This essay examines the work of Enzo Traverso, Johanna Bockman and Wang Hui while asking about the legacy of socialism in the current neoliberal moment. Traverso’s Leftist Melancholia traces how leftists went from being melancholic about the future to giving up on the socialist project. Bockman’s Markets Against Socialism attempts to infuse hope into our present by uncovering the concealed history of the role of markets in actually existing socialism and in the formation of neo-liberalism. She contends that neo-liberalism effaced any trace of such a history, which could point the way beyond capitalism. Wang Hui brings a different perspective by theorizing from the global south and from China in particular. He consequently highlights the problems of imperialism and class in twentieth century socialist history. As I articulate the arguments of these three books, I draw on recent Marxist theorists, such as Moishe Postone and Jacques Bidet to construct a theory of capitalism that can make sense of the problems and possibilities associated with our global capitalist present. In short, I argue that theories of socialism must highlight the potential of class and anti-imperialist struggles by placing them within the larger vortex of capitalist and state dynamics.
Chinese historians have considered the 1911 Revolution an incomplete bourgeois revolution, especially in comparison to the more successful 1949 Revolution. On the other hand, in their famous tract in the early 1990s, Li Zehou and Liu Zaifu claimed that a rethinking of the 1911 Revolution should lead us to reject the concept of revolution altogether. In both of these formulations, as stepping stone towards socialism or demonstration that any revolution is futile, the 1911 Revolution is in some way connected to the legitimacy of capitalism. However, in post-war Japan, when Japanese intellectuals were debating the consequences of the American Occupation and Japan's role in the Second World War, the 1911 Revolution had a different significance. Post-war Japanese sinologists often turned to the 1911 Revolution as a symbol of hope, despite its failure. Takeuchi Yoshimi was the pioneer of this intellectual trend and he argued that, unlike the Meiji Ishin, which was a pale imitation of Western modernity, the 1911 Revolution represented a unique affirmation of revolutionary subjectivity, precisely because its initial attempts at modernization failed. Takeuchi and his disciples' discussions of how the 1911 Revolution produced subjectivity out of failure illustrate post-war Japanese sinologists employed the 1911 Revolution in debates about subjectivity and anti-colonialism. An analysis of their writings will open the way to thinking both the 1911 Revolution and its perception in Japan as it relates to the trajectory of capitalism and its discontents in the 20th century.
Since the fall of the Soviet bloc and the various transformations in China since the late 1980s and early 1990s, scholars in both China and other regions have begun to use the term “civil society” to denote a realm of political practice separate from the state. Even today, the Chinese philosophy professor Han Lixin uses the term to denote future possibilities for China. However, unlike earlier works on civil society that attempt to guide China through Western liberal theory, Han explicitly draws on the Japanese “civil society Marxists,” such as Hirata Kiyoaki and Mochizuki Seiji. This essay in some ways mimics Han’s attempt to bring together Japanese Marxist theory and contemporary Chinese reality, but claims that reexamining theories of civil society in Japan should lead us to emphasize the logic of capital in understanding Chinese society and envisioning a future for socialism. The essay introduces the complex theorization of civil society by an often overlooked Marxist, Kakehashi Akihide. Kakehashi explicitly grasps civil society in relation to more fundamental categories in Marx’s work, such as the commodity form. In this way, he points the way to a deeper understanding of the dynamic of capitalism and by extension the history of particular regions of the world, such as China. However, in the 1960s and early 1970s when the “civil society Marxists” Hirata Kiyoaki and Mochizuki Seiji popularized their reading of Marx, they focused on civil society as a moment of liberation without stressing the totalizing dynamic of capitalism. The essay discusses Han’s use of Hirata and Mochizuki, before returning to the problem of how thinking of capitalism as a totalizing dynamic could further illuminate issues of post-1949 and contemporary China. In short, I argue that civil society is always already imbricated in a more fundamental logic of producing surplus value, which serves to undermine the freedom that civil society is supposed to realize. Hence a true theory of human emancipation must focus on the totalizing logic of capitalism and how to overcome it.