REd Salute: Comrade Uncle Ho
In the late 1960s, the communists in Bengal allied with the left Congress to form a United Front government in the state. These were heady times for a region buffeted by two drought years, by the cataclysmic pressures of international finance, and down-wind from the U. S. bombardment of Vietnam. Nevertheless, the resoluteness of the Vietnamese struggle under the able leadership of Ho Chi Minh and his comrades (most famously General Vo Nguyen Giap) demanded solidarity from progressive forces around the world. The reds in Calcutta obliged. Since the U. S. and British consulates sat on the same street in the city, the red government gave the street Ho Chi Minh's name and placed his statue at its entry. The act was subversive, surrealistic, and also deeply conscious of the real power relations that govern the world (the consulates remain despite their new address). The reds did not blow-up the consulate, a quixotic and anti-people act that would not have changed much. Instead, they offered solidarity, they joined in a community of hard worn struggle against an adversary that cannot easily be thwarted.
I'm thinking of Ho Chi Minh today, because he died three decades ago on 4 September, six years before the U. S. withdrawal from Vietnam. He left the world as the U. S. dropped fifteen million tons of explosives from 1964 to 1972 (twice what was expended in World War II in all sectors). This act may not have broken the will of the Vietnamese fighters, but it certainly set back the possibility of Vietnam's rapid transition to socialism. I'm thinking of Ho Chi Minh today, because I feel frustrated by my comrades and friends in the U. S. who reserve a particular tone for their criticism of the attempt to build socialism within the formerly colonized world, regions that linger still in the realm of necessity. In the U.S. we allow ourselves to make sophisticated arguments based on the narrow terrain of maneuver -- even to champion someone so detached from political organization as Michael Moore or Warren Beatty! When it comes to Cuba, Vietnam, and West Bengal, we have no patience with the manifold difficulty faced by the communist movement. I agree with Amilcar Cabral who warned us in 1965 to 'tell no lies. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories.' Nevertheless, we should also not frown too earnestly when faced with the barren fields of formerly colonized countries, whose wealth allows us to be so genteel now.
Vietnam is a small independent country that ploughs the tough terrain of human society toward socialism. Within the country fierce debate continues over the nature of the path, particularly of the highly controversial Doi Moi (market socialism) regime enacted under IMF pressure in 1986. In a 1924 article, Ho Chi Minh noted that 'colonialism is a leech with two suckers, one of which sucks the metropolitan proletariat and the other that of the colonies. If we want to kill this monster, we must cut off both suckers at the same time. If only one is cut off, the other will continue to suck the blood of the proletariat, the animal will continue to live, and the cut-off sucker will grow again.' When we regard the Vietnam Revolution, perhaps we should tend to these words and recognize that the trials of the socialist experiment in places such as Vietnam have something to do with errors there, but also, and decisively, to do with our own inability to strike at capitalism's core.
Born in 1890, Ho Chi Minh left his country at age 21 to become a revolutionary. He traveled through Garvey's Harlem, Lenin's Moscow and Clara Zetkin's Paris. At the Fifth Congress of the Comintern (1924), Ho Chi Minh foreshadowed his role in South East Asia. 'The revolt of the colonial peasants is imminent. They have already risen in several colonies, but each time their rebellions have been drowned in blood. If they now seem resigned, that is solely for lack of organization and leadership. It is the duty of the Communist International to work toward that union.' Ho Chi Minh exercised a major role in uniting the left fractions in Vietnam and forging the party that would lead the liberation movement in the region. While he was not much of a theoretician, Ho Chi Minh certainly left a major anti-bureaucratic legacy in Vietnam. The theory of 'collective mastery' (lam chu tap the) was presented in his 1961 speech to the Second Congress of the Vietnam Workers' Party, a theory that urged people to 'work on their own initiative and own accord,' to take control of social relations. The 7th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (1991) reiterated its faith in the broad outlines of this policy.
Yes, Gabriel Kolko is right (in his 1997 <Vietnam: Anatomy of a Peace>) that the injustices against the Vietnamese people today are heinous if one remembers what was sacrificed by them. Their fight against imperialism seemed to promise so much, both to them and to us. How horrified we all became when we read of the South Korean subcontractor for Nike who slapped fifteen workers as punishment for poor work in April 1996. A supervisor at another South Korean firm topped this when she made 56 women run around the factory floor in March 1997 on International Women's Day. These stories made the front-page of the capitalist press. Meanwhile Nike's new age sweatshops in Bangladesh and Indonesia (among other places) did not find the spotlight although similar stories broke at the same time. East Timorese workers at Nike's PT HASI plant outside Jakarta face massive labor violations and Bangladeshi workers are routinely attacked by the police for making complaints against Nike's Youngone subcontractor. These capital collaborationist regimes did not even conduct routine investigations. Vietnam was forthright in its actions against such barbarism. When the 1997 story broke, the local government (of Dong Nai province, on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City) requested that the South Korean government compensate the women and charged the supervisor with abuse. Nguyen Dinh Thang of the Dong Nai Confederation of Labor warned, according to <Thanh Nien> (<Youth Newspaper>, 14 June 1997), that 'the union will bring pressure to bear on Nike and its contractors unless their labor practices are reformed. Companies looking to invest in Vietnam should expect wages there to increase in the future.' This response comes because the Vietnamese communists believe that the state 'has a very important role to play in establishing macroeconomic controls, regulating the market, preventing and tackling adverse occurrences, creating a normal environment and conditions for production-business activities, ensuring accommodation of economic growth with social justice and social progress' (1991 political report of the Communist Party). The entire policy of foreign investment has now come up for debate. In 1965 Che warned us that 'socialism is young and has its mistakes.'
To build socialism in the realm of necessity poses several challenges for which we have little theory. Vietnam (as with West Bengal) has conducted widespread land reforms, but it remains relatively underindustrialized and many enterprises are undercapitalized. To revive these sectors and to generate capital sums within the country, the Communists decided to draw in foreign investment and techniques. 'To change a basically localised and self-sufficient economy based on bureaucratic centralism and State subsidies into a mixed commodity economy operating according to a market system under State management is an absolutely correct and necessary option with a view to releasing and developing the productive potentialities of society. But it would be a mistake to assume that the market economy is a panacea. While being a stimulus to the development of production, the market economy also provides an environment for many social ills to flourish.' This is the Communist Party in its 1991 political report, and it indicts several of its own members for those 'social ills.' The key word here is 'necessary.' Hold onto that one
When Ho Chi Minh died three decades ago, the people of Vietnam chanted a famous slogan, Ho chu tich muon nam, 'May President Ho Live a Thousand Years!' I hope we will remember Comrade Uncle Ho not only for the war (and Ken Post's bold three volume work is must reading on that). Let us also remember him for the struggles in places like Vietnam, this while we, in the realm of freedom, are spared the burdens of history. Their 'necessity,' we might want to recall, is partly due to our 'freedom' (as Marx so nicely noted). Next time we feel like sneering at Vietnam, perhaps we should join up and raise hell at Debt, Inc. (also known as the IMF) -- our constraint on the will of the world's left.