Chris Harman


Rules to be broken

(June 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.110, June 1988, pp.9-10.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE TEACHING of English grammar is not the sort of thing that revolutionary socialists normally worry about – unless, of course, they happen to be either teachers or editors of socialist papers trying to impose some order on the prose of their writers. So most readers will not have taken much notice of the arguments over the report commissioned by the government on the question.

Yet there is a political background to the arguments – something shown clearly by the fact that, unhappy about the report’s conclusions, the government have commissioned yet another report by Professor Cox, one of the original editors of the right wing Black Papers on education.

On the face of it, the arguments are simply about how English is taught – whether by traditional methods which stress the analysis of sentences into their constituent parts of speech, or by “modern” methods which stress children writing imaginatively. But more is at stake than just this issue.

Language is the main means by which people give an articulate form to their experiences. It is, as the young Karl Marx once put it, “the immediate actuality of thought”.

Any ruling class tries to control the development of language as part of its attempt to control the way in which the other classes in society think. The usual way has been to get those people who are best at expressing the experiences of themselves and others to identify with it by offering them material advantages.

In pre-capitalist societies this characteristically meant encouraging them to organise into closed, privileged castes, which had a monopoly of the skills necessary for writing. These castes would then develop an interest in preserving for themselves such skills, transforming them into complex rituals difficult for other social groups to learn, and freezing them into stereotype forms that prevented the expression of dissident views.

Such, for instance, was the practice of the medieval church (using a dead language quite different to that of the local exploited classes) and of the Chinese mandarinate (employing a form of calligraphy that could only be learnt by many years of education).

The bourgeoisie rebelled against these ancient castes in its youth. It stood for the use of the local spoken languages as against the dead languages of the priests and mandarins. This was part of the general attack by the developing forces of capitalist production on archaic feudal relations of production. The manufacturer, trader or rich peasant could only contest the hold of the old feudal orders if his local brogue displaced their sacred but unspoken languages.

The rebellion did not last long. The bourgeoisie soon needed to freeze the development of thought – and therefore language – itself lest the classes it exploited began to express their own interests. It was soon doing deals with the representatives of the old order, allowing them to keep their mysteries providing they recognised its power.

So it was that in Britain the old castes kept their grip on the universities, the legal profession, and of course, the church, until well into the nineteenth century.

Right up to the late 1950s, a knowledge of the dead language Latin was a precondition for entry into the most prestigious universities and a good degree in Latin and Ancient Greek was the way to get into the top positions in the state bureaucracy. Even today legal documents are written in a version of English which is virtually incomprehensible to the mass of people, and the rules of English spelling remain perverse in the extreme.

This state of affairs served a double purpose for the ruling class. It made the fruits of knowledge seem remote and unattainable to the mass of people, thus encouraging them to feel naturally inferior and incapable of running society themselves. And it made those sections of the middle classes who had learnt some of the mysteries of the “higher” knowledge feel a strong sense of identification with those above them and a deep disdain for the “ignorant” masses below.

Significantly, the schools where they began to learn the secrets of the higher mysteries were called grammar schools – places where Latin grammar was inculcated as the sign of real “education”.

Even when the dead languages began to decline in importance, what remained was the notion that the only proper way to communicate was to speak in a peculiar variant of southern English. Almost anyone who spoke in any other way was to be treated as coarse and ignorant (although the occasional exception was made for those who added slight northern, Edinburgh or Welsh lilt to their basically southern upper class pronunciation and speech forms).

You only have to look at the portrayal of working class people in British films made before the “kitchen sink” dramas of the late 1950s (or to listen to the radio soap opera, the Archers, today) to see how deep this prejudice went.

But capitalism differs from previous class societies in one important respect. Once established the old rulers survived by freezing the further development of the forces of production. That’s why the mandarinate employing a language completely remote from the realities of every day life could survive for hundreds, even thousands of years.

Capitalists, by contrast, have to constantly “revolutionise production” (as the Communist Manifesto puts it) if they are to survive in competition with each other, even if it means challenging social relations and prejudices the system itself has previously bred.

This happened in Britain twenty or thirty years ago. The more far sighted representatives of capital demanded a recasting of the educational system in order to meet the needs of advanced technological competition.

One element in the change was the dethroning of the dead languages from the position of eminence. What began to be stressed by educationalists was now the practical assimilation of the skills needed for day to day communication, rather than the rote learning of the old mysteries.

Whatever the motives that prompted the change of emphasis, it was seen by many classroom teachers as a form of liberation. Language was at last recognised as something alive, not dead. Working class children could now be encouraged to communicate in the idioms they themselves spoke, without being humiliated every time they tried to do so.

If a few teachers forgot that even the living language has a few grammatical rules, this was better than the old situation in which most children could never grasp the complexities of a dead grammar, while those that did grasp it all too often ended up writing in a completely incomprehensible way. (It is an interesting comment on the old educational system that most of the great English writers of the last hundred years benefited from not going through it.)

Now the Thatcherites are trying to turn the clock back. They want workers to know their “place” in society and so are trying to reinstate notions of “proper” and “improper” speech. They are pandering to the reactionary notions of those sections of the middle class who still see irrelevant bits of rote learning from their youth as setting them above the common herd.

Such are the contradictions of British capitalism in its dotage. The attempt by its fiercest class fighters to arm themselves ideologically is leading to the adoption of educational methods that can only subvert its attempts to compete internationally.

Last updated on 15 April 2010