Isaac Deutscher 1950

Stalin Talks At Last

Source: The Reporter, 12 September 1950. Stalin’s article ‘Marxism and Problems of Linguistics’ can be found at < >. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

Muscovites must have rubbed their eyes in amazement a few days before the war in Korea, when, amid all the mounting international tension, Stalin treated them to a very long and involved essay on the theory of linguistics. The essay took up several pages of Pravda and other Soviet newspapers. It was accepted as a revelation, as any statement by Stalin is bound to be; and it became the subject of endless comment. For a number of days linguistics overshadowed politics and strategy. The fighting in Korea seemed insignificant compared with whether language belongs to the ‘structure’ or the ‘superstructure’ of society, and what are the merits and demerits of comparative philology and of the theories of the late professor NY Marr, until recently the leading light in Soviet linguistics.

Stalin soon followed up his essay with a series of his letters on the same subject. Later, while the Western public was anxiously watching Mr Malik’s return to the Security Council, the Soviet public was again startled by the spectacle of their Prime Minister throwing up the skull of Professor Marr. In a new series of letters the super-linguist of the Kremlin argued about dialect, slang and language, about the prospects of a socialist world language, and about the thought processes of deaf-mutes. (Since words are the ‘garment-flesh’ of thought, can deaf-mutes, who know no words, do any real thinking?)

‘What is he driving at?’ the readers of Pravda must have wondered. Since the end of the war Stalin had been even less communicative than usual. For more than four years (and what years!) he had not once addressed the Soviet people. For more than eleven years he had not spoken at any party convention; none had been convened. Only now and then, when he allowed a foreigner to interview him for publication, did the Soviet public, by a roundabout way, get the benefit of his views. Stalin has kept aloof from the intense ideological campaigning to which the Soviet intelligentsia has been subjected in recent years. He has not participated in the famous controversy over Lysenko’s biological theory, although this has had practical implications for agricultural policy, nor in any of the literary ‘debates’, nor in the denunciation of ‘decadent cosmopolitans’. Why, then, has the Sphinx now broken silence, and why has he chosen to speak on linguistics, of all subjects?

The only languages Stalin knows are his native Georgian and Russian, and his command of Russian has remained rather imperfect till this day. ‘I am not a philologist’, he himself says. But then he goes on confidently to destroy and ridicule a philological theory which, rightly or wrongly, had been recognised as the last word of Soviet science for over a quarter of a century. ‘Marxism in linguistics, as in other social sciences, is something directly in my field’, he explains. In the same fashion, medieval theologians sat in judgement over astronomers and astronomical systems, even though they were not themselves astronomers; it was enough that they were inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Stalin’s argument against Marr’s disciples seems calculated to give the Soviet intelligentsia a vague impression that he, Stalin, has opposed the monolithic orthodoxy enforced in Soviet literature and science by Zhdanov, that he may favour loosening the harsh ideological discipline imposed upon academicians and writers by his late lieutenant. For what he attacks now is not just the theories of the ‘Marr school’ but above all the monopoly of that school in Soviet linguistics:

In linguistic bodies a regime has prevailed [says Stalin] which is alien to science and men of science. The slightest criticism of the state of affairs in Soviet linguistics, even the most timid attempt to criticise the so-called new doctrine... was persecuted and suppressed... Valuable research workers were dismissed from their posts or demoted for being critical of NY Marr’s heritage or for expressing the slightest disapproval of his teachings. Linguists were appointed to academic posts not for their merits but because of their unqualified acceptance of Marr’s theories.

‘It is generally recognised’, Stalin concluded, ‘that no science can develop and flourish without the clash of views, without the freedom of criticism.’ This truth had been ‘flouted’ by a ‘closely-knit group of infallible leaders’. The climate of intellectual oppression which was created reminded Stalin of the regime of Alexei Arakcheyev, the ‘evil genius’ of Tsar Alexander I, the harsh disciplinarian and ruthless organiser of military colonies, whose methods eventually provoked the famous Decembrist revolt of 1825.

Stalin’s description of this ‘state of affairs in linguistics’ may of course be applied to every other field of Soviet intellectual activity. Has not the ‘slightest criticism’ of Lysenko been ‘persecuted and suppressed'? Have ‘valuable research workers’ not been dismissed or demoted for criticising the new doctrine in biology? Has any ‘clash of views’ been allowed in the social sciences, literature or the arts? Such questions must occur to many a Soviet intellectual, who in his mind may easily substitute Zhdanov for Arakcheyev.

Is a liberalisation of the intellectual life in the offing? And if so, will Marr’s disciples dare defend themselves against Stalin’s attack? ‘The freedom of criticism’ can hardly be carried as far as that. Nevertheless, Stalin has used the linguistic controversy, not without some adroitness, to make something like a conciliatory approach to the intelligentsia. He has gone so far as to say that even in Marr’s erroneous theories there are elements worth studying, thereby giving an example of rare discrimination and ‘open-mindedness’ in a country where things are usually either denounced or praised wholesale.

In his characteristic ambiguous manner, Stalin takes a position as arbiter between the party experts on orthodoxy and the intelligentsia. Quite deliberately he fosters the belief that he, Stalin, is more liberal than his entourage, a belief very similar to the old-time Russian maxim that ‘the Tsar is good; only his advisers are bad’.

This strange overture, this half gesture of conciliation, is undoubtedly dictated by a major political consideration. The Politburo cannot afford to face the dangers of international conflict with an intimidated and resentful intelligentsia at its back; and the Zhdanov regime must have generated a lot of intimidation and resentment. Stalin is shrewd enough to realise this and to try betimes to plaster over cracks on his home front. At the same time it is characteristic of his mentality, and the rigidity of his system, that even to hint at a measure of domestic appeasement, he has had to single out some group for an attack. ‘The practice of politics in the East’, Disraeli once said, ‘may be defined by one word – dissimulation.’

In the context of this bizarre controversy, in an almost casual aside, Stalin has also raised another political issue – the ‘withering away of the state’. Marxists believe that a socialist society, free from class antagonisms and inequality, should need no political or social coercion. The state, the instrument of that coercion, should gradually ‘wither away’, and only the non-coercive functions of government survive. This, if you like, is the Marxist modification of the old liberal maxim: ‘The less government, the better.’ It follows that whenever the seemingly abstract problem of the withering away of the state holds Russian attention, a highly practical issue – the amount of governmental coercion to be applied at home – is at stake.

Throughout the 1930s Stalin had to justify the building up of an oppressive totalitarian state in Marxist terms – that is, in terms of a theory which insisted that a socialist regime, once it has been consolidated, should need less political coercion than in any capitalist democracy. Stalin then declared that this theory, correct in general, could not apply to an isolated socialist state. Communist Russia, confronted by the hostility of the entire capitalist world, must have more government, more armed forces, more police, more prisons. The dramatic transformation of Bolshevism from a libertarian into a totalitarian party was epitomised in Stalin’s uncompromising rejection of the withering away of the state, a rejection justified by constant reference to Russia’s isolation.

Since the last war, and especially since the victory of the Chinese Communists, this reference to isolation has become outdated. More than five hundred million people have joined the Soviet bloc. The old Stalinist argument has proved double-edged. Those who have taken it at its face value may wonder whether this is not the time for the state to be gradually deflated, if not to wither away – whether, in other words, there shouldn’t be less governmental coercion now and more domestic freedom. This is the challenge with which, sincerely or not, Tito is now confronting Stalin when he proclaims the relaxation of totalitarian controls in Yugoslavia. Between the lines of Mao’s speeches, too, one may detect somewhat more enthusiasm for the withering away of the state than there is in the Kremlin, even though Mao may faithfully repeat most of Stalin’s formulas. Last but not least, the obsolescence of theories and dogmas derived from the period of ‘socialism in one country’ could not have passed altogether unnoticed inside Russia as well. Some reaction from those theories and dogmas is likely to be developing slowly in the mind of the young Soviet intelligentsia.

It is with an eye to such embarrassing ideological undercurrents that Stalin has now briefly restated his attitude. For the first time he has acknowledged but only by implication, that the period of ‘socialism in one country’ is over. He now speaks about ‘socialism in several countries’, but he does so only to prove that the more things have changed, the more they are the same. The state cannot yet begin to wither away – not until socialism has won in most countries. And only when a classless society has been established not just in most countries but all over the earth can a world language, which will be ‘neither French, nor English, nor Russian’, replace the existing national languages. In the meantime, however, long live the powerful, coercive machinery of dictatorship!

Coming from Stalin, this can hardly be considered a startling conclusion, but it is significant that he should have stated it just now. Since this has so far been his only public reply to President Truman’s challenge, the Soviet people will search Stalin’s Delphic words for a clue to the moves he may contemplate. Those who are not concerned with linguistics will scrutinise in the first instance the new distinction he has drawn between socialism ‘in one country’, ‘in several countries’, ‘in most countries’, and ‘all over the world’. They will reflect over the duration of the intervals between the various stages which the Leader may have in mind. It is quite a few years since Stalin has last spoken about world revolution, and his taking up of this theme just now may not be devoid of some significance. This may be his implied counter-threat to those who, he thinks, threaten Russia with war.

On the other hand, he has taken up that theme in so casual and academic a manner, in a context so remote from all the great issues of the day, that what he has said commits him to nothing. The context of his argument suggests, on the contrary, that in his view ‘socialism in several countries’ (but not yet in most) will, like socialism in one country, extend over a whole historical period. During that period, the duration of which cannot be foreseen, most of the world is likely to remain under capitalist domination. This is why no significant liberalisation of domestic policy can be expected, despite Stalin’s own pleadings for freedom of expression for the intelligentsia. The margin of that freedom must remain narrow as long as ‘socialism’, though no longer isolated in a single country, is confined to one-third of the world.