Seventy years ago this month, on September 2 in Hanoi, the Vietminh, led by Ho Chi Minh, issued the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Ho was little known in the West then, but by the 1960s his name was chanted by demonstrators the world over, for whom he became a symbol of the Third World’s will and ability to stand up to American imperialism.
In an earlier era, he was known as Nguyen-Ai-Quoc, the beneficiary of a privileged education who purportedly said that as soon as he heard the slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” he wanted to see France. But colonial law forbade native Vietnamese from leaving the country; the only way he could get to Europe was by taking a job on a ship. He travelled first to London, then Paris.
Nguyen’s earliest contacts on arriving in France seem to have been with the syndicalist left. He visited the Librairie du travail, a labor bookstore, at what had been the offices of La Vie ouvrière, a revolutionary syndicalist paper by Pierre Monatte and Alfred Rosmer, who had been some of the most consistent internationalists from the first day of World War I.
He went on to join the French Socialist Party (SFIO), which was in the midst of an intense debate to decide whether it should affiliate with the newly formed Communist International, created in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.
The SFIO met in congress at Tours in December 1920 to make its decision. The Congress voted to affiliate, becoming the French Communist Party (PCF), with a socialist minority splitting away out of an aversion to the perceived dominance of the Russian Bolsheviks in the Communist International.
Nguyen spoke as a delegate, telling those assembled how his homeland was “shamefully oppressed and exploited,” as well as being “poisoned” by alcohol and opium. Prisons were more numerous than schools, and freedom of the press did not exist. He urged that “the Party must make socialist propaganda in all the colonies” and concluded with the appeal: “Comrades, save us!”
He was applauded, but he clearly touched a number of sore nerves. He was interrupted twice. On the first occasion, Jean Longuet, Karl Marx’s grandson, called out to defend his own reputation: “I have intervened to defend natives!” A little later, when an unnamed delegate heckled, Nguyen responded with a cutting “Silence, parliamentarians!”
Nguyen’s words had a special weight, since one condition of the party’s affiliation required Communist parties to
expose the tricks and dodges of “its” imperialists in the colonies, to support every colonial liberation movement not merely in words but in deeds, to demand the expulsion of their own imperialists from these colonies, to inculcate among the workers of their country a genuinely fraternal attitude to the working people of the colonies and the oppressed nations, and to carry on systematic agitation among the troops of their country against any oppression of the colonial peoples.
One way in which the PCF tried to implement its new policy was by finding ways of relating to the large number of colonial subjects.
It is estimated that between 1914 and 1918, up to 900,000 men from the colonies were drawn into the European conflict — over half a million soldiers, at least 250,000 from North Africa and many thousands more from Indochina, plus some 220,000 workers. The PCF established an organization for those of colonial origin living in France, the Union inter-coloniale (UIC Intercolonial Union), and in April 1922 began a publication Le Paria to be edited by Nguyen-Ai-Quoc.
Le Paria was somewhat scruffy and clearly underfinanced, and its circulation was always low. Nonetheless it brought together a small but dedicated group of comrades committed to the anti-imperialist struggle. These included not only Nguyen-Ai-Quoc, but also a young North African, Hadjali Abdelkader, who stood as an election candidate for the party in 1924.
In the course of the campaign, he recruited a factory worker named Messali Hadj. Together they founded the Étoile Nord-Africaine, the first organization to demand Algerian independence, from which the FLN (National Liberation Front) of the 1950s was ultimately descended.
Le Paria thus sowed at least some of the seeds of the two great wars of national liberation which were to dominate French politics in the two decades following World War II. Thirty-six issues of Le Paria appeared between 1922 and 1926, usually printed on a single large-format sheet, its heading flanked by Chinese and Arabic characters.
The main concern of the paper was the situation in France’s colonial empire. Nguyen-Ai-Quoc wrote of the “incredible cruelty” of a “sadistic functionary” in the colonial administration, and contrasted the barbarity of France’s colonial practice with the traditional imagery of republican politics.
Evoking the feminine figure of Marianne, who since the French Revolution had been seen as the personification of the Republic, he wrote:
There is a painful irony in observing that civilization, symbolized in its various forms — liberty, justice, etc. — by the gentle image of woman, and arranged by a category of men who are reputed to be champions in politeness towards ladies, should make the living emblem suffer the most ignoble treatment and attack her shamefully in her behavior, her modesty and her very life.
Equal attention was given to the struggle for political liberties, notably freedom of the press, and there was a protest against the postal service interfering with correspondence to Le Paria. The paper encouraged various campaigns, in particular protesting the visit to Paris of the emperor of Annam, Kaï Dinh.
Le Paria only rarely raised the demand for independence for the colonial territories. The main thrust of the paper’s demands was for an end to repression and brutality in the colonies and for the colonial populations to have equal rights with the citizens of metropolitan France.
To this end, unity between the working classes of Europe and Indochina was encouraged. In a May 1922 article for the PCF daily paper, L’Humanité, Nguyen-Ai-Quoc recognized the depth of ignorance and prejudice that existed among both metropolitan and colonial workers.
After quoting Lenin on the need for metropolitan workers to assist struggles in subject nations, he observed sadly: “Unfortunately there are still many militants who think a colony is nothing but a country full of sand with the sun shining down; a few green coconut trees and some colored men, and that’s all.”
Meanwhile, most colonial inhabitants were either repelled by the idea of Bolshevism or identified it purely with nationalism. As for the educated minority, they might understand what communism meant, but they had no interest in seeing it established; “like the dog in the fable, they prefer to wear a collar and have their bit of bone.”
Hence he argued:
From the mutual ignorance of the two proletariats prejudices are born. For the French worker, the native is an inferior being, insignificant, incapable of understanding and even less of acting. For the native the French — whoever they may be — are all wicked exploiters. Imperialism and capitalism do not fail to take advantage of this reciprocal distrust and this artificial racial hierarchy to obstruct propaganda and to divide forces which ought to unite.
And he concluded: “In face of these difficulties what should the Party do? Intensify propaganda in order to overcome them.”
Thus Le Paria argued for unity between metropolitan and colonial workers. In an August 1922 “Appeal to the Colonial Populations,” it urged: “In face of capitalism and imperialism, our interests are the same; remember Karl Marx’s words; Workers of all countries unite.” In the next issue, Max Clainville-Bloncourt insisted: “Colonial brothers, it is indispensable for you to realize that there is no possible salvation for you outside of the conquest of political power in Europe by the laboring masses.”
This message mainly reached the colonies. Its initial print run seems to have been 1,000, rising only to 3,000. The majority of these went to the colonies; out of 2,000 copies just 500 stayed in France, while 500 went to Madagascar, 400 to Dahomey, 200 to the Maghreb, 100 to Oceania, and 200 to Indochina.
Since the distribution was clandestine, and copies were frequently seized by the authorities, it is hard to know how widely the paper was in fact distributed. But Le Paria certainly did succeed in building up an enthusiastic team of activists who carried the paper despite the relative apathy of the wider layers of PCF membership.
Le Paria virtually disappeared after September 1925, with just one final issue in April 1926. There were growing conflicts between the party’s tiny colonial cadre and the bureaucratic apparatus. Slowly but surely the enthusiastic and courageous cadre that had built Le Paria were dispersed. Nguyen-Ai-Quoc/Ho Chi Minh was whisked off to Moscow in 1923 and before long embraced the dominant Stalinist, official Communist line.
The spirit of proletarian internationalism that informed the small band of pioneers around Le Paria disappeared along with Ho Chi Minh, cementing the French left’s uneven relationship with imperialism.
Nowhere was this clearer than in Southeast Asia. French Indochina was first formed in October 1887, after the Sino-French War. One of the architects of the colonization was Jules Ferry, prime minister until 1885. Ferry was an overt racist who told the National Assembly in 1885, “We must say openly that superior races . . . have a duty to civilize inferior races.”
His other notable achievement was the establishment of free, compulsory, and secular education in France. Though this is sometimes seen as part of the heritage of the Left, it was all part of his imperial aspirations. If France was to become a great imperial power, it would need an army, largely composed of peasants, with a strong sense of national identity.
During World War II Indochina was ruled by a French colonial administration controlled by the pro-German Vichy régime, which made an agreement with Japan in 1940. In 1945 Japan occupied the territory. After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan quickly surrendered. This took the Allies somewhat by surprise; they had expected the war to continue into 1946.
Initially, it was not France that reoccupied Vietnam, but Britain, itself governed by a Labour government. It was decided at the Potsdam conference in July 1945 that Chinese forces would occupy the northern part of Indochina, and British troops would occupy the southern half.
France was still recovering from four years of occupation and needed time to reorganize its armed forces. French troops started leaving for Indochina (by ship) only in October. British forces, making use of recently defeated Japanese troops, intervened to ensure that France would be able to reclaim its colony.
Charles de Gaulle, who headed France’s 1945 provisional government, captured the postwar momentum in his broadcast announcing the founding of the Fourth Republic:
Our ports are reopening. Our fields are being ploughed. Our ruins are being cleared away. Almost all who left France have returned. We are recovering our Empire. We are established on the Rhine. We are taking back our place in the world.
The leftist parties that dominated the government — Communists, Socialists, and Christian Democrats — made no visible opposition to de Gaulle’s imperialist exhortations. Indeed, as late as 1947, after full-scale war had broken out, Communist ministers respected cabinet discipline by voting for war credits (though Communist deputies showed their opposition by abstaining).
An Indochinese delegate who visited France in 1946 reported a meeting with Communist leader Maurice Thorez at which the latter declared his party “had no intention of being considered as the potential liquidator of French positions in Indochina and that he ardently wished to see the French flag flying in all corners of the French Union.”
The Socialist Party was equally keen to preserve the empire. Veteran leader Léon Blum favored the formula of recognizing Vietnam as a “free state within the French Union,” but he justified it with a rhetoric that was very much that of imperialism: “There is one means, and one alone, of preserving in Indochina the prestige of our civilization, our political and spiritual influence, and also those of our legitimate material interests, and that is a sincere agreement on the basis of independence.”
The Indochina war began in 1946 under Blum’s premiership, partly because he had failed to challenge the French military leadership that made war inevitable.
Only smaller currents on the Left opposed the recolonization of Indochina. On December 22, 1945, the independent left paper Franc-Tireur published a vigorous attack on French foreign policy, citing a letter from a French soldier that compared French actions in Indochina to the massacre at Oradour, one of the worst atrocities during the Nazi occupation of France.
A number of factors affected the French left’s failure to oppose the reestablishment of the French Empire, including the Communist Party’s loyalty to Russia, which at that point did not wish to rock the boat by challenging Western imperialism.
But the main one was the republican tradition that dominated French political thinking, especially on the Left. This encouraged the notion that France’s role in the world was a progressive one, bringing civilization and enlightenment to more benighted territories — the so-called “civilizing mission.”
It was believed that inhabitants of the colonial world could and should aspire to nothing more than being citizens of the French Republic. It is interesting to contrast this with the more pragmatic approach of even the British postwar Labour government, which accepted Indian independence; France clung onto Indochina and Algeria until it was driven out by prolonged and bitter independence struggles.
The rest of the story is well known. The French fought to hold on to Indochina, before finally being defeated at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Vietnam was partitioned, but American involvement propping up its South Vietnamese ally led to a further war. Only in 1975 did Vietnam finally achieve independence after three decades of war had left some two million dead.
Could things have been different? Such speculation is always difficult, but if the French left in 1945 had been true to the authentically internationalist principles for which the young Ho Chi Minh had fought in the early 1920s, history might have taken a less tragic course.