Anti-Imperialism and the Politics of Language

OP, Béal Feirste

In Marxism and the Problems of Linguistics, Comrade Joseph Stalin correctly identifies language as neither an element of the superstructure, nor the base. Rather, language is a tool of production and organisation that can be utilised in any class’s interest. Stalin writes, “
language, as a means of intercourse between the people of a society, serves all classes of society equally, and in this respect displays what may be called an indifference to classes”. It is important to recognise, before we can properly analyse the conditions of marginalised languages in colonial and neo-colonial contexts, that no language has an innate class character. In much the same way that a plough can be used to generate wealth for a landlord or to create produce for the benefit of the community, language too can be utilised by any class to advance their own class interests. Of course, this does not change the fact that, in specific contexts, certain languages have been and are promoted while others are marginalised in order to further ruling class interests. It is only to say that no language in isolation contains a class character and that there is nothing inherently progressive or reactionary, proletarian or bourgeois, about any one language or dialect. Every language has within it the capability to build a revolutionary movement. With all that said, we are now able to analyse the way language is used, promoted, and regulated in order to create desirable outcomes for capital in our modern world, and what relevance this has in the Irish context.

The purpose of capitalist globalisation is to break into new markets and more easily generate profit so that capital can be more easily accumulated by the international bourgeois class. The process of globalisation is one that has been occurring since the birth of capitalism itself, with constant growth being necessary to sustain capitalism as an economic model necessitating this globalisation. Any time this globalisation has been resisted, whether that be by active agents or by the circumstances of the national markets that this globalisation was trying to break into, force was used both overtly and covertly to overcome this resistance and benefit capitalists in the imperial core. A prime example of this can be seen in the case of the Indian fabric industry. Prior to British intervention in the Indian subcontinent, Indian cotton textiles dominated the Indian Ocean trade. In the 18th century Indian textiles accounted for 38% of all trade in West Africa and 20% of all British trade with Southern Europe. Domestically produced textiles had been dominant in India for centuries. However, as British textiles manufacturers saw the opportunity to profit from selling textiles to the Indian market, the British embarked on a process of destroying Indian cotton looms, with the intention that India export the raw cotton and be sold back the finished textile products created in Britain. Of course, this is the prime example given when explaining the process of imperialism, so what relevance does this have to the question of language?

Much like strong domestic industries present a stumbling block for imperialism to overcome in order to break into new markets, strong community languages present a similar barrier to capitalist exploitation. Much like with the breaking of looms, the breaking of a language becomes a necessity so as to better exploit an imperialised nation, whether that be by complete linguistic extinction or by marginalising a previously dominant language. There are three primary ways in which language presents an obstacle to imperialism.

Firstly, in a region with a strong monolingual community language, workers will seek the highest paying labour available to them within that region, as they are unable to access work opportunities in regions where their language is not the primary mode of communication. To the capitalist, this is a limit on their ability to exploit labour originating in the periphery by drawing them to the core, because for labour to function effectively in the core generally it must speak in the language of the core. If the language of the periphery is broken and the language of the core used in its place, or the language of the core becomes the primary language of the periphery, labour in the periphery would then be able to access work opportunities in the core. Of course, the opportunities for work in the core would still be poorly paid compared to workers in the core, but compared to the opportunities afforded to them in the periphery they would be better off. This benefits the capitalist by allowing them to draw labour from the periphery and paying them a far lower rate than workers in the core would expect, while also further exploiting the periphery by depriving it of the labour it needs to generate wealth and develop itself economically. This process notably occurred in the Irish context, but was a common phenomenon across European colonial empires.

Secondly, in order to continue the exploitation of colonised and imperialised nations, some level of control has to be maintained by the core over the periphery. On a material level, the presence of a widely spoken community language different to that of the core makes it far more difficult to control the populace in the periphery. Conversations can be had that are difficult to monitor and manuscripts can be produced that take time to translate. The language of the periphery becomes the perfect revolutionary code, with far too much being spoken and written for constant monitoring to be feasible. The breaking of this language becomes a necessity, because even if the language is only marginalised and the language of the core becomes the primary language, the material that needs to be translated becomes a great deal smaller. However, over time this the use of language breaking for espionage and counter-insurgency gives way to a more ethereal, covert process of control. As the language of the core comes to supplant that of the periphery, the people of the periphery may become more and more amenable to the ideas of the core. While no language has a set class culture, the way that language is taught and the culture that is exchanged in that teaching process leaves residue. There is not only a language being exchanged, but a certain view of the periphery and the core’s relationship to each other. An example of this process can be seen in The Reports of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the State of Education in Wales in 1847, where a commission recommending increased English language education and the ending of Welsh language tuition in Wales claimed that Welsh speakers were less moral than English speakers. This is a more overt example of how the teaching of the language of the core in the periphery is often framed as “improvement”, allowing the peripheral person to advance and become civilised. This leaves an ideological impression of those learning the language of the core, one that leaves many who are subjected to it loyal to the core for what is depicted as their emancipation from backwardness. While this attitude seems distinctly colonial and Victorian, it is still active today, albeit in a more secular, economically minded way. Organisations like The British Council market their language tuition programs in nations like Pakistan as liberating, in that they liberate the Pakistani people from the need to work in Pakistan, allowing them to sell their labour in western nations instead, at a much lower rate of pay than their western colleagues of course.

Finally, language functions in a similar way to a currency in trade. When a Thai person wants to purchase Libyan oil, they will likely use the petrodollar as their means of currency exchange. This means that the US has involvement in transactions across the world that it has no business being involved in, as the petrodollar is fixed to the US dollar. In a similar way, when this Thai person is discussing this exchange with their Libyan counterpart, they will not do so in Thai or Arabic, but a European language. International business languages function in our globalised market to make communication easier between different speakers, but the choice of language that is made is deliberate. The promotion of English, French and German as major business languages serve to ensure European involvement in the economies of developing nations never ends. There is a constant need for speakers of the languages of the imperial core in developing countries in order to engage in the system of globalised trade, and so there is constant demand for more teachers and translators of these languages. Nations in the global south are incentivised to invest in teaching their children the languages of the imperial core so that those children too can leave their country and sell their labour in the imperial core. These nations are also encouraged, by their adoption of European languages, to trade heavily with the European and North American nations with whom they can easily converse, usually selling their raw unworked product to European and North American companies to sell them back worked products at a premium price. Language functions in the process of neo-colonialism just as economics does, with the core using its linguistic power to further exploit the periphery.

Acknowledging the role that language plays in imperialism, how can we set about using language to build an anti-imperialist politics? Discussion should be had amongst the membership and in branches about this topic. Every one of us has our own experience with language politics, and only through mass investigation can we understand how these issues are manifesting on a personal and community level. What are we doing in our communities to meet their present language needs? What do we intend to do about language rights and the role of language in imperialism under socialism? Serious thought should be given to these questions so that we can produce a scientific understanding of the language question in an Irish context, and help to build an anti-imperialist language politics at a community level.

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