Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History
The Fourth International in Vietnam
Why Study It, and What to Read
A good overall introduction to the history of the movement is the Spartacist pamphlet Stalinism and Trotskyism in Vietnam, New York 1978, which collects articles from Workers Vanguard. Upon this is based Stig Eriksson’s Stalinismo y trotskismo en Viet-nam, no.15 in the Cuadernos rojas series, published in Stockholm for the Spanish Trotskyists.
A number of other general accounts exist, both original and secondary, of varying value. Of the first hand sources, pride of place go to that by An Indo-Chinese Comrade appearing in Quatrième Internationale (new series, nos.22/23/24, September/October/November 1945, pp15-17) which was translated in Fourth International (SWP, USA), Volume 7 no.1, January 1946, pp.16-17, and to the full length discussion by Anh Van (Hoang Don Tri) and Jacqueline Roussel (Marguerite Bonnet), Mouvements nationaux et Lutte de Classes au Vietnam, Paris 1947, which was translated into English by Simon Pirani and published as National Movements and Class Struggle in Vietnam, London 1987. Richard Stephenson’s Vietnam: Stalinism v. Revolutionary Socialism (Socialist Charter, 1972), which was drawn upon by Gerry Downing, Vietnam and Trotskyism (Workers Press, 7 June 1986), is based largely upon Anh Van and Roussel, along with Ngo Van Xuyet’s description of the Saigon events of 1945, and is therefore largely outmoded.
Of other secondary sources, Milton Sacks’ essay, Marxism in Viet Nam, contributed to Marxism in Southeast Asia (Stanford UP, 1960, pp.02-58) is a good general survey, as is Bob Potter’s Vietnam: Whose Victory? (Solidarity Pamphlet no.43). The description From the Vietminh to the Vietcong (Class Struggle/Lutte de Classe, new series no.14, April 1968, pp.7-16), whilst valuable in its day, is probably too general to be of much assistance now.
The discussion of the history of the Vietnamese revolutionary movement among the Trotskyist organisations has been wide and illuminating. Apart from the references given in our prefaces to Ngo Van Xuyet’s Life of Ta Thu Thau and A Moscow Trial in Ho Chi Minh’s Guerilla Movement below, the following should not escape the attention of the serious reader: George Johnson and Fred Feldman, On the Nature of the Vietnamese Communist Party (International Socialist Review, Volume 34 no.7, July/August 1973, pp.4-9, 63-90) and Vietnam, Stalinism and the Postwar Socialist Revolutions (International Socialist Review, Volume 35 no.4, April 1974, pp.26-61); Henry Platsky, The History of Vietnamese Trotskyism: What it Means (Class Struggle (USA), July 1973) and The Vietnamese Revolution and Pabloism (Class Struggle, August 1974), and Vietnam: Ten Years On and Trotskyism and Stalinism (Socialist Organiser, no.232, 12 June 1985). Apart from Al Richardson, More on the Vietnamese Trotskyists (Workers Press, 21 June 1986) and Simon Pirani, Campaign for Vietnamese Trotskyists (Workers Press, 25 February 1989: for the text of the actual appeal, cf. the issue of 11 March) all the documents pertaining to the recent discussion of the history of the Vietnamese Trotskyists are to be found in Vietnam and Trotskyism, Australia 1987, along with much other crucial material including all Trotsky’s essays on the subject.
An interesting by-product of the betrayal of the Vietnamese uprising by the French Communist Party through its deputies in the chamber was the recruitment of practically the whole of the Vietnamese working class community in France to the Trotskyist movement, in which the leading part was played by Anh Van (Hoang Don Tri). This is dealt with in Benjamin Stora, Les travailleurs indochinois en France pendant la seconde guerre mondiale (Les Cahiers du CERMTRI, no.28, April 1983) and Anh Van, Les travailleurs vietnamiens en France, 1939-1950 (Cahiers Leon Trotsky, no.40, December 1989, pp5-19).
The history of the Fourth International in Vietnam has a direct bearing on many important disputes which persist among tendencies claiming to be Trotskyist.
Has history rendered the building of the Fourth International superfluous, or does it have to be rebuilt? Are there countries where it has become unnecessary, because the Stalinist party has proved able to give the revolutionary leadership to which the Trotskyists aspire? Was its foundation in 1938 divorced from the real movement of the working class, and thus “an empty gesture”, as Isaac Deutscher and many other after him believed?
Vietnamese history is important to these disputes for two reasons. Firstly, because between 1947 and 1975 the nationalist movement there – dominated politically by the Stalinists – waged war against, and inflicted crushing defeats on, French and then US imperialism. This gave sustenance to those ‘Trotskyists’ who claimed that Stalinism, far from being a counter-revolutionary agency of imperialism within the workers’ movement as Trotsky stated, had given birth to tendencies which had found a way to become revolutionary in spite of being Stalinist. The Stalinists had de facto taken the helm; the Trotskyists had, it appeared, been found wanting.
Secondly, the Vietnamese Trotskyists had led decisive sections of the working class in the 1930s, but no longer did by the time of the French and American wars – and this simply confirmed, to those who wanted to believe it, that they were marginalised by history.
This false view rested on ignorance, or distortion, of the history of the revolutionary situation which arose in Vietnam in 1945. When Japan’s wartime administration collapsed, workers under the Fourth International’s leadership vied for power in Saigon with the Stalinist ‘provisional government’ headed by Tran Van Giàu, which, in line with Stalin’s post-war agreement with the Allies, wanted to return the south of the country to French imperialist control.
During this little-known revolution, soviet-type councils of workers and peasants, and (on a small scale) workers’ military organisations took shape in Asia for the first time since the Canton commune was crushed by the Guomindang in 1927. In Canton, Stalinism betrayed the revolutionary workers; in Saigon, it connived with imperialism to ensure a bloody defeat and pursued their Trotskyist vanguard into the countryside, where they were invariably killed if caught. The foremost victim was the Trotskyist leader Ta Thu Thau, biographical material about whom appears for the first time in English in this issue of Revolutionary History.
The Stalinists have tried to bury the truth about this revolution – and nearly got away with it because ‘Trotskyists’, bending under Stalinist pressure, concealed it from themselves. (For example, the two single-volume histories of the Fourth International in English, The Fourth International by Pierre Frank, London 1973, and The Death Agony of the Fourth International by Workers Power/Irish Workers Group, have between them not one single word to say on the Vietnamese experience!)
Without understanding the 1945 revolution, the working class will never understand what happened in Vietnam, or what the records of Stalinism and Trotskyism really were.
Is it not exaggerating to say that the history of the 1945 revolution was concealed? Look at it from the viewpoint of the thousands of Europeans who joined the various organisations claiming to be Trotskyist during Vietnam’s war against the USA, in the 1960s and 1970s. How would they have come to learn about the 1945 revolution, or indeed about the fact that there was such a thing as Vietnamese Trotskyism at all?
They would have searched the various journals and newspapers of their organisations in vain. They might have picked up a copy of the ‘libertarian Marxist’ journal Solidarity(Volume 5 no.5, 1968) which contained the article The Saigon Insurrection by Ngo Van Xuyet, translated from the duplicated sheet Information-Correspondance Ouvrières. (This eye-witness account is part of a longer, unpublished work, Sur le Vietnam [On Vietnam], from which we publish extracts below.)
Other pamphlets published at that time were in similarly tiny numbers. From authors claiming adherence to Trotskyism came, in English: Vietnam: Stalinism vs. Revolutionary Socialism by Richard Stephenson (a Chartist International Publication, 1972); Trotskyism and Stalinism in Vietnam by Stig Eriksson, Vietnam: What About the Workers (Workers Voice, Volume 2 no.7); Vietnam: An Unfavourable Terrain for the Guerilla Fight of the Far Left Against the French Communist Party and From the Vietminh to the Vietcong in Class Struggle, new series no 14, April 1968, pp1-16.
The large organisations claiming to be Trotskyist had little to say on the issue of the Vietnamese movement.
The French Organisation Communiste Internationaliste (OCI), led by Pierre Lambert, ran educational classes on the Vietnamese movement's history. When supporters of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI) raised, on anti-Vietnam war marches in Paris, the shout “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh”, OCI members answered “Ta, Ta, Ta Thu Thau”; but the OCI never published anything about the Vietnamese Trotskyists. Neither did the Socialist Labour League until 1975, and then only in order to denigrate them.
In 1973 Pierre Rousset, a leading member of the USFI, published Le parti communiste vietnamien, François Maspero, Paris, 1973. (I believe only one chapter was translated into English: this appears in the anthology The Stalinist Legacy, 1976, edited by Tariq Ali.) This book set out to show how the Vietnamese Stalinist party had, under the pressure of events, become revolutionary, and followed the path of Permanent Revolution sketched out by Trotsky.
It sparked off a controversy in the USFI’s English-language journal, International Socialist Review (July-August 1973, April 1974, February 1975). Against Rousset’s contention that the Stalinists had become a revolutionary leadership, George Johnson and Fred Feldman of the Socialist Workers Party (US) laid out detailed evidence from the Vietnamese Stalinists’ history.
One aspect of this argument, concerning the assassination of the Vietnamese Trotskyists in 1945, is particularly interesting. Ho had told the French historian Daniel Guerin in 1946 that Ta Thu Than was killed because “he didn’t follow the line I laid down’ (Aux services des colonises by Daniel Guerin, Editions Minuit, p22). Rousset quoted Guerin but maintained that while Ho and the Stalinist leaders bore “clear political responsibility” for the Trotskyists’ murder, it was “difficult to establish” who was “immediately responsible”; here the Stalinist party’s position was “ambiguous”. Feldman and Johnson pointed out that there was no “ambiguity”, and that Rousset had pretended it merely to perpetuate the illusion of the Stalinists’ revolutionary potential.
The two Americans also pointed out that the most important job for Trotskyist students of Vietnamese history is the one Rousset didn’t do: a re-examination of the 1945 events and the Trotskyists’ struggle at that time for leadership against the Stalinists. A start could be made with contemporary material published by the Fourth International (with caution as to its accuracy on some factual points). This consists of: the most comprehensive account, Quelques Étapes de la Revolution au Nam-Bò du Vietnam (Some Stages in the revolution in Nam-Bò, Vietnam) by Lu Sanh Hanh (Quatrième Internationale, September 1947); Qui a tue Ta Thu Thau? (Who killed Ta Thu Tha?) by Rodolphe Prager, (La Verité, 19 July 1946); Indochina – Assassinat de Ta Thu Thau (Indochina: The Killing of Ta Thu Than), Quatrième Internationale, August-September 1946; and Nouvelle etape de la contra-revolution et de l’offensive imperialiste en Indochine (The New Stage of the Counter-revolution and Imperialist Offensive in Indochina) by the Central Committee of the Vietnamese International Communist Group in France, Quatrième Internationale, early 1947. There is a reference to the Vietnam experience in The Fl in Danger by Benjamin Peret, Grandizo Munis and Natalia Trotsky (Revolutionary Communist Party, Internal Bulletin, 27 June 1947). (There were further articles in Quatrième Internationale about the French invasion of Indochina, English-language translations of which appeared in Fourth International of January 1946 and April 1947, but these mention the Fourth International’s own section in Vietnam only in passing.)
The American Socialist Appeal, Volume 3 no.58, 11 August 1939, published the letter from Phan Van Hum, Tran Van Thach and Ta Thu Than to L.D. Trotsky, informing him of their “brilliant victory” over the Stalinists in the Saigon colonial council elections in March of that year (which we reproduce below).
In their polemic with Rousset, Feldman and Johnson suggested he could do “a real service” to Marxism, and to scholarship in general, by investigating the key 1945 events further. They suggested interviewing Vietnamese and Chinese Trotskyist exiles in Paris: there is no evidence that Rousset did this. Another vital source of information, which the two Americans did not know about, is the International Secretariat of the Fourth International’s (ISFI) file of correspondence from Vietnam for 1945-55 – which as a leading USFI member Rousset could surely have checked. Some doubt is cast on his honesty (let alone his Trotskyist credentials) by his failure to refer to it.
The file, now held in the Bibliothèque Internationale de Documentation Contemporaire (BIDC) at Nanterre University, is the most important primary source on the Trotskyists’ part in the 1945 revolution. It includes reports on the 1945 events from the two Trotskyist groups in Vietnam: Dans le Sud du Vietnam: La Revolution d Aôut 1945 et la Groupe de La Lutte (In South Vietnam: The August Revolution and the Struggle group); and the less informative La Lutte de la Ligue Communiste Internationaliste du Vietnam (The struggle of the Internationalist Communist League of Vetnam). There are reports from individual Trotskyists, principally the two published here in Revolutionary History for the first time: Un ‘proces de Moscou’ dans le maquis de Ho Chi Minh (A ‘Moscow Trial’ in Ho Chi Minh’s Maquis) by N Van, and the unsigned essay Mes premiers pas vers la Revolution Permanente (My first steps towards the permanent revolution). The file also includes letters, theses and proclamations by the Vietnamese Trotskyists; its most recent items are a 15-page letter from Saigon dated May 1955 and some programmatic theses drafted in the same year. The ISFI file of correspondence from China should also be consulted, as it contains a two-page report, dated August 1951, on the fate of Liu Chia-Liang, a Chinese Trotskyist who was killed by the Stalinists while working in Vietnam.
This material could form the basis for a serious study of the Trotskyists’ record in the 1945 revolution, which would be of great benefit to the movement.
No such study was carried out in the Fourth International in the years following 1945. In fact the attention paid to the Vietnamese section was, to put it mildly, scant. Mention is made of it in The Chinese Experience with Pabloite Revisionism and Bureaucratism by Peng Shuzi, in Towards a History of the Fourth International, Part 3, Volume 3, pp.170-71, Education for Socialists Series of the American SWP; and Looking Back Over My Years With Peng Shu-tse by Chen Pilan (Introduction to The Chinese CP in Power by Peng, Monad, New York 1980). Unpublished, but in a private collection, is a Resolution sur le Travail Indochinois de la Commission Coloniale (Resolution on the Indochinese Work of the Colonial Commission) from the late 1940s.
Now for the material on the Vietnamese Trotskyists published recently (since the mid-1970s) by organisations and authors claiming to be Trotskyist.
First, there are writings which repeat the Stalinists’ misrepresentations and distortions about the Vietnamese Trotskyists. To the forefront here are Stalinism and the Liberation of Vietnam by Stephen Johns, in Fourth International, Autumn 1975 and Winter 1975 (he says the Trotskyists “had never been able to build a base amongst the peasantry and totally underestimated the rôle of the revolutionary guerilla war”); and Vietnam and the World Revolution by Martin McLaughlin (Labor Publications, Detroit 1985). In terms of historical research, these items are almost worthless; however, they throw light on their authors’ politics.
Secondly, there are various attempts to add to research on the Vietnamese Trotskyists’ history, and comment on it: principally, Stalinism and Trotskyism in Vietnam, a Spartacist pamphlet (1975); and Vietnam and Trotskyism (a Communist League of Australia pamphlet, 1987) which republished a series of articles by myself from Workers Press (December 1986-January 1987). This latter pamphlet also included the first English publication of the above-mentioned report Some Stages in the Revolution in Nam-bò, Vietnam, and the Declaration of the Indochinese Oppositionists (1930), which was the basis of an important discussion between the Vietnamese section and L.D. Trotsky.
The duplicated sheet The Vietnamese Trotskyists and the August Revolution of 1945, by John Spencer, is written from an anti-Trotskyist viewpoint, but refers to the conflicts among Trotskyists over the Vietnam issue.
Important material on Vietnamese Trotskyist history can be found in Chroniques Vietnamiennes, the French-language journal of the Groupe Trotskyste Vietnamien (Vietnamese members of the USFI). Chroniques no.1 (November 1986) contained three letters to Ho Chi Minh, dated to 1939, which effectively ended the argument about his attitude to the slaughter of the Trotskyists. He encouraged it.
Despite these efforts, a properly researched history of the 1945 revolution, and the Trotskyists’ part in it, has still to be written.
The Trotskyist activity in Vietnam before the Second World War is much better documented. Apart from many references in works mentioned above, there is in English, firstly, National Movements and Class Struggle in Vietnam, by Anh Van and Jacqueline Roussel, New Park, 1988, a historical/ analytical pamphlet, first published by the Fourth International in French in 1947.
References by L.D. Trotsky to his Vietnamese comrades are as follows: On the Declaration of the Indochinese Oppositionists (Writings of Leon Trotsky 1930-31, Pathfinder, pp.29-33); in India Faced with Imperialist War: An Open Letter to the Workers of India of 25 July 1939 (the English translation appears in Trotsky’s Writings on Britain, New Park, 1974, Volume 3, pp.188-195), and in The Kremlin in World Politics (Writings of Leon Trotsky 1938-39, Pathfinder, p.368); in ‘Trotskyism’ and the PSOP, (Leon Trotsky on France, p.241).
In French there is the recent Cahiers Léon Trotsky, no 40, Revolutionnaires d’Indochine, the principal item in which is Le mouvement IVè Internationale en Indochine 1930-39 (The Fourth Internationalist Movement in Indochina 1930-39) by N. Van. A second article by N. Van, Le Mouvement IVè Internationale en Indochine 1940-45, is due for publication in the Cahiers this year. Most works by non-Trotskyist authors are listed separately below, but a special mention is needed for Révolutionnaries Vietnamiens et Pouvoir Colonial en Indochine (Vietnamese Revolutionaries and Colonial Power in Indochina), by Daniel Hémery, Maspero, 1975, an exhaustive 500-page study of the relations of Stalinists, Trotskyists and nationalists in Saigon 1932-37. The Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches sur les Mouvements Trotskyste et Mvolutionnaires Internationaux (Centre for Study and Research on international Trotskyist and revolutionary movements) in Paris has an incomplete but useful file of Vietnamese Trotskyist publications from the 1930s, including Le Militant, La Lutte and Thang Muoi (The Spark); also an unpublished typescript on Vietnam, Le Communisme de 1920 a 1935.
In Italian there is I Giornale La Lutte e i Trotskysti di Saigon 1934-39 by Stelio Marchese in Storia a Politica, Volume 16 no.4, 1977.
In addition to these, there are Vietnamese Trotskyist pamphlets which have not yet been translated into a European language or even, as far as I know, become available in any European library. These include Tu de nhat den de to quoc te (From the First to the Fourth International) by Ta Thu Thau, Van hoa tho xa, Collection Hieu biet moi (New Knowledge), Saigon 1937; and Ta Thu Thau: Tu quoc gia den quoc te (Ta Thu Thau: From nationalism to internationalism), by Nguyen Van Dinh, Sang, Saigon 1938.
An important aspect of the Fourth International’s history concerns the struggles of Vietnamese workers in France, both during the Second World War when they were confined to labour camps, and after the war. Their leaders and organisers were Trotskyists. This is dealt with fully in Les travailleurs indochinois en France pendant la seconde guerre mondiale (Indochinese workers in France during the Second World War), by Benjamin Stora, Cahiers du CERMTRI, no.28, April 1983. There are also references to it in Chroniques Vietnamiennes, no.4, and I understand one of the comrades involved has written a lengthy unpublished memoir in Vietnamese. Also unpublished is a Bref Historique de Group Bolshevik-Leniniste Indochinoise, a copy of which is in the Centro Studi Pietro Tresso in Foligno, Italy.
Now to material by bourgeois and non-Trotskyist writers on Vietnamese history. Those which include the most detail about the Trotskyists are: Marxism in Vietnam by I. Milton Sacks, part of Marxism in Southeast Asia: A Study of Four Countries, edited by Frank N. Trager, Stanford University Press, 1960; Vietnamese Communism 1925-45 by Huynh Kim Khanh, Cornell University Press. The Section d'Outre-Mer des Archives Nationales (Overseas Section of the National Archives) in Paris, where vast quantities of reports on the revolutionary movement by the French colonial administration of the 1930s are stored, is an essential source for more detailed research.
On the 1945 revolution, The Failure of the Independent Political Movement in Vietnam 1946-46 by K. Colton, an unpublished thesis in the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, is exceptionally useful. Also interesting is Political Alignments of Vietnamese Nationalists, US State Department Division of Research for the Far East, Office of Intelligence Research Report No 3708, 1 October 1949.
There is, of course, material in Vietnamese (see for example the bibliography of Huynh Kim Khanh’s Vietnamese Communism). Obvious priorities for translation are Nha Cach Mang Ta Thu Thau 1906-1945 by Ba Phuong Lan, Khai Tri, Saigon 1973 (a biography of Ta Thu Thau); Ta Thu Thau by Huan Phong, articles in Hoa Dong nos.44-52, Saigon 1965-66; and Ngoi to kham Ion (In Central Prison) by Phan Van Hum (one of the Trotskyist leaders), Saigon 1957.
Other works with more than a passing mention of the Trotskyists are: History of Vietnamese Communism 1925-76 by Douglas Pike; Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled, two volumes, by Joseph Buttinger, London, 1967; The Struggle for Indochina 1940-55 by Ellen Hammer, Stanford University Press, 1955. In French, there are the Histoire du Vietnam de 1940 á 1952 by Phillippe Devillers; Ho Chi Minh: a political biography by Jean Lacouture (Allen Lane, London 1968); and La Liberation: Les Revolutionnaries pendant la Second Guerre Mondiale 1944-47 (The Liberation: Revolutionaries During the Second World War 1944-47) by Yvan Craipeau.
I have found no references to the Trotskyists in the Vietnamese Stalinists’ ‘official’ European-language versions of their own history. The origins of their lying slanders that the Trotskyists were “Japanese agents” are the above mentioned letters from Ho Chi Minh. This was subsequently repeated in the Vietnamese-language Party Writings, Volume 2 (1930-45), Central Commission for the Study of Party History, Hanoi, 1977, and most recently in the Observations on the steps of the Party’s struggle against the counter-revolutionary Trotskyist bands by The Tap, in Tap Chi Cong San (Communist Review), No.2, February 1983, which comrades of the Chroniques Vietnamiennes group have usefully taken the trouble to translate into French. Whether new material will be uncovered, as a result of the appeal launched by those comrades for the Stalinists’ archives on the 1930s to be opened, or the winds of glasnost blowing across from Moscow, we don’t yet know.
Building the Fourth International is as practical a matter in post-1975 Vietnam as anywhere else in the world. It does have a little history of its own, which, although strictly outside the scope of this article, could be touched on. See especially Chroniques Vietnamiennes, its predecessor Nghien Cuu, the letter from the Bolshevik-Leninist Group of Vietnam to the USFI of 5 February 1947 (published in the above-mentioned pamphlet, Stalinism and Trotskyism in Vietnam by the Spartacist League), and also a series of articles in Workers Press, 3, 17 and 24 February 1990. A polemic in the Summer 1980 special edition of the USFI’s Inprecor, entitled Débat Sur La Situation En Indochine, touched on some political and theoretical issues of vital importance arising from the Vietnamese invasion of Pol Pot’s Cambodia.
Updated by ETOL: 18.7.2003