Triumph and disillusion: Vietnam 1975

Submitted by AWL on 12 May, 2015 - 5:48 Author: Martin Thomas

Just over forty years ago, on 30 April 1975, the Vietnam war ended. The Stalinist National Liberation Front swept into Saigon, and the US Embassy was hurriedly evacuated by helicopter from its roof. Two and a half weeks earlier, on 12 April 1975, the Cambodian Stalinists had triumphed, seizing the capital, Phnom Penh.

For the previous ten years or more, big demonstrations against the US war in Vietnam had been a major route by which tens of thousands of young people came into revolutionary socialist politics.

The demonstrators not only denounced the corruption and authoritarianism of the various tinpot dictators of South Vietnam, propped up entirely by US power. They not only solidarised with young people in the USA who did not want to be conscripted to fight in Vietnam. They not only indicted the brutality of the US war, epitomised by US commanders’ comment that in Vietnam they “had to destroy a city to save it”, and in Cambodia they were “bombing the country back into the Stone Age”.

They made all those protests, and rightly. But the demonstrators also felt that they were identifying with proof that courageous struggle by poor people, with small resources, could defeat the huge power of the world plutocracy.

A popular slogan on the demonstrations coupled applause for North Vietnamese dictator Ho Chi Minh with a celebration of militancy: “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh/ We shall fight and we shall win”.

By 1973 the US had already given up on victory in Vietnam. It signed a peace deal calling for the withdrawal of US forces. After an uneasy lull, the forces aligned with the Vietnamese Communist Party swept through the South in 1975. Triumph!

And then... Within four years the CP regime in Cambodia had killed about two million people, by forced evacuations from the cities, starvation and forced labour, and political mass murder.

The bloodshed was stemmed only by an invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 by the Vietnamese government, which introduced a more “normal” Stalinist regime into Cambodia.

From Vietnam itself something over a million fled as “boat people”, preferring to risk their lives in rickety boats on the ocean than to stay under the police state established after the CP victory. Most of the “boat people” fled after 1978 when, with increasing conflict between China and Vietnam, life became very difficult for the large Chinese minority in Vietnam. China and Vietnam fought a border war in February-March 1979.

Already, before then, the Stalinist regime in south Vietnam had jailed something like one million people without formal charge or trials, and maybe over 150,000 people had died in “re-education camps”.

And then again... From 1986 the Vietnamese CP government abandoned its socialist pretences and switched to a policy oriented to the capitalist world market and to drawing in foreign investment, while maintaining its Stalinist regime.

There is no way of exactly measuring the impact of all this on the activists in the West which had been brought into politics through demonstrations over Vietnam, on their morale or on their ability to speak convincingly to workers who reasonably concluded that a moderated capitalism would be better than Stalinist horrors. But after 1975 many thousands of would-be revolutionary activists scattered, lapsed into inactivity or moved to the right politically. Italy, for example, had three large revolutionary-left organisations (with daily papers, TV stations, and tens of thousands of activists) in 1975. All were “soft-Maoist”. They saw themselves as anti-Stalinist, but also saw China’s Cultural Revolution and the Vietnamese Communist Party’s militancy against US imperialism as models of liberatory revolutionary action.

By 1980 all had collapsed or dwindled into rump groups. The brutal exposure by events of the naivety and credulity of those “soft Maoists” cannot but have been a big factor in it.

The American author Susan Sontag’s comment in 1982 sums it up: “Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest [a notoriously crude, right-wing, ‘Cold War’ magazine] between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or the New Statesman [leftish news magazines]. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause”.

Enthusiasm for the courage of the Vietnamese CP had been pretty much universal on the activist left, and not just among “soft Maoists”. The Mandelite current called the Vietnamese CP “empirical revolutionaries”. The SWP-UK, then called IS, theoretically held that North Vietnam was state-capitalist, but in practice was only slightly less enthusiastic than the Mandelites. The “state-capitalist” label meant only something like: “What can be achieved by struggle in Vietnam is good, but, because Vietnam is small and poor, limited. Proper socialism can be achieved only in richer countries”. SWP/IS activists would join the chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh/ We shall fight and we shall win”.

Some “orthodox Trotskyists” said that the Vietnamese Communist Party was Stalinist. This description, however, mostly meant a “theoretical” (and sectarian-pedantic-sounding) insistence that the Vietnamese CP could not be trusted to fight the Americans adequately and might compromise.

Could a hearing have been won for a stance of opposing the US war, and recognising the indomitable character of th Stalinists’ battle against US imperialism, but simultaneously denouncing Vietnamese Stalinism as a regime of brutal oppression of the people by an exploitative ruling group, and supporting Vietnamese workers and peasants against both the US and Stalinism?

Yes. After the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which even the British and Italian CPs condemned, and twelve years after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, awareness of the hideous nature of Stalinist rule was fairly widespread. The facts about the regime in North Vietnam were not difficult to find.

But nobody argued that “Third Camp” view clearly. We — the forerunners of AWL, then Workers’ Fight — didn’t do it even halfway adequately.

Despite our sharp hostility to Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe, our mistaken “inherited” theoretical formula that the Stalinist states were “degenerated and deformed workers’ states” misled us into thinking that revolutionary Stalinists fighting US imperialism — as the Vietnamese were clearly doing — must be achieving some sort of social progress.

And we allowed ourselves to be morally intimidated by the feeling that we owed solidarity to “revolutionary nationalists” fighting the allies of our own government, and must limit criticisms and warnings so as not to complicate that solidarity too much.

We wrote:

“The programme of the active democracy of workers’ councils still remains to be fought for in Indochina — and the Communist Parties will fight not for, but against, that programme. Workers’ democracy is not just some ideal, inessential finishing touch — it is vital for any concept of socialism beyond a miserable bureaucratic-reformist level.

“Those, like the International Marxist Group (Red Weekly) [“Mandelites”, forerunners of Socialist Resistance today in Britain and the NPA in France] who present the NLF and the Khmer Rouge as revolutionary proletarian forces (with perhaps various political weaknesses and confusions) are gravely abusing the elementary programme of workers’ power. To say that one should not disdain to recognise a revolution because it doesn’t fit the ‘norms’ is one thing; to chop those ‘norms’ down to miserable proportions for the sake of fitting the accomplished fact, is another.

“The effect is that concepts simply lose all precise meaning. The NLF or the Khmer Rouge can be characterised as proletarian, working class forces neither on the reality of their politics, nor on the reality of their social base, but only through the most metaphysical constructions.

“Also in IS’s Socialist Worker... we find a quite uncritical assessment of the revolutionary victories in Indochina. Given that IS has the theory that countries like North Vietnam, or the Soviet Union, are ‘state capitalist’, one would expect razor-sharp criticism of the aspirant ‘state capitalist classes’ of South Vietnam and Cambodia. Not a word of it! The term ‘state capitalism’ does not even appear in IS’s reportage on Indochina” (Workers’ Fight 94, 28 April 1975).

We sought out and circulated the views of the exile Vietnamese Trotskyists.

“After 1954 the VCP shifted from traditional Stalinist positions above all under the pressure of imperialism, fearing to lose their contact with the masses. They mobilise the masses, even including the working class — within bureaucratic limits, and not permitting the autonomy of the working class. Comrades who have been in Vietnam tell us that the VCP is now trying to base itself on the poorest elements in the villages — all within the limits of bureaucratic control. There is discontent among the petty bourgeoisie in Saigon who have found their privileges curtailed, who find for example that students from poor backgrounds have preference for entry to university over students from more prosperous backgrounds...

“But we affirm that... a political revolution is necessary. A bureaucracy existed even during the war, though its privileges in absolute terms were slight. It will solidify with economic reconstruction...

“[About Cambodia] it is difficult to get information. But it appears to be another case of the tragic results of the policy of ‘socialism in one country’. They are trying to build a sort of agrarian socialism”. (International Communist magazine, no.7, March 1978).

We pointed out repeatedly that North Vietnam lacked any democracy, and that any socialist programme in Vietnam would find a resolute enemy, not a friend, in the Communist Party. But we did not draw adequate conclusions from that. We let those conclusions be smothered by “solidarity” against the USA, and the vague (but left-consensus) belief that Stalinist victory would bring a sort of social progress despite its bad political regime.

Learning the lessons of the left’s mistakes then is an important part of building an adequate left now. We were more critical at the time than other would-be Trotskyists; but our self-distancing from the general left “consensus” about Vietnam was too timid.