The labour union mountain bandit theory

This is a wee excerpt from John Crump’s book chapter ‘Anarchist Communism and Leadership: The case of Iwasa Sakutaro’ in Neary ed. Leaders and Leadership in Japan (1996). It is an interesting brief outline of a Japanese anarchist communist’s theory of trade unions. Crump wrote a book on the Japanese anarchist communists called Hatta Shuzo and Pure Anarchism in Interwar Japan who in the c. 1930s adopted a similar critique of union to many council communists and left communists. You can read his pamphlet summary of his book here

After Osugi was murdered by the military police in the chaos accompanying the Great Kanto Earthquake, Iwasa’s [Sakutaro] ‘pure anarchism’ gradually became the dominant current within the Japanese anarchist movement. ‘Pure anarchism’ was not a term regularly employed by Iwasa and his comrades. They believed that their ideas represented authentic anarchism and hence that it was sufficient to refer to their doctrine simply as ‘anarchism’ or, when they wanted to be more specific, ‘anarchist communism’. They were anarchists because they opposed state power and communists because they believed that the form of social organization which comes naturally to humans is one based on communal solidarity and mutual aid. Thus, echoing Kropotkin, they argued that ‘Anarchy leads to Communism, and Communism to Anarchy’. (Kropotkin 1972: 61) It was their anarchist syndicalist opponents who sneeringly dubbed this doctrine ‘pure anarchism’, in an effort to ridicule what they regarded as the holier-than-thou attitude of, if not Iwasa, at least many of his young supporters. What caused the name to stick was that it certainly conveyed the intention of Iwasa and others to eliminate from anarchism extraneous elements, such as syndicalism.

The theories of ‘pure anarchism’ were mainly formulated by two people – lwasa and Hatta Shuzo, with Hatta playing the more important role in this respect. Not only did Hatta write more profusely than Iwasa, but he was also a more systematic and innovative thinker, whose writings ranged over a wide area of economic, sociological and philosophical investigation. Indeed, Hatta was widely regarded among the ‘pure anarchists’ as ‘the greatest theoretician of anarchist communism in Japan’ . (Hatta 1981: 309) Nevertheless, despite being somewhat overshadowed by Hatta as a writer, Iwasa did make original contributions to the theories of ‘pure anarchism’ . Iwasa’s role in this regard will be exemplified by reference to his ‘labour union mountain bandit theory’. Before examining this, however, it is worth stressing that Iwasa’s popularity within the anarchist movement and the high regard in which he was held did not derive from a reputation for bookish learning. Even on paper, Iwasa adopted an unadorned and chatty style of writing, but it was above all through the spoken word, and in his everyday dealings with his comrades, that he built up support for his ideas and came to exert influence on theoretical questions. Although it was natural that Iwasa’s negative evaluation of labour unions should have provoked criticism from anarchist syndicalists, given their entirely different assessment of the efficacy of union organisation, such was Iwasa’s rapport with rank and file workers that many responded positively to his denunciation of the very movement which was supposed to represent their interests. As his fellow anarchist, Kawamoto Kenji, commented:

Bearing in mind the situation of workers, who usually have no opportunity to read books and are not endowed with knowledge, Iwasa Ro adopted the frame of mind of the workers and explained anarchism in a friendly fashion so that it was easily understood and could be simply grasped. Yet what stood out about his approach was that at its core was a superlative and well thought out theory of anarchism. (Museifushugi Undo 10 April 1967: 2)

In his ‘labour union mountain bandit theory’, Iwasa distinguished between the ‘labour movement’ and the ‘mass workers’ movement’. By ‘labour movement’ Iwasa meant the union movement of a minority of urban, male workers who occupied a relatively advantageous position within the working class. According to Iwasa, what characterized this movement was its incorporation into capitalism as a labour aristocracy and its reformist concern with maintaining its privileges relative to the rest of the working class. The analogy of a gang of mountain bandits was introduced to convey the relationship which Iwasa argued, existed between the capitalists and this ‘labour movement’.

Just as squabbles might occur between a bandit chief and his henchmen, with the latter harbouring the ambition to lead the gang themselves, so the ‘labour movement’ was likely to clash with the capitalist class. Yet, to continue with the analogy, just as whoever might seize the leadership of a gang of mountain bandits would have no influence on their pillaging relationship with the surrounding villages, so whichever side emerged victorious from the class struggle between the capitalists and the ‘labour movement’ would leave the basically exploitative nature of society unaffected. By way of contrast, Iwasa insisted that the ‘mass workers’ movement’ encompassed the vast majority of working men and women, both in the towns and in the countryside. It did not depend on union organization, since, whether ‘organized’ or not, what defined the working masses as a ‘movement’ were their common experiences of exploitation and oppression. Likewise, since the working masses had no privileges to maintain within capitalism, the logic of their disadvantaged position would lead them to seek revolutionary solutions to their problems. (Crump 1993: III ff)

Iwasa’s ‘labour union mountain bandit theory’ lent itself well to ‘pure anarchist’ criticism of syndicalism. The importance which anarchist syndicalists attached to the union form of organization, their essentially urbanized and industrial vision of an alternative society, and their ambition to take over the capitalist means of production and maintain them so that they could be used for different purposes, were all cited as evidence that (like the Bolsheviks) they intended to substitute themselves for the capitalists but not fundamentally to eradicate capitalism. It was maintained that syndicalism would leave intact capitalism’s division of labour, its privileging of production relative to consumption, its centralization of power and its advantaging of the towns over the countryside. Such theoretical arguments lay behind the rising tension between ‘pure anarchists’ and anarchist syndicalists which was such a marked feature of Japanese anarchism in the latter half of the 1920s.


~ by vomitingdiamonds on 07/11/2010.

One Response to “The labour union mountain bandit theory”

  1. Great!

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