G.A. Hoston: Japanese Marxism and the Crisis of Development in Prewar Japan

by tigermanifesto


Marxism is a powerful analytical tool due to its ability to extract the universal significance of historical processes that necessarily occur in particular places and times. Strong internal tension between the particular and the universal presents both incredible barriers and opportunities for revolutionaries and scholars to push social research and political action forward to new heights. Marxists from all over the world have grappled with the unique challenges of their own regional and national contexts, and Germaine Hoston’s book is a case study in how a generation (or two) of Marxists engaged in a sustained debate over how Marxism could contribute to revolutionary action and the production of new knowledge. And the fierce theoretical/historical struggle between the Kōza-ha and Rōnō-ha groups fostered the development of intensive research into Japanese history and, in the process, altered and stretched the boundaries of Marxism as a body of thought at the time.

Hoston’s book is an intellectual history of sorts, a narrative about the inception of indigenous Japanese Marxism in the 1920s and early struggles to define what Japanese Marxist politics and theory would look like. As mentioned, major participants in the debate typically lined up into two factions: the Kōza-ha (lecture school) and the Rōnō-ha (worker-farmer school). These debates were shaped by a number of factors, political as well as academic. For one, the emergence of Marxist political organizing in Japan owed much to the successes of the Russian Revolution and the Leninist advances in Marxist thinking on imperialism and revolutionary strategy. More directly, the Japanese Communist Party (JCP) emerged––twice, since the first attempt collapsed after a short time––under the wing of the Soviet-dominated Comintern. Because of this international situation, the relative immaturity of Japanese Marxism, and the paucity of historical materialist studies of Japanese history, as well as for institutional reasons, the Comintern theses on Asia, the Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP), and revolutionary strategy in Japan carried considerable weight, and in many ways defined the line split in the debate.

Factors internal to Japan also had weighty bearing on the debate. Japan in the 1920s and early 30s was experiencing what has been commonly referred to as Taishō Democracy, where bourgeois political parties were more prominent than in the preceding Meiji period and universal male suffrage was put into effect (1925). An air of relative relaxation prevailed in universities, permitting the open nature of the debate over the Marxist terrain until the 30s saw Japanese militarism ascend to a more dominant role as the country entered open war with China, most of Southeast Asia and, eventually, the United States. Japan’s entry into the capitalist world also varied considerably from the English model Marx used as the basis for his theorizing, meaning that scholars’ positions in the debate often sprung from how they reconciled Japan’s unique circumstances (late entry into the capitalism, imperialist voraciousness combined with a stagnant agricultural sector, status as an “Asiatic” society) with the universality of Marxist theory.

The Kōza-ha, on one side, endorsed and vigorously defended the Comintern position. In brief, they argued that advancing to socialism in Japan required a two-stage process. First, the socialist movement had to complete the bourgeois-democratic revolution, particularly in the countryside and in the realm of political liberties. Only once that phase was complete could a proletarian revolution be carried out. Their reasons for supporting the Comintern line were the obvious deficiencies of even “Taishō Democracy” and the persistence of what they saw as feudal landlordism in the countryside. The emperor system also factored into their arguments, which varied and often proved innovative despite their commitment to a preexisting line.

Rōnō-ha, on the other hand, endorsed the view that the bourgeois revolution in Japan had been completed by the Meiji state and that a broad-based open socialist party could complete the revolution in a single step. They often appealed to Nikholai Bukharin’s ideas about advanced capitalist societies and noted the power of state-monopoly capital (the zaibatsu combines) and the instantiation of universal male suffrage in 1925. They acknowledged feudal remnants that persisted––the emperor and certain aspects of the landlord-tenant relationship in the countryside––but argued these were irrelevant anachronisms and that the feudal Tokugawa landlord class had been forcibly integrated into a bloc with the dominant bourgeoisie through the crash industrialization of the country during the Meiji era.

Hoston’s documentation of their debates is fairly exhaustive, covering a number of theorists on both sides as well as certain rogue ideas that often sparked soul-searching among all Marxists in Japan. The example of Takahashi Kamekichi is particularly fascinating. Although Takahashi pioneered disciplined historical materialist study in Japan, his theory of “petty imperialism,” which argued that Japanese expansionism did not constitute imperialism in the Leninist sense and that vigorous colonization of Asia was indispensable for Japanese socialism, obviously prefigured Japanese imperial arguments about the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere” in the Great Pacific War. His use of Marxist theory and techniques for quasi-fascist ends––he went so far as to say that the left should seize an ultra-nationalist position to avoid ceding it to the far right!–– provoked a storm of critique and research from the more left-wing Marxists in Japan.

What I especially enjoy about Hoston’s thematic approach, where she takes individual facets of the debate like that of the agrarian question in a single chapter, is that it highlights the specific achievements of Japanese Marxists in particular areas. This is especially evident in the chapter on debates over the nature of the Japanese state. She notes that the conditions of the debate and the Japanese historical moment encouraged the creation of remarkably advanced theory that was, in many respects, only matched by European studies of the late 60s and 70s. She includes detailed descriptions of the theories each scholar advanced, and in many cases does not hold back from indicating what the stronger and weaker theories were on each side of the debate. Her own insights make the book’s examinations of these theories not only academically interesting but more useful to readers interested in doing their own theory.

It’s unfortunate that the book’s overall tenor demonstrates the rather powerless position of the Marxist left in Japan for most of its existence. Despite Marxism’s quick entrenchment into Japanese academia, the broad left parties, including the JCP, have been quick to use their theoretical position to justify legalism and gradualism. Although the debates on the topics of the Japanese state and the agrarian question were lively, they have often been confined to the classroom and library. This takes its most direct form in the ideas of Uno Kozo, who openly advocated the separation of economic theorizing from political action. Of course, this scission between academic brilliance and a fairly impoverished real movement is not unfamiliar in many parts of the world, particularly the First World, but Hoston’s book exposes the tragic split between the brilliant efforts of both factions to create a truly native Japanese Marxism and the state of revolutionary action in that country, then and now.

What’s important, however, is that many of these challenges were seen, at least latently, in the arguments of the debaters in the 20s and 30s, especially in the pessimistic outlooks of the Kōza-ha theorists. Hoston’s history is relatively straightforward and light on context, but as a historical analysis of intellectual trends in Japanese Marxism it serves a useful purpose. It impresses upon all of us the critical necessity to take the examples of the past and subject our own contexts to rigorous analysis while––at the same time––developing and deepening our political activity.