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  • Guest Editor’s Introduction:Proletarian Arts in East Asia
  • Heather Bowen-Struyk (bio)

Proletarian Literature in the World

The proletarian arts movement was an international politico-arts movement that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. Like other modernist movements, the proletarian arts movement sought to redefine the form and function of literature and art; and like other modernist movements, it held that capitalism was fundamentally changing the ways that people related to each other and to the world in which they lived. But, in contrast, the proletarian arts movement—no matter how much writers disagreed over the details—held that class-based struggle was necessary because capital was controlled by the few at the expense of the many. The essays in this volume remind us of the anguish and optimism that made proletarianism seem not only possible but crucial. As the important Korean literary critic Yoon-shik Kim writes in his essay in this volume, "Literature was no longer to be a sentimental pastime, [End Page 251] but an active participant in the development of society and the unfolding of history."

Despite the awkwardness of the term to some ears today, self-titled "proletarian" organizations existed throughout the world during the first part of the twentieth century.1 Michael Denning writes: "The turning point was the world upheaval of 1917–1921. In the wake of the European slaughter, regimes and empires were challenged: there were revolutions in Czarist Russia and Mexico, brief lived socialist republics in Germany, Hungary and Persia, uprisings against colonialism in Ireland, India, and China, and massive strike waves and factory occupations in Japan, Italy, Spain, Chile, Brazil and the United States."2 The boom in proletarian literature of the late 1920s and 1930s had been put into motion a decade earlier by tremendous social change and by the organizations formed to deal with that change. As Denning writes:

Three initiatives were particularly influential. The first was the formation of the first international writers' association, Clarté, in 1919 by Henri Barbusse . . . which led to a series of international writers' congresses. The second was the emergence of a proletarian culture movement in revolutionary Russia, a loose federation of clubs, education societies, and workers' theaters . . . which soon became known by the abbreviation "Proletcult." The Proletcult movement reached its peak in the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, spawning workshops, journals, and rival groups, and its example resonated around the world. . . .

Two of the three initiatives outlined by Denning are grounded in antiwar and anticolonialist projects. Class struggle in East Asia was unmistakably intertwined with imperialism. Germany, England, and the United States had imperial ambitions and territories in East Asia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; Japan joined the Western imperial powers as a threat to East Asia with its rapid modernization and military successes in [End Page 252] the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. One recurring theme in this volume is the special problem posed by Japanese imperialism on the Asian mainland; as is evident throughout these essays, resistance to Japanese imperialism in Korea, Taiwan, and China was given organized support from proletarian organizations originating in those countries, as well as in the Soviet Union and in Japan. Not coincidentally, the origins of proletarian literature in Japan are often attributed to a journal published in 1921 by Komaki Ōmi, recently returned from France, where he was deeply influenced by Henri Barbusse and the Clarté movement.4 In 1923, Komaki and the Japanese radical Sasaki Takamaru published a Japanese translation of Clarté. Antiwar and anti-imperialist projects were fundamental to the proletarian arts movement in East Asia.

This introduction seeks to emphasize both what was specific to proletarian arts—most notably, their relationship to international Communism, labor issues, and the way that they theorized the role of Japanese imperialism in East Asia—as well as what they had in common with their sociohistorical context, such as formal experiments with media to express the changing demands of the age. Together, these essays reinvestigate works by writers and artists who examined the relationships between capitalism, colonialism, class struggle, and nationalism during a period of tremendous industrial development, political unrest, booming mass media, and imminent war. This volume is based on...


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pp. 251-278
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