Maxim Gorky

The People Must Know Their History!

Written: unknown;
Source: In Culture and the People, International Publishers, 1939;
Online Version: Maxim Gorky Internet Archive ( 2002;
Transcription\Markup: Sally Ryan.

THESE words were often repeated by the liberal "educators of the people" long before the October Revolution. They expressed the desire of the Russian bourgeois intellectuals to equip the working people with a knowledge of their past and rouse them to active opposition against the autocratic order of the Romanov tsars. For these autocrats were reluctant to share the "fullness of their power" with the landowners, manufacturers, and bankers. In the states of Western Europe the capitalists had long ago taken over power from the monarchy and made themselves complete masters of the soil and the lives of the people--the same people, of course, through whom they had seized power.

What did the workers and peasants gain when power passed from the kings and nobles to the bankers and manufacturers? Real life to-day gives the answer: among the capitalists of Europe the lust for profit has become a meaningless, mechanical habit, the savage sweating of labour-power from the workers has led capitalism into an unparalleled economic crisis, over thirty million workers have been thrown on the streets to starve, while the capitalists, exploiting the defencelessness of working folk, are cutting the wages of those still in employment.

"The people must know their history." Before the October Revolution the masses could not know their history for the simple reason that almost all the workers and peasants were nearly or completely illiterate. But even if this reason had suddenly, by some miracle, been eliminated, the working people would still not have learned the real historical truth about their past. They would have remained ignorant of it, not only because knowledge of the truth was strictly forbidden by the tsarist censors, not only because in addition to the censorship special branches of the police and secret service were keenly on the watch to keep the truth from the rank and file of the labouring class; they would have remained ignorant of the truth because the truth was damaging and dangerous to the landowners, manufacturers, bankers. The genuine, incontestable truth of history is, that the whole life of the workers and peasants is nothing but a struggle of people without arms, education, or rights against people armed with all the knowledge of science, and holding absolute rights to plunder other men's labour.

"The people must know their history." What would a true history of their past life have told them?

They would have learned from the telling of it that their intellect and their will played no part in the process of history, that their whole lives only accomplished their own enslavement to the selfish, inhuman will of the capitalists. They would have learned that in various countries from time to time the people could no longer endure their slavery; and then from their midst, from their own flesh and blood, sprang the organisers of their wrath and vengeance. Then came the Italian, Fra Dolcino; the German, Thomas Munzer; the Czech, John Huss; then came the Russians: Ivan Bolotnikov, Stepan Razin, Yemelyan Pugachev. All these insurrections suffered the same fate: the soldiery of the church, the kings, the tsars--peasants themselves, the well armed serfs of the boyars and nobles, drowned the insurrections in the blood of their brothers; the leaders were butchered by executioners, while the survivors of the defeat once more fell into the power of the boyars, nobles, kings, and tsars.

History would have told them how half-literate priests taught the working people patience and submission to the "authorities appointed by God"; how peasants were made monks by force and monasteries built with their man-power; how the number of "lay parasites" was swollen and brought into being, in which the peasant worked with a plough and his parasite with a spoon. To increase its power and influence over the ignorant people, the church staged flimsy tricks which it called "miracles," from the boyars it created "saints," men of God--all for the benefit of the authorities. The main task of all churches was one and the same: to impress upon the poor serfs that there was no happiness for them on earth; happiness was prepared for them in heaven, and meanwhile back-breaking toil for some other fellow was pleasing in the sight of God.

A peasant could not be admitted to the canon of saints, but nobody stopped him from engaging in the sinful occupation of farming with hired servants and of money-lending. All the better for the big animal if the little animal is fat; he is all the nicer to eat. The most shrewd and cunning among the working people fought their way out of a dark, laborious, poverty-stricken life and added to the number of those who sat on the patient neck of the working people by sitting on it themselves.

In October 1917 a new history of humanity was begun in our country. Every literate worker and peasant must learn it, for the new history is being made in accordance with that eternal truth, which draws onward the working people of the whole world, and has often fired them with the longing to realise it in practice, to build life on its foundation. This is the only truth with the power to improve all the conditions of life for the workers and peasants. The first man to prove beyond dispute that the old history of humanity was drawing to its end and that the time had come to create a new history--the history of the complete emancipation of the working people from the cruel yoke of the rich--this man was Karl Marx.

He and his successor, the genius Vladimir Lenin, firmly and permanently established the simple, clear truth: the life of the working people, the proletariat of town and village, cannot be changed for the better while the conditions exist which make it possible for one man to live on the labour of tens and hundreds and thousands of people. The penal conditions of labour and barbarous forms of social life which are built on greed, envy, incessant strife, and which senselessly exhaust the labour energy of the working people--these shameful conditions can be changed only by the working class. For this purpose the working class must take over political power; it must take over all the land and everything that it produces and yields when intelligent, systematic human labour is applied to it--everything useful to men that is hidden in the bowels of the earth; it must take over all the means of production: tools, machines, factories, ships, locomotives; it must take over everything that has been made and is being made by the labour of the workers, but which only serves to strengthen the meaningless and irresponsible rule of the capitalists.

We know that all socialists have accepted this as the truth, but the majority of them are settled in the opinion that such a drastic alteration can only be made in the main conditions of life of the working people by quietly and peacefully ironing out the contradictions between capital and labour, by gradual, slow "evolution." Hence it is clear that certain reactionary leaders of the Second International are not revolutionaries; they are indistinguishable from educated liberals who, while they agree "on principle" that the forms of social life must be changed, pursue in practice their own interests, the interests of people who wish to domineer over the lives of the working class. These socialists have betrayed the working class so many times that we could omit all mention of them, were it not for the fact that they are capable of further treasons and treachery.

In 1903 Lenin, a man of great and lucid intellect, a stalwart and strict revolutionary, flatly declared that the principal task of a true socialist was to develop the class instinct of the proletariat of town and village to a realisation of the necessity to organise an armed uprising against the landowners and manufacturers for the purpose of seizing political power.

His theory spread, it organised the class consciousness of the workers, created a party of sterling fighters and gave the proletariat victory over its enemies. In the country of the Union of Socialist Soviets there are no other masters than the workers and peasants, all its wealth belongs to them only.

The Soviet Union marks the beginning and the progressive advance in the construction of the first socialist state in the world. It is hard to extirpate the habits, prejudices, and superstitions inbred in people by ages, but this work of letting in the light and the air on the survivals of the old, dismal past is going ahead, and we can already say that there is no corner of the Soviet Union where the revolutionary spirit of the new history has not penetrated.

This revolutionary spirit will operate still more powerfully and effectively if we show the mass of workers and peasants a broad outline of the epic picture of the beginning of the new history. It began with the Civil War of 1918-21, an expression, vehement beyond all comparison, of the workers' and peasants' will, a historical picture of countless battles fought by a naked, hungry, almost unarmed proletariat against superbly equipped armies of officers and young bourgeois, commanded by generals who were masters of military science, helped by the capitalists of all Europe in their defence of the rule of the landowners, manufacturers, bankers.

The history of the Civil War is the history of the triumph of a great truth embodied in the working class. This history should be familiar to every fighter on the front of cultural revolution, to every builder of the new world.

Work on such a book, a history of the Civil War, has been begun by Comrade Voroshilov and other military specialists with the collaboration, of course, of expert historians. This will be a book within the understanding of every reader, even one lacking in education. To make it easy to read, the best of our writers who were at the front during the Civil War, with rifle or pen, have been enlisted to handle the military material.

This "History" is needed not only by the old fighters who are now hard at work building socialism, breaking down the resistance of ancient human inertia and people's mistrust of their own powers; it is needed not only to conjure up proud memories of their battles and victories. Our young generation needs it to learn the heroism of their fathers and to understand who were the men that fought for their cottage and cow, for the victory of the working class, for socialism. It is needed by the proletariat of all countries, the millions for whom the days of great battles are now not far distant. This book must be a vivid chronicle of heroism and must inspire heroism.

At the same time it will be a real, veracious history of all the atrocities and havoc inflicted on our country by its former masters; it must show all the loathsome hatred felt by the beasts of prey who had had their claws cut and their teeth drawn. It will show how shamelessly the factory-owners and landowners destroyed the property of the people of their country. It will convince the good-natured and the soft-hearted that a capitalist is no longer a human being, but a creature in which an insane lust for profit has consumed every vestige of humanity. This "History" must be a record of all the blood shed by the capitalists for the sole purpose of maintaining their accustomed conditions of life, the comfortable, delightful, thoroughly corrupt life of two-legged beasts fattening themselves on other people's strength.

This will be the book of our socialist truth which has come to transform the old world and resurrect it, to a new life.