Monday, August 24, 2015

PROPOSED RESOLUTION ON THE COUNTERREVOLUTIONARY NATURE OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE

Proposed resolution [parody] submitted by the Louis Lingg Memorial Chapter, Students for a Democratic Society, June 1969. (printer's bug "IWW Printing Co-op Chicago, Ill. - I.U. 450):
It is clear that our movement has come a long way in the last two years. Beginning from a preoccupation with essentially liberal issues like student power and peace, we have arrived at a perspective through which we have aligned ourselves with the revolutionary working class against American capitalist imperialism. 
The achievement of a correct position does not, however, mean that our intellectual struggle is over. We must explore the implications of working class politics for every area of our activity, in order to reinforce those politics and free them from contamination by bourgeois individualist thought. This proposal is a modest contribution to this effort. 
Concern with correct thinking and proper expression of that thought is a hallmark of the true revolutionary. Our vehicle for thought and communication is language; to be concrete, it is the English language. Now it has never occurred to us that this language is by its very nature counterrevolutionary and that truly correct revolutionary thought in English is therefore impossible. Yet we intend, through careful analysis, to establish that the English language is little more than a tool of imperialism designed to stifle genuinely radical ideas among the English-speaking masses. 
We can talk about language from the standpoints of meaning and structure. Although bourgeois linguists introduce complex terminology into their discussions of meaning, chiefly in order to prevent us from understanding what they mean, we shall consider it only in terms of words. Now English has a great many words, and this in itself is suspect: what it suggests is that no matter how hard the worker tries to educate himself, the bosses and their lackey politicians can always produce new words from their lexical grabbag to confuse him. Even in our own movement this elitist duplicity manifests itself in the use of esoteric words like "chauvinism," "reification," "dialectical materialism." and so on. It is almost axiomatic that the revolutionary status of a language is inversely proportional to the weight of its dictionary. 
Lest this sound farfetched, we may cite the pioneer linguist Otto Jesperson in The Growth and Structure of the English Language. He notes that the Norman invasion and subsequent domination of England for centuries by descendants of the French-speaking conquerors produced a class division of the English vocabulary, with the French imports reserved chiefly for the upper classes. The other great influx of foreign words came during the Renaissance when scholars, not content with the language of the people, imported quantities of Latin and Greek, thus widening the semantic gulf between the educated elite and the masses. 
Significant though consideration of meaning be, it is in the area of language structure that our analysis is most fruitful. Structure or syntax is the sum of all those rules which govern the ways the words in any language can be put together to make sense. We use the rules of syntax more of less unconsciously because they are inculcated in early childhood along with religion, patriotism, etc. It is the unconscious nature of syntax which makes its influence so insidious. 
The foundation of structure is the categories, which are theoretical divisions of human experience imposed on all languages. In English the main categories are tense and number; centuries ago we had gender as other European languages still do. There are many other categories: some languages divide all matter by shape, so that one cannot speak of an object without adding some word ending to indicate whether it is round, square and so on, while others classify things by their tangibility or lack thereof. The categories are classifications of thought; in English we cannot, for instance, speak of anything without indicating number (singular or plural) and time (past, present, future). 
Bourgeois scholars pretend to make a great mystery of the categories, in order to conceal the perfectly plain facts. Edward Sapir, for example, baldly states in Language that the origin of linguistic categories is altogether unknown. It is crystal clear to the proletarian analyst, however, that the nature of the categories arises directly from the nature of the ownership of the means of production: how else explain the preoccupation of English syntax with time and number? It is the capitalist factory system which necessitates an emphasis on time, and it is the capitalist money economy which causes the obsession with "how much, how many" that pervades our society. 
Sapir completely gives himself away when, in an unguarded moment, he lets us know that Chinese grammar expresses neither number nor tense. Can it be only coincidence that the Chinese, with their progressive syntax, have created the greatest socialist revolution of history, while no English-speaking people has achieved a successful proletarian revolution? Can it be possible that the incisive brilliance of Mao Tse-tung's thought owes nothing to the inherently revolutionary nature of the Chinese language? 
There is one other point about English syntax which needs to be clarified. As the proletarian linguists S. and K. Freedman point out in their monumental work And the Word Was Marx, the English sentence is a beautiful example in miniature of the relationships which prevail in capitalist society. The indispensable components of the sentence are the subject and verb: the subject is the capitalist, who runs the whole operation, and the verb is the worker, who carries out the capitalist's orders but can do nothing on his own. We may ask, how could a sentence be otherwise? this question only proves that the nature of English is so oppressive that it prevents us even from considering alternatives. 
Linguistic structural analysis provides us with a key to much that has previously been confusing in the history of the radical movement. For example, according to the revolutionary Polish investigator B Marszalek, the total ideological sell-out and intellectual bankruptcy of the British Labor Party and its American counterpart, the Socialist Party, are directly attributable to the onerous influence of English grammar. 
Having posed the problem, albeit briefly, we are now faced with the difficulty of providing a solution. In a nutshell, our alternatives, linguistically speaking, are between reformism and revolution. The bourgeois sentimentalists will speak touchingly of our "mother tongue" and plead in a thousand devious ways for superficial changes which would only rationalize the fundamentally imperialist character of the English language. Our only real choice is the total overthrow of the decadent tongue and its supplantation by a new speech fit to express our revolutionary ideology. 
After long consideration, we propose the adoption of an altogether new language. This language must be totally unrelated to English and to the tongues of other imperialist oppressors, as well as to those of revisionist regimes. It should be the language of a non-white people, to express our solidarity with the Third World. Having search [sic] extensively, we have found a suitable language. It is a little-known Amerindian tongue called Durruti, of small vocabulary, and has the virtue of having never been written down, thus making it possible for us to develop a simple spelling system, unlike that of English. (It is well known that the irrational complexities of English spelling are a tool of the power structure to keep working class children in their place.) 
We recognize that Durruti cannot be put into instant use. We offer, however, the following specific proposals: 
1. The major effort of the movement during the following year should be committed to the setting up of centers in factories and working-class neighborhoods to teach Durruti to workers and their families, along with education in Durruti within the movement; 
2. Funds should be allocated for the translation and publication of proletarian literature in Durruti; 
3. All resolutions of the 1969 Conventions of the Students for a Democratic Society are to be published in Durruti. It is our conviction that these resolutions will be at least, if not more, meaningful to the workers in Durruti as in English.

2 comments:

Bruce Webb said...

"When I hear the words 'revolutionary speech' I reach for my machine pistol"

"Concern with correct thinking and proper expression of that thought is a hallmark of the true revolutionary."

Gah!!! This is one reason the New Left went off the rails in the late 60s. It is not bad enough that people abandoned the New Deal for Mao's Red Book ("correct thinking") they also had to drag poor Otto Jesperson and theoretical linguistics into the quest for economic and social justice.

As to the following, all I can say is "words fail":
"(It is well known that the irrational complexities of English spelling are a tool of the power structure to keep working class children in their place.)"

What distinguishes any of this from the ravings of other language simplification cranks throughout time, those who in my own childhood told us the key to world peace was universal adoption of Esperanto. As opposed to actual political and worker organizing.

Sandwichman said...

Um, Bruce, didn't you see the word "parody"? It was just -- ahem -- a modest proposal.