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Stephen Scheidell
Enlightenment Modernity and its Discontents
21 October 2009
Taking the Soul of the Samurai to Karl Marx
This essay will compare Bushido ethics1 and the Marxist idea of
the state2 on the following question. First, to what or whom does the
individual devote loyalty? We will approach this question by beginning
with an explication of chapter IX of Inazo Nitobe's Bushido, followed by
an explication of section II of Marx and Engels' The Communist
Manifesto. For the Manifesto, we will also visit other pieces for
clarification's sake. After these explications, we will answer our
question by focusing specifically on the following tension between the
two ideologies.3 For Nitobe, societal harmony comes "when the prince
loves what the people love and hates what the people hate."4 In other
words, Bushido leaves no room for class conflict. Marx, in contrast,
leaves no room for classes without conflict. For him, harmony comes
with ideological fratricide and the dissolving of class distinctions. The
tension hinges on this question. Can a society hold class distinctions
intact without resulting in class conflict? Bushido and Marx certainly
disagree as to how to answer this question.
Bushido builds its ethic upon a history of a hierarchical and filially
based society. In contrast to Westerni.e. enlightenment
individualism, Bushido focuses on the interests of the family as one
unit bound by "natural, instinctive, irresistible"5 affection. Nitobe
correlates this affection to the Japanese word ko, roughly translated as
I.e. the code of ethics for the samurai
It may seem odd to compare an ethics code to a political theory. However, this
essay will examine the political implications of Bushido and, additionally, attempt to
analyze the ethos behind the Marxist philosophy of state.
3
Since this essay discusses Marx, we must clarify what we mean by ideology. We do
not mean to invoke the Marxist sense of ideology. Rather, we mean ideology as
simply a body of interacting beliefs and ideas.
4
Bushido, 39
5
Ibid, 87
1
2

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"filial piety." The children exercise devoted obedience to their parents
as the parents do toward their parents. This filial devotion culminates
in a society centering on the family. However, the Japanese notion of
family does not end with the father-child relationships of a single
household. Rather, it extends generationally through the history of
Japan. Therefore, as a child shows filial piety to the parent, so the
individual shows filial piety to all Japan. Filial piety, then, culminates in
a united national interest spanning generations and classes. Therefore,
loyalty naturally arises as the ethical demand, and natural outcome, of
such a political theory.6
One may here object that such a political theory subjugates
one's conscience to a feudal lord. Nitobe strongly contends to the
contrary. He writes that a subject may strongly disagree with a master
and demonstrate both disagreement and loyalty. The subject may
plead with the master, appealing to the latter's intellect and
conscience. Nitobe concludes with the note that samurais commonly,
as a last resort, shed their own blood to prove the sincerity of their
pleas. Such an act, though extreme, accomplishes a second goal; while
authenticating their sincerity, samurais thus do not betray their
conscience and thus shame themselves.7 However, Nitobe does not
conceive of a situation so extreme as to necessitate revolution.
Bushido, as a national ethic, world not permit a feudal lord to dominate
the consciences of the subjects. Most likely, honorable samurais would
betray their lives before betraying their shame by following the
commands of a despotic lord.
Karl Marx, nonetheless, sees a much direr situation in
nineteenth-century Europe. "The modern labourer," Marx contends, "on
the contrary, instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks
deeper and deeper below the conditions of the existence of his own
6
7

Ibid, 89
Ibid, 93

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class."8 In short, the capitalists reduced their workers to the status of
mere cogs in a machine, by commanding the market in such a way as
to force the small manufacturer to be run out of business and into the
factory. Now, the formerly self-sufficient small manufacturer depends
upon the minimum wage pay of the factory owners. In this context, the
interests of the two classesbourgeois and proletariatclearly conflict.
Marx contends that this class conflict will inevitably escalate into a
proletarian revolution, leading to a Communist society.
The question arises in light of Bushido; where does loyalty lie in
this proletarian revolution? Superficially, the proletariat serves itself,
just as the bourgeois served itself. Upon closer inspection however,
one can see in Marx an awareness of humanity's social nature. One
could make the argument that Marx places loyalty in humanity's wellbeing over the well-being of any particular class or state. We,
therefore, could say that Marxist loyalty lies remarkably close to
Bushido loyalty. That is to say, Marx and Bushido alike see humanity as
fundamentally social and therefore reject enlightenment individualism.
For Marx, class distinctions must break down in order to restore
harmony to an industrial society. Marx summarizes his solution in the
well-known phrase, "Abolition of private property."9 He, however,
qualifies this phrase by noting that Communism does not abolish
property completely, but only bourgeois property. Along with bourgeois
property, bourgeois law, society, and morality must go. Marx contends
that these arose from the economic relations created by the ruling
class. They are, by no means, absolute. But, what does he mean by
this abolition of private property? What remains of property relations
post-abolition? Marx contends that private property remains, but is
understood differently. "The relationship of private property persists as
the relationship of the community to the world of things."10 In other
Marx, Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader, "Manifesto of the Communist Party", 483
Ibid, 484
10
Marx, The Marx-Engels Reader, "Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844", 82
8
9

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words, humanity exists communally. Therefore, it is right to function,
i.e. work and appropriate the products of labor, communally. Capital
thus becomes a social, unifying force. 11 In short, the community rises
or falls as one.
Nitobe would have been appalled at the idea of a Communistic
Japan. Where would Japanese loyalty lay once class distinctions and
relations have been cast aside? Bushido's sense of loyalty finds its
foundation in filial piety, which manifests in Japan's hierarchal society,
i.e. its class distinctions. Nitobe would thus rebuke Marx for committing
the same error as that of bourgeois ethics. Marx takes the proletarian
experience and morality and extrapolates that ethos beyond its
circumstantial origin.
Workers of all counties, unite? The samurai responds, "Leave Japan out
of it."

11

Marx, Engels. The Marx-Engels Reader, "Manifesto of the Communist Party", 485