The Communist road to power in Vietnam was a long and
arduous one. It was 10,000 days from when Ho Chi Minh read Vietnam's
Declaration of Independence in Hanoi to when this was actually achieved,
and the history of the Vietnamese revolutionary movement stretches back even
farther than this. Indochina (which comprised of Vietnam, Laos and
Cambodia) had been under French rule since the 19th century. The Vietnamese
were no strangers to foreign occupation, and they yearned for total control
over their own affairs. As Ho Chi Minh reminded those who suggested he look
to China for help in liberating the nation, "last time the Chinese came
they stayed for a thousand years". Although the struggle to finally control
their own fate would be gruelling, the Vietnamese people faced up to the
challenge remarkably, and eventually they achieved it. This is their story.
In my telling of the story of Vietnamese independence, I
have chosen to lump all of the history before the formation of the Vietnamese
Communist Party together into this one node. The political activities of the
Vietnamese prior to the formation of this party (and even for a time
afterwards) were disunited and primitive. It was during the 1920s that the
political sophistication of urban Vietnamese began to rise, and the first strong
challenge to the French began to emerge.
The early parties
The early nationalist organizations in Vietnam barely
deserve to be referred to as political parties, being
"more like secret societies than modern political parties,
centered around an individual or based on regional and ethnic identities
rather than on a mutual devotion to common political principles."1
Although the parties bore in common a dislike for the French, they disagreed
on a range of issues. Should rebellion be violent2
or nonviolent? How vocal should they be in their criticism
of French colonial rule? The most notable of the early parties was the
Constitutionalist Party, which was the first formal political party in
French Indochina. The party had limited goals in that it did not oppose
French rule, but wished to create better conditions for Vietnamese within it -
however, it went a long way to giving the urban masses a political education.
Ho Chi Minh and the Revolutionary Youth League
Ho Chi Minh was born in Nghe An province, probably in
1890. Nghe An had a history of rebellion, and the child of her's born
Nguyen Sinh Cung, later to be named Ho Chi Minh3, would stage the ultimate
rebellion of them all. Ho Chi Minh left his country in 1911, politically naive
but charged with patriotism and a desire to solve the problems of his country.
He stated his reasons for travelling abroad to be so that he could view Western
civilization at its source, and hence understand it better. He was taken by
the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity (the "keywords" of the
French Revolution), and wished to travel to France to discover more about
them. He left Saigon as a ship's cook (Ho would take many jobs in kitchens
throughout his travels) and travelled the world, spending time in France,
China, the Soviet Union and America before returning to his homeland.
These were his formative years - he read Theses on the National and Colonial
Questions by Lenin in 1920, studied at the Stalin School for the Toilers
of the East and attended the Fifth Congress of the Comintern (the Comintern, or
Communist International, was the Soviet organization designed to promote the
international Communist movement and bring about a global proletarian revolution.
It trained revolutionaries, published doctrine, and had a fair amount of
control over its children organizations).
This is where the Revolutionary Youth League comes in. The
League was a Marxist-Leninist organization founded by Ho Chi Minh while in
the south of China. Patriotic elements from Vietnam often sought refuge in
Southern China, and Ho had no difficulty in contacting local dissidents and
forming the League. The ideas of the League conformed to those put forward
by Lenin and at the Second Comintern Congress, and a school was set up in
Canton to indoctrinate new recruits. The organization appealed to scores
of young Vietnamese because it promoted national independence. The focus on
nationalism was also a problem, however - there was an ongoing raging debate
about whether the main aim of the League was nationalism or Communism.
Certainly nationalism was the tool used to attract recruits and to seek
co-operation from other radical elements in Vietnam (although Comintern doctrine
on whether this was appropriate or not shifted rapidly from side-to-side).
Certainly, it was Ho's goal to eventually bring about a
proletarian revolution. He penned articles on how the revolution might
eventually be brought about, and even differed from the wisdom of the
Comintern. Ho believed that the peasantry were an integral part of bringing
about the revolution, and in this he would be proved correct. However, the
League's focus on nationalism was starting to cause problems. Ho Chi Minh
departed to the Soviet Union in 1927, and while he was gone a breakaway
faction appeared within the League. Under the leadership of Tran Vun Cung,
the Tonkin (Tonkin was a region of Vietnam, defined by the French) delegates
to a League Conference stormed out, vowing to form their own party and declaring
the League "antirevolutionary".
The League was charged with this for several reasons. One
was that it had made few efforts to recruit among the proletarian class, the
class which was seen as most important to the revolution. Another was its focus
on nationalism as opposed to ideology, which was seen as a betrayal of the masses.
The lack of ideology, when put together with the apparent failure to go about the
practical part of the revolution (recruiting the proletariat), led to the
The Communist cell from Tonkin formed the Indochinese
Communist Party (ICP) in Hanoi. Then things started getting a little laughable -
shocked by the influx of members the ICP was drawing from them, the League
renamed itself the Annam Communist Party. Then, to make matters worse, the
non-Communist Tan Viet Party changed into a Communist party (the Indochinese
Communist League) in an effort to preserve their membership. The
parties resorted back to the factionalism of old, spending their time in petty
squabbles and insults (including "menshevik").
Moscow wasn't pleased. It dispatched a letter attacking the
Vietnamese for their incompetence in allowing the movement to become disunited,
and suggested that a conference be called to draw the parties together. This
conference was to be held in Hong Kong and chaired by Ho Chi Minh, who would
return from Siam as quickly as possible.
Ho Chi Minh's shining character came through, and the output
of the conference (the majority of which, it is said, was conducted in "the spirit
of unity and love") was the Vietnamese Communist Party. The VCP would, it was
said, seek support from as many classes as possible, and it did not reject the
support of any other party but the Constitutionalists. Ho Chi Minh, with his
now mostly unified party, was ready to move the Vietnamese revolution to the
next stage. The first Marxist-Leninist inspired rebellion would soon occur
at Nghe Tinh.
1. William J. Duiker, The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam (2nd ed., Westview, 1996).
2. Lenin saw violence as a fundamental part of the revolution, and when
the Indochinese Communist Party came under the doctrine of the Comintern,
there was no doubt in the members that violence must be employed.
3. Ho Chi Minh used a multitude of different names throughout his life.
Ho Chi Minh is an assumed name which means "He who enlightens", and hereafter
in this work this shall be the sole name he is referred to by.