“Language is social consciousness, in as much as it exists only for other men”, Marx noted in the German Ideology . It takes its place in the social superstructure, on the battleground where the conflicts between classes are fought – speeches, laws, slogans. These are all merely words, but words through which groups of humans seek to map, describe and create images of the world around them, and through so doing, create and signal an identity for themselves. Without language we would not have society, we would not be able to co-operate the way we do. It is an integral and constitutive part of being human.
For the better part of this century language has intrigued philosophers. How does it work? What effect does it have on our consciousness, on our ways of seeing the world? One of the most important discoveries of this line of thought, is that words do not have any intrinsic connection to the object they refer to (this may sound obvious, but much of previous though, especially in the nineteenth century, assumed an unmediated connection between word and object). Words are just arbitrary signs, used to carve up the world. There is no reason D-O-G means a small stupid furry canine animal, it could as easily be C-A-T meaning the same referent.
This arbitrariness, however, does not mean that we can make any word mean anything we want it to, otherwise we would all be like Lewis Carrol’s Humpty Dumpty (in Alice Through the Looking Glass ), nor can we just make up new words as and when we like, like Mr. Blackadder (Blackadder the Third) . According to the theorist M M Bakhtin, this association between the word and its object comes about through use. A dog is a D-O-G because the last time D-O-G was used it referred to the stupid furry canine. Thus social “signifying practise” is the driving force behind linguistic meaning, words get their meaning through human lived interaction and co-operation. But, further, it means that the individual is not the source of meaning, the ultimate deciding authority over their own words; it means that society, and its understanding and shared practice is. We do not own our own words.
Words get their meaning from use, every word is saying “this is like the object I referred to the last time I was used”. As such every word is a metaphor, for itself. Further, all words can therefore have their meanings changed, through a metaphorical slippage, where once it referred to one thing in the world it becomes another through a change in the world and in the way of using the word. Raymond Williams examines this point in his book Keywords. He pointed out how centrally important words have changed their meaning over the last two hundred years. Industry moved from meaning to work hard to meaning the abstract sum of factories; economy moved from meaning household management, to referring to the value of shares in the stock exchange; individual from being the constituent part of a greater whole, to being a unique, atomised, autonomous subject.
The way in which these words found themselves changing was through the rise of a class of people who used them to describe their world, and the eventual control this group of people took over the means of communication, and thus of language. Effectively, the changes in these words map the changes in society over the past two hundred years. These words were weapons in the class war, battering rams to change the perceptual world of society from its old feudal outlooks towards describing the world in capitalist terms. With these words came others, all of them fought over, between the different groups that used them. For the capitalist class, freedom meant the freedom to buy and sell, equality meant abstracted equality before the law, not social equality; property became the goods of the individual, rather than of the community.
At the same time, however, another idea arose, with a new word to describe it, an idea about common ownership of the goods of society, of co-operation and mutuality – socialism . Its first use (in English) was apparently in the Owenite Co-operative Magazine in November 1827. Very early on it became tinged with a radicalism, implied by its connotations of a change in the whole social system of society. Right up until the 1920s socialism was the preferred term meaning a society of common ownership.
However, as the word entered into a field of political combat, that meant its meaning became more and more disputed. The “immediate demands” of the Social Democratic parties of the Second International meant that in many minds socialism became associated with the specific statist reforms associated with these immediate demands. Furthermore, certain groups of “Socialists” (such as the Fabians) began to see socialism more and more as a compliment to Liberalism, rather than as a society of co-operative common ownership.
The break was further exacerbated by the Bolshevik revolution, and the renaming of their party “the Communist Party”, and the theoretical shift to “communism” as being the ultimate state to be attained, with socialism becoming a transitory society to this stage. With this predomination of meaning socialism soon became utterly associated in the majority of minds with state ownership and reformism. Its older meaning lost, except to a few bothered scholars, and to the likes of the Socialist Party.
This change of meaning has suited conservatives and reactionaries. It is easy to pigeon-hole opponents, lump them all in together under a common pejorative name, as it means they can all be dismissed out of hand. Thus conservatives, in an attempt to define themselves, and hold their own camp together, were more than willing to call the Labour Party socialist: “You are a socialist”, screamed Thatcher, to Neil Kinnock, “a crypto-communist!”.
All the while, a word, an essentially meaningless jumble of consonants and vowels is being bandied back and forth, while the idea that lay behind it, the idea that spawned it as a word, was all but forgotten, or banished to some alleged fantasy land by the pernicious practitioners of the possible.
In some quarters, the World Socialist Movement for one, this original idea has not been forgotten, and all through the shifts and turns in the meaning of this word, we have been adding our own, albeit small, voice into shaping its social meaning, so that the idea about what socialism “actually” means isn’t forgotten. The idea has been held up above the jumble of letters that make up the word. It remains, though, a word worth fighting for, for its history, for its associations of co-operation and mutuality, and because it describes something positive, a situation to be aimed for – a just state of society.
Socialism remains a good word to put our arguments across. Because of our different understanding of it, people are surprised by our answers and perspectives, and become genuinely interested, broken out of the stale old left-wing right-wing arguments. And just as words such as queer or Quaker have been wrested from negative senses to have positive meanings, thus can socialism , with all its history and associations be wrested back as well.
It is our ideas, our practices, and our values, that makes us the Socialist Party, not simply the word socialist , or even our party name. It wouldn’t matter what we call ourselves, as our ideas grow a word would be found to express them, in their full meaning. Since we think that, historically, that word already exists, we choose to use it.
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