, the contemporary emphasis of the contributions somewhat
limits the volume's usefulness to historians of Russia.  The
articles and roundtable discussions were not intended to introduce a
Western audience to Bogdanov's thought.  They are written by
scholars very familiar with Bogdanov's works for other scholars with
similar expertise.  Moreover, the authors are, for the most part,
writing for their Russian contemporaries rather than for western
historians of Russia.  That is, they are more interested in the
validity and present-day usefulness of Bogdanov's ideas rather than
in the light that Bogdanov's works cast on Russian society and
culture from the early 1890s to the late 1920s.

Western historians will find it of interest in two ways, however.

First, _Alexander Bogdanov and the Origins of Systems Thinking in
Russia_ provides Western observers a glimpse of contemporary Russian
intellectual culture.  It is only natural that a work dealing with
Bogdanov's Organization Science should approach his work from an
objective, scientific viewpoint, but in their comments the authors
reveal rather different preoccupations from the cultural and
philosophic concerns of the West.  Like Westerners they are very
interested in questioning and deconstructing old paradigms and
narratives, but unlike them they seem to take as unproblematic the
nature of consciousness and its relation to exterior reality.  Vadim
Sadovsky, as I mentioned above, does connect Bogdanov's epistemology
to problems of post-modernism, but this is an aspect of his thought
that receives very little attention from the other contributors.
Instead they treat Bogdanov as a realist, concerned less with the
problem of how human thought constructs the world than with how the
world is constructed _in itself_.

They represent Bogdanov as the last of the nineteenth-century
systems-builders, and they themselves are interested not only in
systems science but in systems-building (among authors they take
very seriously are Nikolai Fedorov, Vladimir Vernadsky, and Lev
Gumilev).  In this regard it is significant that, although the
contributors to this volume cite current Western scientific work in
information science and evolutionary biology, they do not place
Bogdanov in the context of contemporary Western philosophic and
scholarly thought.  Instead, they examine his relationship to Comte,
Spengler, Spencer, Schumpeter, and Jung.  It thus appears that the
Russophone academic community is looking for systematic explanations
(modeled on the natural sciences) of historical development.

I do not intend this comment as Anglo-American-centric criticism of
these Russian and Ukrainian scholars for not sharing Western
concerns.  I merely point out that they have a different
intellectual agenda.  Indeed, the West could benefit from their
refreshing corrective to the Western belief in a disjuncture between
language and reality. The Western postmodern focus on reality as a
discursive construction is a project that many in the West find
tedious, pointless, and perhaps even socially harmful. Much may be
gained from sharing Bogdanov's confidence that the world actually
exists, that its basic principles can be discovered, and that this
knowledge can be used to make it a better place.

Second, although _Alexander Bogdanov and the Origins of Systems
Thinking in Russia_ is likely to be of immediate use mainly to
Western evolutionary biologists, information scientists, and systems
theorists, it nevertheless may suggest to historians some
interesting avenues of research.  For example, the frequent
references to Russian scholars and thinkers of the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries will be welcome starting points for
those who would like to consider Bogdanov less as a Marxist
revolutionary and more as a Russian philosopher and sociologist of
knowledge who also happened to be a Marxist.

Perhaps the feature to which scholars should pay particular heed is
the short bibliography "Publications in Western Languages"  which
appears in both volumes.  Although not completely up-to-date (it
lists only one article published since 1992) it appears otherwise to
be fairly exhaustive.  Yet it includes only 81 books and articles in
English, French, German, and Italian.  For a thinker, scientist, and
activist of Bogdanov's originality and depth, this is the merest
beginning.  There is plenty of fertile ground for future research.
Students of Russian science, culture, and intellectual life who are
seeking topics for master's or doctor's theses will be well served
by both these works-but particularly by _Bogdanov and His Work_.

Thanks to the work of Biggart, Glovelli, and Yassour, we can expect
a revolution in the field of Bogdanov-studies. Scholars are prepared
as never before seriously to seek answers to the question: How
Important Was Alexander Bogdanov?

Notes

[1]. For discussion of his philosophy of knowledge, see Eileen
Kelly, "Empiriocriticism: A Bolshevik Philosophy?" _Cahiers du Monde
Russe et Sovietique, 22, no. 1 (Jan-Mar, 1981) and David G. Rowley,
_Millenarian Bolshevism, 1900-1920_ (New York:  Garland, 1987).

[2]. Zenovia Sochor, "Was Bogdanov Russia's Answer to Gramsci?"
_Studies in Soviet Thought_, 22, no. 1 (Feb 1981).

[3]. For a survey of Bogdanov's thought in this regard see S. V.
Utechin, "Philosophy and Society: Alexander Bogdanov," in Leopold
Labedz, ed., _Revisionism: Essays on the History of Marxist Ideas_
(London: Allen and Unwin,1962). There are now two English versions
of _Tektology_. George Gorelik translated one of Bogdanov's
abridgments of _Tektology_ under the title _Essays in Tektology. The
General Science of Organization_ (Seaside, California: Intersystems
Publications Limited, 1984). A full English translation of the 1989
Russian edition has also appeared: _Bogdanov's Tektology_, Book 1,
forward by Vadim N.  Sadovsky and Vladimir V. Kelle.  Edited, with
an introdcution by Peter Dudley (Hull, UK: Center for Systems
Studies, 1996).

However, Bogdanov's insights into systems science had no real impact
upon the West. It seems certain that Norbert Weiner was unfamiliar
with his work, and Nikita Moiseev (in his contribution to _Alexander
Bogdanov and the Origins of Systems Thinking in Russia_) is the only
scholar who asserts that Ludwig von Bertalanffy "must have known of
Bogdanov's work."  The consensus holds that Bertalanffy did not.

[4]. See David G. Rowley, "Lenin and Bogdanov: Epistemology and
Revolution," _Studies in East European Thought_, 48, no. 1 (March
1996).

[5]. See Zenovia Sochor, _Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin
Controversy_ (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988).

[6]. See the articles by Andrei Belykh and Saltan Dzarasov (listed
below)  in the volume under review.

[7]. See Douglas W. Huestis, "The Life and Death of Alexander
Bogdanov, Physician, _Journal of Medical Biography_, 4, no. 3
(1996).

[8]. Loren R. Graham and Richard Stites, eds., _Alexander Bogdanov:
Red Star: The First Bolshevik Utopia_ (Bloomington:  Indiana
University Press, 1984).

[9]. In Chapter 1 of _Bogdanov and His Work_, "The Rehabilitation of
Bogdanov," John Biggart recounts this process.

[10]. Here is the full table of contents:  *Part One:  Introduction*
John Biggart, "Introduction," Leonid Abalkin, "Bogdanov's Tektology:
Towards a New Paradigm."

*Part Two: Philosophical Foundations* Galina Alekseeva, "Bogdanov
and the Development of Science in the Twentieth Century," James
White, "Sources and Precursors of Bogdanov's Tektology," Vadim
Sadovsky, "From Empiriomonism to Tektology,"  Natalya Kusminykh,
"Monist Philosophy as the Basis of Tektology," Simona Poustilnik
"Biological Ideas in Tektology," Peter Plyutto "Pioneers in systems
Thinking: Bogdanov and Vernadsky," and Georgii Gloveli
"Psychological Applications of Tektology."

*Part Three: Applications to Economics* Nadezhda Figurovskaya, "The
Economic Ideas of Bogdanov," Andrei Belykh, "Bogdanov's Tektology
and Economic Theory," Vladimir Maevsky, "Bogdanov and the Theory of
Economic Evolution," Saltan Dzarasov, "Plan and Market in Bogdanov's
Tektology,"  and Victor Parmenov "Tektology and Economic
Reconstruction."

*Part Four: General Theory of Systems* Nikita Moiseev, "Tektology in
contemporary perspective," Peter Dudley, "Tektology: Birth of a
Discipline?" Yunir Urmantsev, "Tektology and GST: A Comparative
Analysis,"  Nemil Gorelik, "Tektology and organizational systems,"
David Schapiro, "A Tektological Approach to Multi-Connectivity and
Dualism in Complicated Systems." Mikhail Kuzmin, "Social Genetics
and Organizational Science."

*Part 5: Appendices* John Biggart "Tektology: Editions and
Translations,"  John Biggart and Francis King, "Profiles of Russian
scientists and Philosophers."

        Copyright (c) 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved.  This
        work may be copied for non-profit educational use if
        proper credit is given to the author and the list.  For
        other permission, please contact h-net at h-net.msu.edu.







More information about the Marxism mailing list