The Theory and Practice of Marxism in Japan

Gavin Walker

From the ’60s New Left to the persistence of a mass-membership Communist Party today, Marxism has had a huge impact on Japanese politics and culture. Japanese Marxism is a highly creative tradition that deserves to be better known and understood outside Japan.

Japanese Communist Party Headquarters in 1950. (Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

For many years, Japan has been one of the leading players in global capitalism. With the world’s third-largest economy and some of its most renowned manufacturing firms, Japan is one of the few countries to have bridged the infamous gap between “the West and the rest.”

However, alongside the development of capitalism in Japan, a powerful socialist tradition has also taken shape in Japanese political and intellectual life. Marxism has exercised an extraordinary influence in Japanese academic culture, while the Japanese Communist Party remains a mass-membership party with unapologetic roots in the communist tradition.

Gavin Walker teaches history at McGill University in Canada. He is the author of The Sublime Perversion of Capital: Marxist Theory and the Politics of History in Modern Japan and the editor of The Red Years: Theory, Politics, and Aesthetics in the Japanese ’68.

This is an edited transcript from an episode of Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.


DF

You’ve written about the importance of Marxism in Japan, both as a political movement — with more than one organizational form — and as an intellectual tradition. You’ve also noted that it hasn’t received the same attention as Marxist political organizations and theoretical work in countries where European languages are spoken — for obvious reasons, perhaps. Before going into the story of Japanese Marxism and socialism in detail, could you us give a bird’s-eye view of its most striking features, for someone who may not be familiar with Japanese politics or intellectual life?

GW

I would say a couple of things to begin with. One is that one of the most remarkable things about the history of Marxism in Japan is, I would say, its distinction from the history of Marxism, particularly in Europe, where the Marxist tradition really emanated most heavily from the side of political movements. It came from the First International — the International Workingmen’s Association. It came from the dominance of the Second International in Central Europe, and then from the dominance of the Third International after the victory of the October Revolution.

In Japan, on the other hand, the history of Marxism came principally from the side of the university. I think that conditioned very heavily the nature of Marxist theoretical work in Japan, but also gave it its particularly high-level theoretical character. Marxism was received first in Japan not principally as the ideological backbone of political organization but as the front curve of development at the cutting edge of the social sciences. In this sense, Marxism was really something that from the very beginning was given an almost principally theoretical character in Japan.

Some of the other effects that have been important for the development of Japanese Marxism include its dominance in the university — a situation that we can’t really point to anywhere in Europe or North America, in the sense of being the main trend of social-scientific and certainly historical research. In Japan, through to the end of the 1980s and the events of 1989–1991, Marxism remained the dominant methodological orientation in the university and intellectual life as a whole. Even those who were anti-Marxist or oriented more toward traditions of liberalism and so forth had a grounding in Marxist theory that would be surprising, though perhaps not everywhere — in France, there was a dominance of Marxism in the postwar period as well — but certainly in much of Europe and North America.

This widespread influence of Marxism in an advanced capitalist society was unusual and has roots in this highly intellectual background to Marxism in Japan that in turn led to the very methodological character of Marxism in Japan. A lot of work, for instance, on the MEGA project, the Marx-Engels collected works, took place in Japan. The striking feature of Japanese Marxism is its extremely high level of theoretical work and not only political analysis.

DF

Japan itself appears to be highly significant for Marxist theory as a case study because it was the first and arguably still the only country from outside the Euro-American cultural matrix to have become a highly developed, industrial capitalist state by any benchmark you might care to mention, whether it’s social and industrial structure, GDP per capita, median wage rates, etc. That might be explained by reference to the external geopolitical context, where Japan was one of the few countries in Africa or Asia to escape European colonial rule, so that its leaders could imitate the leading capitalist states of their day without being subordinated to their control. It could also be explained, on the other hand, by reference to Japan’s own precapitalist social and political structures, perhaps lending themselves to capitalist development in a particular way. What explanations have Japanese Marxists themselves tended to favor?

GW

Probably the most significant question for the early history of Marxist theory in Japan was to clarify how Japanese capitalism had developed — how it had sprung up on the basis of what existed before — and also to explain the peculiar trajectory of Japanese capitalism. It was similar to Germany, for instance, or Russia, as a late-developing capitalist state, in the sense that the feudal structure lasted for a long time in comparison to France or the United Kingdom.

One thing that distinguished Japan in particular was that it compressed its development into a small space of roughly fifty years from 1868 and the Meiji Restoration, which broke the feudal power of the old Shogunal government and established the route toward a modern state in Japan, to the 1930s. Over the space of fifty or sixty years, Japan passed through the stages of being a dominated or peripheral country with a late transition from feudalism to becoming a very rapidly industrializing country, particularly in the 1880s and 1890s, when enormous investment by the state in munitions manufacturing and heavy industry prompted a significant turn in the formation of modern Japan, which was the turn to imperialism.

The Japanese state remained in the early twentieth century the only major non-Western imperialist power. It held an extraordinarily large empire at its height in the 1940s, stretching from the South Pacific all the way through Manchuria into Northeast Asia. This Japanese empire existed a mere thirty to forty years after Japan had formed any kind of national state at all.

This trajectory was extremely important for Marxists to explain. It bore very little similarity, on the face of it, to the story of the development of English capitalism told in Marx’s Capital. Of course, Marx’s Capital famously reminded its German readers that they should not think it was a book solely about England. It was the story of the development of an ideal average of a capitalist society. Marxists in Japan took this as a kind of spur for their work to think about how Japanese capitalism had developed from out of the existing situation.

This resulted in a wide-ranging debate on the origins of capitalism. One side argued that the Meiji Restoration had been a bourgeois-democratic revolution that broke the feudal power and set Japan on the trajectory toward becoming a “normal” capitalist state. Others took the position that, in fact, Japanese capitalism was overwhelmed from the very beginning with feudal remnants.

They referred to its extreme inequality, for example: in the 1890s and 1900s, Japan had an average wage rate lower than that of India at the time. India was, of course, a dominated, colonized state. This perspective identified these feudal remnants at the level of mentality, but also at the levels of social structures and ideology, most of all in the existence of the emperor system itself at the center of Japanese capitalism.

The emperor, we have to remember, was marginalized under late feudalism in Japan. Significantly, in 1868, when the modern Japanese state was formed, it was referred to as a restoration, not a revolution — the restoration of the emperor to the center of society. How could you explain this anachronism, this sense of bringing into life a modern state founded on the sanctity of private property and a modern, Prussian-style constitution, yet one that also brought back into its core this imperial institution? This was a key contradiction for Japanese Marxists to explain, and I would say it remains a key contradiction about which they profoundly disagree.

DF

In the field of politics and political movements, how did the socialist movement first become implanted in Japanese political life? And what particular challenges did that movement face?

GW

Socialism in Japan has in some sense an independent history from the history of Marxism. Of course, that’s not necessarily unique, because socialism predates the existence of Marxism as a political doctrine, and predates the actual life of Marx. In Japan, there were a number of sources for this divergence.

Marx was not widely read in Japan until the late nineteenth century. Marx started to be read in the 1890s, and really came to prominence in the 1910s, which is when the intellectual hegemony of Marxism was established. But prior to that, there was a separate trajectory of socialism, some of which came from Christian socialism. There was a certain prominence of Christian socialism in the last days of the Tokugawa feudal system, and there was an articulation of that agrarian, millenarian Christian socialism with many of the peasant movements of late feudalism.

One of the motors for the development of the modern Japanese state was the intense agrarian struggle that existed at the end of the Tokugawa system of provincial city-states. That usually came in the form of peasant revolts, which increased radically in number between 1850 and the early 1860s, leading up to the Meiji Restoration of 1868. After the Restoration, a number of social movements that channeled that popular energy began to emerge, particularly in the early 1870s.

In 1873, you had the so-called Freedom and Popular Rights Movement, which was a kind of millenarian movement for the establishment of greater rights and freedoms for the popular classes. The Meiji state, having broken the feudal power, was by no means a progressive state at the level of social policy. Quite to the contrary, we might even say that in the early Meiji period, after the establishment of the modern state, there was significantly greater hardship visited upon the peasantry than there was even at the end of the feudal system.

The Freedom and Popular Rights Movement of the 1870s spurred on the development in the 1880s and ’90s of this articulation among Christian socialism, the peasant movements, and a nativist agrarian radicalism — almost anarcho-syndicalist — that would be embodied by figures like the famous anarchist Kotoku Shusui. The challenges that these movements faced were very significant. They were largely banned and outlawed quickly, but they successfully planted the seed throughout the intellectual world and workers’ organizations of what would slowly become a renewed militancy on the part of organized labor.

DF

How did Japanese Marxism begin to take shape as a school of thought with original perspectives of its own? What adaptations did Japanese Marxists find necessary for theories that had originally been developed in a European or perhaps in an American context?

GW

This refers back, in a way, to your previous question about the development of Japan’s social and political structures. In this sense, the key debate on this question took place in the 1920s. The Japanese Communist Party (JCP) was founded in 1922, and very quickly became a central nodal point of intellectual activity. Around this time, what became the key debate in Japanese social thought was called the debate on Japanese capitalism. This debate was essentially between two positions.

One side, the so-called Koza faction, supported the thesis that Japanese capitalism was immature and incomplete, having only made a partial transition from feudal social forms. Defenders of this thesis would point to the fact that the labor wage rate was significantly below that of other capitalist societies and would argue that it could be explained by reference to other ideological factors, namely despotic power in the countryside, the transformation of former feudal lords into property-owning landlords, despotic tenant farm practices, the extraction of ground rent — more or less an agrarian despotism.

On the other hand of this debate was the so-called Rono faction, which would later go on to form the Socialist Party in the postwar period. They argued that Japanese capitalism was in fact a normally developing capitalism. They had a very normative understanding of what capitalism ought to be and argued that Japanese capitalism had been comprehensively established, with a full break from feudalism, with the advent of the Meiji Restoration. This break constituted a fundamental historical transition from feudal social and political forms. In other words, if such forms still existed in the political conjuncture, they were to be understood as inevitably dying and soon to fall away.

What’s significant about this debate is that it placed into the center of the development of Japanese Marxism the question of what use Marx’s theoretical work could be in the concrete political analysis of Japanese capitalism. But it also involved a kind of allegorical retelling of political questions, in the sense that, unsurprisingly, supporters of the feudal thesis — the thesis that Japan was still overwhelmed with feudal remnants — took a specific political line. It would later become the line of the Comintern: the idea that Japanese capitalism was not ripe for socialist revolution but would first require a two-stage revolutionary process involving a completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, which would be principally directed against the emperor system.

The other side — the Rono faction, which asserted that Japanese capitalism already constituted a mature capitalist social formation — had a one-stage theory of revolution, with the immediate passage to socialist demands. This mirrored very closely the development of similar debates, particularly in Africa and Latin America, but really everywhere outside Europe and North America — North America never having had feudalism properly speaking, except perhaps in New France, and Europe having had a transition from feudalism at an earlier stage, at least in England and France. This debate and its allegorical representation in two political lines was highly significant, and essentially created the main trends of Japanese Marxist theory.

DF

What was the experience of the Japanese Communist Party after its foundation in the 1920s? And what relationship did it have to the intellectual development of Marxism in Japan?

GW

The experience of the JCP was a very significant one. The party was formed in 1922 and immediately went through a very intense period of political and intellectual splits, exemplified by figures like Fukumoto Kazuo, whose thought was quite close to that of Georg Lukács. History and Class Consciousness was published in 1923 and was almost immediately taken up in Japan. This highly intellectualized vision of the party had major consequences in the 1920s. That line didn’t win out in the end, but it made the party a very important site for intellectuals.

However, the authorities cracked down on the JCP at an early stage. Having been formed in 1922, it was banned in 1925 under the Peace Preservation Law. Thereafter, the party was essentially a semiunderground organization, but many figures in Japanese political and intellectual life belonged to it or were at least adjacent to it.

The party took an early stance on this previous debate about Japanese capitalism. It was deeply influenced by the Comintern. At this stage, there were several figures in the Comintern as a whole who were occupied with Japan, including Nikolai Bukharin and the Finnish communist Otto Kuusinen. Kuusinen was the head of the Comintern’s Eastern Bureau during the late 1920s and early 1930s and wrote many of the position papers on Japan.

One of the things that the Japanese Communist Party did that was very significant was that it attacked the emperor system. It was for this that the communists were banned — not for being communists, not for proposing an end to capitalist society, and not for proposing a transition to socialism.

In fact, there was a relatively free intellectual culture throughout the 1920s, despite the fact that there was a government that was prosecuting imperialism all over East Asia, and that was increasingly open to a process of fascist transformation. It was absolutely possible to write about Marx, to read Marx, or to propose communist solutions to economic questions.

What provoked the extreme force with which the Japanese Communist Party was attacked in the prewar period was its insistence that the emperor system was the theoretical and political lodestone of the social order, and that without a frontal attack on and destruction of the emperor system, there wasn’t any possibility for a communist development. This element of the JCP would become very, very important, and would also become an element of its postwar legitimacy.

DF

How did the Japanese communists respond to the new situation that arose after the defeat of Japan in 1945 and the inauguration of a new political system that was under US hegemony?

GW

The JCP changed significantly, for two reasons. First of all, from the mid-1930s and the genuine transition to fascism in Japan — without entering deeply into the debates around the historiography of global fascism, whether Japan qualifies as fascist, and so forth — the JCP was not just outlawed: it was hunted down and destroyed. The JCP faced an extraordinary level of political repression by the state in the 1930s: extrajudicial killings, long prison sentences for trumped-up offenses, etc.

The main leaders of the JCP through the 1930s and ’40s — that is, through the high point of Japanese fascism and into the Pacific War and the defeat in World War II — were in prison. When they emerged after the defeat of Japan and the surrender of the emperor in August 1945, the JCP emerged essentially not just unscathed but with a remarkable degree of popularity, despite the years of repression.

The JCP could legitimately say, “We are the sole political force who did not collaborate with the previous system.” Also, even among people who were not sympathetic to the JCP’s particular political ideology — to communism, socialism, Marxism — there was a significant section of the population, especially the working population, who saw them as a new possibility in political terms, at a moment when warfare had devastated the Japanese state.

It wasn’t only a perspective that said, “These people were persecuted by the previous order,” but also a perspective that said, “The previous order led us to destruction, therefore we should have listened to those voices which saw early on the destructive force of the fascist order.” The Japanese Communist Party thus had a remarkable opportunity in 1945.

The US occupation of Japan itself is a very interesting and rather strange phenomenon. Policy was essentially made in many cases by very young people — people who were graduate students at Columbia and Harvard. Policy under the US occupation emphasized the “de-fascization” of Japan — the elimination of the remnants of the fascist order from institutions and the repurposing of previous elements of government for a new democratic order.

In 1947 and 1948, there was the possibility that the Japanese Communist Party and the Japanese Socialist Party would run on a joint left-wing ticket for the elections. Polling showed that not only would this be successful, it might even be a complete success — perhaps enough to form a government. This, of course, was totally unacceptable to Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander for the allied powers at the time. MacArthur and his fellow commanders saw this through the lens of the early, developing Cold War — the possibility that Japan would go red.

This inaugurated what came to be known as the “reverse course” among historians. Until this point, there had been a sense that the American occupation was going to participate in the de-fascization of Japanese society. Now the new modus operandi of the occupation was to maintain Japan as a bulwark against communism instead. By 1947–48, it was clear on the Asian continent that the Chinese Communists, who had been struggling for ten or fifteen years in conditions of civil war, were on the verge of victory, which would come to pass in 1949. The moment was a very volatile one in geopolitical terms.

At that stage, the choice of the US occupiers was to privilege anti-communism over de-fascization. That really set the stage for what would happen in postwar Japan, not only in terms of the state but also in terms of the JCP and what would happen thereafter. To cut a long story short, the JCP had a brief turn to a more or less illegal mode of struggle in the early 1950s. It went, in part, underground.

That underground experience of the JCP in the early 1950s produced some remarkable political, cultural, and even literary and artistic effects. It was a very influential period, but it was repudiated by the JCP’s turn in 1955, when the party declared an end to any attempt at armed struggle and an acceptance of the parliamentary road.

DF

In the 1960s, despite or perhaps because of the extraordinary economic boom at the time, Japan developed one of the most significant New Left movements. It was easily on a par, in terms of social and political weight, with the movements in Western Europe at the same time. What common ground did it share with those European movements, and how did it differ from them?

GW

The Japanese New Left shared in some senses a common pathway of development with the New Left in Europe and North America. First of all, the effects of the 1950s on the global communist movement were significant. I’m thinking here of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and its crushing by the Soviet Union, and the so-called secret speech of Nikita Khrushchev at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, when the crimes of Joseph Stalin and the existence of the gulag were revealed. This had a very intense effect on British communism, for example. It was the moment of the creation of the New Left and a certain exodus from the British Communist Party. The same can be said about many other places, like France.

The revelations about the nature of the Soviet Union and the pitfalls of the Soviet model of communism had a significant effect in creating a left that was independent of the JCP, with its Comintern-driven and deeply Stalinist orientation. But as I just mentioned, there was also an impact from just before 1956 and that apocalyptic moment for global communism. That stemmed from the repudiation by the JCP of the underground experience of direct action in the early 1950s.

The JCP repudiated the line of armed struggle at the party’s Sixth Congress in 1955 and condemned those who went into the villages in a peculiar movement called the “mountain and village operations corps.” These were student groups that went into the poor and desolate rural villages in an attempt to spark revolution. Many young people took as a genuine betrayal the JCP’s repudiation of this experience, which was formative for a whole generation, as having been simply ultraleft adventurism, and as a sign that the Japanese Communist Party was no longer the vanguard of revolutionary politics that genuinely sought to overturn the existing order.

From that moment of 1955, there was already a kind of nascent New Left forming. What really concretized that New Left before 1968 was the experience in 1959–60 of the renewal of the US-Japan joint security treaty. This was the governmental pact that kept the US military in Japan and kept Japan subordinate to the US. There was a mass uprising against it.

The student movement of 1959–60 — the so-called Anpo movement, named after this treaty — brought extraordinary numbers of people into the streets, often in simultaneous demonstrations around Japan. We’re talking about as many as seven million people in some of the daily demonstrations. That’s not in one place — that’s across the whole nation — but nevertheless, seven million is still a remarkable number to have mobilized in the 1950s under the social conditions that Japan was in at the time.

That period of 1959–60 created the first student movement that gave student power a genuine popular and national edge. In the late 1960s, when the second student movement reached its peak in Japan, there was a popular undercurrent that had already been formed. Obviously, there was a global simultaneity of political questions, particularly the opposition to US imperialism and the antiwar movement. But the Japanese New Left was not in any way an imitation of the New Left in France, Germany, or the United States. It was something that had its own local trajectory of development, albeit one that was, of course, articulated to this broader moment of upheaval.

DF

Coming into the 1970s, the JCP had a reputation for being rather close to the Eurocommunist current that was developing in countries like Italy and Spain. Would you say that reputation was well deserved, or do you think the Japanese party had a particular orientation of its own?

GW

This is a very interesting question, because the Japanese Communist Party, for people on the Left around the world, continues to be seen as a kind of remarkable oddity. It remains today a party with a genuinely mass membership for an organization which is unapologetically in the tradition of the large communist parties. The actual dues-paying membership of the party is still something in the order of 300,000 or 350,000 members. In Europe or North America, it’s certainly unthinkable that you would have this. If the US Communist Party has even thirty dues-paying members, that would be remarkable enough at this stage.

What distinguished the Japanese Communist Party in the 1970s was the long-standing leadership of Miyamoto Kenji. He was in charge of the party for a pivotal period, from 1958 through into the early 1980s. That period was coextensive with the high point of Eurocommunism in the Spanish and Italian parties, and to some extent the French party as well.

One thing that’s different about this period, which makes it a bit more complex, is that Miyamoto quite heavily criticized the Italian party’s “Eurocommunist” term by suggesting that it was a betrayal of the social, democratic, and organizational foundations of communism. This argument was in one sense an attempt to preserve the traditional structure of the party, but in another sense, it also had to do with the political economy of Japan at the time.

Eurocommunism in Italy and Spain was focused on realistic communism, as it were — demands for the expansion of workers’ rights and the emphasis on pockets of communist control within state institutions, for example. Yet this was undercut in Japan, in a peculiar way, by the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the main conservative party that has ruled the country in almost unbroken fashion since 1945. The LDP in the 1970s pursued an interesting double strategy. On the one hand, we can trace to that period the beginnings of what we would now think of as neoliberalism in Japan. But we can also trace a deepening of welfare-state institutions by the LDP itself.

The wing that was sympathetic to Eurocommunism in the JCP lost, not just because they didn’t have ideological hegemony within the party but also because, at the time, the Japanese state itself was taking a turn toward policies of popular equality. This was a very complex thing for the JCP and the Left in general to deal with, because there was a turn by the conservative forces in Japan toward a system of greater social equality at the governmental level.

In a way, the structural reform that the system itself was doing outflanked Eurocommunism within the JCP. The JCP throughout the 1970s was very successful in maintaining its organizational culture — a deeply Stalinist, “democratic-centralist” culture. It maintained this very difficult position in conditions of mass enrichment, and it even maintained insurrectionary elements inside the party. We can’t underestimate that.

There is a tendency to look at the history of the JCP and similar parties in terms of the critique brought forward by the New Left that said these parties were irretrievably Stalinist, but also bureaucratic and so on. But what made the JCP have this organizational culture that persisted was precisely the fact that internally, it did still uphold genuinely insurrectionary and emancipatory positions. The idea of the seizure of state power by military means also had this utopian quality.

We can look at the JCP and compare it with the Italian, Spanish, or French parties. Of course, in the case of the Italian party, it was practically an alternate state in parts of Italy. The JCP never had that degree of popular control or cultural hegemony. But because the JCP’s internal culture had this strange persistence of emancipatory elements and rigidity, it managed to persist through the Eurocommunist period without falling apart at the other end. That is possibly due to Japanese conservatives making these welfare-state reforms that kept the Japanese state in a space of relative equality when compared to the advanced capitalist countries.

DF

How did the general retreat of the international left in the 1980s and ’90s affect Japanese Marxism? Did Marxism begin to lose its currency among intellectuals in a similar fashion?

GW

It did very much. Today, the events of 1989–91 are as much of an historical break as we often previously thought 1968 to be. We often speak in this vocabulary of “pre-’68” and “post-’68,” but we probably ought also to speak in a “pre-’89” and “post-’89” vocabulary. I think the retreat of Japanese Marxism began earlier, at the end of the long 1968.

It started with this complex moment of 1972 or 1973, when many of the post-’68 armed-struggle organizations devolved into what was really a remarkable level of internal violence and self-destruction. Naturally, this was something that turned off the general public in a very comprehensive way, particularly because of how it was mediatized. But the same period also constituted a defeat for the labor movement. This is a global story, of course, that relates to the early ’70s oil shock and the beginnings of neoliberal social policy, in the sense of breaking the power of the existing trade-union movement in Japan.

Marxism certainly had a high point in the ’60s in Japan, and after the ’70s became much more academic again. That didn’t mean a significant retreat of Marxism from the intellectual landscape. I would say that throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Marxism was still the dominant theoretical mode, according to which a great deal of intellectual work in the universities was done, in history and literary studies and political economy.

But after 1989 or 1990, something very significant took place in Japan — the bursting of what had been the speculative real estate bubble. This was coupled with the loss of the Soviet bulwark and the notion still upheld by the JCP that what happened in Japan was part of a global trajectory toward socialism, which had its bulwark in the world, even if it was imperfect. The implosion of official socialism, alongside the implosion of the Japanese postwar economic miracle, created a genuine sense, I think, that Marx had come to be a figure of the old, postwar world, and now a new “post-postwar” had begun.

However, I think there were really significant things that took place within Marxism in Japan after the 1990s. One of them was the work of figures like Kojin Karatani, who is now well known in English. He began an intense round of publication. Japanese Marxism took on, in some ways, a more academic character at this point, much as was the case in English or other European languages. One of the things that was true in Japan, I think, was that Marxism largely lost a clear connection to political movements.

Of course, the JCP persisted, and various political sects from the ’60s and ’70s persisted, but the overall direction of Marxist analysis in the university ceased to have a direct political connection through the 1990s and early 2000s. I would say that certainly is something that is very different from the way things were in the 1960s, when, if you look through the major figures of Marxist theory in Japan, the majority had some connection to concrete socialist politics.

DF

To what extent does Marxism still survive in Japan today, whether as an intellectual tradition or as a political force?

GW

I think Marxism survives in Japan today, as it survives everywhere, because Marxism remains in some sense, as Jean-Paul Sartre once said, the unsurpassable philosophy of our time. In the Japanese case, I would say that Marxism survives not only in small pockets of society but in concrete institutions. The JCP persists in having a mass social basis — a genuinely mass party basis. That is a significant political trajectory in Japan.

In intellectual life, Marxism certainly survives, but it is nowhere near being the kind of hegemonic force that it was, especially through the mid-twentieth century. It can’t be underestimated the degree to which Marxism was such a dominant force in the universities and in intellectual life in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Today, nothing like that persists, and the figures of Marxism in Japan who do persist are no longer the sort of dominant intellectual figures that you had in the 1950s and ’60s, such as Uno Kozo or Hiromatsu Wataru.

Those kinds of figures are not really there anymore, but there is also a renewed interest in Marxism in Japan. That’s a global phenomenon that we’ve seen — and of course Jacobin is a part of that — over the last fifteen years, really the mid- to late 2000s. I think that is a significant experience in Japan that mirrors those in Europe and North America. I can’t help but think that it’s something very closely connected to your previous question about the moment of 1989–91.

When you have a generation of young socialists who don’t remember the Soviet Union, on the one hand there’s a loss of genealogy, a loss of intellectual tradition, a loss of connection to a great trajectory of victory, but at the same time there’s also a remarkable freeing that comes from that. It’s a sort of freedom from a need to see Marxism in one’s own time as an inheritance of the Soviet system or as a response to it. In fact, it’s simply untethered from it now. I think that element in Japan has a significant potential.

Japan shares with the other OECD countries the phenomenon of an emptying out of the working class — a destruction of the postwar Japanese miracle that was founded on a triangulation of corporation, state, and family that ensured a certain type of welfare. Today, Japanese young people no longer believe in capitalism as the guaranteed system which will bring them prosperity or even the means of subsistence. I think that has a great potential to produce a significant new generation of Marxists in Japan.

Having said that, Marxism intellectually is in genuine retreat, and the pockets of Marxist theory that persist in Japan, while important, are no longer hegemonic. That means that it’s all the more important for this generation in Japan, but also for us internationally, to really learn from the Marxist theoretical work that was done. I would say that Japan’s was probably the most significant repository on Earth of Marxist theoretical writing after English, French, and German, and possibly Russian. I think it’s for us to try to learn from that, in connection with the new young socialists in Japan — of whom there are many.

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About the Author

Gavin Walker is associate professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of The Sublime Perversion of Capital (Duke, 2016), editor of The End of Area (Duke, 2019, with Naoki Sakai), Marx, Asia, and the History of the Present (a special issue of positions: politics), and editor and translator of Kojin Karatani’s Marx: Towards the Centre of Possibility (Verso, 2020). His new edited collection, The Red Years: Theory, Politics, and Aesthetics in the Japanese ’68 is now out from Verso.

About the Interviewer

Daniel Finn is the features editor at Jacobin. He is the author of One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA.

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