5th Mar, 2022
1. Introducing Thomas T. Sekine’s Academic Journey
While it was with extreme sadness and sense of loss that I learned of the passing of Thomas T. Sekine on 16 January 2022, I am honoured to be able to celebrate his extraordinary contribution to Marxian economic and political economic thought in this short article. Sekine’s academic journey commenced in 1953 when he entered the undergraduate programme in Social Science at Hitotsubashi University in Japan. By his own admission, he was not drawn to economic studies specifically. Yet he found himself caught up in a controversy raging at that time in Japanese academia between bourgeois and Marxian economics, forcing him to publicly declare which side of the divide he stood on. That Sekine was proficient in reading French, German and English at that time greatly aided him in his quest to achieve knowledge in Marxian economics to which he felt most disposed toward.
To offer a brief contextualisation here, many readers will certainly be surprised to learn of a contestation between Marxian and bourgeois economics in Japanese universities in the 1950s! After all, across much of the western academy bourgeois economics in its neoclassical mode had largely achieved hegemony early in the twentieth century. In the post-war period, its growing sense of triumphalism empowered it to begin a process of expelling non-neoclassical, “heterodox” research and teaching foci, such as economic history, from economic departments. Yet, in Japan, by the 1960s it was estimated that a full 50 percent of all economists in economics departments were Marxian. As summed up by Hoff,1 ‘it is still safe to assume that there is scarcely another capitalist country in the world where scientific interest in the Marxian critique of political economy is greater than in Japan’. Within this fecund milieu for Marxian economic studies, the work of Kozo Uno, and the ‘school’ he established, arguably gained prominence.2
Uno, a professor of economics at Japan’s prestigious Tokyo University, also gave weekly lectures on Marxian economics at Hitotsubashi University. Attending Uno’s lectures is where Sekine first learned about Marxian economics. Not only did Uno inspire Sekine academically but also deeply impressed him on a personal level. On the one hand, for Uno’s seeming inscrutability. On the other hand, for his approachability and warmth notwithstanding the fact that Uno was a venerated academic in Japan. What particularly struck Sekine as a student of Uno was Uno’s claim that he learned over 90 percent of his economics directly from Marx by going head-to-head, so to speak, with the three volumes of Marx’s Capital, rather than participating in this or that study group as was generally the fashion in Japan.3
Influenced by Uno, Sekine proceeded to delve further into Marxian economics. As Sekine turned to graduate studies, however, he felt a compulsion to study bourgeois economics as well. Not because it excited him, but for the simple reason that it constituted the predominant rival theory to Marxian economics. Sekine, at this time, in his early graduate studies, took the opportunity to attend McGill University in Montreal Canada, in 1958. From there, with his mind made up to study bourgeois economics, Sekine went to Britain, completing his Ph.D. at the London School of Economics in 1966. Sekine then secured employment firstly in the economics department at Simon Fraser University in Canada, then in economics at York University in Toronto. However, Sekine soon tired of academic writing related to his teaching in bourgeois economics and rekindled his contact with Uno. From that juncture, which, in the early 1970s, coincided with renewed academic interest in the West in Marx’s economic thought (the English translation of the Grundrisse appeared in 1973, for example), Sekine embarked upon a journey that would consume his life, to reinvigorate Marxian economics by reconstructing Marx’s theory in Capital in the vein opened by Uno.
Sekine’s initial major publication detailing the signal constituents of Uno’s approach to Marxist theory in contrast with what Sekine dubs ‘conventional Marxism’ appeared in Journal of Economic Literature.4 This was followed up by his English translation of Uno’s single volume abridged version of the two volume Principles of Political Economy Uno published in the early 1950s.5 During the time Sekine was engaging in the translation and following its publication, he cultivated contacts with scholars in Japan similarly working in the Uno School tradition. Yet Sekine maintained what he saw as a healthy intellectual distance from them. The reason for this was that he viewed them as proceeding far too cautiously in seeking to be super faithful to the letter of what Uno wrote in this or that context. Sekine well knew that Uno’s writings were anything but transparent and this issue was amplified, Sekine learned, when translating Uno’s work into English. Hence, Sekine concluded that he had to be courageous in transposing Uno’s economic writings on Marx in a more graspable form. One that was close to Uno’s thought and person to which Sekine felt a kindred spirit, whatever the risks or criticisms he might face in that endeavour.6
By 1986, Sekine had written his magisterial two volume Dialectic of Capital which simultaneously dialogued with Uno’s two volume Principles of Political Economy, Marx’s three volume Capital, G.W.F. Hegel’s Logic, and offered a critique of bourgeois economics in its neoclassical mode. Much to Sekine’s disappointment, a major university press that his magnum opus was destined for baulked at the last-minute, likely for fear of its devastation of bourgeois economics, criticism of ‘conventional Marxism’ and robust defence of Marx’s scientificity, prompting Sekine to self-publish a limited edition of the volumes which he distributed to close colleagues. Ultimately, it is in the Historical Materialism Book Series that this work has been published decades later.7 A ‘shorter’ two volume version of the foregoing also appeared in print in the hands of another publisher.8 Selection of Sekine’s articles and book chapter contributions are collected in an accessible edited volume.9 Most recently, Sekine published a translation of Uno’s major writing on stages of capitalist development.10
Importantly, while at York University, Sekine inspired a generation of scholars to bring his approach to Marx and Uno into debates over Marxism. He was also instrumental in cultivating interest in Japanese studies more broadly at York. My initial meeting with him was in 1981 when he came to lecture in an advanced undergraduate course taught by Robert Albritton on the three volumes of Marx’s Capital. I had, fortunately, read Capital by 1978 along with the Grundrisse and parts of Hegel’s Logic enabling me to better comprehend the nuanced approach I was being exposed to. Sekine was always extremely giving with his thoughts and time. Between Sekine and Albritton who was strongly influenced by Sekine as well in the shaping of his thinking on Marx, I emerged a different Marxian thinker from that class, being previously a subscriber of Ernest Mandel’s approach to Marxian economic theory.
2. Sekine in the Pursuit of Science
As Uno before him, Sekine recognised Marx as a genius and extraordinary human being who could write voluminous scientific tracts, op-eds and journalistic articles, speak exaltingly at working class meetings and engage in revolutionary activism. Like Uno, Sekine always respected those participating in direct revolutionary struggle. But Sekine understood his own limitations in this world and realised that mere mortals attempting to duplicate everything Marx accomplished would at best amount to ‘mini-Marxs’ leading to impoverished renderings of all that Marx excelled in.
Where Sekine believed his forte within the Marxian fold resided was in defending Marx’s project in Capital as the preliminary attempt to set forth a new science and to refine Marx’s oeuvre in a fashion that definitively established Marxian economic theory as the foundation for modern social science (with what that entails to be addressed below) and as the basis for critique of bourgeois economics in all its forms. Science, to be clear, is used by Sekine, as he believed Marx adverts to it, in its strong sense as objective knowledge or truth of its subject matter. Marx’s and Sekine’s subject matter is the capitalist mode of production with capital as its causal force.
For Sekine, why Marx devoted so much of his own life to analysis of the capitalist mode of production through Capital and its ‘workbooks’ the Grundrisse and Theories of Surplus Value, rather than drawing up blueprints for socialism, as undertaken by the ‘utopian socialists’, or writing grand tomes on human history in toto (as Marx hinted at attempting in his 1845 The German Ideology), stemmed from Marx’s apprehension of the unique ontological properties of capital. After all, as recent economic history demonstrates, prior to the dawn of the capitalist era no one ever refers to such a thing as ‘an economy’ because economic life was always enmeshed with other social practices and indistinguishable from them. Because it is only in the capitalist era that economic life appears to ‘disembed’ from the social (to use Polanyi’s term) or, as Marx captures it, for the economic substructure to tend toward self-subsistence, separate from the ideological, legal and political superstructure, the very possibility of economic theory constitutes the historical existence of capitalism.
What makes Marxian economic theorising of capital an objective social science, according to Sekine, returns us to the ontological properties of capital. That is, underpinning the appearance of economic life levitating from the social in the capitalist era is the material tendency of capital toward self-abstraction or self-reification. Capital, in other words, is the only object of study in the social world that objectifies social relations. But such objectified social relations are never directly visible on the ‘surface’ of capitalist society. Rather, they recede behind that which they constitute the basis of – relations between material things that, to paraphrase Marx, appear, then, ‘to take on a life of their own’. Given how human economic life first becomes visible in history in its capitalist form, bourgeois economics was led to the exciting, but egregiously erroneous, conclusion that forms of appearance of capitalism were ‘natural’ instead of socially and historically constituted and proceeded with their enterprise in the false belief that they could study substantive economic life directly in an ‘economics’. For Sekine, it is precisely such an ‘inversion’ of reality that constitutes the true meaning of fetishism.11
To fully expose the fetishism of capital in its manifold guises on a scientific, rather than ideological, basis, Sekine argues, is the primary role of Marxian economic theorising of capital. The scientificity of Marxian economic theory is established by following or ‘copying’ the ontological object’s own method of self-abstraction or self-reification. This methodological procedure brings to bear the epistemological resource of the materialist dialectic. As Marx had made crisply clear, the initial, most unspecified or ‘cell form’ of capital is the commodity. It is the internal opposition or contradiction existing within the commodity between its material substance as a use value and historically constituted social substance as value which drives the dialectic forward. Objective theorising of capital is arrived at through disciplined thought tracking capital’s own inner motion to unfurl all the categories of capital in their logical immanence, thus demonstrating what capital, in its most fundamental incarnation, is and does.
Besides further elaborating Marxian economics on the foundations erected by Marx and Uno, Sekine always viewed one of his greatest contributions to be something neither Marx nor Uno were able to accomplish. It was this problematic which ultimately led to the dissolution of the classical school, supplanting of value theory within bourgeois economics by utility theory and serves as the differentiating marker for neoclassical economics. Calculus and the margin principle, as tools of quantitative analysis, were simultaneously deployed by Isaac Newton in his formative physics of the cosmos to treat potentially infinite shifts of infinitesimal quantities. Where neoclassical economics claimed its scientificity rested was never that its theory corresponded to the logic of any ontological object, but that its axiomatic modelling of price movements utilising calculus and the margin principle produced copies of models in theoretical physics.12 That neoclassical marginal artistry has absolutely nothing to do with capitalist prices does not mean that tools it relies upon to bolster its ideological subterfuge cannot be otherwise marshalled. What Sekine demonstrates, in a language understandable for neoclassical economists and Marxian economists mesmerised by the latter’s artifice, is that there was never any need to abandon the labour theory of value. The law of market value, the law of average profit and the so-called transformation problem, areas of Marxian economics which Marx left undeveloped, and that Uno treated only with basic numerical examples, Sekine shows pose no difficulty for Marxian economics nor does their treatment compromise value theory.13 It is simply the case that the margin principle enlarges the ambit of value theory to deal with the formal operations of the capitalist market.
During my final personal meeting with Sekine at a dinner I hosted for him at my hotel in Tokyo in late Fall 2018, Sekine expressed his hope that Marxian economic theory as he reformulated it in his Dialectic of Capital would become the basis for teaching economics world-wide.
3. From Science to the ‘Real World’
An oft heard refrain is that economics needs to resemble the ‘real world’. The first question that arises here is that the real world of human history and its societies is always composed of an ensemble of social practices. The very historicity of economic theory, as noted above, is the capitalist era because it is only capitalism which evidences an ontological tendency for the economic toward self-subsistence or separation from superstructure. Recognising that economic theory is only directly applicable to the study of capitalism and that Marxian economic theorising of capitalism is economic theory par excellence is thus one step in forging such a ‘resemblance’. A second problematic is that constructing economic theory on an objective foundation, as Sekine following Uno avers, demands the appropriate cognitive resources to follow the very ontological motion of the object – capital – as it objectifies social relations. In this way, economic theory is set on objective foundations. That in no capitalist society are social relations found completely reified does not invalidate the procedure. The ‘real world’ correspondence is between the logical structure of the object and the logical structure of the theory that captures what it is and does.
When Sekine adverts to erecting social science on objective foundations, what he means is that bringing Marxian economic theory to bear upon specifically capitalist history it is necessary to reset social sciences of the superstructure such as politics, sociology and law on a non-bourgeois basis. This conceptual process unfolds at other ‘levels’ of theory which factor in a third question of the relation between economics and the ‘real world’. That is, while the economic in capitalism tends toward separation from the superstructure, the ontological condition from which its scientific study derives, it never actually achieves complete self-subsistence in history necessitating the consideration of other social practices. Sekine conceptualises this broader study foci in terms of Marxian political economic study of capitalism as a whole.
Finally, Sekine maintains that, because in non-capitalist societies there is no ontological tendency toward the separation and self-subsistence of the economic from the superstructure, thus excluding the direct applicability of economic theory, Marxian political economy in a comprehensive sense, akin somewhat to the research agenda of historical materialism, is charged with studying myriad economic and non-economic practices across the sweep of human history in the comparative light of Marxian economic science and political economy of capitalism.
Even the possibility of socialism, for Sekine, is confirmed by Marxian economic theorising of capital through the way it demonstrates how capital manages to meet what Uno referred to as ‘general norms of economic life’ to reproduce material life of an entire society as a byproduct of profit-making. Thus, these same general norms will be met by concrete designs of free associations of free people reproducing material life of their societies for purposes of human flourishing. But all such economic knowledge hinges upon the objective theorising of capital justifying, for Sekine, his life’s endeavour to perfect that science
Bell, John ed. 2013, Towards a Critique of Bourgeois Economics: Essays of Thomas T. Sekine, Berlin: Owl of Minerva Press.
Hoff, Jan 2017, Marx Worldwide: On the Development of the International Discourse on Marx Since 1965, Chicago: Haymarket.
Sekine, Thomas T. 1975, ‘Uno-Riron: A Japanese Contribution to Political Economy’, Journal of Economic Literature, 13, 3, pp. 847-77.
Sekine, Thomas T. 1997, An Outline of the Dialectic of Capital, 2 Vols., London: Macmillan Press.
Sekine, Thomas T. 2019. ‘The Legend of Unoism in Japan’, The Japanese Political Economy, 45, 3-4, pp. 132-60.
Sekine, Thomas T. 2020, The Dialectic of Capital: A Study of the Inner Logic of Capitalism, 2 Vols., Leiden: Brill.
Uno, Kozo 1980, Principles of Political Economy, Sussex: Harvester Press.
Uno, Kozo 2016, The Types of Economic Policies Under Capitalism. Leiden: Brill.
Westra, Richard 2021, Economics, Science and Capitalism, London: Routledge.