…apishly Romanizing, that the word of command still was set downe in Latine; as if the learned Grammaticall pen that wrote it, would cast no ink without Latine: or perhaps, as they thought, because no vulgar tongue was worthy to expresse the pure conceit of an Imprimatur; but rather, as I hope, for that our English, the language of men ever famous, and formost in the atchievements of liberty, will not easily finde servile letters anow to spell such a dictatorie presumption in EnglishJohn Milton, Areopagitica, 1644
In his essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell noticed that Marxism tended to borrow more extensively from Russian, French, and German than from Greek or Latin (let alone Anglo-Saxon) roots. This gives Marxism a distinctive flavor, such that one can often accurately guess someone’s politics merely from the use of the word “bourgeoisie.”
This of course might just be a byproduct of where Marxism was developed. One can hardly complain about a German man writing in German, or a Frenchman deciding to write in French. But the vernacular distinctive to Marxism is much narrower than an entire Eurasian language, and the point of Orwell’s essay is that while sloppy language can reflect poor thinking, it can also cause poor thinking:
A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
My aim here is not to equate Marxist language with sloppy thinking, but rather to point to an essence of Marxist language. A wide range of thinking has emerged out of Karl Marx’s writings, some economic, some, political, some cultural, some religious, some historical. Much of these schools of thought are mutually contradictory — for instance, some Marxists care deeply about morality, especially as it pertains to equality and human solidarity, while other Marxists treat morality as a naive delusion, and believe what is important are economical and historical forces which will determine political direction in the future. In the end, what unites these schools of thought together is not some theoretical bedrock, but their origins in Marx’s writing. What they have in common is Marx’s language.
If we turn to Marx’s own writing, we can immediately see an almost Nietzschean anti-systems way of thinking, which corresponds with the theoretical diversity and incoherence of modern Marxism.
We shall confront the world not as doctrinaires with a new principle […] we only show the world what it is fighting for.For a Ruthless Criticism of Everything Existing, 1843
But if we cannot define Marxism in accordance to some theoretical framework, Marx offers in its place a kind of philosophy for the use of language, and that is — in a word — criticism.
In his Contribution to the Critique of Hegels Philosophy of Right, Marx outlines his critical project in religious language which is worth quoting at length:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun. Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself.
It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.
It is no exaggeration to say Marx views criticism as a path of salvation. Criticism clears the path for true self-knowledge, to clear thinking, and to finding solutions to problems with which humans merely coped. This task cannot be accomplished without criticism; with and through criticism, almost nothing else is necessary — the destruction of illusions is the aim, and this destruction is accomplished not with swords and bullets, but with words.
From this, we can deduce that first and foremost, Marxism is criticism.
It goes without saying that there are forms of criticism which are not Marxist. Marxist criticism is criticism carried out for a particular purpose, which we might call “global self-actualization.” As such, Marxist criticism has a uniquely grand scope. It is not critical in the manner of normal criticism, which seeks to point out flaws in pursuit of some improvement or better alternative. Marxist critique is lethal. Later in the Contribution, he described criticism as an “executioner,” and elaborated in the following language:
It is not a lancet, it is a weapon. Its object is its enemy, which it wants not to refute but to exterminate. For the spirit of that state of affairs is refuted. In itself, it is no object worthy of thought, it is an existence which is as despicable as it is despised. Criticism does not need to make things clear to itself as regards this object, for it has already settled accounts with it. It no longer assumes the quality of an end-in-itself, but only of a means. Its essential pathos is indignation, its essential work is denunciation.
One is left wondering whether the Marxist — in his ruthless criticism of everything existing — would know when he had found the line between the last imaginary flower and the living flower.
But when hearing Marxists rail against capitalism, patriarchy, etc., one gets the impression that the aim has shifted. There is a certain joy in destroying things, a sense of power. The medium of Marxist criticism is not designed for creation, nor does it have the ability to discriminate and distinguish between “good” and “bad.” Anything it can destroy is deemed worthy of destruction. And by habitation, the destructive tendency of Marxist critique becomes the new end of Marxism–not as a matter of theory, but of language. The very vocabulary of Marx was built around this purpose of destructive criticism. “Oppression” as a term of indignant condemnation can be applied to everything that exists, since all life sustains itself by death. Logical coherence can only exist within a consistent set of assumptions — to evaluate a system from an outsider’s perspective, or the perspective of “the oppressed,” is to find it ridiculous, irrational, and contemptible a priori.
If the Marxist finally reached the end of illusion and found himself faced with the task of enjoying his new-found freedom and self-knowledge, what would he do with it? He would have to learn an entirely new manner of speaking, complete with a new vocabulary, and might also have to — if he can — unlearn the undiscriminating Marxist language of destructive criticism.
If not, he might be condemned to destroy things forever, to criticize forever, to find nothing noble, praiseworthy, or good in anything, ever, and to find a pleasure in the feeling of superiority for being able to do so — of being able to justify this destruction as well as to cause it.
At a personal level, I find myself increasingly uninclined to even engage with Marxism and to “educate myself” further on the subject. As the counter-Enlightenment philosopher Mahann observed, thought is language, and the languages we marinate ourselves in become the nutritional substance of our thoughts. It is enough to identify Marxism as destructive railery. As Odysseus demonstrated with Thersites — to proto-Marx of his day, and the closest thing to a “Hero” for Marx — there is nothing else to say. And given the power of such destructive criticism, it may even be important to forcefully stop such people from talking — if not by cudgel across the back, then by averting our ears from anyone who calls themselves “Marxists” and asserting our right to not be addressed.
Odysseus has done many a good thing before now in fight and council, but he never did the Argives a better turn than when he stopped this fellow’s mouth from prating further.Iliad II