Ngo Van

Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary




[Bold numbers on the left refer to pages in the printed book]



viii. Some Web sources give the misleading impression that there was a significant anarchist influence in early Vietnamese struggles. Closer examination usually reveals that the supposed connection is extremely flimsy. The pioneering anticolonial leader Phan Boi Chau, for example, is sometimes referred to as “a proponent of anarchism” merely because “his thinking reflected certain distinctly anarchist themes, notably anti-imperialism and direct action,” and because he was on good terms with a few anarchists he met in Japan and China — though he was on equally good terms with monarchists, nationalists, socialists and militarists, and the organizations he founded advocated nothing more radical than a constitutional monarchy or a democratic republic. His overriding goal was to drive out the French; political groups and ideologies interested him only insofar as they might contribute to that goal. Until late in his life he scarcely manifested any interest even in socialism, let alone anarchism. (For more on Phan Boi Chau, see Note 155.)
      Nguyen An Ninh is a different matter. His eclectic and romantic perspective did indeed reflect some anarchist influence (picked up from his years in Paris). This anarchism was blended with a variety of other European philosophical and cultural currents from Rousseau to Nietzsche, and since Ninh was a very popular and charismatic figure, those themes undoubtedly had some influence during the 1920s, particularly among the more educated urban youth. Hue-Tam Ho Tai’s Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution gives a good account of the cultural ferment of that period, which served as a prelude to the more directly social and political struggles of the 1930s.
      The only explicit Vietnamese anarchist mentioned in the present book is Trinh Hung Ngau. (Other sources describe him as a “nationalist with anarchist leanings.”) According to Ngo Van, he participated in the Jeune Annam movement (1926) and in the newspaper L’Annam (1926-1928) and was one of the founders of La Lutte (1933); but he withdrew from the latter after the third issue “because he was unable to express his anarchist ideal within it” (Vietnam 1920-1945, p. 212). He later took part in the Indochinese Congress movement (1936-1937).

[Ngo Van: Relayer of Living History]

xiii. Allusion to Orwell: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” (Nineteen Eighty-Four, Part 1, Chapter 3).

xiv. Here is Baudelaire’s poem (1851), followed by a translation:


II est amer et doux, pendant les nuits d’hiver,
D’écouter, près du feu qui palpite et qui fume,
Les souvenirs lointains lentement s’élever
Au bruit des carillons qui chantent dans la brume.

Bienheureuse la cloche au gosier vigoureux
Qui, malgré sa vieillesse, alerte et bien portante,
Jette fidèlement son cri religieux,
Ainsi qu’un vieux soldat qui veille sous la tente!

Moi, mon âme est fêlée, et lorsqu’en ses ennuis
Elle veut de ses chants peupler l’air froid des nuits,
II arrive souvent que sa voix affaiblie

Semble le râle épais d’un blessé qu’on oublie
Au bord d’un lac de sang, sous un grand tas de morts,
Et qui meurt, sans bouger, dans d’immenses efforts.


It is bitter and sweet, during the winter nights,
to listen, beside the quivering, smoking fire,
to distant memories slowly rising
at the sound of the bells chiming in the fog.

Blessed is the strong-throated bell,
alert and healthy despite its old age,
which faithfully sends forth its pious tones,
like an old soldier keeping watch under his tent!

But I — my soul is cracked, and when in its distress
it wants to fill the cold night air with its songs,
it often happens that its enfeebled voice

seems like the thick death-rattle of a wounded man, forgotten
beside a lake of blood, lying beneath a mass of corpses,
dying but unable to move despite immense efforts.

That is a fairly literal translation. For some more poetic attempts (none very satisfactory), see http://fleursdumal.org/poem/157.

xvii. “Hundred Flowers” movement (1956-1957): a campaign initiated by the Chinese Communist government, encouraging people to freely express their views on national policy questions. When millions of letters were received, most of them highly critical of the Maoist regime, the movement was brought to a prompt halt and the most critical authors were rounded up and interned in “reeducation” camps.

xix. Lines from Brassens’s song “Les Funérailles d’antan” (The Funerals of Long Ago), ca. 1956.


1. The quote is from Pascal’s Pensées #593 (note that the numbering is different in some editions).

2. Spanish Civil War (1936-1939): In July 1936 the fascistic general Francisco Franco (supported by Hitler and Mussolini) launched a military uprising against the recently elected Popular Front government. The latter, fearing genuine popular autonomy, had refused to arm the people, thereby enabling Franco’s forces to rapidly take over half of the country. Seeing no alternative, the anarchist-oriented workers and peasants bypassed the government, seized arms and themselves took up the fight against Franco — a process which rapidly overflowed into a widespread and very radical social revolution. The Spanish Communist Party did everything in its power to crush this revolution, in the name of unity in the struggle against Franco (who ultimately prevailed anyway, in part due to the demoralization resulting from the Stalinists’ vicious attacks on the popular revolution). The best general history is Burnett Bolloten’s The Spanish Civil War. See also Sam Dolgoff (ed.), The Anarchist Collectives: Workers’ Self-Management in the Spanish Revolution 1936-1939.
      Poumistas: members of the POUM (Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista/Workers Party for Marxist Unification), a revolutionary Marxist party allied with the anarchists, opposed to Stalinism, and somewhat at odds with Trotskyism. During the Spanish Civil War the Poumistas were hunted down and killed or imprisoned by the Stalinists. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia is an account of his experiences fighting in the POUM militia.
      workers councils: The council form was invented by striking workers during the 1905 Russian revolution (soviet is the Russian word for “council”). When soviets reappeared in 1917, they were successively supported, manipulated, dominated and coopted by the Bolsheviks, who soon succeeded in transforming them into parodies of themselves: rubber stamps of the “Soviet State.” Workers councils have nevertheless continued to reappear spontaneously at the most radical moments in subsequent history, in Germany, Italy, Spain, Hungary and elsewhere (including the 1945 Hongai-Campha “Commune” in Vietnam), because they represent the obvious solution to the need for a practical form of nonhierarchical popular self-organization. The classic work on the subject is Anton Pannekoek’s Workers’ Councils.
      Bavaria: Following the surrender of Germany at the end of World War I (November 1918), the Bavarian region of Germany overthrew its local monarchy and declared itself an independent state, with independent socialist Kurt Eisner as Prime Minister supported by councils of workers and soldiers. Eisner’s assassination in February 1919 was followed by a chaotic and rapidly changing succession of more or less radical regimes, including a short-lived “Councilist Republic” whose leaders included anarchists Erich Mühsam, Gustav Landauer, Ernst Toller and Ret Marut (B. Traven). It was militarily crushed in May 1919 by the German “Socialist” government.
      Kronstadt: In March 1921 the sailors of Kronstadt, who had been among the most ardent participants in the 1917 Russian revolution, revolted against the Communist government, calling for a genuine power of popular democratic soviets as opposed to the rule of the “Soviet State.” Denounced as reactionaries, they were crushed by the Communist regime. See Ida Mett’s The Kronstadt Uprising and Paul Avrich’s Kronstadt 1921.
      Hungary: In 1956 the people of Hungary revolted against the Russian-imposed Stalinist regime. Though the movement was nominally in favor of a reform government under Imre Nagy, a nationwide network of workers councils was the real power in the country until it was crushed by the invading Russian army. See Andy Anderson’s Hungary ’56.
      The Marx quote is from “Critical Notes on the Article ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform’ ” (1844).

[Chapter 1: Arrest]

3. Sûreté: French colonial Security Police, in charge of investigating criminal and political offenses.
      coolie: Roughly equivalent to “day laborer,” “coolie” was the common term, used by the Chinese and Vietnamese as well as their colonial rulers, for the lowest-level workers. Unskilled and illiterate, they were paid the bare minimum for hard physical labor.
      Annamite: Following the tradition of the previous Chinese rulers, the French referred to the entire indigenous Vietnamese population as “Annamites,” although Annam was only one of three Vietnam regions in French Indochina (see p. 239). The term was still widely used during the period described in this book, although it was tending to be replaced by “Vietnamese” during the 1930s and 1940s.

4. Of the confiscated books, Paul Gentizon’s Mustapha Kémal ou l’Orient en marche (Mustafa Kemal, or The Orient on the Move) (1929) is about the Turkish nationalist leader Kemal Ataturk. Georges Garros’s Forceries humaines (Human Hothouses) (1926) is about early anticolonial struggles in Vietnam. Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto (1847) is a crucial historical document that has little connection with the “Communist” parties of the twentieth century. Leon Trotsky’s The Permanent Revolution (1929) expounded his view that the bourgeoisie in Russia, and in other even more underdeveloped countries, would be unable (or unwilling) to carry out a “bourgeois democratic revolution,” and that therefore the proletariat would need to take the lead to accomplish such a goal; and that in so doing, it would push things beyond the bourgeois stage. Louis Roubaud’s Vietnam: la tragédie indochinoise (Vietnam: The Indochinese Tragedy) (1931) is a denunciation of colonial repression. John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World (1922) is a firsthand account of the Russian Revolution. The Marx biography is probably David Riazanov’s Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: An Introduction to Their Lives and Works (1927). Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) was a leader of the Chinese revolution of 1911 and the founder of the Guomindang (Chinese Nationalist Party). Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) is an antiwar novel about World War I. Silvio Pellico’s My Prisons (1833) is an account of ten years in Italian prisons.

5. Central Prison (Maison Centrale, literally “Central House”): the main Saigon prison.

9. Lines from Victor Hugo’s poem “Dicté après juillet 1830” (Dictated after July 1830), about the 1830 revolution.

10. Ngo Van was very big by Vietnamese standards (six feet tall), so average-size clothes would not fit him.

11. Unless otherwise indicated, “League” always refers to the League of Internationalist Communists, the Trotskyist group founded by Lu Sanh Hanh, Ngo Van and Trinh Van Lau in 1935, destroyed in 1939, and revived in 1945. In contrast to the “legal Trotskyists” of the La Lutte group, who took part in elections and registered their publications, the LIC was an illegal group which focused on underground organizing and clandestine publications.

12. In May 1936 a Popular Front government (an alliance of Socialist, Communist, and other more or less center-left parties) was elected in France. Its inception was accompanied by a nationwide wave of strikes and factory occupations.

[Chapter 2: Childhood]

17. notables: wealthy, literate or respected local “worthies.” Councils of notables were the administrative power in the peasant communities under the old imperial regime and continued under the French colonial regime to serve as the lowest rung of the administration, collecting taxes, rounding up conscripts, dispensing justice for minor crimes, etc.

18. Poulo Condore (a.k.a. Con Son Island): an island lying off the coast of southern Vietnam. In 1861 the French colonial government built a penal colony there to hold political prisoners. In 1954 it was turned over to the South Vietnamese government, which continued to use it for the same purpose. It attained international notoriety in July 1970 when American congressional representatives, following a map drawn by a former inmate, broke away from the official guided tour and uncovered horrendous ill-treatment of prisoners. Photographs of some of the horrors (“tiger cages,” torture-caused mutilations, etc.) appeared in Life magazine and contributed to the growing American opposition to the Vietnam War.

20. In traditional Vietnamese families the first child is referred to as number Two, to fool the evil spirits who would like to make off with the firstborn. Ngo Van’s narrative mentions Sister Two, Sister Five, Brother Seven (all from a previous marriage), Brother Ten, Brother Twelve and Brother Thirteen (Van himself, the youngest), so there were a total of twelve children in his family. The ones not mentioned had either died young or grown up and moved away (as had Sister Two and Sister Five). Brother Ten was tortured to death by the French in 1946.

26. vu: short for vu et approuvé (seen and approved). The French word would seem “cabalistic” (mysterious) to the Vietnamese children.

27. capitation tax: a personal tax imposed on each adult individual, regardless of income. Though trivial for the rich or middle classes, it amounted to a significant portion of a poor person’s wages and a virtual impossibility for peasants living largely outside the money economy.

30. Lady Hieu’s banyan tree, planted in memory of a generous rich lady who lived near Ngo Van’s village, provided shade for women returning from the market under the hot sun. See Ngo Van and Hélène Fleury’s Contes d’autrefois du Vietnam, pp. 80-81.

[Chapter 3: Years of Apprenticeship]

40. Slightly abridged passage from Baudelaire’s Preface to Pierre Dupont’s Chants et chansons (1849).

41. Constitutionalist Party: a very moderate reformist tendency, begun in 1917 as a loose interest group of merchants, landowners, bureaucrats and journalists and becoming an officially recognized political party ca. 1923. It sought liberalization of certain laws and increased status for a small elite of Vietnamese bourgeois and officials under French rule, but opposed demands for national independence or significant social reforms. Its main leader, Bui Quang Chieu, had a horror of mass democracy, to say nothing of mass action. The notion of granting voting rights and access to French citizenship to a somewhat larger segment of the population caused him to “shudder at the thought of admitting undesirables into the great French family: people without means of livelihood and without culture. . . . I cannot help being seriously disturbed when I think that if, by some extraordinary measures, mass naturalization was decreed in Cochinchina, the result of a legislative election could depend on the vote of our cooks and rickshaw boys.” The fact that the colonists (for whom De La Chevrotière was one of the leading spokesmen) could view such timid reformists as dangerously radical gives some measure of how reactionary the French colonial system was.
      Phan Chau Trinh: On Phan Chau Trinh and the other early anticolonial leader, Phan Boi Chau, see Note 155.

43. The quote is from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1754).
      Richepin’s La Chanson des Gueux (1876) was considered so immoral and obscene that the author, publisher and printer were each sentenced to a month in prison. The gueux were not only tramps but the down-and-out in general — beggars, pickpockets, vagabonds, homeless street people, etc.

44. Phan Van Truong’s Une histoire de conspirateurs annamites à Paris (1928) was reprinted with an Introduction by Ngo Van (L’Insomniaque, 2003). The quotation is from pp. 20-21 of that edition.

45. “Nguyen An Ninh Secret Society”: The existence of this supposed secret society remains doubtful. Most of the “evidence” for it (stories of bizarre initiation rites, etc.) was concocted by the Sûreté and produced by torture, and even most of the peasants who were tortured denied any such affiliation. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine that Nguyen An Ninh’s wanderings through the countryside did not have some subversive aims. In 1926 he had made public statements to the effect that he was inclining toward a more spiritual path and had expressed interest in the recently formed Cao Dai sect. In early 1928 he shaved his head like a Buddhist monk and began traveling by bicycle from village to village selling a medicinal balm that he had concocted. Though he himself does not seem to have done any “organizing,” his comrades may have done so among the peasants who gathered around to meet him and listen to his talks; or other underground groups may have used his name as a rallying symbol to enhance their own appeal; or there may simply have been loose associations among people who shared a sympathy with him and his “teachings.” After refuting most of the evidence for the existence of such a secret society, Ngo Van noted that “Ninh inspired the peasants with a quasi-mystical confidence; many of them felt ready to follow him without knowing exactly where or how. . . . He had succeeded in creating a virtual peasant movement, though one far removed from a disciplined and structured organization” (Vietnam 1920-1945, p. 95). See also Hue-Tam Ho Tai’s Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution, pp. 186-195.
      Bazin: A detailed account of the assassination (Hoang Van Dao, Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang: A Contemporary History of a National Struggle, 1927-1954, pp. 35-41) gives the name as René Bazin. Most Web references give Hervé Bazin, but this may be simply a case of an erroneous mention in Wikipedia being endlessly repeated.

46. 40% death rate: Although this may seem improbably high, official sources confirm that very high death rates were common. For example, the Phu Rieng plantation supervisors informed the French Colonial Minister that 17 percent of their workers died in 1927, and this was undoubtedly a conservative figure since the supervisors had an interest in covering up as many of the deaths as possible. Reliable studies indicate that many of the plantations had an average annual death rate of over 20 percent.
      Yen Bai revolt (1930): This revolt was instigated by the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (National Party of Vietnam), a radical nationalist organization founded in Hanoi in 1927 by the young teacher Nguyen Thai Hoc. By the following year it had 1500 members organized into 120 clandestine cells. Its violent audacity alarmed the colonial regime, but soon brought about its downfall. The 1929 assassination of Bazin by a renegade VNQDD member led to numerous arrests; the defeat of the Yen Bai revolt a year later led to the group’s virtual annihilation. Nguyen Thai Hoc and twelve other leaders were guillotined and hundreds of other members were captured and given heavy sentences. The VNQDD never really recovered from this blow, though remnants of the group escaped to southern China and returned to Vietnam fifteen years later in the aftermath of World War II, fighting in the ranks of the “Third Division” that appears in Chapter 7.

48. Names in parentheses usually refer to provinces. “Hanh Lam (Thanh Chuong)” thus means the town or village of Hanh Lam in the province of Thanh Chuong. Note also that most of the events described in this book took place in Cochinchina (the southern region of Vietnam) unless it is specifically indicated that they took place in Annam (the central region) or Tonkin (the northern region).

50. Indochinese Communist Party: This name was imposed by the Comintern in the hope of eventually including insurgent groups from Laos and Cambodia, but in reality the ICP was always almost exclusively Vietnamese.

52. “Moscow trainees” (retours de Moscou, literally “returnees from Moscow”): radicals who had spent time in Moscow being trained as cadres for the Communist Party.

55. restricted residence (interdiction de séjour): an order specifying that someone had to live in a particular place or was banned from particular places.

56. Saigon City Council: In order to create the appearance of democracy in Cochinchina, the French colonial regime established a few “representative” bodies such as municipal and colonial councils. These bodies had very limited powers, and in any case only a tiny percentage of property-owning natives were allowed to vote, so the allotted portion of indigenous representatives tended to be fairly conservative.

60. invitation au voyage (invitation to travel): title of a Baudelaire poem (1854).

67. Line from Baudelaire’s poem “Moesta et errabunda” (Sad and Restless) (1855).

[Chapter 4: In the Central Prison]

77. Moscow Trials (1936-1938): notorious frameups, now universally discredited, in which many of the original leaders of the Bolshevik Party gave false and often obviously absurd “confessions” and were then shot. Trotsky (then in exile) was considered the arch villain and was tried in absentia. The other old Bolsheviks confessed to conspiring with him and with Wall Street or the Nazis or the Japanese imperial government to assassinate Stalin, sabotage Russian production, etc. The trials helped Stalin get rid of potential rivals and discourage any resistance to his power; but the idea that the majority of the original leaders of the October revolution had been plotting against the “Soviet regime” for years was so obviously absurd that it disillusioned countless Communist Party members and sympathizers around the world.
      Indochinese Congress movement (1936-1937): an attempt to take advantage of the election of the Popular Front government in France by organizing popular action committees throughout Indochina which would send delegates to meet in a congress in Saigon to present demands for improving conditions in Indochina. The idea turned out to be very popular and hundreds of committees were organized, but the colonial regime suppressed the movement before any congress could convene.

79. Auprès de ma blonde: popular French song dating from the seventeenth century.
      Le Temps du mépris (Days of Contempt): 1935 novel about a Communist militant imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.

81. Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit was published in 1932. The passages quoted are from Ralph Manheim’s translation (Journey to the End of the Night, New Directions, 1983, pp. 56-57, 193-194, 345) with a few slight modifications. The last two lines are from a 1913 popular song.

86. Lenin’s “Testament”: letter written during Lenin’s last illness in December 1922 to the Russian Communist Party, stating his views on how the regime should proceed following his death. The letter featured a sharp attack on Stalin’s brutality and deceitfulness and urged his removal from the position of General Secretary of the Party. It also criticized Trotsky’s bureaucratic tendencies. The “Testament” was suppressed by the Stalinists and officially acknowledged only in 1956 by Khrushchev.

[Chapter 5: From One Prison to Another]

90. The renowned writer André Gide had sympathized with Communism, but following a visit to the USSR in 1936 he expressed his disillusionment in Return from the USSR (1936) and Afterthoughts on the USSR (1937).

101. Quotation from Victor Hugo’s play Ruy Blas (1838).

[Chapter 6: In the Mekong Delta]

112. Vichy government (1940-1944): a fascistic puppet state in the southeastern area of France which remained nominally independent after the defeat of French forces by Nazi Germany. Marshal Philippe Pétain was head of state, and his government cooperated with the Nazis who had occupied the rest of the country.

116. The Indochina colonial administration was pro-Vichy, so the Japanese occupation forces had felt comfortable leaving it in place. After the defeat of the Vichy regime in France (August 1944), the colonial administration’s loyalty to Japan became much more doubtful, particularly in the event of an Allied invasion. The Japanese thus felt obliged to take over the direct administration of Indochina and to preempt a potential French rebellion.
      Bao Dai: the last emperor of Vietnam. During the Japanese occupation he “ruled” as a Japanese puppet. In 1945 he went into exile, then returned in 1949 to rule as a French puppet during the Indochina War. In 1955 he was ousted by his prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, and emigrated to France.

[Chapter 7: Caught in a Crossfire]

122. Nam Bo (“South Country”): another name for Cochinchina, the southern part of Vietnam.

124. “Third Division”: an independent nationalist anticolonialist army including surviving members of the VNQDD and led by Nguyen Hoa Hiep. The Division sometimes had as many as 15,000 men and successfully fought both the French and the Vietminh from late 1945 to early 1946. It was eventually forced to disband and disperse into the population, in part because the Vietminh had begun providing the French with information on its locations and movements.

127. Gurkhas: Nepalese soldiers serving in the British colonial army.

138. “Ta Thu Thau’s group”: It is unclear what group this refers to.
      Tran Van Thach’s final note: This photocopy was sent to Ngo Van by Tran Van Thach’s son. It reads: “Brother Two: I leave my children in your hands. Please take care of them. 22-10-45.”

[Chapter 8: Toward Other Shores]

145. The Indochina War — the war between the Vietnamese (primarily the Vietminh once it had destroyed all the rival opposition forces) and the French — is usually considered to have begun in December 1946, but there were preliminary maneuvers and skirmishes during the previous year. The Vietminh received aid from Russia and China (after the Chinese Stalinists’ victory in 1949), and the French were largely supported by the United States. The war ended in 1954 with the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu. At the Geneva Conference in July 1954, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were granted independence. Vietnam was temporarily partitioned between the North (ruled by the Vietminh) and the South (ruled by Emperor Bao Dai) pending a nationwide election that would unify the country. After deposing Bao Dai, South Vietnam president Ngo Dinh Diem refused to go through with such an election, being aware that the Vietminh would easily win it. When the Vietcong (a new incarnation of the Vietminh) began attacking Diem’s dictatorship in the late 1950s, the United States backed Diem with money, arms, advisors, and eventually hundreds of thousands of troops. This Second Indochina War (1960-1975), more commonly known as the Vietnam War, was ultimately won by the guerrilla forces of the Vietcong and the regular army of North Vietnam.

148. World Without Visa (1947): novel about an international group of exiles stuck in Vichy France during World War II. The author, Jean Malaquais, later took part in the Council Communist Group mentioned on p. 203.

[Chapter 9: And My Friends?]

153. “October” group: So called from its 1931-1932 journal Thang Muoi (October). Although this is the only use of this term in the present book, in other accounts (particularly Trotskyist ones concerned with retrospectively distinguishing the correct or incorrect lines of different groups) “the October group” or “the October tendency” is often used in a loose general way to refer to the ongoing tendency around Ho Huu Tuong, which is contrasted with the La Lutte group. In this broad sense, the “October” tendency is seen as including the League of Internationalist Communists for the Construction of the Fourth International (1935-1939), the Bolshevik-Leninists for the Construction of the Fourth International (1936), the journal Le Militant (1936-1937), the revived journal Thang Muoi (1938-1939), the bulletin Thay Tho (1938), the Saigon paper Tia Sang (1939), and the revived League of Internationalist Communists (1945-1946). These groups and publications criticized the La Lutte group for its accommodations with the Stalinists and tended to put more stress on underground grassroots agitation; but the two tendencies also overlapped and collaborated in many regards. This is probably why Ngo Van, though pointing out particular tactical differences in particular circumstances, did not use the “October group” label, so as not to present the history as a simplistic stuggle between two distinct rival currents.

155. Phan Boi Chau (1867-1940): pioneering anticolonial leader. In 1904 he founded the Vietnam Modernization Society, whose goal was to drive the French from Indochina and establish a constitutional monarchy under the rebel prince Cuong De. The following year he and Cuong De slipped out of the country and went to Japan, which was at that time seen as a possible model for East Asian independence (it had achieved an impressive modernization during the Meiji Era and had just won the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905). The Japanese authorities did not offer any direct aid for Phan Boi Chau’s military schemes, but tentatively allowed him to organize an “Eastern Study Movement,” which brought more than two hundred Vietnamese students to Japan to learn about modern developments there and elsewhere in the outside world, to meet insurgents from China and other Asian countries, and to be able to discuss anticolonial strategies without censorship or fear of arrest. Under French diplomatic pressure they were all expelled from Japan in 1909. Phan Boi Chau relocated to Siam and then to China. The 1911 Chinese revolution influenced him to go beyond monarchism and in 1912 he formed the Vietnam Restoration Society, dedicated to establishing a democratic republic by means of armed struggle. Over the next few years this organization carried out or inspired a number of assassinations and abortive revolts in Vietnam, and Phan Boi Chau was sentenced to death in absentia. In 1925 he was kidnapped in Shanghai, brought back to Vietnam and sentenced to hard labor for life. Pardoned by Governor-General Varenne, he lived under house arrest in Hue until his death.
      Phan Boi Chau had made some significant breaks from previous anticolonial revolts, which had generally been limited to reactionary nativist perspectives (appeals for loyalty to the Emperor and for the restoration of the Confucian feudal system). But his social awareness was minimal, his foreign-based organizations failed to generate any sustained movement within Vietnam, and his schemes to elicit support from other countries invariably fell through. His influence was primarily as an inspiring symbol of perseverance in the struggle for national independence.
      He can be contrasted in many ways with his slightly younger contemporary Phan Chau Trinh (1872-1926). While Phan Boi Chau focused exclusively on driving out the French without paying much attention to social questions and was until late in his life quite willing to use monarchism as a rallying point, Phan Chau Trinh was sharply opposed to monarchism and to the whole mandarin feudal system and wished to use certain aspects of French culture to challenge that system and revolutionize traditional Vietnamese society (he was a great admirer of Rousseau and Montesquieu). Phan Chau Trinh was also dubious about the advisability of violent struggle against the far superior French forces, and favored a more gradual strategy centered on education and cultural issues. Phan Boi Chau pointed out that despite France’s pretense of “civilizing” the natives, its colonial system brutally repressed any potentially subversive education, resisting even rather minimal attempts to foster literacy, let alone any dissemination of the values of the French Enlightenment. Phan Chau Trinh was all too aware of that brutality (he had done time at Poulo Condore), but he noted that the scattered attempts at violent resistance encouraged by Phan Boi Chau’s groups had led to nothing but horrendous repression and demoralization.
      It should be noted, however, that the two leaders’ strategies were complementary as well as contradictory. Phan Boi Chau’s organizations had close connections with “free schools” and “culture centers” within Vietnam, which spread knowledge of modern subjects such as science, geography and history to thousands of ordinary people and which also served as centers for public discussion and popular drama and as libraries and publishers, disseminating subversive poems, songs, satires, and translations of Western works. The most popular speaker at these centers was Phan Chau Trinh (before he was imprisoned and then exiled to France).
      Phan Chau Trinh’s challenging of traditional values undoubtedly had a significant influence on the multifaceted cultural ferment of the 1920s; yet his death in 1926 ironically served as a catalyst for more direct political confrontations of the sort that he had tried to avoid — confrontations which were at the same time far more socially complex than the militaristic attacks that had been envisaged by Phan Boi Chau.
      For an informative account of this early period, see David Marr’s Vietnamese Anticolonialism 1885-1925.

162. famine: In 1944 and 1945 between one and two million people died of starvation in Tonkin and northern Annam. This was partly due to bad weather and to the war, but also to the fact that Governor-General Decoux had hoarded over 500,000 barrels of rice for profitable export.

168. “the first printed . . . publication”: a reminder of the difficulties of radical publication under the colonial regime. Most leaflets, newsletters, etc., were secretly produced by various crude forms of mimeographing.

169. 1929 . . . Indochinese Communist Party: In 1929 several different “communist” groups or tendencies existed in various regions of Vietnam, including the Thanh Nien, an “Annam Communist Party” and an “Indochinese Communist Party.” In 1930 most of these groups merged to form the Vietnam Communist Party. On Comintern orders, this name was changed to Indochinese Communist Party (see Note 50). The 1929 Indochinese Communist Party referred to here was the earlier group.

174. Naville and Rousset had abandoned the Trotskyist party on the grounds that the Stalinists were carrying out the revolution through their postwar takeover of East Europe and had thereby undermined the basis of the Trotskyist positions. Nguyen Van Linh implied that he and his comrades had not endured the brutal struggles against the Stalinists only to capitulate to them on such a bizarre and flimsy “theoretical” basis.

179. Quotation from Chinh Phu Ngam (Lament of a Soldier’s Wife), an eighteenth-century poem by Dang Tran Con.

[Chapter 10: Worker in the Promised Land]

184. For reasons both personal and political, Ngo Van said very little about his family in his published writings. By the time he emigrated to France he had become estranged from the partner mentioned on p. 108. He had three children: son Do (born 1932), daughter Oanh (born 1935), and son Da (born 1943). Da joined Van in France in 1956. Do was among the “boat people” who escaped from Vietnam during the late 1970s (he too came to France). Oanh stayed in Vietnam and did not see her father again until 1997, during the trip mentioned in Hélène Fleury’s introductory essay.

185. Au pays d’Héloïse consists of several fragmentary chapters. The excerpts translated in the present book have been rearranged and in a few cases condensed. This paragraph, for example, is a very brief summary of a several-page account in the original book about the tribulations of Vietnamese drafted into European service during World War II. Ngo Van’s friend Dang Van Long later wrote a whole book on the topic: Nguoi Viet o Phap 1940-1954 (The Vietnamese in France, 1940-1954) (Paris: TS Nghien Cuu, 1997).

188. Lines from Baudelaire’s poem “L’Horloge” (The Clock) (1860).

189. Quotation from Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy (1847), Chapter 1, Part 2.

195. Source of quotation unknown.

[Chapter 11: New Radical Perspectives]

201. Maximilien Rubel (1905-1996): Born in what is now Ukraine, Rubel emigrated to Vienna, then to France in 1931. He was noted for his numerous works reexamining Marx’s actual writings and positions, as opposed to those of the various movements claiming to be “Marxist.” In articles such as “Marx as a Theorist of Anarchism,” he showed how the state-socialist currents (Leninism, Trotskyism, Stalinism, social democracy, etc.) are inconsistent with Marx’s perspective, and in particular how the Bolshevik seizure of state power in 1917 was quite the contrary of the autonomous activity of the working class envisaged by Marx. After Rubel’s death, Ngo Van published a small book in memory of their years of friendship and shared struggles: Avec Maximilien Rubel, une amitié, une lutte 1954-1996.

203. ICO: Founded in 1958 (originally under the name Informations et Liaisons Ouvrières), ICO stemmed from a split in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group. After the dissolution of ICO in 1973, some of its participants, including Ngo Van, carried on similar activities and publications in the “Échanges et Mouvement” network, which was formed in 1975 and is still active.

204. “Little Red Book”: Quotations from Chairman Mao. Ngo Van later wrote a critique of this collection and of Maoism in general (see Bibliography, p. 248).

[A Factory Occupation in May 1968]

207. CFDT (Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail/French Democratic Confederation of Labor): socialist-leaning national labor union.

208. CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail/General Confederation of Labor): national labor union dominated by the French Communist Party.

210. “know how to end a strike”: In 1936, during the strikes accompanying the election of the Popular Front, Communist Party leader Maurice Thorez declared, “We must recognize when it’s time to terminate a strike if our demands are met, and when it’s time to consent to a compromise if not all of them are won.” The French expression, “Il faut savoir terminer une grève,” can also be understood as “We must know how to end a strike,” and ever since that time this accidental confession of union bureaucrats’ actual conservative role has been sarcastically evoked by radical workers.
      Grenelle Accords: an agreement negotiated May 25-27, 1968, at the Ministry of Social Affairs on Rue de Grenelle in Paris by Jacques Chirac (representing the government), Georges Séguy (representing the labor unions), and the French Confederation of Business Enterprises (representing the bosses). The agreement, which called for a 25% increase in the minimum wage, a 10% increase in average real wages, and some other benefits, was rejected by the rank-and-file workers.
      Waldeck-Rochet: head of the French Communist Party.
      Communards: partisans of the Paris Commune (1871).
seat of the French Third Republic government that massacred the Communards.

211. UNEF (Union Nationale des Étudiants de France): French National Student Union.
      March 22nd Movement: eclectic radical student organization created on March 22, 1968. The anarchist Daniel Cohn-Bendit was its most famous spokesperson, but it also included Trotskyists, Maoists, etc.

[Reflections on the Vietnam War]

219. Tet Offensive: A nationally coordinated military campaign launched by the Vietcong on January 30, 1968 (Vietnamese New Year). Although the campaign was very costly in Vietcong lives, it succeeded in shocking and demoralizing the American public, making it more difficult for the American government to claim that victory was just around the corner.

220. Allusion to the International War Crimes Tribunal (1966-1967) organized by Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre.

221. The “popular sentiment” was a widespread anti-Americanism, not only on the part of French Communist Party supporters but also by President de Gaulle, who was striving to carve out an independent position (e.g. by withdrawing France from NATO) and in the process aligning France closer to the Communist bloc.


Translators’ Notes 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.