Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2
In the Land of the Cracked Bell
‘I ONLY believe the history of which all the witnesses died.’ Ngo Van opens the foreword to his autobiography with these words of Pascal, underlining his acute and painful awareness that he is one of the very few survivors of those Vietnamese who fought colonialism with a passionate internationalist vision. Born in 1913 into a peasant family in a village near Saigon, Van started work at the age of 14, and from 1932 was active in the revolutionary anti-colonial movement. During the 1930s and 1940s, he participated as a Trotskyist militant in workers’ and peasants’ demonstrations, strikes and protests.
In 1948, Van was forced into exile in Paris, where he still lives. There he spent many years researching the history of the anti-colonial struggle in Vietnam, resulting in the publication in 1995 of Revolutionaries They Could Not Break: The Fight for the Fourth International in Vietnam (from articles in Cahiers Léon Trotsky, Index Books, London), and, later, Vietnam 1920-1945: revolution et contre-revolution sous la domination coloniale (L’Insomniaque, 1996, and Nautilus, 2000). Both are invaluable records, and they are now complemented most vividly by the story of his own life up to 1948, the title of which translates as In the Country of the Cracked Bell: The Struggles of a Vietnamese During the Colonial Era. Van had to be persuaded to write this book; he was doubtful of the value, he said, of relating purely personal experience. In fact, his autobiography is the most powerful of his writings on Vietnam so far.
Van left his village to work in a metallurgical factory in Saigon, at that time the scene of massive demonstrations and strikes against the French colonial power by workers, students and young nationalists demanding freedom of assembly, of the press, of travel and of education. The country had already seen decades of peasant revolts, accompanied by executions (often by guillotine) of leading activists, or their deportation to the infamous penal colony of Poulo Condore.
Coolies working on the mosquito-infested rubber plantations (Michelin was one of the worst employers) were demanding improved conditions. They were hired under virtual slave contracts, and their appalling working conditions meant that 40 per cent died every year. Paddy-field workers were seizing their employers’ stocks of rice to feed their starving families. In some villages, peasants were setting up soviets to organise collective cultivation of the land and literacy campaigns.
Hardship had compelled Van to curtail his formal education, but, enrolling under a false name, he read Marx in the Saigon municipal library after work. He soon came into contact with the left opposition group in the Communist Party of Indochina (CPI), who were stressing the importance of a movement based on the working class, and of building a mass party. This flew in the face of the official CPI policy, which was much more oriented towards the peasantry, and, influenced by those who had been trained in Moscow, was built on the concept of the ‘professional revolutionary’. A show trial in 1933 of the core of CPI ‘professionals’ who had led the peasant movement condemned them all to death, or to long periods in the penal colony. The peasant movement was effectively beheaded.
In Saigon, Trotskyists and Stalinists joined together for three years under the banner of the journal La Lutte, published weekly in French to escape laws banning publications in the vernacular. Their candidates were elected to seats on the municipal council. But after the signing of the Stalin-Laval pact in May 1935, and the consequent failure of the French, and soon the Indochinese, Communist parties to oppose the militarism and colonialism of the French state, Van and other Trotskyists decided to end collaboration with the Stalinists and to form the Ligue des communistes internationalistes pour la construction de la IV Internationale. Van learned to set type, and the small group published clandestinely.
Van also began to organise the apparently passive workforce in his factory, who met under the guise of wedding and birthday parties (all gatherings of more than 19 people were illegal), and found himself their spokesman when a strike for better wages broke out.
Militant friends were arrested one after the other, and the longer Van remained at liberty, the more acutely he appreciated their courage under torture. But his turn came, and, at the age of 24, he was arrested in the factory storeroom, where he secretly discussed anti-colonialist campaigns with other young activists, and where he hid underground literature and revolutionary publications from abroad.
The young Van was imprisoned in the dreaded Maison Centrale, the police headquarters in Saigon, where he was tortured, as were thousands of others. Both Stalinist and Trotskyist prisoners were held together. Relations between them were wary, writes Van, but civil, to avoid provoking tension to the advantage of the common enemy. He joined in a hunger strike demanding political prisoner status equal to that in France. As a consequence, the prisoners were occasionally allowed French newspapers. This was how they learned about the Moscow Trials.
The Trotskyists were ‘overcome with a profound unease, and a thousand questions without answers kept going round in our heads’. In 1937, the Stalinists, under orders from Moscow, abruptly left the La Lutte group, and denounced the Trotskyists as ‘the ally, the agent, of fascism’. Van tells of the confusion this spread among many supporters, who had no idea of the political differences between the Third and the Fourth Internationals.
The working class in Vietnam was small, but Trotskyist activists were influential in the important industries. They agitated for joint councils of peasants and workers to take over the banks and the industries, and, eventually, to form an Asian Soviet Federation. Van captures the excitement when, in April 1939, the whole Fourth International list was elected to the local council in Saigon. The CPI candidates were defeated.
Van and his comrades were constantly being arrested, tortured and imprisoned, and then briefly freed once more. Once, he was sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment simply for recommending books by Trotsky to a friend in a letter, and greeting in the street the well-known Trotskyist Ta thu Thau. Exiled to at the end of 1940 Travinh, on an island in the Mekong delta, he found himself in the middle of a peasant uprising that engulfed western Cochinchina. Almost 6,000 were arrested and over 200 were publicly executed, and thousands more were killed by the bombing authorised by the Vichy Governor General, Decoux. At about this time, Van discovered that he was suffering from tuberculosis.
In March 1945 came a declaration of martial law under the Japanese, who, Van comments, ‘replaced the French at the head of the oppressive regime, while presenting themselves as liberators’. Saigon was bombarded by Allied forces. The Trotskyists spoke out against the Viet minh, who by this time controlled north Vietnam, for spreading the illusion that it was possible to form an entente with French and Allied imperialism to achieve ‘national liberation’. By contrast, the supporters of the Fourth International called on workers and peasants to rise up against all imperialist oppressors, of whatever nationality. Van and his comrades were elated when 30,000 miners in the Hon gai–Cam pha region set up elected councils to run the mines, public services and transport, and organised a literacy campaign.
In one of the most dramatic sections of the book, Van describes how the Viet minh seized power in the south. A big nationalist demonstration was held in Saigon in August 1945. The Trotskyists marched under their own banners: ‘Arm the people! For people’s councils! Land to the peasants! Workers’ control of the factories!’ That same night, loudspeaker vans drove through the city calling: ‘Everyone behind the Viet minh!’ Their leaflets said: ‘The Viet minh fully supported the Allies against the [Vichy] French and the Japanese. It will be easy for us to secure independence!’ Leading nationalists, sensing that the Viet minh had the wind in its sails, switched allegiance, bringing with them the quasi-fascist extreme nationalist youth movement. The radical religious sects also pledged allegiance to the Viet minh. The next day, a banner in front of the Saigon town hall announced the formation of a Viet minh government. At the press conference held by the new regime, the Trotskyist Tran van Thach asked who had elected the government. Van describes the reaction: the self-styled president, Tran van Giau, ‘beside himself with fury, answered: “We have provisionally assumed the government, which we will hand over in due course. As for my political answer …”, he fingered his revolver, “I will give you that elsewhere.”’ Two months later, Tran van Thach was shot by Tran van Giau’s men.
In Saigon, popular committees sprang up spontaneously. The Trotskyists opened an office where meetings, protected by armed workers, could be held by committee delegates, who put out statements condemning any attempt by the Viet minh to repress their autonomy. In the provinces, some peasants were taking control of the land, lynching Stalinists who stood in their way. But shortly afterwards, many Trotskyists active in the people’s committees were arrested by the Stalinists, who were attempting to ingratiate themselves with the new regime under the British General Gracey, who was ordering Ghurkas to join with the French militias to put down popular uprisings and destroy barricades. Two hundred Trotskyists were massacred by the French at the Thi Nghe bridge. Van and his friends were now on the run from both the Anglo-French troops and the Stalinists, and escaped from Saigon by boat, under a hail of bullets. Lying low, Van comments wryly, they could only ‘try to follow what was happening, and wait to see which sauce we’d be served up with’.
The miners’ commune that had been set up in the Tonkin region was disbanded by the troops of Ho Chi Minh’s provisional government, and the workers’ councils were replaced by a new Viet minh hierarchy. Peasants who had been inspired to expropriate their landlords by remembering the CPI slogan of 1930, ‘the land to those who work it’, were rudely disabused. The Viet minh regional government restored the land to the landowners.
In the Hanoi Communist Party’s publication, Drapeau de la Liberation for 23 October 1945, a call was issued to exterminate Trotskyists: ‘The Trotskyist gang must be cut down immediately.’ And between 1945 and 1951, CPI activists systematically assassinated any Trotskyists who fell into their hands. Van is able to document the fate of many of the men and women who were leading supporters of the Fourth International, including Ta thu Thau, whose murder was raised with Ho Chi Minh in an interview by Daniel Guérin in 1946 in Paris. Ho replied: ‘All those who do not follow my policies will be broken.’
The small proletariat, with as yet scarcely any revolutionary consciousness, was not able to take the lead in the liberation movement in Vietnam. The Stalinist party came to power through the terrible suffering and sacrifice of millions of peasants, who were rewarded by their renewed enslavement to the nationalist bureaucracy, as a workforce necessary for the accumulation of capital for the sole profit of a new variety of exploiters.
Van reluctantly decided to leave Vietnam in the spring of 1948. It was impossible for him to return to the countryside ‘where the twin terrors were in control – that of the French and that of the Viet minh’. He learned later that in 1950, three comrades he had left behind had been led into a Viet minh trap. They were invited to a secret conference supposedly held by Trotskyist sympathisers, where they were captured and horribly tortured. The two women were hung by their thumbs, their calves cut open and petrol-soaked cotton stuffed into the wounds. Their death was announced on the Viet minh radio as that of ‘agents of French imperialism’. By this time, there was scarcely one oppositionist still alive in the country.
Van’s book is a salutary reminder of these forgotten men and women of history, particularly for those of us in so-called ‘Trotskyist’ parties in the West that uncritically supported Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War. But it is also an invaluable record of the period, strikingly illuminated by vivid visual detail (an indication of Van’s talent as a painter) and informed by an unsentimental but deep-going humanity.
This book can be obtained from L’Isomniaque, 63 rue de Saint-Mandé, 93100 Montreuil, France for 60 francs including postage.
Updated by ETOL: 17.10.2011