A Returning Rudolf Rocker: An Interlude in a Series on Fascism

by David J. Lobina

Him again.

Is Ron DeSantis a fascist? Well, no, not really, and the question itself is not a little ridiculous, but I will come back to this properly next month (and, can you even pronounce his name properly?). In the meantime, I thought I would revisit some ideas of Rudolf Rocker briefly, the anarchist thinker and activist I wrote about last year – I wrote about his fascinatingly rich life as well as about his most important work, his 1937 book, Nationalism and Culture.

I must confess that I was a little gutted that the two entries I wrote in June and July last seemed to receive rather little attention, as I believe Rocker’s life experience and intellectual output have much to offer to us, not least to understand and properly situate some of the recent events on the (far) right political spectrum. Rocker lived through actually existing fascism and Nazism, after all, and what he had to say about the nationalist phenomenon then remains relevant to this day.

As the title of Rocker’s 1937 book indicates, and I stressed when I wrote about it, the study was focused on the relationship between nationalism and culture, and in particular, on the question of how cultural creativity can develop and flourish within modern nation-states, a topic Rocker devoted half of his book to. Rocker was most interested in the nature of the creative output given the pressures a nation-state imposes on individuals.

According to Rocker, the state not only has little effect on artistic creativity in general, it can in fact often hinder it, especially if art is to be subverted to national interests, a constraint Rocker considers entirely unjustified. The artist does not derive much inspiration from actual national interests, Rocker argues, but from their own personal circumstances and endowments as well as from the “great cultural unity” artists supposedly belong to instead (p. 516; page numbers refer to Rocker’s book). This might be a slightly elitist take on the arts, and it seems to me that Rocker overstates the role of the state in such matters. Modern nations offer all sorts of subsidies and general funding for the arts, and in most cases very little of these funds is dependent upon following a national line. It’s not the case that it doesn’t happen at all – in fact, the opposite does happen, of course, in authoritarian states.

But even when public funds are specifically meant to advocate national interests – say, to boost the teaching of the official language or advertise the culture – the reach of such policies is not as expansive as usually supposed to be and the policies themselves need not be detrimental to human nature.

Consider state-sponsored cultural centres and “language academies”, which Rocker also discusses in the book. The case of Continental Spanish, with the Real Academia Española in charge of polishing and standardising the language and the Instituto Cervantes providing lessons in dozens of countries in the very version of Spanish that the Academia promotes, may be a particularly apposite example. At first sight, such a set-up seems to be an attempt to stymie different varieties of Spanish within Spain, favouring one particular instance, in order to then teach this very form of Spanish both in schools in Spain and throughout the world, and this would appear to be a further development of some of the historical processes I chronicled in my Language and Nationalism series.

Such a situation is not mirrored in quite this way in many of the world’s languages –  this is certainly true for English, the world’s lingua franca, for which there is no official linguistic regulator of any kind – and this may suggest that the general state of affairs is not so straightforward. As a matter of fact, language academies and cultural centres mostly react to circumstances rather than direct progress. Linguistic forms are in constant flux, in all sort of settings and contexts, and though many innovations eventually end up being sanctioned by language academies where these exist, by the time they do so what is new has already become part of “the language” and the official stamp becomes a bit by-the-by. All it takes for this to happen is for new forms to be shared widely – from the mental grammars of small groups of people to the mental grammars of large groups of people (mental grammars? Again, do go back to my Language and Nationalism series!) – and in the majority of cases this takes place outside classrooms.

The same was true, in a different way, in premodern times when there was limited formal schooling. Rocker himself discusses the establishment of the French Academy in the 17th century as way to refine the language (p. 287) and ‘subordinate language and poetry’ to authority so that only ‘what from above was found correct in style…was to be allowed to achieve immortality’ (p. 429). Academies certainly have been involved in the process of standardising “elite languages” from the 17th century onwards, but medieval academies too reacted to events (elite languages? See the Language and Nationalism series again!). In the past it was mostly literary works that drove the kind of innovation that would end up being adopted by the elites (the people who could read and write), and eventually by language academies, and as the case of English once again comes to show, elite languages can become standardised without the need for dedicated institutions. What state policies do is make specific languages and cultural customs widespread.

As for the actual effects of such state policies on human nature, it is worth pointing out that any one linguistic variety among the many that the linguistic capacity allows for is as representative of human cognition overall as any other individual variety or language. This is a common position in linguistics, where the study of one single language, even English, is regarded as a perfectly rich basis upon which to study the overall language capacity itself (though cross-linguistic analyses have certainly not been skewed, on the contrary), for many of the properties linguists are interested in appear to apply universally across languages.

The claim of universality may not be all that obvious to outsiders, perhaps because the relevant properties are fairly abstract (and there’s much in-fighting about it in the linguistics literature). As a sample, though, all languages convey thoughts and express them through sounds or hand gestures; all languages exhibit phonological and syntactic properties, with all of these systems (phonology, syntax, etc.) making use of the same kind of primitives (phonemes, words, etc.) and the same type of rules to combine the primitives with each other into sounds, words, sentences, etc.. And rather pertinently here, it is always possible to translate the thought or meaning conveyed in one language into any other, barring lack of certain words and the like, a problem that can usually be circumvented, anyway.

More to the point I want to make here, the stance linguists adapt follows from the belief that any linguistic or cultural variety – that is, any individual language or culture – is effectively representative of the human propensity to create literature and cultural customs, given that any one realisation of Language or Culture – the mental capacities underlying language and culture (I’m being a bore, but I promise that this nomenclature is laid out in my by now nauseating series on Language and Nationalism) – constitutes a suitable manifestation of the ability to produce a potentially infinite number of forms which can be replicated in myriad sort of situations.

In this sense, the disappearance of the great number of languages and cultures that particular nationalisms have undoubtably brought about in the last 200 or so years may not be as great a loss, in general, as it is usually taken to be. The extent of the human capacity for creativity, be this in language, the arts, or else, does not depend upon the number of individual languages, cultures, and art forms present in the world, but on whether such creativity is exercised without constraints. If we assume that cultural forms such as literature, music, and art constitute some of the main ways in which we can express and share what is universal in humans, be this feelings, beliefs or thoughts, then any one language or cultural form ought to be apt to articulate any of these feelings and thoughts. Indeed, translation between languages is not impossible (at least in terms of the main message being conveyed), diverse types of music can elicit the same kind of emotions, and different art styles (from painting to sculpture) can represent similar scenes and settings. In other words, what creativity requires is a medium in which to realise its potential. (The disappearance of so many of the world’s languages and cultures may be an important loss for other reasons, of course, but this is beyond my remit here.)

Many individual languages and cultures have disappeared in history, many of these because of nationalist policies (and many more through displacement, war, and extermination), but this does not mean that the capacity for language and culture are not realised to the full of what may be possible in extant languages and cultures. There is a general tendency to overemphasise differences among languages and cultures when what is universal to the human species may well be more significant. The very fact that differences across languages and cultures are perfectly understandable and in fact appreciated and shared when explained is an unappreciated fact of human nature, while the opposite, the claim that some beliefs may only be expressed in some languages, is more often assumed than supported by evidence.

Having said that, this is not to deny that different political systems may very well have different effects on the type of art that is produced, though the very idea of discussing art in terms of worth or value, as Rocker was fond to do, is perhaps best avoided. Rocker may be right to have pointed out that the modern state and nationalism developed pari passu rather than independently of each other in early modern Europe, but no state is a monolith and there are all sorts of non-nationalist currents in modern countries, many of which plausibly have an effect on art and culture.

So what is the point of this piece, with all the references to previous posts and, in some cases, rehashes of past material? I will explain properly next month, when I retake the issue of the use and abuse of the term and concept of ‘fascism’ to describe current events, especially in the US, and where I will argue that following Umberto Eco’s description of so-called ur-fascism is not a particularly good idea (and, to be fair, seems to miss Eco’s point, anyway).