Leon Trotsky

Against Bureaucracy, Progressive And Unprogressive

Publishing Information: This is taken from Problems of Life, Methuen, 1924, Chapter 8. It was reprinted with precisely the same text by the Colombo Young Socialists in 1962 (pp.41-45) 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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I have to speak again probably not for the last time about the problems of the life in the working class. My object is to defend the increasing and to my mind most valuable interest of the masses in these problems against the attacks of more bureaucratic than progressive critics.

Progressive bureaucracy disapproves of all discussions on problems of life in the press, at meetings and in clubs. What is the use, they say, of wasting time in discussions? Let the authorities start running communal kitchens, creches, laundries, hostels, etc. Bureaucratic dullards usually add (or rather imply, or say in whispers—they prefer that to open speech): “It is all words, and nothing more.” The bureaucrat hopes (I wonder whether he has some brilliant financial plan handy) that when we get rich, we shall, without further words, present the proletariat with cultured conditions of life as with a sort of birthday gift. No need, say such critics, to carry on propaganda for socialist conditions among the masses—the process of labour itself creates “a sense of socialness.”

What should one reply to such arguments? If that “sense of socialness”, created by the process of labour, had been a sufficient means to solve the problems of Socialism what need is there of a Communist party? In reality, however, the way is extremely long from the vague “sense of socialness” to a determined will for the reconstruction of life. The work of our party lies all along that way. The problems of life must be made to pass into the consciousness of the masses. No government, even the most active and enterprising, can possibly transform life without the initiative of the masses. The State can organize conditions of life down to the last cell of the Community—the family, but unless these cells combine by their own choice and will into a commonwealth no serious and radical changes can possibly be achieved in economic conditions and home life.

The problem in our case does not amount only to the lack of new life institutions, such as communal kitchens, creches, houses run as communes. We know very well that many women have refused to give their children to be looked after in the creches. Nor would they do it now, hidebound as they are by inertness and prejudice against all innovations. Many houses which had been allotted to families living in communes got into filthy conditions and became uninhabitable. People living in them did not consider communistic housing as a beginning of new conditions—they looked upon their dwellings as upon barracks provided by the State. As a result of unpreparedness, hasty methods, lack of self-discipline and want of culture, the communes very often have proved an utter failure. The problems of life require a thorough critical study, and well pondered careful methods are needed to deal with them. The onward march must have a well-secured rear in an increased consciousness of home conditions and increased demands of cultured life on the part of the men and women of the working-class—especially the women.

Let me point to a few recent cases, which illustrate the relation between the initiative of the state and that of the masses in regard to the problems of life. At the present time, and thanks to the energy of Comrade Kerjentzev, a very important element of life—punctuality— has become an object of organized attention. Looking upon that problem from a bureaucratic point of view, one might say: “Why bother to discuss it at all? What is the use of carrying on propaganda, founding a league with badges for the members, etc? Let the authorities enforce punctuality by a decree and have penalties attached for infringements.” But such a decree exists already. About three years ago I had—with the strong support of Comrade Lenin—a regulation about punctual attendance at business meetings, committees, etc., passed and duly ratified by the Party and the Soviets. There were also, as usual, penalties attached for infringements of the decree. Some good was done by the regulation, but unfortunately not much. Very responsible workers continue up to the present time to be half an hour and more late for committee meetings. They honestly believe that it comes from having too many engagements but in reality their unpunctuality is due to carelessness and lack of regard for time —their own and other people’s. A man who is always late because he is “frightfully busy”, works as a rule less and less efficiently than another who comes in time wherever he is due. It is rather curious that during the debates about the “League of Time” people seemed simply to have forgotten that such a decree existed. I, on my part, have never seen it mentioned in the press. This shows how difficult it is to reform bad habits by legislation alone. The above-mentioned decree ought certainly to be rescued from oblivion, and used as a support of the “League of Time.” But unless we are helped by the efforts of the advanced labour elements to achieve punctuality and efficiency, administrative measures will not accomplish much good. The “responsible” workers ought to be put into the limelight of public control—then perhaps they will be careful not to steal the time of hundreds and thousands of workers.

Take now another case. The “authorities” have been fighting for several years against bad printing, bad proof reading, bad stitching and folding of books and papers. Some improvement has been achieved, but not much. And these shortcomings in our printing and publishing are certainly not due to our technical deficiency. The fault is, with the readers who are not sufficiently exacting, not sufficiently cultured. The Worker’s Paper to take one instance out of many is folded—who knows why—across the width of the page, not the length. Before starting to read, the reader has to refold the paper in the right way and to put the turned-in page in its right place. To do it all, say in a tramcar, is not an easy matter. No bourgeois publisher would dare to present a paper to his readers like that. The Worker’s Moscow is published with its eight pages uncut. Readers have to cut the pages with whatever happens to be there, usually with the hand, tearing more often than not part of the text. The paper gets crumpled and not in a condition to be passed on to another reader after being read by the first, Why should such carelessness be tolerated? Progressive bureaucracy, of course, would put all the blame on the inertness of the publishers. Their innertness is bad. We fight against it—using even such weapons as resolutions of Party conferences. But worse still is the passiveness of the readers, their disregard for their own comfort—their lack of cultured habits. Had they just once or twice thumped with their fists (in some cultured way, I mean) on the publisher’s table, he never would dare to issue his paper uncut. That is why even such minor matters as the cutting of the pages of a paper and the stitching of books should be carefully investigated and widely discussed in public. This is an educational means of raising the standard of culture in the masses.

And still more does this apply to the complicated net of inner relations in personal and family life. No one actually imagines that the Soviet government is going to create admirably furnished houses—communes provided with all sorts of comforts—and invite the proletariat to give up the places where they live now and to move into new conditions. Supposing even such a gigantic enterprise could have been effected (which, of course, is out of question)—that would not really help things. People cannot be made to move into new habits of life—they must grow into them gradually, as they had grown into their old ways of, living. Or they must deliberately and consciously create a new life—as they will do in the future. The reorganization of life ought to, and can, be started already with the means provided by the wages paid under our Soviet conditions. Whatever these wages are, housekeeping in common is more practical than for each family separately. One kitchen in a large room which has been made bigger at the expense of one or two rooms next to it, is a more profitable arrangement than five, not to speak of ten, separate kitchens. But if changes are to be achieved by the initiative of the masses—with the support of the authorities—it is obvious that just a vague “sense of socialness” alone will not do it. There must be a clear understanding of things as they are and as they ought to be. We know how enormously the development of the working class has profited by the changes from individual to collective agreements, and what detailed work had to be done by the trade unions, how carefully the matter and all the technical details had to be discussed and agreed upon at the endless delegates’ and other meetings. The change from the separate households to housekeeping in common for many families is much more complicated, and of a much greater importance. The old secluded type of family life has developed behind people’s backs, whereas the new life on a communal basis cannot come into existence unless helped by conscious effort on the part of all who participate in the change. The first step towards a new order of things must be in consequence, the showing-up of the contradiction between the new requirements of life and the old habits—a contradiction which becomes more and more unbearable. This is what the revolutionary party has to do. The working class must become aware of the contradictions in its home life, must get at the core of the problem with full understanding, and when this is done, if only by the very advanced elements of the class, no inertness of Soviet bureaucrats will stand against the enlightened will of the proletariat.

Let me wind up my polemics against bureaucratic views on the problems of life by a very illustrative story of Comrade Kartchevsky, who had tried to tackle the problem of reformed housekeeping by cooperative methods. “On the day of international co-operation,” writes Comrade Kartchevsky (I am quoting his letter to me), “I had a talk with my next-door neighbours—poor people of the working-class. It did not look promising at first. ‘Bother the cooperatives’ they said. What is the use of them? They charge higher prices than in the market — and you have to walk miles to get to the cooperative stores. And so on. I tried another method. ‘Well’, I said, ‘suppose our co-operative system is 90 percent wrong. But let us analyse the idea and the aims of co-operation, and for the sake of better understanding and making allowance for our habits of ownership, let us consider in the first place our own interests and wants’. They all, of course, agreed that we want a club, a creche, a communal kitchen, a school, a laundry, a playing ground for the children, etc. Let us see how we could manage to have it all. Then one of them shouted, losing his temper: “You said we were to have a commune fitted up, but we don’t see anything of it yet”. I stopped him, ‘Who are the you? All of us here have agreed to the necessity of having these institutions organized. Did you not complain just now that the children suffer from the dampness in your basement flat, and your wife is tied like a slave to her kitchen? A change of such conditions is the common interest of all of us. Let us manage things in some improved way. How shall we do it? There are eight flats in our house. The inner court is small. There is no room for many things and whatever we might be able to organize will be very expensive’. We started discussing the matter. I made one suggestion: ‘Why not have a larger community, the district, to join us in our scheme?’ After that suggestions began to pour in, and all sorts of possibilities were discussed.’ A very characteristic offer came from a man with rather bourgeois views on property: ‘Private ownership of houses is abolished’, he said. ‘Let us pull down the fences and make a cesspool for the whole district to prevent the poisoning of the air.’ And another added: ‘Let us have a playing-ground for the children in the middle’. Then a third came with a suggestion: ‘Let us ask the Soviet authorities to give us a big house in our district, or, at the worst, let us make shift in some way to have room for a club and a school’. More and more demands and suggestions followed: What about a communal kitchen? And a creche?—‘You men think only about yourselves’—that came from the women—‘you have no thought for us.’

“Now every time I meet them, they ask—the women particularly: ‘What about your plan? Do let us start things. Won’t it be nice?’ They propose to call a district meeting on the matter. Every district has some ten or twenty Communists living in it, and I hope that with the support of the Party and Soviet institutions we shall be able to do something ….”

This case falls in with the general idea I have expounded, and it clearly shows that it is well to have the problems of life ground by the grinders of collective proletarian thought. The grinders are strong, and will master anything they are given to grind.

And there is another lesson in the story.

“You only think about yourselves,” said the women to comrade Kartchevsky, “and you have no thought for us”. It is quite true that there are no limits to masculine egotism in ordinary life. In order to change the conditions of life we must learn to see them through the eyes of women. This, however, is another story, and I hope to have a talk about the matter on some other occasion.

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Last updated on: 9 August 2009