Politicisation and its Potentialities: A Review of Ian Parker's Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left

On the words that are the very keys to unlocking politicisation and its potentialities; a blueprint for thinking, critically and reflectively and a signpost pointing towards practice.

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

Ian Parker sounds the chord of his new manual for today’s political left – and defines its timbre – early in the startling Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left, rousing the solidarity of its readership through his inclusivity and unification against common enemies: ‘we want to destroy capitalism and patriarchy and the wretched racist practices that divide us from each other’ (p.41). This we do together, he states. We are aligned, we are allied, without question, and without concession. The boldness of this writing, and the stance from which it is launched, seems so long out of common literary parlance that we have to readjust ourselves to its call, refamiliarise ourselves with its language (and its changes in tonality over time, which Parker adroitly tracks through the revolutionary century 1917-2017), and for some perhaps even reconfigure ourselves with its political position, uncompromisingly radical, in which ‘liberals [are those] who have contempt for the left, or for anyone and everyone who really believes in something and will fight for it’ (p.89), and anyone and everyone who are further right politically, beyond the pale.

It is also a guidebook for configuration (if not, further, a tool of initiation) in many respects, stressing the necessity for the left of relying on certain concepts – and the conceptuality that underpins them – that are the condensed into keywords. To ‘outsiders’ these then might take on an air of ‘oppressive nominalism’, arguments against the innateness of which – highlighting the unconsciously fermented and socially engineered prejudices wielded at such terminology; e.g., in the always-suspect name of ‘common sense’ and ‘plain speaking’ – permeate the book. Indeed, although we at times may sense tinges of the archaic and of the arcane in Parker’s harking back to leftist activist theory and praxis of the early twentieth century, we also realise how well we are placed now, in this century (of left Twitter, for example), for not only the revival and reclamation of these key words and signifiers, but also for the recognition of how we have come to be disinvested from them, come to construe them as archaic or arcane, in accordance, that is, with a particular, dominant view of history that we have been drip-fed through the pedagogical systems of ensuing decades (Parker admits to ‘learn[ing] virtually nothing about politics or sociology or geography from [his] own schooldays (p.2)). Unlearn, and learn.

Indeed, this was Parker’s path, as he autobiographically elucidates at the beginning of his book:

When I first came into revolutionary politics, I couldn’t understand what my ‘comrades’, as I learned to call them, were talking about most of the time. The words they used were unfamiliar, but bit-by-bit I learnt to use those words. In the process, I often forgot how strange they sounded to those who were outside the left, to those we wanted to win over to join our campaigns or our organisation. I would notice how strange these words were when I encountered comrades from rival groups who used terms in slightly different ways (p.1).

In acknowledging this, there is no apology made, nor should there be, for this is what this book is: a guide through the words that are the very keys to unlocking politicisation and its potentialities; a blueprint for thinking, critically, reflectively; a map of theory; a signpost pointing towards practice. The most obvious precedent for Parker’s text is Raymond Williams’ Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, published in 1976; of this work Parker makes much in the extensive summative essay that crowns the work, eponymously entitled ‘Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left’ (much in the way that Roland Barthes had ended his Mythologies (1957) – a second precedent for Parker’s compendium, which he has previously riffed on, with his 2011 Psychoanalytic Mythologies – with the essay ‘Myth Today’). In an incredibly detailed epistemo-etymology in this concluding essay, Parker collates fifty of Williams’ keywords (more general, in general, than Parker’s, which relate more specifically to the left and its conceptual bases), tabulating them – and their definitions – for the pre-1917 period, and mapping them against two more periodisations’ keywords: those of the fifty years after 1917, and of 1967 to now (which encompass the fifty keywords featured in the book, to each of which Parker dedicates a few pages within the main body of the text).

If the world today seems a mess, Parker gives us a glimmer of some coherence, or at least of glues that can come to adhere us, and our respective struggles; to unite the fights. It is perhaps surprising how united a front is erected in his tract, in fact, and it becomes clear that this is not his own fabrication, but that his work is in fact a most diligent dig (Foucauldian in its epistemological archaeology of the present). It uncovers the truly substantive and empirically productive lines of connection between those movements, activities and activisms, concepts, antagonisms and antagonisers, and policies that make up his fifty keywords. In fact, this is the major success of the book: to alleviate us of some of the torpor inevitable in the face of the rather aleatory political skewedness and rightist scourges that have infected the western countries on both sides of the Atlantic, but also to alert us to the repercussions of these lurches right worldwide, and to issues, and socialist gains, on a far more global scale. It comes not with a reassuring pat on the head, but brandishing sickles that ‘cut up the world in different ways’, in Parker’s words. As he goes on to state: ‘we cut it up in language and we use keywords in distinctive ways in order to do that’ (p.280).

‘Academicisation’, ‘Accelerationism’, ‘Agency’, ‘Animals’, ‘Antagonism’, ‘Appropriation’, ‘Campism’, ‘Cis’, ‘Discourse’, ‘Ecosocialism’, ‘Empire’, ‘Eurocommunism’, ‘Event’, ‘Fascism’, ‘Feminisation’, ‘Globalisation’, ‘Homonationalism’, ‘Identification’, ‘Identity’, ‘Intersectionality’, ‘Islamophobia’, ‘Justice’, ‘Multitude’, ‘Neoliberalism’, ‘Normalcy’, ‘Occupy’, ‘Other’, ‘Pabloism’, ‘Performativity’, ‘Postcolonial’, ‘Postmodernism’, ‘Precarity’, ‘Prefigurative’, ‘Psychoanalysis’, ‘Psychologisation’, ‘Queer’, ‘Realism’, ‘Recuperation’, ‘Refusal’, ‘Spirituality’, ‘Stalinism’, ‘Standpoint’, ‘Structurelessness’, ‘Subjectivity’, ‘Trans’, ‘Transition’, ‘Wages’, ‘Whiteness’, ‘Young-Girl’, ‘Zionism’. Some are familiar, some far less so, and which are which will differ between different people, based on levels of exposure to terms, interest in them, disenfranchisement from them, and closeness to home. This work, however, brings all of these keywords closer, both personally and microscopically, connecting each abstract term with a real-life or popular cultural example or analogy (in a similar manner to Barthes in the Mythologies, even to the Everyday Analysis collective’s critical pieces) – including (it wouldn’t be a Parker book without it), a reference to the BBC Radio 4 soap opera, The Archers – and also dissecting each, drawing out their valences, strengths and weaknesses, and intersections with each other.

Definitively, definitionally, Parker makes clear the operation that underwrites the left’s dialectic of particular and universal in his entry on ‘justice’: ‘for us, justice is about authentic democratic rights for each to define what counts for all’ (p.111). Clearly closely echoing Marx and Engels’ famous statement in the Communist Manifesto that ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’ 1, Parker is not only faithful to this cornerstone of the true left’s inner political workings, but gently nudges discourses that have come to preclude a particular, and its particular struggle – a form of subjectivity, or a manifestation of an identity (both clearly delineated in their own entries) that’s got lost in a cacophony of claims to something higher – and redirects them back to their proper place, and their origins (as is something clearly exampled in Parker’s summation of ‘the 2013 sexual abuse crisis that hit the Socialist Workers Party in Britain’; see p.39, for example). On ‘identity’ Parker is careful and balanced – and this is the very merit of this work: its patience and its clarity, which allows it to make real inroads, and rigorously cement whilst keeping fluid its concepts – stressing that ‘identity is double-edged, and this is why even those who claim it also suggest that it should be used only strategically, and that is why they worry about how it often becomes a kind of commodity. This is a danger for the oppressed themselves speaking against power, but it is an even bigger danger for the oppressed when it is claimed and spoken by those in power’ (p.101). Identities and identifications in our current political climate are of the utmost importance and deserve much attention to detail and attempts at understanding and intersection-with through solidarity. They are forming between bookends of rigidification and ‘fluidification’, to coin a phrase, and what might be the pitfalls of going to either end must also be kept an eye on (‘fluid’ becoming a rigid identifier, for example; to put it abstractly). In this, Parker reties identity (the particular) and communality (the universal, as the concatenation of particulars), through nomination, and highlights the (left-activist) necessity of this: ‘identity is a source of self-confidence that also risks fixing the essence of who we are into unchangeable categories. Identity is a weapon against power, and the oppressed makes this so either by discovering a name for their experience or by seizing a name used against them to turn it against the enemy’ (p.97).

What this leads to, what this can lead to for the most productive and well-oiled new Left, is summed up in Parker’s essential and crowning entry, ‘Prefigurative’:

The point about ‘prefigurative’ is that we don’t wait until after the revolution to put feminism and anti-racism on the agenda, but we build those aspects of the struggle into our activity now, finding ways to work at the intersection of class, ‘race’ and sex (to name just three dimensions of oppression that enable and intensify the exploitation of workers under capitalism). We build, from within a disintegrating political-economic world-system, the kinds of social relations that define us as socialists, feminists and anti-racists (p.164).

This book teaches us that we must be all three at least, and that we must be ready to welcome comrades from other struggles with open arms in solidarity, so as to increase our strength in the face of adversity and oppression. Such is and will remain Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left’s relevance. In this, Parker’s is a little red book which we should carry in our proverbial pockets for many a year to come; at the very least, the next fifty.

  1. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party [1848], in Karl Marx/V. I. Lenin, The Communist Manifesto/The April Theses (London: Verso, 2016) p.50. 


Daniel Bristow (@danielcbristow)

Daniel Bristow is a writer and bookseller based in Hampshire. He is a lead proponent of the theory collective Everyday Analysis and a Lacanian psychoanalytic theorist. He has books out on James Joyce and psychoanalysis, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lacanian theory.