Darwin H. Tsen, Anxiety as Method: Maoist Aesthetics and Cultural Capital in the Post-Revolution, a Review of and Response to Jennifer Dorothy Lee’s Anxiety Aesthetics: Maoist Legacies in China

Anxiety Aesthetics: Maoist Legacies in China, 1978-1985. By Jennifer Dorothy Lee. Oakland: University of California Press, 2024. xiv + 193 pp. Hardcover: $85, Paperback: $34.99.

How does one forge on when – there is no official bugle but a total eclipse in the heart – the revolution is over? Against conventional historiography of post-Reform Chinese art and with painstaking detail and analytical virtuosity, Jennifer Dorothy Lee’s Anxiety Aesthetics: Maoist Legacies in China conceptualizes how artists and intellectuals both repudiated and continued the revolutionary legacies of Maoism in their works. The book paints a fresh picture of the 1978-1985 period as one of labored beginnings in relation to Maoism’s influence, an era that is commonly overshadowed by the 1978-1979 Democracy Wall movement and treated as a clean break from Mao Zedong’s legacy by other scholars. Supported by Raymond Williams’ schema of the “dominant, residual, and emergent” (Williams, 121-127), central to Lee’s study is “anxiety”, a structure of feeling that drives the artists to reinvent the wheels that bind together the personal, political, and national. Anxiety Aesthetics is therefore a text about transitions, adaptations, and even hauntings and survivals. 

Lee structures the monograph into six chapters, with the introduction kicking it off with the philosopher Li Zehou’s observations of the second showing of the Stars art group in 1980. This introduces the historical and theoretical stakes of the project, where the anxious push-and-pull dynamic between Maoist legacies and new opportunities presented by the reform era are established. Lee then uses chapter 1, “Democracy Walls”, to establish a media-centered account to capture the larger context around the Stars – although she does not exceptionalize the Stars’ shine; she focuses on how citizens’ journals (minkan), the relationship between the bulletin walls and big-/small-character posters dazibao/xiaozibao, and photography created a post-Mao moment for art and social engagement that can be figured as a prehistory for later Chinese art developments. Chapter 2, “Memorializing Huang Rui’s Beijing”, documents how a semi-reluctant participant in the Democracy Wall Movement shifts his style as the movement subsides.  Huang moves from sketching disembodied, energetic limbs to painting abstract, geometric shapes where human subjects come up against the monumentality of Beijing’s walls, whether such walls are from palaces or alleyway hutongs. The third chapter and one of the book’s most theoretical, “Wu Guanzhong’s Abstract Expression”, shows us how Wu the painter and critic mobilizes socialist ideas on science and abstraction to perform a subterranean coup against socialist realism, establishing a value proposition for abstract art and future forms of cultural capital. I will elaborate on the importance of this later.

Chapter 4, “The Serial Images of Qu Leilei” is perhaps my favorite. Here, Lee deftly examines how the sketches and captions in Qu’s diary entries showcase a dialectical struggle between his anxious feelings towards lack of the revolution’s closure, the language choices that implicate himself and the audience as post-revolutionary “citizens”, and how his work unwittingly turned collective forms of political art into the seeds of privatizable expression. Out of the entire book, this chapter best bridges the historical context, the affective intensity of anxiety, and how it relates to the greater structure of feeling into a satisfying whole. Chapter 5, “Do Androids Dream of Me?” arguably provides us with the final “villain” of Anxiety Aesthetics’ narrative arc, the literary scholar Liu Zaifu. Not only does Liu produce a strongly individual-centered vision of writerly subjectivity through the metaphor of a computerized manufacturer, but Lee adroitly detects a chauvinist bent in Liu’s discourse. However, this gender critique never quite bubbles to the surface in the chapter. 

To sum up, the chapters in Anxiety Aesthetics are strong in relation to one another and as standalone sagas, but there seems to be a disconnect between anxiety aesthetics as a structure of feeling and the individual artists and thinkers toiling in the post-Mao interim. That is, it is not entirely clear, barring the chapter on Qu Leilei, how each particular figure interpolates themselves through the depersonalized affects and emotions of anxiety, other than already being a part of a larger milieu that is suffused with it as a socio-political mode of being. If anxiety works like a structural unconscious, then how are artists and intellectuals who claim not to be affected by it still within its reach? 

This, then, leads to my response to the book as a whole. Lee’s aim to show the radical ambiguities and innovations of Anxiety Aesthetic’s four artists in relation to formal and informal institutions during the post-Mao interregnum – as something far more complex and fraught than a “break” – is successful. On those grounds alone, this book is worth reading carefully. While I appreciate Lee’s focus on evaluating the (dis)continuities of Maoism in these artists and critics on the merits of their own period – with the present landscape of a highly commercialized Chinese marketplace of art looming as a specter – I can’t help but wonder if the stakes could be brought into sharper focus by introducing a connective framework between the 1978-85 period with the contemporary artworld and its specific logics of capital accumulation. I sense a particularly fecund opportunity in expanding and considering “anxiety” (youhuan yishi) not only as an intellectual and artistic mode under duress, but also as a process that mediates between a crisis and the accumulation of (cultural) capital; anxiety might be capable of imagining solutions to a crisis, but such solutions may not always produce the benefits it desires.

Let’s return to the moment in the text where “anxiety” gets welded to the multiple connotations of youhuan yishi. Lee cites Gloria Davies to explain how youhuan yishi functions as a mode that has its roots from Mencius of the Warring States, Fan Zhongyan of the Song era, which then finds its modern expression in the twentieth century and beyond, before joining it to anxiety through the related concept of tension, jinzhang (Lee, 13-15). Davies’ own study provided this loose genealogy of youhuan as her text mostly focused on illustrating the contemporary discursive formations of “worrying” (her choice for rendering youhuan yishi) in comparison with Anglophone critical discourse. Lee and Davies’ historicization of youhuan yishi, I believe, is meant to institute a distinction between its pre-modern versions and its twentieth century and post-Mao iterations. However, I believe there was a missed opportunity to stress the continuities of youhuan yishi between the pre-Confucian (Mencius), medieval (Fan Zhongyan), the early Republican (say, any prominent reformist or revolutionary intellectual of that time), and the post-Mao era (the four artists in Lee’s monographs from the Liberals and New Left intellectuals today): which is to say that under both the Confucian bureaucratic system and its current role in intellectual debates, youhuan yishi is a mode through which individuals and groups accrue cultural capital by positioning their intelligence, moral, and ethical views as something “in the common higher interest of improving Chinese society and culture” (Davies, 11). What does differentiate anxious and worrying intellectuals and artists in the contemporary era from their premodern counterparts, though, is that they are functioning in the age of global capital where China is but a part, hence they consciously or unconsciously pit modalities of the nation, state, and civilization against a much larger behemoth. 

One’s prescriptions may not actually hit their marks but instead become commodified in the marketplace. Pierre Bourdieu has stressed that forms of exchange that are purportedly “disinterested” in mercantile economic activity are still crucial in ensuring the two-way transubstantiation of “immaterial form[s] of cultural capital or social capital” (Bourdieu, 16). Does not the anxiety aesthetic not – with its focus on interest, concern, and voluntarism – function like a valve that regulates and converts the flows of cultural capital from Maoist deadstock into reform-era surplus? By combining anxiety with cultural capital, I believe we can further make sense of the tension between anxiety as a structure of feeling, the subjectivity of the individual artists & thinkers, as well as the gap between aesthetic praxis and its socio-economic afterlives. A crisis always capitalizes – even from those who aim to solve it. 

Back to our four cases. Generative points of entry into thinking about anxiety as a form of cultural capital emerge when we consider Anxiety Aesthetics through the lens of its narrative progression, which is to say, through a cognitive mapping of the relationships between its individual case studies. If we accept that there is, indeed, a constitutive disjuncture or tension between anxiety aesthetics as a structure of feeling and the subjectivity of the individual artists and thinkers, then it stands to reason that Huang, Wu, Qu, and Liu occupy differing and possibly conflicting positions on the uneven cultural terrain of Lee’s topography of the post-Mao transition period. Huang Rui takes up a mediator role, between the artistic forces representing independent minkan/dazibao/xiaozibao and those representing official institutions; Wu Guanzhong inhabits the promoter role, lionizing the value-to-come of an aesthetics of abstraction vis-à-vis Marxist scientific rationality; Qu Leilei is the melancholic mourner, whose diary entries simultaneously facilitated a public and private mediation of the end of Maoist artistic subjectivity, with the scales tipping towards the privatization of such sentiments into value; Liu Zaifu is the middle manager who directly converts the Maoist revolutionary into an artist-as-production-line operator, a metaphor that is ready-made in collusion with the post-reform era’s consumer subjectivity. These roles compete and complement one another, while ultimately contributing to the politico-economic unconscious of the dawn of the Open and Reform era. 

This process happens, Lee argues, through the structure of “anxiety” (youhuan yishi), which itself is tapped into the matrices of cultural capital. Each embodied role I name above bears a differing relationship to its object of anxiety in the landscape of Anxiety Aesthetics: the “end without closure” of the Maoist political and aesthetic regime. As they lament, Huang and Qu devise ways to extend the spirit of Maoist voluntarism into new endeavors that both continue and breakaway from it, even as this still cumulates into latter-day fame and prestige. But here I want to focus on Wu and Liu, because through their purported “anxiety” towards the artistic and intellectual climate, they actively antagonized and emptied out their opponents and competitors’ grip on older Maoist tenets, in a bid to restore the primacy of intellectual and artistic work in the hierarchy of labor. Liu Zaifu’s contempt and animus towards the results of Maoist aesthetic education are barely contained as he laments that “the aesthetic subjectivity of my nation’s artistic recipients has been lost, because the structure of the aesthetic mind itself has suffered grave damage, deformity, simplification and vulgarization” (Lee 139). Wu Guanzhong, as Lee demonstrated, adroitly swapped out the “likeness” (xiang) in “image” (xingxiang) in favor of “form” (xingshi), claiming that “[f]ormal beauty is one loop in the hinge of fine art making. It is the unique technique with which we serve the people” (Lee, 92). Liu’s and Wu’s operations here relied on a dual “invisibility”: their attacks had to first resonate in a cultural context where euphemisms and metonymy with respect to Maoism were visible by both friend and foe; and second, the same codes must also simultaneously had to attain a sheer of opaque, “bloodless” neutrality for its other audience members who were not as attuned to the discursive field and yet potentially would find such ideas attractive (Lee, 92). “Anxiety” is therefore wielded as a cudgel for their wars of positioning in the vacuum left by the swiftly exiting master narrative.

Lee’s initial formulation of the anxiety aesthetic in the introduction, “as the site of a persistent revolutionary episteme, an order of knowing the world through both radical practices and the language of socialist materialist logic” (Lee, 11), then, could perhaps benefit from an addendum: the anxiety aesthetic is also a (de-)revolutionary episteme. All four cases (Huang, Wu, Qu, and Liu) started from a Marxist-Maoist-Humanist perspective, yet the most prominent aspect of their legacy today is the stripping away of the Marxist and the Maoist, often with only the Humanist remaining from the 1990s to the 2000s: this eventually transforms into the humanism of the Chinese liberal Right (ziyoupai), who, according to Chaohua Wang, at its most contradictory “stand firm on the need for human rights and rule of law…[while] welcom[ing] the spread of the market…protesting at its distortion and corruption by political power, but not at its social extent” (Wang, 36). Does this not also describe the abstracting power of capital itself, its ability to commodify and pacify ideas that would threaten it while creating exchange value out of its enemies? A pair of hospitable and hostile protagonists mapped onto divergent coordinates of the transitional terrain of Maoist aesthetics notwithstanding, all their endeavors are captured in a vortex where the accrual of cultural capital heralds the accumulation of capital itself in the 1980s. And yet, the market – and its butler, the marketplace of ideas – will always be a fickle lord indeed: barely a decade later, as Jason McGrath describes in his discussion of the “humanist spirit” debate starting in 1993, the trifecta of modernization, enlightenment, and market reforms supported by the Chinese intellectual elite yielded not a robust humanist subject but rather a consumerist one (McGrath, 27). And not unlike Liu Zaifu before them, the scholars involved in the humanist spirit debate mobilized the language of crisis/anxiety to reposition and survive in a shifting field of cultural production in which they were bleeding (cultural) capital. By declaring that “an entire century’s tradition of literature’s importance in the life of the nation was coming to an end” (McGrath, 29), the humanist spirit debate proponents once again invoked youhuan yishi, now as a mechanism of cultural capital accumulation that thrives in moments of crisis, transition, and newness. 

But “anxiety” (youhuan yishi) both is and isn’t unique to the Chinese context, and readers not laboring in this field will still find broad, transferable valences from Lee’s study. According to Fredric Jameson, “anxiety” can be understood as a particular iteration of capitalist modernity’s constant drive which “allows for the return of the category of a break, even though it has become internalized as little more than the infinite repetition of the process itself” (Jameson, 91). Anxiety does not seek equilibrium or moderation, but instead craves innovation and velocity in order to break out of what it perceives as a rut; although anxiety treats every crisis or problem as a new and pressing one, its tendency towards solving it has already seen “infinite repetitions”. At the risk of transhistoricizing anxiety, we must note that even if anxiety has historically contributed to moments that challenge the capitalist order – such as the 1930s Maoist slogans about tension, “Unity, tension, seriousness, and liveliness!” (Lee, 14) – in a socialist or communist idiom, it still possesses a strong affinity with the accumulation of cultural and actual capital under capitalist modernity. One digressive lesson of Anxiety Aesthetics thus could be that: anxiety (youhuan yishi) must be afforded as an affective-cultural-economic complement to the analysis of a crisis. That’s because anxiety, as a concept, is adept at three things: first, it excels in mapping individual subjects’ reactions to the larger structure of feeling of crisis; second, it shows how the solutions conceived by anxiety diverge from its intended effects; and third, anxiety can disclose the affective and intellectual gap between the individual subjects and the crisis as a whole. And a final provocation: could anxiety, with its heavily medicalized connotations in today’s Euro-American context and its more conventional translation as jiaolü (焦虑), be more fruitfully bridged with the theoretical resources of melancholy (youyü 忧郁)? For Sigmund Freud, melancholy consists of an emotional state where we know “whom [we have] lost but not what [we have lost in us]” (256); for the artists Lee explores in China’s transition period, Mao is gone, but they didn’t yet know how Maoism was leaving them. Anxiety joins melancholy as its follow-up act: it brings to the table the recognition that “we know what we have lost in us, but not what we are now anxious to create.” And their anxious creations will indeed take on a life of their own. 

I will close by looking back to the future. The anxieties of artists during the post-Mao interregnum put on display by Jennifer Dorothy Lee may provide not only a diagnostic function, but perhaps a prophetic one as well. The conclusion, with its deliberate openness, prompts the reader to mobilize the book’s insights on monumentality and the mediatic qualities of art towards the social movements of our day and age (during Lee’s writing it was Hong Kong; today, it might be Palestine). It also makes a claim on the ex post facto nature of intellectual work in relation to the arts, and the incomplete closure such labors bring, as Lee exclaims how the “foreclosure of the [Beijing] Spring…extends far beyond 1980 and stands today for the sheer impossibility of its repetition” (Lee, 149). The challenge that the concept of anxiety (youhuan yishi) and the path of post-Mao artists pose to us, would ultimately be: how can we repeat this aperture of openness differently in the future, in a prophetic way informed by the past? And all of this, against the constant encroachment of amnesia staring down the wishes for collective liberation from each and every generation. 

Works Cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. “Forms of Capital.” Richardson, J. Ed. Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Westport: Greenwood. 1986. p.241-58.  

Davies, Gloria. Worrying about China: The Language of Chinese Critical Inquiry. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XIV (1914-1916). Tr. James Strachey and Anna Freud. London: The Hogarth Press. 1957.

Jameson, Fredric. A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present. New York: Verso, 2002.

Lee, Jennifer Dorothy. Anxiety Aesthetics: Maoist Legacies in China, 1978-1985. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2024. 

McGrath, Jason.  Postsocialist Modernity: Chinese Cinema, Literature, and Criticism in the Market Age. Stanford: University of Stanford Press, 2008.

Wang, Chaohua Ed. One China, Many Paths. New York: Verso, 2003. 

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Navyug Gill, Virtues of Impatience

A wave of agrarian unrest appears to be sweeping across much of the globe. The epicenter is once again the greater Panjab region of India. In February 2024, thousands of farmers assembled with their tractors and trolleys along the state border with Haryana to attempt to march on the capital of New Delhi. They sought to compel the right-wing BJP government to implement a set of policies to make agriculture viable and sustainable, as well as address a host of longstanding grievances. In parallel ways, farmers have gathered in dozens of other countries – from Germany and Poland, to Brazil and Argentina, to Nigeria and Indonesia – to challenge the rules governing food production, restrictions on access to land and tariff regimes within new trading blocs. Whether in the villages of Shambu and Khanauri or the cities of Paris, Brussels and Madrid, scenes of tractors pushing up against police barricades have been broadcast through mainstream and social media to millions of people. Farmers the world over are engaged in a renewed struggle to ensure a future for small-scale agriculture in the face of hostility and apathy from governments and corporations. 

Despite the global reverberations, the situation in Panjab is the unique product of both immediate and protracted circumstances. In the summer of 2020, farmer and laborer unions in the region launched a mass agitation against the Indian government’s attempt to impose a set of three laws designed to deregulate and privatize the agrarian economy. This would have threatened the livelihoods of the 45% of workforce employed in the agricultural sector (Damodaran 2023) as well as imperiled the food security of the over 800 million people entitled to subsidized grains (Kishore and Chakrabarti 2015). During the year-long blockade on the outskirts of Delhi, over seven hundred protestors died over the frigid winter and scorching summer amid a COVID-19 outbreak. The government was finally forced to backtrack under unprecedented domestic and international pressure. On November 19, 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave a televised speech where he announced a repeal of the laws and the promise to create a special committee to re-examine agricultural policy. At the time, this represented arguably the most significant defeat for the agenda of neoliberal capital in the twenty-first century. 

The government promise to overhaul the system of agrarian procurement, marketing and distribution was essential to convincing farmers to lift their blockade and return to their homes. No one was under the illusion that the status quo antewas anything but a gradual descent into collective disaster. Since the 1960s, the Indian government’s introduction of new technologies and incentives to grow genetically-modified rice and wheat in Panjab – which became known as the “Green Revolution” – led to exponential harvests that quickly eliminated the risk of famine. Almost immediately, however, there were objections to the nature of this growth, especially its reliance on crops such as rice that were unsuitable to the region, the excessive use of harmful pesticides and fertilizers, and the exacerbation of class, caste and gender inequities (Gill 1988; Bardhan 1970; Ladejinsky 1970). Activists and scholars put forward various proposals for a more equitable agrarian model that did not require costly chemicals and misaligned subsidies. Yet such arguments were largely ignored or obfuscated by every Indian government for decades. Politicians in Panjab, meanwhile, abetted this negligence because it served elite interests while helping consolidate their own tenuous positions. The joint priority was to keep the state’s economy dependent on a wheat-rice cycle without diversification or industrialization in order to feed the country’s growing population.   

By the early 2000s, with yields stagnating, incomes dwindling and debts mounting, rural Panjab became the site of acute distress. The most vivid manifestation of this crisis was the phenomenon of suicide: according to one study, on average three small to marginal farmers or landless laborers killed themselves each day over a fifteen year period, totaling over 16,000 during 2000-15. The all-India figure is more harrowing: 350,000 farmer suicides in the first two decades of the twenty-first century (Singh et al. 2022; Gill and Singh 2006). The unacknowledged other side of this desperation has been the climbing rate of migration, with approximately 100,000 Panjabis applying to leave the state each year over the last decade for places like Canada, the UK, US, Italy, Dubai and Australia (Vasudeva 2023). The annual rate of undocumented migrants is thought to be upwards of twenty thousand people, with an increasing number attempting to cross the US-Mexico border on foot (Mehrotra 2024). Over 70% of all Panjabi migrants were previously engaged in agriculture, so that one in seven rural households now report having a family member settled abroad (Goyal 2024). These stark figures are almost certainly under-reported due to the stigma and secrecy around such drastic actions. Still, what they capture is the deliberate human detritus built into the peculiar development of the agrarian economy in Panjab.    

It is against this backdrop that the immediate aims of the current struggle must be understood. Panjabi farmers are refusing to allow the government to yet again fail to fulfil its own promise of agrarian reform. For them, the long pattern of deferral has become a question of life-or-death. The key demand is to establish a country-wide legal price floor (known as MSP, or minimum support price) for a range of twenty-three crops, so that neither private traders nor the government would be able to purchase below it. Currently, farmers face the abject predicament of planting crops without knowing what their price will be at harvest, which has led to the obscene spectacle of ripe produce being dumped in public squares when market rates invariably plummet. Furthermore, they insist that the formula for determining the purchase price of crops should follow the reasonable guidelines of the 2006 Swaminathan Commission, a government-sponsored expert panel that examined ways to alleviate the agrarian crisis. Finally, and perhaps most drastically, farmers are calling on India to outright withdraw from the World Trade Organization (WTO) to ensure the sovereignty of people over capital. They say its policy of forcing governments in the global south to curtail domestic subsidies and tariffs – while allowing wealthy countries and corporations to evade regulations and manipulate markets – has made life more precarious than ever. Together, these changes would provide an opportunity to halt the precipitous decline of agriculture and chart a new future for rural livelihoods. 

While enjoying significant popular support, this struggle has not been without its detractors. What is striking is the unseemly alignment of market ideologues and liberal nationalists with a section of supposedly leftwing radicals. The first two groups tend to object to the farmer’s demands on fiscal or regional grounds. On the one hand, they argue that the government simply cannot afford to purchase crops at minimum prices, and that any interference in the operations of the market will create harmful economic distortions. On the other hand, they say that this entire struggle has been instigated by elite Panjabi farmers, and that the region is merely trying to maintain its own unfair dominance in comparison with the rest of the country. Such arguments reveal a set of conventional yet persistent prejudices. Instituting a broad MSP would not result in the government purchasing the entirety of every farmer’s harvest any more than a minimum wage means turning every worker into a government employee. Moreover, whatever the expenditure on the purchase of crops, a significant proportion would either be recovered through the subsequent re-sale on the open market, or go toward supplying subsidized food for the public distribution system. Meanwhile, unproductive corporate write-offs – to the tune of $320 million in 2020-21– are never subjected to the same scrutiny (Sharma 2022). Equally baseless is the charge of Panjabi dominance and elitism. The nature of the demands are not only explicitly country-wide, designed to extend laws and infrastructure to all regions, but are specifically geared toward the 86% of farmers with less than five acres of land (Padmanabhan 2018). The fact that Panjabis are at the forefront of this struggle rather than farmers from other states is hardly a demerit. Instead, it is an outcome of decades of organizing by rural unions along with a longer history of defiance and justice drawing on Sikh principles. To castigate these people as “privileged” betrays a warped desire to nationalize destitution, so that all farmers fulfil the stereotype of being impoverished, disorganized and inarticulate. 

A more insidious criticism of this struggle has emerged from certain quarters of the middle-class left. This position adopts a stance of reluctance and passivity rather than open rejection. The argument is that despite the dramatic scenes of farmers pushing against barricades and the WTO, their movement is insufficiently radical because it neither fully challenges capitalism nor properly addresses issues of caste or gender within the movement. Indeed, since farmers are seeking to ameliorate rather than transcend certain depredations, this struggle appears reformist and therefore unworthy of active support. This sort of critique betrays a remarkable lack of understanding history as well as the dynamics of change in contemporary India. Popular mass struggles over questions of economic justice cannot be dismissed by invoking a supposedly universal yardstick to measure radicalism. Who decides the meaning of “radical” and how are its potentials to be assessed in different contexts and conditions? From that perspective, every effort by workers in textile mills, dockyards and railways for anything less than the classic overthrow of the state and immediate collectivization of production would fall short. Indeed, Vladimir Lenin contended with this very problem in a pamphlet written over a century ago. He was disputing the prevailing interpretations that either celebrated or denounced the 1861 changes that brought about an end to serfdom in Russia. “The concept reform and the concept revolution,” notes Lenin, “are undoubtedly antithetical.” But, he goes on, “this antithesis is not absolute, this borderline is not something dead, but living and mobile, which one must know how to determine in each concrete case” (Lenin 1911). In other words, simple a priori statements are as shortsighted as retroactive judgements because they refuse to take into account the new possibilities created through struggle as well as the shifting contours within which they are implicated. What Lenin said about serfdom a half a century after its conclusion is even more pertinent to an ongoing movement unfolding in our very midst.  

At the same time, it is worth remembering that farmers and field laborers are by far the largest and one of the most effectively organized groups in the country. Out of a total workforce of nearly 500 million people (Deshpande and Chawla 2023), approximately 92% are employed in a variety of informal arrangements and insecure conditions (Hammer et al. 2022), while only 4% are unionized (Harriss-White and Gooptu 2001). That is a pittance compared to the upwards of 250 million people engaged in the various labors of agriculture (Li and Agarwal 2024; Bera 2018; Agarwal 2021). Moreover, in Panjab farmer unions alongside Sikh religious organizations and social activists have been at the forefront of confronting different inequities, from land redistribution to female infanticide and government repression. To wait for a movement to resolve its internal issues and rid itself of contradictions means to forever remain on the sidelines. It is precisely from these struggles and spaces that the capacity to bring about meaningful societal changes will emerge.  

This is why the farmer’s movement is significant beyond its immediate actions and perceivable aims. It is a struggle against the central logic of nearly three centuries of capitalist expansion which insists that large private corporations should invariably triumph over small-scale producers, and that the state should facilitate this foregone displacement. Farmers from Panjab are also confronting an unspoken principle of Indian nationalism that renders distinct regions as nothing more than exploitable components of a sacred whole. The demand to control one’s fate – in terms of crops grown as much as language rights and political sovereignty – is absolutely radical for the way it interrupts the givenness of the world. This reveals how a government that refuses to address the needs of its people undercuts its own political mandate and the wider legitimacy of its rule. In that sense, farmers are neither hopelessly clinging to survival nor greedily preserving their fortunes. Instead, they are fighting against the suffocating weight of condescension and convention as much as aggression to create a different horizon for collective wellbeing. Their impatience, as well as capacity and tenacity, is actually a virtue for the rest of society to emulate. Far more than intermittently casting an electoral ballot, this struggle is an imperative of radical democratic agency. 

Navyug Gill is Associate Professor of history at Willliam Patterson University


Agarwal, Kabir. “Indian Agriculture’s Enduring Question: Just How Many Farmers Does the Country Have?” The Wire. March 9, 2021.

Bardhan, Pranab. “‘Green Revolution’ and Agricultural Labourers.” Economic and Political Weekly 5, no. 29/31 (July 1970): 1239-1246.

Bera, Sayantan. “Small and marginal farmers own just 47.3% of crop area, shows farm census.” Live Mint, October 1, 2018.

Damodaran, Harish. “What India’s labour force and national income data tell us about jobs shifting from agriculture.” The Indian Express, March 7, 2023.

Deshpande, Ashwini, and Akshi Chawla. “It Will Take Another 27 Years for India to Have a Bigger Labour Force Than China’s.” The Wire, July 27, 2023.

Gill, Anita, and Lakhwinder Singh. “Farmers’ Suicides and Response of Public Policy: Evidence, Diagnosis and Alternatives from Punjab.” Economic and Political Weekly 41, no. 26 (June-July 2006): 2762-2768.

Gill, Sucha Singh Gill. “Contradictions of Punjab Model of Growth and Search for an Alternative.” Economic and Political Weekly 23, no. 42 (October 1988): 2167-2173.

Goyal, Divya. “Punjabis borrowed Rs 14,342 crores to migrate to Canada, Dubai, finds PAU study.” The Indian Express, January 14, 2024.

Hammer, Anita, Janroj Yilmaz Keles and Wendy Olsen. “Working Lives in India: Current Insights and Future Directions.” Work, Employment and Society 36, no. 6 (December 2022): 999-1168.

Harriss-White, Barbara, and Nandini Gooptu. “Mapping India’s World of Unorganized Labour.” Socialist Register 37(2001): 89-118.

Kishore, Avinash and Suman Chakrabarti. “Is more inclusive more effective? The ‘New Style’ public distribution system in India.” Food Policy 55 (August 2015): 117-130.

Ladejinsky, Wolf. “Ironies of India’s Green Revolution.” Foreign Affairs 48, no. 4 (July 1970): 758-768.

Lenin, V.I. The Jubilee. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1968 [1911].

Li, Shan, and Vibhuti Agarwal. “India Wanted a Manufacturing Boom: Its Workers Are Back on the Farm Instead.” The Wall Street Journal, January 5, 2024.

Mehrotra, Karishma. “Ever more undocumented Indian migrants follow ‘donkey’ route to America.” The Washington Post, March 3, 2024.

Padmanabhan, Vishnu. “The land challenge underlying India’s farm crisis.” Live Mint, October 15, 2018.

Sharma, Devinder. “Contrasting rules for farm, corporate loans.” The Tribune, April 28, 2022.

Singh, Sukhpal, Manjeet Kaur and H.S. Kingra. “Farmer Suicides in Punjab: Incidence, Causes, and Policy Suggestions.” Economic and Political Weekly 57, no. 25 (June 2022): 2167-2173.

Vasudeva, Vikas. “Punjab’s illegal immigration back in spotlight after Canada’s recent deportation threat.” The Hindu,June 16, 2023.

Sabu Kohso, Japan’s Actual and Virtual Fascism — Reading Archaism and Actuality by Harry Harootunian

What does it take to keep company with the social formation of a distant nation by closely examining its internal discourses striving to evaluate the course of capitalist modernization that imposed catastrophic changes on the lives of inhabitants? What does it mean to grasp their dispositions with a language capable of comparison and introduce them to the global arena of critical thinking? Answers to these questions are what Harry Harootunian has shown us through his life-long dedication to history. His research field is the nation-state called Japan and his comparative language is global Marxism. His recent book Archaism and Actuality —Japan and its Global Fascist Imaginary (Duke University Press, 2023) is a pivotal achievement in the encounter he sets up between the two. Fully employing his philosophy of historical time, Harootunian reveals an unspoken mechanism internalized in Japan’s national mobilization, functioning throughout  the capitalist development that formed both authoritarian and liberal regimes of the past and of today.


Archaism and Actuality assembles three phases of Japanese modernity that have been  cornerstones of Harootunian’s efforts in reading and decoding internal discourses: the Meiji Restoration (1868), the interwar years (1920s and 1930s), and the post-WWII era (after 1945). The assembly traces his intellectual formations in a concentrated manner. These are also the critical junctures that rendered a radical regime change in different registers, but equally marked a return of a zeitgeist affected by archaism. It is important to stress that the regime changes always came along with massive violence — of civil war, imperialist expansion, and world war. As the embodiment of his critical stance towards the linear view of history, Harootunian refuses to arrange the three phases into a chronological narrative, but treats them as independent layers of events, coming to the surface in resonance like “palimpsests” with his gaze cast from our present, namely, this dark time of permeating genocidal war, authoritarian governance, institutionalized discrimination, and environmental degradation.

The problematic kernel that experiences of archaism internalize is fascism — its discursive formation from premonition to apparition, from virtual to actual forms. For Harootunian, fascism is “the measure by which capitalism saves itself from the crisis it causes”; for opportunistic resolution, the agency of crisis ridden-capitalism — be it totalitarian state or dictator or mercenaries — seeks to mobilize the populace around nation’s mythological origin toward a regime of fanatical worship and submission. In its universal definition, “fascism is a total rejection of history by archaism.” In this sense, archaism functions as an internal device of capitalist nation-states to modify themselves into authoritarian states at any moment they confront irresolvable fissures. As far as Japanese experiences are concerned, the archaism cannot be thought of without the emperor system and variant ways it was made to return in three phases for unequivocally compelling the divine authority for national amalgamation.

Thanks to Harootunian’s exceptional passion in reading the Japanese écriture that radically shifted during modernization, the actualizations of archaism are vividly traced through the local texts of a number of late Tokugawa scholars and activists, such as prewar philosophers Hasegawa Nyokanzen, Miki Kiyoshi and Tosaka Jun, and postwar thinkers such as Maruyama Masao, Kobayashi Hideo and Takeuchi Yoshimi — in reference to the theories of Karl Marx as well as prominent Marxist philosophers such as Lukács, Gramsci, Benjamin, and several contemporary theorists. In this way, the book provides the English-speaking world with Japanese archaism as an unconventional reference for confronting rising fascism across the world today.


Harootunian employs Japan as an intellectual weapon with a double-edged sword, as it were. This Japan embodies a singular disposition of problems it developed during its hasty modernization that was necessitated to counter the interventions of Western colonialism; the singularity is then introduced as attestation to undo the universalized progressivism of a Western master narrative. At the core of the progressivism reigns the linear view of history — to see progress of historical time in stages that  all nations are destined to follow in their course of becoming a mature capitalist society that would also conceive a socialist revolution. The historical fatalism is inherent in modernism or more precisely modernization theory, that affected not only liberalism but also Marxism and haunted revolutionary movements in developing countries including Japan. As Harootunian refers to in this volume as well as elsewhere, there was a series of debates on the status of Japanese capitalism among local Marxist scholars and revolutionaries roughly between 1927 and 1937, that had been triggered by the Comintern’s directive insisting on the need for a two stage revolution: first a democratic revolution to oust feudal landowners (and the emperor as their epitome) and then a socialist revolution to overthrow the bourgeoisie. The debates contributed little to the benefit of popular struggle even if they prepared an enrichment of sociological analyses of the nation amid capitalist development.

Discourses on Japan tend towards its culture rather than socio-political struggle. Harootunian has been an adamant critic of this trend. For him, the nation is nothing less than a site of historical disquiet like any other, that is the actuality glossed over by cultural representation. Beginning from the bubble economy of the 1980s, the country conspicuously became an object of strange attraction as a hotbed of cultural commodities — from Zen temples to fanatical consumerism to anime imageries. It was perceived as a fantasy world where archaic remnants, urban sophistication, and dystopian futurity could coexist. The postmodernism debates in Euro-American academia selected the nation as an epitome of “post-historical society” (Alexandre Kojève), wherein an endless game of signs would continue without the interference of historical events. In such a reception, Japan is reduced to an aestheticized and mystified object rather than treated as an ethico-aesthetic field of inquiry. What this reception overlooks are the fangs inherent in the seemingly pacified nation-state. And if there is an inclination of Japanese society itself that encourages this reception, that is precisely a trickery of what the book tackles in terms of archaism as a spiritualization of the political, whose most enduring embodiments have been the emperor and imperial family that today play a symbolic role to sustain an implicit nationalism in the highly commodified society by repetitiously appearing in the media with their pacified and mysterious presence.

Harootunian’s critical stance against the hegemony of the linear view of history and the culturalist view of Japan resonates with his doubts about a major trend of Western Marxism. A wide range of cultural analysis has flourished in Euro-American Marxism, beginning from the generalized influence of the Frankfurt School and most explicitly in the boom of cultural studies. This trend has been reinforced by a view of the world centered on the observation of developed countries, that considers commodification of the world as having been completed and insists on the reality facing real subsumption rather than formal subsumption. In the relationship between the two modes of subsumption, although the former could be surpassing the latter in an overall tendency, the relationship varies according to place and situation. When the tendential analysis is made into a manifesto, the strategic precedence of movement tends to be given to the domains of urban culture (information, representation, and intellect) rather than those of body, place, and everyday life in the periphery. For Harootunian, the determinism of real subsumption is “complicit with capital’s own representation.”


Archaism and Actuality provides a panoramic view of the conflicting discourses that arose during Japan’s much troubled modernization, which, Harootunian argues, invited apparitions of archaism in three modes. The panorama of palimpsest depicts three present-times or conjunctures that consist of their own layers of events, which are seen also through the discourses that appear in other phases. Such multi-referential assemblage is based on Harootunian’s philosophy of historical time, that begins with a reconsideration of formal subsumption, that is, the structural relation between the direct and indirect commodification of labor, or between life and nature in varying modes and degrees according to geographical and temporal orders. His point is in the fact that “capital takes whatever it can use” for its reproduction and expansion, therefore the everyday life of commoners — the basis of all — consists of a complexity of overlapping effects of equivalent form, from workplace to home to public space. Incorporating Marx’s “uneven and combined development” and Benjamin’s “now-time,” Harootunian shifts strategic attention for grasping the world from a chronological linear time to a multiplicity of present times.

The power of the book largely derives from the historian’s expertise on the late Tokugawa discourses, that developed with the impetuses toward the Meiji Restoration (1868) as a complexity of events. What Harootunian’s readings of the discourses reveal is almost a state of overdetermination by numerous contingencies, that led to the end of Tokugawa Shogunate with the opening of ports to global trade after three hundred years of the closed-nation policy, and finally the Meiji Constitution (1889) with the Emperor’s absolutist rule —of a human god — as a restitution of the archaic, which established the matrix of virtual and actual fascism for the following regimes of modern Japan. The constitution was unique in that it relied on a mythic origin, instead of appealing to a concrete historical past as a guide to the present, like the Roman Empire for ”the West”. It was the beginning of unfinished processes, that set the ensuing courses of Japan’s modernization, wherein numerous impetuses that created this event disappeared from the political stage; and some of them, once submerged, survived and reemerged in the newer contexts. One of the most crucial lessons we learn from the book is a trick of the complexity of historical time.

The factors that gradually drove out Tokugawa rule included the emergence of manufacturing or industrialization, the pressure of Western colonialism, the rising power of southern domains, the subversive acts of lower class samurai, and the popular rebellions such as peasants’ uprisings, urban riots, mass hysteria (street dancing and pilgrimage), millenarist movements (new religions and communitarian withdrawals), and so forth. Harootunian presents these events that led to the Restoration almost as a festival of molecular movements—of militant scholars, fanatical patriots, and popular insurgencies—rather than sagas of heroes who sacrificed their lives for the realization of present democratic nation, a narrative that dominates the common view of the Meiji Restoration among the Japanese today. For Harootunian, these conflicts have  not ended, but rather, they persist in ongoing problems of the capitalist nation-state. Most importantly, he considers the popular rebellions as a creation of “new subjectivation” that ensured unprecedented calls for equality and placed a new value on the land to be cultivated by the peasants themselves — whose distant trace would come to be seen in the Sanrizuka farmers’ struggle against the Narita Airport construction in the late 20th century.


Harootunian’s analyses of the political events of the three phases is guided by Antonio Gramsci’s concept: “passive revolution,” that is, for the historian, the form of political practice corresponding to economic “unevenness.” When an attempt to change a regime does not have a hegemony as powerful as the Jacobins in the French Revolution (1789~1799) — that was in fact an exceptional case that realized a total destruction of the regime — the agency has to rely more on itshistorical inheritance (institutions of the past) than their new arrangements, and the process of change tends to be gradualist or reformist or possibly captured by a setback of authoritarianism. In other words, any revolution must borrow certain experiences from its own context, but this process always involves dangers to stall, or in the worst case, it would be taken over by the group that desires the outright retrogression of time — the advent of fascism. Harootunian thus emphasizes the temporal dimension in his conceptualization of passive revolution and develops interpretations of the three phases as processes of borrowing the temporalities of the past — each of which nurtures the moment of anachrony or the mythological time of archaism at its core.

During the interwar years (the 1920s and 1930s), Japan mutated from being a victim of colonialism to a colonizer at large. Amid imperialist expansion across the Asian Continent, the nation-state was experiencing accumulating  internal problems. While enjoying a cosmopolitan atmosphere in the flourishing urban culture of the 1920s, global trade served only capital and the state, while endangering commoners’ subsistence and ways of life. In the 1930s, commodification saturated Japanese society; capitalist developments threatened the integrity of rural communities and the traditional family. As Harootunian points out, the everyday lives of populations were now determined by the repetitious time of the workday and lost the concrete time they had long sustained. In this atmosphere, the archaic that emerged from the recesses of a noncommodified precapitalist era provided a hedge against alienation in a broad sense.

In his analyses of this phase, Harootunian renders discursive conflicts that occurred among varied tendencies (communists, socialists, liberals, conservatives, and fascists) and categories (philosophy, history, sociology, and literature) as a complex scheme of interactions. The discourses, from left to right, sought to make sense of their present problems derivative of the capitalist modernization that had begun with the Meiji Restoration. While the right tended toward a realization of national integrity and empowerment as the unfulfilled mission of the Restoration, the left hoped for a realization of progressive modernization by ousting feudal remnants. Importantly, Harootunian is keen to point out the areas of their overlap. In other words, these discourses relied on or were captured by the linear view of history — either to push it forward or retrovert it — both being motivated by their antagonism against the enlarging influence of financial or oligarchic capitalists. In this mode, Harootunian proposes critical readings of the discursive conflicts among the positions in a spectrum of passive revolution. Highlights in his readings are the singularity of Japanese archaism as fascist ideology and the theory of the Marxist philosopher Tosaka Jun.

The ideology of Japanese fascism (called “Japanism”) tended toward the nation’s divine origin —  mythic time— in contrast to the historical time of Mussolini’s Romanness or Hitler’s thousand-year Reich. The difference was that the archaic as a reference to a distant time was mutated —or primitivized — into the archaism as a timeless ideology without history or place. In this way, the ideology of Japanism attempted to conceal the contemporary temporal order of capitalism by installing an ideal image of primitivistic family system epitomized by the imperial household. Thus, the primitivization of the archaic functioned as “an ideological masquerade” that circulated “like the commodity form and penetrates every nook and cranny of society and culture.” Meanwhile, the political goal of Japanese fascism (toward “the Showa Restoration”) was technically to promote the imperialist expansionism driven by a monopoly capitalism of large industries, but paradoxically its discourse advocated a re-feudalization toward farming communities. It sought to establish the authority of a fusion of soldiers and farmers with the slogan of recovering rural community and family integrity of lower and middle classes — of folk but not proletariat.

The philosophy of Tosaka Jun appears as an immanent critique of the discursive arena of this phase. His project of dissecting “Japanese ideology” was, for Harootunian, “an abstraction capable of encompassing the entirety of social formation.” This was also an attempt to grasp the materiality of history, namely, “how the present was situated in a historical time contemporaries were living.” Here “the historical” meant the lived reality of the time of the proletariat, the principal agent of history. The central concern in this formulation was “the everyday which was being left behind by the failure of capitalism to fulfill the aspirations of the present and change its course.” Harootunian’s analyses of Tosaka’s philosophy synchronize the historian’s own conviction of practicing history, wherein the everyday is “a microcosm representing the whole of history.” With Tosaka, Harootunian believes that “the present as the realm of necessity must be the starting point for the rehistorization and actualization of all pasts in the present moment.” Thus, the everyday is the starting point of our struggles for liberation. 


The postwar era began with Japan’s unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces, ending WWII in 1945. The original planning for the postwar constitution was initiated with the intervention of American ambition to create a democratic society, that Harootunian associates with “Dr. Moreau’s island laboratory,” but America’s own problems and the war in Korea prevented fulfillment of this ambition. As a consequence, a large part of the power that had driven fascist Japan, including the emperor, was exempted from the trial for war crimes and resuscitated by the judgement of the American Occupation. This was necessitated by its strategy to confront the new enemies in Asia by making the Japanese Archipelago a frontline base. Without the participation of the people in the country, the postwar constitution was thus established putting the emperor back on his throne — though no longer as absolute monarch but national symbol. This speaks to the fact that the American Occupation had a clear recognition of his role for national amalgamation.

In this way, the use of the emperor as archaic apparatus was restored yet again in the third phase. In citing the words of the critic and sinologue Takeuchi Yoshimi, Harootunian stresses: now the emperor functioned as “a kind of metonym of Japan calling attention to the totality.” In the new society which would become an economic giant, “miniature emperor systems were embodied in every blade of grass and tree-leaf of Japan.” In liberal capitalist society, too, the emperor continued to be an ideal tool for an imaginary recovery of all that is lost in the process of capital’s accumulation. Which means that the emperor system continued to play archaism as a virtual form of fascism that could actualize itself at any critical juncture.

For the analyses of this phase, Harootunian summons two discourses, both of which exemplify the postwar return of archaic thinking. One is the political scientist Maruyama Masao’s concept of “archaic stratum.” This means a subterranean rhythm that directed Japanese society since ancient times, by varying its intensity between moments of openness (or change) and those of closure (or withdrawal). With the recognition of the two opposing impetuses, Maruyama seemed to wish for a new beginning of modernization that would transform a folk socialized into feudal and hierarchical conformism into a modern, rational, and informed citizenry. Another discourse Harootunian draws upon is the literary critic Kobayashi Hideo’s “language spirit,” that he invoked from the 18th century nativist scholar Motoori Norinaga. In this notion, Kobayashi emphasized the nation’s possibility of change while keeping its essential identity like the mechanism in the Japanese language itself. While paying respect to these efforts to recontextualize the national body in the postwar society, Harootunian nevertheless considers that both “evoke the unchanging figure of remote antiquity in a society in which the noncontemporary still prevails over the contemporaneous.” Precisely in this way, “the archaic had become a political unconscious of modern Japan, a legacy of the Meiji Restoration that had been transported well into the postwar years.”


Living in the dark time with crises on all fronts, we can hardly sustain our trust in the world that had once given us promises of progress and happiness. All problems from the past seem to be accumulating in the present, instead of being resolved on a higher ground, and expressing themselves in increasingly vicious manners. Their complex relations do not follow a historical development by the dialectic synthesis of contradictions in stages toward a unification of human and nature. In this situation, Harootunian’s philosophy of historical time could give us hints for developing a new practice of history, that is necessary for a reconsideration of the world for our struggles of survival, justice, and happiness. It suggests shifting our strategic attention from the narrative of power centers, that is, the view of world history as a synthesis of national histories, to those of omnipresent peripheries, whose ground is “the everyday” of us the people, that is, the battleground between the temporalities imposed on us and those we seek (the real agent of history). In this way, Harootunian’s philosophy provides us with implications to reconsider the idea of revolution. Even in this dark time, we continue to observe varied modes of oppositions, among which taking the power of a nation-state to replace it is but one – be it by violence or election. We are observing forms of popular struggle to decompose the regime, for their self-empowerment and autonomy, in reverberation across the world — as a spectrum of practices. What we could envision from the spectrum is a multiplicity of liberations instead of one for all at once. I believe that Harootunian’s philosophy of historical time reminds us of a richness in this tragic world.

Kim Myung-hwan, South Korean Writers in Solidarity with Palestine  

Korea and Palestine lie at the eastern and western ends of Asia, seemingly having little in common. But Korean poets and novelists (and their readers) have every reason to see Palestine’s catastrophe as their own. Despite their economic success and prosperity, South Koreans have been living under an uneasy armistice since the Korean War (1950-1953) much as the Palestinians have under Israeli’s prolonged military occupation albeit to very different degrees of precarity. Remote is the possibility of a planned all-out war in Korea, but an accidental military engagement between the North and South is likely to escalate to a dangerous armed conflict.  

In the late 1970s, South Korean writers and readers protesting against Park Chung Hee’s draconian military rule became interested in Palestinian literature as part of Third World resistance. The works of Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), Ghassan Kanafani (1936-1972), and others began to be translated and read by the Korean public. It was a new cultural phenomenon, because a binary view of Israel as “good” and the Arab world as “evil” had prevailed in South Korea due to its alliance with the United States. National division and the devastating history of the Korean War fostered such ultra-right, pro-American ethos in the South. At far-right rallies in Seoul today, participants still frequently wave American and Israeli flags alongside the South Korean flag.

Personally, the most moving piece of literature about the plight of Palestine is Ghassan Kanafani’s short story “Returning to Haifa” (1969). The author, assassinated by a car bomb implanted by the Mossad in 1972, tells the story of a Palestinian couple who, in the chaos of the 1948 War, were driven away from their home without their infant son. Twenty years later, they were finally able to visit their old home thanks to Israel’s temporary opening of the borders after its victory in the 1967 War. Upon their arrival, the couple discover that a Jewish couple had taken up their house along with their lost son, now a soldier of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). To the readers’ dismay, the young soldier shuns his biological parents, accusing them of having irresponsibly abandoned their child, and his Jewish adoptive mother seems insensitive to the agony of her adopted son’s parents despite being a Holocaust survivor. Up to this point, the Palestinian father had discouraged his second son from joining the armed resistance movement, but as he leaves his old home again, he tells his wife that he hopes their second son had already left to join the resistance. This tragedy of a Palestinian family portrayed by Kanafani is especially poignant for Korean readers because it so closely mirrors the experiences of Koreans who were suddenly displaced from their homes and separated from their families due to the national division and war, never to visit their homes or meet lost family members again.

It was only in 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq that South Korean writers began to collectively show interest in Palestine and take action for peace, partly because they had less experience in building international solidarity with overseas resistance movements. It took some years to actively promote international solidarity for peace and democracy after struggling against the overwhelmingly powerful military rule in South Korea that was finally toppled in 1987. In October 1994, radical young Korean writers organized the Korean Writers’ Solidarity for Vietnam (베트남을 이해하려는 젊은 작가들의 모임) to address war crimes committed by South Korean troops as the main ally of the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. These young writers established strong ties with Vietnamese writers including Bao Ninh, maintaining their connections for decades. Bao Ninh’s novel The Sorrow of War based on his direct seven-year military experience as a regular North Vietnamese soldier was banned for a long time in Vietnam mainly because the novel frankly depicted the sordid reality of war.

Building on such solidarity efforts, in 2003, dozens of activists formed the Korean Anti-War and Peace Team for Iraq (한국이라크반전평화팀) and traveled to Iraq, and the Korean Writers’ Association (한국작가회의, then known as the Writers’ Association for National Literature 민족문학작가회의) decided to send a writer along with the team. Soo Yeon Oh, a young female novelist seized the opportunity to get involved in this peace movement, not only in Iraq but also in Palestine, and worked with Ta’ayush (Living Together), a peace organization comprising both Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. During her stay in Palestine, she happened to meet the Palestinian poet Zakaria Mohammad (1950-2023), and invited him to a literary event in South Korea. Since then, a number of Palestinian writers along with Mohammad have visited South Korea at the invitation of Korean writers to build solidarity. I might add that Zakaria Mohammad was once in danger of being killed by both the IDF and Muslim extremists at the same time, just as Bao Ninh was subjected to censorship by the Vietnamese government despite having bravely fought for the liberation of Vietnam.   

Last October, shortly after Israel’s genocidal response to the Hamas attacks, Palestinian writer Adania Shibli, whose novella Minor Detail had just been translated into Korean, came to Seoul at the invitation of the annual DMZ Literary Festival. DMZ, or the Demilitarized Zone, designates the 4 km area on either side of the cease-fire line between the North and South, an ironic name given that it is one of the most heavily armed regions in the world. A few days before Shibli’s arrival in Seoul, the LitProm association in Germany that hosts LiBeraturpreis (an annual prize given to female writers from Africa, Asia, Latin America or the Arab world during the Frankfurt International Book Fair) suddenly canceled (“postponed” in their official expression) its award ceremony for her. It was a disappointing decision that drove responsive Korean readers and writers to flock to hear her Seoul talk. As elsewhere in the world, Korean writers are sensitive to crackdowns on freedom of expression, but it is especially galling due to the history of censorship by authoritarian governments, not only under military dictatorships but as recently as 2008-2017, when the conservative government secretly blacklisted writers and artists critical of state policies. At the time of Shibli’s talk, the same repressive measures were being repeated under the Yoon Suk Yeol administration whose election in 2022 was by the narrowest margin (less than 1%) in all of South Korean electoral history. 

Anti-war protests among South Korean civil society have been smaller in scale compared to those in the West, but they have grass-roots potential because Korean writers and readers, on the basis of their own historical experience, deeply understand how urgent peace is and take the Palestinian calamity to be their own. On March 2, 2024, a poetry reading was hosted by a small bookstore in Paju, a city just fifteen miles away from the DMZ. A young Palestinian man, who managed to escape to Egypt and come to South Korea, gave a brief account of his own experience in Gaza to an audience of about twenty people, followed by a poetry reading for peace in Palestine. The event was joined not only by Koreans, but also by migrants from Uzbekistan, a Chinese student studying Korean literature, and others. The tiny bookstore is owned by a cooperative of sixteen members, and its next director is a Japanese woman married to a Korean whose daughters also attended the poetry reading. Events like these are being organized nationwide by writers, bookshop owners, and local activists. They hope that their endeavors will help create a truly diverse and egalitarian society, overcoming indifference and discrimination against refugees and migrant workers in Korea. The South Korean government provides refugee status to only about 2.8% of applicants, far below the average rate of OECD countries. Additionally, South Koreans have another important reason to be deeply wary of war. According to U.S. news reports, South Korea sent hundreds of thousands of artillery rounds to Ukraine via the U.S. military, exceeding the amount provided by all Western European countries combined. 

Israel seems ready to continue killing Palestinians unless they give up their resistance completely. But the history of humanity, filled with horrendous wars and massacres, proves that  ethnic cleansing leaves indelible scars in both the victims and victors. As D. H. Lawrence pointed out in his Studies in Classic American Literature, the United States of America was built on the ethnic cleansing of native Americans, a historical fact that explains the callous U.S. response toward events outside American soil including what is happening in Gaza. Links between worsening domestic social ills and imperialist foreign policies go unrecognized.

International solidarity is vital now. Korean writers and readers will continue to make persistent efforts, however small, to build such solidarity. Solidarity after all is not just about “helping others,” but about reforming ourselves by addressing the key challenges of difference, in the Korean case to overcome national division and achieve peace on the peninsula. In the Middle East where Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were all born, may solidarity build a world capable of embracing differences among these rich literary and spiritual traditions.

KIM Myung-hwan is Professor Emeritus in the Department of English Literature at Seoul National University