13 August 2017

‘Start at your work place’ Elena Lange on Japanese Marxism

Hagiwara Hideo

Elena Louisa Lange is a Senior Researcher and Lecturer at the University of Zurich, a philosopher and specialist on Japan. She has published in the Historical Materialism journal on ‘Failed abstraction – The Problem of Uno Kōzō’s Reading of Marx’s Theory of the Value Form’ (2014, 22.1, 3-33) and is currently working on her monograph (to be published for the HM Book Series)Value without Fetish – Uno Kōzō’s Theory of ‘Pure Capitalism’ in Light of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy. This interview was updated for the HM website but conducted by Vincent Chanson and Frédéric Monferrand and originally published in French inPeriode.

VC & FM: “Japanese” Marxism is not well-known in the French-speaking [or English-speaking] worlds. Except for a study by Jacques Bidet, ‘Kozo Uno et son école. Une théorie pure du capitalisme’ in Dictionnaire Marx Contemporain, a special issue of Actuel Marx (Le marxisme au Japon, n°2, mai 2000) [see also ‘Kôzo Uno and His School : A Pure Theory of Capitalism by Jacques Bidet in Critical Companion to Contemporary Marxism (Edited by Jacques Bidet and Stathis Kouvelakis, 2009, Haymarket) and a few other texts, this tradition is missing in contemporary French Marxist debates. Could you briefly introduce its main currents and protagonists?

EL: Generally speaking, there has hardly been an intellectual in post-war Japan who has not at one point ‘flirted’ with Marxism. Influence of the re-shaping of the Marxist tradition after the war was so great in Japan that even conservative intellectuals knew they had to namedrop Marx to be taken seriously in public debates. Needless to say, Marx’s and Marxist theories were suppressed in the early stages of the Japanese Marxist reception, the Meiji (1868-1912), the Taishō (1912-1926) and, mostly, in the early Shōwa period (1926-1945). When in the early Meiji period, the period of «Westernization » a massive and concentrated reception of Western philosophy took place (which mostly consisted in huge translation projects for which the imperial government installed a special ministry), it was of course, roughly speaking, only ‘bourgeois philosophy’, that is, German Idealism, British rationalism and empiricism and French philosophy of life (Bergson) that was supported by the government.

Yet, as a matter of fact, The Communist Manifesto was translated into Japanese as early as 1904 by Kōtoku Shūsui who was a political activist. But the early Meiji socialist movement was constantly persecuted. Also the 1920s saw a rise in publications dealing with Marxian theory, especially of the first volume ofCapital which was first translated in 1920, followed by volumes II and III in 1924. But generally a wider response was only possible after Japan was besieged by the US army – who, ironically, at first openly supported Marx studies at schools and universities. But ‘Marx’ was not an exclusively academic topic. Public debates have contributed to the Marxian impact in post-War Japanese society. Those debates, often roundtable-discussion style and taking place in Japanese newspapers like the Asahi Shinbun, which is probably comparable toLe Monde, have for very long been a lively part of the Japanese intellectual tradition. Generally a heavy and concentrated reception of even methodologically elaborate Marxology, especially in the Critique of Political Economy after the war, took place with the same vigour which had been given to the reception of Hegel and maybe Darwin in the late 19th century.

When talking about Marxist currents in Japan, one would of course have to mention the role of the Japanese Communist Party, its members, the dissidents, and the fights, like the famous debate on Japanese capitalism in the 1930s. But I will leave this out, since as far as I know Jacques Bidet has already introduced the main gist of the debate to the French speaking audience. Instead, I would like to pinpoint « heterodox » Marxist streams, if only to shortly introduce them. The most influential Marxist/Marxian currents were probably literary, philosophical, and cultural Marxism, with political-economic Marxism being the most academic. Well known-figures of the literary stream, especially the proletarian literary movement of the 1920s-1930s, cover writers as Nakano Shigeharu (1902-79), but also Yoshimoto Takaaki (1924-2012) who is the father of the famous writer Banana Yoshimoto, a popular figure of the left-wing student movement in 1968 and a literary Marxist.

As for philosophical Marxism, it is very difficult to pick only one or two names, but probably Hiromatsu Wataru (1933-1994) – Japan’s best kept Marxist secret (since no texts are available in Western languages to date) – must be named. He was especially keen on the idea of reification and explored the term in all thinkable epistemological dimensions. Also Umemoto Katsumi (1912-1974) was a philosophical Marxist whose main reference texts were the Theses on Feuerbach andThe German Ideology. He was an important figure in the « Debate on Subjectivity » in 1946-48 that dealt with the question of the individual in historical materialism, often however a very limited discussion, and heavily influenced by Heideggerian-existentialist undertones. It should here be pointed out that often the language in which debates on Marx took place among philosophical Marxists were completely held in an existentialist idiom. Sartre was a superstar in Japan, and even people who were critical of him, talked very often of « being » and « nothingness ».

 In cultural Marxism, Tosaka Jun (1900-1945) must be named. Tosaka is a figure too important to be mentioned only in passing, so forgive my short account. A student of right-wing idealist philosopher Nishida Kitarō, he became very critical of idealism, and very quickly turned to materialism as a philosophical project. He founded the « Research Group on Materialism » (yuibutsu ron kenkyūkai) in 1932 where not only philosophical questions, but mostly problems of high actuality were discussed: the rise of fascism, the role of the media, ideology. He was of course arrested and died in prison in 1945. In my opinion, he was one of the few who took the 11th Thesis on Feuerbach seriously, and he was the only outspoken critic of Japanese society in a time when this was virtually impossible. Other « cultural » critics include the highly influential Maruyama Masao (1914-1996) – who however wasn’t a Marxist. But his line of thought, which included psychoanalytical approaches towards a critique of society, is from its language often reminiscent of the Frankfurt School – without, of course, any acquaintance of it.

As for the Critique of Political Economy, the range of Marxist economists spreads from critics of poverty and capital accumulation in a general fashion to experts on Marxian value-form theory in the more specific sense. Needless to say, Uno Kōzō (1897-1977) was primarily a scholar in the last sense with profound knowledge of Marx’s economy-theoretical work. During his lifetime, Uno had debates with many leftist contemporaries, and his collected works contain a lot of essays entitled « Answering to Prof. X’s criticism », where « Prof. X » often was a rival – like Kuruma Samezō (1893-1932) – but also even his own students and fellow researchers, like, for example, Furihata Setsuo (1930-2009). Today, Uno is still considered a point of reference for many critical economists, and very often critically discussed. Professor Ōtani Teinosuke (born in 1934) who is professor emeritus of economy at Hōsei University in Tōkyō today proceeds the philological criticism that Uno’s rival Kuruma Samezō started, and still holds frequent workshops on Marx’s Capital or theGrundrisse.

VC & FM: From the early 1920’s, some intellectuals, as Kazuo Fukumoto for example, introduced some aspects of Marxist theory in Japan – more specifically some typical “Western Marxism” problematics like “alienation”, “reification”, etc. Do you consider these notions to be central in the Japanese debate? How would you organise thematically the relationship between Western Marxism, in its most Hegelian forms (Lukàcs, Korsch, the Frankfurt School), and “Japanese” Marxism?

EL: Generally, the fetish and value- problem along with an analysis of its reified forms have not been spectacularly featured in Japanese Marxism in general. To be sure, Georg Lukàcs’ History and Class Consciousness had been partly translated as early as 1927. It just had not left such a terrible impact on the reception of the problem of reification. However, there are exceptions. As mentioned earlier, Hiromatsu Wataru has excessively dealt with the notion of reification. For him, there is a radical break between the early “Hegelian” term of alienation in Marx’s early works, and the mature works with its notion of reification as treated in the theorem of theFetish Character of the Commodities in Capital vol. 1. But the latter one was incomplete in Hiromatsu’s view, since the intra-subjective position was not entirely explored. Next to “Verdinglichung” (“reification”), he problematized “Versachlichung” (“objectification”), a more complete and thoroughgoing process in the act of exchange of commodities, and also between people.

Hiromatsu was however one of the few who clearly problematised value as fetish, and the forms in which social relations are consolidated as relations between things. You see, if the problem had been taken up, it was only considered in philosophical Marxism, not in economic-theoretical Marxism. But even with the philosophers, a materialist conception was often marred by the phenomenologist and existentialist – and often even idealist-Fichtean – idiom. This development may however change with the newly awakened broad interest in value theory, which as a matter of fact, cannot be silent about the fetish problem.

A newly published substantial work by the young researcher Sasaki Ryūji on Marx’s Theory of Reification. Thinking Material as the Critique of Capitalism (2011) is hopefully a step in the direction of changing the neglected discussion in Japan. But it must be admitted that the discussion would have to recapitulate the long tradition that had already taken place in the West, for example in the Frankfurt School. Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse have not been taken too seriously as Marxist critics who intensely theorised the fetish problem. In Japan their texts were at best read as cultural hermeneutics (Benjamin) or sociology (Adorno, Marcuse). The reception of the Frankfurt school and its critical impact had accordingly not been overwhelming. For example, Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s idea of “real abstraction”, however central to recent approaches in value-form theory, has to my knowledge not been discussed at all in Japan.

One could open a whole new chapter in the Marxian tradition if one were to theorize it in the Japanese context. This is all the stranger since, as mentioned above, Hegel was the main character taught in Japanese philosophy departments since the 19th century. It however occurred only to very few Japanese intellectuals that there may be a “Hegelian Marxism”, the philosophers Mita Sekisuke (1906-1975) and Funayama Shin’ichi (1907-1994) with his emphasis on “anthropological materialism” being exceptions. But the rule of thumb is that Marxist economists in Japan shied away from theorising reification. It is interesting to see in this context that Mita Sekisuke was also a radical critic of Uno Kōzō. 

VC & FM: Uno Kōzō is one of the best-known “Japanese” Marxism figures in France. Could you give us a synthetic presentation of his theoretical work? One of the specificities of the Uno School is the elaboration of a “pure” theory of Capital. This “transcendental” goal seems quite counter-intuitive and speculative. Could you state its epistemological stakes?

EL: Uno’s idea behind developing a “pure theory” of economy, as elaborated on in his seminal work Keizai genron (1950-2/ 1964), is much simpler than it would seem: to understand the structure of a “commodity society”, one would need to abstain from empirical and historical reflections in order to form a theory that can be valid beyond its application to capitalist society alone. It was Uno’s goal to understand capitalism, but understanding bourgeois society in his view would provide the key to understanding pre- and post-bourgeois societies. To be a working theory of capitalism, however, Uno was determined to leave historical data, as well as data, tables, questionnaires, etc. out. In my view, the most strikingdifference betweenKeizai Genron and Marx’sCapital, apart from its method, that I would like briefly to refer to later on, is that Marx’sCapital is, first and foremost, A CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY.

But Uno did not write a Critique of Political Economy. Uno instead took Marx’s criticism of Smith, of Ricardo, of Say, of Quesnay, and so on, for established facts. This is why Uno managed to re-write all three volumes ofCapital within a slim 227 pages (at least in the 1964 edition). This is quite a remarkable achievement. But Uno also heavily intervened into the architecture ofCapital. The Commodity, Money, and Capital that form the first three sections ofKeizai Genron, are regarded as “circulation-forms”. TheDoctrine of Circulation (ryūtsūron) therefore is posited at the beginning of Uno’s investigation. Needless to say that Marx starts withThe Production Process of Capital. It is within theProduction Process of Capital that Marx analyses the commodity and money that seems to be a pure means of circulation. Marx’s purpose was to show what wasnot obvious, namely, that money is a social relation grounded in the organisation of (abstract-human) labour in capitalist societies. Uno, in contrast, has a rather ‘functional’ understanding of money, money as a means of circulation. All in all, it must be said that Uno’s analysis of the commodity, money and capitalin abstraction from the labour process is peculiar.

In my opinion, the least interesting, but probably best known fact about Uno Kōzō is his three-stages- approach (sandankairon) to political economy: where the first stage would be pure theory, the second an analysis of historical stages of capitalism (merchant, industrial and finance capital), and the third stage would have to explore the actual and “real” political events. I don’t think this approach is particularly significant for Uno, because he had neither developed stage two nor three, although he had often conceptualised these methodically. Uno had, in my opinion, wisely abstained from the stages theory, which was so characteristic of traditional Marxists like Lenin or Luxemburg, and a certain fashion in 1950s Japan for the conceptualisation of Japanese capitalism.

Instead, Uno had fully concentrated his endeavours to understand capitalist socialisation within the framework of “pure theory” alone. He stripped down political economy to three fundamental laws: the law of value, the law of population, and the law of the equalisation of the profit rate. Undeterred by questions of fetishism, real abstraction, “objective forms of thought” and other concepts that have a great fascination for more recent Marxologists (including myself), he went the way of the rigid economist and explored capitalism as a process where rather everything happens for a reason. He was not interested in trying to find out why in capitalist societies, “alles mit rechten Dingen zugeht und doch nicht mit rechten Dingen” (Adorno) – everything happens properly, and therefore improperly.[1]

Toshiaki Suenaga painting

VC & FM: What are, according to you, the limits of Uno Kōzō approach? Do you consider Value-Form Theory-oriented readings of Marx to be a possible alternative to Uno’s approach on a methodological, critical and political level?

EL: The limits of Uno’s approach, I would see precisely in his dismissal of the “impure” elements of capitalism as a historical form. This not only refers to “primitive accumulation” – in fact, Uno speaks very much about primitive accumulation – but rather questions of the autonomisation of the law of value, of the value form as a historically conditioned fetish, and the complex of real abstraction. In other words, what is missing in Uno is an extended discussion of thequalitative dimension of value. The law of value cannot be explained on the ground of economic data. That would beg the question. The task of political economy would be to explainwhy labour in capitalist societiesnecessarily takes on the form of value. Reflections of this kind are in my view indispensable for understanding capitalist economy. Analysing the capitalist mode of production therefore cannot and should not be “pure”.

For example, in my research project, among other things, I am trying to find out if Uno’s view of money and value – you can say, neither a monetary, nor a pre-monetary theory of value, but rather a ‘functional-relational’ theory – owes to Uno’s disregard for the problem of fetishisation and reification. The dismissal of the labour theory of value – or rather, its misunderstanding in the Japanese reception – is very telling here. Uno criticized Marx for developing the labour theory of value within the “sphere of circulation” – in the chapter on The Commodity in vol. 1 of Capital, when it should have been in the sphere of production. This misunderstanding of Marx in my view perpetuated an ever more growing suspicion against Marx’s fundamental theorem, so that we have the peculiar case in Japan that even Marxist economists disavow the labour theory of value as “substantialist”, completely ignoring its critical impetus. It is no wonder that marginal utility theory has again become popular, and along with it, purely quantitative economic research that has given up on criticising theform which labour takes (as, for example, can be seen in the ex-Marxian economist Michio Morishima and his “Theory of Economic Growth”). Wages are again seen as an equivalent for a certain amount of labour, so that, at best, pay increases are discussed, not the wage system as such. Of course, this is a phenomenon to be found in almost all late-industrialist countries.

In May 2017, I gave a talk in Tôkyô at the University of Economics – in front of a lot of Unoists, as well as former students of Uno, all self-proclaimed ‘Marxists’. Yet I was stunned how in fact their line of thought is much closer to mainstream economics than Marx. If I were cynical, I’d say, “with Marxists like that, you don’t need marginalists.” But, thankfully, not all Japanese Marxists are secret supporters of Menger.

The “new readings” of value form theory have thankfully helped to reintroduce the theoretical relation between value, money, capital, and labour. They often go beyond Marx, which I think is needed and welcome. At the same time, I feel they sometimes undercut Marx’s critical impetus, often losing sight of the political and concrete everyday struggle. However important I think it is to go beyond Marx, one should keep in mind the maximal gesture that is intrinsic to his project: abolishing the capitalist mode of production and its “objective thought-forms”. Start at your work place.


[1] Theodor W. Adorno, « Introduction », inDe Vienne à Francfort, Bruxelles, Éditions Complexes, 1979, p.26