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Andrew Glyn

Japanese Workers Struggle To Transform Society

Part Two

(November 1979)

From Militant, No. 481, 30 November 1979, p. 10.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

ANDREW GLYN, recently in Japan, analyses the workers’ movements

Trade unions re-established themselves in Japan after 1945 in the course of a long struggle.

It stretched from the Red purges of the 1940s to the 1960 defeat of the Miike coalminers, who had the strongest grassroots organisation in Japan.

After World War Two, with a chaotic situation and the total discrediting of the Japanese ruling class, trade unionism swept across Japan.

Many factories were taken over by the workers in what were termed ‘production control’ struggles – one, for example, dislodged the editor of an arch-reactionary Tokyo newspaper. In some areas embryonic soviets took over the distribution of food.

Unfortunately, the Communist Party, which was leading the trade unions, welcomed the American Occupation as guaranteeing the ‘democratic revolution’ against the war-time militaristic regime.

The capitalists, supported by the Americans, gradually consolidated their position and gathered strength for an all-out assault on the labour movement. This took the form of a vicious deflationary policy, with hundreds of thousands of workers sacked and trade union militants dismissed wherever possible.

The plants where a militant organisation survived were picked off over the course of the next ten years. In Datsun a high degree of workers’ control over questions like promotion was smashed after a long strike in 1953, and the second, scab union, based initially on the white collar workers, was installed.

Ironically, the necessity for Datsun to act at that time flowed from the fact that they were about to re-organise their production process based on technology imported from Austin!

Now Thatcher is attempting to provide suitable conditions for Edwardes to do the same thing at the BL plant in Cowley – so they can produce Honda cars more cheaply!

The grinding down of the trade union movement in the large-scale private sector was an indispensable pre-condition for the superboom in the Japanese economy in the late fifties and early sixties. In the public sector, notably the railways and post office, a militant tradition and effective shop-floor organisation survived. Not that the management did not do its best.

It should be quite clear that this situation in the trade union movement is an exceptionally unfavourable one for the workers’ parties. The CP now has a very weak base in the trade union movement, with the exception of the teachers’ union and a few others.

Its position was destroyed partly by the ‘Red purges’ of the early fifties, but also by their zig-zagging tactics, including a call to their members no to join a general strike in 1964. Nor is its ‘Eurocommunist’ and indeed, nationalistic line likely to reverse this weakness.

The CP frequently argues against militant action on the grounds it will damage the interests of the general public (in the case of public employees), or the employers (in the case of employees of small businesses).

The Communist Party’s electoral strength is based on an effective local organisation. It has around 400,000 members, and a higher (declared) income than even the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. It builds up a loyalty throughout its network of welfare-type organisations for the unemployed, sick, small businessmen and working mothers. The Guardian reported that one CP crèche in Tokyo stays open until midnight to cater for the thousands of bar hostesses living in the area.

The Communists gain in number of seats in this election was entirely due to their concentrating their forces more effectively, rather than an increased share of the poll.

A CP rally I attended in Tokyo this summer was impressively organised with more than 100,000 people there – though many more were taking advantage of the different CP districts’ stalls selling local goods than took the opportunity to hear Secretary General Myamoto!

One CP organiser told The Economist that in his rural areas the majority of CP voters “either cannot understand or are not interested in the party’s slogans” (October 5). The CP stresses the ‘national democratic’ nature of struggle in Japan, and pictures US imperialism as the major enemy, rather than the Japanese bosses. They have recently conceded that Japan is only ‘semi-occupied’ rather than an occupied colony of the USA.

Their reformism makes them incapable of leading the workers’ movement forward.

The Socialist Party is much weaker organisationally than the CP, with only 50,000 members, but it is firmly based in the trade union movement and many of the militants support it actively. Its organisation relies very heavily on that of the Sohyo Trade Union Confederation which is mainly organised in public sector unions.

In theory at least it is a Marxist party. Attempts by the right-wing to explicitly deny the need for workers’ democracy (i.e. dictatorship of the proletariat) have been defeated, while the CP has removed the concept from its programme. But the SP has failed to propose a credible set of policies to meet the problems posed by the economic crisis.

Their Action Programme for 1979 called for a huge range of reforms – government spending to provide 700,000 more jobs (unemployment is 1.2 million at present), improvements in medical care, pensions, housing, transport, aid to recession-hit industries, urban redevelopment, help for farmers and small businessmen.

While such a programme of reforms was quite practicable in the boom years of the sixties, it provides no answer to the propaganda that the “economy” (in reality capitalism of course) cannot afford it. The left of the party, organised around the Socialist Association, whilst stressing the role of class struggle has a strategy of building up an anti-monopoly alliance, similar to that of the British CP.

Internationally, though, it supports the Soviet Union line through and through, in contrast to the CP which is just re-establishing links with Moscow after a 15-year break. The election results will definitely reinforce the sense of crisis in the SP, which has lost one third of its share of the vote since 1963.

Its failure to capitalise in any way on the problems faced by Japanese capitalism in the past decade, in fact its share of the vote has continued to decline, shows quite clearly the needs to break with the slogans of the past and develop a socialist programme adequate to the needs of the Japanese workers. The pressure from the moves in Sohyo, unfortunately, is towards the opposite tack of moderating the line into a straight social democratic one. The coming period is obviously one of crisis for the SP.

It should be clear that the Japanese workers have a tremendous struggle ahead. They face an aggressive and confident ruling class, which will be quite prepared to use the repressive forces of the state at the slightest sign of trouble, as the struggles in Narity Airport near Tokyo have shown. Many people in Japan saw the enormous police mobilisation at the time of the Tokyo Summit as a convenient testing out of emergency procedures (similar to the Heathrow manoeuvres here a few years ago), ‘justified’ by the antics of the ultra-left groups.

The mechanisms of control the capitalists have built up in the factories, based on the foreman system, will require a tremendous battle to overcome. The right-wing trade union bureaucracy had its power enormously consolidated by the ‘success’ of its policy of co-operation with the management which did yield real wage increases of up to 10% a year, in the years of massive accumulation and huge productivity increases.

The zealously inculcated ideology of loyalty to the firm and ‘life-time employment’ will not crumble overnight, despite the fact that ‘lifetime’ increasingly means 45–50 years old as more workers are thrown on the scrap heap. It will take time for the militants, isolated for years and harassed physically and mentally by the vile alliance of bosses and trade union officials, to convince the mass of the workers of the need for policies of class struggle.

One very slight sign that some pressure is beginning is that the bureaucrats are now frequently forced to put in for bigger wage increases than are finally conceded – an admission that there is a difference between what the workers are pressing for and what would allow a restoration of profitability.

The argument you hear, even amongst some ‘left-wingers’, that the Japanese workers are middle class, have become bourgeoisified (just as some academics described the British workers in the early sixties), is in reality a total capitulation to the propaganda of the ruling class.

It shows no understanding of the fighting traditions of the Japanese workers, demonstrated in the widespread struggles of the later forties and early fifties, and carried on subsequently by the public sector workers and most recently by the workers in the small scale firms where the trade union bureaucrats do not have such a stranglehold (see Militant 16 March about the Tanaka machinery workers who are still the focal point of the struggles in the engineering industry in South Osaka).

The ‘economic miracle’ in Japan did have the ‘miraculous’ consequence for the capitalists of pushing workers’ struggles into the background. But there can be no question that in the course of the next few years the pressure will build up inside the trade union movement. The capitalists, without any doubt, have the upper hand at present, but the bureaucracy will inevitably find it harder to hold back the workers.

In turn industrial struggles will have an electrifying effect on the political plane, causing explosions in the workers’ parties, especially the SP. The essential task is the development in the course of this turmoil in the labour movement of a Marxist leadership which will be able to take the struggle forward.

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