Posted in Political Philosophy

Socialist Language (updated version)

I have noticed a rise in the number of articles recently that make an appeal for socialists to stop using socialist jargon. This has coincided with a large number of (mostly younger) socialists demanding that no “old language” be used at all as it (somehow) harms socialism. I have been accused personally of being harmful to the cause because of the language I use. I challenge those making the accusations to go through any of my writing or radio broadcasts, all of which are freely available, and point out to me the harmful language that I use and suggest what I replace it with. So far none of them have taken me up on this offer. I guess that’s because that while I write from a (post-)Marxist perspective I tend to use my normal daily language to do so. Sure I use the occasional “comrade” when greeting party members, but I’ve yet to be given a credible reason why I shouldn’t. If you don’t like it I won’t call you “comrade”, but don’t tell me I can’t use it at all!

This is almost always related to another problem, those who say things like “Marxism is irrelevant today”. It tends to be the same people saying these things. They will tell you quite freely that they don’t understand Marx, but without any sense of the irony will make grand sweeping statements about how irrelevant Marx is anyway. Now while it’s true that not all socialists self-identify as Marxists, since at least the First World War all socialism has to one extent or another been influenced by Marx. We may argue about the degree to which Marx is still relevant (I will do something approaching that below) but it is astounding ignorance to claim the entire history of Marxist thought is now irrelevant.

When writing about what sort of language socialists should be using, there is a risk of setting off quite a heated debate about what at first looks like a fairly mundane topic. There are bigger things to worry about surely? Privatisation of the NHS, low wages, zero hours contracts, illegal wars, nuclear weapons stored on our territory against our will, discrimination, racism, etc. With all of that going on, why worry so much about whether or not the proper way to greet a fellow socialist is a friendly, “Hi comrade”? Looks can be deceiving. Language is incredibly important to all of us; both at a personal level and at the level at which certain groups are able to control society.

At the personal level language is how we ‘interface’ with our environment; it is how we connect the inner workings of our own mind with the outside world. It is how we think, it is how we communicate our own thoughts with other people and it is how we assimilate what is being shared with us. There is of course a need, therefore, to find the best way to express our socialist arguments so that others are able to properly assimilate them into their own understanding of the world. That is the spirit in which the younger socialists I mentioned above have made their appeal that we avoid certain aspects of our socialist language.  We have to be careful, however, not to put up barriers to those who are already totally comfortable using the so-called obscure socialist terminology. If we tell them they are not allowed to use that language we are effectively stopping them from taking part in the debate. We are removing from them their own means of thinking about the issues and communicating their thoughts on those issues.

At the level of social control language is crucial, as those who control the language control the society. George Orwell was perhaps the first to recognise this, and his invented language of Newspeak in the novel 1984 was an attempt to display this thought. Recall that Newspeak consisted solely of jargon in which heretical ideas became impossible to express or even to think. In today’s world, real life examples of Newspeak are rife in the jargon laden languages of politicians, business leaders and media who limit language in order to preserve their own power and privilege. Their demand that any criticisms be translated into their own language before they’ll take them seriously is intended to crush the possibility of articulating ideas dangerous to the status quo. My concern with those on the left who demand that we translate our language in this way is that they have been naively convinced by the demands of these people. Their arguments about why we should change our language usually tend to centre round feelings of embarrassment and a belief that we’ll be taken seriously if our language were to mimic that found in the modern media. The demands of the powerful, however, were designed deliberately to invoke this sort of reaction in the knowledge that if we do give up enough of our language then we have essentially conceded control.

Before Orwell, Marx himself had understood that the “bourgeoisie” language had evolved in such a way as to obscure the realities of “real life” (although he never made the connection to social control that Orwell later would). During his engagement with the problem of democracy, Marx tackled the larger issue that he called “bourgeoisie categories of thought”, which are essentially ways in which the new capitalist states categorised their ideas of freedom, equality and liberty. In The German Ideology he explores how these categories actually obscure our understanding of the realities of social conditions and relations. The “bourgeoisie” language (or “modern” language in today’s debate) was therefore unsuitable for an account of life as it is actually lived under capitalism (Marx uses the term ‘civil society’ to refer to this reality).

So this debate about the language we use is not new; it has been hotly debated by socialists for well over one hundred years now. In the current incarnation of the debate it’s argued, “It’s not that we should attempt to “dumb down” our arguments so much as that we should be trying to make these arguments relevant to the day to day struggles of the working person.” When framed in this way the argument certainly has a sort of intuitive appeal to it, although it completely misses the point that this is exactly why socialists (Marxists in particular) have historically wanted to avoid the bourgeoisie/modern jargon (again, think of Marx and ‘civil society’). If we want people to agree with and accept our message then of course we have to present it to them in a way that they will understand it. However, I think this type of argument is in danger of becoming elitist and extremely dismissive of the working class. It is the type of argument made by champagne socialists, the sort who think they are superior to the “poor workers”. The working class do not generally struggle to understand complex ideas or language. Just go into Tesco, pick up a “hobby” magazine (about fishing or photography as an example) and look at the language in there. It is incredibly technical and complicated at times, but that’s no barrier to us down here in the working class from understanding it. If we don’t need to constantly translate fishing and photography magazines into a simpler language, why the constant demand we do so for our socialist arguments? The claim, I guess, is that by using language that is obscure we are behaving in a rather self defeating way. Our “obscure socialist language”, some have said, alienates us from the people we are trying to reach because it is just irrelevant to their day to day struggles.

The difference of opinion that this issue generates could be due to the issue is not actually being as straightforward as it first appears. Is the problem that socialist language is irrelevant, or is the problem that it is obscure? These are clearly two different problems, but I believe that most appeals to change our socialist language are guilty of conflating the two. If there are two different issues here, it could well be the case that they require two different solutions.

Consider for a moment an unrelated example: phlogiston. In the past, students of chemistry would talk of grand and complicated theories about phlogiston, which was believed to be an element stored in physical objects and that was released during combustion. Of course, talk of phlogiston must sound extremely obscure. How many people have ever heard it mentioned? It is also completely irrelevant as we now know that there is no such thing as phlogiston. The correct thing to do with regards phlogiston language was to stop using it.

The question seems to be, how much does socialist language resemble phlogiston language? Phlogiston language was both obscure and irrelevant. This does not seem to be the case with socialist language. No doubt contained within the millions of words written about socialism we will come across some aspects which are both obscure and irrelevant. The correct thing to do with those aspects is to stop using them (if anyone still does). That seems like an obvious truth, one that doesn’t really need to be argued for. The vast majority of socialist language is clearly not of this sort. It may be obscure, or it may be irrelevant, but it is rarely both.

Some famous quotes from Marx might help illuminate this point. Let’s start with, “In every stockjobbing swindle everyone knows that some time or other the crash must come, but every one hopes that it may fall on the head of his neighbour, after he himself has caught the shower of gold and placed it in safety” as found in Das Kapital. If you were to give this quote to people and ask them to explain it, most I’m sure would be extremely puzzled by it. Its meaning is quite obscure, at least to those not familiar with Marxist economics. Marx is talking about what today we would call Ponzi schemes. In fact, even putting it in today’s language and calling it a Ponzi scheme rather than stockjobbing doesn’t really make it any less obscure. It is however totally relevant. It is exactly these sorts of economic practices that can wreck national or global economies, and as such exactly the sort of thing socialists should be trying to warn the working class about. Its obscurity does not seem to translate into a reason to stop talking about it, and no-one seems to be suggesting that we stop using the phrase “Ponzi scheme”.

Contrast this with, “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”, the famous line found in Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), although first used as a slogan by Louis Blanc in 1851. There is no obscurity here; the meaning is blatantly obvious (hence why it makes a good slogan). It is, however, a slogan that we should probably stop using. If we are aiming to make life better for the masses then this quote is totally irrelevant, as a real life implementation of this would be no Utopia. Arguably the Soviet Gulags were organised on this principle, where prisoners were given the basic minimum of their needs while it was demanded that each work to their maximum ability, until such time as death intervened. A state of affairs that in no way would make the life of the masses any better were it to be implemented generally!

Even if we were to be generous to Marx, and grant that this principle would not result in an über-Gulag type society, it is still not clear that this principle bears any relevance to the modern worker. While Marx gave us a scientific critique of capitalism, which enabled him to predict many subsequent developments, one thing which he failed to predict was the rise of consumerism. Today workers do not work just to meet their needs. They also work to satisfy their desires, such as a holiday abroad every year, the latest gadgets, a nicer car, etc. (Without going into the details, Marx was of course aware of a difference between needs and desires. In fact, his account of the development of culture was based on desires. This sort of desire however has a different psychological explanation than consumerist desires.  Some post-Marxists differentiate between desires and drives to make a distinction.) While combating the excesses of consumerism is of course a battle that socialists should take on, to only promise people that their needs will be met in a socialist society seems to fundamentally misunderstand the psychology of the modern worker and is very unlikely to win much support. This seems like the sort of thing we should stop saying despite it not being obscure in the slightest, and despite it not being the type of language that those suggesting we make changes have in mind.

I don’t suggest that any of the above is conclusive. I do hope that it highlights that the issue is not as straight forward or as obvious as some have claimed. There does certainly seem to be a case to demand that we drop all “irrelevant” language from our discourse. It is not always obvious, however, which aspects of our socialist language are irrelevant, and when it is irrelevant its irrelevance is usually unrelated to whether or not it is obscure.

Now, after saying all that and after expressing how important I think this debate is, I want to suggest that we don’t overstate the importance of saving particular words from those who are intent on trimming our socialist vocabulary. Marxism is not akin to a religious doctrine, it is not something whose specific content is to be taken as a universal truth. Instead, Marxism is a method for understanding our social-economic reality. It is the tools rather than the finished product. So in this sense at least we don’t need to worry about saving every piece of jargon, so long as we have another ready to take its place. We should be wary, however, that nothing quite captures the meaning of a word like that word itself. When we stop ourselves from using certain words, we are left with words which only give us an approximation of the meaning we are trying to convey. If we use too many approximations it is unclear whether we can actually claim to be conveying our message at all. So if we are to make any changes to our socialist language, we had better be damn sure that the Marxist method can be properly understood and learned in our “new” language, whatever that may be.


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