Manners — Revolutionary and Bourgeois

It's easy to dismiss manners as simply markers of social hierarchy. But manners can perform an egalitarian, progressive function — and they're essential to any democratic organization.

Young debutantes at a deportment school in Kensington, London are shown the correct and incorrect way to retrieve a handkerchief from the floor in this demonstration. (E Bacon / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

In his discussion on cooperation in Volume 1 of Capital, Marx makes the following analytical distinction: “Just as the social productive power of labor that is developed by cooperation appears to be the productive power of capital, so cooperation itself, contrasted with the process of production carried out by isolated independent laborers, or even small employers, appears to be a specific form of the capitalist process of production.” The same distinction applies in the case of manners: manners involve rules of behavior whose content is shaped by the class nature and culture of specific societies, but like cooperation, they also play an indispensable function in contemporary society.

This was clearly understood by none other than Leon Trotsky, who aptly described manners as a “necessary lubricant in daily relations” in a humane and civil society. Writing at length on the issue in the pages of Pravda, the principal and then widely read Communist Party newspaper, he argued that manners were an essential part of a larger enlightenment project that he, along with Soviet leaders like Vladimir Lenin, Krupskaya (Lenin’s wife), and Anatoly Lunacharsky (People’s Commissar for Education), undertook to transform Russia’s prerevolutionary culture, rooted in peasant servitude and aristocratic privilege, in a rational and humanist direction.

For the US left today, manners should be seen as one element of a broader vision of humane social interaction, as well as an immediate consideration in political organizing. Because manners are the oil that smooth relationships within organizations, they play an important role in the democratic functioning of the Left — fostering the mutual respect and consideration that members owe each other, and that leaders owe the rank and file.

“Bourgeois” Manners

“Bourgeois” manners, as illustrated in books on American “etiquette,” consist of a peculiar combination. Thoroughly permeated by an elite and class spirit, they include rules devoid of substantive content that are nonetheless important markers of social distinction and rules with a humanist content and function aimed at lubricating social interaction.

In her 1934 edition of Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage, Emily Post, the doyenne of American etiquette, introduces her rules as designed for the “best society,” which she claims does not refer to the fellowship of the wealthy but instead to “those who are not of exalted wealth but gentlefolk with good form in speech, charm, and manner and instinctive consideration for the feeling of others.” Yet her manual devotes significant space to the etiquette prescribed for persons in social high positions — presidents, kings, cardinals — and reinforces the notion that people should know their place in the societal hierarchy by, for example, advising against introducing “a person of [high] position [to] someone the latter does not care to know.”

The same emphasis permeates Emily Post of Etiquette, a 1995 revised version edited by Elizabeth L. Post, the granddaughter-in-law of the original Emily Post. Persons of lower position are told they must be introduced to a person in a higher position and not the other way around, and that they may not address people of higher rank by their first name unless expressly permitted to do so. Likewise, good manners demand that guests invited to dinner be seated according to their social standing; that restaurant or dinner patrons address waitresses as “miss,” but not waiters as “sir” (apparently, “sir” connotes a higher position in the social hierarchy than “miss” and is therefore “inappropriate” for waiters).

The same manuals lay out other rules that are not explicitly hierarchical but also seem utterly purposeless, like those advising readers to never give time “as ‘nine-thirty,’ but as ‘half-past nine o’clock,’ or even better, as ‘half after nine o’clock’”; to have guests at a formal dinner wait for the hostess to put the napkin in her lap first; and to address the correspondence to a married couple with different names on the same line, and on separate lines if the couple is unmarried.

The purposelessness is pure appearance, however, because the acquisition and use of this arcane knowledge serves a hierarchical, class function: it differentiates the “superior” from “the common folk.” These rules are especially pertinent to status-seeking, upwardly mobile people, particularly in the upper middle class, who use this knowledge as a lever to boost their social standing in society. They also play an important role for members of the upper class, particularly the “old rich,” who can build a wall of comportment protecting them from the incursions of the “nouveau rich” and upper middle class.

Interestingly, however, these manuals also contain “neutral” rules that although not particularly egalitarian, function as Trotsky’s “necessary lubricant in daily relations” among people in a contemporary urban society characterized by impersonal and anomic interpersonal relationships (in contrast with traditional societies, where those relationships are more likely to be familiar among people of equivalent social rank). The younger Post advises that it is bad manners to intentionally embarrass another person; to gossip, pry, or ask personal questions; to stare and point at someone; or to talk only about oneself while in the company of others. She says it is good manners to be mindful of the safety of others, and that therefore it is important to withhold information about others from unknown phone callers.

To be sure, all of these rules share an element of rigidity in that they don’t account for the varying circumstances to which they are applied. Sometimes, this rigidity is taken to an extreme: Amy Vanderbilt, another well-known authority on etiquette, labels as “barbaric” children addressing parents by their given first names instead of calling them “daddy” or “mommy.” The reasons for children calling their parents by their first names differ radically and thus cannot be condemned, as Vanderbilt does, as a matter of general principle.

At certain points, the younger Post claims some rules are “as old as time” and that they “will last in perpetuity.” But her book evinces a degree of flexibility, showing how manners are inevitably affected by history and social change and how the upper classes, whose views are reflected by the authors of the manuals, have tried to adapt to these changes while preserving the established social hierarchy.

Softening some of the older Post’s elitism and social conservatism, the younger Post opens up her discussion of manners to ethnic and “race relations,” criticizing in a fairly progressive fashion offensive conduct involving ethnic or racist slurs, and advising a critical response to those slurs, including walking away from an offender. Accepting the reality of unmarried heterosexual couples living together, she points out that it is generally unnecessary when introducing one’s unmarried partner to go beyond mentioning his or her name, when all that is needed to add after the person’s name is “the man (or woman) I live with.” LGBT people are not mentioned in the manual, an indication of their lack of acceptance among “high society” at that time. Yet possibly influenced by the devastating effects of the AIDS epidemic, the same version asserts as absolutely mannerly a woman’s demand for her male partner to wear a condom, and a man’s initiative to wear one.

Trotsky’s Revolutionary Cultural Enlightenment

Leon Trotsky is well known as the main organizer of the Red Army, key theoretician and historian of the Russian Revolution, principled opponent of Stalin’s totalitarian rule, and brilliant literary critic. Far less known is his role as a tenacious advocate of a cultural enlightenment. Trotsky’s goal was a Russian Soviet society not only socialist and egalitarian but also modern, which for him meant, among other things, literacy, openness to a rational, scientific worldview (for example, modern medicine), and equality among genders. His speeches and writings of the 1920s, assembled in Problems of Everyday Life, show him addressing these issues at considerable length.

Trotsky was writing at the time of the New Economic Policy (NEP), which since the spring of 1921 had liberalized the economy, allowing for foreign investment, private trade, and peasant production. Trotsky’s support for the NEP, which he had already anticipated with his earlier proposals that the party rejected in 1920, represented a partial reversal of his earlier Civil War policies, during which he had been one of the principal proponents of centralization, militarization, and a virtual industrial dictatorship. It was during the NEP that Trotsky became concerned with what he saw as the increasing bureaucratization of the revolution (although he still supported the one-party state dictatorship). As he saw it, not only was it important to take on this problem but also the soil in which it grew, namely the mass poverty of the Czarist past and its attendant social ills: illiteracy, alcoholism, and systemic bribery. Central to this project was addressing interpersonal relations, particularly manners.

Far from subscribing to the romantic notion that the oppressed, like Noble Savages, were not part of (or could automatically overcome after the revolution) the culture of daily brutality inherited from the Czarist times, Trotsky inveighed against the rudeness, vulgarity, and crudity that still marked Soviet society. For him, a revolutionary, cultural self-transformation was a prerequisite for a rational society populated by civilized individuals. In this he echoed Karl Marx, who proclaimed in a speech delivered on September 15, 1850 that “we tell the workers: ‘You have fifteen, twenty, fifty years of civil war and peoples’ struggles to go through, not only to change the conditions but in order to change yourselves and make yourselves fit for political rule.’”

Trotsky’s multifaceted discussion of manners centered on those he saw as particularly problematic emblems of a brutal past. In his article “Civility and Politeness as a Necessary Lubricant in Daily Relations,” published in 1923 in the amply read Pravda, he strongly criticized what he viewed as the widespread rudeness characterizing personal interaction and contrasted the different forms it took among different classes and groups in society. The “simple” peasant rudeness was unappealing but free of the heartless, degrading formality with which many of the aristocratic bureaucrats — whom the revolution was forced to incorporate into its early administrative system — treated the “lower” classes. Trotsky held that even though there were organizational measures that could be taken against this problem — as well as against the varying expressions of bureaucratic red tape, particularly against the worst civil servants that perpetuated it — it was the old culture of submission and illiteracy of rural Russia that significantly contributed to its persistence.

In his article “The Struggle for Cultured Speech,” also published in Pravda in 1923, Trotsky took on a widespread phenomenon: the use of swear words. Among “the lower depths” of Russian society, he wrote, cursing was the result of despair, embitterment, and above all, hopeless servitude without escape; for the upper classes, it was the expression of class rule, slave owner’s pride, and the sense of unshakable power. Extolling the need for dignified language among comrades, he wrote favorably about the workers of the “Paris Commune” shoe factory, who carried a resolution at a general meeting that proscribed swearing and imposed fines for violating the rule.

In contrast with the hierarchical spirit of Emily Post, Trotsky thought that manners could equalize and dignify interpersonal relations, even in highly stratified situations. In his article “‘Thou’ and ‘You’ in the Red Army,” published in Izvestia in 1922, he criticized the custom of army commanding officers addressing their subordinates with the familiar form (“ty”) and their subordinates responding to them with the formal, polite form (“vy”). That subordinates in the military are expected to carry out orders, Trotsky argued, does not mean they cannot be personally treated as equals. (In fact, the practice Trotsky decried had already been officially banned by the new Duma and the Petrograd Soviet after the February Revolution of 1917.)

Trotsky also wrote on manners that went beyond speech. In his article “Attention to Trifles,” also published in Pravda in 1921, he insisted on the importance of paying proper attention to cleanliness like observing rules against spitting and dropping cigarette butts in public places. Along similar lines, he criticized Soviet Army soldiers, commanding officers, and commissars for their lack of attention to their appearance and to the upkeep of their boots and weapons. In response to critics that labeled his stance “bureaucratic nagging,” Trotsky argued that the behaviors showed a lack of respect for others, and that within institutions where communal living was the norm it was imperative that every member devote full attention to order and cleanliness.

Cultural Transformation Beyond Manners

Trotsky’s concern with a revolutionary, broad-based cultural transformation of the young Soviet Union led him to address issues other than manners. One was the correct use of language, which he saw as indispensable to precise thinking. The literary theorist was very critical of the general tendency (probably in schools) to avoid correcting working-class misspellings and erroneous or poor use of language; he argued that the working class in Russia needed precise and correct language more than other classes because “for the first time in history it begins to think independently about nature, about life, and its foundation — and to do the thinking it needs the instrument of a clear and incisive language.”

The same concern for cultural transformation also underlies his reflections about time, accuracy, and precision in daily life in “Alas, We Are Not Accurate Enough,” published in Izvestia in December 1921. During the Civil War, Trotsky recounts, he encountered a haphazard attitude toward distance and time on the part of local peasants serving as guides, and frequently on the part of commissars and commanders of the Red Army itself. While his analysis leaves out some of the material basis for this, such as the different rhythms of rural, agricultural life, Trotsky notes other major material factors, like the highly inhospitable weather and the savage manorial system of enslavement that encouraged passivity, patience, and indifference to time. (It was custom for a peasant to wait for hours quietly, patiently, and passively for a social superior to receive them, a custom that also expressed the nobility’s contempt for the peasant’s time.) Trotsky strongly rejected this procrastination inherited from the czarist past, pointing out that a well-functioning modern economy was unthinkable without precision and accuracy.

Trotsky prioritized the participation of women in his civilizing project, particularly in the struggle against alcoholism and drunkenness. But he went much farther, arguing that while it had been relatively easy to establish women’s political equality after the revolution, it was much more difficult to establish their economic equality in production, in the unions, and even more so in the family. The almost exclusive involvement of women in domestic tasks, he noted, sharply reduced women’s ability to get involved in social and political life, and those conditions, he insisted, had to be radically changed. In order to bring about effective change, he argued that it was crucial to understand the conditions of women, “through the eyes of women.”

It is important to note that Trotsky did not see his project of cultural transformation as the exclusive enterprise of the state and the ruling Communist Party. He welcomed and supported the creation of a wide variety of voluntary associations, such as the “Society of Friends of the Red Cinema” and an organization of proletarian and peasant writers.

Far from making a fetish out of central planning, he argued that the project was not

an a priori, all-seeing, preconceived plan with all the details worked out . . .  but a plan that . . .  is verified and improved in the building, growing more vital and concrete in the degree to which the public initiative has gone towards its evolution and drawing up [and opening] a vast field for the activities of voluntary associations and cooperative units.

Trotsky’s Enlightenment Project and Communism

Trotsky made it clear that the goal of his project was to wean the Soviet people away from the cultural brutality of pre-revolutionary Russia — not to create, in one fell swoop, the new Communist society. He objected to describing the struggle against alcoholism, rudeness, and bribe-taking as part of a “communist ethic” or a “communist culture” instead of what it was: an attempt to eliminate the legacy of pre-bourgeois barbarism in Russia. As he put it, Communists need not deceive themselves by “adorning our preliminary work with false labels.”

This was consistent with Trotsky’s view that it was premature to speak of a proletarian literature and culture in Russia when the country remained terribly underdeveloped.

His approach differed radically from “voluntarist” (as opposed to materialist) currents of thought, which thought that the exertion of sheer political will was enough to overcome economic conditions, however adverse, in the aftermath of revolution. In the eyes of Che Guevara, for instance, it was possible to build socialism and communism in Cuba (and the early Soviet Union). It was just a matter of fostering the kind of revolutionary morality and consciousness that could compensate for conditions of scarcity. This argument, articulated in Socialism and Man in Cuba, Guevara’s most complete theoretical work, explains the criticism and opposition to Lenin’s NEP he later articulated in his diaries based on his contention that in the USSR of the 1920s there were no material limits to the building of socialism and communism.

For Guevara, the New Man forged by Cuban Communism had to be ascetic and idealistic, infused with the values and practices of heroism, dedicated to the good of society, and averse to individual self-fulfillment or expression. Voluntary poverty would be his lot, at the expense of personal freedom and its close relationship with the collective good that Marx had thoroughly explored, especially in his early writings. It is also relevant that although Guevara’s pamphlet was about Socialism and Man in Cuba, it was highly abstract, with very little discussion, unlike Trotsky’s POEL, of the concrete social and cultural problems involved in the Cuban postrevolutionary transition, specifically on how the social and cultural Cuban conditions in the early sixties may have contributed to or hampered the development of socialism.

Manners and Today’s American Left

In 1965, along with a group of other white radical University of California Berkeley students, I attended a speech by Fannie Lou Hamer, the prominent black leader of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, at a modest black church on the city’s west side. While the black parishioners and black activists showed up in formal wear, most of the Berkeley white radical students were dressed in the same highly informal attire they would have normally worn for an outdoor political rally, totally disregarding the customs and manners of their hosts. To their immense credit, the black parishioners and activists ignored the white radical students’ inconsiderate behavior. But as political activists trying to build bridges and express their solidarity with African Americans, the behavior of these white radicals was shockingly disrespectful.

Bad manners behaviorally overlap with more systemic (and much more damaging) interpersonal racial and gender discrimination, in the sense that they reinforce a perhaps not intended but nevertheless existent pattern of exclusion. The failure to recognize and thank the work of rank-and-file participants, the unwillingness to listen and deal with what other group members have to say, the domination in the discussion by strong and outspoken personalities, the bullying of comrades that may have a different opinion regarding the matter being discussed, the insensitivity and lack of respect for the questions and doubts expressed by less experienced and less knowledgeable participants, the systematic lack of punctuality in carrying out promised tasks that affects the work of other comrades and expresses a conscious or unconscious lack of respect for them — all of these are problems that have affected many progressive and left organizations.

Some of these problems are especially pronounced in groups that eschew organized, structured discussions in pursuit of informality and spontaneity. As Jo Freeman illustrates in her classic essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness,” the rejection of formal time limits for speakers inevitably leads to the monopolization of discussion by dominant figures, while informality and lack of structure foster the manipulation of the rank and file and produce a leadership unresponsive and unaccountable to its members.

Trotsky’s enlightenment project gives an alternative view of manners and their central role in humane, civilized interaction. His approach, like other revolutionary “enlighteners,” was to extend to the realm of personal conduct a rationalist view of culture. “Enlighteners” saw it as part of their duty to select and incorporate into the cultural welter of the revolution the previous cultural achievements of all of humanity. “The revolutionary state,” Trotsky wrote, “representing a new class, is a kind of inventorial inheritor (from the Roman legal principle providing that inheritors have the right to choose what they want from the estate of the deceased party) in relation to the accumulated store of culture.”

And contrary to those who would associate the Russian revolutionaries’ Enlightenment approach with cultural conservatism, they were guided by the latest, most progressive Western education and social science as well as by key ideas and concepts drawn from the socialist and Marxist traditions. Thus, the classical Marxist ideas on polytechnical education, intended to bridge the gap between intellectual and manual labor, were combined with key concepts of the American educator John Dewey, such as the notion that education was most of all intended to encourage the individual child’s creativity and individuality. Viewing children and young people as the subjects rather than the objects of education, the “enlighteners” view of cultural self-transformation radically differed from the condescending, paternalistic philanthropy of efforts inspired by the “higher” classes to “improve” the education and morals of the poor.

The enlighteners’ approach to cultural self-transformation also contrasts with the views of some contemporary left intellectuals and academics, who reject as elitist the efforts to foster the education of the working classes in all aspects of human culture — manners included. Such views imply that the existing level of popular knowledge and culture is sufficient for the needs of the powerless, and ignores or dismisses the ways in which the hierarchical division of labor in class societies systematically deprives the majority of the people of vital cultural goods.

In fact, it is these arguments that are deeply elitist. They perpetuate the existing fissure between the educated and less educated, between those who engage in blue-collar work and those who engage in professional work — the very opposite of what is required to abolish the distinction between the masses and the elite, to say nothing of the intellectual tools that working people need to acquire to gain and hold power.