What are we to think of What Is to Be Done? I posted about it earlier, when I was partway through, commenting on its stilted dialog, its place in Russian history, and its lack of literary worth. Having finished it, I can say that it is a weird book, a fascinating book, and yes, a novel without literary merit. None at all – zilch. But since it is such an incredibly important book in the history of Russian literature, ideas, and revolutionary politics, it is nevertheless a fascinating read! If its only claims on our attention were that it stimulated Dostoyevsky to respond with his great anti-nihilist novel, Demons and his short novel, Notes from Underground, wouldn’t that be enough to make it worth our time? And add to that the inspiration it gave to generations of radical revolutionaries, who finally overthrew the Russian old order, and you have a book that is hard to resist. Why did I wait until now to read it!
Nikolai Chernyshevsky published the novel in 1863, and wrote it while in the Peter-Paul fortress, where he had been imprisoned on trumped-up charges. The rest of his life, nearly twenty years, were spent in unproductive exile in Siberia. He was a revolutionary, although not one who actively involved himself in plots. His appeal to the radical intellectuals of his day and afterwards was in his thorough rejection of the existing social order, his advocacy of complete and radical revolution, his scorn for reformist politics, and the mixture of traditional Russian cultural and religious themes with utopian socialist ideas from the West which form the material of What Is to Be Done?
Why did he ask that question? Why were all the intelligentsy asking it? Because they were a vanishingly small class of educated and modern people living in a society that was more or less a holdover from the feudal age. A society dominated by church, the Tsar, and landowners with serfs, who were more or less slaves. The situation must have driven a thinking, secular, progressive person around the bend! Not for nothing does Chernyshevsky reference Uncle Tom’s Cabin at several points in the narrative: That book, a far superior literary work, also grew out of a maddeningly unjust social order against which it argued.
What Chernyshevsky’s novel offered to the radicals of his day, if not a literary model, was an inspiring character model: the ‘New Ones,’ who would lead Russia into a revolutionary new social order. The men and women, free, independent, liberated from oppressive social mores, feminists and atheistic materialists all, who, with a noble dedication to bringing about the greatest good for all, would steadfastedly direct their efforts, guided by Reason, to The Revolution. They would educate and lead the masses to take what is theirs by right.
If it sounds a tad too good to be true, we need only look at the history of the USSR to see what came of it, and say, “Yes, too good to be true.” The New Ones can easily become a vanguard of the masses that oppresses the masses. And these characters, who all speak like disciples of Ayn Rand (I would love to know what she thought of it!) even when they are discussing love and marriage, seem a wee bit on the nutty side. They are guided by a philosophy of Rational Egoism (not all that different from Rand’s ideas), but are convinced that pursuing their own interests will invariably benefit all the most. Ah, but the rub is defining one’s interests properly, and that’s not as simply logical as they would have it.
Reading this book, and keeping in mind the insanity that passes for Reason in revolutionary politics at its worst, makes some things very clear. The weird, incestuous and fanatical nature of the Bolsheviks, so well described by Sebag-Montefiore and Nadezhda Mandelshtam. The incredible and ruthless violence against civilians, political opponents, and their own cadres of which they were capable…once the arguments had conclusively demonstrated the necessity of liquidating them. The style of argument, again Ayn Rand comes to mind, that uses Reason and Logic as a brick with which to hit you in the face. The characters in this book all speak with gentle affection, or controlled disdain, but…this is a novel. People inspired by it are apt to take with it the parts that appeal to their own personalities, and then…who knows?
There really isn’t too much discussion of politics in this book: the Tsar’s censors would not permit it. There is a lengthy discussion of a sewing cooperative that goes swimmingly, of course, and is presented as a model of socialistic, un-alienated work, but much is presented only allegorically, or hinted at very obliquely. There are several long dream narratives presented as set pieces, introduced by the author-narrator, that comment on the plot or present utopian futures. In one of them, The Crystal Palace appears as the symbol of the utopian order to come.
I must now go and read again Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, a book that many see as a parodistic response to Chernyshevsky’s story. We have the Crystal Palace to throw stones at, and passages like this one exhorting us to follow in the footsteps of the Noble Ones:
Superior natures, which you, my pitiful friends, and I cannot keep up with, aren’t like this at all. I showed you a faint outline of the profile of one of them: there you see very different features. But you can become an equal to the people described here in full, if only you wish to work a bit on your own development. Anyone who is beneath them is very low indeed. Come up out of your godforsaken underworld, my friends, come up. It’s not so difficult. Come out into the light of day…
To which Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man answers:
I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased.
And I am with you, Fyodor!