Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Socialist Rebuffs Esperanto

John M. Work
Li proponis Esperanton
The frequency with which I’ve discussed situations in which socialists and anarchists used Esperanto might give a conservative reader[1] pause for thought. Were those under the green star as red as someone like George Alan Connor feared? Yet, for all the socialists in favor of Esperanto and the the Esperantists sympathetic to socialism, not all were convinced.

In 1909, the Socialist Party entertained the notion that the upcoming international socialist congress should be conducted in Esperanto. When the Sun reported on this, they did not name who put forth the suggestion, but a lengthy piece in the Montana News, a Socialist newspaper out of Lewiston, Montana, did. The proposal was put forth by John M. Work, who is described as the National Committee Member of Iowa. Mr. Work was a prominent socialist writer and activist. He does not seem to have had the slightest prominence in the Esperanto movement. The only reference I can find in the Esperanto literature is that his book What’s So and What Isn’t was advertised in the pages of Amerika Esperantisto in 1909.[2]

But not all socialists were in line with this.[3] Another prominent Socialist, John Spargo, the National Committee Member of New York, did not like the idea at all. The Montana News dedicated about an entire column to his rebuttal of the idea on January 21, 1909, and while that is longer than I usually quote, today I’m making an exception.
Herewith is submitted National Committee Referendum No. 1, Motion No. 1 by John M. Work, National Committee Member of Iowa.

Motion No. 1.
“I move that our International Secretary be instructed to make an aggressive effort to get the International Socialist Bureau to adopt Esperanto as the official language for the International Socialist Congress of 1910.”

“A common language would marvelously increase the efficiency and usefulness of the congress. It is also directly in line with our ultimate aim, for universal brother hood is almost impossible without a universal language. Esperanto fills the bill admirably and can be learned by a delegate between the time of his election and the date of the congress. It is to be regretted that we have permitted other organizations to get ahead of us in encouraging[5] its use.”

Comment by John Spargo, National Committee Member of New York.
Marx begins his “Eighteenth Brumaire”[6] by quoting that profoundly wise saying of Hegel that “all great historic fasts and personages recur twice,” and says that Hegel forget to add “Once as tragedy, and again as farce.”[7] When the congress of the old International, at Lausanne, in September 1867, Guillame, one of the secretaries, trotted out his pet idea that phonography would tend to promote internationalism, and should therefor be aggressively advocated, and was followed by the French delegates with Proudhon’s nostrums, simplified spelling, a la Roosevelt,[8] and universal language a la Zamenhof,[9] there was some excuse for all. But for us to go to the International Socialist Bureau, or to go to the International Socialist Congress, forty years later with similar propositions would be to re-enact as a farce what the men of forty years ago acted with tragic seriousness.

Frankly, this motion from Comrade Work astounds me. There might be some justification for proposing that Esperanto be made one of the languages of the Congress, that its use be permitted, but to make it the official language of the Congress is the acme of absurdity. The next logical step would be to say that only those members of the party who speak Esperanto (Query: Why not Volapuk?) shall be eligible for election as delegates to the International Congress.[10] Had this motion come a year or so ago it might have been accounted for, but it comes when Esperanto is being universally discredited, going apparently, the same way as all the numerous artificial international languages since Proudhon’s time. There has already been developed the usual shoal of “Improved Esperantos,” “Rationalized Esperantos,”[11] and so on. The “flourishing New York Society,” backed by Colonel Harvey and the Harpers’ publications has been abandoned, its leaders having come to the conclusion that Esperanto is really a very complex language, after all, and that its practical use does not warrant the trouble.

Comrade Work, like a true Utopian, sets out to show us a short cut to universal brotherhood. What could be simpler? Barriers of language make universal brotherhood “almost impossible,” therefore let us remove the barriers and adopt a language all can understand and learn over night! All beautifully simple. Logically flawless are these utopian arguments! We have heard them form Proudhon and from Andrew Carnegie. But as Longuet and other “Marxists” (as opposed to the “Proudhonists”) pointed out at Lausanne forty years ago, you can no more make a language than you can make a nation.[12] The only international language the world will never know is that language which the economical development of the world makes indispensable to all who trade.[13] At the present it seems likely to be English. It will never be an artificial language like Esperanto, Volapuk, or any other similar invention. Really comrades, the Socialist Party has something more important to do this year than bothering with Esperanto! We might just as well go into the business of “cultivating internationalism” by contributing to international university exchanges, or of aiding the general world culture by using color-photography.[14] This last has quite as much to do with the work of the national Committee as the other. Comrade Work’s motion is but the ghost of Proudhon which every now and then stalks across the stage. Let it rest.
John Spargo
Li oponis Esperanton.
I suspect that Mr. Spargo’s history of the 1867 International Socialist Congress is in error, as phonograph records didn’t make their appearance until ten years later. Simplified spelling seems to be a product of the twentieth century, and largely a concern in the English-speaking world (and so why would a group of largely French and German socialists be concerned with it in 1867?). While it’s possible that Proudhon proposed the use of an international language for an international movement, it clearly wasn’t Esperanto or Volapük that was proposed.

Then again, Mr. Work was wrong in suggesting that other organizations were ahead of the Socialist Party in the use of Esperanto. Besides, it shouldn’t be a race. If the Good Templars had paved the way, so what? Truth was, everyone was talking about it, and nobody was doing it. Mr. Work may have taken seriously the various statements from groups that said they were going to adopt Esperanto, while the benefit of a century remove shows that their sincerity can be called into question, since action never materialized.

Wikipedia notes that Spargo eventually broke with the Socialist Party and, after announcing his retirement from the political world, joined the Republicans as a staunch anti-Communist. No word on whether he ever modified his views on Esperanto.

  1. If you exist, show yourself! Fear not!  ↩
  2. Edited by fellow socialist, Arthur Baker.  ↩
  3. Spoiler Alert: The Socialists voted the proposal down, but that’s probably better than if they voted for the proposal and then ignored it anyway.  ↩
  4. Presumably that of Mr. Work.  ↩
  5. Many groups “encouraged” the use of Esperanto, though none seem to have put the language into practice.  ↩
  6. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”. incorrectly describes the date as being on the Revolutionary Calendar. The calendar is correctly termed the “Republican Calendar,” and takes its dates from the founding of the French Republic.  ↩
  7. The Montana News treats this whole piece as a quotation from Mr. Spargo, starting with a open quotation mark before the word Marx, and closing the quotation at the end of the piece (after rest). Internal quotations are made with double quotation marks. I have clipped the opening and closing marks. The quotation from Marx has got to be his most frequently cited line.  ↩
  8. In the text, Roosenveldt. The text has a number of typographical errors that makes me think that Comrade Typesetter was opposed to the forces of the People and was undermining their efforts. During his presidency, Roosevelt proposed the government adopt simplified spelling. It might have helped the typesetter.  ↩
  9. Obviously, no one was advocating Esperanto in 1867, twenty years before the introduction of Esperanto. Nor were they proposing Volapük, since Schleyer wouldn’t release that until 1879.  ↩
  10. Mr. Work (no, I’m not calling him “comrade”) did say there was sufficient time for delegates to learn Esperanto. Still, look at the example of John Barrett.  ↩
  11. Referring, of course, to Ido, the “Reformed Esperanto.”  ↩
  12. This still leaves open the question of what language they were proposing in 1867. Volapük had ample predecessors though, and Arika Okrent lists a several of languages that were introduced between 1840 and 1870 in her In the Land of Invented Languages.  ↩
  13. Sadly this is undoubtably true. There were some moments when it seemed that certain persons had their hand on a switch that would have made Esperanto economically indispensable, but never threw that switch. Imagine if John Barrett announced that the Bureau of American Republics would be doing all of its business in Esperanto, making it a common language for diplomacy and trade in the New World. But he didn’t.  ↩
  14. This was fairly new in 1909, although experiments went all the way back to the 1840s.  ↩

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