1928 | Russia


What we talk about when we talk about worker’s lives.

One day at a worker-correspondent meeting, we were arguing about how to describe workers’ lives. The question is tremendously important to us rabkors [correspondents] because we’ve never read a description of our life nowadays as workers that was broad or complete. 

True, you run across individual bits and scraps of worker life in the newspapers. Sometimes our life is described so that workers live like the bourgeoisie used to, or sometimes so that our life is flat-out filth.

These descriptions really upset us. We’re furious at the writers and, of course, even more so at ourselves. Who the hell knows what’s going on! Some people don’t know how we live, but they write. We do know, but writing is beyond us. We could just cry! That’s why we decided to get together and figure out how to describe our lives ourselves.

We read the notices published in newspapers, selected passages from books, and compared the bad remarks with the good, the true with the false. It was very interesting work, and we had no disagreements. But toward the end of our talk, the secretary of our circle, Comrade Krasny, raised a new question. He said, “Now, guys, instead of discussing ‘how to write,’ let’s discuss ‘what to write about.’”

“That’s a strange question,” the rabkors said, “‘what to write about’—about workers’ lives, of course.”

“For instance?”

“Well, for instance, what do workers do in their factories?”

“Who doesn’t know that? Everyone knows that at a certain hour the whistle blows, at a certain hour workers get up and go to the factory, work for as long as they’re supposed to, go home: they eat, drink tea, do some work around the house. What’s there to write about?”

“So then let’s describe how the worker lives,” the rabkors answered.

“How does he live?” asked Krasny. “He sleeps, eats, smokes, works, goes to meetings, drinks beer and vodka, swears, fights, beats his wife, reads books, goes to the club, studies. What’s interesting here?”

“Manufacturing #16, Bird Mobile,” Zhejiang Province, China, 2005. Photograph by Edward Burtynsky. © Edward Burtynsky, Courtesy of the artist and George Eastman House.

“Well, there’s your problem! According to you we have nothing to write about,” said the excited rabkors.

“There is something to write about,” answered Krasny, “but there are some bad, evil things left over from the past in our life, and there are many good things the Revolution gave us. We have to decide what to write about most: the good or the bad?”

And here the circle split into four.

Some said, “We should write about the good mainly. For instance, forty-year-old working women are starting to learn to read. Old-time workers are joining the Party; workers volunteer to work three machines and four benches. Or else: new housing and public cafeterias are being built, workers are raising their level of education. We should write about all that, because we have a lot of good things, but we don’t notice them and they’re wasted.” 

Others objected. “On the contrary, we should write more about the bad things in our life, because the good is good; it will stay with us, nobody can take it away now, while the bad things in our life…We shouldn’t just write about them, we should scream about them from every street corner so they disappear, so that they don’t stop the good from developing.”

A third group objected to the first and second. “If we write only about the good, then we’ll embellish our life just like other writers do, and nobody will believe us. And if nobody believes us, then we don’t have any reason to write; let the other writers do that. And if we exhibit only the bad side, then it will come out again like the writers, and again it won’t be right, because there are good things in our life. So if we want to be truthful, then we have to write about the good and the bad in equal measure.”

“Allow us,” objected the fourth group. “How can you write about the good and the bad in equal measure? Suppose it turns out there’s more bad? And what if there’s absolutely nothing good about some part of our life, or else there’s so little that it would be embarrassing to compare it with the bad? What then? Should we not write at all? We think,” they said, “that before you write about workers’ lives you should expel any thoughts about good and bad sides from your head. There are no good and bad sides, there’s only a single, many-sided workers’ life, and if we describe it, then let’s describe it just like it is. Let’s take our plant, for example. Twelve thousand people work there. We see the established life of an enormous collective before us. Well, let’s not describe this life from one side or the other, but say, let’s jump straight into the thick of it, look at it from top to bottom, let’s tell about what we see there. Let the people we tell it to decide whether there’s more good or bad.”

A tremendous number of people in America work very hard at something that bores them. Even a rich man thinks he has to go down to the office everyday. Not because he likes it but because he can't think of anything else to do.

—W.H. Auden, 1946

“That’s right,” said several rabkors. “If we were writing about someone else’s life, then, of course, we could lie out of ignorance, just like those writers lie about us, but here we’ll be telling about ourselves!”

“But telling what about ourselves!” exclaimed Krasny.

Then the renowned rabkor Aspid got up and said, “Here’s what, comrades. We might be rabkors, but it’s evident we don’t know our own life. Let’s take a good look and feel around ourselves, then maybe we can stop arguing?…Here’s my idea: let’s get together on our first day off and start investigating our life. Let’s tour the barracks for starters: we’ll see who lives how. Then we can write it down and everything will become visible, like in a mirror. Okay?”

We were overjoyed at Aspid’s idea. We accepted it gladly and resolved, “Begin investigation on the first day off.”

©1995 by Indiana University Press. Used with permission of Indiana University Press.

About This Text

Ivan Zhiga, from The Thoughts, Cares, and Deeds of the Workers. Initiated by Vladimir Lenin, the worker-correspondent, or “rabkor” program, was developed in the 1920s as a means to reveal corruption and to provide the proletariat with a voice of their own.