I am, in general, allergic to theoretical discussions of socialism and dialectic, but the theoretical discussions of Platonov (see here and here for his novels) aren’t like anybody else’s. Here are two brief excerpts from his brief 1934 “On The First Socialist Tragedy,” translated at New Left Review with an introduction placing it in context:

One should keep one’s head down and not revel in life: our time is better and more serious than blissful enjoyment. Anyone who revels in it will certainly be caught and perish, like a mouse that has crawled into a mousetrap to ‘revel in’ a piece of lard on the bait pedal. Around us there is a lot of lard, but every piece is bait. One should stand with the ordinary people in their patient socialist work, and that’s all. …

In sociology, in love, in the depths of man the dialectic functions just as invariably. A man who had a ten-year-old son left him with the boy’s mother, and married a beauty. The child began to miss his father, and patiently, clumsily hanged himself. A gram of enjoyment at one end was counterbalanced by a tonne of grave soil at the other. The father removed the rope from the child’s neck and soon followed in his wake, into the grave. He wanted to revel in the innocent beauty, he wanted to bear his love not as a duty shared with one woman, but as a pleasure. Do not revel—or die.

Is it any wonder he had a hard time getting published amid the enforced optimism of the ’30s? (Via wood s lot.)

Addendum. The TLS has published Robert Chandler’s translation of the same text; it makes for an interesting comparison, and Chandler’s introduction is illuminating. (Hat-tip to Oliver Ready for alerting me.)

Update (Oct. 2020). Since the TLS article is no longer available online (and the Wayback Machine has not archived it), here’s the introduction:

A ton of graveyard earth

“On the First Socialist Tragedy”, which appears for the first time in English below, is one of the earliest and greatest of classic ecological texts. Like much of Andrei Platonov’s work, it is both bewildering and invigorating. Platonov’s central point – that nature gives us nothing for free – has seldom been put more clearly.

This clarity is, however, at times obscured by Platonov’s idiosyncratic use of the language of his epoch. It is hard for a modern reader to know how – in this article – to interpret such words as “dialectic”, “technology” and even “socialism”. Knowing what we know of the murderousness of Stalin’s regime, and of Platonov’s understanding of this, we may be over-ready to suspect that Platonov is using these words ironically. Or even that he was using them as a sop to the authorities; it was, after all, his hope when he submitted the article, in late 1934, that Maxim Gorky would publish it in a collective volume titled Two Five-Year Plans.

But it is characteristic of Platonov to use the common intellectual currency of his time while re-imagining the words so deeply as to endow them with a meaning of his own. Thus, in this article, “the dialectic” could be translated as “Newton’s law that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. As for “technology”, this seems, in one paragraph, to end up meaning something like a combination of “ideology” and “general social mood”. There may, in all this, be a kind of defiance, as if Platonov is saying: “No matter how superficially you understand them, I shall use these words with a deeper meaning”.

Some passages from the article will be of particular interest to readers of Happy Moscow; Platonov was working at this time as an engineer at a Bureau for Weights and Measures, and the same images of levers and fulcrums, of a gram of pleasure versus “a ton of graveyard earth”, occur in both the article and the novel. The article, however, speaks for itself.


  1. the bait pedal
    Never would I have guessed the word for that part of a mousetrap, the Bicycle of Death.

  2. His essay reads like a draft insert for a much bigger piece.
    The idea of humans being part of ‘technology’ is wonderfull. And, coming from someone trained as a civil engineer, is particularly insightful.
    Why do NLR have some articles open and some behind the pay-wall?

  3. rootlesscosmo says

    The assertion that ideology doesn’t belong to the “superstructure” already puts him at odds with the version of “DiaMat” which by then was being imposed as the only correct explication (or “enrichment”) of Marxist theory. I find this passage of Platonov reminiscent of some of Gramsci’s ideas, whose survival we owe to the inefficiency and corruptibility of Mussolini’s prison guards; their Soviet counterparts, had Gramsci fled Italy for the USSR, would never have let the Prison Notebooks slip through, or, probably, let their author live long enough to write them. I never thought I’d see Italian Fascism as the silver lining to anything, but there you are.

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