Yamakawa Hitoshi 1922

A change of course for the proletarian movement

Translated: by Hrannar Baldvinsson.

This document was written by Yamakawa Hitoshi in 1922 about the time he and his comrades founded the Japanese Communist Party. The document itself is essentially an attack on the competing anarchro-syndicalists (whom he refers to as nihilists) and was perhaps the most important document in persuading leftists an unionists in joining the Communists and/or the Socialists. A year later, Osugi Sakae the leader of the anarcho-syndicalist was murdered by a military policeman and anarcho-syndicalism was effectively finished in Japan as a political force.

I. Right-wing and left-wing viewpoints.

Every time the radical faction wants to advance, the conservative faction replies that those radicals must be restrained, that things must be put into a certain sequence, that we cannot reach the target in a single leap, that we must advance firmly, step by step. They are certainly right here. Whether the destination is one block away or one ri[1] away we would still have to approach it step by step. This point applies to both those who want to proceed hastily as well as those who want to proceed slowly; it applies alike to conservatives as to radicals. None the less, we proceed to step one in order to get to step two, the Conservatives understand how to advance to step one, but have forgotten to move to step two. The Japanese proletarian movement is right now in step one, we must now advance to step two.

II. From a minority movement.

The effort of the proletarian movement to awaken the class consciousness of the people has been done by a small group within the movement. Class consciousness is not only something that comes from top to bottom nor is it something that springs forth spontaneously from the grass root. It is simply a reflection of social realities while living in a Capitalist society where the exploited and the exploiters are locked in a confrontation. Class consciousness is not some complicated theory that only some three to five exceptional geniuses can comprehend, it is a type of consciousness that grows inside the mind of every proletariat that lives under Capitalism although it does not grow at the same speed for all. The sun rises around five o clock every morning at the horizon, but that does not mean that its rays touch every single straw of grass uniformly at the same time. In the same way the sun of capitalism shines on the whole of the proletariat, none the less its ray of light that awakens class consciousness has only entered the minds of a minority. Consequently the movement has taken the form of a small group of people within the proletariat who have achieved class consciousness.

This enlightened minority is very much aware of this, it has excluded itself from the masses. The great majority of the proletarian masses are still under the complete psychological and ideological control of capitalism. Here, a small elite has rid itself of the mental domination of Capitalism, and achieved complete intellectual independence. To some extent separating oneself ideologically from the surrounding masses has been inevitable. By parting ideologically from the great masses, or to put it differently, by leaving the masses behind the minority has achieved unity within the disunited, unconscious and confused masses.

This was a period where the enlightened minority needed to build self-awareness. It was a period where the goal of the proletarian movement needed to be grasped. Accordingly, this small group grasped theory in increasingly purified and thorough manner, its class consciousness became increasingly clear, its opposition to Capitalism became more and more serious and then, seeing the goal in front of its very eyes, the group rushed toward the obvious natural conclusions. The conclusion that without the abolishment of Capitalism the proletariat could not be emancipated. So, without our emancipation, any other goal, any other action such as improvement in people’s daily lives was deemed worthless. Accordingly the language this minority employed became increasingly radical, increasingly revolutionary. While class consciousness had still not properly taken hold, while the proletarian masses were still unorganized, un-unionized and confused a militant small group with a thorough grasp of theory was born. To organize such a group is a first step of a Proletarian Movement. The Japanese Proletarian Movement took this first step, and it did this well. We must now proceed to step two.

III. The first period of the Socialist Movement.

There are two sides of the Japanese Proletarian Movement; the Socialist Movement and the Labour Unions. I do not say that there are two different Proletarian Movements but two different sides of the same movement. The Socialist Party (the political arm of the proletarian movement) and the Labour Unions (the industrial arm of the proletarian movement) are not two different movements but two different aspects of the same movement much like the palm and the back are two aspects of one’s hand.

To this day the Japanese Socialist Movement has been an extremely small movement. For this small movement the growth and maturity of Capitalism has not been in doubt, it is growing rapidly. Nonetheless to this day the Japanese Socialist Movement has never managed to become a mass movement. The Japanese Socialist Movement is theoretically sound. Compared to any other country, at least until the war, it cannot be denied that the Japanese Socialist Movement is theoretically pure and sound. However this ideological purification and soundness came at a high price. For the past ten years the Japanese Socialist Movement has increasingly separated itself from the masses and focused on itself. Certainly, during this period when the proletarian masses were still completely under the control of Capitalist mentality and ideology, it was important to build up an independent proletariat way of thinking, an independent proletarian ideology and viewpoints. At this issue the Japanese Socialist Movement succeeded.

The Japanese Socialist Movement has for the preceding twenty years constantly based itself on class struggle and revolution. The Japanese Socialist Movement has never compromised, it has never been opportunistic, or embraced reformism. Perhaps no movement in the world has had its eyes so clearly on the final goal of abolishing Capitalism as the Japanese movement has. However while having its eyes fixed on this goal it has forgotten how to advance to this goal. It has forgotten to think of how it should advance towards this goal. We have carefully nurtured out dream of abolishing Capitalism. We have taken great care of this dream, made sure that it is pure and sincere and been very careful not to stain it.

Therefore we have had no interest whatsoever in any problem, any action that does not aim at the immediate abolition of Capitalism. We see the state as a tool of bourgeois control and decide that for the proletariat to make any demands on it at all is a waste of time! We see the government simply as an administrating committee for the Capitalist class and think of engaging it in politics as a waste of time! While the Capitalist system prevails earning partial improvements is a waste to time! We want nothing from it at all. All immediate problems, everything except the revolution is a waste of time! This has been the attitude of us Socialists for the past twenty years.

IV. We were wrong.*
* I say this with uneasiness because I know that this will sow the seed of dispute in the future. On one hand the enemies of the proletarian movement will seize on this and understand it as an apology or repentance. They will say that in the past the Socialist Movement and the Labour Movement were entirely “mistaken” and now a Socialist has by himself confessed that he recognizes this mistake. Therefore they will ask if the Japanese Proletarian Movement regrets its past mistake, does that mean that the correct road is that of reformism, the road of petit bourgeois progressivism? At the same time on the other hand, among the sympathizers of the Proletarian Movement and among the proletarians themselves there are those who will agree with “a change of course” and will say that the Proletarian Movement was wrong in the past therefore this past was meaningless. I as a common member of the proletarian movement as an individual have been wrong and I regret this. Therefore I will gladly admit my error without hesitation to anyone who demands so of me. However those who think that this means that the entire proletarian movement has been on the wrong track and therefore everything that has been build so far must be torn down, and an entirely new way for example of petit bourgeois liberalism should be embraced, are completely wrong. What I mean by saying that “we have been wrong” should be entirely obvious to those who properly read this article.

While we held this pure, revolutionary attitude what actually happened under the capitalist system was negated, instead ten or twenty regular members gathered and started daydreaming about the revolution happening the day after, at best they would satisfy their revolutionary spirit by taking “revolutionary action” against a policeman content that getting arrested for a night was as much as one could to. They oppose capitalism but actually do not lay a finger on it. Adopting this passive attitude might result in the purity of theory but it also separates the proletarian masses from the movement. Needless to say, such an attitude might very well suit nihilists but for a socialist movement, more so for a proletarian mass-based movement it is of no use. We have certainly been wrong.

For the enlightened few, to separate themselves from the general masses still under the psychological control of Capitalism, to become intellectually independent, to purify themselves is an important first step for a proletarian movement. This is as I have already indicated a necessary period that a proletarian movement must go through. However that is only a first step for the movement. To have spent twenty years on this first preparatory step has been our error. To know how to take the first step, but not to know how to advance to the second has been our mistake. Our movement has been thoroughly purified intellectually. However on the practical side, our movement has been stuck in step one for twenty years and forgotten to move to step two. Ideologically we have become pure revolutionaries, in practical terms however to forget to move to step two has been a fall into conservatism. It must of course be taken into account that the Japanese Socialist Movement has been forming in an environment so hostile that it has few parallels anywhere in the world, how late Japanese Capitalism began to develop must also be acknowledged. Nonetheless I want us to frankly face our past mistakes because if we do not change course from now on we will be allowing the fallacy to continue on.

V. And what of the labour movement?

And what of the other side of the proletarian movement, the labour unions? The same applies for them. The Japanese labour movement is only a small minority movement within the working class. Of course it goes without saying that compared to the Socialist Movement the Labour Movement is big. This however is only natural, a proletarian political party (in Japan the Socialist Movement has still not grown into a proletarian political party) is a party that unifies the views and plans of the proletariat and pursues them on the political stage, it binds the working class with the vanguard, it is an organization that consists of the vanguard of the working class. A union however should ideally be an organization that unites the whole of industrial workers into one. It should by very definition be something much more than a Socialist Party should be. Should this be taken into the calculation the Japanese movement is, even more so than the Socialist Movement an extremely small minority movement.

The movement is small if we count the number of its members, and if we limit ourselves to active members, it is even smaller. Today’s Japanese movement, rather than being a mass movement of the working class, is better described as a minority movement of the most enlightened members of the working class. And those enlightened members, though small in numbers, their vivid class consciousness, their thorough grasp of theory is when compared to foreign labour unions with a hundred or a hundred and fifty years of history not inferior even in the slightest. At the same time those few enlightened members with their thorough grasp of theory have become fairly separated from the general members in theory and action, and even more so from the general masses of the working class. The Japanese Labour Movement is to this day, rather than a mass movement of the working class, a minority movement of an enlightened vanguard of the working class, it is not only a movement organized to further immediate economic interests, to a large extent it is an ideologically unified political entity, it has many characteristics of an ideological organization. The point is that there is a remarkable resemblance between the Japanese Socialist Movement and the Labour Movement.

Why is this? It goes without saying: this was (especially under Japanese conditions) an important first step for the proletarian movement. Just as in the Socialist Movement, the minority of the working class who first achieved class consciousness needed to firmly grasp the final goal of the movement. They needed to separate themselves from the proletarian masses still under the ideological and mental domination of Capitalism and thoroughly purify themselves ideologically as fast as possible. If this is not done, a serious labour movement will not exist. When a minority group has thoroughly freed itself of the mental domination of Capitalism, when a pure ideologically proletarian vanguard appears, a proletarian movement is born. This was the first step for the proletarian movement. The Japanese Labour Movement has taken this first step, and it did it well. However, if the Japanese Labour Movement stops in this first step, if after taking this first step it forgets to go immediately to the second step the Japanese Labour Movement is falling into the same error as the Socialist Movement did.

VI. Our new slogan.

The first step of the Japanese Proletarian Movement, the Socialist Movement and the Labour Movement was for the minority vanguard to recognize the goal we should advance to. We have recognized this goal. As for the second goal, our aim must be to learn how to mobilize the proletarian masses. The proletarian vanguard, in order to escape the mental domination of Capitalism, thoroughly purified itself ideologically. For this purpose the vanguard left the masses far behind. Now, because of internal rivalry the vanguard is sadly cut apart from the masses and there is danger of them not being lead. Here the second step of the Proletarian Movement must be for the minority vanguard to take their thoroughly purified ideology back into the masses which have fallen so far behind. The first step of the movement was to pull ourselves away from the ideologically confused masses still under the mental domination of Capitalism. The second step for this independent proletariat is to go back into the masses. “Back to the masses!” must be the new slogan of the Japanese Proletarian Movement. To implement this, the Japanese Proletarian Movement, the Socialist Movement and the Labour Movement must change its course in the following ways.

VII. What are the masses demanding?

In the first period of the Proletarian Movement, we purified our thought and clarified the goals of the Proletariat Movement and because of this we did not give sufficient thought to the effectiveness of our actions. While entering the second period we must keep this goal in mind on one hand as well as accurately grasp what the proletarian masses are actually demanding on the other hand.

And our movement must base itself on these current demands of the masses. Our goal is the abolition of Capitalism. We understand that without the abolition of Capitalism, no amount of reform will bring emancipation. However if the proletarian masses do not demand the abolition of Capitalism but rather improvement in their actual conditions our movement must base itself on these actual demands. We understand that the producer has to get control over the means of product. However if the masses of the working class do still not demand control over the means of production and instead only demand an increase in wages as low as ten sen per day, our movement must base itself on the peoples demand. Our movement must base itself on the actual demands of the masses, and from these actual demands we must get our strength.

Is this a denigration from revolutionism into reformism? Certainly not. To separate one from the actions of the general masses is not revolutionary, to separate oneself from the actual demands of the masses means that it we will not be a revolutionary movement. What separates revolutionism from reformism is not whether we make concessions to the actual demands of the masses or not, it is that while being a practical movement that fights for practical gains whether we raise the demands of the masses and advance towards the ultimate goal or not. In order to take an uncompromising attitude towards the enemy we must be compromising towards the actual demands of the masses, we must be a movement that represents the immediate interests of the proletarian masses, a movement that improves the current living standards of the masses, a movement that aims at partial victories, we must attach much more importance to this than we have done so far. To put it differently; our movement must become realistic.

VIII. Denial of politics and political opposition

Therefore the proletarian movement can by no means be indifferent towards bourgeois politics because the living conditions of the masses are directly affected by the fact that the bourgeois controls the political system. In short; while the labourer fights a hard battle against the factory, at last gaining a ten percent raise in his salary, if taxes take some of this back or if interest rates make the prices of commodities rise, an amount two to three time what was originally gained can be taken back. In this way, as long as the proletariat is apathetic towards politics the gains from fighting on the economic front will quickly regained by the enemy almost without a fight. The same goes for government income, how it earns taxes, how it manage expenditure is by no means simply the matter of bourgeois politicians, for it is directly related to the interests of the working class. For example if the navy expenditure produces surplus whether this surplus is used to cut corporate taxes or used to prevent unemployment, is just like wage increase and decrease a problem that affects the working class directly. Likewise should this surplus be channelled into the education system, whether it is used to expand the high school system, or used to provide supplies or meals in elementary schools, it is directly related to the interest of the proletariat. Today’s politics are more or less out of touch with the people, especially on the economic front. They must be made to more relevant to the lives of people. Is it in fact possible to think of politics that do not directly affect the lives of the proletarian masses, especially their economic lives? When politicians pass laws in the diet, and when the bourgeois representatives cooperate in passing a billion yen budget then this, even down to the last Sen ultimately affects the life of the working class. Bourgeois politics constantly affect the lives of the proletariat. And it does not affect it lightly, after many years of living under constant exploitation it affects the proletariat in a cruel way.

A man once said that the government is a government of the bourgeois and we should have no expectations towards that government. I agree, we should not expect the government to give us anything. It follows that we should not voluntarily make requests from the government, we should not petition the government. What we want from the government, what we need from the government we must forcefully tear from its hands. A Nihilist would say that the government is a government of the bourgeois and the proletariat should completely reject their politics. And that is the end of it, a fly is a filthy bug, the only thing we should do is to destroy it. We cannot recognizes such filthy bugs, if we do we will before long be accepting the filthy bugs. However to pretend that they are not there is effectively the same as having them fly over our heads without chasing them away. And while we refuse to accept that the bugs are there they shit at us as they please. Regardless of whether current politics are controlled by the bourgeois, and they certainly are, while these bourgeois politicians actually exert control over us and while they actually have direct and serious influence on our lives we cannot afford to neglect bourgeois politics. We must fight bourgeois politics assertively. To passively deny bourgeois politics is in effect the same a positively supporting them. Ignoring bourgeois politics control because of ideological reasons is not the way to assertively fight bourgeois rule. What we should do is to fight, those who do not fight bourgeois politics are assisting the bourgeois.

If a Capitalist society is a society controlled by the bourgeois, we must fight every expression of bourgeois power and control. However the political front is the front where bourgeois power and control most bluntly manifests itself, where it is most directly expressed. If the proletarian movement simply negates politics for ideological reasons, and treats all political activity with apathy, then it is in fact avoiding fighting the bourgeois on this important front. To simply refuse to recognize the current system is like sticking a toothpick into it hoping to mortally wound it. If the proletarian movement is serious about negating bourgeois politics, it must not simply passively negate it, it must assertively negate it. In other words: it must assertively fight bourgeois politics, it must confront bourgeois politics with proletarian politics.

Appropriately the Japanese Labour Unions have recently changed their attitude in this aspect. One of their demands on May Day this year was for the recognition of the Russian Workers State. This is obviously a political demand of the working classes. Daily life demands, demands on solving the unemployment problem, the opposition to recent extreme bills passed in the diet are all demands that the working classes are making on the state, they are political demands, consequently we should view the unions as proletarian political movements.

IX. A complete change of course

Our first step was to fully realize the final step of the proletarian movement, and this we did. We thoroughly ideologically purified ourselves. Ideologically, we became revolutionaries. However we became revolutionaries that have still not understood how to mobilize the masses, we became revolutionaries that did not understand how to work with the masses. We understood the ideas of revolution, but we were revolutionaries who had no idea how to form a revolutionary movement. Here concerning step two, basing ourselves on the goal and the ideas of revolution we must learn how to mobilize the masses. And the only way to mobilize the masses is to address their actual demands. Basing ourselves on our revolutionary goals and out ideas we can mobilize the masses, when we have learned to move with the masses, only then can we say that we have turned our revolutionary ideas into a revolutionary movement. For this end, we must throw away all negative, evasive, doubtful and nihilistic attitudes and be assertive, aggressive and pragmatic. We must fight Capitalistic control and authority in any way it expresses itself, in every area that Capitalism affects the actual living condition of the proletarian masses we must move from an attitude of negation to the one of assertive confrontation.

This is the complete change of course that the Japanese Proletarian Movement must adopt. The Japanese Proletariat Movement created a minority elite of a revolutionary vanguard. This was the first step of the movement. The movement must now learn how to mobilize the masses. This is the second step of the Japanese Proletarian Movement. “Into the Masses” However at the same time we must be careful not to dissolve ourselves into the masses still under the control of Capitalism. Should we throw away what was achieved at step one, and allow the minority vanguard to dissolve itself into the masses, then certainly the proletarian movement has not advanced forward, it will have denigrated from revolutionarism into reformism and opportunism.


1. An old Japanese unit to measure distance,1 ri = 2.44. miles/3.9 km.