Mad Scientist #2: Alexander Bogdanov

Few nations in history have produced more mad scientists than the USSR. We’re going to spend plenty of time plumbing the depths of Soviet insanity here on Mad Scientist Blog, so it only seems fitting to begin our exploration with Bolshevism’s earliest oddball intellectual: Alexander Bogdanov.

A trained physician and master theoretician, Bogdanov began his career as a Marxist ideologue, and wound up creating a body of work so staggeringly pretentious, it transcended all known bounds of philosophy and science. In the process he lay the groundwork for cybernetics and systems theory, pioneered the genre of Soviet science fiction, and inadvertently established a Russian tradition in blood science.

Sound like a mouthful? Bogdanov’s career defies easy characterization. Any attempt to understand the man must engage him at his own level, which, as you might have guessed, is really way the fuck out there.

Our story begins on Mars, the red planet, where a socialist utopian technocracy has put an end to virtually all life’s problems. Mechanical efficiencies have eliminated the need for grunt labor, and all sentient work is of the organizational/scientific variety. Martians spend their free time either working, or in art museums, soberly contemplating their newfound structural unity. And they’ve got plenty of time to kill too, since blood transfusions between the young and the old have gloriously prolonged their lifespan.

This is the setting for Bogdanov’s novel, Red Star. Though it’s pure Soviet science fiction (the first of its kind no less), he devoted his entire life to turning this techno-communist dreamscape into reality. While others were busy turning Marx into revolution, Bogdanov took an honest stab at turning Marx into science.

He invented tektology, the study of organizational systems, in an attempt to put socialism on a more empirical footing. Tektology views the world as a network of interrelated systems. Systems can range from microscopic (i.e. atoms, cells, chemical reactions) to larger than life (i.e. governments, societies, civilizations). While systems may differ in both their complexity and degree of organization, they are all governed by rules that are fundamentally mathematical in nature.

The goal of tektology then, is to formulate the abstract rules that govern the organization of all systems. In doing so, Bogdanov believed we’d be able to reason about the organization of society with the same level of precision we can reason about physics. He saw this as an extension of the “scientific socialism” of Marx and Engles, which argued for a materialist conception of history but was sketchy on the details.

Some have posited tektology as a prototype for modern day cybernetics and systems theory, an obscure Marxist influence on the generalizing sciences. But that’s not giving Bogdanov enough credit. Tektology not only predated these schools by several decades, but according to scholars like Geoge Gorelick, “[it’s] the most comprehensive and universal of them all.”

While cybernetics is a framework for understanding machines, tektology is a framework for understanding everything: art, philosophy, technology, politics, biology, consciousness. Philosophical constructs like mind-body dualism are explained as the transfer of master/servant relations into the domain of abstract thought. Societies are imbued with the principles of single celled organisms.

It’s hard to think of a more ambitious project being undertaken by any individual. Bogdanov believed his work would close the gap between philosophy and science, and bring about a new age of organiza

4 thoughts on “Mad Scientist #2: Alexander Bogdanov

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  2. Ming Tang

    Dear Sir/madam,

    I am looking for the book “Essays in Tektology” by A. Bogdanov (Author)
    Publisher: Intersystems Pubns (June 1980)
    Language: English
    ISBN-10: 091410506X
    ISBN-13: 978-0914105060

    I want to buy this book for a very good friend in China who is writing a book on this subject. This book is very difficult to get. I have been searching in the internet, bookshops in Holland (where I now live) for two years. But it is not available. Who, please, who can help me (and my friend). Please send your advice or any suggestion to my email, thank you!
    (It would be so nice if I can surprise a remote friend with such a Christmas present:-)

    yours faithfully,

    Ming Tang

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