Book Review: The Origins of Socialist Thought in Japan
Japan: the Courage of a Few
The Origins of Socialist Thought in Japan by John Crump (Croom Helm, 1983)
Yesterday the Japanese were the “Japs”, sub-human orientals who specialised in war atrocities. Today they are a congenitally hard-working race who produce quality goods cheaply and efficiently. Which image is the true one? Doubtless neither, for popular images are rarely based on truth or direct experience. Although the Japanese people, as peoples everywhere in the world, have changed and developed by interaction with their environment and the circumstances of history, they have always been seen by outsiders through the distorting lens of the interests and propaganda of those with control over the means of information. The truth is something we have to find out for ourselves. And to help us find out the truth about Japan we now have an excellent new tool. John Crump’s new book (1) looks at Japanese development between 1868 and 1918 but also sheds considerable light on the shaping of Japan and its people since then.
Even in terms of the period explicitly covered, the book’s title understates its scope. For apart from describing vividly and authoritatively the events and personalities of the epoch and giving a coherent account of ideas about socialism which were then in circulation, it also paints a broad sweeping picture of the whole make up of Japanese society when different social and political forces at work after the Meiji restoration started the process of capitalist development.
Japan has had to telescope its industrialisation into a far shorter period than older established capitalist countries like Britain. Most of it has taken place in the last 30-40 years. But the foundation was laid in the slow accumulating of capital which began in the mid-nineteenth century. And slow it was, for in 1902 little over 1 per cent of Japan’s 46m population were industrial workers and in 1918 the figure was still only 2.6 per cent in a population of 54.7m. The slowness of the process, however, did not stop it being extremely painful for those caught up in it. More painful in fact than it had been for workers in nineteenth century Europe. Crump quotes eye-witness accounts of children of six upwards working eight hours a day for the equivalent of a few pence and cites the admission of the then President of the Industrial Bank of Japan that “the condition of labourers is to be pitied by an impartial observer”. Workplace conditions were hellish for both men and women. The women, many of them girls barely in their teens, constituted more than 50 per cent of the workforce. They could be paid less for their work than men. They would labour up to 18 hours a day in the mills, drenched in sweat, in temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. They suffered illness and premature death on a large scale. Such conditions led, as they have everywhere in developing capitalism, to protests which took the form of collective action by workers to try to force better pay and working conditions from their employers – nascent trade unionism. Official trade unionism remained illegal in Japan throughout this period, so workers had no choice but to take illegal action. When they did, they were sometimes successful in their demands, but more often were driven back to work by the forces of a state incomparably more repressive than any in nineteenth century Western Europe. The violent clashes that took place between protesting workers and the police and army occasionally resulted in widespread damage to property and heavy casualties on both sides, as for example in the copper miners’ action of 1906-7 and the rice riots of 1918. Many of the copper workers had been soldiers in the mass slaughter of the 1905-6 Russo-Japanese war and, although now demobilised, used their training for violence to unbargained for effect against the forces of state repression.
When disturbances like these took place, many radical minds in Japan mistakenly thought that the workers’ revolution had come. They failed to see that these were little more than expressions of despair devoid of ideological content. The radicals were rarely industrial workers themselves and shut their eyes to the most important factor of all – that the Japanese working class was still tiny in comparison to the overwhelmingly peasant-based population. For this reason the mass consciousness needed for a workers’ socialist revolution was impossible in Japan at the time.
Any changes which promised to better workers’ conditions, however, tended to be referred to as “socialist’. And indeed few of the early Japanese “socialists” saw socialism as anything more than trying to make the existing system more humane through social reforms or, at most, nationalising industry under centralised state control, as was to happen later in Russia and other countries. Their notion of socialism was based on the European conception coming mainly from the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), seen as a “powerful older brother”. The small groups of Japanese “socialists” that grew up even imitated the SPD in its rifts and controversies over reform or revolution – over whether to concentrate on getting into capitalist parliaments and implementing reforms or whether to go for an immediate and potentially violent revolution aimed at getting rid of parliament and private ownership of capital and establishing state control over the economy. Both these policies were, as in Europe, referred to as “socialism”, whereas they were just different recipes for running capitalism. As the author of this book states: “Capital no more ceases to be an anarchic force outside of people’s rational control on being collectivised than the state ceases to be an organ of repression on being given a socialist label”.
The operating space allowed to these groups by the Japanese authorities was extremely limited and the state had frequent brutal recourse to the infamous “Public Peace Police Law”. For the courageous few who dared to speak out, losing their jobs and social ostracism were the least penalties. For many it meant exile, imprisonment or even death. After a small street demonstration in june 1908, a number of the demonstrators were arrested. Among those taken to the police station, Crump says, “Arahata Kanson and Osugi Sakae were ruthlessly beaten up. Stripped naked, both men were dragged by their feet along the corridors, were kicked, beaten and stamped on, the police only ultimately relenting when Arahata had been beaten into unconsciousness . . . For the heinous crime of demonstrating with red flags, nine socialists received prison sentences of up to 2½ years.” Particularly poignant is the case of Kotoku Shusui, one of the foremost activists and radical thinkers of the time, who died on the gallows in 1910 along with 10 other comrades for allegedly plotting to assassinate the emperor.
Kotoku was one of the few who came near to getting away from the SPD reformist-state control conception of socialism and to understanding the idea of socialism as conscious revolution to abolish the wages system by a class conscious majority of workers. But frustration led him, as it led other brave men and women, to contemplate terrorism as a means of revolution. As even the most law-abiding attempts to spread new ideas were met with rising terror by the state, so those who opposed the state became increasingly violent and anarchical in what they advocated. “The means whereby the revolution can be funded is the bomb. The means to destroy the bourgeois class is the bomb”, said the journal Kakumei in 1906, and, addressing the Japanese capitalist class, it went on: “There may come a day very soon in which there will be built a large mountain of your bloody bodies”. Their terrorism, it is true, was more in words than in actions, but it did not prevent the state from using its own institutionalised apparatus of terror to try to silence them. As Crump does not fail to point out, violent direct action was futile, not only in terms of its prospects of success, but also for the way it went against the fundamental idea of the need for mass public consciousness before socialist revolution could be on the agenda. So when, after the executions of 1910, Arahata Kanson, who had earlier called for the abolition of the wages system, conceived a plan for assassinating the Prime Minister and declared that “the overthrowing of the tyrants who set themselves up against civilisation and humanity is not a utopian illusion”, he was succumbing to despair and forgetting that, in Crump’s words, “terrorism by its very nature imposes a military disciple on those who resort to it, in place of the self-liberating and creative activity which socialism requires”. Hopelessness had also made him forget that socialism could not come from “a conspiratorial minority acting in isolation from the workers whose interests they claimed to have at heart”.
Crump, who is a lecturer in Japanese and whose knowledge of the language has enabled him to use original sources, has written a book which is refreshingly readable and contains none of the complicated specialist jargon often found in the work of academics. He acknowledges his debts too. In his introduction he says he “gained a great deal” from the men and women who have worked in the Socialist Party of Great Britain. “Political differences”, he says, now separate him from us. Yet there is nothing in this book to indicate those differences. Crump’s stated views in capitalism (2), state capitalism (3) and socialism (4) as well as his sound materialist account of the origins of radical thought in Japan all constitute a convincing advocacy of the position of the Socialist Party and its insistence on the urgent practical need for worldwide socialism. The book’s dedication uncompromisingly proclaims that need: “This study is dedicated to the working class in Japan, in the hope that a day will come when (along with the workers throughout the rest of the world) they will decide to get up off their knees”.
1 The Origins of Socialist Thought in Japan, Croom Helm, 1983.
2 “By capitalism I mean a system of society where production is carried on for the purpose of sale on the market, where the majority of people . . . are . . . forced to sell their ability to work for wages or salaries in order to survive, and where there are social classes, the state and money.” (Introduction, p. 2.)
3 “Now, it is the fact that we do live in an age which has seen a succession of capitalist revolutions in Russia, China and elsewhere which explains why socialism should have come to be widely thought of as a policy of rapid capital accumulation carried out under the supervision of a strong, centralised state . . . What was more natural than that, in a world which has seen the drift towards state capitalism on all sides, socialism should have become a convenient ideological device for masking the ugliness of what has in reality been taking place?” (Introduction, p. 4.)
4 “Socialism is given the meaning of a society where production is for the direct satisfaction of human needs without the mediation of a process of buying and selling or exchange, where the means of production are commonly owned and democratically controlled, where there are neither social classes, the state, nor money.” (Introduction, p. 3.)