Saskatoon Star-Phoenix – Sep 4, 1948
If You Know What I Mean
Mr. Bernard Shaw has been appealing to the government “to appoint a select committee to settle our political nomenclature.”
He thinks, quite justly, that it would be a good thing if we were all to “use the same words for the same thing and understand what the words mean.”
How much easier it would be for men of all countries and of all classes to find a solution to the difficulties of humanity today if there were general agreement as to the meaning of a number of words such as “democracy,” “free speech,” “capitalism,” “communism,” and a hundred others!
There is a sense, for example, in which we are all, or nearly all, Communists. I mean that it is impossible to imagine a heaven upon earth in which, as a result of scientific discovery, there is a superabundance of goods and of leisure without imagining at the same time a world in which human beings will live in equal and uncompetitive luxury like the angels.
Possibly, such an earthly paradise will never arrive, but it is difficult to conceive Utopia in any other terms.
Yet, if you call yourself a Communist, more people will think you believe in cold-blooded revolution, the immediate extirpation of the middle classes, a police-ridden state, and a dictatorship of a handful of middle-class leaders, successfully disguising themselves as the class-conscious proletariat.
Mr. Shaw calls himself a “Marxist Communist,” but he is careful to add:
“I cannot say so without being set down as an infantile advocate of catastrophic insurrection with capitalism in full swing on Monday, revolution on Tuesday and Socialism in full swing on Wednesday.”
And the word “Marxist” is open to as various interpretations as the word “Communist.”
I wonder how many people calling themselves “Marxists” to the point of believing with their master that the reason why the British working classes were not revolutionary three-quarters of a century ago was that they were too prosperous—a prosperity he seemed to deplore. “In England,” he wrote at the height of the capitalist era, “prolonged prosperity has demoralized the workers.”
Would any Marxist today openly maintain that an improvement in the lot of the workers in a non-Communist society—better pay, better hours, better food, better education—was an evil and regret a social system that increased the prosperity of the working classes and gave them so much more to lose than their chains?
“Working classes” is another phrase that has no fixed meaning. According to some people, the laziest manual laborer to be found on this lazy planet is a “worker,” whereas a doctor killing himself with overwork during an epidemic shot is not. It would be easy, one would imagine, for everybody to agree that a worker is simply a man who works, but that would upset the political theories of so many people that there is little hope of its achievement.
Take “freedom of speech,” again. Some people seem to think that there is no freedom of speech in England because most of the press is owned by “capitalists,” and even some journalists seem to think this freedom is non-existent because, if they are Communists, they are not allowed to advocate Communism in the columns of “The Times,” or, alternatively, if they are Tories, they are not allowed to advocate Toryism in the columns of the “Daily Worker.”
Freedom of speech does not, of course, involve such liberties. It means roughly that, apart from blasphemy, indecency and slander, a man can speak freely in public-houses or at street corners, that if he can find a platform he may utter any sense or nonsense he pleases, and that if he can persuade someone to print him he may air his views for or against the Prime Minister and, indeed, for or against God Himself.
And so we come to “democracy,” that blessed word, which in recent years has come to mean to some people a system under which the citizen has no right to join a party, no right to found an opposition newspaper, no right to read the news of the day uncensored, no right to learn what other countries are like, no right to emigrate, no right to pursue the life of a scientist or artist unhampered by what are called “ideological” considerations.
I am afraid that the passion for using words wrongly is deep-seated in human nature.
Do not the English give the name “down” to a piece of ground that rises up and becomes a hill? Do they not reserve the name “public school” for school from which the public has for centuries been excluded? Do they not give the name of “absence” at Eton to a roll-call at which everybody is expected to be present?
Even if Mr. Shaw’s dictionary were compiled, I doubt whether many people would pay heed to it. It is easier to use language as a kind of abracadabra than to think about the meaning of every word we utter.
And that, perhaps, helps to explain the mess we are now in. if Madame Roland were living today, I fancy she would alter her famous saying: “Democracy, what crimes are committed in thy name!”