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Vietnam & Trotskyism

A series of articles by Simon Pirani reprinted from the Workers Press together with supplementary material.


Written: 1986 / 87.
First Published: 1987.
Source: Published by the Communist League (Australia).
Transcription / HTML Markup: Sean Robertson and David Walters for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

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The Vietnamese Trotskyists

By Andy Blunden

All the revolutionaries who introduced Communism to Vietnam and prepared the basis for the August 1945 Revolution came from the same generation, born in the first decade of the century, who participated as teenagers in the upsurge of nationalist activity in the mid-1920s, left their homeland in search of the theory necessary for liberation, returning in the late 20s and early 30s.

Vietnam and Trotskyism

Those from the South (Nam Bo, Nam Ky region or Cochin-China) mostly went to France as students where they came in contact with the political struggles of the European working class. They joined either the Stalinist PCF or the International Left Opposition, whose criticism of the Comintern’s disastrous policies in China won much support among young Asian revolutionaries.

Among this group was Ta Thu Thau.

Ta Thu Thau was born on 5th May 1906 in Tan Binh, Long Xuyen province to a poor but educated family. He studied in Vietnam, gaining his baccalauréat in June 1925.

In 1926 he organised together with Tran Huy Lieu and Bui Cong Trung, demonstrations in support of Vietnamese nationalist leaders of the older generation (demanding amnesty for Phan Boi Chau and a state funeral for Phan Chu Trinh). This vast movement was successful, but the older nationalist leaders, to whose support the young revolutionaries had rallied, never again played any role in the national liberation struggle.

Ta Thu Thau helped found Dang Thanh Nien (Youth Party).

In September 1927 he left for France where he studied in the Faculty of Science, at the University of Paris. He never obtained a degree, becoming active in politics. Thau edited the student newspaper, Vanguard, and joined the Annamite Independence Party.

The Vietnamese Independence Party (PAI or Parti Annamite d’Independence) recruited many Vietnamese students in France. It was founded 1926 by Nguyen The Truyen, a CC member of the PCF, who left the Stalinists and returned to nationalism. The ideological struggles of the European working class soon penetrated the PAI, and in 1929 the PAI disintegrated, the greater parts joining either the Stalinist or Trotskyist organisation.

Ta Thu Thau organised a Trotskyist group inside the PAI along with Huynh Van Phuong and Nguyen Van Luan.

Huynh Van Phuong was born on 30 May 1906 in My Tho province to a well to do family. He studied law at University of Paris and joined the ILO while a member of the PAI.

Following the brutal repression of the mutiny by Vietnamese soldiers at Yen Bay in the north of Vietnam (Bac Ky) in February 1930, the Vietnamese students in France organised powerful anti-colonialist demonstrations which received support from large sections of the French people. The right-wing French government cracked down on the young Vietnamese revolutionaries who organised the demonstrations and 19 were forcibly repatriated. Among the 19, were the Trotskyists Ta Thu Thau, Huynh Van Phuong and Phan Van Chanh, as well as Tran Van Thach and six leading Stalinists. It was these comrades who formed the first nucleus of the Left Opposition in Indochina, and lead the nationalist struggle in the south of Vietnam until 1945.

Ho Chi Minh (Nguyen Ai Quoc) had also learnt Marxism in France. As a young teacher he had travelled to France in December 1911, and in December 1920 voted with the majority of the French Socialist Party to join the Third International. Ho Chi Minh returned in 1924 and set up Thanh Nien (Youth), leading it from its Headquarters in Canton until the end of 1927, working closely with both the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party. Ho Chi Minh had been arrested in Hong Kong on 5 June 1931, and was presumed to be dead. A funeral was even held. In fact, after his release Ho Chi Minh was recalled to Moscow, where he was forcibly confined, doing routine duties for the Comintern.

Ho Chi Minh had been blamed for the disastrous results of the Comintern’s ultra-left policies, which he had implemented in Vietnam. An ill-organised and premature insurrection had been brutally crushed by the French and the majority of ICP cadre killed or imprisoned. Ho Chi Minh was absent from the political scene throughout the 1930s, and, under Comintern leadership, the ICP was virtually eclipsed. Ho Chi Minh was hardly mentioned, except for some criticism in 1934, until his return to Vietnam in February 1941.

Ta Thu Thau

Returning to Saigon Ta Thu Thau founded, in 1931, Indochinese Communism, as a section of the International Left Opposition, the first Trotskyist organisation in Vietnam. Along with Ta Thu Thau, the founders of Indochinese Communism included Huynh Van Phuong, Phan Van Chanh and Le Van Thu.

The Indochinese Communist Party was founded in 1929 when, under Comintern direction, three different factions of the disintegrated Thanh Nien united.

In this period, the International Left Opposition saw itself as a faction of the Comintern. It had a perspective of winning a majority of the Third International back to Marxism, and where national sections of the ILO predominated over the Stalinists they were to regard the Stalinists as a minority faction.

In line with this perspective, Indochinese Communism saw itself as a faction of the ICP, and had a perspective of refounding the smashed ICP as a section of the Comintern in which the Left Opposition would be the majority faction.

Their paper was Proletarian Torch. The issue of 28 August 1932 stated:

‘The Left Faction of the Indochinese Communist Party learned with much sorrow that comrade Nguyen Ai Quoc has passed away …

‘Comrade Quoc is dead, but the ICP lives. It will live on indefinitely. The Left Faction of the ICP will follow you, comrade Quoc. It will continue its task and make sure that the Indochinese Communist Party will be the deserving and only party of Indochinese proletarians.’

Indochinese Communism later split into three factions – Left Opposition, October Left Opposition and Indochinese Communism. Indochinese Communism, led by Ta Thu Thau, sought to utilise legal opportunities.

October Left Opposition remained solely a clandestine organisation, and with its paper October, was led by Ho Huu Tuong.

Ho Huu Tuong was born on 10 October 1910, the son of a poor peasant in Thuong Thanh, Can Tho province. He was expelled from primary school in 1926 for his activity in the nationalist upsurge of the mid-1920s. He then studied in Aix-en-Provence and Lyons where he was active in politics and became a Trotskyist. He returned to Saigon in January 1931 and founded the October group, which later became known as the Ligue Communiste Internationaliste.

In the mid 1930s, Ho Huu Tuong met Dao Van Long, a former member of the Thanh Nien (Youth Party) of Ho Chi Minh, who had established in January 1931 the Vung Hong (Aurora) group, or Communist League, having about 50 members in the south. The Aurora group was critical of the Stalinists’ failure to turn to the working class, and Ho Huu Tuong won them to Trotskyism.

In 1932 Ta Thu Thau and over 120 other revolutionaries, both Stalinists and Trotskyists were arrested by the colonial government. The Trotskyists were to be tried in Saigon on May Day 1933, the Stalinists on the 2-6 May.

Elections to the Saigon Municipal Council were due for the 30 April. Six of the eighteen seats were reserved for Vietnamese, twelve for French. The Vietnamese seats had hitherto been monopolised by the Constitutionalists, a right-wing land-owners’ party.

In order to seize the opportunity created by the election campaign in order to popularise the ideas of Marxism and the militant national liberation struggle, and, in particular under conditions of severe repression, to defend their imprisoned comrades, the Struggle Front was initiated in January 1933 by members of the same 19 young revolutionaries who had been deported from France in May 1930.

The Front was formed by two Stalinists (Nguyen Van Tao [20.5.1906-1972, Minister for Labour in government of the DRVN] and Duong Bach Mai [born 17.4.1904, was head of the GPU in the South in August 1945 and principal assassin of the Trotskyists), two Trotskyists (Ta Thu Thau and Phan Van Hum), an anarchist (Trinh Hung Ngau) and two other left anti-colonialists (Nguyen An Ninh & Tran Van Thach). The Front had no name, but became known as the Struggle group – La Lutte – after its paper.

Phan Van Hum was born on 9 April 1902 in An Thanh, Thu Dau Mol province to a well to do family. As an official in the colonial administration in Hue, he sheltered striking students in 1927, became active in the anti-colonialist movement and was forced to resign. He returned to Saigon in 1928, and collaborated with Nguyen An Ninh in founding the High Aspirations Youth Party. He left for France 1929, studied at the Sorbonne where he came in contact with Marxism, became politically active and fled from the police, returning to Saigon and becoming one of the main leaders of La Lutte.

Tran Van Thach was born on 15 October 1903 to a wealthy family. He went to France in 1926, studied philosophy, gaining a degree from University of Paris. Returning to Saigon at the beginning of 1930, he was recruited to Trotskyism as a member of La Lutte in 1937. A teacher, he became a leading member of La Lutte.

The Stalinist members of the Front were not in close touch with the Comintern. The issue of their participation in La Lutte was not even raised at the July 1936 ICP Congress, and this was doubtless taken as tacit approval. The CC of the French PCF did give its approval to participation in the Front.

The formal objective of La Lutte was to use all possible legal means to struggle overtly for the ‘independent and historical interests of the working class and the oppressed masses and to make the general masses devote themselves to class struggle.’

The terms of the Front were that participating groups would agree to:
‘a) No calumny against USSR
 b) No hostile attitude towards Communist parties
 c) No press campaigns of a character contrary to the program of common action nor criticism against policy of the allied factions’

The Front held public forums, and took over rallies called by their opponents. They made a big impact among the masses.

The paper was published for only two weeks before the election. It attacked the Constitutionalists, made popular Marxist propaganda in favour of democratic rights, the right to strike, free public housing etc, but closed down after only four issues due to lack of funds. It was not anticipated that the Front would continue after the elections.

After the election both the workers’ slate candidates elected were disqualified on technical grounds – Tran Van Thach hadn’t paid sufficient tax to qualify.

So successful was the Struggle Front [La Lutte], however, that it was continued. The rapid expansion of Communist influence in south of Vietnam in the 1930s was solely due to the activity of La Lutte, not the ICP of Ho Chi Minh.

La LutteTa Thu Thau was liberated early in 1933, and became editor of La Lutte. From October 1934 La Lutte appeared as a regular weekly, every Thursday. In order to spread the influence of the new Front, Ta Thu Thau and Nguyen Van Tao travelled to the North and campaigned together.

By the time of the May 1935 elections, La Lutte and its leaders were well known and respected among the masses for their integrity. The anti-colonial struggle had been popularised among the masses in a way never seen before. Previously the anti-colonial struggle had been confined to a minority who worked clandestinely, now it had taken root among the masses.

In May 1935 two Trotskyists and two Stalinists were elected (Tao, Mai, Tran Van Thach and Ta Thu Thau) winning 4 of the 6 Vietnamese seats.

La Lutte acted as a contact point for all the anti-colonialist activists, especially those just released from prison, it held public meetings, recruited on the streets and everywhere in public.

In July 1935, the seventh World Congress of Comintern initiated the Popular Front policy. A Popular Front government was elected in France.

The promises of the Popular Front government raised the expectations of the Vietnamese, and undermined the confidence of colons.

These expectations were entirely disappointed, although there was, as a result largely of the expectations, a huge upsurge in the mass movement. Legal activity was possible for a period, and some political prisoners were released for a while. The October group continued to operate clandestinely as did the ICP.

La Lutte responded to the mass upsurge by turning to the masses in a broad campaign for democratic rights, and workers power. On 6 Oct 1938 a Vietnamese version of La Lutte, Tranh Dau, came out. In all there were five newspapers, including those of the clandestine organisations, but it was under the leadership of La Lutte that all the groups co-ordinated their anti-colonialist struggle.

The influence of the ICP had been reduced to nil by the early 1930s due to ultra-left policies of Comintern foisted upon the ICP, together with arrest of almost the entire cadre, in turn facilitated by adventurist tactics flowing from the Comintern line.

Cadre selected and trained by the Comintern during the period of ‘proletarianisation’, principally from among Vietnamese workers in France, chiefly domestic servants and cooks etc, and sent back by Comintern were usually of no use to the revolution. Most betrayed the cause as soon as they arrived or were arrested. Those who remained to lead the ICP were sycophants who blindly applied the Comintern line.

The Comintern ‘reconstructed’ the ICP in 1932, entirely separately from the small cadre that had survived the French repression. Despite this, the ICP benefitted from its membership of the Comintern in numerous ways; leaders were kept in ‘sanctuaries’ outside the country to escape repression, and to be returned later, replenishing the party’s forces; the solidarity actions of other sections; legal defence support etc, which the ILO could not give.

During the early 1930s the Comintern condemned any concession to ‘nationalism’, a policy which was disastrous in Vietnam.

It was those among the 19 students deported from France in May 1930, both Stalinists and Trotskyists, who led La Lutte which created the mass movement which was to be the basis of the August 1945 revolution, not members of the party founded by Ho Chi Minh, although the members of La Lutte saw themselves as part of the ICP.

The ICP was directed by the Comintern to break from La Lutte. It attempted to set up a Popular Front with bourgeois parties and individuals – the Indochinese Democratic Front. This was largely unsuccessful, except for election of Democratic Front representatives to Hanoi council in April 1939. Some members of the ICP went to the right in over-enthusiasm in implementing Popular Front line. Some refused to implement the line, especially in the south where La Lutte had been operating.

In December 1936 the Southern ICP, under the leadership of Nguyen Van Tao, voted to reject the ICP CC instruction to leave La Lutte.

In June 1936 La Lutte organised Marxist study groups among students and workers (arsenal and tramway workers). The study groups were banned in 1937.

On 13 August 1936 La Lutte initiated the Indochinese Congress, ostensibly to prepare submissions to France’s Popular Front government’s investigation commission. The Congress included representatives of bourgeois parties – in fact Nguyen Phan Long, head of Constitutionalists was elected chair.

The Indochinese Congress’s members included Nguyen Phan Long, Le Quang Liem (Constitutionalists), Nguyen Van Sam, Tran Van Kha (Left Constitutionalists), Nguyen Van Tao (Stalinist), Ta Thu Thau, Tran Van Thach, Ho Huu Tuong, Dao Van Long (Trotskyists), Nguyen An Ninh, Trinh Hung Ngau (an anarchist), Nguyen Thi Luu, Mai Huynh Hoa, Nguyen Thi Nam (women revolutionaries). The Constitutionalists resigned on 15 September 1936, but the Congress was always dominated by the members of La Lutte.

The actual activity of the Congress in fact went far beyond its ostensible role. It organised the masses into permanent Action Committees in villages, districts, cities, factories and professions, to formulate demands and perspectives for the struggle for an independent Vietnam.

600 Action Committees were formed in the south in one month, holding often daily meetings, bringing together 10,000 people, and distributing leaflets in numbers up to 450,000. Its activities affected all social classes. It also organised strikes, and by the end of 1936 achieved widespread popular action.

In 1937, the French Popular Front government banned the Indochinese Congress, and jailed Nguyen Van Tao, Ta Thu Thau and Nguyen An Ninh, the leaders of La Lutte.

While they were in jail, Ho Huu Tuong of the October group, later to become the Ligue Communiste Internationaliste, took over editorial leadership of La Lutte, and from early October to late November 1936 Struggle continued its attack on the Popular Front government of France, and also stepped up criticism of Stalin.

By June 1937, the Stalinists were compelled by the ICP to leave the front. Nevertheless, the southern region of the ICP still insisted on its independence within the ICP, and its right to oppose the Popular Front policy.

The legal conditions of the Popular Front had reduced the pressure which had made the La Lutte front possible and necessary, and the front broke up. The Stalinists increasingly resorted to the tactic of accusing the Trotskyists of being agents provocateurs, fascist agents etc.

The October group, led by Ho Huu Tuong, was strongest in Saigon-Cholon and had numerous members in many factories, especially the arsenal, the railway and the tramworks. At the arsenal they had several hundred members as against the Stalinists who had about 100.

During the period of 1931-36, they printed October (Thang Muoi), then Le Militant. In 1938 they published the weekly Workers-Peasant Unity and Proletarian Revolution. In 1939 they produced the legal daily Tia Sang (Spark).

The October group remained entirely a clandestine organisation. It consistently refused to participate in joint fronts with the Stalinists, and maintained an unrelenting bitter polemic against the Stalinists.

(Ho Huu Tuong survived the repression following the August 1945 revolution, but apparently rejected Marxism in 1949 on ‘philosophical grounds’, returning to ‘literary work’. In 1977 he was arrested in Ho Chi Minh City leading a demonstration. Later released from prison, he died in 1980.)

From late 1938, due to the intensified repression of the colonial government, the ICP withdrew to the countryside and went underground. The ICP also began to take up the national question.

After the fall of the Popular Front government in France, on 26 September 1939, the PCF was ‘dissolved’. On 28 September 1939, the governor of Indochina ‘dissolved’ the ICP. Virtually all oppositionists were arrested by the colonialists in the first wave of arrests in September 1939 – 800 were arrested in the south, 2000 throughout the rest of the country. The organisations of both Trotskyists and Stalinists were decimated in this and subsequent raids.

France was defeated by fascist Germany in June 1940. The colonial regime supported Vichy France, and actively backed the Japanese even before the invasion of Indochina began. Gaullists were arrested.

The Japanese invasion began in September 1940, and was complete by July 1941. The Japanese made few changes in the administration of Vietnam – the French were left to run the colonial administration, and French troops given freedom of movement, but increasingly the French were seen as a mere ‘shell’ controlled by the Japanese.

Nationalist feelings grew dramatically as a result of the obvious weakness of the French colonialists. A badly organised insurrection in November-December 1940 in the south led to the decimation of the remaining cadre of the ICP.

Both the Japanese and French tried to appeal to Vietnamese nationalism, the Japanese encouraging religious groups Cao Dai and Hoa Hao, the French organising urban youth in sports clubs, scouts etc, which were in fact taken over by Communists.

The 8th Plenum of the ICP held in May 1941, in a mountainous region near the Chinese border, was chaired by Ho Chi Minh. He was now the only representative in the ICP leadership of older generation that had been active in 1920s. All the sycophants promoted into leadership by the Comintern were dead or imprisoned.

From November 1939, the Indochinese Democratic Front had been replaced by the National United Front, which aimed to unite all social classes on the basis of the anti-imperialist struggle. The Vietminh was founded, identifying the main enemy as the Japanese. The Vietminh sought and received assistance from the US, who indicated initially that they would support a Vietminh independent government. (Under Truman this was reversed and the US supported the French to re-establish colonial rule.) The Vietminh also sought to collaborate with Gaullist French.

On 22 December 1944 the Vietnamese People’s Army was established in zones liberated by the Vietminh near the Chinese border.

The French colonial power was destroyed by a Japanese coup d’état on 9 March 1945. The Japanese attacked all French positions at 9pm, and the French were destroyed within 24 hours.

Many of the anti-colonialist leaders escaped from prison in the confusion of the days after the coup. On 11 September, Emperor Bao Dai declared the ‘independence’ of Vietnam and the monarchs of Laos and Cambodia followed suit. There was however no response among the Vietnamese people to the Emperor’s pledge to collaborate with the Japanese and instead there was a flowering of political organisations, all aspiring to real independence.

After the Japanese coup d’├ętat Japanese replaced French at the top, but otherwise the colonial administration continued much as before.

From late 1943 starvation had begun to spread, especially in the north, due to the accumulated pillage of the French colonialists and Japanese military occupation. The ICP put forward a policy of seizing granaries, which met a response among the peasants.

The liberated areas held by the ICP near the Chinese border, with Allied assistance, received a steady stream of workers and youth from the urban areas, and by the time of the fall of the Japanese a small but important base had been established by Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh.

The events following the defeat of Japan are covered in the articles reprinted from Workers Press and will not be repeated here.

Ta Thu Thau, soon after his release after two years in prison, was imprisoned by the French at the Poulo Condor concentration camp from October 1939 until the fall of the Japanese in 1945. He emerged from prison half-paralysed due to maltreatment. He travelled to Hanoi to help co-ordinate famine relief but was arrested by the Vietminh while returning south, and murdered at Quang Ngai in September 1945.

Phan Van Chanh was killed by the Vietminh in October 1945 after being arrested along with other leaders of the Struggle group while holding a meeting in Xuan Truong.

Huynh Van Phuong had moved to Hanoi in 1936 where he had founded the Le Travail group with Vo Nguyen Giap, Tran Huy Lieu, Khuat Duy Tien and others. He was murdered by the Vietminh 1945.

Tran Van Thach, one of the principal leaders of the Trotskyists in the south, was arrested by the Vietminh after the Saigon insurrection of 23 September, while attending a meeting of La Lutte leadership at Xuan Truong and shot along with Nguyen Van So and Nguyen Van Tien, and other leaders of La Lutte, on 5 October 1945.

Phan Van Hum was killed by the Vietminh in October 1945 along with most of the remaining leaders of La Lutte.

Huynh Van Phuong was killed by the Vietminh in October 1945.

Ho Vinh Ky, a woman doctor, was shot by the Vietminh along with leaders of La Lutte in September 1945. Another Trotskyist, Nguyen Thi Toi was kiIIed by the Viet Minh in October 1945 in Can Giuoc.

Hinh Thai Thong of La Lutte was arrested while presiding at an inter-communal delegates meeting, and disembowelled by a Vietminh gang at My Tho in October 1945.

Tran Dinh Minh a young leader of the tramworkers and the LCI, a former writer from Hanoi, was killed by French troops at Plaine des Joncs 13 January 1946 following the death of 20 other tramworkers, who fought the Allied invasion which was supported by Vietminh colIaboration.

Le Van Vung, general secretary of the Saigon-Cholon regional council was assassinated by the French on 16 September 1945, thanks to Vietminh collaboration with the French.

Le Ngoc, a tram worker, and a CC member of the LCI was stabbed to death by the Vietminh in January 1946.

Nguyen Van Ky, an ICL labour leader, was murdered by the Vietminh in January 1946.

Nguyen Huong, a 14 year old tram worker and leader of the 60-strong workers’ militia at Go Vap tramworks was killed by Stalinist police in July 1946.

210 Trotskyists were killed at Thi Nghe in September 1945 by the British.

An unknown number of Trotskyists were killed after mass arrests by the Vietminh at My Tho, Tan An, Bien Hoa, Can Tho, Tay Ninh, in October 1945.

An unknown number of members of Trotskyist LCI were killed at Kien An by the Vietminh on 23 October 1945.

An unknown number of Trotskyist members of La Lutte group were arrested while holding meeting at Thu Duc, in October 1945, and killed at Ben Sue.

Most of the leaders of the Ligue Communiste Internationaliste were killed by the Vietminh on 14th September 1945 after the Vietminh surrounded the Headquarters of the Popular Committees and arrested all the delegates, who did not resist arrest.

Three quarters of membership of Vietnamese section of FI in exile, (Groupe Communiste Internationaliste du Vietnam) in France, ‘disappeared’ after being deported back to Vietnam in 1950-51.

17 June 1987



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