In 2019 typhoon Hagibis destroyed part of the railroad that leads to Hakone, a small town near a volcanic lake in Japan that has a long history as a resort town. One of the stops on the line that can no longer be reached by train is Ōhiradai. About fifty meter south of the station there is a small and inconspicuous temple named Rinsenji. In 1909, during the railroad’s construction, the police searched that temple. They found dynamite used for building the railroad that was temporarily stored there. They also found an illegal printing press under the main altar.

That printing press was used by Uchiyama Gudō 内山愚童to print socialist and anarchist pamphlets as well as some of his own radical writings in which he argued for land reform and for “anarcho-communist revolution”, against fatalistic belief in karma, and against the emperor. The latter – together with the dynamite – was used as “evidence” for an accusation of his involvement in a plot to kill the emperor, the so-called High Treason Incident 幸徳事件. After a show trial that was “mostly based on circumstantial evidence and orchestrated by the Japanese government to get rid of the radical left”1 he and several others were sentenced to death.

Uchiyama is one of the best known so-called “radical Buddhists”, but he never used that term himself, of course.2 He was a Zen priest and abbot of a small temple in a poor and mountainous area near Hakone, where many upper class Tokyoites owned a vacation home. He was surrounded by poverty and suffering, but his temple was on the main road to Hakone, so he probably also saw the rich pass by on their way to their little palaces.

Uchiyama discovered anarcho-socialism in the pages of Heimin Shinbun 平民新聞, a short-lived socialist newspaper, in 1904.3 In that same newspaper he explained his attraction to socialism in a short letter:

As a propagator of Buddhism I teach that “all sentient beings have the Buddha nature” and that “within the Dharma there is equality, with neither superior nor inferior.” Furthermore, I teach that “all sentient beings are my children.” Having taken these golden words as the basis of my faith, I discovered that they are in complete agreement with the principles of socialism. It was thus that I became a believer in socialism.4

The three quotes in this passage come from the Great Nirvana Sūtra, Diamond Sūtra, and Lotus Sūtra respectively (but the first also expresses a central theme of the Lotus Sūtra).5 About these quotations of scripture, Fabio Rambelli writes that “it seems that Gudō chose these passages out of context and re-signified them in a socialist fashion by translating Buddhist soteriology (salvation) as social liberation”.6 Unfortunately, this is all Uchiyama seems to have written (or all that remains, at least) on the relation between socialism and Buddhism in his thought.

Uchiyama’s socialism, like that of his contemporaries, was Utopian and Romantic – he saw a model of the ideal society in the communal lifestyle of Buddhist monasteries in the past. But he was also quite realistic at the same time and sought the causes of this-worldly suffering and poverty in this-worldly economic and political conditions. For this reason, he advocated land reform to alleviate rural poverty, for example. Furthermore, he didn’t share the insistence on non-violent means typical of Utopian socialists and other contemporary socialist Buddhists. In the contrary, in a letter to fellow priest he wrote that “If priests today are really serious about creating a paradise, they must first overthrow the government. The hand that holds the rosary (juzu) should also always hold a bomb.”7

Uchiyama was no theoretician but an activist, and as Brian Victoria remarks, he did not claim or possess “special expertise in either Buddhist doctrine or social, political, or economic theory”.8 Nevertheless, he did write a few pamphlets and many letters, and some key aspects of his socialist Buddhism (or Buddhist socialism) can be gleaned from those.9 His most important text is the pamphlet Anarchist Communist Revolution 無政府共産革命, which he printed himself in 1908 on the illegal press he hid below the altar in his temple. The tone of the pamphlet is angry and incendiary, and it doesn’t seem a particularly philosophical piece, but it also includes a rather interesting critique of ideology (in the Marxian sense) or hegemony, which makes it even more radical than it may seem at first glance.

The pamphlet argues against a number of “superstitions”, “wrong ideas that people hold precious like sacred things” and “that have penetrated deeply” in everyone’s minds.10 The first superstition that Uchiyama rejects is a particular interpretation of the Buddhist doctrine of karma and rebirth (or reincarnation) – namely, the the fatalistic belief that birth as a poor tenant farmer is retribution for bad deeds in previous lives. He writes that “if today, in our world of the twentieth century, you are still deceived by this kind of superstition, you will really end up like cows and horses.”11

The other superstitions he discusses are economic and political rather than religious – these are the beliefs that tenant farmers owe rent to the landowner and tax to the state, and that a country needs an army. While these beliefs are of a different nature than the belief in karma, they serve the same purpose: protecting the status quo, and – especially – protecting the interests of landowners and the rich. “If you give up these superstitions the emperor and the rich will no longer be able to afford their own lives of ease and luxury.”12

As mentioned, Uchiyama’s notion of a “superstition” reminds of Marx’s “ideology” or Gramsci’s “hegemony”. Ideology – in the here relevant sense – is a collection of values, beliefs, ideas, perspectives, and so forth that serve the interest of some social group. The dominant ideology in a society, according to Marx, is always the ideology of the ruling class – that is, the values and beliefs (etc.) that serve the interests of the ruling class. Uchiyama’s “superstitions” (which include karma as well as the ideas that we owe taxes and land rents to the state and landowners, respectively) are ideological in this sense. And so are narcissistic individualism or cultural psychopathy and various other ideological biases that obscure the role of capitalism as the source of human suffering by making it seem that capitalism is “natural”, or by making is seem that – in Margaret Thatcher’s words – “there is no alternative”. The result of the spread and acceptance of these ideological superstitions is that for most people in modern society “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”.13 This is is the essence of hegemony: spontaneous acceptance of the status quo due to manufactured ignorance of alternatives.14

In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels wrote that:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas – that is, the class that is the ruling material force of society, is at the simultaneously its ruling intellectual force. The class that has the means of material production at its disposal thereby commands the means of intellectual production at the same time, … The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships; …15

Uchiyama’s “superstitions” play exactly this role: they are the ideas of the ruling class that through that class’s dominance become the ruling ideas, and they express the dominant economic (i.e. “material”) relations in society thereby reinforcing and safeguarding them.

Nevertheless, there is an important difference between Uchiyama’s “superstitions” and the notions of ideology or hegemony. Ideological or hegemonic ideas are assumed to permeate society more or less automatically. This is especially clear in case of Gramsci, who defined “hegemony” as:

The “spontaneous” consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is “historically” caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.16

Uchiyama didn’t believe that the consent of the masses can be entirely spontaneous, however, or that the elite’s socio-political and economic dominance (and consequent prestige) is sufficient to guarantee the spread of the ideological superstitions they depend on. Rather, it requires some form of concerted action to spread and continuously reinforce these ideas. And thus: “The government, using everyone from university professors down to elementary schoolteachers, is doing everything in its power to prevent you from giving up these superstitions.”17 (Uchiyama doesn’t mention the responsibility of Buddhists priests or institutional Buddhism in spreading the ideology of karma here, but this may be due to the fact that his focus in this part of the text has shifted to economic and political ideology.)

As mentioned, the essence of hegemony is the spontaneous acceptance of the status quo due to manufactured ignorance of alternatives. The key difference between Uchiyama on the one hand and Marx and Gramsci on the other is whether this manufactured ignorance is orchestrated by the elite (as suggested by Uchiyama) or is a by-product of their social dominance (as suggested by Marx and Gramsci). It is not disputed that the ruling elite spreads their ideology to the rest of society, but the question is whether they do this explicitly to create acceptance and consent or because they believe the “superstitions” they spread themselves. All evidence seems to points at the second.

Leslie Sklair, William Robinson, and others have shown in a number of books and articles that the past decades saw the rise of the Transnational Capitalist Class (TCC).18 This class constitutes the global economic and political elite. Estimates of the size of the TCC differ from several thousands to tens-of-thousands. Recently, Peter Phillips has listed the 389 most powerful members of that elite and shown how they control the global financial sector, politics, and the mainstream media.19 Phillips also stresses repeatedly that these core members of the TCC genuinely believe in the ideology they spread. He writes that:

Transnational power elites hold a common ideological identity of being the engineers of global capitalism, with a firm belief that their way of life and continuing capital growth is best for all humankind.20

This is also illustrated by Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All, which describes, as the subtitle indicates, “the elite charade of changing the world”.21 The elite believes that they use charity for good, but all they really do is preventing real change and making sure that their own wealth and power remains unchallenged.

Hence, there is no elite conspiracy to control the world by intentionally manufacturing consent. Surely, the elite does manufacture consent,22 and their power depends on that consent, but they do so by spreading values and beliefs they hold themselves. They are blind more than evil.

Nevertheless, Uchiyama wasn’t far off when he wrote that the government “is doing everything in its power to prevent you from giving up” the superstitions that keep them in power. It’s just that most of the time they are not aware they are doing that – they have deluded themselves as much as everyone else. Perhaps, the main defect in Uchiyama’s analysis is another difference with Marx that I have glossed over thus far – he focuses his attention on the government and ignores the role of class. Consequently, what he didn’t foresee – but probably also couldn’t foresee – is that governments themselves became tools in the hands of the ruling elites (i.e. the TCC). The TCC is indeed doing everything in its power to prevent you from giving up the superstitions on which their (immense!) power rests.

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  1. Fabio Rambelli (2013), Zen Anarchism: The Egalitarian Dharma of Uchiyama Gudō (Berkeley: Institute of Buddhist Studies and BDK America), p. 5.
  2. The term is a fairly recent academic invention. See also: On Secular and Radical Buddhism.
  3. Socialism was heavily repressed in Japan at the time, and any socialist organization or publication was, consequently, short-lived.
  4. Translation: Brian Victoria (2006), Zen at War, Second edition (Lanham: Rowamn & Littlefield), p. 41.
  5. See Fabio Rambelli’s Zen anarchism (p. 12 and endnotes on p. 86) for exact locations of the three quotes in the sūtras. Rambelli remarks (in note 4) that “Gudō’s citations of the scriptures are incorrect, perhaps due to his lack of familiarity with kanbun (the form of Chinese language in which they are written)” (p. 86).
  6. Rambelli, Zen Anarchism, p. 13.
  7. Idem, p. 24.
  8. Victoria, Zen at War, p. 39.
  9. Translations of Uchiyama’s most important writings as well as several quotes from his letters can be found in: Rambelli, Zen Anarchism.
  10. Rambelli, Zen anarchism, p. 48.
  11. Idem, p. 45.
  12. Idem, p. 47.
  13. Fredric Jameson (2003), “Future City”, New Left Review 21: 65–79, p. 76.
  14. See also: Lajos Brons (2017), The Hegemony of Psychopathy (Santa Barbara: Brainstorm).
  15. Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels (1846/1932), Die deutsche Ideologie, MEW 3: 9-530, p. 46.
  16. Antonio Gramsci (1971), Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers), p. 12.
  17. Rambelli, Zen Anarchism, p. 47.
  18. Leslie Sklair (2000), The Transnational Capitalist Class (New York: Wiley). William Robinson (2014), Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity, New Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  19. Peter Phillips (2018), Giants: The Global Power Elite (New York: Seven Stories).
  20. Idem, p. 29.
  21. Anand Giridharadas (2018), Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World (New York: Knopf).
  22. Edward Herman & Noam Chomsky (1988), Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (London: Vintage).