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Alex Callinicos

Language, Truth and Politics

(January 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.85, January 1976, p.32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Language, Truth and Politics
published by Jean Stroud and Trevor Pateman,
Church Green, Newton Poppleford, Sidmouth, Devon.

The forms of discourse that we use in everyday situations prevent us from taking a critical stance towards society. This is the thesis that Trevor Pateman wishes to prove. Thus, to take one of his examples, if in an argument about the Vietnam war I said, ‘The US government refuses to allow elections to be held in Vietnam after the Geneva agreements’, as likely as not the response would be, ‘Ah, well, everyone has their opinion,’ or ‘Well, I respect your opinion’. Both these replies, while appearing to be a serious response to my statement, in fact enable the person I am arguing with to avoid discussing it. Clearly this is a different sort of response to saying, ‘Yes, and they were right to do so because otherwise the Communists would have taken over Vietnam’. This response is undisguisedly ideological; the other sort of response is just as ideological since it closes off a possible discussion that might shift the political ideas of the person I am arguing with, but its form, just reducing my statement to an opinion that need not be discussed, conceals its ideological character.

Now certainly language is packed full of devices of this sort. But can these formal features of discourse be understood without analysing them as simply aspects of the various institutions like schools, the media, the family, through which people’s heads are filled with ruling-class ideas? For example, Pateman talks about repressive discourse, discourse aimed at preventing you from doing something, but whose form conceals this role. The cases he chooses of this discourse are largely taken from family situations. But it is unclear that the formal analysis he makes of these cases (obscure and compressed passages in what is on the whole a lucid book) makes sense without an assumed understanding of the family as an institution in which often violent and oppressive relations are concealed beneath an ideology of love. Or again, does the cant of academic freedom and tolerance, an example of which we saw in the discussion about Vietnam, make sense without our seeing how it fits into the operation of the universities as one of what have been called the Ideological State Apparatuses?

This is not just a theoretical point. For the other side of Pateman’s critique of communications is what he calls a politics of everyday life which will enable people to see the way in which they are mystified by these formal devices, and thus contribute to a revolutionary mass movement. But in the first place ‘everyday life’ for the vast majority of people is regimented under the two great headings of work and the family. What Pateman does not offer is any analysis of these situations that can present us with priorities for political activity by isolating the points in people’s everyday experience where their ideas are most open to change. This reflects the absence in his book of any general theory of how the particular blockages in communications that it analyses fit into the workings of capitalist society. Secondly, Pateman assumes that people’s ideas are changed through a process of education that remains at the level of ideas – through discussion. Now obviously discussion has its part to play, but it is the experience of struggle that changes the ideas of the masses. From Russia in 1905 to Portugal today it has been involvement in mass activity that has swung the working class towards revolution.

‘The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity, of self-changing, can only be grasped or understood as revolutionary practice.’ (Marx)

Pateman quotes this passage, but his failure to integrate the ideas it contains into his thought limits the value of what is in many ways a stimulating book.

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