Telephone interview with George Wilmers in Manchester

by Hannu Reime  in Helsinki

22 March 2004 (revised 24 March)

HR: More than twenty years ago, you wrote a very interesting article (1) on the crisis in Poland caused by the appearance of the free trade-union movement Solidarność. There you took up the notion “conceptual embezzlement.”  Can you explain to the Finnish radio listeners what you meant — and still mean — by this quite interesting term?

GW: Yes. A visitor to a country within the Soviet bloc a generation ago could only marvel at the pervasiveness of certain political terminology in contexts where the semantics which was intended was not only entirely different from the apparent meanings of the words but in some cases it became quite incoherent. For example, the word “socialist” itself simply came to designate the characteristics of the existing regime. An “anti-socialist element”, for example, was just someone who challenged the regime from whatever point of view, and the word “anarchist” on the other hand was a term of abuse reserved for any critique of the regime who accepted the absence of private ownership of the means of production but who challenged the lack of democracy in the organisation of society. Another example would be the word “internationalist” which simply came to mean “aligned with the current foreign policy of the Soviet Union.” And there were lots of other examples such as “working class,” “revolutionary,” “bourgeois,” which actually became almost completely meaningless in their usage, and this meaninglessness was also mimicked by their usage by Western Communist parties. In the lengthy post-war period leading up to the collapse of the Soviet Union this official abuse of language became so absurd, when compared to what everyone in those societies could see around them, that ordinary people simply regarded this language with contempt, and in private, if you talked to people, they would use these terms only ironically. In fact, almost no-one actually believed  the propaganda of official discourse, at least in the last years. But a point which I believe many analysts have failed to note, is that this official abuse of language was actually a very powerful means of ideological domination even long after people ceased to believe the official ideology. The reason for this was simply that large parts of ordinary language had become so debased that many coherent ideas had simply become inexpressible without complex circumlocutions. The word “socialist,” for example, was just one victim of this process. And it’s this process of the debasement of language of political discourse which I called conceptual embezzlement. In other words, the words sound familiar but when you try to analyse their meaning in a particular context, you find that the meaning has been stolen.

Of course, this idea is actually implicit in two well-known works of 20th century literature, Zamyatin’s We and Orwell’s 1984. In the utopian societies, or dystopian societies, which Zamyatin and Orwell describe, most people actually believe the official propaganda, and what I’m saying is that it’s not actually necessary for people to believe the propaganda for it to be effective because the process of conceptual embezzlement, as I call it, actually deprives people of the linguistic tools to organise political resistance.

HR: So the ruling system in a way steals the notions of the ideas that might be used against it.

GW: That’s right. And it makes them simply inexpressible, inexpressible in any simple language.

HR:  And because it’s a question of very abstract things, it’s better to call it embezzlement and not theft, pure and simple.

GW: Well, that was why I used the term “embezzlement” but no doubt other names would be possible.  Another reason embezzlement is perhaps a more appropriate term than theft is that embezzlement carries the connotation that people are not aware that a theft has actually taken place.

HR: Would you say that this kind of embezzlement was successful in the long run, because after the collapse of the East bloc people still talk about the collapse of “socialism”?

GW: Yes. I think that in the post-Soviet era we have inherited much of the conceptual embezzlement which originated from the Soviet regime. The use of the word “socialist” to indicate the organization of society as a totalitarian command economy is an obvious example. However more recently I’ve come to believe that conceptual embezzlement is not actually dependent on totalitarian control and censorship in order to be effective.

In fact, I think today conceptual embezzlement is a powerful tool of domination in our own contemporary Western world.

HR: That’s the notion “democracy”?

GW: Not just “democracy” actually. I mean the language used in our own societies is, of course, very different from the language used in the former Communist regimes, but in some ways the abuse is equally flagrant. For example, in the English speaking world the words or phrases such as “democratic,” “civilisation,” “freedom,” “liberal values,” and more recently “terrorist,” “security,” “war on terror,” they are used with such frequency that most of us have become inured to the linguistic mendacity which is inherent in their usage. For example, as many critics have pointed out, in many instances the only objective difference between a security operation, which is often talked about in the news now and a terrorist atrocity, which is equally often talked about, is that security operations are carried out by people who are supposed to be on our side. However, the rather reassuring sound of the phrase security operation is often used as a kind of comforting euphemism to cover what is, in fact, a state crime, a category which, of course, does not exist in official parlance.

HR: Would you say that the present Western usage of conceptual embezzlement is, in a way, more efficient than the same usage in the totalitarian countries of the former Eastern bloc?

GW: Perhaps it is more efficient in the sense that it doesn’t require total control or total censorship. But that was also true in the last years of the Soviet empire where there was not really a total censorship anymore, because things were beginning to relax. In both situations conceptual embezzlement still has a very powerful hold. But I do think one thing is clear, that when it comes to a situation in which people actually become aware of the fact that the use of language is absurd, and that it doesn’t really represent reality anymore, from that point on I think in some the sense the regime is doomed, even though it may take a very long time before actually people manage to overcome the effects of conceptual embezzlement on their thinking.

HR: During the last few years since the turn of the century there has been a resurgence of new social movements all over the world. But very few of its component parts use the term “socialism” or other terms that used to be common earlier in the workers’ movement. Do you think this is also a consequence of the conceptual embezzlement?

GW: Yes. I think this is due to the fact that this is associated with the Soviet regime, and people no longer analyse or attempt to analyse words in their original sense, except, of course, small minorities. Actually I was very impressed by a book which I read recently by Viktor Klemperer on the language of the Third Reich (2), which was published approximately four years ago. Klemperer was a German-Jewish philologist who survived the Second World War in Germany because his wife was not Jewish. He rather painstakingly noted how the corruption of the German language by the Nazis subconsciously affected the thought processes even of those who opposed them. He kept a diary throughout the war, and he noted these things. It is really very interesting to read because although the context is entirely different from the present time, nevertheless when you read this book there is a strong resonance with some of what we are encountering now. Klemperer notes how Nazi usage of language continued to be embedded in German long after the end of the second world war.

HR: If we leave, for a moment, conceptual embezzlement and turn to the real world, how do you see the connection between democracy and socialism?

GW: Well, democracy is a political idea, of course, it means nothing more than rule by the will of the people as expressed through direct voting or through elections. The main socialist currents prior to the Russian revolution all regarded democracy as intrinsic to the organisation of socialist society although, of course, there was no general agreement as to how this should be organised. One should remember, for example, that his is reflected in the very name of the social democratic parties, which were actually revolutionary parties in the early part of the 20th century. However after the Russian revolution and especially in the later years of the Cold War when it became evident that in the collectivist empire which claimed to be socialist, that is, the USSR, there was no democracy at all, the word “democracy” came to be associated with the generic form of parliamentary democracy which is typified in the modern capitalist economies; democracy, in fact, became the key ideological weapon of the West. In the rhetoric of the Cold War, the idea of socialism in any version involving communal ownership of the means of production was represented in the West as inherently antidemocratic. This interpretation of socialism involves conceptual embezzlement of both “socialism” and “democracy”. Moreover, this was actually aided by Soviet propaganda itself which referred, always disparagingly, to “bourgeois democracy” but which, in fact, couldn’t discuss any serious alternative concept to this bourgeois democracy because it was clear that there was no democracy whatsoever in the Soviet Union. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the triumphalism of the early 1990s, this embezzlement of the word “democracy” became complete. Essentially the official Western consensus has become that capitalism is a necessary prerequisite for democracy, and in fact, the terms “democracy,” “liberal democracy,” or “parliamentary democracy” are now used interchangeably.

HR: About the history, what is your opinion on how much Lenin and Trotsky were responsible for the Stalinist barbarism?

GW: Well, I think that the failure of socialists to radically re-examine or attempt to reclaim the concept of “socialist democracy” has its roots not just in the conceptual embezzlement, which I’ve described but can be traced much further back not just to Lenin and Trotsky but even before that to a certain contempt which early Marxists tended to exhibit towards prescriptive recipes for the organisation of a socialist society. To put it in its context, this was simply because they thought, quite erroneously as it turned out, that the overthrow of capitalism could only result in a socialist society. However, in view of our historical experience of totalitarian collectivist regimes such as the Soviet Union such attitudes are obviously quite anachronistic today. Of course, there were a number of attempts over the last century, notably by Anton Pannekoek (3) and his followers, to define how democratic decision-making might work in a socialist society. I think the weakness of all such attempts is the failure to think sufficiently radically about the fundamental ideas underlying democracy and the implicit necessity to define structures which ensure democratic stability and prevent degeneration into totalitarian control.

HR: Yes. Pannekoek is a very interesting thinker but the feeling I got after reading his vision of a socialist society was that it resembles more of a beehive or an anthill than a human society. There seem to be no conflict in his vision, and consequently no mechanism of how to make decisions.

GW: Yes. I don’t pretend to be an expert on Pannekoek but I think that basically that is also the impression that I got …

HR: …because in every group of humans there are differences of opinion.

GW: That’s correct. Moreover, I think one thing that socialists have failed to analyze coherently is how they see the role of parties or factions in socialist democracy or indeed in democracy generally. Of course, formal parties are taken as given in parliamentary democracy. But actually parties or factions, which are simply unofficial parties — parties which don’t declare themselves as such — they can have a very destructive effect on democratic decision-making. I think anyone who has sat for some time in a large decision-making body, where everyone has an equal vote, has seen the destructive effect which factions have. And this is a natural weakness of an organised body such as a parliament with elected delegates that individuals tend to form into factions, which may or may not be called parties.

An example of this is that sometimes wrong decisions are made, decisions which the majority of delegates themselves feel instinctively not to be in accord with the general will, because effectively individuals cease to vote on particular decisions simply on the merits of that decision but instead they defer to the prevailing opinion of their faction or party. A striking example of this was seen last year in the British parliament which voted for the war against Iraq. Almost certainly if those members of parliament had miraculously been free to vote according to their consciences, instead of being pressed to vote according to their party or their party leader, then the vote would instead have been against the war. But we are so used to this kind of situation that we regard it as quite normal and inevitable.

HR: And these are all questions that the left has tended to ignore?

GW: Yes. I believe that socialists have had a very ambiguous attitude towards the question of parties or factions. It’s a question they have never really thought through properly, just as they have never thought through what kind of voting systems or systems of democracy might actually operate under socialism.

HR: How do you view these questions in the light of the fact that an important part of the socialist tradition has been internationalism and the idea that socialism can only be realised internationally? This makes it even more complicated to organise a system of democratic decision-making.

GW: That’s absolutely the case, of course, because the larger the scale on which you attempt to implement socialist democracy, the more problematic will become this question of parties or factions. On a world scale, if there were an attempt to implement socialist democracy using the kind of voting systems which most people have in mind as representing the idea of democracy, then it is fairly clear that a few parties or factions would become so dominant that there would be a grave distortion of the decision-making process, and a serious risk of degeneration into some form of totalitarianism.

I personally believe that we need to examine a priori how a voting system or a complex of voting systems might be designed to discourage voting solely on the basis of party loyalty. I feel certain that this can, in fact, be done. This is the kind of study which comes out of social choice theory, although I don’t think that this particular aspect of it has been much studied by social choice theorists. The pioneering work of people like Felsenthal and Machover4 in trying to develop notions of a priori voting power is very important in this respect. But I think that this question of how to set up democratic systems in such a manner as to discourage voting along factional lines needs to undergo serious study. There is a whole research programme here which should be of key importance not only to socialists, but more generally to anyone concerned about the future organization of human society.

HR: It’s a mathematical topic, and it’s very technical but it has political consequences.

GW: It does. Maybe I could explain just very briefly one way in which I see how this could be, perhaps, implemented. I can explain it in a way which is non-mathematical, and that is that if one wishes to try to minimise the effect that factions have in distorting people’s voting choices, I believe that the key to do it is to drop the usual requirement that each delegate in a parliament always has an equal vote. Instead what we should do is to design a system in which all delegates start off with equal vote but as a parliament builds up a voting history, the weight to each delegate’s vote would be adjusted mathematically in accordance with his independence from other members of parliament. And that independence would be simply recorded by his voting pattern. You can see from a person’s voting pattern whether he always votes with certain factions or parties. If he does that, then automatically, by an objective and mathematical process, the weight of his vote would drop so that those who vote more independently, would carry a heavier weight. Such a voting system would, in fact, strongly discourage the formation of rigid factions.

HR: So it would encourage the independence of each delegate.

GW: It would encourage the independence of an individual’s vote. It would encourage him to vote on the basis of the decision that he would take independently of any faction.

HR: Have you done yourself research on this topic?

GW: No, but I believe that this a fundamental research programme which should be undertaken using as a basis ideas of objectively defined voting power which are implicit in work in social choice theory. This should be done using what is known in mathematics as the axiomatic method: you formulate first the desirable properties which you would want a democratic system to have, and you then analyze mathematically whether a system exists which satisfies all the properties which you are demanding.  If there is no such system then you may have to go back and modify your demands. Of course the technicalities of the analysis are mathematical, but that should not be any more reason for socialists to be suspicious of such research than for socialists to be suspicious of a scientific approach to any other aspect of the contemporary world. Furthermore the mathematical analysis will not be the controversial part of such a programme; the controversial part will be the axioms or “desirable properties” which you want the democratic system to have, and everyone will be able to express an opinion on those. So in that precise sense such a programme should not be regarded as elitist.

HR: Do you think that the new social movements which have appeared on the world scale are somehow wary about theoretical issues, that they just look at the bad things which happen in the world at the moment, that they might be afraid of the kind of  ideological rigidity which was characteristic of sections of the left for decades?

GW:  Yes, I think that that is a weakness of these movements at the moment. There’s a great deal of opposition in the world but it is not very well co-ordinated and it lacks any kind of theoretical base at present. But I think that that, perhaps, is inevitable in the particular situation we’re in because this is very new, this kind of opposition which we’re seeing now, and I think we’re in the early days still of this opposition. I’m sure that theoretical development will take place. The movements will attract theoreticians who seek to look deeper into ways of organisation.

HR: And lastly, I’d like to briefly return to the question of conceptual embezzlement with which we started. In your message you saw “some interesting parallels between the ideological situation in the Soviet bloc in the thirty years preceding its collapse, and the current situation in the Western dominated empire”, “between the use of the word ‘socialism’ in the former Soviet bloc and the current use of the words ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic values’ in the West.” Could you, in a way, summarise this?

GW: Yes. I was referring to the way in which certain words and phrases are used, and the words “democratic” and “socialist” are examples which I’ve already given. The phrase “market forces” is another one, or “liberal values.” “Freedom,” “civilisation,” all these words are words which in some sense have been devalued, or their meaning has changed. In fact, the way “market forces” is used today, it’s actually used as a synonym for capitalism but somehow the use of the word “market forces” implies something more limited but something that it is quite impossible to evade. A priori it is perfectly possible to envisage that there might be a society in which market forces operated but which is not capitalist. But this, of course, is not the sense in which the word is actually used. 

What happens in general is that our political thought processes become fossilized by the habitual abuse of language to which we are subjected, and we are forced to struggle to invent a language to escape from what is in effect a conceptual prison. I think that Marx probably had this in mind when he remarked that the dead tradition of centuries weighs like an incubus on the mind of the living; but it is of course a historical irony that some of the language which Marx himself used to challenge tradition has today been so transformed that it plays an important role in our own intellectual servitude.

George Wilmers
Department of Mathematics
University of Manchester
Manchester M13 9PL,  U.K.


1 “Revolution in Poland”; published under the pen name Michael Szkolny. Monthly Review. June 1981. pp. 1-21. 

2 Viktor Klemperer, The Language of the Third Reich: LTI, Lingua Tertii Imperii – A Philologist’s Notebook. Translated by Martin Brady. Continuum Books. 2002, translated from the German LTI Notizbuch eines Philologen, Max Niemeyer Verlag, Halle (Saale), 19.

3 Anton Pannekoek, Workers’ Councils. A new edition published by AK Press. 2003. 

4 Dan Felsenthal & Moshé Machover, The Measurement of Voting Power. Edward Elgar. 1998. 

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