Revolutions and Resurrections: A Workshop on Russian and Soviet Culture (The New School, November 9th)

Revolutions and Resurrections: A Workshop on Russian and Soviet Culture

 The New School for Social Research,
80 5th avenue Room G529
November 9th, 2012

With the cold war over, and the archives fitfully opening, the extraordinary richness of Soviet era philosophy and culture is slowly coming to light. In this workshop, we focus on ‘Lenin’ rival’, Alexander Bogdanov, a founding figure in Soviet science fiction and a highly original Marxist thinker. Boddanov had a select but faithful following after 1917 in Soviet culture. His influence was erased in the Stalin era. Surprisingly, he was not rehabilitated by the new left in the west.

Our workshop will examine what the archive can tell us about the context of his work in the 1920s, the evolution of his philosophical framework before and after 1917, and the relevance today of his systems theory approach to both the natural sciences, social sciences and culture. This workshop is the first of what we hope will be an ongoing dialogue on Russian and Soviet philosophy culture and its western analogues at the New School.

Inessa Medzhibovskaya (The New School for Social Research)
Concepts and Theories of Resurrection in the Bolshevik-Marxist Aesthetics.
This presentation will address key elements of Bogdanov’s thought considered in direct exchanges and in imagined dialogues with Russian religious and Marxist philosophers, critics and ideologues of his era.
Evgeni V. Pavlov (Metropolitan State University of Denver)
Toward Cultural Liberation of Humanity:
Alexander Bogdanov’s Vision of the Future Proletarian Revolution.
Alexander Bogdanov’s influence in the matters surrounding the notions of “proletarian culture” and “cultural revolution” is indubitable. However, the specifics of his proposals, both in his early pre-1917 political activity and his later post-1917 cultural and scientific work, are still not fully explained and made available to the English-speaking educated public. The talk will trace the evolution of Bogdanov’s earlier views on the matter of political, economic and cultural revolution to the later reformulations of the various aspect of the future proletarian revolution in terms of universal organizational science.
McKenzie Wark (The New School for Social Research)
“And worsened the climate for decades.” Bogdanov, systems theory,
critical theory and climate change.
What strikes the contemporary (nonspecialist) reader of Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star and Essays in Tektology is that in both these texts that wayward Marxist writes about climate change, and gets the scientific principles more or less right. This rather strange surface feature of his writings led me to wonder whether it might be possible to revive a road not taken in 20th century critical theory one that passes through Bogdanov’s Empiriomonism and Tektology, to addressing this most pressing issue of our time. Bogdanov’s work is of considerable interest in reconstructing the intellectual history of twentieth century Russian and Soviet life, but in this presentation I want to explore his relevance for our times.

Culture of the Future: The Proletkult Movement in Revolutionary Russia (by Lynn Mally) – Online

It appears that Mally’s classic study of Proletkult is available online now here. Published in 1990 (so researched during the Soviet Union) it remains an important study of this understudied phenomenon of the Russian revolutionary experience. With more attention given to Bogdanov recently, I hope that more English-language literature on “proletarian culture” appears soon.

Here is the excerpt from the Introduction:

In October 1919 Petrograd, home of the Russian Revolution, was a devastated city. Severe food shortages had prompted the exodus of large parts of the population. To make a difficult situation even worse, the White Army general N. N. Iudenich began an assault on the city, bringing his armies almost to the suburbs. Yet this emergency did not stop a respected theater director from holding a lecture series on the history of art in an organization called the Proletkult, even though the audience changed constantly because of military mobilizations. At the same time, the Proletkult theater was preparing a performance for the second anniversary of the revolution, a play written by a Red Army soldier who had helped to storm the Winter Palace.

This dramatic mix of political insecurity, physical privation, and cultural creation was not unusual in revolutionary Russia. Similar episodes can easily be found in contemporary journals and newspapers and in the memoirs of cultural activists. They illustrate quite graphically that the proponents of revolution were not willing to limit their goals to the establishment of a new political and economic order. They hoped to create a new cultural order as well.

Some Things Never Change: Bogdanov

From Alexander Bogdanov’s Faith and Science (a long response to Lenin’s Materialism and Empiriocriticism):

Section X:

If we take into consideration that the larger part of Lenin’s book, about two thirds, is dedicated precisely to the accusations of idealism directed against “Machists” and Lenin provides an infinite amount of citations from the works of “Machists” themselves and from the works of philosophers who do or do not sympathize with them, then in addition to the psychological puzzle – how our author could come up with his polemics while in essence expressing the same point of view – there is also a logical puzzle: how this polemics could be formally combined in his head with his own views. The key to the solution of the first puzzle is already available to us: it is religious thinking, solid in its verbal expression but vague in its concepts. The second puzzle can be explained by the extremely peculiar philosophical-critical method that is systematically used by our author, the one I would call, choosing the softest expression, the method of the “substitution of concepts.”

It is a very simple method. “Machists” reduce all reality to “elements of experience.” What are these “elements”? Colors, forms, tones, smells, touch and so on. But Hume thought that all these colors and tones are sensations! Therefore, “elements” are the same as sensations. But Berkeley considered these same colors, forms and so on to be ideas! Therefore, sensations are the same as “ideas”! So, “elements” are ideas, and “Machism” is the purest form of idealism, i.e. “fideism,” “obscurantism” and so on.

Mach and empiriocritics understand experience realistically: experience is things and images, physical and mental complexes. Elements are the same in both cases; in some complexes they are elements of things, in others, elements of images or sensations. The elements of things (or of “environment”) are colors, forms, rigidity, softness and so on, taken as independent of an individual, in objective connection – in a complex of a “rose petal” the color red is connected to the softness, the oval shape, the certain smell and so on objectively, i.e. completely independently from whether “I” look at it or not, whether “I” can distinguish between colors or not and so on. In the complex “perception of petal” the red color is present, but if “I” close my eyes, it changes to something different, if “I” am colorblind, it is accompanied by the sensation of “softness” only if while touching it I am also looking at it; here the red color, the softness or the smell are my sensations.

Hume, Kantians and Plekhanov understand experience individualistically-psychologically: experience consists of “my” mental images, and nothing else. “My” here means that we cannot speak of any independent connection between the elements, that this connection is always subjective, and all the component parts of experience are always only “sensations,” only individual “my” sensations. “It is ridiculous,” writes, for example, Plekhanov, “to ask what color rose has when no one is looking at it, what smell is has when no one is smelling it…” (“Materialismus militans”, Second Letter). Here the rose has no color and no smell because no “subject” is “sensing” them.

And finally Berkeley understands experience idealistically, and therefore all the component parts of experience are conceived by him as elementary “ideas.”

In other words, since these are different understandings of experience, naturally, they produce different concepts of what experiences consists of.

Lenin’s conclusion: we can use these different concepts interchangeably!