ADAMS, Jason. "Non-Western Anarchisms: Rethinking the Global Context". -2-
Asian Anarchism: China, Korea, Japan & India
Asian Anarchism: China, Korea, Japan & India
- Liu Shi-fu (1884-1915)
- Chinese anarchist organizer
In order to begin to challenge the predominant Eurocentric understanding of anarchism and its history, one should begin first with the most populated continent on the planet, Asia. With over half of the global population, to ignore the volatile political history of the region is to engage in the worst sort of eurocentrism; this is of course, not to mention the shallow and warped understanding of anarchism that one then arrives at as a result. Throughout many parts of Asia, anarchism was the primary radical left movement in the first quarter of the 20th Century. This should be considered quite significant to the anarchist project because within the global context China is by far the most populated country with a population of over 1.2 billion people. India comes in second in population at just over 1 billion. The two countries hold over 1/5 of the world’s population respectively, and in each, anarchist thought has risen to a level of political importance unparalleled in the other smaller nation-states within Asia. In terms of population share alone, these facts make a rethinking of the global context extremely valuable, and this is why I begin here. Within the continent, we will begin first with China then move on to the other countries of East Asia, and then I will proceed to India.
There were multiple locally specific reasons why anarchism gained such widespread popularity in China. Many have pointed out the "limited government" (wuwei) element in traditional Chinese thought, ranging the gamut from Taoism to Buddhism to Confucianism. In line with this view, Peter Zarrow claims in Anarchism and Chinese Political Culture that anarchism was "created out of the ruins of Neo-Confucian discourse." Building on this belief, he goes on to trace the connections between Taoist ideas of "order without coercion" and the later emergence of anarchism (1990, p. 5). While there certainly is some truth to Zarrow’s claims, what must be deliberately avoided is any overfocus on the "anarchistic" elements contained within Chinese traditional thought to the detriment of an understanding of the important role played by global migration and by colonialism itself. As Arif Dirlik has remarked, an overfocus on traditional thought can also be said to be somewhat Orientalist, as it attributes "everything new in China to Chinese tradition…another way of saying that there is never anything significantly new in China." Alternatively, Dirlik posits that "the Chinese past is being read in new ways with the help of anarchism, and conversely there is a rereading of anarchism through Taoist and Buddhist ideas" (1997). In other words the development and spread of ideas is never a completely one-way process, it is always an exchange.
In any case, this is just one part; another major reason was that practically no Marxist theoretical works had been translated into Chinese until around 1921, and even then a movement based around it failed to materialize until around the end of the decade. As a result, anarchism enjoyed a nearly universal hegemony over the movement from 1905-1930, thereby serving as a sort of filter for developments in the worldwide radical movements. Even Russia’s October Revolution of 1918 was claimed as an "anarchist revolution" as a result, though this distortion did not last. So unlike in the rest of the world, the anarchist movement in China did not fall with rise of the Bolshevik victory in Russia, but instead rose in popularity along with it (Dirlik, 1991, p. 2).
In China, anarchism arrived at the apex of its popularity during the "Chinese Enlightenment," also known as the New Culture Movement. It was through the conduit of influential Western ideas of liberalism, scientism and progress that anarchism was able to gain a foothold. And ironically, it was from the new realization of China as a nation-state in a decentered, cosmopolitan world of nation-states, rather than as the center of all culture, that brought about the rise of an ideology that called for the abolition of the nation-state (p. 3).
The concept of "cultural revolution," which is the very definition of variance between Chinese socialism and that of the rest of the socialist movement, can be traced directly back to this heavily anarchistic "New Culture" period when Mao himself was a member of the anarchist People’s Voice Society and enthusiastically endorsed the thinking of the important anarchist leader Shifu amongst others (Dirlik, p. 195; Krebs, p. 158).
Of course, the anarchist conception of cultural revolution varied greatly from the Cultural Revolution which Mao actually put into practice, as by then he had been thoroughly convinced of the need for centralized, absolute authority after extensive contact with the Comintern. It is from the anarchist movement of this period that most of the later leaders of the Chinese Communist Party would later emerge.
When speaking of "Chinese anarchism" one might be tempted to think of it as simply that which developed within the actual borders of the country. But to do so would be to disregard the important influence migration has had on the movement, which was quite internationalist in scope. On the mainland, Chinese anarchist activity was concentrated primarily in the Guangzhou region of southern China, as well as in Beijing. In Guangzhou, Shifu was the most active and influential of the anarchists, helping to organize some of the first unions in the country. Students from Guangzhou formed the Truth Society, the first anarchist organization in the city of Beijing amongst many other projects. But like other nation-states around the world at this time, China was quickly becoming a more dynamic, diverse nation marked deeply by the repeated invasions of foreign powers as well as by the global migrations of it’s own peoples. Anarchists lived and organized in Chinese communities the world over, including Japan, France, the Philippines, Singapore, Canada and the United States; of these, the two most significant locations were the diaspora communities in Tokyo and Paris.
Of the two, the Paris anarchists were ultimately the more influential on a global level. Heavily influenced by their European surroundings (as well as whatever other personal reasons brought them there), they came to see much of China as backwards, rejecting most aspects of traditional culture. Turning towards modernism as the answer to China’s problems, they embraced what they saw as the universal power of science, embodied largely in the ideas of Kropotkin. In this spirit, Li Shizeng and Wu Zhihui formed an organization with a strong internationalist bent, called "the World Society" in 1906 (Dirlik p. 15). In contrast the Chinese anarchists in Tokyo were such as Liu Shipei were blatantly anti-modernist, embracing traditional Chinese thought and customs. Living in a different social context, for many different reasons, they were far more heavily influenced by anarchism as it had developed in Japan; which brings us of course, to the question of Japanese anarchism.
As in China, the October Revolution in Japan did not carry the same downward impact on the movement as it had in so many other parts of the world. In fact, the period immediately following 1917 became the apex of Japanese anarchism in terms of actual numbers and influence (Crump, p. xvi). Anarchism in Japan was quite diverse, but from amongst the broad array of anarchisms were two major tendencies; the class struggle ideals of anarchist syndicalism, promoted by figures such as Kotoku Shusui and Osugi Sakae, and the somewhat broader tendency of ""pure anarchism" promoted by activists like Hatta Shuzo. Both tendencies attracted a sizeable number of adherents, and both had their heyday at different points in the first quarter of the twentieth century.
The anarchist-syndicalists followed in the footsteps of the Bakuninist tradition of collectivism, which was largely based on exchange relations: to each an amount equal to their contribution to the greater collective. In addition, the syndicalists were largely concerned with the day-to-day struggles of the working class, reasoning that the larger goal of revolution had to be put off until they had reached a significant degree of organization. After the revolution, the revolutionary subjects would retain their identities as "workers" as they had been before the revolution. The most prevalent embodiment of this tendency was the All-Japan Libertarian Federation of Labour Unions (Zenkoku Jiren), an important anarchist-syndicalist federation of labor unions founded in 1926 that boasted over 16,000 members (Crump, p. 97).
In 1903 Kotoku Shusui resigned from his job as a journalist in Tokyo when it announced its support for the Russo-Japanese war and the occupation of Korea. He went on from there to start the anti-war Common People’s Newspaper (Heimin Shinbun) for which he would soon be imprisoned. While in jail, he made contact with anarchists in San Francisco, and became more and more intrigued by anarchist theory. After getting out of jail, Shusui moved to San Francisco, organized with members of the IWW, and returned to Japan with the intellectual and practical seeds of syndicalism. This development would soon influence figures such as Osugi Sakae and lead to the formation of Zenkoku Jiren (Crump, p. 22).
In contrast, the pure anarchists were more similar to anarchist communists in the tradition of Kropotkin, combined with a strong anti-modernist, pro-traditionalist bent. As a group they were embodied largely in the militant organization the Black Youth League (Kokuren). Historically, the mid-19th Century "agricultural communist anarchist" theorist Ando Shoeki is considered by many to have been their primary philosophical predecessor. The pure anarchist critique of anarchist syndicalism was focused largely on the syndicalist preservation of a division of labor in the administration of the post-revolutionary society. This division of labor meant that specialization would still be a major feature of society that would lead to a view that focused inwardly on particular industries rather than blending the intellectual and the worker. The pure anarchists also sought to abolish exchange relations in favor of the maxim from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. In a sense, they can be seen as attempting to develop a more uniquely Japanese interpretation of anarchism. For instance, they questioned the relevance of syndicalism to a society that was still largely peasant-based and had a relatively small industrial working class (Crump, p. 7).
Despite the variance between syndicalist and pure anarchisms, in general the one thing they had in common was that all Japanese interpretations of anarchism were hybrid theories, made relevant for the local situation. That situation was an extremely repressive one; meetings were broken up, demonstrations suppressed and anarchist publications banned on a regular basis throughout the life of first wave anarchism. The Red Flags incident of 1908 is a good example of this, when dozens of anarchists celebrating the release of political prisoner Koken Yamaguchi were brutally attacked and arrested simply for displaying the red flag. Translation and publication of anarchist texts were often done secretly in order to avoid repression, as was Kotoku’s translation of Kropotkin’s The Conquest of Bread. Another aspect of unique local conditions was that texts that described Western realities had to be made relevant to the local population. For instance, in the widely available Japanese translation of Kropotkin’s Collected Works, the European "commune" was transformed into a traditional Japanese farming village (Crump, p. xiii). But this process also occurred partially through the conduit of Western anarchists, and through the migration and inmigration of people and ideas. This is of course, is the way in which these essays became translated into Japanese. Kropotkin corresponded directly with Kotoku several times and agreed to allow him to translate several of his major works, while his travels to San Francisco resulted in dramatic changes in Japan’s anarchist movement as well. So this global connection of anarchists was extremely important, but as I have demonstrated, it was made relevant to people on the local level.
Another local condition that shaped the development of East Asian anarchism was that Japan had its own "Monroe Doctrine" of sorts over most of region. As has often been the case elsewhere, Japanese anarchists used their relative degree of privilege as a means to spread anarchism throughout the region. These efforts throughout Asia led to the formation of the Eastern Anarchist Federation, which included anarchists from China, Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan. This is in fact, how anarchism first reached Korea after Japan’s 1894 invasion in order to "protect" it from China. Korean migrants living in Tokyo came under the influence of Japanese anarchism and engaged heartily in the anti-imperialist movement. As a result, over 6,000 were rounded up after incredulously being blamed by the authoritarian Japanese state for Tokyo’s 1923 earthquake. They were beaten, jailed, and two were even sentenced to death along with their Japanese comrades in the "High Treason Case" (MacSimion, 1991). Later, during the 1919 independence struggle, in which anarchists were prominent, refugees migrated into China, which was at the height of anarchist influence as a result of the New Culture movement. At the same time, Japanese anarchists at the time continued their solidarity work with the Korean liberation movement.
By 1924, the Korean Anarchist Communist Federation (KACF) in China had formed with an explicitly anti-imperialist focus and helped to organize explicitly anarchist labor unions as well. At the same time, anarchist tendencies were developing within Korea itself. For instance the Revolutionists League is recorded to have organized around this time and to have maintained extensive communications with the Black Youth League in Tokyo. By 1929, their activity had materialized fully in Korea itself, primarily around the urban centers of Seoul, Pyonyang and Taegu. The apex of Korean anarchism however came later that same year outside the actual borders of the country, in Manchuria. Over two million Korean immigrants lived within Manchuria at the time when the KACF declared the Shinmin province autonomous and under the administration of the Korean People’s Association. The decentralized, federative structure the association adopted consisted of village councils, district councils and area councils, all of which operated in a cooperative manner to deal with agriculture, education, finance and other vital issues. KACF sections in China, Korea, Japan and elsewhere devoted all their energies towards the success of the Shinmin Rebellion, most of them actually relocating there. Dealing simultaneously with Stalinist Russia’s attempts to overthrow the Shinmin autonomous region and Japan’s imperialist attempts to claim the region for itself, Korean anarchists by 1931 had been crushed (MacSimion, 1991).
Throughout East Asia, anarchists demonstrated a strong commitment to internationalism, supporting each other and reinforcing each other’s movements rather than thinking simply in terms of their own nation-states. The "nationalism" of Chinese and Korean anarchists can thus be seen as a form of anarchist internationalism dressed up in nationalist clothing for political convenience. In both of these countries, the anarchist movement sought to reinforce nationalist struggles insofar as they cast off imperial domination; but they were decidedly internationalist in that the long term goal was to abolish both the Chinese and Korean nation-state systems as well. The same can be said for Japanese anarchists who lent their solidarity to the anti-imperialist movements in Japan, Korea and other parts of East Asia. As noted earlier, the rise of the Eastern Anarchist Federation and its paper "The East" (Dong Bang) is testament to the global nature and focus of anarchism during the early 20th century.
Though India is located on the Western border of China, connection and communication between the anarchisms of both are relatively unknown since in India anarchism never really took on much of a formally named "anarchist" nature. In India, the relevance of anarchism is primarily in the deep influence major aspects of it had on important movements for national and social liberation. In order to understand the development of the heavily anarchistic Satyagraha movement in India, one must first consider the objective local conditions in which it developed. India is the second most populated country in the world, weighing in at over 1 billion people. Going back into ancient Hindu thought, one can indeed find predecessors to the concept of a stateless society; the Satya Yuga for instance, is essentially a description of a possible anarchist society in which people govern themselves based on the universal natural law of dharma (Doctor, 1964, p. 16). But at the same time that a stateless society is seen as a possibility, much of Hindu political thought is focused on the inherently evil nature of man and the therefore "divine right" of kings to govern, so long as they maintain protection from harm for the people. If they do not govern on the basis of dharma, however, the Chanakyasutras allow that "it is better to not to have a king then have one who is wanting in discipline" (p. 26). This of course is a major contrast with the Western notion of a universal divine right of kings regardless of the consequences.
Anarchism finds its first and most well-known expression in India with Mahatma Gandhi’s statement "the state evil is not the cause but the effect of social evil, just as the sea-waves are the effect not the cause of the storm. The only way of curing the disease is by removing the cause itself" (p. 36). In other words, Gandhi saw violence as the root of all social problems, and the state as a clear manifestation of this violence since its authority depends on a monopoly of its legitimate use. Therefore he held that "that state is perfect and non-violent where the people are governed the least. The nearest approach to purest anarchy would be a democracy based on nonviolence" (p. 37). For Gandhi, the process of attaining such a state of total non-violence (ahimsa) involved a changing of the hearts and minds of people rather than changing the state which governed them. Self-rule (swaraj) is the underlying principle that runs throughout his theory of satyagraha. This did not mean, as many have interpreted it, just the attainment of political independence for the Indian nation-state, but actually, just the opposite. Instead, swaraj starts first from the individual, then moves outward to the village level, outward further to the national level; the basic principal is that of the moral autonomy of the individual above all other considerations (p. 38).
So overall, Gandhi’s passion for collective liberation sprang first and foremost from a very anarchistic notion of individualism; in his view, the conscience of the individual is truly the only legitimate form of government. As he put it, "swaraj will be an absurdity if individuals have to surrender their judgement to a majority." While this flies in the face of Western notions of governance, Gandhi reasoned that a single sound opinion is far more useful than that of 99.9% of the population if the majority opinion is unsound. It was also this swaraj individualism that caused him to reject both parliamentary politics and their instrument of legitimization, political parties; he felt that those who truly wanted a better world for everyone shouldn’t need to join a particular party in order to do so. This is the difference between Raj-Niti (politics of the state) and Lok-Niti (politics of the people). Swaraj individualism meant that everything had to be rethought anew: for instance, the notion that the individual exists for the good of the larger organization had to be discarded in favor of the notion that the larger organization exists for the good of the individual, and one must always be free to leave and to dissent (p. 44).
However, Gandhi’s notions of a pacifist path to swaraj were not without opposition, even within the ranks of those influenced by anarchism. Before 1920 a parallel, more explicitly anarchist movement was represented by India’s anarchist-syndicalists and the seminal independence leader, Bhagat Singh. Singh was influenced by an array of Western anarchisms and communisms and became a vocal atheist in a country where such attitudes were extremely unpopular. Interestingly, he studied Bakunin intensely but though he was markedly less interested in Marx, he was very interested in the writings of Lenin and Trotsky who "had succeeded in bringing about a revolution in their country." So overall, Singh can be remembered as something of an Anarchist-Leninist, if such a term merits use. In the history of Indian politics, Singh is today remembered as fitting somewhere between Gandhian pacifism and terrorism, as he actively engaged in the organization of popular anti-colonial organizations with which to fight for the freedom of India from British rule. However, he was also part of a milieu which Gandhi referred to as "the cult of the bomb" — which of course he declared was based upon Western notions of using violence as a means to attain liberation. In response, Indian revolutionaries countered that Gandhi’s nonviolence ideas were also of Western origin, originating from Leo Tolstoy and therefore not authentically Indian either (Rao, 2002). It is in fact likely that Singh was influenced by Western notions of social change: like his Japanese counterpart Kotoku Shusui, Singh’s comrade and mentor Kartar Singh Sarabha organized South Asian workers in San Francisco, leading both of them to eventually commit their lives to the liberation of Indians the world over.
Notable amongst this milieu was the Hindustan Republican Association as well as the youth organization Naujawan Bharat Sabha; both of which Singh was involved in. Despite his earlier reluctance, by the mid-1920s Singh began to embrace the strategy of arming the general Indian population in order to drive the British out of the country. In service to this mission he traveled throughout the country organizing people’s militias, gaining a large following in the process. In 1928 this strategy of organized armed revolt gave way to an open support for individual acts of martyrdom and terrorism in an article Singh published in the pro-independence paper Kirti. In other issues of this same paper he published his famous essay on "Why I am an Atheist" as well as several articles on anarchism. In the anarchist articles, Singh equated the traditional Indian idea of "universal brotherhood" to the anarchist principle of "no rulers," focusing largely on the primary importance of attaining independence from any outside authority whatever. Though he had been influenced by the writings of Lenin and Trotsky, Singh never did join the Communist Party of India even though he lived for six years after its original founding. (Rao, 2002). Perhaps this was due to the anarchist influence in his ideas; either way anarchist ideas (if not anarchist ideology as a whole) played a major role in both Gandhian and Singhian movements for swaraj.
To cite this page:
ADAMS, Jason. "Non-Western Anarchisms: Rethinking the Global Context". -2-,
What's new: 23 April 2015. [Online].
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