Roderic Day

Why Read Chernyshevsky?

Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky was a Russian revolutionary renowned for his exposition of materialism.

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, 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. Indeed, among the younger generation of Russians, too, we know people of excellent theoretical and practical ability and great energy, who surpass the French and the English, by dint of their grasp of languages, in terms of intimate knowledge of the movement in different countries, and the Germans in worldly cleverness. [2]

Precisely because Chernyshevky operated in an environment in which burgeoning new ideas struggled against prevailing anti-intellectualism, where anarchist and libertine theorizing still held much sway, his writing turns out to be very relevant for us today. 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 to, for example, in Assata Shakur’s autobiography:

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. [4]

As Assata points out, shallow understanding leads to phrasemongering and ineffective practice. It is not the case that the more avowed Marxists are exempt from this problem. Many such Marxists often discuss Marx and Engels’s works not as the tallest skyscrapers in the skyline of the German philosophical tradition, but rather as some kind of heavenly gift. Their scientific theories are presented de-contextualized, with every other philosopher, political theorist, and economist of their era cheaply ridiculed or simply forgotten. In our desert of ideas their work begins to resemble an immense and opaque monolith, incomprehensible outside of a few cherry-picked zingers. Here is where Chernyshevsky is of particular help: his pre-Marxist philosophical efforts are incredibly valuable. They often feel to me somehow more attuned to our realities, like signposts along the way to the “luminous summits” Marx once wrote about. [5]

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 1865. [6] A sensation in Russia, it made a life-changing impression on a young Lenin (the title of his own revolutionary pamphlet is an explicit homage), infuriated Dostoyevsky into writing a rebuttal, and even today leaders of the modern world such as Xi Jinping sing its praises. [7]

What is this novel like? How can fiction be 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. [8]

It’s not hard to see why such literature would resonate with a man such as Lenin, who unequivocally believed 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.” [9]

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.” [10]

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

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

  3. Friedrich Engels, 1886. Letter to Sorge. [web] 

  4. Assata Shakur, 1987. An Autobiography. [web] 

  5. Karl Marx, 1872. Preface to the French Edition. [web] 

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

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

  8. Nikolai Chernyshevsky, 1865. What is to be done? [web] 

  9. Lenin. [web] 

  10. Nikolai Chernyshevsky, 1865. What is to be done? [web]