At the Los Angeles Review of Books, novelist Aaron Winslow reviews Russian Cosmism, a collection of philosophical, scientific, and utopian texts edited by Boris Groys and copublished by MIT Press and e-flux. It features historical pieces by some of the key figures of Russian Cosmism—such as Nikolai Fedorov, Alexander Bogdanov, and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky—alongside contemporary reflections on the legacy and continuing relevance of this crucial and highly original intellectual and cultural current. In his review, Winslow notes that, by today’s standards, the Cosmists were wildly impractical utopians, imagining in their writings a future of immortality and freedom from all human limitations. But Winslow suggests that this kind of ambitious utopian thinking—this vision of “full-throttle luxury space communism”—is precisely what we need today. Here’s an exceprt:
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.
Image via the NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia.