Language and democracy


Languages, connected to economy including market, trade and commodity, are in conflict and in collaboration with contending class forces.

Thus, in general, and not taking into consideration stages society passes, languages are [1] inseparable question of democracy, and, in particular cases, of democratic struggle, and [2] a tool for subjection. The two contradictory positions depend on conflicting classes using it as a tool for conquests or for attaining democratic way of life.

Sheer class power, manifested in economy and politics, determines the question – a tool for conquests or for democratic struggle. A capital or an alliance of capitals can win or continue winning the “game” of conquests, or, turn a loser. A mature capital gains ground in the “game” while an immature capital rubs its nose on dust.

Whether it gains or losses capital unleashes onslaught on people – people’s economic, political, cultural and ideological rights and territories. Capital has to make the assault. Because capital can’t choose a path leading to its death, and, capital can’t survive without assaulting others, without conquering all, without trampling everything. People’s life turns the first victim in this campaign by capital. All aspects and parts of people’s life are conquered, degraded, defaced, demolished. These include people’s ideological and cultural spaces. Language, an essential in production process, can’t escape this hostile, barbaric reality imposed by conquering capital. Weaker the class or part more barbaric the assault turns; more backward a production process more complete is its elimination. Language walks along this path.

For other classes, the same fate waits in wings – capitulation to the charging capital. Succeeding in keeping some ground under own feet during the capitulation process depends on class power equation between the winning and losing parties. For overall gain, the winning party may concede bits of ground to the losing party. It’s a sort of compromise with ultimate exultant position. The compromise is for cooption.

This line of conflict/collaboration is found around the world. It’s in countries, in regions, with nations, nationalities and smaller and larger indigenous communities. It’s with languages rich with its grammar, literature, history and tradition being used by a comparatively larger population, and with languages without grammar, characters, written literature being used by a comparatively smaller population. It’s in processes transforming societies from one mode of production to another. Emotion can do nothing with loss and gain made in the process of vanquish and victory. “For the complete victory of commodity production, the bourgeoisie must capture the home market, and there must be politically united territories whose population speaks a single language, with all obstacles to the development of that language and to its consolidation in literature eliminated. [….] Unity and unimpeded development of language are the most important conditions for genuinely free and extensive commerce on a scale commensurate with modern capitalism, for a free and broad grouping of the population in all its various classes and, lastly, for the establishment of close connection between the market and each and every proprietor, big or little, and between seller and buyer.” (Lenin, “The right of nations to self-determination”, Collected Works, vol. 20, Progress Publishers, Moscow, erstwhile USSR, 1972)

Therefore, there remains the question in the face of capturing of market by the advancing capital and elimination of obstacles to the development of a single language for the market and its consolidation in literature – people’s right, right of the oppressed and the dispossessed. The question challenges the capital dispossessing people in many areas including language and literature.

It’s an issue of democracy, an issue of democratic rights, an issue of democratic struggle. In one pole, there’s market unified and made powerful by capital, and, in the opposite pole, there is people, a people’s language and literature facing elimination campaign by merciless market. Questions emerge: whether people will submit to market’s galloping power, whether people should allow market to trample all that secure people’s interest and obstruct market’s triumph – questions related to democracy, a democracy of people, not of market, where people, not market, decide.

With the entrance of market, a prayer wheel to a sect of economists who ignore the fact that wheels of market demolish all opposing it, with market’s autocratic power to dictate all including language, the question of democracy emerges with much importance and force. Jacques Attali, economist, philosopher, special adviser to the president of France for 10 years and president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development from 1990 to 1993, writes: The guiding principles of the market economy and democracy often contradict one another and are more likely to go head-to-head than hand in hand. (“The Crash of Western Civilization: The Limits of the Market and Democracy”, Foreign Policy, No. 107, Summer, 1997) Market takes care of interest of a few engaged with a profit hunt while democracy stands for people. The two, therefore, don’t collaborate. Rather, the two enter into conflict. This conflict is reflected in the areas of ideology, culture, language and environment, along with economy and politics. Market shapes democracy according to its good wishes – serve me. Consequently, democracy turns void of its spirit – people’s interest. Language is one of the areas of people’s interest. With own language, people interact among themselves, interact in production, interact in class struggle. The more their grip on it loosens the more their space is lost.

Today, languages people to use are decided by the imperialist capital, with its ownership of communication/media-machine. Not only language, dialects and vocabulary; expressions, entertainments, postures, definitions, even choices or preferences, desires and dreams are dictated by this machine. This means people lose space. It’s a conflict between two opposing interests, where people is the majority while that machine represents an absolutely miniscule group. The need for democracy and democratic struggle emerges when such a minor group overpowers an absolute majority on a socio-historical matrix.

Ultimately, in a capitalist setting, as Lenin finds, “requirements of economic exchange will themselves decide which language of the given country it is to the advantage of the majority to know in the interest of commercial relations.” (“Critical remarks on the national question”, CW: 20) And, in a people’s democratic arrangement, it’s people’s democratic choice, not market’s coercive power, which will make the final decision. Hence, on the question related to language and democracy, let people decide the issue in a democratic environment, which is free from market’s motive force, arbitrariness and coercion.


The article appeared first in the special issue of New Age, Dhaka on February 21, 2020 commemorating the International Mother Language Day.

Farooque Chowdhury writes from Dhaka.




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