Monday, 27 January 2020

Was Kita Ikki a Socialist? (2004)

Was Kita Ikki a Socialist?
Written By: Nik Howard
Date: April 2004
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 21: Summer 2004  

In Japan and beyond, a debate has been rolling over the last fifty years or more as to who or what, politically, Kita Ikki was. Having been seen by some scholars as being of the right and by others as of the left, in a recent article Christopher Szpilman branded Kita an enigma.

My current research on Kita attempts to resolve this confusion. This question clearly matters, as it goes to the heart of what socialism is and what it is not.

Kita Ikki (1883-1937) was an ideologue and activist. He wrote the book that heavily influenced the Young Officers who staged a coup d’etat in the so-called February 26th Incident of 1936, which, if successful, according to some, would have brought about fascism in 1930s Japan.

For one distinguished left-leaning historian, Maruyama Masao, the February Incident, despite eventual failure, was the turning point that led to the development of ‘fascism from above’ at the hands of the military-bureaucratic establishment. Hence Kita – executed for his part in instigating the rebellion (albeit he was essentially not involved) – is an important figure in the arguments that have raged among historians about what kind of state the Imperial Japan of the 1930s was.

Some scholars conclude that Kita was a socialist. His American biographer, George Wilson, has muddle-headedly referred to him as a ‘rather right-wing left extremist’. The historian and former lecturer of mine at the School of Oriental and African Studies, Dr. Richard Sims, claimed in one seminar that Kita was a left-wing radical who tried to ward off state repression via an essentially ‘amuletic’, and thus insincere, appeal to the figure of the Japanese Emperor. Arrested by the suggestion that any left-winger worth his or her salt might thus compromise and link their socialism to the Emperor, I remonstrated with Dr. Sims, retorting that Kita was surely a man of the right, perhaps even a fascist, as one authority alleged.

The claim that Kita was a socialist stems from his early work – in particular, from his first book of 1906 called The Theory of Japan’s National Polity and Pure Socialism. However, first of all, none of the secondary literature on Kita is clear about what socialism is. Secondly, this work is also empirically deficient. Thus, based on a detailed examination of material from Kita’s early period that has barely been treated even in Japanese, I offer here two or three results of this research that may be of interest to readers familiar with the history and meaning of socialism.

I restrict myself to three simple points:

One of the most crucial means for determining Kita’s early orientation derives from his attitude towards the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) In an early article from October 1903, Kita mounted a vociferous and rather scurrilous attack on the good name of those who opposed the coming war and in particular against those journalists who quit a newspaper for changing from its previously anti-war to a pro-war editorial line. Not only this, but, in a fit of Pan-Asian rhetoric, he also attacked Russians unremittingly, calling Slavs barbarians, which was a leitmotiv in other crucial articles of this period, too.

Another important means for distinguishing Kita’s ideas from socialism derives from the way he bases his ‘socialism’ on Social Darwinism, as George M. Wilson and others have pointed out. Rather shocking for those who consider themselves socialists, this rather inept claim can only be made sense of in the context of the history of the systematic blurring of the distinction between ‘socialism from below’ and ‘socialism from above’, about which Hal Draper, in his pamphlet The Two Souls of Socialism, has written so well.

Finally, that Kita was no socialist from below is demonstrated by his positive support for Japanese imperialism. Regarding the interests of the Japanese state as pre-eminent, albeit this idea is sugar-coated with talk of the ‘justice of the state’, Kita was the first thinker in the world, so far as I am aware (preceding Enrico Corradini by about a decade), to have developed the proto-fascist notion that his own state was a ‘working class’ nation in contrast to the big plutocratic nations such as Russia, Britain and so on. This justified Japanese expansion and imperialism; his belligerent rhetoric regarding Russia; and his hatred of what, blind at telling points to the fundamental issue of class, he saw as white control of the world.

All this bears nothing in common with socialism, but a lot with the racial ideas associated with the radical right across the world at this time. Kita deserves to be understood, for only this way can we learn to distinguish in all types of cultural and historical contexts the way the right constantly tries to give itself a radical-sounding left-wing cloak.

[Nik Howard is the author of "The Origins of Socialism in Japan up to 1905", Bulletin of the Marx Memorial Library, Autumn 2002.]

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