IN THE CROSSFIRE
Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary
NEW RADICAL PERSPECTIVES
In 1948 my friend Nguyen Van Nam had told me that when I got to Paris I should contact Sania Gontarbert. Sania ran the tiny Camée Bookshop near the Carrefour des Gobelins in the 13th Arrondissement. In his memoirs he later described our first meeting: The shop door opened and in came a tall, thin Indochinese man who had just arrived from Saigon and who, amazingly enough, had my address. This was the beginning of my long friendship with Van. It was he who received for me the packages of rice sent from Saigon.
Rereading Marx (illuminated by the work of Maximilien Rubel), discovering the existence of the Councilist Republic of Bavaria (1918–1919) and of the Kronstadt revolt in Russia (1921), and then seeing the resurgence of workers councils in Hungary in 1956, led me to investigate new revolutionary perspectives and permanently distanced me from Bolshevism-Leninism-Trotskyism. I developed a total distrust of anything that might turn into a machine. The so-called workers’ parties (Leninist parties in particular) are embryonic forms of the state. Once in power, these parties form the nucleus of a new ruling class and bring about nothing more than a new system of exploitation.
In France I found new allies in the factories and elsewhere, among French people, colonized people, and refugees from the Spanish Civil War of 1936–1939 — anarchists and Poumistas who had gone through a parallel experience to ours. In Vietnam, as in Spain, we had been engaged in a simultaneous battle on two fronts: against a reactionary power and against a Stalinist party struggling for power.
Since arriving in France I had stopped taking anything for granted. Rather than meekly following those who preceded us, I felt that we needed to go beyond them, to stand on their shoulders so we could scan more distant horizons. But how to do this? This and so many other questions that had continually gnawed at me were now finally answered in the lively and fruitful discussions with my new friend Sania. Until then, in Paris I had sometimes felt the isolation of a lone survivor as I looked back on my past in Indochina. My friends and I had not only fought against the colonial regime, we had striven for a radical social revolution, and in so doing we had come up against other enemies. Most of our comrades in that struggle, if they were not massacred, imprisoned or sent to the penal colonies by the French colonial regime, or forced into exile, ended up being murdered by Ho Chi Minh’s Communist Party. My encounter with Sania helped me to understand and reassess my previous history.
Scarcely ten years had elapsed since the October 1917 revolution in Russia when, in 1927, at the age of 14, I had gone to Saigon to work and had become directly aware of the oppressive reality of Indochinese society. For me, like so many others, the Russian Revolution was a sign full of hope for a possible liberation. Yet even then, during those early years of my apprenticeship in life and revolt, the rare news that reached us from Russia sometimes contained disturbing features. There, too, oppositionist revolutionaries were being hunted down and Trotsky had just been forced into exile. Through the Third International, Stalin was imposing a totalitarian policy that seemed to my friends and me to betray the most precious aspect of our revolutionary engagement: a fraternal internationalism among all the exploited of the world. Under those circumstances, confronted with the emergence of a regime whose full horror became glaringly evident with the Moscow Trials, it was natural that our critique of Stalinism was initially oriented around the ideas and partisans of Trotsky.
But since my recent departure from Indochina in 1948, if the hope and conviction of the necessity of overthrowing the despicable world order never left me, they were nourished by new reflections on Bolshevism and revolution.
It was thus with great joy and relief that I met people who had passed through diverse experiences yet had ended up asking the same questions. Sania introduced me to the Union Ouvrière Internationale (UOI) [International Workers’ Association], a group formed in 1948 by militants who had broken with Trotskyism following the split of the Internationalist Communist Party just after the war.
Sania and I took part in regular meetings of this group in Edgar Pesch’s small room at 5 Rue Clavel in the 19th Arrondissement. At these meetings I came to know Jacques Gallienne, Sophie Moen, Lambert Dornier, Benjamin Péret and Manuel Munis. There were other group members, such as Marcel Pennetier, Mangano and Bilbao, whom I never met. Some other people later joined the group, including two refugees from the Spanish Civil War, Agustín Rodríguez and Jaime Fernández, and two of my Indochinese friends, Luc and Phuc.
Edgar Pesch gave me copies of his Cahiers de la Pensée, a journal that he published dealing with issues such as existentialism, Marxism, and the psychoanalytical interpretation of magic, as well as his book Freud et la Psychanalyse (Bordas, 1948).
In issue #2 of its bulletin La Bataille Internationale [The International Battle] (October 1951) the UOI criticized the Vietnamese Trotskyists in France for their slogan Defend the government of Ho Chi Minh against the attacks of imperialism, which they had adopted despite the assassination of almost all their comrades in Vietnam by Ho Chi Minh’s hired thugs.
The Trotskyists who supported Ho Chi Minh were acting like a hanged man clinging to his rope. In the Opinion section of the Trotskyist paper Tieng Tho (Workers’ Voice), October 30, 1951, I scandalized the Trotskyists with my article on the Indochina War (signed Dong Vu): Workers and Peasants, Turn Your Guns in the Other Direction!
I was aware that most of the Trotskyists would pay no attention to what I said, but I couldn’t resist telling them what I thought. Which could be summed up as follows: The dynamic of the war against the colonizers had enabled Ho Chi Minh to develop a superior military force, which he used to crush the other groups struggling against colonial reconquest, along with any other opposition, and to exert an absolute hegemony over the conduct of the resistance. His underground government had become integrated into the Sino-Russian bloc that was struggling against the Western bloc, so that the Indochina War was taking place in the context of the Cold War between the two imperialist blocs.
I thought that the workers and peasants who had guns in their hands should fight for their own emancipation, following the example of the Russian workers, peasants and soldiers who formed soviets in 1917, or the German workers’ and soldiers’ councils of 1918–1919. In the cities, which were dominated by the French Expeditionary Corps and its lackey, the Bao Dai government, the soldiers should be urged to turn their weapons against their own generals. In the countryside, where Ho Chi Minh and his Vietminh were keeping the poor peasants under the yoke of the landowners, those peasants should revolt in order to realize their old dreams of liberation, exemplified in the 1930–1931 peasant soviets of Nghe-Tinh.
The indispensable first condition for this utopia to become reality was an awakening consciousness among those who had been recruited to fight for the Bao Dai government or for Ho Chi Minh’s underground forces; they had to realize that the soldiers on both sides were being duped. It was obvious that if Bao Dai triumphed they would remain slaves of the bourgeoisie and the landowners. If Ho Chi Minh won, the workers and peasants would simply have changed masters, being at the mercy of a rapacious state-capitalist bureaucracy, as in Russia and China.
The second essential condition for such a utopian realization was that the social transformation in the Southeast Asian corner of the world would have to spark a chain reaction among other proletarians all over the planet.
To this the Trotskyists in France replied: While we have certain political differences with the Ho Chi Minh government, we support it in the current stage of resistance against imperialism. They should have added: . . . as long as Ho Chi Minh leaves our head on our shoulders.
* * *
The UOI broke up in 1952. Soon afterwards Sophie, Sania, Lambert, Agustín, Pesch, Guy Perrard and I gathered into a new, less formal group around Maximilien Rubel.*
I had already been familiar with Maxime’s writings. In the Saigon underground in the 1930s I had struggled to understand the first volume of Capital in the Costes edition — a study that was interrupted in 1936 when the Sûreté confiscated my books. In France I had discovered Pages choisies de Karl Marx, pour une éthique socialiste [Selected Passages of Karl Marx: For a Socialist Ethic], edited by Maximilien Rubel (1948). For an epigraph, Maxime had chosen an astonishing quotation by Marx himself: One thing for sure: I am not a Marxist. This inspired me to reexplore Marx during my first years in Paris, which helped me to get over my feelings of confusion and helplessness following the tragic events of 1945 in Saigon. I had thus already had a certain connection with Maxime even before I met him.
Maxime noted that in the nineteenth century there were other thinkers contemporary with Marx, incorruptible and pitiless judges of their era such as Soren Kierkegaard or Friedrich Nietzsche. (Nguyen An Ninh, the revolutionary who had awakened my own consciousness in 1926–1929, had been strongly influenced by Nietzsche.) These thinkers had espoused new sets of values, new reasons for living, new norms for acting, a new ethic.
But Maxime stressed that it was Marx who had truly embodied the Promethean faith (“I hate all gods) and who had conceived of life as a project of building a genuine human community here on earth. The Marxian ethic is characterized by its amoralism and by its essentially pragmatic approach. Like Spinoza, Marx brought man into the eternal cycle of infinite nature and assigned him the ideal of fulfilling his own total human potential.
Marx also brought the utopian future into the present struggle. By becoming conscious of their own alienation, the workers become capable both of destroying capitalist society and of building a utopia — a society without a state, without classes, and without money.
In the process of criticizing Hegel’s political philosophy, Marx took an increasingly radical direction, to the point of transforming this critique into a pure and simple negation of the state. Although Marx never used the term, at its deepest level his critique essentially amounts to anarchism. In his later book, Marx critique du marxisme [Marx as a Critic of Marxism] (1975), Maxime quotes the following passage from Marx: All socialists recognize that ‘anarchy’ is the goal of the proletarian movement; that once classes have been abolished, state power, whose purpose is to keep the great majority of producers in bondage to a small exploiter minority, will disappear and governmental functions will be transformed into simple administrative functions (Fictitious Splits in the International, 1872). Maxime repeatedly stressed and illustrated this essential sentence of Marx: The existence of the state and the existence of slavery are inseparable.
Maxime also stressed that we needed to become more familiar with the groupings that had been eliminated by the large, official political and labor-union organizations. Their ideas and actions had been completely smothered. It would be good to bring those positions back into view, if only to demonstrate that our own positions were part of a tradition and that what certain groups seemed to be discovering today was in no way new. We needed to translate texts of the IWW comrades (in particular, Daniel De Leon) and of revolutionary syndicalists all over the world (Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Russia, etc.), as well as the libertarian and anarchist documents of ancient China (cited by Étienne Balazs in Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy).
* * *
In 1958 our study and discussion group — which later adopted the name Council Communist Group — began to collaborate closely with ICO (Informations et Correspondance Ouvrières) [Workers’ News and Letters],* which was facilitating a “regroupement inter-entreprises [a linkup of workers from different companies]. This new formation aimed to bring together workers who no longer have any confidence in the traditional working-class organizations, namely the parties and labor unions, which have become elements of stabilization and conservation of the exploitive regime. ICO seeks to create actual direct linkups between workers, to inform each other about what is going on in different workplaces, to denounce labor-union maneuvers, to discuss our desires and demands, and to mutually aid each other. This process of dealing with particular current problems inevitably leads us to call into question the present regime and to discuss general problems such as capitalist property, war or racism. Each participant is free to express his views and remains free to act as he wishes within his own workplace.
We took part in these reunions as ICO correspondents — Guy at the Post Office, Agustín in a photoengraving company, Lambert at the Chausson bus factory, and I at Jeumont-Schneider, a company that manufactured electrical machines.
* * *
On the night of May 10, 1968, a social tornado swept through Paris. Paving stones were hurled at the CRS [national riot police]. Students built barricades on Rue Gay-Lussac and around the Sorbonne. As Sophie and I passed the knocked-down trees near the Saint-Germain subway exit and along Boulevard Saint-Michel, we felt that a new force had emerged, rejecting authority, the current regime, and the state itself. Panic-stricken, de Gaulle denounced the filthy rioters before secretly flying off to the army base at Baden-Baden, the headquarters of the French-occupied sector of Germany, where he prepared for the possibility of crushing the May 1968 insurgents with military force.
The Maoists from the École des Beaux-Arts carried banners proclaiming: Good weather comes after the rain. I shouted out: How pathetic can you get! Here we are in the land of the Paris Commune and you can think of nothing but reciting the Hunan peasant’s Little Red Book!* From then on I was persona non grata in the local action centers — they practically treated me and my friends as cops.
I was working at the Jeumont-Schneider factory. Students were calling for a general strike and coming to the factories in order to make contact with the workers. The CGT prevented the workers from meeting them, keeping the workers isolated in their factories and driving away the students. . . . [See the following article.]
*See Translators Notes.
Chapter 11 from Ngo Van’s book In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary (AK Press, 2010).
In the Crossfire is a translation of Ngo Van’s Au pays de la Cloche fêlée (Paris: L’Insomniaque, 2000) and of excerpts from Ngo Van’s Au pays d’Héloïse (L’Insomniaque, 2005). It has been edited by Ken Knabb and Hélène Fleury and translated by Hélène Fleury, Hilary Horrocks, Ken Knabb and Naomi Sager.