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 symptan, as well as a cause, of the degeneration of thought. Imprecise writing and speech are the clearest possible indications of iimprecise 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 vocabbulary 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 1960s, 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 didnt 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 ones 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 creat 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 de monstrate 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 lefts sterile approach to politics and change,
its 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. Ill 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
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 lefts 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 lefts 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.
Published in The Red Menace #4, Winter 1979.