The Vietnam War was a defining moment for the 1960s New Left: North Vietnam’s Communist president Ho Chi Minh and the National Liberation Front fighting the US-backed regime in South Vietnam captured the imagination of radicals around the world. They saw a classic David versus Goliath story. Ngo Van’s book is not that story. But it is crucial to understanding that history all the same, because Van was part of the same generation as Ho Chi Minh, who grew up fighting the vicious French colonial occupation of Vietnam.
In the Crossfire is two different stories. The first is Ngo Van’s life in Vietnam up to 1948. The depth of misery under French rule provoked a whole generation to activism, and we see it through Van’s eyes, as he participates in strikes and organizes political groups. Ngo Van himself is self-effacing: there’s nothing heroic about his story, even though he endures great personal hardship and sees his comrades die on the torturer’s table. He has no desire for fame or adventure; rather, he’s inspired by the peasant revolts of the 1920s and wants to learn more. He discovers Marxism, which frames the struggle for national independence as a struggle for socialism, to give factories to the workers and land to the peasants. We get a clear picture of a country in ferment, where the hangings, torture and starvation inflicted by the French regime and their lackeys can’t suppress a movement. For Ngo Van, this means smuggling pamphlets to coworkers, going to demonstrations, and spending many years in jail as a result.
Ngo Van became a Trotskyist. Trotskyism was a major political tendency in Vietnam at the time. Many radicals began in the Vietnam independence movement, became Communists and then grew dissatisfied with how the Moscow-controlled Communist Party compromised with the French. In the 1930s Stalin wanted Western allies. When the French Communist Party joined the French government in 1936, it told the Communist Party of Vietnam to drop its demand for independence, so as not to cause trouble for one of Stalin’s allies. Today, these problems seem remote, but in the 1930s it mattered concretely. When the Stalinists dropped their demands for independence, it meant supporting the colonial regime that was torturing and killing peasants. Peasants who had taken land from landlords had to give it back. In short, it meant supporting capitalism and colonial occupation.
The Trotskyists had tremendous influence, defeating Stalinist candidates in municipal elections up to World War Two. But this meant they faced the twin enemies of French colonialism and Stalinism. Ngo Van traces the tragic results. He writes brief autobiographical sketches of his comrades, and almost every one ends in 1945 as the activists are shot, not by the colonial armies but by the Stalinists. Independence in 1945 was on Stalin’s terms, and anyone who wanted to go further was killed. This was why so many Vietnamese became Trotskyists, and why the Stalinists had to wipe them out – not from some obscure doctrinal difference, but because the Trotskyists actually tried to make the revolution they spoke of.
The second, much shorter section covers his time in France, where he lived until his death in 2005.
Ngo Van became a council communist, part of a far-left tendency that rejected capitalism and Communism, but also Trotskyism for being insufficiently critical of the Stalinist regimes. It’s one of the ironies of history that the same Trotskyists who Stalin attempted to destroy ended up politically defending Stalinist regimes. They even defended Ho Chi Minh, who had ordered the murder of hundreds of Trotskyists; as Ngo Van puts it, “The Trotskyists who were supporting Ho Chi Minh were acting like a hanged man clinging to his rope.”
Ngo Van returned to his principles, refusing to compromise on the ultimate goal of socialism: “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.” From this he grew to loathe workers’ parties which all too readily transformed themselves into dictatorships: “Once in power, these parties form the nucleus of a new ruling class and bring about nothing more than a new system of exploitation.”
It’s hard to argue with this interpretation. Victor Serge, the Belgian revolutionary who also lived through the Stalinist terror, reached the same conclusion as he saw his comrades and loved ones fall to the executioners’ bullets. The translators of In The Crossfire argue that the Russian Revolution was no more than a coup d’etat by Lenin and Trotsky, imposing Bolshevik terror on the Russian peasantry. In that sense, Ngo Van and his translators judge history by hindsight. As Serge wrote, the revolution contained seeds of both democracy and tyranny, and Stalin was the result of the defeat of the Russian Revolution, not its triumph. But it’s easy to see how Ngo Van reached his conclusion that all party organizations end up as repressive machines: for 20 years he lived with, and many times nearly died from, the murderous impulses of one such party.
Ngo Van’s writing is clear and accessible, the mark of a good translation. However, the material chosen is excerpted from different books, and it leaves the reader with some questions. The Stalinists first appear as a Moscow-supported group in the provinces and Saigon city politics. By the end of World War Two, they’ve grown big enough to have their own army and set up a provisional government. How did this happen? Why did the Trotskyists, who also had trade unions and militias, get outnumbered and outmaneuvered? This is an autobiography, and Van Ngo spent the war in and out of prison. In some ways the lack of detail gives a better sense of what living in a war-torn country was like: the reader encounters new events seemingly randomly, just as Ngo Van did. But for a historical picture, readers would have to consult his two volumes of 20th century Vietnam history.
None of this detracts from the sweep of history that Ngo Van deftly works into his narrative, grounding his political insights in his background and personality. All political biography must balance the individual and the events she or he is caught up in. Ngo Van does it masterfully. The last page sees him in Paris during the French uprising of May 1968:
The Maoists from the Ecole 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.
The humour and resistance of Ngo Van helps shed light on a suppressed revolutionary history. As a unique recounting of that history, In The Crossfire deserves to be widely read.
Greg Sharzer is an unorthodox Trotskyist.