IEET > Vision > Bioculture > Affiliate Scholar > Rick Searle > Sociology > Philosophy > Technoprogressivism
Stalinism as Transhumanism
Rick Searle   Sep 25, 2015   Utopia or Dystopia  

The ever controversial Steve Fuller has recently published a number of jolting essays at the IEET,(there has been a good discussion on David Roden’s blog on the topic), yet whatever one thinks about the prospect of zombie vs transhumanist apocalypse he has managed to raise serious questions for anyone who identifies themselves with the causes of transhumanism and techno-progressivism; namely, what is the proper role, if any, of the revolutionary, modernizing state in such movements and to what degree should the movement be open to violence as a means to achieve its ends? Both questions, I will argue, can best be answered by looking at the system constructed in the Soviet Union between 1929 and 1953 under the reign of Joseph Stalin.            

Those familiar with the cast of characters in the early USSR will no doubt wonder why I chose to focus on the “conservative” Stalin rather Leon Trotsky who certainly evidenced something like proto-transhumanism with quotes such as this one in his essay Revolutionary and Socialist Art:

Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.

It was views like this one that stood as evidence for me of the common view among intellectuals sympathetic to Marxism that it was Trotsky who was the true revolutionary figure and heir of Lenin, whereas Stalin was instead a reactionary in Marxists garb who both murdered the promise latent in the Russian Revolution and constructed on the revolution’s corpse a system of totalitarian terror.

Serious historians no longer hold such views in light of evidence acquired after the opening up of Soviet archives after the USSR’s collapse in 1991. What we’ve gained as a consequence of these documents is a much more nuanced and detailed view of the three major figures of the Russian Revolution: Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin all of which in some ways looked at violence as the premier tool for crafting a new social and political order.

Take the father of the Russian Revolution- Lenin. The common understanding of Lenin in the past was to see him as a revolutionary pragmatist who engaged in widespread terror and advocated dictatorship largely as a consequence of the precarious situation of the revolution and in the atmosphere of danger and bloodshed found in the Russian civil war. In fact the historical record presented in the archives now makes clear that many of the abhorrent features of state communism in Russia once associated with Stalin in fact originated under Lenin, obscenities such as as the forerunner to the KGB, the Cheka, or the Soviet system of concentration camps- Solzhenitsyn’s gulag archipelago. Far from seeing them as temporary expedients in precarious situation of the revolution and the atmosphere of danger and bloodshed found in the Russian civil war, Lenin saw these innovations as a permanent feature of Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat”, which Lenin had reimagined as the permanent rule of a revolutionary, technocratic elite.

Trotsky comes off only a little better because he never assumed the mantle of Soviet dictator. Trotsky’s problems, however, originate from his incredible egotism when combined with his stunning political naivete. His idea was that in the 1920’s conditions were ripe to export the communist revolution globally barely grasping just how precarious the situation was for the newly victorious communist revolutionaries within even his own country. Indeed, to the extent that both domestic communist in non-Russian countries identified with Soviet communism and prematurely pushed their societies towards revolution this only ended up in empowering reactionaries and leading to the rise of fascist parties globally who would come quite close to strangling the infant of state communism while it was still in its cradle.

Then there’s Stalin who those sympathetic to communism often see as the figure who did the most to destroy its’ promise. The so-called “man of steel” is understood as a reactionary monster who replaced the idealism of the early Soviet Union with all the snakes that had infected czarist Russia’s head.

This claim too has now been upended. For what is clear is that although Stalin reoriented the USSR away from Trotsky’s dream of world revolution to focus on “socialism in one country” the state Stalin managed to create was perhaps the most radical and revolutionary the world has yet seen.

The state has always played a large role in modernization, but it was only in the types of communists regimes which Stalin was the first to envision that the state became synonymous with modernization itself.  And it wasn’t only modernization, but a kind of ever accelerating modernization that aimed to break free of the gravity of history and bring humanity to a new world inhabited by a new type of man.

It was his revolutionary impatience and desire to accelerate the pace of history that led Stalin down the path to being perhaps the most bloody tyrant the world has yet know. The collectivization of Soviet agriculture alone coming at the cost of at least 5 million deaths. What Stalin seemed to possess that his fellow revolutionaries lacked was a kind of sociopathy that left him flinch-less in the face of mass suffering, though he also became possessed by the paranoia to which tyrants are prone and towards the end of his reign killed as much out of fear as he did as a consequence of his desire to propel the USSR through history.

Here I return to Fuller who seems to have been inspired by state communism and appears to be making the case that what transhumanism needs is a revolutionary vanguard that will, violently if necessary, push society towards transformative levels of technological change. Such change will then make possible the arrival of a new form of human being.

There is a great deal of similarity here with the view of the state as presented by Zoltan Istvan in his novel The Transhumanist Wager though that work is somewhat politically schizophrenic with elements of Ayn Rand and Bolshevism at the same time, which perhaps makes sense given that the Silicon Valley culture it emerged from was largely built on government subsidies yet clings to the illusion it is the product of heroic individuals such as Steve Jobs. And of course, The Transhumanist Wager exhibits this same feature of believing violence necessary to open up the path to radical transformation.

One of the important questions we might ask is how analogous was the Russian  situation with our own? What the Soviets were trying to do was to transform their society in a way that had been technologically experienced elsewhere only under a brand new form of political regime. In other words the technological transformation – industrialization- was already understood, where the Soviets were innovative was in the political sphere. At the same time, modernization to be accomplished in the Soviet Union needed to overthrow and uproot traditional social forces that had aligned themselves against industrialization- the nobility and the clergy. A strong state was necessary to overcome powerful and intransigent classes.

None of these characteristics seem applicable the kinds of technological change taking place today. For one, the type of complete technological transformation Fuller is talking about are occurring everywhere nearly simultaneously- say the current revolutions in biotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence where no society has achieved some sort of clear breakout that a revolutionary movement is necessary to push society in the direction of replicating.

Nor does the question of technological transformation break clearly along class or even religious lines in a world where the right to left political spectrum remains very much intact. It is highly unlikely that a technological movement on the right will emerge that can remain viable while jettisoning those adhering to more traditional religious notions.

Likewise, it is improbable that any left wing technological movement would abandon its commitment to the UN Declaration and the world’s poor. In thinking otherwise I believe Fuller is repeating Trotsky’s mistake- naively believing in political forces and realignments about to surface that simply aren’t there. (The same applies to Zoltan Istvan’s efforts.)

Yet by far the worst mistake Fuller makes is in embracing the Stalinist idea that acceleration needs to be politicized and that violence is a useful tool in achieving this acceleration. The danger here is not that justifying violence in the pursuit of transhumanist ends is likely to result in widespread collective violence in the name of such goals, but that it might start to attract sadists and kooks whose random acts of violence “in the name of transhumanism” put the otherwise humane goals of the movement at risk of social backlash.

At the same time Fuller is repeating the grave error of Stalinism which is to conflate power and the state with the process of technological transformation. The state is many and sometimes contradictory things with one of its’ roles indeed to modernize society. Yet at the same time the state is tasked with protecting us from that very same modernization by preventing us from being treated as mere parts in a machine rather than as individuals and citizens.

Fuller also repeats the error of the Stalinist state when it comes to the role and efficacy of violence in the political sphere for the proper role of violence is not as a creative force that is able to establish something new, but as a means of resistance and protection for those already bound together in some mutual alliance.

Still, we might want to take seriously the possibility that Fuller has tapped into a longer term trend in which the ways technology is developing is opening up the possibility of the reappearance of the Stalinist state, but that’s a subject that will have to await for another time.

Rick Searle, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, is a writer and educator living the very non-technological Amish country of central Pennsylvania along with his two young daughters. He is an adjunct professor of political science and history for Delaware Valley College and works for the PA Distance Learning Project.



COMMENTS

Re “There is a great deal of similarity here with the view of the state as presented by Zoltan Istvan in his novel The Transhumanist Wager…”

Very well said! Despite claims that Jethro Knights is “libertarian,” his ways are not those of John Galt, but those of Stalin.

Having said that, I am ready to concede that Stalin may have been excessively demonized by the Western press and history books (history is written by partisans, like everything else). I guess he was also moved by good intentions (like Jethro).

In his book on the Russian Cosmists, George Young reports that according to some Russian thinkers “Soviet rule meant the adoption ofFedorov’s ‘common task’”
http://turingchurch.com/2014/08/26/the-marxist-and-christian-roots-of-transhumanism/

Thanks Giulio, I always admire you willingness to own up to transhumanism’s underlying assumptions.

Rick, should I like your comment or shouldn’t I? wink wink

I have a real love-hate relationship with Stalin. I find him to be an incredibly demonized character by the West, as was instigated by Khruschev. A lot of it also came as a result of a complete misunderstanding as to how the Soviet govt. operated and what Stalin’s role was in everything, ignoring the Politburo’s role in governance almost completely.

If you ever find the time, I’d highly recommend two books to check out, which are great reads and does a really good job at critically analyzing the Stalin-era of the Soviet Union, without it being tainted by either Western or Soviet propaganda. Awesome scholarly work by a single author known as Grover Furr:

‘Khrushchev Lied’ by Grover Furr
&
‘The Murder of Sergei Kirov: History, Scholarship and the Anti-Stalin Paradigm’ by Grover Furr

“A lot of early people within the Bolshevik party were followers of Fyodorov. In the beginning, there was quite a close connection between the two ideological groups; there was even a party of Cosmo-immortalists, who had three or four seats within the first Soviet Congress. They tried to pass a legislation - and they succeeded - about freedom of interstellar travel and the right to immortality.”

https://news.artnet.com/people/interivew-anton-vidokle-cosmism-310537

@B.J:

I’ll certainly pick up Furr’s work, thanks for the recommendation.

I should try to clarify my meaning, though. I wasn’t attempting to make the case that Stalin was in any way a good example for transhumanists to follow it was that Stalin was a monster not in the Vlad the Implaer vein, but something more like Robespierre or ISIS acting on behalf very sincerely held beliefs not cynically or out of some demonic sort of blood lust.

I do worry that technology is opening up possibilities for the reappearance of the totalitarian state that we should try to look out for. On the positive side there’s also the possibility that technology is making it possible at last to enter Marx’s realm of freedom and might permit the resurrection of some of the sort of centralized planning we saw under state communism.

@Rick:

I definitely understand your intent of the article. Of which I’d emphasize that I have a love/hate relationship with Stalin.

As Giulio notes, there’s a clear, direct connection between the Bolsheviks and Russian Cosmists. Unfortunately, in the later years of the Soviet Union, the Cosmists were gradually alleviated out of any say or significance within the government. A lot of it occurred under Stalin’s leadership, whom the Politburo had agreeably partaken in tandem.

With that, Stalin and the Soviet leadership of that time certainly doesn’t have my support. They restricted a powerful opportunity for the future, simply due to ideological bias and paranoia (albeit paranoia rightfully had due to factions within the Soviet govt. that tried overthrowing Stalin’s leadership).

@B.J:

Thanks: looks like we’re all on the same page then.

Perhaps this isn’t the proper forum, but just curious as to your view of Accelerationist Marxism? It’s only recently come across my radar.

@Rick:

Never heard of it until now. Looked it up and it definitely makes sense from a modern-day Marxist understanding of capitalism. As a Marxist myself, under the Transhumanist ideology of Technoprogressivism, the social theory of Acccelerationism appears to be in full swing today.

One of my favorite Marxist thinkers of the 20th century was Deng Xiaoping. When Mao Zedong passed away, he left China in complete disarray due to his failed attempt of a Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping saw an opportunity of modernizing China into the modern age, using capitalism to his advantage to, eventually, accelerate the country towards socialism. He strongly emphasized on building up the productive forces of society (calling it capitalism under socialist leadership), all while noting that science and technology must be at the forefront of these productive forces.

Even Mao, himself, saw a future that would radically transform society and, equally, humankind itself, stating:

“The life of dialectics is the continuous movement toward opposites. Mankind will also finally meet its doom. When the theologians talk about doomsday, they are pessimistic and terrify people. We say the end of mankind is something which will produce something more advanced than mankind. Mankind is still in its infancy.”

— Mao Zedong, “Talk On Questions Of Philosophy”

Only Mao wasn’t thinking close to home. Deng saw the real potential of technology to help accelerate capitalism to the extent of which it matures to the point of needing to be replaced by a new socio-economic system, similar to how capitalism replaced feudalism. It’s no coincidence that China is currently pushing forward advanced scientific and technological innovation throughout their society before the West, from drone shipping, to A.I. research, to human genome editing.

In the understanding of Accelerationism, I’d consider myself to be a “left-accelerationist” insofar that I believe the acceleration of technological change will result in the maturing of capitalism to the point of needing to be replaced by something radically different from its original incarnation.

@Giulio:

You are absolutely right. Fedorov’s philosophy was the prime source of inspiration for bolsheviks in the beginning. I am russian myself and we have rumors here that Lenin was mummyfied for the purpose of ressurecting him in the far future. The only problem with Fedorov is that he was orthodox christian and a little bit too spiritual for communists as long as they were fighting with church.

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