The Red Army on a Peace Footing

Speeches, Articles, Reports

It is Necessary to Learn to Write!

Transcribed and HTML markup for the Trotsky Internet Archive by David Walters

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Far from all of our young propaganda-writers are able to write so as to be understood. It may be that this is because they have never had to cut their way through the primeval crust of ignorance and misunderstanding. They have come into Partyagitational literary work in a period when a certain set of ideas, words and expressions have become widely and durably familiar to fairly extensive strata of the working people. The danger of the Party losing touch with the non-Party masses in the sphere of agitation is expressed in the hermetic, exclusive character of the content and forms of agitation, in the creation of an almost conventional party language which is, as often as not, unintelligible to nine-tenths not only of the peasants but also of the workers. And yet life does not stand still for one hour: new generations are coming forward, one after another. Today the fate of the Soviet Republic is being decided, to a considerable degree, by those who, during the imperialist war and then during the March and October revolutions, were 15, 16 and 17 years old. This ‘dominance’ by the young people who are taking over from us will be felt more and more strongly as time goes by.

One cannot talk to these young people in these ready-made formulas, phrases, expressions and words which mean something to us, the ‘old men’, because they are derived from our past experience, but which for the young remain, in most cases, just empty sounds. It is necessary to learn to speak to them in their own language, that is, in the language of their own experience.

The struggle against Tsardom, the revolution of 1905, the imperialist war and the two revolutions of 1917 are for us personal experiences, memories, living facts from our own activity. We speak of them allusively, remembering and mentally supplementing that which we do not completely put into words. But what about the young people? They do not under stand these allusions, because they do not know the facts; they did not experience them, and they cannot learn about them from books, from properly-written narratives, because there are none. Where an allusion suffices for the older generation, the young people need a textbook. The time has come to compile a series of such textbooks and manuals of revolutionary and political education for the young people.

I have come up against the question with particular sharpness in connection with our attempts to create a series of small handbooks and textbooks for our military educational institutions, on the subject of our neighbours. It is quite obvious that the Red commander, and with his aid also every Red Army man, must know, first and foremost, what sort of states surround us, since otherwise he will not be a conscious fighter.

A few days ago there appeared the first booklet of this kind, devoted to present-day Poland (Library of Political Handbooks: Outlines of Present-Day Poland, Book!. Supreme Military Publishing Council, Moscow 1921.) After reading the first few pages I felt quite horrified. Can our agitators and propagandists, our popularisers, have such a poor sense of their reader, so slight a notion of what he needs?

This is how the booklet opens: ‘The imperialist war began at a time when Poland, which had been torn into three parts 150 years before, was becoming more and more closely knit together organically with the three different state organisations.’ Try reading that sentence to a company of soldiers, and then ask those who understood to raise their hands. I am afraid that not a single hand would go up: unless, by chance, the company commander happened to be a former student. At the end of this same page mention is made in passing of ‘the insurrectionary ideas’ which survived only ‘among a handful of declassed intellectuals’. What does this mean? For whom is this intended? Who will find this intelligible?

Let us imagine one of our young Red commanders, a platoon commander. He knows Poland only from personal memories and from newspapers. He knows only the Poland of Pilsudski, the one that attacked us. He does not know that Poland was partitioned between Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany. Yes, yes, comrade agitators and popularisers, just imagine, he doesn’t know that. The revolution awakened him when he was still a boy, and since then his attention has been wholly absorbed by internal events and the struggle against the Whites. He first heard the name ‘Poland’, perhaps, in connection with the attack of the White Poles and the Petlyurists upon our frontiers. It is with such very simple facts as these, clearly and simply expounded, that one must begin: Poland was formed at such-and-such a time, through the bringing together of three parts which had been seized, a century-and-a-half earlier, by three predators. Talk of some insurrectionary ideas or other which survived among a handful of declassed intellectuals – yes, indeed, that is the jargon of small circles of Party intellectuals, who are not so much declassed as completely isolated from the actual working class.

By this I do not want to banish a certain mode of expression and particular words which constitute complex allusions from Marxist usage. It is merely necessary that the form of exposition shall correspond to the dimensions of the question and shall be clearly destined for a particular reader or listener. Expounding very simple, very elementary historical facts which are unknown to the reader, in conventional language that is wholly bound up with the revolutionary memories of the Party’s leading circles – that is the very last thing that should be done.

In a booklet intended, first and foremost, for a soldier reader, I found no facts about the territory of Poland, about the number of its inhabitants, about its national composition, about the number of towns and of the urban population, and so on. How can one do without these basic facts? The booklet talks of everything allusively, in passing, and of nothing clearly and intelligibly. One might suppose that it was intended for the upper circles, but no, it has been published in an edition of 25,000 copies. That means that the booklet must be aimed at hundreds of thousands of readers (and listeners). But it can confidently be affirmed that in the whole Red Army you will find barely five to ten thousand readers who will understand this booklet. And those who will understand it will already know everything that is in the booklet without needing to read it.

The booklet had evidently been written by a Polish comrade. It is speckled thoughout with ‘polonisms’, and, in general, with the crudest offences against the Russian language. Here, the guilt lies entirely with the editors. They have not taken the trouble to read the manuscript, even if only to check it from the language standpoint. In the booklet it is said that parliamentarism ‘is obsoleted’, instead of ‘has become obsolete’. Pusudski refused ‘to swear to brotherhood’. The well-known Article 102 of the Tsarist penal code is mentioned as ‘paragraph 102’, which nobody will understand. To this must be added cruel treatment of grammatical cases (I shall not stop to quote examples) – and, as is to be expected in one of our Soviet publications, an abundance of misprints. If a Polish comrade commits ‘polonisms’, that is understandable. But what are editors for?

I have no doubt that the author of the booklet would be capable of producing something better than this if he were asked to rewrite two, three or four times what he has written. It was precisely in that way that, in our time, we learnt to write in a popular style. In its present form the booklet is completely worthless. It is of no use to anyone. Its effect upon the inexperienced reader for whom it is intended can only be to cause an irritation close to despair, and to discourage him from reading.

One must learn to write for the young people!

December 10, 1921
Pravda, No.279

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Last updated on: 29.12.2006