In his autobiography, Leon Trotsky tells the story of meeting an old electrician and Narodnik named Ivan Andreyevich Mukhin. As Trotsky tells it, Mukhin used navy beans to give a lesson in revolution. As you're sorting out your feelings about Trotsky and the Russian Revolution, consider this learning activity.
‘It’s very simple. I put a bean on the table and say, “This is the Tsar.” Around it, I place more beans. “These are ministers, bishops, generals, and over there the gentry and merchants. And in this other heap, the plain people.” Now, I ask, “Where is the Tsar?” They point to the centre. “Where are the ministers?” They point to those around. Just as I have told them, they answer. Now, wait,’ and at this point Mukhin completely closed his left eye and paused. ‘Then I scramble all the beans together,’ he went on. ‘I say, “Now tell me where is the Tsar? the Ministers?” And they answer me, “Who can tell? You can’t spot them now” ... “Just what I say. You can’t spot them now”. And so I say, “All beans should be scrambled”.’
I was so thrilled at this story that I was all in a sweat. This was the real thing, whereas we had only been guessing and waiting and subtilising ... Mukhin’s navy-beans, destroying the mechanics of the class system, were the revolutionary propaganda.
‘Only how to scramble them, damn them, that’s the problem,’ Mukhin said, in a different tone, and looked sternly at me with both eyes. ‘That’s not navy-beans, is it?’ And this time he waited for my answer. (My Life, Page 105, quoted in Cliff "Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917" )
For young Trotsky, the bean lesson is thrilling both for its value as a propaganda tool, a way to explain ideas to others, and for the challenge posed to him personally as a revolutionary: how to scramble the beans?
What do Muhkin's navy-beans mean to us, now, here? Where is their value? What challenges do they pose to us?
As a learning activity, we can use Mukhin's beans to look at any type of organization, questioning and reevaluating the roles and relationships we fill.
So, get two dozen dried beans, of a variety of types/colors/sizes or all the same. Dump them on the table and proceed something like this. (The process is similar to the one described in What is a "union"?)
- The Joker asks participants to arrange the beans to show how society (or a company, a university, a union, a non-profit organization, a cooperative...) is organized, using each bean to represents a specific person/position. (It's probably best if the participants have a specific organization in mind, one they all know. This should be done in small groups, or, fish bowl style, with one small group in the center and others observing.)
- When they are done, the Joker asks them to explain the diagram (beanagram?) they have created, asking questions to fill in all the details and verify mutual understanding of the diagram. This step is very important and deserves time -- people may raise very interesting ideas and reveal different understandings and assumptions here. People should also feel free to move, add, substract beans to clarify their idea.
- The Joker takes notes and a photo, then asks a volunteer to scramble the beans.
- The Joker can ask, rhetorically, like Mukhin: "Where is the president? Where is the general secretary? Where are the workers?" (etc, using whatever categories people came up with), but be careful not to do this demagogically. The point is to pause and describe the situation clearly: what happened to the previous structure? In the absence of structures and identifiable figures, what do we have? What does it mean for everyone to just be a "bean"? (There is more to be had here than the propaganda punchline.)
- Is it good to "scramble the beans"? Why, why not? What are the advantages and disadvantages? What is lost and/or gained?
- Is it possible to "scramble the beans"? Have you witnessed any examples? Do you know of examples?
- (Mukhin's question:) How do you scramble the beans in real life?
- What happens after you scramble them? Do the beans need to be organized? Why? How?
- If people want the beans organized, the Joker then asks them to organize the beans to show the type of organization they want.
- Take careful notes, and another photo.
Write the names of various institutions or social organizations, large or small (the AFL-CIO, your family, your workplace, capitalism, Occupy Wall Street, etc.) on index cards. Shuffle and have people pick a card, any card. Then, working in groups or individually, people use a pile of beans to represent the given organization. When done, they present their "beanagrams" and discuss.
It might be interesting for two groups to have the same organization, so that they can compare beanagrams.