What is to be Done?

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The question "What Is To Be Done?" crystallized critical issues inherent in the Russian revolutionary movement between 1850 and 1917. Specifically, it defined the focus and direction of the struggle to reform and modernize Russia's archaic political, economic, and social structure of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which had subsequently given rise to the Russian autocracy and Russian state. Ultimately, two distinct responses emerged, generated by Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky in 1863 and Vladimir Ilich Lenin in 1902. Interestingly, each was titled "What Is To Be Done?" Although the works were separated by forty years, they had much in common.

As a proponent of change in pre-industrial, populist Russia, Chernyshevsky accepted the peasant obshchina (commune) as the basis for the new Russia. He believed that the obshchina not only represented a truly democratic (egalitarian) socialist society, but also enabled Russia to avoid the evils of capitalism that existed in European industrial societies. However, Chernyshevsky insisted that revolution, not gradualism, was necessary for the transformation of Russia, and even then it could occur only through the dedicated commitment of revolutionary activists, which he called the new revolutionary archetypes.

By 1902 proletarian (Marxian) socialism had replaced agrarian populism within the Russian revolutionary movement. Faced with a declining socialist revolutionary radicalism, Lenin sought its revitalization. Like Chernyshevsky, Lenin favored the overthrow of the tsarist government and rejected the economic gradualism (called economism) of his time. Lenin did more than create a new revolutionary prototype; however, he formulated a new revolutionary catechism (Bolshevism) for conducting the revolution, one that eventually overthrew the tsarist government in 1917.

See also: chernyshevsky, nikolai gavrilovich; lenin, vladimir ilich


Tucker, Robert C., ed. (1975). The Lenin Anthology. New York: Norton.

Venturi, Franco. (1966). The Roots of Revolution: A History of the Populist and Socialist Movements in Nineteenth Century Russia. New York: Grosset's Universal Library.

David K. McQuilkin