I first encountered this term in the title of a recently discovered manuscript by Georg Lukács, A Defence of History and Class-Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic. Tailism? Is this some movement, following a certain ‘Tail’, or maybe a nickname, or some dude who is too interested in his own tail? No, it was coined by Lenin. He first used tailism (khvostism) to describe the ‘Economists’, those who argued that the communist party should not take the lead in a revolutionary situation, but should allow economic events – crises, strikes, unrest – to unfold on their own. The party would then pick up on the tail of these events. No way, argues Lenin; the party is the vanguard, educating, agitating, watching for opportunities. After that, anyone who slacked off was a tailist, if he or she wasn’t an opportunist.
Great bloody word; definitely needs to be recovered. In academic work, who would be a tailist? For starters, the one who never has an original idea, who harvests ideas from others – colleagues, students, friends – and then presents them as their own, maybe reworking them a bit before publishing. Of course, looking for any recognition of the source would be like looking for a virgin in the Vatican. Or it might be the encyclopaedist, fostered by academic institutions, especially those following in the German tradition. At least they are honest enough not to claim the ideas as their own, focusing on collecting the ideas of others, ordering and arranging them in very nice books – tailism.