A. Lunacharsky 1918

Self-Education of the Workers
The Cultural Task of the Struggling Proletariat

Source: A. Lunacharski, Peoples’ Commissary for Education under the Russian Socialist Federal Soviet Republic, “Self-Education of the Workers – The Cultural Task of the Struggling Proletariat,” WSF Pamphlet , 1918;
Published: by The Workers’ Socialist Federation, 400, Old Ford Road, E.3., Price 2d;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford..

The culture of the proletariat struggling to free itself is a class culture, sharply defined, and based on strife. It is romantic, and, from its very intensity, its form suffers, because time does not allow a definite and perfect form to be elaborated from its stormy and tragic substance.

Classes and nations which have reached their highest development are classical in their culture. Classes striving for self-expression are romantic, and their romanticism possesses the typical characteristics of the “storm and stress”; classes doomed to decay assume another form of romanticism, that of melancholy, disenchantment, and decadence.

We must not conclude that there is no intimate relationship between Socialist and proletarian culture because they so substantially differ from each other. We must bear in mind that the struggle is one for an ideal: that of the culture of brotherhood and complete freedom; of victory over the individualism which cripples human beings; and of a communal life based not on compulsion and the need of man to herd together for mere self-preservation, as it was in the past, but on a free and natural merging of personalities into super-personal entities.

Not only do the very characteristics of this ideal prescribe definite forms of co-operation in the midst of the prevailing world strife: these forms are themselves the direct outcome of the peculiar position occupied by the working class in the capitalist world order, which has forced the workers to be the best organised and most united class in the community.

No ideal can spring from a soil or seed alien to it; the methods and weapons used for its attainment must be in harmony with itself. Therefore from the struggling proletariat we must not expect the splendour of the harvest and the perfection of form and unfettered grace of victorious strength. These will reveal themselves in the future. Nevertheless, we have every reason to expect that proletarian culture, because of its struggle, its toil, and suffering, will possess characteristics which would probably be unthinkable in the social order of a triumphant Socialism.

But the question arises whether this struggling proletariat really has a culture of any sort. Most certainly. In the first place, it possesses in Marxism all that is essential – the fine and powerful investigation of social phenomena, the basis of sociology and political economy, the cornerstone of the philosophic conception of the world. In these the proletariat is already in possession of treasures which can beat comparison with the most brilliant achievements of the human brain.

Moreover, in many countries the proletariat has evinced a remarkable organising power in the political sphere. It is true that the dead creation of the past still holds the new life in its arms; the bourgeois parliamentarianism and nationalism has permeated the young political organism of the proletarian parties and of the Workers’ International itself.

The crisis is acute; the disease, of which the left Social Democrats gave warning whilst it was yet in its incubatory period, is most virulent – indeed, many asserted that it would prove fatal – but one can even now declare that it will be overcome and utilised, and that the political organisations of the proletariat will emerge from the fearful ordeal stronger and more influential than ever.

In the economic aspects of the struggle, one cannot say that the ideal of the thinkers and tacticians of the trade union movement has been reached; but one must be filled with admiration for the complicated and beautiful structure of the industrial and craft organisation which, though as yet incomplete, impresses both friend and foe.

All working-class organisations have undergone a wonderful development.

The International Congress of Stuttgart imbued the trade union movement with Socialist ideals, and by its famous resolution placed the movement on a level with the political Socialist Party.

The Congress of Copenhagen practically did the same for the co-operative (?) movement, and there was every reason to hope that the Congress of Vienna would emphasise the vast importance of the fourth form of proletarian culture, namely, the struggle for education.

The development of the educational movement is seen in the foundation of proletarian colleges by many Socialist parties, the transference to Socialist organisations of a number of schools and Sunday schools, the ever-increasing number of scientific and literary Socialist clubs. The attention paid to child welfare and the education of the young in connection with the organisation of proletarian elementary schools will lead to the transformation of working-class family life. The woman must cease to be enslaved by the proletarian kitchen and the proletarian nursery; the latter, we must admit, is at present practically non-existent. I merely refer to the most important of the series of questions with which the Socialist proletariat has begun to grapple both theoretically and practically.

Before the war but few Social Democrats had realised the truth, conclusively proved by Spencer, that even the best mental training has little influence on the will unless it be accompanied by the development of the finer human feelings. The ethical and aesthetic education of the workers’ children in the spirit of Socialist ideology is a supreme necessity.

Rosa Luxemburg is more than right when she says: “We shall hardly make any progress without a clear understanding of the work of proletarian self-education.” Comparatively little has been done in this direction, which may be termed the sphere of enlightenment, and in which the creative power of the proletariat must very clearly manifest itself. Even before the war the need for this enlightening self-education was very strongly felt; and work had been started in that direction. But the war so clearly showed the workers the shortcomings of this most important aspect of their culture that, notwithstanding the wholesale waste and destruction in Europe during the past four years, we may expect to see in the near future a great revival of working-class energy in this direction.

The Literature Train.

On November ist last Lenin inaugurated the first “Red Train,” which will tour the towns and villages of Soviet Russia. From this “Red Train” of Propaganda over 20,000 pamphlets and books were sold for ready cash in the first seven days, and 60,000 educational books were distributed freely, to various local Soviets. The weekly sale of the “Isvestia,” also carried on from this train, increased during the same period by 10,000 copies. Twelve mass meetings were held at various stopping places. Travelling with the train are cinematograph operators taking films and painters making sketches of the life of each town visited. The films and sketches are exchanged in order to acquaint the people of the various districts with each other’s mode of life, habits, and dress.

Free Reference Libraries.

By a decree dated November 3rd, 1918, all private libraries were declared public property. Books kept therein can henceforward be read and consulted by everyone.

Russian Railwaymen and Education.

Along the railway line Moscow-Kiev-Voronesh the railwaymen on their own initiative have organised elementary and secondary schools. Books, teaching, and meals are provided free. Homes for orphans have been established.

Educational Work of the Russian Soviets

Socialist Russia is rapidly forging ahead in educational matters. The printing press is busy; schools and libraries open everywhere, in towns, in villages, and along railway routes. The cinema has dropped the “cowboy” film, and is turned to instructive purposes. Workers are actually learning foreign languages, during the evening, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

At the Congress of Public Instruction held in Moscow, Comrades Lunacharski and Oulianov (Mrs. Lenin) delivered two important speeches, explaining, in general lines, the policy of the Soviets towards education.

Lunacharski’s Speech.

The Bolshevik revolution has given prominence to the question of education. The people made the revolution to conquer political power, economic independence, and the freedom of education. To conquer, even at one stroke, is not enough: one must organise.

The intellectuals, who gave their assistance to the Lvov and Kerensky régime, have refused it to the Government of the workers and peasants. They have used sabotage against it. Nevertheless, we have been able to do much useful work, especially since February last. The old system of education has been completely abolished; the old educationists have been dismissed; the curriculum based on “Church and Latin” has been swept away. Co-education of both sexes has been introduced.

What will the “New School” be? It cannot, in any way, resemble that which the ruling class had organised for the “inferior” working people. In order to destroy this “class” education we have to adopt the principles of “one standard of education for all,” without special privileges for any. The people being the principal factor in the production of commodities, it follows, of necessity, that the “new school” must be one that prepares the student to work. The teachers also must be persons able to work. The motto of the new school must be: “To live is to work.” We therefore take “work” as the starting-point of our pedagogical system, as the chief subject of our teaching, aiming at the increase of technical knowledge. Our students must feel themselves part and parcel of the work of the community. The young girls and boys must prepare themselves to become big producers. Moreover, we must never lose sight of the fact that the chief aim of education is the knowledge of the various forms of human culture, which, in its turn, includes all forms of mental and manual activity. The artistic and physical education must be the fitting completion of the technical. There must be educational freedom and freedom in the school. We must preserve our ancient monuments, since these are to us the witnesses of the old Russian civilisation, but, at the same time, we hope to see the birth of an art completely in touch with the emotions of the modern world: of an art that will lead us to further conquests for liberty.

Mrs. Lenin’s Speech.

Comrade Oulianov began by observing that, since the Bolshevik revolution, there has arisen in the people an immense desire for education, but ignorance, the dreadful result of the old régime, cannot disappear, in a day. A vast number of persons, already engaged in production, cannot return to school; hence the pressing need of a post-scholastic education.

We must cover the country, she explains, with a multitude of elementary schools for adults, for the illiterate, and for the semi-illiterate. In Soviet Russia ignorance must disappear. We ask everybody’s assistance in this great work. Knowledge and science, just like property, must not be the privilege of the few, but accessible to all. It is the common duty of everybody to impart knowledge to others.

The essential thing to be remembered is that we must teach people how to make use of books. The student – let us call him the post-scholastic, the evening, or the artisan student – must know how to use the dictionary and he must always have it handy by him; likewise, books of reference, encyclopaedias, etc. We must not only give him a key to open the door, but we must tell him where that door leads to.

Under the old régime, the intellectuals amongst the workers and peasants were chiefly interested in abstract sciences, since they opened to them new horizons. Those, on the contrary, who aimed at bettering their position were interested solely in the practice of science. The effect of the revolution has been that practical science is of interest now, even to the most politically advanced of our workers. In order to organise production in an efficient manner, to put in the right direction the great peasant communities, good technical education is necessary. The workers and the peasants have learned that without scientific knowledge they will never be able to control the economic life of the nation. Therefore the whole character of professional education must be changed. Formerly it aimed at giving to the worker a purely mechanical proficiency; now it must give him a larger view of his trade, and of its importance and value to society. Education must also give him the theoretical knowledge of the various sciences that are linked with his daily work, the history of his trade, the history of “work,” and of production in the several forms of past society. It must tell him what part his special trade plays in the economic evolution of the world, and the best means of increasing the communal production. This knowledge was not needed when the worker was only a machine, producing for others; it is necessary now that he is working for himself and for the free community in which he lives.

After that there must be the “Popular University,” which will take the place of secondary education for the present adult worker. In that University there will be lectures, excursions, visits to museums, etc. The cinema, if properly used, can be of great assistance. The Commissary of Education has just opened a credit of six million roubles to assist and prepare educational films. There must be Museums of Social Economy, in order to spread knowledge on social and political questions.

We have called in specialists to assist the Government in preparing “subject catalogues,” with short explanatory notes, for all the circulating libraries instituted by the Soviets, and there will be a central buying office to feed all provincial libraries. Art, too, must not be lost sight of in our post-scholastic education. The Commissary of Instruction has formed a musical and a theatrical section, and one also for decorative art; these will work jointly to assist the workers in their efforts towards mental improvement. The theatrical section will shortly put within the reach of all the plays of Romain Rolland.

We are also doing our utmost, continued Comrade Oulianov, to open Peoples’ Halls, to take the place of the churches of the old régime. Above all, she said in conclusion, all these forms of technical, scientific, and artistic activity, to be truly popular in their character, must be moved by popular enthusiasm and carried out by the workers themselves, under their direct control. He only can be educated who works to educate himself.


New Schools and Universities.

During 1918 the Soviet Government opened over 1,000 new elementary schools in the county of Moscow alone, and more would have been opened but for the difficulty of finding new teachers. During 1918 six new Universities were established in Soviet Russia. During the last two hundred years of the old régime there existed only twelve Universities in all Russia

A census has been taken of all children of school age and the educational system reorganised. There will now be two scholastic periods: one of five years; another of four. The former is obligatory for everybody.

The large building of the Café-Chantant “Maxim,” a fashionable dancing and drinking resort of Moscow, has been commandeered, and is now used as a popular day and evening school.

Clubs for juveniles have been formed in several quarters of Moscow, to withdraw the children from the demoralising influences of the streets.