Nikolay Chernyshevsky

Nikolay Chernyshevsky
Никола́й Черныше́вский
N G Chernyshevsky.jpg
Born (1828-07-24)24 July 1828
Died 17 October 1889(1889-10-17) (aged 61)
Nationality Russian
Notable work
What Is to Be Done?
Era 19th-century philosophy
Region Russian philosophy
School
Main interests
Notable ideas
  • Rational egoism
  • Humans as chemical compounds
  • Materialist conception of aesthetics
Signature
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Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky[a] (24 July [O.S. 12 July] 1828 – 17 October 1889) was a Russian literary and social critic, journalist, novelist, and socialist philosopher, often identified as an utopian socialist and leading theoretician of Russian nihilism. He was the dominant intellectual figure of the 1860s revolutionary movement in Russia, despite spending much of his later life in exile to Siberia, and was later highly praised by Karl Marx, Georgi Plekhanov, and Vladimir Lenin.

Biography

The son of a priest, Chernyshevsky was born in Saratov in 1828, and stayed there until 1846. He graduated at the local seminary where he learned English, French, German, Italian, Latin, Greek and Old Slavonic. It was there he gained a love of literature.[2] At St Petersburg University he often struggled to warm his room. He kept a diary of trivia like the number of tears he shed over a dead friend. It was here that he became an atheist.[3]

He was inspired by the works of Hegel, Ludwig Feuerbach and Charles Fourier and particularly the works of Vissarion Belinsky and Alexander Herzen. After graduating from Saint Petersburg University in 1850, he taught literature at a gymnasium in Saratov. From 1853 to 1862, he lived in Saint Petersburg, and became the chief editor of Sovremennik (“The Contemporary”), in which he published his main literary reviews and his essays on philosophy. By the time he graduated from the university, Chernyshevsky developed revolutionary and materialist views. From 1851–1853, he taught Russian language and literature at the Saratov Gymnasium. He openly expressed his beliefs to students, some of whom later became revolutionaries.[4]

Chernyshevsky was sympathetic to the 1848 revolutions throughout Europe. He followed the events of the time and rejoiced in the gains of the revolutionary parties.[5]

In 1855, Chernyshevsky defended his master's dissertation, "The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality", which contributed for the development of materialist aesthetics in Russia. Chernyshevsky believed that "What is of general interest in life -- that is the content of art" and that art should be a "textbook of life." He wrote, "Science is not ashamed to say that its aim is to understand and explain reality, and then to use its explanation for man's benefit. Let not art be ashamed to admit that its aim is ... to reproduce this precious reality and explain it for the good of mankind."[6]

In 1862, he was arrested and confined in the Fortress of St. Peter and Paul, where he wrote his famous novel What Is to Be Done? The novel was an inspiration to many later Russian revolutionaries, who sought to emulate the novel's hero Rakhmetov, who was wholly dedicated to the revolution, ascetic in his habits and ruthlessly disciplined, to the point of sleeping on a bed of nails and eating only raw steak in order to build strength for the Revolution. Among those who have referenced the novel include Lenin, who wrote a political pamphlet of the same name.

In 1862, Chernyshevsky was sentenced to civil execution (mock execution), followed by penal servitude (1864–1872), and by exile to Vilyuisk, Siberia (1872–1883). He died at the age of 61.

Ideas and influence

Chernyshevsky was a founder of Narodism, Russian socialism, and agitated for the revolutionary overthrow of the Tsar and the creation of a socialist society based on the old peasant commune. He exercised the greatest influence upon populist youth of the 1860s and 1870s. [7]

Chernyshevsky believed that American democracy was the best aspect of American life. He welcomed the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, which he believed marked a new period for "the great North American people" and that America would progress to heights "not attained since Jefferson's time." He praised these developments: "The good repute of the North American nation is important for all nations with the rapidly growing significance of the North American states in the life of all humanity." [8]

Chernyshevsky's ideas were heavily influenced by Alexander Herzen, Vissarion Belinsky, and Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach. He saw class struggle as the means of society's forward movement and advocated for the interests of the working people. In his view, the masses were the chief maker of history. He is reputed to have used the phrase “the worse the better”, to indicate that the worse the social conditions became for the poor, the more inclined they would be to launch a revolution (though he did not originate the phrase, which predates his birth; for example, in an 1814 letter John Adams used it when discussing the lead-up to the American revolution[9]).

There are those arguing, in the words of Professor Joseph Frank, that “Chernyshevsky’s novel What Is to Be Done?, far more than Marx’s Das Kapital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution”.[10]

Fyodor Dostoyevsky was enraged by the demagoguery of the political and psychological ideas expressed in the book,[11] and wrote Notes from Underground largely as a reaction against it.

Russian bolshevik Vladimir Ilyich Lenin praised Chernyshevsky: "..he approached all the political events of his times in a revolutionary spirit and was able to exercise a revolutionary influence by advocating, in spite of all the barriers and obstacles placed in his way by the censorship, the idea of a peasant revolution, the idea of the struggle of the masses for the overthrow of all the old authorities” [12]

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels studied Chernyshevsky's works and called him a "great Russian scholar and critic".[13]

A number of scholars have contended that Ayn Rand, who grew up in Russia when Chernyshevsky's novel was still influential and ubiquitous, was influenced by the book.[14]

Works

  • Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality [1] From:Russian Philosophy Volume II: The Nihilists, The Populists, Critics of Religion and Culture, Quadrangle Books 1965;
  • Essays on the Gogol Period in Russian Literature
  • Critique of Philosophical Prejudices Against Communal Ownership
  • The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy
  • What Is to Be Done? (1863)
  • Prologue
  • The Nature of Human Knowledge

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