Ken Hirschkop, What Kind of Language Do Revolutionaries Want?

Revolutionaries choose their words carefully. They are, for example, exacting and precise when deciding whether or not to describe something as ‘revolutionary’ (or, conversely, as ‘reformist’, if that’s how they cut the cake). They know there are significant differences between ‘coalitions’, ‘alliances’ and ‘united fronts’, and they know a ‘popular front’ is not merely a front that is popular. Similarly, the terms they use are not crudely denotative, but typically rich in associations. ‘Petty-bourgeois’ is the name of a class, for sure, but it carries with it historical and semantic baggage: connotations of taste, political inclination, lifestyle and even character. ‘Republican’, though it notionally refers back to a classical ideal of government, means a great deal else in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and in the north of Ireland. No one who has spent even a single afternoon helping craft a communiqué, a manifesto, a slogan, or even an announcement could doubt how much the exact shaping of sentences means to the Left. No one who has spent even a single hour at a public rally or a branch meeting could doubt that there are styles and kinds of rhetoric peculiar to the revolutionary – lexical tics, rhetorical schemes, syntactic patterns, and even certain tones of voice. This rhetorical finesse, however, is largely a matter of unspoken habits and unwritten guidelines, passed on through training and practice, and only articulated when a new kind of politics confronts the inherited styles.

In short, when revolutionaries take a prescriptive interest in language – when they have in mind what kind of language they want or need in a certain context – their interest is almost wholly in the rhetorical, suasive dimension of language. They want to know how to fashion a language that will persuade people to the cause of socialism and will dissuade them from beliefs and habits that prop up the capitalist order. Their interest is not prefigurative or utopian, with an eye towards the sorts of language that an equitable, just and fulfilling society will need, perhaps because they believe that the language we have on hand is neutral or varied enough to accommodate itself to radically different social and political arrangements. And this is true even of the various, not generally successful attempts to create a ‘Marxist philosophy of language’: they aim to describe how conflicting social forces are manifested within a language and to demonstrate that the smooth surface of speech is fractured by contradictions and dissonance. Voloshinov’s well-known Marxism and the Philosophy of Language is largely devoted to this task, reserving only a few lines at the end for a sudden and abrupt complaint about the absence of ‘responsible statement’.1 Michel Pêcheux’s Language, Semantics and Ideology, the great Althusserian contribution to this genre, suggests the possibility of a language of ‘disidentification’, but this is proposed as a means of escaping ideology rather than as a desideratum in its own right.2 Jean-Jacques LeCercle and Denis Riley’s The Force of Language proposes a Marxist pragmatics in which language is endlessly and ineluctably agonistic, the terrain of struggle but never the Promised Land.3

If you, as you ought to, extend your vision beyond socialist revolutionaries, you can see a very different set of linguistic priorities. Feminism, in both the first and second wave, already had language in its sights. Virginia Woolf, with a professional interest in the matter, knew straight off that the empowerment of women would have linguistic as well as immediately political consequences.4 In their different ways Dale Spender, Hélène Cixous and Robin Lakoff regarded the assertion of women within discourse as a force that would transform what people said and the ways in which they spoke with another.5 Wherever nationalism or anti-imperialism was blended with the socialist cause, language became an issue: which language to speak, whether an existing idiom could do the job, whether or not one language could do the job, and so forth.6 It’s the former colonies of South Asia and Africa that first come to mind when we think of these kinds of struggles, but the Soviet Union itself provided numerous illustrations, as one of its most pressing cultural tasks was the design and implementation of a languages policy for its various national republics. Finally, there are the revolutions on which Marx patterned the socialist one: the bourgeois nationalist revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for which the construction, institutionalization and upkeep of a national language was central to the nation-building project.7 But even where language is not the topic of great revolutionary declarations or intensive theoretical discussion, the question of what kind of language ought to be spoken and written is nevertheless unavoidable and insistent, above all in educational institutions, where the teaching of writing and formalized linguistic skills is still concentrated. In England, this was articulated first as the question of ‘standard English’ and its role in the school curriculum, a question in which the articulation between language and class found expression.8 In the United States, unsurprisingly, the issue was expressed as a question about race and the role and status of so-called African-American English. Where the order of the day is education, the prescriptive attitude is, however democratic one wants to be, ineluctable: teachers cannot be, after all, mere observers of the speech and writing habits of their pupils. They need to refine and shape the writing and speaking of their students, which entails some pressure on the actual diversity of student speech, whether this diversity is borne of class division, multilingualism, or simple contingency.

But how to intervene and with what end in mind? In the first flush of historical Communism these educational questions were crucial questions of political strategy, insofar as establishing a literate, well-informed people was a principal object of the revolutionary struggle. When Gramsci, the one revolutionary leader who also happened to be trained in formal linguistics, wrote, the national language question was, so to speak, up for grabs, because Italians by and large spoke in dialect and often lacked basic literacy skills (Italian would not become the majority spoken language in the country until 1982). In his final prison notebook Gramsci claims that we ought to ‘welcome everything that may serve to create a common national language, the non-existence of which creates friction particularly in the popular masses among whom local particularisms and phenomena of a narrow and provincial mentality are more tenacious than is believed’.9 In saying this Gramsci was really doing no more than following in the footsteps of the bourgeois national revolutions (that he had to say it at all was, for him, a sign of the relative failure or incompleteness of the Italian version). The debate on what form a nationalized Italian language should take had been in full swing since unification, and Gramsci was well acquainted with it. Although he strongly favoured the establishment of a national form of Italian and the teaching of this language in the school system, he disagreed with the idea that one should establish such a language by what he called ‘artificial’ means, that is by the calculated creation of a national language and its diffusion through institutional enforcement. He took the side of the linguist G. I. Ascoli, who, in Gramsci’s paraphrase, asserted that ‘the Italian language would be formed only in so far as the shared life of the nation gave rise to numerous and stable contacts between the various parts of the nation’; in effect, the argument that a nationalized linguistic ‘superstructure’ would follow from a nationalized ‘base’.10

Ease of communication was not, however, the only benefit a national-popular Italian would bring to the cause. A common national language would also strengthen the connections between the intellectuals and the people, one of Gramsci’s principal desiderata throughout his political career. National languages, as Gramsci was well aware, evolve as literary languages in the broadest sense: as the language which is developed, refined and codified in formal, printed works (whether these are ‘creative’, political, scientific or whatever). The popular masses – working-class and peasant students – needed and deserved to have access to the resources embedded in this language; it was for this reason that Gramsci fiercely opposed the 1923 educational reforms of Giovanni Gentile, which dispensed with the teaching of ‘normative grammar’, thereby, according to Gramsci excluding the ‘national-popular mass’ from learning the educated, literary language.11 A national language had the aim of vertical, as well as horizontal integration.

But while one could create the conditions in which a national-popular language might evolve, you couldn’t predict the form it would take. You could ‘intervene’ in the ‘process of formation, spread and development of a unified national language’, but you shouldn’t do this in the hope that you ‘will obtain a specific unified language’ – you had to wait and see what developed.12 Or this, at least, is what Gramsci thought when he was writing specifically about the ‘national language’. For the cultural sections of the prison notebooks include long discussions of literary and popular language under the rubrics of ‘popular literature’ and ‘journalism’, the latter being one of the most obsessive topics of the notebooks. When Gramsci thought the issue was ‘style’ rather than grammar, he seemed more willing to make concrete demands on the national-popular discourse of the future. That is to say, when discussing journalism and literature (both popular and elite), Gramsci wants more from a national language than a means of communication.

At least it’s clear what he doesn’t want. At the level of sheer communication, the literary problem is the same as the linguistic one: the intellectuals are removed from the concerns of the people, who therefore prefer to read translated literature by French authors – authors with a popular touch – to literature by Italian writers. In occasional notes dedicated to what Gramsci calls ‘the operatic conception of life’ (melodrammatica in Italian), however, he confesses that the problem is less one of absolute separation or estrangement than of a confused and distorted relation between popular speech and the elaborate forms of established urban culture. Lacking an organic popular literature that can reflect and test their concerns and feelings, the people turn to opera, which they see as a ‘more select sphere of great feelings and noble passions’.13 From this interpretation of opera there flows an ‘operatic taste’ or conception, which leads to a stilted, artificial kind of speech, a ‘theatrical rendering coupled with a baroque vocabulary’.14 In later entries Gramsci will blame this ‘bombastic solemnity’ on not just opera but the whole sphere of public speaking he identifies with ‘oratory’: eulogies at funerals, the declarations of magistrates, popular theatre, and even the subtitles of silent films.15 How does one combat this operatic taste? First, by doing what Gramsci is doing – ‘ruthlessly criticizing it’.16 Second, by writing and putting into circulation alternative kinds of discourse, ‘written or translated in non “elevated” language, where the feelings expressed are not rhetorical or operatic’.17 In a later entry in the same notebook, Gramsci argues that in order ‘to deflate the traditional rhetoric that ruins every form of culture’, we should set as a cultural goal ‘the formation of a lively, expressive, and at the same time sober and measured prose’.18 It is a rare but significant moment when Gramsci, by his own admission, allows himself a measure of formalism, when he stakes a revolutionary’s claim (if not a revolutionary claim) to a particular kind of language.

By the time Gramsci got round to making these claims – the early 1930s – in the land of revolution itself the issue had fallen into the pit of Stalinism.19 In theory, Nikolai Marr and his allies had been put at the helm of Soviet linguistics by the 1930s; in practice, earlier attempts to mix Russian dialects with the literary standard in education had given way to a wholesale endorsement of ‘classic’ literary Russian as a national and to a great extent ‘Soviet’ language.20 The end result, as we know, was a level of bombastic solemnity that has had few equals, an operatic taste made in the name of the demotic. It was this Soviet bombast that spurred M. M. Bakhtin towards a strange kind of political stylistics, in which ‘the novel’ came to stand for the sobriety Gramsci cherished. Novelistic language, according to Bakhtin, takes the traditional ‘discourse of pathos’ and distances it, estranges it, through stylization and parody. The pathos that remains is therefore ‘the discourse of a preacher without a pulpit, the discourse of a cruel judge without judicial or punitive power, of a prophet without a mission, of a politician without political authority, the believer without a church and so forth’.21 In the absence of an actual revolutionary language, in a situation when the claim to being revolutionary was compromised, Bakhtin could only sense revolutionary force in the very effort to undermine the solemn and the operatic.

Arguably, it’s what you get when the opportunity for a new kind of language has been squandered, as it was in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when an open and vigorous debate on the fate of Russian in the Soviet Union was shut down. If there is a moment that stands for that lost opportunity, it might be the 1924 issue of the Russian avant-garde journal LEF, in which the self-styled revolutionaries of the word, the Russian Formalists, turned their minds to the analysis of the revolutionary rhetoric of Lenin. What Shklovskii, Eikhenbaum, Tynianov, and Iakubinskii found, or at least claimed to find, was a prose style that was lively and measured, and which took bombast as its object. For Lenin was, according to Eikhenbaum, intuitively sensitive to the language of politics: ‘he often turned his attention to the stylistic peculiarities of their speech. Every party for him was not only a definite worldview, but also a definite system of speech style’.22 As the linguist Lev Iakubinskii noted, Lenin’s rhetoric was both a battle with particular ideologies and a ‘struggle against the emotionally overblown, stylistically elevated, pathetic, declamatory layer of speech’.23 Lenin struggles with ‘phrases’ and ‘grand words’, according to Eikhenbaum, by deploying a ‘business-like, sometimes dry scientific language’, enlivened by the introduction of ‘conversational-everyday expressions’ and a constant mocking of the grand style of his opponents.24 For Iakubinskii, the constant aim of Lenin’s style is a lowering, a debasement of the grand style of rhetoric, accomplished by a series of techniques – parenthetical asides, changes in lexicon, ironic framing – that interrupt and disturb the ‘smooth flow’ of this speech.

Do these ruminations from revolutions a century ago (or dream of revolutions that never arrived) have much to say to us today? After seventy years of ‘historical Communism’, much of the Left reacts instinctively against any policy, cultural or immediately political, that implies a vanguardist faith in the need for revolutionary direction or guidance. That we should aim to shape a language might seem absurd (from a scientific point of view) or authoritarian (from a political point of view). Today many of the most interesting discussions of language politics are reactions to the ‘globalization’ – and therefore fragmentation – of English and to the linguistic and educational consequences of migrations from the global South to Europe and North America.25 For good reason, these reactions are often aimed at erasing prejudice against non-standard forms of English or new Englishes. The movement for ‘translingual practice’ encourages an acceptance of and negotiation with an existing multilingualism rather than a search for a new national or standard form.26 There is, however, still something to be said for some of the older linguistic aspirations, as a matter of tactics and long-term strategy. Tactically, because Gramsci understood that the ‘popular’, vernacular language was never the spontaneous production of everyday life, but was always also penetrated by ‘operatic’ forms floating in the linguistic ether. In a world penetrated by electronic media, this is even more important to remember: the everyday language is a mixture of forms, some local, but many inherited from mass-produced music, video, and the like. Strategically, because the issue is not always just a matter of grammar and lexis, but also of tone. Linguistic forms can shape not only worldviews – although their capacity to do that is usually vastly overstated – but also feelings, the tone in which we express out outrage, our unhappiness, our aspirations to something better. In these two respects, the Left would probably do well to reopen the discussion about what kind of language we want, which means a discussion about what kind of language we should use. For in times of defeat, our enemy is not just the dry rationalism of the free marketers, but the melodrama to which we ourselves are prone.

Ken Hirschkop is Associate Professor of English at the University of Waterloo in Canada. He has written on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and on twentieth-century cultural politics; his current project is a study of linguistic turns in the early twentieth century. He is a former member of the Labour Party (quitting when Neil Kinnock was elected leader) and is a veteran of losing campaigns.

1 V. N. Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, trans. Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), p. 159.

2 Michel Pêcheux, Language, Semantics and Ideology, trans. Harbans Nagpal (London: Macmillan, 1982).

3 Jean-Jacques Lecercle and Denise Riley, The Force of Language (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

4 As discussed in the fourth chapter of A Room of One’s Own (London: Hogarth Press, 1929).

5 See Dale Spender, Man-made Language (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1990); Hélène Cixous, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, Signs, 1.4 (1976), 875-93; Robin Tolmach Lakoff, Language and Woman’s Place: Text and Commentaries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). A powerful (and to my mind entirely convincing) critique of the idea of a distinctively female language is found in Deborah Cameron, Feminism and Linguistic Theory, 2nd edn (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992).

6 See, for example, the different positions taken by the writers Chinua Achebe and Ngugi wa’ Thiongo on the use of English in African fiction: Chinua Achebe, ‘English and the African Writer’, Transition, 18 (1965), 27-30; Ngugi wa’ Thiongo, ‘The Language of African Literature’, New Left Review, 150 (1985).

7 On this process, see Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, revised edn (London: Verso, 1991); Pierre Bourdieu, ‘The Production and Reproduction of Legitimate Language’, in Language and Symbolic Power (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991); Louis-Jean Calvet, Language Wars and Linguistic Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

8 On the debate on standard English see Tony Crowley, Standard English and the Politics of Language, 2nd edn (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003); Peter Trudgill, ‘Standard English: What It Isn’t’, in Standard English: the Widening Debate, ed. Tony Bex and Richard J Watts (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 117-28. The classic, although now largely disavowed, study of language and class division in education is Basil Bernstein, Class, Codes and Control (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971).

9 Antonio Gramsci, ‘How Many Forms of Grammar Can There Be?’ (Q 29 § 2), in Selections from Cultural Writings, ed. David Forgacs and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, trans. William Boelhower (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1985), p. 182.

10 Gramsci, ‘A Single Language and Esperanto’, in Selections from Cultural Writings, p. 28; originally published in Il Grido del Popolo, 16 February 1918.

11 For Gramsci’s critique of the reform see ‘Grammar and Technique’ (Q 29 § 6), in Selections from Cultural Writings, pp. 185-7.

12 Gramsci, ‘Sources of Diffusion of Linguistic Innovations in the Tradition and of a National Linguistic Conformism in the Broad National Masses’ (Q 29 § 3), in Selections from Cultural Writings, p. 183.

13 Gramsci, ‘The Operatic Conception of Life’ (Q 8 § 46), in Selections from Cultural Writings, p. 378.

14 Gramsci, ‘Popular Literature: Operatic Taste’ (Q 14 § 19), in Selections from Cultural Writings, pp. 379, 380.

15 See the above entry on operatic taste and ‘Oratory, Conversation, Culture’ (Q 16 § 21), where Gramsci will claim that all forms of oral delivery tend to a kind of rhetorical dazzlement. (Selections from Cultural Writings, pp. 381-5).

16 Gramsci, ‘Popular Literature: Operatic Taste’, p. 380.

17 Ibid.

18 Gramsci, ‘Popular Literature: Content and Form’ (Q 14 § 72), in Selections from Cultural Writings, p. 204.

19 I’m relying on the dating provided in the Appendix to Gianni Francioni, L’Officina Gramsci: Ipotesi sulla struttura dei “Quaderni del carcere” (Naples: Bibliopolis, 1984), pp. 137-56, according to which the discussions of operatic taste date to 1932 or 1933 and those on linguistics to 1935.

20 The debate of the 1920s and its conclusion are described in Michael G. Smith, Language and Power in the Creation of the USSR, 1917-1953 (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2012).

21 M. M. Bakhtin, ‘Slovo v romane’, in Sobranie sochinenii, tom 3 (Moscow: Russkie slovari, 2012), p. 150. Although this essay was initially dated to 1934-35, we now know it was written in 1930-36.

22 Boris Eikhenbaum, ‘Osnovnye stilevye tendentsii v rechi Lenina’ [‘The Fundamental Stylistic Tendencies of Lenin’s Speech’], LEF, 5 (1924), 57-70, p. 58.

23 Iakubinskii’s emphasis. Lev Iakubinskii, ‘O snizhenii vysokogo stilia u Lenina’ [‘On the Lowering of Elevated Style in Lenin’], LEF, 5 (1924), 71-9, p. 73.

24 Eikhenbaum, ‘Osnovnye stilevye tendentsii’, p. 63.

25 See, for example, David Crystal, English as a Global Language, 2nd edn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

26 Suresh Canagarajah, Transligual Practice: Global Englishes and Cosmopolitan Relations (London: Routledge, 2003).

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