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Nigel Harris

Stalin’s Boy

(Winter 1964/5)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.19, Winter 1964/5, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Asian Revolutionary – the life of Sen Katayama
Hyman Kublin
Princeton/OUP, 72s.

Sen Katayama, the younger son of a peasant family in an obscure village of Southern Honshu, was born eight years before the Meiji Restoration and Japan’s plunge into the world and modernisation. He died in 1933 in Moscow, a personal member of the Comintern Executive and the only non-European member of the Praesidium; at his state funeral in Red Square, some one hundred and fifty thousand mourners gathered, and Stalin was the chief pall-bearer. The transition between the two points is remarkable, and it is important for understanding the political evolution of many radicals in underdeveloped countries. Nearly as remarkable is the obscurity into which Katayama has fallen since his death – unlike his less distinguished contemporary, M.N. Roy. The present study traces the evolution of Katayama from a poor country boy, through Confucianism as a poor scholar in Tokyo to Christianity in the United States; back in Japan again, through Christian Socialism and welfare activity to trade union work and political agitation. The account here is at its most useful in Katayama’s most creative period. Beset with terrible hazards from the State, Katayama showed great tenacity, optimism and steady work in the minuscule, vulnerable faction-ridden sects of the Japanese left (dominantly intellectual), and, more important, among the first generation of ruthlessly oppressed but bewildered Japanese workers. He was never an intellectual, but in general remained loyal to broad Second International policy – against the temptations of lukewarm liberalism or anarcho-syndicalism or the intellectual’s contention that the proletariat was not the agent of socialist change; in particular, against the immense tide of Japanese nationalism, he clung to the conception of proletarian internationalism – at the Amsterdam Sixth Congress of the International during the Russo-Japanese War, he publicly ‘shook hands’ with Plekhanov to the thunderous cheers of the delegates.

However, in 1914 he fled to the United States, and would there probably have died in indigent obscurity had he not been the only known Japanese socialist abroad and had not the Comintern given a qualitative change to the notion of internationalism. Alone and isolated in America, but still distinguished by ignorant foreign socialists as the voice of Japanese labour, he was useful to the Comintern – he became an agent in the US and Mexico before going to Moscow where he became Japanese labour. Being no theoretician, he never played much role in defining Comintern policy (which kept him safe); he plodded along, preparing reports on ‘the East’, representing ‘Asia’, being an almost non-political high dignitary in the fictitious grandeur of Stalin’s Comintern. He visited China, made efforts from safe Shanghai to refloat the leaky boat of the JCP, attended functions and helped where the hatchet was needed. He died, unlike so many others, praised by the Comintern as one of the old Bolsheviks, a grand old man and revolutionary. Yet if the beginning of his life is an astonishing account of courage and tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds and tragically meagre results, the end on which his glory turns, is hollow; he died a poor old man, lonely and isolated, far from his homeland, and with nothing but his pathetic epaulettes to comfort him.

The present biography is partly soured by the eulogies of postwar JCP stalwarts, partly diffused by the wordiness of the style, partly obscured by the author’s failure to go more deeply into the political detail and into Katayama’s voluminous writings. However, it is a very scholarly account and solid within its personal terms of reference – the author’s political sympathies remain for the most part outside his account. It is a useful contribution to the relatively little-known history of the labour movement in Japan before the first World War.

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