Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left comprises short essays on fifty revolutionary keywords, each word being put to work on a contemporary political issue. With keywords ranging from academicisation to neoliberalism, from postcolonial to Zionism and with subjects including, Badiou, North Korea, sexual violence and Žižek, the book concludes with an essay mapping the development of progressive keywords before our century of revolution, which began in 1917, keywords that emerged in the fifty years of struggle between 1917 and 1967, and revolutionary keywords for the new left today.
REVIEWS & ENDORSEMENTS
Ian Parker has a track record as an ecosocialist political activist in Britain. He is a committed but non-dogmatic Marxist and a psychoanalyst so, unsurprisingly, anything he writes is likely to be serious and challenging.
Despite a strong theoretical and academic background, however, Parker writes in a very engaging and interesting fashion.
Revolutionary Keywords does what it says on the tin. Parker has come up with a list of key terms that are used on the left and explains them clearly.
This book would be a useful political education resource for anyone involved in Marxist, green or intersectional liberation politics. Parker has taken 50 keywords, including ecosocialism, empire and Islamophobia, and described each. He looks at how they have been disputed, contradicted and generally argued over. He offers suggestions for further reading.
The concept of “keywords” comes from the working-class Welsh cultural theorist and ecosocialist Raymond Williams. He sought to link literary theory with political activism, producing his own keywords book in 1976.
Williams’ project looked at how the meanings of words had changed in the context of political, social and cultural transformation. His project was more academic and formal than this new book, but Parker draws upon his inspiration.
Both Parker and Williams believe that words may become more significant and change according to context. The broad context for Parker is the way in which the revolutionary left has come into contact with movements for feminism, ecology and intersectionality in recent decades.
He assumes that Marxism has an intrinsic sympathy for what might be seen as new notions of liberation — his Marxism is innately “intersectional”. Intersectionality has proven controversial for some Marxists (as has feminism and ecology), but Parker notes its origin as a term is in fact rather straightforward and rooted in working-class struggle.
Workers at General Motors in the United States sought to sue the firm for discrimination in 1989, but were told that they could only sue on the basis of either gender or ethnicity. African-American women, however, felt that they had been discriminated in both forms.
Parker explains that legal theorist Kimberle Crenshaw “came up with a commonsensical term from the metaphor of what in the US is called an ‘intersection’, or a road crossing”.
The more specific context was the situation British Marxists faced in recent years. A crisis in one of the bigger far left groups opened up prospects for a realignment of left groups, and Marxists like Parker encountered new radical networks. The book was largely inspired by a radical reading group of anti-capitalist activists in Manchester, where Parker is based.
Keywords consistently takes important and sometimes seemingly threatening terms and opens them up for discussion. Parker has the ability to make difficult ideas accessible. He is a strong opponent of theory being used to bolster academic careers separate from political struggle.
Parker also shows how theory can be used to belittle new activists or impose a narrow party orthodoxy. The fact that he makes concepts from psychoanalysis more relevant to left activists is another virtue.
Criticisms can be made. Sometimes the examples seem based on often obscure debates between small groups on the far left. Although international in outlook, there is a lot more Manchester than Mumbai here. An index would have been useful and sometimes it is difficult to track down content. For example, a discussion of Rojava and Kurdish politics is under the keyword “Justice”.
This is an enjoyable and thought-provoking book. Vladimir Lenin said there can be no revolutionary movement without revolutionary theory. Any reader will have some disagreements with the author, but Keywords opens discussion rather than closing it down.
[Derek Wall is joint international coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales. His latest book Elinor Ostrom’s Rules for Radicals will be published by Pluto this month.] ~ Derek Wall, https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/revolutionary-keywords-opens-useful-discussion
Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left by Ian Parker is a collection of essays on keywords for the political left. Parker is Co-Director (with Erica Burman) of the Discourse Unit, Managing Editor of Annual Review of Critical Psychology, Secretary of Manchester Psychoanalytic Matrix, member of the Asylum Magazine editorial collective, and supporter of the Fourth International. He is a researcher, supervisor, and consultant in critical psychology and psychoanalysis.
Revolutionary Keywords is a series of essays based on keywords. It is not a dictionary of definitions but contains commonly used keywords and creates essays built around the word. The essays put the keyword into context in modern socialism. Like most books on socialism, this one, too, becomes complex. The term socialism means many different things to many different people. European socialism, Stalinism, Leninism, Marxism, Democratic Socialism, even America's capitalist based "socialism" is discussed in order to set the common ground.
The book discusses many aspects of historical socialism as well as modern day. Topics of race, sex, gender, globalism, and campism are discussed in detail throughout the book. Other topics seem mundane but have deep roots such as discourse, postmodernism, identity, and animals. The discussions run deep and turn out complex. At the end, the recap traces the changes in keywords from 1917 -1967 and 1967-2017. The evolution of keywords leads to the 2017 keywords in this volume. Although not intended for the general audience, in fact, I found myself a bit entangled in the subject matter. I felt much the same way on the first day of a semester in graduate school. Needless to say, it is not light reading, but worth the time and effort for those with an interest in the far left. ~ Evil Cyclist, https://evilcyclist.wordpress.com/2017/09/26/book-review-revolutionary-keywords-for-a-new-left/
Review: Revolutionary Keywords For A New Left . Authored book: Ian Parker. Publisher: Zero Books. Publishing Date: December 8, 2017. Review by: Neil Cocks (University of Reading)
One can make a few predictions about any new book by Prof. Ian Parker. It will be intellectually daring, international in its understandings, and will draw together discourses and events often kept apart within established writing. Above all, it will not be easy to predict. Revolutionary Keywords For A New Left is no exception.
In the book, Parker acknowledges that the text is in some ways an updating of Raymond William’s classic Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. When Williams went about charting the history of certain definitive terms within radical discourse, however, his focus was very much the white, straight, European and male. In one respect, then, the updating is necessary to introduce to such a progressive project the feminist, queer and postcolonial, yet Revolutionary Keywords is not simply tasked with returning neglected subjects to the discourse of the left, as through such an operation it also questions the nature of such discourse. In other words, the difficulty for Parker is not only that Williams focuses on the wrong thing, or even that his focus is not sufficiently broad, but rather that the discourse of ‘focus’ itself is at issue. Parker has written a text that, in its every aspect, problematizes a centrism that, left unchecked, can limit revolutionary possibility.
The reasons for writing the book are set out in the following terms:
‘In the past fifty years the ‘left’ has had to learn about new ways of organising itself to take on board the politics of different social movements, and that has also meant changing the way we describe what we are up against and where we are going’. (6)
The task of Revolutionary Keywords is to open up an understanding and discussion of these transformations. To achieve this end, the text rejects a conventional linear structure. Instead, fifty chapters engage with fifty keywords, some long established (‘Empire’, ‘Fascism’, ‘Discourse’), some more recent (‘Young Girl’, ‘Brexit’, ‘Cis’). The result is a text that can offer up unexpected connections. I can, for example, very much recommend reading ‘Structurelessness’, followed by ‘Identity’ and by ‘Pabloism’: the impossibility and necessity of structure; its disavowal within Capitalism; its uncanny, disruptive effects within revolutionary thinking and practice. The text is about the meeting of ‘keywords’ in a way that results in tensions between discrete terms whilst also problematising the notion of such hard-impacted distinctions. Revolutionary Keywords is, in these terms, an example of what one chapter names the ‘Prefigurative’, producing a reading that ‘anticpate[s] the world of tomorrow’.
There is another sense in which the text works to create unexpected spaces and possibilities for thinking, with Parker, in his account of the book’s formation, writing that:
‘I noticed when an unfamiliar word appeared from the Black feminist movement, for example, and how my comrades struggled to make sense of it, and how they reframed it in their old political language. Then I would use that word in a way closer to how it was meant to operate, but instead of simply explaining it I would put it to work on a different topic. Then we could see better what uses it has, how it takes us forward in understanding what is going on, and creates alliances’ (7 – 8)
In practice, this means for example, that the chapter on ‘Discourse’ reads Foucault through the neo-liberal project of the ANC, whilst that on ‘Cis’ discusses sexuality and Ukranian identity. This is a text that does not dismiss the force of boundaries, nor the necessity of structures, but is consistently challenging and transforming what these might be, and the nature and direction of the forces upon which they call.
It is an approach exemplified in a chapter entitled ‘Postcolonial’, in which Parker skilfully brings together psychoanalysis, deconstruction, national communist party history, and neo-liberal educational projects. This chapter will be of particular interest to those familiar with The Critical Institute, as it looks to Malta as an example of how an examination of the ways in which ‘economic and cultural entit[ies are] located in relation to the history of colonialism’ can ‘enable critical reflection and resistance to local and imperial state attempts to subjugate populations and destroy the land’ (148). After contrasting various and contradictory critical moves that in some way ‘provincialise Europe’ with those that resist such a reconfiguring and difference, Parker turns to the question of Maltese education. Specifically, he discusses the all too familiar events that saw the government backing a proposal for a Jordanian non-University named the ‘American University of Malta’, one that would require the destruction of both public HE and the natural environment. Parker reads how the resistance to this monocultural, violent enterprise mobilises diversity, further suggesting that:
One aspect of postcolonial critique that is borne out by these recent attempts to recolonise Malta and by the resistance to that neoliberal exercise in cultural imperialism in the context of the global knowledge economy is that ‘postcolonial subjects’ are not only those who live inside the old colonies. Postcolonial studies describes, among other things, the way in which those at the margins often, in a way that is uncanny for those in the ‘centre’, know more about the colonisers than the colonisers themselves know. And the flip side of this is that those who refuse to be of the ‘centre’ and who make political alliances with ‘outsiders’ can all the more effectively dismantle the legacy of colonialism, anticipating the day when it really will be accurate to refer to it as something that really is ‘post’ (151-2)
Within Parker’s exacting critique, the tensions between the various discourses he introduces do not simply result in an appeal to comforting, liberal tolerance-inclusiveness. Rather, cultural and geographic ‘contradictions’ both enable Maltese resistance to certain monotheistic structures, and are also the marks of a colonial history now ‘intensified in the pursuit of profit’. Such reversals are consistently read in Revolutionary Keywords not in terms of pessimistic dead-ends, but rather the very stuff of critical and political movements. In this text, Parker proves himself once again a truly great reader of the dialectic. There is a reflexivity that actualises, rather than dilutes, the revolutionary politics. Indeed, this is a text that makes real political movement. It is a text that makes the call and opens up the possibility of going ‘forward’. Or, as Parker has it in his address to his audience: ‘I hope you like the book and argue with it’.
Reviewed by Neil Cocks (University of Reading) E-mail: n.h.cocks[at]reading.ac.uk
~ Neil Cocks, Critical Institute
A book liberals, activists, and political enthusiasts should all read. The essays are engaging and well written without being pretentious, and tackle not only the words but what surrounds the words. ~ Lily , Faerie Review
Language for Resisting Oppression
— Robert K. Beshara
Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left
By Ian Parker
Alresford, UK: Zero Books, 295 pages, $29.95 paperback.
IAN PARKER WEARS many hats, being “the Co-Director (with Erica Burman) of the Discourse Unit, Managing Editor of Annual Review of Critical Psychology, Secretary of Manchester Psychoanalytic Matrix, member of the Asylum Magazine editorial collective, and supporter of the Fourth International” (Parker, https://parkerian.com/).
His new book, Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left, is published in the context of the centennial of the October revolution, and should be read in tandem with similarly themed books recently published by Verso (e.g. Ali, 2017; Miéville, 2017; Žižek, 2017).
Parker’s treatise is a critical celebration of “the century of revolutions” (252), his central thesis entails changing the Left in order “to change the world.” (9)
But in order to change the Left, according to Parker, we first need to pay close attention to “the link between language and action.” The “keywords” we use in describing the world, he writes “are intimately linked to the very possibility of changing that very same world because ‘[l]anguage is woven into reality.’” (6, 8)
The author charts three key dates or “passwords” from “the century of revolutions” (253) — 1917, 1967, and 2017 —in order to index some of the major debates between the “old” and the “new” Left (signifying Leftists before vs. after 1967), which can be summarized as a shift in analysis from one focused purely on the political economy to another centered on “intersectionality” (i.e., class, sex and race) as “one way of working with the layout of many forms of oppression.” (102)
This shift is certainly a reflection of the “crises” within both capitalism and the anti-capitalist movement. While Parker draws on his power/knowledge as both an academic and a practicing psychoanalyst in writing his manifesto, his critical reflexivity as an activist — revolutionary Marxist (Trotskyist) — renders his dialectical analysis a valuable contribution to the needed bridging between the centralist “old” and the democratic “new” Left.
This is principally so as far as open, heterarchical organizing is concerned (5) — i.e. resorting to neither “the tyranny of structurelessness” nor “the tyranny of tyranny” (212, 215). Parker embodies this bridging when he draws particular examples from Britain to make some universal points that will indeed resonate with progressive activists internationally who are committed to the “globalization of resistance.” (127)
Influenced by Raymond Williams, Parker highlights fifty progressive keywords (e.g. ecosocialism, standpoint, Islamophobia) as an exercise in praxis, in that the keywords are meant as discursive tools in the practical struggle against all “faces” of oppression (Young, 1990). Put differently, activists need radical theories (e.g. Marxism, feminism, anti-racism) in order to interpret and, more importantly, transform the oppressive reality of capitalism-patriarchy-racism.
Each keyword chapter begins with a handy and succinct definition. A few descriptions from the book will give a sense of their pithiness: ecosocialism “is one way of connecting our humanity with our nature, to protect both” (53); standpoint “sees the world against power rather than with it” (207); and Islamophobia is “an orientalist twist on old racism to confirm the value of modern capitalist civilization.” (106)
There follows a dialectical analysis for and against every keyword as well as an application by way of examples. I recommend that readers begin the book by paying particular attention to the concluding essay, which though technically a postface functions powerfully as a preface to Revolutionary Keywords.
Political Compass for Activists
This book is written mainly for activists, without in-text citations or references (except the Further Reading section at the very end); as a result the book has a nice flow, which is practical if the book is embraced by many activists as a go-to resource. But there is an argument to be made for including in-text citations and references, which has to do with making it easier to look up and challenge the validity of certain truth claims, particularly in “the battles of ideas.” (41)
The keyword chapters are organized alphabetically, but the book can easily be read in any order since it is structured like an encyclopedia for activists.
In the spirit of constructive criticism encouraged by the author, his analysis would have benefited from a three-dimensional corrective to the two-dimensional left-right political spectrum (6), which is the economic dimension or the horizontal axis in the “political compass” (The Political Compass, https://www.politicalcompass.org/).
The antagonism between the “old” and “new” Left’, a “contradiction that marks the political coordinates of a culture” (29), is accounted for by the vertical axis in the “political compass,” denoting the social dimension. The social dimension has to do with the question of political freedom, the two extremes being authoritarianism and libertarianism.
Libertarianism here, of course, refers to anarchism — which is inherently linked to Marxism — not the bastardized version of the term, which is more common in the United States and results in an oxymoron like “anarcho-capitalism.”
Jeremy Corbyn, particularly since his ascendancy to the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015 is a name and an “event”, or “the eruption of the unexpected to transform politics” (68), to which Parker keeps returning in regard to the Luxemburgian ghost of reform-revolution that has haunted and divided Marxist activists since 1899.
The U.S. parallel to Corbyn in 2015 was undoubtedly Bernie Sanders who ran an inspiring grassroots presidential campaign under the banner of democratic socialism — a reforming challenge to the neo-McCarthyist politico-economic establishment.
Then in 2016 came the double trauma of Brexit in the U.K. and of “Mr. Brexit” in the United States. Now in 2017, both are occupying the upper right quadrant of neo-liberal authoritarianism. Parker’s book can help us remagnetize the needle of our politico-economic compass towards the lower left quadrant of libertarian socialism.
On that note, Parker (2017) is unfair in his assessment of Noam Chomsky when he writes, “In this capacity as activist, he is known to be some kind of anarchist, though it is not always clear to those who invite him to speak what that means.” (83, emphasis added)
This is unfair because it overlooks Chomsky’s sustained analysis of anarchism over the years as a critical resource for resistance against power. By framing Chomsky as a globalist (85), Parker exhibits the “campism” — the method of “dividing the world into good and bad” (38) — of which he is himself critical, particularly when it divides the Left.
Dialectics and Intersectionality
In conclusion, Parker is at his best when he enriches his dialectical analysis — “these new revolutionary keywords provoke a crisis in academic representation which also pits that academic discourse against itself” (281) — with insights from intersectionality, which he tells us is “one term, that, for sure, divides the old left from the new revolutionary left.” (279)
This division instigated by the term “intersectionality” is a real antagonism that signifies a traumatic encounter with a gap or fissure within the social order — cf. my psychoanalytic reading of Trump winning the U.S. presidency. (Beshara, 2017)
This traumatic encounter is also an authentic opportunity. It forces us to ask the question: what kind of a politics do we, the precariat, really want in a world where “[p]recarity sums up the insecurity of much employment today and the demands that we should be flexible at work, and it is both a threat and opportunity”? (158)
“[P]luri-versality as a universal project [of liberation]” (Mignolo, 2007, 499) is an inclusive political vision that Ian Parker certainly believes in and “prefigures” when he writes about “articulating socialist politics with new forms of politics from Black, feminist, queer, ecological and disability activism.” (6) He would have us remember that “with our activity we [are] always on the edge of power, on the edge of the possibility of radical transformation.” (147)
Ali, T. (2017). The dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, war, empire, love, revolution. New York, NY: Verso Books.
Beshara, R. K. (2017). “It’s not the working/middle class’s fault that Trump won: Solidarity is what we need.” Medium. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/@Rupadelik/its-not-the-working-middle-class-s-fault-that-trump-won-solidarity-is-what-we-need-69d2444e3ce7
Chomsky, N. (2014). On anarchism. London, UK: Penguin Books.
Miéville, C. (2017). October: The story of the Russian revolution. New York, NY: Verso Books.
Mignolo, W. D. (2007). “Delinking: The rhetoric of modernity, the logic of coloniality and the grammar of de-coloniality.” Cultural studies, 21(2-3), 449-514.
Young, I. M. (1990). Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Žižek, S. (2017). Lenin 2017: Remembering, repeating, and working through. New York, NY: Verso Books.
January-February 2018, ATC 192 ~ Robert Beshara, Against the Current, http://www.solidarity-us.org/site/node/5190
https://www.mixcloud.com/quanticaonline/let-the-dogz-out-73-by-jo%C3%A3o-manuel-de-oliveira-2352017/ ~ João Manuel de Oliveira, Radio Quantica
Wow! What an epic! Not only is your book 'a pioneering convergence of activist writings and philosophical enquiry', it is also a mind-blowing analysis of the 57 varieties of Trotskyist politics. (Would readers under 60 understand that reference, I wonder?). As I have so little knowledge of international politics, (eg 2nd, 3rd or 4th Internationals, troika, entrism etc.) much of it left me puzzled but that is my inadequacy. It's also too late to complain about your tangled, Dickensian sentences - so I shan't. How interesting to discover that my son is still quoting the cultural Marxist Raymond Williams 50 years after I studied and admired him at college. I wrote, for my own edification, a 4-point summary of aspects of the changing contexts for resisting capitalism, only to find that, in your excellent concluding essay, you had written a much better one. Things That Worried Me: The section on Zionism; I found it totally confusing. The admission that there could be radically different interpretations of Marx; it reminded me too much of the Bible. You abhor demonising, but you yourself demonise many groups (in the case of ROOSH V, perfectly understandably). Do 'relationships' actually un-nerve traditional left organisations? Some of your 'new' words are not new at all nor - as far as I can see - have they changed at all. (How about: other, post-modern, post-colonial etc? There are too many traps threatening you in almost every chapter! Do you have to say 'for sure'? You Yankee. Things I particularly liked: Your useful division of the subject matter into the periods 1917-1967 and 1967-2017. Your description of Stalinism as 'a false alternative... simply state capitalism' (see also Putinism). Your contrasting of traditional intellectuals who describe the world but don't take a stand, with organic intellectuals who develop theory in alliance with the exploited and oppressed to end capitalism itself. Your uplifting description of not only small-scale agricultural initiatives but also transition towns. Left Unity - which sounds hopeful. I like your use of the appellation LGBTQ+ which I learned only recently. Thank you for sharing your splendid book with me.
Jean Angus Ledigo ~ Jean Angus Ledigo, Email
Ian Parker’s Revolutionary Keywords is an innovative and rigorous analytic for the contemporary left whose passionate discourses sometimes lose the theoretical clarity that distinguishes Marx’s own writings. Revolutionary Keywords takes philosophical risks by unlayering the conceptual densities of such complex concepts as antagonism, normalcy, precarity, and accelerationism. In laying bare each concept, Parker provides the philosophico-historical lines of its formation and situates it within its broad social conditions. The book is a pioneering convergence of activist writings and philosophical inquiry. ~ Teresa Ebert, Author of The Task of Cultural Critique
Ian Parker's Keywords are an extremely useful tool for activists who want to orient themselves among the various words circulating in left discourses. With his clear and accessible prose, Parker manages to successfully combine theoretical and practical concerns, never losing sight of the goal: transforming the world through political practice. ~ Cinzia Arruzza, New School for Social Research, New York