[Marxism] Notes on the politics of language

Ken Hiebert knhiebert at shaw.ca
Thu Apr 9 15:51:15 MDT 2015

The article Roger Annis sent to this site re the Russian and Ukrainian languages was very interesting.  Especially for me, as I have little knowledge of the topic and little knowledge of the history of languages. http://newcoldwar.org/the-russian-and-ukrainian-languages-in-history/
But the article shed no light on the politics of language.  Having read the article I am no better prepared to understand why Ukrainians would be strongly attached to their language or why Russians speakers in the Ukraine would object to Ukrainian being the sole official language of the Ukraine.

1 In my view, when we deal with language, we are not dealing simply with the utility of language in daily life.  The examples of this are numerous.  I think of Irish republican prisoners in H Block standing at their cell doors shouting to each other to teach themselves Gaelic. I think of First Nations communities just down the road from me.  A major effort has led to children learning their traditional language.  For most of them, this knowledge will not help them to find a job, or to order a meal in a restaurant, or even to communicate with other First Nations fifty miles down the road.  But it remains important.    Language is bound up with national identity and national struggles.
On the negative side, language has sometimes been an indicator of lower social status.  French speaking Quebecois and speakers of other languages have sometimes been confronted with the demand that they "speak white" when they are in English speaking Canada.

2) Tension over the status of the Ukrainian language has at times reached into Canadian left politics.  This is how it was reported by John Boyd, a long time leader of the Communist Party of Canada.
Q. It was while you were in Czechoslovakia that a Party delegation went to the Soviet Union to investigate Russification in Ukraine.

Yes. Actually the idea for such a delegation was first discussed while I was still in Canada in the spring of 1967. When the Ukrainians first came up with the idea, the Party leaders said: your best bet would be to send a Party delegation; if you went there from the AUUC (Association of United Ukrainian Canadians -kh) you wouldn't get to first base. Which was true, of course. As it turned out, even the Party delegation ran into a lot of resistance. So an official Party delegation was agreed upon, comprising two non-Ukrainians, Tim Buck from Toronto and Bill Ross from Winnipeg, and four Ukrainians: Peter Krawchuk, Anthony Biletsky, George Solomon and Bill Harasym. After the delegation returned, it prepared a report and submitted it to the Central Committee, which endorsed it almost unanimously and decided to have it printed in Ukrainian and English. Well, the "shit hit the fan" in Moscow.  

They didn't like it. And they pressured both Kashtan and Buck to change it, actually to withdraw it. But the Central Committee couldn't agree to a withdrawal, so they came to a compromise and decided to "accept it as information." There was a lot of foofarah about that in Moscow and in Kyiv, as well as in the Party leadership and among the Ukrainians here. Much later, the Party rescinded its earlier motion and voted to accept it, much to the chagrin of Moscow and Kyiv.

3)  Anyone who is trying to build unity in a diverse group of working people must recognize the importance of language.  A good example can be seen in this report on a hotel strike in Labor Notes of August, 200  http://mailman.lbo-talk.org/2000/2000-July/013807.html
"Union staffers recruited translators for union meetings. Leaflets were produced in Amharic, Oromo, Somali, Spanish, and French (for the immigrant workers from Togo), among other languages. At the last union meeting before the strike, simultaneous translation into seven languages was provided."

4)  Contrast that experience with the approach taken by the organizers of the anti-war conference that took place last July in Kiev.  http://newcoldwar.org/category/yalta-antiwar-conference/
From Roger's report it appears that the declaration of that conference was issued in Russian and English but not in Ukrainian or in the language of the Crimean Tatars.  It might be argued that they can all understand Russian in any case.  Perhaps so.  But the issuing of the declaration in the major languages of the Ukraine would have an important symbolic value, signalling an intent to be inclusive.  The absence of the statement in those languages also sends a clear message, unfortunately a negative one.
I don't know exactly what they were thinking in deciding not to issue the declaration in languages other than Russian and English.  But I am sure it was not an oversight.

At the end of the declaration we read, "Participants at the conference from Ukraine also issued a political manifesto on the future of Ukraine. The Russian original is here. You can read the translation into English here."  I can assure you that in Canada we would not issue a manifesto on the future of Quebec without at least including a French language version, if not issuing it solely in French.  What could they possibly have been thinking?

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