N. G. Chernyshevskii (1828-1889), a pivotal figure in the protest movement that developed in Russia after the Crimean War, was esteemed by both Marx and Lenin. Alienated from Russia’s traditional values, institutions, and power structure, he nevertheless rejected the economic doctrines and political goals of the more advanced nations of his day, seeing in the operation of laissez-faire economics a form of exploitation as vicious as serfdom, and in political liberalism a hypocritical attempt to divorce the concept of legal rights from the more basic issue of material security, without which freedom is meaningless.
He adopted instead an admixture of liberal and socialist theory, which could be roughly characterized as utopian socialist, but which simultaneously was part of a larger populist tradition. His radicalism attached itself to no particular political form, but was sustained by a belief that the inadequacies of society could be corrected only by its complete overhaul, which in turn could be accomplished only by the destruction of traditional autocratic power. This blend of ideas ultimately provided the basis for those radicals seeking to take advantage of Russia’s economic backwardness by eliminating the phase of capitalism and proceeding directly to a socialist form of organization.
By contributing to the radical orientation of the protest movement, Chernyshevskii encouraged a polarization of views in Russian public opinion, which led to the abandonment of moderate reforms, to governmental reaction, and to his own tragic imprisonment and exile to Siberia. But through his diverse writings he had succeeded as no other writer before him in popularizing the idea of revolution.
This first thorough treatment of Chernyshevskii in English constitutes both a biography and a presentation of his views on philosophy, aesthetics and literary criticism, economics and social relations, politics and revolution.