Language, History, and Class Struggle

By McNally, David | Monthly Review, July-August 1995 | Go to article overview

Language, History, and Class Struggle


McNally, David, Monthly Review


Language is the immediate actuality of thought. just as philosophers have given thought an independent existence, so they were bound to make language into an independent realm.

We are witnessing today a new idealism, infecting large sections of the intellectual left, which has turned language not merely into an independent realm, but into an all-pervasive force, so omnipresent, so dominant, as virtually to extinguish human agency. Everything is discourse, you see; and discourse is everything. Because human beings are linguistic creatures, because the world in which we act is a world we know and describe through language, it allegedly follows that there is nothing outside language. Our language, or discourse," or "text" - the jargon varies but not the message - defines and limits what we know, what we can imagine, what we can do. There is a political theory here too. Oppression is said to be rooted ultimately in the way in which we and others are defined linguistically, the way in which we are positioned by words in relation to other words. Our very being, our identities and "subjectivities," are constituted through discourse. As one trendy literary theorist puts it in David Lodge's novel Nice Work, it is not merely that you are what you speak; no, according to the new idealism, "you are what speaks you." Language is thus the final "prison-house." Our confinement there is beyond resistance; it is impossible to escape from that which makes us what we are.

This new idealism corresponds to a profound collapse of political horizons. It is the pseudo-radicalism of a period of retreat for the left, a verbal radicalism of the word without deed, or, rather, of the word as deed. In response to actual structures and practices of oppression and exploitation, it offers the rhetorical gesture, the ironic turn of phrase. It comes as little surprise, then, when one of the chief philosophers of the new idealism, Jacques Derrida, tells us that he would hesitate to use such terms as 'liberation'."(1) Imprisoned within language, we may play with words; but we can never hope to liberate ourselves from immutable structures of oppression rooted in language itself. Such views are an abdication of political responsibility, especially at a time of instability in the world capitalist economy, of widening gaps between rich and poor, of ruling-class offensives against social programs.

The new idealism and the politics it entails are not simply harmless curiosities; they also represent an obstacle to the rebuilding of mass movements of protest and resistance. It is not the purpose of this article, however, to conduct another critique of linguistic idealism, whether it goes by the name of poststructuralism, postmodernism, or post-Marxism. Instead, I want to shift to a different terrain of debate by showing that Marxism can do more than attack the idealist nature of these intellectual currents. I want to demonstrate that Marxism has the resources for an account of language and its position within the constellation of human practice that is richer and more profound than these idealist views, and that this Marxist account can understand language as, among other things, one site of social interaction which is decisively shaped by relations of work and conflict, i.e., is shaped by class struggle.

Social Labor and the "Language of Real Life"

Marx and Engels did not develop a theory of language. Yet the little that they did say on the subject bears highlighting at a time when there is widespread confusion about some of the basic tenets of historical materialism.

It is worth reminding ourselves, to begin with, that the materialist conception of history set out in early works such as The German Ideology does not deny the role of consciousness in human life. Rather, the materialist conception seeks to counter the detachment of consciousness, thought, the realm of ideas, from labor, social production, practical human activity in general. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Language, History, and Class Struggle
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.