Ngo Van Xuyet's accounts of class struggle in Vietnam before the rise of Ho Chi Minh and the US invasion.
“History is written by the victors.” With the increasing spectacularization of modern society, this truism has become truer than ever. The most radical revolts are not only physically crushed, they are falsified, trivialized, and buried under a constant barrage of superficial and ephemeral bits of “information,” to the point that most people do not even know they happened.
Ngo Van’s In the Crossfire is among the most illuminating revelations of this repressed and hidden history, worthy of a place alongside such works as Voline’s The Unknown Revolution and Harold Isaacs’s The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution. It is also a very moving human document: dramatic political events are interwoven with intimate personal concerns, just as they always are in reality. In this respect Van’s book is perhaps more akin to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia or Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary.
The two-stage Vietnam war against French and then American occupation (1945-1975) is still fairly well known; but almost no one knows anything about the long and complex struggles that preceded it, including the fact that many of those struggles were inspired by an indigenous Trotskyist movement that was often more popular and more influential than the rival Stalinist movement under Ho Chi Minh. While Ho’s Communist Party slavishly followed the constantly shifting policy lines ordered by his masters in the Kremlin (which often called for alliances with the native landowners and bourgeoisie in the name of “national unity,” or at times even with the French colonial regime when France happened to be allied with Russia), the Vietnamese Trotskyists expressed more consistently radical perspectives. The situation was somewhat analogous to what was going on in Spain during the same period. In both cases a radical popular movement was fighting against foreign and reactionary forces while being stabbed in the back by the Stalinists. One significant difference was that in Spain the popular movement was predominantly anarchist, whereas anarchism was virtually unknown in Vietnam.* Many Vietnamese rebels thus understandably saw the Trotskyist movement as the only alternative, the only movement fighting simultaneously against colonialism, capitalism and Stalinism.
In any case, spontaneous popular revolts often bypassed whatever ideologies were officially in play, implicitly calling in question the whole social order even when their explicit demands were much more minimal. What stands out is the readiness of ordinary people to create their own forms of action — workers forming underground unions and carrying out illegal strikes, peasants seizing land and forming “soviets,” prisoners organizing resistance networks, women breaking out of their traditional roles, students and teachers putting their learning to subversive use, neighborhoods organizing themselves into “people’s committees,” streetcar workers creating an independent militia, and most astonishing of all, 30,000 coal miners forming a workers-council “Commune” that manages to hold out for three months before being destroyed by the Stalinists. These are not the proverbial “masses” meekly waiting for some leader or “vanguard party” to tell them what to do. They are participants in one of the most broad-based and persevering revolutionary movements of the twentieth century.
Ngo Van took part in that movement as a young man, and in his old age, half a century later, he became the preeminent chronicler of its remarkable victories and tragic defeats.
In Part I of this book Van recounts his experiences growing up in a peasant village; working as a teenager in Saigon; discovering the true nature of the colonial system; becoming aware of movements that were fighting it; cautiously seeking out other dissidents; attending clandestine meetings; establishing underground networks; disseminating radical publications; organizing strikes and protests; taking part in insurrections and partisan warfare; being jailed and tortured by the French; and facing the murderous betrayals by the Stalinists, who systematically liquidated the Trotskyists and all the other oppositional movements in the aftermath of World War II.
Constantly harassed by the French colonial police in Saigon and risking assassination by the Stalinists if he ventured into the countryside, Van emigrated to France in 1948. As described in Part II, he became a factory worker, struggled with tuberculosis, took up painting, and discovered new political perspectives. His encounters with anarchists, councilists and libertarian Marxists reaffirmed the most radical aspects of his previous experiences while verifying his increasing suspicions that there were significant problems with Trotskyism as well as Stalinism. From that point on, Van carried out his activities as an independent radical more or less in the council-communist tradition, whether in taking part in rank-and-file worker struggles or in writing articles on East Asian politics and history.
After his retirement in 1978, Van devoted the next seventeen years to researching and writing his monumental history, Vietnam 1920-1945: révolution et contre-révolution sous la domination coloniale. Following the publication of that book in 1995, he wrote a parallel autobiographical account of the same period: Au pays de la Cloche fêlée (2000). When that was done, he returned to his more “objective” history of modern Vietnam. (I might mention here that in addition to his works on Vietnamese history, he also authored two studies of radical currents in ancient China and put together a collection of Vietnamese folktales. See the Bibliography for information on these and other publications.)
After completing the second volume of his Vietnam history, Le Joueur de flûte et l’Oncle Hô: Vietnam 1945-2005, Van returned to his autobiography, envisioning a continuation that would cover his years in France. Unfortunately he did not live long enough to complete this latter project. He died January 2, 2005, at the age of 92. Later the same year his publishers, Insomniaque, issued a memorial volume, Au pays d’Héloïse, comprising the few chapters he had completed (mostly about his life during the 1950s) along with several articles, numerous photographs and a selection of his lovely paintings, many of which are reproduced in the present volume.
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Anticolonial movements have long been a source of political blackmail. People who become aware of the horrors of colonialism usually know little else about the countries involved and have often been ready to applaud any purportedly “progressive” leadership, supporting practices they would never dream of defending if they took place in a modern Western country. Radical social critique has been discouraged by the argument that criticizing even the most brutal Third World regimes is “playing into the hands of the imperialist powers.” Moreover, in many cases apologists have been able to argue that despite regrettable defects, those regimes are the only possibility, there are no apparent alternatives.
But this is not always the case. Readers of The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution are aware that China did not have to go Stalinist (i.e. Maoist); there were other currents and other strategies that might have led to different results. The same is true of many other countries, including Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh’s Communist Party was not the only serious oppositional movement; it ultimately made itself so only by ruthlessly destroying all its rivals. Ngo Van’s books bear witness that there were many other possibilities.
There is nothing eccentric or exaggerated about those books. They are scrupulously accurate and thoroughly documented, and you can find verifications of most of the material in many other reliable sources. But to do so you would have to search long and deeply, wading through the immense mass of lies and distortions that have surrounded this topic. Van has brought it all together into a coherent and comprehensive account in his two-volume historical chronicle (as yet untranslated), then narrated the same events in a briefer and more personal manner in the autobiography that we are presenting here.
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I met Ngo Van in Paris in 2001, along with his friend Hélène Fleury, and during the next few weeks saw them several more times. Although I could hardly get to know Van all that well in such a short period of time, we almost immediately became very dear friends.
Those who had the pleasure of knowing him will agree that despite the horrors he had endured and his lack of illusions about the violent nature of the present social order, Van was the sweetest and most gentle person one can imagine. His rebelliousness arose not only out of a justified rage at poverty and meanness and oppression, but out of his profound love of life. He was an all-round and wide-ranging person: a bon vivant at home in the lively give-and-take of Parisian bars and cafés, but also capable of quietly appreciating nature and solitude; a factory worker who was at the same time an artist and a connoisseur of classic literature; a radical agitator who was also a radical historian; a resolutely antireligious person who was nevertheless graced with an almost Buddhist stoicism and equanimity and who ultimately became a scholar of East Asian religious movements; a modest, unassuming man of the people who yet possessed a great nobility of character. It was a pleasure to know him, and it’s been a pleasure to work with Hélène and the other translators in presenting his work to English-speaking readers.