Book Reviews

Learning from Bogdanov

Red Hamlet: The Life and Ideas of Alexander Bogdanov (Historical ...

A Review of Red Hamlet: The Life and Ideas of Alexander Bogdanov by James D. White

Paul Le Blanc

Department of History, La Roche University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

James D. White, (2019) Red Hamlet: The Life and Ideas of Alexander Bogdanov,Historical Materialism Book Series, Chicago: Haymarket Books.


Alexander Bogdanov is a central figure in the history of Russian Marxism, co-equal with Lenin in the early formation of Bolshevism. His life’s work embraced medicine, natural science, mathematics, political economy, sociology, philosophy, education, political theory and more. The Bogdanov/Lenin split involved the crystallisation of a distinctive variant of Marxism that up until now has not been widely available. James D. White’s very substantial biography Red Hamlet: The Life and Ideas of Alexander Bogdanov is part of a collective project retrieving and making available contributions of an extremely important revolutionary thinker. The present critical appreciation of White’s study, and critical overview of Bogdanov’s ideas and life, is meant to advance an expanding explorationof Bogdanov’s insights and approaches that may enhance our understanding of the past, present and future.


Bogdanov – Marxism – Communism – Lenin – Bolsheviks

The amazing Alexander A. Malinovsky is better known by his revolutionary last name, which he took from his wife, Natalia Bogdanovna Korsak (herself a revolutionary as well as a nurse and a midwife). Up until now, among those who do not know the Russian language, only fragments of Bogdanov have proved available. Although he was the primary target of Lenin’s philosophical polemic Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, we have not been able to read, except for snatches and excerpts, the Bogdanov texts that provoked, and responded to, what Lenin had to say. The sole complete work of his that has been easily accessible is a remarkable 1908 work of left-wing science fiction,Red Star.[1]

          Born in 1873, he was widely commemorated in the Soviet Union upon his death in 1928 – for example, by Nikolai Bukharin, at that time one of the top leaders of the Russian Communist Party:

In the person of Alexander Alexandrovich we have lost a man who in terms of his encyclopedic knowledge occupied a special place not only in the Soviet Union, but was one of the most significant minds of all countries. This is one of the rarest qualities amongst revolutionaries. Bogdanov felt equally at ease in the refined atmosphere of philosophical abstraction and in concrete formulations of the theory of crises. The natural sciences, mathematics and social sciences: he was an expert in these fields, he could survive battles in all of these areas, and he felt ‘at home’ in all of these spheres of human knowledge. From the theory of fireball lightning to the analysis of blood to the broadest generalizations of ‘Tectology’ – this was the true scope of Bogdanov’s theoretical interests. An economist, a sociologist, a biologist, a mathematician, a philosopher, a doctor, a revolutionary and, finally, an author of the beautifulRed Star – in all of these areas he was an absolutely exceptional figure in the history of our social thought. … The exceptional strength of his mind, his nobility of spirit, his loyalty to ideas – all these qualities entitle him to the lowering of our banners at his grave.[2]

It has seemed obvious to many of us trapped in the English language that we have been missing out on an incredibly important body of work and experience.

          A dramatic shift is underway. James D. White’s very substantial Red Hamlet: The Life and Ideas of Alexander Bogdanov is part of a collective project being produced through the Historical Materialism book series of Brill Publishers, with the paperback editions subsequently being put out by Haymarket Books – involving at least ten projected volumes of Bogdanov’s writings. Two of these have already appeared:The Philosophy of Living Experience (1913), andEmpiriomonism (1904–6). Those interested should consult the recently constructed Alexander Bogdanov Library website.[3]

          Bogdanov is not only a central figure within the history of Russian Marxism, but was co-equal with Lenin in the early formation of the revolutionary-socialist current known as Bolshevism. After a period of intimate cooperation in building and leading the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party, their falling-out resulted in a fierce conflict from 1907 to 1909, with Bogdanov’s version of Bolshevism seeming to be the stronger variant in the eyes of many.

          The insightful revolutionary novelist Maxim Gorky wrote of Bogdanov: ‘He will accomplish in philosophy the same kind of revolution that Marx accomplished in political economy. … If he should succeed, we will witness the defeat of the remnants of bourgeois metaphysics, the disintegration of “bourgeois soul” and the birth of a socialist soul.’ Bogdanov and his co-thinkers were developing a variant of Marxism far more vibrant than that of the venerable George Plekhanov, ‘the father of Russian Marxism’ to whose philosophical orientation Lenin continued to adhere. More decisively, the Bogdanovite political orientation veered far to the left of what Lenin deemed practical in the wake of the defeat of the 1905 revolutionary upsurge. ‘Plekhanov and Lenin, though diverging on questions of tactics, both believe in and preach historical fatalism’, explained Gorky. ‘The other side preaches a philosophy of action. To me it is clear on whose side there is more truth.’[4]

Strengths and Limitations

Gorky’s appraisal describes not only his own perspective of that faraway time, but also the spirit with which White’s biography is infused. The result provides immense strengths as well as serious limitations. The bulk of this volume provides a much-needed, detailed, clearly written, immensely sympathetic journey through Bogdanov’s writings from the late 1890s through the 1920s.

          On the other hand, we are provided with very little information on the personal dimensions of Bogdanov’s story. There is passing mention but no real discussion of his parents, of his wife, of his sometime lover who gave birth to his son, of the great majority of his friends, of his colleagues, and of his revolutionary comrades. There is no critical exploration of his personality, although aspects of it come through in the generous quotations White provides from others.

          There is some elementary socio-economic, cultural, and political contextualisation, although the fact that Bogdanov was a revolutionary activist necessarily squeezes out more attention to this aspect of his life. Even here, there are limitations. Bogdanov was involved with the ‘armed struggle’ dimension of Bolshevism (which included ‘expropriations’ – or bank robberies), but there is very little information about this, for example.

          Another limitation is that White, a strong and long-time adherent of what Lars Lih has termed ‘the textbook’ interpretation of Lenin, presents him as inherently and grimly authoritarian from start to finish.[5] When aspects of Lenin’s life and thought seem to go in a very different direction, White is quick to place shadows and question-marks over what might place Lenin in a favourable light. He rarely gives Lenin the benefit of any doubts and generally seems pleased to give dark interpretations to what Lenin says, thinks, does (or speculations on what Lenin conceivably might have said or thought or done). This orientation comes through clearly in a comment in the book’s very weak final chapter:

The conflict with Lenin dominates much of Bogdanov’s political career. The Russian Bogdanov scholar A.L. Takhadtazhan writes that it never ceases to amaze him that a cultured and humane person such as Bogdanov should be for so many years the political associate of such a sinister character as Lenin. In other words, for Takhadtazhan the question is not what brought an end to the association between Bogdanov and Lenin, but how it could ever come about in the first place. This is a useful way to look at the question …[6]

White’s reflections on the question predictably show Bogdanov to be a very good guy and Lenin to be a very, very bad guy. Nonetheless, White is a serious enough scholar to provide ample material indicating complexities that can provide interpretations differing from his own. And whatever the limitations, they are transcended by White’s primary contribution: a rich and systematic account of Bogdanov’s thought.

Economics, Philosophy, Organisation

Bogdanov’s first major work, A Short Course of Economic Science (1897), provided an historically-oriented exposition of Marxist economics. When it first appeared, Lenin reviewed it with enthusiasm:

Mr. Bogdanov’s book is a remarkable manifestation in our economic literature; not only is it ‘no superfluous’ guide among a number of others (as the author ‘hopes’ in his preface), it is by far the best of them. …The outstanding merit of Mr. Bogdanov’s Course is that the author adheres consistently to historical materialism. In outlining a definite period of economic development in his ‘exposition’ he usually gives a sketch of the political institutions, the family relations, and the main currents of social thought in connection with the basic features of the economic system under discussion.[7]

It went through numerous editions, ultimately appearing in English translation in 1923, thanks to the Communist Party of Great Britain. As translator J. Fineberg noted at the time:

 It was, as the author says in his Preface, written in the dark days of the Tsarist reaction for the use of secret workers’ study circles; and it serves to-day as a textbook in hundreds, if not thousands, of party schools and study circles now functioning in Soviet Russia, training the future administrators of the Workers’ Republic.[8]

As it turned out, however, Bogdanov was by no means inclined to restrict his analyses to the realm of economics. He was at the centre of a cluster of young revolutionary intellectuals – including Anatoly Lunacharsky, Mikhail Pokrovsky, and Vladimir Bazarov – intent upon utilising Marxism to develop a comprehensive understanding of society, nature, life, reality. They were influenced by Ernst Mach, a renowned Austrian physicist also engaged in the study of the history and philosophy of science, and Swiss-German philosopher Richard Avenarius, whose ideas contributed to philosophical currents known variously as logical positivism and logical empiricism. Among other things, they identified as ‘monists’ who saw reality as a unified whole, denying the existence of a duality between matter and mind, insisting that the mind – rather than reflecting ‘objective realities’ (as Plekhanov argued) – knows only actual or potential sensory experience. It made no sense to separate material reality from what is in people’s minds.

          Matter could be best understood as inseparable from human sensations, according to Mach. Bogdanov gave this a Marxist spin: ‘Matter is resistance to activity; thought is the organizing form of activity. Both originally relate to human, collective, laboring activity. … In this model, everything is indivisible and inseparable …’ As he put it, ‘truth expresses the relationship of the human collective to the things of its experience. The power or value of truth derives from the fact that it is crystallized social experience.’ Bogdanov emphasised that ‘truth … isproduced – created with the struggle of humanity with the objectives of nature.’ Reality is ‘living experience’.[9]

          The Father of Russian Marxism denounced this as un-Marxist philosophical Idealism, while the Mach-influenced Marxists insisted that their approach was much closer to the actual orientation of Karl Marx than was Plekhanov’s ‘mechanistic materialism’. (In addition, Mach’s conceptualisations – as his defenders often note – influenced Albert Einstein’s development of the theory of relativity.) [10]

          For the so-called Machists, the equivalent of Plekhanov’s ‘objective reality’ was a broadening collective comprehension. Bogdanov insisted that socially organised experience had greater validity than individually organised experience. Industrial capitalism ‘brings together people in large masses for common labor’, White tells us (summarising Bogdanov), and ‘the mutual understanding which they develop serves to widen and deepen their experience. … Whatever machines the machine workers happen to operate, there is much in the general character and content of their labor that is similar, and this similarity keeps increasing in proportion to the degree that the machine approaches perfection to become a completely automatic mechanism.’[11]

          Paving the way for the socially organised experience required for greater scientifically-valid consciousness – ‘this generality of experience makes for mutual understanding and encourages solidarity among the workers’, and ‘the fragmentation of humanity’ through specialisation ‘is gradually overcome’. This, in turn, paves the way for a ‘new type of scholar [who] is widely educated, monist thinking, socially-vital. He incarnates the conscious, systematic integration of mankind. For Bogdanov, the best example of this kind of person was Karl Marx, the man who first gave a monist understanding of social life and development.’[12]

          White’s substantial summary of the 1906 essay ‘Revolution and Philosophy’ draws together so many strands of Bogdanov’s perspective that it is worth quoting in full:

Like revolution, philosophy too is a means of overcoming contradictions and establishing harmony. The contradiction here was the lack of correspondence between rational and humane principles which people believed ought to govern their lives and the injustice and inhumanity which characterized actual human relationships. The exploiting classes in society benefited from its irrationality and injustice, whereas, on the side of the exploited classes, the industrial proletariat in its struggle with nature gradually extended the realm of reason and justice in society. The industrial proletariat introduced a new world outlook which was able to eradicate the contradiction between people’s social outlook and their social experience. The contradiction was resolved by Marx’s social philosophy, which held that it was not people’s consciousness that determined their social being, but their social being that determined their consciousness. This realization eliminated everything that was absolute in perception. Marx’s philosophy eliminated fetishism from perception and made possible an integrated view of the world corresponding to people’s actual experience.[13]

Over time, Bogdanov’s philosophical empirio-monism morphed into what he perceived as a science, which he labelled tectology, a precursor of what came to be known after the Second World War as ‘general systems theory’. He saw this as a ‘science of organisation’ embracing all of reality. Organising activity, White explains, for Bogdanov permeates both living and non-living phenomena.[14] ‘The definition he gave of organization was “a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.”’ White continues:

The entire world consisted of an organizing process, an infinitely developing series of complexes of different forms and levels of organization in their mutual relations, in their struggle or their unification. All of these, however remote from each other they were qualitatively and quantitatively, could be subsumed under the same organizational methods, the same organizational forms.[15]

 White observes that Bogdanov hoped that tectology would ‘become the basis for a proletarian science’ – but most workers would have been unable to read it. ‘To appreciate it fully one would have to have at least some knowledge of physics, chemistry and biology, but an acquaintance with economics, astronomy and linguistics would not go amiss. In other words,’ White concludes, ‘readers would have to already possess the kind of knowledge in which Tectology was intended to school them.’[16]

          White presents two other realms of Bogdanov’s thought that will be touched on briefly later in this survey: (1) Proletarian Culture [Proletcult], and (2) explorations in blood transfusions and what Bogdanov called ‘the struggle for viability’. As White sums it up, ‘the rewarding task of unearthing the great treasury of his ideas continues until the present day.’[17]

          Yet Bogdanov was also a revolutionary activist. To do him justice, one must consider the role he played in the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) and its Bolshevik faction. Even though White’s biography does not provide a rounded discussion of this, it does offer useful information that must be integrated into any serious effort to comprehend this aspect of Russian revolutionary history.

Early Bolshevism

It is hardly controversial to say that Bolshevism as we know it would not have existed without the contributions of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. But as White’s biography suggests, it is also questionable that Bolshevism as we know it could have existed without the contributions of Alexander Alexandrovich Bogdanov. In what follows, information on Bogdanov’s role provided in White’s biography will be disentangled from the earlier-mentioned ‘textbook’ anti-Leninist innuendo.

          When the Iskra current of the RSDLP split into Bolshevik/Menshevik factions in 1903, Lenin’s opponents mobilised in an effective campaign to overturn decisions of the RSDLP’s Second Congress that they opposed, take over the party’s influential journalIskra, and build public pressure within the international socialist movement to isolate and denigrate Lenin and his co-thinkers, who represented the majority at the Second Congress. Lenin’s most influential ally, George Plekhanov, abandoned him, and considerable confusion was generated throughout the revolutionary underground in the Russian empire.

          Studying the documents and reports from the Second Congress, Bogdanov and the cluster of bright and energetic comrades around him – all young and vibrant – concluded that they were in agreement with the besieged faction around Lenin. Bogdanov and Lunarcharsky led a discussion of Lenin’s pamphlet What Is to Be Done? at a large meeting of revolutionary activists in 1902–3.[18] In Bolshevik/Menshevik polemics, considerable factional use was made of Lenin’s assertion that ‘the history of all countries shows that the working class, exclusively by its own effort, is able to develop only trade-union consciousness’, while ‘the theory of socialism … grew out of the philosophic, historical, and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals.’ While this was used by his opponents (including, now, White) to depict Lenin as an authoritarian elitist, Bogdanov rejected this interpretation. Even after his break from Lenin, he insisted:

Once Lenin in What Is to Be Done? made a slip of the tongue, saying that the working class was incapable, independently, without the help of the socialist intelligentsia, to raise themselves above the ideas of trade unionism and come to the socialist ideal. The phrase was uttered quite by chance in the heat of a polemic with the ‘economists,’ and had no connection with the basic views of the author. This did not prevent Menshevik writers in the course of three years from concentrating their triumphant polemic on the above phrase of Lenin’s, by which he had allegedly once and for all shown the anti-proletarian character of Bolshevism.[19]

 Bogdanov saw the character of Bolshevism quite differently. In 1903 he produced an essay, mirroring some of Lenin’s argument in his description of an ideal centralised organisation involving what he called ‘the ideologue’ (consistent with the conception of ‘professional revolutionary’) and working-class members in underground conditions:

A person of the mass both discusses and decides within which limits he will follow the ideologue; he ‘carries out’ his organizing orders only in so far as they express the aspirations and wishes of the man of the masses. He by various ways himself indicates to the ideologue what this latter should give to him. He not only subordinates himself to the ideologue, but to a certain degree also subordinates him to himself. And the more synthetic elements there are, the more lively the socializing [obschenie] of the ideologues with their followers, the more comradely their mutual connection becomes, the more progressive the psychology of both sides, the more lively will be their cause.[20]

In Our Misunderstandings, a 1904 pamphlet co-authored with M.S. Olminsky defending the Bolsheviks against various criticisms (including those of Plekhanov, Karl Kautsky, and Rosa Luxemburg), Bogdanov – as White tells us – ‘found that the charge of “Bonapartism” against the “majority,” the urge to dictate to local organizations and even to dissolve them at will, had no foundation in fact. … In Russia local autonomy was the rule …’ A decisive issue in the split had involved the adoption of Lenin’s proposal to reduce the size of theIskra editorial board from six to a more manageable three (Plekhanov, Lenin, Martov), which involved the removal of venerable old-timers Vera Zasulich and Pavel Axelrod. In Bogdanov’s opinion, ‘people in a position of leadership in the party and the members of the editorial board of its central organ … ought not to be for life.’ He agreed with Lenin that ‘the organization of the RSDLP should be on democratic principles, that there should be majority rule’, that there were no ‘insuperable’ divisions between Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, and that ‘the “minority” [Mensheviks] have acted reprehensively in refusing to abide by the decisions of the Second Congress of the party.’[21]

Bolshevik Leader

Bogdanov and his comrades threw themselves into the efforts of the Bolshevik faction and were invaluable in the struggle to build the kind of party, a democratic but disciplined revolutionary Marxist collective, that Lenin was reaching for. When ‘Bogdanov appeared on the horizon,’ Lenin’s companion Nadezhda Krupskaya later remembered, ‘Vladimir Ilyich was still little acquainted with his philosophical works, and did not know him at all, personally. It was evident, however, that he was a man capable of occupying a leading position in the party.’ She added that ‘he had extensive contacts in Russia’. Krupskaya and Lenin spent the summer of 1904 with a small cluster of close co-thinkers, and ‘with the Bogdanovs [A.A. Bogdanov and his wife Natalia] we discussed a plan of work.’[22]

          According to White, an important 1904 appeal, ‘To the Party’, often attributed to Lenin, was in fact co-authored by Lenin and Bogdanov.[23] Decrying the fact that ‘the Party’s capacity for harmonious and united action is fading into a mere dream’, they expressed the hope that ‘the Party’s sickness [is] a matter of growing pains’ that could be overcome through ‘the immediate summoning of the Third Party Congress’ to ‘clarify the situation, settle the disputes, and confine the struggle within proper bounds’. The Mensheviks should be offered ‘the widest formal guarantees’. They added: ‘In putting forward this program of struggle for Party unity, we invite the representatives of all other shades and all Party organizations to make a clear statement of their own programs, so as to permit of serious and systematic, conscious and methodical preparation for a congress.’[24] White points to the obvious notion, held by Bogdanov and his comrades, regarding ‘the right of those who disagreed with the decisions of the [RSDLP] congress to express their opinions and have them considered at the following party congress.’[25]

          In discussing Bogdanov’s organisational views, White writes: ‘He believed that in party organization the slogan of centralism was insufficient; the slogan of democratism ought to be promoted as well.’ This is, however, a conceptualisation also embraced by Lenin and others in both factions of the RSDLP. Views White attributes to Bogdanov were by no means his views alone: ‘a party which espoused the comradely principle was alien to naked centralization and blind discipline. These were incompatible with the free and conscious character of the comradely connection; this demanded democratic forms of organization.’ Noting that it is unknown what individual put forward the specific term ‘democratic centralism’ at the unity congress of the RSDLP in 1906, White implies that it may have been Bogdanov himself, and later baldly states that ‘the very concept of “democratic centralism” owed its existence to Bogdanov.’[26] It would appear that the term was not so new to the workers’ movement (perhaps going back at least to the 1870s), was introduced into the RSDLP by the Mensheviks, but was embraced as well by the Bolsheviks. While Bogdanov was eloquent in advancing the concept, it hardly originated with him.[27]

          Yet there soon arose a substantive political difference between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions, somewhat muted in White’s account, but certainly seen as of decisive importance to the Bolsheviks. As one of Bogdanov’s recruits to Bolshevism Mikhail Pokrovsky later explained: ‘Lenin set himself the task of overthrowing the tsar; the Mensheviks that of compelling the tsar togive in. Lenin regarded the overthrow of tsarism as a task of the workers andpeasants; the Mensheviks believed the best way to extract concessions from the tsar was to act in alliance with thebourgeoisie.’ There had emerged a significant organised liberal current among the more moderate intellectuals – with many connecting with ‘progressive’ industrialists and landowners hoping to work with the tsar to expand civil liberties and craft a representative assembly, and a less conciliatory current forming a party known as Constitutional Democrats. Discussing Bolshevik opposition to a reliance on the liberals, White cites arguments advanced by Bogdanov in late 1904: ‘one feature common to all liberals was their hostility to socialism. When there was a danger of socialism the liberals were often prepared to ally with the most reactionary parties, and resort to the most extreme measures.’[28]

          At the same time, differences arose within the Bolshevik faction, particularly with the explosively revolutionary workers’ upsurge of 1905, sparked by the brutal repression of a peaceful mass workers’ demonstration in January. Masses of radicalised workers streamed to the RSDLP, but many of the practical organisers – often termed ‘committeemen’ (also praktiki) – resisted moving too quickly in drawing these raw proletarian militants into the Bolshevik organisation. Lenin pushed hard against this organisational conservatism, and in this he was joined by Bogdanov. On the other hand, there was also a holding back among the Bolsheviks from participating in the revolutionary workers’ councils (soviets) that were forming in the working-class districts unless they were prepared to accept the programme of the RSDLP. From exile, Lenin began urging his comrades to shift – embracing and participating in the soviets. This was a position, White tells us, to which Bogdanov and other comrades were soon won over. A key point of agreement from the start was the necessity of preparing for armed struggle and insurrection. Early in 1905, Bogdanov wrote: ‘The day of uprising is not far off, but it has still not dawned. The workers and peasants have too few arms, they are still not rallied enough for the struggle.’[29]

          Yet Bogdanov, Lenin, and Leonid Krasin – functioning as a leading ‘troika’ of Bolshevism – did all that they could to secure arms, to rally masses of the exploited and the oppressed, and to work for what turned out to be the ill-fated December 1905 uprising in Moscow. White’s study provides comparatively little of what Bogdanov did in that fateful year, but he does cite comments of veteran Bolshevik V.D. Bonch-Bruevich:

There were times – such as, for example, in 1905 after 9 January – when in Russia the direct leadership of the party belonged entirely to Bogdanov, and his authority among our most active ranks, among the underground members, was really enormous. When I was an illegal activist for six months during 1905 I had a chance to observe him in action as a leader, and his performance in that role was excellent.[30]

In the aftermath of the defeated insurrection, Lenin and Krupskaya shared a house with the Bogdanovs in nearby Finland. Krupskaya remembers that ‘Ilyich practically directed all the activities of the Bolsheviks from Kuokkala’. The Bolsheviks had decided to make use of legal opportunities provided by the parliamentary body, the Duma, which the tsar had agreed to establish. The shared leadership at the Bolshevik apex meant that while ‘the Second Duma deputies came to Kuokkala fairly often to have a talk with Ilyich’, as Krupskaya notes, ‘the work of the Bolshevik deputies was directed by Alexander Bogdanov.’ Yet in the close working relationship that had been established, Bogdanov ‘consulted Ilyich on everything’.[31]

          A fundamental political agreement was the key to the close working relationship of Lenin and Bogdanov. This involved a determination to build a democratically centralised working-class party with a revolutionary Marxist programme, committed to a worker-peasant alliance that would carry out a democratic revolution to overthrow the tsarist order. It also involved an understanding that the upsurge of 1905 had suffered only a temporary setback – it was not over, but would soon culminate, if the revolutionaries remained firm, in a revolutionary triumph.

          A year later, however, Lenin was developing doubts that this common understanding was grounded in the realities of the situation. By 1907 the Bolsheviks were beginning to split apart on the question of how to analyse the current situation and on divergent tactical orientations dictated by the divergent analyses. Philosophical issues also came into play.

Bogdanov/Lenin Split

White’s discussion in his volume of the how and why of the Lenin/Bogdanov split is packed with valuable information. Unfortunately, his emphasis on explicating Bogdanov’s philosophical contributions tends to overwhelm the political narrative, and combined with his consistently anti-Leninist twist, this obscures much of what happened. Yet he identifies important factors in the situation.

          As his son later recalled, ‘Bogdanov had experienced only two periods of serious depression: after the break with Lenin and after the outbreak of the First World War.’ The split certainly exacted a great toll on all concerned. ‘For about three years prior to this we had been working with Bogdanov and the Bogdanovites hand in hand, and not just working, but fighting side by side. Fighting for a common cause draws people together more than anything.’ This was the comment of Krupskaya, who added: ‘The conflict within the [Bolshevik] group was a nerve-wracking business.’ She recalled that upon returning from one of the arguments with these comrades, Lenin ‘looked awful, and even his tongue seemed to have turned grey.’[32]

          Comparing White’s analysis with Zenovia Sochor’s much earlier study Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov–Lenin Controversy is useful. Sochor offers a generalisation that White would certainly accept: ‘cultural change and politics were closely and persistently interwoven in the revolutionary period. The Lenin–Bogdanov dispute led to a split in Bolshevism, one that was never entirely repaired, and challenged any coupling of Leninism with Bolshevism.’ She adds detail consistent with the findings of White and other scholars:

The differences between Bogdanov and Lenin began to emerge on both philosophical and political grounds. Bogdanov, although an avowed Marxist, insisted on an open-minded attitude toward new philosophical currents, claiming that some parts of Marxism, such as epistemology, were incomplete. He wrote Empiriomonizm (three volumes, 1904–06), employing the theories of Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius, as part of an effort to fill in the gaps in Marxism. Lenin at first seemed unaware of the significance of Bogdanov’s ‘revisionism’ (despite Plekhanov’s warnings) and then decided on a philosophical truce in order to maintain their political alliance.

Her next point, however, on the link between the philosophical dispute and practical politics, goes off the rails in ways that White’s study helps to correct: ‘By 1907’, she writes, ‘Bogdanov’s independent streak had begun to show itself in politics as well, and this disdain of “party discipline,” for Lenin, tipped the scales against his comrade-in-arms.’[33]

          White succinctly but more accurately identifies the practical issues. He cites Bogdanov, speaking for the Bolshevik majority in 1907, arguing that

all the factors which had brought about the 1905 revolution continued to operate: the disconnect between the political structure of the country and the demands of its economic development, the ruination of the peasantry, the impoverishment of the proletariat, unemployment, all remained as before. Consequently, the objective historical tasks of the revolution had not been carried out, and, at the same time, the forces of revolution had not fundamentally weakened. Beneath the outward calm, the economic and political organizations of the proletariat were developing, as was the political consciousness of the peasantry, so that the forces were being gathered for a new and decisive revolutionary struggle. … In this situation the tactical tasks facing the party in the current bourgeois-democratic revolution were explaining to the masses the need for a popular uprising and the convocation of a constituent assembly .… This should be the main focus of party work, and any obstacle to this should be eliminated.[34]

Lenin’s disagreement with this was reflected in his insistence on ‘the priority to be given to participation in the Duma and the use made of other legal openings, such as the trade unions and cooperatives’. The too rambunctious Duma was dissolved by tsarist decree and replaced by a less democratic one — Bogdanov’s tactical alternative: ‘preparation for the coming revolutionary struggle, strengthening the party locally and training up activists to be propagandists of Social-Democracy’.[35] It was Lenin, not Bogdanov, who showed ‘disdain of “party discipline”’ by breaking ranks to vote with the Mensheviks.

          ‘Thus, the man who had sounded the call for armed revolt began to urge us to read the newspaper Russia (Rossia), which printed stenographic reports on the sessions of the State Duma’, Bogdanov’s co-thinker Pokrovsky later recalled. ‘What a hail of ridicule this called forth on Lenin – this time not from the bourgeoisie but from our midst! Who did not jeer at him? Who did not bait him? The man had lost his fire, nothing of the revolutionary was left in him. The faction had to be recalled, the Duma faction liquidated; an armed revolt had to be called immediately.’ This was consistent with what both Lenin and Bogdanov had been arguing two years earlier.[36]

          ‘A Bolshevik, they declared, should be hard and unyielding’, Krupskaya later recalled, explaining:

Lenin considered this view fallacious. It would mean giving up all practical work, standing aside from the masses instead of organizing them on real-life issues. Prior to the Revolution of 1905 the Bolsheviks showed themselves capable of making good use of every legal possibility, of forging ahead and rallying the masses behind them under the most adverse conditions. Step by step, beginning with the campaign for tea service and ventilation, they had led the masses up to the national armed insurrection. The ability to adjust oneself to the most adverse conditions and at the same time to stand out and maintain one’s high-principled positions – such were the traditions of Leninism.[37]

Lenin explained the need, in his opinion, to transcend the ‘outgrown … narrow framework of the “circles” of 1902–05’, in which ‘close-knit, exclusive’ committees of ‘professional revolutionaries’ had constituted the RSDLP. ‘Undoubtedly, the present leaders of the present workers’ movement in Russia will have to break with many of the circle traditions … so as to concentrate on the tasks of Social-Democracy in the present period. Only the broadening of the Party by enlisting proletarian elements can, in conjunction with open mass activity, eradicate all the residue of the circle spirit.’ He added that ‘the transition to a democratically organized workers’ party, proclaimed by the Bolsheviks in … November 1905, … was virtually an irrevocable break with the old circle ways that had outlived their day.’[38] If such a shift was necessary for the survival and growth of the revolutionary party, Lenin was fully prepared to break factional discipline to achieve it. Ultimately, through tireless efforts involving not a few manoeuvres and manipulations, and with the indispensable assistance of a diverse number of experienced and energetic Bolshevik comrades in harmony with the approach he advocated, Lenin was able to declare Bogdanov and his co-thinkers outside of the Bolshevik faction.[39]

          Bogdanov and his co-thinkers called themselves Forwardists, after the Bolshevik journal Vperyod (‘Forward’) of 1904–5. They believed it was they who were defending ‘true Bolshevism’ (centralised committees of professional revolutionaries, a refusal to compromise with the tsarist autocracy by participating in its ‘puppet parliament’, and an unswerving commitment to armed struggle and a revolutionary uprising) against what they hoped would be the temporary vacillations of Lenin. Bogdanov explained in 1910 that Lenin and others ‘have come to the conclusion that we must radically change the previous Bolshevik evaluation of the present historical moment and hold a course not toward a new revolutionary wave, but toward a long period of peaceful, constitutional development. This brings them close to the right wing of our party, the Menshevik comrades. … Bolshevism continues to exist as before. … Comrades, a glorious cause – political, cultural, social – stands before us. It would be shameful for us if leaders who have outlived their times, overcome by adversity, should prevent us from fulfilling it. … We will proceed on our way according to the old slogan – with our leaders, if they wish; without them if they do not; against them, if they oppose us.’[40]

          Lenin by no means considered this to be mere bluster. As late as 1911, he was complaining to Alexei Rykov: ‘The Vperedists are very strong. They have a school = a conference = agents. We (and the Central Committee) have not. They have money, some 80,000 roubles. Do you think they will give it to you?? Are you really so naïve??’ As White points out, ‘the situation within the Vpered group was not so favorable as Lenin imagined’, although it may have been nearer the mark two years earlier as Bogdanov and his co-thinkers were being forced out of the Bolshevik faction.[41]

          In fact, after being forced out of the Bolshevik faction, despite being graced with an array of talented intellectuals, a significant treasury, and full faction rights in the RSDLP, the Forwardists did not survive for long as a distinctive political force. It was the Leninist-Bolsheviks, not Bogdanov’s Forwardist-Bolsheviks, that endured, grew, and triumphed. But why? This is a puzzle that White’s biography does not resolve.

 Philosophy and Revolution

An important aspect of the split, as we have noted, was philosophical. How is one to determine, for example, what is true and what is not? ‘For Bogdanov, Lenin’s main misapprehension was that there was such a thing as absolute and eternal truth, whereas in fact all truths were relative and ephemeral.’[42] To what extent is this so? To what extent do the theorisations of Bogdanov (or of Lenin and his philosophical mentor Plekhanov) diverge from the Marxist method of analysis, and to the extent that there is such a divergence, what practical-political difference does it make? White’s study of Bogdanov, and especially the translation and circulation of Bogdanov’s works, will enable increasing numbers of people to explore, discuss, and debate such matters. But how did the disputants themselves view the matter?

          White clearly demonstrates that Bogdanov himself saw intimate links between philosophy and revolutionary activity, which he explains, for example, in his 1906 essay ‘Revolution and Philosophy’. While some historians view Lenin’s philosophical polemic as a smokescreen, others have been inclined to agree with Geoffrey Swain that after the emergence of sharp tactical differences between Lenin and Bogdanov, Lenin came to feel that Bogdanov’s tactical views ‘resulted from the un-Marxist philosophy that he propounded. His errors, therefore, could not be confined to this one issue [of boycotting the Duma] but would recur over and over again.’ This seems to be a reasonable proposition, but the issue is complex. Aside from vague references to ‘the cycle of ideas of boycottism’, Lenin seems to have refrained from drawing a bold, straight line from the tactics of Bogdanov to the philosophy of Bogdanov. At the same time, there did appear to be such a correlation in the minds of the disputants.[43]

          In fact, the philosophical orientation of Bogdanov definitely had a profound appeal for many newly radicalised young workers with an intellectual bent and was in harmony with the psychology of a number of militant Bolshevik praktiki. It would be an error to think that those commonly considered to be Bolshevik ‘hards’ automatically lined up behind Lenin or simply scoffed at philosophical discussions. One well-known Bolshevik practical functionary, Joseph Stalin, wrote from a Baku jail in 1908 in praise of the ‘good sides’ of Ernst Mach’s philosophy and urged that Marxism be developed and revised ‘in the spirit of J. Dietzgen’ (an earlier socialist philosopher, a comrade of Marx and Engels, who was influential among Bogdanov’s co-thinkers). Stalin also favoured what he called ‘a deviation from strict Bolshevism’ – the recall of RSDLP deputies from the Duma. Seeing Bogdanov’s group as an impressive alternative to ‘the other part (“orthodox”) of our fraction, headed by Ilyich’, he praised Bogdanov’s latest writings for indicating ‘individual blunders of Ilyich’. Even in late 1909 Stalin was criticising the earlier removal of Bogdanov from theProletary editorial board and accused Lenin of ‘schismatic tactics’. It was not until 1910, after the consolidation of a Bolshevik majority around Lenin, that Stalin expressed appreciation of his ‘wisdom’.[44]

          It is interesting to consider Bogdanov’s views on what happened. Believing (as White puts it) ‘that personal disagreements were inevitable, and indeed, necessary for the health of the party’, he insisted – as the polemical disputes were about to become explosive – that ‘so far the Bolshevik fraction to which he belonged had been able to resolve these differences by wide discussion, democratic voting and party discipline.’[45] It is striking that ten years later, he held the same opinion. As White summarises his position:

In its early days, in the period 1904–7, Bolshevism was decidedly democratic, not only in its program, but in the attitudes that permeated the organization. Lenin was the most experienced and influential political figure in the organization, but no one would have thought of waiting to hear Lenin’s opinion before forming one’s own. Moreover, often on important questions Lenin found himself in a minority and had to put into effect the collective decision which he had voted against.

Things began to change with the victory of reaction after the defeat of the 1905 revolution in Russia. The Bolshevik organization was weakened, and the will of most of its members was broken. Lenin and his entourage at that time underwent a significant turn to the right. They effected a union with the Mensheviks, despite the opposition of local organizations in Russia. This was a principle for the victory of leadership, causing it to become entrenched. It was precisely from this time that many Bolsheviks began to refer to themselves as ‘Leninist,’ a title that had formerly been used by their opponents in polemics against them.

Bogdanov went on to say that although the union with the Mensheviks lasted only a few months, it was followed by a number of instances where Lenin was able to lay down the line in the teeth of opposition from members of his own party fraction.[46]

Leadership and Proletarian Culture: The Capri Party School

The above relates to a significant reflection that Bogdanov had earlier developed on leadership, again summarised by White:

Once a person was designated a leader, and in this way distinguished from the rest of the collective, there was the danger of an authoritarian relationship. The specialized organizer was not wholly a comrade. Even if he had no formal personal ‘power,’ even if all the comrades followed his directions voluntarily, and even if they could hold him to account, there was still the serious possibility of a drift towards authoritarianism. The danger was especially great where the level of collective consciousness in the organization was not high, and where the role of the ‘authority’ was filled by an outsider from an environment where authoritarianism was prevalent.[47]

White suggests Bogdanov himself was inclined to apply this analysis to Lenin. But the prevalence of such dynamics can surely be applied to someone like Bogdanov himself. This emerges through an examination of one of his most innovative projects.

          Before the split, Bogdanov and other Forwardist-Bolsheviks, assisted by Maxim Gorky and a vibrant, politically experienced young worker-Bolshevik named Nikifor Vilonov, established a school for working-class activists. Working-class activists would be gathered together for a several-month immersive learning situation. In addition to lectures in Marxist theory, economics, history, topics related to struggle (trade unionism, the agrarian question, etc.), literature and other cultural questions, students would be trained in public speaking, the conduct of meetings, and techniques of newspaper printing. Gorky opened his spacious home for this purpose on the Mediterranean isle of Capri.[48]

          For years, based on initial experiences with worker education, Bogdanov had been developing conceptualisations that led precisely to this project: the notion that ‘the intelligentsia played an auxiliary part in the workers’ movement, and that the object of educating the workers was to make them completely independent of the intelligentsia’, as White puts it. ‘Indeed, for Bogdanov, the inadequacies of the intelligentsia, their individualism and their consequent metaphysical view of the world, contrasted with the collectivist and monist outlook of the workers.’ Yet developed proletarian consciousness was hardly a pure and spontaneously developed gift from God. Bogdanov became convinced that ‘the way to eliminate the authoritarian thinking and the narrow-mindedness among the workers was “to create newer and newer elements of socialism in the proletariat itself, in its internal relations and its everyday conditions of life: to work out a socialist proletarian culture.” That is, he believed that comradely cooperation was not only a characteristic of a socialist society, but also the means by which that society would be achieved.’[49]

          This was becoming an urgent practical question by 1908. The defeat of the 1905 revolution had led to a dramatic demoralisation especially among many of the young intellectuals who had been part of the RSDLP, with a significant exodus from the ranks of the party. This was ‘especially felt in all party organizations, because they had acted as party secretaries, treasurers, littérateurs, propagandists and agitators’, as White points out. ‘With their departure these functions had been taken over by the workers themselves, but the workers felt the need to acquire more knowledge and training to carry out these essential party tasks.’[50]

          Although many of the 27 participants were arrested immediately upon their return to Russia, in many ways the Capri school was a success. One of the students recalled:

A.A. Bogdanov was listened to with enormous interest. He described in a masterful, sometimes even in an artistic, way the epochs of human economic relations. We read together the first chapters of Marx’s Das Kapital. He had a good knowledge of the history of philosophy, natural science and mathematics. In a word he was a great scholar in the full sense of the word. It must be added that he was a very good and responsible comrade. He was simple and very attentive. His wife, Natalia Bogdanova, like a good mother, looked after us as we were studying.[51]

Praise was also forthcoming for other lecturers such as Lunacharsky, Pokrovsky, and Gorky. Even the several Leninist-Bolshevik workers in attendance ‘recognized that knowledge they had received from the lectures at the school was useful and necessary’. But extra-curricular activities initiated by Forwardist-Bolshevik students and lecturers at the school included the development of a factional platform counterposed to the Leninist wing of the faction. This generated indignation among some of the students (including the worker who had helped initiate the project, Nikifor Vilonov), who vigorously protested and finally resigned from the school. Leninists in Bolshevik publications expressed sharp and open criticism of the entire project. When Bogdanov sought to involve the remaining student body in a polemical response, the school’s student council balked, which caused Bogdanov to complain of their ‘being in awe of the party leadership’ (as White puts it) and to threaten his own resignation.[52]

          White summarises a later critique by Nikolai Bukharin, a young Bolshevik who had been attracted to Bogdanov, which gives a sense of the range of Bogdanov’s thinking:

According to Bukharin, Bogdanov’s basic idea was that the socialist transformation of society and the socialist revolution should be undertaken according to an organizational plan worked out in advance. First, the working class would create its own science, elaborate its scientific methods in all spheres of knowledge, construct for this purpose workers’ universities, write a proletarian encyclopedia, etc. and then make an ‘organizational plan’ to decide the ‘world organizational tasks’. When all this was done, only then would it be possible to achieve socialism. To do otherwise would be ‘maximalism’ and utopia.[53]

By 1910 Gorky himself was becoming disaffected. ‘As you know, I respect you both as a thinker and as a revolutionary,’ he wrote to Bogdanov, ‘but I shall not reply to your letters: they are too severe, written as though you were a sergeant and I a simple private in your squad.’ He complained more severely of Bogdanov in a letter to another prominent Forwardist, Grigory Alexinsky:

It seems to me that he does not have the temperament of a revolutionary, but that he is a maker of systems. The inclination towards synthesis is strongly developed in him, and like all people of this kind he is a conservative and a despot. 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. But he has talent. I am sure he will accomplish much.[54]

And yet the Forwardist-Bolsheviks which he led fell apart. The predicted revolutionary resurgence did not materialise. The armed groups that Bogdanov and Krasin had developed, engaged in a sort of urban guerrilla warfare involving ‘expropriations’ that corrupted some of them, became marginal to actual working-class struggles, and tended to descend into simple banditry. There were growing theoretical disagreements, with some close comrades openly critical of Bogdanov’s cultural theories. Fierce internal polemics generated by Alexinsky demoralised and drove away key figures in the original Forwardist cluster – including Bogdanov himself, who abandoned organised activist efforts by 1911 in order to devote himself to his studies and literary efforts.

          Perhaps predictably, Bogdanov sought to integrate the political experience of 1904–10 into his philosophical systematising. In the science of organisation he designated as tectology, he advanced the notion of the ‘law of the leasts’. All phenomena are organised from multiple and diverse elements. The structural stability of all systems – mechanical, physical, psychical, social, etc. – is ultimately determined by its weakest part. To maintain coherence, the more advanced elements must adapt to the least advanced, otherwise the system risks breaking apart at its weakest link.[55]

Bogdanov saw the danger that the law of the leasts might come to dominate humanity if it was not brought under control. There was, he believed, a problem for tectology to solve: how to master the law in the cultural sphere in order to avoid equalization according to the lowest common denominator, so that humanity’s major achievements should not be lost to the survivals of barbarity which threatened to overwhelm them?[56]

Another tectological conceptualisation involved the understanding that a system could be considered from the standpoint of its contacts with its environment – branching out in diffusion, or limiting such contacts with a more compact structure. Bogdanov ‘concluded that, as far as the preservation and development of complexes was concerned, under negative selection a compact structure was to be preferred, and under positive selection a diffused structure.’[57]

          Obviously, the law of the leasts was what Bogdanov’s struggles had been designed to overcome, and yet the very same law of the leasts identifies the source of his defeat. Also, the period of reaction in the wake of the revolutionary defeat of 1905 impacted on the ‘relationships between central and local organizations’ of the RSDLP by breaking up what was a relatively diffuse structure, so that ‘the party was turned into a number of scattered groups’. However, the triumph of compactness could be seen ‘where unity was maintained’, although ‘it was only the unity of the program or dogma, which became more stringent.’ Related to this, ‘with the merger of political parties’, with the Leninist-Bolshevik rightward convergence toward the Mensheviks, ‘to avoid internal conflict, some programmatic and tactical elements are sacrificed’, and ‘members of the organization who are unhappy with the merger or who can be an obstacle to its implementation are thrown out.’[58] Elaborating further:

Seen from a tectological perspective, Lenin’s attempt in 1909 to split the Bolshevik fraction and ally with Plekhanov’s supporters among the Mensheviks was doomed to failure. The maneuver involved the Leninists getting rid of the left wing of the Bolsheviks, while Plekhanov detached his group from the ‘liquidationist’ right wing of the Mensheviks. The Leninist Bolsheviks and the ‘party Mensheviks’ would then be required to form a coherent center organization. However the two fractions had become so distant that the desired merger was impossible, and the organization collapsed at its point of least resistance. No center grouping of Lenin’s and Plekhanov’s forces gelled, and instead of two fractions there were now four.[59]

Yet Lenin’s effort to build a coherent version of the RSDLP out of the hoped-for unity conference with ‘party Mensheviks’ in 1912 moved forward without Plekhanov. Lenin was not bound by Bogdanov’s schema, worked with what he had, and with like-minded comrades forged a cohesive organisation that was able to connect with local organisations throughout Russia while catching wind in its sails from the radicalising working-class upsurge of 1912–14. Challenged but then aided by the horrific devastations of the First World War, Lenin’s Bolsheviks proved to be a force capable of playing an increasingly vibrant role, ultimately a leadership role, in the revolutionary overturns of 1917.

Revolution, Culture, Blood

Bogdanov had been drafted into the Russian Army as a medical officer during the First World War. The traumas of the war did not disrupt his writing, but he was absent from the urban centres within which tsarism was overthrown in February/March, within which power struggles between the bourgeois-orientated Provisional Government and working-class soviets unfolded, and within which the Bolsheviks under Lenin and Trotsky swept to power.

          Some prominent old Forwardists rejoined the Bolsheviks. Lunacharsky and Pokrovsky, who assumed prominent posts within the new People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment, sought to draw Bogdanov back into Bolshevik ranks as well, and it has been said that Bukharin and even Stalin did the same – though Lenin and Bogdanov appear to have sustained a mutual antipathy. Bogdanov maintained a position independent of and at least moderately critical of the Bolsheviks, although he gave critical support to the Bolshevik Revolution and the Soviet regime.

          White’s narrative suggests a systematic persecution of Bogdanov orchestrated by Lenin, but the matter deserves more careful study. It is true that Lenin openly and persistently criticised the ideas of his old comrade, saw to it that a new edition of Materialism and Empirio-Criticism was published with an anti-Bogdanov introductory essay by the Bolshevik activist-scholar Vladimir Nevsky, and expressed concern about the obvious influence of Bogdanov’s ideas in the writings of such comrades as Bukharin. But in the same period, from 1917 through the early 1920s, Bogdanov was able to function with a fair amount of freedom, wrote extensively, was able to publish his writings, and exercised significant influence within the new order. ‘In the early 1920s it was Bogdanov’s works that were the standard works on socialist and Marxist theory,’ according to White, going through a number of editions, ‘and they were widely studied in Soviet educational institutions.’[60]

          Bogdanov was also a founding theorist and organiser in the Proletarian Culture [Proletcult] movement which had begun to develop before the Bolshevik Revolution but by 1920 had a membership of more than 400,000 – artists, writers, musicians, scientists and, more largely, from the working class, functioning in a cooperative relationship with the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment, headed by Bogdanov’s old comrade Anatoly Lunacharsky.[61] While some reference to Bogdanov’s views on the necessity of developing proletarian culture and proletarian science has already been offered above, a more thoroughgoing summation of his perspectives is offered in White’s study.

          Bogdanov ‘argued for the integrity of the proletarian worldview, unsullied and unaltered by the manipulations of class-alien elements’, notes Lynn Mally in her history of Proletcult, though she adds that ‘he certainly did not question his own ability to articulate the thoughts of the proletariat.’[62] The Proletcult movement of this period, however, was hardly following a single set of ideas – it wasa complicated social and cultural movement with many conflicting programmes, as Mally has shown, with a ‘heterogeneous social composition and … varied cultural practices’.[63] It is probable that many would have rejected Bogdanov’s relatively conservative notion that, as White sums it up, it was not the ‘decadent’ artistic fashions of ‘modernism’ and ‘Futurism’ that should be followed (represented, for example, by the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky), but rather ‘the simple, clear and pure forms of the great masters such as Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Nekrasov and Tolstoy’.[64]

          While this corresponded to Lenin’s well-known cultural conservatism, however, he had a deep store of distrust for the theoretical orientation of Bogdanov and focused considerable energy on bringing Proletcult under the stricter control of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment and also to combatting Bogdanov’s influence within it, culminating in Bogdanov’s resignation in late 1921.[65]

          Two years later, Bogdanov was arrested by the Cheka. ‘Although I had finally given up politics, it had not given up me,’ Bogdanov wrote, ‘as my arrest in September–October 1923 has shown.’ White goes on to quote (uncritically) from Victor Serge’s 1942 memoir that Lenin ‘has Bogdanov, his old friend and comrade jailed because this outstanding intellectual confronts him with embarrassing objections.’ Serge is an outstanding witness, to be sure, and the more substantial quotation from which this sentence is wrenched makes a valid point. Serge is telling us that while Lenin describes the dictatorship of the proletariat as ‘the broadest possible workers’ democracy’, and that ‘he believes it and wants it to be so’, his regime was contradictory – allowing some freedoms for those considered supporters or potential supporters, yet all too often suppressing those on the left deemed to pose a counter-revolutionary threat.[66]

          But as White should know, in this case Lenin didn’t do it. Three decades after the fact, Serge had misremembered. Lenin was felled by his third stroke in March 1923, was severely and increasingly incapacitated, and in less than four months suffered a fourth stroke and died. He was in no position, at that point, to micro-manage the persecution and order the arrest of an old opponent. White himself offers the real story. The head of the Cheka, the fiercely uncompromising purist Felix Dzerzhinsky, was convinced that Bogdanov was active in an illegal organisation producing the paper Workers’ Truth, which denounced the Communist Party as having lost its ties with the proletariat and called for ‘a new Workers’ Party to fight for democratic conditions under which the workers could defend their interests’. One of its articles utilised Bogdanov’s terminology and quoted from his writings. Bogdanov was finally able to secure an extensive face-to-face meeting with Dzerzhinsky, whose ‘attitude changed completely after an hour’s conversation’, and who had him released shortly thereafter.[67]

          Bogdanov’s assessment of post-1917 Russia contained interesting elements related to his overall philosophical and theoretical work. One aspect of it involved a sharp difference with a onetime co-thinker Vladimir Bazarov who, echoing some of Lenin’s writings, believed a transitional form between capitalism and socialism was what Bazarov referred to as state capitalism (state regulation of the economy necessitated by war, which had arisen during the First World War), and which Bogdanov tagged ‘war communism’. Bogdanov argued, White tells us, ‘that there is an enormous difference between socialism, which was primarily a new form of cooperation, and war communism, which was a special form of consumption, an authoritarian organization of mass parasitism [the “parasites” being military personnel producing no value] and annihilation.’ The economy ‘in force in Soviet Russia between 1918 and 1921’ consisted of ‘an attempt to manage scarce resources in a spiral of economic decline’. This alleged transition to socialism was, in Bogdanov’s words, ‘a repulsive caricature … born of war and the old order’.[68]

          Combined with this ‘war communism’ was the fact that the new regime’s base consisted of a weak working class and a very large number of soldiers, resulting in the tectological ‘law of the leasts’ asserting itself with a vengeance: ‘A workers’ and soldiers’ party was objectively simply a soldiers’ one. And it was striking to what degree the Bolsheviks had been transformed in this way; they had assimilated the logic of the barracks, all its methods, all of its specific culture and ideals.’ In fact, there was the ascendancy of ‘the logic of the barracks, in contrast to the logic of the factory’, with every question now regarded ‘as one of force rather than one of organized experience and labor’. It reduced the notion of socialism to ‘smashing the bourgeoisie and seizing power’.[69]

          Nonetheless, as Bogdanov explained to Bukharin, ‘although he disagreed with the Bolshevik party’s analysis of the situation, he recognized the objective necessity of its policies’. He considered the work of Bukharin and his comrades to be tragic. White summarises:

The blood and dirt that had been involved in the revolution was excessive, but it was not individuals that were to blame, but the backwardness of the country. Bogdanov assured Bukharin that the Bolsheviks would be unlikely to lose their heads or their power. The danger was that what would be lost was the idealism that had inspired Bukharin in the past.[70]

Pushed out of political and cultural efforts, Bogdanov returned to earlier scientific and medical interests. In the mid-1920s he was able to draw together a cluster of like-minded people to study and experiment with blood transfusions. By this time Stalin and Bukharin were at the regime’s highest pinnacle, and in 1926 there was official approval for the establishment of an innovative research clinic under Bogdanov’s directorship. Scientific historian Nikolai Krementsov describes Bogdanov’s 1927 study The Struggle for Viability as a text which, reflecting the work Bogdanov was doing, ‘applied the basic principle of his “proletarian science” to the studies of blood transfusion and articulated a “tectological” theory of senescence and rejuvenation as the theoretical foundation of both his vision of “physiological collectivism” and his research program on blood exchanges.’[71]

          White seems uncritical, suggesting that Bogdanov was engaged in good science. Krementsov, more critical, disagrees. Bogdanov died in an experimental blood exchange in 1928.

Bogdanov’s Legacy

‘Whatever Bogdanov studied, be it medicine, natural science, mathematics, political economy, sociology or philosophy, he always studied it thoroughly and in depth’, recalled Anatoly Lunacharsky, according to White’s summary of the obituary he wrote. ‘Bogdanov’s talent was the ability to deploy his enormous knowledge in constructing and expounding schemes of thought.’ He added that ‘the most characteristic feature of Bogdanov’s mind was the compulsion to reduce the great multiplicity of being to a number of repeating varieties of a few basic laws’, which unfortunately, he concluded, ‘gave rise to a certain schematism.’[72]

          ‘History recruited him for his politics; his personal inclinations made him a philosopher. In both these fields he suffered defeat’, commented another old comrade M.N. Pokrovsky. ‘But as one of the cultural heroes who died at his post, he will remain in the memory of many generations, perhaps he will remain there forever.’[73]

          Forever is a long time. But what James White and others working on the retrieval of Bogdanov are accomplishing is to make available to new generations around the world the contributions of an extremely important revolutionary thinker. There are old questions still to be wrestled with, not the least of which are challenges posed by Lenin in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and Dominique Lecourt’s essay ‘Bogdanov, Mirror of the Soviet Intelligentsia’. Lenin insisted: ‘Let Bogdanov, accepting in the best sense and with the best intentions all the conclusions of Marx, preach [the empiriomonist notion of] the “identity” of social being and social consciousness; we shall say: Bogdanov minus “empiriomonism” (or rather, minus Machism) is a Marxist.’ What Lecourt has to say in some ways seems more serious: ‘The Bogdanovist system remained an inexhaustible reservoir for the verbally “left-wing” themes of Stalinist propaganda’, particularly with his conceptualisation of ‘proletarian science’.[74]

          Whatever conclusions are drawn about such matters, Bogdanov’s importance is not contained by them (as is the case of Lenin, for that matter). As K.M. Jensen put it in a pathbreaking study forty years ago, ‘there is more to Bogdanov’s thought than an epistemological position of which Lenin did not approve.’[75] With the increasing availability of his ideas, there will be increasing explorations, expositions, applications, and debates.[76] Engaging with what fallen comrades did in the past, one can more fully understand what happened in the past, but also one can sometimes absorb relevant insights and challenging approaches for the present and future, learning from mistakes made and things done right.


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[1] Bogdanov 1984. (I want to thank Joost Kirsz and John Riddell for thoughtful feedback on an earlier draft of this article.)

[2]Pavlov 2013.

[3] See <>.

[4] Yedlin 1999, p. 85.

[5] Lih 2008; this and related matters are discussed in Le Blanc 2014, pp. 13–14, 53–76.

[6] White 2019, p. 463.

[7] Lenin 1977a, pp. 46, 48.

[8] Bogdanov 1923, p. v.

[9] Bogdanov 2019, pp. 52, 54, 100, 101, 137.

[10] In 1915 Einstein noted that ‘the theory of relativity suggests itself in positivism’, and specifically Mach’s ‘line of thought had a great influence on my efforts’. Yet by 1931 he had shifted to a non-Machian formulation: ‘Belief in an external world independent of perceiving is the basis of all natural science’ (Isaacson 2007, pp. 82, 349). While this corresponds to criticisms of Mach posed by Plekhanov, Lenin and others, Bogdanov argued that it is a ‘gross misunderstanding’ to identify Mach’s position with the notion that material reality is nothing more than human perceptions. According to Bogdanov, physical realities (an interconnected series of elements) exist independently of human perceptions (a different interconnected series of elements), and human perceptions do not flawlessly grasp the physical realities being perceived. He saw his approach as sifting out flawed perceptions in order to advance the collective comprehension and alteration of reality (Bogdanov 2019, pp. 132–6).

[11] White 2019, p. 93.

[12] White 2019, pp. 93–4.

[13] White 2019, pp. 143–4.

[14] White 2019, pp. 288–9. Also see Gare 2000.

[15] White 2019, p. 289.

[16] White 2019, p. 318.

[17] White 2019, p. 459.

[18] White 2019, p. 86.

[19]White 2019, p. 244.

[20]White 2019, p. 85.

[21]White 2019, pp. 103, 108. Contrary to White’s suggestion, the initial belief that there were ‘no insuperable’ differences between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was also Lenin’s view – see Le Blanc 2015, pp. 65–6.

[22]White 2019, pp. 114, 117.

[23] White 2019, p. 109.

[24] Lenin 1977b, pp. 453, 456, 459.

[25]White 2019, pp. 88–9.

[26]White 2019, pp. 126, 129, 166, 418.

[27]Le Blanc 2015, pp. 115–28.

[28]White 2019, pp. 131, 114, 115.

[29]White 2019, p. 128.

[30] White 2019, p. 142.

[31]Krupskaya 1970, pp. 153, 156.

[32] White 2019, p. 342; Krupskaya 1970, p. 193.

[33] Sochor 1988, pp. 4, 7.

[34] White 2019, pp. 180–1.

[35] White 2019, pp. 250, 251. For a clear summary, see Nimtz 2019, pp. 221–5.

[36] Pokrovskii 1970, p. 190.

[37] Krupskaya 1970, p. 167.

[38] Lenin 1978, pp. 104–5.

[39] See Le Blanc 2015, pp. 139–41, and Swain 1983.

[40] Le Blanc 2015, p. 137; Bogdanov, ‘Letter to All Comrades’, in Daniels (ed.) 1962, pp. 62, 63.

[41] White 2019, p. 281.

[42] White 2019, p. 245.

[43] Swain 1982, p. xx.

[44] Le Blanc 2015, pp. 148–9; Tucker 1973, p. 149; Williams 1980, pp. 398–9.

[45] White 2019, pp. 215–16.

[46] White 2019, pp. 362–3.

[47] White 2019, p. 243.

[48] White 2019, p. 250. Vilinov composed a philosophical essay which Bogdanov cited at length in 1913, after Vilinov’s death (see Bogdanov 2019, pp. 191, 8–9, 11–12). For more on Vilinov, see Scherrer 1999, pp. 179–82.

[49] White 2019, pp. 14, 208–9.

[50] White 2019, p. 226.

[51] White 2019, p. 250.

[52] White 2019, pp. 251–3. Similar complaints about Bogdanov’s alleged ‘paternalism’ would surface in 1920 within the Proletcult movement – see Biggart 2016, p. 18.

[53] White 2019, p. 372.

[54] White 2019, p. 265.

[55] White 2019, p. 298.

[56] White 2019, p. 299.

[57] Ibid.

[58] White 2019, pp. 300, 302.

[59] White 2019, p. 337.

[60] Nevsky 2017; White 2019, p. 408.

[61] See Mally 1990 and Fitzpatrick 1971 for valuable information on Proletcult and related matters.

[62]Mally 1990, pp. 107, 384

[63] Mally 1990, pp. xxiii–xxiv.

[64] White 2019, p. 384.

[65] White 2019, pp. 419–29.

[66] White 2019, p. 431; Serge 2012, p. 157.

[67] Weber and Weber 1980, p. 197; White 2019, pp. 429–31.

[68] White 2019, pp. 370–1. Some of Bogdanov’s thoughts correspond to material presented in Le Blanc 2017.

[69] White 2019, pp. 373–4.

[70] White 2019, pp. 418–19.

[71]Krementsov 2011, p. 12.

[72] White 2019, pp. 455–6.

[73] White 2019, p. 456. John Biggart notes that, in discussing their old comrade in the late 1920s, Lunarcharsky reflected that ‘in the philosophical dispute between Bogdanov and Lenin it was too soon to say where the line between orthodoxy and heresy should be drawn’, while Pokrovsky insisted that the value of Bogdanov’s thought would become ‘apparent once the period 1905–1917 could be seen in perspective’ (Biggart 1981, p. 151).

[74] Lenin 1970, p. 337; Lecourt 1977, p. 143. An initial effort by the author, developed in the late 1980s, to come to terms with the meaning of the Bogdanov legacy can be found in Le Blanc 2015, pp. 129–52.

[75] Jensen 1978, p. 14.

[76] A foretaste of what will surely be a wave of new efforts making use of Bogdanov can be found in Mason 2015, pp. 219–21, and Wark 2016, pp. xvii, 3–61, 224–5.