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REd Salute: Comrade Uncle Ho


Vijay Prashad

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.

 

 

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