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Rethinking Japan’s Red Years

Originally published: Spectre Journal on July 9, 2021 by Selim Nadi interviewing Gavin Walker (more by Spectre Journal)  | (Posted Jul 14, 2021)

In winter 2021, Selim Nadi interviewed Gavin Walker for the journal Contretemps. The original French version of this discussion is forthcoming.

Gavin Walker is Associate Professor of History at McGill University. He is the author of The Sublime Perversion of Capital (Duke, 2016) and Marx et la politique du dehors (Lux Éditeur, 2021), the editor of The End of Area: Biopolitics, Geopolitics, History (Duke, 2019, with Naoki Sakai), and The Red Years: Theory, Politics, and Aesthetics in the Japanese ’68 (Verso, 2020), as well as editor and translator of Kōjin Karatani’s Marx: Towards the Centre of Possibility (Verso, 2020).

In The Sublime Perversion of Capital (Duke University Press, 2016), you write that “Marxism was one of the most dominant strands of theoretical inquiry in Japanese intellectual life throughout the bulk of the twentieth century.” You write something similar in the introduction to your translation of Kōjin Karatani’s Marx: Towards the Centre of Possibility (Verso, 2020): “It is probably scarcely believable to the majority of Marxists in North America and Western Europe that in the twentieth century, it could easily be argued that the most Marxist country on earth was postwar Japan.” How would you evaluate the translation and reception of Japanese Marxism outside of Japan? Why is the intellectual history of Marxism in Japan so deeply linked to the Japanese reception of Marx’s work?

To begin by answering the first part of your question, about the translation and reception of Japanese Marxist thought outside of Japan, I must say that there has been comparatively little, especially when we consider the incredible breadth and volume of Marxist writing in Japanese since the 1920s. Of course, certain figures of the early to mid 20th century, such as the cultural critic and philosopher Tosaka Jun or the theorist of political economy Uno Kōzō, have had partial receptions in English, as have various figures in diverse domains, ranging from history to the study of religion to Japanese literature. But these latter figures have not necessarily been seen or categorized as representatives of the tradition of Marxist theory in Japan. In English and other European languages there has been a series of small, localized receptions–the unique though partial and idiosyncratic reading of Uno pioneered by Thomas Sekine in Canada in the 70s and 80s, the more “orthodox” reading of Uno (and more direct connection to the lineage of Uno) of Makoto Itoh in his early and important Value and Crisis (recently reissued), the role of Marxist historians like Toyama Shigeki, Takahashi Kohachiro, and others in the international debates on the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the role of prewar Marxist philosophers such as Tosaka or Miki Kiyoshi in the rather narrow and largely Orientalist Western reception of Kyoto School philosophy. But all this amounts to only a very small and eclectic sub-section of a vast tradition. Then there are those figures outside Japan, but active in other languages who are themselves of a broadly Marxist orientation, and therefore trace a certain legacy back to the Japanese genealogy of Marxist thought, most prominently Harry Harootunian. Perhaps the largest connection to the Marxist tradition in Japan in the Western world is concentrated in the figure of Kojin Karatani, about whom I think we’ll speak later. Now, particularly in collaboration with the Historical Materialism book series as well as other places, we are trying to increase the number of translations of canonical texts from this tradition. It is a crucial task.

The second part of your question–why the intellectual history of Marxism in Japan is so deeply linked to the Japanese reception of Marx’s work–is a much longer and complicated story, one that has not really been told as such, and that we cannot even really adequately investigate here for reasons of length, but which is foundational to the formation of the modern human sciences tout court in Japan.

First, the early reception of Marx in Japan, beginning in the late 19th century and achieving a remarkable degree of influence by the 1920s, had a deep effect on the rest of Asia due to the culture of prewar Japanese imperialism in Asia and therefore the hegemony of Japanese as a language in the translation and dissemination of texts from the rest of the world. In this context, there developed three parallel elements:

  1. the analysis, beginning from the historical scenario developed in Marx’s Capital, of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, a process that was not easily understood as fully “achieved” in Asia, but rather as ongoing. This was essentially a mode of inquiry into the historical development of Asian societies, which had formed modern nation-states for the first time in the wake of the experience of imperialism and the encroachment of capitalism, in terms of world trade, in “internal” terms of the sharpening of class struggles in the countryside and the development of social forms particular to capitalist society, and this inquiry therefore treated Marx’s work as a scientific means by which to understand the local process of development within a world in which capitalism was already becoming globally hegemonic;
  2. the development of Marxist philosophy and speculative critique, in which Marxism furnished a mode of social analysis suited to the understanding of specifically modern sentiments, cultural forms, and aesthetic life;
  3. the work of translation, editing, and publishing, which was fundamentally supported by the anchoring of Marxism in the university.

Second, the peculiar specificities of the postwar period meant that the Marxist tradition was repressed from overseas representation. Following the end of World War II, the Japanese–in a convenient collaboration between Japanese conservatives and the American occupation–were historically “recreated” as a “homogenous ethnicity” limited more or less to the first imperial expansions of the early Meiji period (the Ryukyu Kingdom, incorporated as Okinawa, and Hokkaido, the native land of the indigenous Ainu people). This newly created, supposedly homogenous archipelago, retrojected into eternity, was in fact simply a form of disavowal of the prewar empire, whose existence profoundly marked the Asian twentieth century, resulting in a strange situation of a new inward-facing Japanese ethnocentrism in ‘domestic’ Japan, while American imperial hegemony more or less inherited hegemony over much of the Japanese empire. The “representation” of Japanese thought outside Japan, driven by “area studies” programs, existed in complicity with a new, heavily Orientalist vision of “Japaneseness,” and this history of Marxism, modern philosophy, and the intellectual undersides of empire came to be replaced in official support in the West with UNESCO-driven translations serving this image of the “pure” Japanese ally: crypto-fascists like Watsuji Tetsuro, or ethnic mysticism like D.T. Suzuki came to be widely disseminated, painting a picture of the new Japan as totally compatible with the Pax Americana in the Pacific.

This archetypal structure of the “postwar” US-Japan relationship has played an outsized role in determining the dissemination of the Marxist tradition of Japan in the rest of the world. Of course, after the end of the Cold War, this structure began to fall apart, and new moments of internationalization have emerged in relation to Marxist theory in Japan. However, there remains tremendous work to do to place this enormous body of work into discursive relations with its counterparts–and it is genuinely no exaggeration to say that Japanese language is perhaps the most important linguistic repository of Marxist theory after German, French, and English.

Who is Kōjin Karatani? What is his intellectual relationship to Kōzō Uno’s work?

Kōjin Karatani is very much still active, and a remarkable intellectual figure. He remains, probably without exaggeration, the last genuine postwar figure of the rather unique Japanese tradition of major public intellectuals who were grounded in the Marxist tradition. Karatani, whose political life began in the emergence of the first New Left in Japan around the 1960 student movement, debuted as a public figure from the field of literary criticism. His subsequent work on Marx, in the early 1970s, again made him a crucial public intellectual and well-known figure, but it was probably the decades of the 1980s and 1990s that cemented his reputation as a prominent figure of social thought and cultural critique. Karatani attended the University of Tokyo Economics department, where he was taught by Suzuki Koichiro, a major figure in the circle around Uno Kōzō’s work. Certainly, Karatani has long been influenced by Uno, at least in the economic direction, but this was true of a wide variety of figures within Marxism and within New Left politics from the 1950s to the 80s. I would not say that Uno has been the principal influence on Karatani, but certainly an influence. I think that the influence of Karatani’s time at Yale, the proximity to Derrida, de Man, Geoffrey Hartmann, and so on was probably just as crucial. Uno’s work was widely read well beyond the so-called “Uno School,” a point I think we’ll discuss shortly when we take him up in more detail.

It is interesting that Marx: Towards the Centre of Possibility first appeared (1974) serialized in seven articles in Gunzō, a literary journal “alongside short stories and serialized novels.” Furthermore, in the preface to this English edition, Karatani writes that while he entered the economics department of the University of Tokyo, where he encountered several members of the “Uno School,” he turned towards literature and lost interest in economics. And indeed, when reading this book, I was struck by the literary references and how these references helped him in his reading of Capital. Could you talk a little bit about Karatani’s relationship to literary critique?

Karatani’s work fundamentally began from within the field of literary criticism, or perhaps “criticism” in general. This concerns not necessarily the objects of his analysis, but most importantly, his “style” and his “reading protocols” (the Derridean reference is important in this sense). Karatani’s “examples” from the outset were critics like Kobayashi Hideo and Yoshimoto Taka’aki, foundational figures of the intersection of literary and social criticism. His work in this sense has always concerned writing–inscription, the advent of national language, the relationship between language and subjectivity, the relationship of speech to the text. Above all, Karatani developed a way of writing about social, political, and philosophical works that privileged textuality, at a time when, for instance, the dominant readings of Marx were highly conceptual. Here we might note his own point in the new preface to the English edition of Marx that he wrote with a certain influence from three figures: Yoshimoto Taka’aki, Uno, and Hiromatsu Wataru. All of these figures–Yoshimoto in politics and criticism, Uno in economics, Hiromatsu in philosophy–read Marx in creative ways, but always with a focus on concepts and theoretical developments. Karatani’s influences were linked especially in this period to Saussure and to the advent and aftermath of structuralism, which led him to develop a kind of parallel project to deconstruction in French and American literary criticism, teasing out the binary oppositions of the text, tracing marginal references back into the center of works, accounting for the structuring aporias disclosed by texts about themselves, and so forth. I think Karatani’s Marx – had it been translated 45 years ago when it first came out–would have made a significant impact in the global moment, not least because this stylistic reading and cross-reading of Marx and poststructuralist literary criticism was not yet an established mode of analysis. It made a huge impact in Japan, partly because it showed another way forward for Marxist thought, one that was not “sutured” to politics (in Badiou’s terms) after the implosion of the New Left in 1972–73.

Karatani’s method of reading of Marx seems, in some respects, pretty close to Althusser’s. Was Althusser’s work read on the Japanese New Left? Did it have an influence on Karatani?

Althusser was very much read in Japan, and continues to be–after French, Spanish, and English, Japanese is probably the most important language for the study of Althusser on earth. Major thinkers of the Left, notably Imamura Hitoshi, both translated and introduced the work of Althusser in Japanese through the 1970s, including an important full-length monograph on Althusser’s thought already in 1975. Imamura’s work, which is unfortunately unknown outside Japan for the most part, is particularly central in this regard–Yoshihiko Ichida, himself an important figure of critical theory and social thought in Japan (Ichida is, of course, also well-known in France as well for his work on Althusser, Foucault, Spinoza, and more) once remarked that “just as France has Jean Hyppolite on Hegel, so too Japan has Imamura Hitoshi on Althusser.”1 I think Ichida meant something very important by this remark: Hyppolite’s focus on the linguistic dimension of Hegel in texts like Logique et existence already in the early 50s prepared the ground for a new vision of Hegel in the thought of the 68-period, just as Imamura prepared the ground for a new, total reading of Althusser that would not become dominant until decades later. Since the 70s, hundreds of books in and around Althusser have been written in Japanese, including Ichida’s own crucial Althusser: une philosophie de la conjonction (2015), an important reading based on extensive work in the IMEC archives. As for the influence of Althusser on Karatani, I think it is more ambient, atmospheric than direct. Certainly, Karatani shares with Althusser a “theoretical anti-humanism,” but their master references diverge–Spinoza, Machiavelli, Gramsci for Althusser; Saussure, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Freud for Karatani. Karatani’s thought has its own genealogical development, which does not derive from French thought of the ’68 era, but rather parallels it.

Your collection The Red Years is centered on the Japanese 1968. To what extent did Karatani’s reading of Marx represent a break with the ’68 focus on the young Marx–Karatani being more interested in the textuality of Capital, influenced by Saussure, but also by psychoanalysts?

Karatani’s reading of Marx represented a very clear break with the ’68-period writings on Marx, especially those centered one way or another on the theory of alienation. The “theory of alienation”-oriented work, focused on the young Marx, of the ’60s in Japan was a firm reaction to the “old Left,” just as it was in Europe and North America. “Alienation” came to signify everything one reacted against: the formalistic and socially-conservative “Old Left” with–in Japan as in France–its Stalinism of thought, style, and culture; the new postwar consumer culture; the estrangement and solitude of mass society; the changing norms of sexual and aesthetic life. However, such “alienation” brought with it not only breaks with the past, but also forms of continuity, none more so than the fantasy of “unalienated Man,” as if once “alienation” were solved, politics would be rendered unnecessary in the “achieved paradise” of humanity. Karatani–and others–certainly saw these kinds of readings as naïve, pre-psychoanalytic, and politically utopian, in the pejorative sense. The traversal of the fantasy in the analytic scenario is not a sort of “cure” with a final point of absolute inversion, but an ongoing process in which effects of subjectivation emerge. For Karatani it is clear that his reading of Marx was Capital-centric, and that any discussion of the young Marx should be understood from the vantage point of the theoretical system and mode of reading established in Marx’s mature work, which provided a point of departure completely different from that of the “theory of alienation.”

Kōzō Uno is probably the best-known Marxist Japanese theoretician in the world, and he had a huge impact on Karatani. In his book, Karatani explains that Uno’s influence lies foremost in his focus on exchange. Could you explain this idea that capitalism is, in its essence, mercantile?

A few points are important to make with respect to Uno’s thought. First, Uno’s work has had a polyvalent impact on Marxism and the Japanese Left more generally that is much larger than solely through the “Uno School.” His work was read and upheld all over the New Left, from simple study groups to armed struggle organizations, and treated as the vanguard of the scientific, formal development of Marxian economic thought. In the 1950s to the 70s, if you worked within Marxist thought in Japan, whether or not you agreed with his work, you would have had to take a stance on Uno’s theoretical system, which produced already a set of figures around him, all important in their own right: Suzuki Koichiro (who taught Karatani), Iwata Hiroshi (whose theory of “world capitalism” was influential in the 60s), and many others, not all of whom became part of the “Uno School” as such. Karatani is in no way a product of the “Uno School” in its narrow sense, and his work exists at a remove from that type of highly scholastic and internal debate.

In order to understand Uno’s work, I think it is important to mention a few factors. First, Uno’s thought and his distinctive methodological interventions emerged from the formative “debate on Japanese capitalism” of the prewar period. This debate was essentially over whether or not Japanese capitalism was fully mature following the 1868 Meiji Restoration–and indeed whether or not the Restoration itself was a “bourgeois-democratic revolution”–or if it was instead an “incomplete” bourgeois revolution, one that had not succeeded in fully “modernizing” the national space. While property relations and labor markets had been changed, the essential elements of Japanese “backwardness,” such as the existence of the emperor system, the regional and familial nature of the political class, and paternalistic relations in industry and government, remained intact and in effect, were “remnants of feudalism.”

Of course, this debate basically mirrored similar debates around the non-Western world, where the volatile articulation of ostensibly “pre-modern” or “feudal” elements with colonialism and the development of capitalism, already in its imperialist regime of accumulation, had to be theorized. Uno argued that both sides of this debate in Japan–one side treating the generality of capitalism and the other treating its local, particular pathway of development–misunderstood the difficulty of directly applying Marx’s Capital to a specific, local, national, or regional situation. From confrontation with the dead end of the debate, Uno developed his distinctive methodological foundation: the theory of “three levels of analysis”:

  1. the level of “principle” or “pure capitalism,” capitalism taken in its “ideal average”;
  2. the level of stages or regimes of accumulation in capitalist development–mercantilism, liberalism, imperialism, with their distinctive forms;
  3. conjunctural analysis of an immediate, empirical, and direct character of the local and present situation.

Now, Karatani has often been particularly interested in Uno’s discussions of exchange as a background to his own distinctive theoretical developments, culminating in the last 15 years in his theory of ‘modes of exchange’. Uno often remarked that capital begins from the inter-relation or ‘intercourse’ between two communities, and that initial exchange becomes then internalized into each formation itself. But more broadly, Uno tried to conceive of how it was that, in Marx’s terms, “It is (…) impossible for capital to be produced by circulation, and it is equally impossible for it to originate apart from circulation. It must have its origin both in circulation and yet not in circulation.”2 In this sense, Uno’s work, and particularly his major theoretical works of the 1950s, developed an entire logical analysis of the peculiar position of the labor power commodity within capital’s drive, noting that this site marks the place wherein capital’s logical interior and its historical exterior interpenetrate each other, generating a volatile force of excess at the core of capital’s supposedly smooth and pure circuit-process. By developing around this point an extensive theoretical discussion of its dynamics of impossibility or irrationality, Uno formulates a series of original theses in methodology, on the concept of population, and particularly around the figures of the logical and the historical in the critical analysis of capitalism.

Karatani is presented as an author of Japanese “critical theory.” How would you define this critical theory? Does it fit with the Frankfurt School, or should one understand it in a broader sense?

Just as “critical theory” has transformed into a term in English largely divorced from the Frankurt School-inspired Kritische Theorie and has become something of a catch-all term for contemporary social, political, and aesthetic theory of a critical orientation, in Japanese the term typically used for this is gendai shisō, literally “contemporary thought.” The high point of critical theory in Japan was probably the 1980s and early 1990s, and the accompanying phenomenon of so-called “new academism” (nyū aka), a sort of boom in readership and visibility of the mainstream viability of works of critical social and literary theory. This phenomenon, in which Karatani and the critic Asada Akira played key roles, was linked to the important role of “French theory” in Japan, an index of the widespread Francophilia which exists in Japan, particularly within the industries of aesthetics and culture. To adequately discuss the history and function of Francophilia in Japan–which is of course linked in a complex way to French Japanophilia, fin-de-siècle japonisme, and so on–would take us far away from the subject of this interview, but it is important to point out that Japanese social and political thought was powerfully transformed in the wake of ’68 by 20th century French philosophy and social theory.

Karatani and Asada’s journal Hihyō kūkan [Critical Space] was an important vehicle of this work, alongside more explicitly political journals such as Jōkyō [Situation], a journal directly formed out of the Zenkyōtō experience of the long ’68, and Gendai shisō: revue de la pensée d’aujourd’hui, a key journal in the development of critical theory in Japan. This “tradition” is not as strong as it once was, but retains an importance within the university, but most crucially, within publishing. I would say that one distinctive characteristic in the Japanese case is the fact that, unlike the United States, where “French theory” and its developments were largely confined to the university (although the domain of the arts is a separate matter), in Japan, Karatani’s work, or Asada’s 1983 Kōzō to chikara[Structure and Power], an important post-Marxist meditation on French thought of the post-68 period, Deleuze and Guattari, Lacan, Foucault, and others, could become relative bestsellers among the general reading public. This sort of phenomenon is quite unthinkable in most other countries and its effects continue today, even if the so-called “new academism” boom withered away in the ’90s.

In the introduction to The Red Years, you write that 1968 in Japan was probably the longest ’68 on earth–stretching from the renewal of the Anpō treaty (1960) to the end of the United Red Army (1972). Could you please explain why you speak about such a long period for ’68?

I would go even further back and suggest that the grounds of the ’68 period in Japan began in 1955. At this point perhaps it stretches the credibility of such a thesis to suggest that ’68 is the name for a period of almost 20 years (1955-73), but there are certain key reasons for it. The first is that Japan has a quite different history of the so-called “New Left” than much of North America or Europe. The New Left is generally seen globally as emerging from the aftermath of the “revelations” about Stalin in Khrushchev’s “secret speech”’ at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in early 1956, and the reaction to the Soviet invasion of Hungary later that same year. The disillusionment that followed from this period–alongside the already-developing Sino-Soviet split–led to major changes amongst communist militants in diverse sites around the world. It was in some ways the spur for the formation of a communist political orientation outside of the Moscow-led direction, and even a sense among many youth that the official CPs had betrayed the cause, becoming ossified and inflexible bureaucracies.

Obviously, the historical and theoretical questions that this period raises cannot be treated seriously in a compressed way, and this is merely an overly simple overview. But in Japan, this process took place essentially two years earlier, and in an independent fashion. The late 1940s and early 1950s were a remarkable time for the communist movement in Japan. There was widespread support for the Left as a whole, despite the repressions of the American occupation forces. The success of the Chinese revolution of 1949 had given a new impetus and victorious subjectivity to the communist cause in Asia. In the early 1950s, the Japanese Communist Party was in flux, with numerous political tendencies within it. Under the broad influence of the Chinese line, the party had a clandestine, underground element, even a preparation for armed struggle, a flirtation with the “protracted people’s war” strategy undertaken by the Chinese party in the guerrilla war against Japanese imperialism. The JCP established remarkable political experiments, for instance, the so-called sanson kōsakutai, or Mountain and Village Operations Corps, in which youth party operatives and cadres went underground into the rural villages and peripheral exploited countryside to “make revolution.” The story of why this experiment failed is complicated and has to do also with the land reforms of the U.S. occupation, but the experience of this clandestine revolutionary moment had a long influence on the Left.

In 1955, at the 6th party congress of the JCP, this experiment, and indeed the entire period of clandestine or underground organization was repudiated by the party as “ultra-left adventurism,” and a new, parliamentary line secured hegemony within the party. That repudiation struck the youth militants as a stunning betrayal. In this sense, the JCP’s turn to parliamentarism in ’55 created the conditions for a communist left outside of the official party, a sort of nascent New Left two years before the Soviet and international situation would do the same on a global scale. This New Left then constituted the social background to the first Anpo protests and the Zengakuren generation of 1960, which in turn spawned the Zenkyoto generation of 1968. The aftermath of ’68 fundamentally culminated in 1972–described in a remarkable chapter of The Red Years by Yutaka Nagahara, himself one of the foremost Marxist intellectuals in contemporary Japan. In the wake of the 1972 Mt. Asama Incident, in which the United Red Army militants held hostages and fought a final gun battle with the police–in the aftermath of the incident, the internal killings of the organization were revealed, permanently turning the majority of society against the left sects.

There had been some grudging admiration for the post-student movements for their tenacity and commitment, but by 1972, the tide of ’68 had begun to recede. After this moment, the organizations that emerged, notably the East Asian Anti-Japanese Armed Front and the international Japanese Red Army in Lebanon, were much less centralized, and devolved largely into symbolic and nihilistic armed actions. The former Communist League sects–the Kakumaru (Revolutionary Marxists) and Chūkaku (Middle Core) factions–who had been engaged in a vicious cycle of internecine killings, retreated into their inner kernels of cultism. This brought, more or less, ’68 to an end. It is a turn loosely comparable to the late ’70s turn to the “urban guerrilla” concept in Europe–the Red Brigades, Action directe, the RZ, etc. That isn’t to say that the political orientation of the sects and armed organizations was necessarily “wrong.” But it certainly was an index of a general despair at the depoliticization and demoralization of the broader mass-character of the 68 movement, which had sustained itself beyond its own capacities and horizon, lapsing thus into a kind of nihilism. I do not reject this latter nihilism as such, but it is clear that it was a response to the overwhelming weight of defeat.

Why do you think it is politically relevant to put an “end to the end” of the Japanese “Red Years”?

I think it is politically relevant for two reasons. First, it is a “translated” way of saying that we should put an end to the period of the 1990s, with its discourse of the “end of history.” It is really the ’80s and ’90s that constitute the “anti-68,” a period of withdrawal, a period of the fall of Soviet power, a period of disillusionment, a period of the weakening of Marxism’s active force and the accompanying weakening of the social bonds that a strong politics of resistance to the dominant order made possible. Second, it is a refusal of a very specific historiographical strategy, employed frankly in the majority of histories of the “global 60s,” of a proud detachment and fantasies of “maturity” after the “youthful indiscretions” of ’68. Personally, I find this kind of middle-aged narcissism, obsessed with giving justifications for political and theoretical cowardice and the slide from emancipatory politics into jaded liberalism, completely repellent. Nothing is less appealing than the schoolmaster’s discourse of revolution as a product of youth, after which sensible rationality sets in, and immature fanaticism can be dispensed with in favor of championing apathy. It’s a betrayal of everything that politics (and thought) worthy of the name consists in: passion, endurance, perseverance, refusal, resistance, antagonism, courage, truth, commitment. The historical analysis of revolutionary politics today is one of the most depressing “professional” fields in institutional social history, committed to the great watchword of liberalism: “it’s complicated.” So we must refuse this kind of brainless emptying-out of the history of emancipatory politics–but that does not mean that we ought to produce hagiographies and heroic tales about a period of intense, exhausting struggle. Finishing with the “end of ‘68” discourse is not to fix it in the firmament as a “great moment” but is instead to restore its dynamism, openness, volatility, and actuality.

In West Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, there was an important debate among members of the New Left regarding the persistence of fascism within the structure of the New Federal Republic (some Maoists even developed the thesis of a Faschisierung of West Germany). To what extent was the Japanese attitude during the 1930s and the 1940s (not just its alliance with National-Socialist Germany but also its invasion of China) an issue in the Japanese New Left?

There is no question that the remnants of fascism constituted an important, even pivotal issue within the New Left. As in West Germany, the postwar U.S. occupation authorities, although nominally concerned with prosecuting prominent fascists, in practice rehabilitated a vast array of figures of the fascist regime as a stop-gap mechanism against the left, the communists, and as part of the nascent Cold War. By the time that the New Left fundamentally emerged as a major social force, the “remnants of fascism” had been fully reintegrated into the postwar order, exemplified by the Liberal Democratic Party, practically the sole governing party of postwar Japan.

During the iconic 1969 occupation of the University of Tokyo, the campus gates on either sides of the barricades were inscribed on one side with Mao’s famous dictum “it is right to rebel” and on the other with the slogan “smash the Imperial university” (teidai kaitai). The University of Tokyo, in the pre- and interwar period, had of course been Tokyo Imperial University, the flagship higher education institution of the vast Japanese empire–the implication, of course, was that in 1969, Japanese imperialism lived on in other forms. Still, the colonial and imperialist legacy of the Japanese state was not necessarily a topic at the forefront of the struggle in all cases. Because Japan itself became subordinate to U.S. imperialism in the postwar period, it was easy for Japan’s prior role as an imperialist aggressor to fall by the wayside. But the ’68 period also saw a remarkable upsurge of visibility of minority struggles–of Okinawa, of the Ainu people, of resident Korean and Chinese minorities, and of the burakumin or so-called “lower castes.”

1968 was punctuated by, for instance, the so-called Kin Ki Ro Incident, in which a second-generation Korean-Japanese man, Kim Hui-ro, took a group of hotel guests in Shimizu City hostage, blaming the Japanese state for discrimination against the Korean minority, and maintaining the “division system” on the Korean peninsula. This incident and its aftermath had a long reverberation, particularly Kim’s trial. Within the support group for the defense of Kim was Suzuki Michihiko, the translator of Fanon’s Les damnés de la terre, who argued that the Korean post-imperial minority in Japan was placed in an impossible position–severed from their roots but denied full “Japaneseness”–that could only explode in revolutionary violence. Two years later, in 1970, the writer and militant Tsumura Takashi would write his extraordinary work Warera no uchi naru sabetsu [The Discrimination Within Us], which pleaded for the New Left to make a new turn to Asia, to repent Japan’s original sin of imperialism and colonization on the Asian continent. Tsumura was quite brilliant, and his text had some impact, although not as much as it probably ought to have.

In the late years of this season of revolutionary politics, the armed struggle organization called the East Asian Anti-Japanese Armed Front (EAAJAF) emerged with the notorious 1974 bombing of Mitsubishi Corporation’s offices in Tokyo by the “Wolf” cell of the group, and in its wake, the “Fangs of the Earth” and “Scorpion” cells, amongst others, joined their clandestine “anti-imperialist, anti-colonial” industrial bombing campaign. The theoretical work and practical political stance of the EAAJAF–known also for its remarkable and long-banned manuals of urban guerilla struggle called Hara hara tokei [The Ticking Clock]–was unique in the New Left in its relentless focus on the colonial legacy of the Japanese state in Hokkaido (Ainu Mosir) and Okinawa, war responsibility for imperialism and colonialism, and the group took the decidedly non-populist line that nothing less than the destruction of “Japan” itself would suffice to repay the debts of Japanese aggression in Asia. Their practical impact was small but remains a little-studied and remarkably influential moment.

Why do you characterize these “Red Years” as a structuring defeat?

It is impossible to uphold the global 1968 in the so-called advanced capitalist countries as a victory. I say this not at all to denigrate ’68, or to join in the chorus of reactionaries who would tell us that the demands struggled for in the ’68 period were merely utopian and infantile. I think a great deal was at stake in 1968, and the struggle of the global New Left must be upheld. However, it is a simple fact that the New Left, despite even the turn to armed struggle, was unable to reverse the trends they saw: the reorganization of world imperialism, the predations of capitalist society on a global scale, the warfare and destruction wrought by the geopolitics of the Cold War, the alienation and withdrawal of all forms of community under the dominance of commodity society, the deadening cultural drift of administered bureaucracy.

Today, virtually every aspect of what the New Left fought against is worse, deepened, and ever more intransigent. So it would be a complete farce to call ’68 a victory. It’s a defeat. But I think Yutaka Nagahara said something very important in his contribution to The Red Years. Instead of treating ’68 as something “post-evental,” a kind of emblem of what once was that is affixed to a now inaccessible historical fact, we have to transform it into something “pre-evental,” a feature of our history that constitutes one attempt at an emancipatory, liberatory politics, a historical foundation of something that is to come, an anticipated new break. Nagahara calls this “delivering politics to this defeat”–I think that, at any rate, is something we must do: deliver politics to ’68 so that it may function not as a past failure, but as a present possibility.

What is the state of today’s Japanese Left?

I am not best placed to answer, because the question is of an immediate practical and conjunctural character. Academics like myself should not give proclamations on the status of the Left, but rather should provide interventions in history and theory that can be used in the subjective practice of politics. I think there is, in Japan as there is everywhere in the advanced capitalist countries today, a return to Marxism, a return to the history of communism and a return to emancipatory directions of analysis against the dead end of liberal parliamentary politics. It is clear that young people in Japan, as elsewhere, are desperate for any political possibility that recognizes in the dominant order a road to annihilation. The climate crisis, exacerbated in Japan by the ongoing corporate state cover-up of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami centred in the Tōhoku region, has equally radicalized many young people against the sclerotic bourgeois-parliamentary order in Japan, its self-undermining rigidity, and its destructive, vicious despotism on the environmental question.

New generations of Marxists of course also exist in the Japanese university system, which has always developed theoretical research of the highest quality, and there are many important examples, such as the extensive Japanese participation in the MEGA project. Having said that, a certain part of the “return of Marxism” today in Japan, like elsewhere, consists in a formalistic and scholastic return to Marxology, politically conjoined to a conciliatory social democracy. This is a grave error, what Badiou once called the “Marxism of drowsiness and the classroom.” Sterile debates over the placement of commas in Marx’s unpublished manuscripts are of nearly zero use to contemporary politics. The creative, combative tradition of Marxist theoretical and political work in Japan, particularly in the 1950s through the ’80s, should be reactivated. The tradition of struggle of the New Left should be upheld.

To say that “men make history, but not in circumstances of their choosing” is a reminder that although you can make history, you also cannot escape it. The “return to Marx” must also be a “return to Marxism” and above all a “return to politics”–the concrete politics of doing Marxism in specific conjunctures–or it will be nothing but Talmudic debates over textual interpretation. Our task is to produce a thought of struggle, of combat, not simply to enhance our view of the 19th century’s intellectual history. If a new generation in Japan discovers that the linguistic tradition of this archipelago contains a vast encyclopaedia of this “thought of struggle” that can be a reference for the entire world, that would be a genuinely powerful tool for emancipatory politics today.

Selim Nadi holds a PhD in History from Sciences Po (Paris, France). He is currently a member of the editorial board of the QG Décolonial(qgdecolonial.fr).