From the August 1950 issue of the Socialist Standard
What is truth?” asked Jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer. If the Roman's question referred to truth in an absolute sense he may have thought that there could be no answer. Hence his refusal to tarry suggests that he was not an unwise man.
For centuries philosophers have vainly sought for that “adumbration of a light that never shone on land or sea ”—“Absolute Truth." Towering edifices of involved mental processes have been erected in an attempt to reach to the edge of infinity; but in vain. Truth has always had the character of a recurring decimal which would not cancel out into any philosophic whole without remainder. So philosophers great and small have with airy verbalizations blown up a vast balloon of emptyness and called it—“The Absolute.”
Because a word has been coined it is often assumed that something must exist in the real world to which the word itself refers. The word truth having been contrived people have thought that there must exist some absolute to which the word alludes. If of course one holds that there is no absolute but only particular truths then the verbal difficulties associated with the word truth, vanish.
It is the age long magic of words which has the power of conferring on things that exist, attributes and virtues which in actual fact they do not possess. The relics of the magic of language can be traced in such rituals as the coronation of kings, the christening of babies and the dubbing of knights.
The witch doctor of old well knew the magic of words. The more meaningless they were the more by incantation and ritual could they be invested with awesome significance. Their modern archetypes, the psychologists have also invented a magic vocabulary of their own. Most of what they say is so trite and even trivial that if said in ordinary words would hardly be worth saying. But touch this jargon with the magic name psychology and it becomes the subject matter for a treatise or text book.
Advertisement copy writers also make great use of word magic. They have long realised the selling superiority of tuppence coloured words over those which are merely penny plain. In many cases the name of the advertised product and the alleged magic ingredients of the product itself have become so associated in peoples minds as to make the name of the product and the product itself, indistinguishable.
In the ordinary business of life we communicate with each other by means of words without difficulty. Here the words used correspond with actual events in the world, otherwise the detailed activity of everyday life could not be carried on. There are other words however which are at what is termed a higher level of abstraction than ordinary label words like butter, cheese or beer; such words or strictly speaking concepts as gravitation, inertia, energy, velocity, etc. Because these terms embody a number of highly generalised ideas they are more remotely linked to our everyday experiences. As long as the people who use them are aware of what is involved in the use of such terms, and other people with whom they communicate are similarly aware, then no mystification of meaning takes place.
There are however other concepts of a high order of abstraction like Democracy, Liberty, Freedom, Justice, etc. Unlike the scientific terms, gravitation, inertia, etc., which are generalised statements about properties of matter these concepts take on the character of timeless truths and form the cornerstone of social philosophies. Nevertheless politicians, pundits and propagandists, go on talking and writing about them as if they were as real and circumscribed as a suet pudding or the print on this page. Indeed they give these concepts a concrete order of meaning attached to label words like the aforementioned butter, cheese and beer. It is this indiscriminate use of language which treats ideal abstractions as if they were real things that so effectively hides meaning. Little wonder when fiction and fact, illusion and reality are so inextricably blended by propaganda and word magic that the social pattern for many people becomes confused and blurred.
The term democracy for instance is severely limited in its present social context to mean the right of adults to vote for representative government. Yet such are the idealistic notions which have been built round the term that its meaning has been expanded to include vague misty meanings like “the embodiment of western ideals and spiritual values.” It is also presented as “A way of life” with of course suitable labels like American or British attached to it. It is also “a social principle” which we are supposed to live by and if necessary fight for and on occasions die for. Yet what ever claims are made for democracy by capitalist apologists and that goes for “Freedom,” “Liberty” and “Justice” too, the great and undeniable social fact of today is the capitalist class ownership of the means of living. It is this which gives them power over the non-owners, the working class who are compelled to use these means in order to live and which extends to every phase of their social and private lives.
Another term which has been going the propaganda rounds is “Free Enterprise.” A euphemism of course for a profit producing system. It has been pictorially depicted as a lissome sprite rushing through space trailing clouds. Around the term has been woven other terms such as “individual initiative,” “free labour,” “free choice"; in fact freedom for anybody and everybody. That land of trusts, monopolies and mighty corporations, America with its long history of graft and political pressures is held up as the exemplar of “Free Enterprise.” By the use of such terms it is hoped to build up in people’s minds when they see or read the words free enterprise a favourable reaction to it.
Socialism, which means the replacement of the present social order by one based upon free and democratic access to the means of living, has, as a result of Labour Party propaganda, been identified with theories of nationalization and state capitalism. Their political rivals have thus been able to attach to the term socialism unfavourable words like bureaucracy, officialdom, red tape. Communism which is synonymous with socialism has by a deft propaganda stroke been separated from it to mean a more advanced form of Labour Party nationalization theories. It is then described as a more “drastic” form of socialism, a more “ruthless” outcome of socialism, and so on. And because the alleged Communist Party has identified communism with Russian state capitalism its political opponents have further added ugly words like totalitarianism and dictatorship, we can see then by what standard there has occurred the falsification of the word socialism. Propaganda and word magic have combined to convert the coinage of political terms into a debased and worthless currency.
One might of course attempt to keep words more precise by constant references to the dictionary. Words however take on an emotional significance which often has little in common with their dictionary definitions, especially when unchecked by knowledge. The word foreigner to those with parochial minds is not merely or even primarily a person born in another country. It has other associations of a vague and misty character which carry uneasy notions of the unfamiliar and even unknown. Add to that idea some one with dark and sinister motives and you have for many people the kernel of meaning the word conveys.
Its antonym, the word native, means one indigenous to a country. By association it has come to mean for numbers of folk just coloured people. Many white people in their own country seldom think of themselves as natives because the word has come to have a coloured connotation and with it notions of racial inferiority.
Words also come to have political and social associations which have little or nothing to do with their real meanings. The word republican today is the name of a major American political party, many of whose names possibly appear on the “social register.” In the 18th century the term republican was a word of abuse. The overthrow by the French middle class of the old feudal aristocracy had its repercussions in England and elsewhere. Republican came to mean not only those who were against monarchy but those against all established institutions who were regarded as lawless and unprincipled people. To be a republican and an atheist was considered in some circles to have touched bottom in human depravity. The historical conditions which gave force to these words have passed away and with it the stigma attached to them. Even “atheist” has lost much of the traditional hostility which the word once aroused.
Take another word; bolshevik. It means merely one who formed a majority section in the Russian Social Democrat party. The minority were called mensheviks. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 it became greatly in vogue as an abusive political label like Jacobin or republican. It was greatly used by sections of the daily press and certain conservative politicians who made it a verbal daub brush to smear the activity of some of their political opponents in unfavourable colours. The name bolshy often had an effect upon certain members of the privileged class in England such as the term republican had on the 18th century squires. To a wealthy and well nourished stockbroker travelling first class to the city the emotional backlash of the word might have been sufficient to have caused a quivering of his pink and portly flesh. Today the bolsheviks, like their French prototypes, the Jacobins, have gone their way and with them has gone most of the significance which the word once had. The modern counterparts of bolshevik are “communist” or perhaps the somewhat more abusive expression, “red.”
We ought to mention that there are people called semanticists who believe that a major solution to world problems lies in the reform of language. In fact the more voluble of them like Stuart Chase hold for all practical purposes that social problems are at bottom, linguistic problems. It seems to him and others that due to faulty communication ideas are unable to be effectively and rationally expressed. Although vide Stuart Chase there are important differences between countries, words and dialect which accompany these differences far transcend them in actual fact and kindle emotional fires which if language communication was on guard would never be started. It seems then that capitalist powers quarrel, arm and as is often the case, send men to fight, less over the question of raw materials, markets and spheres of influence, than the irrational and emotional use of words. The semanticist remedy is the making of language more precise, more scientific and neutral in the main spheres of social activity. We can only say that in a world of international rivalry, power politics and threatened atomic catastrophe the most neutral language will not make the environment less hostile. Men’s economic interest and their feelings are very much wrapped up in each other. To express such partial interests in impartial language would be to make speech more confused and hidden than it is today. The solution of social problems is not to be found in reconstructing our sentences or in perfecting syntax but in the reconstructing of society on vastly different lines. The semanticists setting out to be a lighthouse of reason in the stormy seas of life merely become themselves, towers of confusion.
Today a vast social mythology exists in capitalism, a mythology greater in scope and extent than the mythologies of ancient Greece and Rome. And if we ask who benefits by the perpetuation of these myths then the answer plainly is the economically privileged capitalist class who alone benefit by the perpetuation of this system. Because those who directly control the means of production indirectly control the sources of information and avenues of communications, the schools, radio and press, a flood of myth making and word magic propaganda is incessantly poured through these channels.
Words are then virtually important things because how we understand and use them measures both our knowledge and our ignorance. In the S.P.G.B. the correct use of words and clear definitions are basic; not as an end in itself but as a means towards the furthering of a social goal—Socialism. The meaning we have given to terms such as capitalism, democracy, socialism, etc., have their reference in the actual and verifiable facts of the present social order. Only in this way can concepts and meanings be tested, checked and verified. Because our terms and definitions have been framed in this way they have been proof against the ravages of time and the assault of shifting social and political phases. For that reason the words uttered by us now and in all our yesterdays are a source of enlightenment and understanding for the vast majority.
With other political parties they have become a trackless verbal wasteland lit only by the treacherous glimmer of ideological will o’ the wisps. It becomes then a matter of grave urgency for workers to understand the world they live in. Only then will they cease to be the slaves of words and become masters of them. From word mastery based upon understanding it is but a step to world mastery.