Language and Transformation

One thing for sure over recent years is that the ‘left’ has had to learn about new ways of organising itself to take on board the politics of different social movements, and that has also meant changing the way we describe what we are up against and where we are going.

The rapid rise of popularity of Podemos in Spain is one more example of a movement that demands that in order to do politics differently we need to speak differently about it too. The December 2014 meeting in Manchester co-organised by Podemos and Left Unity saw this issue of the link between language and action come to the fore again. One speaker from Podemos rehearsed the line that the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ came from the time of the National Assembly during the French Revolution over two hundred years ago, and now we need to move on. Other speakers from the floor argued that they did not want to give up terms like ‘capitalism’ to describe what we face today, and others argued that ‘communism’ was still absolutely relevant to what we are aiming for, including in the new Spanish movements. Even the Podemos activists, and even the speaker questioning the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’, agreed that this working class history of struggle was key to our politics today, but that we also need to key into the way people sick of the history of the ‘left’ and its bad practice in many countries spoke about their lives and about transforming the world.

The problem with the transformation of language in our politics really revolves around the conditions in which we work on the link between language and action. There are two ways we are under pressure to change our language. The first way causes anger and anxiety on the left, and rightly so, even if that anger and anxiety also has the effect of isolating us even further. That pressure comes from the defeat of struggle against exploitation and oppression, the marginalisation of alternative ideas and caricatures of socialism and communism in the media. Some of academic language used by ex-left and anti-left writers feeds that marginalisation, and the claims that we now live in some kind of ‘postmodern’ world where the old modern politics that began at the time of the French Revolution are irrelevant make things worse. That kind of pressure is intensified today in neoliberal capitalism; that is the kind of capitalism that rolls back state welfare provision and pretends to set the market free and make each individual responsible for fighting for themselves. Today’s neoliberal language of individual ‘freedom’, fake freedom where we are divided from each other, is poisonous for our collective struggle to make sense of how this world works and how to act to change it.

But there is another way we are under pressure to change our language that also causes anger and anxiety in the leadership of the little old left-wing sects. That second kind of pressure is something we must connect with and respond to, that we must have something to say about ourselves. Every social struggle in history has forced people to rethink how they view the world, and how they speak about it. When the exploited and the oppressed speak about their experience and mobilise to change their conditions of life they always discover that the language of the rulers is not enough, that the dominant language shuts them out. New terms are invented, and there is a transformation of language at the very same time as politics is transformed. That is exactly what has happened with the emergence of feminism, and alongside that feminism the voices of Black feminists. They demand that we change our language, demand that we change, so that we can make this world a place where we can all speak and mobilise. Some of us are even speaking differently now about the relationships we have with each other as part of a system of life in which we are part of the ecology of our planet, and the language of ‘ecosocialism’ helps us do that.

It is significant that activists from another country, our comrades and friends in Podemos, put this question of language and action on the agenda again. When they live here in Manchester, they are very aware that different languages give a different shape to the world, and that experience connects with what they are learning about transformations of language to make politics different in Spain. And now we can learn from that, from a difference of cultural perspective, but only if we also take seriously that there are always real social forces, of the feminist movement, of the movements of the oppressed who are also too often silenced in mainstream left struggle which pretends to maintain what it thinks of as the unity of the ‘working class’ or ‘the left’ or, most often, simply their own organisation. Some organisations are closed off to this and will insist on speaking in the same way they always have, but some, and we have seen the Fourth International sharing the experiences of struggle in different parts of the world slowly do this, have opened themselves to the progressive radical pressure from social movements so that we can better take on the miserable corrupt forces of neoliberalism.

As a key part of the process of linking our radical action with a new radical language that supports it, that helps us to think through what that action involves and what it needs next, we are going to have to spend a bit of time working on some of the new keywords of struggle. We will do that in the next months in the ‘keywords’ section of the FIIMG website. As we link the new keywords of struggle with transformation we can work through what kinds of language demoralise and demobilise us and what kinds of language actually clarify our tasks, connect us with the people coming into politics outside the old ‘left’ and empower us to change the world. The notes on the keywords which were published on this site were revised collected together in Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left, which includes a concluding essay placing them in historical context. The book includes a detailed reading list with web-links so you can more easily follow the links online, a list which is available here.

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