The Red Menace

Words, words, words...

By Ulli Diemer


One of the most striking things about the left - or most of it, at any rate - is its habitual abuse of language. While this vice is by no means confined only to the left, it seems to take on some of its worst forms among socialists. The fuzzy, jargon-ridden language of leftist writing is perhaps' the most immediately noticeable thing about the left to the ordinary person, and it is one of the main reasons that most of what the left has to say is not even listened to. The problem is by no means a new one - Orwell wrote about it more than a generation ago, in essays like "Politics and the English Language" (which should be required reading for every socialist), in various reviews, and in 1984.

As Orwell, and a very few other political writers such as Paul Goodman have pointed out, abuse of language is not simply an incidental failing. Language is the form through which thoughts are (or are not) developed and communicated. The misuse of language implies the failure to think clearly, to analyse correctly, to communicate with others. (Alternatively, it may imply the deliberate misleading of others.)

The question of language is an important one in the development of critical thought, and I hope that it will be a continuing theme in The Red Menace. Here I would like to make a start by mentioning, a few common examples of the abuse of language which I find particularily irksome.

Concrete Thought

Concrete thought: Whenever leftists are about to get specific (rarely enough, to be sure) they seem to have an irresistable compulsion to preface their venture down to earth with 'concretely', or, 'to get down to some concrete facts', or 'we have to be more concrete'. Perhaps this is the curse of the intellectual, who can't do anything without first announcing that he is going to do it, then proclaiming he is doing it as he does it, and finally pointing out that he did it after it's over. l worry that such people will find themselves doing the same thing during their sexual activities and in the process driving their bed-partners 'round the bend. I also have visions of them thinking about chunks of concrete, not so far-fetched when you consider that many 'Marxists' do handle Marxian categories as if they were so many blocks of cement. The point is that while the intention is undoubtably good, and in keeping with Marxism ('All the propositions of Marxism, including those that are apparently general, are specific'. - Karl Korsch) the constant announcements of intention are wearisome, and the choice of imagery is poor. Unfortunately, all too many leftists forget that words do evoke images, and so they use them mindlessly, to produce writing that obscures meaning rather than making it more vivid. Take concrete (please!): if thought is really concrete, it will harden quickly, the last thing we want our thinking to do. We want our thinking to be specific, we want it to be precise, we want it to be fluid, we surely do not want it to be concrete. It's good to get down to particulars, to talk about the nitty-gritty. It is not good to wear out any given word or expression in unnecessarily announcing the obvious. Why don't we just practice getting down to specifics without first proclaiming that we are going to do so?

While we're speaking of construction materials... is it really possible that there are people calling themselves socialists who think that it's a good thinq for a political organization to exhibit a unity of steel? Or who think a party should possess monolithic unity? Do these people know what a monolith is? (Oxford Dictionary: 'monolith': 'a single block of stone'; 'monolithic': 'solidly uniform throughout, showing or allowing no variation'). And how about the Leninist's contribution to the theory and practice of S & M: iron discipline?

Rank and file: Phil Mailer points out in his excellent book 'Portugal: The Impossible Revolution' that the term 'ramk and file', so popular with trade unionists and socialists, masks an authoritarian conception, although many people who use the expression, having never thought about what it means, may not intend it that way. But 'rank and file' is a military term, referring to soldiers drawn up in rigid formation on the parade ground. It may accurately convey the ideas of those who think of themselves as leaders commanding their working class troops in the struggle, but it is a poor choice for those of us who have a libertarian view of working class organization.

Intervening: How many political groups describe their activity as 'intervention'? Too many, at any rate. Those who are fond of this word should pause to consider what it implies. The concept of intervention, whether or not the user realizes it, betrays a Leninist way of looking at class struggle. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines 'intervene' as 'come in as something extraneous'. This is precisely the Leninist conception of revolution, as spelled out in 'What is to be Done' and adopted by every Leninist party since. According to Lenin, the working classes cannot develop socialist consciousness themselves; it has to be brought to them 'from without', by the socialist intellectuals organized in a vanguard party. The party represents the objective forces of history, as uncovered by the method of 'dialectical materialism'. This view places the revolutionary outside of and above social and historical forces, and then has him 'intervening' in them. It is a conception that is fundamentally elitist, undialectical, and ahistorical. It is neither libertarian nor Marxist.

And, incidentally, all those 'Marxists' who use the term 'dialectical materialism' as a synonym for Marxism, who say that Marxism is 'dialectical materialism', might be interested in knowing that Marx never used the term. 'Dialectical materialism' is the invention of Plekanov, one of the key figures (with Kautsky and Lenin) in the vulgarization of Marxism. Plekanov coined the term for his interpretation of Marx eight years after Marx's death. Those who take their 'Marxism' (often without realizing it) from followers of Plekanov (even after his political split with Plekanov, Lenin repeatedly praised his exposition of Marxism) might do well to read Marx's criticism's of Plekanov's rigid dogmatism. They would do even better to read Marx himself, rather than his interpreters.

Correct Line

Finally, 'in terms of': If this expression once meant something, I don't know what it was. I am certain, however, that all those people - and they are many - who use the expression now don't use it to mean anything. 'In terms of has simply become the leftist's way of saying 'um' or 'uh'. Let's go back to saying 'uh'. It may sound dumb, but at least it doesn't sound pretentious as well.

Published in Volume 2, Number 2 of The Red Menace, Spring 1978.

Ulli Diemer



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Subject Headings: Language - Left, The - Politics/Rhetoric/Reality - Rhetoric