“What Is To Be Done?” by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, 1863
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution in November 1917, I read Lenin’s favorite novel, the title of which he later turned into his first pamphlet in 1902. To the Russian movement this book has been compared to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in its real-world subversive impact. It was written as a direct counterpoint to mainstream liberals like Turgenev, who reviled Chernyshevsky. According to the introduction, younger Bolsheviks made fun of Lenin’s fondness for this work, which continued throughout his life. I can see why they found it somewhat odd.
Chernyshevsky himself wrote just this one book. His main role was as the editor of a materialist, feminist and socialist publication in St. Petersburg, Russia – ‘Sovremennik.’ He supported the idea that art should be a weapon in changing society. After radical student disturbances in St. Petersburg in 1862, he was blamed, arrested and put in the Peter-Paul Fortress, then exiled for the rest of his life. In the Peter-Paul fortress, he wrote What Is To Be Done. This is a work of prison literature.
In 1863 Czarist censors poured over manuscripts looking for seditious and revolutionary thoughts. So much of this novel, which is designed as somewhat of a comedy of manners, is in ‘code.’ There are no heroic workers, no strikes, no rebellions, no mass violence, no war, no direct class conflict, no factories or peasants. It is a close look at a trio of ‘new people’ – those who are not identified as fools or swindlers. Chernyshevsky observed that most of Russian society was made up of these two latter types. The ‘new people’ are young, use reason and science, abhor money and acquisitiveness, are quite cultured and admire utopian socialists Owen & Fourier. They seriously discuss various new scientific theories, such as on soil or related to medicine or psychology. They believe that Russian society is corrupt and needs to be changed. You could call them a ‘professional elite’ because of their educations and jobs, but people during the period called them ‘the intelligentsia.’ This strata became a class definition in early versions of Marxism but no longer.
In the text are allusions to revolution and socialism, but without the excellent footnotes you’d be skilled to find them all. The one quite clear example is the formation of sewing cooperatives by Vera Pavlovna, the key female protagonist. There the women workers ultimately share the profits, make joint decisions, live together, form buying clubs and help each other out in various ways –a microcosm of the coming socialist society. Vera herself, the founder, shares equally instead of lording it over the collective as would be her conventional due. Three cooperative workshops are established by the end of the book. As you can see, the working-class feminist slant of the novel, especially in 1863, was very strong.
The first part of this 400-page narrative consists of a young Vera running away from home and her controlling mother, and getting married to the man she loves, Lopukhov, a student doctor. Her mother was forcing her into a marriage with a somewhat wealthy military man she didn’t like for among other things, his intellectual dullness. This is a familiar storyline in the development of capitalism and romantic love that continues even now in the film and literature of a number of countries like India or Iran. At that time in Russia the girl could be arrested, incarcerated or forcibly returned to the parents, or the man sued in court by the disobeyed parents. After several years of a somewhat sterile marriage Vera begins to fall in love with her husband’s best friend, Kirsanov, another student doctor. ‘Sterile’ because there is not even the slyest suggestion of sex in the book – so it’s not clear if this is the result of censorship or if Vera & Lopukhov are in a platonic relationship, acting as a veritable ‘brother’ and ‘sister’. Vera & Lopukhov sleep in separate beds all the time, have separate rooms and this seems to be part of their being ‘new people.’ When Vera announces she is now in love with Kirsanov, Lopukhov is not upset at all – until later... I will not reveal this plot point. This triangle forms the second part of the book.
The third part involves the marriage of Kirsanov and Vera. It starts with the strict radical Rakhmetov. He is variously described as ‘horrible’ and ‘the rigorist.’ If Rakhmetov and “Raskolnikov” sound alike, perhaps Doestoevsky thought so too. Crime & Punishment came out in 1866, not long after this book. Doestoevsky, like other Russian liberals and conservatives, were horrified by the anti-Czarist anarchists looming up in their midst and this showed in their fiction. Rakhemtov, though his friends don’t know it, is the son of a landed aristocrat, and has 3,000 rubles a year in income – a not inconsiderable sum. Yet at one point Rakhhemtov sleeps on a bed of nails. He abstains from sex or drink, travels the world learning and contacting other revolutionaries. In this book he acts as a stand-in for Lupukhov in a conversation with Vera. But he is obviously the ‘monk’ of revolution – a type we are acquainted with in such books as I Married a Communist. (reviewed below)
The rest of the book is full of psychological and political dialog, and leads up to a somewhat artificial plot trick that would be ridiculous except for its usefulness in making a pedantic point about love. Vera herself begins to train to be a doctor. Oddly, Vera and Kirsanov sleep in separate beds again, with only the barest hint that they may actually visit each other’s beds! The book’s narrative centers around 3 love affairs, and it is not clear if that is its real intent or it is preparing the way for Chernysheveky’s prediction of a Russian revolution by 1865 – or both. It includes an idyllic vision of the coming socialism, similar to what William Morris did in News from Nowhere in 1890. (reviewed below)
Stylistically, Chernyshevsky interrupts the plot many times, addressing the reader as the author, making fun of the standard ‘mysteries’ that authors use, arguing with reader and critic alike. This ‘distancing’, like Brecht, makes clear that this book is not about creating a fabulous and romantic world you can escape into, as Tolstoy does in Anna Karenina. It is a somewhat modern technique. The book has very little in the way of plot, and is mostly dialog obsessing about the nature of love and sub-textually, politics.
What has happened to the ‘intelligentsia” since 1863? Lenin quite clearly put some faith in this strata. Yet now no ‘intelligentsia’ exists. The present petit-bourgeois strata – professors, doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, scientists, journalists – live comfortable lives reconciled to the capitalist system. They are mostly supporters of the Democratic Party. The spread of education in the U.S., Europe and parts of the rest of the world – (the majority of U.S./Euro graduates now get college degrees, whether useful or not!) - makes education, science and reason more widespread. As a result, the most radical elements in Europe or the U.S. will not be found in the ‘degreed’ strata that Thomas Frank makes fun of (Listen, Liberal!, reviewed below) but among self-educated, working-class autodidacts with or without college credits. Those perhaps who have not gained entry into the well-paid professional strata, yet feel they are not fools! There might be certain elements of the professional strata that DO join the radical movement (Chris Hedges as an example), but the strata as a whole has lost any modern claim to leadership. The next revolution will be far more led by the actual people that it will directly benefit. This changes the nature of any ‘vanguard’ party or parties that might come into existence.
The fact that Lenin liked this book so much has much to do with its historical role, as there was nothing like it at the time. If What Is To Be Done seems like one long drawing-room melodrama with women and love as its focus, then perhaps there was another side to V.I. Ulyanov that has been ignored.
April 23, 2017
Happy Earth, Science, Weed Days!
P.S. – Isn’t it odd that the U.S. has to promote science while in 1863 they also had to promote science? The only constant here is the necessary irrationalism needed by capital.