The forgotten massacre of the Vietnamese Trotskyists

On demonstrations in the 1960s, it was common to hear marchers chanting “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, we will fight and we will win”, in honour of the Vietnamese Stalinist who led the fight against US occupation. The best sections of the left replied with their own rhyme — Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh — how many Trots did you do in?” They were referring to the mass murder of the Vietnamese Trotskyists by Stalinist forces in 1945. Sixty years on, the massacre has largely been forgotten.

The Vietnamese Trotskyists stood for independent working class politics against French and Japanese imperialists, the Stalinists and other nationalist forces. The butchering of these working class socialists, which paved the way for Ho Chi Minh’s rule, underlined the nature of Stalinist revolution in Vietnam which put a new ruling elite in power. The example of Vietnam shows why we must remain critical of even the most successful nationalist movements.

Background

From the 1880s Vietnam was part of the French empire in Asia, known as Indochina. Vietnam consisted of three separate states. In the north was Tonkin, with Hanoi its major city. Tonkin and Annam in the centre constituted a single French protectorate. In the south was Cochin China, a French colony centred on the city of Saigon.
The Indochinese Communist Party (PCI) was formed in 1930 under the leadership of Nguyen Ai Quoc, who would later take the name Ho Chi Minh.

The first Vietnamese Trotskyists were students living in France. In 1932 a permanent split took place among them. One group, led by Ta Thu Thau, was called the Struggle group. The other was known as the October group after its magazine.

Between 1933 and 1937 the Struggle group participated in a united front with the PCI and other Marxists, known as La Lutte (after the magazine they produced). They succeeded in getting La Lutte members, including Ta Thu Thau, elected to the Saigon municipal council.

The October group supported La Lutte but criticised the Struggle group for collaborating too closely with the PCI. The united front broke up after the PCI supported the Popular Front and backed the Moscow trials against the Trotskyists.

Both Trotskyist groups made considerable headway in the labour
movement. In 1937 the Fédération Syndicale du Name Ky was organised under Trotskyist leadership.

The Federation had active organisers in at least thirty-nine enterprises in Saigon and Cholon including the government arsenal plant, on the railways, the tramways, in the water and electric company, the petroleum company, several rice processing firms, pottery works, sugar refineries, distilleries and on the docks.

Trotskyists were the predominant force in the wave of strikes that took place in Cochin China in late 1936 and early 1937.

The Struggle Group continued to publish La Lutte in French and in 1939 published a Vietnamese language version Tranh Dau as well. In elections for the Cochin China Colonial Council in 1939 three Trotskyists of the Struggle Group, Ta Thu Thau, Tran Van Thach, and Phan Van Hum, got 80% of the total vote, beating Constitutionalists, Stalinists and others. In 1939 the group had around 3,000 members.

The October Group was also active. Its legal newspaper Le Militant was suppressed at the end of 1937 because of its support for strikes.

However, it began to publish October once again as “a semi-legal magazine” and also put out Tia Sang (Spark), first as a weekly and then at the beginning of 1939 as a daily newspaper.

At the outbreak of World War II the French colonial police arrested two hundred Stalinists and Trotskyists and drove their organisations underground.

1945

In March 1945, the Japanese, who had occupied French Indochina in 1940, dispensed with the puppet French administration they had maintained in place until then.

After the US dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered on 15 August. A vacuum opened up, triggering a revolutionary situation with several forces contesting for power.

In 1941 Ho Chi Minh convened a conference in China to form the Viet Minh (an abbreviation of Viet-nam dot-lap dong minh, The League for the Independence of Vietnam).

On 18 August the Vietminh took control of Hanoi and began organising its forces in the south. The Stalinist policy, determined by the wartime alliance between the USSR, France, Britain and the US, was to support the Allies as a road to “national liberation”.

The October Group was reconstituted as the International Communist League (LCI) in August 1944. It had several dozen members, though many were experienced cadres. The Struggle group was re-established in May-June 1945.

In Saigon the United National Front (UNF) took over after the Japanese surrender. The UNF consisted of nationalists such as the Party for the Independence of Vietnam, the Vanguard Youth and religious sects such as the Hoa Hao and the Cao Dai.

One myth, put about by the Stalinists and repeated since by academic historians, is that the Struggle group participated in the UNF.

However there is no evidence of this, either from documents issued by the UNF or from the LCI.

At the same time, workers went into struggle and peasants began uprisings. The high point was the creation of a working class commune in Tonkin province. According to LCI member and eyewitness Ngo Van: “The miners of Hoa-gay in Camphu district (a conurbation with a population of 300,000) rose in revolt, set up workers’ committees, and on that basis established a truly proletarian government. The workers took over the mines, tramways, railways and telegraph system, arrested the bosses and the police, and destroyed the local apparatus of the old imperialist state… All the means of production were placed under the direct control of a management committee elected by the workers themselves and completely controlled by them. The principle of equal pay for all levels of manual and intellectual work was put into effect. Public order was maintained by armed workers. During the three months of its existence (from the end of August until December 1945) this first proletarian government made mining production work normally, secured the economic life of the region, conducted an intensive struggle against illiteracy and brought in sickness benefit.”

The first peoples’ committees were organised in Saigon on 19 August.

The LCI was very active in establishing the committees to take power in local areas, organising over 150 in three weeks. A provisional central committee was set up to coordinate these peoples committees under Trotskyist leadership.

The LCI had its own printing shops and press, and every three hours its political directives were sent among the people in the form of communiqués.

According to LCI member and eyewitness Lu Sanh Hanh: “On 19 August, the workers of the Ban Co district of Saigon were the first to move into action and set up the first popular committee in the south. Some went out into the streets with army rifles they had stolen from the Japanese and hidden away for months. Others carried pistols of various and dubious origins.”

Meanwhile, the Struggle group extended their activities to the Hanoi region in the north. There they published a daily newspaper, Tranh Dau (Struggle) with a reported circulation of over 15,000.

On 21 August a demonstration of 300,000 people marched through Saigon. The Trotskyists called for arming of workers, a national assembly and for a “workers and peasants government”.

On 22 August the Stalinists in Saigon, led by Tran Van Giau told the UNF to dissolve. Members of the Vanguard Youth defected from the UNF to the Vietminh. On 25 August the Vietminh occupied the offices of the UNF and organised a huge demonstration in Saigon to consolidate their rule, extending its control over all three states of Vietnam.

On 2 September the Stalinists organised a demonstration to declare independence and, ironically, to welcome the arrival of Allied troops. Around 400,000 people marched in Saigon, only to be fired on by French colonists.

On 4 September the popular revolutionary committee in Saigon issued a call for the expropriation of the factories. On 6 September the Vietminh government unleashed a propaganda assault on the Trotskyists at the same time as British troops landed in Vietnam. The following day Tran Van Giau ordered all non-government organisations to be disarmed.

The Vietminh government had members of the popular committee in Saigon arrested. According to Lu Sanh Hanh: “On 14 September the Stalinist chief of police, Duong Bach Mai, sent an armed detachment to surround the headquarters of the committees when the assembly was in full session.

“We conducted ourselves as true revolutionary militants. We allowed ourselves to be arrested without violent resistance to the police, even though we outnumbered them and were all well armed. They took away our machine guns and pistols, and ransacked our headquarters, smashing furniture, tearing up our flags, stealing the typewriters and burning all our papers.”

The Saigon insurrection

During the night of 22-23 September 1945 French troops, supported by Gurkhas commanded by British officers, reoccupied various police stations, the post office, the central bank and the town hall in Saigon. Some French troops wanted to skin the Vietnamese alive “to make leather sandals”.

The news triggered off an insurrection in the working class districts of the town. Explosions were heard in widely separate areas. The movement broke out without any kind of direction.

According to Ngo Van, the rebels were not an homogenous group. They included members of the popular committees, the Vanguard Youth, religious sects and even “off line” groups of Stalinists.

Workers at the big tramway depot of Go Vap near Saigon, helped by the LCI, organised a 60-strong workers’ militia. The militia issued an appeal to the workers to arm themselves and to prepare for the struggle against British and French imperialism.

A truce was announced on 1 October. On 5 October General Leclerc, head of the French expeditionary force, arrived to “restore order” and to “build a strong Indochina within the French Union”. In the following months, the French took back control of Vietnam with the consent of the Vietminh.

In March 1946 Ho Chi Minh signed an agreement to welcome the French into the north and to reunify the country under French control. Only when the French reimposed direct colonial rule did the Vietminh start the fight for independence that would eject the French in 1954 and the US in 1975.

Repression

The Stalinists fought to erode the power of popular committees that sprang up spontaneously in urban areas. They were able to impose themselves by nationalist demagogy, by force of arms and through the murders carried out by their secret police, the Ty Cong-Au.

The Vietminh did not tolerate any tendency that dared formulate the least criticism of it. It dealt with such tendencies by physically liquidating them. Militants from the Struggle group were the first victims of the Stalinist terror, despite their proclamations of “critical support to the Vietminh government”.

Ta Thu Thau was killed in circumstances that have still not been clarified. Tran Van Thach, Nguyen Van So, Nguyen Van Tien and other workers were murdered at Kien-an on 23 October 1945. Phan Van Hum and Phan Van Chanh “disappeared” somewhere in the areas controlled by the guerrillas in Cochin China and Nguyen Thi Loi was murdered at Binh Dang (Cholon) in October 1945. Le Ngoc and Nguyen Van Ky, members of the LCI, were tortured to death by the Ty Cong-Au at the beginning of 1946. Other LCI members such as Hinh thai Thong were disembowelled and buried in a mass grave with hundreds of others.

The miners’ commune in the Tonkin region was disbanded by the troops of Ho Chi Minh’s provisional government and the workers’ councils smashed. In the countryside, the Vietminh restored land occupied by peasants to its original owners.

Ho Chi Minh's bloody role

Ho Chi Minh was the leading Stalinist in Vietnam for nearly four decades, heading the movement in Hanoi from 1945 until his death in 1969. He was the intellectual author of the murder of the Vietnamese Trotskyists, if not the actual executioner.

In 1939 he wrote three letters that prepared the ground for the murders. He described the Trotskyists as “a band of criminals”, “running dogs of fascism” and “the most infamous traitors and spies” (10 May 1939). He went on to tell PCI members that Trotskyists were “collaborating with the invaders” and “sabotaging the movement” (7 July 1939). He claimed that they were receiving $100,000 a month from the Japanese. In a report written at the same time he said that the Trotskyists “must be politically exterminated”.

In October 1945, the PCI paper published in Hanoi said: “The Trotskyist bands must be put down immediately” and in February 1946 the interior minister said: “Those who have pushed the peasants into taking over the estates will be punished without pity.”

When Ho Chi Minh was in Paris at the end of 1945 the French Trotskyist Rodolphe Prager asked him about how and why the Vietnamese Trotskyists had been killed. He said that it had been done by local Vietminh officials under conditions in which it was impossible for those in Hanoi to control what all of the local leaders were doing.

And during this same trip Ho Chi Minh told French socialist Daniel Guerin, who also made enquiries about Ta Thu Thau: “All who do not follow the line laid down by me will be broken.”

In the official history of the period, The August Revolution (1960), Ho Chi Minh’s regime admitted that they had to “expose the saboteurs” and had to “arrest the leaders of the Trotskyist band”.

Further information

Thanks to Simon Pirani, who has made important materials on Vietnam and Trotskyism available in English, for comments and corrections on this article. An excellent account by a participant is Ngo Van’s Revolutionaries They Could Not Break, (Index 1995). Some materials on Vietnamese Trotskyism are available on the web – particularly on the Revolutionary History website www.revolutionary-history.co.uk and the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line, part of the Marxists website www.marxists.org

Postscript: Vietnam and Iraq

Many activists and commentators compare the situation in Iraq today with Vietnam in the late 1960s. Whatever similarities there might be, key differences stand out. Firstly Ho Chi Minh did lead a genuine national liberation movement, whereas the so-called resistance in Iraq is sectarian (i.e. based on religious and/or local affiliations). More importantly, the worker’s movement in Vietnam was virtually non-existent (mainly because off repression) – whereas there is a burgeoning labour movement in Iraq today. There is also marked differences on the left.

Flashback. Conway Hall, 13 September 1969 at a memorial meeting held after the death of Ho Chi Minh. Prominent member of the International Socialists (now SWP) Chris Harman to his credit denounced the murder of the Vietnamese Trotskyists. The representative of the North Vietnam regime stormed out.

Fast forward. Imagine. John Rees chairs a meeting for Moqtada Al-Sadr at the Friends Meeting House, with Saddam-admiring Galloway hailing the “heroic” Iraqi resistance. A prominent AWLer gets up and denounces the Mahdi Army and the Islamists for the murder of Iraqi socialists, trade unionists and students. She chastises the SWP for abandoning independent working class politics. Galloway and Al Sadr storm off the stage.