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What is to be done?

2020-03-03 | Arts and Entertainment

We all know Lenin's "What Is to Be Done?". It is well-known that its title is a reference to a certain novel. Why? What was this novel, what did it tell, and, above all, what turned a romantic novel into the common reference for Russian revolutionaries?

Boris Kustodiev, «Emancipation of serfs»

In March 1861 a manifesto by the Tsar abolished Russian serfdom. The feudal state apparatus was attempting to seize the direction of capitalist development. The Russian revolutionary movement of the time, struggling for a peasant revolution, separated itself from the liberal sections of the aristocracy. Around Herzen's ideas -to move directly from the peasant commune to socialism without passing through capitalism- a secret society was organized, "Land and Liberty", which was also inspired by the ideas and texts of a democratic and atheist writer fascinated by the texts of Fourier and Owen: Nicolai Chernishevski. Marx and Engels later recognized him as "the leader of the revolutionary party". So did the Russian political police, who in 1862 arrested him and put him in solitary confinement in the Peter and Paul Tower prison.

Peter and Paul Tower prison.

In his cell, Chernishevski requests permission to write, which entails subjecting himself to censorship. The political opposition as a whole, inside and outside the country, awaits his text as a sign, as a suggested direction for the new historical stage. To the surprise of his watchers and censors, instead of a manifesto or an essay, he delivers the chapters of what looks like a love story: "What Is to Be Done?". And if the title is both a statement and a call for attention to the democratic political environment of the time, the subtitle, "New People", advances the approach with which the author hopes to both dodge censorship and transform the confused democratic-radical environment.


He undertakes nothing less than a critique of the moral of the owning classes. Through his character's construction he confronts the basic platitudes of the petty bourgeoisie and the "pragmatism" of a bourgeoisie shamelessly reveling at the future that Tsarism is opening up for it. Chernishevski denounces the alienation caused by money; he rereads Epicurus to interpret happiness as a social product rather than as an individual appropriation; he demolishes the concept of the "individual" to affirm that "there is nothing above the person", that is, above concrete social beings; he surprises his readers by unashamedly affirming the equality between men and women and demanding its recognition. He provides a guideline for those young people to take on new roles in their relationship with the collective, with the family, with their couple... and with work. Because a conception of work linked to the perspective of an abundant society, organized around the satisfaction of real human needs, emerges, imbuing everything in the novel. This conception is communism, on which he encourages his followers:

Aspire to it, work for it, bring it closer, translate from it to the present situation as much as you can.

In other words, Chernishevski is addressing, for the first time, the affirmation of a communist morality. The approach, in Kropotkin's words, "was a kind of revelation and became a kind of ensign for the youth of the time". But it was not only for that time's youth ("Plekhanov" who dedicated several texts to it, "Vera Zasulich", etc.) but also for the following generations. Lenin, who confessed to having read it five times in a row when he discovered it and who always carried a copy with him - Krupskaya told Lunacharski that "hardly any author was more esteemed" - claimed that the novel:

It struck me deeply. It accompanied me throughout my life

And it was no different with the young generation of the 1917 Revolution. Lili Brik, Mayakovski's partner, said after his death that the poet constantly returned to it because he used the book as a way of reflecting and seeking solutions to ethical problems. The novel, she said, "echoed our lives". They were by no means the only ones.

No morality without consequences

«Now I am also free». Bolshevik poster in Uzbekistan, 1919

Today Lenin's "What Is to Be Done" is remembered more than Chernishevsky's, even though it is well known that the revolutionary chose the title as a reference to the novel. But what reference? What did Lenin intend to convey with it?

We cannot understand this without the detailed references in the novel to Robert Owen's community and cooperative experiences. This is because the impetus towards communist morality given by the novel translated into a broad movement, first of "residential communes" of students; then of populist rural "artels" that would end partly in Tolstoianism and partly in cooperativism, although some of these would later become private companies. Finally, since the 1890s, groups of workers formed urban "artels", a movement that would multiply during the revolution and that at the end of the 1920s - before being banned by Stalin - would take the form of "production collectives". In both the artels and the "residential communes," members shared all income in a common fund that met everyone's needs. The difference is that in the artels and "production communities" the members not only lived together but worked together-whether as a labor cooperative or as a crew- while in the "residential communes" the members worked in outside occupations and then contributed their wages and income to a common fund.

Chernishevski's influence in the 1860s and beyond was strong. It is well known that the "nihilists" searched the pages of What is to be done? for clues on how to organize the artels and residential communes. Some of the most important radicals of the 1870s came out of a communal environment. When they were arrested, revolutionaries often brought the communal idea to prison. The men and women of Kara Penal Colony shared all property, read to each other, and lived according to a strictly written constitution.

Richard Stites, "Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution"

Lenin playing chess with Bogdanov in the Party school of Capri during the years Lunacharsky was writing his work on communist morality.

In 1890 a young Lenin, who was waiting for permission to take his exams, met Preobazhenski when the latter was organizing artels in Alakaievka. Years later, the original core of "Iskra" formed by Lenin himself, Martov and Zasulich lived as a "residential commune" in Petrograd. And when they moved to London, the position of Lenin - who decided to live with his family because he could not bear the mess that always accompanied Zasulich - was occupied by Trotsky. The politicized young Russians of the 80s and 90s of the 19th century will adopt a certain way of life that would make militant dedication natural in their environments.

Chernishevsky's "What Is to Be Done?" brought a glimmer of communist morality to a generation; the youth of that time transformed their way of life accordingly and in so doing created the basis for the arrival of the ideas and texts of the international workers' movement and the emergence of the first Russian Marxist groups, even before the existence of a modern and massive proletariat in the country.

Representation of the alliance between worker class and petty bourgeois peasantry during the twenties in Russia.

In 1902 Lenin proposed both a change of perspective and an equally shocking goal: the proletariat should lead the bourgeois democratic revolution by leading the peasantry (petty bourgeoisie) ... not only against the feudal autocracy but also against the bourgeoisie itself. And to get there, a new kind of class party was needed. A party that would be built as such around a newspaper designed to establish already the positions and alliances of the very peculiar form of bourgeois democratic revolution to come. A party in which, in the peculiar conditions of repression and struggle against the political police, the proletariat as a whole would "highlight" a particular type of militant: the "professional revolutionary".

But what did a social democrat of Lenin's generation mean by a proletarian who became a "professional revolutionary" - an individual "liberated" ‎from wage labor‎ who went on to make a living from the organization, or someone who professed a communist morality such as that outlined in the original "What Is to Be Done"? The double reference to the book is actually a unity: a change of perspective that transforms material possibilities and a new human type of militant that emerges from this. Because in reality communist morality is nothing but a perspective that, when adopted, projects the future onto the present.

Further reading