First the question should move from the passive to the positive – to ‘What do we do?’ even to ‘What are we doing?’ Lenin could use the passive form, he could assume an army of followers moving along the reasonably well mapped-out road of socialism. Having neither armies nor road nowadays, the passive question indicates nothing more than armchair theorising. […] We can’t answer the question – ‘what do we do?’ – can’t even deal with it in any meaningful way until we build axes of community and of solidarity from ourselves, through our lives, concomitant with our work. Building structures in which we can communicate and ask these questions – not just of myself or yourself, but to a society of others. For the moment, what we do is to build these structures and structure ourselves within them. Build these relationships within our lives so that we’ll be able to ask this question in a meaningful way – What is to be done? David Landy, Tampere, Finland[1]

Whquestion. Interrogative. Allows speaker to find out more information about topic. Wh- interrogative clauses often followed by to-infinitives with a covert subject.

IS – third person singular present ‘to be’. – linking verb, auxiliary verb, helping verb. As auxiliary can be used to indicate something that is due to happen.

to: as in, in order to.

be: an irregular and defective verb. Primary auxiliary verb. Has progressive or durative aspect.

What kind of question is ‘what is to be done’? So often it marks the moment when thought is over and action must proceed: a question that punctuates and firmly separates the realm of thought from the realm of action. A question that, as Jean-Luc Nancy has noted, is often posed to philosophers who seemingly think too much and do little.[2] It is a question that embodies so many knots of theory and practice, of thought and action and the ways in which those relationships are organised.

Solutions to questions of a scientific nature remove the need for the question. The problem is solved and so the question becomes redundant. By contrast, in philosophy and much cultural analysis, questioning operates as a particular procedure that builds a way not to a solution that would absolve the question, but to an altered, and perhaps critical relationship to the thing questioned. As Heidegger argues, such procedures of critical questioning are said to prepare a ‘free relation’ to the thing questioned.[3] One might say then, that the scientific question is rather closed in comparison to this more open-ended form of philosophical questioning. The scientific question assumes a certain level of knowledge already and requires only clarification of a detail: a piece of information that will remove the question itself. Closed questions get answers that the questioner expects. The act of answering within those pre-defined terms could be seen therefore as a rather passive act.

And so, I ask again: what kind of question is ‘what is to be done’? It may seem to be an incredibly open question, one that is almost too large to contemplate. Yet, if we consider the grammar of the question itself and the context of its public address, particularly in Lenin’s utterance of it, the question begins to resemble something much more closed in its rhetorical force, perhaps almost an imperative, an attempt to have a public do something that the questioner wants done.


hang out the washing

clean the loo

read the paper

pick up the dog

watch Desperate Housewives tonight at 10pm

M. Kearney, Dublin, Ireland[4]

to be: to-infinitive. Present infinitive. Infinitive is base. Unmarked base form of verb. to-infinitive can be combined with passive constructions. to-infinitives usually have no subject, although its subject is implied by the context. Infinitive is non finite. Form does not bind verb to a specific subject or tense. To be also used to indicate something that is due to happen: bride to-be. It remains to be seen.

Verbs describe states, events and actions. The tense of the main verb of a sentence establishes the time frame of an action. Infinitives however, are unmarked and unbound to any particular tense. Specifying the time frame in ‘what is to be done?’ is postponed or left open. As a result, the verb in this seemingly most active of active questions, in our question that contains an implicit critique of non-action, behaves in fact like a state and not an action.

Post Bolshevik revolution, the question originally formulated in Russian, is translated into English not as ‘what to do?’ (which would be closer also to the French, German and Finnish translations)[5], but as ‘what is to be done?’. ‘What to do?’ bears similar problems to the more common English formulation, but the insertion of the ‘done’ edges what might be due or imminent (the ‘to-be’) into the realm of the already over, decided and done for. This fact that the slippage of translation from the Russian ‘Chto Delat? (literally ‘what to do?’ in English) to  the English phrase ‘what is to be done?’ happens in 1929, well after the October Revolution seems significant.


[…] The 21st Century Left need have no identity, no head office, leadership, or fixed territory. Participants need only agree on a manner of collective decision-making, which values breadth of participation and is biased toward operating by consent, minimising coercion. Such a mode of collective decision making encourages self-defence, and tends to block the formation of conventional armies and policing. It disabuses the group of any aspiration to exercise power, whether over a territory, a people or an epoch. Zones of this kind are the way forward. Kathy Kang, Sydney, Australia.[6]

done: past perfect, over, completed. Can also function as adjective. Gerund.

to be done: inflexional form of verb: to do. To accomplish, finish, bring to a conclusion. Expresses a state and not an action. Present infinitive using past participle.

[wh-] IS TO BE DONE: passive voice because of ‘be’ before verb phrase in past participle. Passive voice omits the agent. Agentless passives. Used to focus attention on target of action rather than performer.

passive infinitive

Our agents are covert, oddly omitted in the seeming conferral of direct public address. The passive formulation can only assume a public already on board, as Landy points out above, or serve to obscure or naturalise a source of power. Subjectivity is separate from action here. Action is a task, a piece of work already defined, that must be done. Thinking, experiencing, making decisions, deciphering how to proceed with, or into a future, is rendered unnecessary to our question.

The grammar of any sentence organises the relationship between subjects – verbs – objects (or agents – actions – telos). The time frame and passive voice established by the question ‘what is to be done?’ circumscribes a form or action that relates to the future only in the form of a volunteering to carry out a task in which the passive subject has had no part in formulating. The future, decided on yesterday, can be signed up for today. Action is bound to a rigid notion of consciousness that produces a will and a rational decision to serve. ‘What is to be done?’ emerges as a profoundly scientific question.

Arguably, the grammar of organisation that this influential and oft-quoted question reveals (and indeed inaugurates) is passive, fixed and authoritarian. This statement is not necessarily an argument for making our questions less scientific and more philosophical, nor is it meant to be re-capitulate old debates between Marx and Bakunin. Questions of power, organisation and modes of interrupting the repetition of old structures in future societies have long since been addressed and radically developed through feminist discourse, indigenous and post-colonial struggles. The sense of urgency and pragmatism that often accompanies the utterance of the question ‘what is to be done?’ must be maintained, but we must remain wary of how such an appeal pre-determines the future and constitutes the subjects present as a priori Revolutionary agents. So when this question is re-stated in 2005, we must re-think the specific forms of organisation, relationships with each other, and relationships with the future that were implicit in Lenin and Chernyshevky’s original question. Such a re-thinking certainly involves a critical assessment of forms of organisation such as the Party or the soviet, but as I have suggested it also necessitates a careful examination of the rhetoric of the question ‘what is to be done?’ itself.

What is to be done? […] perhaps the uncertainly of what is to be done today is so great , so fluctuating, so indeterminate, that we do not need even to do this: to raise the question. Especially if one already knows what it is right to think, and that the only issue is how one might then proceed to act. […] “What is to be done?” means for us: how to make a world for which all is not already done (played out, finished, enshrined in destiny) nor still entirely to do (in the future for always future tomorrows). What will become of our world is something we cannot know, and we can no longer believe in being able to predict or command it. But we can act in such a way that this world is a world able to open itself up to its own uncertainty as such. These are not vague generalities. […] Where certainties come apart, there too gathers the strength that no certainty can match” Jean-Luc Nancy, France [7]

[1] This response to the question was gathered by Susan Kelly and Stephen Morton as part of the first exhibition/ archive/ series of events entitled What is to be done? Question for the 21st Century held at the Lenin Museum in Tampere, Finland in 2002. The archive exhibitions and events have continued since 2002 in Dublin, Prague, New York, Vilnius, Weimar and Krasnoyarsk. In the archive there are currently over 1,000 responses to the question ‘what is to be done?’ in over 20 languages.

[2] Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘What is to be Done?’ in Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy Retreating the Political, London: Routledge, 1996, pp.157-158. [originally published Paris: Famerion, 1979]

[3] Martin Heidegger Being and Time, trans. John McQuarrie and Edward Robinson, Oxford: Blackwell, 1995, p.16.

[4] A response gathered at the Project Arts Centre, Dublin, January 2005, as part of an exhibition and series of talks and screenings, entitled ‘communism.’ The question here is taken as self-addressed. The question creates order out of chaos, and so leads to its own redundancy once the day is over.

[5] Chto Delat? (Russian), Que faire? (French), Was tun? (German) and Mitä on Tehtävä? (Finnish)

[6] Response gathered from an email exchange in 2003.

[7] Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘What is to be Done?’ in Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy Retreating the Political, London: Routledge, 1996, pp.157-158. [originally published Paris: Famerion, 1979]