Leon Trotsky

Civility and Politeness as a Necessary
Lubricant in Daily Relations

(April 1923)

First Published: Pravda April 4, 1923
Transcribed and HTML Markup: Sally Ryan.

During the many discussions on the question of our state machinery, Comrade Kiselev, the president of the Subsidiary Council of People’s Commissars, brought forward, or at least recalled to mind, one side of the question that is of vast importance. In what manner does the machinery of the state come in direct contact with the population? How does it “deal” with the population? How does it treat a caller, a person with a grievance, the “petitioner” of old? How does it regard the individual? How does it address him, if it addresses him at all? This, too, is an important component part of “life”.

In this matter, however, we must discriminate between two aspects – form and substance.

In all civilized democratic countries the bureaucracy, of course, “serves” the people. This does not prevent it from raising itself above the people as a closely united professional caste. If it actually serves the capitalist magnates, that is, cringes before them, it treats the workman and peasant arrogantly, whether it be in France, Switzerland, or America. But in the civilized “democracies” the fact is clothed in certain forms of civility and politeness, in greater or lesser degree in the different countries. But when necessary (and such occasions occur daily) the cloak of civility is easily thrust aside by the policeman’s fist; strikers are beaten in police stations in Paris, New York, and other centers of the world. In the main, however, “democratic” civility in the relations of the bureaucracy with the population is a product and a heritage of bourgeois revolutions. The exploitation of man by man has remained, but the form of it is different, less “brutal,” adorned with the cloak of equality and polished politeness.

Our Soviet bureaucratic machine is unique, complex, containing as it does the traditions of different epochs together with the germs of future relationships. With us, civility, as a general rule, does not exist. But of rudeness, inherited from the past, we have as much as you please But our rudeness itself is not homogeneous. There is the simple rudeness of peasant origin, which is unattractive, certainly, but not degrading. It becomes unbearable and objectively reactionary only when our young novelists boast of it as of some extremely “artistic” acquisition. The foremost elements of the workers regard such false simplicity with instinctive hostility, for they justly see in the coarseness of speech and conduct a mark of the old slavery, and aspire to acquire a cultured speech with its inner discipline. But this is beside the point ...

Side by side with this simple kind, the habitual passive rudeness of the peasant, we have another, a special kind – the revolutionary-a rudeness of the leaders, due to impatience, to an over-ardent desire to better things, to the irritation caused by our indifference, to a creditable nervous tension. This rudeness, too, if taken by itself, is, of course, not attractive, and we dissociate ourselves from it; but at bottom, it is often nourished at the same revolutionary moral fount, which, on more than one occasion in these years, has been able to move mountains. In this case what must be changed is not the substance, which is on the whole healthy, creative, and progressive, but the distorted form ...

We still have, however – and herein is the chief stumbling block – the rudeness of the old aristocracy, with the touch of feudalism about it. This kind is vile and vicious throughout It is still with us, uneradicated, and is not easy to eradicate.

In the Moscow departments, especially in the more important of them, this aristocratic rudeness is not manifested in the aggressive form of shouting and shaking a fist at a petitioner’s nose; it is more often shown in a heartless formality. Of course, the latter is not the only cause of “red tape”; a very vital one is the complete indifference to the living human being and his living work. If we could take an impression on a sensitive plate of the manners, replies, explanations, orders, and signatures of all the cells of the bureaucratic organism, be it only in Moscow for a single day, the result obtained would be one of extraordinary confusion. And it is worse in the provinces, particularly along the borderline where town and country meet, the borderline that is most vital of all.

“Red tape” is a complex, by no means homogeneous phenomenon; it is rather a conglomeration of phenomena and processes of different historical origins. The principles that maintain and nourish “red tape” are also varied. Foremost among them is the condition of our culture – the backwardness and illiteracy of a large proportion of our population. The general muddle resulting from a state machinery in continuous process of re construction, inevitable during a period of revolution, is in itself the cause of much superfluous friction, which plays an important part in the manufacture of “red tape.” It is the heterogeneity of class in the Soviet machine – the admixture of aristocratic, bourgeois, and Soviet tradition – that is responsible for the more repulsive of its forms.

Consequently the struggle against “red tape” cannot but have a diversified character. At bottom there is the struggle against the low conditions of culture, illiteracy, dirt, and poverty. The technical improvement of the machine, the decrease of staffs, the introduction of greater order, thoroughness, and accuracy in the work, and other measures of a similar nature, do not, of course, exhaust the historic problem, but they help to weaken the more negative sides of “red tape.” Great importance is attached to the education of a new type of Soviet bureaucrat – the new “spets” [specialists]. But in this also we must not deceive ourselves. The difficulties of educating thousands of new workers in the new ways, ie, in the spirit of service, simplicity, and humanity, under transitional conditions and with preceptors inherited from the past, are great. They are great, but not insuperable. They cannot be overcome at once, but only gradually, by the appearance of a more and more improved “edition” of Soviet youth.

The measures enumerated will take comparatively long years of accomplishment, but they by no means exclude an immediate remorseless struggle against “red tape,” against the official contempt for the living human being and his affairs, the truly corrupting nihilism which conceals a dead indifference to everything on earth, a cowardly helplessness which refuses to acknowledge its own dependence, a conscious sabotage, or the instinctive hatred of a deposed aristocracy towards the class that deposed it. These are the main causes of rudeness which await the application of the revolutionary lever.

We must attain a condition in which the average colorless individual of the working masses will cease to fear the government departments he has to come in contact with. The greater his helplessness, ie, the greater his ignorance and illiteracy, the greater attention should be accorded him. It is an essential principle that he should really be helped and not merely be got rid of. For this purpose, in addition to other measures, it is essential that our Soviet public opinion should keep the matter constantly in the foreground, regarding it from as broad an angle as possible, particularly the real Soviet, revolutionary, communist, sensitive elements of the state machine of which, happily, there are many: for they are the ones who maintain it and move it forward.

The press can play a decisive part in this respect.

Unfortunately, our newspapers in general give but little instructive matter relating to everyday life. If such matter is given at all it is often in stereotyped reports, such as “We have a works called so and so. At the works there is a works committee and a director. The works committee does so and so, the director directs.” While at the same time our actual life is full of color and rich in instructive episodes, particularly along the borderline where the machinery of the state comes in contact with the masses of the population. You have only to roll up your sleeves ...

Of course, an illuminating, instructive task of this kind must guard itself sevenfold against intrigue, must cleanse itself of cant and every form of demagogy.

An exemplary “calendar program” would be to single out a hundred civil servants – single them out thoroughly and impartially – a hundred who showed a rooted contempt in their duties for the working masses, and publicly, perhaps by trial, chuck them out of the state machine, so that they could never come back again. It would be a good beginning. Miracles must not be expected to happen as a result. But a small change from the old to the new is a practical step in advance, which is of greater value than the biggest talk.

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Last updated on: 2.5.2007