Anyone who has looked into the history of Vietnamese resistance to French and U.S. colonialism has found tantalizing tidbits of information about the existence of class struggle—workers’ organization and strikes—and the accompanying influence of Trotskyists within those mobilizations between the 1920s and 1940s. However, the details of that movement and analysis of why the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) and its later incarnation, the Viet Minh, came to be the dominant political organization of anticolonial struggles in Vietnam in the last century, have been frustratingly hard to come by, at least in English. In the Crossfire, a memoir by Vietnamese revolutionary and self-identified Trotskyist Ngo Van, aims to unearth some of the missing pieces of the puzzle.
By the time of Ngo Van’s birth in 1912, there already existed a bitter history of peasant revolts against colonialism, replete with grinding poverty, tyrannical landowners, and beheaded rebels. Van left his village at the age of fourteen to work in a French-owned steel-processing company in Saigon. It was there that he became involved in the strikes and demonstrations that erupted periodically against French colonial power.
Van was forced to end his formal education, but, registering under a false name, he read Marx in the Saigon municipal library after work. He discovered the true nature of the colonial system and the growing movements that were opposing it, including the Left Opposition (rallying around Trotskyist analyses and organizational models) inside the ICP. Working during the day, by night he and a typographer comrade set up a clandestine printing press. The Left Opposition emphasized the importance of a movement based on the working class and demanded independence and social revolution, calling for land to the peasants and factories to the workers, while the ICP argued for independence first and socialism to come at some later stage.
In the midst of the world economic crisis in the 1930s, Vietnam was not isolated from rising prices for basic goods, nor was it immune from the wave of strikes and protests that erupted against the economic hardships and social inequality. Especially in the context of the strike wave in France, the colonies, including Vietnam, yearned for freedom from the oppressive yoke of French domination as well as freedom from wage slavery.
In one example, a series of peasant marches took place in May 1930 through early 1931, when thousands demanded the lowering of the capitation tax and the abolition of forced labor. Throughout the year, peasant forces escalated their actions by attacking military and police stations, releasing prisoners, looting markets, and executing hated landlords and political officials. In some provinces, they even managed to organize themselves into “soviets.” Needless to say, this revolt and others were ruthlessly repressed either by executing leading activists or by deporting them to the infamous penal colony of Poulo Condore.
In Saigon, the Trotskyists and Stalinists cooperated for three years (1933–36) and jointly published a legal newspaper called La Lutte weekly in French to skirt the laws banning publications in Vietnamese. The alliance was ill-fated, though, and cracked apart after the signing of the 1935 “Franco-Soviet Mutual Assistance Pact,” also known as the Laval-Stalin Pact, which officially supported France’s developing military power. The French Communist Party (its Popular Front incarnation, then in power and headed by Laval) “would henceforth strive to stifle any antimilitarist spirit and to defend the integrity of the French Empire.” The ICP followed suit, albeit with some internal opposition. This agreement allied Soviet and French imperialism in Vietnam, and Cach Mang Thuong Truc (Permanent Revolution), the theoretical journal Van helped produce, wholeheartedly denounced the pact. Ngo Van and other activists left the ICP to form the League of Internationalist Communists for the Construction of the Fourth International, while other Trotskyists remained in the La Lutte alliance.
The split had deeper roots than the signing of the pact alone. As Van put it, “We feared that the victory of Vietnamese nationalism over French imperialism would simply mean the rise of an indigenous bourgeoisie, and that the desperate condition of the exploited workers and peasants would remain the same as ever.”
Ngo Van also organized among his coworkers in the factory, meeting under the guise of wedding and birthday parties—since all gatherings of more than nineteen people were illegal—and became the spokesperson when a strike for better wages broke out.
In the Crossfire details how Van’s militant friends and allies were arrested, imprisoned, and tortured one after the other. At the age of twenty-four, Ngo Van himself was arrested for organizing anticolonialist campaigns with other activists. Imprisoned in the dreaded Maison Centrale in Saigon, he, along with many others, was tortured. Stalinist and Trotskyist prisoners were held together. Van recalled that relations between them were wary but civil, to avoid provoking tension to the advantage of the common enemy. There he helped organize and joined in a hunger strike demanding political prisoner status equal to that in France.
As a consequence, the prisoners were occasionally allowed French newspapers. This was how they learned about the Moscow show trials, in which Stalin destroyed what remained of the leadership of the Bolsheviks. The Trotskyists were “overcome with a profound unease, and a thousand questions without answers kept going round in our heads,” Van wrote. In 1937, the Vietnamese Stalinists, under orders from Moscow, abruptly left the La Luttegroup and denounced the Trotskyists as “agents of fascism.”
Van and his comrades were constantly being arrested, tortured, and imprisoned, then briefly freed once more. This part of the book becomes somewhat wearying to read, precisely because of how often the cycle of organizing strikes and uprisings leading to arrest and imprisonment, was repeated. Once, Van was sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment simply for recommending books by Trotsky to a friend in a letter and greeting the well-known Trotskyist Ta Thu Thau in the street. But even exiled at the end of 1940 to Tra Vinh, on an island in the Mekong Delta, he found himself in the midst of a peasant uprising throughout what was then known as western Cochinchina. Almost 6,000 were arrested, over 200 publicly executed, and thousands killed by bombing authorized by the Vichy governor general. At about this time, Van discovered that he was suffering from tuberculosis.
Under the guise of liberating Vietnam from the French, the Japanese moved into south Vietnam in March 1945 and imposed a regime of martial law while Allied forces strafed Saigon. The north of the country was by this time controlled by the Viet Minh, as the armed front led by the ICP was called. They advocated an alliance with the imperialist Allies as a road to “national liberation”; the Trotskyists rightly denounced this as an illusion and called on workers and peasants to rise up against all imperialist oppressors, of whatever nationality. But now, instead of it being the French who were capturing them, it was their former allies, partisans of Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Cong, or the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF). As Van recalled, the Stalinists’ betrayals, including outright executions, enacted in the aftermath of the Second World War, liquidated the Trotskyists and other oppositional groups.
This is the “crossfire” Ngo Van describes being caught in—between French and U.S. imperialism on the one hand and the bankrupt Stalinism of the ICP/Viet Minh on the other. The NLF, as many know, went on to a slow, costly, and painful “victory” against the U.S. forces that backed the decaying regime in South Vietnam. The state capitalist model the ICP adhered to ended up doing what the Trotskyists feared: re-creating a society riven by class inequality that now operates the country as a giant sweatshop for international capital.
In the Crossfire does have a couple of weaknesses. Overall, the book’s various, especially later, parts are not a coherent whole, as Ngo Van died in 2005 before he could complete the project. The last few chapters seem skeletal, with some short topical articles, translators’ notes, and a chronology. In addition, the struggles of peasants and workers are described in very general terms, and the details of day-to-day activity are not fleshed out enough. Ngo Van seems to have been very involved in organizing among his coworkers, yet most of his recollections are about fellow revolutionaries and intellectuals rather than the working class he holds up as the crucial agent of social transformation in Vietnam. I would have liked to read about specific campaigns and struggles with anecdotes and quotes from the worker activists.
Finally, Ngo Van’s later political development after escaping to France led him to renounce the Bolshevik October Revolution as essentially a coup, and he moved closer to Guy Debord’s view of Lenin and Trotsky as directly implicated in counterrevolution. This has the effect of delegitimizing the Left Opposition and Ngo Van’s political commitments and doesn’t offer an analysis of why the Troskyists didn’t prevail, despite at times having significant influence. But perhaps this is due to the nature of writing in the memoir genre, and some day soon Van’s more “objective” book, Viet-nam, 1920–1945: Revolution et contre-revolution sous la domination coloniale, will be translated into English and provide more insight.
These flaws aside, In the Crossfire brings to light the legacy of worker and peasant struggles against French colonialism in Vietnam and the significant role that anti-Stalinist revolutionaries played in those movements. It also serves well to remind us that although history is written by the victors, there were other possibilities—the national liberation movement to throw off French colonial rule did not have to subsume the class struggle for genuine freedom or spawn a new ruling class—and the Trotskyists in Vietnam represented some of the most hopeful and, unfortunately, tragic aspects of that historic potential.