From Bricklayers to Cleaning the Yard: On Lenin’s Writing of Parables


Jesus, the disciples, the sower, the harvester, the Syro-Phoenician woman, the travellers on the road, guests at the wedding banquet, shepherds, sheep, Philistines, Pharisees, Judas Iscariot, Moses, Ruth, Solomon, and above all the people … Lenin’s texts are full to overflowing with biblical characters, parables, stories and sayings. But he also constructs his own parables. These parables may be constructed from a common saying, or developed from Russian literature, or they may be purely Lenin’s own creation, but they are all marked by a distinct earthiness, an ability to communicate in a way that spoke at an everyday level to all.

Out of scores of such parables, I shall focus on four, one  concerning party organisation, another drawing attention to current oppressive conditions, and two addressing revolution: the Bricklayer, the Lottery, the Transmission Belt and Cleaning the Yard.

The first of these parables, the Bricklayer, comes from What is To Be Done, towards the close of the final chapter on the need to establish a national Social-Democratic newspaper. ‘Pray tell me, when bricklayers lay bricks in, various parts of an enormous, unprecedentedly large structure, is it “paper” work to use a line to help them find the correct place for the bricklaying; to indicate to them the ultimate goal of the common work; to enable them to use, not only every brick, but even every piece of brick which, cemented to the bricks laid before and after it, forms a finished, continuous line?’ Of course, the key is who places the line, for if it is wayward, the bricks themselves will be crooked, threatening to fall. So we need a line that is true, that can guide the bricklayers. In an ideal situation, the bricklayers would be old hands who knew how to work together, having become so practised that they can lay the bricks without a guide line. But that is not the case now, for without experienced bricklayers ‘bricks are often laid where they are not needed at all, that they are not laid according to the general line, but are so scattered that the enemy can shatter the structure as if it were made of sand and not of bricks’. And if you think that is hard enough, spare a thought for the countryside, where scarcely a bricklayer is to be found, let alone an experienced one (Lenin 1902 [1961]: 501-2, 505).

One may argue that it is merely an extended simile, or perhaps an allegory and less so a parable. But a parable often picks up a simile and constructs a story around it, and a parable typically does not offer an interpretation, for that is left to the hearers or readers. Thus, one may read the line as the newspaper putting forth the socialist narrative, the bricks as the members either of the Social-Democrats or of the workers and peasants, and the experienced bricklayer as that crucial ‘purposive worker’ who has studied and become enthused with socialist theory and practice, ready to offer leadership to other workers and peasants. But Lenin does not offer such an interpretation. Above all, a parable has a punctum, a specific – usually political or economic – point to make. It hits home in a way that a prosaic account does not.

So also with the Lottery, a parable from ‘To the Rural Poor’ from 1903, a text saturated with biblical imagery. Now our concern is peasant life and vain promises for relieving rural oppression. Once again we have a self-contained story, introduced by a comparison: those who extol small-scale farming (Narodniks and others) actually deceive the peasant in the same way that people are deceived by a lottery. How?

Let us suppose I have a cow, worth 50 rubles. I want to sell the cow by means of a lottery, so I offer everyone tickets at a ruble each. Everyone has a chance of getting the cow for one ruble! People are tempted and the rubles pour in. When I have collected a hundred rubles I proceed to draw the lottery: the one whose ticket is drawn gets the cow for a ruble, the others get nothing. Was the cow ‘cheap’ for the people? No, it was very dear, because the total money they paid was double the value of the cow, because two persons (the one who ran the lottery and the one who won the cow) gained without doing any work, and gained at the expense of the ninety-nine who lost their money. Thus, those who say that lotteries are advantageous to the people are simply practising deceit on the people (Lenin 1903 [1961]: 393).

The unexpected twist of this parable is that what looks like an easy way to gain a cow is in fact far more disadvantageous than not having a lottery at all. The very content of the parable is economic without being pedantic, making its point in a way that is beyond dry theory. But the relevance for everyday life among the peasants is inescapable: landlords squeeze labour and rents from us, our land keeps decreasing in size, and even with the supposed ending of serfdom in 1861, the landlords have used it to make life worse, blocking us off from vital sources of water, fuel, arable land and good grazing. We are on the road to ruin; indeed, many of us have already been ruined. And yet that is better than a quick fix! On this occasion, Lenin does go on to offer his interpretation, in which the single winner of the lottery becomes a middle peasant who becomes rich, while the ninety-nine (note the biblical allusion to the parable of the ninety-nine sheep) remaining peasants are worse off, for now they are all poorer by one valuable ruble. Where there is one winner all the rest are losers, for the ‘poor would only be impoverished all the more!’ (Lenin 1903 [1961]: 393-4) But does Lenin really need to offer this interpretation? I would suggest not, for the punch lies in the parable itself.

Thus far I have explored one parable concerning the impossible conditions of everyday life and one on party organisation. The remaining two focus on the process of revolution. Thus, in the brief parable of the Transmission Belt, the mass of people below becomes the big wheel that is now driving the little wheel of the government. Thereby the task of the moment ‘must be directed towards strengthening the transmission belt which connects the big wheel that has begun to revolve energetically down below with the little wheel up above’ (Lenin 1907 [1962]-b: 155).

A more extensive and pointed revolutionary parable is that of Cleaning the Yard, which shifts from the industrial location of the former to the countryside.

Imagine, gentlemen, that I have to remove two heaps of rubbish from my yard. I have only one cart. And no more than one heap can be removed on one cart. What should I do? Should I refuse altogether to clean out my yard on the grounds that it would be the greatest injustice to remove one heap of rubbish because they cannot both be removed at the same time?

I permit myself to believe that anyone who really wants to clean out his yard completely, who sincerely strives for cleanliness and not for dirt, for light and not for darkness, will have a different argument. If we really cannot remove both heaps at the same time, let us first remove the one that can be got at and loaded on to the cart immediately, and then empty the cart, return home and set to work on the other heap (Lenin 1907 [1962]-a: 282).

As a simple parable from everyday life, with an obvious solution, it is also the most open of the parables thus far. The cart and labour of the peasant are reasonably obvious, but two heaps of rubbish? What are they? Are the heaps landed proprietorship and capitalist exploitation, both of which worked in reasonable synergy in Russia? Here Lenin comes to our aid and opts for this interpretation, but perhaps he has moved too quickly, for that forecloses other possibilities for the parable’s interpretation. For the parable spins out of the interpreter’s control, conjuring up all manner of heaps of rubbish: the Duma and the tsar? Perhaps, for Lenin is replying to the ‘People’s Freedom’ party in the Duma, which complains of all manner of rubbish but shies away from a revolutionary solution. The traditional family and the church? Once again, these ‘pillars’ of society could well do with some cleaning out. Or the oppression of the ‘baba’, a traditional picture of female ignorance, illiteracy and exclusion from public life, and the male worker? Or repressed nationalities and languages? Or the persecution of religious sects and native peoples? Or colonialism and bourgeois ‘liberty’? The heaps are almost endless, multiplying one upon the other, so the grunt work of revolution becomes both harder and more necessary. Here the parable also opens out into crucial questions of the absolute freedom to change the conditions of existence, and thereby of revolution itself.

Roland Boer, in old East Berlin


Lenin, V.I. 1902 [1961]. What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement. In Collected Works, Vol. 5. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 347-529.

———. 1903 [1961]. To the Rural Poor: An Explanation for the Peasants of What the Social-Democrats Want. In Collected Works, Vol. 6. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 359-430.

———. 1907 [1962]-a. Draft for a Speech on the Agrarian Question in the Second State Duma. In Collected Works, Vol. 12. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 267-99.

———. 1907 [1962]-b. The Opening of the Second State Duma. In Collected Works, Vol. 12. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 152-5.


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