‘A Marxist Philosophy of Language’ reviewed by Piotr Stalmaszczyk

A Marxist Philosophy of Language

Translated by Gregory Elliott, Historical Materialism Book Series, Volume12, Brill, Leiden, 2006. 236pp., €124.00 hb, ISBN 9004147519; Haymarket Press, Chicago, 2009. 236pp., $28 pb
ISBN 9781608460267

Reviewed by Piotr Stalmaszczyk

About the reviewer

Piotr Stalmaszczyk is Professor of English and General Linguistics at the University of Lodz …


Language has been defined in a number of different ways: as a mental organ, a cognitive ability, a state of mind, as a system of signs, a computational procedure, as means of communication, or means of describing experience, and many others. All such definitions capture vital features of language, none of them, however, is (nor can be) complete. Additionally, approaches to language put forward by structuralism, functionalism, generativism, and cognitivism (to concentrate solely on the most important schools of linguistic thought in the twentieth century) are in many respects incompatible. As has been observed by Thomas Kuhn, it is often impossible to compare theories due to the different usage of fundamental notions, and different definitions of language indeed provide support for his incommensurability thesis. For obvious reasons a similar situation may be observed in linguistics, and by extension, philosophy of language, which is traditionally concerned with the underlying nature of the phenomena that linguists study.

Jean-Jacques Lecercle, Professor of English at the University of Paris at Nanterre, offers a Marxist approach, both to language, and philosophy of language, which results in a number of new definitions and reformulations, and a vehement critique of some prominent contemporary non-Marxists approaches. The book, originally published in French (Une philosophie Marxiste du langage, Paris 2004), comprises seven chapters, a conclusion with glossaries, list of references and an index.

Different turns in philosophy of language were motivated by contemporary formal approaches to logic and language (Frege, early Wittgenstein, Russell), studies of ‘ordinary language’ (late Wittgenstein, Austin, Grice, Searle), and, more recently, studies in non-literal language, especially metaphor and irony (Cognitive Linguistics, Relevance Theory). Lecercle’s approach, on the other hand, is motivated ideologically. The author describes himself as an ‘old Althusserian Marxist’ (139), and his philosophy of language is definitely Althuserian, defined as ‘an instrument with which to draw lines of demarcation, as a political intervention in the field of language’ (11). Such an approach requires a redefinition of the basic concept, i.e. language itself, conceived by Lecercle ‘not as a stable arrested system, but as a system of variations’ (11), and, crucially, as a political phenomenon. Elsewhere he also defines language (in marked contrast to Chomsky’s ‘mental organ’) as ‘an activity, a practice’ (39), and as a historical, social, material and political phenomenon (139).

Chapter 1 is devoted to introductory comments on the conception of language, linguistic imperialism, defined as ‘not merely uncontested domination, but a process of hybridisation, becoming-minoritarian, centralisation, and explosion all at the same time’ (9), with struggle of dialects compared to class struggle. Lecercle provocatively claims that English is ‘the language of imperialism’ (5), which is connected with globalisation and the fact that it is the language of ‘empire, whose practices are ever more explicitly imperialist’ (6). It would be interesting to find out what the author thinks about other languages, and whether languages differ in their degree of ‘imperialisation’; for example, which is more imperial, English or Russian, or maybe Chinese (or, for that matter, French)? Even if this claim is only a provocation, such provocations are not innocent, they carry certain ontological (and – what should be especially important in the context of this very book – ideological) commitments. An important question in this context is about the ideological consequences of translating a book from a less imperialist language (French?), to a more imperialist one (English). Lecercle does not even attempt to pose such a question.

In the struggle of dialects the standard dialect (of English) ‘is subject to a process of “becoming-minoritarian” by the return of dominated languages – in the United Kingdom, the Gaelic languages (Welsh, Scots and Irish)’ (9). Putting aside Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology this is a very interesting sociolinguistic idea; it needs to be noted, however, that neither Welsh nor Scots can be classified as ‘Gaelic languages’, since Welsh is Brythonic, whereas Scots is Germanic, and closely related to English (in contrast to Scottish Gaelic).

The first chapter concludes with a political manifesto: ‘it can be said that the recent spectacular defeats of the workers’ movement on a world scale have in no small measure been due to the fact that the class enemy has always won the battle of language and that the worker’ movement has always neglected this terrain’ (12-13). This is most probably a unique book in the field of very broadly conceived philosophy of language, where the concept of ‘class enemy’ is referred to every now and again. In the philosophical (rather than ideological) context, this enemy is associated with ‘the dominant philosophy in the domain of language: Anglo-American analytical philosophy’ (12). Lecercle claims that ‘to understand and criticise such a philosophy, we need the critical power that Marxism alone can still provide’ (12). This ‘alone’ seems to ignore (and exclude) a plethora of different approaches, from Jacques Derrida to Martin Heidegger, from Julia Kristeva to Richard Rorty (the last two names completely absent from Lecercle’s investigations), not to mention numerous formal alternatives.

Chapters 2 and 3 are devoted to ‘critique of linguistics’, and ‘critique of the philosophy of language’. Their titles are misleading, however, since the scope of the chapters is restricted to a critical reading of the Chomskyan research programme, and Habermas’s philosophy of language, respectively.

An important part of Chapter 2 lists ‘the four harmful characteristics of Chomsky’s philosophy of language’ (34), and these are: ‘methodological individualism’, ‘fetishism’, refusal of history’, and ‘naturalism’. Methodological individualism is connected with the idea that the language faculty is inscribed in the brain, fetishism reduces human language to a series of ‘things’, a-historicism is strictly related to individualism, whereas naturalism involves a belief in human nature and its relative fixity.

In discussing naturalism and innatism, Lecercle observes that Chomsky is ‘betrayed by his metaphors, for the phrase ‘mental organ’ is of course metaphorical’ (39). It is not clear to what extent this metaphor renders the Chomskyan enterprise flawed, especially as further criticism is based on a false analogy: ‘if language is lodged in what Chomsky calls ‘the mind/brain’, economic production is lodged in what might be called ‘the mind/hand’ (35). In similar fashion it might be claimed that Lecercle is betrayed by his own metaphors, such as ‘linguistic struggle’, language as ‘instrument of imperialism’ (not to mention the omnipresent Althusserian ‘interpellation’), and far fetched comparisons scattered throughout the book, such as ‘I possess the language in as much as I am possessed by it, just as people were once possessed by the devil’ (143).

Lecercle criticizes Chomsky for his individualism, especially ‘methodological individualism’ (34), at the same time in this criticism he himself uses highly individual and subjective arguments, such as reference to his own (and his students) experience of learning the vocabulary of a foreign language. In criticizing naturalism he also asserts that ‘the deep structure is universal’ (36) – astonishing that somebody can still make such erroneous claims, more than fifty years after the publication of Syntactic Structures. Furthermore, in his critique of the Chomskyan analysis of reciprocal and reflexive constructions Lecercle does not take into account the appropriate formulations of binding theory, but rather accuses Chomsky of ‘fetishism’ (31). Accidently (or maybe not), Lecercle’s own approach to language could be dismissed in terms of fetishism as well (reification of activity, a process, or system of variations).

It needs to be noted at the same time, that some points raised by Lecercle against Chomsky are very interesting, and add to the by now classical controversies between generative and cognitive (and formal versus functional) approaches to grammar and language. The debate between these different schools might be analysed in terms of an ideological struggle (or even ‘linguistic war’), and that might have been the topic of a Marxist interpretation.

Chapter 3 is devoted to critique of the philosophy of language, and more precisely the version of philosophy of language developed over the years by Jürgen Habermas. Lecercle formulates the basic claim of this approach in the following way: ‘the very structure of language as interlocution presupposes agreement, or at least a striving for agreement’ (46), he also very aptly observes that ‘Habermas’s philosophy of language is an ethics of discussion, which generalises Grice’s maxims of conversation to the social structure’ (47). The normative categories investigated by Habermas include consensus, commitment, responsibility, trust, they belong to the universe of ethics, in short ‘what Habermas proposes to us is linguistic communism’ (57). However, the main problem with Habermas, as identified by Lecercle, is that he denies ‘certain phenomena, since he excludes all agonistic speech acts – threats, insults, various forms of aggression’ (53), furthermore, he ‘lacks a theory of ideology’ (63). The author arrives at this conclusion after investigating Habermas’ philosophy within the context of most recent political and social changes. An important part of this chapter is devoted to the ‘dominant ideology’ in philosophy of language, characterized predominantly in terms of power relations and ideology of communication, since ‘today, communication is a key sector of advanced capitalism’ (65). Additionally, Lecercle shows the importance of agonistic speech acts, building power relationships rather than co-operation, or to use a formulation from final chapters, the standpoint of ‘agon as opposed to eirene’ (145). In Chapter 5 he wittingly observes that ‘The principle of co-operation in Grice, or the communicative competence of Habermas, takes our desires for reality. The first dialogue in the history of humanity brought together Cain and Abel: we know how it turned out’ (121).


Chapter 4 reviews the ‘Marxist tradition’, from Stalin’s (in)famous pamphlet, and Bukharin’s manual of Marxist sociology, to Gramsci, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Section two of this chapter scrutinizes the not too frequent comments on language in the works of Marx and Engels, ‘the founding fathers’, and the last section is devoted to Lenin, especially his work on political slogans, re-read through Deleuze and Guattari, and Althusser. In this last section the author relates the communist programme to the study of language, concentrating again on power relations, social formations, and strategic and tactical analyses. One of the most important conclusions of this chapter, with consequences for constructing a Marxist philosophy of language, is that ‘the meaning of an utterance is given in its interpretation – that is, in the struggle required to impose this interpretation, in the power relationship that it establishes’ (103).

Chapter 5 in its first part looks more closely at Valentin Voloshinov, and Bakhtin’s circle, with the second part devoted to Deleuze and Guattari. The latter, despite their rather distant and critical relationship to Marx provide Lecercle with necessary elements to attempt constructing his own ‘specifically Marxist philosophy of language’ (138), expounded in chapters 6 and 7. One the other hand, Voloshinov’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Language is ‘the only work that explicitly seeks to elaborate a Marxist philosophy of language’ (105). This classical study evolves around four concepts: sign, ideology, word, and consciousness – here Voloshinov follows Marx and Engels’s ‘formula in The German Ideology according to which language is practical consciousness’ (108). Lecercle’s comments on the achievements of Voloshinov show the great potential and intellectual independence of this early Soviet thinker.

Chapters 4 and 5 are very different in tone from the two preceding ones, Lecercle is less acrimonious, less polemical, far more understanding, however, his occasional sympathetic remarks on Stalin send a chilling shiver down the spine.

As it is clear from many pages of the reviewed book, Lecercle’s contribution to philosophy of language is definitely Althusserian, which is most comprehensively expounded in the six theses presented and commented upon in the final chapters, ‘Propositions (1)’, ‘Propositions (2)’, and the glossaries in the conclusion (though the principal theses are present, sometimes in different wordings, from the very first pages of the book). The main thesis claims that language is a form of praxis, the three positive theses state that language is a social, material, and political phenomenon, and according to the concluding thesis language is the site of subjectivation through interpellation (139). Interpellation is the central concept of Althusserian philosophy, according to which ideology interpellates each individual as a subject, hence the final thesis of Lecercle is that the principal function of language is the production of subjects: ‘Language is not only a battlefield and one of the instruments of the class struggle, but also the site and instrument of the transformation of individuals into subjects’ (198).

The book’s Conclusion provides two short glossaries of philosophy of language. The first one offers brief descriptions of key terms in Marxist philosophy of language (assemblage, class struggle, collectivism, conjuncture, fetishism, imperialism, interpellation/subjectivation, minority, style, and, additionally, langage/lange), whereas the second one concentrates on ‘neoliberal philosophy of language’ (communication, language, spin).

The rhetoric of ‘class struggle’ and ‘class enemy’ makes most of Lecercle’s proposals ideological rather than philosophical. This ideological stance of the text is both its strength and weakness. Strength, because it adds vigour to the discussion, and provides controversial commentaries and critical readings of well-established theories; weakness, because ideology becomes close to bias, additionally, and rather frustratingly, Lecercle does not apply the critical approach to his own proposals, which, unfortunately, become dogmatic rather than scientific. Very tellingly the index of the book does not include such concepts as ‘truth’, ‘sense’, ‘meaning’, whereas the text abounds in manifestos like the following one: ‘advanced communism is the inevitable goal of human history’ (58). Philosophy of language is far more than an ideological battlefield, and it deserves a thorough (and unbiased) analysis. Lecercle’s book is definitely thought provoking; however, a comprehensive Marxist philosophy of language still remains to be written. On the other hand, it is to the author’s merit, that he has reanalyzed the achievements of Voloshinov, Pasolini, or the Vietnamese philosopher Tran Duc Thao, showing both their place in the tradition, and importance for future research.

29 November 2010

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