Workers Socialist League Index | Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Behind the Smokescreen

An analysis of the sectarian politics of the Workers Revolutionary Party

A collection of articles first printed in Socialist Press

Written: 1975 / 76.
First Published: June 1976.
Source: Published by Folrose Ltd. for the Workers Socialist League.
Transcription/HTML Markup: Sean Robertson for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Copyleft: Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line ( 2012. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons license. Please cite any editors, proofreaders and formatters noted above along with any other publishing information including the URL of this document.

Behind the Smokescreen

Vietnam: WRP on the Road Back to Pabloism

(Reprinted from Socialist Press No 19, October 15th 1975).

The liberation of Vietnam and the other nations of Indo-China is the greatest blow struck at imperialism since the Chinese revolution. Like the liberation of China from the Kuomintang, the rout of Thieu in South Vietnam was led and organised by Stalinists. But Stalinism in Vietnam, which finally carried to a successful conclusion the military struggle against imperialism, was at the same time responsible for some of the worst defeats and betrayals of the Vietnamese revolution.

This political contradiction reflects the fundamental threat which imperialism levels at the gains and rights of working people of the entire world, no matter what attempts the Stalinist, reformist and centrist parties may make to find a basis for equilibrium.

But because we indicated the Stalinist political character of Ho Chi Minh and of the Vietnamese leadership – and drew out the political implications of their policies in the 1945 revolution, when they murdered the Vietnamese Trotskyists and allowed French troops to return to Vietnam – the Workers Socialist League has been stridently vilified in the pages of Workers Press, paper of the revisionist Workers Revolutionary Party,

This takes the form of a series of four long articles by Stephen Johns: ‘Stalinism and the Liberation of Vietnam’, in Workers Press (August 5th.-8th.) of which the last instalment is an attack on our article ‘Vietnamese Trotskyists’, in Socialist Press of June 12th.


The central purpose of Johns’ fraudulent excursion into history is to deny that the Vietnamese leadership is Stalinist. His formal logic (backed by the marching orders of the WRP leadership) forbids him to recognise this fact or the contradiction it crystallises.

As he puts it (several times) “if a revolution took place in Vietnam . . . how did it occur without a revolutionary leadership?” This ‘logic’ leads Johns not only to distort the history of the Stalinist leadership in Vietnam, but to falsify wholesale the struggle of the Vietnamese Trotskyists.

Apparently without being aware of it (though other leaders of the WRP, such as National Secretary Gerry Healy, certainly are) Johns also raises one of the most fundamental political and theoretical questions in the post-war history of the international Trotskyist movement: what is the significance of the fact that Stalinism has overthrown capitalist property relations and established deformed workers’ states in many countries, including China and Eastern Europe?

1953 SPLIT

The basic split in the Fourth International, in 1951-3, took place when a faction led by Michel Pablo capitulated politically to Stalin, ‘logically’ and empirically concluding from these events that Stalinism was capable of an overall revolutionary role. In the 1953 split some of the present leaders of the WRP fought organisation ally against Pablo’s liquidation of the Trotskyist cadres into Stalinism, but never took up the struggle to found a political reply to it.

In the recent degeneration of the WRP leadership the wheel begins to come full circle, and they set their journalists to apologetics for Stalinist politics, dragging the record of the Vietnamese Trotskyist movement in the mud. For similar reasons they falsify their own role in the 1953 split.

First we take up some of the main falsifications in Johns’ articles. On his own admission he knows next to nothing of the real record of Vietnamese Trotskyism, in 1945 or before. How come? Because, as he disarmingly explains, the ‘internationalism’ of the WRP stops north of Dover:

“There is no thorough investigation in English into the role of the Trotskyist movement in Vietnam, still less a Marxist analysis. It appears that no Vietnamese Trotskyist has ever written an account of the Saigon events. [By ‘Saigon events’ Johns means the revolutionary power in Saigon in August-September 1945, the struggle of the Trotskyists to prevent the Stalinists allowing French troops to reoccupy, and their murder at the hands of the Vietminh]. Most of the available material is in French, and an investigation of this would be required before any definitive view could be reached”.

There could be no clearer statement of the cynicism and national arrogance with which Johns wields his pen. If only these foreigners would learn to speak English! Then perhaps the WRP would condescend to read about the policies they fought for – and he has the impudence to accuse us of being petit-bourgeois English patriots!

In any case, Johns is wholly wrong. There is a full account of ‘the Saigon events’ in the official journal of the Fourth International, by a surviving comrade of the International Communist League who played a leading part in them. (See Some stages in the revolution in the South of Vietnam in Quatrieme Internationale 1947).

There is also a book published by the International in 1948 – jointly written by a Vietnamese and a French comrade – describing more widely the problems of the Vietnamese revolution: National movements and class struggle in Vietnam by Anh Van and Jacqueline Roussel. (Both of them are – regrettably for Mr Johns – in French).


It is a scandal that the WRP – largest section of the so-called ‘International Committee’ – writes about a struggle which they say is the most important since the October revolution, and in which the Trotskyist cadres played a central part, without bothering to read these accounts. Ignorance, of course, does not inhibit Johns from condemning the Vietnamese Trotskyists for taking “far too superficial a view” of the peasants and for “an abstract and sectarian approach” to the national question.

The ‘Saigon events’ of August-September 1945 were revolutionary developments, and they moved rapidly. The critical time for the south of Vietnam (Cochinchina) was the entry of British, then French, troops in the first half of September to gain a hold in and around Saigon. These troops were welcomed by Tran Van Giau, the Stalinist head of the ‘Committee of the South’ which claimed government power in the vacuum after the Japanese surrender in August.

The cadres of the International Communist League were arrested by Giau on or just after September 12th precisely for issuing an appeal which denounced “the treasonable policy of the Stalinist government, and its capitulation before the threat of the general staff of the English troops”.

The ICL’s words were only too true. By September 23rd enough French and British forces were concentrated in Saigon to launch a coup against the Vietminh, and drive them out of the city. From then on there was war throughout the south Vietnamese countryside but the imperialists held Saigon, and French troops began to retake the Mekong delta area and drive northwards. Within a fortnight the Stalinists in the south were victims of their own policy.

Johns’ articles, however, slide over these critical days giving virtually no dates (the purpose of the chronology in Socialist Press of June 12th was to make them clear). His aim is to confuse the situation in September 1945 with that in March 1946, when Ho Chi Minh was forced by massive French forces in the south and the north to sign an ‘independence’ agreement.

Johns then justifies this retreat on grounds of the “objective circumstances the Vietminh and the ICP (Indochina Communist Party) found themselves in in 1945-6”. In effect, Johns chooses to recognise the revolution by its backside, and then employs this as ‘explanation’ for the defeat.

Exactly the same opportunism is at work in Johns’ slanders on the Vietnamese Trotskyists in 1945. He attacks them on the basis of extracts from Trotsky’s short comments on their policies – in 1930! Using these, Johns charges them with:

“a failure to grasp the peasant question, an underestimation of the progressive role of nationalism, and the dangers of sectarianism towards both the working class and the peasantry”.

He says – falsely – that they were opposed to “peasant soviets – which were in fact embryo liberated areas” and that their policies (“completely idealist” according to Johns) “accounted in part for their inability to withstand the liquidation of their movement”!

Nothing could be further from the truth. The Trotskyists crystallised the tasks of the hour and the temper of masses of Vietnamese in the August revolution. They put right to the fore demands both for the redistribution of the land, and for the arming of workers and peasants to defend national independence. In the huge Saigon demonstration of August 21st thousands took up their slogans. They still got mass support in the demonstrations of August 25th and September 2nd, when the Stalinists had tightened their grip on the governmental apparatus.


In the countryside peasant committees were dealing with the parasites of French rule wholesale: in Saigon-Cholon the Trotskyists led numerous local ‘Peoples Committees’. A ‘Provisional Central Committee’, uniting about a hundred such committees, was set up after the August 21st demonstration and, on August 26th, issued a programme for the revolutionary defence of national independence, for uniting peasants and workers via the Peoples Committees in towns and countryside, and for the struggle for a national assembly of Peoples Committees.

The Provisional Central Committee held delegate meetings daily, centring on the fight for armed defence of independence. On September 4th delegates from the workers’ districts of Banco and Phu-Nhuan brought forward proposals to take over French-owned factories and produce war materials. It was also demanded that the Bank of Indochina be taken over and fortified as a centre of defence.

On September 6th the Stalinist press and radio launched a concerted and vitriolic witch-hunt against the Trotskyists – on the same day that the British mission demanded the disarming of Vietnamese. On the 7th Tran Van Giau’s “Committee of the South” ordered the disarming of all other organisations. The decree declared:

“all those who call the people to arms and above all to struggle against the Allies will be considered as provocateurs and saboteurs”.

By (or just before) September 12th the Stalinists welcomed General Gracey and the first detachments of British and Indian troops. On the same day (or the 14th, according to some sources) the Stalinists carried out the main police raids and arrests of Trotskyist cadres.


The Stalinists were equally fearful of the Trotskyists’ agitation on the land question. On August 27th Stalinist ‘Interior Commissar’ Nguyen-Van-Tuo declared:

“All those who have instigated the peasants to seize landowners’ property will be severely and pitilessly punished”.

He added:

“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 on it. Our government, I repeat, is a bourgeois democratic government, even though the Communists are now in power”.

So Stephen Johns’ accusations of ‘neglecting’ national independence and the peasants should therefore be wholly directed at the Stalinists, not the Trotskyists. So powerful was the (largely spontaneous) peasant movement in the countryside – to which the Trotskyists’ policies gave political voice – that it took months of bloody warfare and torture by French troops after September to put it down.

Thus did imperialism (allowed in the door by Stalinism) attend to the solution of the “agrarian problem”, and simultaneously replace “bourgeois democracy” by imperialist rape. As the Trotskyists well understood, the laws of the permanent revolution apply as strongly in defeat as in victory.


But Johns’ dishonesty on the Vietnamese Trotskyists goes much deeper. The sole basis for his criticism of their policies in 1945 is a letter written by Trotsky in September 1930 (Johns quotes some passages from it, but conveniently ‘omits’ its date). The letter was addressed to a group of young Vietnamese communists in France, supporters of the International Left Opposition.

They included Ta Thu Thau, one of those killed in 1945. They were shortly to leave France (expelled by the government for agitation in support of Vietnamese independence!) for Vietnam, where they helped found the Trotskyist movement and fought for the positions of the Left Opposition against the Stalinist leadership of the Communist Party there (founded in February 1930). In 1931-2 they adopted revised positions which accepted many of Trotsky’s criticisms, and they built a considerable movement during the 1930’s.

The character of Trotsky’s letter is clearly shown in the source from which Johns quotes it (International Socialist Review, September 1973),

That Johns, who has never led anything but a mendacious pen across a piece of paper, should read the Vietnamese Trotskyists a lecture on the problems of revolutionary leadership in Vietnam in 1945, going by weaknesses of some parts of their positions as new recruits in Paris in 1930, is grotesque. He simple writes off a decade and a half of revolutionary struggle.


Johns also uses Vietnam as the platform for some fraudulent braggadocio on the WRP and the role of “the Party” – by associating the WRP with the Vietnamese Stalinist leadership! According to him the WSL’s criticism of the role of the Stalinist leadership flow from a wish to “attack the whole conception of revolutionary leadership”; specifically, our “method is hatred of the British revolutionary leadership – the WRP”.

Attacking us for separating the peasant resistance movement and the military struggle from the political leadership provided by “the Party”, Johns delivers a sermon on the need to have a party above all – the Stalinist Party in Vietnam, and the WRP in Britain. Of the struggle in Vietnam he writes that the party has provided “always the leaders, organisers and tacticians of the struggle to liberate the south. The leadership did not reside in any one town or city, but in the Party – without the Party the victory in Vietnam could not have occurred”.


How, then does Johns explain this – that on November 11th, 1945, as French troops drove deeper and deeper into Cochinchina, Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi dissolved the Indochina Communist Party! (In 1943 Stalin had dissolved the Comintern as a peace-offering to US imperialism). The communique stated:

“In order to destroy all misunderstandings, domestic and foreign, which can hinder the liberation of our country, the Central Executive Committee of the ICP in meeting assembled on November 11th 1945, has decided to formally dissolve the ICP.
Those followers of Communism desirous of continuing their theoretical studies will affiliate with the Indochina Association for Marxist Studies”.

From then until the party was re-established in 1951 the Stalinists organised through the Vietminh.

In July 1946 they sponsored the formation of a social democratic party in the north. Part of its programme stressed “Reliance on parliamentary means, peaceful organisational methods, and propaganda”. These events are clearly indicated in one of Johns’ sources. Needless to say respect for “the Party” prevents him from being so indelicate as to mention them.

Lastly – how does Johns assess politically the results of the Stalinists murdering the Trotskyist leadership in Saigon? He calls it a “dastardly” act and “an outright counter-revolutionary blow”. But why was it counter-revolutionary? Because “it deprived the masses of the possibility of an understanding of international Stalinism and therefore disarmed them in the face of the parasitic and counter-revolutionary Moscow bureaucracy”.

This is the quintessence of the WRP’s abandonment of Trotskyism. Revolution and counter-revolution themselves are contemplated in wholly idealistic terms. Johns – eager at every point to exonerate Vietnamese Stalinism from material responsibility for the defeat of the revolution – just turns his back on the real situation in Saigon and the south.

The Vietnamese were disarmed, not “in the face of the Moscow bureaucracy”, but by the Stalinists in Saigon in face of two imperialist armies who were already landing. The murder of the Trotskyists destroyed the political spearhead of the struggle for workers and peasants power, and for revolutionary defence of independence. With their liquidation, the road was open to French imperialism and the ‘agreements’ forced on the Vietminh in 1946.

But Johns lifts the whole question to some ideal fairy-land outside the borders of Vietnam. All the Saigon Stalinists were guilty of, in his eyes, was “depriving the masses of the possibility of an understanding” of ‘international Stalinism’ and ‘the Moscow bureaucracy’. Ah! Now we understand the role of ‘theory’ in the gospel of the WRP. If only counter-revolutionary retreats could be carried out with a proper ‘understanding’ of the role of Stalinism – elsewhere! – Mr Johns and the ‘theoreticians’ of the WRP would withdraw their lingering objections. It is not difficult to imagine what Ta Thu Thau and his comrades would have said of Johns’ offer to correct their ‘grave weaknesses’.


As we have shown in the specific case of the 1945 revolution in Vietnam, Johns’ articles are written in a spirit of dishonest factionalism. But, underlying this, what is clear is his total inability to see the post-war development of Stalinism in an all-sided and dialectical way.

With straitjacketted formal logic, Johns reasons that since the Vietnamese leadership finally succeeded in defeating imperialism and taking power . . . therefore they, cannot be Stalinist. (On the contrary, Johns credits them with “a consistent revolutionary line” since 1941: within this, every compromise and defeat is evasively put down to ‘Stalinist training’ or the external pressure of Moscow).

Yet the Chinese Communist Party, too, led a revolutionary struggle to victory – but Workers Press (with occasional vacillations) quite clearly characterises them as Stalinist and has, for example, commented on their thoroughly reactionary foreign policy.


Johns’ approach is a classic case of the impressionism, the ‘worship of the accomplished fact’, which Trotsky so often had occasion to denounce in certain ‘theoreticians’ around the Fourth International. Unable to maintain and develop a consistent world-view, Johns hops from one inconsistent assertion to the next.

He goes on to defend the claim that NLF declarations on independence and revolutionary movements in other countries are ‘revolutionary internationalism’, cynically glossing over – for example – the support Hanoi has given (in accommodation to Soviet foreign policy) for Ghandi’s emergency measures in India, under which thousands of left-wingers are being imprisoned, gagged and persecuted.

Stalinism cannot be understood and fought against piecemeal. It is a world political formation, resting on the world antagonism between imperialism and the revolutionary aspirations of a rotten social order, and is itself contradictory to the core.

It is based on the one hand on the destruction of capitalist property relations and the establishment of planned economy, and on the other on the national limitation and division of those gains, and their subordination to the interests of narrow bureaucratic castes. It attempts to regulate its relations with imperialism on a world scale within this it is no more impossible that Stalinist leaderships should be driven to fight and win struggles for state power than it is that social democratic leaders should – even in conditions of the sharpest crisis – lead real struggles in defence of the working class.

But what Johns does is to divide up world Stalinism, looking for segments within that have ‘empirically’ broken with ‘real’ Stalinism, so that he can confer revolutionary credentials on them and even use them as a model for the WRP’s conception of a revolutionary party.


This is precisely the way in which Michel Pablo justified his capitulation to Stalinism in the period before the 1952-3 split in the Fourth International – at that time the liquidationist tendency concentrated on the ‘revolutionary’ role of the Yugoslav Communist Party leadership after Tito’s break with Stalin in 1953. In two quite definite respects Johns returns to tread in Pablo’s steps.

In the first place he defends the retreats of the Vietnamese Stalinists from armed conflict with French imperialism in 1945-46, on the grounds that the military relationship of forces within the country was “unfavourable” to them and that the city populations in Saigon and Hue were not controlled by the CP (in fact, their mass demonstrations were in many respects to the left of the CP). Thus, whatever he may protest, Johns places himself and the WRP leadership politically with the Stalinists and against the Trotskyists.

And he judges the ‘balance of forces’ on the situation within Vietnam alone – the only international factors he places in the balance are those hostile to the Vietnamese revolution; imperialism and Moscow Stalinism. He does not mention the support of the international working class, the fact that British troops sent into Vietnam were profoundly bitter at being forced to fight a war they regarded as none of their business, or the fact that even the bourgeois Indian nationalist leader Nehru was forced to protest against the invasion of the south.

Little wonder, then, that Johns, compartmentalising the world revolution in typically Stalinist fashion to suit his ‘theory’, concludes that it would have been ‘premature and abortive’ to do other than the Vietminh leadership did.

Johns also follows Pablo in seeing in the victory of the Vietnamese revolution a ‘convergence’ between some Stalinist leaderships and Trotskyism:

“The Vietnamese revolutionary war is however a living example of the correctness of Marxism as developed by Lenin and Trotsky. In particular it represents a vivid illustration of the permanent revolution . . .”

Johns grants that the ‘links’ of the Vietnamese leaders with Stalinism “led to many grave weaknesses at crucial junctures”, but:

“in breaking empirically from the dictates of Stalinist peaceful coexistence the Vietnamese leadership were able to carry through the revolution”.

Johns then looks forward to the day when the Vietnamese leaders will gain a more thorough ‘assimilation of the permanent revolution and the theoretical gains of Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism and the building of the Fourth International.’

Thus speak Johns and the WRP. And here is Pablo, writing on the Chinese revolution in 1953 (in the document where he lays out his plans for liquidation into the Stalinist organisations):

“Despite empirical waverings and errors, anyone who seriously takes part in the revolution is obliged to more-or-less come over to this programme and these ideas [of Trotskyism]. The development of the colonial revolution and the victory in China in particular is a masterful demonstration of the Trotskyist revolutionary Marxist theory of the Permanent Revolution. Thus the Chinese CP has found itself and is now obliged to bend its policy in practice in a manner which approximates the fundamental positions of Trotskyism”.

The present leadership of the WRP correctly opposed Pablo (after having supported his bureaucratic I expulsions of those who disagreed with him) in 1953. But they never fought on the basis of a political opposition to him. Now, disoriented by the world-wide offensive of the working class, they jump, as did Pablo, from impression to impression.

Eager to climb on the bandwagon of the enormous and correct enthusiasm which the Vietnamese revolution has aroused, they drag its real history in the mud.

In the view of the WSL the study of the revolution in Vietnam and of the struggle of opposed social forces which the policy of the leadership reflected, is a serious task. It is a central part of the study of post-war history to forge the political weapons of cadres which will wrest the leadership of mass movements from the reformists and Stalinists.

But this task is not for those – like Johns and the WRP – who have made the lie a routine technique of journalism.

Workers Socialist League Index | Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive