The language question at the 3rd International

4 June, 2022

Five continents, a single proletariat. Lissitsky's work picking up the symbol chosen by Trotsky, inspired by the Esperantist "Verda Estelo".
Five continents, a single proletariat. Lissitsky's work picking up the symbol chosen by Trotsky, inspired by the Esperantist "Verda Estelo".

The question of working languages in a universal class organization is a political question of the first order. However, it was not posed as such until the founding of the Third International.

Table of Contents

Notice. This article is based on texts and documentation compiled by the comrades of Iskra, an internationalist group publishing and working in Esperanto that has long been raising the importance of the language question in advancing workers' organization. 

The identity of the working language is a political question

It is no coincidence for the history of the abandonment of internationalism by the Internationals to go hand in hand with the history of the change in their official languages. The First International abandoned multilingualism as its original impulse died. The Second International accumulated linguistic tensions in its congresses to the point of effectively excluding the real participation of the majority of parties. After the 4th Congress in which it adopted Russian as its main language, the IIIrd International would be doomed to “socialism in one country”. And this would not be very different in the IVth, in which the adoption of English as the main language marked the change of orientation of the international secretariat from internationalism to a rapprochement with anti-fascist warmongering.

The question of working languages in a universal class organization is a political question of the first order. However, it was not posed as such until the founding of the Third International.

The experience of the Second International

Amsterdam Congress of the Second International in 1904.
Amsterdam Congress of the Second International in 1904.

The isolation of the spanish PSOE and other parties of the Second International is often cited as one of the causes of its lack of theoretical development and the advance of reformism in the fifteen years prior to the outbreak of the first imperialist world war. But the truth is that, although some sections such as the Russian one maintained a whole organizational effort to make propaganda in all the diversity of languages of the old European empires, the International limited itself to work and publish in three languages: English, French and German.

The very form of organization of the Second International and the use of the working languages in its Congresses imposed, even on the elected delegates, a linguistic hierarchy which corresponded to the balance of the great imperialist powers of the time and which could only encourage the isolation of entire sections and the emergence of national particularisms.

Let us imagine an internationalist worker leaving his country for the first time to go to a Congress of the International. Not only would his physical location be determined by his country of origin. Simply, most of them would feel alienated and excluded, unable to understand anything, to participate or to defend their positions.

An episode of the international socialist congress in Copenhagen in 1910 will remain in my memory forever. Over a thousand delegates were gathered and the three main language families, German, French and English, absolutely dominated. The German, French and English delegates with delegates from other foreign nations were placed downstairs in the great hall and every speech in both languages was interpreted to the other two, but only to those. In the balcony sat the numerous representatives of the Scandinavians. Many of them were unable to follow the debates and could not bring their valuable experience to the discussion.

In the end, however, it turned out that among the many expressions of thanks to the Danish hosts, a few words were also allowed in the Scandinavian language, in this case in Swedish. The Scandinavians, who for the first time felt at home, stood up clapping incessantly, violently, mainly as an expression, it seemed, of an inner need to make their existence known. And for the first time silence fell over the noisy crowd below. They gazed in awe and at the same time at the solemn balcony. The upper class of the linguistic families discovered the lower class above them.

Carl Lindhagen, then a Swedish Social Democratic alderman and delegate to the Congress of the International

ESKI and the need for universal tools for the International

Poster of the first Esperanto workers' congress in 1914
Poster of the first Esperanto workers’ congress in 1914

When the Third International was founded, the experience was very familiar and although the workers who had been part of the organizational life of the International were few, they would make their position heard.

Especially in small countries with poorly internationalized languages, many of the leaders coming from the internationalist left were very aware of the question. Perhaps the best known case is that of Pannekoek, who wrote some of his best known texts of those years in Esperanto for the Internacia Socia Revuo directed by Wijtze Nutters, a famous professor of Esperanto and an important member of the new Dutch Communist Party.

After the Second Congress of the International, when the famous “21 conditions” were approved, an attempt to create an “International of Esperantist Communists” on the model of the new vertical organizations, dependent on the International, for women workers, sportswomen or cooperativists, would arise in Russia, among soldiers of the Red Army who had become Esperantists during the revolution: EsKi.

EsKi advocated the adoption of an international language as “a necessary means to establish effective relations between the revolutionary masses of the different countries”. It called for the communist parties to take the lead in the task because “it would not be possible to create a world party without a universal communication tool in the hands of the workers”. And they warned that, as was the case in the defunct International, without this type of tool, the representatives of the different parties would end up being monopolized by “polyglot intellectuals”.

They were far from being doomsayers. The linguistic problem affected even the young parties in those places where the abundance of migrant workers and linguistic minorities tended to isolate their organizational efforts. As the communist press itself denounced, in countries like the US, the monolingualism of the party concurred to give a disproportionate weight to the intellectuals who had joined the party and to marginalize the political positions defended by a good part of the workers’ base.

It is clear that in all foreign language branches, the few members who are most advanced in English are privileged to be elected officers and delegates. Other members may be better qualified, but can only receive secondary consideration. In the Central Committee, does a delegate who uses broken English, poor vocabulary and poor grammar have the same opportunity to present his arguments as one who speaks fluent English?

On the language problem. Avid Röstrom, Daily Worker, 1924

EsKi was never recognized by the International, but it mobilized most of the Esperantist communists of the defunct Russian Empire into “mass work”. To them we owe, for example, the first communist newspaper in an auxiliary language.

The underlying question: International or World Party?

Tribute to Sylvia Pankhurst on May 1, 1921 after spending seven months in prison for her articles in the 'Worker's Dreadnought'.
Tribute to Sylvia Pankhurst on May 1, 1921 after spending seven months in prison for her articles in the “Worker’s Dreadnought”.

The basic question is whether the new International was to be a single universal party organizing the most conscious sections of the workers throughout the world. If that was indeed what was intended, a worker joining the International should be able to interact regularly with workers in the rest of the world without filters or intermediaries, in conditions as close as possible to those of local militancy, regardless of his or her mother tongue.

The alternative to the world party model was to fall back on the model of the federation of sections -as the Second International had been- or to turn it into a group of branches directed vertically from a center -as the Stalinist Komintern would later be.

This was clear to the first British communist party, created and directed by Sylvia Pankhurst, who was one of the first communist leaders outside Russia to take up the banner of the use of an auxiliary language in the work of the International.

In fact, Pankhurst and her colleagues, known as the “British Communist Left,” repeated that the extension of an international language from the concrete needs of the class struggle, would allow “reaching a new understanding of the world” to the whole of Humanity.

For reasons of efficiency, the issue of language is important for the international labor movement. If we want effective organizing we must have a common language. The time, energy and clarity lost in translation at Congresses is very obvious. Think how the literature of the movement would be enriched if every book with a single translation, or originally written in the international language, were immediately available to all speaking sectors of the workforce. […]

Our Party wants to achieve an international goal requiring an international consciousness. The issue cannot be left to party leaders, polyglots, linguists or conferences alone. The grassroots [of the movement] must come in. We need to broaden the courses that have already begun in our movement. Here there is scope for practical action. The Communist Youth Movement cannot only talk about internationalism and indulge in flag-waving, it must help pave the way for direct international contact. Why not an ESKI section in the U.K. Can we in England contribute something to the culture of the future? […]

Once again, the conditions are ripe for another leap: humanity’s horizon is again broadened by increasing its means of understanding. We need and will need the weapon of an auxiliary language in the class struggle.

Communism and International Language , Mark Starr. The Communist Review , February 1922

That is to say, an international auxiliary language is a fetish of pacifist utopianism, and this is necessarily reactionary, when it advocates that states and international bodies can agree to render egalitarian a terrain which is part of the imperialist conflict.

But when it is developed from the universal need of the revolutionary class, as an indispensable tool for the class struggle, it is placed in a new perspective, the communist one. And then its meaning is radically transformed. It then becomes a manifestation of the material advance towards a Humanity overcoming the division into classes and nations, reunified and consciously converted into a community.

And in so doing it transforms the human experience and the capacities of the revolutionary class, providing us with a small foretaste of the outburst of transformative capacities that the whole of Humanity is poised to realize as it becomes, for the first time, a collective and conscious subject.

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