Thau, Ta Thu, 1906-1945: Vietnamese Trotskyist Leader

Thau, Ta Thu, 1906-1945: Vietnamese Trotskyist Leader

A short biography of Vietnamese socialist Ta Thu Thau, written by Ngo Van Xuyet.

Ta Thu Thau was born on 6 May 1906 at Tan Binh (Longxuyên, south Vietnam), the fourth child of a large and very poor family: his father was a carpenter. In 1925 he began work as a teacher in Saigon. [1] At the age of 20, along with most of the ‘educated’ youth, Ta Thu Thau – in an experience he later called the “folly of his youth” – joined the nationalist group Young Annam, which was soon dissolved by the French colonial government. [2] On 24 March 1926 Ta Thu Thau took part in a mass demonstration to mark the return from France of the constitutional-nationalist leader Bui Quang Chiêu, and on 4 April 1926 in the demonstration marking the funeral of the veteran nationalist Phan Chau Trinh. [3] On 21 March that year he had taken part in a meeting in the Rue Lanzarotte, Saigon, organised by Nguyen An Ninh, for democratic liberties, and against the exploitation of Annamites, both natives from Annam and those from Tonkin. He wrote for the Annam newspaper of the nationalist lawyer Phan Van Truong. [4]

Ta Thu Thau arrived in France in September 1927 and enrolled at the Science faculty of the University of Paris. He joined the Dang Viet Nam Dôc Lap (Annamite Independence Party – PAI), and after its founder Nguyen The Truyen returned to Vietnam in 1928, took responsibility for its work. [5] The anti-colonialist monthly Resurrection, which began in December the same year, but was shortlived, was published by Ta Thu Thau in collaboration with Huynh Van Phuong. [6]

In January 1929, Pierre Taittinger’s Jeunesse Patriotes (Young Patriots) [7] clashed with Annamites under the PAI’s influence. Ta Thu Thau attacked L’Humanité, the French Communist Party’s newspaper, for the “bad faith” of its account, and the French Communist Party (PCF) for its failure to intervene on behalf of the Annamites arrested at this meeting, and wrote about the “retribution to be exacted from the PCF’s Colonial Commission” for its “counter-revolutionary factional work” within the PAI. The Annamite group of the PCF’s Colonial section, led by Nguyen Van Tao [8], hoped through this work to transform the PAI members into “automatons for carrying out their edicts”, as he wrote. A leaflet written by Ta Thu Thau concluded: “From our unspeakable slavery, we cry out to all the oppressed of the colonies: unite against European imperialism, white or red, if you want a part of this world for yourselves.” In March 1929 Ta Thu Thau tried in vain to defend the PAI from its legal dissolution by the Seine district court.

From 20 to 30 July 1929 Ta Thu Thau participated in the Second Congress of the Anti-Imperialist League at Frankfurt. [9] In left-wing Paris circles, he met Felicien Challaye, Francis Jourdain and Daniel Guérin. [10] He abandoned the nationalist beliefs of his early years and entered the Trotskyist Left Opposition. He was 23 years old.

Following the insurrection at Yên Bay, on the night of 9-10 February 1930, inspired by the Viet Nam Quôc Dân Dang (the Annamite Kuomintang) [11], Ta Thu Thau set out his political perspective in relation to the Indochinese revolution in La Verité, organ of the Left Opposition in Paris (April/May/June 1930).

The artificially-created indigenous bourgeoisie is not capable of making any revolution ... the indigenous bourgeois bloc, incapable of an independent existence, has welded itself firmly to the French bourgeoisie – which holds on tight to it, and uses it to break up the revolutionary struggle in the name of Annamite nationalism.

The badly-organised rising at Yên Bay ... without liaison between its organisation and the civilian population ... was launched on a confused ideological foundation ... a Sun-Yat-sen-ist synthesis of democracy, nationalism and socialism [12] ... a kind of nationalist mysticism.

This policy obscured the concrete class relationships, and the real, organic liaison between the indigenous bourgeoisie and French imperialism ... Those who speak of immediate and integral independence have nothing more than a mechanical and formalistic conception of the struggle. Not one of them can doubt that, behind these impressive words, there is a people within which operate perpetual molecular changes of the social classes, which are all the more imperceptible because they are veiled by the appearance of the conflict between races, which in many people’s eyes is real and eternal ... Neither terrorism nor Gandhism will resolve the colonial problem ... A revolution based on the organisation of the proletarian and peasant masses is the only one capable of liberating the colonies ... The question of independence must be bound up with that of the proletarian socialist revolution.

Ta Thu Thau here criticised the Third International and the PCF for their negligence in training Marxist cadres, and for their empirical approach to the so-called “continuous revolutionary situation” in Indochina; he denounced the “false policy of the International”, the adventurist policy of the Third Period, as a result of which “proletarian revolutionaries had capitulated to the nationalist parties ...” and “the Chinese revolution had been led to the graveyard.”

Sentences

On 22 May 1930 the Annamite students in Paris demonstrated in the Champs d’Elysées against more than 50 death sentences passed against participants in the Yên Bay uprising; Ta Thu Thau was arrested, and on 30 May deported from France back to Vietnam with 18 of his compatriots.

When the clandestine Trotskyist Ta doi lâp (Left Opposition) was formed in Saigon near the end of 1931, Ta Thu Thau was one of its founders. But the group soon split into three factions: Ta Thu Thau organised the Dông duong công san (Indochinese Communism) group, which from 1 May 1932 published a duplicated news-sheet, Vô San (Proletarian). Huynh Van Phuong and Phan Van Chanh, who were also among those deported from France, published communist propaganda journals under the title Ta doi lâp tung tho (Left Opposition Publications). Another deportee from France, Ho Huu Tuong, together with other opponents of the Indochinese Communist Party, formed the Thang muoi (October) group. [13]

These clandestine groups were soon hit by severe repression. Forty-one people were arrested in Saigon and in the Baclieu, Baria, Giadinh and Soctrang provinces. Arrested on 8 August 1932, Ta Thu Thau was freed with a warning on 21 January 1933; but 15 activists were sentenced to between four months and five years imprisonment at a trial of 21 Trotskyists on 1 May 1933.

At the Saigon municipal elections on 30 April and 7 May 1933, Ta Thu Thau carried out legal agitation with the Stalinist Communist Nguyen Van Tao, the nationalists Nguyen An Ninh, Tran Van Thach, Le Van Thu, Trinh Hung Ngau and others. [14] This group constituted a ‘workers’ list (so lao dong) for the elections, an unusual event for Indochina. A French-language newspaper, La Lutte (The Struggle), was published to support the campaign (Annamite-language newspapers were subject to censorship); the first issue was dated 24 April 1933 and the paper disappeared the day after the election. To a stupefied reaction from colonialist society, two candidates from the ‘workers’ list’ were elected onto the municipal council.

On 15 November of the same year, following an initiative from a study circle of former students in France, Ta Thu Thau gave a lecture on the dialectic, to a large audience of students and workers gathered at a cooperative college.

In 1934, from the ‘United Front’ of Trotskyists, Stalinists and nationalists “for the defence of the working class”, the La Lutte group was formally constituted; the Trotskyists withheld their critique of the USSR and Stalinism, the Stalinists their criticism of Trotskyism, and the La Lutte newspaper reappeared on 4 October 1934.

Their election to office annulled [15], the group’s members presented themselves anew for the municipal election of May 1935. Ta Thu Thau was among those elected. Sought by the authorities for “subversive press activity”, he was given a two year suspended prison sentence on 27 June 1935, a punishment confirmed by the appeal court on 10 September 1935. On 26 December 1935 Ta Thu Thau – along with three other elected representatives of La Lutte – was arrested for making a speech in support of striking tilbury-drivers; they were released the next day. At the trial of the La Lutte newspaper on 18 March 1936, Ta Thu Thau was fined 500 francs in the Saigon court.

The coming to power of the Popular Front government in France in June 1936 [16] triggered off a vast popular movement which swept Indochina: strikes in the rubber plantations, in the Arsenal, on the railways ... and peasant demonstrations. At a meeting on 13 August 1936, principally of militants from the La Lutte group and leaders of the constitutional-nationalist party, plans were sketched out for the Indochinese Congress movement. A committee was formed to prepare a charter of democratic demands for presentation to the Popular Front government. The Congress movement was banned on 19 September 1936, and Ta Thu Thau, who had taken part in its commission for legislation for the workers, was jailed along with Nguyen Van Tao and Nguyen An Ninh. They were all released after 11 days’ hunger strike, on 5 November.

In 1937 industrial strikes and peasant demonstrations exploded again. Ta Thu Thau found himself back in prison from 18 May to 7 June, and was then condemned by the Saigon court on 9 July to two years in prison, a sentence against which he appealed. It was at this time that the PCF ordered the Stalinists to break with the Trotskyists (cf the letter from Gitton, 19 May 1937). [17] A general strike of railwaymen landed Ta Thu Thau back in prison on 23 July 1937. After a hunger strike of 12 days, he was brought back it front of the Saigon court on 17 September on a stretcher. He was semi-paralysed. Condemned on 11 November to a further two-year sentence to run concurrently, he was released conditionally three months before the end of the sentence, on 14 February 1939, on the eve of the Annamite new year.

Working with his Trotskyist comrades Ta Thu Thau continued publication of the newspaper Tranh dau (formerly La Lutte which appeared in the Annamite language from October 1938), supporting the Fourth International. In the paper’s pages he waged a campaign for the Colonial Council elections of 16 and 30 April 1939 [18],. where he was elected with his two comrades Tran Van Thach and Phan Var Hum[19] Their programme included opposition to a national loan of 33 million piastres being raised from the people “for the defence of Indochina” – and this conflicted with the position of the Indochinese Communist Party, which was aligned with that of the PCF, that France had to get her security forces into a state of battle-readiness, as a consequence of the Laval-Stalin pact of May 1935. On 1 October 1939 Phan Van Hum was condemned to five years in prison for this anti-militarist propaganda.

Ta Thu Thau was authorised to leave Saigon on 21 August 1939 to go to Siam. He intended to seek medical treatment there. But the war broke out, and he was arrested and taken back to Saigon on 11 October 1939. The newspaper Tranh dau was among those affected by a banning order on 26 September 1939, and Ta Thu Thau’s group was among those “communistic groups and associations” affected by a dissolution order (decreed in October, 1939). Condemned in the Saigon court on 16 April 1940 to five years’ imprisonment a 10-year banning order and 10 years’ loss of civil rights, Ta Thu Thau was deported to the Poulo Condore island concentration camp in October 1940.

Coup

After his return from the camp at the end of 1944, Ta Thu Thau worked to build the Socialist Workers Party (Dan xa hoi tho thuyen). The Japanese coup put an end to French colonial power on March 1945, and replaced it with the government of Bao Dai and Tran Tron Kim. [20] By the middle of 1945, Ta Thi Thau had made his way to Tonkin, and made contact with Trotskyist militants in the Dan phuong region including Luon Due Thiep, Khuong Huu An and others who were publishing the newspaper Chieu dau (Combat) as the organ of the Socialist Workers Party of north Vietnam.

Ta Thu Thau participated in clandestine workers’ and peasants’ meetings in the mining areas of Nam dinh, Haiphong and Hai duong. After the fall of Japan and the coming to power of Ho Chi Minh in August 1945 [21], Ta Thu Thau hoped to get back to south Vietnam, but was arrested by the Vietminh at Quang ngai and assassinated in September 1945. [22]

Mourn

On the subject of Ta Thu Thau’s death, here are the words of Ho Chi Minh in 1946, as told by Daniel Guerin: “He was a great patriot and we mourn him ... but all those who do not follow the line we have laid down will be broken.”

In the month following the Saigon insurrection of 23 September 1945, Ta Thu Thau’s closest comrades led the Tranh dau group into battle against the Franco-British force which aimed to reconquer Vietnam, an engagement in which some 200 Tranh dau men lost their lives; like Ta Thu Thau, the Tranh dau leaders were assassinated by Ho Chi Minh’s partisans.

We must recall that in 1939, echoing the Moscow Trials, Ho Chi Minh wrote three letters to his “beloved comrades” describing the Trotskyists as “notorious spies and traitors”, in the service of “international, Chinese, Spanish, Italian and German fascism”. To exterminate them was the implicit, but very clear, conclusion from this.

As a person, Ta Thu Thau was likeable and had great self-possession. Answering a summons by governor Pages [23] in April 1937, he declared: “A revolutionary I am, and a revolutionary I will remain as long as there is blood in my veins.”

Ngo Van Xuyet

Notes

1. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the National Liberation Front’s 1975 victory.

2. France sent military missions to Vietnam from 1848 (central and south Vietnam then constituting the nation of Annam, north Vietnam being known as Tonkin). Vietnam and Cambodia were under complete French control by the 1860s, and this was extended to all Indochina with the conquest of Laos in 1893. The national independence movement took the form of bourgeois conspiracies in the early years of the twentieth century; in the early 1920s it emerged as a mass movement. A Constitutionalist Party was formed in 1923; revolutionary nationalist organisations also proliferated, of which Young Annam (Viet Nam Thanh Nien Dang) was one.

3. Bui Quang Chieu founded the bourgeois Constitutionalist Party which aroused mass sentiment against the feudal class and colonialists in the 1920s, using occasions such as Phan Chau Trinh’s funeral for this purpose. As workers' movements emerged, starting with the abortive uprisings of 1930, the Constitutionalists became extremely hostile to them and drew closer to the colonialist government and police.

Phan Chau Trinh was a mandarin at the Hue court, who quit his post in disgust at the court’s corruption in 1905, and joined nationalist veteran Phan Boi Chau in exile in Hong Kong. Returning to Vietnam in 1906, he was accused of inspiring a peasant uprising in 1908 and was jailed far three years. After being freed he continued political activity.

4. Nguyen An Ninh studied law in Paris, where he joined the nationalist movement. He returned to Vietnam in 1923 and founded the nationalist newspaper La Cloche Felée, which among other things published the Communist Manifesto in Vietnam for the first time; in the 1930s he played a leading role in the Indochinese Congress movement, and in La Lutte. The Rue Lanzarotte meeting, attended by 3,000 people, was the first-ever public political rally in Saigon. La Cloche Felée was followed by Annam in May 1926. Its editor, Phan Van Truong, had joined the nationalist movement as a student in France in 1912.

5. Nguyen The Truyen also joined the nationalist movement while studying in France, and in 1922-23 formed L’Union Intercoloniale to unite anti-imperialists from throughout the French empire. He returned to Vietnam in 1928. Back in France in 1936-37, he attempted to establish a union of oppressed nationalities together with the Algerian Messali Hadj.

6. Huynh Van Phuong came from a rich Mytho family; in 1927 he went to study law in Paris, where he joined the Trotskyist Left Opposition. Deported to Vietnam together with Ta Thu Thau in 1930, he edited the Left Opposition’s journal in Saigon, and was active in the La Lutte group. He was assassinated by the Stalinists in 1945.

7. Pierre Taittinger’s Jeunesses Patriotes were French fascists, inspired by Mussolini, who emerged as a force after the 1924 election of a Radical-Socialist coalition. These were lumpen thugs, dressed in blue raincoats and berets for their public provocations, downmarket in comparison to the Croix de Feu (predominantly ex-servicemen) and Charles Maurras’ Action Directe which headed the attempted fascist coup of February 1934.

8. Nguyen Van Tao joined the French Communist Party while studying in Paris, and became a full-timer in 1927; he was deported to Vietnam in 1931, where he played a leading part in the Stalinist organisation.

9. The Anti-Imperialist League, founded under the influence of the Stalinist Comintern leaders in 1927 at Brussels, brought together pacifists and other petty-bourgeois lefts. The Frankfurt congress, which Ta Thu Thau attended, brought its short life to an end.

10. Felicien Challaye, Francis Jourdain and historian and writer Daniel Guerin were French anti-colonialists, inspirers of numerous actions supporting colonial liberation, and founders in 1933 of an Amnesty Committee for Vietnamese political prisoners.

11. The Yen Bay insurrection began as a mutiny by Annamite troops stationed on the Chinese frontier; they massacred their officers and controlled the garrison for a night, but other garrisons either failed to rise or were defeated. The village of Co Am rose a few days later, and was suppressed by pitiless aerial bombardment. The severity of French repression following the rising finished the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dong as a political force.

12. Sun Yat Sen was founder of the Chinese bourgeois nationalist Guomindang; his philosophy combined anti-imperialist nationalism, democracy and utopian Socialist ideas.

13. Phanh Van Chanh joined the Left Opposition in Paris in 1929, and was deported along with Ta Thu Thau in 1930. He worked as a teacher, and was an editor of the Left Opposition's Saigon journal. Deported to Poulo Condore 1940-43; he was assassinated by the Stalinists in October 1945 at Ben Sue, Thu Dau Mot. For Huynh Van Phuong see note 6.

Ho Huu Tuong began his political life as a nationalist, and joined the Trotskyist movement while studying in France, at Aixen-Provence and Lyons; he returned to Saigon in 1931. The October group, which later became the League of Internationalist Communists, supported the Fourth International and published Le Militant; it would not join the La Lutte front because this would have meant withholding public criticism of the Stalinists; its members played a leading role in forming soviet-type workers’ councils in the 1945 revolution. Ho Huu Tuong also participated in 1945, although he had renounced Trotskyism during the war.

14. Tran Van Thach, a nationalist, studied in Paris and was deported to Vietnam with Ta Thu Thau in 1930. He worked as a teacher and, following the struggle within La Lutte, became a Trotskyist in 1937. He was elected to the Saigon Colonial Council in 1939, imprisoned at Poulo Condore from 1940 to 1944, and assassinated by the Stalinists at Thu Dau Mot in 1945. Le Van Thu, another of the Paris deportees, remained a nationalist but played an active part in La Lutte and the workers’ movement. Trinh Hung Ngau, who had worked with Ta Thu Thau on the Annam newspaper, was a nationalist with Anarchist leanings.

15. The elections of La Lutte councillors were annulled on spurious grounds, such as the non-payment of taxes.

16. The elections of April-May 1936 in France gave a large majority to the Popular Front of the Communist Party, Socialists, Radicals and others. A government headed by Leon Blum of the Socialist Party took office on 2 June amidst a wave of strikes and factory occupations. The Stalinists supported this government, although they did not take part in it, thus ensuring that power remained with the bourgeoisie.

17. At this time the Trotskyists advocated intensified strike struggles against French imperialism; the Stalinists wanted an abatement of strikes on the grounds that the working class should not damage the French Popular Front government, a diplomatic ally of the USSR. The letter from French CP leader Marcel Gitton to the Indochinese CP stated “we consider it impossible to continue the collaboration of the party with the Trotskyists ...” and instructed it to cease. After the Stalinists split from La Lutte, the letter was published in it (29 August 1937).

18. Colonial Councils were administrative bodies with limited powers; there was a small property qualification for franchise.

19. Phan Van Hum was a teacher of law, literature and philosophy. He began political activity as a nationalist, but joined the Trotskyist movement in France in the early 1930s. Returning to Saigon in July 1933, he took part in La Lutte, was deported to Poulo Condore during the war, and was assassinated by the Stalinists in October 1945 in Bien Hoa. For Tran Van Thach see note 13. Their joint letter to Trotsky appears below.

20. Bao Dai, last emperor of Vietnam, succeeded his father in 1925 at the age of 12, but did not take the throne until 1932. He collaborated with the French, and when the Japanese coup took place agreed to work with them; he abdicated in 1945, joined the Vietminh briefly, went into exile, and returned as a French puppet again from 1949 to 1955. Tran Trong Kim, a mild-mannered academic, was his Prime Minister in 1945.

21. Japan surrendered to the imperialist Allies on 14 August 1945, after the atom bombing of Hiroshima: this provoked a revolutionary situation in Vietnam. In the north the Vietminh marched from their jungle bases into Hanoi and declared a ‘Democratic Republic’ on 2 September. According to Stalin’s agreement with the Allies, the south was to be placed under French control again, and while the southern Vietminh tried to prepare for this, it was resisted by the nationalists, and by the Trotskyists who called for the workers’ councils which had sprung up to take power. The Stalinists arrested delegates to a congress of workers’ councils and managed to establish a ‘provisional government’ despite the unpopularity of their line; they stood by as the French reinvaded in October, concentrating their fire on the Trotskyists, all of whose leaders were killed.

22. According to a report published in the journal Quatrième Internationale in 1947, Ta Thu Thau was tried by a Vietminh ‘people’s tribunal’ after his arrest. Due to his great prestige in the workers’ movement, this tribunal could not be persuaded to find him guilty of anything; then he was shot anyway.

23. Pierre Pages was French colonial governor of Indochina throughout the 1930s.

This essay is based upon the following sources: Archives nationales (Paris) F7-13406, 13408, 13409, 13410, 13167, 13170, Archives Outre-mer D2514; La Depeche d’Indochine, Saigon, various issues 1933-40; Nguyen Van Dinh, Ta thu thau, to qudc gia toi quoc te (Ta Thu Thau, from Nationalism to Internationalism), Saigon 1938; Phuong Lan, Nha each mang Ta thu Thau (The revolutionary Ta Thu Thau), Saigon 1974; D. Hemery, Du patriotisme au marxism: l’immigration vietnamienne en France 1926 a 1930 (From patriotism to Marxism: the Vietnamese emigration in France 1926-30), in Le Mouvement social, no.90, Paris 1975; D. Hemery, Revolutionnaires vietnamiens et pouvoir colonial en Indochine (Vietnamese revolutionaries and colonial power in Indochina), Paris 1975; D. Hemery, Ta Thu Thau: l’itineraire politique d’un révolutionnaire vietnamien pendant les annees 1930 (Ta Thu Thau: the political path of a Vietnamese revolutionary through the 1930s) in Histoire de l’Asie du Sud-Est. The translation and the notes are the work of Simon Pirani, to whom, along with the author, our thanks are due.