Language for Resisting Oppression

— Robert K. Beshara

Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left
By Ian Parker
Alresford, UK: Zero Books, 295 pages, $29.95 paperback.

IAN PARKER WEARS many hats, being “the 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” (Parker, https://parkerian.com/).

His new book, Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left, is published in the context of the centennial of the October revolution, and should be read in tandem with similarly themed books recently published by Verso (e.g. Ali, 2017; Miéville, 2017; Žižek, 2017).

Parker’s treatise is a critical celebration of “the century of revolutions” (252), his central thesis entails changing the Left in order “to change the world.” (9)

But in order to change the Left, according to Parker, we first need to pay close attention to “the link between language and action.” The “keywords” we use in describing the world, he writes “are intimately linked to the very possibility of changing that very same world because ‘[l]anguage is woven into reality.’” (6, 8)

The author charts three key dates or “passwords” from “the century of revolutions” (253) — 1917, 1967, and 2017 —in order to index some of the major debates between the “old” and the “new” Left (signifying Leftists before vs. after 1967), which can be summarized as a shift in analysis from one focused purely on the political economy to another centered on “intersectionality” (i.e., class, sex and race) as “one way of working with the layout of many forms of oppression.” (102)

This shift is certainly a reflection of the “crises” within both capitalism and the anti-capitalist movement. While Parker draws on his power/knowledge as both an academic and a practicing psychoanalyst in writing his manifesto, his critical reflexivity as an activist — revolutionary Marxist (Trotskyist) — renders his dialectical analysis a valuable contribution to the needed bridging between the centralist “old” and the democratic “new” Left.

This is principally so as far as open, heterarchical organizing is concerned (5) — i.e. resorting to neither “the tyranny of structurelessness” nor “the tyranny of tyranny” (212, 215). Parker embodies this bridging when he draws particular examples from Britain to make some universal points that will indeed resonate with progressive activists internationally who are committed to the “globalization of resistance.” (127)

Influenced by Raymond Williams, Parker highlights fifty progressive keywords (e.g. ecosocialism, standpoint, Islamophobia) as an exercise in praxis, in that the keywords are meant as discursive tools in the practical struggle against all “faces” of oppression (Young, 1990). Put differently, activists need radical theories (e.g. Marxism, feminism, anti-racism) in order to interpret and, more importantly, transform the oppressive reality of capitalism-patriarchy-racism.

Each keyword chapter begins with a handy and succinct definition. A few descriptions from the book will give a sense of their pithiness: ecosocialism “is one way of connecting our humanity with our nature, to protect both” (53); standpoint “sees the world against power rather than with it” (207); and Islamophobia is “an orientalist twist on old racism to confirm the value of modern capitalist civilization.” (106)

There follows a dialectical analysis for and against every keyword as well as an application by way of examples. I recommend that readers begin the book by paying particular attention to the concluding essay, which though technically a postface functions powerfully as a preface to Revolutionary Keywords.

Political Compass for Activists

This book is written mainly for activists, without in-text citations or references (except the Further Reading section at the very end); as a result the book has a nice flow, which is practical if the book is embraced by many activists as a go-to resource. But there is an argument to be made for including in-text citations and references, which has to do with making it easier to look up and challenge the validity of certain truth claims, particularly in “the battles of ideas.” (41)

The keyword chapters are organized alphabetically, but the book can easily be read in any order since it is structured like an encyclopedia for activists.

In the spirit of constructive criticism encouraged by the author, his analysis would have benefited from a three-dimensional corrective to the two-dimensional left-right political spectrum (6), which is the economic dimension or the horizontal axis in the “political compass” (The Political Compass, https://www.politicalcompass.org/).

The antagonism between the “old” and “new” Left’, a “contradiction that marks the political coordinates of a culture” (29), is accounted for by the vertical axis in the “political compass,” denoting the social dimension. The social dimension has to do with the question of political freedom, the two extremes being authoritarianism and libertarianism.

Libertarianism here, of course, refers to anarchism — which is inherently linked to Marxism — not the bastardized version of the term, which is more common in the United States and results in an oxymoron like “anarcho-capitalism.”

Jeremy Corbyn, particularly since his ascendancy to the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015 is a name and an “event”, or “the eruption of the unexpected to transform politics” (68), to which Parker keeps returning in regard to the Luxemburgian ghost of reform-revolution that has haunted and divided Marxist activists since 1899.

The U.S. parallel to Corbyn in 2015 was undoubtedly Bernie Sanders who ran an inspiring grassroots presidential campaign under the banner of democratic socialism — a reforming challenge to the neo-McCarthyist politico-economic establishment.

Then in 2016 came the double trauma of Brexit in the U.K. and of “Mr. Brexit” in the United States. Now in 2017, both are occupying the upper right quadrant of neo-liberal authoritarianism. Parker’s book can help us remagnetize the needle of our politico-economic compass towards the lower left quadrant of libertarian socialism.

On that note, Parker (2017) is unfair in his assessment of Noam Chomsky when he writes, “In this capacity as activist, he is known to be some kind of anarchist, though it is not always clear to those who invite him to speak what that means.” (83, emphasis added)

This is unfair because it overlooks Chomsky’s sustained analysis of anarchism over the years as a critical resource for resistance against power. By framing Chomsky as a globalist (85), Parker exhibits the “campism” — the method of “dividing the world into good and bad” (38) — of which he is himself critical, particularly when it divides the Left.

Dialectics and Intersectionality

In conclusion, Parker is at his best when he enriches his dialectical analysis — “these new revolutionary keywords provoke a crisis in academic representation which also pits that academic discourse against itself” (281) — with insights from intersectionality, which he tells us is “one term, that, for sure, divides the old left from the new revolutionary left.” (279)

This division instigated by the term “intersectionality” is a real antagonism that signifies a traumatic encounter with a gap or fissure within the social order — cf. my psychoanalytic reading of Trump winning the U.S. presidency. (Beshara, 2017)

This traumatic encounter is also an authentic opportunity. It forces us to ask the question: what kind of a politics do we, the precariat, really want in a world where “[p]recarity sums up the insecurity of much employment today and the demands that we should be flexible at work, and it is both a threat and opportunity”? (158)

“[P]luri-versality as a universal project [of liberation]” (Mignolo, 2007, 499) is an inclusive political vision that Ian Parker certainly believes in and “prefigures” when he writes about “articulating socialist politics with new forms of politics from Black, feminist, queer, ecological and disability activism.” (6) He would have us remember that “with our activity we [are] always on the edge of power, on the edge of the possibility of radical transformation.” (147)

References

Ali, T. (2017). The dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, war, empire, love, revolution. New York, NY: Verso Books.

Beshara, R. K. (2017). “It’s not the working/middle class’s fault that Trump won: Solidarity is what we need.” Medium. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/@Rupadelik/its-not-the-working-middle-class-s-fault-that-trump-won-solidarity-is-what-we-need-69d2444e3ce7

Chomsky, N. (2014). On anarchism. London, UK: Penguin Books.

Miéville, C. (2017). October: The story of the Russian revolution. New York, NY:  Verso Books.

Mignolo, W. D. (2007). “Delinking: The rhetoric of modernity, the logic of coloniality and the grammar of de-coloniality.” Cultural studies, 21(2-3), 449-514.

Young, I. M. (1990). Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Žižek, S. (2017). Lenin 2017: Remembering, repeating, and working through. New York, NY:  Verso Books.

January-February 2018, ATC 192

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <b> </b> <br> <br /> <a> </a> <em> </em> <strong> </strong> <cite> </cite> <code> </code> <ul> </ul> <ol> </ol> <li> </li> <dl> </dl> <dt> </dt> <dd> </dd> <div> </div> <img> <style> <font> </font> <blockquote> </blockquote> <hr>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.