Ken Kawashima reviews The Red Years: Theory, Politics, and Aesthetic in Japan’s ’68, edited by Gavin Walker (Verso, 2021)

It is Time to Return to the Future of The Red Years for Our Time.

The Red Years: Theory, Politics and Aesthetics of the Japanese ’68, edited by Gavin Walker, is a book that reconstructs three fundamental aspects of the Japanese ’68 revolution for us today:

    1. Marxist and revolutionary theory, which was caught in a certain mode of crisis, but also in a mode of new possibilities for revolution and rebellion in the present;

    2. Revolutionary politics of the Japanese ’68, i.e., the intersectional diversity of anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist revolutionary practice in Japan led by student proletarians;

    3. Radical aesthetics of, and for, revolutionary and emancipatory politics, which changed human perception in the fields of writing, painting, music, dance and theatre.

In what follows, I will focus on the first two points, but if there is an overarching and basic lesson of the book, it is this: “There is no guilt in revolution—to rebel is correct”. (235) Comrade Walker’s timely declaration repeats—and psychoanalytically grounds— Mao’s declaration to The Shanghai Workers’ Revolutionary Rebel General Headquarters in 1967. As the Chairman declared then: “In the last analysis, all the truths of Marxism can be summed up in one sentence: To rebel is justified.”


Marxist theory occupied a central place in the Japanese ’68, and The Red Years discusses how it combined the inheritances of three, inter-related discourses of Marxist theory:

    1. Japan’s interwar discourses of Marxist theory, epitomized by the Debate on Capitalism (“the Debate”), which spanned from 1927 to 1937;

    2. The political economic theories, method and research of Uno Kōzō (1897-1977);

    3. Marxist theory in the Soviet Union from 1919 to 1956, the latter year representing the critique of Stalin and the Hungarian rebellion.

Again, for the sake of brevity, I will focus on the first two points.

To recapitulate a familiar but still repressed story of the splitting of the Marxist Left in the interwar period in Japan: the split was expressed in the form of a Debate that distinguished two Marxists factions, which took opposing sides in relation to the Comintern Thesis of 1932 on the situation in Japan. The 1932 thesis called for overthrowing the feudal Emperor system in Japan as a precondition for a subsequent proletariat revolution, and also concluded that the Meiji Restoration of 1868 was not a bourgeois revolution, only an incomplete one. (Walker, 2016, Chapter 2).

Supporting the Comintern line was the Japanese Communist Party (JCP, founded in 1922), itself supported by the “Lectures faction” or Kōza faction (講座派) of Marxist scholars and researchers. Opposing the Comintern line, the JCP and the Kōza faction was the Rōnō faction (労農派). The Rōnō faction argued that the Meiji Restoration was effectively a bourgeois revolution and that the capitalist mode of production—especially in terms of the development of the commodity (and market) economy, or 商品経済— had been fully developed in Japan by the 1930s. They thus argued for a direct communist revolution and an immediate dictatorship of the proletariat, but also tended to ignore the idea of overthrowing the Japanese Emperor system.

As The Red Years clarifies, many of the theoretical and political positions from the interwar Debate were transplanted and transferred to the ’68 revolutionaries, and to their new historical conjuncture in the shadows of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaties, which placed Japan in the position of a ‘client state’ under U.S. imperialism. In the ’68 conjuncture, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) and its youth league (Minsei) adopted the Kōza faction position; the Japanese Socialist Party (JSP) adopted the Rōnō faction position and was deeply influenced by the theories and research of the Japanese Marxist, Uno Kōzō. Finally, many of the New Left sects of the Zenkyōtō movement, who commonly opposed both the JCP and the JSP, were also influenced by Uno. But instead of taking Uno’s theories to parliament like the JSP, the New Left took Uno’s theories to the streets.

In The Red Years, Suga Hidemi gives a concise description of the discursive constellation of the Rōnō faction, Uno Kozo’s economic theories, and the New Left:

In the postwar years, the Rōnō faction’s argument became the position of the left wing of the Socialist Party (now known as the Social Democractic Party), which was to the Communist Party’s right. Insofar as it did not advocate the abolition of the emperor system, the Socialist Party could be considered a moderate social democratic party. Broadly speaking, Uno Kōzō’s economic theories…could be placed within the Rōnō faction ideology. Starting with the Bund, the question of how to interpret Uno’s economics was an important topic for the Japanese New Left. (102)

Further corroborating the impact of Uno Kōzō’s thought on the New Left, Hiroshi Nagasaki, author of the Theory of Rebellion, writes:

The influence of Uno’s political economy on the thought of the New Left was immense. On the one hand, as a method of political economy for disclosing the objective crises of capitalism anew, it provided powerful and independent thematics of economic analysis. It emphasized the need to write a new theory of imperialism. On the other hand, Uno’s theory of principle, by locating the motor-force of revolution outside the text of Capital, provided a conception of ‘freedom’ to practice. It was the opportunity in thought that allowed for the liberation of ‘rebellion’ from the Marxist theory of revolution. (Nagasaki, The Red Years, 37)

In this quotation, Nagasaki emphasizes three points of Uno’s method for political economy that were so meaningful for the New Left’s radical vision and practice in ‘68:

(1) Uno’s theory of the fundamental principles of political economy (i.e., Marx’s Capital)

(2) Uno’s theory of (the inevitability of) crisis

(3) Uno’s theory of imperialism (i.e., Lenin’s Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism)

Regarding the world of principles and its relation to practice, in Theory of Crisis (1953), Uno wrote:

What is clarified as a social principle is something that is expressed as if it can make society move and develop eternally. This means that what becomes a principle is something that is repeated, inevitably and necessarily. The historicity of a society’s birth, growth, and decline becomes hidden in the background, so to speak. Thus, when we provide the exposition of the principles of political economy, as a system that begins with the ‘commodity’ and ends with ‘all classes’, questions such as the birth of ‘commodities’ or the end of ‘classes’ cannot be answered by the systematic principles itself. Now, in Capital, when Marx on occasion explains the necessity of capitalism to transform into another kind of society, I do not believe that this problem can be solved by the systematic principles themselves. This, at least, is how I understand it. There is no reason and no way that the principles, in and of themselves, can provide an exposition of a society’s birth and death. (Uno, 1953, my translation)

For Uno, the question of theory and practice has three aspects. First, the question of theory is never assumed to be automatically unified with practice (politics), as in the phrase “the unity of theory and practice.” Uno instead separated theory from politics, and vice versa (and in a way that resonates with Althusser’s theoretical struggles within the French Communist Party in the 1960s-70s. See Althusser, 1990a and 1990b).

Secondly, practice/politics is ultimately a question of overturning the world of capital’s principles from a position that represents the outside of capital, i.e., the position and movement of labor-power (Marx, 1990, Chapter 6; Kawashima, 2009; Walker, 2016, Chapter 4; Kawashima-Walker, 2019). This is Uno’s famous question of the commodification of labor power, its ‘im/possibility’, as well as its ‘negation’ or ‘sublation’, or 労働力商品化の「無理」•「止揚」. (Uno, 1953, 1958)

Thirdly, the autonomous place of politics is something that can be reached only by passing through three, distinct levels of political economic research and their attendant forms of knowledge (abstract-theoretical; historical; and concrete-empirical):

    1. the theory of the purely abstract, fundamental economic principles of the capitalist mode of production, as theorized by Marx in Capital, also known as Uno’s 経済原理論;

    2. the theory of the historical stages of capitalist development, or 段階論 and 経済政策論, which are based on the differences between the state economic policies of mercantilism (重商主義), liberalism (自由主義), and imperialism (帝国主義);

    3. the concrete, historical analysis of capitalism after 1917, or the analysis of contemporary capitalism in its historical conjuncturesor 現状分析.

These are the three levels of Uno’s method for political economy. As such, they are the ‘precursors’, so to speak, of the emergence of the autonomy of politics. In the context of the Japanese ’68, Uno’s theoretical exposition of the world of capital’s principles had the dialectical effect of liberating thought and politics away from the purely economic principles of capital, and towards the invention of alternative modes of subjectivation, community, and political practice that were totally antithetical to the world of capital and its commodifying and oedipalizing principles of capitalist and imperialist sociality. In short, the political praxis of the Japanese ’68 began where Uno’s theoreticism ended. As Hiroshi Nagasaki writes in his On Rebellion:

We departed from the point where Uno consciously [i.e., logically] stopped. In other words, the radical theoreticism of Uno, which absolutely lacks actual relations with practice, in turn influenced our [political] practices [their autonomy]. (The Red Years, 209)

Echoing this line of thought, Yutaka Nagahara writes:

It is exactly the distinct, autonomous field of politics that must be questioned for its possibility, as Badiou did. This paradoxically resonates with Boltanski and Chiapello, who argue that ‘the history of the years after 1968 offers further evidence that the relations between the economic and the social…are not reducible to the domination of the second by the first.’ It is this ‘inversion’, so to speak, that ’68 made happen on the structured streets.” (The Red Years, 209)



What happened to the Japanese ’68 after the event of ’68?  The problem, as Nagahara quotes Badiou, is that, “We are commemorating May ’68 because the real outcome and the real hero of ’68 is unfettered neo-liberal capitalism.” (The Red Years, 207) Moreover, compounding the problem of neoliberalism, the defeats of the ’68 revolution have created a Left with a strong tendency to “overvalue the negative capability of remaining in doubt, skepticism and uncertainties”, which, according to Mark Fisher, has become a “political vice” of the Left that the New Right is more than happy to take neoliberal advantage of. (The Red years, 231)

How can the Left today overcome this insecure doubt, skepticism, uncertainty, as well as its sad passions? The Red Years, it seems to me, alerts us of two important tasks that can, and must, be done to begin resolving these problems on the Left.

First Task: to develop further the open secret of the Japanese ’68 rebellions: that capitalism ‘works’ and ‘operates’ in the way that it does only because there is something intrinsic about capitalism that is fundamentally inoperable and broken. Any appearance of rationality in capitalism is only an illusory appearance (Schein) of capital’s exchange process based on the commodity-form, which itself is nothing but a salto mortale, or an irrational and speculative “leap of faith” from the relative form of value (‘20 yards of linen’) to the equivalent form of value (‘1 coat’). (Marx, 1990; Karatani, 2020) It is thus a mistake to think that the essence of capital can be explained as if it is a purely rational substance.

Therefore, it is never the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist rebels who are the mad ones. The anti-capitalist rebels are the normal and sane ones; it is capital, its representatives, agents, sycophants, saboteurs and spies—especially in the stage of imperialism—who are the stark and raving mad lunatics, hell-bent on deploying whatever irrational means of violence to realize absolute and relative surplus value for the dictatorship of capital. (Deleuze-Guattari, 1968)

Therefore, to believe that one can describe capital as if it is rationally structured will fail to realize the many ir/rational reasons why everyday people—who think—will repeatedly revolt against the dictatorship of capital, even in vain, if only to taste a little bit of real freedom. As Yutaka Nagahara writes:

Rational Marxian economics could demonstrate the structure of our reiterated defeats scientifically only because of the way in which it describes capital itself as rationally structured; but for that very reason, it can never imagine and therefore realize the (ir)rational reasons people revolt repeatedly in vain. (The Red Years, 182)

Second Task: To develop the revolutionary inheritances of the Japanese ‘68 in today’s depoliticized dead-end of neoliberal thought, it is necessary to re-articulate the critique of contemporary forms of eclecticism. This critique is necessary (once again, as it was for Lenin in the 1890s in Russia) because eclecticism prevents all of us from coming together as a unified combination of forces to overthrow capitalism.

Eclecticism today is a neoliberal way of thinking and living that makes everyone too timid to even dare to revolt against the existing conditions of capitalism. Eclecticism today is a sophisticated and pompous discourse of allowing the existing conditions of capitalism to be analyzed interminably, and thus to remain in place indefinitely and unchallenged. Today, eclecticism also commonly combines with Essentialism and Esotericism to produce a generalized depoliticization. For example, in today’s University discourse, “Latourian Object Analysis + Identity Politics + Neo-Heideggerian fundamental ontology = Eclecticism + Essentialism + Esotericism = Radical Depoliticization”.

Marxism and the Left today must smash such senseless, neoliberal eclecticism in order to begin to actualize the possibilities of socialist revolution that the Japanese ’68, for a brief moment, forced into existence.

As Lenin wrote in the 1890s: “The eclectic is too timid to dare to revolt… Let anyone name even one eclectic in the republic of thought who has proved worthy of the name rebel!” (quoted in The Red Years, 233)

Finally, to stamp out eclecticism amidst the crisis of neoliberal capitalism today requires, more than ever, nothing short of a renewed theory of the dictatorship of the proletariat. (Marx, 1875; Lenin, 1917; W.E.B. Dubois, 1935; Balibar, 1977).

Walker’s The Red Years identifies these important tasks (and more) as critical elements for the revolution to be accomplished for our time, daring us to renew a revolutionary and rebellious movement on the Left against the dictatorship of capital.

To rebel is correct and justified!
Smash Capitalism and its Neoliberal Eclecticism!
Labor-Power for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat!


Ken Kawashima
University of Toronto



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____ (1990b). For Marx, Verso.

Balibar, Etienne (1977). On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, Verso.

Deleuze-Guattari (1968/). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Robert Hurley, University of Minnesota.

W.E.B. Dubois (1935/1992), Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, the Free Press.

Karatani, Kojin (1973/2020). Marx: Towards the Center of Possibility, translated by Gavin Walker, Verso.

Kawashima, Ken (2009). The Proletarian Gamble: Korean Workers in Interwar Japan, Duke UP.

Kawashima, Ken and Gavin Walker (2019). “Surplus Alongside Excess: Uno Kōzō, Imperialism, and the Theory of Crisis, Viewpoint Magazine,

Marx, Karl (1990). Capital, Volumes 1, Penguin.

_____ (1875). Critique of the Gotha Program.

Lenin, V.I., (1917), State and Revolution.

_____ (1916). Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism.

Uno, Kōzō (1953), Theory of Crisis, translated by Ken Kawashima, forthcoming from Brill Publishers, Historical Materialism series, with an essay by Kawashima and Walker, “Uno’s Theory of Crisis Today”.

____ (1958). Capital and Socialism (資本論と社会主義), in 宇野弘蔵著作集、Vol. 10.

Walker, Gavin (2016). The Sublime Perversion of Capital: Marxist Theory and the Politics of History in Modern Japan, Duke UP.


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