You are on page 1of 5

The New Reasoner 5 Summer 1958

80 The New Reasoner


Marxism in Japan

When I was invited to visit Japan by the Society for the Study of
the History of Economic Doctrines, I dutifully prepared half-a-dozen
lectures on the general theme of the development of Marxian
economics. This was the subject, I was given to understand, about
which the twenty-one universities at which I was to lecture would
most like to hear me speak. Each of the universities chose one lec-
ture from the list, and fourteen out of the twenty-one chose 'Marx
and Keynes'. This, as I soon found, was not accidental. Something
between one-third and one-half of Japanese university economists
are Marxists of one kind or another, and the struggle between the
Marxist and non-Marxist schools is an extremely acute one. The
division is not confined to economics, but extends to other fields like
history, political science and philosophy. In this respect Japan
seems to be quite unique. There is probably no other country in the
world, outside the socialist camp, in which Marxism is as academi-
cally respectable as it is in Japan, and certainly no other country in
which burning issues of theory and policy are so frequently fought
out in debates between Marxists and non-Marxists.
Those who call themselves Marxists, however, form a much more
heterogeneous group in Japan than they do in most Western coun-
tries. In Britain, for example, at any rate until recently, the majority
of Marxists have also been members of the Communist Party. It
was difficult to check up on this point in Japan, since teachers at
state universities, being civil servants are forbidden to belong
openly to any political party; but my impression was that the
underground Communist Party members in the universities,
although their numbers were quite large, definitely did not con-
stitute a majority of those who called themselves Marxists. Besides
the Communist Party Marxists, who were themselves divided into
groups according to their degree of orthodoxy, there was a large
group of left-wing Socialist Party Marxists, and an even larger
group of Marxists who accepted the views of Professor Uno (of
whom more later). There were Christian Marxists, Buddhist
Marxists, sturdily-independent Marxists, and numerous others who
held positions intermediate between two or more of the different
groups. Naturally under these conditions the division between
'orthodox' and 'unorthodox' Marxists was somewhat blurred, and
although accusations of 'dogmatism' and 'revisionism' were con-
stantly being flung around they were rather difficult to substantiate.
82 The New Reasoner Ronald L. Meek : Marxism in Japan 83
The distribution of Marxists among the universities was rather of resignations. I gathered that something like 50% of the Party
uneven: there tended, for example, to be more in the state universi- intellectuals disagreed with the official policy of the leadership on
ties than in the private universities, and some universities seemed to matters like Hungary and democratic centralism, but the only pub-
specialise in one particular trend. To a Western visitor, unaccus- lic manifestation of this disagreement which they could produce for
tomed to the very idea of such marked divisions among Marxists, me was an article in a Party journal which suggested, very daringly,
the general picture was very confusing indeed: I was always rather that intellectuals should not be instructed by the Party as to the
embarrassed when my Japanese colleagues asked me to describe the subjects they were to study! The reasons for this continuing loyalty
different trends of thought among Marxian economists in Britain. of 'dissident' Party members are somewhat obscure: those with
The extent of the influence exercised by these university Marxists whom I discussed the matter pointed to such factors as the semi-
must be very considerable, if only because of the vast number of conspiratorial tactics which the Party was still obliged to adopt, and
students whom they now teach. Before the war there were 41 univer- (in one case) to the traditional Japanese habit of loyalty to estab-
sities in Japan, with a total student population of about 82,000. lished institutions.
To-day there are no less than 231 universities offering four-year It is difficult to generalise about the issues upon which Japanese
undergraduate courses, with a total student population of nearly Marxists are divided. Largely, of course, these differences are
600,000. The post-war expansion is not quite as spectacular as it political, centring in particular around the attitude towards the
seems at first sight from these figures: before the war, although Soviet Union. The Communist Party Marxists generally support
there were only 47 universities properly so-called, there were a large the policies of the Soviet Union (though not quite as uncritically as
number of 'higher normal schools', technical institutions, etc., many their opponents often suggest); many others, while hostile to the
of which have since the war been transformed by annexation or Soviet Union, are very sympathetic towards China; and still others
amalgamation into universities. Nevertheless, it is clear that the adopt a sort of 'plague-on-both-your-houses' attitude, showing a
number of students receiving what we would regard as a good- strong partiality towards India and the doctrine of the 'third force'.
quality university education is now very much higher (both abso- Attitudes towards the American occupation are another source of
lutely and per head of population) in Japan than it is in Britain. controversy. The Communist Party Marxists tend to emphasise the
And more than a quarter of these students are in economics and 'colonial'aspects of the occupation and the involvement of Japan in
commerce faculties. the Cold War which it has brought about, and to play down the
Since Marxism in Japan is far from being a Communist Party importance of the post-war democratic reforms. Other Marxists lay
monopoly, its influence upon intellectuals does not vary with the much more emphasis on the significance of these reforms, and stress
changing fortunes of that Party to anything like the extent which it the urgent necessity for defending and extending them. On such
does in the West. It is probably true to say that the influence of questions as Japan's 'defence force' and the testing of atomic
Marxism in Japan is in fact now declining a little, but it is not weapons, however, there are few disagreements outside the tactical
declining at anything like the rate at which the political influence of sphere. 'No more Hiroshimas' is a slogan which has united all
the Communist Party is declining. With only about 45,000 members Marxists, and, indeed, virtually the whole nation.
(in a total population of 90 million), and only two members in the In so far as the theoretical disagreements can be separated from
Diet, the Party has virtually been rejected by the electorate, the political, many of them seem originally to have sprung from
although its influence in certain trade unions is still strong. To some varying interpretations of the Meiji Restoration (or 'Revolution') of
extent this decline in strength has been due to the revival of the 1868. The issues here are rather complex, but the essence of the
Japanese economy and the recent improvement in the standard of matter is roughly as follows: In Europe, speaking very broadly,
living; but in the main the loss of support has come about because capitalism gained ascendancy only after a bitter and prolonged
of the ill-timed 'military' tactics which the Party employed during struggle between the class of feudal landlords and the rising capi-
the worst years of the Cold War. ('We were all making Molotov talist class, and it was usually in terms of a struggle of this type that
cocktails then', said one Party member.) The revelations of the 20th Marx analysed the development of capitalism. In Japan, however,
Congress, and the subsequent events in Poland and Hungary, sur- things did not work out quite in this way. After the Restoration
prisingly enough, have had little effect on Party membership. There feudal proprietary rights were indeed swept away, and capitalism
has, of course, been what one might perhaps describe as a 'Reasoner did indeed develop very swiftly in industry, but the leadership which
revolt' in the ranks, but this has not led to any appreciable number ushered in these changes consisted quite largely of the more intelli-
84 The New Reasoner Ronald L. Meek : Marxism in Japan 85

gent and far-sighted members of the former ruling class. Great dif-. was told in the several strongholds of Unoism which I visited.
ferences of opinion have always existed as to the relative importance The influence of certain aspects of Marxian economic theory has
of the feudal (or 'abolitionist') elements and the capitalist elements made itself felt far beyond the ranks of the Marxists themselves.
in the Meiji Restoration. To the Japanese this is not simply a prob- An interesting example of this is the Marxian theory of relative
lem of interpretation of past history: it has also an important bear- over-population. 1 had imagined that in Japan, where 90 million
people are crowded into a relatively small and mountainous country
ing on questions of current policy. For example, the programme and
which has lost all its overseas possessions, the Marxian theory
tactics of a Japanese left-wing political party to-day will obviously
would have come in for a certain amount of criticism and revision
depend in part upon the extent to which it believes that feudal
from the Marxists themselves. I was surprised at the small extent to
elements are still present in Japanese society; and its beliefs in this
which this was in fact so, and even more surprised at the amount of
respect will clearly depend in part upon the interpretation which it influence which the Marxian theory obviously exercised on non-
places upon the Meiji Restoration. (This explains, among other Marxist economists. There was a noticeable reluctance to admit that
things, the intense interest which Japanese Marxists showed in the Japan was over-populated in anything like the Malthusian (as dis-
recent controversy between Sweezy, Dobb, Hill and others on the tinct from the Marxian) sense. Even if it were possible to ascribe
question of the transition from feudalism to capitalism.) And it is this reluctance to dogmatism in the case of the Marxian economists,
obvious that to Japanese Marxists this question of the interpreta- it was not possible so to ascribe it in the case of the significant
tion of their country's history is bound to be linked up with the number of non-Marxian economists who agreed with them. I think
wider question of the validity of Marx's way of looking at social this attitude may be due in part to the fact that before the war the
development as a whole. imperialistic policies of the government were often officially justified
The differences which now exist in the field of economic theory on the grounds of 'over-population' (which made the Malthusian
have spread far beyond these original disagreements. To some theory unpopular among progressive people), and in part to the fact
extent the divisions are comparable with those in European coun- that the reserve army of labour in the pre-war years was very large
tries where the social-democratic parties, as well as the Communist (which made the Marxian theory seem much more plausible). The
Party, owe formal allegiance to Marxism. But in Japan the situation continued existence to-day of large-scale 'disguised' unemployment
is complicated by the existence of the powerful Uno School of and the prevalence of part-time employment, coupled with the fact
Marxists, many members of which maintain that Marxian that the Japanese standard of living is improving and is higher than
economics is a " pure " science which should not be contaminated that in other Asian countries, and that the birth rate has recently
by mixing politics with it. I found it rather hard to discover the been declining very spectacularly, may also have something to do
exact position of the Uno school-partly, no doubt, owing to the with it. On the other hand, it may well be, as one Socialist Party
difficulties of communication, but partly also owing to the fact that, Marxist suggested, that the majority of economists in fact accept the
as one economist put it, 'every man has his own Uno'. The essence Malthusian view, but are often rather reluctant to say so in public
of the Uno position, I was told, can be summed up in the statement because they are afraid of being accused of blaming Japan's poverty
that 'even if Marx had lived in the age of monopoly capitalism, he on 'natural' rather than on 'social' causes.
would still have written Capital as he did'. Marx's analysis in Capi-
tal, in effect, is held to constitute a sort of abstract 'pure theory' Why is it, exactly, that Marxian ideas, particularly in the field of
which is applicable in all stages of capitalist development. Capi- economics, have obtained such a grip on Japanese intellectual life?
talism is, of course, modified in certain respects as it proceeds from I discussed this question very often with my Japanese colleagues:
one stage to another, but the modifications are said to affect only the whenever they asked me why it was that there were so few Marxian
economists in Britain, I countered by asking why it was that there
sphere of what Uno calls 'policy'. The development of Marxism,
were so many in Japan. The anti-Marxists often replied that the
therefore, must consist not in the development of the abstract
prevalence of Marxism was due simply to the fact that it had been
theories put forward in Capital (which are universally applicable in
forcibly suppressed for so long, and there is no doubt an element of
all stages), but rather in the concrete analysis of the practical modi-
truth in this. Many of the Marxists whom I met had been
fications of capitalism which take place in different stages of its imprisoned (usually only for fairly short periods) during the pre-war
historical development and in different countries. This summary no and war years, and it was clear that prior to the introduction of
doubt does much less than justice to what is obviously an interest- 'democracy' large numbers of Marxists, forbidden to publish any-
ing and subtle viewpoint; but I can do no more than repeat what I
86 The New Reasoner Ronald L. Meek : Marxism in Japan 87
thing dealing directly with Marxian economics, had been obliged to be more popular in Japan than it is in other more stable com-
content themselves with publishing extensive studies of pre-Marxian munities.
economists like Smith and Ricardo whose general attitude was Only once did I hear the suggestion that the popularity of
fairly close to that of Marx. When the restrictions on the study of Marxism might be due to the appeal of its element of 'fatalism' to
Marxism were lifted, interest in the forbidden subject was naturally the Oriental temperament, and I am inclined-as most of my
revived and strengthened. Japanese colleagues were-to discount this explanation. The thing
But there is rather more to it than this. For one thing, Japan to- which impressed me more than anything else in my contacts with
day is much more like the type of capitalist society described in Japanese scholars was their essentially Western manner of thought,
Capital than is, say, Britain. For a long period the reserve army of and the similarity between the Japanese general approach to intel-
labour in Japan was very large, and the standard of living of the lectual problems and our own. Such differences in outlook as
working people is still lamentably low. There are also some rather anthropologists like Ruth Benedict have noted, in so far as they
more special historical reasons: Marshallian economics never put
still existed after a decade of democratisation, seemed to me to be
down any real roots in Japan, whereas Marxian economics was
much more ideological survivals of feudalism than elements in the
imported (largely from Germany) in the years after the First World
Japanese 'national character', and in any event had little obvious
War and popularised by a very able group of Japanese scholars. In
influence on the Westernised intellectuals whom I met.
more recent times, the influence of Keynesian economics has been
considerable, but it has not succeeded to any great extent in replac- The merits of Japanese Marxists lie mainly in their relatively
ing Marxian economics because of the widespread belief (which is undogmatic approach, their ingenuity, and their incredible industry,
probably correct), that Keynesian ideas have only a limited practi- their demerits chiefly consist in a rather painful tendency towards
cal application to under-developed economies like that of Japan. extreme abstraction and isolation from the urgent practical prob-
lems which face the Japanese economy. They tend to be too much
More important than this, however, is the fact that Japanese concerned with questions like the proper interpretation of Marx's
economists live in an economy which has changed radically in their law of the falling rate of profit, the mathematical extension of the
own lifetimes, and which is still changing very rapidly indeed. The labour theory of value, and the so-called 'law of immiseration'.
question of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, as I have (Everywhere I went in Japan I found myself involved in difficult
already mentioned, is by no means only a question of the interpre-
discussions on the 'form of value' in Marxian economics: no doubt
tation of past history. ('My grandfather was a samurai', said a
I had to some extent brought this upon myself, but it was sympto-
Christian Marxist whom I met in the west of Japan, 'and we still
matic of the attitude and interests of many Japanese Marxists.) It
keep his sword in our cottage'.) There is an intense sense of change
would be wrong to say that they were not interested in practical
in Japan, and an earnest desire on the part of scholars to under-
stand the laws governing this change. There is, I think, a parallel questions, but too few of them were interested in practical Japanese
between the situation in Japan to-day and that in Scotland in the questions. At one gathering of about a dozen Marxists I asked each
latter half of the 18th century. In Scotland at that time, men like of them what research they were doing. The subjects ranged from
Smith, Millar and Robertson, when they looked at the great social British political parties, Chinese collectivisation, French democracy,
changes taking place around them, had no doubt whatever that they etc., to the American civil war. Only two of these present were
were ultimately caused by the changes in relations of production studying anything Japanese, and only one was dealing with contem-
which were occurring so obviously and rapidly before their very porary Japan. When I commented on this, I was told that Japanese
eyes; and they therefore tended to trace the causal nexus in history scholars were very sensitive to the winds which blew over Japan
to what they called 'the mode of subsistence'. If I may be permitted from other countries; but I did not think that this was really an
in the pages of the New Reasoner to revert to speech in terms of adequate excuse.
basis and superstructure, the changes taking place in the basis were The prospects of some sort of bridge being built between
so manifest that these writers could hardly help linking up the Japanese Marxian and non-Marxian economists are perhaps not
changes in the superstructure with them. Similarly, in present-day very bright at the moment, but on the other hand they are not by
Japan, nobody could possibly deny that an important connection any means hopeless. Japanese Marxists, at any rate when pressed,
existed between basis and superstructure, and it is only natural that are quite willing to admit to such deficiencies in their work as those
a system of thought which deals in terms of this connection should I have just described, and to confess that they have tended to
underestimate the positive elements in contemporary non-Marxist
88 The New Reasoner
writing. Although the number of Marxists doing research into the
problems of the contemporary Japanese economy is still relatively
small, it is greater than it used to be. And among the Communist
Party Marxists there has, of course, been a certain amount of self-
criticism since the 20th Congress. Many of the Marxists' opponents,
however, and some of their friends, are less optimistic: their con-
tacts with 'dogmatic Marxism' in the past, they say, have led them
reluctantly to the conclusion that the gulf is unbridgeable. Marxism,
they believe, will just have to be left to wither away. On the whole
I think I would side with the optimists. Japanese Marxists are well
aware that their influence is declining slightly, and that with increas-
ing prosperity it will continue to decline unless Marxism is
developed in order to fit the new facts which have emerged. They
may argue with one another over the question of what 'developing'
Marxism means, but on the urgent need for 'development' of some
sort they are mostly agreed. The Japanese have a marked ability for
adapting themselves to new-and often uncomfortable-situations;
and it may well be that a large part of the great job of development
which to-day faces Marxists the world over will be carried out in