Yes, it is the old ambition to reach a language that would say exactly what it says; it is the drive and the pretention [sic] to define; it is this completely crazy idea, which inspires a trend within analytic philosophy, of making coincide beginning and definition. This is an ideology that our Hegelian training, I may say, has completely kept at bay. Despite everything, and in so far as we were raised as dialecticians, we were shaped into a way of thinking that is aware of the fact that beginnings have nothing to do with definitions, that definitions come at the end, that nothing is in itself in the word, and that concepts are only in the mode of a motion, that they are the result of a process. Already in the structuralist moment there was a clear opposition to this analytic position, but there was, nonetheless, a deep faith in writing itself too. And there was that other front as well, related to the world of psychoanalysis, this idea according to which truth is something that is written, even written on the body. This was certainly not my main aspiration back then. But when I became more sensitive to the fact that words are never definitions of things or states of things but are like weapons exchanged in combat, in dialogue, I naturally found myself very far away from such a conception of language.
This was always going to be the next part of my thesis to be blogged but I had an experience one night this week that actually connects with issues within it, so I will preface this section with a discussion of that. I went to a meeting to argue against a motion with which I agreed in principle but also thought needed to be considered in terms of what was politically effective in the current conjuncture. Someone suggested this was basically unprincipled and we needed to consider the ‘truth’. My position was and remains that political practice is not about truth — it is what you do and say in particular contexts that is decisive. If acknowledging the facts of the many injustices that people have suffered was sufficient in itself to resolve these problems then the left would have prevailed a long time ago. We know from bitter experience that this is not the case.
That person sought me out after the meeting had ended to continue the dispute, but he wanted to do so on his terms, in a manner full of passive aggression and patronage, and including an ill-advised attempt at a piece of Socratic dialogue in which I was the naïf to be enlightened. It was very provoking, but calling him out on this was, he thought, unacceptable. He was ‘trying to have a discussion’ and I was ruining it by being upfront about the fact that we were in conflict and that I was angry with him for his behaviour.
As with my last post, I can see a connection with a social movement of the first half of the 19th century: Owenite socialism. Robert Owen was both committed to what he saw as self-evident ‘truth’ and also very strongly opposed to the expression of conflict in his own progressive social movement. The two connected in the orthodox Owenite philosophy of language — there was another strand of Owenism in which working-class Owenites had different ideas — as he thought general acceptance of the self-evident ‘truth’ was threatened by both social conflict and the regrettably polysemic nature of language, an obstacle to us understanding one another. If only we could express our thoughts without ambiguity, there would be no social conflict! Masters and men would be reconciled! (Raymond Postgate described Owen’s attitude towards industrial conflict as ‘strike policy on an avowed “class-peace” basis’: Out of the Past: Some Revolutionary Sketches (1922), p. 103.) Owen promoted this ideal as a model for discourse, both in print and public meetings. I share the misgivings that some working-class Owenites had about this mode of doing politics, for it is not really political at all.
Truth without mystery, agitation without violence
Robert Owen’s theories about how society might be changed for the better can be summed up in the two phrases ‘truth without mystery’ and ‘agitation without violence’. According to George Jacob Holyoake in his history of the co-operative movement: ‘No man had a better right than [Owen] to invent the maxim he was fond of using, “Truth without mystery, mixture of error, or fear of man”’.1 At one level, a commitment to ‘truth without mystery’ expressed confidence in the adoption of that self-evident truth by those who encountered it. An article in the Crisis, for example, explained the reason a religious sect led by Edward Irving had been allowed to use the Owenite Institution on Grays Inn Road despite Owenism’s secularism.2 It was not only charitable to give sanctuary to those persecuted by the Church of Scotland but Owenism might find converts among their number. The Christians were welcome to try to convert the Owenites but the latter, believing in ‘truth without mystery’, feared ‘no power of sect or party in opposition to this truth, expecting rather that the most intelligent among all sects and parties, will speedily perceive this truth, and perceiving will be constrained to adopt and acknowledge it’. The article’s writer opposed truth in nature to the linguistic inventions of mankind: ‘we seek truth not in any mere name or sound, but as it exists in nature’. Contact between the Owenites and believers was more dangerous to the faith of the latter than the principles of the former. This was not attributed to the superior debating skills of the Owenites, but to the self-evident nature of their arguments.
According to J. F. C. Harrison, a key historian of Owenism, ‘It would be an easy matter, though tedious, to document the use by Owenites of the key concepts of Enlightenment rationalism’.3 Owen’s thought was indeed indebted to the Enlightenment tradition and the materialist philosophers’ commitment to reason, which was associated with the clarity of ‘light’ shone into the darkness (Harrison, Robert Owen, pp. 81–87). One correspondent to the Crisis predicted that the mystifications of religion were about to ‘disappear before that blaze of light which truth, supported by science and experience, is about to unfold to the world’.4 Never doubting the end, the problem for Owen was securing it via the appropriate means — education, and clear, calm exposition of the facts. In another lecture, Owen stated with confidence that:
There is no commonly rational individual acquainted with the facts connected with human history, who will attempt to deny the positions advanced. They are, when clearly stated so glaring, that the well informed in every country in the world admit them at once. It but requires that they should be clearly stated, and stated again and again.5
According to Robert Dale Owen — Owen’s son — there was ‘nothing in this world so beneficial as to call things by their proper names. Half the abuses we endure are endured only because, in the fashionable dictionary, they are called by some soft misnomer’.6 Language as it was commonly used obscured truth; the Owenites would counter this by seeking clarity of thought and expression.
Such an approach also had a class dimension and consequences for Owenism’s relation to a more class-conscious politics. For Engels, in his essay ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’, this concept of truth had implications for the understanding of historical development and class conflict. For the ‘utopian’ socialists of the early nineteenth-century:
Socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason, and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power. And as absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered.7
For Engels, while such a socialist ‘appears as a representative of the interests of the proletariat […] they do not claim to emancipate a particular class to begin with, but all humanity at once’ (p. 287). For Owen, this was not a problem at all but a positive value to cultivate.
This belief underpinned the second phrase of this chapter’s title, ‘agitation without violence’. It did not appear in Owenite discourse in the way that ‘truth without mystery’ did but I formulate it from the passages discussed below in order to characterise this other defining attitude of Owenism. In the prospectus of the Crisis’s first issue, Owen presented contemporary politics as a decisive crisis: ‘The time is immediately before us, when either reason, or physical violence of the worst character, must attain the mastery in the future direction of the governments which are now deemed the most civilized’.8 Later in the print run, Owen said of violence that it ‘does no good. Violence has brought us into the situation in which we stand to-day’.9 Progress was to be made:
by free conversation, by free publications, by free discussions; by — yes by — Agitation. But agitation, not in the violent sense of the term; by an agitation of those stagnant pools which want cleansing, and have been too long left disturbed.10
Owen’s experience in promoting his theories among the wealthy had resulted in some enthusiasm while they were generally philanthropic in character, but opposition or ridicule when he began to stress the interests of the working class and discussed sexual relations (Harrison, Robert Owen, pp. 22–25, 216–18). Owen’s ideas provoked resistance from those wedded to the values of the old immoral world but this could be excused as a necessary outcome of the agitation that would stir these stagnant pools. Education was disturbing by nature, but the true Owenite would take care to ensure that exposure of error was not aggressive. Aggressive language lay on a spectrum of violence had the potential to provoke its most extreme manifestation in physical violence.
Owen intended his periodical the Crisis to counter social crisis, preventing the supremacy of violence by inculcating reason. He conceived of rationality as an intellectual exercise that was necessarily accompanied by a particular mode of sociability:
“The Crisis” will upon all occasions discourage religious animosities, political rancour, and individual contention: its fixed purpose being to promote real charity, kindness, and union among all classes, sects, and parties.11
Social change would require reconciliation as well as elucidation. The two mottoes of the Crisis expressed this policy. The first articulated the central plank of Owen’s theory of social inequalities: ‘It is of all truths the most important, that the character of man is formed for — not by himself’. Since environment formed character, the privileged were not to be blamed for their actions; individual members of the working class would act likewise had they been born and raised in that position. The second gave Owenite sociability short-term priority over the necessarily long-term project of education: ‘If we cannot yet reconcile all opinions, let us endeavour to unite all hearts’. The re-education of society would take time and was a project that could only be jeopardised by allowing discord to characterise social relations. For Owen, mystification and class conflict perpetuated error, hindering the attainment of truth and happiness. The promotion of truth, and the inculcation of Owenite values via public opinion and social arrangements, were seen as means to the end of social harmony. This particular structure of feeling required clear exposition of Owenite doctrines in an unantagonistic manner for the benefit of the uninitiated.
The most appropriate mode of face-to-face communication was, therefore, a concern for Owenites. If the Crisis espoused Owen’s social theories then the Owenite meeting provided the opportunity to put these ideas into practice. Eileen Yeo’s analysis of Owenite sociability describes the ideal for Owen: ‘All the living arrangements and social activities of the community would be patterned to embody the basic ethical precepts of “love thy neighbour” and “do unto others”’, and ‘Owen considered brotherliness and many of the London branch activities as the means of bringing about class conciliation (‘Robert Owen’, p. 85, 88). According to a correspondent, this reconciliation was:
to be done, and only to be done, by bringing the several parties in immediate contact with each other, and convincing all, that they are not severally so estranged by nature, as the present arrangements of society would almost imply.12
The ruling and working class were to be reconciled by the dissemination of knowledge and the cultivation of harmonious feeling. According to Harrison, the Owenites could not simply ignore very obvious class differences but designed their social activities as if the difference was irrelevant: ‘If members would charitably ignore shabby clothes and a working-class accent the bogey of class would be exorcized: treat all men as if they were equal and they will in fact become equal’ (Harrison, Robert Owen, p. 224). It was suggested at a ‘General Social Festival’ that:
it is evident, that the government does not intend to inflict misery on the people, if it knew how to avoid such misery. The government is to be pitied; it does not know how to make any better use of the enormous powers at its control.13
The stress on the need for clear communication of an irrefutable truth made unnecessary within orthodox Owenite theory any serious analysis or acknowledgement of the state as a barrier to emancipation and the establishment of the new moral world.
The harmony governing the Owenite meeting was contrasted with the disharmony created by sectarians. Henry O’Neill described in his letter to the editor of the Crisis the ‘violent language’ and ‘maniacal fury’ displayed by Protestants and Catholics in a recent public meeting.14 He contrasted this with Owenite sociability: ‘Thanks to the Rational System, we possess too much good feeling towards each other, as well as love of truth, to convert inquiry into dogmatism, and free expression of thought into abusive declamation’. One correspondent to the Crisis described the radical change worked on his consciousness by Owen’s doctrine:
I am a poor man, Mr. Owen, and hitherto have been a most discontented one. […] I come now to speak of the change my whole being has undergone since I have heard you […] hatred for more fortunate individuals than myself has died away, and all my angry murmurings and discontent, have given place to social feelings, and the hope of better times.15
Class difference, according to the orthodox Owenite view, was an unfortunate fact of society as it was constituted but class identity was a form of sectarianism that had to be rooted out. Both the ruling and working class needed to be educated out of the habit of thinking in terms of class difference which was only a sign of error, having no positive value. This was a spectrum of social conflict; its most extreme manifestation was political violence but aggressive language also lay on the spectrum and must be avoided.
Robert Dale Owen extolled the virtues of ‘The Power of the Eloquence of Public Opinion and the Importance of Every Other Eloquence’ in the article of the same name:
He who wishes effectually to influence the House of Commons must do so by first influencing the people of Great Britain; by arousing the millions not to revolution but to activity; not to violence or indignation, but to enquiry and to free speech; to enquiry, serious, sustained, deliberate and dispassionate; to free speech such as befits a nation, claiming to be enlightened, — to an expression of sentiment on its rights and its wrongs so plain spoken, so universal, so resolute yet so chastened by reason and good feeling, that its representatives must listen and must be carried forward.16
Robert Dale Owen stresses the imperative force of reason, the impossibility that truth expressed clearly would not result in improvement, but it is also clear that the eloquent subject is imagined to be a man of Owen’s stamp and that public oratory was a necessary evil. Other speakers in public meetings criticising taxation were rebuked in ‘Speech Making at Public Meetings’ for imagining that ‘violence of manner [was] a substitute for vigour of mind’. ‘Speech making’ was an ill created by the ‘present system of society’; when that is overthrown:
there will be an end everlastingly put to the trade, since truth alone, which will then be universally seen in its clearness, singleness, simplicity, and unchangeableness, would, if they were in existence, and dependent on speechifying, absolutely starve the whole oratorical profession to death.17
According to this position, eloquence in the ruling class was a facet of its dominance, as rule of open force had given way to rule of ‘him whose purse is heaviest and whose tongue is smoothest’.18 Eloquence in established religion and economics reproduced mystification and justified exploitation: ‘Except church polemics, there is no class of men so given to verbosity […] as the Political Economist’.19
When working-class radicals spoke for themselves, without adhering to Owen’s philosophy, they were thought to tend towards demagoguery and hostile modes of speech. A public discussion between ‘our disciples and the radicals’ was described as ‘irregular, irrelevant, and stormy. A dust was created and the subject lost sight of in the cloud’.20 Eloquence expressing party feeling and in the service of sectarian or class interest belonged to the old immoral world. In an Owenite meeting, the:
Great Leading principle, however, on which the social system is founded, served to check every feeling of violence or of unkindness, for when any member was becoming too warm in stating any thing of a personal kind, that could create an unpleasant feeling in any other member, it was quite sufficient to recal [sic] to the mind of the speaker the fundamental principle of the system, and like a charm it changed the current of his remarks into a new direction, with an altered tone and expression of kindness, instead of anger or any displeasure.21
Hostile feeling was to be diverted into harmony under the influence of Owenite principles. Feeling, passion even, was to be welcomed but also prevented from turning into a conflagration.
The problem with language
In theory, then, the causes of social injustice were perfectly clear and Owenite solutions needed only to be expressed with clarity and calmness to carry all before them. Communication in Owenite meetings modelled ideal forms of sociability as they encouraged gentleness. In practice, however, Owenites found language to be a less than ideal medium for the expression of Owenite truths that they held to be self-evident. Language was required to popularise Owen’s theories but it was corrupted; both word choice and expression would have to be regulated and reformed. In ‘Misnomers’, E. N. regretted the accumulation of names for a single object or phenomenon:
nothing tends so much to the development of truth, as to make use of precise terms, and to have their meanings fully recognized […] As there can be but one meaning, nine hundred and ninety-nine out of the thousand must be wrong. What chance, then, is there for consistency of action in the different parts of the social machine?22
The then editor of the Crisis, James ‘Shepherd’ Smith argued in a lecture, that:
Language is the vehicle by which our ideas are communicated to each other: and it is as full of corruption as the other arts and sciences which engage the attention of man. […] many words also are so ill defined, and consequently so ill understood, that people contend for hours together; and at last discover that their views are entirely the same, only they have followed different definitions of some abstract term.23
Smith was concerned, in the bulk of his lecture, with the communicative evils of religious and political sectarianism: ‘Opprobrious names bestowed upon private individuals, can never propagate a principle of charity’ (p. 2). The regrettable multiplicity of meaning led to unnecessary confusion and disagreement, introducing discord where there would otherwise be perfect agreement and harmony.
Polysemy caused the twin errors of mystification and conflict. Owen, therefore, had a utopian vision for language as well as society. An editorial in the New Moral World offered the Prime Minister policy advice:
I would also institute measures to induce all nations to adopt a common language, in addition to their own, to facilitate the communication between the most distant parts of the world, and, by degrees, to make all men of one nation, with one language and one interest.26
Owen, according to Gregory Claeys, ‘in his final years […] came to insist that only one language was to be taught to all from birth, “Anglo-Saxon”’ (p. 126).
Claeys took issue with Engels’s analysis of Owenite philosophy, arguing that ‘there was a branch of Owenism far closer to traditional radicalism than is often assumed, and one which was concerned more clearly with the extension and fulfilment of democratic ideals than with their perfectionist transcendence’ (pp. 14–15). Olivia Smith’s The Politics of Language: 1791–1819, though it does not address the Owenite period, does outline the hegemonic and radical positions on language and literature that such Owenites would inherit.25 Smith argues that the battle over political reform was at the same time a battle over language; that the ruling class used contemporary theories on language to justify repression, and that radicals like Thomas Paine, William Cobbett, and Thomas Spence produced new theories of language and new grammars as part of their political practice. This was also, she argues, a battle over class:
Between 1790 and 1819, the hegemony of language was severely challenged. Because ideas about language justified class division and even contributed to its formation by accentuating differences in language practice, they were sensitive to any political movement which threatened to disturb class boundaries. (p. 3)
While both orthodox Owenism and the more radical branch of Owenism identified by Claeys inherited the intellectual resources and the gains of the battle over language bequeathed to them by Paine and his contemporaries, the difference lies in their acknowledgement of class conflict. While Owen would clearly have agreed with Cobbett that ‘clarity is the essential virtue of language because it is the only democratic means of exchanging ideas’, he would not have agreed with Cobbett’s position (as defined by Smith) that ‘political conflict is the very essence of language’ (pp. 246–47). Claeys accounts for the ‘relatively easy passage of Lovett, Cleave, Hetherington and others [from Owenism] into Chartism in the mid and late 1830s’ by referring to their ‘strategic consideration’ in ‘[salvaging] from Owen’s views what was more widely attractive, such as an emphasis upon education’, adjusting ‘these to the goals and language of radicalism’ (p. 225). I suggest that a significant sticking point for working-class radicals who had routes to Paine and Cobbett independent of Owen and his writings may have been Owen’s attempts to limit not only the scope but also the linguistic style of social criticism. This connects with the development of the Chartist version of Shelley — a more combative one in which linguistic ambiguity was a feature rather than a bug — which I will cover in more detail another time.