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An event which would shape the history of the Far East until 1945, Japan’s bourgeois revolution ‘from above’ is explored by Neil Faulkner in this week's Marxist History.


The United States experienced a two-phase bourgeois revolution, the first ‘from below’ in 1775-1788, the second ‘from above’ in 1860-1865. The US experience mirrored a wider pattern.

The Dutch, English, American, and French Revolutions were bourgeois revolutions from below. They involved mass mobilisation of ‘the middling sort’ to overthrow and replace the existing state.

A final attempt to replicate this historical pattern was made during Europe’s 1848 Revolutions. It was not successful. The revolutionaries crashed to defeat on all fronts. What had changed?

The Industrial Revolution meant that Europe was already being transformed into a capitalist economy and a society of factory-owners and workers. With the exception of Britain, the transformation was still at an early stage, but it was sufficiently advanced to create new mechanisms for bourgeois empowerment.

On the one hand, the embryonic labour movements of the day constituted a threat to private property. Property had been sacrosanct in 17th and 18th century radical movements dominated by a petty-bourgeoisie of farmers, traders, and workshop masters.

It was increasingly in question as the new radical movements of the 19th century drew growing numbers of wage-labourers – ‘with nothing to lose but their chains’ – into action. Revolution became more risky for any kind of property-owner.

On the other hand, competitive pressure from states already developing as capitalist economies – especially Britain – made established regimes more willing to grant the reforms demanded by capitalists, liberals, and nationalists.

Great-power status was a matter of armies, guns, and battleships. These in turn depended on modern industry and infrastructure. Reform and modernisation became geopolitical imperatives. Such was the transformative power of capitalist globalisation.

Commodore PerryBitter struggles were often still necessary. The capitalists of the Northern states had to crush the armed resistance of the slaveholders of the Southern states in the American Civil War.

What defines this conflict as a bourgeois revolution ‘from above’ is not that it did not involve mass mobilisation. On the contrary, more than 2 million men served in the Union Army, one in ten of them former slaves. But the process was managed by an existing ruling class operating through an established state.

An extreme example of bourgeois revolution from above is provided by the Meiji Restoration in Japan in 1868 – an event which would shape the entire history of the Far East until 1945.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, Japan had been torn apart by feudal civil wars. Like the feudal warlords of medieval Europe, the Japanese lords (daimyo) had employed armed retinues of professional warriors (samurai) to engage in a series of internal power struggles.

At the beginning of the 17th century, the Tokugawa clan succeeded in defeating and subjugating all its rivals. The head of the clan became the shogun, the real ruler of the country, with the emperor relegated to ceremonial duties. A new capital was established at Edo (present-day Tokyo).

The Tokugawa shoguns were like the absolute monarchs of 18th century Europe. The families of the daimyo were kept at court as hostages. Guns and foreign books were banned. Foreign trade was restricted to a single port. Catholic converts were persecuted. Japan became a closed society under a political dictatorship suspicious of new ideas.

But the end of feudal anarchy allowed agriculture and trade to recover. Farmers, artisans, and merchants became relatively more important. The economy became increasingly monetised. Towns grew, and with them an urban culture of poetry, novels, and plays. The ban on foreign goods and foreign influence was less and less stringently enforced.

The old classes declined. The long peace made many samurai redundant, forcing them to become farmers or traders. Those who remained samurai were a parasitic class, their way of war increasingly anachronistic.

MeijiiThese economic and social changes meant that, by the middle of the 19th century, the political edifice of the Tokugawa shogunate was fragile. The catalyst of its collapse was the arrival of Commodore Perry’s US naval squadron in Edo Bay in 1853.

Perry’s mission was to secure trading concessions for US capitalism. The result was a succession of ‘unequal treaties’ and the granting of commercial privileges and ‘extra-territorial’ rights for foreign residents.

The unequal treaties involved opening Japan to foreign imports while accepting restrictions on Japanese exports. Extra-territoriality meant that foreign residents were not subject to Japanese authority. As well as the US, Britain, France, Russia, and Holland all demanded and were granted such ‘concessions’.

The Tokugawa shogunate had revealed its politico-military weakness. It was unable to defend Japanese interests against foreign imperialists.

Between 1867 and 1869, an alliance of great lords, acting with samurai support, forced the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogun and the ‘restoration’ of the power of the emperor (whose name at the time was Meiji).

The Meiji Restoration was led by some of the most conservative forces in Japanese society. The slogans were traditionalist, there was no appeal for mass support, and the merchants, artisans, and peasants remained inert.

But in an age of breechloaders and ironclads, however, nationalism was doomed if it remained encased in samurai armour. The Restorationists’ manifesto stated that they wanted ‘a uniform rule throughout the empire’, so that ‘the country will be able to rank equally with the other nations of the world’. In other words, they needed a modern nation-state and developed capitalist industry.

Change thereafter was rapid. Old class distinctions and privileges were swept away. A new parliamentary system was established. Railways and factories were built. Military conscription was introduced. The army was remodelled on German lines, the navy on British ones.

Japan’s transformation was contested from both the right and the left. Revolts by discontented ronin – rootless samurai who hankered after the feudal past – had to be crushed by the new conscript army.

The peasants – four-fifths of the population – were also losers. Modernisation was paid for by a heavy tax on land and low levels of consumption. There were scores of local agrarian revolts in the Meiji era. Japanese peasants continued to live in poverty until after the Second World War.

Modern Japan was shaped by this combination of geopolitical competition, internal resistance to modernisation and capital accumulation, and a warrior culture inherited from the past and now sublimated in new military institutions.

The First Sino-Japanese War, 1894-1895.It evolved under these pressures into a repressive state, controlled by a militarist elite, and devoted to national-imperial expansion.

In 1894, the Japanese joined the imperial dismemberment of China. Ten years later, they defeated the Russians in the struggle for control of Korea and Manchuria. Ten years after that, they entered the First World War and mopped up German possessions in China.

In the half century since the Meiji Restoration, Japans’ rulers recast themselves as a class of modern warlord-imperialists: samurai with battleships.

Tagged under: History Socialism Marxism
Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.

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