What Is to Be Done

An essay by Senior Contributing Editor Andrew Ng, ’22

Vladimir: Nothing you can do about it.

Estragon: No use struggling.

Vladimir: One is what one is.

Estragon: No use wriggling.

Vladimir: The essential doesn’t change.

Estragon: Nothing to be done.

– Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Vladimir and Estragon experience the Absurd, facing up against the purposelessness of life and the hopelessness of the world. The Absurd is, as Camus worded it, the “divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting.” The question of life – the question of living – bears heavily on the absurd man (note: in The Myth of Sisyphus (Tr: Justin O’Brien) Camus uses the phrase “absurd man,” as opposed to “absurd person,” etc. I have chosen to also use “absurd man” to maintain clarity and consistency, though I find it misogynistic), and truly on all of us. The philosopher and the writer confront the Absurd to examine humanity. Camus differentiates yet links these disciplines to find that “the great novelists are philosophical novelists,” yet not philosophers themselves: they write “in images rather than in reasoned arguments.” But Camus himself was undeniably both a novelist and a philosopher. And The Stranger is as much of an account of his philosophy as is The Myth of Sisyphus. The distinction then is a matter of appearances: the great author, as the Russian Formalists might put it, “defamiliarizes” the reader yet still conveys message and meaning. Meaning, for Camus, being a confrontation with the Absurd. 

This returns us to Beckett, a writer, or in the Camusian sense, a “creator,” yet a philosopher nonetheless. In the “Theater of the Absurd” we see our Godot-waiters confronting the question of life. They ask what is to be done. Camus states that the essential question is one of suicide: of life confronting death; of finiteness; of shortness; of the ultimate end that awaits us all and our lack of power in facing it. We come up against the end and see nothing beyond. The search for Godot is the search for meaning. A search Beckett dooms to failure just as Camus dooms Sisyphus’ quest. Much as Vladimir and Estragon may stand about, savor the crunch of a carrot, forget, and return again, Sisyphus must always push up and up, climbing toward an unreachable peak. Sisyphus’ fate is to continue his eternal task; likewise, Vladimir and Estragon conclude that “nothing is to be done.” They must maintain their quest in the face of its pointlessness.

The question of “what is to be done” might appear familiar to some readers, especially those well versed in history, literature, and political discourse. I am referring to Chernyshevsky, Tolstoy, and Lenin, but also a spirit of thought running through the history of mankind. It would be meaningless philosophizing to proclaim the question somehow “inherent” or “universal” to all of us, yet the impulse to do so is significant in itself. Its repetition through the works of the leftist canon, including Kropotkin, marks it with a significance which must be reckoned with. The first significant usage of it in such spirit – though it was undoubtedly heard long before – occurs in Chernyshevsky’s novel of the same name: What is to be Done. I will not devote time to deep analysis of this novel, frankly not having read it myself, but rather to its relationship with existentialist and absurdist thought. The distinction between existentialism and absurdism is important to note in this discourse. Existentialists – e.g. Sartre, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Dostoyevsky – face the lack of meaning in the universe and look for their own. For these thinkers we are “condemned to be free”: forced to seek a self-meaning and self-purpose in life. Camus and Beckett find this quest absurd: an impossible endeavour we can never accomplish. There is nothing to do. No meaning, personal nor universal, is ever possible in the vast emptiness of the world, the wide-open prairies of possibility devoid of hope, the clear skies empty of a heaven above. No matter how fecund the imagination or strong the will, the absurd man is condemned to wait for Godot, struggling toward the heights.

Returning again to Chernyshevsky, one encounters a conflict between the visions of the Russian nihilists and of Dostoyevsky. The question at hand is as follows: can a distinct current of leftist thought, exemplified in Chernyshevsky, Lenin, and Kropotkin, be reconciled with Existentialism or Absurdism. Chernyshevsky’s Russian nihilism was rational and socialist; radical and materialist; “negating” the dominant power structures of his time. Dostoyevsky was undoubtedly a reactionary and What is to be Done represented everything he opposed: a utilitarian socialist utopia built on scientific ideas (interestingly, our editor-in-chief is a self-proclaimed “eco-socialist,” yet is also a Dostoyevsky aficionado). His rebuttal was Notes from the Underground, which supported the maintenance of an individualist and religious spirit Dostoyevsky perceived receding from the increasingly liberal discourse of his day. Dostoyevsky was also an existentialist; his self-meaning revolved around an individualist vision of the world. But is Existentialism’s proclamation of our freedom inherently contradictory to the collectivist spirit intrinsic in leftist discourse? Our Underground Man would certainly answer in the affirmative. But I would not.

An answer to this question requires a deeper dive into leftist thought and a deeper picture of what individualism is and its relation to freedom. To that end, we turn to the work of Russian anarcho-socialist Peter Kropotkin. Kropotkin’s thought represents the most libertarian and thus arguably the most “free” area of socialist discourse. As innumerable before and after have strived for, Kropotkin aimed to discover “what is to be done” about the problems plaguing the world. His solution was an anarchist “utopia” of sorts, though Kropotkin would undoubtedly resist its characterization as in any way utopian. He saw this future society as not just potentially achievable but eminently realistic. Kropotkin’s vision was based upon a scientific understanding of the world; it can be linked to the materialism of the Russian nihilists and is distinct from yet in the same spirit as Marx’s scientific socialism. This is the current of socialist thought mentioned before, descended from Enlightenment rationality and empiricism. Kropotkin himself declared that anarchism’s “method of investigation is that of the exact natural sciences . . . Its aim is to construct a synthetic philosophy comprehending in one generalization all the phenomena of nature.” Our focus today is not in the specifics of Kropotkin’s plan, as interesting and detailed as it is, but rather in his understanding of the individualism and freedom found in this “synthetic philosophy” underpinning The Conquest of Bread

For Kropotkin, individualism is a social construct; a recent phenomena; a creation of “the last three centuries” which violates a fundamental human spirit of collectivism. By contrast, Dostoyevsky’s thought fundamentally linked individualism and existentialism. For him, the freedom of humanity resulting from the universe’s lack of meaning was best embodied in an individualist conception of the world. We are free to choose our own self-meaning, just as we are free to extort our tenants and engage in wage-slavery. But this is an incoherent relation. Sartre stated that: “there is a contingency of human existence.” Likewise, Kropotkin argues that individualism is contingent as well. There is no universal human impulse towards an individualist ideology. Rather, Kropotkin states that individualism actually runs contrary to our biological impulses of cooperation. He locates the origin of individualist ideology in the development of capitalism, explaining that “the development of individualism . . . is explained by the efforts of the individual to protect himself from the tyranny of capital and of the state.” Kropotkin supports human freedom against the state’s monopoly on power, yet opposes false individualism; authoritarianism and individualism are both constructed ideologies contrary to Kropotkin’s conception of human nature. Dostoyevsky’s individualism is thus socially contingent; his conception of individual freedom is not a necessary conclusion from Existentialism’s proclamation of humanity’s freedom. We are free to strive for our own meaning, futile as it may be. But this in no way requires a society built on a false ideology of fake freedom.

What is to be done then? Must we forgo all visions of the future and resign ourselves to the spectre of dusty death? Camus and Beckett argue we have no hope to ever find meaning in our meaningless universe. No matter how deeply one scours the dark recesses of the world, the effort will always be in vain. But as Camus states, “the struggle itself” is valuable. Sartre and Camus argue that we are free from universal meaning and Kropotkin argues we must free ourselves from the shackles of the state. This parallel is vitally important. Humanity’s freedom is not found in Dostoyevsky’s individualism, but rather in socialism. Leftist collectivism is not just compatible with existentialism and absurdism, but harmonious with it. Following in the legacy of Kropotkin and Chernyshevsky, we must locate our strive for self-meaning in the daily fight against injustice; against the “tyranny of capital”; against false individualism; against violence; and for freedom. Even if this quest for personal meaning is condemned to be fruitless, our efforts will not be in vain. We have no hope in finding meaning, but there is always hope in humanity’s collective spirit. 

Andrew Ng writes about political theory, philosophy, politics, economics, and science.


By Peter Kropotkin

Edited by Marshal S. Shatz

259 pp. Cambridge University Press; Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought


By Albert Camus

Translated from the French by Justin O’Brien

138 pp. Vintage International


A Tragicomedy in Two Acts

By Samuel Becket

61 pp. Grove Press


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