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Prewar Marxism in Japan Essay

Marxism was coined after its proponent, Karl Marx who believed that the abuses of capitalism would eventually lead to uprisings of the masses particularly of the working class. According to him, the aggrieved plight of the working class will become the key in unleashing the inevitable clashes between the classes. In his argument, Capitalism will be replaced by Communism, in which in his view, this set-up of free economy opens a gate to many inequalities in the society, making the weak and poor more vulnerable to the flaws of the system.

As Uno Kozo observed in his work, The Essence of Capital, “The commodification of the labor force remains the crux of Capitalism” (SJT, pp.243). To Marx belief, Communism is the “common ownership of the means of production”. There would be public ownership of farms, factories, raw materials, and the like. To him, all means of production will be owned by the workers and all workers would eventually become workers.

        In Japan, Marxism was first introduced in the late 1890’s but it was in the 1920’s that it started to catch attention and support from the people especially from the intellectuals (SJT, pp 239; Beckmann, pp. 139). The early Marxists belonged to two different groups, the reformers and the revolutionary. The reformers followed Tolstoian humanitarianism, advocated universal suffrage, and pursued reforms through parliamentary action. While the revolutionaries believed in the Materialist ideas from the German and French Marxist. They adhered to the idea of class struggle and direct revolutionary action by class-conscious workers. The revolutionaries were also attracted to the tactics of the anarcho-syndicalism (Beckmann pp. 140).

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            The various differences of principles of the Early Marxists in Japan had initially  signaled that a strong unified group would be quite a challenge to create a remarkable impact. In fact, at its onset Marxism was already noted with three general flaws such as its systematic character that degenerates into dogmatism; putative universality that recalls its foreign origin; and its critical modus operandi that provokes infighting and organizational fragmentation (SJT, pp241 ). But all these are generalized observations sums up probable enlightenment on why it seemed to appear that prewar Marxism was never a political success. However, it is pertinent to note that these observations envelopes one or more historical accounts and empirical evidences of the progresses and demise of prewar Marxism in Japan.

            The idea of Marxism had its strong appeal in the university circle composed mainly of the professors and students. In fact, one of its early and notable supporters was Kawakami Hajime of the Kyoto Imperial University. He wrote may treatises on Marxism and provided valuable assistance to other advocates in the persons of Sakai Toshihiko, Arahata Kanson among others (Beckmann pp. 145). At that time, the battleground was published material like newspaper wherein people can be informed and get influenced at the same time.

At some point, it created impact and stirred the discontentment of the people resulting to the clamor for reforms in Japanese society. This clamor was highlighted more by the onset of the Japan Modernization process in which new demands for the fundamental changes in the society is created (Beckamm pp146). To quote Beckamm, “Marxism was attractive to them because it provided the fullest explanation of the idea of progress that they had yet encountered. They were easily seduced by the Marxist proposition that through the dialectic progress was inevitable.  Dialectical materialism gave them (supporters) a scientific methodology for analyzing Japanese society, as well as general principles of strategy for effecting change”.

            But no matter how ardent the campaign was and how dynamic the intellectual debates were, history underscores that prewar Marxism fell short in achieving its much desired political change. The variables affecting this result are attributed to both external and internal difficulties encountered by the group. It is believed that too much emphasis on theoretical conceptualization has left the advocates confused on what is real and what is not. And what is real during that time, is the dominance of the conservative elite who managed to uphold Japanese value system. All important institutions of Japanese society inculcated obedience, loyalty, and status over freedom, individual rights, and equality.

All these summed up to hostilities of the society to individuals who think otherwise. Thus, it resulted to numerable defection from Communism and Socialism parties. It may also be relevant to note that conservative value system of Japanese society and the so called patterns of behavior during the modernization period contributed to the prevention of basic antagonism from being open clashes. Many intellectuals may be vocal in their convictions but a greater number of them seemed anxious to join the mass “hurly burly maybe because of the behavioral patterns pervading in the society and of the enveloping obligation not to disgrace the family through deviation from the generally accepted behavior.

Another pitfall of the prewar Marxism is the very nature that the ideology was alien and much worse, dependent on the support of a foreign state which is labeled as enemy and competitor of their own country. It could not simply break the much preferred paradigm of Japanese Nationalism and Confucianism. Furthermore, the movement cannot fight equally with the raw power of the state especially of its police and military predisposition. This is for the obvious reason that communists had no civil liberties to protect them. As a matter of fact, party organizations were dismantled through various man-arrest in 1923, 1928, 1929, and much frequently in the 1930s. These arrests made it difficult for the advocates to maintain a substantial number that could function effectively for its cause (Beckamm, pp 148-150)

            Much had been said by the writings and works of the early believers but less had been done. In the labor movement itself, the support and participation was only a small percent of the whole sector. Many who joined the cause were in the small and medium enterprises and almost none from the large industries.

A few participation reflected that many have gone disillusioned or remained uninspired by the movement due to many failures of negotiations and strikes. The same also goes for the peasants, the Japanese agricultural communities and families were unreceptive and to some measure were hostile to Communism and Socialism. This maybe because the peasant movement lacks single central leadership that could have had become an effective channel of influence (Beckamm, pp150).

            The Commintern Policy also posted a challenge to the thriving ideology of Marxism. It added certain degree of divisiveness among the people in the movement. Also, it provided a very good issue that kept the proponents busy in arguing as to which would be the good and effective direction to heed towards the desired impact on Japanese society. Is it the bourgeois-democratic or the proletarian revolution? Again, it brood disunity, conflict, and frustration among themselves.

            The defection of Etsuzo, Sano, and Nabeyama also influenced fellow believers to defect and to condemn all together the principles and actions of the group they once pledge allegiance and commitment (Beckmann, pp160; 166).

            In totality, prewar Marxism in Japan made numerous progresses and successes in bringing out brilliance among Japanese intellectuals. However, it was never translated into a political action that would have given life to the very essence of the teachings of Karl Marx. Though numerous reasons tried to explain this result, but maybe the only reason true enough to describe its failure is the one said by George Beckmann, “…the very nature of Japanese society made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a Communist movement to exist, let alone operate with any degree of effectiveness…to Marxist-Leninist terms, the objective conditions were not at all favorable. (Beckmann pp. 152)”

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