"In his political activity he was mainly a "man of action",believing that a small and well organized minority, who would attempt a political stroke of force at the opportune moment, could carry the mass of the people with them..."- Frederick Engels, The Program of the Blanquist Fugitives from the Paris Commune.


It might seem odd for a Marxist to write about a rightwing coup attempt by young Japanese during the

era of the Great Depression. But,in Runaway Horses, the Right is contrasted with the Left on several occasions. At the beginning of the novel the protagonist, lsao linuma, a gifted young student, is conducting a martial arts practice at the neighborhood police station. Detective Tsuboi, a local policeman, watches this kendo demonstration with utter admiration for lsao's mastery of the art. At the conclusion of the practice, a patrol wagon drives into the police yard,and a group of anxious young men in shackles emerges. lsao asks the detective who they are:


"Reds...we'll have to make them feel right at home..." lsao felt a touch of envy toward these young men being thrown into prison...Was it possible that lsao himself might one day become a prisoner? (p.132)



At the end of the novel lsao  is arrested and imprisoned for the attempted coup. While being interrogated in a cell- where he is treated with such consideration that the detectives even provide him with a fresh vase of camellias- he hears:


"· ·the white winter camellia groan. Startled, he looked back at the inspector. There was no surprise in the inspector's eyes. It was only later that lsao realized that chance had not dictated the choice of this second-story room, with its open window, for the interrogation on this particular day...


"Are they practicing kendo now?" lsao asked...the sound(s) that carried up to the room...had nothing of kendo about it...This was the dull, somber sound of blows striking upon flesh...


lsao looked into the inspector's eyes once more, and the latter answered his unspoken question: "Yes. It's a Red. Stubborn ones bring this kind of thing on themselves."


Obviously, the police intended to make him realize that, in contrast, he was being treated with the utmost gentleness...But it had the opposite effect. At that moment lsao felt a choking of anger and humiliation. "My ideas- what do they amount to?" he asked himself in a rage. "If real ideas have to be beaten like that, are mine supposed to be unreal?"...


"Torture me!..."...


"...don't be foolish...You don't give us any trouble." "And that's because my ideas are rightest?"



"That's part of it...ln comparison to them, linuma, you and your friends are patriots (p. 349, 50)..."


Both left and right activists are concerned about the widespread poverty caused by the Great Depression, and see the zaibatzu, the great capitalist monopolies, as the problem. But, whereas the leftists have Marxist theory to guide their practice, their rightwing counterparts lack any such theory for transforming society. Rather than focus on their political views, however, we will primarily be concerned with the psychology that drives these passionate young men. For this psychology may have the same effect on both leftwing and rightwing activists. It is their misguided belief that the degree to which one is willing to sacrifice oneself- even to the point of excruciatingly painful  suicide, seppuku -is the measure of one's commitment. It is the cause that one is willing to die for, rather than the one that one is willing to live for that counts for them. Furthermore, in the case of our rightwing youths, there is also the Samurai code of "manliness" instilled by the Academy of Patriotism they attend. Late in the novel the protagonist confesses:


"lsao had never felt that he might want to be a woman. He had never wished for anything else but to be a man, live in a manly way, die a manly death. To be thus a man was to be required to give constant proof of one's manliness- to be more a man today than yesterday, more a man tomorrow than today. To be a man was to forge ever upward toward the peak of manhood, there to die amid the white snows of that peak (p. 342) ..."


When discussing the plan for the coup with his comrades- whose climax would be their ritual suicide­

lsao concludes:


"They knew that poison was the most effective way to commit a hasty suicide, but they spurned this womanish means of putting an end to life (p. 302)..."


And when asked by Prince Harunori what he would do- depending on the outcome of the coup- Isao replies that he would commit seppuku whether he succeeded or not. At the end of the novel he kills himself even though he knows the outcome will be failure. So whatever we may think of his politics, his act remains consistent with his beliefs. Even those of us on the Left must have a grudging respect for his selflessness and courage. Although Western males are not driven by the Samurai cult of masculinity, the same forces are at work within the patriarchal family even in our own society.


In The Male Ego, by Willard Gaylin, M.D., these forces are explored through psychoanalysis. In comparing the psychological development of males and females, the author explains:


"...there is a disjuncture, a discontinuity, a struggle, necessary for the male child that is not necessary for the girl child. After puberty a woman's self-definition is the same as that before puberty. She is a woman

-like her mother- and she will be a woman at the heart of her identity all her life.


A boy has a different problem. He must now establish his masculinity, but all of those earlier identifications with the mother are persistently present within him...In his search for manhood, any "feminine" character traits and aspirations will be interpreted as being womanly and therefore threatening. To prove himself a man, a boy must first prove himself not a woman. His definition of self is



always comparative and contrary...The concept of manhood as something that must be attained, something that must be earned...Boys, just as girls, originally seek approval in the eyes of their mothers; but as they grow older, all this changes. Men become men in the eyes of other men, since masculinity is defined in terms of competition, power, and achievement (p. 26, 36)..."


Let us now plunge into the passionate world of these rightwing idealists. lsao, their leader, is the only son of a rightwing nationalist father who directs an Academy of Patriotism to educate young men. He is described as a victorious young athlete in a kendo tournament by Sheigekuni Honda, an appellate court judge, who later will serve as his defense attorney:


"The boy sat bolt upright...His eyes glittered and he glared straight ahead, an image of steely imperviousness. The boy's eyebrows were prominent. His complexion was dark. The line of his tight-shut lips was as straight as a blade's edge...Even to Honda, as little as he knew of kendo, young linuma's perfect form was evident. However violent the action, he maintained his poise throughout, his flawless bearing at each moment fixed in space (p. 27, 8)..."


But lsao is not merely a brilliant  athlete. He is also an intellectual, influenced by the philosophy of Wang

Yang-ming, whose most famous precept is "To know and not to act is not to know." This is an example of what lsao calls the "congruity of thought and action". And this happens to be one of the same principles underlying Marxism, where it is referred to as the "unity of theory and practice". So the young rightists are every bit as serious about acting upon their beliefs as those of the Left. It is not their commitment, however, that is in question: it is their theory. Although both the Right and the Left begin with the same belief about what the zaibatsu, the giant monopoly corporations, are doing to impoverish and corrupt the nation, they have radically different solutions. Unlike his leftwing counterparts­ perhaps stirred into action by reading Marx and Lenin -lsao's main inspiration is The League of the Divine Wind, by Tsunanori Yamao. It describes a coup attempt by samurai, in the late nineteenth century that serves as a model for lsao.


lsao recruits only the most trustworthy and principled among his fellow students. They are interviewed, read The League of the Divine Wind, and write an essay on it.  Each is evaluated on the basis of both intellect and strength of character. And lsao's striking presence and reputation  as a young kendo master, draw these young men to him, and transform them into his devoted followers. Moreover, he seeks the aid of a Lieutenant Hori, a promising young officer in the military. Unlike his leftwing counterparts- who view the military as the coercive arm of the state -lsao and his circle see them as victims, some of

whom might be eager to join his plot.


In his first meeting with Lieutenant Hori, lsao is accompanied by his two most trusted friends. They learn that the lieutenant shares their views about "The shameful state of foreign affairs, the government's economic program which was doing nothing to relieve rural poverty, the corruption of the politicians,

the rise of communism (p.129)..." At the conclusion of their meeting, lsao presents the lieutenant wih a copy of The League of the Divine Wind.


On another occasion lsao watches the lieutenant conduct a military drill at his garrison. Here, he is overwhelmed by the mystique of militarism:


"...the dust that swirled up beyond the trees by the drill field and the smell that came drifting from a stable somewhere were the qualities that most conveyed the sense of army that permeated all that lsao saw spread out before him...the little band of soldiers performed like a finely tuned engine...They

seemed to be moved by a giant, unseen hand reaching down from above. That hand could only belong

to the sun itself...The lieutenant was no more than a lone representative of that hand...which shifted pawns about on a chessboard...the very sun itself was the force that guided it...Here was the power of the Emperor...the hand of the sun working with a mathematical clarity and precision...this beautiful, sweaty, intricate choreography of death (p. 148- 51)..."


lsao slowly gathers his circle of conspirators- each with "the reckless courage of youth", "bent on the urgent need to act". Now they formulate their plan. Its objective is to throw the capital into disorder, bring about a state of martial law, thereby promoting a Restoration government. This will return control of the military to the Emperor- wrenching power from the zaibatsu- and delivering the poor from their misery. To promote this state of disorder, they will assassinate the ringleaders of the zaibatsu.


But as the date of the coup draws near, the lieutenant and a number of the young men withdraw: leaving a small core of dedicated conspirators. Without the army to provide technical support and with their numbers drastically reduced, they are forced to concentrate on the assassinations:


"This was a plan that struck at every great capitalist family in Japan. All the zaibatsu-controlled heavy industry, iron and steel, light metals, shipping- an illustrious name from each of these sectors was on the list. That morning of mass killing would, beyond any doubt, send a severe shock through the economic structure of the nation {p. 291)..."


But, overnight, the conspiracy is discovered and the circle arrested. Handcuffed, they are brought to the police station in squad cars. When Judge Honda learns about Isao's arrest, he volunteers to be his defense counsel. He is told by lsao's father that he had turned lsao in to the police. In their conference, Honda assures the father that lsao will be treated leniently because of his rightwing politics. Later, during the trial, we hear from lsao, when he takes the witness stand to explain his motives:


"Gradually, I became acquainted with the problems of society. I was shocked at the inaction of the government in the face of the chronic depression...A mass of jobless wage-earners that reached two million...And yet the government, despite the gravity of the situation, responded with nonchalant indifference, Minister of the Interior Antachi declaring: "Relief measures for the unemployed would make people frivolous and lazy..."...bad harvests struck...land and homes were lost...whole families lived in stables, and people held starvation at bay by eating acorns and roots...


As you know, your honor, the farmers are breaking out in protests everywhere. There is a danger that the farming villages will go Red....Giving no thought to these crises, the government plods along in the path of corruption...Much of the responsibility lay with the zaibatsu, who manipulated these politicians to satisfy their greedy craving for profits...


At first I firmly believed that the day would certainly come when the poor would be saved by the benevolence of His Sacred Majesty...Wait as I might, however, that day did not come...Then I happened to read a book that struck me with the force of revelation...The League of the Divine  Wind. After I finished it, I was a different person...some  decisive deed of purity  is necessary. To accomplish so resolute an action, you have to stake your life,giving no thought  to personal gain or loss...Loyalty, I think, is nothing else but to throw down one's life for the Imperial Will (p.388-92)"


The verdict is handed down and the defendants are released: due to their age and patriotic motives.  A banquet is held in their honor  at the Academy of Patriotism, with Judge Honda as the guest of honor. Although lsao is stunned by the verdict, he patiently complies  with  all that is asked of him. But later he learns of a sacrilege committed by Busuke Kurahara, one of the leaders of the zaibatsu, reported in the local newspapers. And at the banquet, his father confesses that, not only had he turned his son into the police for his own good, but that their own Academy of Patriotism was financially  obligated to protect Kurahara. Isao suddenly comes to realize that his whole existence has been based on the wealth of the zaibatsu leader:


"I've lived for the sake of an illusion... And this punishment has come on me because of this illusion (p. 406, 7)..."


But the spirit of Isao llnuma  is not so easily extinguished. After the banquet, he attends  a lantern procession to the Imperial Palace to celebrate  the naming of the Crown Prince. Afterwards he slips off, takes a cab to the train station, and boards a train to Kurahara's villa.It is ten o'clock at night when he arrives, and Isao can hear the sound of the sea as he proceeds by foot to the villa. He scales the wall and quietly  approaches the window of the villa. Here, he spies Kurahara seated inside in an armchair by the fire. He snaps the door latch open with his knife, enters, and kills Kurahara. Interrupted by his wife, he rushes out the door, and runs through the garden to the orchards overlooking the sea.


He comes to a place where the cliff is gouged out in the form of a cavern. An evergreen  tree hangs over the ledge, and a stream flows over its surface. With the sea reflecting the faint glow of the sky, he now prepares himself:


"lsao sat upright  upon the damp earth, his legs folded beneath him. He removed his uniform jacket. From the inside pocket, he took out the knife...He unfastened his trousers, exposing his stomach...tsao drew in a deep breath, and shut his eyes as he ran his left hand caressingly over his stomach. Grasping the knife with his right hand, he pressed its point against his body, and guided it to the correct place with the fingertips of his left hand. Then, with a powerful thrust of his arm, he plunged the knife into his stomach. The instant  that the blade tore open his flesh, the bright  disk of the sun soared up and exploded behind his eyelids (p. 418, 19)..."


What conclusions can we draw from this great novel that are applicable  to activists of the Left? Let us begin with  lsao's guiding precept, Wang Yang-ming's "To know and not to act is not to know." He refers to this as "the congruence of thought and action". But this is to be sharply distinguished from the Marxist's "unity of theory and practice". Wang Yang-ming's is an ethical maxim only, unlike the Marxist view, which is ethical and scientific. The Marxist sees theory as both arising from practice- experience (or, in science, experiment),and guiding that practice. For example, the samurai coup attempt described in The League of the Divine Wind- which served as Isao's model- was a failure. A Marxist would have learned from that failed experiment- not repeated it. The "theory" underlying it did not result in a successful restoration of the Emperor. Furthermore, a Marxist would begin from a principal fundamentally opposed to lsao and his circle: respect for the democratic decision-making of the majority (i.e. the working class). Unlike the Right, he believes that "the emancipation of working class must be the act of the working class, itself." For him/her, the substitution of any minority for the majority- no matter how selfless- is inadmissible. There is never a guarantee that a minority will act in the interests of the majority, unless that minority is elected and recallable by the majority. This is the most fundamental difference between the Left and the Right. And in addition to the undemocratic nature of the Right, there is also their lack of a theory about the class nature of capitalist society. Without such a theory (and a theory of organization for transforming that society, i.e. Lenin's theory of the party)- there isn't the slightest possibility of success. So, unless we believe good intentions and personal sacrifice are sufficient, we must reject the example of lsao and his band of brothers. Only by drawing on the lessons of Marxism (e.g. devotion to the movement of the working class and other oppressed groups, the building of a Leninist party),can we ever hope to destroy capitalism and create a socialist society.

© 2015 By Mark Dickman