Publication details [#54187]

Publication type
Article in book
Publication language
Place, Publisher
John Benjamins


Philosophically, Marxism is a branch of Hegelianism. In early Marxism, language is usually related to the ideological superstructure. It is a conceptual device which reflects material circumstances and needs (the economic base). Categorizations, concepts and names are considered as expressions of specific social relationships. Thus, language is not an object of study in its own right. Generally, if language use is being studied at all, it is interpreted along the lines of social theory (i.e. as being biased by class interests) without any linguistic reservations about the necessity of this theory. In the thirties, in the Soviet Union, the effort to combine the conception of language as a superstructure with an idea of linguistic struggle led to an official Marxist linguistics in the work of Nikolaj Marr (1864–1934). Marrism was dominant in Marxist linguistics until, in a notorious intervention in linguistics, Stalin (1951) rejected it by de-historicizing and de-socializing language. Language is no superstructure, since it does not change with every economic change; it is a means of communication serving each member of a people equally well. Thus, ‘the language’ is declared politically neutral, like science. Stalin’s attempt to unite nationalities under one Russian language required that minority languages (‘dialects’) were no longer seen as language. Such a unitary language policy allows for one sort of linguistics, the linguistics of dominant languages. As nearly all linguistics has been exactly that, from the fifties, Stalinism gave rise to formalizing and rationalizing forms of linguistics without any outspoken political involvement characterizing it as being Marxist. As the controversy between Stalin and Marr indicates, denying language (and ideology) a material effectivity of its own tends to lead to a fixation and hypostatization of either fundamental linguistic heterogeneity or fundamental linguistic unity. When in the sixties and seventies Stalin’s hold over Marxist linguistics fades, this tension comes to light. It may be part of a social and historical struggle to find out whether Marxism will ever be able to regain any respectability in linguistics. If it is to exist, a Marxist linguistics is in need of (1) a non-deterministic reconceptualization of the interplay between base and superstructure, (2) a view of language and ideology as material, non-neutral stakes of differences and struggle, and (3) a historical and social theory of science, in which the scientist is nothing less cultural than the subject of research. The Italian linguist and politician Gramsci is particularly concerned with the effects of language as a source of social coherence. Vološinov, a member of the Leningrad circle of Bakhtin, is, like Gramsci, convinced of the social character of language. Yet, he counterbalances Gramsci in that, in his eyes, the ideal of objectivity is no more than a description of the way in which power is actually established. In the seventies, the ‘poststructuralist’ linguist Pêcheux offered a radical continuation of the way in which both Gramsci and Vološinov — in the 1920s and 1930s — had turned down overevaluations of the subjective. In opposition to them, however, he initially considers the domain of linguistics as being more or less autonomous. It is argued that a Marxist linguistics might be possible by joining together insights like those of Gramsci, Vološinov and Pêcheux. It is still important to aim at such a connection, because without it linguistics, however pragmatic, cannot do justice to the everyday, historical, social, and cultural status of language and linguistics.