“. . . politically the most subversive aspect of Chekhov’s thinking is his systematic demonstration of the illusory nature of all labels, categories and divisions of human beings into social groups and social classes, which are the starting point of all political theories of his time and ours.”
My sense is that we no longer recognize individual human beings. They – we -- have become invisible, in Ralph Ellison’s sense: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” We see not hapless, bumbling, fallible souls like ourselves but members of arbitrarily defined tribes, which makes it easier to demonize, segregate and disregard them. As individuals, we’re too sticky and contradictory. “Categories and divisions” are much easier to deal with. Life must be enviably simple for a social justice warrior. Thinking can be confidently kept to a minimum. No need to peer below surfaces. The observation at the top is from Simon Karlinsky and Michael Henry Heim’s Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary (1973). Karlinsky goes on:
“Chekhov’s repeated insistence `labels and trademarks’ such as `liberal,’ `conservative,’ `Populist’ or `neurotic,’ when used as a total description of any one person, are nothing but superstitions which keep people from perceiving the deeper moral and human realities implies a reasoned rejection of the political thinking that has been one of the mainstays of Russian literature and literary criticism from the 1840s on.”
In his 1896 story “The House with the Mezzanine” (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Stories, 2000), Chekhov gives us Lida Volchaninova, an early incarnation of the social justice warrior, a distant, more strident cousin of Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House (whom I think of as a female, English Rousseau). Lida and her creator share one quality – social work, self-sacrifice, a devotion to helping others. Chekhov built hospitals and libraries, as a physician treated thousands without charge and exposed the horrors of Sakhalin. But Lida is a humorless fanatic who brutalizes her mother and younger sister. Public do-gooder, private authoritarian and bully. We know the type. Public displays of virtue make it easier to be a self-righteous thug at home. The story’s narrator is a painter, and Lida disapproves:
“She did not find me sympathetic. She disliked me because I was a landscape painter and did not portray the needs of the people in my pictures, and because I was, as it seemed to her, indifferent to what she so strongly believed in.” Comrade Volchaninova is Chekhov’s prescient portrait of an apparatchik, a loyal Party servant who sees members of social classes, not people, and is eager to set things right.