1905 title page
|Original title||Что дѣлать?|
Published in English
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
What Is To Be Done? (Russian: Что делать?, tr. Chto délat'?; also translated as What Shall We Do? and literally translated as "What To Do?") is an 1863 novel written by the Russian philosopher, journalist and literary critic Nikolai Chernyshevsky. It was written in response to Fathers and Sons (1862) by Ivan Turgenev. The chief character is a woman, Vera Pavlovna, who escapes the control of her family and an arranged marriage to seek economic independence. The novel advocates the creation of small socialist cooperatives based on the Russian peasant commune, but oriented toward industrial production. The author promoted the idea that the intellectual's duty was to educate and lead the laboring masses in Russia along a path to socialism that bypassed capitalism. One of the characters in the novel, Rakhmetov (Рахметов), became an emblem of the philosophical materialism and nobility of Russian radicalism despite his minor role. The novel also expresses, in one character's dream, a society gaining "eternal joy" of an earthly kind. The novel has been called "a handbook of radicalism" and led to the founding of the Land and Liberty society.
When he wrote the novel, the author was himself imprisoned in the Peter and Paul fortress of St. Petersburg, and he was to spend years in Siberia. Chernyshevsky asked for and received permission to write the novel in prison, and the authorities passed the manuscript along to his former employer, the newspaper Sovremennik, which also approved it for publication in installments in its pages. Lenin, Plekhanov, Peter Kropotkin, Alexandra Kollontay, Rosa Luxemburg, and also the Swedish writer August Strindberg were all highly impressed with the book, and it came to be officially regarded as a Russian classic in the Soviet period.
Within the framework of a story of a privileged couple who decide to work for the revolution, and ruthlessly subordinate everything in their lives to the cause, the work furnished a blueprint for the asceticism and dedication unto death which became an ideal of the early socialist underground of the Russian Empire.
The book is perhaps better known in the English-speaking world for the responses it created than as a novel in its own right. 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. Leo Tolstoy wrote a different What Is To Be Done?, published in 1886, based on his own ideas of moral responsibility. Vladimir Lenin, however, found it inspiring and named a 1902 pamphlet "What Is To Be Done?". Lenin is said to have read the book five times in one summer, and according to Professor Emeritus of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Stanford, Joseph Frank, 'Chernyshevsky's novel, far more than Marx's Capital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution.'
The novel mentions (in the 4th dream of Vera Pavlovna) aluminium as the "metal of the future". In fact aluminium became widely used only starting with World War I (1914).
The "Dame in mourning" appearing at the end of the novel is Olga S. Chernyshevskaya, the author's wife.
Dostoyevsky argues with Chernyshevsky's ideas in Notes from Underground. In particular, he responds negatively to Chernyshevsky's idealization of The Crystal Palace, a theme which is referenced throughout Russian literature.
The main character of Gide's Les caves du Vatican (En. Lafcadio's Adventures), Lafcadio, resembles Rakhmetov.
In the book Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, author Chris Matthew Sciabarra claims that What Is to Be Done? is one of the sources of inspiration for Rand's thought. For example, the book's main character Lopuhov says "I am not a man to make sacrifices. And indeed there are no such things. One acts in the way that one finds most pleasant."