Trotsky’s advice to young Marxists: “Don’t spread yourself too thin”

 

(A letter to the Kiev comrades. From Pravda, May 31, 1923. Translated for this volume from Collected Works, Vol. 2 1, by Marilyn Vogt. From: Problems of Every Day Life by Leon Trotsky.)

Dear Comrades:

You complain that you have not been able to read even one-tenth of the books that interest you, and ask how to rationally allot your time. This is a very difficult question, because in the long run each person must make such a decision according to his particular needs and interests. It should be said however, that the extent to which a person is able to keep up with the current literature, whether scientific, political, or otherwise, depends not only on the judicious allotment of one’s time but also on the individual’s previous training.

In regard to your specific reference to “party youth,” I can only advise them not to hurry, not to spread themselves thin, not to skip from one topic to another, and not to pass on to a second book until the first has been properly read, thought over, and mastered. I remember that when I myself belonged to the category of “youth,” I too felt that there just wasn’t enough time. Even in prison, when I did nothing but read, it seemed that one couldn’t get enough done in a day. In the ideological sphere, just as in the economic arena, the phase of primitive accumulation is the most difficult and troublesome. And only after certain basic elements of knowledge and particularly elements of theoretical skill (method) have been precisely mastered and have become, so to speak, part of the flesh and blood of one’s intellectual activity, does it become easier to keep up with the literature not only in areas one is familiar with, but in adjacent and even more remote fields of knowledge, because method, in the final analysis, is universal.

It is better to read one book and read it well; it is better to master a little bit at a time and master it thoroughly. Only in this way will your powers of mental comprehension extend themselves naturally. Thought will gradually gain confidence in itself and grow more productive. With these preliminaries in mind, it will not be difficult to rationally allot your time; and then, the transition from one pursuit to another will be to a certain extent pleasurable.

With comradely greetings,

L. Trotsky
May 29, 1923