Vietnam 1945 - The derailed revolution

In 1975 the Vietnamese people gained a historic victory, driving out the US armed forces and liberating the south. After 28 years of war the country was reunited and capitalism and landlordism abolished throughout. With these heroic sacrifices, the Vietnamese workers and peasants paid the price for the defeat of the revolution of 1945,when they had power in their grasp. Why was this opportunity lost in 1945? What are the lessons of this defeat for the workers' struggle today?

In 1975 the Vietnamese people gained a historic victory, driving out the US armed forces and liberating the south. After 28 years of war - costing two million Vietnamese lives, the defoliation of 10% of the total land area, and the destruction of much of industry and transport - the country was reunited and capitalism and landlordism abolished throughout.

With these heroic sacrifices, the Vietnamese workers and peasants paid the price for the defeat of the revolution of 1945, when they had power in their grasp. Why was this opportunity lost in 1945? What are the lessons of this defeat for the workers' struggle today?

Vietnam was a French colony from the mid 19th century, exploited for its raw materials and cheap labour by the French monopolies. Under French rule, illiteracy rose by 80 per cent. While 6000-7000 local landlords and colonialists owned vast holdings of the best land, half the peasant majority were landless, and the rest owned tiny plots.

Companies such as Michelin operated rubber plantations using mainly forced labour. Workers became known as "fertiliser for the rubber trees" because the bodies of those who died toiling in inhuman conditions were buried on the plantations.

Industrial development was retarded by colonial rule. But a small working class developed in industry, the mines, and transport. Despite severe repression, workers and peasants began to engage in struggle against the harsh conditions forced upon them - and for national liberation. It was from within this movement that the Indochinese Communist Party was formed in 1930 under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. Although this Party had strong local roots and considerable mass support, it was critically influenced by developments in the Soviet Union where many of its leaders had been trained, and to which it looked for guidance and support. The Communist International, to which the Vietnamese CP belonged, was born after the Russian revolution as an instrument to further the struggle of workers worldwide for democracy and socialism.

However in the 1920s a privileged bureaucracy usurped political power from the working class in Russia. While this bureaucracy rested on - and developed - the nationalised and planned economy of the Soviet Union, its privilege depended on the total suppression of workers' democracy. Increasingly, it transformed the Communist International into an instrument of its own interests. By the 1930s the CI was a consciously counter-revolutionary force, with the Stalinist bureaucracy terrified of the effect the establishment of a democratic workers' state anywhere in the world would have on workers within the Soviet Union.

The Russian revolution had been living proof of the fact that, even in an economically backward country like Tsarist Russia, the liberation of the peasantry from landlordism, and the achievement of democracy, depended on the working class coming to power. This was the understanding around which Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik party led the working class in the October Revolution of 1917.

As Trotsky had explained, the capitalist class in the underdeveloped countries was too weak to play any progressive role. Against the masses, they were tied up with the forces of imperialism and landlordism. Faced with a mass movement of workers and peasants, they would inevitably support the side of reaction for fear of losing their privileges.

Reflecting the interests of the bureaucracy, however, the Communist International under Stalin argued that, in the underdeveloped countries, a "two-stage revolution" was necessary. First there was supposed to be an alliance with the "progressive capitalists" to achieve national independence and democratic rights on a capitalist basis. Only "later" would the struggle for workers' power and socialism be placed on the agenda.

This was the same false position which had been put forward by the Mensheviks before the Russian Revolution. When the workers overthrew the Tsar in February 1917, and held power in their hands their Menshevik leaders entered and propped up a capitalist "provisional government" which was neither "progressive" nor democratic. Lenin and Trotsky denounced this policy, and convinced the majority of the working class of the need to take power. Had they not done so it was almost inevitable that the "provisional government" would have been replaced by a bloody military dictatorship.

In China in the 1920s, in the name of a "two-stage" theory, the Chinese CP dissolved itself into the bourgeois Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai Shek. A huge movement of workers and peasants drove towards power, but, deprived of leadership, was turned upon and defeated by the "progressive bourgeois" Chiang Kai Shek.

The idea of a "progressive' capitalist class was equally inappropriate in Vietnam. Discriminatory restrictions imposed by the French administration had effectively debarred the Vietnamese from entering industry, finance and commerce. "National" capitalist development was restricted to money-lending and the landlord class. This class tended to take out French citizenship and send their children to French schools. They were loyal supporters of colonial rule.

The policies of the Communist International received their first serious test in Vietnam with the coming to power of a "Popular Front" government in France in 1936. This was a government of class-compromise in which the Socialist and Communist Parties joined, or supported, a coalition with so-called "progressive bourgeois forces" against the menace of Fascism. The CP was following in fact Stalin's foreign policy which, from the mid-1930s, sought alliances with anti-German capitalist powers, in particular French imperialism.

The accession in France of a government including the CP encouraged the masses in Vietnam. There was an upsurge in the struggle and organisation of the working class. But the class-collaborationist "Popular Front" had no intention of liberating the colonies, or indeed of major colonial reform. Trade unions continued to be banned, and workers' leaders jailed - including the Communist Nguyen Van Tao. The French Colonial minister, a member of the reformist Socialist Party, telegraphed to Vietnam that "French order must reign in Indo-china as elsewhere."

What was the response of the Communist Party leadership in Vietnam? The slogans "Down with imperialism!" and "Confiscate the land of the big landowners!" were "temporarily withdrawn". The "two-stage" theory was based on the false idea that the "national" bourgeoisie would struggle for independence against imperialism. But policies of class compromise, once begun, know no stages. In slavish obedience to Stalinist policies of class compromise in Europe, the Vietnamese CP was now compromising with…the imperialist bourgeois and the feudal landlords!

The CP Councillors on the Saigon city municipal council eventually voted in favour of taxes for "national defence" - taxes for colonial suppression. After all had not Stalin told the French Prime Minister Pierre Laval in 1935 that he "understood and approved completely the policy of national defence of France"?

In opposition to Stalinism and the two-stage theory, political groups developed in Vietnam in the 1930s supporting Trotsky's ideas, and increasingly these gained dominance in the growing trade union movement. They also won control from the Communists in a political grouping organised around the newspaper La Lutte (The Struggle).

In 1939 elections took place for the Cochin-Chinese (South Vietnamese) Colonial Council. This was a relatively powerless body, based on a restricted franchise disqualifying many workers. Nevertheless the Trotskyist candidates Ta Thu Thau, Tran Van Tach and Pan Van Hum were elected with 80% of the vote, defeating the Communist and bourgeois party candidates.

Membership of the Trotskyist parties grew to around 5000, and the CP split with a considerable part of its working-class membership joining the Trotskyists. The historian J. Buttinger commented of this period: "…the Communist party for several years was overshadowed by a Trotskyist movement so strong as to make it for a short time the leading group in the entire communist and nationalist camp."

But with the outbreak of World War Two in September 1939 all the worker's parties were made illegal and severe repression launched. Ta Thu Thau and Tran Van Thach were imprisoned along with many others on the infamous island concentration camp of Poulo Condor, where prisoners were kept like animals in tiny underground cages.

In 1940 the armies of Japanese imperialism occupied Vietnam. France had fallen to the Nazis - and for most of the war the Japanese allowed the collaborationist Vichy regime to govern Vietnam. As the war drew to a close, however, they decided the French administration could not be relied on, and replaced it with a puppet government headed by the former Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai.

In May 1941 the Vietminh (League for the Independence of Vietnam) was formed on the initiative of the Communist Party, and launched a guerrilla war against the Japanese from bases near the Chinese border in the rural north. By 1945 conditions had become desperate for the mass of people. Famine ravaged the north of the country, killing an estimated 2 million people - while the Japanese exported rice to feed their troops.

When Japan surrendered to the Allied powers in August 1945 the stage was set for a massive social explosion. Throughout the south, but particularly in Saigon, People's Committees equivalent to Soviets sprang up and began to take over. Peasants seized land from the landlords, and workers took control of factories. The prospects for the formation of a democratic socialist state could not have been better. For this to have been established it was necessary for the existing state machine to be smashed, and the "people's committees" to become linked together into a new democratic state power, based on the working class.

But the leadership of the CP was imbued with the spirit of class collaboration implicit in the "two stage" theory. This was reflected in the class composition of the party. An internal party report was later to disclose that only one in thirteen of its members in key positions were workers, and less than 20% were peasants. The vast majority were intellectuals and members of the urban middle class. Above all the party leadership feared the independent movement of the masses, particularly the working class influenced by Trotskyist ideas.

In the rural north the CP dominated Vietminh declared independence on September 2 in Hanoi but, in line with the "two stage theory", on the basis of a firmly bourgeois constitution modelled on the American Declaration of Independence. The government included members of the right-wing nationalist party Quoc Dan Dang. Indeed, Ho Chi Minh even obtained the Imperial gold seal of office and ruby-encrusted sword from the discredited puppet leader Bo Dai, and appointed him "Supreme Political Adviser"!

In the south, on August 21, after mass demonstrations by workers in Saigon, a provisional Central Committee for the People's Committees was established. Most of the political parties came together to form a "United National Front". A situation of dual power, as had existed after the February revolution in Russia, was arising. The CP was relatively weak in the more economically developed south with its more militant working class. Desperate to control the situation, it allied itself with the right wing of the UNF.

On August 23 at 5 am, in a conscious attempt to bypass the People's Committees, the CP seized power by means of a coup. It used the prestige of the Vietminh to give itself mass credibility, and pressurised various bourgeois nationalist leaders to enter a coalition government called the "Committee of the South".

This CP-led government immediately set out to crush the mass movement. CP leader Nguyen Van Tao declared: "Those who incite the peasants to take over the estates will be severely and mercilessly punished ... Our government, I repeat, is a democratic and middle-class government, even though the Communists are now in power."

The working class had created a number of workers' militias to defend the revolution. In Saigon these came together to form a Workers' Guard under Trotskyist leadership. This was viewed with horror by the CP leaders. "Those who incite the people to take up arms will be considered as saboteurs and provocateurs, enemies of national independence," they screamed. Instead, they declared: "Our democratic liberties will be guaranteed by our democratic allies." Who were these "democratic allies"?

In pursuit of their own imperialist interests, the "Allied" powers had fought against Nazi Germany - on the same side as Russia. But this did not mean that the imperialists had turned into guarantors of democracy - as the Russian bureaucracy maintained. Yet this was the position uncritically accepted by the leadership of the Vietnamese CP.

At the Yalta and Potsdam conferences in 1945, Stalin had reached agreement with Roosevelt and Churchill on the post-war division of the world into "spheres of influence". Stalin had little interest in the struggle in South-East Asia and concurred in an agreement which split Vietnam in two at the 16th Parallel. To supervise the Japanese surrender, the north was "assigned" to reactionary Chinese warlords who were principally interested in what they could loot; the south to the British army.

It was these imperialist powers that the Stalinist bureaucracy labelled "democratic allies" - and whose occupation of Vietnam the Vietnamese CP leadership slavishly supported. Thus, instead of carrying forward the struggle for a new workers' state, the CP leadership collaborated in propping up the colonial state machine - resting now on "Allied" armies, rather than the Japanese.

From September 12, British troops, mostly Indian Gurkhas, commanded by General Gracey started to arrive. They were greeted with demonstrations organised by the Vietminh with the slogan (in English) "Welcome to the Allies!" The Vietminh even turned over their own headquarters to the British forces.

The Peoples' Committees denounced the Vietminh collaboration with the British forces. As a result, on September 14 the Vietminh police chief and Communist Party stalwart Duong Bach Mai, sent an armed detachment to where the Peoples' Committees were meeting in assembly. They broke it up, tearing down the red flags that bedecked its assembly rooms, destroying its records, and arresting and imprisoning its leaders.

But, despite CP assistance in crushing a popular movement, General Gracey did not share their illusions in class-compromises. As he later remarked: "I was welcomed on arrival by the Vietminh. I promptly kicked them out." He closed down the press, banned demonstrations, and declared martial law. On September 22 British troops were sent to take over the Saigon jail. They disarmed the Vietnamese guards, released the French troops imprisoned there, and rearmed them. Together the British and French took over the key installations in the city, ousted the Vietnamese government from the Saigon town hall and arrested its leaders.

Thus did Vietnam's four-week old independence come to an end.

By dawn of September 23 the coup was complete. The French troops engaged in an orgy of violence against any Vietnamese they could find. There were, as a British reporter, Tom Driberg (later a Labour MP) described it "disgraceful scenes of vengeance".

The masses responded magnificently to the attempt to re-impose colonial rule. An insurrection followed and most of Saigon was taken over by the workers. Mass demonstrations rocked the city, the market was burned down and barricades erected. Power plants and the radio station were attacked and a general offensive launched against the imperialist forces.

Faced with revolution, General Gracey then rearmed... the Japanese troops! Indeed in the battles that followed the Japanese sustained more casualties than the Allied forces combined. With a leadership determined to establish a workers' democracy the Vietnamese workers and peasants could have issued a fraternal class appeal to the ranks of the troops fighting against them - and split and paralysed the enemy forces.

The collapse of fascism at the end of the war had an enormous radicalising effect on workers the world over, and this mood infected the war-weary troops of all nations. Moreover General Gracey's troops were Indian Gurkhas who could not fail to have been affected by the struggle for independence in India which was then approaching victory.

They were particularly incensed by the re-arming of the Japanese troops: military documents record that this policy was carried out "outrageous as it seemed to all the ranks at the time." A clear class appeal to these troops would undoubtedly have had a tremendous impact.

An indication of the potential that existed for such a class-based appeal was offered by the example of the Japanese forces, who at the end of the war began to disintegrate on class lines. This process was described by the historian Vu Ngu Chien: "Some Japanese leaned towards the Vietminh, releasing Communist prisoners, providing weapons to the Vietminh front, and even offering their services to the local Vietminh forces. Others, including the military commanders, wanted to use their forces to support Kim's government (the Vietnamese puppet government) and to crush the Etsumei [Vietminh]."

Instead the Vietminh leadership, still trying to hold back the mass struggle, negotiated a cease-fire in early October. This merely allowed the French to bring in more troops. When the cease-fire broke down the imperialist forces launched an offensive with unqualified savagery, attacking combatants and civilians alike - a harsh precursor of American strategy 20 years later.

The British command issued the following directive: "We may find it difficult to distinguish friend from foe. Always use the maximum force available to ensure wiping out any hostiles we may meet. If one uses too much no harm is done."

The Vietnamese workers fought heroically with the meagre resources at their disposal, attacking the docks, airport, and Allied bases, using spears and poisoned arrows in some cases - impressing even the experienced Allied troops with their courage and daring. They were met with mortars and field-guns in an indiscriminate slaughter. Officially 2700 Vietnamese were killed, though the real figure was many times higher.

While the workers were battling desperately to defend the revolution, the main concern of the CP leadership was to eliminate all opposition to themselves. Foremost among their targets were the Trotskyists who had consistently opposed their incorrect policies.

Even during the World War the CP, branding the Trotskyists in the words of Ho Chi Minh as "stooges of the fascists", had shown no qualms in collaborating with the French against the Trotskyist movement. In 1941 it had betrayed 15 activists to the authorities - leading to their arrest.

Now the CP leaders set up "honourable squads" with the "honourable" task of exterminating anyone who opposed them. The leadership of the Struggle group, meeting to co-ordinate military action against the French, were surrounded by one of these groups, arrested, and then shot. Among the murdered was Tran Van Thach, released only a few weeks earlier from Poulo Condor.

Ta Thu Thau, the other leading Trotskyist, had gone to the north of the country to help organise famine relief. Ellen Hammer, an American writer, described what happened on his return. "On orders from Hanoi he was arrested on the way. He was tried three times by local Peoples' Committees and acquitted each time. But Tran Van Giau [the CP leader], ruthless in the pursuit of power, reportedly felt that his position in the South was being threatened by Ta Thau's popularity. He seems to have served a sort of ultimatum on the Vietminh Central Committee in Hanoi - either himself or Thau - and Hanoi gave way. Ta Thu Thau was killed in Quang Ngai, Annam, on the orders of Tran Van Giau."

Thau had been a leader of workers in China in the abortive uprising of the Canton Commune of 1927 in China, and had survived its defeat by counter-revolutionary troops. He spent years in prison including six years in Paulo Condor, where torture had left him partially paralysed. He had been elected to the Saigon Municipal Council and the Cochin China Colonial Council on several occasions.

While on the one hand murdering this workers' leader, the CP leaders were on the other hand desperately trying to appease the imperialist powers.

A few months later Ho Chi Minh commented on the death of Thau: "He was a great patriot and we mourn him ... All those who do not follow the line which I have laid down will be broken." What was this "line"?

In November 1945 the CP voluntarily disbanded itself! The declaration it issued took the "two-stage" theory to its logical conclusion. "In order to complete the Party's tasks in this immense movement of the Vietnamese people's emancipation a national union conceived without distinction of class or parties is an indispensable factor."

It further emphasised that it was "...always disposed to put the interests of the country above that of the clases..." But even the defence of national independence was impossible - once this struggle was consciously divorced from the struggles of the working class and poor peasantry. This was soon to be shown, disastrously, in practice.

At this time the French had no troops in the north, and the French commander Leclerc was quite candid about his weakness: "We never intended to launch an armed conquest of North Indochina...To do that we would need forces much stronger than those we now have."

But Leclerc played on the weakness shown by the class-compromising CP leadership. He proposed an agreement to the Vietminh, which they signed in March 1946, whereby Vietnamese "independence in the French Union" was recognized - in return for allowing French troops to occupy the North!

When the agreement was announced, the Vietnamese people were stunned. Ho Chi Minh, speaking to a mass meeting in Hanoi, was forced to plead with his audience, "I swear to you I have not sold you out."

"Independence in the French Union" meant nothing less than continued colonial rule. The "agreement" simply allowed the French time to reinforce their forces, and re-impose colonial rule north and south effectively.

The March agreement was repeatedly violated by the French, and broke down completely in November when the French bombarded the port of Haiphong, killing 6000 people according to "official" estimates - though the real figure was nearer 20000.

The French began a general rout of the Vietminh, who - whilst Ho Chi Minh pathetically petitioned the Allied powers, the Pope, and others - were forced to retreat underground and into the countryside to start what was to be a 30 year guerrilla war for the recovery of national independence.

Although the main responsibility for the defeat of the 1945 Vietnamese revolution rested with the Vietnamese CP leaders, the leaders of the working class in Britain and France also played a shameful role.

In Britain there was a Labour government headed by Clement Attlee. Before the war Attlee had written that "the Labour Party is of course opposed to imperialism, whether in its old or new form." Yet the 1945 Labour government agreed to the British occupation of South Vietnam, confining itself to ordering General Gracey: "Sole mission: disarm the Japanese. Do not get involved in keeping order."

However it was typical reformist blindness to expect public-school and Sandhurst-trained officers to betray their loyalty to their class and imperialism. Gracey went ahead to "keep order", i.e. crush the revolution - and was unhindered by the Labour government.

Attlee was reduced to reassuring Labour critics that "you may be certain that the government is carrying out the principles for which it has always stood." Right-wing Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin made no secret as to where he stood. He commended "the close and friendly cooperation between British and French commanders," and spoke on behalf of the "liberal attitude on the part of the French government."

If the Labour Party leadership in Britain tacitly supported imperialism, the role of the French Communist Party leadership was even more reactionary. The post-war agreements between Stalin and the Western powers had put France into the Western sphere of influence. Despite the fact that the Communist Party in France could have taken power after the war and carried through socialist revolution its policy, following Stalin's line, was not to challenge capitalism. It became part of a coalition similar to the "Popular Front" of 1936 - and with a similar role. Without criticism from the CP, this class-collaborationist government effectively supported the re-colonisation of Vietnam!

A report prepared for the Vietnamese Communists by the French CP advised them to be sure that their struggle "meets the requirements of Soviet policy". It warned that any "premature adventures" in Vietnamese independence "might not be in line with Soviet perspectives", and urged a policy of "patience". This was two days after the British-engineered coup deposed the Vietminh government, and launched the savage reprisals by the French forces that followed!

Later the French CP leader Maurice Thorez, a vice premier in the government, remarked to a Vietnamese delegation that "the Communist party under no circumstances wished to be considered the eventual liquidator of the French position in Indo-China and that he ardently wished to see the French flag fly over all corners of the French Union."

Unbelievably in 1945 and 1946 the Communist Party MPs in France repeatedly voted for the military budget which included funds especially earmarked for French troops in Vietnam; opposed Socialist party attempts to reduce the budget; and supported sending congratulations to the French Expeditionary corps in December 1946 after it had bombarded Haiphong!

Eight years of war followed before the French were defeated in 1954. Then after the Vietminh granted disastrous concessions in the subsequent settlement - which perpetuated the partitioning of the country - another 20 years of war followed against US imperialism and its puppets in the south before capitalism and landlordism were overthrown throughout Vietnam.

These struggles will always be an inspiration to socialists everywhere. Yet even today, despite the substantial social gains of land reform and nationalization of industry, the Vietnamese people have had to pay for the defeat of a workers' revolution in 1945 in the rule of a privileged Stalinist bureaucracy, implacably hostile to workers' democracy, and fighting wars against similar bureaucracies in China and Kampuchea in pursuit of their national self-interest.

The record of the CP leadership in the defeated 1945 revolution will fill every socialist fighter with resolve that the disastrous Stalinist policies of "two-stageism" and Popular Frontism must be rooted out of the workers' movement internationally, in order to prepare for the victory of workers' democracy and socialism in the new and greater battles that lie ahead.

First published in the South African Marxist magazine Inqaba Ya Basabenzi
September 1986 issue 20/21