AUGUST 18, 2018
EVEN IN THE REALMS of science fiction and the modernist avant-garde, no one could accuse Alexander Svyatogor of a lack of ambition. The Soviet poet, revolutionary anarchist, and founder of the Biocosmist-Immortalists begins his 1921 manifesto, “Biocosmist Poetics,” by going after the biggest target of all:
The current balance within the natural order is, in fact, our first and last enemy. Should we, like Judas, betray our existence to the power of necessity for the sake of a few silver coins, and the world, too — a bunch of flowers, whose scent we inhale?
Now let’s get down to the question of how to realize personal immortality!
Svyatogor goes on like this in one breathless sentence after another as he lays out a vision of art and revolutionary politics that demands “victory over space,” immortality, and the resurrection of the dead. Svyatogor, as both a writer and a revolutionary, advocated for full-throttle luxury space communism, and he wanted it right this very second.
Moreover, he wasn’t alone. Russian Cosmism, edited and introduced by art critic Boris Groys, reveals that Svyatogor was only one of a loose conglomeration of revolutionaries, artists, scientists, and mystics who operated under the name of Cosmists in the decades surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution.
The concept of Cosmism originated with Nikolai Fedorov, a devout Orthodox Christian and philosopher who mixed in Moscow salons with thinkers such as Tolstoy. In his major 1906 work, The Philosophy of the Common Task, Fedorov argues that death is an unnatural design flaw in humanity that can be corrected through science. Moreover, until we correct this imbalance, we doom the dead to suffer for eternity under the tyranny of the living.
This preservationist drive can at least partly be attributable to Fedorov’s day-job as a librarian. And as any librarian knows, the biggest limit to collecting materials — be they books or humans — is storage space, which is why Fedorov ultimately demands human colonization of the cosmos. Fedorov’s project reassesses the breadth and potential of humanity by delinking us from the determinations of biology, nature, and history. He’s a fascinating and influential thinker, as Russian Cosmism attests, and the volume would have benefited from including more of his writings.
No matter, though. There’s more than enough Cosmism to go around. While Fedorov set the terms, later Cosmists worked out the finer details while expanding their scope. Rocket scientist and astronautics pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was profoundly influenced by his friendship with Fedorov, in particular by the latter’s expansive egalitarianism. Tsiolkovsky’s theory of panpsychism saw the entire universe as a living, sentient, connected organism that inexorably integrated humanity in a process of “positive entropy.” Life and death, according to this line of thought, are mere instances of an infinitely larger, collective being. The spiritualism inherent in this concept is strikingly balanced by its implicit connection to the mass politics of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Russian Cosmism also illustrates the fine line between utopia and dystopia. In one particularly terrifying vision, Tsiolkovsky sees the Earth radically terraformed: the planet would be intentionally heated to allow the creation of massive, hyper-productive industrial farms; the “polar ice would melt, and the oceans would be cleansed of them and covered with rafts, like the exotic seas”; and the population would become a jobs-for-all army ceaselessly laboring to shape and reshape the environment.
Tsiolkovsky’s utopian vision of the future is, of course, ominously close to our dystopian reality, except that we didn’t really do it on purpose as part of a meticulously planned state socialist economic project. When you read Tsiolkovsky, you can’t help but be persuaded about the sincerity of his vision of Earth as a living starship sailing across the galaxy. His vision of terraforming feels, if not particularly imminent, at least worth fighting for. But terraforming the planet doesn’t sound quite as appealing when a hyper-accelerationist capitalist tech mogul like Elon Musk talks about it.
Indeed, the goals and vision of the Cosmists are still with us, but they’ve taken an inverted form, as venture capitalists and technofuturists from Musk to Ray Kurzweil and J. Craig Venter still dream of space colonization and human immortality. These latter-day start-up capitalist Cosmists envision a form of immortality and space colonization that would only serve to advance privatized dispossession and the expansion of the capitalist market rather than socialist redistribution of wealth and labor. Sure, Musk can colonize Mars, but we’ll all just be janitors or warehouse workers there. And should the Singularity ever occur, it’s not going to be liberatory, but will more likely just make it easier to enter our timesheets. Capitalist Cosmism would simply be the grim extension of the world as it already exists, an ideology consistent with a late neoliberal world order of accelerated wealth disparity, the intensification of labor time with diminishing pay, and the privatization of every last piece of our bodies and minds.
In that sense, the primary texts of Russian Cosmism are important not just for showing us where recent technofuturist ideas came from, but why they were appealing in the first place. The volume shows us that Russian, and specifically Russian communist, Cosmism is not just appealing, but important. Radical. Revolutionary.
Svyatogor perhaps gets at the true core of Cosmist thought when he writes that Biocosmist society “requires terrifying freedom for man.” Cosmism takes human liberation right down to the cellular level as its goal. The critical difference lies in the fact that the Cosmists were largely animated by the ideas of collective political struggle. Films such as Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera and new histories such as China Miéville’s October show the messiness, upheaval, and transformation of Russian society produced by the Bolshevik Revolution. Moreover, the Revolution acted as a crucible for avant-garde art and radical politics that produced movements such as the Constructivists, the Maximalists, Futurists, and the Proletkult, all of which sought — to varying degrees — the overthrow of all existing aesthetic, political, and social norms. This was a moment in which any and all ideas were possible, and the Cosmists played a significant role in creating this new world.
Svyatogor, for instance, was a longtime anarchist organizer prior to 1917. During the Revolution, he spent time expropriating apartments from the wealthy and serving as a Bolshevik Black Guard before fighting occupying German forces in the Ukraine.
Alexander Bogdanov was a Bolshevik activist who was a rival to Lenin and friend of Trotsky. The subject of renewed interest in the past years (he was the basis for the character Arkady Bogdanov in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy and is extensively discussed by McKenzie Wark in Molecular Red), Bogdanov devoted his later life to performing experimental blood transfusions on himself in the attempt to extend human life. For Bogdanov, blood transfusion was part and parcel with the attempt to break free of normative and coercive laws and customs; to seize control of the reproduction of the body at a biological level; to expand the field of collective struggle into the individual organism itself by the power of biological engineering.
Bogdanov also wrote a number of science fiction stories and novels. “Immortality Day” is included in Russian Cosmism. Fride is an immortal space communist who has grown weary of the infinite satisfactions of his post-scarcity utopia. The story concerns Fride’s decision to take his own life in order to experience death, the one thing that immortalist space communism can’t offer. In his suicide note, Fride writes, “After one thousand years of my existence I have come to the conclusion that life on Earth is a cycle of repetitions, especially intolerable for a man of genius, whose entire being yearns for innovation. This is one of nature’s antinomies. I resolve it with suicide.” With a certain Nietzschean flair, Bogdanov suggests that death is the critical negation that allows for history, and humanity, to develop. The story displays both a wild sense of utopia as well as an understanding of the dialectical limits of any such utopia.
It’s important, too, that Bogdanov’s Cosmism often takes the form of science fiction. Genre acts as a space in which the messiness of radical utopias can be truly thought through. Science fiction and fantasy weren’t, for the Cosmists, detached from practical scientific and political thought. As Svyatogor writes in his manifesto, “Even if there is an element of fantasy to Biocosmism, this fantasy of ours should not be relegated entirely to the realms of utopia.” Fantasy, in Svyatogor’s usage, is the very opposite of utopia — not a “no-place,” but an epistemological mode of understanding and testing the present, and, with luck, changing the world.
In a powerful recent essay on fantasy, sexuality, identity, and commodity fetishism, critic and science fiction writer Jordy Rosenberg argues that “dreams are neither simply a thesis nor […] the extent of the field of struggle. Rather, dreams and all their ilk (fantasy, literature, language) are a zone of unsurrender. Struggle’s companion and consolation.” The production of fantasy, Rosenberg posits, is a way in which we can seize back the “energies of unruliness” — of eros, un-reason, the id — from the oppressive forces of fascism and capitalism. In this struggle, we have to be able to inhabit a lifeworld that contains contradictions, impure desires, and shades of gray. And, in this sense, the fantastic nature of Cosmism is its most important aspect.
Cosmism, then, is the practical leveraging of fantasy and science fiction as a radical force for human struggle and liberation. It seeks not just the preservation of life as we know it, but the fundamental transformation of it. Scientists and writers like Tsiolkovsky, Bogdanov, and Svyatogor use the sheer power and materiality of fantasy and science fiction as a wedge to push humanity beyond the very brink of its capacities, risking — no, inviting — a collective change in humanity beyond all recognition.
The lives of many of the Cosmists ended tragically. Bogdanov died of an experimental blood transfusion gone wrong. Stalin deported Svyatogor to Siberia, where he presumably perished. Less dramatically, but no less dispiritingly, the scientist Alexander Chizhevsky was forced into professional exile for ideas that contradicted official Soviet doctrine. Nearly all of the Cosmists paid dearly for their fantasies.
In true Cosmist fashion, Russian Cosmism does the service of resurrecting their ideas in order to allow them to once again take part in the ongoing political struggle for human liberation. Let’s be honest: the science fiction fantasies of the Cosmists are still wicked cool, but only if we get to be living forever on Venus as space communists and not working in Elon Musk’s Martian salt mines. It’s essential to reignite this type of radical fantasy in the era of Trump, when much of the radical left sees salvage as its best option, and the best the pragmatic left can offer is jobs for all. Russian Cosmism is revelatory and necessary for its ability to make fantasy and genre writing militant; to help us seize back crazed utopic ideas from fascists and Silicon Valley; and, ultimately, to help us expand the zone of unsurrender.
Aaron Winslow’s novel, Jobs of the Great Misery (2016), is available from Skeleton Man Press.