There are a great many aspects of life where there are two simultaneous responses or opinions or feelings we have towards a situation are held in tension. One of the characteristic aspects of such situations is that we will attempt to resolve the tension by emphasizing one aspect of the twin poles and disregarding the other. In few cases can this tendency be more easily recognized than in our response to the injustices of our present evil world. There are few people, I hope, who are blind enough or corrupt enough to think that our present world is just and right. Whatever our response to the evils in our world, whatever our attitude is towards those evils and our beliefs as far as which evils are the most important and the most significant, I think it can be readily admitted that anyone who is remotely observant will recognize that a great deal is wrong with the world, however they disagree as to what is wrong. What is notable, if perhaps not original, is that there are two characteristic responses to this evil, that they were recognized and explored early on, and that they remain deeply relevant to our own contemporary society and its struggles. What is to be done and who is to blame?
“What Is To Be Done?” was an early 20th century pamphlet written by Vladimir Lenin, best known for later being the first Communist ruler of the Soviet Union. Without going into detail about his specific ideas about what was to be done to further the progressive vision of a history ruled over by the proletariat of the masses, the question of what is to be done presupposes some aspect of responsibility for the current (or future) state of affairs. In the tension of dealing with the unsatisfactory state of affairs, asking the question of what is to be done suggests that there is something that we can or should do about it and indicates that we have some level of responsibility for the change we seek. To be sure, the answer to the question of what is to be done does not have to be anything at all, but it can be nothing. We can say, for example, that what is to be done is to be patient and to let God work out a given situation, and that places upon us the responsibility to be patient. Even inaction is itself an action. More often, though, the question tends to lead people to ponder the efficacy of various political and/or revolutionary approaches to changing an unpleasant reality.
“Who Is To Blame?” is the title of what was perhaps the first social novel in the Russian language, written by Alexander Herzen and published in the 1840’s, shortly before the revolutionary year of 1848 that swept across Europe. The plot of the novel is itself somewhat unimportant to our present purposes, but it is worthwhile to notice that one of the common approaches to an unacceptable reality is to ask the question of who is to blame. Sometimes this question is asked in preparation of action to be taken against a particular party. Sometimes the question is asked in order to seek to induce action on the part of a party judged to be at fault, or a successor of a party at fault, so that a past wrong can be paid for in some fashion. At other times the question is asked so that people do not feel that they are blamed for a particular situation that they happen to find themselves in, or at least not completely to blame. Very often there are multiple parties at fault, and occasionally there are even innocent victims. To the extent that we emphasize who is to blame, we are seeking to place responsibility for improving an unacceptable reality on someone else who we judge as partly (or wholly) to blame for that reality.
It should be noted that these responses are not necessarily have to be adopted in isolation. Indeed, they can be combined (and have been) in a wide variety of ways. What is to be done ranges from nothing to seeking like-minded people to telling one’s story to seeking gradual political change or revolutionary overthrow of the status quo. Who is to blame can be no one, God, previous generations, other genders/classes/ or societies, everyone, or any other combination of different people or groups of people. Indeed, any time one happens to come across an unpleasant reality, it is worthwhile to ask both of those questions as a matter of seeking to better understand it, even when one does not necessarily have any interest or ability in doing anything about it. We can look at how situations develop by examining how these two questions are variously answered by different parties.
Let us now close with some discussion on how this can be done. For example, the injustice of the Dred Scott decision led Northerners to answer what is wrong by pointing to a corrupt but powerful Democratic party that pandered to Southern elements and decided that what is to be done is to replace that government with a different one. When this was done in 1860, the majority of the political population of the Deep South thought that what was wrong was the election of a Yankee antislavery regime in Abraham Lincoln’s administration and who was to blame were the voters of the North and that what was to be done was to separate from the United States to establish a new oligarchical republic dedicated to the proposition that some men were more equal than others. In response the North decided that the South was to blame for this situation and that what was to be done was to crush rebellion. The rest of what happened is a familiar and lengthy story, but it can be well understood when the questions of who is to blame and what is to be done are answered for various parties. This is definitely a fruitful area for discussion and analysis, to be sure.