Roderic Day
Editing: Alice Malone

Why Read Chernyshevsky?

Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky was a Russian revolutionary renowned for his presentation of the materialist point of view.

V. I. Lenin describes him thus:

[T]he only really great Russian writer who, from the 1850s until 1888, was able to keep on the level of an integral philosophical materialism, and who spurned the wretched nonsense of the Neo-Kantians, positivists, Machians and other muddleheads, [although] owing to the backwardness of Russian life, was unable to rise to the level of the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels. [1]

Even earlier, back in 1874, Engels had already recognized Chernyshevky’s contributions, and starkly contrasted them to Bakunin’s:

A country that has produced two writers of the stature of Dobrolyubov and Chernyshevsky, two socialist Lessings, will not go down simply because it gives birth all at once to a humbug like Bakunin and a few green students who, with big words, puff themselves up like frogs and finally devour each other. [2]

Precisely because Chernyshevky operated in an environment in which burgeoning new ideas struggled against brutal tsarist censorship and the anarchistic and rustic anti-intellectual reaction to it, his writing turns out to be very relevant still. After all, the American “contempt for all theory” that Engels described in 1886 [3] is seen to clearly persist over one hundred years later, as attested by, for example, Assata Shakur in her autobiography. [4]

Avowed Marxists today are very implicated in these problems of shallow understanding, phrase-mongering, and ineffective practice. This is partly because many such Marxists often discuss Marx and Engels’s works as some kind of heavenly gift, rather than as the outcome of state-of-the-art developments. [5] Scientific theories are presented de-contextualized; every other philosopher, political theorist, and economist of their era is ridiculed or simply forgotten; and therefore their work begins to resemble an immense and opaque monolith standing in a desert of ideas, incomprehensible outside of a few cherry-picked commandments. This is why Chernyshevsky is of particular help: his philosophical efforts are pre-Marxist, and precisely for this reason incredibly valuable! In many ways they feel to me somehow more relatable to our context, like signposts on the way to the “luminous summits” much further down the road. [6] It’s a pleasant place to start.

But let’s turn to Chernyshevsky’s fiction.

Chernyshevsky demonstrated a rather unique ability to fuse aesthetics with politics in his extremely influential fiction novel What Is To Be Done?, which he wrote while imprisoned, in 1863. [7] A sensation in Russia upon release, its revolutionary optimism rankled important figures from the conservative ranks of the literary establishment:

Fyodor Dostoevsky mocked the utilitarianism and utopianism of the novel in his 1864 novella Notes from Underground, as well as in his 1872 novel Demons, as did Vladimir Nabokov in his final novel in Russian, The Gift[8]

The fact that Lenin gave his own legendary political pamphlet the title he did makes clear that the novel made a huge impact on him. However, we don’t need to speculate — he championed it as such:

Under his influence hundreds of people became revolutionaries […]. He plowed me up more profoundly than anyone else. […] After my brother’s execution, knowing that Chernyshevsky’s novel was one of his favorite books, I really undertook to read it, and I sat over it not for several days but for several weeks. Only then did I understand its depth. […] It’s a thing that supplies energy for a whole lifetime. [9]

Georgi Plekhanov, widely considered to be the father of Russian Marxism, and a Menshevik rival to the Bolsheviks, also declared:

Who has not read and reread this famous work? […] Who, after reading this novel, has not reflected on his personal life, has not subjected his personal striving and tendencies to a severe examination? We all draw from it moral strength and faith in a better future. [10]

Its impact was not only felt among leading figures, either:

Alexandra Artiukhina, a worker who attended Social-Democratic clubs for women workers in 1907, later joined the Bolshevik Party, and participated in the 1917 revolution, wrote that: “When we started to attend the Sunday and evening schools, we began to make use of books from the library and we learned of the great Russian democrat, Chernyshevsky. We read his book What Is To Be Done? secretly, and found the image of Vera Pavlovna, the woman of the future, very attractive.” [11]

Even today leaders of the modern world such as Xi Jinping sing its praises! [12]

So, what is this novel like? How can fiction be so politically powerful? This passage perhaps sheds some light:

“No, Vera Pavlovna. The theory is cold, but it teaches man how to procure warmth. A match is cold, as is the side of the matchbox against which it’s struck, as is the wood but together they produce the fire that cooks our food and heats our bodies. This theory is pitiless, but by following it, people will cease to be pitiful objects of idle compassion. A lancet isn’t supposed to bend, or else we’d have to pity the patient, who’d be no better off for our pity. The theory is prosaic, but it reveals the genuine motives of life; poetry resides in the truth of life. Why is Shakespeare the greatest poet? Because his works contain more of the truth of life and less delusion than those of other poets.”

“Then I too will be merciless, Dmitry Sergeich,” said Verochka with a smile. [13]

It’s not hard to see why such literature would resonate with revolutionaries such as Lenin, who unflinchingly asserted, about the importance of theory, that “no natural science and no materialism can hold its own in the struggle against the onslaught of bourgeois ideas and the restoration of the bourgeois world outlook unless it stands on solid philosophical ground.” [14] Indeed, according to Nadezhda Krupskaya:

There was hardly anyone Vladimir Ilyich loved so much as Chernyshevsky. He felt an intimate affinity with him and had an extraordinarily deep respect for him. I think there was a great deal in common between Chernyshevsky and Vladimir Ilyich. [15]

Anyway, you should read Chernyshevsky. The only way to really learn such things is through experience. After all, “you can’t resist for very long a truth you discover for yourself”! [16]

[1] V. I. Lenin. Materialism and Empirio-criticism (1908). [web] 

[2] Friedrich Engels. “Refugee Literature” (1874). [web] 

[3] Friedrich Engels, “Letter to Sorge” (16 September 1886). [web] 

[4] “A lot of the sisters and brothers had joined [the Black Panther Party] because they were sick and tired of the oppression they had been suffering. Most of them had never been in the struggle before. Quite a few joined thinking the Party was going to issue them a gun and direct them to go out and shoot pigs. Most of these brothers and sisters had attended inferior schools which either taught them lies or nothing at all. Education of every kind was sorely needed. Without an adequate education program, many Panthers fell into a roboton bag. They repeated slogans and phrases without understanding their complete meaning, often resulting in dogmatic and shortsighted practices.” — Assata Shakur, An Autobiography (1987). [web] 

[5] V. I. Lenin, “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism” (1913). [web] 

[6] Karl Marx, “Preface to the French Edition of Capital” (1872). [web] 

[7] Published after sympathizers smuggled out the manuscript, which sentenced him to seven years of forced labour in Siberia. [web] 

[8] Irina Paperno, Chernyshevsky and the Age of Realism (1988). [web] 

[9] In Michael R. Katz and William G. Wagner, “Chernyshevsky, What Is To Be Done? and the Russian Intelligentsia” (1989). 

[10] Ibid. 

[11] In Jane McDermid and Anna Hillyar, Midwives of the Revolution (1999). 

[12] People’s Daily, 2022. Reading with Xi Jinping. [web] 

[13] Nikolai Chernyshevsky, What Is To Be Done? (1863). [web] 

[14] V. I. Lenin, “On the Significance of Militant Materialism” (1922). [web] 

[15] In Anatoly Lunacharsky’s “Chernyshevsky’s Ethics and Aesthetics” (1928). [web] 

[16] Nikolai Chernyshevsky, What Is To Be Done? (1863). [web]