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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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Battle for Trotskyism

Vietnam & Trotskyism

Part 1. Vietnam & Trotskyism
Part 2. The ‘Struggle’ Front
Part 3. 1945: Vietnam’s August Revolution
Part 4. A Stalinist Massacre
Part 5. The Fourth International and the Stalinist Ho Chi Minh
Part 6. The Trotskyists and the United National Front

Vietnam & Trotskyism

By Simon Pirani
Reprinted from Workers Press, December 6, 1986

APRIL 30, 1975: the National Liberation Front of Vietnam swept in Saigon, renamed it Ho Chi Minh city, and destroyed the last remnants of the imperialist puppet regime of Nguyen Van Thieu.

American imperialism suffered a crushing blow. Its officials and military ‘advisors’ scrambled for places on the helicopters evacuating their Saigon embassy. Since 1954 the US had used more bombs than all sides in the Second World War, chemical and biological warfare, and the ‘strategic hamlet’ policy which turned villages into prison camps – and failed to crush Vietnam.

The struggle did not stop at the expulsion of the imperialists and their puppets. The Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) leadership went on to nationalise the banks in the south by the end of 1975, re-unify the country in early 1976, and in March 1978 effectively destroy tile capitalist economy with the ‘anti-capitalist mobilisation’.

Socialists who witnessed the epic Vietnamese struggle may say, from their hearts, that only the most courageous revolutionaries could inflict such a defeat on US imperialism. And certainly there can be no doubt about the inspiring heroism and military ingenuity of the NLF fighters. But having said that, we are still obliged to develop a scientific understanding of the Vietnamese struggle, and a scientific characterisation of its leadership – without which the lessons it contains for the international working class movement will remain concealed.

Such an understanding was never developed in the Trotskyist movement, and remained a factor in fue movement’s crisis throughout the years of the war.

The Vietnamese struggle compelled Trotskyists – who had always characterised Stalinism as ‘the most counter-revolutionary force in the international workers’ movement’ – to explain whether the VCP was an exception to this rule. They had to explain how Vietnam, like China, had apparently taken major steps towards socialism under the leadership of a Stalinist party based on the peasantry. The question for the Vietnamese Trotskyists was literally: ‘to be or not to be?’ – for if the VCP was leading the nation towards socialism, why should they exist at all?

Just a year before the fall of Saigon, this problem was posed point-blank to the United Secretariat of the Fourth International at its Tenth Congress. A letter from the Bolshevik-Leninist Group of Vietnam, based in Paris, asked:

‘Should the International concern itself with a Vietnamese Trotskyist group which remained loyal to the International and which has carried on against great obstacles . . . Should we work towards the creation of a section of the Fourth International in Vietnam?’ (The letter, dated February 5, 1974, was reproduced in Stalinism and Trotskyism in Vietnam: a Spartacist Pamphlet and is reprinted in this volume, p. 129.)

The letter condemned both those who ‘prettied up the VCP to the point of labelling it a revolutionary party’, and those who refused to confront the fact that the Stalinists ‘had successfully led the national liberation struggle’.

‘In the very special historical conditions in Vietnam,’ said the letter, ‘where the enormous weight of the VCP crushes all the organisations to its left, maintaining a Trotskyist group, even a propaganda group, is an extremely difficult task, We have been able to do this during these last years with no help whatsoever from the International or from the Ligue Communiste’ (the USFI’s French section).

In words, this letter was never answered: in practice, the USFI led by Ernest Mandel and with Pierre Rousset as its South East Asia ‘expert’, glorified the Stalinist VCP and did nothing to assist the Vietnamese Trotskyist group, which exists to this day.

The USFI – despite criticism from a group of members of the American Socialist Workers Party – did ‘pretty up the VCP to the point of labelling it as a revolutionary party’, and prettied up the Vietnamese state as ‘socialist’. (For discussion documents, see ‘On the Nature of the Vietnamese CP’, by George Johnson and Fred Feldman, International Socialist Review, July-August 1973; ‘The Vietnamese Revolution and the role of the Party’ by P. Rousset, ISR April 1974; ‘Vietnam, Stalinism and the Post-War Socialist Revolutions’, Johnson and Feldman, ISR, April 1974). Here was a classic case of liquidationism, that trend which denies the need to build the Trotskyist movement, claiming that changes in the camp of Stalinism or bourgeois nationalism enable those forces to carry through socialist tasks.

The events in South East Asia since 1975 are a crushing refutation of this idea: they have underlined on a world scale remains counter-revolutionary, and that only the building of real revolutionary leadership on a world scale can take the working class and its allies in the peasantry forward.

Firstly, the VCP, not through its own ‘stage-ist’ programme but rather with the knife of a ruthless imperialist blockade at the country’s throat – and after the failure of its initial attempts to boost private economy – extended state property to south Vietnam by 1978. Secondly, the Chinese Stalinists (who in their time had been called ‘revolutionary socialists’ by liquidationist voices in the Trotskyist movement) combined with US imperialism to subvert, weaken and (in 1979) militarily attack Vietnam. Thirdly, the degenerate pro-imperialist Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia – hailed in 1975 by Moscow and Peking, and even by some Trotskyists, as a workers and peasant’s government – turned on its own people with medieval savagery, and on the Vietnamese workers’ state like a bloodsucking leech. The fearsome beastiality of this regime alone shows the bankruptcy of international Stalinist politics, which has always sought not working class revolution, but manoeuvres with ‘worker-peasant’ parties, ‘national roads to socialism’ and other formulae designed to stifle the revolutionary role of the international working class.

The tasks of Trotskyists were then, and remain today, both the unconditional defence of Vietnam and all deformed workers’ states from imperialism, and the building of the Fourth International in all countries.

But which sections of the world Trotskyist movement fought for this in 1975? Some leaders of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI), which had split from the USFI in 1953 precisely in order to oppose liquidationism, had just as distorted a view of the Vietnamese Stalinists as Rousset and Mandel.

The principal ‘analysis’ of Vietnam produced by the Wokers Revolutionary Party, the largest ICFI section, admitted that the VCP leaders had ‘seriously imperilled the prospects of victory’ by ‘mistakes arising from their Stalinist training’ – but claimed that ‘in breaking empirically from the dictates of Stalinist peaceful co-existence . . . were able to carry through the revolution.’ (‘Stalinism and the Liberation of Vietnam’, by S. Johns, Fourth International, Winter 1975, p. 181). Here was reproduced exactly the criminal error made by Pablo, secretary of the Fourth International in the 1950s: the idea that objective developments could induce changes in Stalinist parties which could make them subjectively revolutionary; only while Pablo had taken this reasoning to its logical conclusion and called on Trotskyists to join Stalinist parties, the ICFI ‘resolved’ the problem of leadership by dubbing itself ‘the world party of socialist revolution’ as its forces dwindled.

Unbounded illusions in Ho Chi Minh’s leadership were inspired for years by Mike Banda, second-in-command to ICFI leader Gerry Healy, who claimed that a revolutionary party (i.e. the VCP) inspired General Giap’s ‘People’s War’; that this party was ‘derived from the example of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party after it had been frightfully mutilated by Stalin.’ Here again was the idea the somehow the ‘frightful mutilations’ of Stalinism could be spontaneously overcome, so that the Vietnamese struggle was ‘the struggle of an entire class and its leading organs to assimilate and apply revolutionary theory and enrich revolutionary practice’. (Fourth International, February 1968, p. 3 – these quotations appeared in an editorial, but the next issue carried a note to the effect that they were Banda’s personal opinions).

The most lavish praise of all for the VCP came from the Workers League (US), who now laughably claim to be ‘defending the heritage’ of Trotskyism. Their book, Vietnam and the World Revolution by Martin McLaughlin, never once defines the role of the VCP in class terms, only emphasising their ‘revolutionary’ qualities, claiming not only that the VCP ‘continually resisted the dictates of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Moscow and Peking’, but also that it was ‘always guided by a conception of the world struggle against imperialism’. (Vietnam and the World Revolution, p. 141).

McLaughlin uses an incredible sleight-of-hand to associate the Stalinist Ho Chi Minh with Trotsky: after quoting Ho’s testament – which states that the re-unification of the Vietnamese ‘Fatherland’ will be ‘a worthy contribution to the world national liberation movement’ – McLaughlin claims that: ‘this expresses a profound truth, Vietnam was the most powerful confirmation of Trotsky’s perspective of the Permanent Revolution . . . (ibid, p. 144). According to McLaughlin, objective events (the Vietnamese revolution) magically induce subjective changes (the Stalinist leader Ho ‘expressing a profound truth’), rather than being mirrored by them in the indirect and complex way that happens in real life.

Rousset, Banda, Johns and McLaughlin – all reflecting the liquidationist pressure which fostered illusions in Stalinism and minimised the importance of building the Trotskyist International – excuse (or ignore), in their various ways, the reality: that the VCP was not a revolutionary workers’ party but a predominantly peasant party; that it had not a socialist programme but a petit-bourgeois one infected by Stalinism.

But the biggest problem for all of them is the VCP’s history, and especially its open treachery after the second world war, when, on instructions from Moscow, it sought to carve up Vietnam with the imperialist ‘allies’, and drowned the Trotskyists who opposed it in blood.

The Vietnamese Trotskyists, as these articles will show, won the leadership of the working class in the south from the Stalinists, by rejecting compromise with the ‘popular front’ government of French imperialism in the late 30s. As Japanese imperialist control disintegrated in 1945, they sought to turn the struggle against the ‘allied’ imperialist forces into social revolution by setting up soviet-type organisations, and were slaughtered in their hundreds by the Stalinists, who hoped to conclude a deal with the ‘allies’ in line with the Potsdam agreement between Stalin, Truman and Attlee.

It was only after this physical destruction of the revolutionary leaders of the Vietnamese working class that the struggle took the path not of working class revolution but of ‘people’s war’; and this not because of the Stalinists who had hoped that their deal signed with the French in 1946 would stick, but in spite of them.

The mass murder of the Vietnamese Trotskyists, a counter-revolutionary crime second only to the Moscow Trials, has never been properly understood or faced up to by most Trotskyists. Its implications for Vietnam and for the Fourth International have never been fully grasped. Indeed, it was minimised by Trotskyists who sought to glorify the VCP: Rousset tried to brush over it; Banda and Johns deliberately lied about it, and employed slanders against the Vietnamese Trotskyists – which were repeated by McLaughlin almost word-for-word.

McLaughlin – who if he has a trace of revolutionary or even journalistic integrity will self-critically re-examine his book – lyingly claims that the Vietnamese Trotskyists ‘committed a severe tactical error in pressing ahead with strikes and de-monstrations in Saigon at a point where the revolution was threatened’ in 1945; that their organisation was smashed because they ‘had no base of support in the’ countryside’, In contrast, claims McLaughlin, the Vietminh, who were ‘forced to manoeuvre’ with imperialism, ‘retained its solid base of support among the mass of peasants’, and ‘broke empirically with the Stalinist perspective of permanent collaboration with so-called “democratic” imperialists.’ (ibid, p. 15-19, see excerpt p. 122 in this volume).

In the course of the last year’s break-up of the ICFI, the liquidationist tendency embedded in its leadership has emerged openly, in Banda’s case declaring whole heartedly for Stalinism. Simultaneously, the implicit attacks on the Vietnamese Trotskyists, like McLaughlin’s, have become explicit.

Thus John Spencer, one of Banda’s leading supporters, has issued what purports to be a well-researched statement on the Vietnamese revolution of 1945, in which he justifies Vietminh collaboration with the imperialists, falsely claiming that they ‘tried to save the revolution’ thereby. (Vietnamese Trotskyism and the August Revolution of 1945. Available from the WRP Education Department, and – presumably – from Communist Forum).

Spencer also repeats the old Stalinist lie that the Trotskyists ‘took part in the formation of the United National Front under Japanese auspices’ in order to subvert the Stalinists’ ‘revolutionary administration’.

We will answer these slanders and set the historical record straight. We will raise the demand, overdue by decades, for the rehabilitation of the Vietnamese Trotskyists. Above all, the WRP and its co-thinkers internationally, together with all Trotskyists, must confront the lessons of our Vietnamese comrades’ struggle, and deepen our understanding of the various forms of liquidationism in the Fourth International, which have tried along with Stalinism, to keep these lessons buried.

The ‘Struggle’ Front

By Simon Pirani
Reprinted from Workers Press, December 13, 1986

MAY 22nd, 1930. Paris police broke up a demonstration by Vietnamese students, protesting against the massacre of nationalist insurgents in their country by the French colonial police.

Among those arrested were the Trotskyist student leaders, Ta Thu Thau and Phan Van Chanh, who were deported back to Saigon within a week.

Ta Thu Thau, born in 1906 in a poor but educated family, and active in Vietnamese nationalist circles in Paris from 1925, joined the International Left Opposition in 1929 and formed a Trotskyist group within the Annamite Independence Party.

The rapid growth of Ta Thu Thau’s influence, and of the student paper Vanguard which he edited, was not surprising.

In August 1928, the Sixth Congress of the Communist International had rubber-stamped Stalin’s disastrous policy of unconditional support for the bourgeois nationalist Kuomintang in China, even after the massacre of the Chinese Communists at Shanghai and Canton.

Trotsky’s searing criticism of Stalin’s Chinese policy, of the ‘stages theory’ of revolution that had guided it, and of the ‘socialism in one country’ ideology with which it was bound up, was being disseminated by Trotskyists in Europe.

So was the news that, for opposing Stalin, the founder of the Red Army and co-leader of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky, had been deported from Russia in January 1929.

The largest section of the Left Opposition outside Russia sprang into existence in China itself; the Indochinese section was also inspired largely by Trotsky’s writings on the Chinese Revolution.

Ta Thu Thau, and others who returned to Vietnam from Paris as convinced Trotskyists, were soon confronted with the need to develop a Marxist strategy in opposition to the opportunist zig-zags of the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP).

The 1930-31 revolt

In May 1930 the country erupted. A slump in grain prices had hit the economy.

First came strikes in the textile factories, railways and rubber plantations; then a peasant revolt which rapidly escalated from peaceful protests to violent attacks on municipal buildings and the killing of landlords.

The ICP, led by Nguyen Ai Quoc (later to be known as Ho Chi Minh), acted in accordance with the ultra-left ‘third period’ of Stalinist policy, i.e. the decree from Moscow that struggles for power had to be launched without delay.

As the peasant revolt declined under the hammer-blows of the French colonialists, the Stalinists formed peasant soviets at Nghe-An and Ha Tinh, which they claimed would be the basis for the seizure of power.

This adventuristic project was drowned in blood as the French cracked down. In total 10,000 people were killed and 50,000 deported to Poulo Condor, and other concentration camps.

A year of ‘white terror’ ensued throughout 1932, and the leadership of Stalinist and Trotskyist organisations alike were decimated.

The Trotskyists likened the Indochinese CP’s ultra-left policy to that of the Chinese CP in the 1927 Canton Commune, during which they had made an equally disastrous bid for power on Moscow’s instructions.

Their critique, and their call for the ICP to turn towards Vietnam’s embryonic working class movement instead of organising exclusively among the peasantry, won a sympathetic hearing among rank-and-file Stalinists.

The Trotskyists political strength, and the conditions of brutal colonial suppression, gave rise to an exceptional relationship between Stalinism and Trotskyism in Vietnam during the 1930s.

The ‘Struggle’ Front

A ‘united front’ agreement reached between Ta Thu Thau’s Left Opposition group and the Stalinists, to carry out joint electoral work and publish a joint legal newspaper called Struggle (La Lutte), lasted for four years, 1933-37.

Both sides maintained separate illegal organisations.

The other major Trotskyist tendency, the October Group (Thang Muoi), led by Ho Huu Tuong, rejected such collaboration with the Stalinists and published an independent legal newspaper in Vietnamese, The Spark (Tia Sang).

The first success of the ‘Struggle’ electoral front came in the April 1933 Saigon council elections, when the Stalinist Nguyen Van Tao and the Trotskyist Tran Van Trach were both elected.

In May 1935, they regained their seats while another Trotskyist, Ta Thu Thau, and another Stalinist, Duong Bach Mai, joined the council.

But the Comintern was working to knock the Indochinese CP into line.

A key article in the French CP’s journal indicated the Indochinese CP was at odds with Moscow’s line, and that ‘such action is incompatible with the principle of democratic centralism, with iron discipline, and with the Comintern’ (quoted in Marxism in South East Asia, ed. F. Trager, Stanford University 1960, p. 136).

The implicit message – that joint work with the Trotskyists had to be dropped – was spelled out more clearly in the months that followed.

At this time the Comintern was swinging from the ultra-left policies of the ‘third period’ to the class collaborationist ‘popular front’ line, according to which the danger of fascism was not to be staved off by the independent mobilisation of the working class, but by allying with middle class and bourgeois ‘democratic’ forces.

In France the Communist Party formed a ‘people’s front’ together with the Socialist and Radical Parties, which came to power in June 1936.*

Marius Moutet of the Socialist Party was appointed Minister for the Colonies; in Indochina certain political liberties were granted.

Both Trotskyist groups seized the opportunity provided by these limited freedoms to carry out mass agitation in strike movements, campaigns against colonial repression and for the right to union organisation.

The Trotskyists were active, alongside the Stalinists in more than six hundred ‘action committees’ of labour and peasant organisations set up at this time, and in the ‘Indochinese Congress’, a broad nationalist front.

But with the Comintern breathing down its neck, the ICP was embracing the ‘popular front’ policy – and the French imperialist ‘popular front’ government – wholesale. In July 1936 its central committee formally adopted the ‘popular front’ line.

An article in Communist International warned critically:

‘Sectarianism has not been completely eliminated … (There are) too sharp attacks on the Constitutionalists . . . ’ (quoted in Trager, p. 140).

Acceptance of the ‘popular front’ meant abandoning the demand for national liberation, and falling in line with the French Communist Party policy of administrating the French empire.

The justification for this, spelled out by French CP leader Maurice Thorez at the party’s 1937 congress, was a claim that the interests of the colonial people were in a ‘free, trusting and paternal’ unions with ‘democratic’ France; to forge this union was ‘the mission of France all over the world’ (quoted in Trager, p. 142).

In April 1937, the ‘Struggle’ candidates again came top of the Saigon poll.

But the ICP was now set on a course of building a popular front of its own with the Vietnamese bourgeois parties, of conciliation with the colonial authorities, and of a breach with the Trotskyists.

In May 1937, the ICP launched a new paper, Vanguard, attacking the Trotskyists; simultaneously an anti-Trotskyist witch-hunt was instigated by the Popular Front government in Paris.

The ‘Struggle’ Front was finally broken up in June 1937; the Trotskyists took control of the ‘Struggle’ newspaper, and Ta Thu Thau was jailed for two years for writing an editorial on the ‘popular front policy of treason’.

The liberalisation policy of the Paris government disappeared as quickly as it had come a year before.

The police round-ups affected trade unionists, peasant leaders and even rank-and-file Stalinists, as well as the Trotskyists.

Before the War

The climax of Trotskyist activity in Vietnam came in the months before the out-break of the second world war.

Tia Sang was appearing daily, and the Struggle group were also producing a paper in Vietnamese, Tranh Dau.

In April 1939, the Saigon council elections gave an opportunity to test their policy – based on national liberation, land reform, and the struggle for socialism – against that of the ICP, who were calling for a ‘broad national union’ with the bourgeois parties, and support for ‘democratic’ French imperialism against fascist Japan.

In their ‘Action Programme’, the Trotskyists proclaimed opposition to all imperialist war preparations; .direct action to force social legislation in Indochina including collective bargaining, a 40-hour week and a sliding scale of wages; for the formation of action committees against the fascists; unconditional national independence; and ‘alliances of workers, peasants and the middle classes in action committees, in factories, in neighbourhoods, among the peasants and soldiers, to prepare for the workers and peasants government.’ (Struggle, April 14th 1939).

The Trotskyists won over 80 per cent of the votes; the bourgeois parties shared the rest and less than one per cent went to the discredited Stalinists, whose Saigon organisation split.

‘You must be acquainted with the results of the colonial elections’, wrote Phan Van Hum, Tran Van Thach and Ta Thu Thau to Trotsky in Mexico.

‘Despite the shameful coalition of the bourgeoisie of all types and the Stalinists we have won a stunning victory . . .

‘We went to battle, the flag of the Fourth International widely unfurled.

‘Our victory is one of the whole Fourth International over the bourgeoisie, naturally – but above all over their social democratic and Stalinist agents.

‘We have faith in the final victory of the proletariat, that is, in the victory of the Fourth International.’

The letter continued: ‘Today, more than ever, we understand the importance not only of the programme of the FI, but also of your struggle of 1925-28 against the theory and practice of socialism in one country, of your struggle against the Peasants’ International, the Anti-Imperialist League, and other show committees, Amsterdam-Pleyel and others.’

‘We want to say to you that even in this remote corner of the far east, in this backward country, you have friends who agree with you, comrades who struggle for that to which you have devoted your life, for socialism, for communism.’ concluded the letter (Socialist Appeal, paper of the American SWP, 11 Aug. 1939).

Trotsky was equally enthusiastic.

A few weeks later he wrote in his Open Letter to the Workers of India: ‘In a number of colonial and semi-colonial countries, sections of the FI already exist and are making successful progress.

‘First place among them is unquestionably held by our section in French Indochina, which is conducting an irreconcilable struggle against French imperialism and “People’s Front” mystifications.’

After quoting from Struggle, Trotsky went on: ‘Owing to their bold revolutionary politics, the Saigon proletarians, members of the FI, scored a brilliant victory over the bloc of the ruling party and the Stalinists at the elections to the Colonial Council held in April of this year’ (Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939-40, p. 33-34, see excerpts reproduced in this volume, pp. 123-5).

Ho Chi Minh, writing at the same time on The Party’s Line in the Period of the Democratic Front, stated:

‘For the time being, the party cannot put forth too high a demand (national independence, parliament etc). To do so is to enter the Japanese fascists’ scheme. It should only claim for democratic rights …

‘To reach this goal, the Party must strive to organise a broad Democratic National Front. This Front does not embrace only Indochinese people but also progressive French residing in Indochina, not only toiling people but also the national bourgeoisie.

The Party must assume a wise, flexible attitude with the bourgeoisie, strive to draw it into the Front, win over the elements that can be won over and neutralise those which can be neutralised. We must by all means avoid leaving them outside the Front, lest they should fall into the hands of the enemy of the revolution and increase the strength of the reactionaries.

‘There cannot be any alliance with or any concession to the Trotskyite group. We must do everything possible to lay bare their faces as henchmen of the fascists and annihilate them politically . . . (quoted in Stalinism and Trotskyism in Vietnam: A Spartacist Pamphlet, p. 12).

The outbreak of war brought blanket repression from the French authorities; both Trotskyist and Stalinist organisations were subject to savage repression. Ho Chi Minh sought refuge in Chiang Kai Shek’s China, from where he organised the guerrilla forces which became the Vietminh.

Ta Thu Thau spent the war imprisoned in Poulo Condor, emerging severely physically disabled in 1945.

In that year, the year of Vietnam’s August Revolution, Ho’s forces annihilated the Trotskyists – not politically, but physically.

* Stalin’s USSR signed a mutual defence pact with France in June 1935. From then onwards the Indochinese CP, despite opposition, stood for the ‘defence of the French colonial administration against Japanese fascism’. They did not take up the slogan of national liberation from French rule until the end of 1939, when Stalin signed a pact with Hitler and ceased bothering about ‘French democracy’. – SP


1945: Vietnam’s August Revolution

By Simon Pirani
Reprinted from Workers Press, 20 December 1986

9 AUGUST 1945: The United States opened up the age of nuclear war, dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima; Japan surrendered to the Allies five days later, ending the second world war.

Under US President Truman’s ‘Strategic Order No. 1’, the Japanese forces throughout eastern Asia were to surrender only to authorities designated by the Supreme Allied Commander, US General Douglas Macarthur.

In line with Stalin’s Potsdam agreement with US and British imperialism, the Soviet Union took the Kurile Islands from Japan, and elsewhere the Communist Parties sought to restrain revolutionary and nationalist movements, to enable the imperialists to regain control.

The Indonesian Communist Party called for the return of Dutch imperialism and denounced the bourgeois nationalist leader Sukharno when he first declared independence from the Japanese, only dropping this policy when re-occupation by the Dutch was clearly impossible; the Burmese Stalinists collected in weapons from resistance fighters to ensure the country was re-occupied by British forces; the Stalinist-led Malaya People’s Anti-Japanese Army relinquished its administrative control to the British.

The policy of the Stalinist-led Vietnam Independence League, or Vietminh, at the end of the war, was also worked out in line with Potsdam: it sought to establish a bourgeois national state, with French imperialism re-occupying at least the southern part of the country.

Vietnam: the background

French imperialism had first reached Vietnam in 1867, subjugating the fiercely nationalist population twenty years later with the creation of the Indochinese Union, which remained pan of the French empire until 1941. The taking of Paris by Hitler’s armies was the signal to Japanese imperialism to invade into Indochina, and its forces remained there throughout the war. In March 1945, as the Allied victory neared, the Japanese installed a puppet emperor, Bao Dai.

Japan’s imminent demise, and the impotence of the Vietnamese bourgeois and landowning classes, caused administrative chaos and a devastating famine through the summer. The working class political parties that had gone underground or disappeared during the war re-organised.

In 1945 the Trotskyists pursued a defeatist policy against all foreign imperialisms, calling for national liberation struggle to be combined with social revolution, and basing themselves on the working class centres, particularly Saigon. The Struggle group, which had pursued the united front policy in the 1930s, re-constituted itself in May 1945, its leader Ta Thu Thau who had recently been released from the Poulo Condor island concentration camp travelling north to organise the movement there. The Internationalist Communist League led by Lu Sanh Hanh (author of Some Stages . . . see p. 61 in this pamphlet) issued a manifesto on March 24th calling for struggle against Japan to be combined with the struggle for workers’ power; members of the group led the workers of the Go Yap tram depot near Saigon, who later organised a workers’ militia which played a vital role in the August revolution.

The Stalinist strategy, on the other hand, was to wage guerrilla war against the Japanese, receiving aid first from the Chinese Kuomintang and then from the American imperialists. The Vietminh front was founded in 1941 in Kwangsi, southern China, which was then under Kuomintang control. ‘From the beginning, the Vietminh asked for aid from the Chinese Kuomintang government … The Vietminh offered its services in gathering information in Indochina and creating a local military force for joint action against the Japanese.’ (Marxism in South East Asia, ed. F. Trager, Stanford University, 1946).

Ho collaborated with the American imperialists from 1942 to 1945, giving tactical assistance and intelligence to General Wedemeyer, Head of Southern Command (Chungking), General Gallagher of the Special Command Section, and General William Donovan of the ass (forerunners of the CIA). (Details in Ho Chi Minh, by W. Warbey, pp. 78-80, and Vietnam by Stanley Karnow, pp. 138-9). (Of course revolutionaries have often accepted aid from imperialist powers during war, but it must be remembered that here the policy of the Vietminh was not defeatist, but supported the ‘democratic’ imperialists of China, France and the US against the axis powers.)

The Vietminh sought to avoid confrontation with the French forces, replacing their slogan ‘drive out the Japanese and French’ with ‘drive out the Japanese fascists’. (Quotations from VCP documents, reprinted in Breaking Our Chains, Hanoi 1960, p. 11).

The Vietminh, which was effectively a ‘popular front’, including the property-owning classes, had a programme of national liberation and agrarian reform, but in line with the Stalinist theory of ‘stages’, specifically excluded the establishment of workers’ power. In May 1945, as Japan collapsed, the Stalinists established a ‘liberated zone’ in the six northern provinces. The property of foreigners was taken over, but that of Vietnamese bourgeois and landowners preserved. The Stalinists’ aim was, in their own words:

‘1. To disarm the Japs before the entry of Allied forces into Indochina;
‘2. To wrest the power from the hands of the enemy;
‘3. To be in a position of power when receiving the Allied forces.’
(‘Factual Records of the Vietnam August Revolution’, an official publication, quoted in Trager, p. 151).

While condemning De Gaulle’s intention of re-establishing imperialist control in their propaganda, they simultaneously contacted him for negotiations. One bourgeois historian points out that the ‘Vietminh had even communicated to the French a memorandum which accepted the principle of the temporary re-establishment of French sovereignty in Vietnam.’ (Trager, p. 151)

The August Revolution

A revolutionary situation erupted in Vietnam on 16 August 1945 when the Japanese surrender was announced. In the provinces of Trung Bo, Bac Bo, Sadec and Long Xuyen, resurgent peasants killed their landlords and expropriated the land.

But the centre of the revolution was Saigon. Huge demonstrations demanding national independence, and freedom from all types of oppression, took place: of 300,000 on 21 August, and one million on 25 August. The slogans of the Trotskyists for workers’ power swelled their contingents by thousands.

More than 150 popular committees were set up (this policy was actively fought for by the Trotskyists of the ICL), the first one at Ban Co on 19 August. They took administrative power in many Saigon suburbs, starting with Phu Nuan on 19 August. A conference of the committees issued a programme which insisted ‘that the national bourgeoisie will be completely incapable of playing the role of the revolutionary vanguard, and that only the popular alliance of the industrial workers and rural toilers will be able to free the nation from the domination of foreign capitalists’. (‘Some Stages of the Revolution in the South of Vietnam’, by a Vietnamese Trotskyist from Quatriéme Internationale, Sept. 1947, see pp. 61-72 in this volume).

As in all revolutionary situations, no amount of organisations or publications could satisfy the masses’ thirst for political leadership. Tranh Dau, the paper of the Struggle group, became daily; the ICL at one point issued bulletins every three hours from a newly-established headquarters. Hundreds of Vanguard Youth committees were set up, some under Stalinist leadership, all of whom declared their readiness to die for national liberation. The bourgeois and petit-bourgeois parties also proliferated; according to an ICL report no less than 50 new ones sprouted up.

How the Vietminh stepped in

Who was in control of Saigon? The differences between various accounts show how volatile the situation was.

Certainly the United National Front (UNF), which had a programme for national independence and included bourgeois nationalists, the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects and the Vanguard Youth, was handed power by the collapsing Bao Dai administration on 14 August, and passed it on to the Vietminh a week later.

John Spencer, a supporter of the anti-Trotskyist Banda group, has recently made the stupid allegation that ‘at least some of the Vietnamese Trotskyists took part in the formation of the UNF under Japanese auspices on August 14th, 1945’, a ‘grouping which was dearly intended as a counter-weight to the Vietminh’. (Vietnamese Trotskyism and the August Revolution of 1945).

Spencer is obviously trying to give some ‘scholarly’ weight to the Stalinist lie, originated by Ho Chi Minh, that the Trotskyists were working for the Japanese. But at least one authoritative account says that the UNF ‘included a small Communist minority’, as well as the Trotskyists of the Struggle group. (Vietnamese Communism: Its Origins and Development, by R. Turner, p. 39). The same account explains how the Vietminh leader Tran Van Giau arranged for the UNF to hand over power to him by negotiation.’*

Secondly, a report from the Struggle group to the International Secretariat of the Fourth International (The August Revolution and the Struggle Group, in files of the ISFI, Library of International Contemporary Documentation, Nanterre University, Paris) states that they proposed to the Stalinists a united front on the policy of national independence and agrarian reform, the latter turning it down ‘because they believed that they could count on the aid and compliance of the Allies, to achieve a “democratic republic of Vietnam” through diplomatic means.’ It was after this, and after the Vietminh assumed administrative control, that they took part in meetings with the bourgeois nationalists – at which the Stalinists were also present, accusing the Trotskyists of ‘sabotage’.

A few weeks later, when British troops were welcomed into Saigon by the Vietminh, the Trotskyists certainly found themselves in a de facto alliance with the bourgeois nationalists: both advocated armed resistance to the re-imposition of imperialist control. (Spencer does not express his own opinion on the small matter of the British invasion, relying on quotations from various sources supporting the Stalinist view that opposed those who resisted the British as ‘crazy’, ‘provocateurs’ and ‘ultra-lefts’).

On 22 August, after two weeks of revolutionary turmoil, the Vietminh held a meeting with UNF representatives who agreed to hand over control of the city.

At 5am on 25 August, the day of the million-strong demonstration, the Vietminh occupied all the government buildings and formally set up a ‘Provisional Executive Committee of the Southern Vietnam Republic’.

The policies of this administration were two-fold: to maintain, if possible, the tottering Vietnamese bourgeoisie and land-owning class, and to welcome the allied troops under conditions where a deal would be negotiated with them.

Stalinist leader Tran Van Giau proclaimed that ‘democratic liberties will be secured and guaranteed by the democratic allies.’ (Quoted in ‘Some Stages . . .’ in Quatriéme Internationale).

Another Vietminh official, Nguyen Van Tao, was more explicit: ‘All those who have instigated the peasants to seize the landowners’ property will be severely and pitilessly punished . . . We have not yet made the Communist Revolution, which will solve the agrarian problem. This government is only a democratic government, that is why such a task does not devolve upon it. Our government, I repeat, is a bourgeois-democratic government, even though the Communists are now in power.’ (Vietnamese Communism: Its Origins and Development, p. 43).

Historian Phillipe Devilliers recounts that Vietminh leader Duong Bach Mai spoke of ‘calming the tempestuous ardour of rank-and-file militants, in showing them that the task of the moment was not to make a proletarian revolution but to smash “colonialism” by calling on all the people to struggle against it.’ (History of Vietnam 1940-52, by P. Devilliers, p. 181).

Buttinger says that the Vietminh government in Saigon ‘went so far as to decree the death penalty for attacks on private property.’ (Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled, J. Buttinger, vol. 1, p. 347).

Spencer, attempting to ‘place into context’ the slaughter of the Vietnamese Trotskyists, claims they were ‘unambiguously hostile’ to the Vietminh’s ‘revolutionary administration’. In fact this administration was counter-revolutionary, i.e. determined to prevent property take-overs at all costs, even when popular committees and peasant uprisings had already implemented them on a large scale.

In the North

Ho Chi Minh’s guerrilla force was able to take power in Hanoi by walking into a political vacuum which followed the Japanese surrender.

A bourgeois writer says: ‘A genuine popular revolution took place that surpassed that of the wildest calculations of the Vietminh, though they alone were prepared for the events as an organised force with a definite programme. Claiming the support of the Allied powers and pointing to their previous activity, the Vietminh won acceptance by the people, particularly in North Vietnam. The Japanese authorities looked on benignly while Vietminh partisans occupied the public buildings in Hanoi. They also turned over local stocks of arms to the Vietminh.’ (Trager, p. 152).

Spencer, and other pro-Stalinists anxious to prove that the Trotskyists worked with Japan, please note.

On 22 August, Emperor Bao Dai was ready to ask the Vietminh to form a government, but instead abdicated on receipt of a telegram from the Hanoi General Association of Students, which passed a motion put by former Trotskyist Ho Huu Thuong calling on the Vietminh to form a government of national independence and oust Bao Dai. Thuong was condemned by other Trotskyists who claimed this was a capitulation to the Vietminh. The Vietminh formed a provisional government and proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on 2 September.

There is little historical evidence concerning the Vietminh’s relationship with the workers’ movement in the north. But one report in the files of the ISFI says that after the Japanese surrender, a workers’ government was set up in the large mining town of Hon Gay. (A “Moscow Trial” in Ho Chi Minh’s Maquis, ISFI files in Paris). The imperialist administration was dismantled, and its officials arrested along with factory bosses, and socialist measures including equal wages and workers’ control of all industries passed.

The report states that the workers’ administration was broken up by Vietminh militia who arrived in December, after the defeat of the Saigon revolution and the internment of non-Stalinist militants in Hanoi.

From their own accounts, it is clear that the Stalinists stressed the ‘democratic’ nature of their administration (the declaration of independence was based on the American one of 1778), and concentrated on preventing clashes between workers and Kuomintang units who came into Vietnam in early September to disarm Japanese soldiers.

The Allies move into Saigon

By the beginning of September, the Saigon working class was agitated. Fearing the return of the hated French imperialists, they demanded guns. The Stalinists called on them to welcome the ‘democratic’ allies and attacked the Trotskyists in increasingly frenzied tones.

On 1 September, the Vietminh’s Nam Bo (southern Vietnam) propaganda commission sent loudspeaker cars into the streets calling on people to welcome the Allies. The response was a demonstration of 400,000 people: many were armed with bamboo spikes; the Struggle group called for an armed demonstration and weapons were carried among its 18,000-strong contingent.

As the march passed Saigon Cathedral, right-wing French colonialists opened fire on it, killing 40 and wounding 150. Armed Struggle supporters, led by veteran tram workers’ leader Le Van Long, arrested the provocateurs, planting the flag of the Fourth International on the roof from which they had fired. The assassins were handed over to the Vietminh police, who released them almost immediately. (This account taken from The August Revolution and the Struggle Group, ISFI files, Paris).

As the British invasion grew nearer, conflict sharpened between the Stalinists and all those who were ready to take up arms against the Allies. On 7 September Tran Van Giau ordered the disarming of all non-governmental organisations.

Three days later, the British troops came in, with French aircraft overhead. The Trotskyists of the ICL issued a statement denouncing Stalinist collaboration with the Allies and calling for armed resistance to the imperialist armies.

The Stalinists responded by arresting popular committee delegates as they met in conference on September 14th; the ICL-dominated conference, although armed, gave themselves up peacefully, perhaps underestimating the readiness of the Vietminh to carry through their bloody threats.

On 16 September the Stalinists announced their readiness to negotiate with the Allies about Vietnam, or part of it, becoming part of the French Union. But General Gracey, the British commander, was not interested. Instructions had come from the Foreign Office to tolerate no Vietnamese power: Labour Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin had concluded a secret deal with France, whereby the French would get south Vietnam back but would stay out of Syria and the Lebanon. (See Ho Chi Minh, by W. Warbey, pp. 47-54). It was this agreement, and not simply Gracey’s imperial arrogance, that gave impetus to the Allied occupation of Saigon and sunk the Vietminh’s hopes of doing a deal.

The British, aided by French troops and remnants of the Japanese army which came under Allied command according to the terms of Japan’s surrender, took over Saigon city centre and all administrative buildings. Encouraged by the passivity of the Vietminh, the French re-occupied the barracks of the Second Colonial Infantry, the airport, the arsenal, the port and other strategic positions.

The General Secretary of the Saigon-Cholon regional council, Trotskyist Le Van Vung, was assassinated: Phan Van Hum, another leader of the Struggle group, called for the evacuation of non-combatants from the city centre. A bitter struggle ensued between the Allies and revolutionary workers, who were joined by deserters from the Japanese army.

‘In the struggles, the workers and peasants did their duty, alongside the Trotskyist militants who proudly flew the flag of the Fourth International’, the Struggle report to the ISFI stated. ‘But those who fought these early battles fought alone. Tran Van Giau refused to replenish their provisions, or to supply arms or ammunition.

‘In the Thi Nghe sector, of 214 combatants, all Trotskyists, 210 were cut down. On the third day of the struggle, Tran Van Giau issued leaflets calling for the arrest and disarming of the Struggle fighters, who had fought without orders from his government, which had been preparing itself to welcome the “liberating Allies”!

‘In spite of their superior weaponry, there were insufficient numbers of French soldiers, and they often had to turn back before resistance detachments, whose weapons were hopelessly inferior but who had decided to die in the fight against French imperialism.’

Of course this was neither the first nor the last time that the imperialists would encounter such stubborn heroism in Vietnam. But in this case, when imperialism world-wide was threatened with revolutionary movements and was at its weakest, the Stalinists acted to ensure that a movement outside their control was physically destroyed.

John Spencer claims that the Vietminh did not contest the British order to disarm, ‘though they clearly had no intention of obeying it themselves’. The above quotation from the Struggle group answers this nonsense, which is proffered in an attempt to give the Stalinists ‘revolutionary’ credentials.

The Struggle report contains another piece of evidence to answer those who claim that the Trotskyists collaborated with the Japanese against the ‘revolutionary’ Vietminh. It states that following a meeting in which the Stalinists specifically accused the Trotskyists of ‘sabotage’, the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao peasant-based religious sects (the former armed with 900 rifles and four 45mm cannons which they had received from the Japanese) offered to join the Struggle group to fight the Vietminh – but the Trotskyists rejected an alliance with such unreliable forces, not being prepared to ‘lead them to a slaughter.’

* Neither the Trotskyists nor the Stalinists signed the founding programme of the UNF, in fact. – S.P., see page 54-55.

A Stalinist Massacre

By Simon Pirani
Reprinted from Workers Press, 3 January 1987

1 OCTOBER 1945: Vietnam had been through six weeks of revolutionary convulsions, coming to a climax in the last week of September when British, French and Japanese troops occupied Saigon city centre, displacing the Vietminh administration and threatening terror against the revolutionary workers and peasants.

After repeated attempts, the Vietminh negotiated a truce with the British on 1 October, the chief result of which was that imperialist troops – British, French and Japanese – were given ‘free passage’ by the Vietminh through the defiant Saigon suburbs.

A one-week ceasefire between 3 October and 10 October was used by the imperialists to strengthen their forces. On 5 October, General Leclerc arrived at the head of a French Expeditionary Force.

As the French and Gurkhas renewed their offensive against the Trotskyists and other resistance forces, Tran Van Giau had the nerve to issue a leaflet condemning the Trotskyists as ‘French imperialist agents’.

‘The Trotskyist fighters who retreated to the west were disarmed at Cho Dem’, states the Struggle report. (The August Revolution and the Struggle Group, ISFI files, Paris).

‘The Struggle forces who went east tried to mobilise two armies, the Hoang Pho I and the Hoang Pho II, when they were surrounded at Xuan Truong by large numbers of armed Vietminh forces: Tran Van Thach, Nguyen Van So and Nguyen Van Tien were taken to Thu Dau Mot where they were given a military trial and shot on the orders of Kieu Dac Thang, a common criminal and jail bird made a General courtesy of Duong Bach Mai (the Stalinist police chief); Phan Van Chanh and Phan Van Hum took the direction of Bien Hoa, from where they hoped to reach Hue.

‘Now we have no news of these comrades . . . (Later reports indicate that both Van Hum and Van Chanh were killed by the Vietminh). Nguyen Thi Loi, another comrade on active service, fell at Can Giuoc (Cholon).

‘All the Trotskyists at Thu Dau Mot were exterminated. At My Tho, Tan An, Bien Hoa, Can Tho, Tay Ninh, there were mass arrests of Trotskyists.

‘Hinh Thai Thong, of Struggle, was arrested at My Tho while presiding at an interprovincial meeting of delegates from the villages and districts. Thong was disembowelled.

‘How many other comrades of the Fourth International paid with their lives for their allegiance to the cause of revolution?

‘There were those who were able to join the resistance (of the Vietnamese army) whose commanders were either with us or sympathetic.

‘For example the Third Division, commanded by Nguyen Hoa Hiep, had a large number of Trotskyists.’

The Trotskyists in other groups fought just as heroically as those of Struggle. The Go Yap tramwaymens’ militia, led by members of the ICL, made a stand against the Vietminh, Gurkhas and French troops on the Plaine des Joncs. They held out until January 1946, when their leader Tran Dinh Minh, was killed by the Vietminh.

A report in the ISFI files indicates that the LCI fighters were wiped out by the Vietminh at Kien An on 23 October 1945. (A ‘Moscow Trial’ in Ho Chi Minh’s Maquis, in the ISFI files).

The leader of the Struggle group, Ta Thu Thau, met his fate on his way back from his journey to north Vietnam. Arrested at Quang Ngai in central Vietnam by the Vietminh, he was placed in front of a People’s Tribunal.

Due no doubt to the esteem in which Thau was held as a workers’ leader, the Tribunal three times declared him not guilty of crimes against the people. Despite this the veteran revolutionary, a former teacher who had been half-paralysed during his imprisonment at Poulo Condor, was taken out and shot by the Vietminh. (Reported in Quatriéme lnternationale, August 1946).

The documented proof of the huge scale of the repression cannot be reconciled with those apologists for Stalinism who claim that Ho Chi Minh did not know about the massacre, that perhaps it was the work of some over-zealous rank-and-filers, that Tran Van Giau was afterwards disciplined by the Vietminh as a result of it, etc etc.

The reports submitted to the ISFI, particularly, confirm indisputably that the Vietminh worked consciously and deliberately, and often effectively aiding the French and British, to wipe out the Trotskyists and other resistance forces.

The Vietminh and the French

The Vietminh’s attempts at compromise with the Allies were not as strong as French imperialism’s determination to re-establish colonial power.

The more the Vietminh decimated the revolutionary forces in the resistance, the more they found themselves under attack from a ruthless enemy which gave no quarter.

Having destroyed the revolutionary leadership of the Vietnamese working class, the Vietminh turned to the bourgeois nationalists of the Vietnam Revolutionary League and the Vietnam Nationalist Party.

On October 23, 1945, the day that LCI militants were massacred at Kien An, the Ho Chi Minh government in Hanoi signed a pact with the nationalists to work jointly against the French.

The Indochinese Communist Party, at its conference on 9-11 November 1945, decided on an even more astonishing gesture to appease the anti-communist leaders of the nationalist forces: they dissolved the Communist Party, which was not to be reconstituted until 1951!

The French finally agreed to talk to Ho when they had strengthened their military grip on Vietnam.

Admiral Thierry d’Argenlieu was installed as governor in Saigon, while General Leclerc sent a flotilla carrying 13,000 troops into the Gulf of Tonkin in the north.

On 6 March 1946, an agreement was signed permitting French troops on Vietnamese soil, recognising Vietnam as a free state within the French Union – and leaving the question of dividing the country (the French were in favour of this) to a future referendum.

This agreement was justified by Vietminh General Vo Nguyen Giap to a mass rally in Hanoi on the grounds that the Bolsheviks had also signed the Brest-Litovsk Treaty with Germany, which enabled it to strengthen itself for future struggles.

There is a difference: the Brest-Litovsk Treaty was signed by revolutionaries who were working actively for the success of the German revolution, and simultaneously mobilising the Red Army and the Russian working class to fight the invading imperialist forces; the treaty with the French was signed by Stalinists who had set out with the stated intention of doing a deal with imperialism, and who, far from organising revolutionary workers to defend state property, had threatened those who took property from the bourgeoisie and landowners with death – and ruthlessly carried out that sentence against the Trotskyists.


Neither the Hanoi deal nor the Fontainbleau negotiations which went on from May to September 1946 could satisfy the French imperialists’ thirst for conquest.

On 24 September 1946 they bombarded Haiphong harbour, killing thousands, and plunged Vietnam into a war which ended seven years later at Dien Bien Phu, and re-started immediately with the entry of American troops who replaced the French.

The Vietminh strategy of ‘People’s War’ was not, as was claimed even by Trotskyists, an extension of the strategy of working class revolution: the long drawn out struggle was forced on the Vietnamese people because the working class revolution of August 1945 was betrayed in the most despicable and violent traditions of Stalinism.*

Apologists for Stalinism like Spencer do not even seriously consider the strategy of workers’ revolution advanced by Trotskyists: he only quotes the historian Buttinger who said the Vietminh were right to regard resisting the French in Saigon as insane.

So-called ‘Trotskyists’ like Martin McLaughlin likewise argue that the Vietnamese Trotskyists ‘committed a severe tactical error in pressing ahead with strikes and demonstrations in Saigon’ because they faced the British-French occupation force, with Chinese Kuomintang forces in the north. (Vietnam and the World Revolution, by M. McLaughlin of the Workers League (US), p. 17).

But if it was a ‘severe tactical error’ to oppose the re-imposition of French imperial rule in Saigon in 1945 was it not a still greater one to attempt to form a workers’ administration in Paris in 1871?

Was it not ‘insane’ for the Kronstadt sailors and workers to declare a workers’ government in May 19171 And surely a still greater ‘tactical error’ to ‘press ahead’ with the July 1917 demonstrations in Petrograd?

At all these points, when the working class entered on the scene of history in its thousands and millions – which is precisely what makes a revolutionary situation – revolutionary leaders took the working class into struggle, often convinced that it held the possibility of defeat.

Indeed the Russian Revolution itself was made on that understanding.

What should the Vietnamese revolutionaries have done when the workers formed popular committees, the peasants expropriated the land and hundreds of thousands took to the streets demanding national independence?

The Stalinists of the Vietminh tried to quell the revolutionary movement in order to do a deal with the Allied imperialists; the Trotskyists, basing themselves on the perspective of international revolution which was being confirmed by revolutionary movements worldwide at the end of the war, took the leadership of that movement and fought to the end.

Those who reject their stand reject the class struggle strategy on which the communist movement is based, worked out by Marx, Engels and Lenin and carried out in practice both in the victorious revolution of October 1917, and in the defeated revolutions of Paris 1871, Germany 1918 . . . and by the Vietnamese Trotskyists in 1945.

* Trotsky himself wrote, with great insight, about the possibility of confrontation between Stalinist-led peasant armies and working class revolutionaries, in a letter to his Chinese supporters in 1932. – S.P., see p. 113.

FI symbol

The Fourth International & the Stalinist Ho Chi Minh

By Simon Pirani
Reprinted from Workers Press, 24 January 1987.

‘In so far as capitalism has created a world market, a world division of labour and world productive forces, it has also prepared world economy as a whole for socialist transformation,’ wrote Leon Trotsky, attacking Stalin’s reactionary fraud of ‘socialism in one country’, in 1929.
‘Different countries will go through this process at different tempos. Backward countries may, under certain conditions, arrive at the dictatorship of the proletariat sooner than advanced countries, but they will come later than the latter to socialism.’ (The Permanent Revolution, New Park edn, p. 155, see excerpt pp. 105-109 in this volume).

Fifty-seven years later, the contradiction between the struggle and sacrifice of backward countries on the one hand, and the unresolved crisis of international working class leadership and the delay of the socialist revolution world-wide on the other, remains a central feature of the class struggle.

In Vietnam, a peasant army, organised under a Communist Party imbued with reactionary Stalinist ideology, achieved a crushing victory over the mightiest imperialist power of all.

Today the state founded on that victory faces hostility from imperialism on the one side, from the reactionary Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy on another, from the crushing backwardness of its own war-weary rural economy on a third – and finally from the narrow nationalist and bureaucratic outlook of its own Stalinist rulers.

The problems faced by the Vietnamese workers – like those of workers in other countries – can only be considered as part of the problems of the world working class.

Their struggle is part of the permanent, international revolutionary process.

The only tendency which approached Vietnamese problems in this way was Trotskyism.

The Aftermath of 1945 and the War with France

It was the refusal of the Saigon workers and their Trotskyist leaders to compromise with the French-British-Vietminh carve-up of Vietnam in September 1945 that led those forces to turn on them.

The Vietminh executed Trotskyist leader Ta Thu Thau and hundreds of Trotskyist cadres.

Trotskyist and nationalist forces, who had resisted the French when they had re-entered Saigon, were driven into the countryside where they fought a guerrilla war against the French, British-officered Gurkhas and the Vietminh.

Ho Chi Minh, the Stalinist leader, went to Paris and negotiated with the French, signed an initial agreement which recognised the French presence in the south on 6 March 1946.

Despite being decimated by the massacre, the Saigon Trotskyists re-organised in the International Communist Group (Union des Communistes Internationalistes), and in October 1946 issued a leaflet condemning the agreement signed by Ho, which ‘offered nothing but advantages for French imperialism: the restoration of French control, economic, financial and customs, and reparations for the French’.

The leaflet called on workers to maintain their political independence from the bourgeoisie, organise trades unions and fight for workers’ liberties.’ (For a Revolutionary Trade Union Organisation, leaflet in the files of the ISFI, Paris).

In the north, where the Stalinists had set up the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), initial progress by Trotskyists of the Struggle group was cut short by ruthless persecution.

A report in the Fourth International’s journal states that at first the DRV had tolerated the thriving Trotskyist movement, which won wide support, and met particular success in organising women.

At one point DRV speakers had even attended Trotskyist meetings.

But after a particularly successful Trotskyist rally at Bach Mai, ‘having realised the popularity of working class policies, and dreading their growing influence, Ho Chi Minh gave a secret order to arrest T., the leader of the group, and other members of the Fourth International.

‘But, despite this they could not prevent the clandestine publication of The Struggle, and participation of Fourth Internationalists in the resistance. (Quatriéme Internationale, Jan.-Feb. 1948).

While ensuring the destruction of his Trotskyist opponents at home, Ho returned to Paris for more talks with the French, which dragged on from May to September 1946 . . . while French troops swarmed across Vietnam, ready to renew open hostilities against the DRV.

Ho’s policy of trying to negotiate crashed to the ground on 23 November 1946, when French ships bombarded Haiphong harbour in the north, killing thousands and signalling the start of Vietnam’s bloody seven-year war with France.

There is no record of what privations and repressions the Saigon Trotskyists faced as war engulfed the country.

But a manifesto issued by their provisional central committee stated:

‘To those who believe that the national liberation of Vietnam can be achieved by negotiations with French imperialism, with or without mediation by other imperialists, we say: we will not achieve liberation without a concerted struggle of the working people and peasants of Vietnam, together with the revolutionary proletariat of the metropolitan countries, hand in hand with the other oppressed peoples’.

The statement, dated 8 July 1947, recognised that the crisis of the colonial peoples could only be resolved with the progress of the world revolution as a whole.

It called on Vietnamese workers not to place their fate in the hands of the national bourgeoisie but to prolong their resistance struggle ‘to accentuate the over-all crisis of France.’ (Our Position, manifesto in ISFI flies).

Contact with the Chinese Section

The relentless advance of Mao Tse Tung’s Red Army, and the disintegration of the Kuomintang forces in 1948-49 must have filled every worker and revolutionary in Asia with hope.

The international significance of the Chinese revolution was clear to the Vietnamese Trotskyists, who sent one of their leading members to contact the Chinese Trotskyists in February 1949, eight months before Mao’s victory.

This delegate attended a conference of the Revolutionary Communist Party of China, which not only discussed at length the Chinese political situation, but also resolved to establish, jointly with the Vietnamese comrades, a Far Eastern secretariat of the Fourth International, and to set up a joint cadre school.

But Mao Tse Tung’s victory in October 1949 heralded another chapter of Stalinist repression.

Many Chinese Trotskyists suffered, at his hands, the same deadly fate that Ho had meted out in Vietnam four years earlier.

The Chinese RCP moved its head office to Hong Kong, but the British colonial authorities were no more ‘democratic’ than the Maoists.

RCP leaders P’eng Shu-tse and Liu Chia-liang then moved to Vietnam, at the end of January 1950.

‘Hardly a few months passed however, before misfortune struck again’, wrote P’eng’s wife, Ch’en Pi-Ian. (Looking Back over my Years with P’eng Shu-tse, introduction to The Chinese Communist Party in Power, P’eng).

‘Two leading Vietnamese Trotskyists were invited to participate in a conference in the zone controlled by the Vietminh.

‘We had been assured that the conference was being organised by Trotskyist elements inside the Vietminh, among them being the Chief of Staff of the army in control of this zone.

‘The conference was scheduled to discuss the military situation and organisation problems of the Vietnamese Trotskyist movement. Unfortunately, the Stalinists had prepared a trap.

‘When the conference came to an end, all the Vietnamese Trotskyists, and our comrade Liu Chia-Liang . . . were arrested’.

Liu, a veteran of the 1926-7 Chinese revolution, who joined the Trotskyists in 1931 and served several sentences under the Kuomintang, died shortly afterwards in the Vietminh jail.

When Ch’en and P’eng left Vietnam fearing for their own lives, their Vietnamese comrades were still imprisoned but alive. Nothing further is known of them.

Vietnam and the Split in the Fourth International

How did the Trotskyist movement internationally – itself subject to massive repression by Stalinism and fascism alike – react to the Stalinist crimes against the sections in the East?

News of the 1945 Saigon massacre reached Paris nearly a year afterwards, whereupon Trotskyists there publicised it, and publicly demanded of Ho Chi Minh – who was in Paris talking to the French government – an answer for this crime.

On the other hand, Trotsky’s widow, Natalia Sedova (who in later years opposed the Fourth International and the defence of the USSR, condemning it as an exploitative class society), was in 1947 accusing the FI leaders of relaxing the fight against Stalinism.

In a criticism of the international leadership, written together with Benjamin Peret and Grandizo Munis, she stated that the Indochinese section had been ‘forgotten for so long’, that ‘even to demand who assassinated Ta Thu Thau has been forgotten, in order to support, without serious criticism, the Stalinist government of Ho Chi Minh, greetings from whom were so warmly hailed by The Militant and La Verite.’ (FI Internal Bulletin, 1947).

A full discussion on the Fl’s politics in 1947-8 is beyond the scope of this article.* But, in the period immediately following, there is a clearer picture.

Without doubt, the Fl leadership under Pablo, which revised Trotsky’s fundamental theses on the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism following the Communist Party’s coming to power in Yugoslavia and China in 1949, capitulated to Stalinism to the extent that it deliberately covered up and minimised the repression of Trotskyists.

When the Fl split in 1953, with the International Cornmittee (ICFI) forming around JP Cannon’s Open Letter in opposition to Pablo’s liquidationism, a letter from the Chinese Trotskyist P’eng to Cannon accused Pablo of trying to stifle discussion on Stalinism in the Far East Commission of the FI’s Third Congress in 1951; refusing to distribute information on the wholesale arrest and murder of Chinese Trotskyists by Mao; and concealing for four months, May to September 1953, an appeal from the Chinese Trotskyists on behalf of imprisoned comrades.

P’eng states that, with regard to Vietnam, Pablo’s entryism of a special type’, actually meant sending Trotskyists from France back to their own country, with instructions to join the Vietminh, and without a clear understanding of the extent of Stalinist repression.

‘When the Vietnamese comrades were ready to return to their country to apply the “entryist policy", and called a meeting in which I was invited to make a speech, the chairman of this meeting made a request of me not to mention before the comrades the recent persecutions experienced by the Chinese comrades.

‘I knew quite well that it was an instruction or suggestion from Pablo,’ wrote P’eng.

‘Although I observed the request of the chairman, I still warned him personally that the “ostrich policy” was the most dangerous.’ (Towards a History of the FI, Part 3, Vol. 3, p 170-1, published by the Socialist Workers Party (US), Education for Socialists series.).

The Trotskyist group referred to was built among Vietnamese workers in France during and after the war.

When it returned to Vietnam in the early 1950s, this group was split – a majority faction supporting the Pablo leadership, and a minority supporting the French Parti Communiste Internationaliste (PCI) who had opposed Pablo.

This minority voted against the resolutions of the FI Third Congress along with the PCI.

We have pointed out (see article reprinted from Workers Press of 20 December above) that while the ICFI was formed on the basis of opposing Pablo’s adaptation to Stalinism and his attempts to liquidate independent Trotskyist organisation, that in later years the Healy-Banda leadership in the IC had itself manifested liqudationism with regard to Vietnam.

But the French PCI, which founded the IC together with the SLL-WRP and the American SWP, did continue to pay attention to Vietnamese Trotskyism, running classes on its history throughout the 1960s and early 1970s.

A well-known incident in the late 1960s, while proving nothing in itself, is illustrative: members of the United Secretariat of the FI on a Vietnam solidarity march in Paris chanted ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh’ – and were robustly answered ‘Ta, Ta, Ta Thu Thau’ by a PCI contingent.

Vietnamese Trotskyism Today

We know that, haunted by at least some knowledge of earlier repressions, and no doubt affected by the split in the FI, some Trotskyists carried on activity throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s in Saigon.

In 1954, when Ho signed the Geneva Accords which left the south in the hands of the imperialist puppet Ngo Dinh Diem, a Trotskyist manifesto condemned his secret diplomacy.

It called for workers in north Vietnam to demand expropriation of property and imperialist enterprises, agrarian reform, workers’ and peasants’ control over production and consumption, and democracy for workers and peasants.

In the south the Trotskyists advocated the expulsion of imperialism, the advance of trade unionism, and unity around slogans of national liberation, agrarian reform and democracy. (The Geneva Accords are a Treacherous Betrayal, July 1954 leaflet in ISFI files).

It is known that when the Vietminh reached Saigon 21 years later, in 1975, they freed from jail some Trotskyists who had led Saigon’s railway workers against the pro-American regime.

But soon afterwards, some of these comrades were re-arrested by the Stalinists. In the 1970s, with the Vietnamese struggle occupying a central place in international events, Vietnamese Trotskyists in France organised a group attached to the USFI.

Having appealed in vain for guidance to the USFI Eighth Congress in 1975 (see article pp. 21-25 reprinted from Workers Press, 6 December, and letter reproduced on pp. 129-130), they proceeded to issue a manifesto calling on Vietnamese workers to carry through a political revolution.

This group of older comrades began, at the end of last year, producing a new magazine, Chroniques Vietnamiennes, aimed at the younger Vietnamese generation in France.

The first issue contained three letters signed by Ho Chi Minh in 1939, which prove that he personally initiated the slander that the Trotskyists were ‘Japanese agents’ (See pp. 123-128 in this volume).

This quarterly French-language magazine is available from Chroniques Vietnamiennes, 2 rue Richard Lenoir, 93108 Montreuil Cedex, near Paris, France. An annual overseas subscription is 85 francs.

Today we have no direct knowledge of Trotskyist activity in Vietnam itself. But the world revolution – in which movements are growing not only in Europe, Africa and the Americas, but in China and indeed an upsurge against state bureaucracy in Vietnam itself – contains great possibility for the building of our movement.

* Even without entering into such discussion, one fact jumps out of the documents of the FI second world Congress in 1948: the fate of the Vietnamese section, one of the most important in a colonial country is not mentioned. This was an omission for which the Fl paid heavily. – SP. see also letters pp. 75-90.

The Trotskyists and the United National Front

Comment by Simon Pirani
Reprinted from Workers Press, 17 January 1987

We have this week received further clarification of an important question of historical fact about the Vietnamese Trotskyists.

The question is: what were the Trotskyists’ relationships to the United National Front (UNF) set up by the bourgeois nationalist parties in Saigon on 16 August 1945?

The front itself, formed to take administrative power from Japan’s occupation army (who, having finally lost the imperialist war with the dropping of the atom bomb, were anxious to hand over to Vietnamese bourgeois forces rather than the British or French), lasted less than a week.

At a meeting on 22 August 1945, its leaders were given an ultimatum by the Stalinists of the Vietminh to submit to their power – which they did. (See article reprinted from Workers Press of December 20 above).

But the question of the Trotskyists’ attitude towards the UNF is important. An old Stalinist slander (originated by Ho Chi Minh in 1939), that the Trotskyists were agents of the Japanese, has been bolstered with the argument of ‘guilt by association’: the Japanese handed power to the UNF, the Trotskyists were in it, therefore they were Japanese agents.

In compiling this series, I had to work mostly from secondary sources, and the question of Trotskyist participation in the UNF, like other important details, was unclear. I felt we were right to publish anyway what we had in hand, i.e. the mountain of evidence showing that the Trotskyists were honourable revolutionaries who fought for working class power, and were subject to Stalinist repression for doing so.

Reports from both Vietnamese Trotskyist groups, sent to the International Secretariat of the Fourth International in Paris in the late 1940s, made no mention of either group participating in the UNF.

The report from the Struggle group said they proposed a united front to the Vietminh, who turned this offer down; it also said they had refused practical collaboration with the bourgeois nationalist parties.

On the other hand, accounts by bourgeois academics – Milton Sacks, Phillipe Devilliers and R. Turner – stated that the Trotskyists of the Struggle group, led by Ta Thu Thau, did participate in the UNF. Sacks and Devilliers quote no sources. Turner quotes A Modern History of Vietnam by Nguyen Phut Tan, which I have been unable to obtain. I argued, in the article in Workers Press of 20 December, that if the Trotskyists had participated in the UNF, this certainly did not ‘prove’ that they collaborated with the Japanese anyway.

Now a Vietnamese comrade with first-hand knowledge has kindly sent a copy of the manifesto issued by the UNF when it was set up on 16 August 1945.

The manifesto, which calls for resistance to French imperialism and ‘all foreign aggression’, was signed by the Vietnam Independence Party, the Vanguard Youth, a group of intellectuals, the civil servants’ federation, the Tinh Do Cu Si community (hermit Buddhists), the Hoa Hao Buddhist community and the Cao Dai religious community.

The Struggle group did not sign this manifesto, and this seems fairly conclusive proof that they did not take part in the UNF.

Only one question remains: why did academics like Devilliers believe that they did?

It is possible that he was misled by the Vietminh disinformation campaign, launched against the Trotskyists to label them ‘Japanese agents’ and justify their massacre a few weeks after the UNF’s brief appearance in history.

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