Revolutionary Keywords opens useful discussion

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Revolutionary Keywords For a New Left
By Ian Parker
Zero Books, 2017
295 pp, $29.95

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.]