An exclusive interview of Prof. Craig Brandist (by Sankar Ray)

Published on Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The following post has been received in an email from Mr. Sankar Ray, a Kolkata-based veteran journalist and analyst. Mr. Ray is a long time well wisher and member of mukto-mona.

Jahed Ahmed

Dr Craig Brandist is , Professor of Cultural Theory and Intellectual History , University of Sheffield and director Bakhtin Centre. Among his major works are The Bakhtin Circle: Philosophy, Culture and Politics ( 2002), and The Dimensions of Hegemony: Language, Culture and Politics in Revolutionary Russia ( 2015) and Politics and the Theory of Language in the USSR 1917-1998: The Birth of Sociological Linguistics (2010), and jointly with Katya Chown. One of the research projects he has been pursuing is on Gramsci's time in Russia along with Dr. Peter Thomas of Brunel University. In fact, he spoke to Sankar Ray, veteran Kolkata-based writer, specializing in Left politics and history as also environmental issues on this topic. Much of this was stated by Prof Brandist in an oration at the Centre for Marxist Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

His research interest covers in the main the interaction between Marxism, henomenology, Gestalt Theory and various forms of linguistic and cultural theory within the specific context of early-Soviet Russia.

SR: You stated in your Debesh Chakraborty memorial lecture at the Centre for Marxist Studies that in the late 1930s, during the Stalin era in the Stalin period that there was "a shift from Latinisation of language of the people of Russia (obviously meaning the USSR- SR) to the adoption of Cyrillic alphabet". So the claim by the official Marxist parties, meaning those that were 'sections of Comintern' , that Stalin solved the linguistic problems in the USSR, is unsubstantiated. You inferred that it was a sort of linguistic colonialism or the like, Will you drive your point in an explanatory way? Wasn't Latinisation during Lenin period too linguistic repression?

CB:Latinization for the scripts of the newly standardized languages of the USSR in the 1920s was perceived by the Bolsheviks a way of steering a path between two dangers:

  1. that national minorities would perceive Cyrillic as a colonial imposition similar to Tsarist Russification policies, and 2) yielding the sphere of education to mullahs in central Asia, since they were the ones who were literate in the Arabic script. Besides, the Arabic script was poorly suited to the phonetics of Turkic languages and needed serious revisions. So Latin had a socio-political neutrality, and there was, in principle at least (though often not in practice) plenty of print technology available for the development of publishing that script.

Initially the centre of Latinization was Baku, and developments proceeded largely through a dialogue between centrally appointed linguists and the local intelligentsia, where it existed. Certainly political agendas were at work here, decisions were taken and measures implemented, but repression was at most a marginal phenomenon until the end of the 1920s. Lenin, who was incapacitated in 1923 and died at the beginning of 1924, constantly worried about 'great Russian chauvinism' among Russian Communists and the rise of the Party-state bureaucracy in the last years of his life, but he proved unable to do more than retard its development. At the end of the 1920s the central Latinization office was shifted to Moscow and Latinization became a centralized imposition, with the force of Stalin's central bureaucracy behind it. Opponents of the campaign were now accused of 'counter-revolutionary' activity and many ended up in camps or were shot, which was, of course, the fate of all the most prominent Muslim national communists wherever they stood on the alphabet question. It was also the fate of some of the most prominent specialists in the language and cultures of the East in the mid-1930s.

This was symptomatic of the fundamental shift in the structure of power that the first Five-Year Plan represented – it is probably no exaggeration to call it a counter- revolution from within. The USSR now acted as one giant corporation competing militarily with Western imperial powers. This competition constituted the entire dynamic of the Soviet economy from this point on. I'm inclined to consider the USSR from the end of the 1920s as a form of bureaucratic state capitalism, but whatever we call it, this was a forced usurpation of power by the bureaucracy, which transformed itself into a new ruling class – the same class that ultimately privatized state assets in the 1990s. We should remember that the shift to the market came from within the Communist Party itself as the ruling class moved its assets from its 'public pocket' to its 'private pocket', as Bukharin may have put it. Once the new Stalinist bureaucratic structure settled into place in the 1930s, and the old Bolsheviks and National Communists who could not bear to see the Revolution they had fought for being destroyed were purged, Stalin began a shift back towards an imperial arrangement between Russia and the national republics. Control was centralized and all the resources of the USSR were marshalled to compete with other imperial powers. The shift to Cyrillic in the late 1930s was but one aspect of this.

SR : But you are of the view that language and culture are subject to power relations and hierarchy of a society in which a dominant discourse imposes itself on the others. If so, don't language and culture have elements of even linguistic repression?

CB :I'm not entirely sure of the point you're getting at here. Certainly language and culture are fields of force within which the struggle between classes and other centres of power takes place. In the context of the USSR in the 1920s workers' power appeared as repression (the proletarian dictatorship over the bourgeoisie) and as hegemony (over the peasantry), with relations of prestige the dominant form. This is something Gramsci was particularly sensitive to. For him proletarian hegemony facilitates the development of an independent critical perspective by the peasantry and other 'subaltern' groups (national minorities among them), while bourgeois hegemony represses such developments. In the USSR this was also a difference between what Gramsci calls 'democratic centralism' and 'bureaucratic centralism'. The dichotomy Gramsci developed here is quite useful for modelling power relations in the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s and how this worked in and through language.

SR :A school of cultural theorists who endorse Antonio Gramsci's views on culture and linguistics suggests that Mao Zedong's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was an endorsement of Aleksandor Bogdanov's thesis on Proletcult. If it is true, wasn't the GPCR a negation of Lenin's perception of culture or cultural revolution as Lenin profoundly differed with Bogdanov on proletcult?

CB:The 'GPCR' was in reality neither primarily cultural nor revolutionary, but Mao struggling to maintain power against opponents in the bureaucracy through the mobilization of youth in particular. This attempt to boost populist appeal was crucial after the disaster of the 'Great Leap Forward'. There were fundamental differences between the Russian and Chinese cases though. Mao led a genuine national liberation movement against Japanese imperialism, but his project was to build a Stalin-type regime from the outset. In Russia the Stalin regime was a consequence of the bureaucratic degeneration of a workers' revolution in an economically backward society surrounded by hostile powers. Now, if Mao's perspective, or at least his rhetoric, on culture shared something with Bogdanov it was voluntarism, the idea that a post-capitalist culture could be created in conditions of mass illiteracy and economic backwardness. It was this that Lenin objected to in Bogdanov's programme, insisting that the general educational level of the masses first needed to be raised in order to lessen their reliance on the bureaucracy. For Lenin there was no point in attacking the fellow-travelling intelligentsia when they were needed to raise the educational level of the masses. Hardly surprising therefore that the slogans of proletarian culture served the bureaucracy well during the first Five Year Plan, ven though they abandoned it once they claimed 'socialism' had begun.

As with so much of the history of the period, terminology underwent such enormous distortions between 1917 and, say, 1940 that the same term came to mean quite contrasting things. This misleads people today just as it did at the time. There are many examples, the nonsensical notion of 'communist state' is perhaps the most obvious, but 'proletarian culture' was one. For Bogdanov it meant a genuine mass movement based on workers coming to replace the old intelligentsia through their self-organization. By the end of the 1920s it denoted a conservative, bureaucratic invention that led to the harassment of the fellow-travelling intellectuals that the revolution still needed desperately if the level of education of the masses was to be brought up to a level where the masses could supplant the growing bureaucracy. Lenin's last works are fundamentally concerned with this. What Mao and Bogdanov had in common was a utopianism, though of very different sorts.

SR: For Gramsci, "history of languages is the history of linguistic innovations but these innovations are not individual (as is in the case of art), they are those of a whole community that has renewed its culture and has 'progressed' historically." But Marx stressed the emancipation of individual ? Do the individual and the collective mutually develop dialectically? Or do you think Gramsci and Marx had some differences?

I think the former is true. The individual develops in and through the developing capacities of the society of which he or she is part. What Gramsci was doing was recasting Matteo Bartoli's ideas about the flow of linguistic innovations between speech communities according to the relative prestige of the community (generated by power of an economic, intellectual or military nature) in a new way so that the class struggle affects the relative prestige of certain ideas within a society. This is because, for Gramsci, as a neo-Humboldtian thinker about language, language embodies a worldview. So his early training as a linguist, under Bartoli, helped him to theorise the language politics he witnessed in the USSR in the 1920s, in which a new public discourse in Russian was in the process of formation, relations between Russian and other languages were shifting, and relations between the proletariat and peasantry were under strain. Language now became a fundamental locus of the struggle for hegemony in which the proletariat and the capitalist elements, partially liberated under the NEP, struggled for influence over the Russian and non-Russian peasantry. Gramsci then tried to 'translate' the lessons from this into Italian conditions – indeed, much of the Prison Notebooks is concerned with this 'translation' of the lessons of the NEP to Italy. Here it is proletarian hegemony that facilitates the emancipation of the individual peasant, while bourgeois hegemony obstructs the emergence of a critical consciousness and so retards the emancipation of the 'man in the mass', as Gramsci puts it. I've written on this at length in my recent book The Dimensions of Hegemony: Language, Culture and Politics in revolutionary Russia (Leiden etc: Brill 2015). At present this is only available in an expensive hardback, but a cheaper paperback edition should appear with Haymarket Press in a year or so.

SR : In a paper, Russian Marxism, Hegemony and the Critique of Eurocentrism, you observed that the post-colonial and subaltern theorists have been selectively picked up Gramsci's concepts of hegemony and imposed them into "an eclectic theoretical edifice that Edward Said called an 'adversary epistemological current' to combat Eurocentrism." . But why do you say that Marxism was itself compromised by Eurocentric presuppositions which viewed the orient through the grid of patterns of development that were in reality specific to Europe'. Do you suggest that Marx had Euro-centric bend in his thinking after reading?

I would refer to Marx's works on Russia in 1877 and 1881 and on India and China .He talked of 'dualism, manifesting the contradictory reality of the Russian countryside', in one of the last manuscripts of Capital II written one year after his letter to Mikhailovsky." (Paresh Chattopadhyay : Passage to Socialism: The Dialectic of Progress in Marx in Historical Materialism, Nov 2006, p 53 n).

CB :My work is actually directed against the 'postmodern' assumption that Marxism is essentially Eurocentric. Edward Said certainly encouraged this distorted view of Marxism, though his own relationship to Marxism was complex and shifting. Subsequently the more 'hardline' Foucauldians who developed 'postcolonial studies' while justifying their retreat from collective politics propagated the myth that Marxism is essentially Eurocentric. I think this is a travesty of the history of Marxism. That isn't to say that there are no Eurocentric Marxists, or that Marxists are somehow immune to Eurocentric prejudices. Far from it. The history of the movement has plenty of examples of ideological battles with Eurocentrism, including Lenin's polemics with Plekhanov and his struggle to establish national liberation as Bolshevik policy, as well as his struggle against the drift towards Great Russian chauvinism among Russian Communists in the 1920s.

As for Marx, he struggled to free himself from the Eurocentrism of the bourgeois thinkers on whom he was reliant for information throughout his long career, and by the end of his life he had made a great deal of progress in this area. Many commentators, such as Irfan Habib discussing Marx's changing perspective on India and, most recently, Kevin Anderson in his 2010 book Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Non-Western Societies, have shown how Marx shifted away from the unilinear conception of social development of his early work to a multilinear perspective by the time he engaged the Russian populists in dialogue. It is no exaggeration to say that it was precisely within Marxism that social theory was able to liberate itself from Eurocentric prejudices, but this was in and through being open to engagements with various liberation movements across the globe. The Comintern was, of course, the fundamental arena in which exchanges between the USSR and the various liberation movements around the globe took place, but this exchange was increasingly distorted by Stalin's demand that the entire structure serve the interests of Soviet foreign policy. The first four congresses of the Comintern were quite different from those that followed in this respect. One of the things we also know now is that in the development of Bolshevik policy towards the national and colonial question developed in and through exchanges with communists in the 'borderland' parties of the Russian Empire and then through exchanges with liberation movements outside what became the USSR. One interesting contribution to the discussion is Eric Blanc's work on the question, which can be read here: https://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2014/05/20/national-liberation- and-bolshevism-reexamined-a-view-from-the-borderlands/ . It is this openness to dialogue and resistance to dogma that is the great strength of the Bolsheviks, and of Marxism in general, and the reason why the experience of Stalinism was so disastrous to the entire movement. So what happened is that when intellectuals in the various liberation movements became alienated from Communist Parties by their Stalinist drift, the critique of Eurocentrism was detached from Marxism and turned back on Marxism itself. So now we have a widespread caricature of Marxism as a Eurocentric dogma, and it requires a proper, open and critical, in a word a historical analysis to combat this distorted image.

SR : You referred to the controversial archaeologist and linguistic scholar, Nikolai Marr and his 'ideology-critique' of Euro-centrism, in view of destruction of linguistic progression during the Stalin era. Will you say a few words on this scholar and its relevance to linguistic plurality or whatever you call it in the 21st Century?

CB: Marr was a complicated man. He was a great scholar of Caucasian philology and archaeology whose mental health was in serious question (especially toward the end of his life), and whose followers participated in the worst practices of Soviet intellectual life at the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s. Again, I've written about this at length in The Dimensions of Hegemony, but perhaps the best thing I can say here is that Marr developed a penetrating critique of the way in which Indo-European philology served to create a technical apparatus that was used to justify colonial policies. It was an argument that in many respects anticipated that of Edward Said in Orientalism (1978) and, as Vera Tolz has recently shown, there does appear to be a genetic connection between the two conceptions via the Egyptian Marxist Anouar Abdel-Malek. While this critique was significant, and inspired some important work in folklore, religious and literary studies, Marr increasingly confused methodological rigor and factual accuracy on the one hand with interpretation, generalization or conceptualization on the other. So his justified criticisms of the interpretations and biases of Indo-Europeanists ultimately led to him rejecting the methods of comparative linguistics as such. In this way Marr was a forerunner of Foucault in that Indo-Europeanism became something like a 'discourse' motivated by 'power-knowledge'. Marr then, disastrously, tried to develop his own counter- discourse that resulted in such absurd propositions as the idea that all words in all languages derived from four primordial phonemes sal, ber, yon and rosh. This 'counter-discourse', the so-called 'New Theory of Language', had elements that fitted well with Stalin's nationality policy at the end of the 1920s and 1930s in that it suggested all languages were converging and would ultimately result in a single language. This fitted the idea of 'socialism in one country' well, for the USSR would be that one country. Marr deliberately echoed Stalin's pronouncements on the national question and Stalin supported Marr's ideas, helping them become orthodoxy in the USSR from 1932 to 1950. This theory no longer fitted nationality policy after the USSR expanded into Eastern Europe in the late 1940s, for conspicuous respect of individual national languages and cultures was fundamental to the settlement between nation states in the 'Eastern Bloc'. So in 1950 Stalin shifted to support other linguists who sought to break Marr's posthumous hold on linguistics (he had died in 1934) and revert back to the paradigms of Indo-Europeanism. This resulted in Stalin's 1950 articles on linguists published in Pravda. The problem now was that the baby was thrown out with the bathwater. The valuable lines of research that Marrism had at very least accommodated and facilitated: sociolinguistic research and palaeontological semantics among them, now yielded to a strictly normative and conservative type of linguistic scholarship. Only in the 1960s did these things gradually begin to reappear in Soviet scholarship. This is important today because it shows how the critique of Eurocentrism in Western scholarship was not an invention of some 'postmodernist' tinkers, but was fundamentally linked to Marxism. It also shows that characteristic features of 'postmodernism', Foucault's notion of 'power-knowledge' for instance, are counterproductive formulations that need to be replaced with something more critically productive. In this intellectual history has an important role to play, for it allows us to uncover the achievements and weaknesses of the past, to learn from them and so to move forward.

SR: Were there similarities between the linguistic theories of Gramsci and Mikhail Bakhtin?

CB :Yes indeed. I wrote about this at length in the late 1990s. Gramsci and Bakhtin shared a Humbolditan conception of language according to which a language embodies a worldview. Gramsci derived many ideas from his former tutor Matteo Bartoli, who sought to trace the conditions under which innovations flow from one speech community to another according to relations of prestige. Gramsci shifted this account from relations between nations to relations between classes in society. Bakhtin similarly sociologised von Humboldt's ideas, but he did so because he inherited ideas from his friend Valentin Voloshinov, who posed languages as the embodiment of social ideologies and an index of social conflict and change. In the 1930s he absorbed ideas that had been developed by early Soviet linguists about the formation of the national language under conditions of capitalism, and the social stratification of that language. In reality Bakhtin's ideas about language were not very original, but the way he employed the ideas in his analyses of literature was so. Bakhtin's originality in this area was the way he combined the linguistic ideas with a philosophy of culture. Gramsci clearly intersected with the vibrant debates about language in the USSR in the 1920s, and was able to reflect on them later precisely because of his earlier training as a linguist. Like Bakhtin it was his ability to combine the ideas with other important ideas of the time in concrete engagements that brought out his originality as a thinker. What is quite different, though, is that while Gramsci was quite clearly an important Marxist thinker, Bakhtin was not. Instead, he was an idealist philosopher of culture who was unable to embed his ideas about language and literature within an institutional analysis. I think this can best be explained by the degeneration of Marxist theory in the USSR in the 1930s into a reductionist and mechanical dogmatism, which left Bakhtin able to discuss the dialogic nature of literature only by 'bracketing out' institutional factors. His reliance on a neo-Kantian and Hegelian framework both enabled certain kinds of analysis, and limited how they could be developed. Meanwhile Gramsci was 'liberated' from the degeneration and distortion of Soviet Marxism by Mussolini in 1926! There certainly wasn't much positive about being locked in a fascist prison, but this was perhaps the one thing: it allowed Gramsci to continue working with the open, critical and non-dogmatic social theory that the Revolution had given rise to, but that was in the process of being deformed almost beyond recognition.

SR : Thanks, Prof Craig Brandist

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