Progressive reformers inside a colonial puppet state

This is a political fable from a book I'm reading called Japan's Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism by Louise Young (1998).

I didn't know much about Japanese imperialism in Manchuria before reading this book, so I was pretty surprised to learn that Japanese leftists were very supportive of 满洲国/Manzhouguo (usually rendered in English as Manchukuo - the puppet state created by the Japanese military in today's 东北/Dongbei, northeast China). Not only that, leftist intellectuals in droves actually took up jobs in the Manzhouguo colonial administration and, despite their deep skepticism of imperialism, enthusiastically took part in the Manzhouguo enterprise.

Young cites two main reasons for the bizarre alliance between Japan's most progressive intellectuals and its most right-wing force, the military. First, public intellectual space in Japan was rapidly closing down as the climate of repression and compulsory nationalism forced many leftist intellectuals out of their previous safe haven in the universities. At the same time, ideological space in Manzhouguo was suprisingly open as the military tolerated - until the early 1940s at least - liberal and leftist academics because it needed their cooperation in gathering key information to form policy and suppress opposition. Excluded and facing persecution at home, leftists surged into the many research, administration, and policymaking jobs in Manzhouguo.

Second, leftists genuinely believed that they could make a revolution in Manzhouguo. Disappointed by the failure of their dreams on the home islands, they turned to Japan's newest colony. Yet they came not in desperation or weariness, but with great optimism. The absolute power of the colonial state to crush local opposition to progressive reform - which had been frustrated time and again inside Japan by intransigent landowners and businessmen - made the leftists believe that their dreams could be achieved. This time, working from the inside would succeed.

How valid these hopes actually were is captured in this vignette:

Mantetsu's [the state-controlled enterprise that had a vast research arm responsible for supplying much of the information needed by the military puppet regime] researchers and Sinologists...tried to provide analyses that took account of the force of Chinese nationalism and advised that military aggression would just make the problems worse. The "Investigation of the Resistance Capacity of the Chinese"..., one of the enormous "integrated" research projects undertaken by Mantetsu at the close of the decade, aimed to convince the army of this point as forcefully as possible.... Under the general editorship of Japanese Communist Party operative Nakanishi Kō, the report submitted to the Kwantung Army [hanyu pinyin: Guandong Army, the Japanese military force running Manzhouguo] in 1940...asserted that Japan could not win the war with China militarily. But when Nakanishi presented the research team's findings with the recommendation that Japan end the war politically to general staff headquarters in Tokyo, he was greeted with silence and finally one question from a young staff officer: "So, then, what sites would it be best for us bomb?" (p. 280-281)

There's two lessons we can take away from this. First, the Chomskian analysis that judges all progressive rhetoric surrounding imperialism as nothing more than cynical manipulation is too simple. Many imperialists deeply believe that what they're doing will forge a more just, more equal world. Of course, the Chomskian skepticism of such claims is, at least in this case, borne out.

Second, "working from within" to accomplish change is a questionable proposition. I wouldn't say it's inappropriate under all circumstances. Yet it does take a nearly willful naïveté to think you can turn institutions in which ultimate power is held by fundamentally right-wing or reactionary forces toward progressive ends. A current example that springs immediately to mind is those progressives who championed the invasion of Iraq as an instance of humanitarian intervention despite the overwhelming evidence that the institutions actually planning the invasion had far different purposes in mind.

More broadly, it's worth questioning whether working from within the state or any corporation is more likely to promote reform or merely provide the information that the leaders of these organizations need to execute their assuredly anti-progressive policies. People are remarkably agile in the rationalizations they perform to justify taking secure or lucrative jobs, but I suspect that "working from within" is almost never useful except when those "working from the outside" are particularly strong.

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