In 1927 German professor Johann Plenge (1874-1963) did publish his review of the first edition of the German translation of Alexander Bogdanov’s Tektology: General Science of Organisation (1926). The very same year Ludwig Von Bertalanffy, who would later be known as the founder of the Systems/Complexity Thinking, completed his dissertation in which he developed his initial ideas that would eventually become the General Systems Theory (German Allgemeine Systemtlehre). In 1928, the following year Bogdanov died as a result of a blood exchange experiment he conducted on a student -who survived from Malaria at the end. And Von Bertalanffy’s published a new study which was based on his doctoral thesis and titled Kritische Theorie der Formbildung (Critical Theory of Development), in Berlin.
Plenge’s review of Tektology was negatively critical. He thought of Bogdanov and his bold attempt as flawed. To him, Bogdanov was intoxicated by Marxism and Marxist ideology and his Tektology was dismissing all the differences amongst the vast variety of types of organizations and degree of complexity amongst systems under investigation. He also highlighted Bogdanov’s own claim to be “distant from morality as mathematics” in order to warn the reader that such an approach has the potential to generate an ethicless total-control mechanism exactly like the one indeed created by Stalin. However, Bogdanov himself made his warnings public about the dystopian future applications of such science with much emphasis, especially in an authoritarian framework like of Lenin’s creation. Bogdanov lost a lifelong struggle he gave against the authoritarianism of Lenin which gave way to Stalin after him and had targeted Lenin’s personality cult. The result was Bogdnaov’s political demise and removal from the official Russian history after his early death (White, 2018). Whereas Plenge dedicated his work to create his own personality cult. Later Hayek would accuse him to become an inspiration to the national-socialist ideology (Hayek, 1944). What is important to note here is that while Plenge was complaining about Bogdanov’s Tektology of not recognizing the differences in forms and contents between varieties of ‘organizations’ of systems for instance by conscious man or self-organization in nature etc., he was actually indicating the exact point that Tektology was making: arguing the need for unified, non-reductionist meta-science that is investigating possible generalizations, common organisational patterns and principles to all complex wholes, no matter physical, material, social or psychic or otherwise. Exactly this has later become the main promise of the GST as proposed by Von Bertalanffy. Beyond that, most of the principles proposed by Von Bertalanffy between 1927-1950s can indeed be found in almost word-to-word identical fashion in Bogdanov’s Tektology, which was delivered between 1911-1928 in its original Russian.
In pursuing his negative critique, Plenge was also joining the term ‘general systems’ science/theory/doctrine’ for the first time, suggesting as a replacement for ‘tektology’. The term system is used 23 times in that article, and several times to redescribe Tektology as a general science of systems of reality (Plenge, 1927). The fact that Plenge was the first to join the term ‘general systems’ to refer Tektology in his 1927 paper but the term later come to be solely associated with Von Bertalanffy’s work (Boulding, 1956/2004; Hofkrichner, 2010) must urge us to reconsider the entire intellectual history of the GST. It is a fact that both Tektology and Plenge’s review of it got published in Von Bertalanffy’s own native German, and this happens at the time he was on top of the topic; studying and developing his initial ideas of ‘general systems theory’ since 1926. Von Bertalanffy’s first book was published two years after his doctoral dissertation in Berlin too, in 1928; the year the second edition of the German translation of Tektology’s came out, and Bogdanov died. Von Bertalanffy was so fresh in his studies on the idea so closely following the debates related to ‘unity of science’ movement, which was popular in Vienna and Berlin circles to both of which both Bogdanov and Plenge were known figures. Hayek devoted an entire chapter on Plenge in his Road to Serfdom to which Von Bertalanffy refers in his “An Outline for the General Systems Theory” (1950). Hayek and Bertalanffy also met at the 1960 Symposium on Principles of Self-Organization, organized by Heinz von Foerster, a relative of Hayek. These connections increase the chance that Bertalanffy knew Plenge, and decrease the chance that he did develop his ideas independently from those of Bogdanov’s. Although it seems almost impossible for Von Bertalanffy to miss neither the German translation of Tektology which made its second edition in two years nor a review by someone like Plenge, he did never refer or gave credit to his precursor. After Von Bertalanffy died in 1972 Bogdanov and Tektology were rediscovered and started to be recognized as the forerunner of systems thinking in a limited manner. In the end, Von Bertalanffy still gets most of the credits since he has established as the founder of the Systems Thinking. He enjoys such recognition against the historical facts and new generations still takes Von Bertalanffy’s foundership status as granted. We will never know how would have Von Bertalanffy reviewed Tektology if he had lived through the 70s and 80s but when suggesting to see Tektology as an attempt to build a general system science (Allgemeine Systemtlehre) Plenge was also offering another, shorter, term general “systematology” to use instead of tektology. It is very ironic that a similar term ‘systemology’ is being suggested 80 years later, by new generation systems scholars (Pouvreau and Drack, 2007) to replace the term with Bertalanffy’s GST, celebrating it as a full-fledged science of systems.
All in all, taking together the fact that the terms ‘general systems theory’ (Allgemeine Systemslehre) and ‘general science of systems’ were already coined in the 1920s by Johann Plenge in describing Bogdanov’s Tektology, and the fact that Tektology was inclusive of almost all (and identical) terms and principles suggested by Von Bertallanfy and presented more (Dudley, 1996) we finally have to conclude that it was not Ludwig Von Bertalanffy and his GST but Bogdanov and his Tektology was the real moment of emergence of the new world view that called later in the 20th century systems and later complexity thinking. What emerged as Tektology, in its original form, however, was a critical and historical unified science, serving for building new systems and eventually a world to be replaced with capitalism; instead of a tool-box for solving its problems, or change management technology for managerial and ruling classes’ use. As a promise of new world-view (as picked up by Von Bertalanffy), it meant to be developed by, from the point of view, and the for the purpose of the ruled and oppressed (the part left out by Von Bertalanffy). This latter aspect was the main characteristic of Bogdanov’s work and meant to take social power relations and inequality at the core -as the main characteristic of the epistemology that lied underneath all enterprise. It meant also taking social classes as the parts forming the societal whole ontologically. These main aspects of Bogdanov’s Tektology were unsurprisingly shaved off (or totally missed) in Von Bertalanffy’s version.
For the scholars and experts of system and complexity thinking the phenomenon of emergence is one of the key themes. Yet still today, many of them do refer Von Bertalanffy as the founder and the inventor of the GST. Even if there was no case of plagiarism whatsoever to talk about for Von Bertalanffy, there is a need for broader recognition of Bogdanov and Tektology as the precursor of his ideas and GST. The current situation is misleading and promoting a wrong conception of ‘the emergence of systems/complexity thinking itself’, and as a result, new researchers are missing an important source of inspiration. Even more ironically, Marxian and post-Marxian scholars and theorists who were inspired and influenced by systems thinking too, do not know about and recognize Bogdanov and Tektology; amongst them worldwide recognized scholars and philosophers such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Jurgen Habermas, Gilles Deleuze, Jaques Derrida, Michael Foucault, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Bob Jessop, Antonio Negri, so on so forth. This must change and it is high time to turn from a historical mistake and make the correction.
Boulding K. (1956/2004) “General Systems Theory – The Skeleton of Science”, in Management Science Vol. 2 No. 3, April 1956, 197-208. Reprinted in E:CO Vol. 6 Nos. 1-2, Fall 2004, 127-139.
Dudley, P. (1996) “Back to Basics? Tektology and General System
Theory (GST)”, Systems Practice, Vol. 9, No. 3.
Hayek, F. A. (1944) Road to Serfdom,GeorgeRoutledge&Sons
Plenge, J. (1927) “Um die Allgemeine Organisationslehre”, Weltwirtschaftliches Archiv, 25. Bd. (1927), pp. 18-29
Google translated version of Plenge’s review: https://docs.google.com/document/d/125b9eToOruGxJ1HL4sv5SsCupz0XX-sJg4dKlUNfQZY/edit?fbclid=IwAR18hpcKwGAQVlwz_KbRQd0nHyYkLZRRbI0pu7F15iDGiTzL07uHhlXayzE
Pouvreau, D. and Drack, M. (2007) “On the history of Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s “General Systemology”, and on its relationship to cybernetics”, International Journal of General Systems, Vol. 36 No. 3 June 2007, pp. 281-337
White, J. (2018) Red Hamlet: The Life and Ideas of Alexander Bogdanov, Historical Materialism Book Series, Brill.