'Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left' by Ian Parker
Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left (Zero Books, 2017) is an atypical dictionary where one can find 50 relevant keywords for left politics. Already in 1975, the British marxist Raymond Williams published Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. In doing so, he highlighted the importance of language to build a system of thought for the left. In the last essay that works as a conclusion for the book, Ian Parker revises the trajectory of different keywords for the left dividing it in three periods; before the 1917 Russian Revolution, from 1917 to 1967, and from 1967 to 2017. By using as support material Raymond William's book, this catalogue allows us to observe the evolution of the political vocabulary and compare both, how the use of words changes throughout the years and which words enter and disappear from the lexicon. Parker takes over the immense endeavour of updating and renewing that vocabulary, modernising it within the present social framework. The task is gigantic and Parker, who is well aware of that, warns in the introduction of the numerous perils of an self-centred academia isolated in a marble tower, ignoring the real world while debating and discussing aimlessly, and how political activists are generally reluctant to use terms from an academic background for being considered too intellectual and not relevant in the practical field.
It was probably Karl Marx, the last theorist, who was able to create terms that were used in the real world, terms that are able to overstep the limits of theory and reach practical applications. The Hegelian August Cieszkowski was the first thinker who spoke of "philosophy of action" or praxis, and Marxism itself was called "philosophy of praxis" by Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks. Hannah Arendt was the great advocate of vita activa (active life) as the opposite of vita contemplativa (contemplative life), claiming that what makes us human is our capacity to engage in a practical way, unlike Western Philosophy that always works only with ideas on the theoretical level, making the transfer of philosophical ideas to real life impossible. The Frankfurt School, Lacan, Althusser and the post-structuralists in France, and the Italian autonomists have made enormous contributions to critical theory but have at the same time developed an obscure conceptual language hardly usable as praxis.
Parker comes out well from this exercise and is able first of writing texts that accompany each term that are not repetitive, something complicated if we take into account that many terms are narrowly linked and all of them directly or tangentially connected to left politics, and secondly, every essay is enjoyable as well as informative, and one never feels as if reading a dictionary but rather a set of independent essays that fare well as a whole too. The selection of the 50 words that could be origin of controversy is well-balanced and even though some keywords could be missed, none of the terms that actually are in the book are superfluous. Subjectivity, Islamophobia, Whiteness, Campism, EcoSocialism, Agency, Postcolonial, Psychoanalysis, Multitude, and Zionism are discussed in the book, along with historical references and theorists of the past — like Leon Trotsky, Jacques Lacan, Franz Fanon, and Guy Debord— and of the present — like Judith Butler, Sara Ahmed, Slavoj Zizek, Alain Badiou, Donna Haraway, or Mark Fisher.
The essays seem more interesting when the author moves away from local British politics and particularly, from the Labour Party, to take on another global issues. Even though usually the local can be exported to the global, some of the cases explained are mostly addressed to an audience that follows the everyday of the Labour Party and thus, somehow misses the rest of readers. Likewise, the figure of Jeremy Corbyn outnumbers any other political personality for an overwhelming distance. Sometimes, one feels the author was tempted to include Corbynism as a keyword in the glossary. Instead he included Stalinism. Stalin is another presence that haunts the entire book and although the author's contention is clear and he campaigns for a radical new left that heals the failures of the totalitarian past, still one can feel some revolutionary nostalgia for those days. Probably overcoming these utopian notions that lead to such atrocities in the past would be the best recipe for something to be called new.
The author shows a never-failing optimism that sometimes can be contagious and other times it sounds just utopian or extremely naive. There is a particular moment that strikes me, which is the description of the enthusiasm across the British left after Jeremy Corbyn's designation as new leader of the Labour Party in 2015, celebrating the sad fact that eventually, a left person is going to be the leader of a left party. I realised then of how limited are the aspirations of the left nowadays. This fact reminds me of the last UK elections, in June 2017, when another victory of the conservatives was celebrated by the Labour Party and its followers since the defeat was by a short margin and the number of people who voted Labour was higher than expected. Obviously, the failure of the communist regimes in Russia and China, the situation in East Europe, and the disappointing outcome of Syriza in Greece and in a lesser degree of Podemos in Spain, have had consequences in the objectives and ambitions of the left.
If I had to choose one single keyword as the most representative, the one which better gathers the spirit of the book, and maybe of the new left as well, "intersectionality" would be the one. Intersectionality is the theory stating that human aspects do not exist separated from each other, so race, sex, class, wealth, or nationality interact constantly and this interaction conditions our lives. So to speak, we cannot talk about someone's situation only on the basis of her class/economic status, but all the other factors must be accounted, too. Since the systems of oppression interrelate, the laws that address these issues must be drafted to take into account this intersectionality. The American feminist legal scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term, observed how black women suffered racism from an almost completely white feminist movement and sexism from a predominantly male anti-racist organisation. One of the cases she studies, also mentioned in the book, appears as the perfect example: when in 1976 several black female workers were fired from the General Motors factory in St. Louis, they were informed that they should choose whether they report the case as gender discrimination or race discrimination because the law did not admit both.
For Parker, the great leap forward between the left from the past and the left from the future lays on the latter's ability to integrate feminism, anti-racist, ecologist, queer, and disabled people movements within its new form of marxism. The new left must be able to expand the critique from the economic perspective and be inclusive of many new approaches, overcoming the idea of a traditionally masculine old left, composed in a majority by workers from the industrial sector which belongs to a different era. However, this apparently idyllic project which brings together all the oppressed people can hide a not so luminous aspect.
Neoliberalism (whatever that is) has already appropriated of the term intersectionality and there is no better proof of this that Hillary Clinton flooding her speeches with it, justifying the protection of the banks with concern about race or gender issues. The main problem with terms is that anybody can take them as their own and misuse them. With the excuse of not leaving anybody out, of listening to everyone who feels distressed and other laudable inclusive slogans, what we are getting is a set of puzzle pieces that nobody can put together. The idea of class-conscious and collective politics have been dismantled long back as useless and a radical individuality extends encouraging people to speak out their identities, what Freud calls "the narcissism of minor differences," which only gives us a sense of fake uniqueness. We live in a society of the self that is both extremely selfish (I only care about myself) and full of self-blame (If I do not succeed, it is my fault). This can lead to a social stand-stillness, where everybody is unable to act and remains frozen, afraid of hurting some particular sensibility. Any attempt to bring to the front class politics or pure economic arguments is dismissed as outdated rancid marxism, that one is insensitive and deaf to race, gender, religion, or health. Obviously, all these interests have to be incorporated in order to create left politics for the twenty first century, but never forgetting that the principal aim is changing a capitalist system (a economic system) that is unjust by nature.
It is for this reason that although the idea of exploring keywords for a revolution may be admirable and the book is a remarkable treatise, in the end it leaves a bittersweet taste, maybe not as much for the reader but for the citizen. The book seems highly inefficient as a political tool; hence though structure, arguments, and concepts chosen can be the right ones and the approach correct, it does not seem realistic to think of leftist popular movements being able of agglutinate all these arguments and thus, being successful in triggering a revolution. One could think that the left keeps postponing the revolution by trying to cover too much, increasing the demands and including every single movement towards an unfulfillable utopia. In addition to this, the very density of the concepts in the book will keep people without an academic background away, falling again in the same trap of two different worlds in watertight compartments. Perhaps the problem is solving the language barrier, but not between academic and political language, but between both of them and the people, since both languages seem to inhabit an alien, unexplored terrain for most of the common people. Nonetheless, the book is a good read and in a better world, its diffusion would be wider than it will be in this one.