HONG KONG REVIEW OF BOOKS 香港書評

Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left

Ron Roberts discusses a book of keywords designed to re-invigorate the Left against the political crises faced today.

Ian Parker, Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left (Zero Books 2017) 295pp.

Ian Parker has embarked on the challenging and not insignificant task of updating a vocabulary for the Left. In 1976 Welsh Marxist Raymond Williams published Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. His book inspired a generation to consider ideology and language from the perspective of the Left, and Parker attempts much the same for the present in this powerful new book. In the form of 50 revolutionary keywords, there is plenty here to challenge, stimulate, contemplate and provoke. For myself, reading the book was at times a delight – there’s a wealth of fresh thinking about the necessity for the left to reinvent itself through activism unfolding in harmony with language born of our struggle to understand and change the nature of our plight. I confess it was at times also maddening– but more about that later.

Parker is aware that readers might not agree on which words should be injected into the political lexicon of the Left, so I will partake in the all-too-easy game of taking issue with the ones he has chosen to include or exclude. All the words included are certainly worthy of attention. The highlights are many, though I would single out the discussions, on ‘feminisation’ ‘, ‘normalcy’, ‘psychologisation’ and ‘performativity’ as particularly lucid characterisations of the nature of neoliberal capitalism while the sections on ‘agency’, ‘multitude’, ‘standpoint’ and ‘subjectivity’ remind us of some of the cards we hold as we respond to the capitalist behemoth. These deliberations also consider a variety of dangers which are present in how we build our responses. Discussion of all the keywords is supported by appropriate context, both local and international, contemporary application, philosophical reverberations and historical lineage.

The decision to update our lexicon however also brings to the fore a flip side – whether, among our existing and most cherished items there might not also be some ripe for deletion. One of the recurring and vital themes in these pages is the resistance of the ‘traditional’, ‘masculine’ or ‘old left’ to the knowledge and understanding of liberation being created by those whose lives have been spent on the front line of anti-racist, sexual, disability and mental health politics. One question which confronts the reader, mindful of these developing lines of resistance, concerns the kind of relationship these new frontiers of knowledge and practice should have with Marxism. Arguably one of the most important (and most recently developed) keywords in the book is ‘intersectionality’. If the effects of the onslaught of capitalism and our resistance to it are necessarily intersectional, should Marxism then continue to enjoy a uniquely privileged place in the theoretical (and epistemological) armoury we employ? If it does, is this because we continue to believe that political economy is the necessary and impersonal architect of all other forms of oppression? Capitalism is without doubt the latest incarnation of organised tyranny and injustice, but it may not be its ontological instigator. Maybe other equally ecologically valid vantage points can be constructed from which our battle for a necessary and vibrant human future may be viewed; ones which carry less of the totalitarian baggage accrued from the last century. It is surely no coincidence that eco-politics and its relationship to the liberation movement finds a worthy place in these pages and opens a still too neglected path for further exploration. The human relationship with nature needs to be on the political agenda, and while psychologisation is rightly rejected, a necessary part of this is our underlying love for the world and the life in it.

The philosopher, artist and cultural critic Svetlana Boym (2010) spoke of ‘cultural mythologies’ – the shared narratives pervading a given culture and perceived within it as forms of inherited wisdom. I think as bold as it otherwise is, this book’s weakness is that the new vocabulary fails to sufficiently challenge the utopian and nostalgic underpinnings of ‘revolutionary’ thought. It is such utopian strivings that contributed to the totalitarian and bureaucratic terrors which the left bequeathed to the world in the 20th century. We must acknowledge that the shortcomings cannot be laid solely at the doors of Stalin or Mao. All the principal players in the name of Communism championed a ruthless imposition of terror and mass violence upon their own populations, orchestrated from an authoritarian political apparatus in the mistaken belief that the great imagined future was worth any sacrifice. Tzvetan Todorov, the Bulgarian French writer provided a clear exposition of the link between the bureaucratic error and the ensuing terror.

“Why is the plan to impose good so dangerous? Assuming that we knew what good was, in order to achieve it we would need to declare war on all who disagreed” (Todorov, 2003, xix).

Kafka was among the first to see bureaucracy as a form of terror. Thus, we cannot rest content with allusions only to the bureaucratic errors of the historical left. Our nostalgia for the mystery and allure of revolutions past is still a dangerous one. It makes enemies of all who disagree – a much wider circle than our opponents. If we are to revise and reboot our conceptual, linguistic and practical repertoire to renew the building of a better world, then we must proceed with a truly critical reflection, though not as Walter Benjamin’s angel of history with his back to the future as so-called progress explodes in front of him. Our gaze must be directed to present conditions and cautiously to the future. Nevertheless, I strongly recommend this book and hope it produces much debate, a degree of hope and some soul searching.

Another important merit of the book is that it is routed firmly in the real political life of2017. It discusses for instance a contemporary UK example of the former mayor of Tower Hamlets, Luther Rahman, whose 2014 re-election was declared null and void when the Election Court officially reported Rahman to be “personally guilty” of “corrupt or illegal practices. Whatever his strengths – as described in this book – Rahman was, it must be said, also corrupt. Amongst other things, he cut funding to well established progressive community groups and handed it to cronies who hadn’t even taken the trouble to apply for it. Rahman was no doubt a target for those with a grudge against Islam, but his ethnic and religious background does not mean that his own corruption does not matter. The corruption of those on the left is no less a sin and no more acceptable than the endemic corruption evident on the right of politics. During my own time in Left Unity I could find nobody in the party establishment, local or national willing to criticize Rahman or even discuss his failings. For this reason, I left the organization. Throughout the 30 plus years I have lived in the borough, corruption has frequently been a feature of the local political landscape. Rahman’s was well known. It was excused, by many on the left, because of the good he had done. We must live by higher standards than this.

Overall though, this book works towards setting these higher standards and towards the possibilities for reforming the left in useful and important ways. From students to political activists, the book is useful and comes recommended.


Ron Roberts is Honorary Lecturer in Psychology at Kingston University, a Chartered psychologist and an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. He is also the author of Psychology and Capitalism, with Zero Books.

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Article References

Boym, S. (2010) Another freedom. London. University of Chicago Press, Ltd.

Todorov, T. (2003). Hope and Memory. Reflections on the twentieth century. London. Atlantic Books.