Language Policy and the French Revolution

If we want to understand and go beyond contemporary national language policy we must first look backwards to the conquest of power by an emergent bourgeoisie and see how “the terms of reference” for current debates were first set. We do so because the nation is not a universal historical phenomenon but the product of distinct historical forces. So when political leaders talk of national culture and a common language  that binds us together they are in fact talking about events which started some four to five hundred years ago and are now coming, as capitalism enters its senility, to a final conclusion,.


It would seem worthwhile, therefore, to begin with that most bourgeois of all revolutions, the French revolution. For as undeniably as it can be said that this revolution broke the chains of the despicable tyranny of the church and the feudal lords over the people, it also set in motion the horrors of the First World War and the horrors of Auschwitz. The monster which is the modern nation state, is the embodiment of capitalism. Just as the factory is in competition with another factory, as it subordinates the worker to production, so the state wraps itself around a people, introducing laws and surveillance which subordinate a people to its needs, laughingly termed  “the national interest”.

In 1789 when the bourgeoisie  routed the aristocracy in France they first declared liberty of language for all citizens of the Republic. However, within five years this policy was subsequently abandoned in favour of the imposition of a common language which was to eradicate all other languages in France. Other languages were perceived as maintaining the peasant masses in religious obscurantism. This revolutionary fervour with its talk of doing way with intermediaries and having one common language where the people could speak directly to the state mirrored the prototypical bourgeois ideas of Martin Luther in his suggestion that people be able to speak directly to god.

The new ideology was set out  in the Report on the necessity and means to annihilate the patois and to universalise the use of the French language”. Its author, Henri Grégoire, argued that France had not progressed beyond the Tower of Babel, and out of France’s total population of 15 million, only 3 million could speak French well, while 6 million had only limited ability with the language and another 6 million spoke no French whatsoever. French here is taken to be the particular dialect of Parisian French. In the same year, the report resulted in two laws which stated that the only language tolerated in French public life and in schools would be French. Within two years, the French language had become the symbol of the national unity of the French State..

This marked the transformation from the feudal state to the capitalist state. The dictatorship of a bourgeoisie over the peasantry and proletariat. No longer would the state content itself with a myriad of contradictory local and complex administration systems capable of  merely stealing the fruits of labour from the labouring classes but a it must transform itself into a complex centralised  machine capable of organising the workforce and the family into an efficient unit of production, a unit of production in competition with other nations. The citizen is no longer a subject but a free man.. He or she is only a subject in that they are subject to the universal laws of the state, but that the state, in bourgeois philosophy at least, is the will of the people.. The debates between Hegelianism and Kantianism, Freedom for and Freedom From, Keynesianism and Monetarism, state interventionism and non-interventionism are merely points on the spectrum of attitudes towards the essential function of this state, the subordination of individual needs to production, production driven by the anarchy of competition.

When two hundred years after the imposition of Parisian French (the language of 3 million) on 15 million peoples and countless billions later through population growth and imperil expansion, the  Académie française fights a battle against the Anglicisation of its language, we can afford ourselves a wry smile. The essence of this campaign is that the very notion of the nation is under threat. Capitalism, brought about through bourgeois states and the interconnections and wars between them has dug its own grave. The nation has become an anachronism, but if the nation were to disappear it would only leave the naked truth of two major classes, a small group of rich people who own the vast majority of the wealth and the means of production and an enormous world proletariat who create this wealth but can not direct its own energies or satisfy its own needs.

The Capitalist therefore pursues two paths, the consolidation and extension of its own language and development of language policy to best insert itself into an ever increasing division of labour across the globe. Rich powerful nation states draw increasing numbers of economic migrants into their countries and demand loyalty to a state which has grown rich out of the expropriation of wealth from poorer countries. This often takes the form of pressure to learn “the language” and integrate into the “local culture”. Countries like Spain and Germany pressurise its citizens into learning English whilst aggressively promoting their own languages elsewhere, but heaven forbid if their citizens should become so proficient in such languages that their ties to the mother state should be broken. One has to consider here the Spanish state’s paranoia that “Spanish” is being squeezed out of Catalonia by Catalan and English or the Christian Democratic Union’s proposal to ammend the German constitution to read: “The language of the Federal Republic shall be German.”

So what therefore should a marxist language policy look like? Principally it should not concern itself with “the naton” but neither should it obstruct a people in their historical quest for self-determination. When Quebec and Catalonia transform their education systems to reflect their languages and their culture after years of repression of those languages and cultures, we applaud and support that struggle. Not because we believe in nations but that we know that proletarian liberation is only possible if people can exercise control over their own destiny and not be dictated to by stronger nations. Ultimately, however, nationalism is a distraction from the international ties that can lead to true self-determination and an end to the wars and conflict that have been intensified by the development of capitalism and imperialism.. Proletarian language policy is yet to be developed, we saw glimpses after the Rusian revolution before the darkness of Stalinism and counter revolution, but ultimately it must be written by the people themselves .and not imposed on them by a small powerful minority as was the case in the French revolution. 

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