Book Reviews: ‘Unspeak’, & ‘Marx’s Labor Theory of Value – A Defense’

Say What You Mean

‘Unspeak’, by Steven Poole. (Little, Brown £9.99)

Which word would best describe those who use violence to oppose the US-UK occupation of Iraq? ‘Terrorists’ is condemnatory, while ‘resistance’ (with its echoes of those who opposed Nazi occupation in Europe) may register approval. Perhaps the most neutral term is ‘insurgents’. This is one of the examples that Steven Poole uses to show that choice of words is important, that the labels attached to people or ideas can affect attitudes towards them.

Socialists are well aware of this, of course, the very word ‘Socialism’ having been dragged through the mud of dictatorship and Labour Party politics. But Poole does have some instructive examples to discuss. For instance, Republicans in the US have been advised to talk about ‘climate change’, rather than ‘global warming’, on the grounds that the former is less frightening.

The UN General Assembly had in fact already used the euphemism of climate change, which does not specify in which direction the change is proceeding, under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the US, both which of which have interest in playing down the effects of burning fossil fuels.

Equally, ‘genetically engineered’ has often been replaced by cosier-sounding terms such as ‘genetically modified’ (usually shortened to ‘GM’), ‘genetically enhanced’ and ‘biotechnology foods’. And ‘ethnic cleansing’ sounds so much less nasty than the straightforward ‘genocide’.

In the mealy-mouthed platitudes of capitalism’s apologists, even military operations have to be given nice-looking names. Hence Operation Enduring Freedom (US invasion of Afghanistan) and Operation Just Cause (the invasion of Panama in 1989). The invasion of Iraq was going to be called Operation Iraqi Liberation, till someone realised that the initials spelled OIL!

The ‘war on terror’ is another snappy phrase, one which Poole regards as absurd because you can’t have a war against a tactic or technique. And this ‘war’ has itself given rise to a great many mendacious expressions. Think of ‘extraordinary rendition’, which refers to transporting supposed enemies to countries where they will be tortured: ‘rendering’ is a word used in industrial meat-processing, so perhaps the phrase is not so inaccurate after all.

‘Sleep management’ is what is more honestly known as ‘sleep deprivation’. And ‘abuse’ is used in place of the taboo word ‘torture’, so that the government responsible for torturing prisoners can take refuge in the position that it’s really only subjecting them to abuse.

It needs to be said that the reality of capitalism and its works is what’s really objectionable, not  the names that smell of roses but cover up the filth beneath.

Socialists have always called a spade a spade, not being frightened to expose capitalism and the capitalist class. But Poole’s book is a useful reminder of some of the ways in which defenders of the status quo go about their business



‘Marx’s Labor Theory of Value: A Defense’. By Hayashi Hiroyoshi.

(Universe, 2005, $26.95)

It has always been our contention that it is the workings of capitalism, with the problems it causes those obliged to work for a wage or a salary for a living, that throws up socialist ideas and not just the educational and propagandistic activities of those workers who have already become socialists. This book is a confirmation of this.

Written by a member of a group that emerged from the student wing of the Japanese Communist Party in the late 50s and early 60s, it makes the point that money and value will disappear in a socialist society  because production will no longer be carried out by independent economic units (whether individual owners, capitalist corporations or state enterprises) and will no longer be for sale on the market.

It also expounds the view that the Russian revolution was not a “socialist” or “proletarian” revolution and that the regime it established was never socialist, but state capitalist from the start as, given the historical circumstances, capitalism was the only possible development.

As a book put together from articles written at different times, it suffers from a lack of flow, and some of the polemics in the earlier part of the book about the nature of value are obscure, being directed at authors not known in this part of the world even if well-known in Japan.

This said, there are useful discussions in later chapters on Adam Smith, the parts of Volume III of Capital devoted to interest, credit and rent, and on the two different definitions of “productive labour” to be found in Marx’s writings.


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