Bolshevik Revolution opened politics to youth, workers
Printed below is an excerpt from Problems of Everyday Life. The title includes articles on social and cultural issues written by Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky in the Soviet press in the years immediately following the October 1917 revolution. The piece below is titled “Young people, study politics!” It’s from an April 29, 1924, speech on the fifth anniversary celebration of the Communist Young Workers’ Hostels. Copyright © 1973 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
BY LEON TROTSKY
Comrades, not long ago, we released from the Red Army on indefinite leave the class of 1901. On this occasion we carried out in a number of places an inquiry among the men being discharged, questioning them as to what they had learned in the Red Army. From among the answers they gave, one in particular struck my attention, a very brief and expressive answer. I have already quoted it at several meetings. One of the Red Army comrades answered thus: “I have learned about the machine gun and about politics.”
Remember that answer, Comrades! It is a very good one; in my opinion the thing could not be better put. As a revolutionary soldier he is obliged to know, as Suvorov said long ago, his military art; he must know his weapon and how to use it, otherwise he will not be a soldier. In this case, evidently, we are dealing with a machine-gunner, whose weapon is the machine gun. “I have learned about the machine gun, and besides that, I have learned about politics,” he says. What does it mean when he says that he has learned about politics? It means that he has learned to understand why he was given a machine gun. So long as he only knows about the machine gun, he is just the slave of the weapon, and cannon fodder in somebody else’s hands; but when he knows what purpose under certain conditions that machine gun is to fulfill in the Red Army, he is a revolutionary fighter, a conscious citizen.
This applies not only to a soldier in the revolutionary army, but to every kind of service in our workers’ and peasants’ country. “What have you learned?” we must ask the young proletarian when he leaves the factory training school. “I have learned about the hammer, the pincers, the plane, and about politics.” And about politics!
You know that in bourgeois countries there is a hypocritical and base notion that the army and the younger generation stand outside politics. This very day, in another connection, I have been looking through Volumes 2 and 3 of Comrade Lenin’s works. (This is in general, Comrades, a very useful occupation—whether one has any special reason for doing it or not—for everybody who has the opportunity to undertake it.)
It so happens that my eye fell upon a number of Lenin’s plain, extremely sharp and merciless observations regarding this base and hypocritical conception about the younger generation being outside politics. We know that the army is in all countries an instrument of politics, or rather, that it serves political ends. When it is said that the army is outside politics, that means: you, soldier, master your machine gun—politics, however, will be looked after by somebody else on your behalf, i.e., obviously, by the ruling class. The bourgeoisie carries out a division of labor. Politics is in its charge; the workers and peasants in the army are cannon fodder, slaves to the machines of destruction. And it is exactly the same so far as the younger generation is concerned, the young workers and peasants, that is. Politics fills the air; it is not possible to live outside of politics, without politics, any more than one can live without air.
But the bourgeoisie cannot reveal its political face to the young people. It cannot say: there you are, the twelve- or thirteen-year-old son of a worker; you have been born into the world in order that, after serving an apprenticeship to some trade, you may go into a factory and there to the end of your days create with your sweat, blood, and marrow, surplus value for the lords of life, the bourgeoisie, who, from this surplus value, will create its bourgeois culture, its luxury, art, and learning for its children. The bourgeoisie cannot openly expound such politics to the young workers. It puts over its politics by way of circumlocution and allegories, imperceptibly or half-perceptibly, through its schools, its churches, and its press. And this work of the imperceptible bourgeois education of young people, or rather, the education of young workers and peasants in the interests of the bourgeois state, is concealed behind the slogan: “the younger generation is outside politics.” And that is why Vladimir Ilyich so relentlessly and implacably fought against this base hypocrisy.
Young people live in society, they are born into definite conditions, they step forward into life’s arena in particular historical circumstances, and the sooner these youngsters open their eyes to the world around them, the better and more profoundly they grasp the conditions in which they live, the easier their path through life will prove to be.
You young comrades are living in a workers’ and peasants’ state. This does not mean that your path through life is a very easy one in the years of your apprenticeship. But I think, nevertheless, that it is already considerably better than it was for the elder generation of the working class in their apprenticeship years. I don’t know whether anybody in our country has collected together the works of literature—Chekhov’s stories, for instance—which deal with the years of apprenticeship, the gloomiest in the life of the working masses. I think that all these stories, sketches, and memoirs of the years of apprenticeship through which every worker has passed, should be collected and published and made one of the reference books for young people. It is necessary to learn to hate the old order that we have overthrown but that we are still far, far from having got rid of. It has bequeathed to us monstrous deposits of ignorance, inertness, crudeness, vulgarity; and all this still surrounds us. And it is for you young comrades to sweep away these deposits. That is why it is very important that the work of mastering the hammer, the pincers, and all the other tools and instruments of production must go hand in hand with the mastering of politics.