[Marxism] One other comment on the use of words...

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Wed Jun 23 05:01:15 MDT 2004

While I think of it - Carrol wrote that "The meaning of words as words is
merely the history of their use." I think that at least for Marx, "the
history of their use" wasn't simply accidental or functional-pragmatic, but
determinate (Bestimmt) and often deliberate,

(1)  in the sense that every historical epoch had its own "riddles" and
"buzzwords", which expressed the self-understanding or lack of understanding
that people had, and
(2) that the more or less clear concepts being used and mooted, expressed
the interests, conditions and concerns of social classes.

Marx frequently observed that behind the processes of abstraction which
thinkers and ideologists applied, there were social interests and
circumstances of which they might, or might not be, fully conscious - thus,
some conclusions necessarily following from the adoption of certain concepts
could not be drawn, or become widely accepted, in a specific epoch of
history, or else promoted certain conclusions, either

(1) because they conflicted with social interests, thereby ideologically
distorting scientific inquiry;
(2) because the social conditions in which the concepts and meanings emerged
were not yet "ripe" for them.

Hence the young Marx remarked for example that it took a "practiced eye" to
separate what was due to the originality of the person who mooted an idea or
concept, and what was due to the self-conceptions and characteristics of the
era in which s/he lived, i.e. one had to place this "use of words" in their
historical context, in order to understand why they took hold and became
popular, or alternatively why they didn't become popularly accepted.

And also, that the answers which happened to be mooted to solve the problems
of a society were not necessarily so significant, but rather what was
significant was the questions which they sought to address, i.e. the
questions which they presupposed. Critical inquiry into the facts had to
trace out these presuppositions, explicit or implicit, in order to reveal
the connection between the "use of words" and the actual social
circumstances within which those words were being used, which caused
problems and concerns to nbe formulated in a specific way.

Thus, Marx would discover that while in a specific era a concept or idea was
already "being striven for",  initially perhaps rather inchoately or with
words not really adequate to the purpose, it would only become a commonplace
much later - practical action came first, the words came later. But,
certainly in retrospect, it was possible to trace out the evolution of an
idea, expressed in various ways, and show why and how it evolved in the
specific way that it did. In the case of the popularity of feminist
concepts, for example, this is obviously directly connected with the
changing social position of women - reproductive and legal rights, fertility
control, labor force participation, etc.

I think it is true that Marx did not really believe in a "history of ideas"
such that ideas necessarily evolved out of other ideas, quite independently
from human practices and social or material conditions. He regarded that as
a rationalist or idealist fallacy. Nevertheless, I think he believed the
evolution of ideas and the words used to express them did have an "internal
logic" at least to some extent, in that the way in which problems and
concerns happened to framed, permitted only of a limited number of solutions
or variations. If for example "globalisation" has become one of "the ruling
ideas of the epoch", this has both to do with the development of the
capitalist world market, and with the depiction of history as an inevitable,
irresistible process which renders people powerless to "make history" beyond
individual action.

According to Stalin's theory of language and his social ontology, language
exists outside the economic basis and outside the ideological and legal
superstructure of society ("Marxism and Linguistics"). This was to a large
extent a political-bureaucratic interpretation, because the CPSU as a
supreme power, standing over society as it were, not only instigated
large-scale literacy campaigns, but also consciously sought to exercise
control over the use of language and concepts, and consciously shape
ideologies and reshape thought thereby. The very fact that this control was
being asserted, shows that the evolution of language itself is subject to
social, economic and political imperatives (Vygotsky's writings was banned
until 1956). In reality, the "social relations of production" governing
co-operative social labor necessarily contain relations of communication,
and so, language is both a mediating factor not just of ideological
superstructures, but also of the very economic basis of society.

A century after Paul Lafargue grappled with a materialist theory of
language, Ernest Mandel acknowledged that "from a Marxist point of view,
labor and the ability for advanced communication are the two most important
features of humans as social beings. Social labor is impossible without
advanced, mutual communication between people. This presupposes the ability
to use structured linguistic tools, to conceptualise and develop
consciousness" ("Anticipation and hope as categories of historical
materialism", in: Historical Materialism, Vol. 10, No.4, 2002, p. 245;
elsewhere Mandel cites Tran Duc Thao, Investigations into the Origin of
Language and Consciousness, Boston: Reidel, 1984). This interpretation
accords a crucial role in history-making to language and words, to media,
and to relations of communication - something to which the Internet gives
another powerful impulse.


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