Ōsugi Sakae: The Chain Factory

Ōsugi Sakae (1885-1923) was a Japanese anarchist active from around 1906 until his murder by Japanese military police in 1923. Together with his lover, the anarchist feminist Itō Noe, and his 6 year old nephew, Ōsugi was beaten to death and thrown in a well, on the pretext that the anarchists were going to take advantage of the chaos and destruction following the Great Kantō earthquake to overthrow the government. I included pieces by both Ōsugi and Itō in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Adam Goodwin has recently translated the following short story by Ōsugi, “The Chain Factory.” Goodwin describes it as an “allegorical story by Ōsugi to represent the modern economic order as he relates it by recollection of a dream he had one night. The imagery in Japanese is compelling and accurate to an insurrectionary-anarchist’s perspective on our social order.”

Osugi Sakae, Ito Noe and the editors of Rodo Undo, Tokyo 1921

The Chain Factory

Late one night I awoke with a start and found myself in a strange place.

As far as I could see there were countless people busily working away at something. They are fashioning chains.

The fellow beside me wraps a rather long length of chain around himself and passes one end of it to the chap beside him. The second fellow lengthens the chain further, wraps it around himself and, again, passes it to another chap sitting diagonally from him. While this was happening, the first chap takes the end of another chain from the fellow beside him, and, as before, lengthens it and wraps it once around himself, and then passes the end to the chap sitting diagonally from him. This continues on and on, with everyone doing the same thing, and at a dizzying pace.

All of them have chains wrapped around their mid-sections ten to twenty times, and at first glance it seemed that they were completely immobilized, but their hands and feet were free enough to make the chain and wrap it around their bodies. They work so intently. There isn’t a sign of bother on any of their faces. They actually look happy as they work.

But all is not what it seemed. Ten places from me a chap shouted something as he tosses away the end of a chain. But then, another fellow, who was standing near, but also with chains wrapped around his body, gruffly approached him and clubbed him three or four times with the large truncheon he was carrying. Everyone near the clubbed chap cried out in glee. The clubbed chap, crying, picks up the end of the chain, fashions a small link and joins it, makes another link, and joins that one. And, after a while, the tears on his face had all disappeared.

In places there are slightly-more refined men standing with, again, chains wrapped around their mid-sections, and they incessantly speak in a shrill voice, like that one would hear from a phonograph. They speak at length with difficult words and complicated reasoning something to the effect of ‘the chains protect us; the chains are sacred to our freedom.’ Everyone listens intently.

And, in the middle of this expansive factory are a group splendid-looking fellows—perhaps the family that owns this factory—lounging on sofas, smoking what seem to be cigars. Their smoke rings sometimes gently waft past the faces of the workers, making them choke uncomfortably.
As I dwelt upon how strange this place was, I felt my own joints begin to ache. I look down to find my own body wrapped ten to twenty times in chains. I busily attend to linking the chains. I was also, as is to be expected, another worker at this factory.

I cursed myself; I grew saddened, and then angry. I remembered the words of Hegel: “The real is the rational, and the rational is the real.”
Wilhelm I and his loyal subjects interpreted these words to grant the sanctity of philosophy to all political realities of the day, including the despotic government, the police state, the arbitrary courts and the suppression of free speech.

Not just the political realities. But everything. For the dim-witted Prussian people, all of those realities were, without a doubt, necessary and just.
As I cast the chains and bind myself with them, their reality is unavoidable; it is just; and, it is my own fate.

I must cease the casting of my own chains. I must cease the binding of my body. I must break the chains that bind me. I must also create a new self, a new reality, a new sense of justice, a new fate.

The chains that bound my mind were rather much easier to break than I had believed. Yet the chains around my feet and hands dig tenaciously into my flesh, and, with time, down to my bones; even the slightest touch left me in agony. Yet, as I endured, the chains relented somewhat. And, as time passed, that pain was accompanied by a slight sense of satisfaction. I even began to tolerate the the three to four truncheon blows from the fellow on watch. I eventually got to the point that I gladly accepted the taunting and abuse from the lounging men.

However, there were many chains that, try as I might, I could not break alone. Everyone’s chain is cleverly linked with mine. There is nothing I can do.If I at all grew idle, the chains that I had taken great pains to loosen subtly worked their way around my body again. Before I knew it, I found my hands mending the links of my own chain.

The master of the factory holds the key to our bellies, and by wielding it, he moves our feet and hands. I had always thought that it was my own mind that controlled my feet and hands; how mistaken I was. As far as I look, no one controls their feet and hands with their own mind. Everyone is under the complete control of the master holding the key to our bellies. It sounds so foolish, but the fact is there is nothing we can do.

I then thought I would try to get back the key to my belly from the man holding it. But it was an impossible task to snatch it away from him by myself. It turns out that he holds my key in such a clever way that it is interlocked with the keys of everyone else, and I cannot possibly grab away from him my key alone.

He is also surrounded by many guards. They all have chains wrapped around their torsos, as they stand holding their spears and bows. They are a frightening bunch and I dare not approach them.

I had lost almost all hope. I then shifted my gaze to the fellows around me.

There are so many who do not realize that they are bound by chains. There are many more still who, were they to realize, would only be grateful for their chains. There are also many who, while not grateful, have resigned themselves to work industriously making their chains. And there are the many who see the chain-making as ridiculous, find the gaps in the watch to frequently rest their bodies as they harbour selfish delusions in their heads, and passionately spout nonsense of actually being free, and not bound by chains at all. It is too foolish to bear to watch.

I then suddenly cast my gaze. I found others around me that seemed to be aligned with me.

They are few, and they are scattered all around. But they all desire the key to their bellies in the clutches of the master. And, like me, they seem to be aware of not being able to take back their own keys alone, so they whisper frequently to their neighbours forging alliances.

“They are few; we are many. They are outnumbered. If we act together, we can take back our keys in one fell swoop.”

“However, since we make pronouncements about justice and peace, we must not permit violence. We must proceed through peaceful means. There is a simple way to do this.”

“Once a year, we send a representative to the master to decide every aspect of our lives. All of those chaps in that meeting are representatives of the master, and if we muster up our own true representatives now, we can be the majority in the meeting, and that’s how we can pass the resolutions that we want.”

“All we need to do is shut up and make the chains. Just continue to wrap the chains around ourselves. Then, when the day comes every few years that we choose our representative, we simply vote for our own representative.”

“Our representative will gradually loosen our chains, and will, ultimately, take back the key to our bellies from the master. We will then find ourselves in a factory under a new organization and a new system of our own ideals, with our chains in the hands of our representative.”

For a time, I thought this to be the soundest argument. But the idea of relying simply on numbers, or relying on someone else over myself, did not sit right with me somehow. And when they declared their philosophy to be scientific, I then realized that they were not my comrades.

They were dreadful subscribers to panlogism. Dreaded mechanical fatalists. In their ideal of the new organization of the factory, they believe themselves to be the natural inheritors of the current factory organization, the result of an inevitable economic process. Thus, their belief is vested in simply changing the factory system and organization according to economic processes.

When pushed to decide, I, myself, am also a subscriber to panlogism. I am a mechanical fatalist. But there were a great many unknowns in my thinking, in my mechanical fatalism. As long as I did not discern these unknowns, achieving my ideals would not be certain. They would remain probabilities with a degree of potential. I cannot look favourably to the future like these men. In fact, my pessimism for the future is what nourishes my efforts in the present.

The majority of my so-called unknowns lie with humans. They’re with the development of life, itself. They’re with the power of life, itself. More specifically, they lie with the efforts to realize one’s potential, to realize one’s autonomy, to fight tirelessly for that development, and all of the effort therein.

I have no doubt that economic processes are a major force in determining the future of our factory. Yet, those unknowns—more specifically, our power and efforts—shape what kind of organization and system should be brought about as a result of those processes. Whether it be an organization or a system, these are merely phenomena manifested from the interactions of human beings. The interaction of nothing with nothing—the relationship between nothing and nothing—will, ultimately, be nothing.

And yet, I cannot help but shudder in fear at what might rightly be called the omnipotence of the organizations and systems that already exist today. Those fellows in the factory, steeped in a dream within a dream, consider themselves to be complete individuals and give not a moment’s thought to the destruction of those systems.

Sloth has no ambition. Sloth makes no history.

I looked around myself once again.

I am surrounded almost entirely by sloth. They work dutifully fashioning chains and wrapping them around their own bodies, under the full control of the mind of another; almost not a single one moves of his own mental faculties. It matters not how many of these fellows are brought together, for they have no ambition, no creative power.

I have given up on this vulgar group.

My own hopes rested on me alone. We can only come to realize our own power and autonomy, go through our own small revolutions, and have our hopes rest on the scant minority that put forth all they can to achieve their own betterment.

We must face the men who hold the key to our bellies, look upon the organization and system of the factory they have created to subjugate us, and confront it like wild beasts.

We will likely be a scant minority until the bitter end. Yet we have the will and the effort. And we also have the experience of actions born of this effort. Our aspirations are born from this experience. We will fight to the last.

That fight is a demonstration of our power. It is the touchstone of our personal autonomy. We are the magnets who invite the slothful within our sphere of influence and transform them into warriors.

This fight yields new meaning and new power within our lives, and germinates the seed of the new factory we are trying to construct.

Well, I’ve relied too much on argument alone. Arguments don’t break chains. Arguments don’t snatch back the keys to our bellies.

The chains have grown ever tighter around us now. The keys to our bellies have become ever stiffer to turn. Even the slothful among this vulgar group began to grow restless. The time for the efforts of the self-aware, combative minority is now. I threw off the chains wrapped around my hands and feet, and stood up.

I awoke. The night had past, and the mid-August morning sun lights up my half-asleep countenance.

Ōsugi Sakae

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Anarchism in Asia

asian anarchism

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.

Kotoku Shusui

Kotoku Shusui

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.

Ba Jin's translation of Kropotkin

Ba Jin’s translation of Kropotkin

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.

Robert Graham

Meeting of East Asian Anarchist Federation

Meeting of East Asian Anarchist Federation 1927