What can we learn from a forgotten case study of civilizational science from a country that no longer exists? When philosopher Radovan Richta published Civilization at the Crossroads in 1966, it was a popular sensation in Czechoslovakia, and was translated into eleven languages over the next decade. This collective work, compiling the writings of more than sixty researchers led by Richta, was a call for not just a citizen science but a civilizational science that proceeded from the engagement of a whole society. Their study was representative of how Czechoslovak intellectuals, on the verge of social revolution, sounded out incisive questions about the future of science and society in public. They demonstrated the conviction that automation could be Marxist without being Soviet, and could be committed to collectivist and individualist self-awareness at the same time. So what might Civilization at the Crossroads have to teach us, fifty years after the Prague Spring?
Backlit by Marxist insights, the work of Richta and his collective team at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences in the 1960s represents a valuable compendium of insights into the historical dynamics, technological conditions, ecological imagination, and social psychology of the Czechoslovak intellectuals at the time, as well as an insight into contemporary reflections on the value of work. Richta popularized the phrase “scientific-technical revolution,” which was instituted as official party doctrine at the Thirteenth Congress of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1966—as well as “socialism with a human face,” which was a rallying cry of the Prague Spring two years later. The scientific-technical revolution called for a major transformation in the relationship between nature and industrial society, and a redefinition of labor’s very meaning. Originally formulated by the Marxist J. D. Bernal in 1954, Richta took it up as a way to move beyond the Marxist-Leninist tradition of labor in the Soviet bloc during the 1960s, while moving toward a new articulation of socialist society—what we might call a “post-work society” in today’s parlance.
Unlike contemporary Marxian criticisms of platform capitalism, such as Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ post-work manifesto, Inventing the Future, Richta did not reject the term “work” so much as fill it with new content. In Civilization at the Crossroads, work means “the practical self-formation of man”—but that self-formation would rise above the monotony of manual labor and become a means for personal self-awareness and collective social progress, thanks to the scientific-technical revolution. In a way that anticipated contemporary theorists, such as Reza Negarestani with The Labor of the Inhuman and Peter Wolfendale with his interest in rationalist inhumanism, Richta and his colleagues spoke of controlled humanism. Human lives are changed or made inhuman (for better or worse), by our dependence on the tools of production which scientists originally make. Cybernetics brings potential transformation of this relation since modern society can be conceived as rationally organizable and capable of understanding, managing, automating, and separating us from those conditions of production that negatively affect us. In short, a society can save itself with a socialist system that reinvents conditions of being human.
Richta’s basic thesis of socialist automation was optimistic: he assumed that the dawn of automation would free human labor to take on the increasingly cognitive tasks of science, research, and education. People would spend more time on play and self-development, and the national political economy would be organized through cybernetic systems that would monitor, anticipate, and optimize across the real-time needs of the society and its material surpluses and shortages. Not coincidentally, Prague was a historic site for automation, supporting a robust industry in puppets, marionettes, and motion picture animation. The Czech capital’s famous automation was the inspiration for Karel Čapek’s 1920 play, Rossum’s Universal Robots, which originated the term “robot,” derived from the Czech word for labor: robota.
Nevertheless, there is a long and storied tradition of Marxist thinkers wringing their hands about the deleterious effects of the industrialization and Taylorization of human labor. Richta himself claims in Civilization at the Crossroads that “industrial labor turned the workplace into a sphere of bare necessity”—it required people to adapt to the conditions of the economy and not the other way around. Sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen claimed in The Theory of Business Enterprise that this machine process renders the mind more machinelike: what it “inculcates in the habits of life and of thought of the workman, is regularity of sequence and mechanical precision; and the intellectual outcome is a habitual resort to terms of measurable cause and effect.”
In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels famously imagined communism as the antithesis to a society of automated personas. In the capitalist distribution of labor, one’s position as a laborer is determined by the power relationships between the working class and those who control the means of production, they argued, so that “each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape…if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood.” The structure of these relationships is deeply impersonal—even inhuman—permitting humans to take on character masks, or dramatis personae, that reduce their humanity to their role in the economy as laborers or owners of the means of production. On the other hand, Marx and Engels proposed that in communism, the work you did would emancipate you to form your own identity by other means, without permanent and forced fixation to one identity or one type of labor.
For Richta and his team, the collective future of cognitive socialism would be more individual, not less. Rejecting the reductive Cold War dichotomy between socialist collectivity and liberal individualism, they argued for a scientific-technical revolution that would usher in a celebration of diverse lifestyles and a renewing of individual freedoms. In other words, in order to actively reverse the increasingly oppressive machine-human relationship, and in order to diversify the homogenization and standardization of life, they insisted on an irreducibly humanist approach to the evolution of automatic industry. Richta and his team held that one’s practical self-formation through labor was itself the central mechanism for the evolution of both individual cognition and the industrial cogs that would sustain a socialist society.
At the same time, the team recognized that the evolution of automation might not be all peaches and cream. Philosopher Miloslav Král anticipated contemporary superintelligence discussions by predicting that machine intelligence would one day outpace human intelligence, and then gain independence and autonomously reprogram itself, as recently envisioned by Andrej Karpathy. Richta also called to make complex technical systems legible to people who worked in them, thus ensuring that people were not alienated or threatened by systems they did not understand. Cognitive labor, then, appears to be not only the future of Richta’s ideally automated society, but it was already the precondition for making sense of and successfully governing all automatic systems. At the same time, Richta did not call for the life of armchair speculation served by robots: mind and body were not fully separated in his philosophy, as he also repeatedly acknowledged the debts that the modern industrialized world owes to physical labor.
In 1968, this social vision reached the television screen, and Czechoslovak society watched glimpses of the future unfold in debate among Richta and his team on the popular science television program, Six Urgent Disputations. The show was initiated by Miloslav Král and set in the nineteenth-century Nostic Library, which once housed the Private Institute of Sciences, the precursor to the contemporary Czech Academy of Sciences. In one scene, set against the backdrop of an automated pretzel factory, the show suggested that “cybernetic machines” would one day arrange state budgets as well as suggest life partners to citizens. Another episode opened with composer Ilja Hurník playing at the piano, speaking about art as a synthesis of play, free time, and work. As every musician knows, there is no evolution in play without disciplined practice, and no music without creative play—points echoed by Richta in Civilization at the Crossroads. Hurník extended the point by drawing out the irreducible, non-instrumental positive role of play and art in childhood development and in a future socialist society without physical labor. Many critics, such as Alfie Bown in Playstation Dreamworld, have since pointed out how the logic of the game subjects players to roles and captures time and attention, inviting subsequent accounts of rule-bending subversive play within a game as a way to resist or hack one’s status as an individual whose life has been gamed.
Richta’s team repeatedly insisted that time, too, had to be de-standardized, by challenging the supremacy of abstract time—enforced by calendars, schedules, and timetables—over the concrete and often bumpy accordion-like personal experience of time. People could begin again to play on and experience anew the concrete playground of time, Richta argued, by encouraging urban architecture and design principles that reward the everyday experience of time. The rectilinear and brutalist aesthetic of modernist architecture, in his view, as well as the endless proliferation of identical buildings and cities, needed to be replaced with diverse, ecologically lit public spaces that encourage human interactions.
Neuroplasticity, or the possibility of brain sculpting—discussed more recently by Catherine Malabou and Sanford Kwinter—also preoccupied Richta’s team. The promise of neuroplasticity, for them, was that the brain and the larger human cognitive system could be endlessly “re-networked” by new environments. Design of the environment also means design of human subjectivities. If the psychological impacts of the scientific-technical revolution held, one could foresee unprecedented psychological and neurological brain states in the new society to come after this revolution. Just as a therapist might encourage a patient to work through their trauma productively, Richta’s team encouraged the forgetting of “formerly functional programs.”
In the reflections on subjects such as urban design, time, and neuroplasticity, Richta’s team advanced a curious strain of a cybernetic philosophy of mind merged with a hopeful humanism. The design impulses of architect, systematizing philosopher and policymaker stand out in the disciplinary approach of Richta’s team. In the grand analogy of society as a machine, with the individuals as its cogs, neither the machine nor the humans hold still: both evolve and mutually shape strategic decisions. This brings a peculiar perspective on individual psychology and social interaction as a sort of design object that can be planned and systematically enacted.
Since science, for Richta, was the force that transforms the entire production process, science too would evolve in the society of scientific-technical revolution. Following up on J. D. Bernal’s approach to science as a “direct productive force,” Richta called this process the self-awareness of science, by which he understood a conception of science not only as a praxis that observes the world but also one that transforms it. For Richta’s team, as well as for many in the field that has come to be called Science and Technology Studies (STS), science is essentially a social process, with an obvious role in the common integrative task of understanding the world as a whole. However, Richta would likely have considered STS a coarse relativization of science, and contemporary STS scholars might fault Richta for overly technocratic views. Science remains a continuation of politics through other means—and its practices offer a seedbed for framing and addressing wider—even planetary—political problems, as well as a model for organizing community and knowledge worldwide. Proper governance would emerge, as it often does in technocratic contexts, from both the experts on complex global systems and ordinary citizens. In fact, in the ideal case, this would be the same category of person. Rehearsing a popular technocratic ideal of cybernetics governance, Richta held that the experts most needed were not just public administrators governing expert bodies but were generally informed citizens themselves.
This large-scale, systemic perspective on governance also brought issues of environmental degradation to the table. In the opening episode of Six Urgent Disputations, the architect Otakar Nový narrates the rising anthropogenic costs of air pollution and land degradation set against the hulking industrial backdrop of the Most Coal Basin in Northern Bohemia. The vision of a more ecological future largely rests on automation facilitating the economic easing of extensive, quantitative industrial growth into intensive, qualitative growth. While still holding onto the promise of growth, the terms of ecological economics also anticipated contemporary debates about zero-growth and post-growth movements, as well as the rise of synthetic nature, whereby synthetic materials created by humans circulate into and disrupt or augment natural ecosystems.
Progressive Czechoslovak Marxist thought in the 1960s—unflinching in its embrace of both automation and humanism, collective governance and individual personalities, and system-wide self-awareness as well as creative play—constituted not so much a third-way through the cold warring camps of socialism and liberalism as a healthy reminder of the irreducible richness of the political history of science. The echoes and overtones of the intellectual ferment and foment of the 1960s Czechoslovakia have yet to go quiet. The disputations of Richta and his team remain as urgent as ever.
Lukáš Likavčan (@lukas_likavcan) is researcher and theorist at the Center for Audiovisual Studies FAMU (Prague) and Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design (Moscow). He is an author of Introduction to Comparative Planetology (Strelka Press, 2019).
Benjamin Peters (@bjpeters) is the author of How Not to Network a Nation (MIT Press, 2016) and editor of Digital Keywords (Princeton University Press, 2016). He teaches at the University of Tulsa in Media Studies.
This essay is an output of a collective research conducted in the framework of exhibition Civilization at the Crossroads: Engineers of Scientific-Technical Revolution (November 2018 – February 2019) curated by Pavel Sterec and Lukáš Likavčan in galleries FUTURA and Display, Prague.
The artwork at the top of the page is by Max Máslo, from the Prague exhibitions.