The Record of Communist Language Policy

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Tue Oct 7 18:07:36 UTC 2008

The Record of Communist Language Policy

A commenter posting on the Cool Neo-Latin Websites post critiques what
he sees as a disconnect in my views:

That's funny you support preserving small languages, because most
communists do not and prefer centralization and one mass-language for

For instance, the communists in the USSR did much to stamp out local
languages by forcing all people living within its boundaries to learn
Russian first and foremost in state schools (which they were forced to

They did somewhat try to preserve local languages in the so called
"autonomous regions" within the Soviet empire, but still many local
languages were lost in the forced shuffle from locally-based economies
to the centralized/state-run economy where Russian reigned supreme.

In China a similar situation is taking place...many languages and
dialects have been lost and are continuing to be lost as the
communists there forcibly centralize everything in sight and institute
Mandarin over all else.
I respond: First of all, I would like to point out that as a linguist,
of course I support minority languages. Most linguists do. I would be
hard-pressed to think of one that doesn't. So my support for minority
languages comes first from being a linguist, and then, if at all, from
being a Leftist.

Also, most linguists are liberal to leftwing types - it's just their
nature, and most folks on the Left support language rights. I would
gather that even Centrist to conservative (assuming they exist)
linguists would still support minority tongues. So in a way this
support by linguists is independent of politics.

This is not true at all. No one has supported the preservation of
small languages and cultures better than the Left. First of all, the
USSR was the first country on Earth to set a standard for a
nationalities policy. The policy called for linguistic and cultural
autonomy for all USSR nationalities. Grammars, texts, books and
alphabets were developed for all sorts of small languages.

It's true that Stalin pretty much turned a lot of this around in the
1930's, but even by the 1950's, the USSR was still very progressive on
the language question. Also, all nationalities were given the right to

China also gave all nationalities the right to use their language and
cultural autonomy. They also had the right, similar to the USSR, to
education in their native language. China's language policy is very
progressive by world standards. It's true that they have not been so
good with the Tibetans and especially the Uighurs, but the language
policy for the Tibetans is still pretty good.

Eastern Europe had a great language policy for minority tongues. You
must understand that as internationalists, no one opposes the
nationalist oppression of minority tongues more than the Communists.
It was only due to decades to internationalism that Czechoslovakia was
able to split up with no bloodshed.

The USSR also broke up relatively painlessly. The only modern states
that have allowed succession at all have typically been seeped in
decades of Communist internationalism. Even Vietnam has an excellent
language and nationalities policy.

There was a need for a national language in the USSR and that was
Russian. Before, in most of the USSR, there were no schools period.
The Soviets brought culture, written language, education, modern
medicine and civilization to many backwards groups, and for this,
nationalist boneheads condemn them.

You ignore that many of these groups were allowed instruction in their
native tongues as a medium of instruction. It is true that everyone
had to take Russian every year in school from K-12. This was necessary
in order to have a national language.

Due to the progressive Soviet language policy, many minority languages
in the USSR were still in superb shape even in 1990 with the breakup
of the USSR. 70 years of capitalism in the USSR would have been
devastating to minority tongues.

The line you are citing above is from fanatical anti-Communists,
typically Baltics. These are Lithuanians, Estonians and Latvians, and
most of them are fascists . That's interesting because most of these
Baltic Nazis support fascism, and no one has been harder on minority
tongues than nationalist regimes, particularly the fascists.

With the fall of the USSR, nationalist regimes took over in most of
the new states. In most cases, one nation and culture was promoted
over all others (a national consolidation project) and minorities and
minority tongues were attacked. This definitely occurred in the very
Baltic states that were leading the charge against the horrors of
Russification for minority tongues.

In Eastern Europe, a similar thing occurred with the fall of the
Communist regimes. In general, nationalist regimes took their place
and quickly began attacking minorities and minority tongues. This has
been most pronounced in the former Yugoslavia, but has also been quite
notable in Romania, Hungary and especially Czechoslovakia. We saw this
even in Germany. The Sorbs fared well in East German, less well under

The locally-based economies of the USSR were backwards and
non-productive. There was a need to bring the state into the modern
era and these small groups had to participate in the national economy.
After all, they were getting so many benefits from the state, should
they not have to contribute something to the economy rather than run
around hunting reindeer all the time?

The language policy of China continues to be very progressive for an
Asian nation. Sure Mandarin is emphasized, but you need a national
tongue. Most minority languages in China are still in surprisingly
good shape. The one area where they have been lax is in the Chinese

These are actually separate languages, but due to Chinese nationalism,
Chinese nationalists refuse to admit this, and say they are all just
Chinese. These are languages such as Min, Cantonese, etc. Actually
though, most of them still have lots of speakers.

China and the USSR had shortcomings in language policy where they have
deviated from internationalism. Stalin did institute Russification,
and his successors were even worse. And the Chinese regime has not
been immune to Chinese nationalism. It is nationalism, not Communism,
that is deadly to small minority tongues. Anti-Communists, almost
always nationalists, ought to put that in their pipes and smoke it.

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