I would someday like to try to write something serious and sustained about political speech, specifically speech in practice. What I mean is, about how people in left circles use words in their activities right now in order to accomplish certain ends. I’m particularly interested in how people use words to draw together proposed groupings and proposed boundaries. This is on my mind again, among other reasons, because of some old timey stuff I’ve been looking at. Two examples.

Karl Kautsky, “The Road to Power,” p61.
“In France a portion of our party membership became temporarily a government part. The masses received the impression that the Socialists had renounced their revolutionary principles. They lost faith in the party. Not a small section of them fell under the influence of the latest variety of anarchism – syndicalism.”

Ernest Dimnet, “A French Defence of Violence,” p416. Dimnet in criticizing Sorel writes about those who have “not learned to distinguish between the words Socialism and Syndicalism.”

In both of these there’s a clear line drawn. For Dimnet, a clear line between syndicalists and socialists, people can only be on one or the other. For Kautsky, there’s a line around syndicalism, it’s contained within anarchism. There is also for Kautsky a clear line between socialism and anarchism, and thus between socialism and syndicalism.

There’s nothing per se wrong with lines. People can stipulate that they will use words however they want. (There’s glory for you!) There’s a problem, though, when the stipulation is private and undeclared. There’s another problem when the term given a stipulated meaning is in use with a different sense for different people. In the times and places that both Dimnet and Kautksy were writing in, there were people who were both socialists and syndicalists. The clear line they drew was a prescriptive rather than a descriptive line. The stipulation – “I will use the words ‘socialist’ and ‘syndicalist’ in the following manner” – was deliberately not marked as a departure from how many people were already using those terms. The aim of doing this , at least in part, was to make the prescriptive move but not mark it as a prescriptive one. Here’s part of the idea here, part of the drawing of bright clean lines using this mix of prescriptive and descriptive use of words. Part of the idea is to create some thing that exists at a normative level, some abstract or idealized thing called “socialism” or “syndicalism” then to push upon reality to move it closer to that normative perspective. That is, part of the idea is that by putting out these prescriptive claims as if descriptive, the prescription can become the description: the clean lines drawn in theory, despite the messiness of social reality, can become true, because using the terms this way helps draw lines between people.

(I find this whole way of proceeding to be tiresome and would simply prefer new terms be invented or old terms be modified by a sort of “well, OUR syndicalism is like this…” disaggregates the larger terms rather than falsely unifying them in attempt to exacerbate differences in reality in the hope to then get to purer unified groupings in social reality which the language of unanimity will then start to be true of. I got into this a bit in the stuff on Lenin in this post and in some of the stuff in my review of Black Flame.)