The Language of Lenin

In 1924, a group of linguists published a study which aimed to decode the power of Lenin's language – today, a newly-translated version sheds light on the contributions words can make to revolutionary politics.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924) makes a celebratory speech as head of the first Soviet government in Red Square on the first anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution. (P. Otsup / Getty Images)

Struggles over words are political struggles. Socialists have to battle over the reality of phrases such as ‘class struggle’ or ‘anti-racism’, or else they have to cede them to the abstractions and reversals sent to smother these words by the Right. But if momentum is lost or gained in language as much as it is on the streets or in campaigns, can theories of speech and literary form help us understand these processes and sharpen left tactics in these battles?

Rab-Rab press’s recent Coiled Verbal Spring: Devices of Lenin’s Language presents some answers, and shows how poetry as a form connects to this struggle for words. It translates into English a special 1924 issue of LEF on Lenin’s speeches and texts, alongside a 1928 pamphlet by the poet Alexei Kruchenykh on the same subject. The LEF (Left Front for the Arts) group focused usually on poetry; its co-editor Vladimir Mayakovsky was a major Futurist poet, alongside the Formalist theorist of poetic language Osip Brik.

The LEF group grappled with how new literary forms could be constructed to break with the old; their debates centred on how language could be reloaded for permanent revolution. As Sezgin Beynik’s introduction to Coiled Verbal Spring makes clear, poetry was considered to be primary because it set itself against everyday speech—the preserve of the old way of life, captured in the Russian concept of ‘byt’. Byt doesn’t have a direct translation, but it was conceived of as an immobile, reactionary force, a petty bourgeois pull back into the inertias of capitalist culture, or what the Futurist Sergei Tretyakov described as the ‘rockfish of everyday life which pressed from the past’. Every element of revolutionary life needed to pull away from it.

The sharpest of these writers, Boris Arvatov, argued that the dialectical relationship between poetry and practical language could therefore be radicalised if poetry forged ahead as a communist avant-garde. But, Osip Brik further argued, the resulting experiments needed to be tested in the fire of class struggle. A further intended blow against the language of byt was Zaum, a new language developed by Futurists Alexei Kruchenykh and Velimir Khlebnikov. Roman Jakobson described the results as ‘mustard without the dish’. A taste of a future revolutionary banquet for all, then, or as Kruchenykh put it: ‘We learned how to look at the world backward.’

The special issue on Lenin’s language, published after his death in 1924, was an attempt to apply these ideas, derived from the study of poetic language, to the highly practical language of revolutionary politics. Yury Tynanov highlights a language which quotes and mocks bourgeois and rightist abstractions. Adding to this, Victor Shklovsky sees Lenin’s radical style as a ‘decanonising force’, cutting words down to the right measure—clear statements of necessity which can carry ‘schemes for life’, in Lenin’s phrase.

Building on Tynanov’s position, Boris Eikhenbaum discerns an intermediary form between poetical and practical language through a close reading of Lenin’s text ‘The Chief Task of Our Day’ from 1918, finding that Tolstoyan rhetoric of the old intelligentsia mixes there with Latin oratorical style and Russian colloquialisms, all to be broken at the point Lenin draws on them. This is a strategy of acknowledging historical currents in order to redirect or end them. Without losing its oppositional power nor its futurist edge, poetry here is compacted into a co-ordinate for political language as action. Eikhenbaum argues: ‘words were not Lenin’s profession or career, but his real deed.’

What can be done when right-wing speech embodies the positions and structures of socialism in order to hollow them out and render actual progressive voices meaningless? When the Right can claim ‘we are the real anti-racists’ or Fascist groups say ‘we are beyond politics’ then these reversals and positionings need to be broken apart before they solidify. Lenin was consistent in warding off the abstract weakening of precise left concepts—for example, saying ‘the word “commune” is being used too freely.’ If the Left tries to imitate right-wing strategies by occupying right-wing rhetoric—on immigration or prisons, for instance—then a collapse of political meaning occurs, partly because left movements propose a break from old or reactionary forms of hierarchy or control and the language which expresses and subjectivises them.

There is a final loop in the coordinates of how new forms are made which Coiled Verbal Spring touches on. Uprisings and social change everywhere produces new language. ‘The revolutionary masses brought into everyday use expressions that had never before existed,’ notes Kruchenykh in his pamphlet which reflects on Lenin four years after the LEF publication. ‘Lenin, in all his ingenious sensitivity, detected this stream that invigorated the language and solidified it in his speeches and writings.’ Left politics can work to expand the space for socialism in language now, as a way to counter byt and all the reactionary forms gathering to take back and enclose the world.