In this installment from the “Anarchist Current,” the Afterword to Volume Three of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas, I discuss the origins and development of anarchist movements in Asia, focusing on China and Japan. The Japanese and Chinese anarchists were influenced by various European and American anarchists, such as Bakunin, Kropotkin and Emma Goldman, but developed ideas and approaches suited to their own social and political conditions.
Anarchism in Asia
In Japan, Kôtoku Shûsui (1871-1911), who had begun his political career as an orthodox Marxist, embraced anarchism in 1905, introducing anarchist communist and anarcho-syndicalist ideas to Japanese radicals. Kôtoku advocated the creation of interlinked trade union and cooperative organizations to provide the basis for anarchist communes “at the time of or in the aftermath of a revolution,” an idea that can be traced back to Bakunin, Guillaume and the anarchist currents in the First International. He argued in favour of working class direct action and anti-parliamentarianism: the workers “must act for themselves without relying on slow moving parliaments.” The workers would strike to improve their working conditions while pushing “on to the general strike,” while the hungry would expropriate food from the rich, instead of waiting for legal reforms (Volume One, Selection 102). He translated Kropotkin into Japanese, and anarcho-syndicalist material, such as Siegfried Nacht’s 1905 pamphlet, The Social General Strike.
In 1910, Akaba Hajime, another Japanese anarchist, published The Farmers’ Gospel, in which he called for the “return to the ‘village community’ of long ago, which our remote ancestors enjoyed. We must construct the free paradise of ‘anarchist communism,’ which will flesh out the bones of the village community with the most advanced scientific understanding and with the lofty morality of mutual aid” (Crump, 1996). The Japanese anarchist feminist, Itô Noe (1895-1923), pointed to the Japanese peasant village as an example of living anarchy, “a social life based on mutual agreement” and mutual aid (Volume One, Selection 104). As with anarchists in Europe and Latin America, the Japanese anarchists sought to unite the workers and peasants in the struggle for a free society.
Despite the execution of Kôtoku in 1911 following the infamous Japanese treason trials, which were used to smash the nascent Japanese anarchist movement, Akaba’s imprisonment and death in 1912, and the 1923 police murder of Itô Noe and her companion, Ōsugi Sakae, another prominent anarchist (Volume One, Selection 103), the anarchists remained a significant force on the Japanese left throughout the 1920s.
In 1907, a group of Chinese anarchists created the Society for the Study of Socialism in Tokyo. Two of the Society’s founders, Liu Shipei (1884-1919) and Zhang Ji (1882-1947), were in contact with Kôtoku Shûsui, who introduced them to the ideas of Kropotkin and the anarcho-syndicalists. Liu, Zhang and Kôtoku all spoke about anarchism at the Society’s founding meeting (Scalapino & Yu). Zhang contributed to Balance, a Chinese anarchist journal published in Tokyo, which in 1908 ran a series of articles calling for a peasant revolution in China and “the combination of agriculture and industry,” as proposed by Kropotkin in Fields, Factories and Workshops (Dirlik: 104). Following Kôtoku’s example, Zhang also translated Nacht’s pamphlet on The Social General Strike into Chinese.
Liu and his wife, He Zhen, published another Chinese anarchist journal in Tokyo, Natural Justice. He Zhen advocated women’s liberation, a particularly pressing concern in China, where foot-binding and concubinage were still common practices. She was familiar with the debates in Europe regarding women’s suffrage but argued that “instead of competing with men for power, women should strive for overthrowing men’s rule,” a position close to that of Louise Michel and Emma Goldman. She criticized those women who advocated sexual liberation merely “to indulge themselves in unfettered sexual desires,” comparing them to prostitutes, a view similar to that of European and Latin American anarchist women, such as Carmen Lareva, who were also concerned that the anarchist notion of “free love” not be confused with making women sexually available to men (Volume One, Selection 69). He Zhen insisted that “women should seek their own liberation without relying on men to give it to them” (Volume One, Selection 96). Women’s liberation became a common cause for the Chinese anarchists, who rejected the traditional patriarchal family and often lived in small communal groups.
Chinese anarchists in Guangzhou began labour organizing in 1913, creating the first Chinese trade unions, inspired by Shifu (1884-1915), the anarchist communist who became known as “the soul of Chinese anarchism” (Krebs). Heavily influenced by Kropotkin, Shifu advocated anarchist communism, the abolition of all coercive institutions, freedom and equality for men and women, and voluntary associations where no one will “have the authority to manage others,” and in which there will “be no statutes or regulations to restrict people’s freedom” (Volume One, Selection 99).
In the conclusion to his 1914 manifesto, “The Goals and Methods of the Anarchist-Communist Party,” Shifu referred to the “war clouds [filling] every part of Europe,” with “millions of workers… about to be sacrificed for the wealthy and the nobility” (Volume One, Selection 99). Kropotkin’s subsequent support for the war against Germany shocked anarchists throughout the world, and was particularly damaging in Russia where his position was seen as support for Czarist autocracy (Avrich, 1978: 116-119; 136-137). However, as the war continued, the anarchists who maintained their anti-war, anti-militarist and anti-statist position began again to find a sympathetic ear among the workers and peasants who bore the brunt of the inter-imperialist slaughter in Europe, and who were to arise en masse in February 1917 in Russia, overthrowing the Czar.