Stalin and linguistics
Word association’s a game where if I say “summer” and you say “hot”. I say “Stalin” and you might reply “Gulag”. Of course, there aren’t any right or wrong answers in word association. Hence, if during the Second World War, I’d said “Stalin”, you might well have responded “Uncle Joe”. Nonetheless, it’s a fair bet that our game would need to go on for quite a while before the trigger of “Stalin” would elicit the response “Linguistics”. Yet on June 20, 1950, the Soviet newspaper, Pravda, published Stalin’s views on that subject. He reappeared there again two weeks later. Then, on 2 August, Pravda carried three letters that Stalin had sent to comrades who had written to him seeking clarification. Shortly after his death in March 1953, the Soviet government collected these pieces into a fifty-page pamphlet with the title. Marxism and Problems of Linguistics. 

In another round of word association, “Solzhenitsyn” is likely to summon up the response “Stalin” as the architect of the Gulag Archipelago. Less likely is the association of “Stalin” with “comic character”. Yet, that’s how the dictator appears in Solzhenitsyn’s 1968 novel The First Circle. We’re introduced to this fictionalized Stalin as he prepares to draft his article on linguistics.

That chapter begins: “Stalin’s most creative hours were the hours of darkness”.

Around 2 am, reflecting on his achievements, he recognises that “The deportation of whole peoples had been an important theoretical innovation”. Nonetheless, he feels that the world has not appreciated the amplitude of his genius. He could have exposed the errors in Mendelian genetics, had he not left that task to Lysenko. Stalin contemplates refuting Einstein’s theory of relativity, but textbooks on algebra and physics fail to inspire him.

His eye then falls on a university journal from his homeland of Georgia. A professor in its capital Tiflis has dared to argue that language is not a class construction. This presumption has been answered by supporters of the late N Y Marr, another Georgian.

Marr had been a towering figure in Soviet linguistics until his death in 1934. He had pictured language as part of the superstructure. By 1950, some of his students were claiming that languages were expressions of class dominance. Hence, they would be transformed whenever an economic system was replaced.

Instead of suffering a knock on the door in the early hours, Marr’s critic was about to be immortalized. Solzhenitsyn continues: “While reading the offending article Stalin had been struck by a thought which had never occurred to him before:

if language belongs to the superstructure, why doesn’t it change with each new stage of social development? If it doesn’t belong to the superstructure, then what is it?”

Failing to get any closer to a solution, Stalin regrets that there’s no one to advise him. He wishes he could phone Kant or Spinoza. But he has to accept that he is “alone in the world, like all great philosophers”.

The laws of copyright oblige us to leave the realms of Solzhenitsyn’s creative genius. Instead, we can consider the backdrop to Stalin’s articles for Pravda.

The first puzzle is how linguistics ever became the Soviet equivalent of a barbeque stopper. The answer is that the Communists saw themselves creating not just a new society, but a new kind of society, one in which the masses would participate in every aspect. Even the most specialized questions would benefit from exposure to the collective wisdom of the proletariat. Such engagement, in turn, would raise the cultural level of the masses. This totalizing approach to life meant that arcane matters could assume center stage.

These circumstances can not explain why linguistics, of all possible concerns, ever became the focal point of an ideological contest. In brief, the reason is that linguistics had a specifically Russian inflection. Modern linguistics owes a great deal to the Russian-born Roman Jakobson. Although Jakobson had fled the Bolshevik revolution in 1920, his ideas had plenty of supporters in the Soviet Academies. Jakobson’s key proposition was that unchanging structures underpinned the diversity of cultural products, including languages. This notion sounded like the Marxian view that an economic base underlies the socio-cultural superstructure. Some disciples of Jakobson argued that the two systems were therefore compatible. Critics countered that Jakobson’s structuralism was doubly dangerous because it could be confused with the real thing. To make matters worse, Jakobson had been influenced by Futurist poets.

The proponents of Socialist Realism accused avant-garde artists of valuing style more than content, a crime branded Formalism. Hence, the battle over linguistics loomed as part of the class struggle for the direction of culture. Was Soviet linguistics to be bourgeois Formalism, or proletarian Realism? By 1934, that question had become literally a matter of life and death. The tables turned in 1950 when Stalin accused Marr’s disciples of having invented formalism to libel anyone who didn’t agree with them.

Two more issues help to explain Stalin’s intervention.

How was it that he had the time for anything other than the reconstruction of the Soviet economy and waging the Cold War? By 1950, he was in semi-retirement, spending about half of each year away from the Kremlin. A lifetime of political struggle had worn down the man of steel. He left the running of the country to his line of deputies, playing them off against each other, intervening only to reassert his authority. That’s pretty much what happened with the dispute over linguistics.

With time on his hands, why did Stalin single out linguistics as an area for personal attention? After all, he began his first Pravda piece by acknowledging that he was no expert in linguistics and so couldn’t provide a full answer. But he went on to claim that “As to Marxism in linguistics, as in other social sciences, this is something directly in my field”.

Stalin had never been much of a theoretician. Among the original Bolsheviks, his one claim to fame as a thinker had been a pamphlet on The National Question. Because he was a Georgian, his comrades had assumed that he must have had some insights into the national minorities in the Czarist empire.

In this pamphlet, he set out what their rights would be in a Union of Socialist Republics. On paper, Stalin had provided a model of enlightened multi-culturalism. In practice, he became the breaker of nations. In the process, he reduced his policy towards ethnic minorities to another catch phrase. In the Soviet Union, he declared, minority cultures were to be “socialist in content and national in form”. He applied this formula to languages. Hence, Stalin could feel that the ideas that he’d voiced about language policy in the National Question gave him the authority to pronounce on linguistics.

However, this background was less significant than Stalin’s conviction that he was the world’s greatest living Marxist. That status obliged him to enter the fray. In particular, he had to lay down the law about the relations between the economic base and the socio-cultural superstructure.

The Pravda interview with Stalin opened with a very short question: “Is it true that language is a superstructure on the base?” Stalin’s denial takes up six pages in the pamphlet version. He begins by setting down the relations between the economic base and the cultural superstructure: “Every base has its own corresponding superstructure. … If the base changes or is eliminated, then, following this, its superstructure changes or is eliminated; if a new base arises, then, following this, a superstructure arises corresponding to it”. Stalin boasted that thirty years of Soviet rule and twenty years of central planning had transformed political and cultural life. But it had not revolutionised Russian grammar.

Even without Solzhenitsyn’s help, Stalin could make jokes of his own at the expense of those who thought that grammar could be decided by decree. Replacing the Russian language with some new “proletarian” language, he mocked, would be as ridiculous as tearing up the railway lines that had been built under the Czar in order to travel on pure “Bolshevik” tracks. He had some more fun in dismissing the suggestion that language was a means of production: “It is not difficult to see that were language capable of producing material wealth, wind-bags would be the richest men on earth”. A joke by Stalin was not always a laughing matter. He knew how to deflate windbags.

Nothing that Stalin said about linguistics was either insightful or outrageously wrong. He compared grammar with geometry because they both abstracted from concrete instances to provide laws and rules for individual cases. By contrast, vocabularies were in a state of almost constant replenishment to keep up with the changes in economic and social life.

Stalin accepted that “spoken language had helped human beings to emerge from the animal world, unite into communities, develop their faculty to think, organize social production”

In the process, “Each language was created by the entire society, by all the classes of the society, by the efforts of hundreds of generations. It was created for the satisfaction of the needs not of one particular class, but of the entire society”. Inevitably, each class will use the common language for its own ends. Exploitation would not be possible if the bosses and the workers could not communicate. He assumed that languages were like machines which can “equally serve a capitalist system and a socialist one”.

The disputes about human nature that had provoked Stalin’s remarks on linguistics are as lively today as they were deadly in 1950.

Genetics has given a new urgency to arguments about nature versus nurture. For instance, Stephen Pinker established his reputation as a cognitive psychologist with the publication of The Language Instinct in 1994. More recently, he’s championed a version of genetic determinism known as evolutionary psychology. Pinker’s latest book, The Blank Slate, draws its title from the viewpoint that he disparages. He defines the “blank slate” account of human nature as – I quote - “the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves”. Among the targets of Pinker’s attack are Marxists such as the late Stephen Jay Gould. Pinker connects Stalin’s crimes with his faith that human nature could be rewritten at will. Surprisingly, Pinker makes no mention of Stalin on linguistics. Of course, had Pinker done so, he would have found Stalin on his side. Stalin agreed that grammar could “be inscribed at will”, not even by a totalitarian state.

Nor does Pinker mention Stalin’s support for T. D. Lysenko. In 1950, Lysenko was still to plant physiology what Marr had been to linguistics. Stalin’s acceptance that grammar was not amenable to political command was in conflict with his support Lysenko’s claims that acquired characteristics could be inherited. Consistency should have led Stalin to accept that it was easier to change a socio-cultural phenomenon such as language than it was to alter the biological makeup of potatoes. Stalin, however, was a man of affairs for whom practical success pre-eminent. Thus, he favoured Lysenko’s Lamarkianism because it promised to increase agricultural yields.

The thread through Stalin’s outlook was, as Solzhenitsyn recognised, the force that he wielded as General–Secretary of the Communist Party. He cautioned the disciples of Marr: “If I were not convinced of the integrity of the linguistic leaders, I would say that such conduct is tantamount to sabotage”.