Why I wrote Revolutionary Keywords for a New Left

I was trained to be an academic, and spent much of my working life in academic institutions. That kind of life encourages people who work there to frame questions in certain kinds of ways. Some people bury themselves in that enclosed world, cut off from the outside, developing theoretical systems that have little to do with the lives of people in the real world. They speak a language that doesn’t connect with external reality. Much of what passes for social and political and economic ‘science’ operates in that detached way, as does much philosophy. Other academics, those with some consciousness about their privileged role, try to reach out, sometimes romanticising the real world, and still often unable to overcome that gap that separates their particular way of describing things from what is actually going on out there.

One way I tried to tackle this problem of the separation of academic description from everyday life was to study ‘discourse’, to engage in different kinds of ‘discourse analysis’. In fact, ‘discourse’ was one of the first keywords that I wrote about, and, as I explain in the book, ‘discourse’ became a useful way of describing the work of ideology and the way that people become hooked into certain ways of speaking, and then certain ways of thinking about the world and about who they are. Some of us shifted the focus of our research, from looking at the ‘facts’ about society and individuals that are supposedly discovered by the social sciences or puzzled over by philosophers, to the descriptions that are given of those facts, the discourse that is used to frame the facts, and frame us. This turn to discourse is one way of treating academic theory as ideology.

Discourse is anchored, held in place, by specific words or phrases. When you are able to use those words in the language game of a community or an institution or a group, use them competently, you are acknowledging yourself as a member and you are usually acknowledged to be a member by others who use that language game, who use that discourse. Whether we like it or not, that’s the way that discourse operates in the academic world and in political movements. The keywords that anchor discourse can signal whether you are an outsider or an insider, whether you really know what you are talking about, whether you are really signed up to a particular way of looking at the world or not. The best way of defining discourse analysis is as sensitivity to language, and new social movements are for sure sensitive about the language we use to describe things. In fact, the left has always been sensitive to this; maybe what has changed now is that there is more reflexive deliberate attention to language as such.

You could say that what you have here in this book is the ongoing preliminary result, a work in progress of a research project that is a kind of applied discourse analysis. What makes it different from most academic discourse analysis is twofold. First, we turn the gaze around, so that instead of looking at what people do in the outside world, framing them within an academic discourse, we look at what the academic researchers are doing. Actually, in this case we look at how political theorists and political activists inside and outside different groups frame things when they use old and new keywords to anchor their descriptions of the world. Second, we aren’t simply describing the world, or describing keywords that are used to describe the world, we are actively intervening. This is sometimes called ‘action research’, but it’s basically taking seriously the point that Marx makes, that philosophers have hitherto simply interpreted the world, whereas the point is to change it.

This kind of analysis has actually been going on from before the development of discourse analysis, for well over fifty years. The most well-known attempt to define and map keywords in contemporary culture was made by the cultural materialist Marxist Raymond Williams, an attempt that was eventually published as his book ‘Keywords’. What Raymond Williams does there is to trace the historical emergence of terms that hold culture in place, and to show that the meanings of those terms operate as a set of shared cultural resources. Those cultural resources, those constellations of keywords mark out the terrain on which the left argues and mobilises against bourgeois ideology. ‘Bourgeois’ is one example of a keyword that Williams discusses, shifting meaning from referring to the ‘middle class’ to describing those who own the means of production under capitalism, effectively operating as a synonym for the ruling class.

What Williams ends up with is a kind of cultural-political map, and you can see two things, at least two things, that are really interesting. The first is that if we look, as Williams does, at the historical origins of some of the terms, we can see how original meanings of the keywords have been obscured, covered over so that we become embedded in a taken-for-granted image of the world. For example, the term ‘consciousness’ is usually used today to speak about awareness an individual has of themselves, but early meanings of the term were concerned mainly with the relationship of things to each other. The second thing that Williams makes clear is that these keywords mark out a field of meanings, a field of debate in which there are many different vantage points, constellations of different political positions. So, he is coming at this question from the left, mapping keywords from a left vantage point, and it is clear that he is concerned with the broader cultural matrix. This means, for example, that ‘consciousness-raising’ will always be from a specific standpoint. It doesn’t lead to one overall complete objective account. We have to situate ourselves.

This is why I do two things in this book. There are, if you like, two parts of the book. The first part, the bulk of the book, comprises fifty different keywords, with short essays about each of them. I don’t actually trace the etymology and historical twists and turns of meaning of each keyword in such detail as Raymond Williams does of his. I’m concerned more with the way they function at the moment in revolutionary politics. I’ll say a bit about those actual keywords in a moment. The second part of my book is a much longer essay which takes up the question of the way we map the relationship between keywords, and that’s where I pick up from Williams’ own ‘keywords’ project. The key here is the way that the map itself has changed over time, so what we’re faced with here is not only the emergence of revolutionary keywords that are new to us, that disturb our way of thinking and working with the left, but also the transformation of the way they work together. I’m interested in the long essay at the end of the book in the map itself.

So the issue here is not only to do with the spatial map, the layout of keywords at a particular time, but with a temporal process, that is, how the maps change over the course of history. And I want ground that historical change in an account of the material conditions that make certain kinds of relationships between the keywords possible. When we look at ‘discourse’ as one of the keywords, for example, or at the flow of discourse around that keyword, what we say about it and how we use discourse, we also need to look at the ‘conditions of possibility’ for that discourse to appear and make sense to us. That focus on ‘conditions of possibility’ was the historian and philosopher Michel Foucault’s way of working with some kind of Marxist approach. History consists of many things, including transformations in ways of speaking and writing and thinking, and the discourses that keywords are embedded in are bound up with material processes, real historical events. This is a historical materialist account.

Let us turn to look at our history. History has been punctuated by a series of key events over the last hundred years that recur in the way that those involved in left and liberation movements speak and think about themselves. We have to be careful here though. We have to be careful not to reduce a historical materialist account to a caricature of Marxism in which it is only brute economics, only economic events that count. We have to bear in mind that the events I refer to here are charged with significance in the life of the left, not of the whole population but of the Left, and these are positive events, openings. There are plenty of disasters in history, which are framed by the left as failures, failures of revolution. The events I am concerned with are, in some sense, revolutions or rebellions with a revolutionary edge. They energised the discourse of the left, and the map of keywords changes. We also have to notice that these events are of paramount importance to the European left, and a left oriented to European history.

The first key event is the Russian Revolution a century ago. Whatever stand you take on the role of the Bolsheviks, and the Kronstadt rebellion, say, this revolution then has massive consequences for many years, and it shapes the way that the left, and many other radical movements, think about what revolutionary change is. The second key event – really a sequence of linked events which are given meaning as they are reinterpreted – is the revival of the left and feminist and national liberation movements in 1967. This has repercussions lasting through 1968, which some on the left see as culminating in the student demonstrations and workers strikes in and around May 1968 in Paris. Paris, London, Rome, Berlin each become a focus with rebellions in the heart of Europe, rebellions that include the Prague 1968 revolt against Stalinism, become linked with social movements inside the United States and solidarity with struggles against imperialism, most significantly in Vietnam.

Over the fifty years following the Russian Revolution, from 1917 to 1967, something really interesting happens to the map of keywords. From being a quite diffuse field of concepts that define political discourse, ranging from questions of consciousness to the nature of bourgeois society, our left discourse between 1917 and 1967 starts to crystallise into some kind of grid where it is much clearer how different keywords of the left are arranged on a spectrum. We become clearer during this time about what is reactionary and what is progressive, and even those two notions begin to operate as keywords, to the extent that we refer to ‘progressives’ and ‘reactionaries’. You could say that while Raymond Williams was describing the keywords that comprise progressive bourgeois culture, the culture that holds democratic capitalist society in place, what 1917 eventually does is begin to lock keywords into place in a representation of how we need to talk, act politically, and think about the world in order to defend the Soviet Union as a workers state, or at least to define ourselves in relation to what happened there. This is either as a triumph or as a betrayal of revolution.

Then what happens after the series of rebellions through the late 1960s, rebellions that bring an autonomous women’s movement onto the stage and national liberation movements pressing the Western left to develop solidarity campaigns, is that new keywords begin to flourish, and, this is crucial, they disturb the map of keywords. This is the accumulating set of keywords that I track in the book, keywords that have appeared in the last fifty years. But instead of being arranged in some kind of grid in which reactionary is linked explicitly to bourgeois society and capitalism and imperialism, defining where all the other movements must fit in order to be progressive, and progressive is linked explicitly to communism, socialism and national liberation, now there are cross-cutting alliances and groupings of keywords that define radical struggles around gender and sexuality and identity, even ‘identity’ as a keyword, for example.

If we turn to the new revolutionary keywords themselves, we can see that some of them actually reflect and reflect upon that changing map of radical political discourse from 1967 up to the present day, to where we are fifty years later, one hundred years after the Russian Revolution. Take the keyword ‘intersectionality’ for example. Intersectionality is a way of settling accounts with a kind of Marxism that is often locked into a rather bureaucratic kind of politics that either prioritises defence of the Soviet Union or one of the other workers states or the kind of critique that is still made from within left opposition groups that operate as a kind of weird mirror image of the Stalinism they set themselves against. For intersectional politics, struggles of women and black activists, for example, are neither subordinated to the working class or an idealised image of the working class, nor do they replace working class struggle, nor are they simply added in to it.

This brings us back to the question of the role of the academic in relation to revolutionary struggle, whether that is left or feminist or anti-racist or queer struggle. One of the peculiar things about much left politics between 1917 and 1967 is that it begins to be absorbed and neutralised by academic institutions. That is, it is ‘recuperated’, drawn in and smothered. The first keyword in the book, by chance because it begins with ‘a’, but quite conveniently, is ‘academicisation’. Yes, there are left academics that support the left movements, and fellow travellers of the communist parties who supported the Soviet Union, and even then some who supported Mao, but one of the effects of this recuperation of the left by academic institutions is that left discourse and the set of radical keywords between 1917 and 1967 become organised in a grid that looks very ‘academic’ itself. What happens after 1967, in the last fifty years of our revolutionary century, is that the new keywords disturb that relation with academia.

For example, the keyword ‘performative’ disturbs the usual academic research goal of describing the world and predicting what might happen next. For queer theorists who emphasise performativity, whether they are inside or outside the university, the issue is not what we ‘predict’ as if we play no part in the phenomenon we are describing, but what we ‘perform’, what we make happen in our descriptions; we are not merely interpreting but changing the world. ‘Queer’, which is one of the revolutionary keywords that has appeared in the last fifty years, is another example of a word that changes shape when it is embedded in a political movement that reclaims identity and, at the same time, questions identity, questions identity as such. Queer politics disturbs identity by refusing to treat ‘identity’ as a description of something but as a ‘performative’ operation which repeats and reinforces identity. You can see how the links between the keywords are as important as the particular keywords themselves.

Many of these keywords have developed in a kind of ‘liminal’ space, that is, not entirely inside the academic institutions and not completely outside them either. The term ‘liminal’ describes what lies at the limits of something, of an institution or a concept, working at the limits and drawing attention to how those limits work to separate, divide us. Actually, ‘liminal’ as a keyword is not in the book, partly because I noticed it after I had put the book to bed, and partly because I had a too-neat compartmentalisation in the book so that there would be a discussion of what happened in two different fifty-year stretches of time, and I wanted to explore fifty revolutionary keywords. I noticed the revolutionary keywords partly because I was still spending some time in academic institutions, surrounded by academic discourse. I was moving across different academic disciplines, mixing with people in psychology, education, literary theory and management who were trying to do ‘interdisciplinary’ research, defying some of the intellectual boundaries in the university, and I was working with people who were trying to break across the boundaries between theory and practice.

I have also been working outside, and well aware of how academic framing is a problem, not only for those working in and at the edges of universities, but also for those in different political groups that do themselves operate like academic institutions. I do mean this in its very worst sense. Academic institutions work as power hierarchies, structured by dimensions of class, race and gender as well as the exclusion of those labelled as disabled, those they continue to disable. Many left political groups operate in the same way, and the separation between intellectual and manual labour is reproduced, with those who write the documents defining the direction of the organisation, and other members effectively excluded from decision-making. The feminist revolt in the SWP over the Comrade Delta rape case in 2013 was an indication not only that revolutionary keywords were necessary, but also that they were dangerous to what I call the ‘old left’. It is not that they are necessarily old, or that the old traditions of left politics were all bad, but that they were fixated on ways of doing politics that were hierarchical and locked in the bureaucratic 1917-1967 academic grid.

I’ve been lucky in being involved with a left group that is bit more forward-looking than many of the others. Not all of the time, and over the years I would notice that quite basic concepts that were being used in the black and feminist movements, for example, would be repeated and puzzled over. My comrades clearly wanted to know what these new terms meant, and one thing I wanted to do in this book is to explain how these terms functioned in practice. That’s why in quite a few cases I take a keyword and put it to work outside its own domain. The keywords were accumulated over the last two years, written as little pieces as direct interventions into live political debates, and published on the FIIMG, Fourth International in Manchester blog page. I posted the links in different places, in different emailing lists, and got feedback from comrades, sometimes detailed feedback from comrades in Socialist Resistance.

Those who are subject to power notice its operations, and are able to most accurately define and challenge what is happening. This is one of the key points of a ‘standpoint’ approach, one of the keywords I discuss in the book. Working at the edge is another way of noticing how boundaries close thinking and practice down, limit and define it. This book doesn’t speak from within any particular group or political movement, but operates at the edges. Who knows if we are at the edge of significant time period, whether the fifty year stretch from 1967 to 2017 might really mark something new. We need to act as if it might, and the revolutionary keywords need to be built on, made more than fifty if we are to succeed in changing left discourse and changing the world.

Ian Parker

More about the Keywords project here