In the Russian Revolution of 1917 workers took control of a major country for the first time in history. To millions throughout a world locked in a savage and futile war, it offered the hope of an alternative to the unemployment, poverty and brutality of capitalism. The revolution saw the conscious involvement of millions in the reorganisation of their lives and of society. Before the revolution anti-Semitism had been rife and the old regime had regularly encouraged pogroms against Jewish people. Yet after the revolution the Russian workers recognised Leon Trotsky, a Jew, as their leader. For the first time in history a woman became a government minister. Divorce and abortion were available on demand. And for the first time laws discriminating against gays were abolished. New and exciting forms of art flourished, not just in the galleries, but in the streets and factories.
It wasn't just workers who threw themselves into building the new socialist society. For many young intellectuals the revolution offered opportunities and challenges that remain unique in the 20th century. They saw their task as nothing less than reformulating entire disciplines. Their aim was not dry academic scholarship but the creation of truly scientific theories of humanity which would assist in the construction of the new socialist society. As one of the participants, the psychologist Alexander Luria, recalled:
I began my career in the first years of the great Russian Revolution. This single, momentous event decisively influenced my life and that of everyone I knew... From the outset it was apparent that I would have little opportunity to pursue the kind of well ordered, systematic education that serves as the cornerstone for most scientific careers. In its place life offered me the fantastically stimulating atmosphere of an active, rapidly changing society. My entire generation was infused with the energy of revolutionary change the liberating energy people feel when they are part of a society that is able to make tremendous progress in a very short time.1
The intellectual excitement and freedom that characterised Russia in the 1920s was of course destined to come to a juddering halt with Stalin's rise to power at the end of the decade. Stalin's brutal counter-revolution was coupled with a suppression of any intellectuals who disagreed with his view of the world. The repression was so effective that until recently the true extent of the theoretical foundation laid down in those first years has been hidden from view. One of the most exciting developments of the last few decades has been the rediscovery of work which provides the beginnings for a Marxist theory of human consciousness.2 An important task for socialists today is to assimilate and build on the intellectual legacy of the post-revolutionary years, not least because mainstream thinkers are already assimilating these theories in a way which distorts their message and lessens their revolutionary impact.3 This article will primarily focus on the theory of consciousness developed by the philosopher of language Valentin Voloshinov. However, it will help us first to focus on the nature of the problem as it faced Marxist intellectuals in Russia in the 1920s.
Marx and Engels' view of consciousness
The development of a scientific theory of human consciousness has always been viewed as a great priority by Marxist social scientists. This should come as no surprise given the importance with which Marxists have always treated questions such as, 'Where do ideas come from?', 'How do they spread?', 'How do they become a force for social conflict and change?' The Marxist view sees workers' consciousness under capitalism as a contradictory phenomenon. On the one hand, Marx and Engels recognised that the ideas within people's heads in a particular society are primarily the dominant ideas of that society. Or as they put it:
The ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas: ie the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal consequently also controls the means of mental production, so that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it.4
Now it may not seem so surprising, to socialists at least, that the media, universities, schools and courts disseminate ideas that support the values of the capitalist system. But why do workers accept these ideas?
Marx and Engels argued that a distinctive feature of capitalism is that the true nature of its social relations are hidden from view. In capitalist society, for the first time in human history the mass of the labouring classes have completely lost control over the means of production and the products of their labour. However, because the product of workers' labour is expropriated and exchanged on the market, and since it is the success or failure of this transaction which determines the workers' future, it appears that the workers' destiny is determined by the actions of an impersonal market over which no one has any control. Or, as Marx put it, 'the definite social relations between men...assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of relations between things'.5 Marx referred to this phenomenon as 'commodity fetishism' and the general loss of control over the labour process as 'alienation'.6
The concept of alienation is fundamentally important for understanding workers' consciousness in capitalist society. It has the consequence that, as Marx put it, 'labour is external to the worker...the worker feels himself only when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel himself... This relationship is the relationship of the worker to his activity as something which is alien and does not belong to him, activity as passivity, power as impotence, procreation as emasculation, the worker's own physical and mental energy, his personal life... directed against himself'.7 It is this then which is the material root of the worker's passivity, resignation and the feeling that 'capitalism is just part of the unalterable order'.
Marx and Engels' analysis of workers' consciousness under capitalism brilliantly explains why the mass of workers accept the existing state of affairs for the majority of the time. But an equally important part of their work was in showing that capitalism carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction, with the working class as its gravedigger. The nature of capitalism itself creates the conditions where workers can start to question the existing society. This belief in a mass transformation of workers' consciousness as a precondition for a successful revolution is of course what makes Marxism a theory of 'socialism from below'.8 As Marx and Engels themselves put it, in order to change society 'the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a mass movement, a revolution; the revolution is necessary therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew'.9 The revolutionary upsurges which have occurred at regular intervals throughout this century, whether ultimately successful or not, have all involved a transformation of working class consciousness on a mass scale. The question which Voloshinov's work helps us to answer is how such a transformation takes place within the individual consciousness.
What is a Marxist view of the mind?
A fundamental issue for Marxist social scientists in post-revolutionary Russia was developing a scientific understanding of the material basis of consciousness. But they faced a challenge. Marx and Engels had outlined the sociological factors that could bring about a change in consciousness among the masses. But they had provided no real clues as to the material nature of the transformation taking place within the individual mind. It would have been difficult for them to have done so. Although Marx and Engels shared a great interest in scientific developments, psychology, the science of the mind, only formally came into existence towards the end of the last century.10
In Russia in the 1920s there was therefore an attempt to develop a 'Marxist psychology'. The problem lay in how to set about formulating such a psychology. With hindsight we can see that those psychologists who failed in such an attempt did so because they merely appropriated the conceptions of existing mainstream psychology while giving them a 'Marxist' gloss with the help of a few quotations from Marx and Engels.11 The major obstacle to such an approach was that mainstream psychology was then, and remains to this day, in a state of considerable crisis.12 It has been said that 'there are many psychologies but no Psychology'.
Mainstream psychology has found itself incapable of even agreeing on what constitutes consciousness. In order to utilise the many undoubted insights that psychological research has uncovered it is not enough to simply graft Marxist concepts on to existing theories of the mind. Instead, it is necessary to first understand the nature of the crisis, in order to reformulate a view of the mind which overcomes the splits which characterise mainstream psychology.
How has the crisis in psychology manifested itself? In the 1920s psychology was dominated by a viewpoint now known as behaviourism.13 The behaviourist revolution at the turn of the century had been initiated by J B Watson with the laudable goal of creating a 'scientific' psychology. In contrast to the 'introspectionist' methods that had dominated psychology until then, Watson argued that the only truly scientific approach for psychology was through the study of things that could be objectively observed. However, this definition of what constituted a worthy object of study developed into a major defect in the behaviourist approach. In effect, behaviourism ignored consciousness and instead tried to concentrate on studying what it considered to be the basic unit of all behaviour the stimulus-response reflex. What this meant in practice was that rats pressing levers for a food reward (or in the case of Russia, Pavlov's dogs) became a model for human behaviour. The philosophy of behaviourism thus developed into the view that human beings were 'blank slates' who are conditioned from birth by their environment. The sense of what made human beings unique our rationality, our capacity for reflection, but above all our free will, had been wished away.
Has mainstream psychology become more sophisticated as the century has progressed? A major shift away from behaviourism occurred in the 1960s and 1970s with the so-called 'cognitive revolution'.14 Although it started off with great promise, cognitive psychology seems to have only managed to exchange one flawed metaphor of human consciousness for another. Basing itself on a computer model, cognitive psychology sees information processing as the primary characteristic of consciousness. In doing so, it has created a shallow and superficial model which only scratches the surface of how the human mind works.15 Like behaviourism, it neglects the specifically human qualities of consciousness.
If mainstream psychology is so flawed in its approach, how does one construct a Marxist psychology? The first important point is that there are no short cuts to such an approach. As one of the pioneers of a Marxist approach, the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, put it:
I don't want to discover the nature of mind by patching together a lot of quotations. I want to find out how science has to be built, to approach the study of mind having learned the whole of Marx's method... In order to create such an enabling theory-method in the generally accepted scientific manner, it is necessary to discover the essence of the given area of phenomena, the laws according to which they change, their qualitative and quantitative characteristics, their causes. It is necessary to formulate the categories and concepts that are specifically relevant to them in other words, to create one's own Capital.16
Vygotsky went on to explain that the essence of Marx's method in Capital was to define a 'unit of analysis', in this case the labour theory of value, which provides a window through which the system as a whole could be understood. He concluded that the key to understanding consciousness was to define such a unit of analysis for the human mind.
The way a Marxist psychology can do this is to take as a point of departure those qualities that make the human mind unique. Instead of pursuing a metaphor taken from the animal world or from a machine, it is necessary go back to what it means to be human. Only Marxism provided the key to a scientific psychology because it had correctly taken historically created humanity as its starting point. In particular, it was the publication of Engels' Dialectics of Nature in Russia in 1925 that inspired many young Russian intellectuals to try and extend the Marxist conception. In his description of human evolution, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, Engels had pointed to two main developments which served to delineate humanity from the rest of the animal world.17 Firstly, human beings had begun to stand upright, which freed the hands for using tools. This created the first specifically human attribute the use of the hands to act upon and transform the natural world. Crucially labour, as Engels called it, developed within a co-operative and social context. It was this that led, through the need to communicate while engaging in co-operative labour, to the rise of the second specifically human attribute language. It was these two attributes combined that thus led to the development of human consciousness. Although Engels himself only touched upon the problem, he laid the basis for the idea that understanding the connection between language and labour would be the key to understanding consciousness itself.
Valentin Voloshinov and the Bakhtin circle
Valentin Voloshinov was one of those in post-revolutionary Russia who did succeed in developing a specifically Marxist conception of consciousness, and it was significant that he did so starting from an interest in the philosophy of language. The key statements of this conception were Freudianism: A Marxist Critique, published in 1927, and Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, published in 1929.18 Very little is known about Voloshinov's life. He was born in 1894 or 1895 in St Petersburg. He was a member of the intellectual circle associated with Mikhail Bakhtin, who later became famous for his theories of literature and culture. Voloshinov disappeared at some point after 1934 and like many people in Stalinist Russia, his ultimate fate is unknown.19
Recently, the validity of Voloshinov's authorship of the two books just mentioned has come into question. It has been suggested that it was in fact Mikhail Bakhtin who was the real author.20 It is probable we may never know the truth but it is worth pointing out that although this claim is now accepted uncritically by many commentators, it rests on certain unsubstantiated facts and contradictory assumptions.21 Having noted the controversy, this article will refer to the writings of Voloshinov and Bakhtin as originating from two separate, if interactive, authors.
Perhaps of more importance than the question of authorship itself is the fact that the controversy has been linked to an attempt to cast doubt on the Marxist character of Voloshinov's work.22 This accusation is an unconvincing one, not only because of the explicitly Marxist tone of Voloshinov's writing but also because the dialectical method that he uses is so clearly influenced by Marxism.23 Such misinterpretation is caused, firstly, by an inability to distinguish the period of intellectual freedom and creativity that followed the Russian Revolution from the Stalinist reaction that followed, and secondly by a desire to embrace the path-breaking nature of Voloshinov's work without at the same time recognising the social environment that gave birth to it.
Voloshinov was primarily concerned to develop a Marxist theory of language, but his theories have a crucial importance for understanding human consciousness because they also deal with two of psychology's central questions the relationship between the individual and society and the relationship between thought and language.
Mainstream theories of language
The foremost philosopher of language at the time Voloshinov was writing was the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, often described as the founder of modern linguistics.24 Saussure believed that the job of linguists was not to study the history of language but its structure, and that structure should be studied in its own terms and for its own sake. Expressing this belief in a famous statement, Saussure said:
In separating language from speaking we are at the same time separating: (1) what is social from what is individual; and (2) what is essential from what is accessory and more or less accidental. Language is not a function of the speaker; it is a product that is passively assimilated by the individual. It never requires premeditation and reflection enters in only for the purpose of classification... Speaking, on the contrary, is an individual act. It is wilful and intellectual.25
Saussure had a reason for making such a separation between language and actual speech. By considering language as a system set aside from the individuals who actually practise it, he was able to make some important generalisations about the nature of language which had been impossible before. One of Saussure's primary concepts was that words are arbitrary signs. This lack of a physical connection with the objects in the outside world that words specify has the important consequence that it provides the conditions for the meaning of words to change over time. Another fundamental concept that Saussure introduced was the idea that the linguistic value of a word in any given context is determined by the other words with which it occurs, and that this follows certain rules of grammar (the way words are strung together) and phonetics (the way words sound). This interaction he compared to that which exists between the different pieces in a game of chess. As well as his own personal discoveries, Saussure's work was of more general importance in opening up the possibility of studying the structural constraints and the rules which govern language by considering it as an abstract system.26 This has indeed been the main preoccupation of linguistics over the course of the 20th century.
Voloshinov was quite aware of the significance of Saussure's work. But he argued that his achievements had come at a price. According to Voloshinov, one of the problems of making a 'comparison of language to a system of mathematical signs', as Saussure did, was that this can develop into an interest solely in 'the inner logic of the system of signs itself, taken as in algebra, completely independently of the ideological meanings that give the signs their content'.27 Voloshinov pointed out that Saussure's formulation failed to explain how language as a social form changes over time and from where individual creativity comes.
Voloshinov counterposed Saussure's ideas to those of an earlier philosopher of language, Wilhelm von Humboldt28 whose theory of language can be viewed as the polar opposite to that of Saussure. Inspired by Romantic philosophy,29 von Humboldt believed that the essence of language is precisely that creative act of the individual which Saussure had rejected as a subject for study. However, this meant that von Humboldt was unable to view language as a social system. He thus found it impossible to explain why particular individuals say the things they do, assuming as he did that individual creativity was given. His approach ended up both emptying language of its ideological content and neglecting its intrinsically social nature.30 According to Voloshinov, both Saussure and von Humboldt had falsely separated the individual from society. Although Saussure recognised language as a social phenomenon, his method prevents us studying it in a social context.
How relevant are Voloshinov's criticisms today? Linguistics has undoubtedly progressed somewhat since the 1920s. One of the major developments has been the theory of language first developed by Noam Chomsky in the late 1950s, which says that language acquisition is an innate characteristic shared by all human beings.31 Chomsky's approach has been popularised recently in books like Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct.32 Chomsky's work came to prominence through his attack on behaviourism, the psychological theory we have already encountered. According to B F Skinner, who had become one of the central figures of behaviourism, children learn how to talk through imitation of the correct verbal behaviour.33
In opposition to Skinner, Chomsky argued that there is a universal capacity to learn to speak that is part of the birthright of all human beings. We are born with a basic template into which any specific language fits. There is much that is convincing in Chomsky's proposal. It is difficult to explain the apparently effortless way in which babies learn language, with a high degree of accuracy and without any system of reward or punishment, unless human beings are born with a certain instinctive 'sense' for the ways in which words should be strung together in order for them to be understood by others. The proposal that there is an innate capacity for correct language usage is sometimes mistakenly presumed to be incompatible with the observed capacity of individuals to be creative with language. In fact a basic level of instinctive understanding of language rules common to all human beings would allow individuals to be creative with language while still being comprehensible to others.
An innate capacity for language also has the consequence that all languages and dialects are equal as mediums of expression. The rules of grammar might be different between two languages or dialects but there is no possibility of one being superior to another. This cuts against the claim often made by reactionary educationalists that the 'Queen's English' is the only correct way to speak.
But although Chomsky's theory of language acquisition has many attractive elements, it also possesses some fundamental flaws. There is currently a major controversy over the extent of our innate capacity for language and the reality of a universal grammar.34 Of far more immediate importance for us is the fact that while Chomsky's theory may be compatible with the language creativity of individuals, it is nevertheless unable to explain where such individual creativity comes from in the first place. In reality, the lack of space that Chomsky's theory leaves for understanding the material source of individual creativity means that sincere followers of his approach like Pinker have ended up reintroducing it in a form impenetrable to further study. Thus Pinker believes that we think in something called 'mentalese', which we must then translate into social language for the benefit of those around us.35 But despite this being a fancy term for thought, it tells us nothing about the material nature of thought, surely a necessity if we are to understand consciousness.
Both Chomsky and Pinker are similarly incapable of explaining the influence of social change on language and thus of the development of language over time. Both these flaws are linked to a much deeper and more fundamental one the separation between individual thought and social language that we found in the earlier theories of language. Voloshinov's work is as relevant today as it was in the 1920s because it bridges the gap between individual thought and social language.
Marxism and language
Voloshinov's conception of language is different from the theories we have described so far in that, rather than separating an idealised view of social language from its actual use by individuals in everyday speech, Voloshinov instead based his linguistic study upon real social utterances. He was thus unwilling to start from an ideal world, as Chomsky did, where an 'ideal speaker/listener interact within a homogeneous speech community'.36
The problem with theories of language based on such an idealised world has been that, by concentrating on words outside the contexts in which they are used, what has been lost is what is most important in language, that is the fundamental capacity of words to have meaning. Yet it is surely its ability to express meaning that gives language its practical role in human society. And, as we shall see, it is through the capacity of words to convey meaning that consciousness itself interacts with the social world.
Voloshinov's aim was an ambitious one. He believed that a truly comprehensive theory of language should include in its description all the factors outside words that affect their meaning.37 Voloshinov pointed out that the only way that words can have meaning is through being understood. But words are understood by particular speakers and listeners, who are also speakers, in particular situations occurring in the real world. Voloshinov argued that by conceiving words as if no one ever spoke them, other linguists had missed a fundamental aspect of language, which is that 'the speaker's focus of attention is orientated by the particular, concrete utterance he is making... what is important to him is not that a word is a stable and always self-equivalent signal, but an always changeable and adaptable sign'.38
In fact, the skilful use of language is not defined primarily by the mastery one has over the rules of language (which as we have seen may be largely instinctive anyway) but rather in being able to apply such rules in fluid situations. From the point of view of the speaker, language's 'centre of gravity lies not in the identity of the form but in that new and concrete meaning it requires in the particular context...the task of understanding does not basically amount to recognising the form used, but rather to understanding its meaning in a particular utterance, ie it amounts to understanding its novelty and not to recognising its identity'.39
How is it possible to study language within its specific context of being spoken? After all, one of the primary reasons why linguists like Saussure and Chomsky decided to treat language as an abstract system was their belief that real speech is simply too chaotic for scientific study. Undertaking such a study would appear to mean that one would have to include a description of factors such as differences in age or social rank, whether the words were being spoken in an intimate conversation between close friends or publicly to an large audience, and whether something is said on impulse or as part of an obligatory social response. Moreover, what one speaker says to the other may often be difficult to describe in terms of language alone. Shared experience and assumptions significantly affect the sort of language we use with another person, so much so that particular conversations may make no sense at all in terms of words alone to outsiders listening in. Voloshinov himself gave an example which illustrates this: 'Two people are sitting in a room. They are both silent. Then one of them says "Well!" The other does not respond.' As Voloshinov says, 'For us outsiders this entire "conversation" is utterly incomprehensible.' What we lack is not simply the intonation with which the word 'Well!' was pronounced but also the extra-verbal context. In this particular case, we lacked the knowledge of what the two people were looking at through the window as it began to snow, even though it was already May. Both had been expecting spring for some time and were bitterly disappointed by the late snowfall.40
It might seem therefore that it is impossible to make any systematic generalisations about the contextual factors which affect language. But Voloshinov was able to overcome this problem because he identified the one universal feature present throughout the vast array of possible contexts in which speech takes place. No matter how bewilderingly various are such contexts, their power to affect the meaning of words is not unlimited, but must take place within the particular space where differences in a word's meaning can be registered, namely between two speakers in a particular social context.41 Thus the old and apparently unbridgeable split between the systematic features of language (syntax, grammar and the relatively fixed meaning of words), and their fluid contexts (those which are found in actual conversation), can be resolved by reducing the differences between them to another set of differences, those between specific speakers in particular situations. It is the general laws which govern such social contexts that then become the subject of study.
Voloshinov argued that all utterances have an inherently dialogic character. As he put it, 'Words are precisely the product of the reciprocal relationship between speaker and listener... Each and every word expresses the one in relation to the other. I give myself verbal shape from another's point of view... A word is a bridge thrown between myself and another'.42 It may seem an obvious point that we speak as part of an on-going dialogue. But according to Voloshinov, dialogicity is a much more fundamental feature of speech, to the extent that it affects the very structure of language.
There are a variety of systematic ways in which the dialogic nature of speech manifests itself. Everyday speech is segmented not only by words and sentences but also by protocols that determine who is talking. The different ways in which speakers indicate appropriate points for others to respond are enormously varied, depending on the topic, the speakers, and the context of the conversation. But the shape utterances take is always conditioned by the potential of the other speaker to respond.43 In some forms of speech, such as in military orders or other fixed exchanges, the topic of discussion is dealt with in a very standardised way. Small amounts of information are delivered and the limits on interpretable meanings are rigidly set. However, the majority of utterances have much more flexibility, and assessments of the speaker's speech plan are required to help us know when they have finished speaking.44
Listening to another's utterance, we form a judgment as to what the speaker wishes to say and, according to this, we also measure whether the utterance is completed or not. There is an individual, subjective element in such judgments, which is why we are sometimes wrong in assessing the other's speech plan. But more often than not such judgments are also based on relatively objective criteria. Competent speakers of a particular language intuitively know that most speech situations fall into certain patterns and that certain 'speech genres' have developed to reflect such patterns.45 For instance, two people waiting at a bus stop may discuss the topic of the weather and they do so in utterances shaped by conventions of the genre 'talking about the weather'.
Voloshinov believed that speech genres arise from and reflect many varied aspects of society.46 Thus there can be speech genres which are based on particular social situations, such as the one mentioned above, or which reflect different aspects of the speaker, for instance gender or age. Speech genres are distinguished not simply by the sort of words used, but also by more subtle facets of speech such as intonation (the way in which words are pronounced or emphasised). They impart a needed regularity to communication while still remaining open to the shifting pressures of daily life. Speech genres temporarily crystallise the relations between or among speakers their respective power and status, the purpose of the conversation, its subject, and relation to other conversations. Children learn genres from their earliest experiences with language.
Voloshinov believed that one of the most important forms of speech genre is what he called 'social language', that is, the discourse peculiar to a specific stratum of society.47 The apparent unity of language within a class society actually masks a battlefield, where, according to Voloshinov, 'each word...is a little arena for the clash of and crisscrossing of differently orientated social accents. A word in the mouth of a particular individual is a product of the living interaction of social forces'.48 It is the aim of this article to begin to investigate some of the concrete mechanisms whereby the different aspects of language mentioned so far are involved in shaping consciousness. In order to do so, however, we must first uncover some of the connections between social language and the individual mind.
Thought and language
We saw that in many theories of language there was a split between social language and the individual consciousness. This was particularly reflected in Sausurre's formulation which counterposed the fixed language of society to the 'wilful, intellectual act' characterising the speech of the individual. A similar split characterises the theories of Chomsky and his followers. Thus Chomsky refers to 'competence' versus 'performance' in speech.49 These views of language are themselves a consequence of a lack of awareness about the material nature of the connection between thought and language.
Voloshinov provided a number of key insights which allow us to overcome the gap between social language and individual consciousness. Firstly, on the material basis of thought. What concepts such as Pinker's 'mentalese' do is merely obscure the fact that both thought and language have the same material basis, that is, words. As Voloshinov put it:
The complex apparatus of verbal reactions functions in all its fundamental aspects also when the subject says nothing about his experiences but only undergoes them 'in himself', since, if he is conscious of them, a process of inner ('covert') speech occurs (we do, after all, think and feel and desire with the help of words; without inner speech we would not become conscious of anything in ourselves). This process of inner speech is just as material as is outward speech.50
But it is not just that thought and language share the same transmission medium, they also have the same source, that is, society. Voloshinov believed that the individual psyche itself has a social origin. According to him, 'social psychology in fact is not located anywhere within (in the 'souls' of communicating subjects) but entirely and completely without in the word, the gesture, the act'.51 He argued that every individual engages in 'horizontal' social relationships with other individuals in specific speech acts, and simultaneously in 'vertical' internal relationships between the outer world and their own psyche.52 The psyche is thus not an internal but a boundary phenomenon. Or as Voloshinov put it, 'Individual consciousness is not the architect of the ideological superstructure, but only a tenant lodging in the social edifice of ideological signs'.53
Voloshinov's view of the psyche is so radically different from that of most psychological theories that there have been a number of misinterpretations of what he is actually proposing. One is that Voloshinov is merely putting forward a view characteristic of behaviourism.54 As we have seen, behaviourism sees human beings as passive objects whose minds structured from the outside via a one way flow of information from society. If this were so then it would be hard to explain the differences that clearly exist between people in similar circumstances. It would also make it hard to understand how ideas in society could ever change.
In fact Voloshinov was emphatically against such crude social reductionism and held a much more dynamic view of the mind. We have already seen how, according to Voloshinov, the apparent unity of language within society as a whole masks a struggle of social forces. This struggle, of course, also takes place in the heads of, and is expressed by, individuals. But the creation of inner speech involves not a single unitary stream but is rather a continuous dialogue going on in the mind conducted with different imagined listeners who are always drawn from voices the individual has heard previously.55
What consequence does this have for the individual consciousness? It means that even the process of thinking 'individually' involves consciousness working over the ideological themes that penetrate it and there take on the appearance of individual accents.56 It also opens the way to the possibility of a contradictory consciousness.
It would be hard to deny the existence of widespread contradictory consciousness in the world today. For instance in France, a country that has seen more than a year of widespread mass protest and strike action, most recently with the successful lorry drivers' strike, there is at the same time a powerful fascist movement, with Le Pen's National Front now holding four town councils and continuing to make political gains. Last November, polls showed that 87 percent of the French population supported the demands of the lorry drivers. Yet at the same time 51 percent approved of some of the National Front's ideas, even though 71 percent considered it to be a racist party.57 How can we explain such paradoxes?
In fact, the concept of contradictory consciousness is one familiar to socialists. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued that within the consciousness of working class people there is the 'co-existence of two conceptions of the world'.58 On the one hand, the worker has a 'conception which manifests itself in action, but occasionally and in flashes when, that is, the working class is acting as an organic totality' (through class struggle). On the other hand, the working class may, for reasons of submission and intellectual domination, adopt a 'conception which is not its own but is borrowed from the capitalist class; and it affirms this conception verbally and believes itself to be following it, because this is the conception which it follows in "normal times" that is when its conduct is not independent and autonomous, but submissive and subordinate'.59 Gramsci concluded of each worker that 'one might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed'.60
Voloshinov's theories help us to understand contradictory consciousness more clearly. According to him, the battle of social forces within class society manifests itself in the individual consciousness as a clash between two main categories of ideological themes, those which he terms 'official' and those termed 'unofficial'.61 Official ideological themes are those where meaning tends to be at its most crystallised or inflexible. These themes are essentially those which Marx called 'the ruling ideas of the ruling class'. They are the ideas we get from the establishment, school, and the media. Because of this they can be the most 'neutral' in appearance. As Voloshinov put it, 'The ruling class strives to lend the ideological sign a supraclass, external character, to extinguish or exhaust the struggle of class relations that obtains within it, to make it the expression of only one, solid and immutable view'.62
The fact that the structure of capitalism itself masks the underlying relations of society, something we have already touched upon in discussing 'commodity fetishism', is one important factor that Voloshinov does not appear to recognise in his description of contradictory consciousness. Nevertheless, 'these invisible forces that generate their own power' as the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs described them63, must also play a crucial role in giving the official ideology its apparently monolithic, impenetrable appearance in the worker's mind.
However, there is a constant battle going on between these ideas and the unofficial themes which stem from workers' actual experience of the world under capitalism. So, although the same language may be used by various classes and groups within a given society, the degree of correspondence between what this describes and the actual experience of the world differs for different classes and groups. Words may be adapted, distorted or invented to draw experience and the means of articulating it into a workable correspondence. In normal circumstances, a situation can exist where, in Gramsci's words, 'the contradictory consciousness does not permit of any action, any decision or choice, and produces a position of moral and political passivity'.64 However, in a period of extreme social crisis the gap between reality and 'official ideology' can become so great that the connections between partial struggles and partial gains in class consciousness can generalise into a more complete revolutionary consciousness. Or, as Voloshinov put it, 'in the depths of unofficial ideology accumulate those contradictions which, once having reached a certain threshold, ultimately burst asunder the system of the official ideology'.65
Is Voloshinov's view of consciousness an idealist one?
Voloshinov's theory of consciousness is not a social reductionist one; instead he sees changing consciousness as a process of struggle. However, Voloshinov does conceive this struggle as conducted purely at the level of ideas.66 It is vitally important that we are able to deal properly with such an accusation because it goes to the heart of what it means to construct a Marxist view of consciousness.
Marxism is first and foremost a materialist viewpoint. One of its fundamental features is, as Marx himself put it, that 'social being determines social consciousness'67, not the other way around. The philosophy of Marx and Engels itself sprang from a need to challenge Hegel's idealism, while retaining the 'rational kernel' of his dialectical method.68 So whatever form a Marxist theory of consciousness takes, it must be capable of explaining the workings of the mind with reference to material factors. How well does Voloshinov's theory fit this criterion?
One of the fundamental elements in Voloshinov's theory is the claim that words themselves fulfil a material function in shaping consciousness. This may appear on the surface to be an idealist conception. Yet it was a notion that Marx and Engels themselves had hinted at when they argued:
The 'mind' is from the outset afflicted with the curse of being burdened with matter, which here makes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in short, language. Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical, real consciousness that exists for other men as well, and only therefore does it exist for me; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men... Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product.'69
One of the best analogies for the material role of language in shaping consciousness was made by Vygotsky. He creatively elaborated on Engels' account of how tool use allowed human beings to shape the world around them and in doing so become transformed themselves. Vygotsky proposed that language, through becoming internalised as thought, could itself be viewed as a tool, in this case shaping consciousness. What language and tools have in common is that they both act as mediators.70 Voloshinov argued that words are able to play this role precisely because they are abstract signs just as Saussure had defined them.71 But whereas Saussure had used such a conception to abstract language from individual consciousness, in Voloshinov's hands it helped to explain how the connection between them is made.
The linguist Derek Bickerton has spelled out what such a role for language means for human consciousness compared to that of other animals.72 He argues that animals operate by what he calls on-line thinking. If a monkey hears another monkey make an alarm call that it associates with the presence of a leopard, it will run up a tree. In other words, the call elicits a stereotypical and automatic response. In contrast, if we hear the word leopard, we would first assess the context of the word. We might start running if we heard 'leopard' in a jungle but this would not be an appropriate response if someone was pointing one out at the zoo unless it had escaped, that is! According to Bickerton, the difference between us and the monkey is that human beings use what he calls off-line thinking. This means that rather than just responding instinctively to a signal from the outside world, we have the capacity to first reflect on its meaning. It is only because we possess the ability to filter such signals through the medium of abstract signs that is, words that we can do this.
Of course, what we have said about words as abstract signs should not deflect from what we have already said about their other, ideological role. As Voloshinov put it, 'A sign does not simply exist as a part of reality it reflects and refracts another reality. Therefore it may distort that reality or be true to it, or perceive it from a special point of view'.73 However, this ideological function is entirely compatible with the materiality that words as signs possess.
The second fundamental feature of Voloshinov's theory of consciousness which defines it as materialist lies is the way it sees language as providing the individual consciousness with a link to the outside world. Thus it is a view of consciousness that is grounded in reality. The determining role of society is stressed continually throughout Marxism and the Philosophy of Language.74 Having said this, what Voloshinov's own work lacks is the empirical scientific evidence that proves such a connection exists. Fortunately, such evidence is available in the extensive studies on child development carried out by Vygotsky at around the time Voloshinov was writing. Although Vygotsky approached the question of consciousness from a very different angle, he came to very similar conclusions about the role of language in shaping consciousness.75
Vygotsky showed that language plays a crucial role in guiding the child's activities but also that the child's use of language is itself shaped by the child's practical intervention in the outside world. One of his most striking findings came from studying how young children talk to themselves as they play.76 Vygotsky showed that such 'egocentric speech' is not only centrally involved in guiding the child's activity but that it is also a transitional phase which later becomes internalised as 'inner speech' and helps to create the thought processes of the child. The other important insight provided by Vygotsky's work came from his of study how children begin to think conceptually. Vygotsky showed that conceptual understanding is not something that comes immediately to the child. Instead, children go through a series of stages in their conceptual development. Vygotsky's studies showed that this is an active process on the child's part, whereby the child seeks out the words and concepts that make sense of its everyday practical and social experience.77
There is a final point that needs to be made when defending Voloshinov's theory of consciousness against charges of idealism. Such a defence is on much more uncertain ground when applied to the later works of Mikhail Bakhtin. There are certain occasions in Bakhtin's work where he appears to see ideas themselves as providing the dynamic of consciousness. For instance, when he says, 'After all, our thought itself philosophical, scientific, artistic is born and shaped in the process of interaction and struggle with others' thought'.78 The tendency of many commentators to see all the writings originating from the Bakhtin circle as the work of Bakhtin himself, combined with their generally hostile attitude to Marxism, has helped to obscure these differences. But this undoubtedly serves the post-structuralist views held by of many of these commentators, this being a philosophy which deliberately separates ideas from their relationship with the real world.79 For Marxists, the differences between the works originating from Voloshinov and Bakhtin confirms the effect that the rise and fall of the Russian Revolution had on the scientific clarity of their views of consciousness. However, although such clarity is only found in Voloshinov's writings of the 1920s, this does not prevent us finding some extremely valuable insights in Bakhtin's later work, as will be demonstrated shortly.
Inner speech the link between thought and language
If inner speech is the link between thought and language as Voloshinov argues, how can we learn about its shape and form? After all, uncovering such features ought to provide us with one window into consciousness itself. The problem with studying inner speech is that it is impossible to observe directly using objective scientific methods, hidden as it is within the mind of the individual. However, much valuable information about its character has emerged by using some ingenious indirect methods. One such method is to follow the gradual disappearance of the child's egocentric speech, which as we have noted is a transitional form which eventually becomes inner speech, and to note the change in its character.80
One of the major features of inner speech which can be surmised from such a study is its predicative (subject-less) character.81 A child talking to itself 'already knows' what he or she is talking about and therefore there is no need for naming the subject. This means that only 'new information' is retained while 'old information' is simply presumed. Inner speech must be even more telegraphic and abbreviated, and probably uses words which are highly personally coded that is, they have a private meaning for the person who is using them, which may be quite different from their accepted social meaning. An excellent attempt at describing what inner speech would sound like if we could actually hear it is James Joyce's Ulysses.82
A related feature of inner speech that Voloshinov pointed to was that it is more concerned with 'sense' rather than 'meaning'.83 In this definition, meaning is the dictionary definition of a word, for instance cat: 'a furry domestic quadruped'. Sense, on the other hand, refers to the whole set of psychological events aroused by a word, such as the personal memories of your own pet and its mannerisms, the feel of its fur and so on. It contains activities, impressions and personal meanings, not just accepted social definitions. A word acquires its sense from the context in which it appears; in different contexts, it changes its sense.
The less discrete, more diffuse quality of inner speech compared to social speech is one of the reasons why we have difficulty expressing what we are thinking to others. As Voloshinov put it, inner speech contains:
...the still undifferentiated impression of the totality of the object the aroma of its totality, as it were, which precedes and underlies knowing the object distinctly. So, for example, we sometimes cannot remember a name or word, though it is on the tip of our tongue, ie we already have a total impression of the name or word, but the impression cannot develop into its concrete, differentiated image.84
Thus there is is a gap between thought and words but words remain the only possible way of expressing ourselves fully to others.85 Thought which remains unexpressed remains immature and eventually dies out. Language, therefore, is not just an expression of otherwise independent and fully formed thought, but rather is a necessary form of the thought's realisation.86 In summary, inner speech is the fluid interphase where meaning can start to be formed and shaped, based on the emotional,87 practical and social experience of the individual. However, this still leaves us with the question of the concrete mechanisms whereby this process takes place.
The influence of society on language
We have seen how one of the most distinctive features of Voloshinov's theory of language is his view that both social language and inner speech are socially structured. Such a view is radically different from most mainstream theories of language and the mind. This begs the question as to what sort of relationship between society and language Voloshinov had in mind when he said, 'The immediate social situation and the broader social milieu wholly determine and determine from within, so to speak the structure of the utterance'.88
One interpretation might be to say that social structure directly determines language. In fact, such a view would be a crude misreading of Voloshinov. It has much more in common with the mechanical model put forward by Nicolai Marr, whose theory of language won official approval in Russia under Stalin, before it fell from favour in 1951.89 Marr believed that language evolved in a series of leaps, changing more or less in time with successive stages of society. Thus, there were thought to be different forms of language characteristic of primitive communism, slave society, feudalism, and capitalist society. Marr even went so far as to suggest that there are different languages for different classes.90 Recently Mike Beaken, who is extremely critical of Marr's crudely mechanistic theories, has nevertheless tried to develop the view that social structure is a direct determinant of language from a more sophisticated Marxist perspective.91 How successful is this attempt and how much is it a continuation of Voloshinov's work, as Beaken claims?
One of the major claims that Beaken makes is that there is a fundamental difference between the language structure of class society and what he calls pre-political societies.92 Beaken argues that the languages of pre-political peoples have certain common characteristics such as huge vocabularies rich in environmental detail, and a lack of abstract, generalising terms.93 According to Beaken, these characteristics reflect these people's quite different way of life their absolute dependence on the vagaries of climate and unpredictable resources make abstract planning and reflection somewhat superfluous. Beaken mentions the studies of Vygotsky and Luria, carried out in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, which together with more recent work, provides empirical evidence for his claims.94
In addition, however, and of immediate relevance to the present discussion, Beaken argues that a much more direct link exists between social structure and the way we speak. One of his main claims is that property relationships are related to the use of the verb to have. Beaken tells us that pre-political languages do not have the equivalent of the verb to have, whereas in modern English the verb has become so central that it can play not just a direct role, as in, 'Have you any money?' but also an auxiliary one, as in, ' Have you finished?'95 Beaken argues that because ownership has become so central to social consciousness, to have has become embedded in our grammar to the point where we don't notice anything odd about it. So to have is used to express the past tense, I've eaten; to express necessity, I have to go; to express the future, I have some work to do; to express agency, Have a think about it, and so on. As Beaken puts it, 'Once commodity exchange becomes an organising principle of social life, the relationship of ownership comes to dominate us, to take a life of its own. In this process it comes also to permeate our language, so subtly that we hardly notice it'.96 In other words, to have is a 'metaphor termed grammar'.97
Beaken extends his argument with respect to the English modal auxiliary verbs can, could, shall, should, will, would, may, might, must which he tells us were used in old English as direct verbs in their own right, whereas in modern English they are generally attached to another verb and tend to express a judgment or uncertainty for example, as in, 'He might tell the truth'.98 Beaken suggests that the change in the usage of these verbs is linked to the social changes that took place in England during the 16th and 17th centuries and which culminated in the English Revolution of the 1640s.99 His argument is that in a period where 'people were for the first time able to take part in a debate over their own future...it seems fitting that the grammar of English should respond with the creation of...modality...that provides the speakers with a flexible means of expressing interpersonal relations, values and judgments'.100
Beaken's argument is an intriguing one. However, while he may indeed have highlighted certain partial trends in the influence of society on language, there is a problem with the extent of the determinacy that Beaken ascribes to this influence. One problem is that, according to Beaken's own account, the changes in the English language that he mentions were already happening some centuries before the climactic upheavals of the 17th century.101 This casts some doubt on Beaken's claim that they were primarily connected with the bourgeois revolution.
Another problem is that Beaken's arguments are effectively based solely upon the English language. Yet a random survey of other European languages shows that there is much variation in the extent to which the verb to have performs an auxiliary function.102 Similarly, many European languages modify the ending of a direct verb rather than use a modal auxiliary verb when they want to express a judgment.103 So, by concentrating purely on English, Beaken may have exaggerated the extent to which the features he identifies are present generally in modern languages.
A more fundamental problem for our present purposes, and for Beaken's claim that he is continuing in the spirit of Voloshinov's work, is that it is difficult to see how the gross structural changes in language that Beaken identifies are really the transmission belt for the rapid changes in consciousness which characterise a period of social upheaval. In fact Voloshinov believed that such gross changes in language are actually a much later consequence of the more subtle linguistic processes which underlie social upheavals.104
Social struggle and the battle for word meaning
Despite the dangers in claiming too deterministic a relationship between social change and overall language structure, there are clearly instances in which language usage is affected by social struggle. Most obviously, there is the battle for the meaning of particular words which takes place around political struggles. The working class and revolutionary movement often use quite different terms from the ruling apparatus in referring to social events and movements. What are the masses or the working class to us will be the mob to them; what to us are freedom fighters will be terrorists to them and so on.105 One of the most pernicious abuses of languages made by the ruling apparatus is the sort of Orwellian 'newspeak' which calls an invasion 'pacification' and treats civilian deaths as 'collateral damage', and which has been highlighted by figures such as Chomsky and, originally, Orwell.106 For socialists there is a constant battle to address the reality behind such talk. Forms of address, sensitive indicators of social rank, have always been political. In The Revolution Betrayed Trotsky castigated the Stalinist bureaucrats for the habitual use of the second person singular with subordinates and workers. 'How can they fail to remember', he asked, 'that one of the most popular revolutionary slogans in Tsarist Russia was the demand for the abolition of the use of the second person singular by bosses in addressing their subordinates'.107 In fact, revolutions have always led to the renaming of cities and streets, to calling people Citizen or Comrade instead of Sir or Master and to the popularisation of new words.
In recent times, out of the most fruitful sources of positive linguistic change have undoubtedly been the black movement, the women's movement and the gay movement. The shift from 'coloured' or 'Negro' to 'black', the appropriation of 'gay', and the shift to referring to 'people' instead of 'men' and 'humanity' instead of 'mankind', were all changes which reflected and signified a great step forward in pride and self assertion of these movements.108 Of course things can also move the opposite way in a period of working class defeat like the 1980s, the effects of which continue to influence the labour movement today. So we have seen the replacement of 'patients' by 'clients', reflecting the market ethic now rampant in the NHS, not to mention the recent phenomenon of new management-speak.109
So social struggles can be reflected in changes in word meaning. However, it would be a grave mistake to conclude from this that language is itself the main motive force. And yet this has been the conclusion of some left wing movements of recent years, for instance those characterised by the right wing media as 'Politically Correct'.110 Of course the main reason 'PC' has been the subject of such attack has been because it defends the rights of the oppressed.111 But it has been an easy source of ridicule precisely because it is, as John Molyneux puts it, 'not an attempt to make language reflect real social change but a vast over-estimation of the role of language in bringing about social change and the attempt to substitute language reform for real reform'.112 The substitution of 'poll tax' for 'community charge' was a useful element in the anti poll tax movement but it was the mass movement, not the terminology, that actually got rid of the tax.
One of the strengths of Voloshinov's view of the way in which society and social struggle influences language is that it goes far further than changes in individual words. There are also far more subtle and wide-reaching social influences involved, which are linked to the dialogic structure of language.
One of the strengths of the Marxist theory of consciousness we have outlined is that it provides a framework within which the valuable insights of other psychological theories can be incorporated.113 One such insight is Freud's theory of the unconscious. Freud's identification of a part of our conscious that is outside our control or awareness was undoubtedly a major contribution to our view of the mind. Voloshinov acknowledged the importance of Freud's discovery. However, he provided a very different explanation of the material basis of the unconscious. Voloshinov pointed out that rather than representing our repressed animal instincts, the complex and subtle behaviour which the unconscious displays suggests that it is better comprehended as that portion of the conscious which is not yet articulate an 'unofficial consciousness' or perhaps a struggle among various motives and voices within the conscious.114 Freud's concepts of id and ego which emerge during psychoanalysis are repressed inner realities in the process of discharge; for Voloshinov they are reflections of real social tensions, including those between analyst and patient.115
If the unconscious represents the least articulate part of the continuous dialogue taking place within our minds, this is because the themes with which it is concerned are those where the 'official' ideology is most at variance with the 'unofficial' one based on a person's actual experience. According to Voloshinov, the levels of consciousness 'corresponding to Freud's unconscious lie at a great distance from the stable system of the ruling ideology. They bespeak the disintegration of the unity and integrity of the system, the vulnerability of the usual ideological motivations'.116 It is perhaps no surprise that Freud's discovery of the unconscious was a result of his studies of sexuality.117 For it is hard to think of another area of people's lives where the gap between public pronouncements and private feelings and practice are more divergent than those concerning sexuality.
Freud's work is of interest to the present discussion in two further respects. Firstly, some of the findings of psychoanalysis concerning the dynamics of the unconscious may help us in understanding some of the unique patterns of inner speech. We have already mentioned Voloshinov's distinction between sense and meaning. This was a distinction shared by Vygotsky, who noted that, 'The senses of different words flow into one another literally "influence" one another so that the earlier ones are contained in and modify the later ones'.118 This is remarkably similar to what Freud had observed in the properties of words as they manifest themselves in dreams: 'The process may go so far that a single word, if it is specially suitable on account of its numerous connections, takes over the representation of a whole train of thought'.119 It would be interesting for future studies to see how the empirical observations of psychoanalysis can further inform us as to the dynamics of inner speech.
Secondly, Voloshinov's reinterpretation of Freud allows us to see how the unconscious themes in our minds may be made conscious ones by a process of articulation. This occurs through a realisation that the contradictory feelings and desires which exist within our thoughts have a basis in a contradictory social reality. Such articulation is powered by an individual's personal experience of the world. However, it also requires dialogue with a third party. This can occur in psychotherapy, which suggests descriptions of therapy as the 'talking cure' may not be so far off the mark.120 It is also through such assisted articulation that socialists can start to challenge other workers' acceptance of the society and social values around them.
We have already noted that the description of consciousness as a dialogue does not simply mean an exchange of different viewpoints within the mind. Dialogicity is an integral part of the structure of inner speech. There are a number of subtle ways in which different ideological themes may come into contact within our consciousness. Prevented as we are from directly 'listening in' on inner speech, Voloshinov and Bakhtin were nevertheless able to propose some plausible mechanisms whereby this could take place, by looking for clues in spoken language and literature.121
Voloshinov pointed out that different viewpoints do not always have to make contact directly. Contact can instead take place in the practice of one's voice taking over another voice's words or expressions.122 However, the most thorough investigation of such 'multi-voiced' utterances is found in Bakhtin's work.123 He looked, for example, at parody, where a single concrete voice produces an utterance, but also incorporates the expressions of another voice in such a way that this second voice can be heard as well.124 Thus, if a speaker repeats the utterances of a well known politician by producing these utterances with a different intonation or in contexts that differ from those in which the original utterances occurred, the parodic effect (be it humour, sarcasm or whatever) derives from the simultaneous presence of two voices. Indeed, it is only if one hears both voices that a parodic effect is produced. Parody is only one particular form of multi-voicedness. But, according to Bakhtin, multi-voicedness is an essential part of any utterance.125
Voloshinov believed that inner speech is similar to a work of literature which on the one hand is encompassed by the language of its author, while on the other contains a multitude of separate voices from different characters.126 In his analysis of Dostoevsky's novels, Bakhtin had convincingly shown that the main 'characters' are different consciousnesses reflecting and quoting one another.127 In other words, Dostoevsky was actually intertwining a number of different social, cultural and idiosyncratic voices in the speech of his characters. A study of literature may seem a strange way to investigate the workings of the mind, but Bakhtin believed that novels 'permit readers to see things that are obscured by the restraints on expression in other applications of language'.128
We have already seen how Voloshinov rejected the idea that our thoughts could be viewed purely as the spontaneous production of an individual consciousness and instead believed that we fashion them through a selective appropriation of voices drawn from our past. It is possible that when consciousness goes through a process of change, one of the things that also changes is the particular form of multi-voicedness we use to incorporate these past voices. It may be that voices that were formerly held in some authority now become a subject for parody, or those that had a foreign feel now assume a relevance they didn't have previously, because they are now interpreted in relation to a novel social environment.
Reciting and retelling
Another way of viewing the problem of how our inner speech dialogue incorporates past voices is to look at how we remember and recall these voices. Bakhtin pointed out that human beings can remember past voices in two quite different ways, which affects their subsequent incorporation into our thoughts. He drew an analogy from the way children learn at school. He pointed out that one may 'recite by heart' or 'retell it in one's own words'.129 In reciting, the language of others is authoritative and there can be no play with the framing context. One cannot even entertain the possibility of doubting it therefore one cannot enter into a dialogue with it. The sort of things people learn at school and official pronouncements in short, the ruling ideology may be remembered in such a manner. The power of this kind of language, however, has its corresponding cost once discredited, it becomes a relic, a dead thing, and much easier to reject.130
Retelling in one's own words is, on the other hand, a more flexible and responsive process. In retelling one arrives at 'internally persuasive' discourse. Voices that are incorporated in this way will be more critically assessed but once accepted, they will retain a much more lasting influence in shaping consciousness.131 Such acceptance is most likely to take place, however, if the people who are the original source of such voices relate to, and help make sense of, the social environment of the individual to whom they are addressed.
We have already discussed Voloshinov's claim that speech situations fall into certain patterns and that certain 'speech genres' have developed to reflect such patterns. Bakhtin believed that a change in speech genres is one of the primary conditions for there to be a subsequent change in language as a whole to reflect changing social conditions. This is because 'language is stable and compulsory for the speaker, while use of speech genres is more flexible, plastic and free'.132 Bakhtin went so far as to argue that 'speech genres are the drive belts from the history of society to the history of language. There is not a single new phenomenon that has not traversed the long and complicated path of generic-stylistic testing and modification'.133 The problem for us is that, lacking any proper study of speech genres, it is difficult at present to test these claims.
Of more immediate interest are the claims Bakhtin makes about the quite different roles different speech genres play in society, and the importance of understanding these differences. As he points out:
Many people who have an excellent command of a language often feel quite helpless in certain spheres of communication precisely because they do not have a practical command of the generic forms used in given spheres. Frequently a person who has an excellent command of speech in some areas of cultural communication, who is able to read a scholarly paper or engage in a scholarly discussion, who speaks very well on social questions, is silent or very awkward in social conversation. Here is not a matter of an impoverished vocabulary or style, taken abstractly; this is entirely a matter of the inability to command a repertoire of genres...134
Bakhtin's views on speech genres have relevance for the way in which a revolutionary party goes about spreading its influence among the working class. On the one hand, it is seeking to propagate a scientific view of society which, although drawn from the historical experience of the working class, must necessarily abstract and generalise from that experience. But to make such abstract notions relevant to a working class audience, they must be translated into the speech genre of 'everyday life', that is infused with not only the language but also the daily experience of workers. In order to carry out such a task, the revolutionary party needs to create a network of what Gramsci called 'organic intellectuals'.135 These are not academics as some commentators, perhaps reflecting their own class position, have mistakenly thought,136 but party members who are rooted in the life of the masses, speak their language, but who are also capable of translating the abstract notions of Marxism into the living context of the class struggle.
The aim of this article was to demonstrate that the beginning of a Marxist view of consciousness is one of the legacies of the fantastic period of intellectual creativity which took place after the Russian Revolution. While the general outline of this theory of the mind has hopefully been clearly presented here, matters become necessarily more speculative once we start to consider some of the possible concrete mechanisms whereby social change is translated into a change in consciousness itself. Part of the problem will always be our inability to access inner speech directly. However, it should be clear from Voloshinov's work, as well as that of Bakhtin and Vygotsky, that a wide range of sources can be used successfully as an indirect source of information about our thought processes. The only real test of the ideas expounded here is a scientific analysis of the influence of society on language and the mind based on the work started in 1920s Russia but brutally suppressed so soon after. One of the problems with mainstream psychology and linguistics is the limited scope of their conception of society and its interconnections with the individual. Another is how little awareness they show of the capacity of consciousness to change. It can only be hoped that the current increasing interest in political questions will lead to work which goes beyond the narrow limits of the mainstream and which starts to test some of these questions experimentally. However, the best testing ground will undoubtedly be the revolutionary process itself.
1 A R Luria, The Making of Mind (Harvard University, 1979), p17.
2 Essentially the work of the psychologist Lev Vygotsky and his colleagues, and the theories of language of Valentin Voloshinov, Mikhail Bakhtin and their colleagues. Among the better books about Vygotsky are: A Kozulin, Vygotsky's Psychology (Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1990) and F Newman and L Holzman, Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary Scientist (Routledge, 1993). The only overall history of Bakhtin and his colleagues remains K Clark and M Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin (Harvard University, 1984). The rabid 'Cold War' style anti-Marxist commentary of the latter can be rather distracting, although this has been toned down substantially in the later M Holquist, Dialogism: Bakhtin and his World (Routledge, 1990). G S Morson (ed), Bakhtin (University of Chicago, 1986), and Medvedev and Voloshinov (edited by P Morris), The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bakhtin (1994), are good commentaries combined with selections of writings from the Bakhtin school.
3 Lenin once said that while great revolutionaries were persecuted and their ideas ridiculed while they were alive, when they were safely dead and buried their message was sanitised and robbed of its revolutionary content. Lacking a sufficient scientific foundation themselves, the bourgeois social sciences also borrow ideas from Marxist thinkers, while playing down their revolutionary sources and distorting the ideas in the process.
4 K Marx and F Engels, The German Ideology, in D McLellan (ed), K Marx Selected Writings (Oxford, 1977), p176.
5 K Marx, Capital (Lawrence & Wishart, 1954), p77.
6 These concepts are discussed further in J Rees, International Socialism 38 (1988), pp92-99.
7 K Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, in Early Writings (Penguin, London, 1975), pp326-327.
8 For a further explanation of this distinction see H Draper, The Twin Souls of Socialism (Bookmarks, 1996), and D McNally, Socialism from Below (London, 1984).
9 K Marx and F Engels, The German Ideology, op cit, p179.
10 The appearance of psychology as a subject discipline in its own right is generally dated at 1879, when Wilhelm Wundt opened the first psychology laboratory at the University of Leipzig in Germany. This was soon followed by Herman Ebbinghaus's pioneeering studies of memory in 1885, and by the publication of William James's Principles of Psychology in 1890, which represented one of the first attempts to present psychology as a coherent discipline.
11 For a general study of post-revolutionary Russian psychology see A Kozulin Psychology in Utopia (Cambridge, 1984), and R van der Veer and J Valsiner, Understanding Vygotsky (Blackwell, 1991).
12 L Vygotsky, Crisis in Psychology 1925-1927, in Collected Works Vol I. A good critique of current mainstream psychology is N Hayes, Psychology in Perspective (MacMillan, 1995). The response of 'radical psychology' to the crisis in psychology is discussed in I Parker and R Spears (eds), Psychology and Society (Pluto, 1996) although many of the contributions here also suffer from flaws they criticise in the mainstream.
13 A good critique is in N Hayes, op cit, ch 2; also in S Rose, L Kamin and R Lewontin, Not in our Genes (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1984), p78. For a left wing defence of behaviourism which I think is interesting but ultimately unconvincing see J D Ulman, 'Radical Behaviourism, Selectionism, and Social Action', Psychology and Society, op cit, ch 5.
14 Discussed in depth in N Hayes, op cit, ch 8.
15 For a more in depth critique see T Roszak, The Cult of Information (Paladin, 1988) and J Parrington, International Socialism 73 (1996), pp55-64 .
16 Extract from unpublished notebooks, quoted in the introduction to L Vygotsky Mind in Society (Harvard University, 1978) p8.
17 F Engels, Dialectics of Nature (Progress, 1954), pp170-183.
18 V N Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (Harvard University, 1973) and V N Voloshinov Freudianism: A Marxist Critique (Indiana University, 1987).
19 See the introduction to Medvedev and Voloshinov (edited by P Morris), The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bakhtin, op cit.
20 As discussed in K Clark and M Holquist, op cit, pp146-170, this claim was first made by the Soviet linguist V V Ivanov on the occasion of Bakhtin's 75th birthday.
21 See I R Titunik's introduction to V N Voloshinov, Freudianism: A Marxist critique, op cit. It is interesting that Bakhtin himself never officially denied or accepted the authorship of the disputed texts.
22 Thus Clark and Holquist claim that the books were only written to appear Marxist (a Bakhtian illustration of parody no doubt!) in order to avoid the Stalinist censors. This is despite the fact that these books were written in 1927 and 1929, before the Stalinist repression of intellectuals had really begun, and despite the fact that Bakhtin's own book on Dostoevsky was published around the same time and praised by no less than Lunacharsky.
23 The fact is that the creative influence of Marxist ideas in 1920s Russia affected both intellectuals like Vygotsky, who played a central role in the construction of the new society, and more peripheral figures like those in the Bakhtin school, obviously to varying degrees. Whoever wrote the disputed texts, they were certainly familiar with the true dialectical method, rather than just paying it lip service.
24 A good introduction to Saussure is W T Gordon, Saussure for Beginners (Writers & Readers, 1996). Saussure's Course in General Linguistics (1916), was actually written by his students after his death based on his lecture notes because Saussure was so disparaging about his work he never published it. Academic pressures to publish have obviously increased somewhat since then!
25 F de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics (McGraw-Hill, 1959) p30.
26 Saussure's ideas laid the groundwork for the structuralist approach to language. Later thinkers influenced by his work include the linguists Roman Jakobson, Gustave Guillame, Pierre Giraud, Leonard Bloomfield and Noam Chomsky. Saussure ideas have also influenced fields as diverse as anthropology (via Claude Levi-Strauss) and psychoanalysis (via Jacques Lacan).
27 V N Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, op cit, pp57-58. Voloshinov goes on to observe that 'linguistics studies a living language as if it were a dead language, and native language as if it were an alien tongue', ibid p77.
28 Voloshinov discusses von Humboldt and his followers such as Wundt and Vossler in Germany, Croce in Italy, and Potebyna in Russia. These linguists all conceived the basis of language to be the individual creative act of individuals. V N Voloshinov, op cit, pp48-52.
29 See J Parrington, Socialist Review 137 (1990), p30 for the links between Romanticism, Marxism and the sciences.
30 V N Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, op cit, pp83-94.
31 One of Chomsky's first published statements was his Syntactic Structures (Mouton,1957). Later works include Language and Mind (Harcourt Brace Janovich, 1968), and Language and Thought (London, 1993).
32 S Pinker, The Language Instinct (Penguin, 1994).
33 B F Skinner, Verbal Behaviour (Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957), Chomsky brilliantly demolished Skinner's claims in his review of Skinner's Verbal Behaviour in Language 35 (1959) pp26-58.
34 For quite different positions on this question see S Pinker, op cit, D Bickerton, Language and Human Behaviour (University College London, 1995) and M Beaken, The Making of Language (University of Edinburgh, 1996).
35 S Pinker, op cit, ch 3.
36 N Chomsky, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, (Cambridge, 1965), p3.
37 This view was first most explicitly put forward in V N Voloshinov, 'Discourse in Life and Art', in Freudianism: A Marxist Critique, op cit, pp98-106.
38 V N Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, op cit, p68.
39 Ibid, p67-68.
40 V N Voloshinov, 'Discourse in Life and Art', op cit, p99.
41 V N Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, op cit, pp85-86.
42 Ibid, p86.
44 K Clark and M Holquist, op cit, p218.
45 Speech genres are touched upon in V N Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, op cit, pp20-22, and 96-97; also M Bakhtin, 'The Problem of Speech Genres' in, G S Morson (ed), Bakhtin: Essays and Dialogues on his Work (University of Chicago, 1986), pp91-98.
46 V N Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, op cit, pp96-97.
47 Ibid, p21.
48 Ibid, p41.
49 N Chomsky, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, op cit, p8.
50 V N Voloshinov, Freudianism: A Marxist Critique, op cit, p21. Voloshinov further elaborates on this when he argues that 'in the chain of ideological creativity and understanding...nowhere is there a break in the chain, nowhere does the chain plunge into inner being, nonmaterial in nature and unembodied in signs' in V N Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, op cit, p11.
51 Ibid, p19.
52 C Emerson, 'Outer Word and Inner Speech' in G S Morson (ed), Bakhtin op cit p25.
53 V N Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, op cit, p39.
54 Such a mistaken interpretation of Voloshinov as a crude behaviourist was made by Andy Wilson in his review 'Voloshinov's Freudianism: A Marxist Critique', Socialist Review 144 (1991), p30.
55 V N Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, p38.
56 Ibid, p22.
57 L German, Socialist Review 204 (1997), pp9-10.
58 A Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Lawrence & Wishart, 1971), p326.
59 Ibid, p327.
60 Ibid, p333.
61 V N Voloshinov, Freudianism: A Marxist critique, op cit, p88; Voloshinov's concept of 'ideology' was a broad one, ie it meant any socially determined set of ideas.
62 V N Voloshinov, 'The Word and its Social Function', in A Shukman (ed), Bakhtin School Papers [ed. A Shukman] (Somerton: RPT Publications, 1988), p147.
63 G Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness (Merlin, 1971), p87.
64 A Gramsci, op cit, p333.
65 V N Voloshinov, Freudianism: A Marxist Critique, op cit, p88.
66 In fact, such an accusation could quite rightly have been made of the Bakhtin school in the early phase of their development. This is because Bakhtin and his colleagues were deeply influenced by the ideas of neo-Kantism, which does see ideas alone as a force in themselves. I would argue that Voloshinov, and Bakhtin in the late 1920s, broke from such an idealist view point, but that there is arguably a return to such ideas in the work of the later Bakhtin. It is interesting that Michael Holquist, who has previously been so anti-Marxist in his interpretations of Bakhtin/Voloshinov, now in his Dialogism: Bakhtin and his World, seeks to develop the neo-Kantian side of the Bakhtin school.
67 K Marx and F Engels, The German Ideology, op cit, p164.
68 A Callinicos, The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx (Bookmarks, 1983), chs 3 and 4.
69 K Marx and F Engels, The German Ideology, op cit, pp43-44.
70 L Vygotsky, Mind in Society, op cit, chs 1-4.
71 V N Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, op cit, Part I, chs 2-3.
72 D Bickerton, op cit, ch 2.
73 V N Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, op cit, p10.
74 See especially, V N Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, op cit, Part II, ch 3.
75 L S Vygotsky, Thought and Language (MIT, 1986), ch 7. Vygotsky was particularly interested in children's development partly because he believed that the key to consciousness lay in understanding how it forms in the child's developing mind and also because his work was intimately connected to the practical educational needs of the new society. See J Parrington Socialist Review 176 (1994), pp24-25.
76 L Vygotsky, Thought and Language, op cit, ch 2.
77 Ibid, chs 5-6. Note that the stages of conceptual development Vygotsky identified should not be mistaken for naturally defined stages, but rather methodological devices for distinguishing what seems to be the most pronounced form of concept formation at any given age. And Vygotsky makes the interesting point that 'it would be erroneous...to imagine that the transition from complexes to concepts is a mechanical process in which the higher developmental stage completely supersedes the lower one. The developmental scene turns out to be much more complex. Different genetic forms coexist in thinking, just as different rock formations coexist in the Earth's crust' (in Thought and Language, op cit, p140).
78 M Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (University of Texas, 1986), p51.
79 For a further discussion of this point, J Eaden, Bakhtin, Marxism and Culture, talk at Marxism 96, tape available from Bookmarks, 265 Seven Sisters Rd, London N4).
80 L Vygotsky, Thought and Language, op cit, ch 7.
81 Ibid, pp235-249.
82 One passage which shows the telegraphic nature of inner speech coupled with the way the subject matter can 'skip' (in this case through word association) is one of Leopold Bloom's musings early on in the book: 'He looked at the cattle, blurred in silver heat. Silvered powdered olive trees. Quiet long days: pruning ripening. Olives are packed in jars, eh? I have a few left from Andrews. Molly spitting them out. Knows the taste of them now. Oranges in tissue paper wrapped in crates. Citrons too. Wonder is poor Citron still alive in Saint Kevin's parade. And Matiansky with the old cither. Pleasant evenings we had then. Molly in Citron's basketchair. Nice to hold, cool waxen fruit, hold in the hand, lift it to the nostrils and smell the perfume', J Joyce, Ulysses (Penguin, 1992), p72. In fact Joyce experiments throughout the book with different ways of expressing inner speech. For instance compare the above with the continuous monologue of Molly Bloom which occupies a whole chapter, ibid, pp871-933.
83 V N Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, op cit, Part II, ch 4.
84 Ibid, p99.
85 Ibid, p29; L Vygotsky, Thought and Language, op cit, ch 7.
86 A concept expressed poetically by the famous Soviet poet O Mandelstam Swallow, quoted in L Vygotsky, Thought and Language, op cit, p210. Mandelstam was arrested in 1934 for writing a poem that ridiculed Stalin (the 'Kremlin mountaineer with his thick fingers fatty like worms') and would die in a concentration camp several years later.
87 One of the gaps in both Voloshinov and Vygotsky is their lack of discussion of the role of emotions in shaping human consciousness. Yet this is obviously of vital importance in understanding, for instance, what distinguishes human consciousness from how a computer works (though not the only one see J Parrington, International Socialism 73 (1996), pp55-64). Note that Vygotsky recognised the importance of incorporating emotional responses into his theory of consciousness but was only beginning to look at this area when he died. One point that is worth making is that although emotions are rooted in biological instincts and physiological responses, their expression is still qualitatively different from that of animals (See R van der Veer and J Valsiner, op cit, ch 14). As Newman has pointed out, under capitalism we have even seen the birth of new emotional responses like 'anxiety'. See F Newman, The Myth of Psychology (Castillo, 1991), ch 5.
88 V N Voloshnov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, op cit, p86.
89 Marr himself died in 1934, the same year as Vygotsky. For a discussion of the development of his ideas see M Beaken, The Making of Language, op cit, pp3-5. The attack on Marr was led by Stalin's own crude pronouncements on linguistics expressed in his article 'On Linguistics', published in 1950, in which he argued that language had no ideological content except a nationalistic one .
90 M Bakhtin argued against Marr's crude social determinism, specifying for instance the way the same words can used by different classes. Curiously, the argument that different classes speak with their own language has emerged with what I consider a reactionary side in the claim by Basil Bernstein that working class children speak with an inferior grammar to middle class children and that is why they do less well at school. (B Bernstein 'Social Class, Language and Socialisation' in P P Giglioli, (ed), Language and Social Context (Penguin, 1972). One of the positive features of Pinker's The Language Instinct is that it makes nonsense of the idea that certain languages or dialects (such as 'Queen's English') are superior to others.
91 M Beaken, The Making of Language, op cit .
92 Ibid, ch 8.
93 Ibid, pp135-138.
94 See A R Luria, The Making of Mind, op cit, ch 4. An account of this trip is also given in R van der Veer and J Valsiner, op cit, ch 10.
95 M Beaken, The Making of Language, op cit pp149-151.
96 Ibid, p151.
97 Ibid, p150.
98 Ibid, pp165-167.
99 Ibid, pp166-167.
101 Ibid, p66.
102 For example, in Portuguese one can express the idea 'I have done something' either using the perfect tense (with to have), eg eu tenho comido (I have been eating), or with the preterite tense, eu comei (I have eaten). In French one can use the verb to have or to be, eg j'ai fini (I have finished) or il est sorti (he has gone out).
103 In Portuguese, instead of an auxiliary verb being used to express 'I would' instead one uses the conditional tense e.g. eu comeria (I would eat) or the future indicative, eg eu comerei (I shall eat). The conditional is also used in French, eg je finirais (I would finish). Given that Holland was the other country besides Britain to have an early bourgeois revolution, it would be interesting to study Dutch versus English to test Beaken's claims further. One caveat is that there are other, earlier, links between the English and Dutch language which would confuse such a study.
104 Which is linked to his claims about dialogism and speech genres. For more on social languages see J V Wertsch, Voices of the Mind (Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), ch 3.
105 Except when former 'terrorists' like Mandela suddenly become international statesmen.
106 For a discussion of Chomsky's politics, see the useful but rather sycophantic D Cogswell, Chomsky for Beginners (Writers & Readers, 1996), or the more critical recent article in this journal, A Arnove, International Socialism 74 (1997), pp117-140.
107 L Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (Pathfinder, 1972), p104.
108 J Molyneux, International Socialism 61 (1993), p59.
109 One example of new management-speak is 'downsizing' for cost cutting and making redundancies, but most people are becoming familiar with plenty of examples from their own experience.
110 J Molyneux, op cit, pp57-62.
111 Ibid, pp46-55.
112 Ibid, p58.
113 As true Marxists, Voloshinov and Vygotsky were not afraid to engage with and build upon the insights of mainstream thinkers, in order to incorporate these insights into a Marxist framework. Such a position was later used against them by Stalinist hacks who denounced such an engagment as a 'bourgeois deviation', demonstrating in the process their own crude, mechanical and narrowly nationalist approach.
114 V N Voloshinov, Freudianism: A Marxist Critique, op cit, p76.
115 Ibid, p85.
116 Ibid, pp79-80.
117 A good account of Freud's early work is in R Webster, Why Freud Was Wrong (Fontana, 1996).
118 L Vygotsky, Thought and Language, op cit, pp246-247.
119 S Freud, The Unconscious in the Essentials of Psychoanalysis (Penguin, 1986), p170.
120 V N Voloshinov, Freudianism: A Marxist Critique, op cit, pp76-77. 'Talking cure' was in fact a description coined by the first psychoanalytic patient, Anna O see R Webster, op cit, ch 4.
121 V N Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, op cit, Part III, pp109-159. See also M Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination (University of Texas, 1981), and M Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (University of Minnesota, 1984).
122 V N Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, op cit, pp125-159.
123 M Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, op cit, p199.
124 'Any utterance when it is studied in greater depth under the concrete conditions of speech communication, reveals to us many half-concealed or completely concealed words of others with varying degrees of foreignness. Therefore the utterance appears to be furrowed with distant and barely audible echoes of changes of speech subjects and dialogic overtones, greatly weakened utterance boundaries which are completely permeable to the author's expression' in M Bakhtin, 'The Problem of Speech Genres' in G S Morton (ed), Bakhtin: Essays and Dialogues on his Work, op cit p97.
125 M Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, op cit.
126 V N Voloshinov, Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, op cit pp125-140.
127 M Bakhtin, Problems of Dosteovsky's Poetics, op cit.
128 K Clark and M Holquist, op cit, p243.
129 M Bakhtin, 'Discourse in the Novel' in The Dialogic Imagination, op cit, pp341-342.
130 Ibid, pp342-345.
131 Ibid, pp345-348.
132 M Bakhtin, 'The Problem of Speech Genres' in G S Morton (ed), Bakhtin: Essays and Dialogues on his Work, op cit, p95.
133 Ibid, p92.
134 Ibid, p96.
135 A Gramsci, op cit pp395-396.
136 I attended a conference organised by the now defunct Marxism Today in 1987 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Gramsci's death and heard exactly this claim.