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International Socialism, Spring 1968



Neither Washington, nor Moscow – but Vietnam?


From International Socialism, No.32, Spring 1968, pp.2-3.
Transcribed by Mike Pearn.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


As we go to press, the first major counter-attack by the National Liberation Front upon the urban strongholds of American power in South Vietnam is drawing to a close. The fate of Khe San hangs in the balance; the triumph of Hue is already apparent. Whatever the outcome of this overall attack, it cannot detract from the amazing reaffirmation of NLF strength and resilience. Few on the Left can now seriously doubt the reasons for that strength: the strong roots of the NLF in the Southern population. There is no magic about the strength of these roots – the NLF and only the NLF represents a credible new deal for almost all South Vietnamese, pillaged by twenty years of war and the robbery of successive foreign powers. Above all, the NLF represents a new deal on the land, and in a peasant country in Vietnam’s situation, this is political dynamite for those who willingly or not, resist change on the land. Thus, the power of the Saigon regime also turns not upon what help it receives from elsewhere but upon its politics – just as the farcical weakness of the Saigon regime also turns upon its politics, even if that weakness is sometimes clad in the borrowed garments of American military power. The existence of the NLF, and its immense triumph over the past few weeks, reaffirms one of the basic premises of the Left everywhere: people and their consciousness, not property or armaments, in the final analysis determine the operation of power.

However, to say this and no more is to evade some of the thornier issues of a socialist’s attitude to the war in Vietnam. We have argued (and continue to do for an immediate American withdrawal from Vietnam; necessarily this means support for the NLF and a North Vietnamese victory, and it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise. Yet does this position not contradict many other things we have said? For example, the state capitalism of the Eastern Bloc is not intrinsically superior to the private capitalism of the Western: neither Washington nor Moscow, but international socialism. In the lucid absurdities of the Cold War, does not our support for Hanoi, negative or positive, mean we are in fact abandoning the possibility of a third alternative and coming down on the side of Moscow – or, at any rate, adhering to the full programme of the North Vietnamese regime?

The result does not follow. For the Vietnam war does not fit neatly into the pattern of belligerent incidents between East and West since the war. Such incidents were most often the result of direct confrontations between the major powers, each jostling for military or strategic advantage along the undemocratic border between their respective empires – the raw wound that ran through Central Europe (and straight through the city of Berlin), the Balkans, the Middle East and South East Asia. Clearing up the open points along the border was part of the unfinished business of the Allied wartime conferences that divided the spoils of victory. In practice, both sides accepted the division (and thus implicitly rejected the aspirations of those victims whose misfortune it was to inhabit the border zones). Both sides accordingly reserved their response to the other side’s suppression of social or national liberation movements to rhetoric (as in Greece, or Hungary).

The Korean War was both the most inflamed confrontation between the two sides, and not atypical. There were indeed elements of an indigenous liberation movement in the south of Korea, but the outbreak of fighting in 1950 had little if anything to do with these. Rather was the war no more than an extension of the global jostling for power between Russia (now joined by China) and the US. The first hoped to prevent Japan falling under US hegemony, to protect its eastern flank, to secure a strategic position on the Pacific seaboard, and to keep China within the eastern Bloc. The second sought to complete its control of the pacific seaboard, to keep that ocean as an American lake, to hold what it had as the prize of the second World War – and, incidentally, to push Congress into advancing funds for rearmament, thereby creating the permanent arms economy in the fifties. The war ended in stalemate, when neither side could see strategic gains in the continuation of war. Only the Korean people paid a real price – in blood and in the loss of any prospect of national independence.

The Vietnam war has certainly not been immune to the same jostling – indeed, it would have been over in the early fifties if outside powers had not intervened. But the jostling is different, particularly because the Soviet Union has not permitted itself to become directly implicate (its own interests, now detached from those of China, have little direct relevance in Vietnam); nor has China, since, without the Soviet nuclear umbrella behind it, it is too weak in military terms to risk such a confrontation with the United States. Thus, the eastern end of the seesaw is very light. The war could not have been waged at all if there had not been a genuine popular movement to replace the absent military power of the eastern Bloc. This circumstance has made the war both more bitter, more long drawn out and more difficult to settle – even though the North Vietnam leaders have not consistently been unwilling to subordinate themselves to the strategy of others (as they did at the Geneva Conference of 1954). Sometimes the NLF has had to act despite the wishes of Hanoi – as with the 1956-7 outbreak of peasant revolt in the South. The war in the South has not been turned on and off at the whim of the rulers in Moscow, Pekin or Hanoi – indeed, if it could have been turned off, certainly Moscow, and probably Pekin, would have turned it off rather than risk the present involvement of American military power. Quite rightly, help has been accepted from outside (as the Vietminh accepted help from the Americans in the closing years of the Second World War), but the outside help should not conceal the politics fuelling the movement – land and freedom, not global power politics.

However, to say that the NLF is a genuine popular movement is not to say that the NLF – much less the more developed regime of the North – is either socialist or will lead to socialism, or is no more than the authentic embodiment of the aspirations of the workers and peasants of Vietnam. The programme of the NLF is consciously one for a popular front, as was that of the Vietminh, appealing to ‘Rich people, soldiers, workers, peasants, intellectuals, employees, trades, youth, women ...’ As with the Chinese Communist party in its rise to power, the Lao Dong party leadership is overwhelmingly drawn from the old middle and upper classes, not from the poor peasantry or workers. If it were not the case that the concept of a bourgeois revolution is no longer meaningful in contemporary developing countries, then we might deduce that the regime in the North is bourgeois, and that what is happening in the South is an attempt to install a bourgeois regime against the old order allied to imperialism. But ’bourgeois’ carries the connotation of the private ownership of the means of production, whereas in almost all countries of the third world today the radical drive is towards State ownership, and it is the attempt to create a State-class, not a private or bourgeois class, that is spearheaded by the NLF and has already been instituted in the North. The aim is, however, the same: capital accumulation to build an independent nation-State. Just as in the bourgeois revolution the bourgeoisie came to represent the interests of all except the aristocracy, so now in the new revolutions of the third world the group which is striving to constitute itself as the new State also represents the interests of nearly all – and in particular, of the peasants, to secure a new land settlement; and of the old petty officials, mandarins and intellectuals, to build a new State which can, in conditions of freedom from foreign intervention, begin the process of development, of building a national enclave of substantial power. Often, in such countries, the industrial proletariat is so small that it cannot, as the historic agent of socialism, exercise much political role. The process can be seen with clarity in a whole range of countries which, in other terms, seem diverse – from China and Cuba to Egypt and Syria. The agency which very often has alone proved capable of overcoming the heterogeneity of different strata of the population, of connecting the forward aim of national independence to the force of the peasant’s hunger for land, of providing the nucleus for the new State, is the Communist Party.

Of necessity, the political programme of such a force is very different from a socialist platform. Most important, the programme must be nationalist, not internationalist, populist not class-conscious. The coalition of forces is held together only temporarily for a limited and specific end, and the very achievement of power begins to separate out once again the constituent interests, despite possible radical reforms to sustain the momentum of the movement and undercut some of the more obvious interests. In North Vietnam, the separation began in 1954 and exploded briefly in 1956. The general crisis which affected the Eastern Bloc in that year found its echo in the peasant revolt against Hanoi in Nghe An.

Not that the Vietminh leadership consistently pursued the broad interests of the coalition even before 1954. They tried in 1945 and 1946 to do a deal with the French which would have robbed some of their most important sectors of support of what they were fighting for. Indeed, Ho Chi Minh’s willingness to compromise was one major cause in the subsequent outbreak of fighting again. Those who opposed the settlement, including the Trotskyist leaders in Saigon, were murdered by the Vietminh. Again, after 1954, while thousands of opponents of Diem were being ruthlessly hounded, interned and shot in the South, the North did nothing but make verbal protests. The Russian line in pressing for the admission of both Vietnams into the United Nations stemmed from the same attitude as that in the North after 1954 – an acceptance of the permanent partition of the country. The claim that the fight back in the South began independently of Hanoi is not mere propaganda – it is an indictment of the policies pursued by the North. Indeed, Hanoi was forced into intervening, since if it had not done so it would have lost all control and influence over the southern revolt.

Thus, in supporting the victory of the NLF, we do not thereby mistake its significance, its class politics, and thereby mistake its future role. In the same way, socialist were required in the nineteenth century to support bourgeois liberal movements against feudal or absolutist regimes – without crossing over from Garibaldi to Cavour, let alone Palmerstone who also supported some nationalist movements. In Tsarist Russia, Lenin was particularly precise on this question:

‘We support the peasant movement to the end, but we must remember that it is a movement of another class, not the one that can or will accomplish the socialist revolution.’

Or again, writing in 1909 on the Social Revolutionaries, he said,

‘The fundamental idea of their programme was not at all that “an alliance of the proletariat and the peasantry is necessary,” but that there is no class abyss between the former and the latter, and that there is no need to draw a line of class demarcation between them, and that the (Marxist) idea of the petty-bourgeois nature of the peasantry that distinguishes it from the proletariat is fundamentally false.’

Thus there is no contradiction between support and realistic appraisal. We must oppose the terrorism of US intervention in Vietnam, and we must defend unconditionally the right of Vietnamese to be left free of outside intervention – to do so, in the circumstances, is to offer unconditional support to the NLF. But Ho Chi Minh is not thereby made some genial uncle, nor the NLF merely the Vietnamese YMCA – the fog of cosy sentimentality with which Communists seek to cloud the issue must not mislead anyone. Of course, when the issue of American power is settled we know what kind of regime and policies the NLF will choose – and be forced to choose by the logic of their situation. But that is, for the moment, another fight, the real fight for socialism. Socialists must support every genuine struggle against imperialism and capitalist oppression – whether it be by workers of the advanced countries or by all classes in the backward.

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