Marxism and Problems of Linguistics1
Concerning Marxism in Linguistics
A group of younger comrades have asked me to give my opinion in the
press on problems relating to linguistics, particularly in reference to
Marxism in linguistics. I am not a linguistic expert and, of course,
cannot fully satisfy the request of the comrades. As to Marxism in
linguistics, as in other social sciences, this is something directly in
my field. I have therefore consented to answer a number of questions
put by the comrades.
Question: Is it true that language is a superstructure on the base?
Answer: No, it is not true.
The base is the economic structure of society at the given stage of its
development. The superstructure is the political, legal, religious,
artistic, philosophical views of society and the political, legal and
other institutions corresponding to them.
Every base has its own corresponding superstructure. The base of the
feudal system has its superstructure, its political, legal and other
views, and the corresponding institutions; the capitalist base has its
own superstructure, so has the socialist base. If the base changes or
is eliminated, then, following this, its superstructure changes or is
eliminated; if a new base arises, then, following this, a
superstructure arises corresponding to it.
In this respect language radically differs from the superstructure.
Take, for example, Russian society and the Russian language. In the
course of the past thirty years the old, capitalist base has been
eliminated in Russia and a new, socialist base has been built.
Correspondingly, the superstructure on the capitalist base has been
eliminated and a new superstructure created corresponding to the
socialist base. The old political, legal and other institutions,
consequently, have been supplanted by new, socialist institutions. But
in spite of this the Russian language has remained basically what it
was before the October Revolution.
What has changed in the Russian language in this period? To a certain
extent the vocabulary of the Russian language has changed, in the sense
that it has been replenished with a considerable number of new words
and expressions, which have arisen in connection with the rise of the
new socialist production, the appearance of a new state, a new
socialist culture, new social relations and morals, and, lastly, in
connection with the development of technology and science; a number of
words and expressions have changed their meaning, have acquired a new
signification; a number of obsolete words have dropped out of the
vocabulary. As to the basic stock of words and the grammatical system
of the Russian language, which constitute the foundation of a language,
they, after the elimination of the capitalist base, far from having
been eliminated and supplanted by a new basic word stock and a new
grammatical system of the language, have been preserved in their
entirety and have not undergone any serious changes – they have been
preserved precisely as the foundation of the modern Russian language.
Further, the superstructure is a product of the base, but this by no
means implies that it merely reflects the base, that it is passive,
neutral, indifferent to the fate of its base, to the fate of the
classes, to the character of the system. On the contrary, having come
into being, it becomes an exceedingly active force, actively assisting
its base to take shape and consolidate itself, and doing its utmost to
help the new system to finish off and eliminate the old base and the
It cannot be otherwise. The superstructure is created by the base
precisely in order to serve it, to actively help it to take shape and
consolidate itself, to actively fight for the elimination of the old,
moribund base together with its old superstructure. The superstructure
has only to renounce this role of auxiliary, it has only to pass from a
position of active defense of its base to one of indifference towards
it, to adopt an equal attitude to all classes, and it loses its virtue
and ceases to be a superstructure.
In this respect language radically differs from the superstructure.
Language is not a product of one or another base, old or new, within
the given society, but of the whole course of the history of the
society and of the history of the bases for many centuries. It was
created not by some one class, but by the entire society, by all the
classes of the society, by the efforts of hundreds of generations. It
was created for the satisfaction of the needs not of one particular
class, but of the entire society, of all the classes of the society.
Precisely for this reason it was created as a single language for the
society, common to all members of that society, as the common language
of the whole people. Hence the functional role of language, as a means
of intercourse between people, consists not in serving one class to the
detriment of other classes, but in equally serving the entire society,
all the classes of society. This in fact explains why a language may
equally serve both the old, moribund system and the new, rising system;
both the old base and the new base; both the exploiters and the
It is no secret to anyone that the Russian language served Russian
capitalism and Russian bourgeois culture before the October Revolution
just as well as it now serves the socialist system and socialist
culture of Russian society.
The same must be said of the Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Uzbek, Kazakh,
Georgian, Armenian, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Moldavian, Tatar,
Azerbaijanian, Bashkirian, Turkmenian and other languages of the Soviet
nations; they served the old, bourgeois system of these nations just as
well as they serve the new, socialist system.
It cannot be otherwise. Language exists, language has been created
precisely in order to serve society as a whole, as a means of
intercourse between people, in order to be common to the members of
society and constitute the single language of society, serving members
of society equally, irrespective of their class status. A language has
only to depart from this position of being a language common to the
whole people, it has only to give preference and support to some one
social group to the detriment of other social groups of the society,
and it loses its virtue, ceases to be a means of intercourse between
the people of the society, and becomes the jargon of some social group,
degenerates and is doomed to disappear.
In this respect, while it differs in principle from the superstructure,
language does not differ from instruments of production, from machines,
let us say, which are as indifferent to classes as is language and may,
like it, equally serve a capitalist system and a socialist system.
Further, the superstructure is the product of one epoch, the epoch in
which the given economic base exists and operates. The superstructure
is therefore short-lived; it is eliminated and disappears with the
elimination and disappearance of the given base.
Language, on the contrary, is the product of a whole number of epochs,
in the course of which it takes shape, is enriched, develops and is
smoothened. A language therefore lives immeasurably longer than any
base or any superstructure. This in fact explains why the rise and
elimination not only of one base and its superstructure, but of several
bases and their corresponding superstructures, have not led in history
to the elimination of a given language, to the elimination of its
structure and the rise of a new language with a new stock of words and
a new grammatical system.
It is more than a hundred years since Pushkin died. In this period the
feudal system and the capitalist system were eliminated in Russia, and
a third, a socialist system has arisen. Hence two bases, with their
superstructures, were eliminated, and a new, socialist base has arisen,
with its new superstructure. Yet, if we take the Russian language, for
example, it has not in this long span of time undergone any fundamental
change, and the modern Russian language differs very little in
structure from the language of Pushkin.
What has changed in the Russian language in this period? The Russian
vocabulary has in this period been greatly replenished; a large number
of obsolete words have dropped out of the vocabulary; the meaning of a
great many words has changed; the grammatical system of the language
has improved. As to the structure of Pushkin's language, with its
grammatical system and its basic stock of words, in all essentials it
has remained as the basis of modern Russian.
And this is quite understandable. Indeed, what necessity is there,
after every revolution, for the existing structure of the language, its
grammatical system and basic stock of words to be destroyed and
supplanted by new ones, as is usually the case with the superstructure?
What object would there be in calling "water," "earth," "mountain,"
"forest," "fish," "man," "to walk," "to do," "to produce," "to trade,"
etc., not water, earth, mountain, etc., but something else? What object
would there be in having the modification of words in a language and
the combination of words in sentences follow not the existing grammar,
but some entirely different grammar? What would the revolution gain
from such an upheaval in language? History in general never does
anything of any importance without some special necessity for it. What,
one asks, can be the necessity for such a linguistic revolution, if it
has been demonstrated that the existing language and its structure are
fundamentally quite suited to the needs of the new system? The old
superstructure can and should be destroyed and replaced by a new one in
the course of a few years, in order to give free scope for the
development of the productive forces of society; but how can an
existing language be destroyed and a new one built in its place in the
course of a few years without causing anarchy in social life and
without creating the threat of the disintegration of society? Who but a
Don Quixote could set himself such a task?
Lastly, one other radical distinction between the superstructure and
language. The superstructure is not directly connected with production,
with man's productive activity. It is connected with production only
indirectly, through the economy, through the base. The superstructure
therefore reflects changes in the level of development of the
productive forces not immediately and not directly, but only after
changes in the base, through the prism of the changes wrought in the
base by the changes in production. This means that the sphere of action
of the superstructure is narrow and restricted.
Language, on the contrary, is connected with man's productive activity
directly, and not only with man's productive activity, but with all his
other activity in all his spheres of work, from production to the base,
and from the base to the superstructure. For this reason language
reflects changes in production immediately and directly, without
waiting for changes in the base. For this reason the sphere of action
of language, which embraces all fields of man's activity, is far
broader and more comprehensive than the sphere of action of the
superstructure. More, it is practically unlimited.
It is this that primarily explains why language, or rather its
vocabulary, is in a state of almost constant change. The continuous
development of industry and agriculture, of trade and transport, of
technology and science, demands that language should replenish its
vocabulary with new words and expressions needed for their functioning.
And language, directly reflecting these needs, does replenish its
vocabulary with new words, and perfects its grammatical system.
a) A Marxist cannot regard language as a superstructure on the base;
To confuse language and superstructure is to commit a serious error.
Question: Is it true that language always was and is class language,
that there is no such thing as language which is the single and common
language of a society, a non-class language common to the whole people.
Answer: No, it is not true.
It is not difficult to understand that in a society which has no
classes there can be no such thing as a class language. There were no
classes in the primitive communal clan system, and consequently there
could be no class language – the language was then the single and
common language of the whole community. The objection that the concept
class should be taken as covering every human community, including the
primitive communal community, is not an objection but a playing with
words that is not worth refuting.
As to the subsequent development from clan languages to tribal
languages, from tribal languages to the languages of nationalities, and
from the languages of nationalities to national languages – everywhere
and at all stages of development, language, as a means of intercourse
between the people of a society, was the common and single language of
that society, serving its members equally, irrespective of their social
I am not referring here to the empires of the slave and mediaeval
periods, the empires of Cyrus or Alexander the Great, let us say, or of
Caesar or Charles the Great, which had no economic foundations of their
own and were transient and unstable military and administrative
associations. Not only did these empires not have, they could not have
had a single language common to the whole empire and understood by all
the members of the empire. They were conglomerations of tribes and
nationalities, each of which lived its own life and had its own
language. Consequently, it is not these or similar empires I have in
mind, but the tribes and nationalities composing them, which had their
own economic foundations and their own languages, evolved in the
distant past. History tells us that the languages of these tribes and
nationalities were not class languages, but languages common to the
whole of a tribe or nationality, and understood by all its people.
Side by side with this, there were, of course, dialects, local
vernaculars, but they were dominated by and subordinated to the single
and common language of the tribe or nationality.
Later, with the appearance of capitalism, the elimination of feudal
division and the formation of national markets, nationalities developed
into nations, and the languages of nationalities into national
languages. History shows that national languages are not class, but
common languages, common to all the members of each nation and
constituting the single language of that nation.
It has been said above that 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.
But people, the various social groups, the classes, are far from being
indifferent to language. They strive to utilize the language in their
own interests, to impose their own special lingo, their own special
terms, their own special expressions upon it. The upper strata of the
propertied classes, who have divorced themselves from and detest the
people – the aristocratic nobility, the upper strata of the
bourgeoisie – particularly distinguish themselves in this respect.
"Class" dialects, jargons, high-society "languages" are created. These
dialects and jargons are often incorrectly referred to in literature as
languages – the "aristocratic language" or the "bourgeois language" in
contradistinction to the "proletarian language" or the "peasant
language." For this reason, strange as it may seem, some of our
comrades have come to the conclusion that national language is a
fiction, and that only class languages exist in reality.
There is nothing, I think, more erroneous than this conclusion. Can
These dialects and jargons be regarded as languages? Certainly not.
They cannot, firstly, because these dialects and jargons have no
grammatical systems or basic word stocks of their own – they borrow
them from the national language. They cannot, secondly, because these
dialects and jargons are confined to a narrow sphere, are current only
among the upper strata of a given class and are entirely unsuitable as
a means of human intercourse for society as a whole. What, then, have
they? They have a collection of specific words reflecting the specific
tastes of the aristocracy or the upper strata of the bourgeoisie; a
certain number of expressions and turns of phrase distinguished by
refinement and gallantry and free of the "coarse" expressions and turns
of phrase of the national language; lastly, a certain number of foreign
words. But all the fundamentals, that is, the overwhelming majority of
the words and the grammatical system, are borrowed from the common,
national language. Dialects and jargons are therefore offshoots of the
common national language, devoid of all linguistic independence and
doomed to stagnation. To believe that dialects and jargons can develop
into independent languages capable of ousting and supplanting the
national language means losing one's sense of historical perspective
and abandoning the Marxist position.
References are made to Marx, and the passage from his article St. Max
is quoted which says that the bourgeois have "their own language," that
this language "is a product of the bourgeoisie"2 that it is
permeated with the spirit of mercantilism and huckstering. Certain
comrades cite this passage with the idea of proving that Marx believed
in the "class character" of language and denied the existence of a
single national language. If these comrades were impartial, they should
have cited another passage from this same article St. Max, where Marx,
touching on the ways single national languages arose, speaks of "the
concentration of dialects into a single national language resulting
from economic and political concentration."3
Marx, consequently, did recognize the necessity of a single national
language, as a higher form, to which dialects, as lower forms, are
What, then, can this bourgeois language be which Marx says "is a
product of the bourgeoisie"? Did Marx consider it as much a language as
the national language, with a specific linguistic structure of its own?
Could he have considered it such a language? Of course, not. Marx
merely wanted to say that the bourgeois had polluted the single
national language with their hucksters' lingo, that the bourgeois, in
other words, have their hucksters' jargon.
It thus appears that these comrades have misrepresented Marx. And they
misrepresented him because they quoted Marx not like Marxists but like
dogmatists, without delving into the essence of the matter.
References arc made to Engels, and the words from his The Condition of
the Working Class in England are cited where he says that in Britain
"...the working class has gradually become a race wholly apart from the
English bourgeoisie," that "the workers speak other dialects, have
other thoughts and ideals, other customs and moral principles, a
different religion and other politics than those of the bourgeoisie."4 Certain comrades conclude from this passage that Engels denied the
necessity of a common, national language, that he believed,
consequently, in the "class character" of language. True, Engels speaks
here of dialects, not languages, fully realizing that, being an
offshoot of the national language, a dialect cannot supplant the
national language. But apparently, These comrades regard the existence
of a difference between a language and a dialect with no particular
It is obvious that the quotation is inappropriate, because Engels here
speaks not of "class languages" but chiefly of class thoughts, ideals,
customs, moral principles, religion, politics. It is perfectly true
that the thoughts, ideals, customs, moral principles, religion and
politics of bourgeois and proletarians are directly antithetical. But
what has this to do with national language, or the "class character" of
language? Can the existence of class antagonisms in society serve as an
argument in favor of the "class character" of language, or against the
necessity of a single national language? Marxism says that a common
language is one of the cardinal earmarks of a nation, although knowing
very well that there are class antagonisms within the nation. Do the
comrades referred to recognize this Marxist thesis?
References are made to Lafargue,5 and it is said that in his
pamphlet The French Language Before and After the Revolution he
recognizes the "class character" of language and denies the necessity
of a national language common to the whole people. That is not true.
Lafargue does indeed speak of a "noble" or "aristocratic language" and
of the "jargons" of various strata of society. But these comrades
forget that Lafargue, who was not interested in the difference between
languages and jargons and referred to dialects now as "artificial
languages," now as "jargons," definitely says in this pamphlet that
"the artificial language which distinguished the aristocracy . . .
arose out of the language common to the whole people, which was spoken
both by bourgeois and artisan, by town and country."
Consequently, Lafargue recognizes the existence and necessity of a
common language of the whole people, and fully realizes that the
"aristocratic language" and other dialects and jargons are subordinate
to and dependent on the language common to the whole people.
It follows that the reference to Lafargue is wide of the mark.
References are made to the fact that at one time in England the feudal
lords spoke "for centuries" in French, while the English people spoke
English, and this is alleged to be an argument in favor of the "class
character" of language and against the necessity of a language common
to the whole people. But this is not an argument, it is rather an
anecdote. Firstly, not all the feudal lords spoke French at that time,
but only a small upper stratum of English feudal lords attached to the
court and at county seats. Secondly, it was not some "class language"
they spoke, but the ordinary language common to all the French people.
Thirdly, we know that in the course of time this French language fad
disappeared without a trace, yielding place to the English language
common to the whole people. Do these comrades think that the English
feudal lords "for centuries" held intercourse with the English people
through interpreters, that they did not use the English language, that
there was no language common to all the English at that time, and that
the French language in England was then anything more than the language
of high society, current only in the restricted circle of the upper
English aristocracy? How can one possibly deny the existence and the
necessity of a language common to the whole people on the basis of
anecdote "arguments" like these?
There was a time when Russian aristocrats at the tsar's court and in
high society also made a fad of the French language. They prided
themselves on the fact that when they spoke Russian they often lapsed
into French, that they could only speak Russian with a French accent.
Does this mean that there was no Russian language common to the whole
people at that time in Russia, that a language common to the whole
people was a fiction, and "class languages" a reality?
Our comrades are here committing at least two mistakes.
The first mistake is that they confuse language with superstructure.
They think that since the superstructure has a class character,
language too must be a class language, and not a language common to the
whole people. But I have already said that language and superstructure
are two different concepts, and that a Marxist must not confuse them.
The second mistake of these comrades is that they conceive the
opposition of interests of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the
fierce class struggle between them, as meaning the disintegration of
society, as a break of all ties between the hostile classes. They
believe that, since society has disintegrated and there is no longer a
single society, but only classes, a single language of society, a
national language, is unnecessary. If society has disintegrated and
there is no longer a language common to the whole people, a national
language, what remains? There remain classes and "class languages."
Naturally, every "class language" will have its "class" grammar – a
"proletarian" grammar or a "bourgeois" grammar. True, such grammars do
not exist anywhere. But that does not worry these comrades: they
believe that such grammars will appear in due course.
At one time there were "Marxists" in our country who asserted that the
railways left to us after the October Revolution were bourgeois
railways, that it would be unseemly for us Marxists to use them, that
they should be torn up and new, "proletarian" railways built. For this
they were nicknamed "troglodytes".
It goes without saying that such a primitive-anarchist view of society,
of classes, of language has nothing in common with Marxism. But it
undoubtedly exists and continues to prevail in the minds of certain of
our muddled comrades.
It is of course wrong to say that, because of the existence of a fierce
class struggle, society has split up into classes which are no longer
economically connected with one another in one society. On the
contrary, as long as capitalism exists, the bourgeois and the
proletarians will be bound together by every economic thread as parts
of a single capitalist society. The bourgeois cannot live and enrich
themselves unless they have wage-laborers at their command; the
proletarians cannot survive unless they hire themselves to the
capitalists. If all economic ties between them were to cease, it would
mean the cessation of all production, and the cessation of all
production would mean the doom of society, the doom of the classes
themselves. Naturally, no class wants to incur self-destruction.
Consequently, however sharp the class struggle may be, it cannot lead
to the disintegration of society. Only ignorance of Marxism and
complete failure to understand the nature of language could have
suggested to some of our comrades the fairy-tale about the
disintegration of society, about "class" languages, and "class"
Reference is further made to Lenin, and it is pointed out that Lenin
recognized the existence of two cultures under capitalism – bourgeois
and proletarian – and that the slogan of national culture under
capitalism is a nationalist slogan. All this is true and Lenin is
absolutely right here. But what has this to do with the "class
character" of language? When these comrades refer to what Lenin said
about two cultures under capitalism, it is evidently with the idea of
suggesting to the reader that the existence of two cultures, bourgeois
and proletarian, in society means that there must also be two
languages, inasmuch as language is linked with culture – and,
consequently, that Lenin denies the necessity of a single national
language, and, consequently, that Lenin believes in "class" languages.
The mistake these comrades make here is that they identify and confuse
language with culture. But culture and language are two different
things. Culture may be bourgeois or socialist, but language, as a means
of intercourse, is always a language common to the whole people and can
serve both bourgeois and socialist culture. Is it not a fact that the
Russian, the Ukrainian, the Uzbek languages are now serving the
socialist culture of these nations just as well as they served their
bourgeois cultures before the October Revolution? Consequently, these
comrades are profoundly mistaken when they assert that the existence of
two different cultures leads to the formation of two different
languages and to the negation of the necessity of a single language.
When Lenin spoke of two cultures, he proceeded precisely from the
thesis that the existence of two cultures cannot lend to the negation
of a single language and to the formation of two languages, that there
must be a single language. When the Bundists6 accused Lenin of
denying the necessity of a national language and of regarding culture
as "non-national," Lenin, as we know, vigorously protested and declared
that he was fighting against bourgeois culture, and not against
national languages, the necessity of which he regarded as indisputable.
It is strange that some of our comrades should be trailing in the
footsteps of the Bundists.
As to a single language, the necessity of which Lenin is alleged to
deny, it would be well to pay heed to the following words of Lenin:
"Language is the most important means of human intercourse. Unity of
language and its unimpeded development form one of the most important
conditions for genuinely free and extensive commercial intercourse
appropriate to modern capitalism, for a free and broad grouping of the
population in all its separate classes."7
It follows that our highly respected comrades have misrepresented the views of Lenin.
Reference, lastly, is made to Stalin. The passage from Stalin is quoted
which says that "the bourgeoisie and its nationalist parties were and
remain in this period the chief directing force of such nations."8
This is all true. The bourgeoisie and its nationalist party really do
direct bourgeois culture, just as the proletariat and its
internationalist party direct proletarian culture. But what has this to
do with the "class character" of language? Do not these comrades know
that national language is a form of national culture, that a national
language may serve both bourgeois and socialist culture? Are our
comrades unaware of the well-known formula of the Marxists that the
present Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian and other cultures arc
socialist in content and national in form, i.e., in language? Do they
agree with this Marxist formula?
The mistake our comrades commit here is that they do not see the
difference between culture and language, and do not understand that
culture changes in content with every new period in the development of
society, whereas language remains basically the same through a number
of periods, equally serving both the new culture and the old.
a) Language, as a means of intercourse, always was and remains the
single language of a society, common to all its members;
existence of dialects and jargons does not negate but confirms the
existence of a language common to the whole of the given people, of
which they are offshoots and to which they are subordinate;
"class character" of language formula is erroneous and non-Marxist.
Question: What are the characteristic features of language?
Answer: Language is one of those social phenomena which operate
throughout the existence of a society. It arises and develops with the
rise and development of a society. It dies when the society dies. Apart
from society there is no language. Accordingly, language and its laws
of development can be understood only if studied in inseparable
connection with the history of society, with the history of the people
to whom the language under study belongs, and who are its creators and
Language is a medium, an instrument with the help of which people
communicate with one another, exchange thoughts and understand each
other. Being directly connected with thinking, language registers and
fixes in words, and in words combined into sentences, the results of
the process of thinking and achievements of man's cognitive activity,
and thus makes possible the exchange of thoughts in human society.
Exchange of thoughts is a constant and vital necessity, for without it,
it is impossible to co-ordinate the joint actions of people in the
struggle against the forces of nature, in the struggle to produce the
necessary material values; without it, it is impossible to ensure the
success of society's productive activity, and, hence, the very
existence of social production becomes impossible. Consequently,
without a language understood by a society and common to all its
members, that society must cease to produce, must disintegrate and
cease to exist as a society. In this sense, language, while it is a
medium of intercourse, is at the same time an instrument of struggle
and development of society.
As we know, all the words in a language taken together constitute what
is known as its vocabulary. The chief thing in the vocabulary of a
language is its basic stock of words, which includes also all the root
words, as its kernel. It is far less extensive than the language's
vocabulary, but it persists for a very long time, for centuries, and
provides the language with a basis for the formation of new words. The
vocabulary reflects the state of the language: the richer and more
diversified the vocabulary, the richer and more developed the language.
However, by itself, the vocabulary does not constitute the language –
it is rather the building material of the language. Just as in
construction work the building materials do not constitute the
building, although the latter cannot be constructed without them, so
too the vocabulary of a language does not constitute the language
itself, although no language is conceivable without it. But the
vocabulary of a language assumes tremendous importance when it comes
under the control of grammar, which defines the rules governing the
modification of words and the combination of words into sentences, and
thus makes the language a coherent and significant function. Grammar
(morphology, syntax) is the collection of rules governing the
modification of words and their combination into sentences. It is
therefore thanks to grammar that it becomes possible for language to
invest man's thoughts in a material linguistic integument.
The distinguishing feature of grammar is that it gives rules for the
modification of words not in reference to concrete words, but to words
in general, not taken concretely; that it gives rules for the formation
of sentences not in reference to particular concrete sentences – with,
let us say, a concrete subject, a concrete predicate, etc. – but to
all sentences in general, irrespective of the concrete form of any
sentence in particular. Hence, abstracting itself, as regards both
words and sentences, from the particular and concrete, grammar takes
that which is common and basic in the modification of words and their
combination into sentences and builds it into grammatical rules,
grammatical laws. Grammar is the outcome of a process of abstraction
performed by the human mind over a long period of time; it is an
indication of the tremendous achievement of thought.
In this respect grammar resembles geometry, which in giving its laws
abstracts itself from concrete objects, regarding objects as bodies
devoid of concreteness, and defining the relations between them not as
the concrete relations of concrete objects but as the relations of
bodies in general, devoid of all concreteness.
Unlike the superstructure, which is connected with production not
directly, but through the economy, language is directly connected with
man's productive activity, as well as with all his other activity in
all his spheres of work without exception. That is why the vocabulary
of a language, being the most sensitive to change, is in a state of
almost constant change, and, unlike the superstructure, language does
not have to wait until the base is eliminated, but makes changes in its
vocabulary before the base is eliminated and irrespective of the state
of the base.
However, the vocabulary of a language does not change in the way the
superstructure does, that is, by abolishing the old and building
something new, but by replenishing the existing vocabulary with new
words which arise with changes in the social system, with the
development of production, of culture, science, etc. Moreover, although
a certain number of obsolete words usually drop out of the vocabulary
of a language, a far larger number of new words are added. As to the
basic word stock, it is preserved in all its fundamentals and is used
as the basis for the vocabulary of the language.
This is quite understandable. There is no necessity to destroy the
basic word stock when it can be effectively used through the course of
several historical periods; not to speak of the fact that, it being
impossible to create a new basic word stock in a short time, the
destruction of the basic word stock accumulated in the course of
centuries would result in paralysis of the language, in the complete
disruption of intercourse between people.
The grammatical system of a language changes even more slowly than its
basic word stock. Elaborated in the course of epochs, and having become
part of the flesh and blood or the language, the grammatical system
changes still more slowly than the basic word stock. With the lapse of
time it, of course, undergoes changes, becomes more perfected, improves
its rules, makes them more specific and acquires new rules; but the
fundamentals of the grammatical system are preserved for a very long
time, since, as history shows, they are able to serve society
effectively through a succession of epochs.
Hence, grammatical system and basic word stock constitute the foundation of language, the essence of its specific character.
History shows that languages possess great stability and a tremendous
power of resistance to forcible assimilation. Some historians, instead
of explaining this phenomenon, confine themselves to expressing their
surprise at it. But there is no reason for surprise whatsoever.
Languages owe their stability to the stability of their grammatical
systems and basic word stocks. The Turkish assimilators strove for
hundreds of years to mutilate, shatter and destroy the languages of the
Balkan peoples. During this period the vocabulary of the Balkan
languages underwent considerable change; quite a few Turkish words and
expressions were absorbed; there were "convergencies" and
"divergencies." Nevertheless, the Balkan languages held their own and
survived. Why? Because their grammatical systems and basic word stocks
were in the main preserved.
It follows from all this that a language, its structure, cannot be
regarded as the product of some one epoch. The structure of a language,
its grammatical system and basic word stock, is the product of a number
We may assume that the rudiments of modern language already existed in
hoary antiquity, before the epoch of slavery. It was a rather simple
language, with a very meager stock of words, but with a grammatical
system of its own – true, a primitive one, but a grammatical system
The further development of production, the appearance of classes, the
introduction of writing, the rise of the state, which needed a more or
less well-regulated correspondence for its administration, the
development of trade, which needed a well-regulated correspondence
still more, the appearance of the printing press, the development of
literature – all this caused big changes in the development of
language. During this time, tribes and nationalities broke up and
scattered, intermingled and intercrossed; later there arose national
languages and states, revolutions took place, and old social systems
were replaced by new ones. All this caused even greater changes in
language and its development.
However, it would be a profound mistake to think that language
developed in the way the superstructure developed – by the destruction
of that which existed and the building of something new. In point of
fact, languages did not develop by the destruction of existing
languages and the creation of new ones, but by extending and perfecting
the basic elements of existing languages. And the transition of the
language from one quality to another did not take the form of an
explosion, of the destruction at one blow of the old and the creation
of the new, but of the gradual and long-continued accumulation of the
elements of the new quality, of the new linguistic structure, and the
gradual dying away of the elements of the old quality.
It is said that the theory that languages develop by stages is a
Marxist theory, since it recognizes the necessity of sudden explosions
as a condition for the transition of a language from an old quality to
a new. This is of course untrue, for it is difficult to find anything
resembling Marxism in this theory.
And if the theory of stages really does recognize sudden explosions in
the history of the development of languages, so much the worse for that
theory. Marxism does not recognize sudden explosions in the development
of languages, the sudden death of an existing language and the sudden
erection of a new language. Lafargue was wrong when he spoke of a
"sudden linguistic revolution which took place between 1789 and 1794"
in France (see Lafargue's pamphlet The French Language Before and After
the Revolution). There was no linguistic revolution, let alone a sudden
one, in France at that time. True enough, during that period the
vocabulary of the French language was replenished with new words and
expressions, a certain number of obsolete words dropped out of it, and
the meaning of certain words changed – but that was all. Changes of
this nature, however, by no means determine the destiny of a language.
The chief thing in a language is its grammatical system and basic word
stock. But far from disappearing in the period of the French bourgeois
revolution, the grammatical system and basic word stock of the French
language were preserved without substantial change, and not only were
they preserved, but they continue to exist in the French language of
to-day. I need hardly say that five or six years is a ridiculously
small period for the elimination of an existing language and the
building of a new national language ("a sudden linguistic revolution"!) – centuries are needed for this.
Marxism holds that the transition of a language from an old quality to
a new does not take place by way of an explosion, of the destruction of
an existing language and the creation of a new one, but by the gradual
accumulation of the elements of the new quality, and hence by the
gradual dying away of the elements of the old quality.
It should be said in general for the benefit of comrades who have an
infatuation for explosions that the law of transition from an old
quality to a new by means of an explosion is inapplicable not only to
the history of the development of languages; it is not always
applicable to other social phenomena of a basis or superstructural
character. It applies of necessity to a society divided into hostile
classes. But it does not necessarily apply to a society which has no
hostile classes. In a period of eight to ten years we effected a
transition in the agriculture of our country from the bourgeois,
individual-peasant system to the socialist, collective-farm system.
This was a revolution which eliminated the old bourgeois economic
system in the countryside and created a new, socialist system. But that
revolution did not take place by means of an explosion, that is, by the
overthrow of the existing government power and the creation of a new
power, but by a gradual transition from the old bourgeois system in the
countryside to a new system. And it was possible to do that because it
was a revolution from above, because the revolution was accomplished on
the initiative of the existing power with the support of the bulk of
It is said that the numerous instances of linguistic crossing in past
history furnish reason to believe that when languages cross a new
language is formed by means of an explosion, by a sudden transition
from an old quality to a new. This is quite wrong.
Linguistic crossing cannot be regarded as the single impact of a
decisive blow which produces its results within a few years. Linguistic
crossing is a prolonged process which continues for hundreds of years.
There can therefore be no question of explosion here.
Further, it would be quite wrong to think that the crossing of, say,
two languages results in a new, third language which does not resemble
either of the languages crossed and differs qualitatively from both of
them. As a matter of fact one of the languages usually emerges
victorious from the cross retains its grammatical system and its basic
word stock and continues to develop in accordance with its inherent
laws of development, while the other language gradually loses its
quality and gradually dies away.
Consequently, a cross does not result in some new, third language; one
of the languages persists, retains its grammatical system and basic
word stock and is able to develop in accordance with its inherent laws
True, in the process the vocabulary of the victorious language is
somewhat enriched from the vanquished language, but this strengthens
rather than weakens it.
Such was the case, for instance, with the Russian language, with which,
in the course of historical development, the languages of a number of
other peoples crossed and which always emerged the victor.
Of course, in the process the vocabulary of the Russian language was
enlarged at the expense of the vocabularies of the other languages, but
far from weakening, this enriched and strengthened the Russian
As to the specific national individuality of the Russian language, it
did not suffer in the slightest, because the Russian language preserved
its grammatical system and basic word stock and continued to advance
and perfect itself in accordance with its inherent laws of development.
There can be no doubt that the crossing theory has little or no value
for Soviet linguistics. If it is true that the chief task of
linguistics is to study the inherent laws of language development, it
has to be admitted that the crossing theory does not even set itself
this task, let alone accomplish it – it simply does not notice it, or
does not understand it.
Question: Did Pravda act rightly in starting an open discussion on problems of linguistics?
Answer: Yes, it did.
Along what lines the problems of linguistics will be settled, will
become clear at the conclusion of the discussion. But it may be said
already that the discussion has been very useful.
It has brought out, in the first place, that in linguistic bodies both
in the center and in the republics a regime has prevailed which is
alien to science and men of science. The slightest criticism of the
state of affairs in Soviet linguistics, even the most timid attempt to
criticize the so-called "new doctrine" in linguistics, was persecuted
and suppressed by the leading linguistic circles. Valuable workers and
researchers in linguistics were dismissed from their posts or demoted
for being critical of N. Y. Marr's heritage or expressing the slightest
disapproval of his teachings. Linguistic scholars were appointed to
leading posts not on their merits, but because of their unqualified
acceptance of N. Y. Marr's theories.
It is generally recognized that no science can develop and flourish
without a battle of opinions, without freedom of criticism. But this
generally recognized rule was ignored and flouted in the most
unceremonious fashion. There arose a close group of infallible leaders,
who, having secured themselves against any possible criticism, became a
law unto themselves and did whatever they pleased.
To give one example: the so-called "Baku Course" (lectures delivered by
N. Y. Marr in Baku), which the author himself had rejected and
forbidden to be republished, was republished nevertheless by order of
this leading caste (Comrade Meshchaninov calls them "disciples" of N.
Y. Marr) and included without any reservations in the list of
text-books recommended to students. This means that the students were
deceived a rejected "Course" being suggested to them as a sound
textbook. If I were not convinced of the integrity of Comrade
Meshchaninov and the other linguistic leaders, I would say that such
conduct is tantamount to sabotage.
How could this have happened? It happened because the Arakcheyev regime9 established in linguistics cultivates irresponsibility and
encourages such arbitrary actions.
The discussion has proved to be very useful first of all because it
brought this Arakcheyev regime into the light of day and smashed it to
But the usefulness of the discussion does not end there. It not only
smashed the old regime in linguistics but also brought out the
incredible confusion of ideas on cardinal questions of linguistics
which prevails among the leading circles in this branch of science.
Until the discussion began the "disciples" of N. Y. Marr kept silence
and glossed over the unsatisfactory state of affairs in linguistics.
But when the discussion started silence became impossible, and they
were compelled to express their opinion in the press. And what did we
find? It turned out that in N. Y. Marr's teachings there are a whole
number of defects, errors, ill-defined problems and sketchy
propositions. Why, one asks, have N. Y. Marr's "disciples" begun to
talk about this only now, after the discussion opened? Why did they not
see to it before? Why did they not speak about it in due time openly
and honestly, as befits scientists?
Having admitted "some" errors of N. Y. Marr, his "disciples," it
appears, think that Soviet linguistics can only be advanced on the
basis of a "rectified" version of N. Y. Marr's theory, which they
consider a Marxist one. No, save us from N. Y. Marr's "Marxism"! N. Y.
Marr did indeed want to be, and endeavored to be, a Marxist, but he
failed to become one. He was nothing but a simplifier and vulgarizer of
Marxism, similar to the "proletcultists" or the "Rappists."
N. Y. Marr introduced into linguistics the incorrect, non-Marxist
formula that language is a superstructure, and got himself into a
muddle and put linguistics into a muddle. Soviet linguistics cannot be
advanced on the basis of an incorrect formula.
N. Y. Marr introduced into linguistics another and also incorrect and
non-Marxist formula, regarding the "class character" of language, and
got himself into a muddle and put linguistics into a muddle. Soviet
linguistics cannot be advanced on the basis of an incorrect formula
which is contrary to the whole course of the history of peoples and
N. Y. Marr introduced into linguistics an immodest, boastful, arrogant
tone alien to Marxism and tending towards a bald and off-hand negation
of everything done in linguistics prior to N. Y. Marr.
N. Y. Marr shrilly abused the comparative-historical method as
"idealistic." Yet it must be said that, despite its serious
shortcomings, the comparative-historical method is nevertheless better
than N. Y. Marr's really idealistic four-element analysis,10 because
the former gives a stimulus to work, to a study of languages, while the
latter only gives a stimulus to loll in one's arm-chair and tell
fortunes in the tea-cup of the celebrated four elements.
N. Y. Marr haughtily discountenanced every attempt to study groups
(families) of languages on the grounds that it was a manifestation of
the "proto-language" theory.11 Yet it cannot be denied that the
linguistic affinity of nations like the Slav nations, say, is beyond
question, and that a study of the linguistic affinity of these nations
might be of great value to linguistics in the study of the laws of
language development. The "proto-language" theory, I need hardly say,
has nothing to do with it.
To listen to N. Y. Marr, and especially to his "disciples," one might
think that prior to N. Y. Marr there was no such thing as the science
of language, that the science of language appeared with the "new
doctrine" of N. Y. Marr. Marx and Engels were much more modest: they
held that their dialectical materialism was a product of the
development of the sciences, including philosophy, in earlier periods.
Thus, the discussion was useful also because it brought to light ideological shortcomings in Soviet linguistics.
I think that the sooner our linguistics rids itself of N. Y. Marr's
errors, the sooner will it be possible to extricate it from its present
Elimination of the Arakcheyev regime in linguistics, rejection of N. Y.
Marr's errors, and the introduction of Marxism into linguistics –
that, in my opinion, is the way in which Soviet linguistics could be
put on a sound basis.
Pravda, June 20, 1950
Concerning Certain Problems of Linguistics
Reply to Comrade E. Krasheninnikova
I am answering your questions.
Question: Your article convincingly shows that language is neither the
base nor the superstructure. Would it be right to regard language as a
phenomenon characteristic of both the base and the superstructure, or
would it be more correct to regard language as an intermediate
Answer: Of course, characteristic of language, as a social phenomenon,
is that common feature which is inherent in all social phenomena,
including the base and the superstructure, namely: it serves society
just as society is served by all other social phenomena, including the
base and the superstructure. But this, properly speaking, exhausts that
common feature which is inherent in all social phenomena. Beyond this,
important distinctions begin between social phenomena.
The point is that social phenomena have, in addition to this common
feature, their own specific features which distinguish them from each
other and which are of primary importance for science. The specific
features of the base consist in that it serves society economically.
The specific features of the superstructure consist in that it serves
society by means of political, legal, aesthetic and other ideas and
provides society with corresponding political, legal and other
institutions. What then are the specific features of language,
distinguishing it from other social phenomena? They consist in that
language serves society as a means of intercourse between people, as a
means for exchanging thoughts in society, as a means enabling people to
understand one another and to co-ordinate joint work in all spheres of
human activity, both in the sphere of production and in the sphere of
economic relations, both in the sphere of politics and in the sphere of
culture, both in social life and in everyday life. These specific
features are characteristic only of language, and precisely because
they are characteristic only of language, language is the object of
study by an independent science – linguistics. If there were no such
specific features of language, linguistics would lose its right to
In brief: language cannot be included either in the category of bases or in the category of superstructures.
Nor can it be included in the category of "intermediate" phenomena
between the base and the superstructure, for such "intermediate"
phenomena do not exist.
But perhaps language could be included in the category of the
productive forces of society, in the category, say, of instruments of
production? Indeed, there does exist a certain analogy between language
and instruments of production: instruments of production manifest, just
as language does, a kind of indifference towards classes and can serve
equally different classes of society, both old and new. Does this
circumstance provide ground for including language in the category of
instruments of production? No, it does not.
At one time, N. Y. Marr, seeing that his formula – "language is a
superstructure on the base" – encountered objections, decided to
"reshape" it and announced that "language is an instrument of
production." Was N. Y. Marr right in including language in the category
of instruments of production? No, he certainly was not.
The point is that the similarity between language and instruments of
production ends with the analogy I have just mentioned. But, on the
other hand, there is a radical difference between language and
instruments of production. This difference lies in the fact that
whereas instruments of production produce material wealth, language
produces nothing or "produces" words only. To put it more plainly,
people possessing instruments of production can produce material
wealth, but those very same people, if they possess a language but not
instruments of production, cannot produce material wealth. It is not
difficult to see that were language capable of producing material
wealth, wind-bags would be the richest men on earth.
Question: Marx and Engels define language as "the immediate reality of
thought," as "practical,... actual consciousness.''12 "Ideas," Marx
says, "do not exist divorced from language." In what measure, in your
opinion, should linguistics occupy itself with the semantic aspect of
language, semantics, historical semasiology, and stylistics, or should
form alone be the subject of linguistics?
Answer: Semantics (semasiology) is one of the important branches of
linguistics. The semantic aspect of words and expressions is of serious
importance in the study of language. Hence, semantics (semasiology)
must be assured its due place in linguistics.
However, in working on problems of semantics and in utilizing its data,
its significance must in no way be overestimated, and still less must
it be abused. I have in mind certain philologists who, having an
excessive passion for semantics, disregard language as "the immediate
reality of thought" inseparably connected with thinking, divorce
thinking from language and maintain that language is outliving its age
and that it is possible to do without language.
Listen to what N. Y. Marr says:
"Language exists only inasmuch as it is expressed in sounds; the action
of thinking occurs also without being expressed.... Language (spoken)
has already begun to surrender its functions to the latest inventions
which are unreservedly conquering space, while thinking is on the
up-grade, departing from its unutilized accumulations in the past and
its new acquisitions, and is to oust and fully replace language. The
language of the future is thinking which will be developing in
technique free of natural matter. No language, even the spoken
language, which is all the same connected with the standards of nature,
will be able to withstand it" (see Selected Works by N. Y. Marr).
If we interpret this "labor-magic" gibberish into simple human language, the conclusion may be drawn that:
a) N. Y. Marr divorces thinking from language; b) N. Y. Marr considers
that communication between people can be realized without language,
with the help of thinking itself, which is free of the "natural matter"
of language, free of the "standards of nature"; c) divorcing thinking
from language and "having freed" it from the "natural matter,' of
language, N. Y. Marr lands into the swamp of idealism.
It is said that thoughts arise in the mind of man prior to their being
expressed in speech, that they arise without linguistic material,
without linguistic integument, in, so to say, a naked form. But that is
absolutely wrong. Whatever thoughts arise in the human mind and at
whatever moment, they can arise and exist only on the basis of the
linguistic material, on the basis of language terms and phrases. Bare
thoughts, free of the linguistic material, free of the "natural matter"
of language, do not exist. "Language is the immediate reality of
thought" (Marx). The reality of thought is manifested in language. Only
idealists can speak of thinking not being connected with "the natural
matter" of language, of thinking without language.
In brief: over-estimation of semantics and abuse of it led N. Y. Marr to idealism.
Consequently, if semantics (semasiology) is safeguarded against
exaggerations and abuses of the kind committed by N. Y. Marr and some
of his "disciples," semantics can be of great benefit to linguistics.
Question: You quite justly say that the ideas, concepts, customs and
moral principles of the bourgeoisie and those of the proletariat are
directly antithetical. The class character of these phenomena is
certainly reflected in the semantic aspect of language (and sometimes
in its form – in the vocabulary – as is correctly pointed out in your
article). In analyzing concrete linguistic material and, in the first
place, the semantic aspect of language, can we speak of the class
essence of the concepts expressed by language, particularly in those
cases when language expresses not only the thought of man but also his
attitude towards reality, where his class affinity manifests itself
with especial clarity?
Answer: Putting it more briefly, you want to know whether classes
influence language, whether they introduce into language their specific
words and expressions, whether there are cases when people attach a
different meaning to one and the same word or expression depending on
their class affinity?
Yes, classes influence language, introduce into the language their own
specific words and expressions and sometimes understand one and the
same word or expression differently. There is no doubt about that.
However, it does not follow that specific words and expressions, as
well as difference in semantics, can be of serious importance for the
development of a single language common to the whole people, that they
are capable of detracting from its significance or of changing its
Firstly, such specific words and expressions, as well as cases of
difference in semantics, are so few in language that they hardly make
up even one per cent of the entire linguistic material. Consequently,
all the remaining overwhelming mass of words and expressions, as well
as their semantics, are common to all classes of society.
Secondly, specific words and expressions with a class tinge are used in
speech not according to rules of some sort of "class" grammar, which
does not exist, but according to the grammatical rules of the existing
language common to the whole people.
Hence, the existence of specific words and expressions and the facts of
differences in the semantics of language do not refute, but, on the
contrary, confirm the existence and necessity of a single language
common to the whole people.
Question: In your article you quite correctly appraise Marr as a
vulgarizer of Marxism. Does this mean that the linguists, including us,
the young linguists, should reject the whole linguistic heritage of
Marr, who all the same has to his credit a number of valuable
linguistic researches (Comrades Chikobava, Sanzheyev and others wrote
about them during the discussion)? Approaching Marr critically, cannot
we take from him what is useful and valuable?
Answer: Of course, the works of N. Y. Marr do not consist solely of
errors. N. Y. Marr made very gross mistakes when he introduced into
linguistics elements of Marxism in a distorted form, when he tried to
create an independent theory of language. But N. Y. Marr has certain
good and ably written works, in which he, forgetting his theoretical
claims, conscientiously and, one must say, skillfully investigates
individual languages. In these works one can find not a little that is
valuable and instructive. Clearly, these valuable and instructive
things should be taken from N. Y. Marr and utilized.
Question: Many linguists consider formalism one of the main causes of
the stagnation in Soviet linguistics. We should very much like to know
your opinion as to what formalism in linguistics consists in and how it
should be overcome.
Answer: N. Y. Marr and his "disciples" accuse of "formalism" all
linguists who do not accept the "new doctrine" of N. Y. Marr. This of
course is not serious or clever.
N. Y. Marr considered that grammar is an empty "formality," and that
people who regard the grammatical system as the foundation of language
are formalists. This is altogether foolish.
I think that ''formalism'' was invented by the authors of the "new
doctrine" to facilitate their struggle against their opponents in
The cause of the stagnation in Soviet linguistics is not the
"formalism" invented by N. Y. Marr and his "disciples," but the
Arakcheyev regime and the theoretical gaps in linguistics. The
Arakcheyev regime was set up by the "disciples" of N. Y. Marr.
Theoretical confusion was brought into linguistics by N. Y. Marr and
his closest colleagues. To put an end to stagnation, both the one and
the other must be eliminated. The removal of these plague spots will
put Soviet linguistics on a sound basis, will lead it out on to the
broad highway and enable Soviet linguistics to occupy first place in
June 29, 1950
Pravda, July 4, 1950
Reply to Comrade Sanzheyev
Esteemed Comrade Sanzheyev,
I am replying to your letter with considerable delay, for it was only
yesterday forwarded to me from the apparatus of the Central Committee.
Your interpretation of my standpoint on the question of dialects is absolutely correct.
"Class" dialects, which it would be more correct to call jargons, do
not serve the mass of the people, but a narrow social upper crust.
Moreover, they do not have a grammatical system or basic word stock of
their own. In view of this, they cannot possibly develop into
Local ("territorial") dialects, on the other hand, serve the mass of
the people and have a grammatical system and basic word stock of their
own. In view of this, some local dialects, in the process of formation
of nations, may become the basis of national languages and develop into
independent national languages. This was the case, for instance, with
the Kursk-Orel dialect (the Kursk-Orel "speech") of the Russian
language, which formed the basis of the Russian national language. The
same must be said of the Poltava-Kiev dialect of the Ukrainian
language, which formed the basis of the Ukrainian national language. As
for the other dialects of such languages, they lose their originality,
merge with those languages and disappear in them.
Reverse processes also occur, when the single language of a
nationality, which has not yet become a nation owing to the absence of
the necessary economic conditions of development, collapses as a result
of the disintegration of the state of that nationality, and the local
dialects, which have not yet had time to be fully uniformized in the
single language, revive and give rise to the formation of separate
independent languages. Possibly, this was the case, for example, with
the single Mongolian language.
July 11, 1950
Pravda, August 2, 1950
Reply to Comrades D. Belkin and S. Furer
I have received your letters.
Your mistake is that you have confused two different things and
substituted another subject for that examined in my reply to Comrade
In that reply I criticized N. Y. Marr who, dealing with language
(spoken) and thought, divorces language from thought and thus lapses
into idealism. Therefore, I referred in my reply to normal human beings
possessing the faculty of speech. I maintained, moreover, that with
such human beings thoughts can arise only on the basis of linguistic
material, that bare thoughts unconnected with linguistic material do
not exist among people, who possess the faculty of speech.
Instead of accepting or rejecting this thesis, you introduce anomalous
human beings, people without language, deaf-mutes, who have no language
at their disposal and whose thoughts, of course, cannot arise on the
basis of linguistic material. As you see, this is an entirely different
subject which I did not touch upon and could not have touched upon,
since linguistics concerns itself with normal human beings possessing
the faculty of speech and not with anomalous deaf-mutes who do not
possess the faculty of speech.
You have substituted for the subject under discussion another subject that was not discussed.
From Comrade Belkin's letter it is evident that he places on a par the
"language of words" (spoken language) and "gesture language" ("hand"
language, according to N. Y. Marr). He seems to think that gesture
language and the language of words are of equal significance, that at
one time human society had no language of words, that "hand" language
at that time played the part of the language of words which appeared
But if Comrade Belkin really thinks so, he is committing a serious
error. Spoken language or the language of words has always been the
sole language of human society capable of serving as an adequate means
of intercourse between people. History does not know of a single human
society, be it the most backward, that did not have its own spoken
language. Ethnography does not know of a single backward tribe, be it
as primitive or even more primitive than, say, the Australians or the
Tierra del Fuegans of the last century, which did not have its own
spoken language. In the history of mankind, spoken language has been
one of the forces which helped human beings to emerge from the animal
world, unite into communities, develop their faculty of thinking,
organize social production, wage a successful struggle against the
forces of nature and attain the stage of progress we have to-day.
In this respect, the significance of the so-called gesture language, in
view of its extreme poverty and limitations, is negligible. Properly
speaking, this is not a language, and not even a linguistic substitute
that could in one way or another replace spoken language, but an
auxiliary means of extremely limited possibilities to which man
sometimes resorts to emphasize this or that point in his speech.
Gesture language and spoken language are just as incomparable as are
the primitive wooden hoe and the modern caterpillar tractor with its
five-furrow plow or tractor row drill.
Apparently, you are primarily interested in the deaf-mutes, and only
secondarily in problems of linguistics. Evidently, it was precisely
this circumstance that prompted you to put a number of questions to me.
Well, if you insist, I am not averse to granting your request. How do
matters stand with regard to deaf-mutes? Do they possess the faculty of
thinking? Do thoughts arise with them? Yes, they possess the faculty of
thinking and thoughts arise with them. Clearly, since deaf-mutes are
deprived of the faculty of speech, their thoughts cannot arise on the
basis of linguistic material. Can this be taken to mean that the
thoughts of deaf-mutes are naked, are not connected with the "standards
of nature" (N. Y. Marr's expression)? No, it cannot. The thoughts of
deaf-mutes arise and can exist only on the basis of the images,
sensations and conceptions they form in every-day life on the objects
of the outside world and their relations among themselves, thanks to
the senses of sight, of touch, taste, and smell. Apart from these
images, sensations and conceptions, thought is empty, is deprived of
all content, that is, it does not exist.
July 28, 1950
Pravda, August 2, 1950
Reply to Comrade A. Kholopov
I have received your letter.
Pressure of work has somewhat delayed my reply.
Your letter tacitly proceeds from two premises: from the premise that
it is permissible to quote the work of this or that author apart from
the historical period of which the quotation treats, and secondly, from
the premise that this or that conclusion or formula of Marxism, derived
as a result of studying one of the periods of historical development,
holds good for all periods of development and therefore must remain
I must say that both these premises are deeply mistaken.
A few examples.
In the forties of the past century when there was no monopoly
capitalism as yet, when capitalism was developing more or less smoothly
along an ascending line, spreading to new territories it had not yet
occupied, and the law of uneven development could not yet fully
operate, Marx and Engels concluded that a socialist revolution could
not be victorious in one particular country, that it could be
victorious only as a result of a joint blow in all, or in most,
civilized countries. This conclusion subsequently became a guiding
principle for all Marxists.
However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, especially in the
period of the first world war, when it became clear to everyone that
pre-monopoly capitalism had definitely developed into monopoly
capitalism, when rising capitalism had become dying capitalism, when
the war had revealed the incurable weaknesses of the world imperialist
front, and the law of uneven development predetermined that the
proletarian revolution would mature in different countries at different
times, Lenin, proceeding from Marxist theory, came to the conclusion
that in the new conditions of development, the socialist revolution
could fully prove victorious in one country taken separately, that the
simultaneous victory of the socialist revolution in all countries, or
in a majority of civilized countries, was impossible owing to the
uneven maturing of the revolution in those countries, that the old
formula of Marx and Engels no longer corresponded to the new historical
It is evident that here we have two different conclusions on the
question of the victory of socialism, which not only contradict, but
exclude each other.
Some textualists and Talmudists who quote mechanically without delving
into the essence of the matter, and apart from historical conditions,
may say that one of these conclusions should be discarded as being
absolutely incorrect, while the other conclusion, as the absolutely
correct one, should be applied to all periods of development. Marxists,
however, cannot but know that the textualists and Talmudists are
mistaken, they cannot but know that both of these conclusions are
correct, though not absolutely, each being correct for its own time:
Marx's and Engels' conclusion – for the period of pre-monopoly
capitalism; and Lenin's conclusion – for the period of monopoly
Engels in his Anti-Dühring said that after the victory of the
socialist revolution, the state is bound to wither away. On these
grounds, after the victory of the socialist revolution in our country,
textualists and Talmudists in our Party began demanding that the Party
should take stops to ensure the speedy withering away of our state, to
disband state organs, to give up a standing army.
However, the study of the world situation of our time led Soviet
Marxists to the conclusion that in the conditions of capitalist
encirclement, when the socialist revolution has been victorious only in
one country, and capitalism reigns in all other countries, the land of
the victorious revolution should not weaken, but in every way
strengthen its state, state organs, intelligence organs and army, if
that land does not want to be crushed by the capitalist encirclement.
Russian Marxists came to the conclusion that Engels' formula has in
view the victory of socialism in all, or in most, countries, that it
cannot be applied in the case where socialism is victorious in one
country taken separately and capitalism reigns in all the other
Evidently, we have here two different formulas regarding the destiny of the socialist state, each formula excluding the other.
The textualists and Talmudists may say that this circumstance creates
an intolerable situation, that one of these formulas must he discarded
as being absolutely erroneous, and the other – as the absolutely
correct one – must be applied to all periods of development of the
socialist state. Marxists, however, cannot but know that the
textualists and Talmudists arc mistaken, for both these formulas are
correct though not absolutely, each being correct for its time: the
formula of Soviet Marxists – for the period of the victory of
socialism in one or several countries; and the formula of Engels – for
the period when the consecutive victory of socialism in separate
countries will lead to the victory of socialism in the majority of
countries and when the necessary conditions will thus have been created
for the application of Engels' formula.
The number of such examples could be multiplied.
The same must be said of the two different formulas on the question of
language, taken from various works of Stalin and cited by Comrade
Kholopov in his letter.
Comrade Kholopov refers to Stalin's work Concerning Marxism in
Linguistics, where the conclusion is drawn that, as a result of the
crossing, say, of two languages, one of them usually emerges
victorious, while the other dies away, that, consequently, crossing
does not produce some new, third language, but preserves one of the
languages. He refers further to another conclusion, taken from Stalin's
report to the Sixteenth Congress of the C.P.S.U.(B.), where it is said
that in the period of the victory of socialism on a world scale, when
socialism is consolidated and becomes part of every-day life, national
languages will inevitably merge into one common language which, of
course, will be neither Great Russian nor German, but something new.
Comparing these two formulas and seeing that, far from coinciding, they
exclude each other, Comrade Kholopov falls into despair. "From your
article," he writes in his letter, "I understood that the crossing of
languages can never produce come new language, whereas prior to your
article I was firmly convinced, in conformity with your speech at the
Sixteenth Congress of the C.P.S.U.(B.), that under communism, languages
would merge into one common language."
Evidently, having discovered a contradiction between these two formulas
and being deeply convinced that the contradiction must be removed,
Comrade Kholopov considers it necessary to get rid of one of these
formulas as incorrect and to clutch at the other as being correct for
all periods and countries; but which formula to clutch at – he does
not know. The result is something in the nature of a hopeless
situation. Comrade Kholopov does not even suspect that both formulas
can be correct – each for its own time.
That is always the case with textualists and Talmudists who do not
delve into the essence of the matter, quote mechanically and
irrespective of the historical conditions of which the quotations
treat, and invariably find themselves in a hopeless situation.
Yet if one examines the essence of the matter, there are no grounds for
considering the situation hopeless. The fact is that Stalin's pamphlet
Concerning Marxism in Linguistics, and Stalin's speech at the Sixteenth
Party Congress, refer to two entirely different epochs, owing to which
the formulas, too, prove to be different.
The formula given by Stalin in his pamphlet, in the part where it
speaks of the crossing of languages, refers to the epoch prior to the
victory of socialism on a world scale, when the exploiting classes are
the dominant power in the world; when national and colonial oppression
remains in force; when national isolation and mutual distrust among
nations are consolidated by differences between states; when, as yet
there is no national equality of rights; when the crossing of languages
takes place as a struggle for the domination of one of the languages;
when the conditions necessary for the peaceful and friendly
co-operation of nations and languages are as yet lacking; when it is
not the co-operation and mutual enrichment of languages that are on the
order of the day, but the assimilation of some and the victory of other
languages. It is clear that in such conditions there can be only
victorious and defeated languages. It is precisely these conditions
that Stalin's formula has in view when it says that the crossing, say,
of two languages, results not in the formation of a new language, but
in the victory of one of the languages and the defeat of the other.
As regards the other formula by Stalin, taken from his speech at the
Sixteenth Party Congress, in the part that touches on the merging of
languages into one common language, it has in view another epoch,
namely, the epoch after the victory of socialism on a world scale, when
world imperialism no longer exists; when the exploiting classes are
overthrown and national and colonial oppression is eradicated; when
national isolation and mutual distrust among nations is replaced by
mutual confidence and rapprochement between nations; when national
equality has been put into practice; when the policy of suppressing and
assimilating languages is abolished; when the co-operation of nations
has been established, and it is possible for national languages freely
to enrich one another through their co-operation. It is clear that in
these conditions there can be no question of the suppression and defeat
of some languages, and the victory of others. Here we shall have not
two languages, one of which is to suffer defeat, while the other is to
emerge from the struggle victorious, but hundreds of national
languages, out of which, as a result of a prolonged economic, political
and cultural co operation of nations, there will first appear most
enriched unified zonal languages, and subsequently the zonal languages
will merge into a single international language, which, of course, will
be neither German, nor Russian, nor English, but a new language that
has absorbed the best elements of the national and zonal languages.
Consequently, the two different formulas correspond to two different
epochs in the development of society, and precisely because they
correspond to them, both formulas are correct – each for its epoch.
To demand that these formulas should not be at variance with each
other, that they should not exclude each other, is just as absurd as it
would be to demand that the epoch of the domination of capitalism
should not be at variance with the epoch of the domination of
socialism, that socialism and capitalism should not exclude each other.
The textualists and Talmudists regard Marxism and separate conclusions
and formulas of Marxism as a collection of dogmas, which "never"
change, notwithstanding changes in the conditions of the development of
society. They believe that if they learn these conclusions and formulas
by heart and start citing them at random, they will be able to solve
any problem, reckoning that the memorized conclusions and formulas will
serve them for all times and countries, for all occasions in life. But
this can be the conviction only of people who see the letter of
Marxism, but not its essence, who learn by rote the texts of
conclusions and formulas of Marxism, but do not understand their
Marxism is the science of the laws governing the development of nature
and society, the science of the revolution of the oppressed and
exploited masses, the science of the victory of socialism in all
countries, the science of building communist society. As a science,
Marxism cannot stand still, it develops and is perfected. In its
development, Marxism cannot but be enriched by new experience, new
knowledge – consequently some of its formulas and conclusions cannot
but change in the course of time, cannot but be replaced by new
formulas and conclusions, corresponding to the new historical tusks.
Marxism does not recognize invariable conclusions and formulas,
obligatory for all epochs and periods. Marxism is the enemy of all
July 28, 1950
Pravda, August 2, 1950
 Stalin's essay Marxism and Problems of Linguistics was published in
Pravda on June 20, 1950. Prior to this, there had already been
discussion on Soviet linguistic problems in Pravda. This essay by
Comrade Stalin is in reply to questions put to him by a group of Soviet
students in connection with the discussion, and to essays published in
Pravda's columns. The titles of these latter were "On the Path of
Materialist Linguistics" by member of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences
Bulakhovsky, "The History of Russian Linguistics and Marr's Theory" by
Nikiforov, "On the Problem of the Class Character of Language" by
Kudriavtsev and others.
 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Works, Ger. ed., Berlin, 1958, Vol. 3, p. 212.
 Ibid., pp. 411-12.
 Ibid., 1957, Vol. 2, p. 351.
 Paul Lafargue (1842-1911), well-known activist of French and
international workers' movements, and outstanding Marxist propagandist
and publicist. He was one of the founders of the French workers' Party,
student and comrade-in-arms of Marx and Engels, and husband of Marx's
 Bund, General Jewish workers' Union of Lithuania, Poland and
Russia, was a Jewish petty-bourgeois opportunist organization founded
at a congress held in Vilna in October, 1897, which worked mainly among
Jewish handicraftsmen. At the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party's
First Congress in 1898, Bund joined the R.S.D.L.P. as "an independent
autonomous organization concerned only with the special problems of the
Jewish proletariat." Once it joined the Party, however, it propagated
nationalism and separatism in the Russian working-class movement. The
Bundist bourgeois-nationalist standpoint was sternly repudiated by
Iskra newspaper founded by Lenin.
 V. I. Lenin, "The Right of Nations to Self-Determination " Selected
Works in Two Volumes, Eng. ed., Moscow, 1952, Vol. I, Part 2 pp.
 J. V. Stalin, "The National Question and Leninism," Works, Eng. ed. Moscow, 1954, Vol. 11 p. 353.
 Arakcheyev regime, named after the reactionary politician Count
Arakcheyev, was an unrestrained dictatorial police state, warlord
despotism and brutal rule enforced in Russia in the first quarter of
the 19th century. Stalin uses the term here to indicate Marr's
overriding domination in Soviet linguistic circles.
 Four-element analysis – Marr asserted that pronunciation of
mankind's primitive language was evolved from the four syllables sal,
ber, yon and rosh.
 "Proto-language" theory – the doctrine of the Indo-European
school which holds that a linguistic family consists of a group of
patois (dialects), split from a common primitive "parent language." For
example, modern Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian are
sister languages derived from Latin, and were originally only different
patois. However, as there is no documentary evidence for the existence
of a "parent language" of most of the dialects or languages, the
Indo-European scholars have worked out a hypothetical "parent
language," their main aim being to facilitate explanation of the rules
of phonetic changes, but there is no way to prove the extent of the
 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Works, Ger. ed., Berlin, 1958, Vol. 3, pp. 432 and 430.
(Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1954)
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