Japanese Intellectuals on Marxism and Capitalism: Two Works in One

Anthony Rausch

In The Sublime Perversion of Capital: Marxist Theory and the Politics of History in Modern Japan, Gavin Walker constructs a lengthy but critically insightful reconsideration of a number of important elements of Marxist theoretical research by looking at the debates surrounding Japanese capitalism that were taking place among Japanese academics in the 1920s and 1930s. In this, Walker serves, both admirably and adroitly, two highly meaningful aims: producing a highly informed and informing treatise on several vital points of contention within Marxist theory on the one hand, while portraying the high level of Japanese social science theorization that was taking place at the time – work that provided a foundation that would influence Japanese social science for half a century thereafter – on the other.

Marxism and the debates on Japanese capitalism in Japan

Walker opens the book by noting that the resistance that persisted to Marxist theoretical research was largely based on the situation of the ‘non-West’, principally found in debates concerning the so-called national question and the particulars of primitive accumulation as these transpired in non-western circumstances, together with the historicity of Marx’s work itself. The turn from this opening to questions related to capital and capitalism comes with his introduction and elucidation of the debates Japanese researchers produced on questions regarding Japanese capitalism, principally in the work of Marxist theorist Kozo Uno (1897-1977), but with reference to other Japanese social scientists as well. Walker correctly points to the importance of Marxist theory in early Japanese social science; Marxism was indeed a dominant stream of Japanese intellectual and philosophical thought through much of the 20th century.  As such, the early contributions to Marxist theorization that emerged through the debates on Japanese capitalism that took place in the early (and mid-)period of the century constitute what Walker refers to as a critical sublation and transcendence of larger Marxist debates. Walker presents an impressive list of Japanese works as primary and secondary sources, 26 works by Uno, along with multiple works by Ryusaku Yamada, Kojin Karatani, Yutaka Nagahara (and others), to go along with the usual citations of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Alain Badiou (and others). While he points to important contributions by virtually all of the Japanese scholars, he alludes specifically to the value of Uno’s work when he notes that the relationship between theory and history is highly complex when the object of analysis is capitalism: ‘throughout the debate on Japanese capitalism and particularly in Uno’s attempt to both critically sublate as well as transcend its limitations, the national question—that is, the question of the function of the nation as a mechanism within the social relation of capital—remained always at the debate’s center’ (p. 183).

The Two Sides to The Sublime Perversion

Originating in a dissertation, The Sublime Perversion of Capital is a heavy book: not so much in pages as in prose and notes. Reading it – 194 pages of densely-written information and argument followed by 30 pages of highly informative notes – you earn every page, but doing so rewards you with broad intellectual sweeps and valuable nuggets of insight. Both of these – the broad trajectories of Marxist theory as well as the details that comprise it – provide meaningful insight (once again) on Marxism and capitalism, while also presenting valuable insights into early Japanese social science. That there is much to read on Marxism and capitalism is an obvious truism; Walker’s work might be most closely linked with Harry Harootunian’s 2015 Marx After Marx: History and Time in the Expansion of Capitalism (Columbia: Columbia University Press). In Harootunian’s work, the trail leads through Lenin and Russia, Gramsci and Italy, Luxemburg and Lucas, as well as Japan and Peru. With Walker, the focus is on Japan, early Japanese capitalism and the debates of Japanese intellectuals in the early trajectory of Japanese social science, and as Walker makes the case, deservedly so. As above, the work takes up historicity of capitalism through what Walker describes as the extraordinary prescience and sophistication of the Marxist theoretical analyses that were being undertaken in Japan. Here the focus is specifically on the contributions of Japanese social scientists and Japanese social science: clarification of the transition to capitalism in Asia, the political role of the state in its divergence from the feudal patterns of Europe, examination of the history of Japanese social, and socioeconomic, formation and foundations. However, these points are all put to use in a broader examination of capital and capitalism that constitutes the primary reason for the book. What Walker finds in this is that the debate on Japanese capitalism, as brought out both in Uno’s theoretical work on Marxism and the reactions to it, teaches us that we have only begun to think through the implications of capitalism and the sublimely perverse abstraction called capital. His final argument is two-fold. He alludes to Uno’s insight that it is conceptually impossible to understand Japan (and Japanese capitalism) on the basis of ‘Japan’ as a given entity. By positing Japan, Japan can thus be mobilized to explain itself. This is then the logic of understanding capital: while distant and inaccessibly formal, it is paradoxically the most immediate paradigm we experience. Walker’s final paragraph, which I will advise readers to read for themselves, then provides the keys to developing a truly dialectical historiography.

In closing, I would be remiss not to allude directly to the ‘sublime perversion’ of the title, what Walker describes as capital’s tendency toward the inversion or reversal of its own misfortunes, its constant and relentless transformation of limits into thresholds, and its capacity to thrive on and invert its own contradictions into developments or extensions. While my interest was primarily on the contribution the work offered regarding Japanese history, in terms of political if not intellectual history, the laying bare of the workings of capitalism through an incisive journey through Marxist theory was a much-appreciated bonus. In this sense, Walker’s work offers something of value to both economic historians as well as Japanologists: an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the contributions of Japanese intellectuals as you focus on the tensions of Marxism and capitalism for the former and a review (if not (re)discovery) of the essentials of Marxism and capitalist theory while in pursuit of the history of contemporary Japanese social sciences for the latter.