It is a paradox of Western Marxism that it insisted on its own geopolitical specificity – the West – and yet made its particularity a universal condition for the excluded Rest. In this manoeuvre, there appeared to be no difference between earlier claimants of a universalist and cultural Western unity like Max Weber and Erich Auerbach and those postwar Marxists who huddled together in the uncertain precinct of a Western Marxism dedicated to serving the Cold War struggle to preserve ‘freedom’ (the free market) against the challenge posed by the Soviet Union, now the embodiment of Non-Western Marxism. Yet, it is well known that, even before the war, Edmund Husserl had already anticipated this conceit when he declared that only the West knew philosophy – a legacy willingly continued by ‘Western Marxism’ down to the present. In this connection, we must thus recall the paradoxical effort of societies flanking the capitalist periphery to appeal to either literary form (especially novelization) or philosophy, which offered them no place to explain to themselves their entry into and experience of capitalist modernization. This quixotic search for meaning in a philosophy that provided them with no place was led by Japan, owing to the good fortune of geography and a history that allowed the country to avoid colonization so as to become a contender in the imperial contest leading to World War II. But even colonized regions drawn into the capitalist desiring machine through involuntary submission and coercion turned to philosophy to grasp their contemporaneous circumstances. Most usually this looked to some form of Neo-Kantianism, phenomenological existentialism (notably Heidegger) or Marxism as the privileged lens through which to refract the meaning of their capitalist existence. This signified the transit to ‘modernity’ and the regime of the new, accelerated tempos of change for societies which only recently obeyed different temporal rhythms.
While we must note conjunctural differences between the 1930s and the postwar era, it is still curious that the articulation of a Marxism belonging exclusively to the West actively resituated prewar European Marxian thinkers within the environment of the Cold War, turning to cultural analyses once they recognized the futility of wishing the state away. This abandonment of the revolutionary impulse was consistent with Cold War polarized politics that saw the West as a cultural unity signalling ‘freedom’ and actually constituted an inversion of a prior intention associated with Marxism. Moreover, the particular disposition of Western Marxism, safely insulated from colonization like modernization theory, and the disarray of decolonization, was made to resemble the cultural turn of the 1970s that sought to privilege representation and the centrality of cultural–textual production. This moment recalls for us a particular historical conjuncture that would willingly supply the demand for new ways to look at history, culture and politics outside explicit political arenas and offer new theoretical agendas capable of fulfilling this mission. Yet we must understand this turn – apotheosized in the formation of cultural studies as compensatory for a revolution that never happened – in the wake of the Vietnam War, mass political mobilization everywhere (symbolized by Paris, 1968) and the brief spectacle of Third World ‘triumphalism’ and the struggle against colonialism and Western developmentalist intervention.
It is thus ironic that in order to escape the exceptionalism now associated with ‘Western Marxism’ we must turn to precisely those Marxists on the periphery who were not conscripted by a subsequent provincialization but convinced they were involved in an undivided global effort to confront the contemporary conjuncture. With Tosaka Jun (1900–1945) and the group around the Society for the Study of Materialism in the 1930s, we have a powerful instance of how Marxism in Japan, far from being an exclusive ‘fight club’ valorizing cultural exegetics, saw itself as an inflection of a worldwide expression, exceeding national and cultural borders, that faced the challenge of fascism and imperialism. For Tosaka and his generation, and even those Europeans subsequently segregated and baptized as ‘Western Marxists’, the solution to the contemporary problem they encountered was not culture, but capitalism manifest in crisis, fascism at home and imperialism abroad, and the question of how ideological critique might yield a new way of articulating a relationship between politics and culture.
Fabian Schaefer has given us the first translation of Tosaka’s key writings in a European language (apart from the earlier postwar Russian translation of The Japanese Ideology). Together with a thoughtful and informative introduction, discussing Tosaka’s contexts and the production of his texts, Schaefer explains the dazzling diversity of his writings in a short life and the reasons behind it.
Tosaka was educated in the famous Kyoto School of Philosophy in the 1920s by luminaries like Nishida Kitaro and Tanabe Hajime, principally in the philosophy of science within a Neo-Kantian framework. In the late 1920s, he moved away from Neo-Kantianism towards Marxism and especially the problem of envisaging a ‘scientific critique’. Once committed to a dialectical itinerary he embraced a full-blown materialism that persuaded him that the dialectical structure of ‘historical and social existence’, founded on the predominance of the ‘problem’ over ‘positionality’, ‘content’ over ‘form’, is grasped through the ‘theoretical structure of the characteristic logic’. Without the benefit of having available Marx’s Grundrisse, Tosa ka approximated Marx’s conception of a methodological procedure ‘arising from the abstract to the concrete’ by showing how ideology reversed the order from the concrete back to the abstract motivating it. What he wished to elucidate was the ideological character informing theory and logic. After the Japan Communist party was abolished early in the 1930s he became active in establishing and implementing the Society for the Study of Materialism (1932), which lasted until 1938, when it was finally shut down by the state. Yet in its short span, its journal and publications combined to sustain a rigorous exposition of questions relating to philosophical materialism (resembling Gramsci’s use of a philosophy of praxis) and explicit anti-fascist activity and struggle at the discursive level. Tosaka was at the centre of this intellectual vortex: on the one hand directing his attention to envisioning a comprehensive theory of science and on the other to mounting a powerful assault on liberalism, its abdication of political and economic freedom for ‘cultural freedom’ and its inevitable complicity with fascism and capitalist cultural ideology, called ‘Japanism’ in The Japanese Ideology (1935). At the same time, he opened up a critical front against fascism as it had permeated everyday life in the 1930s through collections like Thought and Custom and Japan as a Link to the World that demonstrated how conditions in contemporary Japan simply inflected broader, global circumstances.
Behind this critique lay the conviction that philosophy’s materialist vocation conformed to the demands of a new capitalist everyday environment rather than preoccupations with transcendental metaphysics and otherworldly religious thinking. Some of Tasaka’s most striking essays called attention to the logic of journalism (in newspapers, radio and film) and its unacknowledged reliance on hermeneutical philosophy that informed the representation of events. But it was precisely for this prescience that he was forced to succumb to the forces of state fascism, first to a silencing in 1937 and then to imprisonment, where he eventually died of malnutrition (and impossibly cramped quarters of detention), a week before the war ended. Unlike Antonio Gramsci, he was never permitted to have books, paper or pen in his prison confinement and was thus unable to leave any last reflections, apart from the body of his work; a victim of state murder.
Schaefer’s selections were prompted by his belief that the introduction of British-style cultural studies to Japan in the 1990s placed a new value on Tosaka’s vast range of writings, especially those concerned with new media. Moreover, this prefiguration also put him in close proximity to the contemporaraneous Frankfurt School, especially the kinship they seemed to share regarding the ‘actuality of journalism’. It is true that with few exceptions Tosaka’s writings were virtually forgotten until the 1980s. But interest was provoked less by the introduction of cultural studies, which paid scant attention to him, than to the relationship of Tosaka’s texts to newer formulations after the war and the rediscovery and identification of a Marxist in Japan who had managed to escape the constraints of national and cultural exceptionalism. Reducing Tosaka to a cultural studies avant la lettre risks making him look like the Cold War representation of ‘Western Marxism’. His work is less concerned with meditating on culture than showing how a dissembling of its claims leads to a proper ‘actualization’ of politics. The clue to this critique, moving from the abstract to the concrete, lay in the status of ‘custom’, which, like the commodity, announced its eternality but concealed what lurked behind it. Custom was the ‘skin of society’, surface ‘social phenomena’ that appeared as concrete manifestations but are driven by the ‘thought’ (abstraction) that lay beneath it. In this regard, thought attains ‘bodily reality in society through the form of custom’. Tosaka demonstrated this classic conversion in his reflections on academic philosophy and journalism, between a practice dedicated to the eventful immediacy of the everyday and transcendental thought – hermeneutic philosophy – that underlay it.
In The Japanese Ideology, Tosaka’s critique moved from the material manifestation back to the (bourgeois) idealist philosophy it embodied as a reversal of the real materialist method, from ‘custom’ to its ‘philosophic character’ – that is, the ‘content of a relatively unified world view’. Whereas journalism was bonded to the ‘daily’ and contributed to the formation of an ideological basis of the ‘everyday life of humans’, academic philosophy ignored everydayness altogether in its aspiration to transcend both the movement of the ‘real’ and contemporary events. If the true calling of journalism was to report on ‘real movements’ and ‘contemporary events’, disclosing its faithfulness to practical and political purpose, academic philosophy committed its energies to the culture of diverse disciplinary and specialized sciences, enabling it to act as a metadiscipline charged with the responsibility of integrating knowledge according to a unified world-view. Yet, Tosaka observed, both had failed to realize their respective vocations under contemporary capitalism: philosophy forfeited its basic function as a metadiscipline and journalism forswore its obligation to public opinion and submitted to the lure of commercialization. As a result, journalism deserted its own ideological purpose to supply daily criticism of the events it reported and philosophy fell short of providing positive proof and verification. Moreover, a philosophy dedicated to the timeless and extramundane world of metaphysics ended up endowing a temporal and mundane everyday with the interpretative means for grasping meaning.
At the heart of this embourgeoisement of the philosophical formation was Nishida Kitaro’s ‘logic of nothingness’. Tosaka perceived in Nishida’s logic the quintessence of bourgeois philosophy and disputed usual accounts explaining that its method rested on the standpoint of nothingness rather than on being. Rather, it was a philosophy preoccupied with ‘self-awareness’ or self-consciousness. For Tosaka, Nishida represented a completion of a ‘romantic’ philosophical tableau stretching back to eighteenth-century German thinkers. What bothered him was how a ‘dialectical’ philosophical method founded on the logic of nothingness resulted in clarifying only the meaning of that which had become dialectical. Dialectics, he proposed, was absent in Nishida’s philosophy, which appeared driven by a logic concerned solely with ‘interpreting how to consider the meaning of dialectics (itself).’ Hence, the logic of nothingness was a falsification, a ‘camouflage’, which exchanged the examination of things for the meaning elicited by the facts. The real question raised by Nishida’s method related to how meaning is constituted separately from the facts, directed to deciding not what things are in ‘actuality’, but in determining how what conveys meaning is ‘valued in the name of these things’. Convinced that Nishida had failed to recognize the separation of ‘existence’ from the meaning assigned to it, Tosaka concluded that his philosophy had no capacity to think through existence, as such. Ultimately, it was a philosophy of self-awareness that supplied a habitat for the homeless and culturally free consciousness of the bourgeois self.
Schaefer has provided a real service to the current literature on philosophical Marxism by making available the texts of one of its most original practitioners anywhere before Word War II, who, despite his remote location on the industrial periphery, envisioned his task as consistent with, not apart from, the global struggle at hand. It reminds us today of the singular and undivided vocation of Marx’s philosophy