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Reviewed by:
  • Japanese and Chinese Immigrant Activists: Organizing in American and International Communist Movements, 1919-1933
  • Bryan D. Palmer
Japanese and Chinese Immigrant Activists: Organizing in American and International Communist Movements, 1919–1933. By Josephine Fowler. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2007. 320 pp. $27.95 (paper).

This is a book that is both pioneering and frustrating. It explores the previously neglected history of Japanese and Chinese communists in the United States, situating their organizing efforts within the Communist International's general orientation to Asia. Breaking new ground in her exploration of the radicalism of Asian immigrant communities in the United States, Josephine Fowler also details the ways in which Comintern directives and the lived experience of small groups of revolutionaries from Japan and China intersected in specific struggles that unfolded in America in the period from 1919 to 1933. Yet for all that this book uncovers a history previously neglected, it is also the case that the small numbers of Japanese and Chinese communists involved and their marginalization (because of racism and many other factors) mean that Fowler's narrative is often pieced together in a way that inevitably produces a shadowy, at times frustrating, subject.

Nonetheless, this book is essential reading for those interested in filling in the gaps in our understanding of American communism. Fowler highlights the central importance of the Japanese communist Sen Katayama and the independent-minded Chinese dissident H. T. Tsiang, although she pays too little attention to their important publications, which were widely read on the left. She offers new and welcome details on the Oriental Branch of the Workers' Communist Party (CP) and of the International Labor Defence (ILD) organization, the "Hands Off China" Campaign, anti-imperialist mobilizations in the 1920s, and Asian student radicalism and study groups. Chinese and Japanese workers in the seafaring trades, needle trades, agriculture, and food sectors, among others, are rescued from a past obscurity.

Too often the narrative strikes a sad refrain: activists found the results of their labors ending in failure and disappointment, the almost constant bickering and disagreements among strong-willed cadre punctuated by arrests, deportations, and harassment by immigration officials. The onslaught of the Great Depression only worsened the situation. One Japanese communist wrote from New York that 70 percent of the comrades were unemployed in 1930, while another commented that police repression had become extreme and that all foreign-born radicals suspected of membership in the CP were under constant surveillance and suspicion, subject to arrest and deportation. When the [End Page 299] ILD office was raided, yielding to the authorities a membership book, it was said that "the dog's searching has turned evil and has intensified more than ever." It was thought that "one mistake will cause the whole distruction [sic] in the under ground movement" (p. 190).

Fowler is at pains to argue, as much neo–New Left historiography does, that the heavy hand of the Communist International was lightened by the relatively autonomous activities of local revolutionaries. Stalinism, in this reading, is reduced to what Fowler refers to as a "Moscow-centred cartography" (p. 73). The result is an analytic insistence that communist experience, globally, must be treated as less "centralized and strictly regulated" than past writings, such as those of Theodore Draper, have implied. Such an approach is flawed because it misunderstands (and understates) the significance of Stalinization, which was not just about exercising a transnational iron law of oligarchy, which, if it was challenged or sidestepped, revealed that the totalizing institution of control was little more than an inevitably collapsing house of political cards. Rather, Stalinism was the programmatic political defeat of the Bolshevik project of world revolution. It exercised its control in various ways (and to deny this is surely to extend a rather dangerous illusion), but its ultimate significance, as events in China in the mid-to-late 1920s revealed so clearly, was that in creating boundaries of policy determination that thwarted revolutionary endeavors it invariably sacrificed revolutionary proletarian internationalism on the altar of the Stalinized Comintern's commitment to "socialism in one country."

Fowler may want to understand the endless debates and at times debilitating dissension characteristic of Japanese and Chinese...


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pp. 299-301
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