Leon Trotsky

Not By Politics Alone Does Man Thrive

Publishing Information: Published July 10, 1923 in Pravda. The articles are based on discussions with Communist propagandists in Moscow. This is taken from Problems of Life, Methuen, 1924, Chapter 1. It was reprinted with precisely the same text by the Colombo Young Socialists in 1962 (pp.5-13) but with a different introduction substituted for the one by Minsky. The Problems of Everyday Life, Pathfinder, 1973 is rather longer with the addition of different articles and some other articles expanded or changed. [note by transcriber ERC.]
Editing: Edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2009 for Leon Trotsky Internet Archive in 2009.
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This simple thought should be thoroughly grasped and borne in mind by all who speak or write for propaganda purposes. Changed times bring changed tunes. The pre-revolutionary history of our party was a history of revolutionary politics. Party literature, party organizations—everything was ruled by politics in the direct and narrow sense of that word. The revolutionary crisis has intensi-fied to a still greater degree political interests and problems. The party had to win over the most politically active elements of the working class. At present the working class is perfectly aware of the fundamental results of the revolution. It is quite unnecessary to go on repeating over and over the story of these results. It does not any longer stir the minds of the workers, and is more likely even to wipe out in the worker’s mind the lessons of the past. With the con-quest of power and its consolidation as a result of the civil war, our chief problems have shifted to the needs of culture and economic reconstruction. They have become more complicated, more frac-tionary and in a way more prosaic. Yet, in order to justify all the past struggle and all the sacrifices, we must learn to grasp these fractionary problems of culture, and solve each of them separately.

Now, what has the working class actually gained and secured for itself as a result of the revolution?

1. The dictatorship of the proletariat. (represented by the workers and peasants government under the leadership of the Com-munist Party).

2. The Red Army—a firm support of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

3. The nationalization of the chief means of production, without which the dictatorship of the proletariat would have become a form void of substance.

4. The monopoly of foreign trade, which is the necessary condition of socialist state- structure in a capitalist environment.

These four things, definitely won, form the steel frame of all our work; and every success we achieve in economics or culture—provided it is a real achievement and not a sham—becomes in this frame a necessary part of the socialist structure.

And 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 pre-liminary period of struggle we have succeeded in overthrowing the rule of the exploiters by armed revolt. No such means exists, how-ever, 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 co-operat-ion.[1]

“... We must admit,” he says, “that our conception of Socialism has radically changed on one point. All was previously centred 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 centre 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 write, try to put down the cost of books in Soviet factories, fight against filth, catch thieves, instal electric power in country dis-tricts, 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—a-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 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 with-out 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 constructive-ness 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 mud-dled, 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 re-treats, amid all the intricacies of the N.E.P.[2] the party carries on its plan, educates the young generation in the spirit of it, teaches every-one 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 gene-ralities—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 keeps 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-defence—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 to 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. It cannot be by some miraculous means 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 philosophic 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 child-ish 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 develop-ment 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 Labour party of a country comes to decide that at some given moment the economic problem 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 materialist and dialectical 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 of 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 historical 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 the 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 the West of Europe shows, however, how difficult this work is in reality. One might say that the richer the history of a country, and, the same time, of its work-ing-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 unity 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 worker—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 West European worker possesses these habits. He has acquired them by a long and slow process, under the bourgeois regime. This explains why in the West of 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 bour-geoisie 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 men-tioned above, that all genuine, efficient efforts in the domain of econo-mics 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 N.E.P. has not changed anything in this respect.

Workers who do not belong to the Party, who are deeply de-voted 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 legi-timate 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.

But how is this to be achieved? To approach this type of worker on purely political lines is very difficult. He has heard all the speeches that were spoken and does not care for more. He is not inclined to join the party. His thoughts are centred on his work, and he is not particularly satisfied with the present conditions in the workshop, in the factory, in the trust. Such workers generally try to get at the bottom of things themselves, they are not communicative, and are just the class which produces self-taught inventors. They are not responsive to politics—at least not whole-heartedly—but they might and should be approached on matters concerning production and technics.

One of the members of the Moscow conference of mass propa-gandists, Comrade Kolzov, has pointed to the extreme shortage of manuals, handbooks and guides published in Soviet Russia for the study of different trades and handicrafts. The old books of such a kind are mostly sold out, and besides, many of them are technically behind the time, whereas politically they are usually imbued with an exploiting capitalist spirit. New technical handbooks are very few and very difficult to get, having been published at random by different publishers or State departments without any general plan. From the technical point of view they are not always satisfactory; some of them are too abstract, too academic and politically usually colourless, being, in fact, slightly disguised translations of foreign books. What we really want is a series of new handbooks—for the Soviet locksmith, the Soviet cabinet maker, the Soviet electrician, etc. The handbooks must be adapted to our up-to-date technics and economics, must take into account our poverty, and on the other hand, our big possibilities, must try to introduce new methods and new habits into our industrial life. They must—as far as possible anyhow—reveal socialist vistas corresponding to the wants and interests of technical development (this includes problems of standardization, electrification, economic plann-ing). Socialist principles and conclusions must not be mere propa-ganda in such books. They must form an integral part of the practical teaching. Such books are very much needed, considering the short-age of qualified workers, the desire of the workers themselves to become more efficient, and considering also their interrupted industrial experience in conjunction with the long years of imperialist and civil war. We are faced here with an extremely gratifying and important task.

It is not an easy matter, of course, to create such a series of hand-books. Good practical workers do not write handbooks, and theorists, who do the writing usually, have no experience of the practical side of work. Very few of them, moreover, have socialist views. The problem can be solved nevertheless—yet not by “simple,” i.e., routine methods, but by combined efforts. The joint work of, say, three authors is necessary to write, or at least, to edit a handbook. There should be a specialist with a thorough technical training, one who knows the conditions of our present production in the given trade or is able to get the necessary information; the other two should include a highly qualified worker of that particular trade, one who is interested in pro-duction, and, if possible, has some inventive aptitudes, and a professional writer, a Marxist, a politician with industrial and technical interests and knowledge. In this or some similar way, we must manage to create a model library of technical handbooks on industrial production. The books must, of course, be well printed, well stitched, of a handy size and inexpensive. Such a library would be useful in two ways: it would raise the standard of work and contribute thereby to the success of socialist State construction, and, on the other hand, it would attach a very valuable group of industrial workers to Soviet economics as a whole; and, consequently, to the Communist Party.

To possess a series of handbooks is, of course, not all we want. I have dealt at some length with this particular question just to give an example of the new methods required by the new problems of the present day. There is much more to do in the interests of the “non--political” industrial workers. Trade journals should be published, and technical societies ought to be started. A good half of our pro-fessional press should cater for the industrial worker of that “non-political” but efficient type, if it wants to have readers outside the mere staff of the trade unions. The most telling political arguments, however, for the workers of that type are our practical achievements in industrial matters—every casual success in the management of our factories and workshops, every efficient effort of the party in this direction.

The political views of the industrial worker who matters most for us now, might be best illustrated by the following attempt to formulate approximately his rarely expressed thoughts.

“Well,” he would say, “all that business of the revolution and the overthrowing of the bourgeoisie is right enough Nothing to be said against it. It’s done once and forever. We have no use for the bour-geoisie. Nor do we need its Mensheviks or other help-mates. As to the “liberty of the press”—that does not matter. That is not the point either. But what about economics? You, Communists, have undertaken to manage it all. Your aims and plans are excellent we know that. Don’t go on repeating what they are. We know all about it, we agree with you and are ready to back you—but how are you actually going to do things? Up till now—why not tell the truth—you often did the wrong things. Well yes. We know that it cannot all be done at once, that you have to learn the job, and mistakes and blunders can’t be avoided. That is all quite true. And since we have stood the crimes of the bourgeoisie, we must bear with the mistakes of the revolution. But there is a limit to everything. In your Communist ranks there are also all sorts of people just as among us poor sinners. Some do—actually learn their jobs, are honestly intent on work, try to achieve practical results, but many more get off with idle talk. And they are doing much harm because with them business is simply slipping away through their fingers....”

That is how they reason, the workers of that type—clever, efficient locksmiths, or cabinet makers, or founders, not excitable, rather of passive disposition in politics, but serious, critical, somewhat sceptical, yet always faithful to their class—proletarians of a high standard. In the present stage of our work the Party must take this type of worker most specially into account. Our hold on them—in economics, pro-duction, technics—will be the most telling political sign of our success in the work for culture in the last sense of the word, in the sense in which it is used by Lenin.

Our special interest in the efficient worker is in no way opposed to the other most important problem of the party—the great interest in the young generation of the proletariat. The young generation grows up in the conditions of the given moment, grows sound and strong, according to the way in which certain well-determined problems are solved. We want our young generation, in the first place, to develop into good, highly qualified workers, devoted to their work. It must grow up with the firm conviction that its productive work is at the same time work for Socialism. The interest in the professional training, the desire for efficiency, will naturally give a great authority in the eyes of our young proletarians to “the old men”, who are experts in their trade, and who, as I said above, stand usually outside the party. We see, in consequence, that our interest in good, honest and efficient workers serves the cause of a thorough education of the growing young generation. Without it there would be no onward march to Socialism.

[1] Lenin: On Cooperation, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1951, pp.14-15. – LSSP Ed.
[2] New Economic Policy.

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Last updated on: 9 August 2009