The Fate of Vietnam's First Revolution

— Simon Pirani

In the Crossfire:
Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary
By Ngo Van
Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2011, 264 pages, $19.95 paper.

THIS BOOK OPENS with a vivid, gut-wrenching account of the arrest, detention and torture of two young Vietnamese revolutionaries in Saigon in June 1936 by the Sûreté, the political police who defended France’s colonial might. We are spared no details: the electric shock treatment; the kicking; the insertion of a wood plank in the prisoner’s mouth while his wrists are tied back to his ankles and he is beaten.

One of the victims was Lu San Hanh, founder of the League of Internationalist Communists, a Trotskyist group that concentrated on organizing rank-and-file workers’ groups. The other was Ngo Van, a worker member of that group and author of this autobiography, a book as emotionally moving as it is politically vital.

Through the prism of Van’s experience, the 21st century reader is given a powerful view of the struggles for social change and liberation in the 20th century. Van recalls being taken back to his cell after the torture session:

“We had all suddenly found ourselves thrust to the other side of life, into a world apart, given over naked to bestial beings like those pictured in paintings of the Buddhist hell, with buffalo or horse heads, hawk beaks and chicken claws [...] The big clock on the nearby cathedral struck each quarter hour, reminding me that I was there for an indefinite time. I tried to concentrate with all my might on the aged and respected [anti-colonialist writer] Phan Van Truong’s advice when confronting our ‘civilizers’: make it a principle never to fear another person, come what may.” (7)

From this violent opening chapter, Van takes his readers back to his childhood in a poor peasant family: the deprivation, the combination of persistence and good fortune that enabled Van to get some education; and the start of his working life, in a metals products store in Saigon, at age 14.

His description of how his consciousness of social injustice developed is as alive as that of the French terror. He heard and read news of the peasant revolts, culminating in the Yen Bai insurrection in 1930, and the rounds of arrests, trials and executions with which the French tried, in vain, to suppress these movements. He read voraciously and soon came into contact with the anti-colonialist and communist underground organizations.

Van joined the Indochinese Left Opposition (i.e. the Trotskyists) in 1931, when he was 19. From then until the 1945 uprising, the underground political struggle, and the more open development of mass workers’ organizations with which it went hand in hand, was his life. So was the ever-present threat, and on several occasions the reality, of arrest, beating, torture and imprisonment.

A Left Alliance

Vietnam was exceptional in that in 1933, when Communist parties the world over were denouncing Trotskyists as the running dogs of imperialism, the Stalinists in Saigon joined with the Trotskyist group led by Ta thu Thau and, together with the prominent nationalist Nguyen an Ninh, formed a united election slate and published a joint paper, La Lutte. (56) The group won support from trade unions and won a significant share of seats on the city’s municipal council.

In 1936-37, Vietnam — which felt the impact of the world recession through a sharp increase in rice prices — was shaken by an unprecedented wave of strikes. This coincided with the election (in May 1936) of the Popular Front government in France (i.e. Socialists and Radicals with the support, but not ministerial participation, of the Communist Party) — whose administration in Vietnam clamped down on the workers’ movement no less brutally than their predecessors.

Van, who was in prison at the time, recalls:

“In November 1936, in the hellish coalmines of Hongai-Campha in the north, more than 20,000 miners started a strike against “physical cruelty, beatings with rattan-canes, blackjacks, fists and feet,” and for improved wages. Similar events occurred at the Haiphong cement works. Our visitors told us excitedly that in Saigon itself more than 1200 workers and coolies from the Arsenal had gone on strike. They were being supported by villagers in the surrounding countryside, who brought them food. [...] To the north of Saigon, 400 coolies and workers in the sawmills in Bien Hoa had stopped work and occupied their workshops! This had never been seen before in Indochina — it demonstrated the depth of the agitation and made us delirious with joy.” (83)

The strike movement culminated in the summer of 1937, after Van’s release, with a national railway strike.

Against the background of this mass movement, the French Communist Party in May 1937 sent orders to their Vietnamese Stalinist counterparts to withdraw from the La Lutte alliance with the Trotskyists. To the alarm of the French authorities, in the year that followed the Trotskyists’ influence in the workers’ movement grew still further. In council elections in April 1939 they swept the board, defeating the Stalinist candidates, who had been discredited by their call to “defend” French Indochina as war clouds gathered.

Van, who from the start had been wary of the joint work with the Stalinists, in 1939 published an article drawing up a balance sheet of its results, and criticizing Ta thu Thau and other Trotskyists who had persisted with it for so long. (97-98)

The Stalinist Murder Campaign

Vietnam was occupied by Japanese forces from 1940. In August 1945, with the atomic bombing of Japan and its surrender, the occupation collapsed and a popular uprising erupted in Saigon. Van, working from his own recollections and from documents gathered during years of historical research, gives an account of how the Stalinists of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) grabbed control of Saigon and set about pursuing, silencing, arresting and murdering their political opponents.

The Trotskyists were the primary targets: those executed included the prominent writers and workers’ leaders Ta thu Thau, Nguyen van So, Phan van Chanh and Tran van Thach, and hundreds of others.

Van had fought in a Trotskyist-led militia in the countryside, fallen victim to tuberculosis and returned to Saigon in early 1946. Two years later, after attempts to revive political activity even on an informal, underground basis had proved unsuccessful, he migrated from Vietnam to France.

The shorter, second part of this book tells of his life there: his political activity, which continued after quitting the Trotskyist movement in the early 1950s, above all in a discussion group with the Marxist writer Maximilien Rubel and friends who had survived the Spanish Civil War; his life as a factory worker, and participation in the general strike of 1968; and his literary activity.

In the Crossfire seems destined to become a classic, for several reasons. First, simply for the breathtaking account of Van’s journey from peasant schoolboy via worker activist and political prisoner to exile — and for the abundant evidence that he preserved his humanity throughout. His skilful presentation, laced with humor, is brought out by a fine translation and beautiful illustrations, including his own sketches and paintings.

Second, In the Crossfire confounds stereotypes and challenges assumptions prevalent on the left about “national liberation” movements and Stalinist regimes. The account of the Vietnamese CP’s implementation in 1936-40 of the policy ordered from Moscow of support for French imperialism, and of its savage repression of its political enemies in 1945, bears comparison with the writings of the Stalinists’ socialist opponents in Republican Spain.

Once the VCP established its power across the whole of Vietnam in 1945 — power it partly lost and regained in the war with colonial France between 1948 and 1954 — Van held fast to his belief that workers and peasants had to struggle independently for their emancipation. “The [Vietnamese] Trotskyists [in France] who supported Ho Chi Minh were acting like a hanged man clinging to his rope,” he writes.

In 1951 he “scandalised” the Trotskyist exiles with an article in their paper headed “Workers and peasants, turn your guns in the other direction!” It argued that, both in the cities dominated by the French military and its puppet government, and in the countryside controlled by the VCP and the landowners, “the workers and peasants who had guns in their hands should fight for their own emancipation, following the example of the Russian workers, peasants and soldiers who formed soviets in 1917, or the German workers’ and soldiers’ councils of 1918-1919.” (199-200)

The Trotskyists’ Dilemma

The American war on Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s left Van politically isolated in many respects. The savage, murderous character of the American onslaught ignited a powerful antiwar movement in the United States and Europe and did much to politicize a whole generation of young people, this reviewer included.

Much of  the left, however — not only the official Communist parties and new radicals but many liberals, social democrats and some Trotskyists too — lionized Ho Chi Minh and the VCP, with little or no regard for the real class dynamics of the Vietnamese revolution. Many on the left even regarded as anti-imperialist heroes the nominally “communist” Khmer Rouge, who, when they took control of a country pulverised by U.S. bombing, perpetrated one of the most barbaric mass killings in history.

[Editor’s note: An exception to the pattern of left adulation of the VCP was a pamphlet of the libertarian socialist group Solidarity in Britain, “Vietnam: Whose Victory?” For a detailed summary of western Trotskyist writings on the controversy over the 1945 events and Vietnamese Communism, readers can consult Simon Pirani’s essay at http://www.revolutionaryhistory.co.uk/rh0302/fourthint.html.]

In the 1960s and 1970s, few could be bothered to listen to stories such as Van’s, which demonstrates that human emancipation is a deeper-going movement, and that two-dimensional “anti-imperialism” — with Stalinist dictatorship as the “alternative” — was a dead end. Now, as the “socialist” and “anti-imperialist” heroes of yesteryear order their armies to fire on civilian protesters in one Middle Eastern country after another, things look different. Such events give In the Crossfire a powerful resonance.

During and after the American war, the question posed to Trotskyists by their admiration for Ho Chi Minh’s regime was existential: if he was prosecuting the struggle so successfully, why was Trotskyism needed in Vietnam at all? In Europe, some Trotskyists answered that it was not needed; others repeated the Stalinist slander that the Vietnamese Trotskyists had fled the revolution.

I met Van in 1987, after the Trotskyist group I had been a member of broke up and I had begun to question old certainties. I visited him and asked him about his research on the history, which so clearly told the opposite of the conventional story. He opened his desk drawer, pointed to a pile of papers and asked: “Who is interested in it? Who would publish it?”

Could Van’s story have been lost? It wasn’t. The tremors shaking the Soviet Union were beginning to shake the political world we had lived in. Once he had been convinced by friends and comrades that there was a readership, he completed his comprehensive history of the Vietnamese revolutionary struggles of 1920-1945(1) ... and then, already in his 80s, began what might be called his second political life, as a teller of history.

In 1997 he visited Vietnam, 49 years after he had had to leave, and then wrote The Flute Player and Uncle Ho: Vietnam 1945-2005, which recounts the little-known history of peasant and worker revolts, dissident intellectual trends, and the repression and network of “re-education” camps with which the Stalinists have governed. Van travelled widely, bringing his work to two or three new generations, up to the “anti-global capitalism” activists who crowded into halls in France, Spain and the United States to hear him speak in 2000.

Before his death in 2005 he completed most of his autobiographical work, which forms the basis for two volumes in French and for In the Crossfire.(2) Whether you have just become involved in social and political movements, or have been active for decades, you will be inspired by it.

Notes

  1. Van published two articles on the Vietnamese Trotskyists in Cahiers Leon Trotsky (no. 40 (1989) and no. 46 (1991). These were then re-edited and published in English as Revolutionaries They Could Not Break: The Fight for the Fourth International in Indochina 1930-1945 (London, Index Books, 1995). This material, together with a great deal more on the wider context, made up his comprehensive work Viêt-nam 1920-1945: révolution et contre-révolution sous la domination coloniale (L’Insomniaque, 1995, reprinted by Nautilus, 2000), and those who read French are directed to that book in the first instance. The Vietnamese translation is Viet nam 1920-1945, cach mang va phan cach mang thoi do ho thuc dan (Chuong Re/L’Insomniaque, 2000).
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  2. Van’s history of Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh, Le Joueur de flûte et l’Oncle Hô: Vietnam 1945-2005 (Paris-Mediterranee, 2005) is unfortunately not translated into English. The first part of Van’s memoirs, up to 1948, are available in French, Au pays de la Cloche fêlée: tribulations d’un Cochinchinois a l’époque coloniale (L’Insomniaque, 2000), in Spanish, Memoria Escueta, de Cochinchina a Vietnam (Octaedro, 2004) and in Vietnamese, (Tai Xu Chuong Re (Le Chat Qui Peche, 2006). Many of his articles and paintings are on the web site chatquipeche.free.fr.
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September/October 2011, ATC 154

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