Black Dragon Rising: The Forgotten Revolution in Manchuria
There are parts of the world such as Paraguay, Central African Republic and Kyrgyzstan, that, because of their relative poverty and sheer remoteness are almost unknown to the world, even in this day of instant global telecommunications. And there are nations such as Brittany, Western Sahara, and Baluchistan, that, because they have so long laboured under colonial occupation, are barely recognised as the ethno-geographic entities they are, even in this day of an (official) international framework of national self-determination.
The borderlands of Far East Asia are such places, but Manchuria, the homeland of the Manchu people, so long under the dominance of the Han Chinese, bears the additional burden of being deliberately forgotten by mainstream historians - because suppression of the study of its remarkable Revolution of 1929-1932 became key to the dominant statist narratives of the red fascist dictatorships of Manchuria's neighbours, the USSR, China and North Korea.
Bookended to its west by the high plains of Mongolia and to its east by the mountainous northern border of North Korea, and the swamps of the Maritime Provinces of Russia, to the north by the immense bow of the Amur (Black Dragon) River and to the south by the South China Sea, Manchuria is a massive territory, home to around 47-million people in the 1930s, and comprises 1,3-million square kilometres, larger than France and Germany combined.
And yet knowledge of this vast terrain is fantastically occluded. In popular culture, Manchuria features only as the location of the brainwashing of a US Army major kidnapped during the Korean War and turned into an involuntary assassin, in John Frankenheimer's 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate. In conventional histories of the region, exotic Manchuria is merely the setting of the "Manchurian Incident," a 1931 false-flag dynamiting by a Japanese Imperial Army lieutenant of a section of track of the Japanese-owned South Manchuria Railway, which was blamed on Chinese militants as an excuse for Japan to invade Manchuria, the spark, in the Far East at least, for the conflict that escalated with the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937 blending seamlessly into World War II.
What is entirely neglected is why Imperial Japan invaded remote and rural Manchuria in 1931 at all, a full six years before it marshalled its full resources against its main strategic objective, the Chinese capital of Peking and its prized industrial heartland of Shanghai. The reason for the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria lies in two intertwined histories: that of the independence movements in Korea and Manchuria, and that of the region's anarchist movement, both of which the Japanese would have to crush in order not to have revolutionary Koreans in their rear.
The accepted trajectory of the Far Eastern anarchist movement is currently under serious revision, with internationalist works such as my own and Lucien van der Walt's organisational and ideological history, Global Fire: 150 Fighting Years of Anarchism and Syndicalism (AK Press, USA, in process), transnational studies such as Benedict Anderson's history of the Philippine independence movement, Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination (Verso Books, USA, 2005), and country-specific studies such as Dongyoun Hwang's Korean Anarchism before 1945: a regional and transnational approach (in Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, Hirsch and van der Walt, editors, Brill, The Netherlands, 2010).
Convention has it that anarchism - revolutionary, horizontally-federated direct democracy of the working class, peasantry and poor - and its unionist offspring, syndicalism, first entered the Far East via Japan in about 1906 along two trajectories, one from Japanese students in Paris, and the other from Japanese workers in San Francisco. From Japan, conventions holds, it spread to China, in particular the port cities of Guangzhou and Shanghai (where it became a minority tendency that briefly allied with the Guomindang nationalists in the mid-1920s before succumbing to the communists), and thence into Korea where it led an ephemeral existence, much of it in exile because Japan had annexed Korea in 1910.
But new studies have revealed a more complex picture - and a far more significant movement. The earliest anarchist influences in the region appear to have come either via Portugal into the south China port city of Macau from at least 1900, or via Catalonia into Manila where the first anarcho-syndicalist union was established in 1903. From these ports (and also from Australia and New Zealand), the movement was spread by anarcho-syndicalist seafarers into Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Yokohama - and further afield into Fiji and Burma.
It was rather the Chinese movement than the Japanese that became the "mother" movement of the region, with the first modern Chinese trade union established in Guangzhou by anarcho-syndicalists in 1918 with 11,000 members, whereas Japan's first anarcho-syndicalist union was formed only in 1921 - by which time the anarchists led some 40 unions in Guangzhou alone, plus a 5,000-strong union in Changsha, and even ran the city of Guangzhou as a federalist commune under the anarchist General Chen Jiongming (1878-1933) as governor from 1920-1923 (by comparison, the nascent Chinese Communist Party had only 300 members in 1922). When Japanese anarcho-syndicalist labour consolidated in the formation of the Zenkoku Jiren federation in 1926, it represented around 8,400 workers in printing, textiles, rubber, engineering and other areas, and was slightly smaller than the two other labour federations, the moderate Yūaikai with 20,000 members, and the communist-led federation which claimed 12,500 members. In contrast, in 1925, anarcho-syndicalists dominated the powerful Confederation of Labour Associations (GLH), based in Shanghai, though they split from the GLH later that year after bitter disputes with the Bolsheviks.
But while south China seeded the anarchist movements in Vietnam and Malaya, the movement in Korea was seeded by Korean anarcho-syndicalists working in Japan where they formed trade unions and "black societies" in the mid-1920s, a binary strategy that was implanted within Japanese-occupied Korea itself, where, despite implacable repression against such initiatives, the Wonsan General Trade Union in the port city of that name and several black societies survived into the post-1945 era and even helped reconstruct the movement in its brief spring before the Korean War broke out in 1950, plunging the peninsula into fratricidal conflict.
And yet it was in exile in Manchuria that the Korean movement surpassed the achievements of even the Guangzhou Commune, establishing and defending a popularly-organised liberated zone against Japanese, nationalist and communist incursion for three years in a remarkable libertarian socialist Revolution that remains the most under-studied revolution of the 20th Century. As Emilio Crisi shows in this groundbreaking new study of the "Forgotten Revolution," this zone in Heilongjiang (Black Dragon River) province, a triangular territory bounded by the Amur River to the east, the Sungchangho River valley to the west and the Harbin-Hunchun road to the south, comprised an area of some 350,000km², which Crisi notes is about three times the size of the free zone controlled between 1918 and 1921 by the Makhnovshchina in south-eastern Ukraine. Moreover, the Koreans and Manchurians appear to have managed to have established a far more stable free zone than the Makhnovists, whose battle-lines veered wildly over the map during the ebb and flow of the Ukrainian Revolution. It is crucial to note that this area is not entirely rural: the revolutionary capital of Harbin had more than half a million residents and was an important railway juncture and industrial city.
The Manchurian Revolution, which Crisi calls the "Commune of east Manchuria", drew strength from various quarters. Although Outer Manchuria became de facto Russian from the 1850s and was lost to the record in its own name, Inner Manchuria (Manchuria proper) had experienced a brief period of independence following the defeat of Russia by Japan in 1905 - a seminal event that rocked the colonised world because a "yellow" power had defeated a "white" power - which lasted until it was absorbed by China in 1912. On Korea's annexation in 1910, hard-pressed Korean revolutionaries looked for inspiration to both Manchurian independence and the anarchist-influenced Mexican Revolution of that had broken out the same year (perhaps this is reflected culturally in the sporting of magnificent Zapatista moustaches by the likes of General Kim Jwa-Jin and Yu Rim), and probably also to anarchist assassination plots against figures of authority in Japan (1911 and 1923) and Malaya (1925). They also drew heavily on the decentralist village anarchism of Pyotr Kropotkin and on the anarchist anti-colonialism of Shin Chae-Ho, both of whom were intellectually very influential in the region, as well as on the libertarian socialist experiments in China itself, on the successful urban experience of the Guangzhou Commune and on the half-realised rural experience of Fukien Province in south China. But the Black River Commune was ultimately upheld by the Korean, Manchu and Chinese peasantry whose faith in the experiment gave it form and heart.
The initial inspiration for research into the Manchurian Revolution is the work of former Korean Anarchist Federation militant Ha Ki-Rak (1912-1997), whose account History of [the] Korean Anarchist Movement (Anarchist Publishing Committee, Korean Anarchist Federation, Taegu, Korea, 1986), drew heavily on the reminiscences and works of survivors of the Commune such as Lee Eul Kyu (1894-1972), the "Korean Kropotkin". Unfortunately, Ha's work is poorly structured, meanwhile in academia, the subject of the Commune is either airbrushed out of history or deliberately distorted by communist and nationalist historians. So we owe Crisi a huge debt for his detective work in piecing together the core elements of the "Forgotten Revolution" from a range of hostile sources, both bourgeois and Stalinist.
Thanks to Crisi's work, historians of the anarchist movement which dominated organised labour in the developing world from the 1870s to the 1920s now have more solid ground on which to do further research. For instance, what were relations like between the Commune and the Jewish Autonomous Oblast across the Amur River in the USSR, given that although the Bolsheviks suppressed the Maritime Provinces anarchists in the mid-1920s, there were significant numbers of anarchists among the Jews? What were the actual structures and lines of operation of, and interactions between, the Korean Anarchist Federation (KAF), Korean Anarchist Communist Federation (KACF), Revolutionists League and other organs such as the Korean Provisional Government and the Korean People's Association in Manchuria (KPAM)? How did the KPAM differ in nature in cities like Harbin, from its presence in the agrarian communes on the river plains, or in isolated forest, mountain or swampland hamlets?
A key question relates to the impact of the Commune on Korean anarchist praxis: whether the later wartime Korean anarchist movement indeed perverted and abandoned its ideals when KACF leading light and Commune veteran Yu Rim (1898-1961) entered the powerless Korean Provisional Government in Exile in 1941, then subsequently in 1946 unified the ex-KACF, ex-KACF and syndicalist movements under the aegis of the electoralist Independent Workers' and Peasants' Party (IWPP) - or whether this "auto-governmentist" majority tendency in fact aimed at recreating the KACF's and KACF's glorious past experiences in the administration of the Black River Commune?
The fact that a parliamentary tendency arose out of the ex-IWPP in the 1970s including the likes of Ha Ki-Rak in the increasingly dictatorial conditions of South Korea (the movement was destroyed in the North) does not mean that we can read the IWPP of 1946-1961 retroactively as what I'd call libertarian reformist. The ideological and strategic difference between a libertarian socialist "administration of things" in which the common people determine their destiny, as was manifested under the Black River Commune, and a conventional statist government, by which the common people are subordinated to an elite which extracts profit from them, is key. This question remains the most controversial aspect of the post-war Korean anarchist movement - but although it is beyond Crisi's scope, it demonstrates how far-reaching the implications of his research could be.
With his crucial maps, Crisi locates the Commune in its proper geo-strategic context, and with his text, he has illuminated the fact that far from the Commune originating in a weird top-down imposition of libertarian socialism under General Kim Jwa-Jin's Northern Division of the Korean Independence Army, anarchist militants spent eight months walking the villages and fields of the Shinmin (New Popular Society) district to hear the peasants' views and promote their ideas of self-managed life - before the multiparty agreement to establish the Commune.
Here is a movement that honourably fought an uninterrupted anti-imperialist war from 1910 to 1945 (even rescuing downed Allied airmen during WWII), that worked without any apparent prejudice alongside Chinese, Manchurian and even Japanese workers and militants, that had very clear strategic objectives yet was non-dogmatic enough to build a de facto Makhnovist-like multiparty movement that liberated a huge territory and embarked on years of pragmatic self-managed constructive work, and which arguably maintained those ideals under the very dire circumstances of the Cold War on the Korean peninsula in organisational form until at least the mid-1970s as the Autonomous Village Movement which had been founded by the old KAF and the syndicalists in 1945.
Here is a movement deserving of restoration to its historic central role within the Korean liberation movement, to its core place in the revolutionary canon of the anarchist movement, and to its credit in the 20th Century revolutionary gymnastics of Far East Asia more broadly. Crisi's text is not only of value for students of anarchist and syndicalist movements and milieus, but of anti-imperialism, of guerrilla warfare, of interbellum Far East Asia, and even of the emergence today of anti-statist, decentralist socialist revolution in places such as Rojava (Western Kurdistan). It enables us for the first time to make a start on proper comparative analyses with those better-studied anarchist Revolutions in Ukraine and Spain - and urges us to examine the equally obscured Guangzhou Commune with urgency, let alone the more ephemeral anarchist attempts at decentralising power in Mexico, Argentina, Paraguay and elsewhere.
Because of the stranglehold the current red fascist dictatorships have on state archives and free inquiry, we don't yet have the desired level of access to Chinese and North Korean primary documentation of the relevant period in Manchuria and its borderlands (while the author himself has noted with concern the highly unlikely absence of women anarchists in the narratives of his own sources). Although the definitive study of the Manchurian Revolution has yet to be written, with this carefully considered volume, Crisi has given us the first real tools to embark on that immense task.
Michael Schmidt, co-author of Black Flame: the Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (AK Press, USA, 2009), Cartography of Revolutionary Anarchism (AK Press, USA, 2013), and Korean Anarchism Armed: the Anarcho-Communist Mass Line Part 4 (forthcoming).