theory by "Smithy" writer
Nikolai Lyashko

mong the desires of the working class in their quest to be strong and live a multi-faceted life, one of the first places is occupied by the desire to have their own artists and writers--precisely their own, from their family, close to them not only in ideology, but also in their feeling for life. From the moment of the awakening of consciousness in the working class, this desire drew individual workers to the pen. The wider the struggle grew, the greater the number of these individuals. Their first steps were the steps of one intoxicated with ideas and the thirst to draw those around them into the world of their ideas, experiences, and strivings.

The writer-worker most often began with the proclamation of slogans, the presentation of the demands, beliefs, anguish, and hatreds of his class and of workers in general.

After these first steps--if the writer was talented, if he developed--came other steps that were tormenting and full of tragic elements. The writer-worker felt that while proclaiming slogans and disclosing the mood of his native milieu, he was engaged in creative work using concepts and common words, and that these words might have an effect on people only in a moment of heightened activity; he felt that a more powerful method of influence is a method depending to a lesser degree on the moment--that is, not a concept, but an image given not in common words, but in his own words.

Thus was born in the writer-worker the need not only to call things by their right names in his works, not only to talk about them in the whatever words cross his mind, but also to show them, to choose from among them those things that would have a lingering significance for the entire of his class and all the strata of workers affiliated with him. At the same time, he felt the need to carefully weigh his words. He became convinced that any experienced writer could create works through the use of concepts and could talk about the life of workers; but to show this life, to connect with the soul of labor, with the feeling of oppression, struggle, and all the scenes accompanying them--this is a skill to which not even the most talented of writers can necessarily lay claim.

The writer-worker felt that only by the creation of an artistic image could he rouse up those around him, enter their flesh and blood, and avoid being lumped in with those who write for the working class but remain alien to that class. It became clear to him that while full understanding of slogans and concepts demands extensive preparation, images of how they excite people and what feelings they arouse can bring these slogans and concepts to life, demand less preparation, become unforgettable, and, most importantly, counter the arguments of those who are hostile to them.

Not many of the writer-workers managed to overcome the difficult conditions of life and emerge on the path of artistic creation. Many despaired and threw down the pen; many went completely into underground work; others became embittered...

But from the masses came new ones and new ones...

In recent days, it is not individuals, but whole groups of writers who, formerly dispersed among the prisons and districts of the north and Siberia, have taken up the pen. But they have all encountered the same stages on the writer's road. These stages are unavoidable, for workers are drawn to the pen by something contrary to an aesthetic hunger, which moves representatives of other strata of society to writing. This also explains why for writer-workers the content of songs and stories almost always prevails over their form.

Writer-workers born in recent years write in slogans and concepts. But then they feel that their songs blend in with the songs of those who are merely imitating the revolutionality of the working class, that their songs and the songs of these counterfeit song-writers are sometimes indistinguishable, that their feelings, no matter how deeply ingrained, passing over the mill of common words, pour out onto the ground not in bright colors, but in a revolutionary phraseology without a face. And they come to realize the necessity of creating images.

We stand before a proven fact: some writer-workers felt cramped in the diapers of concepts and set out on the path of artistic image creation.

From that moment, the tutelage of those who genuinely believed that they were called upon not only to teach the writer-workers how to write properly but also to choose their topics and to see and feel for them, lost its effect on these writer-workers. Before our very eyes, the writer-worker was transformed from an apprentice, who, perhaps, didn't even suspect the powers lying dormant in him, into an artist. Needless to say, a writer-worker, raised in labor, struggle, and social strife, and freed from tutelage will not betray his heritage. It's possible that he may lose his way, but he will outgrow his errors without prompting, and he will draw necessary experience from this. Laurels from the sphere of rootless contemporary poets will not seduce the conscious artist-worker. He knows what he has to do, how to see, and how to judge the merits of any affectation or phrase-mongering no matter where it might express itself--in the piling up and invention of images, in contentless onomatopoeia, in an enthusiasm for crudity, eroticism, or the excavation of remnants of the past which are of no use to anyone.

New forces from among the masses are continually drawn to the pen. They are coming to fruition in our days, they breathe the air of the squall above the turbid life of theoretical passions and enthusiasms; they often take these enthusiasms as something to which they should give all of their attention and ardor. The task of writer-workers, those who are relatively well-established, is to direct these enthusiasms into a channel of a serious treatment.

Some writer-workers portray industrial cities and factories, their work, life, and dreams. They search for new rhythms and colors; they write about what people have lived through in factories. In this, there is much to make us joyful, to excite us. But for us, their songs begin to play the role of a tuning fork: they infect those who have only heard about the life of steel, furnaces, and cranes, those to whom it seems that only a metallic theme can show them to be true writer-workers. Writer-workers who don't associate with and have never associated with iron begin to sing that they are in iron, of iron, of steel. From this comes a step to hypocrisy, to pretense, to everything that, with empty souls and quick hands, pushes poets away. The life of factories and the coupling of the masses with them are phenomena not so simple that they can be written about on the basis of hearsay.

One can argue about how legitimate the metallic theme is in our days. But it is indisputable that we grow sick over half-idled factories. Meanwhile, the half-silence and silence of our factories is almost never used in literature. An artistic representation of them, it is thought, will infect us with depression. This is not true. Silence about the stagnation and scattering of the masses characteristic of our transitional period is a tribute too high. It is time for writer-workers to stop paying it: the consequences of silence about these or other sides of life cannot be seen as insignificant. The notions that we don't have an ordinary life are not enough to justify silence: one only has to identify the phenomena of life with our own daily lives, and immediately all the assertions of the absence of such phenomena appear as empty words. Replacing the entire scale of life with one or two chords, first of all, risks a partial atrophy of perception, the cure of which later will be far from easy, and, secondly, puts writers at the risk of having to abandon positions and occupy new ones not of their own choosing.

One senses exaggeration in some writer-workers' treatment of life the future. Where, when, and by whom has it been established that the working class, having taken over complete power, will set off on the path of creating industrial Manchesters and Chicagos, that is to say, cities encased in steel skeletons, eternally filled with smoke, ensnared in webs of suspended roads, and so on?

Before the revolution it was supposed that the working class would inherit cities turned into industrial furnances. That's the way it will be in Europe. The bourgeoisie has been striving and will continue to strive to use up every last scrap of land, piling up enterprise after enterprise. Their nature pushes them toward the creation of a hell for workers. But is the working class inclined to imitate them? To voluntarily smear the sky with soot, tie it up with steel banners, deafen themselves with the howl of hundreds of sirens? To wither away of their own volition in Manchesters no matter how powerful they might be?

Are the writer-workers correct, that is to say, to do they reflect the innermost hopes of the working class when they describe our future Manchesters?

Has not the demand ripened among writer-workers to exchange opinions on these questions, suggested to them by nothing more than the natural desire to set themselves off from non-worker writers?

To assert that our future is these Manchesters is risky. What if it's garden-cities, orchard-factories, forest-plants? Are these Babylons really unavoidable, where the ground is drowned and stuffed with asphalt and stones, so that it's impossible to breathe, so that flowers and grass cannot grow? The love of the working class for nature and its mission speak in favor of the garden-cities, orchard-factories, and forest-plants. I'm not talking about the fact that the concentration of industrial enterprises in the centers isolates the working class from the spiritually backward peasantry.

Writer-workers, anticipating what we don't have and, perhaps, never will have, sometimes seem like foreigners. Their works often make one bitter. It's as if we already have artistic images of lathe operators, metal workers, foundry workers, machine tools, factories, and many others. But that's not the way it is. We don't have many of these yet. True, along with the sparks, furnaces, and hammers large and small we have some unforgettable images created by writer-workers. In this is our joy. This gives us the right to put the question point-blank to writer-workers, so that the patina of exaggeration might more quickly fall from their consciousness.

Our future, perhaps, will be significantly different from the large and small industrial hells. The rhythm of life will not demand so many steel and iron nerves, will be healthier and will answer the aspirations of the working class. Hatred of inert fields and unbounded love for them, hostility to the strength-sapping machine and tenderness for it exist side-by-side in the soul of the worker. A vast expanse lies before writer-workers--all of the many facets of life, its colors and shades. Their family is too young to clog up their consciousness with whatever pops into the head. The writer-worker has too much in his heart.

Labor, struggle, and the heroism connected with them; alienation from the fields; yearning for the fields, where everything feels familiar and common, yearning for organizational work and justice; the sadness and pain evoked by real factories and the thirst to start them up no matter what; the thirst to outlive all burdens, to be aflame with work and faith -- certainly, this is a whole ocean of content.

(Russian text from the journal Kuznitsa, No. 3, 1920)

LYASHKO, NIKOLAI [1884-1953]. Proletarian writer. Along with Fyodor Gladkov (author of Cement), Lyashko was one of the leading members of the Kuznitsa (i.e., 'Smithy') literary group. His novel Blast Furnace (1925) is similar to Cement in that it describes the revitalization of industry following the Civil War.

Translated by: Eric Konkol

Original Russian text: Kuznitsa No. 3, 1920

Return to:

Address all correspondence to:

© 2012 All rights reserved.