In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary

By Ngô Văn Xuyết

Revolt Library Anarchism In the Crossfire

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(1913 - 2005)

Vietnamese Revolutionary and Advocate of Peasants and Workers

Ngô Văn Xuyết (Tan Lo, near Saigon, 1913–Paris, 1 January 2005), alias Ngô Văn was a Vietnamese revolutionary who chronicled labor and peasant insurrections caught "in the crossfire" between the French and the Indochinese Communist Party of Nguyễn Ái Quốc (Ho Chi Minh). As a Trotskyist militant in the 1930s, Ngô Văn helped organize Saigon's waterfront and factories in defiance of the Party's "Moscow line" which sought to engage indigenous employers and landowners in a nationalist front and the French in an "anti-fascist", anti-Japanese, alliance. When, after 1945, further challenges to the Party met with a policy of targeted assassination, Ngô Văn went into exile. In Paris experiences shared with anarchist and Poumista refugees from the Spanish Civil War suggested " new radical perspectives." Drawn into the Council Communist circles of Maximilien Rubel and Henri Simon, Ngô Văn "permanently dis...

(1945 - )

Ken Knabb (born 1945) is an American writer, translator, and radical theorist, known for his translations of Guy Debord and the Situationist International. His own English-language writings, many of which were anthologized in Public Secrets , have been translated into over a dozen additional languages. He is also a respected authority on the political significance of Kenneth Rexroth. (From:


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Although the Vietnam War is still well known, few people are aware of the decades of struggles against the French colonial regime that preceded it, many of which had no connection with the Stalinists (Ho Chi Minh’s Communist Party). The Stalinists were ultimately victorious, but only after they systematically destroyed all the other oppositional currents. This book is the story of those other movements and revolts, caught in the crossfire between the French and the Stalinists, told by one of the few survivors. Introduction “History is written by the victors.” With the increasing spectacularization of modern society, this truism has become truer than ever. The most radical revolts are not only physically crushed, they are falsified, trivialized, and buried under a constant barrage of superficial and ephemeral bits of “information,” to the point that most people do not even know they happened. (From :

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Ngo Van, Relayer of Living History Ngo Van lived through almost the entire twentieth century (1912–2005) and his life and work are intimately intertwined with the revolutionary hopes and conflicts of that century. In his writings he speaks not as an academically “neutral” historian, but as a participant actively engaged in the events he recounts; not as a “party spokesperson,” but as a humble individual struggling alongside so many other anonymous, unknown persons, the “wretched of the earth” who are also the salt of the earth, fraternal, generous and inventive. With them he experiences those sublime moments when people unite to attack the sources of their exploitation and enslavement; when they break through the bounds of the “possible” and strive to create a life worthy of their deepest dreams and aspirations. With them he also experiences the merciless repression the established powers invariably... (From :

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I. In The Land of the Cracked Bell Preface “The only historians I trust are those who risk getting their throats cut” (Pascal). Considering the present “Socialist” Republic of Vietnam and its official history, which is uncritically accepted virtually everywhere, I cannot read this maxim without a strong sense of how narrowly I managed to survive. In Vietnam 1920–1945: révolution et contre-révolution sous la domination coloniale, I attempted to rescue that period from oblivion — a period that was marked not only by the struggle against colonial imperialism, but also by movements striving instinctively for an internationalist social revolution, movements that refused to subordinate themselves to the dictates of Stalinist Russia. In the present text I am going to speak as a direct witness of that period. Most of the others who took part in that struggle, if they were not mass... (From :

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Chapter 1: Arrest That afternoon, Wednesday, June 10, 1936, Lu Sanh Hanh came to my workplace on the floor above the Descours & Cabaud metal products store to discuss our call for a general strike and for forming action committees. I had hidden a red cotton banner above the shelves at the back of the store, but had not yet finished painting the slogans in white. Around five o’clock, two Frenchmen suddenly appeared. Lu Sanh Hanh recognized one of them. ”The Sûerté!” he hissed and raced down the stairs four at a time. “Put on your coat and follow me,” one of the policemen snapped at me. “We have a warrant for your arrest.” I put on my jacket and descended the stairs, flanked by the two policemen. On the ground floor, the astonished stares of workers, salesmen and coolies followed us to the door. In their haste, the cops hadn’t noticed the mi... (From :

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Chapter 2: Childhood Great-Lady departs, a pair of deadly serpents accompany Her. Great-Lady returns, a pair of black dragons escort Her. I think my prison companions felt the same as I did: prison life, however intense, seems to suspend time, encouraging inmates to look back at their past, at their childhood and the “apprenticeship” that marked the course of their life. I came into the world one night in 1912, toward the end of the Year of the Rat. The village custom was to allow a lapse of time before registering a birth, so that if the infant was carried off by evil spirits the parents would be spared having to revisit the registrar to declare the death of their newborn. So I was officially born in April 1913. Whenever a woman in the village gave birth, my mother was summoned. She helped as best she could, relying on age-old practices. When her turn ca... (From :

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Chapter 3: Years of Apprenticeship “C’est une grande destinée que celle de la poésie! Joyeuse ou lamentable, elle porte toujours en soi le divin caractère utopique. Elle contredit sans cesse les faits. Dans le cachot, elle se fait révolte; à la fenêtre de l’hôpital, elle est ardente espérance de guérison; non seulement elle constate, mais elle répare. Partout elle se fait négation de l’iniquité.” (Baudelaire) [Poetry has such a great destiny! Whether joyous or mournful, it always bears within itself a divine utopian character. It ceaselessly contradicts reality. In the dungeon, it turns into revolt; at the hospital window, it is the ardent hope for a cure; it not only records, it restores. Everywhere it negates iniquity.] One of my cousins, a real country beauty, had married a... (From :

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Chapter 4: In the Central Prison As though we had a silent rendezvous, every morning I was one of the prisoners who pressed their faces against the bars overlooking the small yard of the women’s quarters as the female prisoners emerged, two by two, carrying out the waste pails. Among them were Chi Nguyet, a tall slim silhouette, her face a pale full moon, and her companion, the delicate-featured Chi Day. Both of them would throw us quick, radiant glances, and every morning they smiled at us. Innocent paradis plein de plaisirs furtifs ... [Innocent paradise full of furtive pleasures]. Nguyen Trung Nguyet, whom we called “Chi” (sister and comrade), was 29 years old. She was the longest held of the female prisoners, having already been in confinement for seven years. She was born into a family of literate peasants. Breaking with tradition, when she was still a teenager she disguised herself as a boy and stowed away on... (From :

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Chapter 5: From One Prison to Another On May 19, 1937, Marcel Gitton, of the Colonial Section of the French Communist Party, wrote to the Stalinist members of the La Lutte group: “According to the directives we have received concerning you, we consider it impossible to continue the collaboration between the Party and the Trotskyists. We have received a letter from a comrade about the situation in Indochina and the collaboration with the Trotskyists. We are going to transmit this letter to Moscow, along with our personal judgment.” This secret message was delivered to La Lutte by a French sailor. But amusingly enough, he mispronounced the name of the person it was addressed to — the Stalinist Tao — and it fell into the hands of Thau, a Trotskyist. At the end of May, the Stalinists left the La Lutte group and hurriedly launched the newspaper L’Avant-garde [The Vanguard]. In i... (From :

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Chapter 6: In the Mekong Delta On the little train from Saigon to My Tho, my fellow passengers (barefoot peasants for the most part), whether out of tact or indifference, appeared not to notice the handcuffed prisoner with his police escort. After almost a month of confinement in the Sûerté at Phnom Penh and with an unknown jail sentence ahead of me, it was a sheer joy to watch the repetitive landscape roll by, the sparkling expanse of ricefields, the herds of peaceful buffalos, the straw huts sheltered by clumps of bamboo. But why was I being transferred to My Tho? As soon as we arrived, I was taken to the office of the examining magistrate, a native of India with a bloated, peevish face. “Ah, a Trotskyite! You gang of saboteurs!” It was strange that he was using this Moscow Trials–style terminology to attack me. He took a letter from a file and asked me to confirm that I was its author. I rec... (From :

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Chapter 7: Caught in a Crossfire The Japanese army surrendered on August 15, 1945. The victorious Allies put the defeated forces in charge of maintaining order in Indochina until the Allied occupation army arrived. Nevertheless the troops of the Vietminh entered Hanoi on August 18. Saigon was reported to be in turmoil. Unable to stay away, I quit my job in Can Tho and set out for Saigon with Nguyen Van Linh. We reached a checkpoint outside the city at Tan An and there, standing right in front of me, was Nguyen Van Tao, the Stalinist leader I had known in prison. He, too, was naturally on his way to Saigon. He clapped me on the shoulder: “Listen, don’t do anything stupid! Think before you act!” His protective attitude was like that of an older brother toward a wayward boy. He knew very well that I belonged to the underground Trotskyist group. I went to Tan Lo, the hamlet 15 kilometers north of Saigon where my mother was l... (From :

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Chapter 8: Toward Other Shores In Saigon, Nguyen Van Linh took me to the home of one of his relatives, Dzu, a radical lawyer, who would be able to hide me for a while. But the lawyer’s bourgeois family were frightened to death by the presence of an “underground resistance fighter.” I was confined to a small isolated room in their magnificent house. Dzu was never there. At midday and in the evening a servant came to call me for meals. A strained silence reigned at the table. I would eat, then quickly leave, setting down my chopsticks in the ritual fashion. One day Sister Two came to visit me, bringing terrible news from our village. She told me that the Vietminh’s secret police in Thu Duc, before fleeing the French advance, had taken away an old black man we knew and killed him. He was a native of the Antilles. After having served in the Colonial Infantry, he had settled in our neighborhood, working the land with his Annamite wif... (From :

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Chapter 9: And My Friends? Friends are like clouds, Life scatters us But only death can separate us. What happened to my friends, my closest comrades? Underground struggle created a strong bond between us, but the clandestine nature of this struggle meant that we often remained unaware of significant aspects of each other’s lives. Despite this, I want to do my best to record what I can of these obscure figures. I’m sorry there are so many gaps in my account. VAN VAN KY, the typographer who stole the type that made our underground printshop possible, was the youngest defendant at our trial [the August 1936 trial of members of the League of Internationalist Communists]. As he lay dying of tuberculosis, he sadly confided to a friend, “I thought I would die fighting in the street on a barricade.” VO VAN DON, a coolie who worked with me at Descours & C... (From :

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II. In the Land of Héloïse Chapter 10: Worker in the Promised Land I had left my country in the spring of 1948. The heartrending pain of a loving mother silently enduring the permanent departure of her prodigal son! ... The tears of a 12-year-old girl holding her little brother in her arms! The old tree drifting down the river can never return to its native land — this image flitted around in my head as the Messageries Maritimes freighter raised anchor in the Saigon harbor in that sad late afternoon. It took more than four weeks to lug us from Saigon to Marseilles. I traveled fourth class, in the hold with a dozen young men hoping to study in France. We slept in bunks. At one end of the hold were coffins bearing the remains of officers of the French Expeditionary Corps who had been killed in the ambush at Da Lat. The specters of the Indochina War followed us. And so that s... (From :

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Chapter 11: New Radical Perspectives In 1948 my friend Nguyen Van Nam had told me that when I got to Paris I should contact Sania Gontarbert. Sania ran the tiny Camée Bookshop near the Carrefour des Gobelins in the 13th Arrondissement. In his memoirs he later described our first meeting: “The shop door opened and in came a tall, thin Indochinese man who had just arrived from Saigon and who, amazingly enough, had my address. This was the beginning of my long friendship with Van.” It was he who received for me the packages of rice sent from Saigon. Rereading Marx (illuminated by the work of Maximilien Rubel), discovering the existence of the Councilist Republic of Bavaria (1918–1919) and of the Kronstadt revolt in Russia , and then seeing the resurgence of workers councils in Hungary in 1956, led me to investigate new revolutionary perspectives and permanently distanced me from Bolshevism-Leninism-Trotskyism. I d... (From :

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Articles A Factory Occupation in May 1968 Now that everything is back to “normal,” it may not seem very interesting to recall the very different sort of normality that briefly prevailed at the end of last spring. Moreover, what happened at this particular factory (Jeumont-Schneider) was not all that different from what was happening elsewhere, which everyone is already familiar with. Nevertheless, looking into the tarnished mirror of the past may help us to better understand ourselves. On the afternoon of Friday, May 17, there were rumors in the workshops that the labor unions were cooking something up to deal with the rising wave. But over the weekend nothing happened. Monday morning, the workers walked down the street, which was decorated with red flags, and gathered in front of the gates, not knowing whether they were supposed to go in or stay outside. They waited for an order. The union representative gave it:... (From :

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On Third World Struggles What does “national liberation” mean for workers and peasants? The imperialist powers speak of “the right of peoples to self-determination,” and this phrase is adopted by the parties striving for power in colonial and semicolonial countries. We propose to banish the word “people” from our vocabulary: it implies an equality of right between the exploiting classes and the exploited masses. Who “self-determines” whom in the new national “peasant” states? In countries within the Western sphere of influence, national independence hands power over to the local bourgeoisie, which exploits the proletariat, and to the landowning class, which exploits the peasantry; in countries within the so-called “Communist” bloc, the state-capitalist bureaucracy exploits proletariat and peasantry alike. For workers and peasants, national liberation means nothing more than a change of masters. (From :

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Reflections on the Vietnam War Since the Tet Offensive, propaganda has been churning out deceit with ever greater intensity. While the killing game goes on 10,000 kilometers away, newspapers and television the world over revel in sensationalistic images of an intolerable carnage to which the public is becoming increasingly habituated. This two-way brainwashing helps people to die, or to watch the dying, if their sensitivity has not already been completely dulled by the relentlessly deepening quagmire. Young Americans go off to defend the “Free World” of the dollar and of military bases in the Pacific, and end up rotting under Russian or Chinese rocket fire in the ricefields and hillsides of Vietnam. Young Vietnamese in one camp or the other are sent to slaughter, willingly or not, in the name of “national independence,” “national liberation,” or “socialism.” Sooner or later the killing will cea... (From :

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Appendix Note on Stalinism and Trotskyism For those who are not familiar with the international political background of Ngo Van’s story, it may be helpful to make a few remarks about Stalinism and Trotskyism and to outline some of the twists and turns of the Third International under Stalin’s control. The Russian Revolution of 1917 consisted of two relatively distinct stages. The “February revolution” was a series of largely spontaneous popular struggles beginning in February and continuing over the next several months; the “October revolution” was essentially a coup d’état carried out by the Bolshevik Party under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky. The Bolsheviks had a reputation as radical revolutionaries, due in part to their having been one of the few leftist groups to oppose World War I; but once in power they repressed grassroots radical tendencies and morphed into a new ruling class. (From :

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Chronology It is no exaggeration to say that a colonial war began the moment French troops landed in Indochina in 1859 and never stopped. Once established, the colonial regime engaged in an ongoing battle against the peasant and worker masses, who remained in latent or open revolt until the French and then the Americans were finally driven out more than a century later. The following chronology (mostly drawn from Ngo Van’s Vietnam 1920–1945 and from the British edition of an earlier text by Ngo Van, Revolutionaries They Could Not Break) mentions only a few of the more significant events in order to help orient the reader. 1615. Jesuit missionaries first set foot in Indochina. In order to facilitate the introduction of Christianity they create quoc ngu, a Romanized transcription of Vietnamese, to replace chu nom, the traditional Vietnamese writing system which used Chinese-style ideogr... (From :

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Bibliography Works by Ngo Van (published in Paris unless otherwise indicated) Vu an Moscou, Nha xuat ban Chang trao luu (Saigon: Chong Trao Luu [Countercurrent Publications], 1937). Pamphlet denouncing the Moscow Trials. Divination, magie et politique dans la Chine ancienne [Divination, Magic and Politics in Ancient China]. Presses Universitaires de France, 1976; reprinted by You-Feng, 2002. Viêt-nam 1920–1945: révolution et contre-révolution sous la domination coloniale [Vietnam 1920–1945: Revolution and Counterrevolution Under Colonial Domination]. L’Insomniaque, 1995; reprinted by Nautilus, 2000. Translated into Vietnamese as Viet nam 1920–1945, cach mang va phan cach mang thoi do ho thuc dan (Chuong Re/L’Insomniaque, 2000). (From :

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Note on Names Vietnamese accents are omitted throughout this book. As in many other East Asian cultures, Vietnamese family names precede personal names. When consulting other sources, note that there are different ways of anglicizing Vietnamese place names. Yen Bai, for example, can also be found as Yen Bay, Yen bai, Yen bay, Yen-bai, Yen-bay, Yenbai and Yenbay. Note also that names of organizations are translated in a variety of ways. Thanh Nien Cach Mang Dong Chi Hoi, for example, can be found as Revolutionary Youth League, League of Young Revolutionary Comrades, Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth Association, Association of Revolutionary Vietnamese Youth, etc. In a few cases we have indicated common alternative versions to the ones used in this book, but it is often best to use the original Vietnamese names when searching the Web or consulting book indexes. In order to help sort out the sometimes confusingly similar names of persons, g... (From :

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Abbreviations CP Communist Party TR Trotskyist VF Vietnamese radical who had spent time in France AIP member of Annamite Independence Party (1927–1929) TN member of Thanh Nien (1925–1930) ICP member of Indochinese Communist Party/Communist Party of Vietnam (1930-) LO member of one or more Left Opposition groups (ca. 1928–1934) LL member of La Lutte group (1933–1946) LIC member of League of Internationalist Communists (1935–1939, 1945–1946) WM... (From :


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