The left’s sloppy use of language indicates sloppy thinking.
By Ulli Diemer
In matters of language, I tend to be a conservative.While I am not opposed to linguistic change per se, it is my sense that most such change represents intellectual laziness and decay. Most current changes in the English language are in no sense improvements or even the result of misguided attempts to bring about improvement, but simply destructive assaults. To say that these assaults are usually thoughtless rather than premeditated is not to excuse them but to understand their nature, for the degeneration of language is a major symptom, as well as a cause, of the degeneration of thought. Imprecise writing and speech are the clearest possible indications of imprecise thought, and those in the forefront of linguistic destruction are usually those who would have the most to lose if the habit of thought were to spread. My attitude to language is therefore that of the pedant, as Bertrand Russell once defined him: “a person who prefers to have his facts correct”. A pedant is also someone who prefers to use language correctly, and in that sense we are in desperate need of pedantry.
It is clear that an integral part of a conservative-yet-radical attitude to language (Progressive conservatism?) must be opposition to the introduction of jargon. But it is also necessary to be sensitive to the abuse of established words which results in their becoming jargon. When this occurs it sometimes becomes necessary to reluctantly abandon words that have stood us in good stead for a long time. (A related problem occurs when the generally understood meaning of words changes drastically: it is virtually impossible to use the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” any more, for example, because “dictatorship” has taken on a very different meaning in the twentieth century, while “proletariat,” now has no meaning for most people.)
An example of a word which is probably necessary to give up on is “comrade”. It used to be a good work, but it has fallen on hard times, and I think it doubtful that it can be rehabilitated.
“Comrade” has become one of the typical bullshit words of the left, its use usually recognizable as humbug posturing as fellowship and solidarity. “Comrade” is no longer part of our normal vocabulary but rather one of the special buzz-words we trot out (no pun intended) on certain occasions, occasions on which we are being less than candid. Its usage today is markedly different from what it was originally. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “comrade” as “mate or fellow in work or play or fighting, (an) equal with whom one is on familiar terms.” As this definition makes clear, “comrade” was at one tine an easygoing, informal term of address that was commonly used throughout Europe in referring to ones’ fellows. As such, it easily became part of the socialist vocabulary, where people were bound together by the normal ties one felt towards ones’ fellow workers, and additionally by the special ties that were implied in socialist comradeship. But gradually the meaning of the word changed — significantly, the change was directly linked to a change in the concept of “party”, shared their ideas and who were in some way working to realize them. Much later, in the 1960’s, we used “movement” in the same sense. With the growth of the Second, and even more so the Third, International, however, “party” came to have a much more official, institutional meaning. No longer did it connote something broad and non-exclusive. Now one was either in the party or not in the party; if one didn’t have a membership card, one was at best a “sympathizer” or a potential recruit. The word “comrade” was now used exclusively to refer to members of The Party, and, ironically, as it came to be more and more associated with socialism, it increasingly fell into disuse among ordinary people as they worked or played together.
Nevertheless, the word still had real life as long as there was real life in the socialist movement, but as that hardened and decayed, the word “comrade” was emptied of content too, until only the shell remained. Instead of the easygoing fraternity it once signified, “comrade” is now an official term, a title, devoid of personal content. (Certainly one does not address one’s friends as comrades.) It is objectionably exclusive in its clear statement that only fellow members of the organization, not ones’ fellow workers are comrades. (It has always been almost exclusively a male term as well.) “Comrade” is rarely used in speech, almost never as the term of direct address it once was. (It may still be used in speeches: “Comrades...”) Its normal application is now in written communication, sometimes as a salutation in letters, but more commonly, ironically enough, in referring to ones opponents, in polemics “Comrade Dumbfuck seems not to have grasped Lenin's analysis of as it applies to _____.”
It is a sad end for such a fine word to come to, but there is nothing we can do about it now except to give it a respectful funeral.
Another word whose meaning we would do well to examine is “demonstration”. It is surely a sad commentary on the political creativity of many of those who aim to create a whole new world that they are normally able to conceive of only one single political tactic, a tactic which is supposed to fit all situations: the demonstration. No matter what the issue, the knee-jerk response of the left is nearly always to “call a demonstration”. What this indicates is not only a lamentable lack of imagination, but a lack of understanding of what a demonstration should be: demonstrations have their place, to be sure, but they are hardly the magic bullets of the class struggle.
As the root of the word, whether “demonstration” in English, or “manifestation” in German or French, should make clear, a demonstration should demonstrate something, show something, manifest something. Preferably, one would think, it should demonstrate the strength and unity of the demonstrators, and oppressiveness of the establishment, the possibility and desirability of radical alternatives. What many demonstrations really demonstrate, however, are the weakness, insignificance, and divisiveness of the left, the left’s sterile approach to politics and change, it’s inability to offer any alternative except abstract slogan chanting. If that is what a demonstration is going to be, if that is how it is going to cone across to the ordinary people who witness it as onlookers, then it would have been better not to call it. Let us have fewer but better demonstrations, demonstrations that show something worth demonstrating.
A. S. Neill tells the story of “the young devil in hell who rushed to his master in great perturbation.
'Master! Master! Something awful has happened; they have discovered truth on earth!'
The Devil smiled. ‘That's all right, boy. I’ll send someone up to organise it.’”
The story could as well be about the left. The most overused word in the socialist vocabulary, and the most uncritically applied concept in the socialist world view, is “organize”. For most socialists, “organize” is just a synonym for political activity generally. “Organizing” is the only conceivable form of political activity.
Now, it is certainly true that all life and all social interaction involve some kind of organization or structure, whether we are aware of it or not. In that sense, everything is organized. But that is not the sense in which the left uses the word, and indeed in that sense it would be meaningless to talk about organizing something, since everything is already organized. (Perhaps one could speak of re-organizing...)
But the left uses the concept of organization in a much narrower sense. The dictionary gives us a fair definition: “organize: give orderly structure to”. Probably the clearest indication, however, comes from the workplace context, where, to both trade unions and the left, an “organized” work-place simply means a unionized one. Used in this sense, “organization” is an ideological concept both because it betrays a very restrictive and bureaucratic view of class struggle, and because it invariably accepts the proposition that such “organization” is necessarily a good thing.
Unions (to continue with this example) certainly play a role in protecting workers’ basic rights, but, as anyone who has ever worked in a unionized workplace can testify, unions are in many ways negative phenomena which play a disorganizing role among the workers. Because unions are highly bureaucratic organizations tied to contracts, official grievance procedures, paid full-time staff, pre-established routines, and very strictly defined limits, and because they jealously guard their monopoly as the only “workers” organization allowed in the workplace, they constantly and necessarily act to thwart the independent struggles and forms of organization of the workers.
As Jeremy Brecher has pointed out in Radical America (Vol. 7, No. 6) the prevailing view on the left is that the working class is organized “to the extent that it is enrolled in formal organizations, particularly trade unions and radical parties. The possibility that such organizations might represent the disorganization of their members — their inability to initiate and control their actions themselves — is not apparent from this point of view. Any activity not originating with such organizations is by definition “spontaneous”.
It is this conception that underlies the left’s drive to “organize”. The advancement of class struggle is seen as lying in the building of traditional organizations with structures, meetings, leaders, and programs. (Let me stress here, before the organizational fetishists come howling after my scalp, yelping “spontaneism, spontaneism” — whatever that means — that I am not opposed to forming organizations. I am opposed to the view that equates progress toward socialism with forming organizations. The fact is that one of the key factors preventing the development of collective consciousness and activity is the way in which capitalism atomizes people in their work, their living arrangements, all aspects of life. It is only when people are able to come together that change becomes possible. Organizations which perpetuate the atomization of people, which do not allow collective action to develop, which bring people together as units of a mass, are not, radicalizing organizations. The hard fact is this: people “organized” in a bureaucratic trade union have developed little more collectivity than people organized into a ball park by a football came.
The result of the left’s peculiar bias is that everything else tends to be ignored, subordinated, or subsumed in the organization-building fetish. It is no wonder, then, that the struggle for socialism, as we engage in it, is in practice a narrow one, despite our theories and our intentions. The struggle to — for example — achieve sexual liberation, to raise free and happy children; to drive authoritarianism out of the schools, to create a different culture, to transform daily life, is not primarily a matter of forming organizations, although organizations will undoubtedly play a role of some kind.
Why does the left have this bureaucratic fetish? (The anarchists are obviously not included in this critique: they have an equally stupid anti-organizational fetish which abstractly rejects organization. Neither position contains an analysis of the role of formal organizations, of their hows, whens, and whys.) I think it has a great deal to do with the traditional socialist stress on planning. The main problem with capitalism, according to this view, was seen as its inability to plan. Socialism was a historic leap forward because it would substitute a Plan for “capitalist anarchy”. (Trotsky, for example, insisted to the end of his life that the Soviet Union was more progressive than the capitalist countries because it had a Plan.) This attitude was applied, more or less, to all areas of social life. After the revolution, there would be no more of the miserable chaos of capitalism where everything was left to chance or to the desires of the most powerful: Socialism would organize the hell out of everything, and in so doing bring justice to the world. The underlying motives were good in many ways, but the resulting perspective was fatally narrow. (The ultimate destination was The Organization: The Party.) A free society requires a great deal of organization, but freedom also involves recognizing where organizing is not appropriate. In the meantime, we should not always assume that “doing politics” means “organizing”. There are other forms of activity, other ways of raising consciousness.