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The Strange Fate of Marxist Civil Society Discourse in Japan and China

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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.

10.3868/s020-001-012-0023-9
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/content/journals/10.3868/s020-001-012-0023-9
2012-01-01
2016-12-05

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