From Labour Worker, 5 August 1966, p.3.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
I WRITE IN PROTEST against the extraordinary shift in political alignment which has, without any reasoned discussion in public or (so far as I know) in private, become evident in the bulk of Labour Worker’s articles on the colonial revolution.
It appears from the writings of several contributors that only two attitudes are possible on the Vietnam question,: either the slogan of “negotiations” or the slogan of “support for the Vietcong.” Indeed, Ian Birchall criticised the CP in the last issue for refusing to raise the latter as a “basic slogan.”
“Support for the NLF,” “Solidarity with the Vietcong,” “Victory for the Vietcong” and their other variants appear to me, on the contrary, to be far from basic slogans, and indeed to be expendable and possibly questionable as public demands.
As a former area secretary of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, I have worked in campaigns against capitalist militarism and imperialism on such questions as Central Africa, Kenya, Algeria, Cuba and Cyprus. More recently, much of my time has been spent in active work against Johnson’s unspeakable war in Vietnam, on the basis of the demand for unconditional withdrawal of US forces.
In none of the previous campaigns (nor in the brief but intense protest against Anglo-French aggression against Egypt in 1956) was “support” or “solidarity “ (far less “victory”) for a particular national independence movement or national power made into a “basic” question requiring a public confession of loyalty by those who campaigned.
Perhaps we were remiss in those days: perhaps the slogans “Victory for Nasser,” “Solidarity with EOKA,” “Support the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (‘Mau Mau’)” should have been elevated into urgent imperatives to be inscribed on placards or chanted in unison, or made the basis of sharp political judgements (“Oh him – he’s very soggy, he doesn’t support the UAR.”). Perhaps we might have gained greater public support if we had adopted this approach; or maybe not.
I must admit that in the days when this sort of language seemed to have some meaning for me, I was inclined to think of myself as “supporting the FLN” in Algeria: paradoxically, many of those who are now most vociferous on “Support the NLF” then refused outright to declare any solidarity with the FLN. (As the initials have been reversed, so have their political attitudes – without any explanation.)
In the course of several years, however it became clear to me that the notion of “supporting the FLN” covered a variety of possible political attitudes, some of which were permissible to a Socialist while others were much more doubtful. At a certain point in anti-colonial work, a line has to be drawn between solidarity with an oppressed people and acceptance of the policies of a given nationalist movement.
It is to everyone’s advantage that this line should be drawn clearly, without acrimony and early on. Slogans of “Support for XYZ” only cloud and delay the necessity for this dividing line.
I have a certain sympathy with the quandary faced by many of the pro-NLF delegates at the recent Vietnam Solidarity Campaign meeting. By “Solidarity with the NLF and North Vietnam” they understood a certain degree and type of political support for the aims and programmes of Vietnamese Communism.
When the organisers made it clear that this was not what was intended, the pro-NLF delegates felt tricked. If the aim of the meeting was to organise support for the slogan of unconditional withdrawal of U.S. troops, this can be done without declaring “support for the NLF” as the main business. One can either set up a broad but committed movement against US militarism in Vietnam, or else create a propaganda group to do public relations work for the NLF and the Lao Dong. These are definite jobs which people can decide either to take on, or not.
It is much harder to find political living-space, or a coherent set of ideas, for something which is in between these two conceptions, neither the one nor the other.
It is still by no means clear what “support for the NLF” means for those who advocate this slogan. (“Victory for the Vietcong” is even obscurer, inasmuch as it seems to imply that the Americans may meet their Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, a perspective of insignificant likelihood.)
The function of a slogan is surely to regulate and organise public action.
Either “Support the NLF” is taken to mean “campaign against the US presence in Vietnam” (in which case, why not simply say the latter outright?) or else it implies some fairly sophisticated political theory about the progressive character of peasant-based national movements (which in my view – though not in the view of many others – has been amply refuted by the experience of Algeria, Cuba, China and Africa generally).
It does no good at all to confuse the two possible meanings of the slogan; and to brandish the first meaning while refusing the second is to invite unnecessary antagonism from different quarters.
As a matter of temperament, I must admit also that I find the bearing of flags (other than red, international ones) rather repugnant, and the constant references to “the Vietnamese people,” as an active single entity, excessively misleading.
Nationalist enthusiasms and illusions are doubtless inevitable, but we do not have to share them. One would be happier about calls for “arms to the NLF” if one knew that the weapons would never be used to suppress criticism and dissent in a Communist Vietnam; besides, when people raised “Arms for Spain” in the ’thirties they at least went and risked their own lives in firing them.
Finally, it is a mistake to think that “solidarity with the NLF” can be the basis of a successful appeal to the trade-union movement.
Older workers may well have a healthy suspicion of nationalist flag-waving, a suspicion which we should do nothing to lull. Younger workers, like students, may perhaps be drawn in by insignia of romantic belongingness and vicarious military glamour, which, since orthodox patriotism and religion have now lost their appeal are more readily available on the political Left.
However, the exposure of American lies and barbarities, by means of imaginative journalism and symbolism, would seem to offer an appeal that transcends the gap between generations, and to form a sound basis for deeper political understanding.
We should not care whether other people consider this latter type of activity to count as “support for the NLF” or not. (One might guess that the NLF itself would think that it did so count.) To so many inane political questions nowadays (“Are you a Trot?”; “Are you an anarchist?”; “Are you a reformist?”; “Do you defend the Soviet Union?”; “Are you a supporter of the Labour Party?”) one has to answer that the enquiry itself is misconceived. “Do you support the NLF?” is perhaps one more such.
Last updated on 5.12.2004