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Language and the Lunatic Fringe By DORIS LESSING

( Written June 26, 1992)

While we have seen the apparent death of Communism, ways of thinking that were either born under Communism or strengthened by Communism still govern our lives. Not all of them are as immediately evident as a legacy of Communism as Political Correctness.

The first point — language. It is not a new thought that Communism debased language and, with language, thought. There is a Communist jargon recognizable after a single sentence. Few people in Europe have not joked in their time about concrete steps, contradictions, the interpenetration of opposites — and the rest.

The first time I saw that mind-deadening slogans had the power to take wing and fly far from their origins was in the 1950s when I read an article in The Times of London and saw them in use. ‘The demo last Saturday was irrefutable proof that the concrete situation . . . .’ Words confined to the left as corralled animals had passed into general use and, with them, ideas. One might read whole articles in the conservative and liberal press that were Marxist, but the writers did not know it. But there is an aspect of this heritage that is much harder to see.

“ The heritage of dead and empty language these days is to be found in academia,
and particularly in some areas of sociology and psychology.”

Even five, six years ago, Izvestia, Pravda, and a thousand other Communist papers were written in a language that seemed designed to fill up as much space as possible without actually saying anything. Because, of course, it was dangerous to take up positions that might have to be defended. Now all these newspapers have rediscovered the use of language. But the heritage of dead and empty language these days is to be found in academia and particularly in some areas of sociology and psychology.

A young friend of mine from North Yemen saved up every bit of money he could to travel to Britain to study that branch of sociology that teaches how to spread Western expertise to benighted natives. I asked to see his study material and he showed me a thick tome, written so badly and in such ugly, empty jargon it was hard to follow. There were several hundred pages, and the ideas in it could easily have been put in 10 pages. Yes, I know the obfuscations of academia did not begin with Communism — as Swift, for one, tells us — but the pedantries and verbosity of Communism had its root in German academia. And now it has become a kind of mildew blighting the whole world.

A successor to Commitment is Raising Consciousness.

It is one of the paradoxes of our time that ideas capable of transforming our societies, full of insights about how the human animal actually behaves and thinks, are often presented in unreadable language.

The second point is linked with the first. Powerful ideas affecting our behavior can be visible only in brief sentences, even a phrase — a catch-phrase. All writers are asked this question by interviewers: ‘Do you think a writer should. . . .?’ ‘Ought writers to . . . ?’ The question always to do with a political stance — and note that the assumption behind the words is that all writers should do the same thing, whatever it is. The phrases ‘Should a writer . . . ? ‘Ought writers to . . . ?’ have a long history that seems unknown to the people who so casually use them. Another is ‘Commitment’ — so much in vogue not long ago. Is so and so a committed writer?

A successor to Commitment is Raising Consciousness. This is double-edged. The people whose consciousness is being raised may be given information they most desperately lack and need, may be given moral support they need. But the process nearly always means that the pupil gets only the propaganda the instructor approves of. Raising Consciousness, like Commitment, like Political Correctness, is a continuation of that old bully, the Party Line.

A very common way of thinking in literary criticism is not seen as a consequence of Communism, but it is. Every writer has the experience of being told that a novel, a story, is ‘about’ something or other. I wrote a story, ‘The Fifth Child,’ which was at once pigeonholed as being about the Palestinian problem, genetic research, feminism, anti-Semitism and so on.

A journalist from France walked into my living room and before she had even sat down said, ‘Of course ‘The Fifth Child’ is about AIDS.’

An effective conversation stopper, I assure you. But what is interesting is the habit of mind that has to analyze a literary work like this. If you say, ‘Had I wanted to write about AIDS or the Palestinian problem I would have written a pamphlet,’ you tend to get baffled stares. That a work of the imagination has to be ‘really’ about some problem is, again, an heir of Socialist Realism. To write a story for the sake of story telling is frivolous, not to say reactionary.

The demand that stories must be ‘about’ something is from Communist thinking and, further back, from religious thinking, with its desire for self-improvement books as simple-minded as the messages on samplers.

It troubles me that PC does not  know what its exemplars and predecessors are;
it troubles me more that it may know and does not care.

The phrase Political Correctness was born as Communism was collapsing. I do not think this was chance. I am not suggesting that the torch of Communism has been handed on to the Political Correctors. I am suggesting that habits of mind have been absorbed, often without knowing it.

There is obviously something very attractive about telling other people what do do: I am putting it in this nursery way rather than in more intellectual language because I see it as nursery behavior. Art — the arts generally — are always unpredictable, maverick, and tend to be, at their best, uncomfortable. Literature, in particular, has always inspired the House committees, the Zhdanovs, the fits of moralizing, but at worst persecution. It troubles me that Political Correctness does not seem to know what its exemplars and predecessors are; it troubles me more that it may know and does not care.

Does Political Correctness have a good side? Yes, it does, for it makes us re-examine attitudes, and that is always useful. The trouble is that, with all popular movements, the lunatic fringe so quickly ceases to be a fringe, the tail begins to wag the dog. For every woman or man who is quietly and sensibly using the idea to examine our assumptions, there are 20 rabble-rousers whose real motive is desire for power over others, no less rabble-rousers because they see themselves as anti-racists or feminists or whatever.

A professor friend describes how when students kept walking out of classes on genetics and boycotting visiting lecturers whose points of view did not coincide with their ideology, he invited them to his study for discussion and for viewing a video of the actual facts. Half a dozen youngsters in their uniform of jeans and T-shirts filed in, sat down, kept silent while he reasoned with them, kept their eyes down while he ran the video and then, as one person, marched out. A demonstration — they might very well have been shocked to hear — which was a mirror of Communist behavior, an acting out, a visual representation of the closed minds of young Communist activists.

Again and again in Britain we see in town councils or in schools councillors or headmistresses or headmasters or teachers being hounded by groups and cabals of witch hunters, using the most dirty and often cruel tactics. They claim their victims are racist or in some way reactionary. Again and again an appeal to higher authorities has proved the campaign was unfair.

I am sure that millions of people, the rug of Communism pulled out from under them, are searching frantically, and perhaps not even knowing it, for another dogma.

Doris Lessing, who lives in London, is author of a forthcoming collection of short stories, ‘The Real Thing.’ This is an abridged version of a talk delivered in April at a Rutgers University conference in Newark on intellectuals and social change in Eastern Europe. The Partisan Review co-sponsored the conference and will publish the proceedings.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Gagdad Bob May 11, 2020, 2:26 PM

    Fidelity to the dictionary is resistance to tyranny.

  • ghostsniper May 11, 2020, 2:37 PM

    The whole notion of everything communist is based in criminality, theft.

    Theft of property, theft of life.

    Democracy is similar except it is dressed in the illusion that a “majority” of the people are sanctioning the theft.
    I subscribe to none of it, and never have, and everyone else’s silly suppositions can take a hike.

  • ghostsniper May 11, 2020, 2:38 PM

    I meant subscribe.

    [Fixed it with my superpower. gv]

  • Vanderleun May 11, 2020, 2:50 PM

    Gagdad for the win so far….

  • James ONeil May 11, 2020, 3:10 PM

    I do fault Lessing for the title of her essay, it should have read Lunatic Center instead of Lunatic Fringe.

  • Jewel May 11, 2020, 3:58 PM

    Theirs is the Dystopian Dyslexicon of Demonia wherein few words are listed, and an ever expanding list of definitions fills the pages. It isn’t a question of what racism means, but of how many A’s you spell it with.

  • ghostsniper May 11, 2020, 4:56 PM
  • Anne May 11, 2020, 5:01 PM

    Soooo . . .if one were to address a round table of faculty based decision makers attempting to clean up the mess at their university would it be close to accurate to make this statement: In the humanities and philosophy departments –including economics, civics, and history. We require that you teach the great ideas and the challenge to those ideas who built this great country. Any philosophy (or philosopher) born after 1950 should be excluded from the basic curriculum. All other philosophies from those born before 1950 can include the great Eastern philosophical studies, with the understanding that they did not lead to the development of free and independent humans.
    Note: add/delete any restriction you think would help clean up the mess at our universities! Pour one first and have fun!

  • Vanderleun May 11, 2020, 7:30 PM

    This would go a long way towards clearing the petrified forests out of the Groves of Academe.

  • Georgiaboy61 May 11, 2020, 9:15 PM

    Political correctness, as William Lind has written, is a form of Cultural Marxism, which is to say communism applied not to economics (as with classical Marxist-Leninist thought) but to culture and society.

    Political correctness, or P.C. as it is abbreviated, was born in the ashes of the Great War. According to classical Marxist thought, when an event of the magnitude of World War One began, the toiling masses should have revolted against their capitalist exploiters rather than shed blood for them or the nations for which they stood.

    Yet, that is precisely what happened: Men rushed to the colors to protect and defend their nations, marching off to war, flags waving and to the sound of patriotic airs and the cheers of their countrymen and women in their ears. Many millions of them died, millions more were maimed or returned permanently changed. Yet many veterans said they would do it all again.

    Classical Marxist theory had failed utterly to predict the actions of the proletariat during the war. What had happened? Why had it failed? This question was asked and answered independently just after the war by two influential Marxist-socialist thinkers, Antonio Gramsci in Italy and Georg Lukacs in Hungary, who arrived at the same answer. The working class had been inoculated against Marxism by western culture and the Christian religion. Until these things were weakened, if not destroyed, the Marxist view could not take hold in the minds of the people.

    The institution which took the lead in attacking the foundations of western civilization and Christianity was the Institute for Social Research, established At Frankfurt University in Frankfurt, Germany in 1923. Eventually known simply as “The Frankfurt School,” the institute’s leading lights – Fromm, Marcuse, Horkheimer, Adorno, et al. – led the movement for the next half-century or more.
    Fatefully for the United States, the institute fled from Nazi Germany during the late 1930s and re-established itself at Columbia University in New York City, New York.

    From relatively modest beginnings at Columbia, the Cultural Marxists rose to ascendancy during the counter-culture years of the 1960s and early 1970s. One prominent Cultural Marxist, Saul Alinksy, mentored both Bill and Hillary Clinton, as well as a young Barack Obama.

    Having started out to “fight the man,” the Cultural Marxists instead became “the man” and now hold the commanding heights of much of the western world, including the United States, in no small part because it has become the secular faith of the globalist movement. Thus, was the hundred-year long “march” through the institutions of the West completed.

  • waitingForTheStorm May 12, 2020, 6:56 AM

    My wife pursued a PhD in education. She handed me a document that was in her reading list and asked me what a particular passage meant. It was 10 to 12 lines of text; a single run on sentence that occupied a single paragraph. The language was so tortured that the logic was convoluted into an incomprehensible blob of nothing. I was dumbfounded, and admitted as much. My wife was surprised, as I have some training in formal, symbolic logic.

    I edited her dissertation. After she submitted her first draft, we were invited to have brunch with her advisor. We made the journey to a restaurant near his home and had a wonderful luncheon. Near the end of the affair, he looked at me and pointedly said, “You cannot edit your wife’s dissertation”. He explained that my propensity toward clarity and brevity was not suitable for publication in any of the lofty educational journals. After a while, he left to take a job at another university. Her new advisor decided that her dissertation topic was not important and she would have to start over on another topic. After a year and a half of wasted effort, she said “screw it” and walked away, EBD.

  • Roy Lofquist May 12, 2020, 1:13 PM

    Gagdad Bob May 11, 2020, 2:26 PM
    “Fidelity to the dictionary is resistance to tyranny.”

    Whose dictionary?