New Lease on Life for Physiological Collectivism? Reading Bogdanov in the Time of COVID

Felix Helbing, University of Pittsburgh

Consider the following a thought experiment in the spirit of McKenzie Wark’s challenge to theory for the Anthropocene: “What if we treated it not as high theory, with pretensions to legislate or interpret other genres, but as low theory, as something vulgar, common, even a bit rude—having no greater or lesser claim to speak of the world than any other?” (Wark 2019, 52). My entry into low theory juxtaposes convalescent plasma as a prophylaxis against COVID-19 with Aleksandr Bogdanov’s 1920s blood transfusion experiments. Bogdanov sought to overcome the “limitations of individuality” (Bogdanov 2018, 211) in the most literal sense of transcending the borders imposed upon consciousness by individual material embodiment. He envisioned a unity that extended into the body itself, joining people in a comradely collective that functioned for the freedom and benefit of all its denizens. Calls for the investigation of convalescent plasma as a treatment of and prophylaxis against COVID-19 echo this early twentieth-century desire for a community that works for the common good. What surprising connections might there be between these phenomena?

The use of convalescent plasma as treatment against infection can be traced back to 1890, when von Behring and Shibasaburo used it as a treatment for diphtheria (Marano 2015, 153). Since then, it has been employed as a treatment and prophylaxis for various viral and bacterial illnesses, from the 1918 influenza pandemic to MERS as recently as 2012 (Bloch 4). There is over a century of evidence testifying to the effectiveness of convalescent plasma as a protective tool. After the proliferation of antibiotics, however, this method fell out of favor (WHO 2017, 2). Today’s preferred approach is to use “genetically engineered antibodies,” as this is more readily scalable (Healy 2020). At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and in other times of acute crisis, when development of a vaccine is a long way off, convalescent plasma therapy has been able to provide a viable stopgap measure to save the lives of those most at risk.

Convalescent plasma is, simply put, “plasma collected from individuals, following resolution of infection and development of antibodies” (Bloch 2020, 3). Its use as treatment is referred to as passive antibody therapy, wherein the immune plasma is administered to someone recently exposed to a pathogen in order to prevent infection or to treat oncoming symptoms. The consensus seems to be that the earlier a patient is treated with convalescent plasma, the better the outcomes will be. Therapy administered before day 14 yields the best results (Cunningham 2020). Given this knowledge, what exactly is plasma doing once inside the patient?
It is useful against bacterial and viral infection because of its antibodies. There are, however, different types of antibodies, not all of which are equally useful in treating or immunizing others. A 2017 report by the WHO Blood Regulators Network stated that “the potential efficacy of convalescent plasma or serum will depend on the extent to which antibodies generated during the recovery of the donor would directly neutralize a virus or otherwise mediate an effective immune response” (WHO 2017, 3). Antibodies can also bind to a pathogen without preventing it from replicating, and this can also assist in the prophylactic and treatment effect of passive antibody therapy (Bloch 2020, 4). The degree of immunity will depend on the composition and number of antibodies contained within the plasma, with larger amounts of neutralizing antibodies presumably leading to a longer-lasting immunity (Casadevall 2020, 1545).

In crises such as the current one, the use of convalescent plasma in passive antibody therapy would be immediately accessible and available for implementation while a vaccine remained some distance in the future. The employment of this prophylactic measure could mitigate mortality rates and provide protection to the most at-risk populations. On April 13, 2020, the FDA issued a guidance authorizing the use of convalescent plasma in treating COVID-19 patients in the form of clinical trials using IND (Investigation New Drug Application) protocols to determine the safety and efficacy of the approach against COVID-19. To date, there are few clinical studies on the efficacy of convalescent plasma as prophylaxis and treatment because it is so often employed only as an emergency measure during pandemics (Bloch 2020, 10). Roback and Guarner, in an article recently published in JAMA Network, point to the establishment of a “stockpile of frozen, pathogen-reduced plasma” collected from convalescent Ebola patients after a recent outbreak as a potential model for responding to COVID-19.
Naturally, as a Slavist with an interest in Aleksandr Bogdanov, I could not help but think of how something like this could intersect with his concept of physiological collectivism, which brings me to the second part of this discussion. Bogdanov is typically known as Lenin’s early rival for control of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, the forerunner of systems theory for his concept of Tektology, or, with Gorky and Lunacharsky, a prominent originating figure of Proletkul’t. For the moment, I will focus on Bogdanov the philosopher and Bogdanov the science fiction writer, as it is these roles that are most relevant.

Bogdanov published three major philosophical works: Empiriomonism, The Philosophy of Living Experience, and Tektology. Nikolai Krementsov describes Bogdanov’s approach to knowledge: “In Russian, the word for ‘science’ is nauka, and, like its German counterpart Wissenschaft, nauka means a systematic pursuit of knowledge in any and every possible area. So Bogdanov’s notion of science included—and was based upon—not just natural sciences but also philosophy, social sciences, and the humanities” (Krementsov 2011, 117). For Bogdanov, scientific inquiry could not be divided into a series of separate disciplines. Philosophy and empirical science formed part of the same knowledge practice in pursuit of the same goal—understanding the natural world to improve the human position within it. Bogdanov envisioned a society organized according to the “labor point of view” (Wark 2015, 23), wherein competition for survival was not an intraspecies fight amongst ourselves, but rather humanity’s collaborative project against a hostile natural world. The construction of such an organized society required that the current dominant world attitude of bourgeois individualism be overcome and buried in the past.

In Bogdanov’s view, the best opportunity for overcoming this petty individualism lay within the working class. Like many other theorists of his time, Bogdanov observed that the seeds of collectivism were already contained within the proletarian worldview. He argued it was necessary to foster this collectivist tendency in all aspects of proletarian life with the aim of establishing a new culture and everything that entails—proletarian arts, proletarian science, a society organized in service to cooperation and collective wellbeing. Bogdanov assigns huge importance to the collective—it is not simply a political concept but extends into the workers. As he wrote in 1897, in the new society “each worker will be actually on an equality with the rest as conscious elements of one sensible whole” (Bogdanov 2013, 13). The worker’s relation to society will not be like that of a bird to the flock but like that of a cell to the body. The socially organized society, to borrow his term, would function like a body whose many organs worked together.

But how does blood exchange figure into Bogdanov’s notion of the collective? In 1908, Bogdanov published his first science fiction novel, Red Star. The story is a classic utopian tale, in that an outsider visits an ideal society and observes its inhabitants. Here, earthling Leonid tours Mars with Netti, a doctor for whom he develops confusing romantic feelings. In Red Star Bogdanov introduces readers to the Martian practice of “comradely exchanges of life,” or mutual blood transfusions (Bogdanov 1984, 86). Leonid notices the Martians live an extraordinarily long time, without the horrible burden of senescence. When he asks Netti why, she informs him it is not a characteristic of the species, nor entirely a function of improved living conditions, but an effect of mutual blood exchange “whereby each individual receives from the other a number of elements which can raise his life expectancy. Such an exchange involves merely pumping the blood of one person into another and back again by means of devices which connect their respective circulatory systems... The blood of one person continues to live in the organism of the other, where it mixes with his own blood and thoroughly regenerates all his tissues” (Bogdanov 1984, 85). Leonid wonders why this sort of procedure is not performed on Earth, as blood transfusion is a known concept frequently used to treat sickness and injury. Netti says the ideology of individualism still reigns on Earth, whereas on Mars “in keeping with the nature of our entire system, our regular comradely exchanges of life extend beyond the ideological dimension into the physiological one” (Bogdanov 1984, 86). Martian collectivism is not just metaphorical—mental or political—but literally extends into the Martian body.

When, almost two decades later, Bogdanov employed the term “physiological collectivism” in relation to his experiments in mutual blood exchange he harkened back to this moment in Red Star. After his departure from Proletkul’t in 1921, he devoted himself to elaborating his theory of physiological collectivism on the basis of mutual blood exchange, performing informal experiments on himself and a close circle of associates. Even by the standards of his time, these experiments were considered unscientific and of dubious value due to their small sample sizes, lack of control groups, and so on. In 1926, however, Bogdanov was appointed director of the Soviet Union’s first Institute of Blood Transfusion, where he remained until his death due to complications from a transfusion procedure in 1928.

The value of Bogdanov’s blood transfusion work lies on the theoretical level. What does it mean for a collective to manifest “physiologically?” In a serialized piece originally published between 1921-23, Bogdanov wrote that advances in medical science and technology had made it possible for the human organism to fight against its own decline “through the joint efforts” of multiple organisms (Bogdanov 2018, 207). He referred to this later as “direct physiological conjugation” by which he meant organ and tissue transplants, like skin grafts to treat burn victims, blood transfusions to prevent death from blood loss or provide immunity to disease. For him, blood exchange and other medical interventions that borrowed from donor organisms represented a form of collaboration and cooperation among living members of a collective. In his time, these moments of physiological conjugation were one-sided and therefore not living up to the potential contained within the process. His work in mutual blood exchange between the young and old at the Institute of Blood Transfusion was, in his own words, an effort to “transgress the limitations of individuality by establishing a living accord between two previously separate individualities” (Bogdanov 2018, 211).

Could passive antibody therapy employing convalescent plasma be a new lease on life for physiological collectivism? The process does, after all, entail the literal absorption of another person’s organic material. The donor contributes to strengthen and improve the wellbeing of the recipient organism, creating a new potential donor in a chain linking everyone undergoing this process. Is this not a version of the “comradely cooperation” Bogdanov hoped would one day form the basis of society? Calls by members of the scientific and medical community for the mobilization of existing blood bank infrastructure and establishment of protocols on the use of convalescent plasma to respond to future pandemics illustrate both the need and potential for comradely cooperation in the twenty-first century. The construction of a network to connect people physically, in a manner of speaking, in a system of mutual support could be a positive development. The isolated individualism that has calcified in American society over the last several decades is showing its limitations more clearly than ever. It would be a lie to say I am optimistic this crisis will lead to change, but I find it helps, at least, to look at the past and imagine what alternative configurations might now be possible with the benefit of some hindsight.

Felix Helbing is a PhD student in Slavic Literature at the University of Pittsburgh with a background in digital advertising and video game localization. His research focuses on the interaction of technology and the working body in the writings of Aleksandr Bogdanov and Aleksei Gastev, with an eye to its contemporary relevance as the human relationship to technology again becomes a pressing concern. His additional interests include videogaming in the post-Soviet space, biohacking, and early Soviet gender politics.

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Editor's note: This blog first appeared in the June 2021 issue of NewsNet.