Leon Trotsky, Leninism and Workers’ Clubs. July 17, 1924
Original Source: Pravda, 23 July 1924.
Comrades, I will be having the opportunity to speak soon at the Second All-Union Congress of Cultural Workers. Let us hope that the very fact that such congresses are being held is a sign of a certain changeover, foretokening a period of broader and more intense cultural work in all fields.
Educational work before and after the conquest of power
For us, questions of cultural work are inseparably connected with politics, with socialist construction. This is as basic as ABC. When we speak of cultural work, and in particular of club work, which is destined to hold a special place within the overall system of our cultural work, what we have in mind in the first place is propaganda work and the practical realization of the basic propositions of Marxism or to translate into the language of our era, of Leninism.
Just the other day I came across a phrase of Marx’s, which I am ashamed to say I had forgotten-a phrase that brings us right to the heart of the question. While still quite young, Marx wrote to the well-known German radical writer Arnold Ruge, “We do not step into the world with a new doctrinaire set of principles, saying: ‘Here is the truth; get down on your knees to it!’ We develop new foundations for the world out of the world’s own foundations.”
A superb formulation, and one that is pure Marx. We do not bring truth to the people from the outside, as though truth were something inflexibly fixed and given for all time, and we do not say to the people: “Here is the truth; get down on your knees to it!” No, we take the world as it is, and in a practical way, actively, we extract from the foundations of this living world the means for building a new one.
This is the essence of the Marxist and Leninist method. And the cultural workers of the Soviet Republic need to give this idea a great deal of thought and get the feel of it completely, for in our country Marxism, by way of Leninism, has come to power for the very first time. And that fact, which opens up enormous possibilities for cultural and educational work, entails some serious dangers as well, something that must never be lost sight of. As I have said elsewhere before, our country is Leninism organized in state form. Organized in state form-that is to say, holding state power. The state is an organ of coercion, and for Marxists in positions of power there may be a temptation to simplify cultural and educational work among the masses by using the approach of “Here is the truth -down on your knees to it!”
The state, of course, is a harsh thing, and the workers’ state has the right, and the duty, to use coercion against the enemies of the working class, a ruthless application of force. But in the matter of educating the working class itself, the method of “Here is the truth -down on your knees to it!” as a method of cultural work contradicts the very essence of Marxism. The techniques and methods of propaganda and education are varied: at one time the party is working underground; at another, it holds state power. But Leninism as a method of thought and a method of educating the workers remains the same, both in the period when the party is fighting for power and after it has attained that objective.
We have to give this idea a great deal of thought. Its full meaning is brought home to us especially clearly if we compare the pattern of a young worker’s development under the old bourgeois regime in Russia or in any capitalist country with the kind of development we now have here, given the circumstances and conditions of the Soviet Republic. Previously the worker developed from the factory outward; in the shop where he worked he found, as part of his life experience, the conditions that would help him orient himself not only at the factory but in the society as a whole. Opposing him stood the capitalist who exploited him: class antagonism as the basic principle by which to orient himself in society constantly stared him in the face. And there were times when strikes were called, when the worker had dealings with the police. On the question of housing, he had to deal with the landlord, and finally, as a consumer, he dealt with the exploiting merchant. Thus, within the limited sphere of his everyday life, and starting from his workplace first of all, he encountered the class enemy in all its hypostases, in all its manifestations -and that was sufficient for an elementary orientation under those social conditions. Is the same true for us today? No.
Take for example a young worker, that is, one who has not gone through the school of the capitalist factory of old, one whose active life and work began after October. In a social sense his conditions of labor are immeasurably better; but in material respects that is not always so, not by far. Moreover, at the factory he does not face an enemy who would appear to be the cause of his still difficult material situation. In order for this young worker to understand his place in the factory, he needs to understand his place in society. He ought to give thought to the fact that as part of the working class he is one of the rulers of this country, that the factory belongs to his class, and that he is one part of its collective ownership.
If he lives in a house belonging, let us say, to the Moscow Soviet or some other soviet, here again he does not have before him a landlord who exploits him. He simply has himself. In order to learn the correct attitude toward his own apartment, toward the stairways of his building, towards the building rules, etc., he must think of himself as a part of the collective ownership.
Thus everything has been turned around on its axis. The worker in bourgeois Russia, as in any capitalist country, had his basic experience at the factory to begin with, and when he first heard the truths of Marxism, they would come to rest directly upon his limited but quite firm class experience of indignation, hatred, and struggle against the exploiters. But now we don’t have this. The exploiter stands before us now only on the grand scale, in the form of the world capitalist giant, who uses wars, blockades, and extortionist demands based on the old foreign debt to impede our development. In the plants and factories the situation is quite a new one now, and in order to get in tune correctly, one must understand one’s place in social relations generally. In order to orient himself correctly on the question of wages-whether one should or should not increase them under present conditions-or on the question of the productivity of labor-in order to find his way in all these questions, the worker must come to know himself in his social position, that is, to think through all the consequences of the fact that he is the ruling class.
Thus, to sum up, the starting point for the development of a worker in a bourgeois country is the factory, the shop, the workplace, and he proceeds from there, through several intermediate steps, and arrives at an orientation toward society; whereas, for us, the worker has to gain an understanding of his position in society in order not to go astray at the factory level. This is a tremendous difference! It entails a difference in cultural and educational approach, flowing from the difference in the conditions of individual and class development. Those generalizations which were sufficient for the workers under capitalist society could, at least at first be quite limited. Today in order to find his place, the worker needs much broader and more complex generalized ideas. In compensation for that, however, his experience today is also much more complex and varied. But this experience is fragmentary; it needs to be brought together, thought over, discussed, articulated and formulated. The worker’s life experience-his factory experience, his experience at home, his experience as a member of a cooperative, or as a Red Army soldier- all this needs to be gathered into a single whole.
When this variegated experience is brought together in critical fashion in the head of the worker, the latter begins at once to find the correct orientation in society, and consequently in the factory, and in the communal home, and in the cooperative, and so on. And here the club serves as one of the most important points of juncture, where all these threads of variegated and fragmentary experience intersect, come together in a single whole.
The place of the club in educational work
In our country the Communist Party does the educating. But the party has a complex array of levers and controls at its disposal for this purpose. It works through the government which it heads, and through the trade unions, whose leadership is likewise in party hands, and through the clubs, whose significance is destined to grow more and more. The club serves as an exceptionally important digestive organ for the collective assimilation of fragmentary experience by the working class, precisely because the club is only part of the educational system and not part of the system of administration.
The party is a collective body geared to action-and in our country, it is a collective ruling group as well and it draws a line between itself and untrained or uneducated elements. Not of course in the sense that it cuts itself off from access to such elements, but rather that it does not allow untrained elements to influence party decisions with their votes.
The party sets up stringent rules for admission to its ranks, checks applicants carefully, and so forth. All this is undeniably necessary. The party is in charge of the government. It cannot wait for the backward elements to develop to the point where they understand current events, for the events of today will be yesterday’s events tomorrow, and the events of tomorrow will be today’s. The party cannot wait. It has to respond actively to the events of the day. It presents slogans and formulations, which to party members and to those workers who follow the party’s lead closely are filled with the entire life experience of the past. But for the more backward masses these formulations seem to descend from on high, often enough taking them completely by surprise. In order to comprehend these as their own, the masses have to approach them step by step through their own experience. And here a bridge between the fragmented, partial, inadequate, and as yet unthought-out experience of the worker (and not the worker in general but the particular living worker or group of workers), between that and the political formulations, instructions, and directives of the party-one of the most important bridges between them is or should be! -the workers’ club. This is its basic significance. Everything else flows from this.
Peter the Great is credited with being the author of a phrase which I believe (though I have not checked) he borrowed from earlier military writers. “The manual of arms,” said Peter, “has the procedures written out, but not the particulars of time or occasion.” That is, when an inexperienced soldier takes the field manual in hand, the overall rules on what to do in various combat situations will sound to him like abstract commands hanging in midair over his head-like some revealed truth that he must get down on his knees to. In order to understand something, one must carry it out and test it out in one’s own experience. There are no “particulars of time or occasion” in the manual, as Peter said, that is, no concrete terms or specifications or conditions for applying the general rules. The basic task in military training and instruction is to develop a person’s ability to combine regulation orders with concrete times and occasions. The social and educational path of the club leads in the opposite direction, from “particulars of time and occasion”-that is, from the concrete circumstances and specifics experienced by the individual worker, group of workers, entire plant, or entire district-to the book regulations, that is, the general lessons and norms of conduct and operation incumbent upon the class as a whole.
The club does not of course have its own politics, nor does it draw its own generalizations. It gets these from the party, whose creative functions the club nourishes with its own raw experience. The club helps the workers whom it draws into its orbit to think through their experiences and assimilate them in a critical way. At the third youth congress Lenin said:
“Communism will become an empty word, a mere signboard, and the Communist a mere boaster, if all the knowledge he has acquired is not digested in his mind.” But how to digest it all? On the basis of one’s personal experience and that of the group around one, of which one is part, and that of the class as a whole. The club is a bridge from the everyday life of the working man or woman to the life of the citizen, that is, to conscious participation in the constructive work of the state, the party, or the profession to which they belong. But the club does not toss aside the working person who has already joined in on the work of the collective through a trade union, soviet organization, or the party. It helps such already awakened persons to raise their civic and revolutionary qualifications still higher. If the club can be called a school, it is a school of civic awareness, a school for heightening one’s qualifications as a citizen.
But not only civic qualifications. Cultural advancement is unthinkable without a rise in the level of our workers’ training in technical skills, without the inculcation of the urge for acquiring qualifications as highly skilled, without the development of professional pride. Precisely because communism is not an abstract principle- “Down on your knees, that’s all!”-but a method for building a new world proceeding in practical fashion on the basis of the existing world-precisely for that reason one cannot speak seriously of socialism if there is no effort at the same time to achieve the fundamental precondition for socialism by every means, namely, increasing the productivity of labor in our country.
There is no need to close our eyes to what exists -the comments by foreign worker communists about production in our country are not always comforting, not by far: we are still working unskillfully, laxly, sluggishly, and so on. While preserving the eight-hour day as the solid foundation for the cultural development of the proletariat, we must reach a much higher level of labor productivity. To inculcate the desire to become a highly skilled productive worker is one of the club’s tasks, in which it works in the closest connection with the trade union. Thus, the course we have taken toward developing good, highly qualified, revolutionary citizens is inextricably bound up with our course toward developing good, highly qualified productive workers.
You know that in Western Europe (and it was partially true for us here as well) a certain section of the highly skilled workers -and in some countries it is quite a considerable section -have a tendency to think of themselves as an aristocracy; they remove themselves from the rest of their class and serve as a base of support for the Social Democrats, Mensheviks, and even more right-wing elements as in America. If we were to suppose such a thing possible in our country, it would signify disastrous negligence in the sphere of working class education, for, to us, for a worker to be highly qualified means that he ought to be so in all ways, that is, not only productively but also politically, and that kind of qualification ought to be the first priority in the work of raising the level of qualification in the working class as a whole, and not only in its upper crust. For that reason the question of developing an inclination among the advanced elements of the working class toward raising their own productive worth, toward understanding the economy as a whole as well as mastering production skills on their own jobs-that is one of the most important tasks facing the club.
And this task obviously cannot be carried out by means of moralizing. In general this method gets you nowhere at all. The problem can be solved, or more precisely, can become solvable, by means of drawing highly qualified workers into discussions at the clubs, workers who at the same time are highly qualified communists, and by arousing in them feelings of professional honor and productive pride, that will be directly linked with the question of the success of our entire socialist economy.
I have said-and this is elementary for us all-that Leninism is not a collection of truths, requiring ritual obeisance, but a method of thinking, requiring continual application in practice. But that does not mean, of course, that Leninism is learned purely empirically, without theory or books. We need books and the club needs books for studying Leninism. A resolution of the thirteenth congress of our party speaks of this: “A most prominent place in the general work of the clubs must be allotted to the propagandizing of Leninism. One of the instruments of our propagandizing must be the club’s library, for which an appropriate selection of books is necessary.”
Let me say without mincing words that selection must be understood here in the sense of selecting out, for a countless number of books on the theme of Leninism have appeared, and they are not all of equal value. It is not easy to write about Leninism … Many of the hastily written booklets are tossed aside like so many husks, while the more valuable ones still need to be reworked in the future. The stringent selection of such books for club use is a very crucial question, which should be resolved only through the collective effort of club and library workers.
I should like, by the way, to give a warning at this point against an error that is now found rather widely, that is, an incorrect attitude toward what is called the popular quality of a book. Naturally, one should write as simply as possible, but not to the detriment of the essentials of the subject, not with an artificial simplification of one’s theme, not by passing over important aspects of it in silence. The exposition should correspond to the subject matter. Since we wish to heighten the theoretical as well as other qualifications of the advanced workers through the work of the club, we must bring them into the sphere of highly complex ideological interests. Here studying is necessary! There are books that come to one as easily as drinking water but they flow on out like water too – without lodging in one’s consciousness. To study Leninism is a big job, and therefore one cannot approach it superficially or light-mindedly; rather, one must work one’s way into the field of Leninism wielding pick and shovel. Of course, not every book is useful for everyone. There must be a correlation between the reader’s personal experience, general level of development, and abilities, on the one hand, and the level of coverage of Leninism provided by the book. But one cannot take the attitude that Leninism can be presented in a form that can be grasped without any difficulties by anyone. That which can be grasped without any difficulties is generally useless, regardless of the subject. Naturally, a popular style is one of the most important demands we should place on all who write for the working class, but it would be naive to suppose that the manner of presentation can overcome all the difficulties inherent in the substance of a question.
What constitutes a healthy kind of popularization? One in which the exposition corresponds to the theme. Capital cannot be written in a more popular style than Marx used if the subject is to be treated in all its depth. Lenin’s philosophical work on empiriomonism cannot be developed in a more popular style than Lenin’s either. What’s the solution? To come to these books through a series of intermediate steps; this is the only way to get to understand them; there is not and cannot
be any other way. Engels fought in his later years against a prejudice that has some bearing here, the rather widespread prejudice concerning foreign words.
Naturally, piling one foreign word on top of another, especially ones that are rarely used, is a completely unnecessary mannerism. Still worse, however, are the incomprehensible words of our own manufacture, such as certain Soviet words of three and four elements which uselessly clutter up the text in our newspapers and which can’t be found in any foreign dictionary. Abbreviations are acceptable when they are known and understood. There are, too, abbreviations and compound words that are appropriate for a chancellery or government office, but in newspapers or books of general use they simply get in the way. And conversely, there are foreign words, scientific terms, that are necessary for workers. There must be a dictionary in the club, and the director of the club must be a qualified worker; he himself must be moving forward, be studying, and be moving others along with him. But a literature cannot be created for workers only that would be separated by a Chinese wall from all other literature-the kind that uses a certain terminology that includes foreign words. The worker’s vocabulary must be enlarged, for vocabulary is the tool kit of thought. The enlargement of the active vocabulary of the worker is also one of the tasks of the club. …
The club and the tavern
I have indicated, Comrades, that if the worker senses an element of coercion at the club, even indirectly, he will go to the tavern instead. But it also happens sometimes that the tavern comes to the club. [Laughter]
I know that this is only one part of a large and difficult question, and I do not intend to bring up the question of alcoholism and the struggle against it in all its ramifications at this point-though I think we will soon have to deal with this question exhaustively, for it is very closely tied up with the fate of our economic and cultural work.
But I will touch on that part of the problem connected with clubs, and first of all I will recount a little incident that really
shocked me and which, it seems to me, we must publicize in order thereby to get at the truth of the situation more exactly.
This incident involved a club called the Lenin Palace of Labor and the question of a food counter. Here is what Comrade Shagaev told me about it- I have written it down word for word: The lunch counter concession has been given to a private individual! Why? Because the cooperative organization and Narpit refused to set up a counter unless it sold beer.
The club knew how to stand up for its own interests and hired a private individual to set up the counter; this person charges MSPO prices [MSPO-the main consumer cooperative], gives club members a 20 percent discount, and pays the club seventy gold rubles a month rent. This is a small incident but it has enormous significance!
A workers’ club wants to set up a food counter. Who does it turn to? To the cooperative, and Narpit, that is, to organizations of a public character. And what does the cooperative say? We won’t do it without beer; it isn’t profitable. What does Narpit say? We won’t take it on if there’s no beer: we’ll lose money. What does the club do? It gives its business to a private individual, who sells to club members at prices 20 percent lower than the government-con trolled prices, pays 70 gold rubles per month rent, and, we must assume, still makes a profit.
Comrades, this is the greatest shame and scandal, that the cooperative and Narpit, or those of their agencies involved in this case, should so impermissibly choose to follow the path of least resistance, pushing the club in the direction of turning into a tavern. If the club can attract people simply by offering beer, then there’s no need to worry about anything else. Just snare the worker on the fishhook of beer (I don’t know if one can properly speak of a “hook of beer,” since beer is a liquid; still beer does work just as well as any hook) -snare him and drag him in. Then what is the club there for? This leaves the club totally beside the point. What is the job of the cooperative organization? To learn how to operate a lunch counter at low prices, to make a little profit and support the club. But no, they tell us, why take pains and make life difficult for yourself (that would be acting like a petty private merchant!)? Why does beer exist anyway? Sell beer and your business is guaranteed without a lot of trouble. Such is the path of least resistance, which is equally impermissible for the club and for the cooperative organization, because it puts the whole business in a compromising situation and is totally destructive.
This example is all the more striking because the private trader showed that you can get along without beer altogether.
Incidentally, I don’t know what proportion of the figure of 12 million visits to clubs per year, which we have estimated, ought to be credited to visits for beer. At any rate it is clear that a food counter with beer certainly can enhance the statistics for attendance rates. [Laughter]
There are some who say: Well, after all, this isn’t so terrible. There’s a rule for handling such situations- don’t allow more than two bottles of beer to be drunk at the food counter by each person. A wise rule-who can deny it? and yet I don’t know how you can make sure that it’s followed. You would most likely have to check every member of the club with a manometer for measuring the vapor pressure of beer fumes. [Laughter] But a manometer is a pretty expensive toy and is hardly within our clubs’ means. Besides, I suspect that enforcing the two-bottle rule would cause the club directors too much trouble, of which they have enough already.
Of course, it is possible to attract the masses to the club by offering beer, but to lure them away from the tavern with the help of beer is tantamount to driving out the devil with the help of Old Nick. [Laughter] This will not bring many cultural gains, and, besides that it simply disguises the fact that the club is unable to attract the masses of its own accord, and that is the worst thing of all. It is not out of abstract moral considerations that we must fight against basing our clubs on a foundation of beer, but precisely because we must inspire the club first of all to attract the masses by its own individual qualities and not by means of the substance Tolstoy had in mind when he said, “From that you can get any and all qualities.” …
Cultural work and “proletarian culture”
Comrades! The main things that I made notes to myself to say about clubs have been said. Beyond this, I only wish to set this work into a certain perspective, and that perspective, it seems to me, can best be presented if we take a critical approach to the question of clubs as “smithies of proletarian class culture.”
I am picking up Comrade Pletnev’s formula. If I wish to polemicize with him, it is not because I do not value his cultural work, which, on the contrary, 1, like all of you, attribute great importance to, but because I think there is an element in his theoretical posing of this question that presents certain dangers. In his pamphlet on club work-the 1923 edition–Pletnev says: “The club itself, as such, should become, for all its members, a smithy in which proletarian class culture is forged. It is necessary to stress as forcefully as possible that the creation of proletarian culture is a process of class struggle, a consecutive phase of struggle (struggle! I repeat) of the proletariat against bourgeois domination.” In an article this year, the same formula is repeated, but with an interesting modification: “The club is the center for the training of proletarian public awareness, where the proletariat forges the elements of proletarian class culture.” Previously what was said was “proletarian class culture,” but here it says “elements of proletarian class culture,” that is, it I. stated slightly more cautiously.
Comrades, it is not out of doctrinarism or pickiness, but for reasons of principle, and by the same token, for reasons of a practical nature, that I am impelled to point out that this is an incorrect way of posing the problem. In the article I have quoted from, Comrade Pletnev is arguing with a trade union worker (I have not read the latter’s article) and is giving a general characterization of club work, which in my opinion is quite correctly done, but he concludes with a theoretical formulation that goes halfway toward liquidating the basic thesis of the article.
How is the club actually going to forge a new proletarian class culture? What does that mean? Comrade Lenin wrote about proletarian culture in one of his last articles, “Page from a Diary.” Those lines have been quoted many times, and frequently so as to conceal thoughts directly opposite in character to the quotation -a technique that is encountered often enough. Here is what Lenin said: “At a time when we hold forth on proletarian culture and the relation in which it stands to bourgeois culture,” it came out that we were cultural ignoramuses in the matter of schools, and so forth. “This shows what a vast amount of urgent spade-work we still have to do to reach the standard of an ordinary West-European civilized country.”
Here, in Lenin’s way, the emphasis is on “normally civilized,” that is to say, bourgeois. That, then, is the kind of level we have to reach first of all! In his article “On Cooperation,” Lenin says: “Now the emphasis is changing and shifting to peaceful, organizational, ‘cultural’ work.” And further on: “If we leave aside questions of international politics and revolution, and confine ourselves to internal economic relations, the emphasis in our work is certainly shifting to education.” But Comrade Pletnev constantly uses the term “culture-bearing” with a hint of contempt and counterposes it to the “forging of proletarian culture.”
What is to be understood by the term “proletarian culture?” In what way can the club become the smithy of proletarian culture? In what way? For the club, though a very important and even vital part of our social fabric, still is only a part, one that certainly cannot by itself produce anything that differs qualitatively from what the society as a whole produces. So in what way can the club become the smithy of proletarian class culture? And again, the question that needs to be answered before anything else: What is to be understood by the term “proletarian culture?”
We are using every means, including the clubs, to build a socialist economy, a socialist society, and consequently a socialist classless culture. But before that has been accomplished, a prolonged transitional period still remains, one that will also have a culture of its own kind, one that will be a very ill-formed and very contradictory one for a while. I would like to think that it is precisely this transitional period that you wish to designate as “proletarian culture.” Of course, terminology can be used in different ways and we should not quarrel over wording. But it is necessary to settle on the meanings of terms in order to get to the essence of the subject without mix-ups.
For the sake of comparison let me take another, parallel term. We are moving toward a socialist economy through a transitional era. What should the economy of this transitional era be called? We call it NEP. Is this a scientific term? Not in the slightest degree. This Is a conventional designation for lack of a more appropriate one. Vladimir Il’ich frequently referred to our transitional regime as state capitalism, but in so doing always added the phrase “in quotation marks,” or he called it “state capitalism of a very, very particular or peculiar kind.” Many people do not understand this qualification, and say state capitalism outright, and even call our state trusts and syndicates “organs of state capitalism,” which is of course grossly incorrect, as Vladimir Il’ich explained in his article “On Cooperation.”
Thus, Lenin proposed a highly conditional term (one in quotation marks!), “state capitalism,” for the system transitional to socialism. If you wish, we can call this transitional economic period the period of “forging proletarian economy.” I don’t like this term since it does not express the essence of the matter (the whole substance being in the transitional state), but If they urge me and offer to use quotation marks, or better, double quotation marks, I am almost ready to say, “0. K., what can you do? If that will make Comrade Pletnev feel better.” [Pletnev from his seat: “Never!” Laughter] All the better.
But there is really a complete parallel here- proletarian culture, if this term is to be taken seriously, should have a base under it, in the form of proletarian economy-all the more so since culture tends to lag behind the economic base a little.
But if you refuse (and that would be fully justifiable!) to designate our transitional economy a “proletarian class economy,”
then by the same token you have fairly well dug the ground out from under the abstraction of proletarian culture.
What is our economy characterized by? In his booklet on the tax in kind, Lenin explained that our transitional economy contains remnants of patriarchal society, innumerable elements of petty commodity production, that there are private-capitalist elements, state-capitalist elements, and finally, elements of socialist economy. Altogether this constitutes the economy of the transitional period, which can be called “state capitalism” (in quotation marks!) or–as some have proposed–a “market-socialist economy.”
It is possible to settle on terminology, but the concepts involved have to be grasped thoroughly. And what does the culture of the transitional period consist of? Of vestiges, still very powerful ones, of the culture of the aristocratic period – and not everything here is useless. We are not going to throw out Pushkin and Tolstoy. We need them. It also consists of elements of bourgeois culture, first of all, of bourgeois technical know-how, which we need even more. We are still living on the basis of bourgeois technical knowledge and to a considerable extent on the basis of bourgeois specialists. For the time being, we have not yet built our own factories, and are working in those we got from bourgeois hands. The culture of the transitional period consists, further, of an overwhelming petty-bourgeois, that is, primarily peasant, lack of culture.
Our culture also consists of the efforts by our party and government to raise the cultural level of the proletariat, and after it, that of the peasantry -if only to the level of a “normally civilized country.” It also consists of our socialist construction and, finally, of our ideal of communism, which guides all our constructive work.
There you have the kind of complicated and contradictory elements that are found in the culture (and absence of culture) of the transitional period. How then is the club able to create a proletarian class culture? To me this is absolutely incomprehensible! The club, by connecting and merging together the disconnected experience of the workers, helps them to translate their experience into the language of politics, literature, and art, and in so doing raises the cultural level of certain layers of the proletariat and makes socialist construction easier for them -that is indisputable. But in what way can the club, as such, forge a class culture of the proletariat? This actually involves making major concessions to the laboratory point of view concerning culture. Of course you can pick dozens of capable young workers and by laboratory methods teach them verse composition, painting, and dramatics. Is this useful?
Extremely so. But it is necessary for them to conceive of their place and role in the overall economic and cultural development of the country realistically. And to place before them the perspective of creating proletarian class culture by means of the clubs is to start them on a road which can lead them to turning their backs on the masses, i.e., away from the real process of creating a socialist culture, and trying to counterpose the “pure” work of little circles to this process, as has already been attempted before now. Such relapses are possible. But it is obvious that the creation of some sort of proletarian culture by the laboratory methods of Bogdanov has nothing in common with Leninism.
It is true that even Lenin used the expression “proletarian culture” sometimes but it is noteworthy that he only used it in 1919 and 1920, and later, as well as I can remember, he stopped using it precisely because he was afraid he might lend support, even indirectly, i.e., by using a term that was not precise enough, to an incorrect point of view. But in what sense did Lenin refer to proletarian culture? In his speech to the third youth congress in 1920, he said: “Proletarian culture must be the logical development of the store of knowledge mankind has accumulated under the yoke of capitalist, landowner, and bureaucratic society.” Notice that he said “logical development,” and not a hint of the term “combat,” nor of “forging” culture in the clubs. Planned, regular development in the economy, in the schools, in the government, in all our work, in all our building toward socialism. Thus, Lenin used the term “proletarian culture only for the purpose of fighting against the idealist, laboratory-oriented, schematic, Bogdanovite interpretation of it. What we need most of all is literacy, simple literacy, political literacy, literacy in the daily routine, literacy in hygiene, literacy in literature, literacy in the field of entertainment … From literacy in all these fields a general cultural literacy will be formed.
They will say, mind you, that this sounds like a non-class concept. It is nothing of the sort! The proletariat is the ruling class here – and that’s precisely what this discussion is about – it is precisely the proletariat that is to extract the most important, urgent, and elementary things from the cultural storehouses accumulated by the other classes. At this point, the proletariat needs to appropriate for itself the primary elements of culture: universal literacy and the four laws of arithmetic.
Indeed if the entire country was literate and knew the four laws of arithmetic, we would practically be living under socialism, for socialism, as we have heard, is nothing other than a society of cultured, that is, first of all, literate, cooperative producers.
The proletariat in power is the master of the state. That is what we are talking about, about raising the cultural level of this proletariat Here the basic class criterion has been provided, not only subjectively but objectively as well. But we cannot take the club and say to it, “Create a proletarian class culture!” because then it would turn its back on the proletariat and close itself off. No, we say to the club, “Raise the cultural and. civic level of the illiterate, barely literate, and semiliterate workers and thereby lay the basis for socialist culture” (Applause]
That is the correct way to pose the question. And that is why Lenin was not afraid of the word “culturization.” It was natural that we used this word with scorn before we won power, for the “culturizers” did not understand the chief preconditions for cultural work on the broad historic scale–the necessity for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the conquest of power by the proletariat. But once power has been conquered, culturization becomes the most important part of the work of building socialism. We cannot take a scornful attitude toward this word now. Today the word culturization, to us, to revolutionaries, to communists of the Soviet Republic, has completely lost that shade of meaning that it had before.
On the basis of the nationalization of industry, under the dictatorship of the proletariat, in a country protected by the monopoly of foreign trade and defended by the Red Army, the main task In building socialism is equivalent to that of Ming the new form, step by step, with cultural content. The work of culturizing is for us a fundamental revolutionary task.
But It goes without saying that we cannot close ourselves off within the bounds of a Soviet state protected by the Red Army. The question of the world revolution still stands before us in all its magnitude There are nations and states-and they are the majority-where the main question is not one of culturization but of conquering power. And for that reason Lenin says, in the article I quoted from, that nine-tenths of our work comes down to culturization-if we abstract ourselves from questions of International politics and revolution.
But we can abstract ourselves from this question only for purposes of argument, in order to clarify the question. We cannot do so politically. That is why our cultural and culturizing work in the clubs and through the clubs should be linked up, to the greatest possible extent, with our international revolutionary work. There should be drive belts leading from all the little pulleys of petty, personal concerns to the giant flywheel of the world revolution. This is precisely why I have pointed to such questions as the events in Italy and Germany. These are milestones of revolutionary development which it is necessary to study so that every worker will get correct bearings in the international situation.
Everything-from the pettiest problems of the factory floor and workshop to the most fundamental problems of the world revolution- should pass through the club. But for this, it is necessary to strengthen the club, to improve it, to raise the level of qualifications of its directors, and to improve the material situation of the club and of those who staff it, and to do this by every possible means.
Lenin wrote that we should raise the teacher to a height such as has never before been attained in the world. This idea also applies totally and completely to those who staff the clubs. Perhaps it would be appropriate for us to conduct an experiment in the near future, by placing first-class workers in charge of a few clubs -an experiment to see what can be accomplished, given our resources, with the human material that we have and with the application of initiative and a broad perspective. If the club is not a smithy where proletarian culture is forged, it is one of the most valuable links in our total system for influencing the working masses and creating a new, socialist culture To the extent that we can draw ever wider layers of the masses into involvement in public affairs, the club’s aim. should be to bring them to Leninism, not as to an awe-inspiring truth handed down from on high and demanding “Get down on your knees before me,” but as to a generalization of their own experience, an experience which was disconnected and fragmentary, which has been gathered together by the club, generalized politically by the party, defended and strengthened by the authority of the state.
And if we can use workers’ clubs to teach every working man and woman to deduce the foundations of the new world from those of the world today, then we will not only make them capable of understanding this world but of transforming it as well, making it a wider world, a more spacious world, a happier world to live in. [Stormy applause]
Source: Leon Trotsky, Problems of Everyday Life (New York: Monad Press, 1973), pp. 288-292.