Reentering the Dragon:
Reclaiming Revolutionary Nationalist Theory on Asian Amerikan Terrain
by Henry Aoki
Please note that this paper is still a work in progress.
Asian Amerikans have been fighting back against the oppression of this country ever since we first tasted the bitterness of Amerika’s racism and exploitation. The long and heroic history of the Asian Amerikan struggle inspired and strengthened us in our purpose. No longer can we endure these oppressive conditions. We cannot let our ancestors’ struggles go down in vain.
-I Wor Kuen, 12 Point Platform and Program, 1969.
This article outlines the project of Asian Amerikan revolutionary theory through a dialectical and historical materialist analysis of the Asian Amerikan community. I start from the premise that a theorist can only develop genuinely revolutionary theory by proceeding from the material conditions of their immediate community. From here, I contend that the material realities of Asian Amerikans are best apprehended through the framework of a national-formation, as opposed to the racial formation framework. Drawing inspiration from the noninstitutionalized, loosely affiliated revolutionary nationalist school of thought that emerged during the 1960s and ‘70s, I reconstruct the national-formation framework as an analysis of how the uneven development of capitalist class relations both determines and is determined by community consciousness. I then apply this framework to the historical development of Asian Amerikan consciousness, to identify the fundamental contradictions of the Asian Amerikan revolutionary struggle and propose a revolutionary path forward.
The stormfront tightens its grip on the West; let a whirlwind strike from the East. The settler Klan is done hiding their hoods. The capitalist state, both blue and red, readies the police to invade and pacify our streets. Only the heat rises as fast as the rent—development expands and the places to live shrink. The Man flirts with trans genocide and reproduces his family at gunpoint. Wall Street feasts on the sweat of the global South and salivates for another war against the “orient.” All under heaven is in disarray; nowhere are our people free.
The last revolution was killed but the rebellion lives. In 2020 it set fire to the police. Black struggle leads the way, those who think themselves white cling hold. The Native nations are rising to the demand of the Earth, those who think themselves white cling hold. Asian Amerika is stirring—but the guiding line towards our own self-determination only becomes ever harder to see. What can transform the rebellion into revolution? What can ensure, on the eve of the end of the world, that we finally succeed?
We are seeking theory that functions as revolution. In other words, we are in search of theory that does not live outside of revolution, a theory for which revolution is its being. We are not looking for a disciplinary label but something that resonates with a certain “feeling,” something that pulls the consciousness closer and closer towards the horizon of freedom. Naturally, our search for revolutionary theory must begin with a deeper examination of revolution. What exactly is revolution—not as some sociological ideal type of phenomenon, but as that pull of consciousness manifested in a concrete moment of subjective experience? This is not something that submits itself to “empirical” observation. We must meditate (“speculate”) and report what our consciousness has encountered as necessity.
Revolution is not an aesthetic, nor is it merely a sentiment. Revolution encompasses a passion—that universal human hunger to overcome alienation—but never without a material object; never without an action to realize that passion in the actually existing world. Revolution does not exist in the ideal or “in the abstract”; it is a practice that, like all practice, can only ever proceed from the particular, constantly changing material conditions of our social world.
So he has no use [for categories] but relegates all to the constant. The constant is the useful; the useful is the passable; the passable is the successful; and with success, all is accomplished.
What was revolution in Haiti in 1791 was not what was revolution in Russia in 1917, nor was it what revolution was in China in 1966. “Every generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.” There is only revolution when the passion comprehends and realizes its particular necessities. For the unalienated world, the liberated world—the world where we are not socially estranged from the fact that the world is only ever of our own social making—can only exist as this particular realization in action.
If capital operates like a machine, revolution is not the struggle to program a more socially benevolent machine. The “machine” is a composition of alienated human beings; “programming” is what constitutes their alienation. Revolution is when the “machine” transforms into collective consciousness; when we are not just perpetually self-made but perpetually self-making. “A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another,” not because such a thing was written in 1927, but because consciousness realizes the necessity of insurrection. The realization—the discovery and its enactment—is everything. Again, realization only proceeds from our particular, material conditions of existence. More than that, the realization must realize that realization only proceeds from our particular, material conditions of existence. Otherwise each great revolutionary event repeats three times: first as triumph, then as tragedy, and then as unending farce—as a pathetic caricature of dead revolutionaries.
We apply the adjective of “revolutionary” to “theory” in order to specify the function of the theory, rather than to specify the topic—although theory with a revolutionary purpose is usually concerned with the topic of revolution. Revolutionary theory is an act of revolution, and an act that, insofar as it actually is revolutionary, necessarily leads to more revolutionary acts, that collectively constitute a real movement towards an unalienated social reality (far beyond just an “intellectual” movement of citations or conferences that inevitably spirals into practical irrelevancy). Phrased another way, theory can only meaningfully constitute a revolutionary act if the content of the theory suggests further action. Revolutionary theory is therefore always strategic theory, or theory that at least implies a strategy. As revolution can only proceed from particular material conditions, so too must revolutionary theory. Either it explicitly clarifies these material conditions, or it explicitly posits a strategy that engages these material conditions (or both). By necessity, the material conditions it proceeds from are the particular material conditions of the activists and the organizers, of the people who realize the theory as a revolutionary act as they act upon it. By necessity, the intellectual becomes an activist and organizer themself, the only method for comprehending these particular material conditions. In this sense, revolutionary theory can only be the practice of revolutionaries.
We cannot proceed any further into the nature of revolutionary theory from the universal. Revolutionary theory is the practice of revolutionaries, and revolutionaries do not exist in the abstract. The purpose of this essay is not to speak to the universal revolutionary and therefore speak to no revolutionary. Thus we have discovered, from our consciousness, necessity. We must ground ourselves in a particular material position and a particular audience. This is therefore an essay not simply for those asking what revolutionary theory is, but for those who are asking what Asian Amerikan revolutionary theory is. This is an essay for those “who cannot let our ancestor’s struggles go down in vain.” It is only on this material premise that we can approach a meaningful answer.
Asian Amerikan theory is revolutionary only so far as the adjective of “Asian Amerikan” gestures towards material reality, beneath the appearance of a mere Asian Amerikan aesthetics. But more than that, Asian Amerikan theory must gesture towards practice; must not just speak on material conditions but towards the individuals whose consciousness is determined by these material conditions—the agency that actually transforms material reality, that can actually realize the revolutionary aspect of theory. Asian Amerikan theory is revolutionary only so far as it is an attempt to posit revolutionary strategy (practice) for an “Asian Amerikan” consciousness, both of which are necessarily determined by an “Asian Amerikan” material reality. This consciousness and material reality are, by necessity, the fundamental meaning of “Asian Amerikan,” insofar as the term offers a non-oxymoronic adjective to the practice of revolutionary theory.
We have so far been moving “backwards,” from an idea (a particular concept initially proposed in this essay as if it were a “thing in-itself”) to a social being (to the actual consciousnesses that think this idea, and think it within definite material conditions), propelled by the momentum of practical necessity. It is necessary for consciousness to travel this path when it reflects on an idea already present in the mind, but it is not the actual path through which the ideas first appeared in history. The idea did not necessitate the material; the material necessitates the idea. Our meditations on the abstract idea of Asian Amerikan theory has revealed the necessity of “Asian Amerikan” consciousness and “Asian Amerikan” material reality, but it did not invent either of these things. We are not going to look at the world and arbitrarily choose some consciousness-material reality pair to be called “Asian Amerikan” in order to legitimize “Asian Amerikan theory” as a revolutionary enterprise. Asian Amerikan material reality and Asian Amerikan consciousness already exist. They are a historical fact, and they created the necessity of Asian Amerikan theory. Our task is precisely to uncover the historical character of Asian Amerikan material reality. Our thesis is that Asian Amerikans are a national-formation, and that “national-formations” are a historically constituted, material reality.
The last three decades of theorizing on Asian Amerikan reality has been overdetermined by the notion that Asian Amerikans constitute a racial-formation. This overdetermination is in keeping with the broader post-1970s turn of the U.S. academic “left” away from the dialectical (or “Marxist”) analysis of material reality and towards a “post-structuralist” analysis and critique of “discursive” reality (meaning texts, narratives, and other particular instances of ideology). The notion that Asian Amerikans constitute a “racial-formation” is the notion that Asian Amerikans constitute nothing more than a discourse, or that “Asian Amerikan” is ultimately just a contested idea without an inherent material referent.
The racial-formation conception of Asian Amerika holds some empirical weight. It is undeniably the case that the idea of “race” is an idea without an inherent material referent (it is ultimately just a discourse), and that U.S. conceptions of “race” includes a concept of “Asian American” which must similarly possess no inherent material referent. Indeed, this discursive conception of “Asian American” is so pervasive in both everyday and academic discussion that it is necessary for us to spell “Asian Amerikan” with a “k” to specify that we are speaking in reference to objective, material reality, rather than partaking in or commentating on the groundless concept of “race.” The majority of Asian Amerikans are in fact racialized (or collectively imagined) as being “Asian American.” All of these “discursive” observations are material realities. The problem is that when this particular component of Asian Amerikan material reality is imagined as the totality of Asian Amerikan material reality, the project of revolutionary theory is doomed to fail.
Precisely because the concept of “race” has no material referent, the group of people racialized as “Asian American” is too subjective, unstable, and contradictory to be practically meaningful to an Asian Amerikan revolutionary (or even an Asian Amerikan reformist). As a revolutionary, the fact that a “white” person believes I belong to the same “Asian race” as another person tells me absolutely nothing else about that other “Asian”. It does not even tell me if that other “Asian” agrees that we belong to the same “Asian race”—perhaps this “other Asian” sees themself as an “Aryan.” It tells me nothing about what “Asian” more broadly means, or even what “white” more broadly means, because for all I know this “white” person is an iconoclast with their own subjective ideas of “race”—maybe this “white” person insists they are not “white” but “Italian.” Neither of these individuals is “correct” or “wrong” in reaching these judgements, because an idea without a material referent has no objectively “correct” form. There are no actual “Asian Americans” to analyze and/or organize, there is only a subjective concept of “Asian American” to analyze and deconstruct. Asian American revolutionary theory is thus rendered an oxymoron; Asian American studies is thus restricted to literary criticism.
This is an essay for those who know that Asian Amerikan revolutionary theory has existed before and will exist again. Two decades before the rise of racial-formation theory, the Asian Amerikan Movement came to consciousness of a different theoretical tradition: revolutionary nationalism. The theory of revolutionary nationalism originates post-WWII in the writings of Harold Cruse, who drew inspiration from other third world revolutionary struggles such as the Chinese revolution and the Cuban revolution, and Asian Amerikans eventually made their own contributions to this tradition in the ‘70s and the ‘80s. In this tradition, Asian Amerikans are not merely an idea, but a nation, conceptualized as a historically constituted, material formation of real people, and therefore a proper subject of revolutionary theory. This tradition has never received academic canonization, and its premises have never been sufficiently theorized with respect to Asian Amerikan realities. The purpose of this paper is not to perform an apologetic restoration of “orthodox” revolutionary nationalist theory, but to help finally complete it. In this respect, this paper is following most immediately in the footsteps of the incarcerated New Afrikan intellectual James Yaki Sayles, also known as Atiba Shanna, who was himself an affiliate of the Japanese Amerikan revolutionary nationalist J. Sakai. Sayles dared to radically rethink the historical materialist conception of the nation, and so do we.
Revolutionary Nationalism and the Asian Amerikan
Asian Amerikans are a national-formation, or a historically and materially constituted community of real people. This observation does not contradict the fact that Asian Amerikans are racialized, but it indicates that Asian Amerikans are not identical with the “Asian race.” There are Asian Amerikans who are racialized as “Asian,” “Black,” “Latine,” “Hispanic,” “Brown,” “Half,” “Mixed,” “Hapa,” and even “white.” The historical/material character of this formation should not be mistaken for being an “ethnicity” or a “panethnicity,” which are the interpretive categories of certain brands of academic sociology. Sociological studies of “ethnic” and “pan-ethnic” groups examine the real historical and material characteristics of national-formations, but they examine them with the normative expectation of discovering a unified, homogenous interest group. We do not presume that the material conditions that structurally bind Asian Amerikans into a common community inherently generate common interests. The sociological conception of ethnicity, moreover, cannot comprehend so-called “mainstream” U.S. society as an ethnic group equivalent to all other ethnic groups, precisely because no reputable sociologist can get away with suggesting that “mainstream” U.S. society constitutes a unified interest group in the same way they are comfortable describing “minority” groups. We, on the other hand, intend to examine Asian Amerikan communities on the same basis that we grapple with “mainstream” U.S. communities.
The origin of the national-formation is in the economic development of capitalist class relations. Capitalist class relations are unique because they institute mutual (although not equal) dependence of all classes on one another for survival; we refer to this form of dependence as nationality. This dependency generates a form of community distinct from that of pre-capitalist communities, which are formed around kinship and ritual. The capitalists, like their gentry predecessors, extract free labor from other classes in order to survive. But unlike their predecessors, the capitalist survives only by selling the product of that labor back to the exploited classes, and those exploited classes survive by selling their labor power to the capitalists and then purchasing commodities from them. The class relations are inherently integrative, even though the capitalist class is also parasitic. Since capitalist class relations inherently do not develop evenly across the world, the mutual dependence of all classes on one another is fragmented into many different sets of mutually dependent classes, or into what appears as many different national-formations.
We speak of national-formations, rather than nations, because no set of mutually dependent capitalist class relations is truly independent from all others. The ongoing, uneven development of capitalism constantly shifts and forms new economic communities out of the old. Establishing rigid, fixed criteria for whether a community “is” or “isn’t” a “nation” was Stalin’s project, and only serves the opportunistic purpose of quickly deciding which communities have a right to self-determination without having to investigate the consciousness of the community itself. National-formations are significant only because they manifest as consciousness, complicating the supposedly universal “class consciousness” of capitalism. This national consciousness (which is obviously twisted and narrowed by an array of other ideological forces) can in turn motivate its subjects into altering the structure of the class relations themselves, with the effect of either intensifying national consciousness (if the set of capitalist class relations become relatively more independent of other sets of capitalist class relations) or generating new forms of national consciousness altogether (if the specific set of class relations becomes relatively more integrated with other sets of class relations). Thus the “nation” cannot help but be a national-formation, because the objective basis of the “nation” (capitalist class relations) cannot help but generate a subjective agency that alters this objective basis (national consciousness). When we speak of national-formations, we are speaking of this process: the continual, transformative interactions between capitalist class relations and national consciousnesses.
The material reality of Asian Amerikans is a particular set of capitalist class relations. Asian Amerika exists insofar as distinctly Asian Amerikan capitalist classes form: insofar as there is an Asian Amerikan bourgeoisie, petite-bourgeoisie, and/or proletariat in the process of formation. All three classes (or however many classes we identify with capitalism) do not need to exist, but, since all classes only exist in relation to other classes, one distinctly Asian Amerikan class can only form insofar as it forms other distinctly Asian Amerikan classes. The distinctly Asian Amerikan character of these classes is evident in their relative degree of independence from other sets of classes (other national-formations) and the self-articulation of Asian Amerikan consciousness among these classes (whatever particular form this articulation takes). This is seen most clearly today with the Asian Amerikan petite-bourgeoisie, existing in student organizations on college campuses, professional associations, and in both political and service-based non-profit corporations. This petite-bourgeoisie is primarily drawn from and often remains in partial relation to the other “Asian” national-formations—such as the Chinese Amerikan national-formation, the Filipinx Amerikan national-formation, and the various national-formations that are present in Asia itself. This petite-bourgeoisie, in turn, has laid the economic foundations for the formation of an Asian Amerikan proletariat mutually dependent on them, again primarily drawn from the proletariat of other “Asian” national-formations. The national consciousness of Asian Amerikans reflects this partial integration, with Asian Amerikans rarely drawing firm lines between Asian Amerika and the other “Asian” national-formations. As the ultimate significance of national-formations is how they appear in the consciousness of their participants, neither will we.
The majority of “Asians” in the U.S. are only partially integrated into the Asian Amerikan national-formation. Few if any “Asians” migrate to the U.S. with the intention to integrate into Asian Amerika—“Asians” migrate to the U.S. with an intention of either living in “their own” national-formation (that is, migrants from China immigrate with the intention of living in a Chinese Amerikan community) or of integrating into a “mainstream” national-formation, which we will refer to as the Yankee and Dixie national-formations. Some “Asians” in the U.S. have effectively no connection to the Asian Amerikan national-formation, or to any “Asian” national-formation whatsoever—such as an “Asian” family that assimilates into a small Yankee town, or a Chican@ neighborhood. And just as some “Asians” are members of “non-Asian” national-formations, the Asian Amerikan national-formation (and all “Asian” national-formations) includes “non-Asians” whose lives are meaningfully integrated into Asian Amerikan class relations, to the extent that they adopt and are recognized within Asian Amerikan national consciousness. The fact that the Asian Amerikan national-formation exists does not mean that all or even the majority of “Asians” in the U.S. are destined to integrate into it. National consciousness, like all forms of mutual recognition, is ultimately something that must be chosen by its subjects. An individual has exactly as much freedom to choose the form of their national consciousness as they are materially capable of changing their economic community.
What, then, is Asian Amerikan revolutionary theory? It is not theory meant for all “Asians” in America, or even for all “Asian” revolutionaries in America. Asian Amerikan revolutionary theory is theory for those who choose to make revolution on Asian Amerikan terrain. At its material root, this terrain consists of a set of capitalist class relations which in turn generates a distinctly Asian Amerikan national consciousness, or a mutual recognition of economic dependency. Asian Amerikan revolutionary theory is revolutionary theory that arises out of this national consciousness—it is the theory of revolutionaries who have decided that their own future lives and dies on the future of the Asian Amerikan community. The theory is born out of the material necessities of these revolutionaries; it exists because Asian Amerikan revolutionary consciousness cannot otherwise realize a self-determining, unalienated existence. The purpose of Asian Amerikan revolutionary theory is therefore straightforward: to comprehend the forces at work in the historical development of the Asian Amerikan national-formation and thus discover how to redirect these forces towards the ultimate liberation of our people, and every people. Asian Amerikan revolutionary theory is our project to uncover who we really are in order to determine how we finally get free.
Asian Amerika: A Brief History of Self-Determination
The time has come for us to reenter the dragon: to rediscover our ancestor’s struggles so that we might finally comprehend how to complete them. This task goes far beyond the constraints of this article, but we will use what little space we have left to establish a starting point. Our goal is to apprehend the fundamental forces at work at the dawn of the Asian Amerikan national-formation and the crystallization of Asian American revolutionary consciousness, in order to uncover the fundamental contradictions of the Asian Amerikan revolutionary struggle. But we can only properly apprehend these forces if we begin our analysis a century before that moment.
The United States’ first major Asian communities formed in the mid-1800s in Hawai‘i and California, populated by Chinese coolies fleeing the chaos of an imperialism-ravaged China. In Hawai‘i, the mass of these workers went to the sugar plantations; in California, to the gold mines and then the railroads. Yankee racism outlawed Chinese immigration in the 1880s, resulting in the mass recruitment of Japanese migrants to replace it, and the consequent de facto restriction of Japanese immigration in 1907 in turn resulted in the mass recruitment of Filipinx migrants. These first waves of Asian migration were neither integrated into Yankee capitalism nor transformed into a (pan-)Asian Amerikan national-formation, but instead developed into a variety of diasporic national-formations. Hawai‘i, for instance, actually saw the first appearance of a Chinese Hawaiian bourgeoisie at the same time as it saw the first appearance of the Chinese Hawaiian proletariat: Chinese sugar companies established their own mills on the islands as early as the 1830s and recruited Chinese labor to operate them. In California, the tremendous cultural differences between Chinese and Yankee labor meant that Chinese labor demanded commodities not yet produced by the Yankee bourgeoisie or petite bourgeoisie. As the Yankee capitalists had no ambitions of satisfying them, Chinese labor’s demand for commodities was instead fulfilled by an emerging class of Chinese Amerikan merchants, who quickly amassed wealth and set about organizing the Chinese Amerikan national-formation.
The practical linguistic and geographical barriers between Yankee capitalists and potential Asian migrants further obstructed the integration of Asian labor into Yankee class relations. The Yankee capitalists were by and large incapable of directly recruiting or controlling Asian proletarians, and were thus forced to create an intermediate class for that purpose: the labor-contractors, who could function as intermediaries only so far as they were drawn from the same Asian societies as the migrants (seeing as the Yankee national-formation in the mid-1800s had few if any “homegrown” translators). The practical method through which Yankee capital recruited Asian labor thus had a natural tendency to isolate most Asian laborers from direct relations with Yankee capitalists, who were instead reliant on a class of Asian intermediaries.
The failure of the Yankee capitalists to integrate itself with Asian labor was paralleled by labor’s general failure to integrate itself across “racial” lines. Both Asian and Yankee capitalists consciously recruited specific “races” of Asian labor under the assumption that each “race” possessed unique characteristics that warranted segregation from others. The Yankee owners of Hawaiian plantations, for instance, intentionally recruited Chinese labor out of a fantasy of Chinese docility and lodged them in separate barracks. When Chinese labor proved unruly, they turned to recruiting Japanese labor and attempted to segregate Japanese from Chinese. The Yankee proletariat, meanwhile, utterly refused to recognize Asian labor as a part of their own communities, and instead imagined Asian labor to constitute the essence of capitalism’s inhumanity. Thus even without the pull of “their own” Asian bourgeoisie/petite bourgeoisie, the new Asian proletariats in the U.S. were violently rejected from the Yankee proletariat, and “racially” divided amongst themselves by the Yankee bourgeoisie (although not to the violent extent that “Asians” were segregated from “whites”).
The various Asian proletariats, however, were never consumed with the homicidal racialism characteristic of the Yankee proletariat. The historical tendency of the pre-WWII Asian proletariats was not to divide themselves but to unite for the sake of the class struggle. In Hawai‘i, for instance, the Japanese proletariat developed from its purely reactive strikes to organizing an industry wide plantation strike for equal wages in 1909. The strike was ultimately defeated through the mass importation of Filipino strikebreakers (in addition to brutal repression), but the consciousness of the workers did not succumb to Yankee-style racism. A decade later, Japanese workers organized themselves into Japanese Federations of Labor, and Filipinx workers did the same. The next year, in 1920, Filipinx workers took the vanguard position and struck the plantations, extending a call of solidarity to Japanese workers. The Japanese workers answered, the two proletariats brought 77% of all plantation work in Hawai‘i to a stop. After six months, the strike was defeated, but again the consciousness of the workers advanced. In the interest of greater solidarity, the Japanese Federation of Labor transformed itself into the completely multinational Hawaii Laborers’ Association. Revolutionary consciousness had arisen out of national consciousness.
The historical tendency of the pre-WWII Asian proletariats was to build unity through multinational organization, but not to construct a (pan-)Asian Amerikan national-formation. The various Asian proletariats united with one another, but only due to the practical reality that Yankee capital had hired them to labor on the same farms and factories. They had arrived at a revolutionary consciousness, but not an Asian Amerikan one—the various Asian proletariats united with one another only as part of a general movement to unite with the international proletariat as a whole. They consistently participated in multinational organizations—the unions and the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA)—on the basis of their original, “ethnic” national consciousness, even as the CPUSA (in conjunction with the overarching Third International) carved out distinctly pan-Asian spheres of work. Had these organizations remained a realistic vessel for the realization of Asian revolutionary consciousness, it is easy to imagine that a (pan-)Asian Amerikan national-formation would never have emerged at all.
The CPUSA, however, was ignominiously defeated shortly after WWII, crushed under the heel of McCarthyism with many of its Asian members threatened with deportation—right on the heels of having sold out their Japanese members by supporting their mass incarceration. The unions, once a site of tremendous revolutionary dynamism, were purged of their radicals and converted into corporate partners. It was in wake of this defeat that the Asian Amerikan national-formation and Asian Amerikan revolutionary consciousness were born. As with all national-formations, the particular character of its emergence had elements of both economic inevitability and ideological contingency. First, the birth and upbringing of multiple generations of Asians in the United States eliminated many of the “cultural” differences that otherwise tend to separate first generation immigrants into distinct national-formations (such as the lack of a common language). Second, Yankee culture was still overwhelmingly racist, constricting the capacity of Asians to integrate into the Yankee national-formation. These two facts alone did not, however, mean that an Asian Amerikan national-formation was destined to emerge—Asians could have plausibly integrated into the United States’ other national-formations, such as the Chican@ or New Afrikan communities, or have nevertheless remained in their original communities.
The decisive factor in this moment was the action of a new class: a rising petite bourgeoisie, characterized by a college education and professional ambitions in contrast to the traditional “small business” type of petite bourgeoisie. To be clear, the action of this class was decisive not because it possessed greater talents or intelligence in comparison to the longstanding classes of the Asian national-formations, but only because it possessed new options for economic mobility. The overarching boom of the post-WWII U.S. economy was not accompanied by a proportionate increase in opportunities for “blue collar” employment or starting a small business—what it created were unprecedented opportunities for “white collar” careers. From the standpoint of an aspiring white-collar professional, access to these opportunities hinged on the accessibility of a college degree, and thus the percentage of 18-24 year olds in the U.S. enrolled in higher education more than tripled between 1940 and 1970. But in entering the university, the children of proletarians and small business owners were suddenly thrust into a material reality in sharp contradiction with their upbringing. In the university, aspiring professionals from all national-formations were suddenly congregated on the same campuses and classrooms. Hence, the rising petite bourgeoisie of the various Asian national-formations were uniquely situated to establish a (pan-)Asian Amerikan national-formation. It thus comes as no surprise that the term “Asian American” was popularized by a student-led organization: the UC Berkeley Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA).
Yet the fact that this professional petite bourgeoisie could realize themselves as Asian Amerikan does not explain why they did. Again, they could have stuck to their original national-formations, or they could have attempted to integrate into a different one—and some did. The fact that these professionals did not more widely integrate into other “non-Asian” national-formations can be attributed to the persistence and structure of post-WWII racial ideology—“Asians” could not widely identify themselves with “Black” culture or “Brown” culture and vice versa. In the absence of cultural identification, the various Asian rising petite bourgeoisies could not and did not attempt to materially integrate themselves into “racially distinct” national-formations. The persistence of racial ideology, however, cannot explain why the rising petite bourgeoisie of the various Asian national-formations chose to integrate with one another rather than remain in their initial national-formations. Persistence cannot explain change. Only a transformation in the consciousness of the new Asian petite bourgeoisie can explain the sudden formation of Asian Amerika. And that transformation was their embrace of a new revolutionary consciousness.
The emerging Asian Amerikan petite bourgeoisie were hardly the creators of the new revolutionary consciousness that animated them. Indeed, no class within the United States’ various Asian national-formations played a principal role in creating this new consciousness. The old revolutionary consciousness of the pre-WWII Asian proletariats was dormant and would only be revitalized with the spark of the new. The principal creators of the new consciousness instead lived in the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power, none of whom was more important than Malcolm X. In an era where labor had reduced itself into yet another narrow-minded, reformist interest group, the Black freedom struggle dared to demand freedom in revolutionary, universal terms. Rather than clamoring for New Afrikans to get a “piece of the pie,” Black Power launched an attack on the systems of white supremacy and imperialism as a whole. This was a consciousness that seized hold of not just the emerging Asian Amerikan petite bourgeoisie but of individuals in every class and national-formation in the United States (and some outside of it).
Revolutionary consciousness shook the emerging Asian Amerikan petite bourgeoisie free from their class’ default pursuit of narrow economic self-advancement. It seized on questions of dignity and pride long submerged in their minds—on the years of buried rage inherent to any life lived as a chink and a gook in Amerika—and forced them to surface, possessing them with the demand for a higher form of self-determination. Again, we should not assume that this demand was inherently destined to culminate in the creation of an Asian Amerikan national-formation. The rising petite bourgeoisie’s demand for self-determination was guided to this endpoint by other forces—principally, the struggles of other “Asians” for self-determination, the foremost of which was the Vietnamese war for national liberation. While the struggle of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front was a tremendous source of inspiration for the entirety of the U.S. left, it held special significance for Asians in Amerika: in Vietnam, they saw themselves, whether they were Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinx, or Korean. The inescapable example of Vietnam connected all of their individual experiences with racist violence into a common “Asian” experience of racist violence, while at the same time demonstrating that “Asians” were capable of resisting this violence on their own terms. The example of Mao Zedong and revolutionary China similarly demonstrated that “Asians” could fight back as “Asians,” as did the anti-Marcos struggle in the Philippines (at least for Filipinx Amerikan activists).
The other major influence on the emerging Asian Amerikan petite bourgeoisie was the emerging Asian Amerikan lumpen-proletariat. By 1967, the Black Panthers were emerging as the new standard-bearers of revolutionary consciousness, promoting a political line based on “Serving the People” and appointing the lumpen as the vanguard class of the movement. At the same time as the rising petite bourgeoisie was searching for its own identity, the lumpen of the various Asian national-formations were beginning to organize themselves. As early as 1967, for instance, lumpen youth in San Francisco’s Chinatown partnered with Johnson administration sponsored War on Poverty programs to launch “Leways” (short for “Legitimate Ways”), which primarily consisted of a cooperatively owned pool hall. In late 1968, former members of the Ministers, a Crenshaw-based Japanese Amerikan gang, reconnected to fight a recent Japanese Amerikan drug epidemic and founded the Yellow Brotherhood in February of 1969. While to some extent “multiethnic,” these organizations simply reflected the actual “multiethnic” nature of all real national-formations. Their primary purpose was to directly address issues immediately present in their already existing communities, not to lay the foundation for a new national-formation. But to the Panther-led revolutionary consciousness of the emerging Asian Amerikan petite bourgeoisie, these self-organizing lumpen naturally appeared as the revolutionary masses of an emerging Asian Amerikan national-formation. And it was only with such a mass base that the rising petite bourgeoisie could meaningfully envision its own nation.
The revolutionary consciousness of this rising petite bourgeoise thus developed into a revolutionary Asian Amerikan national consciousness. Its first significant material expression was the demand for Asian Amerikan studies, a demand that perfectly corresponded with its concentration on college campuses. Yet even then, this was not a narrow, neocolonial demand for the petite bourgeoisie’s own professional advancement in the academy, but rather a revolutionary nationalist demand to make the academy serve the entire Asian Amerikan community. The fact that the Asian Amerikan community did not yet actually exist was unimportant; Asian Amerikan studies would call the Asian Amerikan nation-formation into existence, just as countless Third World national-formations had only been called into existence with the success of the decolonial struggle. For as soon as Asian Amerikan studies was won, Asian Amerika acquired the material reality of capitalist class relations—although the structure of these class relations was highly irregular. Instead of possessing a traditional bourgeoisie that sells commodities to the proletariat in exchange for exploiting the proletariat for a profit, Asian Amerikan studies created a “professionalized” petite bourgeoisie that would serve the proletariat, lumpen, and even traditional petite bourgeoise, in exchange for those classes’ mass support in sustaining their “serve the people” work. The establishment of Asian Amerikan studies was soon followed by other non-profit organizations which reinforced this peculiar set of class relations. A revolutionary class of Asian Amerikan artists rapidly appeared as well, although the structural relationship of this class to the rest of the national-formation was often more akin to that of a traditional entrepreneur than that of the non-profit professional—that is, to the extent that Asian Amerikans artists seriously attempted to sell their art throughout the community. The art they created was the origin of Asian Amerikan material culture, and thus the origin of the Asian Amerikan market.
Conclusion: On the Correct Handling of the Contradictions among Asian Amerika
Asian Amerikan national consciousness was born directly from the revolutionary consciousness of the 1960s. The principal material structures of the Asian Amerikan national-formation consequently bear the imprint of that revolutionary consciousness: Asian Amerika is a national-formation organized around the academy, non-profit institutions and the market for Asian Amerikan material culture. Asian Amerika’s leading class is a professionalized petite bourgeoisie that can only sustain itself through continual integration with the classes of the other diasporic Asian national-formations. But the revolutionary consciousness that created these structures has long since lost its hegemony over the Asian Amerikan national-formation. This is the fundamental contradiction of Asian Amerika: the longstanding leading class of our national-formation no longer possesses a revolutionary vision, yet its irregular economic character prevents it from acquiring the traditional rising bourgeois instinct for nation-building. Their main nationalistic instinct is to be included (in government, Hollywood, executive meetings, etc.), yet these Yankee-run institutions quite obviously cannot “include” the Asian Amerikan national-formation as a whole. Any attempt to project this instinct throughout the entirety of the Asian Amerikan national-formation is destined to culminate in fascism, because fascism is the final political home of all fantasies—and we can already see this, in the action of the right-wing Asian Amerikans who believe the secret to being included in the Ivy League is to scapegoat Black students.
The objective of Asian Amerikan revolutionary theory is the objective of the Asian Amerikan revolutionary nationalist struggle. The internal contradiction of our national-formation is that the leading class no longer has a vision that can integrate the entirety of the national-formation on a non-fascistic basis. The fact of the matter is that it is structurally impossible to non-fascistically integrate the whole Asian Amerikan national-formation on anything other than a revolutionary basis. The Asian Amerikan petite bourgeoisie fundamentally lacks the resources to offer the entirety of the national-formation a real, non-revolutionary program of national development. A few university-confined Asian Amerikan studies programs and an occasional anti-Asian hate awareness campaign will not cut it. Neither will banal invocations of the need for “solidarity” or of the legacy of the Asian Amerikan movement be any more satisfactory. The objective of the Asian Amerikan revolutionary nationalist struggle is to propagate a genuinely revolutionary program; a call to action that places the destiny of our national-formation entirely in the hands of our people because we have nothing else to give that the entire national-formation can share.
The last Asian Amerikan revolutionary consciousness constructed a network of institutions to serve the people—it is now our task to revolutionize the people. The time has come for the Asian Amerikan studies departments, the nonprofits, and our cultural industries to become democratic organs of the people themselves. By this, we do not mean that these institutions should open their ears to the demands of the masses, but that the responsibility of leading these organizations must be placed squarely on the shoulders of the masses. The people must fully comprehend how these institutions function and dare to transform them on their own terms. If the present institution cannot truly serve the entirety of the national-formation, they must instead become the responsibility of the entire national-formation. The people’s struggle to take responsibility for these institutions can be the staging ground for their struggle to seize responsibility for their local economies away from bourgeois interests. The program is to challenge the people to take democratic responsibility in every corner of their life; to dare them to stop at nothing to win the world that they deserve.
But the program is nothing if it cannot go deeper than abstract terms. And the revolutionary theorist is not a parent watching their child start their first day of school. The Asian Amerikan revolutionary theorist can only challenge the people to take responsibility on the basis of having already taken on that responsibility for themselves. Wherever they are, the Asian Amerikan revolutionary theorist must be prepared to struggle for democracy against their local petite bourgeoisie and above all else comprehend what seizing this democracy will mean. The theorist must clarify the material structural of our national-formation’s institutions, identify the social forces that control them, posit an alternative democratic vision for operating them, and above all else discover a method to explain the secrets of this struggle to the masses and dare them to win it. Asian American revolutionary theory begins in the concrete analysis of these particular struggles and can only from there transform into a program for the Asian Amerikan national-formation as a whole. Only then can the theory claim to not just be for the people but of the people. Only then will our ancestor’s struggles not have been in vain.