Ngo Van


Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary




“The only historians I trust are those who risk getting their throats cut” (Pascal).* Considering the present “Socialist” Republic of Vietnam and its official history, which is uncritically accepted virtually everywhere, I cannot read this maxim without a strong sense of how narrowly I managed to survive.

In Vietnam 1920-1945: révolution et contre-révolution sous la domination coloniale, I attempted to rescue that period from oblivion — a period that was marked not only by the struggle against colonial imperialism, but also by movements striving instinctively for an internationalist social revolution, movements that refused to subordinate themselves to the dictates of Stalinist Russia. In the present text I am going to speak as a direct witness of that period. Most of the others who took part 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.

Scarcely eleven years had elapsed since the October 1917 revolution in Russia when I became fully aware of the oppressive reality of Indochinese society and fully determined to revolt against it. For me, like so many others, the Russian Revolution was a hopeful sign of 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. 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 us to betray the internationalism integral to every revolutionary struggle. Under these 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.

Since my 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. 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.

These encounters, along with rereading Marx (illuminated by the work of Maximilien Rubel), discovering the 1919 workers councils in Bavaria and the 1921 Kronstadt revolt in Russia, 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. “The existence of the state is inseparable from the existence of slavery” (Marx).*

Orwell rightly noted that those who control the present control the past. When history adopts the discourse of the victors, concealing and dissolving all past struggles with a simplistic Manicheanism that obscures what was truly at stake, the present reality seems inevitable and inescapable. The future of human societies thus depends on our capacity to wrest this past from the cold grip of the present masters. Voices have been lost. We must try to bring them back to life; to rediscover the living traces of the relay of rebellion that traverses time; to restore them and to pass them on.

Paris, 2000

*See Translators’ Notes.

Preface to Ngo Van’s Au pays de la Cloche fêlée, translated in 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.