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. …