A New Cosmist Moment

Pikabu.ru/"Conquest of Space," Chelyabinsk Polytechnic Institute

When the detonation of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow brought down its onion cupolas into a cloud of dust and dirt, it took a year for the Bolsheviks to remove all the debris. Once that was finally done, a steel frame sprang from the cleared soil. It was intended for the Palace of the Soviets, a concrete wedding cake-like structure planned to be the tallest building in the world at 1,365 feet, crowned with a 300-foot statue of a saluting Lenin.

It was never completed due to the beginning of the Second World War and its steel was salvaged for the war effort instead. But at the time, the demolition of the cathedral was only one instance of how the overturning of an old order was transforming Moscow’s cityscape.

It’s said that in the Moscow of 1935, it was impossible to find a contemporary map of the city. Ducking your head into a bookstore or bus station, you could find maps up to 1924. But every year since then so many new streets had been added, so many streets renamed, and so many old buildings destroyed and replaced, that there was no point in producing a new one. There was only a map of what the city was to look like in the year 1945 when the “General Reconstruction Plan” would finally be complete. Until then, Moscow was undergoing a frenetic metamorphosis of its urban fabric. As Trotsky had put it, “The revolution has cut time in half.” Other Bolsheviks like Yakov Sverdlov often spoke of the revolution as ushering in a “life in which people are fused into a single whole not only physically, but also spiritually.”

All this was merely the architectural complement of Russia’s radical transformation. A larger revolution in ideas around human nature had been underway for decades before the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution and had been fully unleashed by its arrival. This early Soviet period that transformed Moscow also spawned some of the first attempts at applied transhumanism.

Every few months throughout the 1930s, newspaper headlines announced that the secrets of immortality had been revealed and the creation of an elixir of life was imminent. One prominent Bolshevik, a certain Alexander Bogdanov, championed blood transfusions from the young as a source of eternal youth, so an entire commission was set up for the express purpose of supplying the Bolshevik old guard with new blood. The Soviet Academy of Sciences, meanwhile, authorized an expedition to West Africa that would investigate the feasibility of human-ape hybridization, “in the interests of science and the propagation of a natural-historical worldview among the masses.”

The state promoted news of electrification and workers blasting through coal-mining records, and downplayed the errant hungry years that regrettably but naturally accompanied the construction of heaven on Earth. So it was easy for a suggestible observer to believe that, in the Soviet Union, the natural limitations of man were being surpassed everywhere one looked, and that as man gained mastery over the natural elements, the cosmic domain itself was about to open up to revolutionary progress.

Fans of the rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky created the Society for the Study of Interplanetary Communications in 1924, capitalizing on a recent space craze—between 1923 and 1932, more than two dozen monographs on spaceflight were published in the USSR, versus just two in the U.S. over the same period. Meanwhile, the authors of the “Biocosmist Manifesto” called for not just the privilege but the “right to exist (immortality, resurrection, rejuvenation) and the freedom to move in cosmic space.” To some, after the revolution everything and anything seemed possible.

But one of the most important thinkers whose work had catalyzed this craze, Nikolai Fyodorivich Fyodorov, had died in 1903, long before its beginning. Although his philosophical work informed many of these scientific projects, he was not a communist, nor a socialist. Those seeking out Fyodorov met a demure, devout librarian in Moscow’s Rumyantsev library, just a ten-minute walk from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. According to visiting admirers like Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Vladimir Solovyov, he behaved like a saint. Fyodorov eschewed his aristocratic background to live as a celibate ascetic and was so humble that he published none of his works while he was alive, despite his word-of-mouth fame.

But very little of Fyodorov’s philosophy resembled traditional Christianity. His thought came to form the core of something that was later called “Cosmism,” a catch-all term to define a period in which spiritually-infused materialist thinkers grappled with how they could reconcile technological progress with human destiny. Because of his powerful influence on the intellectual life of his time, modern ecology, aeronautics, and systems theory all owe something to Fyodorov.

Today, standing on the precipice of a prophesied revolution in materials science, artificial intelligence, and biotechnology, we too are living in a Cosmist moment. Such technologies often come along with apparently visionary ideologies attached. But their utopian promises either fizzle out or get appropriated by the more powerful and established ideological structures they exist within. In this sense, the current ideologies that advocate a revolution in human nature through technological acceleration run the scripts of early Soviet ghostware, imprinted with Cosmist thought. Likewise, they are on track to share the same fate as Fyodorov and the cathedral he worked nearby.

The technologies of the future do not always pan out the way we would like or imagine them to. The cultural momentum and even material possibility they generate are reappropriated by those with both vision and power.

Remember the Ancestors

Fyodorov’s work comes down to us mainly in the form of the Philosophy of the Common Task, a posthumous collection of manuscripts he rarely shared outside his private correspondence. With its subject matter ranging from the demilitarization of the Earth to the colonization of the solar system, human asexual reproduction, and physical resurrection, he was self-conscious of coming off like a crank and felt his work would be more useful to readers of the future than the present. Even though it led him to refrain from public life, he was a farsighted observer of the here and now.

Born in 1829, Fyodorov lived through the entirety of the electric nineteenth century. Railroads, telephone wires, lightbulbs, and steel-beamed bridges sprang up all around him. As the technical achievements of modernity reached greater and greater heights, the question of what it all meant for the destiny of mankind came to the fore. Mankind’s tools were increasing their destructive and salvific power simultaneously, leaving the human being himself to the wayside.

Fyodorov noted, though, that centuries ago Copernicus had already discerned that Earth was not the center of the universe. The librarian believed, in fact, that the rest of the universe—down to its most elementary particles—was vitally alive, but also that man was uniquely situated as the most developed, self-reflective form of life. That gave human beings the ability to feel great grief over the suffering of both human and non-human lifeforms, and over the severing of man’s connection with the land. Fyodorov was also concerned with the fading of historical memory—even the stories and experiences of our ancestors slipped through our fingers like sand.

Although that same self-reflective nature caused man great suffering, it equipped him to alleviate it and even to elevate the elementary particles of the universe themselves to a higher state of consciousness. This entailed the uplifting of all non-sentient life to his own level, the transcendence of his own current limited state, and a rejection of nature as such: “[A]s soon as the pride in the exploits of the fathers is replaced by grief over their death, we will begin to perceive the Earth as a graveyard and nature as a death-bearing force.”

Liberating this graveyard would require the literal raising of the dead. For Fyodorov, “Our task is to make nature, the forces of nature, into an instrument of universal resuscitation and to become a union of immortal beings.” Achieving this would entail studying the remains of the dead and their escaped particulate matter in outer space, which would also have to be retrieved in order to reconstitute the whole organism.

Only when all men come to participate in knowledge will pure science…cease to be indifferent to this distorted attitude of the conscious being to the uncon­scious force. Then applied science will be aimed at transform­ing instruments of destruction into means of regulating the blind death-bearing force.

His philosophy assigned what is literally a common task, a total mobilization of society that would execute on a theo-scientific vision. It required the demilitarization of the world’s armies, but not their disbandment. Instead, the scale of mobilization of modern militaries could be usefully redirected to weather regulation, terraforming, and massive industrial projects. Just like the way the Soviets would later adopt labor mobilization and militaristic terminology like “shock workers” for the purposes of achieving five-year plans, Fyodorov described the common task in terms of galactic Lebensraum:

[The] conquest of the Path to Space is an absolute imperative, imposed on us as a duty in preparation for the Resurrection. We must take possession of new regions of Space because there is not enough space on Earth to allow the co-existence of all the resurrected generations.

The mastery over nature as an imperative for human liberation and the call for “a radical technical revolution bound up with a moral one” appealed to many Bolsheviks. In a commemoration for what would have been Fyodorov’s 100th birthday, the famous Bolshevik writer Maxim Gorky declared that “freedom without power over nature—that’s the same as freeing peasants without land.” But others found the concepts suspect. Trotsky perceptively concluded that:

Cosmism seems, or may seem, extremely bold, vigorous, revolutionary, and proletarian. But in reality, Cosmism contains the suggestion of very nearly deserting the complex and difficult problems…on Earth so as to escape into the interstellar spheres. In this way Cosmism turns out quite suddenly to be akin to mysticism…[and may] lead some to the most subtle of matters, namely the Holy Ghost.

And lead to the Holy Ghost it did. Although Fyodorov was devout, he saw Christianity as “not simply a doctrine of redemption, but the very task of redemption.” To him, “General resurrection, immanent resuscitation carried out with all the heart, thought and actions—that is, by all the power and abilities—of all the sons of man, is the implementation of the precept of Christ, Son of God and also Son of Man.” Cosmism did not derive its utopian visions from the possibilities of new technology, but began with a vision—immortality and the resurrection of the dead—and asked what technology would be necessary for this common task.

To a modern reader, this could all seem quite far-fetched. Indeed, that was also the case for many of his contemporaries. But for some, it was the stimulus for incredible works of genius—including the godfather of spaceflight, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

Cosmism Came First

When Yuri Gagarin became the first man to go to space, the Soviet media reported that upon reaching orbit he “saw no God up here.” But this quip actually originated from the Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev; Gagarin himself was a baptized Christian, and once publicly suggested the restoration of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.

This sort of retconning was a common pattern throughout Soviet history. Recasting scientific discoveries and historical moments like these for didactic purposes was an important part of building and then vindicating state ideology. To the Politburo and Central Committee, the space project was seen as a useful aid in promoting atheism as part of the state ideology. In fact, the entire Soviet space program owes itself to a Cosmist.

We remember Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, born in 1857, for his theoretical work on thermal-shielded, gyroscope-steered, multistage rocket “trains,” a topic on which he first published in 1903, and for the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation, which describes the way an object can move using rocket thrust. However, his work on rocketry was only one-eighth of his total research output. He was greatly influenced by Fyodorov, who “took the place of university professors” during his childhood when he studied at the Rumyantsev library. The great bulk of Tsiolkovsky’s research was actually dedicated to two things—the design of metal dirigibles and speculative writings on the cosmic will of the universe:

Death is one of the illusions of the weak human mind. Death does not exist…The universe is constructed in such a way that not only [it] itself is immortal, but also all of its parts, in the form of living, blessed beings. There is no beginning and no end to the universe, and thus no beginning and no end to life and to bliss.

To Tsiolkovsky, the universe tended toward more complex assemblages of atoms and molecules over time. They progressively possessed a greater capacity for self-awareness, a greater capacity for suffering, and a greater capability to alleviate it. By virtue of being the most developed assemblage, mankind was tasked with “liberating” the material universe by expanding into every one of its confines and developing its interconnectivity.

It was from the Philosophy of the Common Task that Tsiolkovsky got this idea. It was also from there he would learn to speculate on the feasibility and economic viability of asteroid mining, the recapturing of particles that escaped Earth’s atmosphere, and their reimplementation into the physically resurrected dead of all human history—all of whom were slated for immortality. Colonization of other planets was, as for Fyodorov, simply a way to create a living space for them.

The immortal humanity of the future would itself be upgraded, and Cosmists prefigured many themes from later transhumanist ideology. Fyodorov was celibate his entire life and dreamt of non-sexual reproduction—in his lifetime, he would have to settle for intellectual influence. Even though Tsiolkovsky had seven children, he too had a contempt for human sexuality and determined that in the future, humanity would replicate the asexual reproductive technology supposedly used by Mary to birth Christ. In fact, the Cosmists viewed all the miracles described in the Bible as not unexplainable miracles but debuts of sophisticated, reproducible technologies now lost to time.

While most in the orbit of Cosmist thought did not subscribe to its most radical theological ideas, its esoteric yet all-encompassing vision was enough to inspire many individual scientists and artists. Scientists and engineers influenced by Cosmist thought played leading roles in Soviet research. Ivan Yefremov created a new subfield of paleontology, Sergei Korolev and Valentin Glushko designed satellites and rocket engines for the Soviet space program, and Leonid Krasin directed the preservation of Lenin’s body in anticipation of his revival.

In this moment of Cosmist ascendancy, it seemed like their visions of transforming human life into new forms were gaining ground across the world. The Cosmist geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky directly influenced the famous French Jesuit thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Together, they developed the concept of the noosphere, a plane of collective consciousness emerging from organic life once it begins to contemplate itself, finally culminating in a higher order of mind.

But just as the Cosmist project appeared to reach newfound heights of influence, it found itself in the process of dissolution. The most useful aspects of Cosmism were incorporated into the state ideology of the Soviet space program even as they were stripped of their original justifications.

Sergei Korolev, the designer of the Sputnik satellite, was himself a great fan of both Fyodorov and Tsiolkovsky—he even wrote an introduction to a published collection of Tsiolkovsky’s work. But the ideological inspiration he brought to the Soviet space project operated within the state-approved paradigm of Soviet science, which demanded “the propagation of a natural-historical worldview among the masses” rather than resurrection and immortality. Tsiolkovsky may have become influential in his old age but his most fundamental goals died with him. Cosmism enjoyed an ephemeral and semi-prestigious influence but no prominent exponent thereafter was motivated by its core theological and material vision.

Structurally, the problem was that Cosmism, which never amounted to more than its thinkers, had neither the mechanisms nor even the ideological commitment to its own implementation. Like Cosmism, the ideology of communism had a life that preceded its entrenchment in the Soviet state. But what made communism different was its explicit bid for political power and the creation of organizational structures like the Leninist mass party, which was tasked with achieving that goal and enforcing party discipline along the way.

This combination of globally-scoped ideology and strategic institution-building made communism a uniquely successful historical project in a way that Cosmism, as a philosophical movement, could not be. Fyodorov put off his writings for readers of the future, and there never was a “Cosmist International.” Karl Marx, on the other hand, was laying the institutional groundwork for the Communist Party at the same time as he was writing screeds in a Brussels garret in 1848.

This meant that the Cosmist project had no self-defense mechanisms against its own appropriation for Soviet political goals. It was not unique in this way: those prophets who undertake the creation of new technological and philosophical paradigms may get to enjoy fame and even paid positions for their work if they are fortunate, but they are usually not driven by material incentives. Tsiolkovsky was famously irascible and Fyodorov was reluctant to get published at all, even shying away from the salons and admiration of famous intellectuals to focus instead on his library and theorizing the retrieval of past human beings like books. This meant that much of their influence was posthumous and passed through a Soviet filter.

The bastardization of Cosmism into atheist Soviet ideology makes clear that the most successful ideological projects must have both a radical impetus and a viable route for political implementation. Ideologies that lack the latter become vulnerable to recuperation into existing power structures. The ideologies that govern history are implemented by states, not the visionaries who conceive them.

Eventually, Tsiolkovsky’s contributions to the study of dirigibles were honored and rewarded by the Soviet government, which was engaged in the “airship race” of the 1930s. Before that, he had been living off five loaves of bread a month until a representative of his hometown authored an urgent report to the Soviet Academy of Sciences advocating a pension for him. Yet the ideas that inspired this research were not propagated beyond those with an intellectual bent toward esoteric ideology. Although we live in a world with the technological capabilities envisioned by Cosmists, we do not live in a universe according to Cosmism.

Our Cosmist Moment?

The Cosmists were responding to a world that was beginning to undergo one collective experience, as communication and transportation technologies seemed on the way to connecting all advanced societies into a single noosphere. This gathering of the nations meant that the destiny of mankind could be conceptualized in collective terms. Even if the Cosmists and other Soviets of the 1920s and ‘30s over-indexed on technology’s ability to make a resurrected humanity immortal, they were looking at their material conditions and speculating on what could be achieved one or five hundred years into the future.

The Cosmist experience casts a new light on the recent nexus of technological breakthroughs. Today, the very form of the human being is challenged by the possibility of human modification on a genetic or biochemical level and the rise of artificial intelligence that surpasses human intellectual capabilities. Embryonic selection for height and intelligence is already possible, and in some corners already practiced, although explicit advocacy of these technologies remains on the fringe.

While AI is more recent, there are already rumblings of a new ideology that seeks to prioritize its full development as a cure for human ills and material stagnation, possibly replacing the human race in the process. In the minds of many speculators, these technologies travel together as a group, and their arrival necessitates the disappearance of human agency and sometimes even human life from the world.

Despite the frequent pose of being purely empirical claims, these speculations are often laundered through ideologies like transhumanism that have their own ready ideas of what the human or posthuman form should become. One relevant question, then, is what visions actually motivate current technological advances, even in hidden or non-obvious ways. Another is whether these ideologies can survive on their own merits at all, or whether they will face appropriation of their best ideas into entirely new contexts.

Paradigm breakthroughs always begin with calls to great, even fantastical endeavors—to “storm the heavens,” as Fyodorov once implored his followers to do. Even if Cosmism’s attempts at articulating a human project were kooky in certain respects, a great deal of tangible scientific progress emerged from its admirers. New, totalizing theories of human purpose are likely yet to emerge. Some will inspire their own waves of material experimentation and invention. But to the degree that they are reliant on more hegemonic patrons, they will likely share the fate of the Cosmists before them.

Alexander Gelland is the Deputy Editor of Palladium Magazine. You can follow him @alexgelland.