The victory of Hanoi

01

Dec
2021

Vietnamese politics and the Popular Front

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During the prolonged suppression of the Vietnamese Nationalist Party and the Nghe-Tinh Soviets, Vietnamese students and young professionals in France organized protest demonstrations, resulting in many of their leaders being arrested and expelled back to Indochina or evading arrest and escaping back to Indochina. Most of these had participated in the Jeune Annam movement of the mid 1920s and had gone to France to avoid French measures against student unrest following Phan Chu Trinh’s death in 1926. Many became communists while in France. Some adhered to the French Communist Party and a few of these returned to Vietnam via Moscow and the Comintern network. Others became followers of Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), the Bolshevik leader whom Stalin expelled from public life in 1927 and forced into exile in 1929. Trotsky opposed the bureaucratic and regimented version of state government and international revolution espoused by Stalin and the Comintern. He proposed a radical faith in  the masses to ignite and sustain revolution in a less disciplined, more spontan- eous, and more open-ended way than was the Stalinist style of strict obedience to  party leaders. In the 1930s, Vietnamese Trotskyists became a driving force in Cochinchinese politics with their emphasis on propagandizing and organizing among workers in plantations, factories, shipyards, railyards, and arsenals. Trotskyists first appeared in Cochinchina in 1932, just in time to experience the wave of arrests that snared Tran Phu and other communist leaders as the  Nghe-Tinh Soviets were being shut down. Resistant to party discipline, Trotsky- ists tended toward the leadership of either Ta Thu Thau (1906–1945) or Ho Huu  Tuong (1910–1980), both of whom had been politicized in France. While Ta Thu Thau was willing to cooperate with Stalinists to advance his political program, Ho Huu Tuong believed that the Indochinese Communist Party could not be trusted to place revolutionary priorities above either the national interests of the Soviet Union or the temptation to make alliances with class enemies. Most Trotskyists maintained informal working relationships with each other while Ta Thu Thau was willing to do the same with Stalinists, which was facilitated by the disarray of the Stalinist party. By the end of 1932, the Indochinese Communist Party had lost most of its leadership and no longer had a functioning network of command. Nguyen Van Tao (1908–1970), a member of the French Communist Party and an adherent of the Comintern, had been expelled from France in 1930 and became a close associate of Ta Thu Thau, as did Duong Bach Mai (1905–1964), who in 1932 arrived in Saigon from France via a three-year sojourn in Moscow. Ta Thu Thau was also willing to work with non-communist nationalists such as Tran Van Thach (1903–?), who was expelled from France with Nguyen Van Tao and eventually became a  Trotskyist by the late 1930s, and with independent revolutionaries and anarch- ists such as Nguyen An Ninh. In the spring of 1933, elections to the Saigon  Municipal Council provided a focus for cooperation. The electorate for these elections was small and restricted to Vietnamese already having some connection to the colonial government. Nevertheless, Ta Thu Thau and his associates put forward a “workers’ list” of candidates and briefly published a French-language newspaper called La Lutte (Struggle) to rally support for it. Two members of this Struggle Group, Tran Van Thach and Nguyen Van Tao, were elected. They were not allowed to take their council seats, but their election indicated a sense of alienation from the French regime felt even by Vietnamese most closely associated with it. The Vietnamese electorate  was familiar with the racist discrimination, arrogance, and brutality that per- vaded the colonial regime, and La Lutte aroused their intolerance of injustice.  Furthermore, the Struggle Group spoke for a wider spectrum of the population than did other politically active Vietnamese. Previously, men closely associated  with French interests had dominated Cochinchinese elections until the Constitu- tionalists rose to prominence in the mid 1920s as a kind of loyal opposition. But,  Constitutionalists had limited appeal because of their élitism. Furthermore, in the  early 1930s, they began to break into factions based on personality and gener- ational change, with younger men believing that their senior colleagues had  become susceptible to corruption and were too comfortable in the French embrace. The Struggle Group disbanded after the election, but in the autumn of 1934, partly through the efforts of Nguyen An Ninh, it was reconstituted with an eye toward elections in 1935, and the newspaper La Lutte began to be published  regularly. In the Cochinchina Colonial Council elections of March 1935, can- didates supported by the Struggle Group received 17 percent of the vote,  although none was elected. However, two months later, in the Saigon Munici- pal Council elections, four of six candidates on the “workers’ list” were elected:  Tran Van Thach, Nguyen Van Tao, Ta Thu Thau, and Duong Bach Mai. Of these, only Tran Van Thach, ostensibly not a communist, was allowed to take his seat. By this time, the leftward shift of French politics was becoming palpable in Indochina. The French Communist Party began to cooperate with the French Socialist Party, and visiting parliamentary delegations included communists, who spoke in favor of labor legislation and an amnesty for political prisoners. In the summer of 1935, reflecting Stalin’s concern about the rise of fascism, the Seventh  Comintern Congress in Moscow called on communist parties to join with anti- fascists to form “popular front” governments. In the French elections of May  1936 a Popular Front government led by the French Socialist Party was voted into power. This government included many politicians who were critical of colonial policies and a parliamentary Committee of Inquiry was established with plans for fact-finding visits to the colonies. Announcement of the Committee of Inquiry prompted a campaign to organize a congress in Saigon to formulate proposals to present to the committee when it arrived. Prominent leaders of this so-called “democracy movement” included members of the Struggle Group as well as Constitutionalists. However, when the Struggle Group began to organize “action committees” at localities throughout Cochinchina to select delegates to the Congress, many Constitutionalists abandoned the movement, believing that it was becoming too radical. The upsurge of activity surrounding the “action committees” and plans for the proposed congress unnerved colonial authorities. In September 1936 the French announced that the Committee of Inquiry would not come to Indochina after all and all further planning for the congress was banned. In the same month, a new governor general arrived in Indochina. Joseph Jules Brévié (1889–1964) had just served for six years as Governor General of French West Africa. He had a reputation among colonial administrators as a liberal, which apparently recommended him to the Popular Front government. During his tenure, progressive labor legislation was enacted, amnesties released hundreds  of political prisoners, and there was a general loosening of censorship and restric- tions on political activity. The Indochinese Communist Party was revived by the  release of prisoners, by new leadership arriving with fresh instructions from Moscow, and by the opportunity to openly operate as a legal organization. However, the popular front policy of the Comintern meant that the Indochinese Communist Party was now allied with the French colonial regime against the fascist threat, which seemed remote in Indochina, and this caused a certain amount of confusion and consternation in anti-colonial ranks. The rebuilding of party discipline under the watchful eye of the French Communist Party also brought an end to Stalinist participation in the Struggle Group. The Struggle Group held together through the May 1937 Saigon Municipal Council elections, in which three of its members were elected: Ta Thu Thau, Nguyen Van Tao, and Duong Bach Mai. Thereafter, the Stalinists withdrew into the ranks of their own party. At this time, Stalinists established a strong position  in Tonkin, where there were few Trotskyists. There, they were leaders in investi- gative journalism and labor organization.  In Cochinchina, the Trotskyists prospered during the Popular Front era of relatively open politics. In the Cochinchina Colonial Council elections of April 1939, the Trotskyist slate of candidates won 80 percent of the vote, defeating Constitutionalists, Stalinists, and others. Trotskyist electoral strength in the south reflected their flexible attitude toward authority and their emphasis on issues affecting the livelihood of large numbers of people. By the late 1930s,  Vietnamese voters in Cochinchina had abandoned the Constitutionalists. Trot- skyists were successful in elections not because voters favored communism but  rather because their firm stand against the injustices of the colonial situation was popular.

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