N. Krupskaya
Original publication: erepository.uonbi.ac.ke

On Self-Education (1935)

Yuny Communist Magazine, No. 4, 1935.

It was for Yuny Communist in 1919 that I wrote my first article on self-education. It pointed out correctly that it was not “by sitting in an office, but by participating in collective activity that one could best educate oneself.” That is true. But then, the article was written in 1919, at the very height of the Civil War; when we were fighting for Soviet power, when the country was by and large illiterate and economically dislocated, when there was not enough paper for textbooks and newspaper circulation had to be limited, when there were extremely few schools. And for that reason the main theme of my article then was the question of mutual aid in education.

There was a tremendous thirst for knowledge but very limited opportunities.

Since then the face of the country has changed: we now have universal compulsory education, mass-circulation newspapers, text-books in huge editions, all sorts of courses, and a growing radio network. The country is in the main literate and people have become more conscious. But what I said about mutual aid in 1919 applies to the present too. The country is in the main literate, but cultural demands have grown considerably too, and the fight against illiteracy must be achieved, for there are still places like the Semyonovsky District in the Gorky Region where handicrafts had been flourishing for centuries and where children had been exploited to the utmost. There are still many illiterates there. Neither is there 100 per cent literacy in the national areas where until recently the predominant mode of life was nomadic, where villages were lost in the endless steppes and where publication of books in national languages is still badly organized. The literacy campaign initiated by the Young Communist League helped towards widespread mutual aid in primary education and contributed tremendously to wiping out illiteracy in our country. The whole thing, however, was done in such haste that all too little attention was paid to the qualitative aspect of education, and the very conception of literacy was narrowed down. We should never slacken attention to elementary forms of education, we should remember that there are still many semi-literates in our country, even among the youth. Collectivity and mutual aid are indispensable in every phase of education. What I said in 1919 holds good today too.

But in this article I should Ilke to draw attention to another question — to the question of self-education, to the question of how one is to acquire knowledge independently. In the first years of Soviet government, our schools paid much more attention to children’s general development than to studies. Education, on the whole, was very badly organized. There were no good teaching cadres, we had to reorganize the entire teaching system, and it was that that mainly occupied our attention. In the past few years we have concentrated our attentlon on studies, on passing knowledge to others, on reading lectures, on helping pupils to master the knowledge passed on to them by teachers, on mastering the materials contained in text-books. Education has become the number one concern. In his pamphlet Knowledge Is Power, Wilhelm Liebknecht, a close collaborator of Marx and Engels, wrote that slave-owners, landlords and capitalists were trying to make knowledge serve their ends, turning it into a privilege, doing everything they could to prevent the masses from acquiring it.

Lenin wrote of the same thing in 1895 for the illegal newspaper Rabocheye Delo [The Workers’ Cause]. The manuscript was confiscated in a police raid and Lenin was arrested. It was found in the police archives after the establishment of Soviet rule and first saw light in 1924, after Lenin’s death. The article was called “What Are Our Ministers Thinking Of?” and ended with the following words: “Workers, you see yourselves how mortally afraid our ministers are that you will acquire knowledge! Show everybody that no power can deprive workers of class-consciousness. Without knowledge workers are helpless, with it they are a force.” [1] The seizure of this manuscript did not prevent the comrades at large from propounding this idea in their agitational activity. In 1896, six months after his arrest, Ilyich wrote a May Day leaflet in which he developed this thesis, and had it smuggled out of the prison. “We workers are held in darkness,” said the mimeographed leaflet, “we are denied knowledge because they do not want us to learn how to fight for better conditions.” Since then, the necessity of acquiring knowledge for struggle has been the principle underlying all the propaganda and agitational activity of Party workers. And how could it have been otherwise? The teachings of Marx and Engels, which have armed the working class for its struggle, are no revelation or invention; they are scientific works showing in what direction society is developing and how victory is to be achieved.

In the speech he made in 1920 on the tasks facing the Youth League, Lenin said:

And if you were to ask why the teachings of Marx were able to capture the hearts of millions and tens of millions of the most revolutionary class, you would receive only one answer: it was because Marx took his stand on the firm foundation of the human knowledge acquired under capitalism. Having studied the laws of development of human society, Marx realized the inevitability of the development of capitalism, which was leading to communism. And the principal thing is that he proved this only on the basis of the most exact, most detailed and most profound study of this capitalist society, by fully assimilating all that earlier science had produced. [2]

The opportunists have all along been trying to prove that there is no scientific basis to Marx’s and Engels’s teachings.

At a party congress in Breslau, Germany, in 1895, i.e., forty years ago, that arrant opportunist David claimed that the party of the working class, then called the Social-Democratic Party, was one of will and not of knowledge. He was rebuffed by Clara Zetkin, who said: “In my opinion, the Social-Democratic Party is a party of purposeful will, for it is a party of purposeful knowledge.”

At the 1908 party congress, she returned to this question. The opportunist Mauerbrecher had written in an article for the bourgeois press that “the realization of the socialist mode of production will not be a consequence of historical experience; it is a purely ‘regulative idea,’ it is a case of faith and hope.” Commenting on this assertion, Clara Zetkin indignantly said:

“That is nothing less than negation of the viewpoint that the so-called socialist state of the future is an historical inevitability, a result of the natural development of society. To put it more simply, it is more than just hurling socialism back to the theories of Utopian Socialists; it is plain conversion of socialism into clerical obscurantism. It is absolutely necessary, I think, to declare with all firmness that people so utterly ignorant and confused about the theoretical foundations of Marxism are the least fit to teach socialism to the proletariat, to be its teachers and leaders.” (To loud applause.) “Whoever approves such views, views that are in fact a blow at the lucid, deep-rooted scientific knowledge which Social-Democracy is striving to bring into the masses and make the basis of its practical activity, must sit quietly and modestly in a corner and master socialist theory before daring advocate revision of the socialist world outlook.” (To prolonged applause.)

The German opportunists have now ended by siding with fascism which hates scientific socialism more than anything else. The fascists burn the books of Marxist classics, but it is beyond their power to stop the historical process elucidated by the founders of Marxism, the process that will inevitably end in the worldwide victory of socialism.

The history of our Party shows that it has consistently waged a struggle for Marxist theory, against its distortion.

Take, for instance, Lenin’s first big work, What the “Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats (Vol. 1), written in 1894 to combat the Narodniks’ misunderstanding of the scientific value of Marxism.

In the article “Frederick Engels,” written on the occasion of his death in 1895 for an illegal workers’ newspaper, Lenin stressed in a popular form the tremendous importance of scientific Marxism. [3]

There have been attempts to minimize the significance of theory in the Russian labour movement too. Towards the end of the 1890’s, the illegal newspaper Rabochaya Mysl [Workers’ Destiny] tried to reduce the activity of the labour movement to a struggle for minor demands. The paper went so far as to declare in the name of the workers that “we don’t need any Marxes or Engelses, we workers know ourselves what we have to do.”

At the turn of the century, there emerged an opportunist trend in Russian Social-Democracy, the so-called “economism.” The “Economists” alleged that the workers should not busy themselves with theories or engage in political struggle, that they should wage only an economic struggle, a struggle for better material conditions.

The Leninists persistently combated this trend.

Later — in the years of reaction and ideological vacillation that followed the 1905 Revolution — there appeared a trend among the Bolsheviks which challenged the validity of dialectical materialism — the scientific basis of Marxism — and attempted to prove that the latest discoveries in natural science contradicted the materialistic interpretation of phenomena and that it was, therefore, “necessary” to create a new theory. Ilyich engaged them in a scientific battle, and exposed their conclusions as incorrect and lacking a scientific basis. That was in 1908 and 1909, and the book in which Lenin gave them battle was Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (Vol. 14). He attached particular importance to Marxist propaganda and wanted all the members of the Party and Young Communist League to study Marxism.

How young people should study Marxism was best explained in Lenin’s speech on the tasks of the youth leagues. He spoke of what and how they should study, of the purpose of studying, of the selection of necessary study materials, of the indispensability to study if one were to become a conscious Communist. He explained how the study material should be digested, how to work so that “Communism shall not be something learned by rote, but something that you yourselves have thought over.” He said:

“We do need to develop and perfect the mind of every student by a knowledge of the fundamental facts. For communism would become a void, a mere sign board, and a Communist would become a mere braggart, if all the knowledge he has obtained were not digested in his mind. You must not only assimilate this knowledge, you must assimilate it critically, so as not to cram your mind with useless lumber, but enrich it with all those facts that are indispensable to the modern man of education. If a Communist took it into his head to boast about his communism because of the ready-made conclusions he had acquired, without putting in a great deal of serious and hard work, without understanding the facts which he must examine critically, he would be a very deplorable Communist. Such superficiality would be decidedly fatal. If I know that I know little, I shall strive to learn more, but if a man says that he is a Communist and that he need know nothing thoroughly, he will never be anything like a Communist.” [4]

It is self-evident that if one must select the necessary material and pick out the most important parts of it, one must think it over, draw the necessary conclusions and not just assimilate it mechanically. In other words, one must learn to work independently, and for that it is essential to have some idea of how to do it.

The second question that Lenin discussed in that speech was that of linking theory and practice. He said,

“One of the greatest evils and misfortunes left to us by the old capitalist society is the complete divorcement of books from practical life; for we have had books in which everything was described in the best possible manner, yet these books in the majority of cases were most disgusting and hypocritical lies that described capitalist society falsely.

That is why it would be extremely wrong merely to absorb what is written in books about communism. In our speeches and articles we do not now merely repeat what was formerly said about communism, because our speeches and articles are connected with our daily work in every branch. Without work, without struggle, an abstract knowledge of communism obtained from communist pamphlets and books would be absolutely worthless, for it would continue the old divorcement of theory from practice, that old divorcement which constituted the most disgusting feature of the old bourgeois society.” [5]

To learn to combine theory with practice, with everyday work in every field of endeavour for the common good, one must study much and independently. In practical work there arise many questions that can be solved only when one has sufficient knowledge. One must know how to acquire it independently, and to do that one must have a definite minimum of knowledge and a habit of studying independently.

We now have a tremendous record of achievement, the face of our country has changed radically, people have become conscious and organized. But further progress requires much more knowledge. What’s more, the broad working masses must be armed not with scraps or bits of knowledge, but with knowledge that forms an integrated whole, knowledge that is essential to raise our practical work to a higher level.

We need knowledge to strengthen our influence over the working people of other countries, we need it to make our country infinitely richer, more organized and powerful, to make our achievements still more convincing for all.

We need knowledge to defend our socialist Motherland, we need it for the struggle for the world socialist revolution.

And we need it now more than ever before.

[1] V. I. Lenin, Works, 4th. Russ. ed., Vol. 2, p. 76. 

[2] V. I. Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. II, Part II, p. 478. 

[3] “The services rendered by Marx and Engels to the working class may be expressed in a few words: they taught the working class to know itself and be conscious of itself, and they substituted science for dreams.” — V. I. Lenin, “Frederick Engels” (1895). [web] 

[4] V. I. Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. II, Part II, p. 479. 

[5] V. I. Lenin, Selected Works, Vol. II, Part II, p. 476.