IN THE CROSSFIRE
Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary
It is no exaggeration to say that a colonial war began the moment French troops landed in Indochina in 1859 and never stopped. Once established, the colonial regime engaged in an ongoing battle against the peasant and worker masses, who remained in latent or open revolt until the French and then the Americans were finally driven out more than a century later. The following chronology (mostly drawn from Ngo Van’s Vietnam 1920-1945 and from the British edition of an earlier text by Ngo Van, Revolutionaries They Could Not Break) mentions only a few of the more significant events in order to help orient the reader.
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1615. Jesuit missionaries first set foot in Indochina. In order to facilitate the introduction of Christianity they create quoc ngu, a Romanized transcription of Vietnamese, to replace chu nom, the traditional Vietnamese writing system which used Chinese-style ideograms and which had not been generally accessible to the common people. As in many other regions, Christianity and trade prepare the way for eventual colonial conquest.
1857-1870. French emperor Napoleon III launches a Catholic Crusade on the pretext of protecting the Catholics persecuted by the Emperor of Vietnam, Tu Duc. Saigon is taken in 1859 and the port is opened to French merchant ships. Tu Duc calls on the people to resist the foreign invaders. Revolts spread throughout Cochinchina. The French respond with massacres and the process of annexation continues.
1870-1893. After the fall of Napoleon III (July 1870) and
the crushing of the Paris Commune (May 1871), the French Third Republic resumes
the conquest. In 1874 Tu Duc is forced to sign a treaty of peace, friendship
and perpetual alliance between France and the Kingdom of Annam that obliges him
to recognize French sovereignty over Cochinchina, to open the Red River for
French commerce with China, and to open the ports of Qui Nhon, Haiphong and
Tonkin, however, is not yet subdued, and its conquest continues under the government of Jules Ferry (1880-1885). Ferry, one of the butchers of the Paris Commune, declares: The superior races have the duty to civilize the inferior races. He also notes that by a fortunate coincidence this noble duty will also generate some more mundane benefits: Europe today can be considered as a commercial enterprise that is facing declining profits. European consumption is saturated; new sectors of consumers must be cultivated. . . . Colonies are the most advantageous investment opportunities for the capital of rich countries.”
1893. France has now conquered all of what becomes known
as French Indochina, consisting of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The colonizers
divide Vietnam into three regions: Tonkin in the north (capital: Hanoi), Annam
in the center (capital: Hue), and Cochinchina in the south (capital: Saigon).
Tonkin and Annam are protectorates (as are Cambodia and Laos); Cochinchina is a
The French-protected Tonkinites and Annamites are formally left under the administration of the native rulers and subjected to feudal judicial regimes whose punishments include a whole range of tortures. The Cochinchinese, referred to as French subjects, are under direct French administration and officially governed according to a modified version of the French Penal Code. In reality, however, they are subjected to the same sorts of arbitrary brutalities as those in the protectorates.
French profits are based on the exploitation of natural resources (coal, minerals, rubber, rice, cotton) and cheap labor. The country also serves as a monopoly market for industrial products manufactured in France.
In addition to the normal functioning of the economy, an incredible level of corruption prevails. Among numerous other schemes involving land purchases, construction contracts, etc., the colonial administrators often grant monopolies on particular products to themselves or their cronies, then impose consumption quotas on local populations to increase their profits.
The colonial domination undermines the feudal agrarian economy based on the so-called “Asiatic mode of production” by introducing capitalist production, thereby engendering new social classes comparable to those of the ruling country, though with certain different characteristics:
The peasantry, which comprises the immense majority of the population, is exploited by the large landowners. Constantly on the verge of starvation, the mass of peasants are bled dry not only by native landowners but by the various taxes imposed by the colonial regime, especially the personal “capitation” tax.
An agricultural proletariat develops in the ricefields, the domains allotted to large enterprises, rubber plantations, etc., and in the lands belonging to the Catholic Mission, working under contract-labor conditions that often verge on slavery. “The workers wake up at 3:00 a.m., assemble at 4:00 a.m., and work till nightfall. The worker is tied to a plantation for three years by a drastic contract that forbids him to work for any other employer during that period. Signing on at 0.40 piasters per day, he is unaware that after paying for his ration of rice, reimbursing his advances, and paying various fines, his net earnings at the end of the month turn out to be far less than the sum of his daily wages” (official report on the Mimot rubber plantation by Labor Inspector Delamarre, March 1928). The masters have the right of life and death over the workers, and the plantations generally have their own private prisons and dungeons.
Alongside, there develops a totally new industrial proletariat in the mines and in the large companies of public works, electricity, cement, distilleries and transport. These workers have no organizations and no political experience, but gradually become radicalized, especially in the cities.
The European and Chinese bourgeoisie lead and dominate the native bourgeoisie.
The native bourgeoisie and landowners support the colonial regime, to which they owe their prosperity.
A large part of the native petty bourgeoisie is incorporated into the administrative and military apparatus.
1904. Phan Boi Chau founds the Vietnam Modernization Society, aimed at expelling the French and establishing a constitutional monarchy under the rebel prince Cuong De. The following year he and Cuong De escape to Japan, where they unsuccessfully attempt to enlist Japanese aid.
1912. Phan Boi Chau, now in exile in China, founds the Vietnam Restoration Society, which incites several assassinations and abortive revolts in Vietnam.
1920s. A group of Vietnamese emigrants in Paris are
referred to by their compatriots as The Five Dragons”: Phan Chau Trinh, Phan
Van Truong, Nguyen The Truyen, Nguyen An Ninh and Nguyen Ai Quoc (hereafter
referred to as Ho Chi Minh, the name he adopted in 1942). Though of diverse
backgrounds and perspectives, their denunciations of colonial subjugation and
their determination to liberate their country lay the groundwork for the
Indochinese revolution of the 1930s.
All of them return to Vietnam and openly defy the colonial regime except for Ho Chi Minh, who remains outside the country, shuttling between Moscow and China (he does not return until 1941). Meanwhile, the French Communist Party sends a number of other emigrant Vietnamese students to Moscow to be trained as professional revolutionaries. They will become the Stalinist cadres of the future Indochinese Communist Party.
1923-1926. In Cochinchina, Nguyen An Ninh publishes La Cloche Fêlée, with the ironic subtitle: Journal for the Propagation of French Ideas. Seeing Vietnam as smothered by oppressive surveillance, he urges those who can to visit France or at least to become familiar with its best traditions, so as to enlarge their horizons. In his view, although France is the source of colonial oppression, there is also a spirit of liberation to be found in the land of the Enlightenment, the Revolution and the Paris Commune.
1925. In Canton, China, under the patronage of the Third International, Ho Chi Minh founds the Thanh Nien Cach Mang Dong Chi Hoi (Revolutionary Youth League). Members are given rigorous ideological and practical training in China, then sent back to Vietnam. The Thanh Nien takes root primarily among the peasantry, spreading from the North to the South.
1927. In Hanoi a group of radical teachers and students form the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (VNQDD/National Party of Vietnam), whose goal is to expel the French from Indochina, overthrow the native feudal system and set up a democratic republic. As means, they advocate conspiracy, military plots and terrorism.
February 1930. Revolt of the infantry of Yen Bai (in
Tonkin), instigated by the VNQDD. The revolt is drowned in blood and the VNQDD
is virtually annihilated.
The Thanh Nien merges with other similar groupings to form the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP).
May 1930 through early 1931. Thousands of peasants march to administrative centers to demand the lowering of the capitation tax and the abolition of forced labor. The colonial regime responds by firing into the unarmed crowds. The peasants shift to more insurrectionary actions, attacking military posts and police stations, releasing prisoners, looting markets, destroying tax records and executing particularly hated notables. In the Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces of Annam, they organize themselves into soviets, seizing land and distributing stockpiled food. These movements are largely spontaneous, but many involve significant ICP participation and influence. In the repression that follows, thousands of peasants are massacred, thousands more are imprisoned, and the ICP is severely damaged.
1930-1932. Inside the ICP various oppositional tendencies criticize the constantly shifting Moscow-directed policies in which the Party’s popular base serves only as pawns for mass actions. These tendencies rally to the Left Opposition positions of Trotsky and his followers, demanding independence and social revolution, land to the peasants and factories to the workers; whereas the ICP calls for independence first, with socialism to follow at some later stage. Among these oppositional currents is a group formed in Saigon in 1931 by Vietnamese students expelled from France. It is this group that Ngo Van joins in 1932.
April-May 1933. The trials of 21 activists of the Left
Opposition and of 121 members of the ICP bring a temporary halt to the
underground movement, most of the leaders being in prison or deported to
On the occasion of the Saigon City Council election, the Stalinists and Trotskyists still at liberty come together to create the weekly newspaper La Lutte, agreeing to refrain from mutual criticism in order to jointly confront the colonial regime on the legal terrain. This astonishing and unprecedented alliance (considering that in Russia and everywhere else in the world the Stalinist parties are calling for the extermination of Trotskyists) comes about in part because Ho Chi Minh and the upper Stalinist bureaucracy remain outside the country with little possibility of directly controlling the rank-and-file party members within it; in part because the Vietnamese Trotskyists have stronger roots among the workers than do the Stalinists, making it difficult for the latter to employ their usual tactics; and in part because the partisans on both sides have shared extremely difficult conditions of struggle and are anxious to create some breathing room for themselves.
1935. After the Laval-Stalin Pact allying France and Russia, the ICP, following in the footsteps of the French Communist Party, no longer speaks of class struggle or of combating French imperialism. The Trotskyists in the La Lutte group, bound by their united-front agreement with the Stalinists, remain silent. In protest against this surrender of principle, Lu Sanh Hanh, Ngo Van and Trinh Van Lau found the League of Internationalist Communists for the Construction of the Fourth International, and in a clandestine paper, Tien Dao, denounce La Lutte’s accommodation with the Stalinist betrayal.
1936-1937. The Popular Front takes power in France, but
declares its intention to maintain France’s colonial empire. In Vietnam,
widespread action committees strive to convene an Indochinese Congress that
will present their demands to the Popular Front. These committees are soon
repressed. A massive wave of strikes follows and is also repressed.
On orders from Moscow, the French Communist Party pressures the Vietnamese Stalinists to break with the Trotskyists. The Stalinists quit La Lutte and immediately found another paper, L’Avant-garde, in which they denounce their recent Trotskyist allies as twin brothers of fascism.”
1938-1939. The ICP adopts a fervently patriotic position,
supporting the colonial government’s campaign for the defense of French
Indochina against the Japanese threat by taking part in the launching of a War
Loan drive and by approving the regime’s conscription of an additional 20,000
Vietnamese soldiers. As a result of this unpopular position, the ICP, which has
made an alliance with the bourgeois Constitutionalist Party in the Colonial
Council election, is defeated in April 1939. The Trotskyists, on the other hand,
get three delegates elected despite an explicitly radical platform.
Ho Chi Minh is infuriated by the Trotskyist victory. In May 1939, from Guilin, China, he writes a series of letters to his comrades in Vietnam vilifying the Trotskyists and parroting the delirious and murderous propaganda accompanying the recent Moscow Trials, letters which are published in the Stalinists’ Hanoi paper Notre Voix. Some excerpts:
The Trotskyists of China and other countries . . . are nothing but a band of evildoers, the lapdogs of international fascism. . . . In collusion with the police and their Japanese masters, the Trotskyists infiltrate workers’ strikes in Shanghai and use every possible means to sabotage the movement. . . . In Spain they call themselves the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM). . . . It is they who constitute the nests of spies in Madrid and Barcelona and other places, in the service of Franco. It is they who organize the famous Fifth Column, the espionage organization of the Italian and German fascist army. The French Trotskyists are plotting to sabotage the Popular Front. Have you read the accusations against the Trotskyists at their trial in the Soviet Union? Doing so will help you see the true repugnant face of Trotskyism and the Trotskyists. . . . They must be politically exterminated.
1940. The Hitler-Stalin Pact (August 1939) leads to a new about-face of the ICP. The Stalinists’ focus is once again on the struggle against French imperialism, while the menace of fascism is played down, although Nazi Germany is on the verge of invading France and Japan is on the verge of invading Indochina. The ICP accordingly launches a peasant insurrection in Cochinchina which is drowned in blood: thousands are killed or imprisoned, and hundreds of others are condemned to death.
1940-1945. The Japanese occupy Indochina, but allow the pro-Vichy French colonial administration to continue to maintain order (leaving the Japanese free to invade Siam, Burma, Malaysia, etc.).
1941. Ho Chi Minh puts aside the Communist label and creates the Vietminh (Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi/Front for the Independence of Vietnam). He eliminates class struggle and agrarian revolution from his program so as not to upset the bourgeoisie and landowners whom he hopes to include in this front. Despite the new label, the Vietminh is effectively a continuation of the ICP.
1941-1944. Following Hitler’s invasion of Russia (June 1941), Ho Chi Minh once again focuses on the war against fascism and seeks alliances with the Allies, including the Free French forces under General de Gaulle and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the predecessor of the CIA), which provides him with arms and advisors.
March-August 1945. The Japanese take over the administration of Indochina, shunting aside the previously tolerated French colonial regime and presenting themselves as liberators from Western domination.
August 1945. The Japanese surrender. The Allies decide
that Vietnam will be occupied by the Chinese troops of Chiang Kai-shek in the
North and by the Anglo-Indian troops of General Gracey in the South, with the
understanding that the country will be handed back to the French as soon as
Before the arrival of the occupation troops, Ho Chi Minh’s Vietminh, profiting from the political vacuum, takes power in Hanoi, organizes a hunt-down of Trotskyists (traitors to the Homeland), destroys the workers councils formed by the miners of Hongai-Campha, and prevents the famine-stricken peasants from seizing and redistributing land.
Meanwhile, Saigon enters into a state of effervescence. Amid a variety of popular networks and new or revived radical or nationalist groupings, the Stalinist leader Tran Van Giau appoints himself the head of a Provisional Executive Committee. Several nationalist groups rally to this Vietminh-dominated government.
On August 25, a huge demonstration takes place in the center of Saigon. Ngo Van and other members of the League of Internationalist Communists take part, demanding all power to the people’s committees — popular committees that have been spontaneously springing up in the city, challenging the authority of Tran Van Giau and his political police and armed gangs.
September 1945. In Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh proclaims the
independence of Vietnam, while in Saigon the Vietminh organizes a military
parade and calls on the population to welcome the Allied troops of General
Gracey. Once in the city, Gracey contemptuously kicks the Vietminh’s
Provisional Executive Committee out of the Governor’s Palace and rearms the
French colonists. The Vietminh forces abandon the city and establish themselves
in the neighboring countryside, urging the people to remain calm while their
provisional government seeks to negotiate with the invading forces.
Meanwhile, the masses of ordinary people of Saigon, refusing to accept the return of the detested colonizers, seek in every possible way to arm themselves so as to drive them out of the city. Ngo Van and his comrades are of exactly the same mind.
September 23, 1945. Insurrection in Saigon. The people of
Saigon set up barricades all over the city against the French. After several
days of street fighting the French gain control of the city, but the insurgents
control all the surrounding areas.
Pursued both by vengeful French colonists and by the Stalinists, Ngo Van and his League comrades regroup outside Saigon and join the Workers’ Militia, a fighting unit created by the streetcar workers to combat the French while remaining independent of the Stalinists and nationalists.
1945-1946. In the South, the Vietminh kill every
Trotskyist they can get their hands on, then attack the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao
religious sects and other independent armed groups who are opposing the return
of the French.
In the North, Ho Chi Minh allies himself with the Chinese occupation troops in order to maintain his power, then welcomes the return of French troops in order to get rid of the Chinese. After killing virtually all the Trotskyists, he destroys all the other nationalist movements and radical tendencies, thereby establishing his total political power in the North and his total control over the resistance in the South.
Thus it stands on the eve of the Thirty Year War.
Chronology from Ngo Van’s book In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary (AK Press, 2010), prepared by Hélène Fleury and Ken Knabb.
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.