Words – weapons or straightjackets?

Dave Kellaway reviews Ian Parker’s  ‘Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left’ (Zero Books, 2017}

“It is that very familiarity with the same old language of the left, however, that is now part of the problem we face as we try to make sense of the world and work out what we should do to change it” p 2

Fascism, Ecosocialism, Globalisation, Islamophobia, Stalinism – okay we sort of get them – but Young-Girl, Cis, Normalcy,Performativity, Other – what’s all that about?

Ian Parker takes us on a fascinating intellectual tour of fifty revolutionary keywords, some of which are familiar to us but others will be new or barely understood by many activists.  The book is very accessible: a brief introduction, fifty five-page treatments of each word and then a very useful and original thirty page overview essay pulling the whole argument together.  It includes a respectful reference to the Raymond Williams 70s book on Keywords.  Readers can dip in and out of the keywords and read the essay at any point.

The basis of the author’s approach is the classic Marxist concept that social being determines social consciousness.  You cannot abstract words from material reality or living people’s struggles.  Since this reality and these struggles change over time words change their meaning or new words are generated to explain new realities.  There is even class struggle in language.

The ruling classes throughout history always wish to control how reality is described.  They never want words to clearly express the reality of their rule.  In the past religion often provided the words – the king’s divine right to rule – later words like market forces and property rights came to the fore.

Exploitative relations between worker and boss were enclosed in a verbal straightjacket of workers selling their labour to a boss in an equal individual contract.  Opposition to exploitation led to revolutionary keywords developing to remove this straightjacket, so surplus value and rates of exploitation emerged.

Words change meaning

Even words that began as revolutionary keywords and weapons in struggle can become confusing or disorienting for people because of their embedding in negative social realities.  Very few serious left political currents will use communist in their names because in the eyes of most people that is synonymous with Stalinist dictatorship and mass repression.  Similarly dictatorship of the proletariat maybe a concept that can be debated between people who are already convinced anti-capitalists but is not helpful in conveying our understanding of socialism as much more democratic than our existing society.

This book focuses on how the new forms of anti-capitalist, Black, feminist, LBGT and anti-colonial struggles generated by different crises of the system cause problems for the underlying assumptions and consequently the language used by the traditional left.  The nature of revolutionary change is no longer the same and the language has to catch up with it.  Parker identifies four contexts in the resistance to capitalism that explain the need for new language.

Firstly is the consolidation and disintegration of the Soviet Union which meant the traditional Leninist language has become much more problematic so an organising concept like democratic centralism has to be looked at totally differently in the conditions of today.

Secondly, the notion of culture in the broadest sense has to inform our use of language and balance the myths of a purely economic struggle.  The Surrealists and the communist party sponsorship of sports or walking clubs where radicalisation and organisation of opposition can take place.  Recently I have seen both the Sixties and the Pink Floyd exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert museum and they are a good example of how people can become radical through music and culture.  Songs against the Vietnam War or Roger Gilmour doing an album against the Falklands War all contributed to people becoming more aware.

Thirdly, revolutionary language has to adapt to transformations taking place in capitalism itself. Here it is a question of going beyond the narrow framework of political economy and taking account of how other forms of oppression buttress the system, particularly the oppression of women.  Women are used in the service sector today to maintain affective links between commercial enterprises and their customers.

The fourth context is the many changes in the left opposition to capitalism, in particular the new left emerging after 1967.  These new tendencies have tried, unevenly, to relate to the radical debates about sexuality, culture, racism and ecology.

“Each internal transformation of what counts as ‘revolutionary’ has changed the language of Marxism, the keywords it uses to define itself.  This has connected revolutionary Marxists with movements that describe exploitation and oppression in quite distinctive ways, leading often to incomprehension about what is happening”  p.259

Each short summary of the meaning and debates about the Keywords in the book helps us to lessen that incomprehension.  The emergence of new words is carefully linked to real movements or individuals. Films or music are often used to explain the sense of them – I liked the way the weird film Lobster was used to illustrate the Animals keyword.  Certainly the author tries to go beyond the often lazy ‘marxist’ dismissals of certain concepts. For instance he finds something positive even in Postmodernism which many activists would critique for its relativism and subjectivity because it shows us how new forms of technological knowledge can operate as  forms of power.  A new word for me was the idea of the Other which is illustrated partly in relation to the Venezuala situation.  This is the revolution:

“ as Other to the Western white subject who invests that subject with such romantic fullness and vitality that they can never bring themselves to acknowledge that there are internal fractures(…) around class, race and sexuality”

These orientalist attitudes where the other is romanticised is mirrored by the racist demonization of Chavez by the neo-liberal right and some media inside and outside Venezuela – Chavez’s lack of whiteness meant he was always unreliable.  For some sections of the left the Other also functions in the simplistic way all the problems of the Maduro government are explained by the Other camp – the multinationals and the US.

In his ecumenical enthusiasm, Parker even finds some positives in the idea of Refusal (of the work ethic) and Spirituality which some readers may find bending the stick too far.  Also I find linking the Charlie Hebdo victims with some sort of Homonationalism a little simplistic.  However all the vignettes on the different Keywords are thought provoking and often whet the appetite for more discussion.  Helpfully this is provided for at the end with a sort of annotated reading list with web links for easy access.

The book is particularly useful now with the emergence of mass political radicalisation with the – Corbyn movement which is a meeting place for thousands of new, often younger activists with an older more seasoned Marxist left.  The latter is being particularly urged by the author to re-evaluate its own language and to be open to new ideas.  Younger Corbynistas often come out of cultural, feminist, ecological, community or student struggles rather than any contact either with the Marxist left or the trade unions. They may be more familiar with some of these newer revolutionary keywords than the old Marxist lefties.  At the same time they find many of the words used by the Marxist left rather alien.

Reconstructing classic ideas

So we need more work done on re-constructing meanings of the classic terminology we would defend on the Marxist left e.g. party, state, united front, reform and revolution and so on.  We all can recall the wooden interventions of certain political tendencies who are instantly recognisable as soon as they open their mouths in meetings as they just use these old keywords.  How do we communicate our critical analysis in a popular way that does not dilute the ideas?  How do we positively associate ourselves with some of the revolutionary keywords illustrated in this book?

A related task would be to deconstruct words that make up the labourism narrative since most left activists will be in the Labour party and we have to understand the discourse and its meanings in order to intervene in a positive way e.g. nationalisation, Atlee government, managed migration flows, interests of industry, the national interest.

In the final overview essay Parker looks at a list of keywords before 1917(these are from Raymond Williams book), one after 1917 and his own post-67 list.  This is really interesting as he shows how these words evolved. The way these words can be grouped together as positive, negative, neutral or a site of contention is very well argued.  One quibble would be if the author had graphically illustrated the points he makes in the text about each list it would be even clearer.  More work could be usefully done on these lists.

Just as with all lists you always want to add your favourite film or sports person.  It is the same here.  Although there is a keyword on ecosocialism I think the overall weight of words connected with this topic could have been greater. e.g. sixth extinction, Anthropocene, extractvism, productivism, zero growth, bio-diversity.

Talking of how words can positively or negatively influence people it would be interesting to extend this idea to images.  The old saying is that an image is worth a thousand words.  This is true to some extent in politics, particularly during elections.

Are there lists of key images that play a role over time or during particular events?  You could make a good case for the left-inspired ministry of information films put out during the Second World War that directly impacted on people voting Labour against Churchill in 1945 or the bus with the NHS promise during the referendum or even May desperately avoiding the public in the last election.

This book would be a useful addition to any activists’ library, to be used as a handy reference.  I would also suggest a regular feature on left websites  — keyword of the week or month – would be a good service to the movement.

Finally an image I will always remember is those miners taking on the police who were guarding the scabs during the great miners strikes of the last century. They moved forward and some of them had copies of the Sun in their back pockets.  We can also overestimate the importance of words or the control of ideology. Social being determines social consciousness.


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1 Comment on Words – weapons or straightjackets?

  1. Very interesting review of a new version of Raymond Williams’ seminal book ‘Keywords’.

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