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Vietnam: Another Revolution Betrayed

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Review of ‘The Revolution Defamed: A Documentary History of Vietnamese Trotskyism’. Edited and Annotated by Al Richardson. Socialist Platform 2003.
Vietnam: Another Revolution Betrayed

Al Richardson, who died recently, was co-editor of Revolutionary History. In this small book he has brought together a number of documentary sources on the rise and fall of Trotskyism in Vietnam. The book is important because it collects material that is not readily available and adds to the scanty sources already published in English.[1] The lesson is, sadly, one of the tragic betrayal and defeat of the Vietnamese revolution.

The history of Trotskyism in Vietnam is one of tragedy. Vietnamese Trotskyism fulfilled Trotsky’s hopes and expectations in becoming the vanguard of the proletariat only to fall at the hands of the Stalinists at the critical moment in 1945. This tragedy is one of betrayal, not only of the Stalinists, but also of the French leaders of the 4th International after Trotsky’s death.

While Trotsky warned of the dangers of the popular front and fought ruthlessly to expose those elements who succumbed, notably the POUM in Spain, these lessons were learned in vain. During the same years that Trotsky condemned the popular front in Europe, it was the practice of at least one of the Trotskyist groups in Vietnam to enter into alliances with the Vietnamese Stalinists who were covertly negotiating with the national bourgeoisie. For the brave Vietnamese these fronts were to tragically vindicate Trotsky’s warnings and prove to be their death sentence.

The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution

Trotsky warned of the dangers of the popular front after the defeat of the Chinese Revolution in 1927 (See Class Struggle, #46,47. 2002). The great betrayal of Stalinist policy in China in the 1920’s turned what should have been a military bloc into a popular front. Following Stalin’s takeover of the CP of the SU he proposed the theory of the ‘bloc of 4 classes’ in which the workers, peasants, and intellectuals were the allies of the national bourgeoisie against the imperialists. The CP of China allowed the Nationalist general Chiang Kai Shek to have overall command of its forces. The Left Opposition warned of the danger of this policy but could not prevent Chiang from turning on the Communist militants and wiping them out in their tens of thousands.

What is the lesson of China 1925-27? That workers can bloc with sections of the bourgeosie in an anti-imperialist united front (AIUF) provided they have complete political and organisational independence. In all cases of this independence must be expressed as a military independence. This is absolutely critical in the case of war. Where workers lose their independence within a front or bloc this leads to the liquidation of the workers vanguard by the bourgeoisie doing a deal with imperialism.

Having learnt this harsh lesson in China, and having lived through the failure of the united front in the face of fascism in the early 1930’s, Trotsky made the method of the united front the mainstay of his transitional program. This program of the Fourth International calls on the vanguard to ‘unite’ with the working masses to guide it over the bridge to revolution, by raising demands that expose and disarm the class collaborationists of the bourgeoisie in the labour movement. It was the failure of this method, of abandoning the leadership of the workers to the bosses and their agents that handed over the workers to the counter-revolution. This capitulation became evident in the Fourth International soon after the death of Trotsky in 1940, but its first incontrovertible demonstration came in Vietnam, 1945.

Vietnam: The First Betrayal of Trotskyism?

The first great betrayal of Trotskyism in the post war period, Vietnam 1945, resulted from the inability of Trotskyists to apply the Anti-imperialist united front a military bloc. That is, they failed to limit their collaboration with the Stalinists to a military bloc and succumbed to political alliances.

We can trace the causes of this defeat in the previous decade. One section of the Trotskyists united in a “Struggle Front” with Stalinists between 1933-1937. They retained their separate organisations but renounced their political independence by refraining from criticising their Stalinist front partners.

It was one thing to work alongside the Stalinists in united fronts to try and break away their rank and file. After all as early as 1929 the Communist Party Youth wing in Indochina rejected the Stalinist 2 stage theory as a result of the tragic betrayal in China. Leading youth cadres challenged the political line of the 6th congress on the Colonial Question. They attacked the Youth League for its opportunism towards the Vietnamese Nationalist Party that had close relations with the Guomindang, and formed the ‘Indo-Chinese Communist Party’ as a “party of the Indo-Chinese working class” (TRD, 56). This party was united into the PCI when it was formed in 1931 following an upsurge in anti-imperialist struggle in 1930-31.

But it is quite another thing to suppress political criticism of Stalinism inside the united front. This became critical after May 1936 when the PCI adopted the turn to the Popular Front. Originating in France, the Popular Front was a political pact between the Communists and bourgeoisie in which the Communists abandoned the goal of revolution in order to strengthen the French ruling class stand against German fascism and the threat it posed to the Soviet Union.

Trotsky reacted by condemning the Popular Fronts as traps that would disarm the workers in the face of fascism and demanded that his supporters form united fronts to break workers from the Popular Front. But in Indochina the Trotskyists joined forces in a colonial mini-popular front, the ‘Indo-Chinese Congress’ which abandoned the struggle for independence to keep the peace with the ‘democratic’ French! (TRD, 66).

The Trotskyist movement split. One group opposed to all collaboration with the Stalinists and nationalists formed the International Communist League which published a news-sheet called The Vanguard. But the Struggle Group continued to work actively in hundreds of ‘action committees’ for national liberation where the politics of Trotskyism was buried in joint political work with the Stalinists. Not until the Indochina Communist Party broke the ‘Struggle Front’ in 1937 abandoning the goal of national liberation in favour of a popular front with the ‘democratic’ Vietnamese bourgeoisie against fascism, did the ‘Struggle’ Trotskyists critique the popular front.

The correctness of this belated break with the Stalinists was shown in April 1939, when contesting the Saigon city council elections on a full Transitional Program, the Struggle Group won over 80% of the vote compared with less than 1% going to the Stalinists! (TRD, 71; and Vietnam and Trotskyism (V&T), Communist League (Australia) 1987, 27-32). Such was the influence of the Trotskyists in these years, Ho Chi Minh sent his famous directive to his party in Hanoi to “politically eliminate the Trotskyists” (TRD, 46).

Revolution and Counter-revolution

According to Ngo Van “There was a complete absence of any opposition to French administration under the Japanese boot from 1940 to 1945. All the subversives were in prison, concentration camps or labour camps: (TRD, 47).

In 1945, the Stalinist Vietminh backed the Allies against the Japanese. Opposing this, the Trotskyists called for a workers and peasants government which won overwhelming support in the popular committees especially in Saigon. With the Japanese surrender on August 16, the Vietminh took over power from the Japanese and called for the imperialists to return so they could negotiate national independence! The Trotskyists led an armed insurrection against the British and French invasion and put up a strong military resistance.

When on Sept 1 the Vietminh called on workers to welcome the allies, 400,000 workers demonstrated their opposition. The Struggle Group contingent was 18,000 strong. At this point the question of the armed independence of the Trotskyists from the Stalinists was posed as a matter of life and death. The Stalinists ordered the disarming of all oppositionists. Three days later the allies invaded. On the 23 September the Saigon Insurrection broke out. Led by the ICL the workers of Saigon organised themselves into ‘workers militia’ and fought the British and French forces for control of Saigon. One week later the Vietminh began arresting the popular committees and smashing the militia. They did not face much resistance from some of the Trotskyists!

A member of the Trotskyist International Communist League writes: “We behaved like true revolutionaries, although there were more of us and we were better armed. We surrendered our arms, machine guns and automatic pistols. They destroyed our office, broke up the furniture, tore up our flags, stole our typewriters and burnt our papers.” (TRD,9). Others put up a fight and were killed in battle, or like the leaders of the Struggle group, were isolated, captured and shot by the Vietminh or by the imperialists. (V&T, 41-45).

What are the lessons?

Having survived the Stalinists in the prewar period, and now thrust to the fore of the armed revolution, why weren’t the Trotskyists prepared for the treachery of the Stalinists in 1945? Why did the Struggle Group propose a united front to the Vietminh against the imperialists? (V&T,55). And why give “critical support to the Vietminh government” not long before being rounded up and shot? (V&T, 58)

It was already clear that the most militant workers knew that the Vietminh was in league with the imperialists. They rejected the passive resistance of the Vietminh ‘patriotic front’. Some working class areas of Saigon put up a strong fight but they needed to be organised into militias. For example, why wasn’t the 18,000 strong Struggle Group contingent organised into an armed militia when the ICL, ‘Spark’ and the Tramway depot had formed militias?

It seems that the Trotskyists, especially the Struggle Group, were handicapped by their pre-war collaboration with the Stalinists. The ‘crisis’ among Trotskyists in France on the question of the popular front in the 1930’s contributed to the crisis in the French colony. Ultimately, it was the failure of the French section and of the Fourth International to provide the correct leadership during the 1930’s and 1940’s that led the Vietnamese Trotskyists into the trap of a popular front with the Stalinists and Nationalists and then to their massacre by the Stalinists.

These and other larger questions concerning the failure of the leadership of the Fourth International on the colonial question during and immediately after the war will be the subject of a a follow-up article to this review. The materials in this book add to the vital documentation of these questions helping us to find the correct causes of this historic betrayal.

What ended in a tragic historic defeat could have been the beginning of the revolution in Indochina, which now regrettably had to endure another 30 years of colonial rule followed by a Stalinist restoration of capitalism!

[1] See Revolutionary History Vol 3, No 2, 1990, and Vietnam and Trotskyism, by Simon Pirani, Communist League (Australia) 1987. 
Photo at top is of Ta  Thu Thâu (1906–1945) a Vietnamese Trotskyist and the leader of the Fourth International in Vietnam.

From Class Struggle 57 August-September 2004 geovisit(); setstats