In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary
By Ngo Van
AK Press, 2011
264 pages, $43.99
Australians know of the Vietnam War from the arrival of Australian troops in 1965 through to their withdrawal in 1973. People in the United States generally date it from the arrival of US advisors through to the inglorious departure of US helicopters in 1975.
However, for the Vietnamese the struggle began long before that, from their colonisation by the French in the 19th Century.
Ngo Van was an active participant in that struggle, a leader of the Trotskyists who were prominent in the 1930s.
He was lucky to survive the pandemonium that followed the end of World War II, when the French re-established their brutal rule and the vast range of Vietnamese national forces fell on each other’s necks.
Starting as it does with a gut-wrenching account of his torture at the hands of the French, Van’s story is not a pretty one. He has a historical account to settle with the Vietnamese Communist Party led by Ho Chi Minh and he makes a strong case.
The VCP, whom he denounces as Stalinists, killed as many left-wing and other nationalist forces as they could, he says. Van was in the middle of most of the big events that swept the country and he passionately conveys the terror and his outrage.
Vietnamese Trotskyism had a somewhat different history to the rest of the world movement. A grouping of Trotskyists led by Ta Thu Thau (not supported by Van) formed a joint electoral slate and published a joint newspaper, La Lutte, with the Communist Party and other nationalists, beginning in 1933.
This was while Stalinists in other parts of the globe were murdering Trotskyists.
In the mid-'30s, Vietnam was rocked by a series of militant strikes — which were repressed by the Communist-supported Popular Front government in France.
The French Communist Party directed its Vietnamese equivalent to break the alliance with the La Lutte group in 1937. However, popular support for the Trotskyists swept them into local government positions in 1939. They routed the Communists, who were discredited by their patriotic defence of France in the lead up to WWII.
Japan occupied Vietnam in 1940, its control collapsing in 1945.
The Trotskyists organised a workers’ militia in one Saigon factory and led a huge nationalist demonstration that drew forces from the many religious and other groupings (even river pirates were part of the brew).
However, according to Van, the CP-led Viet Minh seized control of Saigon and started methodically killing Trotskyists in particular but generally any factions failing to fall in behind them.
The French then pushed the Viet Minh out of the capital and a three-sided, sometimes four-sided battle continued in the countryside, with all Vietnamese fighting the French and each other.
As alignments fluidly changed, yesterday’s friends became today’s enemies and vice versa.
Van and other Trotskyists withdrew into the countryside and eventually joined with a religious group in armed struggle against both the CP and the French. Hundreds died, including Trotskyists who had previously shared French prison cells with communists.
Van eventually fled Vietnam for France, where he worked in a factory for years. He became a “council communist” (a variety of anarchism).
This English translation of his memoirs is selected from his French language writings. Perhaps in the originals there may be a better representation of the balance of the forces involved in the struggles Van describes.
What the VCP did to its opponents in 1945/46 is unconscionable. But a problem for the Trotskyists is to show the balance of forces in the country was a viable base for their program of armed revolution based on councils of workers and peasants.
It is true the Trotskyists formed one workers’ militia. But how many arms did it have? How did it compare to the militias led by the different religious groupings or even the river pirates?
Van mentions militant strikes in different parts of the country that the Trotskyists couldn’t communicate with, let alone organise and lead. These quite practical questions are the central issues of that period.
Put simply: was it conceivable for his movement to have led a mass armed struggle against the French or was that suicidal?
As brutal as the VCP was in 1946/47, were its ideas the correct path forward for the struggle?
Over the succeeding decades, millions of Vietnamese lined up behind the VCP’s national liberation program and never turned to Trotskyism again.
There is no greater test of a political line than 30 years of warfare. If the VCP’s program was largely wrong, it could not have survived and won.
Van’s book is nonetheless a powerful portrayal of the realities of revolutionary struggle, is compulsive reading and a monument to the virtues of the heroic Vietnamese Trotskyists. It is skilfully written and beautifully illustrated with full colour reproductions of his paintings.
Published by an anarchist collective, it is also available for free on the internet.