Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left

Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left

Fifty revolutionary keywords for a new left.


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.


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,

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, 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] ~ Neil Cocks, Critical Institute ~ 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

Ian Parker
Ian Parker Ian Parker is an activist and academic, a revolutionary Marxist, and practising Lacanian psychoanalyst in Manchester, involved in various po...

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