Repetition and Magic
Just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating
something that has never yet existed, . . . they anxiously conjure up the spirits of
the past to their ser vice and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in
order to pres ent the new scene of world history in this time- honored disguise and
this borrowed language.
karl marx, Eigh teenth Brumaire
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Wang Yanan, an economic phi los o pher
and prominent cotranslator (with Guo Dali) into Chinese of David Ricardo,
Adam Smith, and Karl Marx’s three- volume Das Kapital, among others,
published a series of critiques of con temporary po liti cal economic theory
in vari ous social scientific journals in China of his day.1 With topics rang-
ing over aspects of “the economic” as science and social practice, as philoso-
phy and concept, nine of the essays were reprinted as a book in 1942.2 The
anthology’s lead piece, “On Economics,” announces Wang’s basic position:
“Economics is a science of practice [shijian de kexue]; it is a science that
forms itself in the course of practice; and it is only in its significance and
utility in practice that it can be correctly and efficaciously researched and
understood.”3 Rejecting economics as either pure theory or pure empiricism,
Wang was adamant that “the economic” was a philosophy of human be hav-
ior and thus, as an academic disciplinary practice, should retain and be
based in a dynamic relation to everyday materiality. The economic as
a social phenomenon had to be derived from and return to historicized
practice as a matter of and in the very conceptualization of social life at any
given moment in time. For Wang, attempts to grasp economic concepts
ahistorically— through the externalization of concepts that detaches them
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