What Is to Be Done?

I said here that I was “bracing myself” to read Chernyshevsky’s famous 1863 novel; I knew it was not a good novel, but I couldn’t ignore a book that had such powerful influence (Joseph Frank wrote “No work in modern literature, with the possible exception of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, can compete with What Is to Be Done? in its effect on human lives and its power to make history”). So I started it a few days ago.

Oh! what a bad novel! I read a few chapters and realized there was no way I could force myself to read the entire thing; I’d sooner have another go at Tolstoy’s Second Appendix. The language is stilted, the characters wooden, the storytelling childish; Chernyshevsky’s idea of heightened prose is repetition, sometimes varying the order of words (“Здание, громадное, громадное здание” [A building, enormous, an enormous building]; “Здесь царствую я. Я царствую здесь” [Here I rule. I rule here]). Fortunately, salvation was at hand in the series of posts Tom at Wuthering Expectations consecrated to the book a few years ago. This post begins:

“It’s the scene for which, I believe, the entire novel was written to bring into the world, the reason Nikolai Chernyshevsky sat down in his cell at the Peter and Paul Fortress prison and began the book” writes Scott Bailey. It’s Part 3, chapter xxix, “An Extraordinary Man.” You always know something is up when Chernyshevky gives a chapter a title. With minor changes, the chapter could be an independent short story.

The story is the biography of Rakhmetov, revolutionary superhero.

Ah yes, Rakhmetov, the model for all later Russian revolutionaries! OK, I’ll read that chunk. (Incidentally, Scott Bailey’s blog has vanished from the internet, which is a pity.) And I’ll read the famous chapter of Vera’s Fourth Dream, with the Crystal Palace image that so enraged Dostoevsky and inspired Marshall Berman (see this LH post). And I did, skimming the other chapters just enough to get a vague idea of such plot as there is (a ridiculous love triangle, an impossible sewing collective, an absurd fake suicide, etc.).

The Fourth Dream is, frankly, boring stuff, and I skimmed a lot. It’s interchangeable with every other utopia of the period, with a noble denizen of the shining future showing a dazzled visitor from the benighted present how it all works: “See the abundant, productive fields! See the masses going about their light work with pleasure and enjoying their innocent entertainments! There is enough for all, once mankind comes to realize life must be lived on sensible, utilitarian principles!” (That’s a summary, not a quote, but that’s how it sounds.) There’s a direct line of descent from that to the engineer-written scientifiction of the 1920s (“Well, Bob, as you know, the power of the electron was unleashed centuries ago…”), and it’s hard for me to see how anyone over the age of, say, fourteen can take any of it seriously.

But the Rakhmetov chapters are, from our vantage point a century and a half on, terrifying. Tom quotes Joseph Frank to good effect (from his “N. G. Chernyshevsky: A Russian Utopia,” published in Southern Review in 1967 and reprinted in Through the Russian Prism):

The ideal of the disciplined, dedicated revolutionary, coldly Utilitarian and even cruel to himself and others, but warmed by a love for mankind that he sternly represses for fear of weakening his resolution; the iron-willed leader who sacrifices his private life to the revolution, and who, since he looks on himself only as an instrument, feels free to use others in the same way – in short, the Bolshevik mentality, for which it is impossible to find any source in European Socialism, steps right out of the pages of What Is To Be Done?

Rakhmetov’s “Покорность всегда награждается” [Submissiveness is always rewarded] sums up the “vegetarian” Soviet purges of the 1920s; his “Но вы этою отговоркою только уличили себя в новом преступлении” [But with these excuses you are only proving yourself guilty of a new crime] takes us to the Great Terror of the ’30s; and “— что значит пятьдесят человек!” [what is the significance of fifty people!] is at the root of all the contempt for human life and “bourgeois morality” shown by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, et hoc genus omne. Chernyshevsky, of course, would have been horrified by all such developments; he was the kindliest of men, and only wanted humankind to perfect itself. But we all know about the road signposted with good intentions.


  1. rootlesscosmo says:

    cf. Brecht, Die Massnahme.

  2. Ah, good old Brecht! From Wikipedia:

    They shoot him and throw his body into the lime pit. The central committee (The Control Chorus), to whom the four agitators have been telling their story, agree with their actions and reassures them that they have made the correct decision. “You’ve helped to disseminate / Marxism’s teachings and the / ABC of Communism,” they assure the four agitators.

    Incidentally, that Wikipedia article currently begins: “The Decision (Lua error in Module:Lang at line 665: Tried to write global _lang_xx.), frequently translated as The Measures Taken, is a Lehrstück and agitprop cantata by the twentieth-century German dramatist Bertolt Brecht.”

  3. I just tried resaving the Wikipedia page for The Decision without making changes. It doesn’t show that I made a revision, but the Lua error is gone – probably some kind of compile-time issue.

  4. narrowmargin says:

    Minor note = typo in the last indented quote: third line, fourth word.

  5. Fixed, thanks! (It was “rear” for “fear,” so there was no telltale red line underneath.)

  6. Charles Perry says:

    The revolutionary superhero has a Tatar name, of course. We Russians are feckless nebbishes, we need somebody with steel in his spine and prominent cheekbones.

  7. I think Scott Bailey’s blog has (thankfully) not vanished, but moved to a shorter URL.

    Rakhmetov’s покорность всегда награждается is dripping with sarcasm, no? As is the preceding “Вы бунтовать? за это наказание.” I thought was a hobbyhorse of Chernyshevsky’s group that the supposed Russian peasant tendency toward enduring passively was 1) undesirable and 2) not real, that is, something the comfortable were mistaken to count on.

  8. Rakhmetov’s покорность всегда награждается is dripping with sarcasm, no?

    It’s not at all clear; he does in fact reward her obedience each time she caves in, but pretty much everything he says is dripping with sarcasm except when he’s talking about his theories. In any case, I’m not claiming he (or his puppet-master Chernyshevsky) meant anything Leninist-Stalinist by the remarks I quote (which would be absurd), simply that in retrospect they take on ominous overtones, at least for me. I can easily see Rakhmetov as one of those righteous Chekists who knew everything he did was for the good of the proletariat and thus for humankind. What, after all, is the significance of fifty people…

  9. David Eddyshaw says:

    Personally, I think Lua error in Module:Lang at line 665: Tried to write global _lang_xx is a great title. It’s well up there with The Electrification of the Soviet Union, to say nothing of The Pistons of our Locomotives Sing the Songs of Our Workers.

    As a bonus, my browser is currently displaying all instances of Lua error in a bright patriotic Soviet red.

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    Who has not tried to write global_lang_xx, and been defeated by the sinister dead hand of reactionary Capital? Who?

    La lua continua!

  11. As a bonus, my browser is currently displaying all instances of Lua error in a bright patriotic Soviet red.

    Same here. Bold, bright red, and spawning multiple copies all over the article. Long live global_lang(uage_hat)_xx!

  12. It’s all right now. Wikipedia accepts German.

  13. I likely corrected it by changing the “Lang” tag to “lang”.

  14. David Eddyshaw says:

    Ah! It was the reactionary Capital, just as I thought!

  15. Здесь царствую я. Я царствую здесь.

    English, of course, has phrases like “Here goes nothing”, which I gather are supposed to be the vestiges of Germanic V2 order. Do Chernyshevsky’s examples demonstrate merely (stylistically-determined) free word order, or do they show something akin to present-day or ancient Germanic patterns?

  16. Free word order, and it just occurred to me that Dostoevsky, in the famous opening of Записки из подполя (Notes from Underground), is trumping Chernyshevsky’s feeble efforts along those lines and showing how a master does it: “Я человек больной… Я злой человек. Непривлекательный я человек.” [I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. An unattractive man], literally “I man sick… I spiteful man. Unattractive I man,” ringing all the changes and producing an unforgettable collocation rather than a lexical belch. Of course, Notes from Underground in general is a furious ideological response to Chernyshevsky, but I hadn’t realized there was a stylistic response as well.

  17. Surname Rakhmetov is derived from Tatar name Rakhmet which in turn is derived from Arabic ‘rahman’ – ‘the compassionate’.

    Rather ironic, I’d say…

  18. David Marjanović says:

    is trumping Chernyshevsky’s feeble efforts along those lines and showing how a master does it

    A crescendo of increasing emphasis on the increasingly fronted adjectives – but the first of the three isn’t unstressed to begin with: putting the adjective behind the noun is unusual and therefore emphasis, too. No matter what the master does, he gets what he wants. 🙂

  19. Exactly!

  20. I doubt Rakhmetov was as central to Chernyshevsky’s concept as Scott Bailey believes. The rational egoism business was probably as important to the author. And, of course, he distilled his wife’s unfaithfulness into a vision of women’s liberation – a “phalanstery in a bordello,” as Herzen joked. Nabokov nailed it in Chapter Four of “The Gift.”

  21. Thanks so much for joining the readalong. What did you miss, I ask myself? Between Berman and Nabokov, not much. Among those two and Dostoevsky’s incessant parodying, much less. Whatever else the novel did, it gave Dostoevsky a lot to do.

  22. Literature can be used to disseminate ideas with devastating real-life consequences. In How Bad Writing Destroyed the World, Adam Weiner spans decades and continents to reveal the surprising connections between the 2008-2009 financial crisis and a relatively unknown nineteenth-century Russian author.

    A congressional investigation placed the blame for the financial crisis on Alan Greenspan and his deregulatory policies-his attempts, in essence, to put Ayn Rand’s Objectivism into practice. Though developed most famously in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, Objectivism sprouted from the Rational Egoism of Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to be Done? (1863), an enormously influential Russian novel decried by the likes of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Nabokov for its destructive radical ethics. In tracing the origins of Greenspan’s ruinous ideology, How Bad Writing Destroyed the World combines literary and intellectual history to uncover the danger of hawking “the virtues of selfishness,” even in fiction.

    I didn’t became a millionaire back in 2009, because Chernyshevsky wrote that damn book ;-((((

  23. Turkish linguist says:

    I read it in Turkish translation. Brought out by a left-wing publishing house, it is treated as a guide to action and a role model for life. In the land of Tayyip Erdogan, all kinds of political beliefs (Islamist, Turkish nationalist, Kurdish nationalist, Communist) are harder-edged than you might find elsewhere.
    It seems odd to me that Ayn Rand, who was a well-known anti-Communist, was inspired by Chernyshevsky.

  24. Was she? That is odd!

  25. David Marjanović says:

    Wouldn’t surprise me at all. Isn’t libertarianism an exact mirror image of communism?

  26. I put it this way (a non-linguistic Essentialist Explanation): Marxists believe that capital is essentially land, libertarians believe that land is essentially capital (where land includes all unimproved natural resources and state-granted monopolies). So both have a two-factor economics instead of the classical three-factor one, the third factor being labor.

  27. There’s also the MQ breakdown with state and property axes:

    Pro-state + pro-property = Capitalism
    Pro-state + anti-property = Communism
    Anti-state + pro-property = Libertarianism
    Anti-state + anti-property = Anarchism

    Rand never owned up to being influenced by Chernyshevsky. The proofs mostly amount to everyone of her generation in Russia was.

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