The End of Marrism.

A while back we had a long and interesting thread about the crackpot linguistic theories of N. Y. Marr, which were officially imposed by Stalin for a couple of decades before he officially denounced them. (Marr himself had the good sense to die in 1934, avoiding all sorts of unpleasantness.) The denouncing was done in the 1950 article “Concerning Marxism in Linguistics,” which begins with the pleasingly succinct Q&A “QUESTION: Is it true that language is a superstructure on the base? ANSWER: No, it is not true.” (There have long been allegations that the article was written not by Stalin but by Marr’s longtime critic Arnold Chikobava; I doubt we will ever know, but it’s silly to suppose Stalin was incapable of writing it.) The effect of the article was immediate and severe: everyone hastily backtracked from the now deprecated theory, and actual linguistic science was back in fashion. But I have long wondered why the Great Helmsman made this particular intervention, and I’ve just come across a plausible suggestion by Geoffrey Hosking in his excellent Rulers and Victims: The Russians in the Soviet Union (p. 261):

What motivated this abrupt reversal of policy? On this matter no direct evidence exists, but one may hypothesize that the change was a delayed aspect of the move away from a class-based and internationalist approach to the building of socialism toward a Russian cultural and imperial one. Marr’s doctrine had implied that there might ultimately be an international language of the proletariat, generated by cross-fertilization of existing languages but distinct from any of them. Stalin, however, clearly believed by now that the appropriate international proletarian language was and would remain Russian. World socialism was to be an infinitely extended Russian-Soviet empire, at least until the ultimate triumph over imperialism.

Again, we’ll never know, but it makes sense. (And I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in the difficult question of what it means to be Russian as opposed to being the citizen of an empire or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; it’s a worthy successor of his Russia: People and Empire, 1552-1917, which I quoted almost a decade ago.)


  1. Jeffry House says

    In the Hosking comment you quote, rather a lot of work is done by the word “delayed”. Stalin’s decision to build socialism in one country had been taken in the mid-1920s. By 1929, he was completely able to force party doctrine into the necessary mold. Yet Marrism, with its internationalist implications, remained the party line on linguistic matters for the next twenty-one years, when it was changed “abruptly”.

    I think the proffered explanation falls short, though I don’t have a better one.

  2. Timing makes sense. Comintern wasn’t disbanded until 1943; the special role of Russian language didn’t become properly enshrined until about 1945; and the rush to purge sciences from ideologically suspect theories didn’t commence until about 1948. Hence 1950 for the language sciences.

  3. Was there a plan to Russianize the Eastern European countries as well? I know that learning Russian was encouraged there, but did they expect, say, East Germany or Hungary to eventually switch to Russian as the language of the masses?

  4. Good question. Eventually, sure, when world socialism came to pass and required an international proletarian language, but presumably that was part of the ever-receding shining future rather than an actual planned-for event. I’d be curious to hear from someone who’s studied the issue.

  5. Stalin died in 1953, he didn’t have that much time to push for his plans, whatever they may have been, to turn into reality. His immediate successor Beria is said to have wanted to reunify Germany rather than to keep propping it up. Khruschev was a classic ideology faithful. So it was the end of story there, sort of – back to square one

  6. Was Stalin called “the Great Helmsman” among his many cultish epithets? I always thought that was Mao. Did he imitate Stalin’s title?

  7. Yes, he was, and Mao did (as he imitated so much else about Stalin). Google [Сталин Великий кормчий] for many examples; here‘s a dictionary entry showing it was used as far back as 1934.

  8. Official Soviet line was something like maintaining Russian as lingua franca within the Soviet Union and the “socialist camp”, not displacement of national languages. It didn’t assuage various ethnic anxieties within USSR, though.

  9. D.O., the late “official Soviet line” was quite split, or perhaps schizophrenic, inasmuch as while the state was ready to give at least token support to indigenous languages, it also hyped a process of sblizhenie (increasing closeness) and slianie (merger) of the peoples of the Soviet Union that was clearly incompatible with real linguistic diversity.

  10. Stefan Holm says

    I don’t think there were any world domination motives behind the promotion of Marr. Instead it fits well into one of the most misinterpreted ideas of Karl Marx. He claimed that thoughts, culture, moral, ideology etc. basically reflect the economical and technical base of society. He in no way though denied that ideas in turn have an impact on history and the material world or that there are things unaffected by economic changes. But so many of his followers still today seem to simply close their eyes to that reciprocity. It lead to severe delay in some areas of Soviet science, the maybe worse of which was the sad Lysenko affair (‘Michurin’s biology’), which denied the laws of genetics (triggered by a wishful hope to breed crops resistant to the harsh climate in the interior of Russia). In the same spirit they came up with the idea that after 1917 not only the Russian language had been dramatically changed but actually even man himself.

    Beware of my many friends, my enimies I can handle myself, Marx once wrote.

  11. I don’t think there were any world domination motives behind the promotion of Marr. Instead it fits well into one of the most misinterpreted ideas of Karl Marx.

    Surely you’re not claiming Stalin was more interested in Marxist theory than world domination?

  12. Was Stalin’s belief that “the appropriate international proletarian language was and would remain Russian” framed in purely pragmatic terms (easier to just get everyone to learn the language we’ve already written everything down in), or were there also (serious, official) attempts to single out some characteristics of Russian in particular as ideal for an international proletarian language?

  13. Stefan Holm says

    Surely you’re not claiming Stalin was more interested in Marxist theory than world domination?

    I’ve no idea, the two might have been the same thing in his mind. We can argue about people’s acts and deeds but their motives will always be a speculative story and often close enough to argumentum ad hominem.

    When Stalin 1950 actually interfered in linguistics (in person or through a ghost writer) he essentially argued in the direction of international main stream theories.

    On the other hand it is a fact that many marxists have claimed that everything in the realm of ideas is a direct reflection of economic conditions and class membership. To me such theories, thriving among early Soviet intellectuals, as a source for ‘Marrism’ is closer to Occam’s razor than a conspiracy to conquer the world.

  14. Eh, you obviously place a great deal more real-world weight on theories than I do. For some, of course, they are all-important, but I’m pretty sure that for most who manage to actually achieve and retain power, they are useful clubs to beat opponents with but not anything to constrain one’s own actions.

  15. Stefan Holm says

    Good point, Hat! Men of power probably pay little attention to theory and ideology. But history isn’t exclusively (and I dare add: in the long run not even mainly) made by individual leaders. As Lincoln put it (or at least as rendered in a Bob Dylan song): you can fool all of the people part of the time, you can fool part of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Neither Alexander, Augustus, Charlemagne, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Bismarck nor Stalin could possibly have run their societies by sticking their noses in just every detail but had to rely on a bureaucracy, an intelligentsia and, even, the commoners. So, men in power come and go, but ideas usually just get modified.

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