Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 4


Revolutionaries They Could Not Break

Ngo Van
Revolutionaries They Could Not Break: The Fight for the Fourth International in Indochina, 1930–1945
translated by Harry Ratner and edited by Simon Pirani
Index Books, London 1995, pp. 234, £11.95

THIS BOOK makes an excellent addition to the Index list, which already includes such splendid items as Oskar Hippe’s And Red is the Colour of Our Flag. It first appeared in French in December 1989 and July 1991 as numbers 40 and 46 of the Cahiers Léon Trotsky, and is a painstaking account of the history of the Vietnamese Trotskyists by an eyewitness, vividly reconstructed and even exciting in parts, and it is impossible to exaggerate its value.

For example, the description of the prewar La Lutte alliance between the Trotskyists and the Stalinists provides an object lesson for revolutionaries today on the advantages to be gained in placing the onus for breaking the united front upon the reformists, as opposed to standing aside in sectarian self-isolation. The account of the crisis of 1945–46 is far more exhaustive than any that have so far appeared in English, and provides the answers to a number of historical puzzles. One that has perplexed me for some years is why everybody – British, French, Japanese, Hoa Hao, Cao Dai, Vietminh – seemed to be armed to the teeth at the time, but not the Trotskyists. Some years ago I read a very inaccurate account which said that shortly before the Japanese collapse they had themselves offered arms to Ta Thu Thau, who had refused, and I wondered, if this were true, what sort of revolutionary would have left his men disarmed in the face of such events? The true story appears in chapters eight and nine, where we learn that the Japanese had armed the Cao Dai, the Hoa Hao and the Vanguard Youth as auxiliaries during the war. The Vanguard Youth went over to the Vietminh and became their instrument for smashing the revolutionaries, whereas the Hoa Hao proposed a joint struggle with the Trotskyists against the reimposition of colonial rule, and the Cao Dai offered to put 900 rifles and four 45mm guns at their disposal – offers that were indeed refused (p. 95). We can hardly imagine Lenin declining such an offer in such circumstances. As Trotsky would have put it, ‘that kind of knightly courtesy has no place in politics’. It no doubt cost the Trotskyists the revolution, along with many of their lives. Ta Thu Thau, who appears to have had illusions in Ho Chi Minh, was actually trying to make contact with him to negotiate when he was taken by the Stalinists.

Much can be gained from this account, for the lessons to be drawn from a revolutionary movement with mass influence are on an altogether different level than those provided by the struggles of small groups. But apart from the fact that we have not space to go through them all here, it is the duty of serious revolutionaries to take them first hand from this book, and not to have them preselected by any reviewer.

On the debit side, although the book has been carefully written with an economy of style, there is much evidence of editorial sloppiness. There is no excuse, for example, for describing in the explanatory notes the Khmers, the builders of the mighty empire of Angkor, as an ethnic minority with ‘scarcely any written history’. Lu Sanh Han’s account was not ‘first published in English by Workers Press’ (p. 150), for most of it had already appeared in the American Militant on 18 and 23 February and 1, 8 and 15 March 1948. The bibliography (pp. 219–22) is careful to list the editor’s translation of Anh Van and Jacqueline Roussel’s pamphlet, and his own collection Vietnam and Trotskyism, but makes no mention of the entire issue devoted to the subject by this magazine (Volume 3, no. 2, Autumn 1990), which includes a hefty piece translated from Daniel Hémery’s book listed there. It is true that we are accredited for the account in Appendix 2, but not for the theses reproduced in Appendix 3. And although Hue-Tam Ho Tai’s Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution appeared after the publication of the original French of this book, being by Ho Huu Tuong’s daughter it should obviously have been added to the bibliography by the editor.

Moreover, he is unwise enough to abuse his position by indulging in political point-scoring in his introduction. He repeats the old mythology about ‘Pabloism’, condemning Ernest Mandel’s ‘Fourth International’ for ‘glorifying Ho as a leader of a Socialist revolution’, and ‘centring its activity on collaborating with the Stalinists in the anti-war movement in Europe and the US’ (p. xvi). An examination of the propaganda of his own group at the time will show that Mandel’s followers were not the only ones to give uncritical support to Vietnamese Stalinism. As for this ‘anti-war movement’, as chairman of the largest Vietnam Solidarity Campaign branch in London I can vouch for the fact that we were no pacifists, brought tens of thousands on to the streets, and took pride in the fact that our united front work on this issue helped split the Young Communist League from the Communist Party of Great Britain, so hastening its demise. Are the members of the Workers Revolutionary Party quite so proud of the leaflet their predecessors gave out at the time – Why the Socialist Labour League is not Marching?

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 25.9.2011