Colin Barker


Origins and Significance of the Meiji Restoration


The Social Character of the Meiji Restoration

The Meiji Restoration initiated a new line of development for Japan. From being a pre-capitalist “tributary” state, partially unified under the shogunate, and within which petty commodity production and commercialisation had made quite significant advances, Japan was converted into a unified state within which industrial capitalism made rapid strides forward. Within thirty years of the Restoration, Japan was emerging as a contender for a place among the great powers. Japanese industries were growing fast, and the state had already been embroiled successfully in its first “imperialist adventure”. In 1905, its army and navy were to defeat the forces of the mighty Tsar of All The Russias.

The Meiji Restoration, and the radical reform of Japanese social institutions which succeeded it, did not of course introduce capitalist social relations to Japan all by itself. Japan would anyway have experienced the development of capitalist relations in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, had the Restoration not occurred. The forces of western capital were simply too powerful to have been resisted. But, without the Meiji Restoration and the political transformation that followed, the introduction of capitalism into Japan would have taken a very different form. Trimberger (1977) outlines how this might have occurred, and with what consequences:

The influx of foreign goods at a cheaper price than native handicrafts began to destroy rural industry ... Peasants unable to supplement their farming income through handicrafts would have lost their land and become a proletariat. Wealthy peasants able to sell raw or semi-finished materials on the world market would have become capitalists. Foreign investors would have gradually created capitalist enterprises in Japan. Certainly the high degree of pre-capitalist commercialisation and the extent of petty commodity production in Japan would have facilitated this transition. But without state intervention, and especially if the state had actively tried to maintain pre-capitalist modes of production, the transition would have been much slower. With few natural resources, Japan could have ended up like some of the poorest and most dependent third world nations today – tied into the world capitalist system, but with an extremely underdeveloped internal capitalism.

What the Meiji Restoration did was to prevent this line of semi-colonial development – preventing, say, a Chinese pattern of perpetuated “backwardness” – and instead to make possible the development of Japan as an aggressive, industrialising, capitalist power in its own right, able to “hold its own” on the world market. As Trimberger concludes, “The Meiji Restoration was the key event in consolidating a state apparatus able to seize the initiative in Japanese industrialisation.”

With that conclusion there will be few to argue. Yet the Meiji Restoration poses some problems for social and political theory. For it does not conform to certain kinds of widespread theoretical assumptions. Those assumptions, by and large, have their origins in generalisations about the historical experience of industrialisation and revolution in Western Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As derived from or applied to European experience, those generalisations retain, perhaps, some validity. But it is only through rather considerable distortion of the actual history of Japan that they can be made to fit the case of the Meiji Restoration and its significance.

We have already suggested that Japan in the Tokugawa period was not easily assimilated to the model of “feudalism” developed on the basis of European experience. It also appears that Japan’s early capitalist development is difficult to explain in terms of the kinds of categories with which important aspects of European experience are often grasped.

A consideration of the Japanese case should, therefore, serve firstly to suggest a need for caution in applying concepts and theoretical frameworks, initially developed in a European context, to the experience of non-European countries faced with problems of “modernisation” and industrialisation. Secondly – though this will not be developed very much here – examination of the Japanese case should also suggest ways in which some aspects of European industrialisation itself have been characterised. In the light of Japanese developments, it may be that some of the received accounts of European political and economic history require some reconceptualisation. One obvious field where this might prove fruitful is in relation to the role of nation-states in the development of capitalist relations. And that in turn would suggest the need to proceed with caution in the use of a popular style of analysis (sometimes termed “Marxism”) which depends on a particular understanding of the relations between “economic” and “political” spheres of action, and of the place of classes and class struggles in capitalist development. And, finally, issues to do with the precise conceptualisation of “capitalism”, “capital” and “the capitalist class” are also posed by the particular history of Japan; here these will be touched on only marginally, since they are more fruitfully pursued in the still more controversial context of twentieth-century developments in Russia, Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, etc.

Perhaps the basic question which the Meiji Restoration poses is, how could it happen at all? Thomas Smith (1960) opens his provocative article with a quotation from Alexis de Tocqueville:

An aristocracy seldom yields (its privileges) without a protracted struggle, in the course of which implacable animosities are kindled between the different classes of society.

But, Smith continues, not all aristocracies have behaved in this way. The large Japanese noble class, the samurai, and their leading noble section, the daimyo and the shogunate, failed to live up to de Tocqueville’s expectations:

Japan’s warrior class, a feudal aristocracy though it differed from European aristocracies in crucial respects, did not merely surrender its privileges. It abolished them. There was no democratic revolution in Japan because none was necessary: the aristocracy itself was revolutionary. (Smith 1960, p.370)

In terms of western experience, what happened in Japan is not easy to understand. True, there was a major challenge from the west to Japanese aristocratic society; but a common reaction to such a threat might have been a re-affirmation of traditional values, rather than a relatively peaceful auto-destruction by the aristocracy in favour of a decision to “modernise” and industrialise.

Of course, as Smith knew, and indeed went on to show, the matter was not quite as simple as his opening remarks might suggest. In reality, it was not “the aristocracy” in general which was “revolutionary”. The top layer of the Japanese aristocracy – the shogunate and the daimyo – did not play a very revolutionary part in Japan: the “revolution” swept them off the stage, even if it paid them quite handsomely for quitting. As for the large class of warrior-nobles, the samurai, the majority of them also played anything but a radical part. Some, hopelessly aspiring to retain their samurai privileges, died in numerous revolts and individual engagements with the forces of change; others were simply consigned to end their days as factory foremen, common labourers, peasants, small businessmen, police constables. As a class, the Japanese aristocracy was not “revolutionary”, and by and large they probably regretted the necessities imposed on them by the Meiji Restoration. Yet it is also the case that their opposition to it was also markedly subdued. The various revolts never involved more than a small minority of the samurai class, while the majority – if with mixed feelings – submitted peacefully to the dissolution of their privileges.

Certainly the emperor – the very symbol of the “restoration” – played no significant role himself in the whole process. The Meiji Restoration was not the establishment of a European royal absolutism. The emperor was a symbolic front-man for others. His “restoration” was not even a fundamental cause of the “modernisation” of Japan:

... the imperial “restoration” ... furnishing an understandable ideological basis for radical change ... proved a successful response to the crisis, and its adherents grew rapidly. Actually there was no “restoration” in the sense of recreating the imperial system of antiquity. The role of the emperors remained almost purely symbolic, and the political institutions that developed were those that fitted nineteenth century conditions. In short, the “restoration” was the biggest revolutionary change Japan has ever experienced. (Fairbank, Reischauer, Craig, p.194)



What Kind of Revolution?

Yet, if the Meiji Restoration was a “revolutionary change”, can we call it a “revolution”? Hall, for one, seems to question the use of such a term to describe the events surrounding the change of regime:

The Japanese political “revolution” had hardly been a revolution at all, for it had been contained within the old power holding group, the samurai class, and it relied upon strong continuities in loyalty symbols and political values. Japan had carried out what was essentially a controlled political reaction, and as some have put it, experienced its modernisation “from the top”. (Hall, 1970, p.247)

Certainly, historians are agreed that the popular masses in Japan did not play any significant role in the “revolution”. Commoners did participate in the armies of both sides – “but only under elite control” (Trimberger, 1978, p 17). They fought as foot-soldiers if they were peasants, or they provided finance if they were merchants, but in neither case did they have any say in or effect on the policies pursued.

What is striking in Japan’s political and in its economic evolution from the end of the Tokugawa period to the beginning of Meiji, is the absence of the masses at major events. At no time do they appear as a personality, as a motive factor ... The masses appear as absolute victims in the events of the change of regime. (Akamatsu, pp.287-8)

The neutralisation of the rural masses – who were quite prone to engage in riots and revolt in pursuit of their particular economic demands throughout the period, but who never became autonomously involved in any significant way in the actual political transformations – is perhaps explicable in terms of the previous evolution of Japanese society. Thanks to the separation of the samurai from the land, under the Tokugawa, all the political forces of the old regime were concentrated in the capitals of the emperor, the shogun, and the various han. In a more industrialised or urbanised country, as Trimberger (1978, p 17) points out, the elite’s exclusion of the masses from the political process might have been more difficult; it might also, she could have added, have been more difficult in a European-style feudalism. Moore (273-4) notes that throughout the period agricultural production was slowly rising, so that at no time did hunger in the towns produce plebeian allies for peasant radicalism (as happened in France). The towns, he notes, produced no substantial anti-feudal impulses. (Which, if we are correct in doubting the applicability of the term “feudalism” to Japan, seems unsurprising!)

On the other hand, it does seem appropriate to refer to a “revolutionary” movement among the samurai:

By degrees (the officials) decided to overthrow the Bakufu and supplant the daimyo class. In that sense, their action really did have a revolutionary character, given of course that it was pursued within the slim stratum of literate bushi : officials were repudiating the authority of their superiors in the service. (Akamatsu, p.304)

It seems that, if anything, a condition for the emergence of a “revolutionary” wing of the samurai class was the absence of revolutionary impulses in the rest of society. Certainly, whenever there was a risk that the commoners might even begin to assert their own demands and interests, then the “revolutionary samurai” were prone to take their stand again on their traditional authority: “When it was a question of maintaining the hierarchy of nobles and commoners, the revolutionary became a counter-revolutionary” (Akamatsu, p.305). And Norman (p.90) remarks, “The feudal character of the samurai opposition is clearly indicated by the fact that except where they were able to utilise peasant discontent for their own ends as in the revolts between 1874-7, they helped the government in suppressing peasant uprisings”; the samurai rebels against Meiji would also revert rapidly to agents of authority against any threat from commoners.

One possible approach to the characterisation of the Meiji Restoration would be to treat it as a case of revolution, but of a particular kind. The argument for treating it as a revolution is that an existing dominant social class was displaced from power, and an existing set of production relations was replaced by another. Yet the Japanese revolution was not a “social revolution”. Theda Skocpol (1979) makes a useful set of distinctions:

Social revolutions are rapid, basic transformations of a society’s state and class structures; and they are accompanied and in part carried through by class-based revolts from below. Social revolutions are set apart from other sorts of conflicts and transformative processes above all by the combination of two coincidences: the coincidence of societal structural change with class upheaval; and the coincidence of political with social transformation. In contrast, rebellions, even when successful, may involve the revolt of subordinate classes – but they do not eventuate in structural change. Political revolutions transform state structures but not social structures, and they are not necessarily accomplished through class conflict. And processes such as industrialisation can transform social structures without necessarily bringing about, or resulting from, sudden political upheavals or basic political-structural changes. (Skocpol, 1979, p.4)

On Skocpol’s criteria, since the events in Japan lack the element of “class upheaval”, they do not amount to a social revolution. Yet they also amount to more than a political revolution, since the Meiji Restoration eventuated in more than a change in the structure of the state alone: the social structure itself was transformed in significant ways, through legal enactment. In Trimberger’s phrase (1978) the revolution in Japan was a “revolution from above”. A section of the existing bureaucracy took over state power, using both force and persuasion; having dispossessed sovereignty from the hands of its former masters, it reorganised state power and wielded it for itself.

This “revolution from above” was more than simply a “coup d’état” or “palace revolution”, for it had a definite social character. The new Japanese state leaders systematically and purposefully destroyed the principal legal and political supports of the previous tributary mode of production and set Japanese society on a new road of development. Trimberger suggests that what occurred in Japan from 1868 onwards may be properly compared with the “revolution from above” led by Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, or with the “military revolutions” in Egypt or Peru. Others have pointed up parallels also with the unification of Germany under Prussian hegemony (Bendix 1967, Landes 1965). More controversially, parallels could also be drawn with Stalin’s industrialisation of Russia – though there the state and social structure that was reshaped by a section of the ruling bureaucracy was a decayed popular state that had emerged from another full-blown social revolution.

Japan presents us with an example of a transition, accomplished in politics, from a pre-capitalist to a capitalist mode of production, without benefit of a social revolution. What the Japanese case shows is that the process of restructuring the social relations of production in the shift from a “feudal” or “tributary” to a capitalist mode of production need not necessarily involve the active political participation of the lower classes. Indeed, the “social revolutionary” method of transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist relations is, historically, not necessarily the most common form. As Skocpol remarks, “social revolution ... (is) a complex object of explanation, of which there are relatively few historical instances” (1979, p.5). The masses are not necessarily active or organised agents in the process of transformation that initiates capitalist development.

A moment’s reflection suggests why this should be so. The shift from a “feudal” or “tributary” (or “Asiatic” etc) mode to a capitalist one is a shift from one form of social production in which the majority of society’s members are objects of exploitation and oppression to another form in which the same is true.

True, capitalism has been associated historically with the development of certain kinds of “freedman”, but within capitalism those freedoms are always partial and conditional in character. Where they are found, they are partial because they are combined with the continuation of exploitation and alienation. As for their conditional nature, two centuries of capitalist development have shown all too clearly that capitalism can co-exist with all manner of forms of political and legal repression, including forms of slavery, apartheid, fascism, military dictatorship, Poor Laws, etc. If there is a tendency for capitalist production to be associated with a world of “Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham” (Marx), that tendency is often powerfully contradicted by other very different ones. There is, in the character of capitalism, nothing which per se actively promotes legal and civil rights, democratic government and like. In some circumstances, capitalist production has proved “compatible” with the manifestation of partial freedom, but compatibility is not necessity.

Hence, as the history of numbers of countries reveals, a shift from one of exploitation to another need not involve the active, polity-shaping activity of those who are subjected to that change in the manner of their exploitation. We might also add that, in those cases where the mass of the population has been involved directly in attempting to shape the character of a new state emerging from the overthrow of existing social and political relations – e.g. in France in the eighteenth century – a regular feature of the social revolutionary process has been a “reaction within the revolution”. Through this process, the insurgency of the masses, the “revolution from below”, has been repressed or contained within limits compatible with the re-establishment of exploitation.



The Revolutionaries

On one thing all historians appear to be agreed: the key agents in the transformation of Japanese society were a small group of men drawn from a narrow circle from within the samurai class. The “primary leaders” of the Meiji Restoration are identified by Hall:

From the Court

Sanjo Sanetomi (1837-1891)
Iwakura Tomomi (1825-1883)

From Satsuma

Okubo Toshimichi (1830-1878)
Terashima Munenori (1833-1893)
Godai Tomoatsu (1835-1885)
Saigo Takamori (1828-1877)
Kuroda Kiyotaka (1840-1900)
Matsukata Masayoshi ((1837-1924)

From Choshu

Takasugi Shinsaku (1839-1867)
Kido Koin (1833-1877)
Omura Masujiro ((1824-1869)
Ito Hirobumi (1841-1909)
Inoue Kaoru (1835-1915)
Yamagata Aritomo (1833-1871)
Hirosawa Saneomi (1833-1871)

From Tosa

Itagaki Taisuke (1837-1919)
Goto Shojiro (1837-1897)
Fukuoka Kotei (1835-1919)
Sakamoto Ryoma (1835-1867)

From Hizen

Eto Shimpei (1834-1874)
Okuma Shigenobu (1838-1922)
Soejima Taneomi (1828-1905)
Oki Takato (1832-1899)


Yokai Shonan (1809-1869, Kumamoto)
Katsu Kaishu (1823-1899, bakufu)
Yuri Kimimasa (1829-1909, Fukui)
Inoue Kowashi (1844-1895, Kumamoto)

(Hall, 1970, p.268)

Hall provides a useful abbreviated set of generalisations about these men, whose actions were so fateful for Japanese history:

About this group there are a number of elementary generalisation which come first to mind. Most of them came from four large tozama han of western Japan, which shared a traditional antagonism to the Tokugawa house. They were as a group remarkably young, the average age being slightly over thirty in 1868. They were for the most part brought up in families of lower-class samurai, though some, such as Kido, were of high status. As youths they were vigorous and ambitious, and most began their careers in the traditional manner, passing up the ladder of preferment in their han, notably in military service. Not being of a landed aristocracy, their ambitions could be met by success only in government service. And because of the decentralisation of the baku-han system they found a large number of political arenas in which to prove themselves. As in pre-revolutionary America, the Japanese “founding fathers” learned to become leaders of men in their home territories before they became leaders of the nation.

Characteristic of the Restoration leaders was their uniformly high level of education and specialised training. Most had gained recognition in their han for military skills or scholarship. As a consequence they all had active early careers, serving as advisors to their daimyo, as diplomatic agents or as organisers of new military units. The military career was perhaps the most common. Saigo, Omura, Eto, Hirosawa, Itagaki and many others were foremost military commanders of han units. Ito was used as an interpreter, Kido was a chief daimyo advisor. The kind of education these men received was also significant. Brought up as samurai to endure rigorous military discipline (many of the group became excellent swordsmen), they were trained to be men of action and to cultivate a martial disposition. The intellectual content of their schooling was predominantly Confucian, stressing loyalty and dedication to society. Thus, though their personal ambitions were strong, they also were highly sensitised to national problems and inculcated with the idea of service to higher authority. Shishi that they were, most had been fired by the desire to save their country or serve their daimyo. Yet few could be considered bigoted or blind in their political views. Several had been abroad by 1868 (Godai, Ito and Inoue had been to England, Katsu had taken a Japanese ship across the Pacific), others had had associations with Westerners in Japan (Okubo, Saigo and Okuma had had long talks with Satow, the English interpreter). Though most shishi started out in 1853 violently anti-foreign (Ito had taken part in the attack on the British legation in 1863), the most fanatical had been killed off early, and those who remained were, by 1868, convinced of the superiority of Western civilisation. This change of heart which came to nearly all of the Meiji leaders was in most instances the incident which converted them from being strictly restorers to become reformers. (Hall, 1970, pp.269-70)

These men, “all or nearly all ... of middle or low rank” (Akamatsu, p.293) were the inheritors of larger groups of samurai who had attempted, from the time of the 1850s treaties onwards, to impose a new pattern of development on Japan. All came from the ranks of the discontented lower nobility, the class of officials who served the shogunate and the daimyo of Tokugawa Japan. The Meiji leaders were marked off from their predecessors by two particular factors: first, though their origins were relatively humble, they had all risen to high office within the han from which they launched the Meiji revolution – they were not men without office, as many of the early shishi had been; and, second, they had in practice abandoned the early samurai aspiration to “expel the barbarians” – often as a result of their own reflections on the experience of military defeat by western forces. The emergence of this wing of “revolutionary” samurai from within the larger group of the discontented, and their consolidation into a coherent group aspiring to power, was a process attended with internal conflicts and the violent deaths of many of the participants.

... brief generations of reformists followed one another in successive waves, from the middle of the nineteenth century to 1890. In particularly bloody years they disappeared in groups: first between 1859 and 1860, then in 1864, then between 1867 and 1869, finally between 1877 and 1878. First enlightened men and the strong men of the Bakufu, then the violent xenophobes, later reformists who were still attached to their fiefs, finally the founders of the first Meiji government, with the exception of Iwakura Tomomi.

And the survivors’ actions were progressively getting rid of the daimyo class. The typical Meiji statesman was the former humble-rank official. The change in regime was made possible by the transfer of power from one stratum to another of the class of old military nobility, the only one under Tokugawa which grouped a large number of literate men. Meiji therefore really was a radical upheaval, but within a very limited circle of Japanese society. (Akamatsu, p.295)

The turnover of personnel continued in the early Meiji period, as the death-dates reveal: Saigo Takamori and Eto Shimpei died in revolt against the regime they had helped to found, in a sense because they never fully accepted the logic of Japanese “modernisation” as a whole. Okubo Toshimichi was assassinated by admirers of the late Saigo Takamori.

Those who survived were to provide the political leadership to Japan for the next forty years.

Numbers of writers seek, in a sense, to assimilate the Japanese revolutionary leaders to some model derived from West European experience. They look, one might say, for the “class forces” behind these men. A weak version of this appears in Lockwood:

Here, in contrast to France, the leadership came largely from the more able and independent members of the former ruling caste, who revived the ancient symbols of the throne as a weapon of power. Joined by similar elements from merchant and commoner ranks, they combined to form a new oligarchy securely in control of the apparatus of the modern state and armed with the techniques and resources of a developing capitalism. (W.W. Lockwood, 1968, p.11, my emphasis, CB)

E.H. Norman refers to the compensation of the daimyo as “the final stage in the sealing of that peculiar union of merchants and financial princes with the feudal or landed princes which was already evident in the Tokugawa period.” (Norman, p.96)

Barrington Moore Jr., trying to understand the Meiji Restoration in what Skocpol has labelled “class-instrumentalist” terms, has considerable difficulty in rendering an adequate explanation of the Japanese revolution. He asks, “What prompted this largely feudal revolution to carry out a program with undoubtedly progressive features?” (Moore, p.245). He suggests that the banner of the Restoration was “traditionalism” and notes that the merchant classes in particular offered no intellectual challenge to the old order. He attempts an explanation of the events of 1868 in terms of a coalition between a strong “labour-repressive” landed upper class and a moderately strong merchant bourgeoisie. Through the process of the Restoration, he suggests, the landed upper class remained in power as the ruling class, and prevented basic structural changes. Yet his whole analysis fails to provide any clear answers to some rather obvious questions: how exactly does a “labour-repressive” landed class, opposed to modernisation, manage to go along with and indeed promote an industrialisation which the bourgeoisie itself could not manage alone? In practice, Moore falls into ad hoc, personalistic judgments, of a highly expedient character, about “the appearance of a galaxy of distinguished political leaders”. His account of the young Meiji leaders is thin and unconvincing:

Though the reasons are obscure, it seems unlikely that the appearance of a similar leadership in similar circumstances could be pure coincidence. All were conservatives in the political spectrum of their time and country, devoted to the monarchy, willing and able to use it as an instrument of reform, modernisation and national unification. Though all were aristocrats, they were dissidents or outsiders of a sort in relation to the old order. To the extent that their aristocratic background contributed habits of command and a flair for politics, one might perhaps detect a contribution of the agrarian ancien regime to the construction of a new society. But there were strong contrary pulls here too. To the extent that these men were aliens within the aristocracy, one may see the incapacity of this stratum to meet the challenge of the modern world with its own intellectual and political resources. (Moore, p.440)

That final sentence, simply, underplays the practical achievements of these men: they used the “intellectual and political resources” of the modern world in a specific and innovative way, and laid the foundations of Japan’s twentieth century power.

As Skocpol (1973, 1978) has suggested, the development of an adequate explanation of Japan’s “revolution from above” of the 1860s and 1870s demands a re-thinking of inherited conceptual frameworks. This seems to be true in at least two important respects.




Only through a fairly considerable distortion of Japanese history can it be maintained that the small clique who manned the top positions in the Japanese state after 1868 ever became the “instruments” of Japanese business circles. Neither the Meiji Restoration, nor the consolidation of the new regime, nor indeed its subsequent evolution, can be understood in these kinds of terms. The state leadership preserved its considerable autonomy and its independent power to shape the development of Japanese society right up to Japan’s defeat by the Allied powers in 1945. A “class-reductionist” analysis cannot grasp the essence of Japanese capitalist state development.

In reality, “class-reductionist” analysis does not only fail to explain Japanese development: it is in any case inherently flawed. Its fundamental assumptions do not withstand close scrutiny. “Class-reductionist” analysis – whether by Barrington Moore, Ralph Miliband, or a galaxy of modern “radical elite theorists” – seeks to explain state policy and political development in terms of the expression by the state of the “interests” of the business class. Such a strategy of explanation, which has sometimes been mis-identified with “Marxism”, has enjoyed a continuing popularity; however it embodies several weaknesses. Let us identify just two of these.

The first point concerns the “interests” of the business class. These are supposed to be the source and origin of state policy, but in practice their identification is much more problematical than is often supposed. It is possible to define the “interests” of capitalists, in a very general sense, as a set of “limits to action”: to “be” a capitalist, at a minimal level, one must pursue, in competition with other capitalists, the expansion of the capital under one’s control. Success or failure in this general aim is not the key point; but without the aim, and without the competitive framework that shapes it, there is no “capitalist”. In this general sense, then, the “interests” of capitalists can be defined, as the very definition of their social role. However, it is one thing to grasp the outlines of a general role-definition, and quite another to prescribe or predict how, in any given concrete circumstances, a given capitalist will seek to pursue his “generalised interest” in the expansion of his capital. In any concrete situation, each individual capitalist must “read” the situation and determine how best to pursue those interests. In line with that specific reading, he may prefer a whole range of different policies from the state. There is thus no automatic relationship between the existence of capitalists with general “interests” and concrete state policies.

Of course, the class-reductionist approach does not suppose that the “interests” of each separate capitalist are directly pursued by state policies. Rather, the argument is that the state is an “instrument” of the interests of the capitalists as a class. But the matter then becomes still more complex. For the relations between capitalists as a class are relations of competition. Thus the question arises, how precisely do capitalists as a class formulate common policies, in any given concrete circumstance? They may, of course, share a common set of prejudices – this is seemingly as far as a writer like Ralph Miliband can get – but these can hardly determine a capitalist class’s responses to a particular concrete situation. In any given field, their various readings of their interests will not necessarily coincide, whether in domestic or foreign policy. In practice, there may emerge, among the capitalists taken as a group, various “factions” or “parties” looking for different, and opposed, emphases in state policy. Arguments that the state is an “instrument” of the capitalist class in some direct sense begin to look rather ragged at the edges.

What we can reasonably say is that the functioning of the capitalist economy, whether at a national-state or world-economy level, sets various very broadly defined constraints on the policies and actions of those who manage the varied state apparatuses. But we also need to recognise that it leaves open a more or less broad area of state “discretion”. In this sense, the state is always “relatively autonomous” from the capitalist class.

The second point is that the “class-reductionist” approach tends to deny what is, as the Japanese case shows very clearly, patently very possible: namely, that in certain circumstances the “relative autonomy” of those who head the apparatuses of the state can be and has been very considerable. It is far from adequate to treat those who command the major bureaucratic organisations of the state as mere passive instruments to be used by individuals or classes for their own ends or interests. This mistaken notion, itself a (partly mistaken) generalisation from European experience, is found within some varieties of “Marxism”, and especially in those “Marxist” writers whose work approximates to the work of “elite” theory (e.g. Ralph Miliband, C. Wright Mills, etc.).

A similar idea is found in Max Weber, as Trimberger pointed out (Trimberger 1978, pp.5-6). Weber stated very explicitly that “qualities of political leadership have never been born or brought to fruition anywhere in the world under a system of unchecked rule by bureaucracy” (Weber, 1968, p.1413). Political leadership, he held, could only come from a man with a private means of income sufficient to free him from the necessity to work; only such a man could “live for politics”, while the salaried official must be servile and “live from politics” (Gerth and Mills, 1958, pp.84-5). Change in social and political systems, in Weber’s conceptualisation, could only come from “charismatic individuals”. None of this, seemingly, can explain the actions of the samurai bureaucrats who led the Meiji revolution: they were, and remained, state officials, and they hardly appear in history as “charismatic” – yet they played a major transformative role.

Nor has it been only in Japan that state bureaucrats have initiated and pushed through major reorientations of social, economic and political life. Sections of the Prussian bureaucracy, in admittedly different circumstances, played a not dissimilar part in the unification of Germany and in promoting German industrialisation. Similarly, if less successfully, sections of the Tsarist bureaucracy in the late nineteenth century to all intents and purposes called a capitalist class into being in Russia. And in the twentieth century, in Stalinist Russia and elsewhere, “communist” bureaucrats have played major and significant roles as initiators and drivers of rapid industrialisation; for many of them, claims about “charisma” are absurd.

Those who head states, and who are dependent for their power in society on the possession of state office, are in reality far more capable of autonomous policy-making and –implementation than some popular varieties of theory would suggest.



The State in its World Setting

If we turn back to consider the work of a writer like Barrington Moore, we can also identify a second weakness in his theorisation. This is picked up by Skocpol in her critique of Moore (1973) and forms an important element in her whole theorisation of revolutions (1978). A good deal of writing on the state has tended to conceptualise the state only in its “domestic” setting, as an agency of internal control and direction. The result is that its external relations – a matter on which we have already touched briefly, in the discussion of “development” – tend to be discounted or played down. Yet, for state bureaucrats whose own positions of power are intimately bound up with the international competitive position of “their” state, considerations affecting the nation-state’s position in the world of nations are of particular relevance. Certainly, the actions of the samurai bureaucrats of the Meiji Restoration make much less sense in they are abstracted from their international setting. Their favourite mobilising aim – “Rich Country, Strong Army” – only makes sense in that setting.



State and Capitalist Development

The combination of these two criticisms of received theoretical wisdom points to a third set of conclusions, concerning “capital” and its “agents”. It was Marx’s argument that the proper starting point for analysing capitalism was not the individual capitalist, but rather “capital”, where “capital” was understood not as a set of things (money, machines, etc) but rather as a set of “social production relations”. These relations, and the drives associated with them, in a sense “possessed” those men who became their “agents” or “bearers”. Capital could only be grasped as a process of constantly renewed movement, through which “value” was always pushing towards its own self-expansion.

As the conscious bearer (German Träger) of this movement, the possessor of money becomes a capitalist.... It is only insofar as the appropriation of ever more wealth in the abstract is the sole driving force behind his operations that he functions as a capitalist, i.e. as capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will. (Marx, 1976, p.254)

In the case on which Marx focussed most attention, the link between capital and its agent or bearer was the private “ownership” by individual capitalists of money and/or means of production. But other links were also possible: the salaried manager of a modern joint-stock company might not directly “own” the corporation’s capital, yet may still “function as a capitalist”, since his own position is intimately bound up with the fate of the capital that he “manages”. He remains, therefore, an “agent” or “bearer” of capital. Similarly, as both Marx and Engels noted in their later writings, a state too could find itself in the position of a “bearer” of the movement of capital.

Since Marx and Engels’ day, these two possibilities – corporate capital and state capital – have acquired increasing practical significance. In various circumstances, those who manage states can themselves come to play the role of direct organisers of labour exploitation and direct managers of capital accumulation. A common motive for a state taking on these tasks itself is a concern with what it defines as “the national interest”. Those who head a nation-state assume to themselves the embodiment of societal interests, and use the power they possess through control of the apparatuses of the state to enforce their reading of societal interests onto their national society. In some cases, state agencies may do this more or less autonomously, in other cases they may do the same in close association with domestic and international “private” capital. The general point is that state managers (to adopt the phrase of Fred Block, 1980) become the key historical subjects through which the imperatives of capitalist development are enforced onto their particular nations.

There are various identifiable types of circumstances in which state bureaucrats come to play this kind of historical role. A rounded analysis of these circumstances, and their different consequences, is beyond the scope of this discussion, for it would require an extensive comparative discussion of, among other matters, such seemingly discrete phenomena as fascism, military revolutions, most “communist” revolutions, “national liberation movements” in the Third World, etc.

Nineteenth century Japan – together perhaps with Ataturk’s Turkey, and the military revolutions in Egypt and Peru (Trimberger 1978) – provides us with one pattern in this kind of evolution. The key point, as Trimberger suggests, is that there are conditions where state managers come to play especially significant roles. She offers a “hypothesis”:

... during a period of economic transition – when there is no dominant mode of production and no one consolidated class controlling the economy – the state apparatus can achieve dynamic autonomy from the means of production. A dynamically autonomous state apparatus does not act within the constraints of existing modes of production. Bureaucrats in a dynamically autonomous state apparatus can promote a new mode of production. The state apparatus, I further hypothesise, will only act in this dynamically autonomous manner during a period of economic transition if it is staffed by bureaucrats who do not own and do not have any personal control over any of the competing modes of production. Such bureaucrats hold a distinctive class position, but they have no possibility of becoming a dominant class within the existing social formation because they have no control over the means of production. They can, however, use their control over state resources – coercive, monetary and ideological – to destroy existing modes of appropriating the surplus and to promote a new mode of production. Thus, during a period of economic transition, bureaucrats have the possibility of entering class struggle as an independent force, rather than as an instrument of other class forces.” (Trimberger, 1977, p.86)

Within Japan, certain conditions appear to have been important in preparing the way for the emergence of this possibility. Two features of pre-capitalist Japanese society, in particular, are of especial note. The first is that the samurai, as a class, had long ceased to be landed property owners; they were already bureaucrats. The second is that, within the framework of the Tokugawa baku-han system, an extensive process of commercialisation of economic life had already occurred, which was to provide an exceptionally favourable basis on which capitalist development could proceed in Japan. Of these two factors, perhaps the first was decisive.

Thus the particular form of pre-capitalist development within Tokugawa Japan played a significant part in Japanese “modernisation”. In Japan, the kinds of links between aristocracy and land which are so notable in European history had been broken. David Landes notes that, for the European aristocrat, “land was the foundation of dynastic continuity and prestige – the only solid and right form of wealth”. He quotes “an eloquent letter on this point” from a Belgian nobleman to a parvenu banker:

You have four sons and a whole future open to them. Build it on landed property. It is the land which forms the basis of families. This is true as much of the small rural patrimony of the peasant as of the great landed endowments of the most aristocratic persons. And so, my dear Sir, buy when you can for your children, not pieces of land, but real properties having enough compactness and extent to deserve the name of estate. There you will have solid settings for the generations that will follow you and will sink deep roots into the soil. You will have thus built on rock and not on sand. Landed property alone gives distinctive character to families, classifies them in the eyes of all, and confers upon them a solid and permanent influence. That is what instinct, the traditions handed down by my parents, experience, and study have taught me ... (cit. Landes, 1965, pp.169-70)

But the picture of land-ownership and tenure in Japan had, for a long time, been different. “The Tokugawa had made it a point to separate the samurai from the soil, thereby depriving them of autonomous control over revenues and manpower ... under the shogunate there were to be no Junkers or great barons to exercise local sovereignty and challenge the authority of the central government.” (Landes, 1965, p.170) The fortunes of the samurai were bound up with their place in the state service, not in estates and villages. Their identification of a renewed nation-state with their own power and interests thus came to them much more easily than to other pre-capitalist aristocracies, whether in Prussia or China.

The Tokugawa period also prepared the way for the later industrialisation of and modernisation of Japan in its pre-capitalist commercial development. This is well brought out by Crawcour, who refers to the quite high literacy rates among the population, approaching 30 per cent in the 1860s. Much of the education received by the population, apart from the samurai, was in the basics of reading, writing, practical measurement, accounting and the like. Many peasant farmers were quite accustomed to drawing financial balances, and merchants received a quite developed formal training in accounts and commerce.

Nor was rational accounting of economic advantage a new development in the late Tokugawa period; it can be seen clearly among big city merchants as early as the seventeenth century. But it became far more widespread with the expansion of business opportunities to the countryside in the nineteenth century. We should not be surprised, therefore, at the apparent ease with which rural backwoodsmen adjusted to a modern capitalist economy. (Crawcour, p.36)

If earlier accounts of the Tokugawa period suggest a “subsistence” pattern of agriculture, more recent work offers a very different picture. The following table shows the proportion of agricultural production estimated to have been directly consumed by its producers in the 1860s:



Coarse grains, beans & potatoes


Industrial crops






Total (all crops)


(Crawcour, p.40, citing work by Yamaguchi Kazuo)

“It seems safe to say that in Japanese agriculture as a whole over half and probably nearer two-thirds of output was marketed in one form or another” (Crawcour, p.41) – some directly by the peasantry, and a good part more by those who received it in the form of taxes. Additionally, as we have seen, many farmers engaged in rural industrial activities.

The already established state and tax systems also assisted the Meiji bureaucrats in their modernisation-from-above of Japan. Government officials were already accustomed to intervening in economic life with whole series of regulations, supervisions and controls:

During the inflation of the 1860s, the shogunate issued a spate of decrees to control the price of rice, oil, timber, copper, fuel, manure, and commodity prices in general. It ordered increased consignments of industrial goods to Kyoto, where the population was swollen by an influx of both loyalists and Tokugawa supporters. In the field of transport the shogunate controlled all the main highways and set freight rates. It supervised foreign trade and interest rates. It regulated wages within its domains. It encouraged land reclamation and took the lead in the settlement of Hokkaido. In agriculture it placed restrictions, which were increasingly evaded, on the sale and subdivision of land. It encouraged the production of wax, lacquer, paper and tea, but when export demand for silk led to expansion of the industry it forbade the planting of mulberries on ricefields. In industry, it set quotas for the brewing industry, regulated salmon fishing, the building trades, coopering, shipbuilding, and the production of lime and saltpetre. The shogunate and the three great Tokugawa lords owned and operated or controlled all major mines and forests. Within the shogunal domains practically no major enterprise or innovation could be undertaken without the approval of the government. (Crawcour, pp.42-44)

Similarly in the various han, widespread aspects of economic life were routinely subject to official control and direction. Thus the institutional foundations were already partially prepared, in the Tokugawa period, for the state-centred industrialisation process that followed the Meiji revolution.

The international situation in the 1860s and 1870s, it should also be noted, was relatively favourable to Japan. As well as the success of the bureaucrats in re-shaping the state, Japan’s relative avoidance of semi-colonisation or of “impaired sovereignty” was due in part to the fact that the imperial powers were otherwise occupied. (Though Napoleon III’s minister, Leon Roches, did attempt a French alliance with the Bakufu, while the British minister was backing the outer han.) America was caught up in the bloody turmoil of her own civil war; the French were limited by Bismarck’s rise in Germany, and then by the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71; and British attention was focussed chiefly on China by the 1860-65 Taiping Rebellion. Japan thus had “a vitally necessary breathing space” (E.H. Norman, p.43). The samurai who seized power in Japan were thus lucky: the moment in which they acted was uniquely favourable to their nationalist enterprise.


Last updated on 28.2.2002