Cheltenham festival of Literature: The dreadful meaning of words

This year's Cheltenham Festival of Literature takes as its theme the revolutionary power of language. In times of upheaval, understanding is often the first casualty.

What bullets are to wars, words are to a revolution. Language is a battlefield and warring sides compete to control it as the key to mass support and power. Words are everywhere in a revolution: slogans shouted by the crowd, revolutionary songs, speeches by the leaders, billboards, banners, and graffiti on the walls.

Carlyle called it the "torrent of French speech" that swept away the monarchy and filled the streets with words in 1789. John Reed found Russia just as talkative, with "every street corner... a public tribune", during 1917. Carlyle's The French Revolution and Reed's Ten Days that Shook the World are both vocal histories - they are full of the noises of the street - and that is partly what makes them so vivid.

Both men understood that in a revolution key words float above the public scene, uniting people round them for a while, only to disappear or see their meanings change as different groups latch on to them for their specific ends.

Revolutions are a battle over meaning, with key symbolic words as the Bastilles to be won. Take the battle over the word "constitution" at the time of the French Revolution. Edmund Burke used it (as it was understood until the end of the 18th century) to mean all the parts that "constituted" France: the monarchy, the three estates, the laws and customs that made up the nation historically. His constitution was an ancient and unbroken "natural order" handed down by God.

For Paine and the revolutionaries, however, a constitution could not be handed down by God or kings; it had to be written by the people, as a series of fundamental laws, to constitute a government. This, of course, is the modern sense of the word, but it took a revolution to bring about this meaning. That, indeed, is what the revolution was about.

Burke was in no doubt that words had been the cause of the French Revolution. He traces its origins to the influence of writers such as Voltaire and Rousseau. The link between the revolution and the writings of the philosophes has long been a subject of controversy. But many would agree that the pamphlet versions of the philosophes' ideas, if not their books, together with the gossip, jokes and songs, posters and broadsides that constituted the political folklore of 18th-century France, played a crucial part in undermining the values of the Old Regime and disseminating the ideas that were to drive the revolution.

What the philosophes were to the French, Marx was to the Russian Revolution. But the words that really brought down the Romanov regime were the rumours of Rasputin and his influence at court, his orgies with the Empress and their spying for the Germans, which probably did more than anything to puncture the traditional belief of the peasants in the sacred nature of the monarchy.

This political pornography - the pamphlets, postcards, poems and plays that sold in their millions on the streets and were passed from hand to hand in factories and barracks - was similar to the sexual gossip and satire that stripped the Bourbon monarchy of all authority.

What gave these rumours the ability to inform and motivate the public's actions was not how true they were, but how far they accorded with popular belief. In a revolution it is not facts that count, but what people believe to be true. Let me give one example.

In November 1916 the Russian liberal leader Miliukov made a speech in the Duma condemning the tsarist government. He listed its abuses, denouncing each in turn and ending with the question: "Is this folly or treason?" The effect of his speech was revolutionary. The fact that a statesman with such close connections to the diplomatic world had mentioned the word "treason" was enough for the public to conclude that treason there had been. This had not been Miliukov's aim. To his own rhetorical question he himself would have answered "folly". But, as he recalled, "the prevailing mood in the country served as a megaphone for my words." The speech became a "storm-signal for the revolution" - legitimising it as a patriotic act.

In both the French and the Russian revolutions, words served as a code of action for the crowd in their battles with troops and the police. The rallying cry of "liberty", the emotional strains of the Marseillaise, strengthened the resolve of the protesters in the face of danger. Rumours enabled people to impose some sort of meaning on the chaos and confusion of all around them, and informed the actions of the crowd.

The leaders of the French Revolution understood that language was a key to power. So it was important for the revolutionaries, if they were to destroy the power structures of the old regime, to dismantle its linguistic system, too.

Hence their obsession with the title of the King. The 1791 Constitution relegated Louis from "King of France" to "King of the French", implying his dependence on the people's will. By the end of 1792 he had become plain Louis Capet. Finally, as if to ecraser le nom, the king himself was crushed.

In 1917 Nicholas II, "Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias" became Mr Romanov. The tsarist social hierarchy was maintained by an elaborate system of honorific titles which the revolutionaries immediately replaced with the egalitarian "citizen" for all, and then with the socialist "comrade".

The common Russian people were acutely aware of the dignity derived from certain words. Workers demanded "polite address" from their employers - meaning above all the polite "you" or vyi instead of the familiar tyi traditionally used for children, serfs and pets. They demanded the rights of "citizens" - equality with the rest of society.

This linguistic revolution represented an attempt to abolish the old social system and create a new one through the word. It was an attempt to reword "reality" - as if a few revolutionary Adams could begin to name a new world into being.

But all this was easier said than done. For one thing, there was an enormous cultural gap between the urban language of the revolution and the peasantry. The Western abstract words of the revolution were misunderstood and mispronounced by peasants. The word "republic" - respublika - appeared as rezh' publiku ("cut the public"), despublika and razbublika; "regime" (rezhim) became prizhim ("suppress'); the "Bolsheviks" (bolsheviki) were confused with a party of bol'shaki (peasant elders) and of bol'shie (big people); while "annexation" (anneksiia) was thought by many peasant soldiers to be a small Balkan kingdom, and kontributsiia (the word used at this time for "indemnity") was even confused with a woman called Aksinia.

"Who is this Aksinia?", one peasant asked. "They say, because of her, there'll be another war. She must be very bad."

This appropriation and distortion of the revolution's words undermined the fragile democracy of 1917, which was based on the illusion of the people's understanding and acceptance of ideals expressed in the language of civil rights and duties inherited from 1789.

The word "democracy" - demokratiia - is itself an illustration. Today we understand the word to mean a political system - the opposite of which is dictatorship - based on the idea of the equal rights of all citizens. But in Russia in 1917 it was widely understood as a social category, roughly equivalent to the common people, as opposed to the "bourgeoisie". In this conception of democracy, it was only the common people who had rights; the bourgeoisie was to be denied rights. The language of citizenship which the liberal leaders had imported from the West, was translated into a class language in the Russia of 1917.

Here we stand, on the brink of the mass terror that engulfed that revolution. It was but a short step from the disenfranchisement of the bourgeoisie to their physical destruction. The popular conception of Soviet power - then called the "democratic dictatorship" - meant a government to represent the common people but exclude and suppress the bourgeoisie.

The Bolsheviks refused to recognise the bourgeoisie as human beings, christening them "former people" in their jargon, and Lenin called repeatedly for a "war to the death" against them as "vermin" and "scoundrel fleas".

His rhetoric of class war was unique. Other socialists shared the cultural traditions of the revolutionary underground. The Russian Marseillaise, with its calls to "kill and destroy" the "parasites, the rich", was sung by Mensheviks as well as Bolsheviks. These other parties were aware of their violent potential, and warned their followers that they were simply words.

But Lenin meant his followers to take him literally when he ordered them to "kill the rich". His words were no longer simply words. They were performative, like bullets in a war.

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