A new language is the number one imperative for a new left project

The left in this country has a language problem, writes David Stoker

There is an oft-repeated quote about the folly of consumerist capitalism, that it encourages us to “spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to make impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about”. I would argue that the majority of those arguing for the toppling of capitalism and the emergence of socialism, here and now in the UK, appear similarly deluded and disconnected from reality, but with their language. To paraphrase, socialists “use words few people know to make arguments few people understand to fight for causes few people recognise on people who don’t care.”

Many appear to be in a wilful denial about the extent of our challenge, as if people just haven’t heard of socialism yet and a new leaflet will convert them. Anyone who has ever been lambasted by a zealous evangelical Christian with a microphone (a regular feature in my haunts, London’s Brixton and Elephant & Castle) will know that preaching is not an effective strategy to win hearts and minds. Yet the left are comparable to these street preachers in the way that most switch off at the first sound of phrases that have come to dominate left campaigning, such as “class struggle”, “we must unite” or even “socialism” itself. The author of the blog “Another Angry Voice” offers an explanation for our deep unpopularity:

“There is a massive appetite for left-wing ideas, but the very syntax of traditional socialism had been undermined by decades of anti-left propaganda that have warped the meanings of words like “socialism” and “Marxism” to such an extent that their actual meanings have been obfuscated. The left needs to move away from the old language of socialism and reach out to the masses in language that modern generations can engage with.”

The potential for a new audience is huge. The figures for numbers disenchanted from politics are striking: thirty-five percent of those eligible to vote at the last general election did not vote, which is more than voted for either of the main political parties. As for who votes, it is clear that older people do, which was reflected in the last budget, squarely targeted at pleasing the over-50s with a grey-vote gift liberalisation of pensions. What the youth and other non-voters have in common is that politics as currently formulated turns them off, let alone language from 50-100 years ago. To fight battles we cannot win is futile. We need new tools to reach them.

The left is bookish, that is a given. Knowledge in itself is no weakness, far from it, but there is something of the retreat about it. The American philosopher Richard Rorty wrote of the American academic left that their theorising “leads them to prefer knowledge to hope.” Similarly I have witnessed the left on this side of the pond a deference to theory that isolates them in their own language and stifles ambition. There’s a quote I like, “I don’t want to be part of your revolution if I can’t dance.” Where is the fun and openness in the left?

The new language is, in a way, no language of specialism at all: Plain English is a recognised benchmark because it works and respect’s people’s intelligence without resorting to jargon. Caroline Lucas of the Green Party spoke recently that her party have “learned the hard way that handing out small print leaflets saying ‘If we don’t change soon then we’re all doomed’ is not an effective way of getting people to change”. It is not a great stretch to say the same of yet another workers’ newspaper, a cottage industry that is as prolific as it is baffling to outsiders.

The left must also learn to listen to bring in new members. The business author Alan H. Palmer writes in his book “Talk Lean” about “giving your arguments a chance to do something”. What Palmer means by that is, “it’s all very well having thought up a powerful and persuasive arguments, but you need to ensure that you use them effectively and that they actually produce something”. His first important principle in the deployment of arguments is “to hold off giving them until the other person has invited you to do so. Only then will he or she be willing to listen with an open mind.” This means asking open-ended questions, and fully taking in the response before beginning to articulate your answer.

We must learn to focus on the positives. Countless people enjoy libraries, a socialist anomaly in a capitalist system; and most have very fond memories of their schooling. But our tone is too often pompous, foreboding: I have heard countless detailed analyses of all that is wrong with the world and why, not enough about what we have achieved. Spending your weeknights talking about the oppression of workers can be pretty depressing stuff, certainly a niche interest. We seem to keep a serious face to show we are constantly aware of the weight of history on our shoulders. Did the wind change? Say what you like about the conservatives, they seem to know how to enjoy life, even if it is off the back of ill-gotten gains.

Invention is not the only way to speak in new ways. Perhaps we could flip the existing terms of debate: “the Con-Dems are the radicals, demolishing the welfare state”, we might say, “Left Unity will conserve the NHS from privatisation” (as an immediate goal, before continuing towards a socialist state). This example may make you balk, but there is a principle there: it is much easier to win arguments by appealing to values people already have, instead of trying to change them. A term like “freedom” is popular on both the right and the left precisely because it is a widely-held value worth fighting over; a shiny badge to conceal any number of different viewpoints. Similarly “cut income tax, introduce a land tax” could send the right-wing press’s heads spinning.

There is no paradox in reframing the ideas of the past. This is not a “PR whitewash”, or hiding of who we are. On the contrary, I think that Marx would not object to us finding ways to communicate his ideas in a way that resonates with the public. In fact the way the left treats Marx as a kind of idol is somewhat absurd. He wrote an important analysis, he did not write scripture and we are not a religion. Left Unity, if it is to reach its potential, must speak in a way to work smarter, not harder. I look forward to us finding the terms of our brave new world.


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35 comments

35 responses to “A new language is the number one imperative for a new left project”

  1. Ben says:

    This is spot on. The language used on the left is often incomprehensible, even to people who know a little about the sources of this language. It does not help to use hard to understand language to try to install in peoples minds concepts which, because they are not common in peoples experience, can sometimes be hard to imagine without some effort.

    • David Stoker says:

      Thank you Ben. I have been overwhelmed by the positive responses to this opinion piece, and enthusiasm for change. It feels like a tectonic shift in Left thinking is truly possible.

      I invite you and anyone else who agrees with my article and would like to be a part of defining the Left’s new language to join my Google group called “New Language for the Left”. You can join by clicking on my name above this comment or C+P the link below. I hope to start an ideas discussion by email and run a few workshops as soon as possible.

      https://groups.google.com/d/forum/leftlanguage

  2. Edmund Potts says:

    But this is all about retreat, isn’t it – we are against capitalism and in favour of socialism, but the ruling class have slandered us for 150 years so we must fall over ourselves to change our language and our image in a desperate bid to appear respectable. I know what I’m for, and rebranding is just a diversion that will mean people see us as merely ‘like Labour were before they turned rotten’; that might be what some of us want, but not me.

    It really is a very conservative approach to the debate, because it’s not reinvention or transformation, just retreat: “Left Unity will conserve the NHS from privatisation”. Well I was out campaigning in the city centre the other day, getting people to sign a petition against cuts to local services, and the overwhelming response was from women working in the NHS. However, they themselves were telling me that it has to be about more than retaining service provision and halting privatisation: they all had their own [often quite radical] ideas about how the NHS could be made more democratic, more accountable – one might say ‘more socialist’. There are thousands of people out there who are receptive to our arguments; no, of course we shouldn’t rant and rave, and no, we shouldn’t speak only in abstractions – but at the same time, we absolutely *must* state clearly what our ultimate goal is and put forward honestly our perspective that immediate defensive reforms are not enough.

    • Ray G says:

      Edmund

      I don’t think David is arguing at all that we should retreat or not say what we stand for. The NHS bit that you quote is just an example of use of language, or turning received tabloid wisdom on its head.

      He says explicitly “there is no paradox in reframing the ideas of the past. This is not a “PR whitewash”, or hiding of who we are. On the contrary, I think that Marx would not object to us finding ways to communicate his ideas in a way that resonates with the public.”

      However good or left or thorough your ideas are, it all comes to nothing if people don’t understand or identify with what you are saying. Let’s be creative and clever about winning new people to our ideas.

  3. Ian Townson says:

    The language we use should be accessible, comprehensible and transformative. It is not patronising or a sell out of our ideas to talk in language that avoids jargon or trotting out tired old left wing cliches of the past. Time and the progressive changes in capitalism have affected the social composition and consciousness of ordinary working people and we need to take this into consideration. We are not living in the 1930s with mass unemployment at a time when there was no welfare state or NHS. Then it was transparently obvious how vicious and unrelenting capitalism was in exploiting and oppressing working people. Our situation now is not so clear cut. Workers have clearly benefited from the welfare state which has acted as a cushion against abject poverty and there is a general rise in the level of prosperity for many working people. Also the destruction of large scale industries and the transformation of the economy into smaller units and self-employed businesses has changed the whole nature of the ‘working class’. In these circumstances what we need to be clear about is who we are addressing and why anyone would benefit from the destruction of capitalism and its replacement by a socialist system. Clarity of those ideas to a certain extent will shape the language we use but also we have to understand that our usual evangelical approach to proselytising the masses ain’t going to work. People are more persuaded by a smile and a conversation than being harangued through a loud speaker and the conversation we have has to be with people not at them.

    I don’t see a change in the language we use as a sell out or a superficial PR or re-branding exercise but the example Edmund Potts gave is a good one about the NHS. We all know that the NHS and the welfare system generally is incredibly bureaucratic and often does not act in the best interests of either the workers in the industry of the people who use it. The nurses mentioned pointed to greater democratic accountability as a ‘transformative’ measure rather than just ‘Defend the NHS’ or ‘Welfare not Warfare’. Perhaps our language should attempt to reflect that transformative spirit but with a clear eye to a future and better society not based on the profit motive, privatisation and rule by the few on behalf of captital against labour (trying not to lapse into cliche).

  4. bob walker says:

    If I have a criticism of comrades on the left,it is.For the last forty odd years to my knowledge.We tend to speak in terms that the ordinary person doesn,t understand.I believe you can speak in day to day language without losing your principles.

  5. stamper says:

    I would be interested in hearing the author’s thoughts about the party name ‘Left Unity’ and whether he believes that this is also part of the problematic vocab/syntax he quite rightly highlights?

    • David Stoker says:

      I struggled with the name Left Unity. I thought hard about an alternative up to the founding conference. This was our moment to announce who we are, make a splash, and a good name could lead 1,000s of people to be curious not dismissive. Taking a very limited survey in the run up to November 2013, a typical reaction of my non-political friends to the name was not good: one said, “Do you think most people know what left versus right means?”

      The choices on the day were Left Party, Left Unity, and Left Unity Party, if I remember right. Not the most imaginative. I submitted the name Red Panda Movement to conference after what started as a joke in Lambeth branch; my email was presumably ignored because they assumed I was joking. I wasn’t entirely; I wanted to open up the debate. How were we going to appeal to the youth? How amazing could a thousand young people in red panda onesies look, getting into politics for the first time, and how unlike the dry Left? Red Panda Movement would have been silly but it was different.

      What I can say for the name Left Unity is that people identify with it now so we’ve got it. At least it’s not got initials.

      • Ray G says:

        LU

      • tony walker says:

        you see if you use the name Left Unity some people will assume that we took that name because there was disunity and unity is a goal. not only that but it could also given impression that the reason we have not been more successful is because we were divided. while it is an important goal unity alone will not be enough to make real progress and unless you can use language thatt is heard in everyday speech some people will just ignore it especially if it or the person delivering comes across as elitist which they could be seen as being even if they are not. thing is people like the idea of public ownership but they are put off by the S or the C word. i wonder caution people not to say they want a workers state because as you know that might give the wrong impression for historical reasons or you might get laughed where has if you say i believed re nationalising the railways and subsidising bus services that will get a cheer in the high street. the way ideas are presented is crucial.
        tony walker

  6. TimP says:

    I would agree with much of this analysis, but don’t forget we in Left Unity are already committed to conveying our vision in such an imaginative way, the fourth of our aims is,
    ‘to organise and campaign in ways that recognise and promote alternatives and new forms of popular political culture that are creative and educational, that can move and empower people through hope of a better and realisable future, and that delight, inspire and provoke thought.’

  7. Merry Cross says:

    I think this article chimes well with the comment on Farage’s popularity stemming from the fact that he speaks ‘plain English’ and everyone can understand him, whether we loathe him or not!

    Making our language similarly accessible will also pull people in. If we can manage that, it doesn’t really matter what our name is.

    • Helen Robson says:

      Spot on about Farage – I regularly hear that he is popular because he talks sense and actually answers questions. This seems to be more appealing than his actual message!

  8. John Pearson says:

    With the exception of the contribution from Ed Potts, this really is backsliding stuff that has a smack of ‘New Labourism’ to it.

    I was immediately reminded of the tale told to me by a comrade who is an active trade unionist and a socialist, who recently, (for reasons best known to himself) rejoined the Labour Party. At a meeting of the Darwen Labour Party, he says he used the words, “working class” and he thought that they were going to have to send for defibrilators.

    It is just not true that the ideas of socialism and the understanding that socialism can only be achieved through the collective struggle of the working class, have been rejected by working class people. Rather, many have forgotten what socialism means because the class traitors of labourism and social democracy joined the rest of the mainstream politicians in abandoning any attempt to provide a shared vision capable of inspiring us to work to create a better society.

    As Naomi Klein puts it in her great book, ‘The Shock Doctrine’ : “The dirty secret of the neoliberal era is that these ideas were never defeated in a great battle of ideas, nor were they voted down in elections. They were shocked out of the way at key political junctures”. (Penguin books 2008, p. 450)

    Comrades, we are not mainstream politicians. We define ourselves against them and we must shun their methods. It is our job to tell the truth, to rescue the binned ideas of socialism and to inspire the working class to relearn those ideas. We are not selling a product; we are striving to remotivate a collective struggle.

  9. Coolfonz says:

    “I was immediately reminded of the tale told to me by a comrade…”

    Yeah, I stopped reading right there.

    Get rid of the jargon from the 40s and 50s, we aren’t going back there.

    • John Pearson says:

      “Comrade” is a term that conveys equality and common purpose.

      We need to evangelise for equality and for common purpose and collective endeavour if we are going to get anywhere, up against the atomising and alienating ideology of capitalism.

      I’d recommend the book, “The Spirit Level – Why Equality is Better for Everyone” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, (Penguin Books 2010) for the case for equality.

      Yes, language is important. That’s why our language needs to reflect our aims. Our aims are to create a better society aren’t they? – not to strut around like peacocks displaying our “coolness”.

  10. Dave says:

    Great article. I’ve often thought the reason for the lefts failure in recent years were down to the combative nature of a lot of its materials. The socialist party and the swp for example appear to rely on gaining support through appealing to peoples hatred of politicians and bankers.

  11. Brilliant argument, absolutely spot on. I don’t think left wing ideas are unpopular, but the way they’ve often been expressed, well, it’s a bit socks and sandals isn’t it.

    • Coolfonz says:

      Exactly. The reason you come across so well on TV/the media is in a large part because you don’t resort to left cliches like using the word `comrade`/`capitalism` etc etc.

      When the right want to cut public services they say “reforms”, when they want to weaken employees rights they call the workforce “flexible”.

      We need a little bit of Chomsky’s understanding of language, not Wolfie Smith’s ;)

  12. Good article – but I’m just wondering if the name “Left Unity” itself isn’t just another example of being “deluded and disconnected from reality”.

    The Problem with the left is that it’s not unified. Everyone knows it’s not unified. Tony Benn used to be able to rattle off an A-Z of at least a dozen UK based left groups without drawing breath!

    I would have preferred to see the Independent Labour Party make a comeback. Is that name still available for use?

    • Coolfonz says:

      Sticking `independent` on the front of `Labour Party` sounds well weird.

      Personally what is wrong with `Unity`.

  13. Gary C says:

    While I agree about the importance of using modern language that resonates, I don’t think that is the main problem, I think the problem is the ideas, socialisism needs new ideas, workable ideas that appeal to people’s interests, for example appealing to people’s ‘pocket’, worker’s co-ops have a theoretical edge over capitalists, if a genuine alternative is available the fight can be won, look at the non-profit telco giffgaff.

  14. John Tummon says:

    I am a huge fan of the 1950s book “The Uses of Literacy”, by the late Richard Hoggart, who charted the decline of working class literacy and independent working class culture over the proceeding 30 years, as mass media of all sorts lowered the extent and depth of peoples’ vocabulary, their reading and their ability to see beyond emerginng mass culture.

    What Hoggart recognised as a disturbing trend has intensified ever since such that, as I wrote in an article on this website a few months ago – “The Pointless Guide to Political Literacy”:

    ‘The contrast between all these groups of people, who have rejected politics in favour of enjoying the recreational diversions capitalism provides to the populations of the rich countries and, on the other hand, the 300,000 or so members of political parties (all political parties) in this country is massive and growing. The level of political debate reflects this, as does the gross mismatch between public opinion and known facts on issues like crime and immigration”.

    Capitalist culture encourages the dumbing down of discussion, of language, and yet language continues to evolve all the time, with old words taking on new meanings, new words emerging and new generations crating their own street talk. If this is the case – and if there is a genuine hunger for a different world – then talking about it cannot take the form of using the conventional, simplefied language of tabloid journalism. Introducing people to the language of Marxism is necessary as well as possible, if they are going to take on a new emancipatory view of the world.

    Of course, drowning people in this language would be stupid and we need a bi-lingual approach to relating to people who come to us, but throwing out the baby with the bathwater was never a good way forward and so I am not with David, though I think raising the debate is important.

    • Anya says:

      I said months ago that people don’t want to hear all this socialism talk & Marxism talk. The world has moved on from flat caps, whippets, & old ladies in the constituency parties making tea. That’s why we are Left, not Socialist or Marxist Unity.

      People need simplified language – even better they need simple ideas. That’s why, as someone said, UKIP gets a hearing. Talking about making Britain great again, foreigners, & Brussels gets through to people. We need similar talk but left talk. If not we’ll be ignored more than we are at the moment.

      Terry Conway seems a straight-talker. In a recent piece he has put all these socialists & Marxists in their place, making it clear that as we grow they will be marginalised, & they won’t interfere with us getting our left message across for a better Britain, one in which we are richer. This is what he said:

      “A number of other small groups on the radical left are also involved in Left Unity but in a way that in general seems to be instrumentalist, i.e. in order to find a wider audience for their own (sectarian) ideas rather than from a real commitment to the project. While they are undoubtedly an irritant especially at national events (or in particular localities where they have some weight) the only way to defeat them is to build Left Unity into a stronger organisation in which they will become more marginalised.”
      http://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article3360 ‘The Significance of Left Unity’

      The website name, International Viewpoint, shows the progress they have made, as it isn’t called Socialist Viewpoint or Marxist Viewpoint. Left Unity needs more of that sort of talk so it has a chance to connect with people.

      • Ray G says:

        Terry is female – by the way!

      • Coolfonz says:

        John H – at no point should anyone be patronised by Unity deciding it has to talk `down` to people, that isn’t what anyone means. At least not me. Nor should Unity ditch old books/texts, whichever are your personal favourites.

        But take the Tory cliche at the moment. “Hard working families”. They used it so much they started getting ribbed in the media, on HIGNFY etc. It doesn’t take much to create political cliches which get folks rolling their eyes/face palming.

        And it is possible to express oneself without using them and still conveying the politics/ideas we would like to see.

      • Anya says:

        omg, Ray, whoops! Now I’ll get defriended.

  15. I agree with David Stoker about the way the use of language can become a barrier to our gathering of potential supporters around a different vision of what matters and how to organise to make it become real. But it is not just about ‘Lefty-Speak’. I come from a working class family who did not go to university, rarely read books, and have never been to a conference in their lives. None of that means they are stupid or uninterested in making life better for people. Many, if not most of the people we say we represent are more like them than most people currently in LU. Very few of them use words like ‘Oft’, ‘Syntax’ or ‘obfuscated’. This is one of the reasons I think we need to use the Arts – poems, songs, videos, plays to communicate with each other as well as writing and debating. For many people this is the way they can contribute their thinking. Have you listened to the words of some of the popular Rap Artists? That is what inspires young people. And we need to learn to tell stories. Story telling is wonderful. And comedy – Peter Kay reaches the people we need to reach in their thousands.

    I was never keen on the name Left Unity, not because I don’t like it, but because of the baggage which it brings. I think it is making it much harder to engage with people who, for example, joined 38 Degrees (over a million) or the People’s Assembly (30,000 +). Now the name has been adopted, I am hoping we can create a new image and culture which will over-ride the past. Things like the Mothers March for the NHS will help, I think.

  16. WGreendale says:

    It’s quite understandable that the language used by the right wing and left wing is different since the right wing is trying to spread ignorance and the left wing is trying to spread knowledge.

    Spreading knowledge requires more exact language and listening to such requires more of the listener. It also takes more time to teach something than just to entertain.

    I don’t think the basic ideas of socialism are outdated, on the contrary. But the right wing media has managed to destroy most people’s understanding of the language that is traditionally used to convey those ideas. I think the language should be restored instead of inventing a new language. Instead of inventing new words to replace the old ones one should teach what the old words really mean.

    This is a huge challenge, though. Imagine how difficult it would be to teach mathematics without using such old-fashioned words as “number”, “plus”, “minus” etc.

  17. Simon Jacobson says:

    Focus on the ‘language problem’ was a certain post modern preoccupation which I hope has had its day–it was after all Blair’s way to take over Labour party. Really, isn’t it about the old truisms and saying what we mean; taking what pretty much everyone (who doesn’t have some brain/psychological problem) knows to be true–fairness,equality, justice–and not making them sound like platitudes. I believe if the best and the brightest among us can truly represent the majority interests if the majority stays actively involved and is inspired by a new humanism that understands the importance of creative difference

    • John Pearson says:

      This has been an interesting discussion but I think that David’s thesis that “a new language is the number one imperative for a new left project” is fundamentally flawed and has been shown to be so.

      Bertrand Russell put humanity’s dilemma in simple terms – that the number one problem for humanity was that the clever people were so full of doubts, whilst the stupid people were so cocksure.

      Comrade Moderator – I am emphatically NOT caling any contributor to this thread stupid. I can see where they are coming from, but comrades, the number one issue isn’t whether we stop using the term ‘Comrade’ and replace it with something like ‘Dude’.

      Left Unity’s number one imperative is to bring together and build the confidence of all the millions of clever people. And there ARE millions. As I and no doubt many, many other LU members, know from the case of our own parents – mine both left elementary education at the age of 14 – formal educational qualification has nothing to do with whether they are clever.

      Our task is to dispel the doubts and to make the cocksuredness doubtful, in other words to win the battle of ideas. We need to appropriate the gains of language that we have made over the centuries and rescue besmirched and wonderful words where necessary, in the process of winning that battle.

      • John Tummon says:

        Quite right! My view is firly that we have to be bi-lingual – able to talk to people on their doorsteps in their style of language, to explain socialist and Marxist concepts in a variety of language registers once people unfamilar with this join us. Listening and talking have to go together.

        The capitalist media has dumbed down political literacy in the UK to its lowest ever point, but go on the Radical Independence Scotland website and see how they have run a voter registration campaign in deprived parts of Scottish cities and said a few words to the people they have engaged with about what they stand for. Then look st the figures for how many people from these communities want to vote ‘Yes’ – its is staggering what they have done. We need to replicate this approach in our electoral work, but our ongoing work with people we recruit does not have to keep them as they are when they join us. That is the problem with what David advocates.

  18. Coolfonz says:

    “I believe if the best and the brightest among us can truly represent the majority interests if the majority stays actively involved and is inspired by a new humanism that understands the importance of creative difference”

    Case in point. I don’t understand what you are saying. What does “new humanism” mean? Words with ~ism and ~ist on the end are best avoided.

    • John Tummon says:

      Don’t insist on this exclusion, Coolfonz! You never know where avoiding word endings can end? Racism? Sexist? Linguist? Cubism? Rapist?

      Room 101?

  19. Simon Jacobson says:

    Point taken but this is a comment page not an academic paper. Surely a ‘new humanism’ should be as self-evident as a ‘new language’ at least as an imperative–what it actualy is we will all have to decide.


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