Leon Trotsky

Archives of the Revolution

Not By Politics Alone ...

(November 1923)

Source: The New International, Vol. XIV No. 1, January 1948, pp. 29–30.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Einde O’Callaghan for the Trotsky Internet Archive.
Copyleft: Leon Trotsky Internet Archive (www.marxists.org) 2015. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

The following essay is excerpted from the first chapter of the book by Trotsky, Problems of Life, which in some ways is one of the moat unusual which that great and versatile revolutionary leader and thinker wrote. The English version of this work, first published in London in September 1924, is now quite inaccessible for most readers.

The full title of this first chapter is Not by Politics Alone Does Man Thrive.

We here use the original translation by Z. Vengerova but have taken the liberty of changing some Briticisms (where American readers might misinterpret the thought) and also a few unidiomatic phrases. – Ed.

What is our problem now? What have we to learn in the first place? What should we strive for? We must learn to work efficiently: accurately, punctually, economically. We need culture in work, culture in life, in the conditions of life. After a long preliminary period of struggle we have succeeded in overthrowing the rule of the exploiters by armed revolt. No such means exists, however, to create culture all at once. The working class must undergo a long process of self-education, and so must the peasantry, either along with the workers or following them. Lenin speaks about these changed aims of our interests and efforts in his article on cooperation.

... We must admit [he says] that our conception of socialism has radically changed on one point. All was previously centered for us – by necessity – in the political struggle, the revolution, conquest of power, etc. Now our interests have shifted far away from that – to the peaceful organization of culture. We should like to concentrate all our forces on the problems of culture and would do it – but for the international relations which force us to fight for our position among the other nations. Yet, apart from foreign politics, and in regard to internal economic relations, the center of our work is the struggle for culture.

I consider it of some interest to quote here a passage on The Epoch of the Struggle for Culture out of my book, Thoughts About the Party:

In its practical realization the revolution seems to have drifted to all sorts of minor problems: we must repair bridges, teach people to read and to write, try to put down the cost of boots in Soviet factories, fight against filth, catch thieves, install electric power in country districts, etc. Some vulgar-minded intellectuals with dislocated brains – which makes them imagine they are poets or philosophers – speak already about the revolution with an air of condescending superiority:’Ha, ha!” they say,’the revolution is learning how to trade. And – ha ha ha! – to sew on buttons.” But let the twaddlers babble away.

The purely practical daily work, provided it is constructive from the point of view of Soviet economics and Soviet culture – Soviet retail trade included – is not at all a policy of’small deeds,” and does not necessarily bear the impress of pettiness. Small deeds without great issues abound in the life of men, but no great issues are possible without small achievements. To be more precise, at a time of great issues, small deeds, being a part of large problems, cease to be small.

The problem in Russia at the present moment is the constructiveness of the working class. For the first time in history the working class is doing constructive work for its own benefit and on its own plan. This historic plan, though still extremely imperfect and muddled, will connect all the parts and particles of the work, all its ins and outs, by the unity of a vast creative conception.

All our separate and minor problems – Soviet retail trade included – are parts of the general plan which will enable the ruling working class to overcome its economic weakness and lack of culture.

Socialist constructive work is systematic construction on a vast scale. And amid all the ups and downs, amid all the errors and retreats, amid all the intricacies of the NEP (New Economic Policy), the party carries on its plan, educates the young generation in the spirit of it, teaches everyone to connect their private aims with the common problem of all who may call on them one day to sew on a Soviet button, and the next – meet death fearlessly under the banner of communism.

We must, and shall, demand serious and thorough specialized training for our young people, in order to save them from the great defect of the present generation – from superficial dabbling in generalities – but all specialized knowledge and skill must serve a common purpose that will be grasped by everyone.

Nothing, therefore, but the problems of our international position keep us, as Lenin tells us, from the struggle for culture. Now these problems, as we shall see presently, are not altogether of a different order. Our international position largely depends on the strength of our self-defense – that is to say, on the efficiency of the Red Army – and, in this vital aspect of our existence as a state, our problem consists almost entirely of work for culture: we must raise the level of the army, and teach every single soldier lo read and to write. The men must be taught to read books, to use manuals and maps, must acquire habits of tidiness, punctuality and thrift.

No Short-Cuts

It cannot by some miraculous means be all done at once. After the civil war and during the transitional period of our work, attempts were made to save the situation by a specially invented “proletarian doctrine of militarism,” but it was quite lacking in any real understanding of our actual problems. The same thing happened in regard to the ambitious plan for creating an artificial “proletarian culture.” All such “quests of the philosopher’s stone” combine despair at our deficiency in culture with a faith in miracles. We have, however, no reason to despair and, as to miracles and childish quackeries like “proletarian culture” or “proletarian militarism,” it is high time to give such things up. We must see to the development of culture within the frame of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and this alone can secure the socialist import of the revolutionary conquests. Whoever fails to see this will play a reactionary part in the development of party thought and party work.

When Lenin says that at the present moment our work is less concerned with politics than with culture, we must be quite clear about the terms he uses, so as not to misinterpret his meaning. In a certain sense politics always ranks first. Even the advice of Lenin to shift our interests from politics to culture is a piece of political advice. When the working class party of a country comes to decide that at some given moment the economic problems and not the political should take first place, the decision itself is political.

It is quite obvious that the word “politics” is used here in two different meanings: firstly, in a wide materialistic and dialectic sense, as the totality of all guiding principles, methods, systems which determine collective activities in all domains of public life; and on the other hand, in a restricted sense, specifying a definite part of public activity, directly concerned with the struggle for power and opposed to economic work, to the struggle for culture, etc. Speaking of politics as being concentrated economics, Lenin meant politics in the wide philosophic sense. But when he urged: “Let us have less politics and more economics,” he referred to politics in the restricted and special sense. Both ways of using the word are sanctioned by tradition and are justified.

The Communist Party is political in the wide historic or, we may also say, philosophic sense. The other parties are political only in the restricted sense of the word. The shifting of the interests of our party to the struggle for culture does not therefore weaken the political importance of the party. The party will concentrate its activity on the work for culture and take the leading part in this work – this will constitute its historically leading, i.e., political, part. Many and many more years of socialist work, successful from within and secure from without, are still needed before the party could do away with its shell of party structure and dissolve in a socialist community. This is still so very distant that it is of no use to look so far ahead ...

In the immediate future the party must preserve in full its fundamental characteristics: unity of purpose, centralization, discipline and, as a result of it, fitness for fight. But it needs under the present conditions a very sound economic base to preserve and to develop these priceless assets of Communist Party spirit. Economic problems, therefore, rank first in our politics, and only in conformity with them does the party concentrate and distribute its forces and educate the young generation. In other words, politics on a large scale require that all the work of propaganda, distribution of forces, teaching and education should be based at present on the problems of economics and culture, and not on politics in the restricted and special sense of the word.

The proletariat is a powerful social unity which manifests its force fully during the periods of intense revolutionary struggle for the aims of the whole class. But within this unity we observe a great variety of types. Between the obtuse illiterate village shepherd and the highly qualified engine driver there lie a great many different states of culture and habits of life. Every class, moreover, every trade, every group consists of people of different age, different temperaments and with a different past.

But for this variety, the work of the Communist Party might have been an easy one. The example of western Europe shows, however, how difficult this work is in reality. One might say that the richer the history of a country, and, at the same time, of its working class, the greater within it the accumulation of memories, traditions, habits, the larger the number of old groupings-the harder it is to achieve a revolutionary unit of the working class. The Russian proletariat is poor in class history and class traditions. This has undoubtedly facilitated its revolutionary education leading up to October. It causes, on the other hand, the difficulty of constructive work after October. The Russian workman – except the very top of the class – usually lacks the most elementary habits and notions of culture (in regard to tidiness, instruction, punctuality, etc.). The western European worker possesses these habits. He has acquired them, by a long and slow process, under the bourgeois regime.

This explains why in western Europe the working class – its superior elements, at any rate – is so strongly attached to the bourgeois regime with its democracy, freedom of the capitalist press, and all the other blessings. The belated bourgeois regime in Russia had no time to do any good to the working class, and the Russian proletariat broke from the bourgeoisie all the more easily, and overthrew the bourgeois regime without regret. But for the very same reason the Russian proletariat is only just beginning to acquire and to accumulate the simplest habits of culture, doing it already in the conditions of a socialist workers’ state.

History gives nothing free of cost. Having made a reduction on one point – in politics – it makes us pay the more on another – in culture. The more easily (comparatively, of course) did the Russian proletariat pass through the revolutionary crisis, the harder becomes now its socialist constructive work. But on the other side, such is the frame of our new social structure, marked by the four characteristics mentioned above [1], that all genuine, efficient efforts in the domain of economics and culture bear practically the impress of socialism. Under the bourgeois regime the workman, with no desire or intention on his part, was continually enriching the bourgeoisie, and did it all the more, the better his work was. In the Soviet state a conscientious and good worker, whether he cares to do it or not (in case he is not in the party and keeps away from politics), achieves socialist results and increases the wealth of the working class. This is the doing of the October revolution, and the NEP (New Economic Policy) has not changed anything in this respect.

Workmen who do not belong to the party, who are deeply devoted to production, to the technical side of their work, are many in Russia – but they are not altogether “unpolitical,” not indifferent to politics. In all the grave and difficult moments of the revolution they were with us. The overwhelming majority of them were not frightened by October, did not desert, were not traitors. During the civil war many of them fought on the different fronts, others worked for the army, supplying the munitions. They may be described as “non-political,” but in the sense that in peace time they care more for their professional work or their families than for politics. They all want to be good workers, to get more and more efficient each in his particular job, to rise to a higher position – partly for the benefit of their families, but also for the gratification of their perfectly legitimate professional ambition. Implicitly every one of them, as I said before, does socialist work without even being aware of it.

But being the Communist Party, we want these workers consciously to connect their individual productive work with the problems of socialist construction as a whole. The interests of socialism will be better secured by such united activities, and the individual builders of socialism will get a higher moral satisfaction out of their work.


1. The “four characteristics,” discussed in the section preceding our excerpt, are: the character of the Soviet state as a dictatorship of the proletariat; the Red Army as the support of workers’ rule: the nationalization of the chief means of production; and the monopoly of foreign trade. – Ed.

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Last updated on: 28 December 2015