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]

I think that, precisely due to this limitation, Chernyshevsky’s writing is very relevant to North Americans today. Marx and Engels’ dialectical materialism turned out to be the tallest skyscraper in the skyline of the German philosophical tradition, and we too often forget this and disregard the advanced context in which they developed their arguments. In our anti-intellectual and crudely idealist social environment, where there prevails an ancestral “contempt for all theory,” [2] their works tend to appear as towering monoliths of knowledge in a philosophical desert, to be accepted as dogma or treated as an incomprehensible alien object, but in any case with nothing resembling a smooth ramp-up. Reading Chernyshevsky helps bridge this gap; he illustrates how a philosophical materialist can nevertheless have pertinent things to say about matters such as culture.

Chernyshevsky would go on to demonstrate his ability to fuse aesthetics and politics with his extremely influential fiction novel What Is To Be Done?, which he wrote while imprisoned in 1865. [3] 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. [4]

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

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

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

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