Ba Jin: Toward a Free Society (1921)

Ba Jin (Li Feigan)

Ba Jin (1904-2005) was a well known novelist active in the Chinese anarchist movement during the 1920s, when the anarchists were still one of the leading forces on the Chinese revolutionary left. His most famous work is the novel, The Family, about the younger generation in China seeking liberation from traditional mores and institutions, published in 1933. As with many other Chinese anarchists, he was influenced by Kropotkin. He also corresponded with Emma Goldman, whom he regarded as his “spiritual mother.” The Chinese anarchist movement declined under the Guomindang in the late 1920s, and was completely suppressed by the Communists after their seizure of power in 1949. Ba Jin and his wife were persecuted during the so-called “Cultural Revolution” during the 1960s. I included some of Ba Jin’s anarchist writings from the 1920s in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. In Volume Three, I included some reflections by Ba Jin from 1984 on the harmful effects of state power on literature. This article is from Ba Jin’s most active anarchist period during the 1920s. It originally appeared under Ba Jin’s real name, Li Feigan. The translation is by Paul Sharkey, and can be found on the Kate Sharpley Library website. I was reminded of Ba Jin’s struggles against Communist censorship and his treatment during the Cultural Revolution by the current demonstrations in Hong Kong against the attempts by the Communist dictatorship in China to further restrict people’s freedoms.

How are we to establish a truly free and egalitarian society?

These days these words “freedom and equality” are part of the vocabulary of each and every one of us. But make a few inquiries and ask: What is freedom? and you will be told “Freedom means freedom of opinion, freedom of the press, freedom of association and assembly, the freedom of secrecy of correspondence”.

Ask: What is equality? and you will be told: “All citizens are equal before the law, with no difference between the high-born and the yokel.” Now, such narrow definitions have nothing to do with true freedom, true equality. Don’t believe me? Then have a read of the following.

The blight upon the people’s freedom is the State. Ever since the State came into existence, we have stopped being free. No matter what we do or say, the State sticks its nose in. All we ask is to live in love with our brethren from other nations, but the State would have us patriots at any price, enrols us in its armies and forces us to murder our neighbours. And here in China the situation is even worse: here we have Chinese murdering other Chinese. For a number of years now, in Hunan and Shaanxi and Szechuan, “the tide of blood has been running high and the corpses are piling up”.

What horror! So much for the benefits that the State has brought us. Arrogating to themselves the resources that are the common wealth of our planet, the capitalists grind us into a poverty that denies us the right to live. Not that the State punishes them for it: worse still, it protects them through a battery of laws.

The people has nothing to eat and has no option but to steal its food: it goes naked and has no option but to steal clothes: it has no option but to steal all that it needs. The people is driven to all this by the capitalists. And there goes the State, in its grandeur, dismissing us as brigands and decreeing that we are fit for nothing but the execution picket. We are gunned down merely for recouping – in contravention of the law, to be sure – a fraction of what we had lost, whereas the capitalists who loot the commonwealth of our planet are allowed to live in peace. If we are refused the right to steal, there is nothing left for us but to become beggars. Lo and behold, the capitalists, offended by the spectacle, bestow alms upon the poor and afford them a little of the money that they have stolen from them: and upon this they bestow the fine-sounding name of charity. Some of them even have the effrontery to insult us because we beg for our pittance instead of working for it.

Gentlemen! Can you be so sure that we do not want to work? It is more a case of our being denied work. Yet we are showered with insults. Looking at it from this angle, we can see that the “freedom and equality” of which we have just been speaking are alien to the people! Indeed, can one speak here of “freedom” and “equality”? I refuse to credit that there can be any freedom of that sort! Any equality of that stripe! But what then are real freedom and real equality?

Here comes my answer: Anarchy. That is the real freedom. And communism is the real equality. Only a social revolution can allow us to build a really free and really egalitarian society.

But what is Anarchy?

Anarchy is the placing of the State and its accessory institutions upon the Index and collective ownership of the means of production and goods produced. Every individual contributing in accordance with his ability and receiving in accordance with his needs. And work shared out according to the ability of the individual: whoever has the ability to be a doctor does the doctoring, and whoever has the ability to mine does the mining. More time devoted to straightforward tasks and less time squandered on complicated or tiresome ones. An agency to find you food when you are hungry, clothing to wear and a roof under which to shelter. Everybody in receipt of the same education, with no distinction drawn between the clever and the slow-witted.

Time and again, one French anarchist has reiterated: “Every individual need work only two hours a day if all the needs of society are to be met”. And Kropotkin too has stated: “If everyone works four hours a day, that will be enough – indeed, more than enough – to meet society’s needs.”

I imagine that such a proposition, cutting working hours to the bone, could not help but attract universal support. Without the State and its laws, we would have real freedom: without the capitalist class, we would have real equality.

Friends of the world of labour, can you see just how free a society rid of all authoritarian power would be? Can you see how egalitarian it would be? Are you willing to build such a society of freedom and equality? Well then, make the social revolution and have done with these rascally politics.

For the sake of the advent of a society of freedom and equality, let us hope that you and your friends will soon come together as one! As long as you endure it all with resignation, you will be fodder for the capitalists!

If you do not believe me, you will see for yourselves!

Ba Jin

Banyue (Fortnight), Chengdu, China, No 17, 1 April 1921


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

Voline: The February 1917 Revolution in Russia

The February Revolution

Kropotkin’s hopes for a social revolution in Russia were revived in February 1917 when the Russian people spontaneously arose to overthrow the Czar. The following passages are from Voline’s account of the 1917 “February Revolution,” from his history of the Russian Revolution, The Unknown Revolution, other excerpts from which are included in Volume One of Anarchism: A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas. Voline emphasizes the spontaneous nature of the February Revolution, arising from Russia’s disastrous war with Germany.


The February Revolution

On February 24 (Russian old style) disturbances began in Petrograd. Primarily provoked by the lack of provisions, they did not seem likely to become serious. But next day events took a sudden turn. The workers in the capital, feeling that the Russian people generally were in solidarity with them, extremely agitated for weeks, starving, and not even receiving any more bread, thronged the streets, demonstrated fiercely, and flatly refused to disperse.

Yet on this first day the demonstrations were cautious and inoffensive. In close-packed masses the workers, with their wives and children, shouted: “Bread! Bread! We have nothing to eat. Either give us bread or shoot us! Our children are dying of hunger. Bread! Bread!”

Besides the police, the Government sent detachments of mounted troops, Cossacks, against the demonstrators. But there were few troops then in Petrograd — except unreliable reservists. So the workers were not at all frightened. They bared their breasts to the soldiers, held up their children, and cried: “Kill us all if you dare! Better to be shot than to starve to death!”

Finally — and this was the key point of the episode — nearly all of the soldiers, smiling, walked warily towards the crowd, without using their weapons, and ignoring the orders of their officers. And many of the latter were not particularly insistent. In some places the soldiers fraternized with the workers, going so far as to give them their rifles, getting off their horses, and mingling with the throng. Naturally this attitude of the troops encouraged the protesting workers.

Here and there, however, the police and the Cossacks did charge groups of demonstrators carrying red flags, and several of them were killed or wounded.

In the barracks of Petrograd and the suburbs of the capital, the garrison regiments still held back from taking the side of the Revolution. And the government held back from sending them to combat it.

But the morning of February 26 brought a notable new happening. By decree, the Government ordered the Duma dissolved.

This was a sort of signal that everybody seemed to have been waiting for before beginning decisive action. The news, known everywhere in the capital almost instantaneously, spurred on events. From that moment, the demonstrations took on the character of a strictly revolutionary movement.

Shouts of “Down with Tsarism!”, “Down with the War!”, and “Long live the Revolution!” rang from the milling crowd, whose attitude steadily became more determined and menacing. All over the city the demonstrators resolutely attacked the police. Several public buildings were burned, including the Court House. The streets bristled with barricades. Soon many red flags appeared. The soldiers still maintained a benevolent neutrality, but more and more frequently they mingled with the throng. The Government could depend on its troops less and less.

Now it hurled the whole police force of the city against the rebels. The police quickly formed detachments for mass attack. They installed machine-guns on the roofs of various houses and even in some churches, and occupied all strategic points. Then they began a general offensive against the rising masses.

During that whole day of February 26 the fighting was hot. In many instances the police were dislodged, policemen were killed, and their machine-guns silenced. But elsewhere they resisted fiercely.

Tsar Nicholas II, who was at the war-front, was warned by telegram of the gravity of the situation. Meanwhile the Duma decided to continue sitting and not yield to the order to dissolve.

The decisive action occurred on February 27, 1917.

Revolutionary Russia

From early morning, whole regiments of the Petrograd garrison, no longer hesitant, mutinied, left their barracks, arms in hand, and took over certain strategic points in the capital, after brief skirmishes with the police. The Revolution gained ground.

At a given moment, a dense mass of demonstrators, defiant and grimly threatening, and partially armed, assembled in Znamenskaya Square and in the vicinity of the Nikolaievsky railway station. The Government sent two cavalry regiments from the Imperial Guard, the soldiers it still could trust, as well as a strong detachment of police, both on foot and mounted. The troops were supposed to support and assist the police.

After the usual summons [warning the demonstrators to disperse], the police commander gave an order to charge the crowd. But now another last-moment “miracle” occurred. The officer commanding the Guard cavalrymen raised his sabre, and with a cry of “Charge the police!” launched his two regiments against them. In almost no time the latter were beaten, thrown back, overwhelmed.

Soon the last resistance of the police was broken. The revolutionary troops seized the Government arsenal and occupied all vital points in the city. Surrounded by a delirious multitude, the regiments drew themselves up, with flags unfurled, before the Tauride palace, where the Duma — the poor Fourth Duma — was sitting, and put themselves at its disposal.

Shortly afterward the last regiments of the garrison of Petrograd and its suburbs joined the movement. Tsarism had no more armed forces in the vicinity of the capital. The population was free. The Revolution had triumphed.

The events which presently followed are well known.

A provisional government, composed of influential members of the Duma, was formed and ardently acclaimed by the people.

The provinces enthusiastically joined the Revolution.

Some troops were hastily withdrawn from the front, and were sent by order of the Tsar to the rebel-held capital, but were unable to reach it. For the railroad workers refused to transport them further when they drew near the city. Then the soldiers refused to obey their officers and went over to the Revolution. Some returned to the front; others simply dispersed.

Tsar Nikolai himself, returning to Petrograd by railroad, had his train stopped at Dno station and then had it take him back to Pskov. There he was joined by a delegation from the Duma and by military personages who had joined the Revolution. He could do nothing but accept the situation. After some trifling negotiations he signed his abdication, for himself and his son Alexis, on March 2.

For a moment, the provisional government sought to present the throne to the ex-Emperor’s brother, Grand Duke Michael, but he declined the offer, declaring that the fate of the country and the dynasty should be put into the hands of a regularly convoked Constituent Assembly.

The front hailed the accomplished Revolution.

Tsarism had fallen. Formation of the Constituent Assembly was the order of the day. While waiting for it to be called, the provisional government became the official authority — “recognized and responsible”. The first act of the victorious Revolution was over.

We have recounted the facts of this February revolution in some detail in order to bring out in relief the main point:

Once more, the action of the masses was spontaneous, logically climaxing a long period of concrete experience and moral preparation. This action was neither organized nor guided by any political party.  Supported by the people in arms — the Army — it was victorious. The element of organization had to be introduced — and was introduced — immediately afterward.

(In any case, because of the repression, all of the central organizations of the political parties of the left, as well as their leaders, were, at the time of the Revolution, far from Russia. Martov of the Social Democratic Party, Tchernoff of the Social Revolutionary Party, Lenin, Trotsky, Lunacharsky, Losovsky, Rykov, Bukharin, et al, were all living abroad. It was not until after the February Revolution that they returned home).

Another significant point also emerges from these events.

Again, immediate and specific impetus was given to the Revolution by the absolute impossibility of Russia continuing the war — an impossibility which naturally was intensified by the obstinacy of the Government. This impossibility resulted from the inextricable chaos into which the war had plunged the nation.