April 10, 2007

The Anarchist Restoration

Traditionally histories of Japan have told a story whereby suddenly the rule of the Shogunate was overthrown in the 1860s and replaced by the restoration of the Emperor. Historians have traditionally told this tale as a story of modernisation- the Meiji Restoration or Meiji-Ishin of the 1860s and 1870s was a revolt against a society Marx categorised as overwhelmingly feudal in favour of a new capitalist society, in favour of Western style modernisation. Definitely that is the way that many western observers at the time perceived the Restoration- individuals like Ernest Satow, the secretary to the British Embassy, saw the Meiji Restoration as a mere episode of imitation- indeed Satow argued that Japan could never get beyond the third or fourth rank in the list of world powers because it was a society of imitators not initiators.

That was not the only Western view at the time. In the Spring of 1874, the Russian Revolutionary leader, young associate of Alexander Herzen and anarchist, sailed to Japan as a correspondent for a Russian radical newspaper. Professor Sho Konishi has just published a fascinating article about Menchikov's intellectual experience in Japan and how it altered him, Russian anarchism and even Japanese leftwing ideas in the twentieth century. Menchikov came to Japan with pronounced anarchist views- he argued that Russian society should seek a future in agrarian Anarchist cooperative communes. What he found in Japan led him to revise his estimate of anarchism- he became less slavophile and more intellectually curious. Menchikov argued that within the Ishin lay potentials not for imitating the West, but for exploiting the best of the West but within a framework that was more just and more cooperative. Menchikov was distinct from many Westerners in the way that he interpreted the Ishin and its ideology. One of the most fascinating ways that Konishi shows this is to counterpose two transalations of the same passage in the same document, the Charter Oath of 1868, here is Lord Aston, a British diplomat who translated a passage thus:

Our Mikado has become convinced of the necessity of upholding the policy of commercial relations, and has caused our friendly intercourse and trade with foreign countries to be established on a liberal scale. This is the only course by which we can take our place in the community of nations, and remain true to natural principles of truth and justice.

and here is Menchikov translating exactly the same passage,

Our Mikado has become convinced of the necessity to maintain friendly relations with them; only in this way can we take our proper place in the ranks of other nations, without backing down from the principle of mutual aid and equity.

Notice the very important distinctions between the two translations: in Aston's translation the last clause is made much milder and much softer, in Menchikov the last clause is placed in a much more stark oppositional light. Lord Aston's translation suggests that the Mikado will allow reform according to the principles of natural justice- which could include capitalism- whereas Menchikov is much stricter, it is the principle of mutual aid and equity that he sees as the exception, something much more threatening to Capitalism.

Menchikov's view was that the Ishin was full of contradictions and counter-impulses to modernity and capitalism. He argued that the Ishin held within it the possibilities for breaking out of the sterile atmosphere of Western capitalism and encouraged by some of his Japanese friends saw potentials for an anarchistic polity to emerge. Part of the reason for this distinct analysis came from Menchikov's own background- as a Russian he had a more ambivalent relationship to Western Capitalism than either Satow or Aston. Interestingly as well other Russians saw the Ishin in more complicated terms- for the orthodox churchmen in Japan at this point, the Ishin was a rising motivated by religious fervour not any desire for capitalism. Menchikov therefore was not alone.

Almost as much as his work in Japan, Konishi points out, it was Menchikov's work upon his return to Russia in 1876 which was key. He took what he had seen in Japan and in his great history of Civilisation attempted to model out of it a description of human progress, which didn't end at capitalism but saw capitalism as a stage through which men went. The experience of Japan made him concede that there were vital and important civilisations outside of the West. He argued on the basis of his Japanese experience that creativity was produced within civilisations not by racial purity but by racial mixing- and he expressed a lack of confidence in any attempt to suggest that the acheivements of civilisation were either black, yellow or white, rather he argued was humanity as a whole that had developed civilisation. He suggested it was geography which suggested the way that civilisations developed. Menchikov divided the world into three periods- the period of the rivers- most importantly the Ganges, Yangtze and Yellow and Euphrates and Tigris, then the period of the seas and then the modern time of the oceans. Each period made a geographical feature useful to developing civilisation but in each time it was ultimately up to human will as to where civilisation would develop. Menchikov used Japan as an example- he suggested that the Japanese were a racially mixed people and that their island situation, buffetted by storms, ultimately formed the nation's history and character.

Konishi suggests that Menchikov's work became well known- forming the attitudes of leading Russian intellectuals such as Plekhanov and Kropotkin, and also establishing the memes for Japanese leftwing political thought right through the twentieth century. He argues that in Menchikov's work we can see both an alternative vision of modernity- and also a model of the kind of cultural exchange that took place in the 19th Century.

The historical argument, Konishi puts forward seems plausible to me- having said that he never anchors Menchikov's thought down to something particular- I suspect brevity may be the problem there. Whether Menchikov's anarchist vision is an alternative for us now depends on economic arguments- the like of which Chris Dillow makes and which I am not expert enough in to either refute or confirm. What is interesting here is that Menchikov offers us a different way to understand modernity- even somewhere like Japan and places like Turkey would also fall into this category I suspect- modernisation was not the simple adaptation to capitalism that often naive students of history think that it was. Other processes of ideological infiltration were going on- and often harmonised with elements of the society infiltrated. Menchikov found friends in Japan and reinforced his anarchism through his visit there, as well as supporting Japanese anarchism from the outside. The part of Konishi's argument that I would endorse is that interraction between societies is often not as simple as it seems- ideas are passed across which contradict each other and battles that are beggining in some places (like in this case Europe) are often finished beyond the boundaries of Europe (as in this case in Russia and Japan).

Chou En-Lai was once asked what he thought the consequences of the French Revolution were, he said that it was too early to say what they were. To rephrase Chou, if we were to ask where the consequences of Japanese anarchism or Russian debates over peasant communes took place, Konishi's work allows us to establish that the two intersected and spun together out into the world, taking a global stage for what were once unrelated local approaches to politics.


MuseinMeltdown said...

An enlightening post. Thank you - you have broadened my horizons.


Gracchi said...

Cool- writing it broadened mine