Leon Trotsky

The Family and Ceremony

(July 1923)

First Published: Pravda, July 14, 1923.
Transcribed and HTML Markup: Sally Ryan.

Church ceremonial enslaves even the worker of little or no religious belief in the three great moments of the life of man – birth, marriage, and death. The workers’ state has rejected church ceremony, and informed its citizens that they have the right to be born, to marry, and to die without the mysterious gestures and exhortations of persons clad in cassocks, gowns, and other ecclesiastical vestments. But custom finds it harder to discard ceremony than the state. The life of the working family is too monotonous, and it is this monotony that wears out the nervous system. Hence comes the desire for alcohol – a small flask containing a whole world of images. Hence comes the need for the church and her ritual. How is a marriage to be celebrated, or the birth of a child in the family? How is one to pay the tribute of affection to the beloved dead? It is on this need of marking and decorating the principal signposts along the road of life that church ritual depends.

What can we set against it? Superstition, which lies at the root of ritual, must, of course, be opposed by rationalistic criticism, by an atheistic, realistic attitude to nature and her forces. But this question of a scientific, critical propaganda does not exhaust the subject; in the first place it appeals only to a minority, while even this minority feels the need of enriching, improving, and ennobling its individual life; at any rate, the more salient events of it.

The workers’ state already has its festivals, processions, reviews, and parades, symbolic spectacles – the new theatrical ceremonies of state. It is true that in the main they are too closely allied to the old forms, which they imitate and perpetuate. But on the whole, the revolutionary symbolism of the workers’ state is novel, distinct, and forcible – the red flag, red star, worker, peasant, comrade, International. But within the shut cages of family life the new has not penetrated, or at least, has done so but little, while individual life is closely bound up with the family. This explains why in the matter of icons, christenings, church funerals, etc., the balance is in favor of custom. The revolutionary members of the family have nothing to offer in place of them. Theoretical arguments act on the mind only. Spectacular ceremony acts on the senses and imagination. The influence of the latter, consequently, is much more widespread. In the most communist of circles a need has arisen to oppose old practices by new forms, new symbols, not merely in the domain of state life, where this has largely been done, but in the domain of the family.

There is a tendency among workers to celebrate the birthday instead of the patron saint’s day, and to name newborn infants by some name symbolizing new and intimate events and ideas, rather than by the name of a saint. At the deliberations of the Moscow propagandists I first learned that the novel girl’s name of Octobrina has come to be associated with the right of citizenship.

There is the name Ninel (Lenin spelled backwards) and Rem (Revolution, Electrification, Mir – peace). Infants, too, are given the Christian name of Vladimir, Ilyich, and even Lenin, also Rosa (in honor of Rosa Luxemburg) and so on, showing a desire to link up with the revolution.

There have been cases where the birth of a child has been celebrated by a mock ceremonial “inspection” with the participation of fabzavkom, with a special protocol decree adding the infant’s name to the list of RSFSR citizens. This was followed by a feast. In a working family the apprenticeship of a boy is also celebrated as a festival. It is an event of real importance, bearing as it does on the choice of a trade, a course of life. This is a fitting occasion for the intervention of the trade union. On the whole, the trade unions ought to play a more important part in the creation of the forms of the new life. The guilds of the Middle Ages were powerful, because they hemmed in the life of the apprentice, laborer, and mechanic on all sides. They greeted the child on the day of its birth, led it to the school door, and to church when it married, and buried it when it had fulfilled the duties of its calling. The guilds were not merely trade federations; they were the organized life of the community. It is on these lines that our industrial unions are largely developing, with this difference, certainly, that in opposition to the medieval, the forms of the new life will be free from the church and her superstition and imbued with an aspiration to utilize every conquest of science and machinery for the enrichment and beautifying of life.

Marriage, if you like, more easily dispenses with ceremonial. Though, even in this respect, how many “misunderstandings” and exclusions from the party have there been on account of church weddings? Custom refuses to be reconciled to the mere marriage, unbeatified by a spectacular ceremony.

The question of burial is an infinitely more difficult one. To be laid in the ground without the due funeral service is as unusual, disgraceful, and monstrous as to grow up without baptism. In cases where the standing of the dead has called for a funeral of a political character, the stage has been set for the new spectacular ceremony, imbued with the symbolism of the revolution – the red flag, the revolutionary funeral march, the farewell rifle salute. Some of the members of the Moscow conference emphasized the need for a speedy adoption of cremation, proposing to set an stample by cremating the bodies of prominent revolutionary workers. They justly regarded this as a powerful weapon to be used for anti-church and antireligious propaganda. But cremation, which it is high time we adopted, does not mean giving up processions, speechmaking, marches, the rifle salute. The need for an outer manifestation of emotion is strong and legitimate. If the spectacular has in the past been closely connected with the church, there is no reason, as we have already said, why it cannot be separated from her. The theater separated earlier from the church than the church from the state. In early days the church fought very much against the “worldly” theater, fully realizing that it was a dangerous rival in the matter of spectacular sights. The theater died except as a special spectacle shut within four walls. But daily custom, which used the spectacular form, was instrumental in preserving the church. The church had other rivals in this respect, in the form of secret societies like the freemasons. But they were permeated through and through with a worldly priesthood. The creation of the revolutionary “ceremonial” of custom (we use the word “ceremonial” for want of a better), and setting it against the “ceremonial” of the church, is possible not only on public or state occasions, but in the relationships of family life. Even now a band playing a funeral march competes successfully with the church funeral music. And we must, of course, make an ally of the band in the struggle against church ritual, which is based on a slavish belief in another world, where you will be repaid a hundredfold for the miseries and evils of this. A still more powerful ally is the cinema.

The creation of new forms of life and new spectacular customs will move space with the spread of education and the growth of economic security. We have every cause to watch this process with the utmost care. There cannot, of course, be any question of compulsion from above, i.e., the bureaucratizing of newborn customs. It is only by the creativity of the general masses of the population, assisted by creative imagination and artistic initiative, that we can, in the course of years and decades come out on the road of spiritualized, ennobled forms of life. Without regulating this creative process, we must, nevertheless, help it in every way. For this purpose, first of all, the tendency to blindness must give place to sight. We must carefully watch all that happens in the working family in this respect, and the Soviet family in general. Every new form, whether abortive or a mere approach to one, must be recorded in the press and brought to the knowledge of the general public, in order to stimulate imagination and interest, and give the impulse to further collective creation of new customs.

The Communist League of Youth has an honorable place in this work. Not every invention is successful, not every project takes on. What does it matter? The proper choice will come in due course. The new life will adopt the forms most after its own heart As a result life will be richer, broader, more full of color and harmony. This is the essence of the problem.

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Last updated on: 2.5.2007