Capitalism in decay: the Far East becomes a battlefield of world wide imperialist rivalries

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Looking back at the development of Japan, China and Korea in the 19th century we can see that they were all opened up by capitalism by force. Capitalism did not emerge from within, but it was “imported” from the outside. Unlike many European countries, where a revolutionary bourgeois class was able to cast aside the fetters of feudalism, there were no such bourgeois revolutions carried out by the local bourgeoisie.

Yet while these three countries were opened by foreign capitalists during the same period in the 19th century, they followed three different paths.

Japan was the only country to become an independent capitalist power after a short period. Soon after having been opened by foreign capitalism Japan in turn started to act as a capitalist force searching for new markets and zones of control in the bordering region. Within a few decades Japan became the big regional power. Unlike China and Korea which were quickly crippled in their capitalist development, Japan embarked upon a rapid accumulation of capital. While not handicapped in its capitalist development as its neighbours were by foreign countries, the early dominant role of militarism and of the State are a typical feature in the development of this country.

Even if Japan, much like Germany, arrived “late” on the world market, Japan, unlike Germany, which had to challenge the already “established” imperialist powers, was not a ‘have-not’. It was the first country in the area to establish its zone of influence in the “scramble for colonies” (establishing its control over Korea, parts of Manchuria and Taiwan). Japan was involved and triumphant in all the big wars in the far East – with China in 1894, with Russia in 1905 – and it was also the big regional winner of World War I even if it was not directly involved. Thus Japan could climb on “top of the regional imperialist ladder” before World War I, establishing its position at the expense of the other rivals.

In China, which was ruled by a declining dynasty until the arrival of capitalism, capitalism was also “implanted” from outside. While the Chinese ruling class was unable to induce a powerful capitalist development, the foreign capitalists – while opening up the country to capitalism – imposed strong fetters on the development of national capital. Thus already in the 19th century, the country, marked by all the features of a “handicapped” development, was torn apart by foreign imperialist powers. As we shall see later, China was to carry these characteristics all along the 20th century. While Japan was a leading expanding imperialist force, China had become the most fought over area amongst the European and Japanese imperialist sharks.

Korea in turn, also opened up by foreign capitalists, became the main target of Japanese imperialism. But being an invasion corridor for the appetites of all neighbours, it was condemned to suffer from this specific geo-strategic constellation. Ever since the imposition of capitalism in the far East, Korea has been a permanent battle field of the struggle between the regional and international rivals. Until 1905 Korea was fought over principally by China, Japan and Russia; since the onset of capitalist decadence, as we shall see when looking at the history of the 20th century, Korea has remained an important military and strategic target for all imperialist countries in the far East.

The forth rival in the region, Russia, in its expansion towards the far East, while defending its own imperialist interests in the region, was dragging with it a whole flock of European rivals.

During an initial period of 2-3 decades in the 19th century, the opening of the far East to capitalism unfolded under conditions, where the major European powers and the USA were not yet colliding with each other, because there was still enough “room for expansion”. The situation changed, as the scramble for colonies drew to a close and as the remains could only be divided with one rival gaining something at the expense of the other. The China-Japan war in 1894 and the Russia-Japan war in 1905 showed that it had become impossible that all countries would “receive a piece of the cake”, but that the division had been completed and a new distribution was only possible through war.

Already three years before the outbreak of World War I Rosa Luxemburg noted: “During the past 15 years there was the war between Japan and China in 1895, which was the prelude to the East-Asian period of world politics, 1898 the war between Spain and the USA, 1899-1902 the Boers War with British involvement in South Africa, 1900 the China-expedition of the European big powers, 1904 the Russian-Japanese war, 1904-1907 the German Herero-war in Africa, 1908 the Russian military intervention in Persia, at the present moment [1911] the French military intervention in Morocco, not to mention the incessant colonial skirmishes in Asia and Africa. The mere facts show that during the past 15 years there was almost no year without a war”.1

The level of imperialist rivalries could be kept within certain limits until the turn of the 20th century. But when antagonisms sharpened on a world scale, the world wide rivalries also manifested themselves in the far East. The 1905 war between Russia and Japan heralded World War I and the series of wars which followed in the 20th century.

At the turn of the 20th century, the far East experienced a reshuffling of the imperialist hierarchy. After 1905 Japan had risen to the top of the imperialist pecking order in the region but it was already confronted by the USA and GB as the two remaining imperialist giants in the area. The USA soon after started to “contain” Japan – initially through the policy of “making deals” (such as the one over the Philippines for recognising Japanese interests in Korean) – later, as with the 2nd world war, by going to war against each other.

The development of capitalism in the 19th century in the far East thus illustrates how much the qualitative change that occurred towards the turn of the 19-20th century expressed a new epoch in the global development of capitalism.

There was no more any bourgeois revolution on the agenda, the bourgeoisie in the far East had become as reactionary as elsewhere. And the capitalist system was going to show all its contradictions in the far East, pulling this densely populated part of the globe into a series of wars and destruction.


1 (Peace Utopia, Volume 2, p. 496, May 1911, Leipziger Volkszeitung)