Aaron Winslow’s novel, Jobs of the Great Misery (2016), is available from Skeleton Man Press. 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. Russian Cosmism also illustrates the fine line between utopia and dystopia. There’s more than enough Cosmism to go around. The spiritualism inherent in this concept is strikingly balanced by its implicit connection to the mass politics of the Bolshevik Revolution. 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. Sure, Musk can colonize Mars, but we’ll all just be janitors or warehouse workers there. But terraforming the planet doesn’t sound quite as appealing when a hyper-accelerationist capitalist tech mogul like Elon Musk talks about it. Moreover, until we correct this imbalance, we doom the dead to suffer for eternity under the tyranny of the living. Cosmism, then, is the practical leveraging of fantasy and science fiction as a radical force for human struggle and liberation. 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. He’s a fascinating and influential thinker, as Russian Cosmism attests, and the volume would have benefited from including more of his writings. 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. Revolutionary. The lives of many of the Cosmists ended tragically. Svyatogor, for instance, was a longtime anarchist organizer prior to 1917. Now let’s get down to the question of how to realize personal immortality! 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. “Immortality Day” is included in Russian Cosmism. Bogdanov died of an experimental blood transfusion gone wrong. While Fedorov set the terms, later Cosmists worked out the finer details while expanding their scope. 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. Alexander Bogdanov was a Bolshevik activist who was a rival to Lenin and friend of Trotsky. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. Science fiction and fantasy weren’t, for the Cosmists, detached from practical scientific and political thought. Moreover, he wasn’t alone. Craig Venter still dream of space colonization and human immortality. 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? 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. The concept of Cosmism originated with Nikolai Fedorov, a devout Orthodox Christian and philosopher who mixed in Moscow salons with thinkers such as Tolstoy. Genre acts as a space in which the messiness of radical utopias can be truly thought through. 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. His vision of terraforming feels, if not particularly imminent, at least worth fighting for. 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. Stalin deported Svyatogor to Siberia, where he presumably perished. 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. No matter, though. Rocket scientist and astronautics pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was profoundly influenced by his friendship with Fedorov, in particular by the latter’s expansive egalitarianism. It’s important, too, that Bogdanov’s Cosmism often takes the form of science fiction. 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. This is one of nature’s antinomies. This was a moment in which any and all ideas were possible, and the Cosmists played a significant role in creating this new world. It seeks not just the preservation of life as we know it, but the fundamental transformation of it. Svyatogor, as both a writer and a revolutionary, advocated for full-throttle luxury space communism, and he wanted it right this very second. 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. The story displays both a wild sense of utopia as well as an understanding of the dialectical limits of any such utopia. 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. Fedorov’s project reassesses the breadth and potential of humanity by delinking us from the determinations of biology, nature, and history. Radical. 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. 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. Rather, dreams and all their ilk (fantasy, literature, language) are a zone of unsurrender. In this struggle, we have to be able to inhabit a lifeworld that contains contradictions, impure desires, and shades of gray. 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. And, in this sense, the fantastic nature of Cosmism is its most important aspect. 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. Fride is an immortal space communist who has grown weary of the infinite satisfactions of his post-scarcity utopia. Less dramatically, but no less dispiritingly, the scientist Alexander Chizhevsky was forced into professional exile for ideas that contradicted official Soviet doctrine. Bogdanov also wrote a number of science fiction stories and novels. The volume shows us that Russian, and specifically Russian communist, Cosmism is not just appealing, but important. 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. 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. 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. The critical difference lies in the fact that the Cosmists were largely animated by the ideas of collective political struggle. 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. This preservationist drive can at least partly be attributable to Fedorov’s day-job as a librarian. 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. 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. 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.