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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/There is no such thing as Japanese Marxism

There is no such thing as Japanese Marxism

An interview with Kojin Karatani

Brian Hioe and Houston Small

 Platypus Review 71 | November 2014

One of Japan’s foremost postwar philosophers and literary critics, Kojin Karatani is the author of works including Transcritique: On Kant and Marx, The Origins of Japanese Literature, and The Structure of World History. He formerly was chair of International Center for Human Sciences at Kinki University in Osaka, co-editor of the journal Critical Spaces, and also taught for many years at Hosei University, Tokyo. He founded the New Associationist Movement aimed at abolishing capitalism, the nation, and the state in 2000.

On August 9th, 2014, Brian Hioe and Houston Small sat down with him for a conversation in Shinjuku, Tokyo, which was followed shortly by an e-mail interview owing to the difficulties of communicating complex ideas in English.


Brian Hioe and Houston Small: Can you please describe your initial politicization?

Kojin Karatani: I entered the University of Tokyo in 1960. It was in the midst of the political struggle concerning the revision of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. This was the largest mass movement in modern Japan—probably the first and the last mass movement of a large scale. The movement’s radical core was the student council lead by the “Bund” (the Communist League), which was organized by a student group that broke off from the Communist Party in 1958. Although the Bund was formed under the influence of New Left movements, which occurred in various parts of the world after the denouncement of Stalin in 1956, it had its origin in the postwar student movement in Japan. In the view of the Communist Party or conventional Marxism, students belong to the petit-bourgeois class and therefore must subordinate themselves to the proletariat and the party. But in 1948 a leader of the student movements called Teruo Takei, who later made his name as a literary critic, understood students as a stratum that can be relatively independent from class relations, and he stressed the autonomy of their movements. The New Left in Japan grew out of this student movement. The Bund, which was in this line, was in essence a student movement.

I participated in the struggle in 1960, and soon I found myself as a member of the Bund. It was later on, when the internal disputes started over the defeat of the struggle, that I came to think of the significance of movements by students. The dominant opinion then was that the Bund was comprised of no more than student movement and petit-bourgeois radicals, and a truly proletarian vanguard party should be built. Consequently the Bund was dissolved to establish a new party. I refused that. I did not think we were defeated only because we were a student movement without a real connection to the labor movement. I rather thought that the struggle in 1960 was the first grand-scale grassroots movement that involved the working class, and that this was possible owing to the student movements, who were free from the vanguard party.

Protestors surround the Diet in Tokyo on June 18th, 1960, to oppose the ANPO Security Treaty between the United States and Japan, which was passed the following day.

Protestors surround the Diet in Tokyo on June 18th, 1960, to oppose the ANPO Security Treaty between the United States and Japan, which was passed the following day.

I then wrote a manifesto in 1961, calling to reorganize the Socialist Student League as a free association of activists. “Students” does not just mean students in a literal sense. If one thinks universally, that person is a “student,” regardless of his or her social position. This league was free from a centralized party—it was kind of an anarchism. Actually it was forty years later that I came to realize this, when I was engaging with something similar—that is, when I wrote a manifesto for the New Associationist Movement (NAM). But at the time I was not familiar with anarchist theory. The anarchism that I knew and liked was the kind that exists within the spontaneously spreading mass movement—it cannot be created by leadership of any kind. In this regard, I was an anarchist, yet I disliked stereotypical anarchists of the bohemian type and have never called myself an anarchist. Though I have never called myself a Marxist either.

There was student rebellion in 1968 in Europe and America. And in Japan too, but its nature and context were different. It was in this year that the authority of the Communist Party sunk in France and Italy, but this had happened already in Japan in 1960. Thus 1968 in Japan was a kind of repetition of 1960. The events of 1968 for us, however, were confined to the campus—unlike in 1960—and they were a series of declines. The same argument that took place in 1960 returned. New Left groups and sects repeated the old critique of student movements, condemning them as petit-bourgeois, and advocated armed struggle. Consequently the student movement suffocated. Since then, not only student movements but also ordinary demonstrations have disappeared from Japan, until the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011.

Anti-nuclear protest in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo in July 2012. The Japanese anti-nuclear movement in summer of 2012, one year after the Fukushima disaster, saw tens of thousands protest in the largest set of demonstrations that Japan had seen since the 1960s.

Anti-nuclear protest in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo in July 2012. The Japanese anti-nuclear movement in summer of 2012, one year after the Fukushima disaster, saw tens of thousands protest in the largest set of demonstrations that Japan had seen since the 1960s.


BH and HS: You’ve claimed little intellectual debt to Western or Russian Marxism, emphasizing instead influence of Japanese Marxism. How has the history of Marxism in Japan contributed to your understanding of Marxism and the world more generally?

KK: There is no such thing as Japanese Marxism, but rather a set of problems particular to Japan, which our Marxists were confronted with. That is, they were faced with reality, which could not be explained with the formula of historical materialism. However, this kind of experience is not unique to Japan. For example, faced with the reality of China, Mao went beyond the confines of Marxist principles and advocated socialist revolution by peasants. This revolution by peasants is applicable to other developing nations, and it therefore carried with it some universal significance. Yet this should not be seen as the matter of “Chinese Marxism.”

In order to further relate our experience, let me take an example of “German Marxism.” Frankfurt School philosophers had to begin with Marxism’s defeat in the face of Nazism. They took seriously so-called relative autonomy of the superstructure, and even went on to introduce psychoanalysis, which previously was denounced as bourgeois ideology. German experiences formed such Marxism. Some Marxists in Japan had a similar experience; they too were defeated by fascism. But that was the fascism peculiar to Japan, namely “emperor-system fascism.”

In Europe fascism did not coexist with monarchy, so then why was emperor-system fascism possible in Japan? Marxists had to explain all this. Following the Russian Marxists (the Comintern), the Japanese Communist Party regarded Japan’s political system as an absolutist monarchy where capital colludes with the emperor, representing the landlord class. It is clear that, their view was based upon economic determinism. They advocated overthrowing the emperor as absolute monarch, but it was absurd to make such claims in this period. Financial capital was dominant and universal suffrage had been implemented since 1925. Naturally they failed to bring forth a huge number of converts. This was not just because they were persecuted, but because they lost support from the populace. It only encouraged a fascist movement, which upheld the emperor as the symbol of anti-capitalism and anti-communism.

The Japanese Marxists were totally defeated by this fascism. That induced some Marxists to heed to state and nation after the war, because the formula—that the political superstructure is determined by the economic basis—evidently did not suffice. They resorted to sociology, semiotics, psychoanalysis, etc. Actually these people were the best part of Marxism in Japan, but still, I gradually began to separate myself from their tendency to overemphasize the autonomy of superstructure and while making little of the economic base. I tried to get back the economic base, but from the viewpoint of the mode of exchange in place of mode of production.

In this regard, I would say that I was influenced by the Marxist economist Kohzo Uno. He was an economist specializing in Marx’s Capital, but was not part of left politics of any kind, either old or new. In his view, Capital is a science, while historical materialism is an ideology that served as a “guiding thread” toward Capital. Also he claimed that Capital could prove the necessity of crisis in the capitalist economy, but not the necessity of socialist revolution. I gather that socialism was first and foremost an ethical-practical matter for Uno. He was a kind of Kantian Marxist, though he never said so manifestly.

Japanese Marxian economist Uno Kohzo in 1952. He is best know for his book Principles of Political Economy: Theory of a Purely Capitalist Society, published in 1964, and translated from the Japanese by Thomas T. Sekine and published in 1980.

Japanese Marxian economist Uno Kohzo in 1952. He is best know for his book Principles of Political Economy: Theory of a Purely Capitalist Society, published in 1964, and translated from the Japanese by Thomas T. Sekine and published in 1980.

For Uno, capitalism is basically merchant capitalism. In my view, this is to consider the capitalist economy from the exchange of money and commodity, the mode of exchange, whereas Marxists generally start from the capitalist and proletariat, the mode of production. You can see how Uno paved the way to my theories. But it is true that he did not give any thought to the state and the nation.

This is all to indicate our Marxist current, where I formed my ideas and thoughts. Actually, I learned Uno’s economics not because I was a Marxist, but because I was a student in an economics department. Up to 1970s, Uno’s reading of Capital was compulsory to the students of law and economics at the University of Tokyo. These students were expected to be the elites in the government offices and business world. It is interesting to think that people who learned from Uno about the fatal fragility of capitalism were gathering at the core of the capital-state, just when Japan’s industry was rising and overwhelming the U.S. industry. And as those who learned American market-economy theories replaced them, Japan’s economy began to fall off!

BH and HS: Describe the two “transcritical” political breaks that lead you to write Transcritique after the collapse of the Soviet Union and proceed to study modes of exchange after 9/11. What makes Kant necessary for understanding Marx and the history of Marxism in the first place?

KK: To me it was not just a theoretical matter. As soon as I finished writing the book, I started a social movement called New Associationist Movement, or NAM. This move in some ways reveals my aims and intentions of writing Transcritique, especially on the level of practice. Fredric Jameson commented on the book as follows: “New relations between Kant and Marx are established as well as a new kind of synthesis between Marxism and anarchism.” This really captures it all.

I returned to the relationship between Kant and Marx after September 11 of 2001 for the following reasons: In the late 1990s, movements against global capitalism occurred here and there. I wrote Transcritique with a sense of optimism of that period, which however was broken by September 11 and persecutions followed by it. I felt that the international movements were destined to split. In fact Al-Qaeda seemed like the perfect example of what Hardt and Negri called the “multitude’s revolt.” But after the attacks, it had to be excluded from the “multitude.” What happened to Al-Qaeda was not exceptional, and other international movements against capital and the state are also to be disrupted and disconnected somehow or the other. Are there ways to evade it?

In retrospect Marx, as well as Bakunin, was keenly aware that the socialist revolution ought to be simultaneous world revolution. That is why they formed the International. But simultaneous world revolution became impossible after the 1870s, with the advent of imperialism. The glory and misery of the Paris Commune denotes it. Marx objected to the anarchists’ uprising in Paris first, although later he wrote an homage to it. This was because in his view, revolution in a single nation was sure to be crushed by the neighboring nations. If so, how can a simultaneous world revolution be possible after the imperialist period? The idea of simultaneous world revolution still remains today, but only as a slogan. Marxist or anarchist, the Left only holds on to a groundless belief that revolts in various parts of the world will be connected spontaneously in the course of nature.

Faced with these questions, I began to think about Kant again. I noticed that Kant actually conceived the idea of a federation of nations (free states) much earlier than the French Revolution of 1789, which indicates that his “Perpetual Peace” (1795) was not just a pacifist plan as it is commonly perceived. Despite his ardent support for Rousseauian civil revolution, he was concerned that if it happened in a single nation, it would surely be frustrated by armed intervention by other states. It was with this concern in mind that he proposed a federation of nations. This federation was conceived as a civil revolution, so to speak. In my wording, Kant proposed it not for mere pacifism’s sake, but for simultaneous world revolution. Perpetual peace for Kant means abolishing all hostility among the nations. This is nothing other than abolishing all states. And since a state exists vis-à-vis other states, revolution to abolish the state by definition fails if it takes place in a single nation.

Seen in this light, Kant deserves to be called a precursor of simultaneous world revolution. Here Kant and Marx overlap again. Two world-historical events occurred around the time of World War I: the Russian Revolution, based on Marx’s ideas, and the formation of the League of Nations, based on Kant’s ideas. We should not ask which is more important. Both are necessary and should not be separated. They both fail because they lack each other. In simultaneous world revolution, we shall see them combined.

BH and HS: As you explain in the introduction to The Structure of World History, creating a total system of analysis became necessary after engaging with Hegel. What motivated your turn to Hegel? How did your previous turn to Kant inform your turn to considering Hegel?

KK: I did not like the Hegelian systemic type of thinking almost by temperament. Actually one of my aims in Transcritique was the deconstruction of Hegelian logic. But toward the end of completion of the book, I noticed that my theory resembles the Hegelian system. Hegel too grasped the trinity of capital, nation, and state dialectically in his Philosophy of Right. Marx in turn criticized this as idealistic and put it upside down, breaking this trinity down into the economic base and the superstructure. State and nation were disposed into the superstructure. The state and nature belong in the superstructure, along with philosophy and literature. But unlike the latter, the former directly stem from the economic base. It is clear when you see it from the perspective of modes of exchange.

Through introducing the concept of mode of exchange, I conceptualized the capital-nation-state. I realized that I returned to Hegel in a way. By the same token, I understood why Marx, who was a critic of Hegel, employed Hegel's Logic amazingly faithfully as the framework of Capital. This was necessary for Marx to reveal the whole process as to how commodity exchange was transformed into a gigantic system of capitalism. My attempt was to do the same but about all four modes of exchange instead of just one, and moreover to clarify their relationships. For this kind of attempt, a systematic approach is indispensable. I even wonder about the similarity between my mode D and Hegel’s “Absolute Geist.” But of course, just as Capital differs from Hegel’s Logic, my book differs from Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.

BH and HS: What makes your Kantian parallax different from the Hegelian dialectic? Does the Kantian parallax view offer us a way to critically understand and change society in the present that we lose with a consideration of the dialectic of history in capitalism?

KK: I quoted the metaphor of parallax view from Kant’s earlier work “Dreams of a Spirit-Seer,” in order to elucidate his dialectics in Critique of Pure Reason. Hegel remarked that Kant enumerated four examples of antinomy, but in truth contradictions are innumerable and everywhere, and they all can be sublated, if treated dialectically. But I think what Kant meant by “antinomy” is not the kind of contradiction that exists everywhere, but the kind that can never be resolved, no matter how dialectically you treat it. Having said that, the first and second antimony can actually be resolved. The first antimony goes like this, as you know: “Thesis: The world has a beginning in time and a limit in space. Antithesis: It is infinite as regards both time and space.” According to Kant both thesis and antithesis here are false because it is possible to prove both sides are true. And today, mathematicians and physicists talk about something like the expanding infinite, that is to say, the space can in reality be both finite and infinite. Either way, this is resolvable.

Meanwhile, the third antinomy is of a different kind. In my view, this is the only true antinomy. It goes like this; “Thesis: There is freedom. Antithesis: There is no freedom and everything in the world is determined solely in accordance with laws of nature.” Kant concludes that both are true and compatible. With this, Kant presented an antinomy that cannot be resolved.

I feel that Marx, just as Kant, identified a true antinomy in Capital—contradiction between use-value and exchange-value. According to classical economists, every commodity has both use-value and exchange-value. But unless commodities are exchanged with others, they cannot have exchange-value or use-value. Commodities that remain unsold are simply discarded. Mode of exchange C intrinsically accompanies such a risk. Marx called it the salto mortale (fatal leap) of commodity. This risk is ordinarily evaded by means of credit system, but eventually exposed as credit crunch.

Marx appears faithful to Hegel’s logic in Capital more than anywhere else. But the difference is this: Whereas Hegel’s “spirit” overcomes contradictions and realizes itself in the end, Marx’s “capital” cannot overcome the initial contradiction (use-value and exchange-value) and retains inevitable crisis. In this regard, Marx’s dialectics in Capital is akin to that of Kant’s, not of Hegel’s.

BH and HS: Though you warn against setting up a facile contrast between modes of circulation and modes of production, you’ve emphasized the mode of circulation and read history through it in your recent work. What do we gain from an analysis based on modes of circulation as opposed to production? Have the politics of consumption deepened our understanding of capitalism, and if so, how?

KK: Marxists have been giving priority to labor movement for overthrowing capitalism. I am not opposed to that. The problem is that the labor movement has become increasingly difficult at the production point for many reasons. Counterattacks on the behalf of capital is one of them. In Japan for example, the national railroad was privatized in the 1980s, so as to dismantle the mega-scale labor union, which was capable of staging a general strike at will.

Another reason is the change of working environments and conditions, caused by changes in the production process, introduction of IT, and other things. Now many people cannot find regular employment and are forced into temporary positions of various kinds. Workers have no common ground and cannot come together. The rate of unionization has decreased remarkably. Meanwhile, movements of citizens, consumers, and various minorities became active since 1960s. These people dismiss labor movement as outdated. But, I do not agree. Is there anyone who is not a worker, among those citizens, consumers, or minorities? Well, there must be, but not that many. Then, shouldn’t we say that these movements are also labor movements in different forms?

Marx made an important remark in Grundrisse: capital accumulation (M-C-M’) is not achieved by simply exploiting workers at the working place, but only when workers in total buy back their own products at the market. The majority of consumers are either workers or their family members. Hence, I thought, consumers are nothing but workers, standing at the process of circulation. People’s location in network of relations is more important than who they are. Therefore consumers’ movements are also a form of labor movement. These ought not to be separated.

For that matter, when I was staying in New York in the 1990s, I saw a group of people standing in front of a delicatessen in my neighborhood and calling for a boycott of the “sweatshop.” The employees at the delicatessen were working as if nothing was going on. I later found out their strategy. If the employees were to demonstrate themselves, they risk losing their job. So other people come to demonstrate for them. And the employees demonstrate at other shops at other occasions. I found this very clever. After this, I encountered this style of demonstration several times at different places in the city. The boycott is usually understood as consumer movement, but actually it is also labor movement. The point is to fight in the place where it is easier to fight. In addition to that, consumer movement and labor movement should not be separated. They are more powerful when combined.

Social democrats say that with the state power they can control the capitalist economy, justly redistribute wealth, provide social welfare, and so on. But this is only possible at limited places and in limited periods. On top of that, all this remains as part of the mechanism of the trinity of capital-nation-state, and actually contributes to capitalism’s survival. In order to overcome capitalism, we need different strategies. On the one hand, we need to struggle with capital and state, while at the same time creating spaces for our livelihood independent of capitalism.

In my manifesto “The Principle of NAM,” I identified two types of struggles: internal and excendent. The former is to counter capital and the state within them; it is exemplified by the labor union and political struggle. The latter is to create non-capitalist economy; it is exemplified by cooperative and local currency. These two differ by nature, but can complement each other. We should employ them both at the same time.

BH and HS: I want to ask about your notion of historical repetition, that is, the idea that a certain phase of history may resemble a previous phase because of the persistence of the trinity of capital-nation-state, but in new configurations. For example, you argue that Bonapartism has returned in the present. But have the political problems that necessitated Bonapartism in Marx’s day ever fundamentally changed? Does a stageist view of history clarify recognition of the more basic phenomenon of capital’s reproduction and the task we have to master this?

KK: In the past I extensively dealt with Bonapartism in my writings. But I sort of grew out of this topic. Still, I am interested in the question of repetition of history that Marx discussed in The Eighteenth Brumaire. There are two aspects: the repetition of the state and the repetition of capital. Repetition in history takes place in the same manner of Freud’s “return of the repressed.”

In Rome, Caesar was assassinated. But, this led to the establishment of an emperor, boosting the police into an empire. It may be said that this process was repeated in modern France. The king was guillotined by the revolutionaries, but came back in a different form, as Napoleon, the emperor. This process was again repeated during the second French Revolution in 1848. Marx noted this repetition. Here, we should not overlook another kind of repetition that Marx pointed out—the economic crisis, which took place in 1851. This was another element that elevated Bonaparte from president to emperor.

In short, both state and capital involve some repetitive elements, and together they create historical repetition. Today I strongly feel historical repetition in East Asia is occurring. The current geo-political structure in East Asia was shaped by Sino-Japanese War (1894), which happened precisely one hundred and twenty years ago. This is, according to me, the approximate length of one cycle. The players involved here were China, Taiwan, North and South Korea, Japan, Okinawa (Ryukyu), and very importantly the U.S. and Russia as well.

It now appears as if we are on the brink of a war. I feel the need to understand this situation from the perspective of historical recurrence caused by the repetitiveness of capital and state. But I am critical of the people who say that the 1930s is being repeated. In the 1930s China was split and Korea and Taiwan were totally colonized. In the 1890s, however, China was a huge empire, and Japan and the U.S. were complicit as imperialist states. Isn’t it evident that the 1890s are similar to today more than the 1930s? Needless to say, similar crisis is taking place in the rest of the world. In my view, this situation is essentially about the old empires and modern imperialism. I tried to elucidate this in Structure of World History, and a recent book, Structure of Empire.

BH and HS: In Structure of World History, you agree that revolution must spread worldwide if it is to succeed. Many argue that Trotsky and Lenin made revolution in Russia so that it would spread to Germany and continue throughout the world. Was this their purpose? Were they mistaken to believe the revolution could have spread beyond Russia? If we were to view this as a genuine attempt at world revolution, albeit one that failed, does the failure make world revolution any more or less necessary in the present?

KK: I doubt if Trotsky and Lenin thought of the possibility of simultaneous world revolution seriously. After the February Revolution in 1917 there appeared two kinds of assemblies in Russia: the parliament and the soviet, which may be said to represent bourgeois democracy and proletarian democracy respectively. The Bolsheviks were minorities in both. Then Trotsky and Lenin plotted the so-called October Revolution—practically a military coup—despite objection by all cadres of the Bolsheviks except Stalin. This coup did not only close the parliament but also gradually turned the soviet democracy into the Bolshevik’s dictatorship.

What is more, the October Revolution was good news to Germany, whose military was therefore released from the Eastern Front. No doubt it delayed the revolution in Germany. Actually, Germany had helped Lenin to return to Russia from Switzerland for that purpose to begin with. So I don’t think Trotsky and Lenin seriously expected the ensuing revolution in Germany. They probably anticipated it, but from different concerns. The revolution would certainly take place there as soon as Germany lost the war. But this prospect made them think of taking power in Russia in advance. They gave priority to their leadership and hegemony in the international revolutionary movement rather than the simultaneous world revolution. It is futile to think of the world revolution based upon Lenin or Trotsky. Nevertheless, I think the idea of the simultaneous world revolution should not be relinquished.

In Philosophy of Right, Hegel criticized Kant’s idea of the federation of nations, for it only functions with the support of a powerful state, which is capable of punishing violations of international law. For Hegel, no hegemony (or world-historical state), no peace. Such a view is still popular. When the United Nations objected to the unilateralism of the U.S. policy concerning the Iraq War, an American neo-conservative ideologue criticized the UN and its supporters, dismissing them as merely expressing “Kantian Idealism.”

Is Kant’s federation of nations really an idealism, which lacks a footing of real power, military or financial? For sure, it is not based upon such powers, but it is not simply idealistic, either. It is based upon a different kind of power, although Kant himself did not specify what it is. The idea of the modes of exchange was indispensable for explaining this. I differentiated various kinds of powers, according to which mode of exchange it belongs to. For instance, political or military power is related to the mode of exchange B, and the power of money comes from the mode C. There is another power, which comes from mode A. That is the power of gifting.

To take an example, in tribal society, if someone fails to return to the gift, that person is believed to be cursed. He or she is ostracized or expelled from the community, which was equal to death for them. In fear of such things, people never breach rules. In this kind of society, there is no need for punishment by the state. It may be said that the power of gift is the same as the power of community or public opinion. In this sense, the power of gift is not exclusive to the primitive society. The mode D, which is the mode A’s restoration on the higher dimension, also has this power of gifting in abundance, but only in the higher form. You may call it the power of love, if you like. Perpetual peace or the world republic will be based upon this real power, which is far stronger than other powers.

Let us suppose that one nation publicly renounces the right to wage war. No state can invade them, because if it does, it is sure to be blamed or ousted by the international community. Renunciation of military power brings real power to the nation, namely the power of gift or love. I think that the power that will bring the world republic into reality must be something like this. It is logically false to counter the state and capital by means of military power and financial power.

The Zapatistas, a guerrilla group in Chiapas, Mexico, conveyed their opinions and situations widely through the Internet and obtained supports from various individuals and groups from all over the world, including the United Nations. This kept the Mexican government from intervening. It is often called a new revolution of the information technology era, but in my view its strength lied in the time-honored power of gifting or community.

Another example is the so-called Third World movement in the ’50s and the ’60s, which without arms and money was able to stand up against the First and the Second Worlds. They resorted to the UN as Vijay Prashad vividly accounts in his Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World (2007). They must have been aware of the inherent power of the UN. That was the power of the gift, and the power of international community.

It is true that the UN today has fallen under the domination of money and arms, so to speak. Nevertheless, it still has a good potential of being transformed into a Kantian federation of nations. For that purpose, countermovements against capital and state in each nation are also necessary. If the UN is to mediate these revolts, they will not be divided. Revolution in each nation will be unified and create a simultaneous world revolution.|P