The Work Of The People’s Commissariat For Education

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Pravda No. 25 of February 5 carried “Instructions of the Central Committee of the RCP to Communists Working in the People’s Commissariat for Education (in connection with the reorganisation of the Commissariat)”

Unfortunately, there are three misprints in Point I distorting the meaning: the text said political" instead of ”polytechnical“ education.

I should like to draw our comrades’ attention to these instructions and to call for an exchange of opinion on some of the more important points.

A five-day Party Conference on educational questions was held in December 1920. It was attended by 134 delegates with voice and vote, and 29 with voice. A report of its proceedings is given in a Supplement to the Bulletin of the Eighth Congress of Soviets on the Party Conference on Education (published by the All-Russia Central Executive Committee, January 10, 1921). The resolutions of the Conference, the report of the proceedings, all the articles published in the above-mentioned Supplement—except for the introductory article by Comrade Lunacharsky and the article by Comrade Grinko reveal a wrong approach to polytechnical education. They suffer from the very defect on combating which the Central Committee in its instruc tions urges the People’s Commissar and the Collegium to concentrate their attention, namely, too many genera’ arguments and abstract slogans.

The question of polytechnical education has in the main been settled by our Party Programme in its paragraphs 1 and 8 of the section dealing with the people’s education. It is these paragraphs that are dealt with in the Central Committee’s Instructions. Paragraph I deals with polytech meal education up to the age of seventeen; and Paragraph 8 speaks of “the extensive development of vocational training for persons of the age of seventeen and upwards in conjunction with general polytechnical education”.

Thus, the Party Programme puts the question squarely. The arguments about "polytechnical or monotechnical education" (the words I have put in quotes and italics, monstrously absurd though they are, are the very words that we find on page 4 of the Supplement) are fundamentally wrong and downright impermissible for a Communist; they betray ignorance of the Programme and an idle inclination for abstract slogans. While we are temporarily compelled to lower the age (for passing from general polytechnical education to polytechnical vocational training) from seventeen to fifteen, the "Party must regard" this lowering of the age “as only" (point I of the Central Committees Instructions) a practical expedient necessitated by the "country’s poverty and ruin”.

General arguments with futile efforts to “substantiate" this lowering are claptrap. Lot us stop this game of general arguments and “theorising"! Attention must be concentrated on the “recording and verification of practical experience" and the “systematic application oJ its lessons”.

We may have very few competent people with knowledge and practical pedagogical experience but we do have some. We suffer from our inability to find them, install them in the proper executive posts, and join them in studying the practical experience of Soviet state development. Now this is precisely what the Party Conference in December 1920 failed to do, and if this was not done at a conference of 163—one hundred and sixty three!—educational workers, it is quite evident that there must be a general, fundamental flaw in the organisation of this work, which made it necessary for the Party’s Central Committee to issue special instructions.

In the Commissariat for Education there are two—just two—comrades who have special assignments. These are the People’s Commissar, Comrade Lunacharsky, who exercises general direction, and Deputy Commissar, Comrade Pokrovsky, who directs affairs, firstly, as Deputy People’s Commissar, and secondly, as official adviser (and director) on scientific matters and questions of Marxism in general. The whole Party knows both Comrade Lunacharsky and Comrade Pokrovsky very well and has no doubt, of course, that in this respect both are, in their way, “specialists" in the People’s Commissariat for Education. None of the other workers of the Commissariat can afford to “specialise" in this way: their “speciality’ must lie in skilfully organising the enlistment of expert teachers, in organising their work properly, and in systematically applying the lessons of practical experience. The Central Committee’s instructions refer to this in points 2, 3 and 5.

The Party workers’ conference should have heard reports by specialists-teachers with some ten years’ practical experience who could have told us what is being clone and has been done in the various spheres, say, vocational training, how we are coping with it in our Soviet organisation, what has been achieved, illustrated with examples (which could surely be found, even if in small number), what were the main defects, and how these could be removed, stated in concrete terms.

The Party workers’ conference made no such record of practical experience, and heard no teachers on their application of this experience; but fatuous efforts were made to produce “general arguments" and appraise “abstract slogans”. The whole Party, all the workers of the People’s Commissariat for Education, must realise this defect and correct it in a common effort. Local workers should exchange experience and help the Party to give publicity to the exemplary guhernias, uyezds, districts, schools, or expert teachers who have achieved good results in o relatively narrow, local or special field. Taking as a basis the achievements that have stood the test of practice, we must press on and, after proper verification, apply this local experience on a nation-wide scale, promoting talented, or simply capable, teachers to more responsible posts, giving them a wider sphere of activity, etc.

The touchstone of a Communist’s work in education (and educational institutions) should be his efforts in organising the enlistment of specialists, his ability to find them, utilise their knowledge, secure the cooperation of expert teachers with the Communist leadership, and verify what and how much is being done. He must show ability to make progress—even if very slowly and on a very small scale—so long as it is achieved in practical matters, on the basis of practical experience. But we shall not move forward if the People’s Commissariat for Education continues to be full of people who pretend to provide ’Communist leadership" while there is a vacuum in the practical sphere, a shortage, or total lack, of practical specialists, inability to promote them, hear what they have to say and take account of their experience. The Communist leader must prove his claim to leadership by recruiting a growing number of experienced teachers to help him, and by showing his ability to help them. in their work, to promote them, and take account of and bring out their experience.

In this sense the invariable slogan must be: less “leadership”, more practical work, that is to say, fewer general arguments and more facts, and I mean verified facts, showing where, when and what progress we are making or whether we are marking time, or retreating. The Communist who is a real leader will correct the curricula drawn up by the experienced teachers, compile a good textbook and achieve practical, even if slight, improvements in the content of the work of a score, a hundred, or a thousand expert teachers. But there is not much use in the Communist who talks about “leadership”, but is incapable of enlisting any specialists for practical work, getting them to achieve practical results in their work, and utilising the practical experience gained by hundreds upon hundreds of teachers.

That this is the main flaw in the work of the People’s Commissariat for Education is evident from a paging through the fine booklet, The People’s Commissariat for Education. October 1917—October 1920. Brie! Report. Comrade Lunacharsky admits this when he refers in the preface (p. 5) to the “obvious lack of the practical approach”. But much more effort will be needed to drive this home to all the Communists in the People’s Commissariat for Education and make them practise these truths. This booklet shows that our knowledge of the facts is poor, very poor indeed; we do not know how to collect them; we are unable to judge how many questions we ought to raise and the number of answers we can expect to get (taking into consideration our level of culture, our customs, and our moans of communication). We don’t know how to collect evidence of practical experience and sum it up. We indulge in empty “general arguments and abstract slogans”, but do not know how to utilise the services of competent teachers, in general, and of competent engineers and agronomists for technical education, in particular; we don’t know how to utilise factories, state farms, tolerably well-organised enterprises and electric power stations for the purpose of polytechnical education.

In spite of these defects, the Soviet Republic is making progress in public education; there is no doubt about that. There is a mighty urge for light and knowledge “down below”, that is to say, among the mass of working people whom capitalism had been hypocritically cheating out of an education and depriving of it by open violence. We call be proud that we are promoting and fostering this urge. But it would be a real crime to ignore the defects in our work, and the fact that we have not yet learned properly to organise the state apparatus of education.

Take also the distribution of newspapers and books, the question dealt with in the last point of the Central Committee’s Instructions, point 7.

The Council of People’s Commissars issued its decree on “The Centralisation of Libraries" (p. 439, Collection of Statutes, 1920, No. 87) on November 3, 1920, providing for the creation of a single network of libraries of the RSFSR

Here are some of the data I have been able to obtain on the question from Comrade Malkin of the Central Periodicals Administration, and from Comrade Modestov of the Library Section of the Moscow Department of Education. In 38 gubernias, 305 uyezds, the number of libraries in central Soviet Russia (excluding Siberia and North Caucasus) was as follows:

Central libraries342
District, urban libraries521
Volost libraries4,474
Travelling Volost libraries1, 601
Village reading rooms14 739
Miscellaneous (“rural, juvinile, reference, libraries of various institutions and organisations”)12,203

Comrade Modestov believes, on the basis of his experience, that about three-quarters of this number actually exist, while the rest are only listed as such. For Moscow Gubernia, the Central Periodicals Administration gives the figure of 1,223 libraries, while Comrade Modestov’s figure is 1,018; of these 204 are in the city proper and 814 in the gubernia, net counting the trade union libraries (probably about 16) and the army libraries (about 125).

As far as can be judged from a comparison of the different gubernias, these figures are not very reliable—let us hope the actual figure does net turn out to be under 75 per cent! In Vyalka Guhernia, for example, there are 1,703 village reading—rooms, in Vladimir Gubernia—37, in Petrograd Gubernia—98, in Ivanovo—Voznesensk Guhernia—75, etc. Of the ’miscellaneous" libraries there are 36 in Petrograd Gubernia, 378 in Voronezh Gubernia, 525 in Ufa Gubernia, 31 in Pskov Gubernia, etc.

These figures seem to show that the thirst for knowledge among the mass of workers and peasants is tremendous, and that the striving for education and the establishment of libraries is mighty and “popular” in the real sense of the word. But we are still very short of ability in organising, regulating, shaping and properly satisfying this popular urge. Much remains to be done in creating a real integrated network of libraries.

How are we distributing the newspapers and books? According to the Administration’s 1020 figures for elovcii months, we distributed 401 million copies of newspapers and 14 million books. Here are the figures for three newspapers (January 12, 1921), compiled by tho Periodicals Section of the Central Ad miij istrat ion for ilte Distribution of Books.[1]

Branches of the Central Periodicals Administration191,000139,000183,000
Military Bureau for the Supply of Literature and Newspapers to Divisional Dispatch Offices.50,00040,00085,000
Railway organisations, Railway Dept., Central Periodicals Administration and Agitation Centres30,00025,00016,000
City of Moscow 65,00035,0008,000
Commandant of the City of Moscow8,0007,0006,000
Passenger trains 1,0001,0001,000
Public Reading stands and Files5,0003,0001,000

The figure for public reading stands, i.e., the really massive distribution, is astonishingly small, as against the enormous figures for the “establishments”, etc., in the capital, evidently the papers grabbed and bureaucratically utilised by “Soviet bureaucrats”, both military and civilian.

Here are a few more figures taken from the reports of the local branches of the Central Periodicals Administration. In September 1920, its Voronezh Gubernia branch received newspapers twelve times (that is to say, there were no papers on eighteen of the thirty days in September). Those received were distributed as follows: Izvestia (to 210rJ105 of the G.P.A.): uyezd—t,986 copies (4,020; 4,310)[First figure—Pravda, second, Bednota.]; uistnct—’i.215 (5,850; 10,064); voiost—3,370 (3,200; 4,285); Party organisations—447 (569; 3,880); Soviet establish—ments—1,765 (1,641; 509)—note that Soviet establishments received nearly three times as many copies of Pravda as Party organisations! Then follow: Agitation and Educa—tional Department of the Military Commissariat—5,532 (5,703; 12,83—2); agitation centres—352 (400; 593); village reading—rooms—nil. Subscribers—7,167 (3,080; 764). Thus, “subscribers” (actually, of course, “Soviet bureaucrats") received a fat slice. Public reading stands—460 (508; 500). Total: 32,517 (25,104; 37,237).

In November 1920, Ufa Gubernia received 25 consignments, that is to say, there was no delivery on five days only. Distribution: Party organ isations—1I3 (1,572; 153); Soviet establishments—2,7[53 (1,296; 1,267); Agitation and Educational Department of the Military Commissariat—687 (470; 6,500); Volost Executive Committees—903 (308; 3,511); village reading—rooms——36 (Pravda—8, eight copies! —2,538); subscribers—nil; various uyezd organisations--1,044 (219; 991). Total: 5,841 (4,069; 15,429).

Lastly, the report of the branch in Pustoshensk Volost, Sudogoda Uyezd, Vladimir Gubernia for December 1920. Party organisations—1 (1; 2); Soviet offices—2 (1; 3); Agitation and Educational Department of the Military Commissariat—2 (1; 2); Volost Executive Committees—2 (1; 3); post and telegraph offices—1 (1; 1); Urshelsky Works Committee—1 (1; 2); District Department of Social Main—tenance—1 (0; 3). Total: 10 (6; 16).

What is the conclusion to he drawn from these fragmentary data? I believe it is what our Party Programme says, namely: ’Only the first steps in the transition from capitalism to communism are being taken ... at the present time.

Under capitalism, a newspaper is a capitalist enterprise, a moans of enrichment, a medium of information and entertainment for the rich, and an instrument for duping and cheating the mass of working people. We have smashed this instrument of profit—making and deceit. We have begun to convert the newspapers into an instrument for educating the masses and for teaching them to live and run their economy without the landowners and capitalists. But we are only at the start of the road. Not much has been done during the last throe years or so. A great deal remains to he done: the road ahead is very long indeed. Let us have less political fireworks, fewer general arguments and abstract slogans from inexperienced Communists who fail to understand their tasks; let us have more production propaganda and, above all, more efficient and capable application of practical experience to fit the development of the masses.

We have abolished newspaper subscriptions (I have no data on the distribution of books; there the situation is probably even worse). This is a step from capitalism to communism. But capitalism cannot be killed at one stroke; it rears its head in the form of ’Soviet bureaucrats” grabbing the newspapers on various pretexts—they must he grabbing a great number, though we cannot say just how many. There must be a sustained drive in this field against the Soviet bureaucrats, who must be “rapped over the knuckles” for grabbing books and newspapers. Their share—and they themselves—must be steadily reduced. Unfortunately, we are unable to slash their number down to one—tenth, or one—hundredth—it would be a fraud to promise this at our present level of culture, but we can and must whittle it down. No real Communist will fail to do this.

We must see to it that books and newspapers are, as a rule, distributed gratis only to the libraries and reading—rooms, which provide a proper reading service for the whole country and the whole mass of workers, soldiers and peasants. This will accelerate, intensify and make more effective the people’s eager quest for knowledge. That is when education will advance by leaps and bounds.

Here is some simple arithmetic by way of illustration: there are 350,000 copies of Izvestia and 250,000 copies of Pravda for the whole of Russia. We are poor. We have no newsprint. The workers are short of fuel, food, clothes and footwear. The machines are worn out. The buildings are falling apart. Let us assume that we actually have for the country as a whole—that is some 10,000 odd volosts—50,000 libraries and reading—rooms. This would give no less than three for each volost, and certainly one for each factory and military unit. Let us further assume that we have not only learned to take the first stop from capitalism to communism”, but also the second and the third. Let us assume that we have learned to distribute three copies of newspapers to every library and readingroom, of which, say, two go on the ’public reading stands” (assuming Uat we have taken the fourth stop from capitalism to communism, I make the bold assumption that instead of pasting newspapers on walls in the barbarous way which spoils them, we fix them with wooden pegs—we have no metal tacks, and there will be a shortage of metal even at the ’fourth step"!—to a smooth board for convenient reading and to keep the papers from spoiling). And so, two copies each for 50,000 libraries and reading—rooms for “pasting up” and one copy to be kept in reserve. Let us also assume that we have learned to allow the Soviet bureaucrats, the pampered “grandees” of the Soviet Republic, a moderate number of newspapers for them to waste, let us say, no more than a few thousand copies.

On these bold assumptions the country will have a much better service with 160,000, or, say, 175,000 copies. The papers will be there for everyone to read the news (if the “travelling libraries” which, in my opinion, Comrade F. Dobler so successfully defended in Pravda just the other day, are properly organised[2]). All this needs is 350,000 copies of two newspapers. Today, there are 600,000 copies, a large part of which is being grabbed by the “Soviet bureaucrats”, wasted as “cigarette paper”, etc., simply through the habits acquired under capitalism. This would give us a saving of 250,000 copies, or, despite our extreme poverty, a saving equal to two dailies with a circulation of 125,000 each. Each of these could carry to the people every day serious and valuable literary material and the best modern and classical fiction, and textbooks on general educational subjects, agriculture and industry. Long before the war, the French bourgeoisie learned to make money by publishing popular fiction, not at 3.50 francs a volume for the gentry, but at 10 centimes (i.e., 35 times as cheap, 4 kopeks at the pre—war rate) in the form of a proletarian newspaper; why, in that case, can’t we do the same—at the second step from capitalism to communism. Why can’t we do the same thing and ]earn, within a year, even in our present state of poverty, to give the people two copies of a newspaper through each of the 50,000 libraries and reading-rooms, all the necessary textbooks and world classics, and books on modern science and engineering.

We shall learn to do this, I am sure.

  1. The Central Administration for the Distribution of Books under the State Publishing House was set up in December 1919 to work out a national plan for the stocktaking and distribution of literature.
  2. F. Dobler’s article "Modern Library Network" was published in Pravda No. 24, February 4, 1921.