Book review: Hatta Shuzo and Pure Anarchism in Interwar Japan

Book review: Hatta Shuzo and Pure Anarchism in Interwar Japan

A review of Hatta Shuzo and Pure Anarchism in Interwar Japan by John Crump.

In this year when we have been bombarded with so much nauseating propaganda over "VJ Day", how inspiring it is to read of men and women who were as far removed as anyone could be from the racist stereotype of all Japanese as emperor-worshipping nationalist fanatics, and who stood instead for a world of no classes, no markets, no states, no frontiers, no wars.

Hatta Shuzo and Pure Anarchism in Interwar Japan is a fascinating account of the struggles and arguments of revolutionaries in Japan over half a century ago. But it is of more than just historical interest. Many of the issues debated there and then are still very much alive here and now, not only among groups like Subversion, but also within parts of the 'Green' movement.

The book opens with a description of the rise and fall of anarchist communism in Europe: how it emerged in the 1870s, defining itself in opposition to the collectivist and syndicalist strands in anarchism, and how it went into decline after the First World War, losing much of the theoretical clarity it had achieved earlier.

Anarchist ideas were introduced into Japan by the prominent socialist Kotoku Shusui in 1906 on his return from a stay in the USA. The existing labour movement split into social-democratic and 'direct actionist' wings. Within the anarchist camp however the division between syndicalist and communist anarchists was not pronounced. All anarchists directed their activity towards the labour unions which emerged after about 1915.

One constant feature was the unrelenting repression exercised by the state. Public meetings were broken up, publications seized, organisations banned, known militants hounded, sacked from their jobs, imprisoned. In 1911 Kotoku was hanged with 11 others following their conviction on trumped-up charges in the 'High Treason' trial. Osugi Sakae emerged as the most able anarchist amongst the younger generation. He too was murdered by the state in the chaotic aftermath of the 1923 Tokyo earthquake.

Enter the ex-clergyman Hatta Shuzo, reputedly an alcoholic and wife-beater, also a captivating public speaker, and the one person who for a few years in the late 1920s and early 1930s best expressed in his writings the revitalisation of anarchist communist theory which emerged from the activities and debates of the Japanese anarchist movement in the interwar period.

Here is one writer's assessment of Hatta's significance, quoted in the book:

"Basing himself on Kropotkinism, he developed the theory of anarchist communism one step further. After Kropotkin's death, world anarchism rapidly regressed from the level to which Kropotkin had brought it...there was nobody other than Hatta (not only in Japan but in the entire world) who took a step forward in this way".

[Petr Kropotkin (1842-1921) was an anarchist communist whose writings strongly influenced the early Japanese anarchist movement].

An anarchist federation (Kokuren) was formed in 1925 and a libertarian union federation (Zenkoku Jiren) the following year. By 1927-28 both organisations had become strongholds of the 'pure' anarchists - that is, those who sought to purge anarchism of all non-anarchist elements, particularly syndicalism, whose adherents were forced to form separate organisations of their own.

The pure anarchists' opposition to syndicalism focussed on the likelihood that the organisational structure of industrial unions would keep the division of labour, perfected under capitalism, intact in the new society, thus sowing the seeds of new forms of social conflict, and leading inevitably to the necessity for some sort of "superior coordinating machinery" - in other words, a new state.

Hatta's position on this and other issues is described at length in the two central chapters of the book, titled "Critique of the Old World" and "Hope for a New World". Here we can do no more than indicate the main areas over which the debates ranged:

the relationship between class struggle and revolutionary action

the analysis of science as an example of the form knowledge takes in class-divided societies - monopolised by specialists and used by the ruling class to exert social control

the notion of historical progress: has capitalism been a necessary stage in human history, bringing into existence the essential preconditions for communism, or (Hatta's view), has communism been an option which has been "permanently open throughout history", depending for its achievement "not on material circumstances but on human determination"

the conception of anarchist communism in terms of "social physiology" - meaning "the discovery of the means for satisfying human needs with the minimal expenditure of human energy so as to realise universal happiness"

the relationship, before and after the revolution, between the countryside and the cities

how to accomplish in practice the theoretically desirable elimination of the division of labour

the role of revolutionaries and revolutionary organisation

We do not see all of the views expressed by Hatta as representing a step forward for revolutionary theory, even in those days. During this period the working class formed only a small fraction of Japan's population and were not regarded by Hatta as the sole potentially revolutionary force in society. Instead he looked to the "propertyless masses", a category which did include wage labourers but was dominated by the tenant farmers.

Since the "propertyless masses" were not a class, they could not engage in class struggle, (which Hatta dismissed anyway as a dispute over the share of the spoils within capitalism, or a fight to replace one ruling class by another), but could simply join in a sudden, once-and-for-all explosion of revolutionary action.

However understandable such an analysis was as a reflection of a specific stage of development of capitalism in Japan, it is not one we could share. In fact we would go further and say that it was somewhat paradoxical that the pure anarchists, who were so firmly implanted in the urban centres and in the struggles of the industrial working class, and whose advanced views were no doubt a product of those material circumstances, should nonetheless have pinned their hopes so firmly on the rural peasants and tenant farmers.

As the 1930s progressed, the Japanese state's imperialist conquests abroad were accompanied by increasingly severe repression of opposition on the home front.

Among the pure anarchists various strategies for survival were attempted, none of them in the end successful. Some advocated a reunification of Zenkoku Jiren with the syndicalist union federation, Jikyo. This took place in 1934 and, interestingly, was in part the outcome of a recognition of the need for greater involvement in day-to-day struggles. Others favoured the abandonment of the cities and the dissolution of the anarchist federations. At the opposite extreme to this a third tendency favoured a highly secretive and tightly structured organisation.

This last view found expression in the formation of the Anarchist Communist Party of Japan, and had disastrous consequences. In 1935 a police investigation into a bungled bank robbery carried out by members of 'the Party' led eventually to the arrest of hundreds upon hundreds of members of the entire anarchist movement. Subsequently, "For most anarchists in Japan, there was from 1936 no alternative but to retreat into private life, think one's own thoughts, and try to stay alive, while waiting for the day when the state would, in its turn, be brought to its knees".

We leave the last word to the author: "Even if one judges some of the strategies the pure anarchists employed to have been seriously flawed, they surely deserve respect for the fact that the state had to crush them, since it could not win them over".


Aug 20 2011 18:44

I'm seeking to read this book as I sympathise with the idea of 'pure' anarchism. In a twisted sense it sounds strange, discriminatory and barbaric as surely nothing is pure? However, it seems as if Hatta Shuzo is inviting the audience to view the greater scheme of things when it comes to people and collective actions against tyranny, despotism and the state of being governed. Although I have not a copy myself of the book I have read passages from friends copies, and discussed its content with interested people. It seems as if the anarchism being defined is the sheer force of not wishing to submit to authority in the neverending pursuit of human freedom and its quest to achieve it absolutely - not through market liberal capitalism or an assembly of workers' councils.

In a book I read before joining libcom I came across a book called 'Demanding the Impossible' the author Peter Marshall makes similar links to anarchism demanding local communities to be imbued with power at a grass root level - rather than power to be centralised in the ideological vision of anarcho-communism within workers councils and industrial bases as class conflict would inevitably rise again. Overall this seems a good book I desire to read for myself!

Aug 21 2011 12:42

I love the term 'pure anarchism' myself. There's a pamphlet version here:

Aug 21 2011 12:45

Yeah, it does seem a pretty interesting idea, I guess I just read it and correlated it with the whole aryan, pure nazi thing. Thanks for the pamphlet!