Language and democracy

by Farooque Chowdhury | Updated at 02:30pm on February 23, 2020

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LANGUAGES, connected to economy including market, trade and commodity, are in conflict and in collaboration with contending class forces.

Thus, in general, and not taking into consideration the stages society passes, languages are (1) an inseparable question of democracy and, in particular cases, of democratic struggle and (2) a tool for subjection. The two contradictory positions depend on conflicting classes using it as a tool for conquests or for attaining a democratic way of life.

Sheer class power, manifested in economy and politics, determines the question — a tool for conquests or for democratic struggle. A capital or an alliance of capitals can win or continue winning the ‘game’ of conquests or turn a loser. A mature capital gains ground in the ‘game’ while an immature capital rubs its nose on dust.

Whether it gains or loses capital unleashes onslaught on people — people’s economic, political, cultural and ideological rights and territories. Capital has to make the assault. Because capital cannot choose a path leading to its death and capital cannot survive without assaulting others, without conquering all, without trampling everything. People’s life turns the first victim in this campaign by capital. All aspects and parts of people’s life are conquered, demolished, defaced, degraded. These include people’s ideological and cultural spaces. Language, an essential in production process, cannot escape this hostile, barbaric reality imposed by conquering capital. The weaker the class or part, the more barbaric the assault turns; the more backward a production process, the more complete is its elimination. Language walks along this path.

For other classes, the same fate waits in the wings — capitulation to the charging capital. Succeeding in keeping some ground under own feet during the capitulation process depends on class power equation between the winning and losing parties. For an overall gain, the winning party may concede bits of ground to the losing party. It is a sort of compromise with ultimate exultant position. The compromise is for cooption.

This line of conflict/collaboration is found around the world. It is in countries, in regions, with nations, nationalities and smaller and larger indigenous communities. It is with languages rich with grammar, literature, history and tradition being used by a comparatively larger population and with languages without grammar, characters, written literature being used by a comparatively smaller population. It is in the processes transforming societies from one mode of production to another. Emotion can do nothing with the loss and gain made in the process of vanquishment and victory. ‘For the complete victory of commodity production, the bourgeoisie must capture the home market, and there must be politically united territories whose population speaks a single language, with all obstacles to the development of that language and to its consolidation in literature eliminated.[….] Unity and unimpeded development of language are the most important conditions for genuinely free and extensive commerce on a scale commensurate with modern capitalism, for a free and broad grouping of the population in all its various classes and, lastly, for the establishment of close connection between the market and each and every proprietor, big or little, and between seller and buyer.’ (Lenin, ‘The right of nations to self-determination’, Collected Works, Vol 20, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1972)

Therefore, there remains the question in the face of the capturing of market by the advancing capital and the elimination of obstacles to the development of a single language for the market and its consolidation in literature — people’s right, right of the oppressed and the dispossessed. The question challenges the capital dispossessing people in many areas including language and literature.

It is an issue of democracy, an issue of democratic rights and an issue of democratic struggle. In one pole, there is the market unified and made powerful by capital and in the opposite pole, there are people, a people’s language and literature facing elimination campaign by the merciless market. Questions emerge: whether people will submit to the market’s galloping power, whether people should allow the market to trample all that secure people’s interest and obstruct the market’s triumph — questions related to democracy, a democracy of people, not of the market, where people, not the market, decide.

With the entrance of the market, a prayer wheel to a sect of economists who ignore the fact that wheels of the market demolish all opposing it, with the market’s autocratic power to dictate all including language, the question of democracy emerges with much importance and force. Jacques Attali, economist, philosopher, special adviser to the president of France for 10 years and president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development from 1990 to 1993, writes: ‘The guiding principles of the market economy and democracy often contradict one another and are more likely to go head-to-head than hand in hand.’ (‘The Crash of Western Civilisation: The Limits of the Market and Democracy’, Foreign Policy, No 107, summer, 1997) Market takes care of the interest of a few engaged with a profit hunt while democracy stands for people. The two, therefore, do not collaborate. Rather, the two enter into a conflict. This conflict is reflected in the areas of ideology, culture, language and environment, along with economy and politics. Market shapes democracy according to its good wishes — serve me. Consequently, democracy turns void of its spirit — people’s interest. Language is one of the areas of people’s interest. With own language, people interact among themselves, interact in production and interact in class struggle. The more their grip on it loosens, the more their space is lost.

Today, the languages people are to use are decided by the imperialist capital, with its ownership of communication/media machine. Not only language, dialects and vocabulary, expressions, entertainments, postures, definitions, even choices or preferences, desires and dreams are dictated by this machine. This means people lose space. It is a conflict between two opposing interests, where people are the majority while that machine represents an absolutely miniscule group. The need for democracy and democratic struggle emerges when such a minor group overpowers an absolute majority on a socio-historical matrix.

Ultimately, in a capitalist setting, as Lenin finds, ‘requirements of economic exchange will themselves decide which language of the given country it is to the advantage of the majority to know in the interest of commercial relations.’ (‘Critical remarks on the national question’, CW: 20) And, in a people’s democratic arrangement, it is people’s democratic choice, not the market’s coercive power, which will make the final decision. Hence, on the question related to language and democracy, let people decide the issue in a democratic environment, which is free from the market’s motive force, arbitrariness and coercion.

Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka.