“In the Crossfire - Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary,” by Ngo Van, 2010.
Most of the books available in the US on the struggles in Vietnam are written from either an American perspective or from the perspective of Ho Chi Minh. This book reflects the independent views and activities of the extremely militant labor, national and Marxist movements in Saigon in the 20s to the late 40s, written by a former supporter of the 4th International, who became a supporter of council-communism after his forced move to France. Ignorance of the history of the Vietnamese labor and peasant movements before the “American’ war is rife among the U.S. left, and this book is a good cure.
In Van’s time, nearly every revolutionary outside the Vietminh died. They were either killed by the French Secret Police - the Surete - in executions or jails; by the Vietminh themselves in planned assassinations and murders; by various criminal gangs, or by the Japanese. Van survived all by escaping.
The Trotskyists had a large following in Saigon and the surrounding areas. They were instrumental in many strikes, in forming workers’ militias, in supporting independent peasant actions, in publishing classic works of Trotsky and others, like Harold Isaacs “The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution,” and in being repeatedly elected to the Saigon City Council in the mid and late 30s over the representatives of the Stalinist ICP. Hence their existence was a threat to the ICP’s control of the people’s movement. As a result, some of Van's comrades were killed in a mass murder of Trotskyists and their supporters by Vietminh death squads in Thu Dau Mot in September 1945, on orders of the Indochinese Communist Party (“ICP”). The ICP formed the leadership of the Vietminh. Another group, including Chinese Trotskyists, were killed and tortured in Bien Hoa in 1950. Former Stalinists would issue orders to execute those they had once worked and shared jail cells with.
The book is written in the style of a memoir, with a haunting section in the middle devoted to the mostly forgotten dead revolutionaries Van knew. This includes the most famous Vietnamese Trotskyist, Ta Thu Thau, who was the leader of the “La Lutte” group, and who Van had some differences with. “La Lutte’ was a joint publication of the Marxists in Saigon, including both the Trotskyists and the Stalinists. They collaborated together for 5 years until 1937 when Moscow ordered, through the French CP, that their supporters in Vietnam stop working with the ‘twin brothers of fascism.’ La Lutte continued under sole Trotskyist leadership and Thau was again elected in 1939 to the Saigon City Council. Smelling the coming apocalypse, the French denounced Thau as someone who would ‘take advantage of a possible war in order to win total liberation.’ Which, of course, was the plan.
The differences between the two sides were stark, as the ICP for many years formed a ‘popular front’ with the bourgeois elements in Vietnam, similar to policy in Spain and China. As a result, they opposed independent action by the working class and peasants. During the period of the 1920-1947 covered in this book, the ICP opposed workers strikes and occupations, urban people’s committees, peasant seizures of land and peasant ‘soviets,’ a coal-miners Commune of 30,000 workers in Hongai-Campha, and arming the population. As part of the people's movement, the Trotskyists formed a street-car workers’ militia in Saigon. The ICP's position was all consistent with the ICP pledge of working with ‘progressive’ bourgeois elements. The ICP used violent methods to oppose these developments, not just propaganda. As the Vietminh (ICP) minister of the interior Nguyen Van Tao put it, “Those who are encouraging the peasants to take over landed property will be punished without mercy.”
The Vietminh blocked with Blum’s popular front government in the 1930s, even though during the French popular front, the French government continued activities against the Vietnamese popular movements. At one point, the ICP supported defencist measures sponsored by the French colonial government against the Japanese, like promoting war bonds and promoting a French military draft of Vietnamese. A post-war insurrection in Saigon in 1945 was crushed, partly because the ICP did not pose a clear alternative to the French, unlike the position of the Trotskyists. In 1946 Ho formed a block with General LeClerc that disarmed the Vietnamese masses, and allowed the French to re-conquer Vietnam after the defeat of the Japanese. What is the significant factor here is that whatever the Soviet line was, the local CP had to follow it, even if it contradicted the needs of the local working class.
Born in 1912, Van himself grew up in a poor peasant home north of Saigon, and, after failing to get into some critical schools due to lack of influence, lived in Saigon. In the ‘20s he involved himself in the revolutionary movement. He met many prominent activists while in prison or on the run and in hiding, was deported to Phnom Penh, was almost killed several times, and his remembrances form the heart of the book. In 1937 while an activist in Saigon, he wrote pamphlets denouncing the fraudulent Moscow Trials, and some criticisms of Thau for working with the Stalinists on “La Lutte.” This book incidentally exposes the violent history of two of Ho’s successors, Pham Van Dong and Ton Duc Thang. Both involved in murdering a woman ICP comrade who had fallen in love with the wrong person, and both did jail time for the murder.
After emigrating to France in 1948 to avoid certain death, Van settled in Paris, and eventually got electrical technician jobs at various factories. All the while he suffered from tuberculosis, contracted in Vietnam, and in hospital learned to paint. He met many expatriate Vietnamese, some of the 40,000 soldiers and civilians drafted and deported to France by the French to serve the French Army during World War II. While in France, he wrote and published a massive and detailed history of the Vietnamese struggle, in two volumes, covering 1920 to 2005, which is still in print. He also met many people who had fought in Spain or had left the Trotskyist movement to become either 'third' campists or council communists. He later became a ‘council communist,’ working with “News & Letters” and others. Van grew to reject not just the Leninist idea of the party, but Soviet defencism, including the Ho regime in Vietnam. Given his experiences in the struggle there, it is somewhat understandable. Van wrote about the French 1968 events from his position as a factory worker, noting the conservatizing influence of the French CP in his factory, which flew the tri-color and the red flag – literally, and politically - during the 1968 events, and the CP role in limiting and ending the rebellion.
Van’s principled opposition to the popular front reveals the misguided strategy of Stalinist reformism. Only when the Vietnamese CP, in practice, was forced to ronouce popular front 'strategy' did they overthrow private capitalism in Vietnam - though this happened only after decades of bloody 'mistakes' and massacres. This delayed the revolution by three or more decades - and also guaranteed that any victory would be deformed from the beginning. Instead of the working class and peasantry holding power, the CP bureaucracy took power in their 'name.' Any bureaucracy engenders capitalist counter-revolution, a process that has already succeeded in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and is well advanced in China. And it is even developing in Vietnam itself.
In China this process is through intense collaboration with international capital, through the encouragement of a national capitalist class - some out of the ranks of the CCP, through graft and privilege, and most of all, by ignoring workers democracy, weakening or destroying ties with the working class and farmers. When the Party is no longer seen as representing anyone but themselves, counter-revolution is inevitable. The real communist slogan, after all, is "all power to the Soviets," not "all power to the Communist Party."
It is to the courageous mass movements and revolutionaries in and around Saigon that we owe this understanding, who learned it with their own blood.
January 3, 2011