In 1995 Monthly Review published an essay by David McNally entitled “Language, History and Class Struggle”. It resisted the temptation “to conduct another critique of linguistic idealism” (in the form of postmodernism), and sought instead to demonstrate that “Marxism has the resources for an account of language and its position within the constellation of human practice that is richer and more profound than these idealist views”. In particular it sought to demonstrate “that this Marxist account can understand language as, among other things, one site of social interaction which is decisively shaped by relations of work and conflict, i.e. shaped by class struggle”. The main theoretical resources came from Vološinov’s Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. McNally sought to flesh out the latter’s account of language, firstly by locating oppositional speech genres in day to day practices of struggle and resistance, and secondly by using Gramsci to help “in translating Vološinov’s conception of speech genres onto the terrain of practical politics”. It was a good article. It was also a timeous article, in that it came along just when the worst of the ‘crisis of confidence’ which beset Marxism in the early 1990s was over, when the star of postmodernism was waning, and the process of renewing and reasserting an emancipatory historical materialism was beginning to take shape. It was an article which gave the impression that its author would have an important role to play in the ongoing work of developing a materialist analysis of language, which can inform the practice of an emancipatory politics.
McNally has now published a book-length contribution to this work, and it confirms the impression left by the earlier article - but not quite in the way that one might have hoped. For, in his new work, McNally allows something to happen which he previously did not. He allows postmodernism to determine the starting point (‘the body’) for his own critical materialist account of language. In this respect the book seems to take a step backwards from the earlier article – almost as if it was written when postmodernism was at its most potent, and when an author might have in some sense felt obliged to begin from this as a given fact. For now, “another critique of linguistic idealism” is to be absolutely necessary in establishing the basis for McNally’s critical materialist account of language. Perhaps unsurprisingly, allowing postmodernism to shape his project at such a profound level leads to some dubious outcomes. Vološinov is now given rather short shrift, and the objection to his work is one which proponents of historical materialism might find somewhat unfamiliar – that he does not quite ‘cut it’ on the body. Ultimately Vološinov is supplanted by the same Walter Benjamin who has been so celebrated by many of those who one might imagine are among the targets of the initial critique. Notwithstanding McNally’s attempts to reclaim Benjamin for his own critical materialism, the outcome is an account of language which, at best, separates it from the conflicts and struggles of capitalist societies (which seems to be the reverse of the earlier article), mis-locates the emancipatory potentials in such societies, and all but crushes those that it does locate. Ironically this means that McNally’s book will have an important role to play in the development of a Marxist account of language - but largely of a negative kind.