Ngo Van: The Vietnamese Revolutionary
Who Bridged Generations
NGO Van, who died in Paris in January aged 91, was one of the few socialists who fought against both French colonialism and Stalinism in Vietnam in the 1930s, and survived. In committing his memories and historical research to paper for future generations, he was unique.
There is a sense in which Van lived two political lives, one after the other. The first began in 1932, when, as a 19-year-old, he joined the Vietnamese Trotskyist movement that dominated many of the workers’ organisations in Cochinchina (later south Vietnam), then a French colony. In 1945, when Japanese troops that had occupied French Indochina withdrew, and a popular uprising followed, Ho Chi Minh’s Communist Party formed a provisional government backed by his guerrilla forces trained in southern China – and ruthlessly repressed those who refused to support it. The Trotskyists were top of the wanted list, and dozens were rounded up and executed in what Van later called ‘the Moscow trial in the maquis’. Van was among the few who escaped, first into the countryside and, in 1948, to France. There he worked for more than three decades as an electrician in a factory until retiring in 1978. His second life was one both of activity in socialist and libertarian circles, and also of writing the largely hidden history of the Vietnamese workers’ movement in which he had taken part – and, after some arm-twisting by friends and comrades, his own rich life story. In the late 1990s, Van’s history of anti-colonial resistance in 1920–45 and the part played in it by the Trotskyists gained a huge underground readership in Vietnam.
Van’s intellect, generous spirit, eternal optimism and humour won him the loyalty, respect and friendship of thousands of people who became involved in the struggle for social liberation two or three generations after he had. After the first of two volumes of his memoirs appeared in French (in 2000) and Spanish (in 2004), he travelled widely, speaking at meetings arranged by anti-global-capitalism activists and participating in anti-war demonstrations from Barcelona to New York. His bilingual edition of Vietnamese folk tales, published last year and illustrated with his own paintings, reached an even younger audience.
Van, who was born in 1913, left his village at the age of 14 to work in a metallurgical works in Saigon, and soon became involved in the demonstrations and strikes that erupted periodically against the French colonial power in support of 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 for Michelin, among other employers, were demanding change: they were hired under virtual slave contracts, and their appalling working conditions meant that 40 per cent of them 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, and then joined, the Trotskyist left opposition to the Communist Party of Indochina, who underlined the importance of a movement based on the working class against the peasant-oriented policy of Ho Chi Minh.
In Saigon, Trotskyists and Stalinists joined together for three years during 1933–36 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 the municipal council. But after the French government signed a pact with Stalin’s Soviet Union in May 1935, the French Communist Party, and soon the Indochinese one, gave up their opposition to French militarism and colonialism. At that point Van and some other Trotskyists decided to quit La Lutte, and form the League of Internationalist Communists for the Construction of the Fourth International, while some other Trotskyists remained in the alliance. Van learned to set type for the small group’s clandestine literature.
Van also began to organise the apparently passive workforce in his factory, who met under the guise of wedding and birthday parties – as all gatherings of more than 19 were illegal – and found himself the spokesperson when a strike for better wages broke out. Militant friends were arrested one after the other. 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 activists and hid underground literature and revolutionary publications from abroad.
Van was imprisoned in the dreaded Maison Centrale in Saigon, where he too was tortured. Stalinist and Trotskyist prisoners were held together: Van later recalled that relations between them were wary, 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, in which Stalin was destroying what remained of the leadership of Lenin’s Bolshevik party. The Trotskyists were ‘overcome with a profound unease, and a thousand questions without answers kept going round in our heads’, Van wrote in his memoirs. In 1937, the Vietnamese Stalinists, under orders from Moscow, abruptly left the La Lutte group and denounced the Trotskyists as ‘agents of fascism’.
The working class in Vietnam was small, but the Trotskyists 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, establish an Asian Soviet Federation. Van’s memoirs capture the excitement when, in April 1939, the entire Trotskyist slate was elected to the local council in Saigon, defeating the Communist Party candidates.
Van and his comrades were constantly being arrested, tortured, imprisoned 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 Travinh, in an island in the Mekong delta, at the end of 1940, he found himself in the middle of a peasant uprising that engulfed western Cochinchina. Almost 6,000 were arrested, over 200 publicly executed, and thousands killed by bombing authorised by the Vichy governor general, Decoux. At about this time, Van discovered that he was suffering from tuberculosis.
The Japanese moved into south Vietnam in March 1945 and imposed a regime of martial law; allied forces bombed Saigon. The north of the country was by this time controlled by the Vietminh, as the armed front led by the Communist Party was called. They advocated an alliance with the imperialist Allies as a road to ‘national liberation’; the Trotskyists denounced this as an illusion, and 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 August 1945, after the atomic bombing of Japan, the Japanese occupation collapsed, and a wave of revolutionary action rolled across the country. The Trotskyists, including Van – who vividly describes how the uprising unfolded in his historical writings and memoirs – raised demands for arming the people, popular councils, land to the peasants and workers’ control of the factories. The Vietminh, supported by nationalist groups and some of the radical religious sects, stepped into the power vacuum, and announced that it had formed a new government. At a press conference, the Trotskyist Tran van Thach asked who had elected it. Van recalled how Ho Chi Minh’s Saigon ‘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 among the hundreds of Trotskyists murdered by Tran van Giau’s men.
The Communist Party’s policy, determined by the wartime alliance between the USSR, France, Britain and the USA, was to welcome the British troops led by General Gracey and the French militias who were re-entering Vietnam to establish imperial control. The Stalinists therefore fought to erode the power of popular committees that sprang up spontaneously in urban areas. 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 replaced by a new Vietminh hierarchy. In the countryside, some peasants were taking control of the land, lynching some of the Stalinists who stood in their way. Elsewhere, the Vietminh restored the land to its original owners.
By October 1945, the insurrection had faded and the Vietminh controlled all of Vietnam. It remained for the Stalinists to exterminate those who had defied them. A public call was issued to ‘cut down the Trotskyist gang’, and between 1945 and 1951 Communist Party members systematically murdered any Trotskyists who fell into their hands.
Van reluctantly decided to leave Vietnam in the spring of 1948. He had concluded that it was impossible to return to the countryside where, as he later described it, the ‘twin terrors’ of the French and Vietminh were in control. Many years afterwards, he learned that in 1950, three comrades he had left behind had fallen into a Vietminh trap: invited to a secret conference supposedly held by Trotskyist sympathisers, 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 Vietminh radio as that of ‘agents of French imperialism’. By this time, there was scarcely one oppositionist still alive in the country.
Van travelled to France, which hosted the largest Vietnamese immigrant community in Europe. He joined the discussions among Trotskyists and other anti-Stalinist socialists about the lessons of the tumultuous changes that had swept both Europe and Asia since the war. Together with Lu sanh Hanh, the most experienced of the Vietnamese Trotskyists to escape the massacre, he joined the Union Ouvrière Internationale (UOI – International Workers Union) whose members included Grandizo Munis, Benjamin Peret and Sophie Moen. This group had just quit the largest French Trotskyist organisation, the International Communist Party, considering its policy of ‘defence of the USSR’ as a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ to be fatally flawed.
At this time, Van, who had left behind a young family in Vietnam, and Sophie Moen became partners – a relationship that lasted until her death in 1995. The UOI folded in 1954, after which both Van and Sophie joined an informal discussion group inspired by the writer and researcher Maximilien Rubel’s original and radical interpretations of Marx. They maintained a close friendship with Rubel for four decades. Most of the group were industrial workers – including Van, who worked at the Jeumont-Schneider factory until his retirement – and they embraced many of the precepts of ‘council communism’ and propagated the need for grass-roots workers’ councils against the communist and social democratic labour bureaucracies.
In a special edition of its newsletter published after the general strike of May–June 1968, the group declared:
Socialism is utopian in the sense that it is a creative project derived from both science and idealism, from both knowledge and desire. Having agitated for years around the concept of socialist councils, we were not so surprised to see the slogan of ‘workers’ councils’ on walls and leaflets for the first time in France.
The group had no wish to exaggerate its own importance, but nonetheless considered itself the bearer of an historical tradition in conflict with that of the official workers’ organisations: ‘May 1968 contributed to the awakening in practice of the idea that would afterwards be implanted in the consciousness of all those who fought for a new world.’
Van seriously set about writing the history of the Vietnamese workers’ movement when he was already in his mid-70s. Throughout his decades as a factory worker in France, he had maintained a close interest in the history of Asian peasant movements. In 1976, he had published a short book on magic and politics in ancient Chinese society. In the 1960s and 1970s, he had also published several articles analysing Ho Chi Minh’s Communist Party as a combination of peasant guerrillaism and Stalinist reaction, and characterising his regime as fundamentally anti-socialist. But it was an argument that few in the European left wanted to hear. The protest movement against American aggression in Vietnam was at its height, and Ho Chi Minh’s reputation as an ‘anti-imperialist’ hero was bolstered not only by official communist parties, but also by most Trotskyists. For many of the leaders of the Trotskyist groups – who had soldiered on through the 1950s and now found their ranks swelling rapidly, often with recruits for whom American barbarity was a burning issue – Ho Chi Minh’s role as an assassin of Vietnamese revolutionaries was an inconvenient contradiction. The Vietnamese Trotskyists were dismissed in rhetoric and disowned in practice.
The burden of a factory job delayed Van’s work for many years. When one of the authors of this obituary visited him in 1987, he pulled out his pile of notes on the Vietnamese Trotskyists of the 1930s, and wondered aloud who might read his work if he completed it. The answer (not articulated at the time) was that a new generation would, in Vietnam, in Europe and beyond. The political tide was already turning: the apparent certainties of the 1970s and 1980s, when the European labour movement was strong and Stalinism a constant enemy, were disappearing from under the Trotskyists’ feet. Before long, the collapse of the USSR would force further reconsiderations. Pierre Broué, a biographer of Trotsky, and Claude Bernard (‘Raoul’), a French Trotskyist who worked more closely than most with his counterparts in the former French colonies, urged Van to return to his notes. They assured him they would publish his work, and, as a result, a series of articles appeared in Broué’s journal, Cahiers Léon Trotsky, in 1990–91.
Van now had the wind in his sails. He expanded on the articles, placing the Trotskyists’ story in the broader context of the tumultuous social movements in Vietnam in the interwar years, and in 1996 published his most important work to date, Vietnam 1920–1945: Revolution and Counter-Revolution Under Colonial Domination, in French. A Vietnamese edition followed, which gained a huge readership both among émigrés and as samizdat within the country. In 1997, Van visited his homeland for the first time in more than half a century. He returned to France with renewed enthusiasm and completed a second volume, covering the history of Vietnam up to the end of the twentieth century, which was published a few days after his death. His autobiographical writing is currently being translated into English.
Van leaves his partner of recent years, Helene Fleury, and many, many family members.
Hilary Horrocks and Simon Pirani
In a foreword to his autobiography, In the Land of the Cracked Bell, Ngo Van explained what led him to embrace Trotskyism, and what later led him away from it, as follows:
Hardly 11 years had elapsed since the October Revolution in Russia, when I found myself consciously confronted by the oppressive reality of Indochinese society. I revolted against it. For me, as for so many others, the Russian Revolution was the beacon of hope that liberation was possible. Yet already, as the days of my apprenticeship in life and struggle went by, through morsels of information, worrying signs reached us about what was happening there. Oppositionist revolutionaries had been hunted down, Trotsky had just been exiled. Through the Third International, Stalin was imposing a totalitarian policy that, it seemed to us, betrayed the internationalism that was integral to every revolutionary struggle. It was natural that the ideas and the supporters of Trotsky should influence our critique of the Stalinist regime, the full horror of which became spectacularly clear with the Moscow Trials.
Since my departure from Indochina in 1948, although the hope and conviction of the necessity of overthrowing the despicable world order has never left me, I have reflected more on the nature of Bolshevism and revolution. I met again in France, in the factories and elsewhere, allies – French, colonised people, Spanish, other survivors – who, in the POUM or with the anarchists, lived a parallel experience to ours: that of being engaged in a battle on two fronts: against a reactionary regime, and also against a Stalinist party seeking to take power.
These meetings, my re-reading of Marx (illuminated by the work of Maximilien Rubel), the discovery of the existence of workers’ councils in Bavaria in 1919 and of the Kronstadt revolt in Russia in 1921, then of the resurgence of workers’ councils in Hungary in 1956, led me to research into new revolutionary perspectives that led me away from Bolshevism-Leninism-Trotskyism, led me to develop an absolute mistrust of everything that could turn into an ‘apparatus’. The so-called ‘workers’ parties’ (Leninist parties especially) are embryonic state regimes. Once in power, these parties form the nucleus of a new ruling class, and can only give rise to a new system of exploitation of man by man. ‘The existence of the state and the existence of enslavement are indivisible.’ (Karl Marx [Vorwärts, 7 and 10 August, 1844, in Karl Marx, Oeuvres, Volume 3, La Pléiade, Paris,1982])
‘Who controls the present, controls the past’, wrote George Orwell perceptively [in Nineteen Eighty-Four]. When history becomes the word of the victor, absorbing and overwhelming all past struggles with a Manicheism that obscures what was truly at stake, the present is imposed as an ineluctable fate. The future of human society, therefore, depends on man’s capacity to wrest this past out of the cold grip of our present masters. Witnesses have been lost: we must try to bring them to life again, revealing once more the links in this tradition of struggle, and reviving it in the present, passing the baton on to this and future generations.
Books and pamphlets by Ngo Van:
- Vu an Moscou, Nha xuat ban Chong trao luu (Saigon 1937), a pamphlet in Vietnamese on the Moscow Trials.
- Divination, magie et politique dans la Chine ancienne [Divination, Magic and Politics in Ancient China] (PUF, Paris,1976).
- Revolutionaries They Could Not Break: The Fight for the Fourth International in Indochina 1930–1945 (Index Books, London 1995), Van’s articles on the Vietnamese Trotskyists during 1930–45 from Cahiers Léon Trotsky, revised for publication in English by the author.
- Viet-nam 1920–1945, révolution et contre-révolution sous la domination coloniale [Vietnam 1920–1945: Revolution and Counter-Revolution Under Colonial Domination], L’insomniaque, Paris 1996; reprinted by Nautilus, 2000.
- Viet nam 1920–1945, cach mang va phan cach mang thoi do ho thuc dan (USA, 1996; reprinted L’insomniaque, Paris 2000), the Vietnamese edition of the above work.
- Une amitié, une lutte, 1954–1996 (L’insomniaque, Paris 1997), an account of Van’s political work and friendship with Maximilien Rubel.
- Au Pays de la Cloche Felée: tribulations d’un Cochinchinois a l’époque coloniale [In the Country of the Cracked Bell: The Trials of a Cochinchinese in the Colonial Age] (L’insomniaque, Paris 2000), Van’s autobiography, covering the period up to 1945.
- Contes d’autrefois du Viet nam: Chuyen doi xua xu Viet [Vietnamese Tales from Bygone Days] (with Helene Fleury) (Paris 2001), Vietnamese folk tales for children in a bilingual French-Vietnamese edition.
- Con Maximilien Rubel, 1954–1996: un’amicizia, una lotta comune (Rome 2003), an Italian translation of Une amitie, une lutte.
- Utopie antique et guerre des paysans en Chine [Ancient Utopias and Peasant Wars in China] (Chat qui Pêche, Paris 2004).
- Memoria Escuelta: de Cochinchina a Vietnam (Octaedro, Barcelona 2004), Spanish translation of the Au Pays de la Cloche Felée.
- Viet nam 1945–2000: Le joueur de flute et l’Oncle Ho [Vietnam 1945–2000: the Flute Player and Uncle Ho] (Paris 2005).
- Au Pays d’Héloise (Paris, forthcoming autumn 2005), the unfinished second volume of Ngo Van’s autobiography, illustrated with his own works.
Articles and interviews by Ngo Van since 1960 can be found on the website www.chatquipeche.org.