Что делать? What is to be done? (Part 1)

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11 February 2012


Russians seem to spend a lot of time wondering what is to be done. We list below three works on this subject by leading Russian thinkers. We do this to provide the background for a brief item which we hope to publish tomorrow 12 February 2012 asking the same question in relation to our own time.  Most of the information below has been cobbled together from Wikipedia.

1. What is to be done? (Russian: Что делать? Shto delat’?) is a novel written by the Russian radical Nikolai Chernyshevsky (1828-1889) when he was incarcerated in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg, the Russian “Bastille”. Smuggled out from the author’s cell, it appeared in 1863.

The novel was written in response to the 1862 novel “Fathers and Sons” by Russian writer Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883).

Rakhmetov, the hero of Chernyshevsky’s novel, became an icon of of Russian radicalism. The book has been called “a handbook of radicalism”.

Activists Kropotkin, Rosa Luxembourg, Lenin, Plekhanov and Alexandra Kollontai were all highly impressed with the novel and it became an official Soviet classic. Lenin is said to have read the book five times in one summer.

According to Joseph Frank, professor emeritus of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Stanford University,  “Chernyshevsky’s novel, far more than Marx’s Capital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution.”

Within the framework of the story of a privileged couple who decide to work for the revolution and ruthlessly subordinate everything in their lives to the cause, the work furnished a blueprint for the asceticism and dedication-unto-death that was an ideal of the early socialist underground in the Russian Empire.

However, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) mocked the utilitarianism and utopianism of Chernyshevsky’s novel in his 1864 novella “Notes from Underground”.

Lafcadio, the main character of the 1914 novel Les Caves du Vatican  by André Gide (1869-1951)bears a striking resemblance to Rakhmetov.

A novel which has had a comparable impact among English socialists to that of Chernyshevsky in Russia is “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” by Robert Tressell, which was published posthumously in 1914. Tressell was the pseudonym of Frank Noonan (1870-1911).

2. What is to be done? is a work published in 1886 by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), in which the author refers to the social conditions in the Russia of his day and advocates moral responsibility.

3. What is to be done? is a political pamphlet written by the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Ilich Lenin (1870-1924) in 1901 and published in 1902.

Its title is inspired by the novel of the same name by the Russian revolutionary Nikolai Chernyshevsky (1828-1889).

In What Is to Be Done? Lenin argues that the working class will not spontaneously become political simply by fighting economic battles with employers over wages, working hours and the like. To convert the working class to Marxism, Lenin argues that Marxists should form a political party, or “vanguard” of dedicated revolutionaries to spread Marxist political ideas among the workers.


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1 Response to Что делать? What is to be done? (Part 1)

  1. Absolutely agree with Lenin. Practically same thing at work in the Middle East, where a further advance in the so-called “Arab Spring” would necessitate the Arab toiling masses’ creation of a disciplined and dedicated party that can lead the fight for greater social transformation till the end.

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