Book review: Samir Amin – Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism

This is a slightly expanded version of an article that appeared in the Morning Star on 4 January 2017.

In this short book, the renowned Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin presents an overview of the world’s first large-scale experiment building socialism – the Soviet Union – and contextualises it within what he describes as the “long transition”: the extended, overlapping processes of capitalism’s death and socialism’s birth. The idea of the long transition is essentially a response to the end-of-history narrative prevailing in mainstream politics, ie that socialism has failed and that capitalist liberal democracy is permanently established as the pinnacle of social and economic organisation. Amin writes:

“In the same way that capitalism first developed within feudalism before breaking out of it, the long transition of world capitalism to world socialism is defined by the internal conflict of all the societies in the system between the trends and forces of the reproduction of capitalist relations and the (anti-systemic) trends and forces, whose logic has other aspirations – those, precisely, that can be defined as socialism.”

In this framework, the retreats suffered by the socialist world – particularly the collapse of the European socialist states between 1989 and 1991 – should not be considered as the death of the socialist project, but rather as part of the inevitable ebb and flow of a complex historical trajectory that could take hundreds of years but which nonetheless has an inexorable tide.

If we accept the idea of an ongoing global struggle between capitalism and socialism, then we must also consider the need to create conditions in which socialist ideas can take root; and furthermore to create a geopolitical space in which socialism could conceivably succeed. Therefore the idea of “building up a multipolar world that makes possible the maximum development of anti-systemic forces” assumes critical importance in the struggle for socialism. A unipolar world in which US is the uncontested economic, military and cultural leader (ie in which the Project for a New American Century has succeeded) is a disastrous situation for the masses of every region. The great promise of multipolarity, on the other hand, is that it frees countries and regional blocs to experiment with economic and political forms that suit them, rather than having to submit to the diktat of what Amin refers to as the Triad – US, European and Japanese imperialism.

One example of multipolarity in action is the emergence over the last 16 years of a wave of progressive states in Latin America; although our side has suffered defeats recently in Brazil and Argentina, there are still more-or-less socialist-oriented governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, El Salvador and Chile. Without the existence of powerful allies (most importantly China, but also Russia and Iran) this situation would have been frankly unthinkable; it would have been impossible to break the grip of US neoliberal domination. Another pertinent example is the imminent defeat by Syria of the imperialist-coordinated regime change operation being pursued against it – a victory which would at least have been much more difficult without the support of a Russia that has, in the Putin era, shaken off its assigned role at the fringes of US global hegemony.

Hence Amin’s important thesis that multipolarity is a key component of the ongoing global struggle for socialism.

Amin also reiterates his longstanding critique of the Soviet Union and puts forward a vision for an alternative socialism that is less autocratic, more democratic, less bureaucratic and more egalitarian. This critique (which Amin has put forward for the best part of half a century, and which owes a little too much to the Chinese Communist Party’s Cultural Revolution-era evaluation of the Soviet Union) should, in my opinion, be taken with a pinch of salt. It is comprehensively and effectively answered by studies such as Al Szymanski’s “Is The Red Flag Flying?” (Zed Books, 1979).

Nonetheless, the book’s flaws shouldn’t detract from its overall valuable contribution, and indeed its urgency in a situation where the capitalist ruling classes are increasingly turning to far-right political forces in the face of a profound economic crisis.

“In an age such as ours – when there are enough weapons to destroy the whole Earth, when the media can tame the crowds with frightening efficiency, when short-term egoism or anti-humanist individualism is a fundamental value threatening Earth’s ecological survival – barbarism may be fatal. More than ever, the choice we face is not capitalism or socialism, but socialism or barbarism.”

An important book.

From the Chinese Marxist viewpoint: an interview with Professor Deng Chundong

This interview with Professor Deng Chundong, President of the Institute of Marxism, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was conducted by Jenny Clegg in London on 5 December 2016. A slightly condensed version appeared first in the Morning Star.

Over three decades ago, Deng Xiaoping famously likened China’s reform path to a process of ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’. On this journey, China has not been unaided: Marxism has been its fundamental guide. As China continues to undergo momentous changes as reform deepens, its president, Xi Jinping has put much emphasis on the country’s ideological orientation. In a nationally televised speech last July on the 95th anniversary of the CPC, he warned that “Turning our backs or abandoning Marxism means that our party would lose its soul and direction”. And he went on: “…what we are building is socialism with Chinese characteristics, not some other -ism.”

The Institute of Marxism at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences is one of China’s premier institutions, serving at the highest level as a research centre, a government think-tank and one of the foremost academic institutions. Its scholars and researchers not only absorb the Marxist classics but also apply Marxist theory to contemporary conditions, using Marxism to develop the concepts and practices of the socialist market economy, whilst critiquing capitalism to understand and learn from the mistakes of the West.

I was able to learn more about the Chinese Marxist viewpoint when I met up with Professor Deng Chundong, the Institute’s President, who was on a visit to London with a small delegation of political economists. We started by discussing the October Revolution in China, given the upcoming centenary next year. Professor Deng explained:

“The 1917 October Revolution signified a new era of human history. It was a great inspiration to the Chinese people – its great success showed the way forward to establish a socialist system in our country with the proletariat holding state power.

“At that time, China was oppressed by the forces of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism. China was in big trouble. Many of our most advanced thinkers of the time – scholars, students, businessmen – had tried to tried to figure out how to save China from its predicament. The success of revolution in Russia brought some sunlight during that dark period – it meant a great deal.

“Now to commemorate the October Revolution, we must commit to pursuing communist ideology and follow strictly the route of achieving socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

I then asked about his views on Fidel Castro’s main achievements and contributions to the world struggle for socialism.

“Fidel Castro gave his whole life to fighting for his people in Cuba. From the Chinese viewpoint, there are two major contributions he made which were helpful for China in setting a model for achieving socialism.

“In the first place, Cuba is a very small country in Caribbean close to the most powerful country in the world, the biggest capitalist country, the US. That such a small county could continue to follow a socialist path under the severe blockade of the US demands our great respect.

“In the 1990s, the whole of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union collapsed, but Fidel Castro continued in his belief and continued to promote socialism in Cuba. All communists around the world should show our admiration and our gratitude to Fidel.

“The reasons that socialism in Cuba advanced so far despite such great pressure from the US were firstly, the firm determination of Fidel, and secondly, that Cuba sought to explore its own unique way forward. It followed its own path and did not copy the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe but – and this is the most important thing – adapted to the actual circumstances of the country and found its own practices to advance society, developing socialism with its own characteristics.

“Cuban socialism is very popular, it is a great attraction around the world. It has gained the confidence of the people and this is its advantage – its people are in favour of the Communist Party and this means Cuba will have a bright future”.

Although he had never visited Cuba, Professor Deng had had the opportunity for discussion with the Cuban ambassador to China on a number of occasions. Four years ago, he told me, China, Cuba and Vietnam had agreed to set up an annual forum for scholars to share the experiences of building socialism in the different countries and to exchange views and opinions.

We then moved on to the question of Marxist education in China. The rise of western thinking in university degree courses, alongside the waning of Marxist content, has become a particular concern among Marxist scholars in China. The westernisation of economics, it has been argued, was one of the reasons for the Soviet Union’s collapse. As Professor Deng pointed out, starting with China’s reform and opening up from the end of the 1970s, values and ideas from US and Europe have had a huge impact on China in terms of culture, education and economic thinking.

“The textbooks used in universities, the mindset, values and ideology of the teachers, the setting up of courses and curriculum design – all are influenced by Western values to a great extent.

“In the long term this will have a negative influence in undermining Marxist education and this is a situation which must be changed.”

To make the change, Professor Deng, identified three key measures.

“First it is necessary to educate the teachers in particular those teaching Marxism in schools and universities. Their mindset must not be influenced by Western values, they need to take Marxism as the core in terms of their stance, view and methods.”

The Ministry of Education has the responsibility here, organising workshops and seminars for university teachers. The Institute of Marxism has also held summer schools in Marxism for teachers from other provinces.

“The second thing that needs to be changed is the textbooks. Originally lots of textbooks used in universities to study economics, law, history, social sciences, journalism and media and so on, were all just copied from Western university textbooks. This situation has to change. Of course there is some content from Western learning that we should learn, but we need to select what is appropriate for China and not simply copy wholesale”.

Thirdly, Professor Deng pointed out that although Marxist education is compulsory in universities, in recent years the total curriculum hours devoted to this has been significantly reduced sometimes by up to a half or even two thirds.

“So it is necessary to adopt some measures to strengthen education in Marxist theory throughout the country.”

At the Institute, the study of Marxism centres on the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao Zedong but covers the whole body of Marxist debate, and not only the basic theory of Marxism but also as applied for example to Chinese political economy, law and regulation. Its journal, International Critical Thought, includes articles by both Chinese and Western Marxists on both contemporary and theoretical issues.

On the question of globalisation, Professor Deng pointed out that the important thing is who is in the dominant position and leading the process of internationalisation.

“Currently, of course the advanced Western countries are playing the dominant role – Chinese thinking here is that world affairs should not be determined by only one country, instead we should proactively promote pluralism and multi-polarisation. That is, all countries in the world should have the equal opportunity to get involved in decision-making; all countries should have equal involvement and engagement and should consult with each other and discuss with each other to try to resolve those important issues that affect the whole world and our human destiny.

“And as part of this process, China will gradually get more involved and contribute more to global governance, playing an active role by setting out our own plans and suggesting ways forward for world development.”

As a final point, I raised the issue of Donald Trump’s denial of global warming, to which Professor Deng commented:

“How the US chooses to deal with the issue and with the Paris Agreement, is their own affair, we won’t meddle in this. But for our part, China is committed to cooperating with the international community making our own contribution to tackling this serious problem.”

Reject the ‘alt-right’ and struggle for unity of all progressive forces

This article was originally published on Telesur English

Militarism is the default imperialist response to crisis

Imperialism is going through a most profound crisis; a crisis which could well mark the beginning of a terminal decline. For reasons of simple self-preservation, the main imperialist blocs (North America, the EU, Japan) are working desperately to prevent that decline. That is their major political project right now, around which they are more-or-less united (in spite of any number of divisions and contradictions among themselves).

The key geostrategic components of that project are:

  1. Encircling China, limiting its influence, slowing its rise, and preferably dismembering it and ending Communist Party rule.
  2. Weakening and isolating Russia, and turning it into a dependency.
  3. Re-establishing economic and political control in Latin America and Africa.
  4. Removing the main obstructions to imperialist domination in the Middle East (particularly Syria, Iran and Hezbollah).

There is room for variation in terms of tactics and relative priorities, but these aims are, in the long term, non-negotiable.

A long-overdue emergence of the left

Also related to the crisis is the fairly sudden surge in popularity for political movements to the left of traditional social democracy, most prominently in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Britain, Ireland and the US. Although these movements don’t promote a revolutionary socialist agenda – their programmes are by-and-large based on pro-worker reforms within a capitalist economic context – the ruling classes have reacted to their rise with intense hostility, manifested in a variety of ways (for example the Troika’s flagrantly antidemocratic treatment of the Syriza government; the media disinformation campaign against Jeremy Corbyn; or the DNC’s machinations against Bernie Sanders).

There are two major reasons for this hostility. First, the imperialist ruling classes are unanimous in their view that the working class must be made to shoulder the economic burden of the crisis – the neoliberal vision leaves precious little space for pro-worker reforms. Second, these various socialist-oriented movements and their trade union supporters have little-to-no enthusiasm for the geostrategic aims outline above. They simply don’t have the will or the ability to unite their populations around an aggressive, militaristic project which – morality and ideology aside – is hugely expensive and doesn’t leave sufficient resources to prioritise welfare state spending and public investment.

Fascism rears its ugly head

Meanwhile, another key development in recent years has been the rise of far-right movements in various guises. They don’t call themselves fascist (at least not in public), but they represent the familiar tenets of fascism: capitalist conservatism, authoritarianism, shameless racism, crass demagogy, militarism, showy patriotism and violent repression. These movements seek to influence the working class (in particular the ‘white’ working class), but in reality they are faithful and reliable agents of capitalist class interests – hence they receive significant financial backing from that class.

While the emerging leftist movements work to unite all sections of the working class and oppressed people in pursuit of their common interests, the far-right movements promote maximum division and distrust, spreading racism, sexism, xenophobia and homophobia. The ‘unity’ they seek to deliver means universal submission to the ruling class’s political and economic project (certainly in a Trump-era USA, it’s not hard to imagine this submission being enforced by ‘alt-right’ paramilitaries). No more anti-war movements, no more diversity of opinion, no more second-guessing within the ruling class’s own ranks; in short, a very dangerous situation for anyone who doesn’t go along with the capitalist status quo. This is precisely the promise of the far-right for today’s ruling classes: turning whole nations into monolithic forces for the pursuance of imperialist aims.

Of course, many of these far-right elements – Donald Trump included – talk in populist terms about taking on the financial elite, about creating a fairer deal for ordinary people, or indeed of wanting to focus their attention on domestic matters and stop interfering in the rest of the world. But talk is cheap. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Salazar made similar noises; in power, they were the most consistent, ruthless and violent defenders of the interests of their respective elites. Given the known political positions of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen et al; given their support base, the people around them, and their reliance on monopoly capital, it would be naive in the extreme to expect any government they head to go against the interests of imperialism. “Make America Great Again” is nothing but a concise restating of the Project for a New American Century – the goal to re-establish uncontested US dominance.

Breathing space for Russia and Syria?

Russia has established itself as a clear enemy of imperialism, simply by refusing to accept the role of a peripheral pawn in a global hierarchy with the US at its head; by asserting its political and economic independence; by opposing NATO encirclement. So it’s interesting that Trump, Le Pen and Nigel Farage have all spoken in terms of improved relations with Russia; Trump has spoken about coordinating with the Syrian government to defeat Isis. This has given some people within the anti-imperialist movement hope that a Trump presidency would be a boon for peace, a step away from the proven militarism of Hillary Clinton.

Such an idea is ahistorical. Imperialism, to paraphrase one of its most cynical defenders, has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests. Far-right elements have always represented the interests of capital, and the interests of western capital at this point in time demand hostility to Russia. Donald Trump might have some quirky personal admiration for Vladimir Putin, but does anybody seriously think that the US deep state will allow presidential idiosyncrasies to stand in the way of its global strategy? This is wishful thinking, and reflects a misunderstanding of the very nature of the state under capitalism.

Indeed, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad gave a much more realistic assessment of the possibility for improvement under Trump: “We don’t have a lot of expectations because the American administration is not only about the President; it’s about different powers within this administration, the different lobbies that they are going to influence any President.”

What’s true is that there’s a particularly optimistic section of the US ruling class that feels it might be able to tempt Russia into a tactical alliance against China. And Trump himself understands the tension in existing US policy between pushing intense islamophobia at home whilst providing extensive support to Wahhabi terrorists abroad. These factors combined could possibly result in a temporary improvement of tensions with Russia and of reduced support for regime change in Syria. On that basis it would be sensible for the Syrian government to try and open lines of communication with the incoming US administration. What would not be sensible is for anti-imperialists to paint the Trump presidency as some kind of step-back from US neocolonialism.

The chances of a Trump government actually following through with a better line on Syria and Russia are slight. Meanwhile, Trump and his team have already indicated that they will deepen US hostility towards China, reverse the bilateral normalisation with Cuba, increase support for Israel, and continue to support reactionary neoliberal elements in Latin America. Several notorious ‘hawks’ have been appointed to the incoming cabinet.

In short, there is no anti-imperialist basis for being soft on the far-right, anywhere in the world. It is a myth that these reactionary elements would be ‘isolationist’, because the class interests they represent have no use for such a policy. The crisis is driving imperialism to interventionism, not isolationism. History shows all too clearly that far-right governments pursue their class interests in a more hawkish, more aggressive, more expansionist way, combined with more internal repression, more racism, more xenophobia.

Pushing a socialist and anti-imperialist agenda

The immediate, urgent task facing us is to build up a broad, powerful alliance against imperialism, against neoliberalism and against fascism. We certainly don’t further that aim by allowing ourselves to be hoodwinked by quasi-fascist (or “alt-right”) lies.

The left in Europe and North America has a unique opportunity to re-establish itself; to mobilise and engage the working classes and oppressed; and, furthermore, to do so on an internationalist basis. That’s the project to pursue. It’s anti-neoliberal, anti-austerity, anti-war, anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-xenophobic. It promotes public investment, job creation, environmental protection, trade union rights, welfare spending, appreciation of diversity, and a commitment to high-quality public education, healthcare and housing.

This new wave of socialist-oriented mass movements is hugely significant, and the opportunity it represents mustn’t be sacrificed at the alter of purism and dogmatism. We don’t get to choose the reality that history hands down to us. These movements have different origins, traditions and trajectories; many of them are vulnerable to mainstream social-democratic ideas and capitulatory tendencies; many of them have a “labour aristocratic” element and are inconsistent in their anti-imperialism. This doesn’t mean they should be dismissed; it simply indicates the clear and urgent need for experienced socialists and anti-imperialists to support, shape and engage with them.

Oppressed people are increasingly fed up with the neoliberal status quo; more than ever, they are open to alternatives. If the left can’t develop sufficient unity, imagination, courage and strategy to win over the masses, then the field is wide open for every nasty strand of fascism, racism and xenophobia. There’s a lot at stake.

Jeremy Corbyn and the possibilities for building a lasting socialist and anti-imperialist movement

This wasn’t supposed to happen. When Jeremy Corbyn announced, a few months ago, that he was throwing his hat in the ring for the Labour leadership contest, many – myself included – were sceptical. The whole project seemed irrelevant and hopeless; even if he did get sufficient MP nominations to get on the ballot, everybody knew that his candidature would end in ignominious defeat. The episode was set to provide yet more proof (as if any were needed) that the entire ‘left Labour’ project was long past its sell-by date.

The bookmakers, whose predictions are generally far more reliable than those of the left commentariat, gave Corbyn odds of 200-1 against (thereby producing quite a windfall for a few startlingly over-optimistic British socialists).

Then something very strange and unprecedented happened; something that nobody could have predicted. Ordinary people around the country became interested in the campaign, excited at the possibility – no matter how remote – of having an old-fashioned leftist as leader of the opposition. Thousands of people joined the Labour Party. Tens of thousands signed up as registered supporters, specifically in order to vote for Corbyn. The unfaltering vitriol of the mainstream press – including much of its supposedly left-leaning branch – and the impassioned pleas of Blair, Brown and the rest of the Labour grandees proved totally ineffective in stemming the tide of popular support for the Corbyn campaign (in the case of Blair and Mandelson, their contributions only served to heighten Corbyn’s popularity!). Huge numbers of people signed up to help out, manning phone lines, distributing leaflets, building websites, spreading the word on social media.

Corbyn’s campaign meetings, nearly a hundred of them, were all packed. Many times he had to address overspill rooms – including, in London, speaking to a crowd outside from atop a fire engine provided by the Fire Brigades Union. The buzz surrounding the campaign was reminiscent of the excitement surrounding the Scottish independence referendum last year. For many young people in England, the Corbyn leadership campaign represented the first time in their lives that anything within the realm of mainstream politics had felt interesting, relevant and worthy of their participation. The result was a landslide victory for Corbyn, the election of the most left-wing leader in Labour’s history, and a reversal of many decades of near-universal conservatism in the general political narrative.

There are too many variables to predict what will happen in the coming months and years, but what we can say for sure is that the emergence of a socialist, anti-monarchist, anti-Nato, anti-nuclear, anti-war, anti-racist, anti-neoliberal, veteran campaigner as leader of the parliamentary opposition in Britain is a hugely significant moment. As Seumas Milne notes: “By any reckoning, Corbyn’s election and the movement that delivered it represent a political eruption of historic proportions. The political conformity entrenched during the years of unchallenged neoliberalism has been broken.”

Why did Corbyn win?

What has changed? How is it possible that veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn could win the Labour leadership in 2015 – by a landslide – when veteran left-winger Diane Abbott only received 7% of the votes in 2010, or when veteran left-winger John McDonnell couldn’t get sufficient nominations to stand against Gordon Brown in 2007, or when veteran left-winger Tony Benn was defeated by an embarrassing margin in 1983?

There are a few key aspects that need to be considered.

  • Vast swathes of people are feeling more and more alienated, and are struggling economically to an ever greater degree. People have increasingly had enough of the vindictive neoliberalism that has dominated British politics for so long. The policies of ‘austerity’ are starting to impact people’s livelihoods in a very real way. Those hit worst are the most vulnerable, oppressed and disenfranchised: the immigrants, ethnic minorities, low-paid workers, casual workers, unemployed, disabled. But there is also a significant layer of the middle class that is being ‘proletarianised’ – no longer can people expect free education and a range of decent employment opportunities to choose from after university; nor can they expect any sort of affordable housing. A clear majority now faces declining living standards and prospects for the future, and Corbyn’s plain-speaking anti-austerity platform speaks to the needs of that majority far more effectively than the Tories, Lib Dems or New Labourites.

  • The last general election was a wake-up call. The resounding failure of Ed Miliband’s half-hearted, apologetically centre-left stance made it all too clear that people are not interested in a political process where, as Craig Murray puts it, “if the range of possible political programmes were placed on a linear scale from 1 to 100, the Labour and Conservative parties offer you the choice between 81 and 84.” The result of Labour’s pathetic platform is that we’ve ended up with “one of the most uncaring, uncompromising and out of touch governments that the UK has seen since Thatcher”. Furthermore, the Scottish independence referendum and the SNP’s extraordinary performance north of the border in the general election amply demonstrated that there is an appetite for anti-austerity, anti-war, left-of-Labour politics; that to adopt progressive stances is not to be unelectable.

  • There is emerging, belatedly, an understanding of the profoundly elitist and anti-popular nature of neoliberalism – the ‘free market’ capitalism that promotes economic growth via unrestrained exploitation. Twenty years ago, with the Soviet Union and its East European allies out of the way, and with a globalised ‘end of history’ declared, international capital no longer felt the need to pander even to the relatively tame social democracy offered by the likes of the Labour left. This was shoved aside in favour of a Thatcherite neoliberalism that, in the words of Stuart Hall, “evolved a broad hegemonic basis for its authority, deep philosophical foundations, as well as an effective popular strategy; that was… grounded in a radical remodelling of state and economy and a new neo-liberal common sense.” The workers and oppressed were deemed irrelevant. Mainstream politics was converted into the undisguised (as opposed to somewhat disguised) representation of the finance capitalist elite.

More recently, in response to a massive global recession for which the poor have been made to pay (while the banks are bailed out to the tune of trillions of dollars), a global fightback against neoliberalism has finally started to grow. This movement has been spearheaded by the wave of progressive governments in Latin America, but is also expressed in different ways by, for example, the rise of the Occupy movement; the coming to power of the Syriza government in Greece; the increasing popularity of Sinn Fein, SNP, Podemos, Die Linke, the Portuguese Communist Party, Portugal’s Left Bloc and other forces. This is the global context in which Corbyn’s victory should be understood.

On top of all that, the people around Corbyn have waged a highly effective and energetic campaign that has tapped into popular sentiment, building a momentum that has proven incredibly resilient in the face of the slander campaign being waged by the mainstream press.

It certainly helps that, in a political world that has become synonymous with corruption, dishonesty, spin, inhumanity and cynical self-interest, Corbyn stands out among mainstream politicians as being consistently principled, genuine, compassionate and honest. He’s a life-long activist against the worst injustices of capitalism, against racism, and against war. He has campaigned for policies that most reasonable people agree with: against wars, against austerity, against the bedroom tax, against privatisation, for taxing the rich, for a living wage, for the NHS, for welcoming refugees. As an MP over three decades, he has an admirable record of standing up for the poor and marginalised.

What does Corbyn stand for?

Corbyn’s election victory and the hype surrounding his campaign are more a reflection of Corbyn as an individual than of the Labour Party as such. The term ‘Corbynmania’ expresses this fairly clearly; after all, what other Labour leader can you imagine inspiring such a level of ‘mania’? Labour’s deeply uninspiring election platform was roundly rejected by the voters in May, handing David Cameron a majority government. ‘Corbynmania’ has arisen in spite of, rather than because of, the Labour Party’s record, and indeed it wouldn’t have been possible were it not for Corbyn’s record of voting against the party whip.

So to the extent that people are inspired by Jeremy Corbyn, what sort of political consciousness does this represent? What is the political framework associated with Corbyn?

The policies Corbyn is best known for are: opposing austerity; supporting the poor; supporting immigrants; opposing racism; protecting welfare; opposing war; opposing nuclear weapons; promoting re-nationalisation of key areas of the economy; protecting trade union rights; building social housing; ending homelessness; supporting public education and healthcare; exiting NATO; working for a united Ireland; supporting Palestine and progressive Latin America.

Corbyn isn’t proposing the overthrow of capitalism (more’s the pity!). His economic programme is not based on putting an end to the system of exploitation of man by man; rather, it expresses an anti-neoliberal vision that shifts the burden of crisis from the oppressed to the oppressors and which puts an end to savage cuts. His manifesto calls – in somewhat fluffy style – for “a fairer, kinder Britain based on innovation, decent jobs and decent public services.” Cuts should be reversed, important industries should be (re-)nationalised, the rich should pay their taxes, and cash should be printed in order to fund infrastructure spending.

Hardly extreme. As economist Michael Burke points out: “Jeremy Corbyn is the only candidate who is NOT proposing extremist economics. His policy aims to promote growth through increased public investment, funded by progressive reform of the current taxation system, and attacking the abuses of the £93 billion in annual payments for ‘corporate welfare’ in subsidies, bribes and incentives to the private sector. At the same time he opposes any attempt to make workers and the poor pay for the crisis and rightly argues that the deficit would close naturally with stronger growth”.

Corbyn’s appointment of Thomas Piketty, Ann Pettifor and Joseph Stigiltz to his economic advisory team indicates that his agenda is about building a credible consensus – within the framework of capitalist economics – for Keynesianism and against austerity. While this is by no means a Marxist programme, it represents a significant break with anything put forward by the political mainstream, and is clearly unacceptable to bulk of the British ruling class, which has worked feverishly to establish neoliberalism as an ideological norm, and which is irretrievably hostile to redistributive economics of any sort.

Foreign policy is another area where Corbyn’s platform resonates with a huge number of British people who oppose Britain’s wars of domination. His leadership election pledge on foreign policy reads:

No more illegal wars; a foreign policy that prioritises justice and assistance. Replacing Trident not with a new generation of nuclear weapons but jobs that retain the communities’ skills.

Corbyn is strongly opposed to any British military involvement in Syria, which the Cameron government is pushing strongly for. He correctly notes that a western bombing campaign actually feeds into the growth of Isis (“I don’t think going on a bombing campaign in Syria is going to bring about their defeat. I think it would make them stronger.”). He has also said that Labour should apologise for the destruction of Iraq, and suggested that Tony Blair could be convicted of war crimes. He opposes Britain’s membership of Nato and the west’s increasingly hostile position vis-a-vis Russia, noting that Nato has been “the major driver for the remilitarisation of central Europe”. He believes that “Britain’s role in international affairs needs to change to the promotion of conflict resolution and co-operation rather than using UK forces to achieve regime change”.

Being ‘tough on immigration’ is considered essential for anyone hoping to be elected to a position of power in England. Pandering to a racist, xenophobic, scape-goating agenda is par for the course – as exemplified by Labour’s notorious anti-immigration mug that appeared in the run-up to the last general election. In that context, Jeremy’s pro-immigration and pro-refugee stance is a breath of fresh air and is something that has won him support. Pointing to the racism and hypocrisy implicit in the mainstream narrative on immigration, Corbyn asks in a recent interview: “Are we actually going to see sort of armed guards all around Europe keeping out the poor and the desperate? Some of whom are victims of impoverishment which is a product of a whole lot of economic circumstances. Some are victims of wars which we have been involved with such as Iraq and the bombing of Libya… At the end of the Second World War there was a coming together of all of the wealthy nations to accept very large numbers of refugees because they saw that as a humanitarian crisis. Is it different because so many of these people come from Africa as opposed to Europe?”

The class enemy goes berserk

Predictably, the mainstream media machine has gone into overdrive in its attempts to bury the movement building around Corbyn. Britain’s newspaper columns have, since the very beginning of the Labour leadership campaign, been given over to an army of Corbyn detractors, from the right-wing fruitcakes of the Daily Mail to the (bulk of the) supposedly left-liberal luvvies of the Guardian. In an almost touching display of unity, the defenders of the imperialist status quo have got together to publicly fret about the possibility of Corbyn’s election ushering in an era of “class hatred, the indulgence of unionised labour, and the Soviet-style handing out of favours to party loyalists on the council payrolls.”

Who better than Boris Johnson to state the case against Corbyn?

“Can this be happening? Are they really proposing that Her Majesty’s Opposition should be led by Jeremy Corbyn? He believes in higher taxes and a bigger deficit, and kowtowing to the unions, and abandoning all attempts to introduce competition or academic rigour in schools – let alone reforming welfare. He is a Sinn Fein-loving, monarchy-baiting, Israel-bashing believer in unilateral nuclear disarmament.”

jcgaThe press have had a field day denouncing Corbyn over his long-standing relations with Sinn Fein; his support for revolutionary Venezuela; his involvement in the Stop the War Coalition, Cuba Solidarity Campaign and Palestine Solidarity Campaign; his stated belief that Hezbollah and Hamas are a necessary part of any valid Middle East peace process. The mad zionists of the Jewish Chronicle lost no time in slinging slanderous accusations of anti-semitism. But of course all this was nothing in comparison to the quantity of mud hurled when he appeared at a Battle of Britain commemoration and failed to sing along with God Save the Queen!

David Cameron apparently worries that, “by leaving Nato, as Jeremy Corbyn suggests, or by comparing American soldiers to Isil … it will make Britain less secure.” Chancellor George Osborne believes that Corbyn’s election will create “an unholy alliance of Labour’s leftwing insurgents and the Scottish nationalists” that would pose a threat to Britain’s national security. It seems this is such a serious concern that there have even been rumblings of a military coup in the event that a Labour government was elected under Corbyn’s leadership.

The level of class hatred directed at Corbyn by the capitalist elite and their media tells us how much of a threat they seem him as.

Possibilities for the working class and oppressed

That the most left-wing, avowedly socialist member of parliament should be elected leader of the numerically largest political party in the country reflects a certain rising level of consciousness of the masses. In world-historic terms, this is still a long way from being a revolutionary consciousness, but ‘you can only start from where you are’. Every step forward is valuable and presents an opportunity for further advance. The sudden appearance of a leftist agenda at the very least creates space in which socialist and anti-imperialist voices can be heard, and in which radical ideas can flourish. For those who have lived through very tough decades of rightward drift in Britain and elsewhere, such space is clearly full of possibility. A recent statement by the US-based Party for Socialism and Liberation puts it well:

“Along with the dramatic rise of new mass movements against austerity throughout Europe, as well as progressive movements in the US, Latin America and elsewhere, it has become clear that the long period of reaction that began in the late 1970s and greatly accelerated under Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States is drawing to a close. A new period of resistance to monopoly capitalism/imperialism is opening up, potentially leading to a revival of not only the trade unions but the revolutionary workers’ movement throughout the world. That this initial revival of anti-capitalism and socialism is being frequently, although not exclusively, expressed through the vehicle of electoral politics is to be expected in the first stage.”

What is perhaps most surprising is that such a progressive sentiment has attached itself to a Labour Party leadership contest. Arguably, this is to a certain degree coincidental. In different circumstances, a rising movement against neoliberalism and war might have attached itself to a process outside the Labour Party (as indeed it has done in Scotland), or it might not have found expression at all within mainstream politics. But the fact is that the left in England has not thus far been able to build a viable organisation to the left of Labour with the capacity to attract and mobilise large numbers of people; with the ability to tap into a spontaneously developing movement. Jeremy’s campaign arrived in the right place at the right time to provide a vehicle for a movement which, while ideologically diverse and lacking coherence, cohesion, strategy and leadership, is united by its opposition to neoliberalism, to austerity, to racism, to xenophobia and to war.

To what extent meaningful change can be brought about via the Labour Party is a difficult and highly controversial topic. The Labour Party has a long history of treachery and imperialism; of doing the bidding of the capitalists under a ‘left’ cloak. It’s perfectly clear that Labour isn’t a vehicle for socialism. However, an important point to consider is that Labour is in a process of change, and, for the first time in many decades, it is moving to the left rather than to the right.

Tens of thousands of new members have joined, the vast majority of them with a view to supporting Corbyn’s platform (it’s estimated that membership has doubled since May’s general election). Corbyn has stated his intention to democratise the party, reducing the decision-making power of the Parliamentary Labour Party and empowering the conference and the constituency branches. He has also said that he’d like to see membership to increase to around half a million (it’s currently around 360,000 and rising fast). At what point does quantity turn into quality? At what point can we say that Labour has become a fundamentally different organisation to the New Labour of Blair and Brown?

Corbyn is in such an unusual position – elected with a huge majority but in a tiny minority of progressive MPs within the Parliamentary Labour Party – that he really has no choice but to grow and strengthen the grassroots membership in order to consolidate his position. Hence the Labour Party has become a crucial arena of class struggle; a place where a political battle is taking place between a pro-neoliberal, pro-imperialist right which has grown accustomed to tightly holding the reins, and a small but growing socialist-oriented left that’s been able to capture the party leadership. This will be one of the key political struggles of our era.

If Corbyn and his team can succeed in fighting off the party bureaucracy and sinister manoevrings of the Blairites, it’s possible we could see a Labour government elected in 2020 with a clear popular mandate to end austerity, stop British participation in imperialist wars, fight against racism and xenophobia, and defend the welfare state. This would be of obvious benefit to the poor of this country; it would also benefit those countries that suffer as a result of British imperialist policy; and it would also provide a boon for other anti-austerity, left-oriented governments and movements in Europe and further afield. Such a development, particularly in a major imperialist centre like Britain, would significantly affect the global balance of forces in a way that is favourable to our side.

Meanwhile, in the years leading up to the next general election, with Corbyn as the leader of the opposition, some room opens up for opposing imperialist and neoliberal policy in a practical way. Although there is a natural tension between a Corbyn-led Labour and the SNP – with Corbyn attempting to win back support in Scotland, and the SNP concerned at his ability to do just that – there is the chance of building a large parliamentary opposition that could disrupt the government’s viciously anti-poor agenda and put obstacles in the way of its military adventures. As Mhairi Black said in her maiden speech to the House of Commons:

“No matter how much I may wish it, the SNP is not the sole opposition to this Government, but nor is the Labour party. It is together with all the parties on these benches that we must form an opposition, and in order to be effective we must oppose not abstain. Let us come together, let us be that opposition, let us be that signpost of a better society. Ultimately people are needing a voice, people are needing help, let’s give them it.”

Is such an opposition worth having? You can answer the question by looking at how much the political establishment doesn’t want it to happen.

jchcDiscussing the potential role of the European working class movement, Samora Machel – pre-eminent leader of the Mozambican Revolution – said: “Progress by the representative movements of the European labouring masses, development in the trends that strive for unity of the progressive forces within capitalist society, are tending to weaken imperialism and so contribute to our common success.” This is a good example of revolutionary pragmatism from someone that doesn’t have the luxury of indulging in consequence-free ultra-left posturing. Socialist and progressive states of the so-called third world understand the value of having relatively progressive people and organisations in positions of power in the imperialist countries. Any brake applied to the most vicious and militaristic imperialism constitutes a tangible boost to the global struggle against imperialism. In the words of Argentina’s ambassador to the UK (and close confidant of Hugo Chávez) Alicia Castro: “Chávez rooted us in the basis of the widest possible unity – unity with anyone with the slightest chance of joining forces against imperialism.

It makes sense, then, that Corbyn’s victory in the leadership contest has been greeted with pleasant surprise by such diverse organisations and individuals as the President of Argentina, the Russian ambassador to the UK, Syriza, Sinn Féin, and Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias; or that news outlets such as Telesur, RT, Press TV and Prensa Latina have been largely positive in their coverage. Limitations notwithstanding, the movement around Corbyn presents significant possibilities that we can’t afford to ignore.

Limitations of Corbyn and left Labour

None of this is to say that Corbyn and the movement around him are devoid of weaknesses and limitations; nothing could be further from the truth. Corbyn is not Lenin, or Chávez, or Allende, or indeed Lula. His socialism is old-Labour clause-four socialism, which is not really socialism in any scientific sense of the word, but rather a Keynesian capitalism which seeks to reduce class conflict by somewhat improving the conditions of the oppressed. Historically, this type of ‘socialism’ has, in the imperialist countries, generally been connected with social chauvinism: support for ruling class foreign policy, on the basis that the profits derived from colonialism and neocolonialism provide the economic basis for improved living conditions at home. That is to say: social democracy has a deep-rooted historical connection with imperialist bribery.

gcsaSo what to make of Corbyn’s anti-imperialism? It’s good and bad. He has always been a strong supporter of a united Ireland – a key issue for the British left, and something that many get wrong. He is a solid supporter of Palestine, and an admirer of the Cuban and Venezuelan revolutions. He was very active in the campaigns against South African apartheid and the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (a close personal friend of Margaret Thatcher) in Chile.

On other key issues, his anti-imperialism is overshadowed by a human rights-oriented left liberalism. In a world where China and Russia constitute the undisputed economic and military leadership of the fightback against Nato hegemony, and where all progressive states – from Venezuela to South Africa – are to a greater or lesser extent rallying round that leadership, it’s a shame that Corbyn has nothing positive to say in relation to either China or Russia. Indeed, he is a supporter of the CIA-linked ‘Free Tibet’ campaign – arguably the central plank of the west’s anti-China propaganda strategy.

However, there’s no need to over-emphasise these concerns in relation to Russia and China. On the most important question regarding Russia, Corbyn is actually ahead of much of the left, in terms of understanding the quasi-fascist nature of the Ukrainian regime (“The far-right is now sitting in government in Ukraine. The origins of the Ukrainian far-right go back to those who welcomed the nazi invasion in 1941 and acted as allies of the invaders”) and the predatory imperialist nature of Nato’s eastward expansion. Meanwhile, if nothing else, simple economic pragmatism should help to improve Corbyn’s position on China.

Corbyn opposes Scottish independence. I, like Craig Murray, “am quite sure his opposition is not of the Britnat imperialist variety”, given his lifelong support of Irish republicanism. The simple fact is that it would be political suicide for Corbyn to sign up to Scottish independence at a time when he is pushing Labour in the direction of policies that are supported by a far higher percentage of the Scottish population than the English population. That said, he has stated that Scottish Labour MPs should have a free vote on independence. The key thing for the moment is to build an oppositional consensus against austerity, xenophobia and war, as discussed above.

Of course, if Corbyn is far from fantastic on matters anti-imperialist, it goes without saying that his political party as a whole is a lot worse. Labour is an imperialist party with a horrific record of participation in British colonialism and neocolonialism. It doesn’t stop being imperialist overnight just because its membership have managed to elect a decent human being to the leadership. In playing down the imperialist history of his party, Corbyn creates illusions in that party, focussing on building consensus against austerity rather than around broader anti-imperialism.

But such is the challenge for those that understand the world at a deeper-than-surface level: to find ways to educate and agitate such that a rising progressive sentiment is channelled towards a real, lasting, effective socialist and anti-imperialist movement. The point is to appreciate the value and significance of Corbyn without deifying him or looking to him to provide a grand strategy for overthrowing capitalism and imperialism.

To defend or denounce

“The whole task of the communists is to be able to convince the backward elements, to work among them, and not to fence themselves off from them by artificial and childishly ‘left’ slogans.” (Lenin)

The left in Britain finds itself in a new and entirely unexpected situation; a situation that calls not for dogmatic sloganeering but for a creative application of revolutionary understanding, and an updating of strategies and tactics to take new developments into account.

In Corbyn, we have a decent sort of person who strongly identifies with the oppressed, and whose basic policy base is progressive and worthy of support, even if his party won’t let him implement much of it. What’s more, the people – hundreds of thousands of them – attracted by Corbyn’s policies are exactly the type of people that should be won over to better, more consistent socialist and anti-imperialist politics.

To what extent is it possible to influence, mobilise and educate this constituency? Certainly not all the people inspired by Corbyn are salt-of-the-earth workers or disenfranchised immigrant youth; probably a majority would be considered ‘middle class’, and would in the past have stuck with safe, middle-of-the-road liberal politics. However, as described above, modern capitalism is ‘proletarianising’ vast numbers of people. The impoverishment and concomitant radicalisation of the middle class is not a new phenomenon; indeed it is one of the processes on which the possibility of winning socialism in the imperialist countries is predicated.

Corbyn’s campaign has created a huge wave of enthusiasm among hundreds of thousands of people for whom ‘socialism’ and ‘anti-imperialism’ are not dirty words; who want to defend migrants’ rights; who want to defend free education, healthcare, disability allowances; who do not support British participation in imperialist wars; who hate ‘austerity’ economics; who are willing to fight racism; who want to put preservation of the planet before the creation of profit; who have seen the SNP campaigning on a platform significantly to the left of Labour and who want something similar in England. That all these thousands of people getting on board with the Corbyn campaign haven’t been put off by the media’s hate propaganda indicates that they can’t simply be dismissed as weak-kneed liberals.

Therefore it should be obvious enough that, rather than pouring contempt on these people for their inevitable weaknesses, the thing to do is to understand those weaknesses and seek to overcome them through education and shared experience in class struggle. As the PSL statement quoted above notes: “The British and US rulers are supremely class conscious, and are all too aware that the deep assault against the living standards of the working classes could dynamically awaken a new generation to mass struggle. They are keenly aware that a fire of fightback and resistance once lit can spread outside of their control and be the basis for a revival of revolutionary socialism far outside the limits of social democracy.”

The choice for those to the left of Corbyn is clear: join in with the class enemy in denouncing Corbyn and pouring cold water on the movement building around him; or defend Corbyn, engage with his constituency, and attempt to develop this movement into something of lasting value.

After all, what are the alternatives available in terms of attempting to build a socialist movement in Britain? As it stands, there is no mass movement to the left of Corbyn. There are dozens of small revolutionary organisations, but these are all but invisible to the vast majority of the population. In the painfully backward situation we’re in, with socialist, communist and anti-imperialist forces in disarray, there isn’t anything commendable about leaving parliamentary politics to the Blairs, Camerons and Farages so that they can carry on running their for-us-by-us millionaire governments with impunity.

Does Jeremy Corbyn create illusions in the Labour Party? Well, yes. But this is hardly the most pressing political problem for the left at this moment. And support for Corbyn does not preclude, or get in the way of, or diminish the need for, building a revolutionary alternative. Do we need to re-build an anti-imperialist, socialist, communist movement? Without a doubt! But we can hardly blame Corbyn for the fact that we haven’t managed it thus far.

The ruling class attack on Corbyn and on the ‘left Labour’ project he leads will be vindictive and persistent. The blows will come from all angles – not least from the inevitably ‘inclusive’ shadow cabinet and the right-wing-dominated Parliamentary Labour Party. Corbyn, John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and others are being, and will continue to be, subjected to the wrath and ridicule of the press. The class enemy will not rest until Labour is back in ‘safe hands’ and the movement against neoliberalism and war fizzles out.

It is critical that we disrupt this agenda; that we defend Corbyn, his limitations notwithstanding; that we explore ways to push forward this growing movement and political consciousness. Time to defend what has been gained, and work out how to build on it.

The Revolutionary Thought of Samora Machel

Samora Machel is the name most closely associated with the liberation of Mozambique from Portuguese colonialism and the construction of an independent post-colonial state. Born on 29 September 1933, he would today be celebrating his 82nd birthday had he not died in a plane crash in 1986, almost certainly engineered by the intelligence services of apartheid South Africa.

Machel was a deeply committed and capable leader, accomplished revolutionary strategist, firm anti-imperialist and proud Marxist-Leninist. His story, and that of the Mozambican Revolution, deserves serious study. It’s unfortunate that the legacy of Machel, Frelimo (the Mozambique Liberation Front) and the heroic Mozambican people has passed almost entirely into obscurity, as there is much to learn from such topics, particularly in relation to the extraordinary difficulties involved in building socialism in an underdeveloped, post-colonial country surrounded by enemies.

machel-bishopIn the interests of developing understanding of Mozambique, of Frelimo, and of the broader issues of African anti-imperialism and socialism, we publish here a selection of quotes from Samora Machel. The vast majority are sourced from the excellent (but sadly out-of-print) book of his speeches, ‘Samora Machel – an African Revolutionary’ (Zed Books, 1986); a few are taken from other sources, including Joseph Hanlon’s useful book ‘Mozambique – The Revolution Under Fire’ (Zed Books, 1984).

Invent the Future will soon be publishing a more detailed article on the history of the Mozambican Revolution and Mozambique’s trajectory as a post-colonial independent state.

Leading by example

An official who will not let his own hands become calloused may hold hundreds of meetings on production, but he will not persuade one person to be productive or set up a single cooperative.

Global imperialist propaganda

So long as there is capitalism and imperialism in the world, its propaganda and subversion will make itself felt against us, and the winning of independence and power will be no guarantee of our invulnerability to degenerate values.

The importance of political study

Political study strengthens our awareness and analytical capacity, enriches the content of our struggle, raises our revolutionary practice and level of commitment, and teaches us how to change society.

Bourgeois democracy

The successive domination by the various exploiting minorities – dictatorship over the masses – is always exercised in a more or less camouflaged manner so that the masses do not appreciate their real situation and do not perceive that they are subject to oppression.

Leadership and unity

machel giapFor a leadership body to work with the masses it must be united. When there are contradictions in the leadership body, this gives rise to rumours, intrigue and slander. Each faction tries to mobilise support for its views, dividing the masses. When we are disunited we divide the masses and the fighters, causing the rank and file to lose confidence in the leadership, demobilising it and making it inactive, and opening breaches through which the enemy penetrates. We ultimately divide our own friends… Unity within the leadership behind a correct line, at whatever level, is the driving force of any sector and the precondition for success in a task.

Unity needs daily sustenance. Collective living, working and study, criticism and self-criticism, and mutual help are the food, salts and vitamins of unity. Members of the leadership should not therefore live separately from one another, each absorbed in his own private world, only coming together when there is a meeting… The members of the leadership ought to make an effort to live together, to know one another better in day-to-day life and to understand each other’s failings, so as to be in a better position to offer mutual correction. Working together, producing together, sweating together, suffering the rigours of the march together and overcoming the challenges of the enemy and the environment creates strong bonds of friendship and mutual respect. It is not by words that we are bound together, but by the many activities we share when serving the people; it is unity fed by sweat and suffering and blood that binds us together.

Unity is not something static, a supernatural and absolute value that we place on a pedestal to worship. In the process of struggling for unity we have always said: we must know with whom we are uniting and why.

To live or die

Death is inevitable for man. The real choice is between living and fighting for victory or lying down under exploitation, domination and oppression.


International solidarity is not an act of charity: it is an act of unity between allies fighting on different terrains toward the same objectives. The foremost of these objectives is to assist in the development of humanity to the highest level possible.

Solidarity is an assertion that no people is alone, no people is isolated in the struggle for progress. Solidarity is the conscious alliance of the progressive and peace-loving revolutionary forces in the common struggle against colonialism, capitalism and imperialism. In short, against exploitation of man by man. And this struggle may be in Asia, in Europe, or in America, or the struggle may be in Africa, but it is the same struggle. It has common enemies and its enemies are always principal.

Solidarity has no race and no colour, and its country has no frontiers. There is no solidarity just among Africans, no exclusively Asian solidarity, since the enemy of the people also has no country or race.

Defining friends and enemies

Defining the target for our weapons cannot admit any ambiguity, all the more as in the historical context of our struggle, when we are mainly confronting the economic, political and military forces of another nation, it is all too easy to identify the enemy with a race. This denatures the sense of the struggle, allowing the reactionary forces to dig themselves in and losing us the political sensitivity needed to avoid mistaking friend and enemy.

Some might think that in our kind of war, a national liberation war, all those individuals who have the enemy’s colour or nationality are automatically the enemy. The child as much as the soldier, the old man as much as the policemen, the woman in the same way as the big bosses, the worker as much as the heads of the colonial administration; if they are white, or Portuguese, they should be targets for our weapon. The group of new exploiters in our midst who hoped to replace the colonialists as a dominant class did try to impose this definition of the enemy. Some circles regard these racist concepts as revolutionary radicalism, either through lack of ideological clarity or in a bid to confuse public opinion about the justness of our line and to discredit the genuine revolutionary forces.

Since ours in a people’s war and defends the people’s interests, we are well aware that there is no antagonism between the fundamental interests of the Mozambican people and those of any other people in the world, including the portugues people. For the same reason we always say that there is no reason for any antagonism between us and the Portuguese civilian population in Mozambique. It is the Portuguese colonialists who are putting settlers on land pillaged from our population, who indulge in the most atrocious crimes against women, children, old people and civilians in general, who are trying to provoke a racial war that would change the character of our combat.

Frelimo’s political action, the consciousness and sense of discipline of the masses and the fighters have destroyed this sinister manoeuvre of the enemy. We accept in our ranks without discrimination all whites who identify as Mozambicans and want to fight alongside us. Our forces have shown scrupulous regard for the life and property of Portuguese civilians. Frelimo has constantly appealed to the Portuguese community in Mozambique to support the fight against colonialism and fascism.


Let us be clear in this regard. We are utterly against racism. Racism of any kind. Racism is a reactionary attitude that splits workers, by setting white workers against black workers and sapping their class-consciousness. Racism impedes a correct definition of the enemy, by allowing enemy agents to infiltrate under a cloak of colour… We say that our enemy has no colour, no race, no country. Nor does our friend. We do not define friend or enemy in terms of skin colour. There are whites and blacks who are our comrades, and there are whites and blacks who are our enemies. We are not struggling against a colour but against a system – the system of exploitation of man by man. The louse, the tick and the bug are not all of one colour, but none of them drinks water or milk – they live off blood.

Racism is a cancer still manifest in our society. A cancer that splits the workers and denies them unity and class-consciousness. Racism is a cancer that feeds division and saps the common trench of anti-imperialism. It must be ended and eradicated to the last root.

Frelimo once again declares firmly and clearly that it will not tolerate any racial conflict. To the white population, made up essentially of honest workers, we repeat what we have always said: our struggle is your struggle, it is a struggle against exploitation, a struggle to build a new country and establish a people’s democracy.

The liberation of women

The liberation of women is not an act of charity. It is not the result of a humanitarian or compassionate position. It is a fundamental necessity for the Revolution, a guarantee of its continuity, and a condition for its success. The Revolution’s main objective is to destroy the system of the exploitation of man by man, the construction of a new society which will free human potentialities and reconcile work and nature. It is within this context that the question of women’s liberation arises. In general, the women are the most oppressed, the most exploited beings in our society. She is exploited even by him who is exploited himself, beaten by him who is tortured by the palmatorio, humiliated by him who is trod underfoot by the boss or the settler. How may our Revolution succeed without liberating women? Is it possible to liquidate a system of exploitation and still leave a part of society exploited? Can we get rid of only one part of exploitation and oppression? Can we clear away half the weeds without the risk that the surviving half will grow even stronger? Can we then make the Revolution without the mobilization of women? If women compose over half of the exploited and oppressed population, can we leave them on the fringes of the struggle? In order for the Revolution to succeed, we must mobilize all of the exploited and oppressed, and consequently the women also. In order for the Revolution to triumph, it must liquidate the totality of the exploitative and oppressive system, it must liberate all the exploited and oppressed people, and thus it must liquidate women’s exploitation and oppression. It is obliged to liberate women.

Three-fold nature of the Mozambican Revolution

The Mozambican people’s struggle at its current stage has three aspects. It is an anti-colonial struggle aimed at destroying the colonial-fascist state; an anti-imperialist struggle aimed at destroying the control by multinational companies and ending imperialism’s use of our country as a launching pad for aggression against progressive African regimes and protection of the bastions of racism and fascism; finally it is a struggle aimed at destroying the system of exploitation of many by man and replacing it with a new social order at the service of the labouring masses of the people.

A historical line from the Paris Commune to the Mozambican Revolution

samora sankara Historically speaking, the first occasion when the exploited masses did, after various failed bids, win and exercise power, was Paris in 1870. The Paris Commune was smashed after a few months by a coalition of French and German reactionaries, and 30,000 workers were massacred. Finally, in 1917, under the leadership of Lenin, the exploited achieved power in Tsarist Russia and created the Soviet Union, the first state in the world with the people in power. After the victory of the democratic forces in the anti-Fascist war, people‘s power spread to new countries such as China, the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Asia. In Europe, people’s power was established in many countries such as the Romanian Republic, the German Democratic Republic, the Bulgarian Republic, etc. The first people’s state on the American continent was established with the victory of the popular forces in Cuba in 1959. People’s power has become a reality for about one-third of mankind. The areas where the working masses have won power are known as the ‘socialist camp’ and today comprise 14 countries. In our country, slave-owners, feudalists, kings, emperors ruled society until the colonial conquest. The colonialist bourgeoisie then established itself in power and imposed its wishes upon all strata in the country until the time when our struggle began to overthrow it.

Socialist solidarity

samora stamp In the socialist countries, where, with the example of the great October Socialist Revolution, the system of exploitation of man by man has been overthrown, the masses in power are building a new society and are establishing a liberated area of our planet, a strategic rear-base for our fight. The wealth of theoretical and practical experience they acquired in the fight for liberation from the old society and to build the new, is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for all of us. The moral, political, diplomatic and material support granted to our struggle is an important ingredient of the successes we have achieved. Those countries are our natural allies throughout the entire process of revolution, since the objective is to build a new society free of any human alienation. Their existence provides the crucial external objective factor for the current triumph of our people’s democratic revolution.

There has been an extraordinary strengthening of the ties of friendship and solidarity between us, and of the exemplary fraternal support afforded by the socialist countries to our cause. We have established direct relations between Frelimo and the parties leading the German Democratic Republic, Bulgaria, China, the DPR Korea, Yugoslavia, Romania, the Soviet Union and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and this has been a profound inducement to a deeper knowledge of our mutual experience, to a better understanding of our needs and situation, with the consequence of more appropriate material aid.

Global struggle

In view of the character and objective of our fight, our natural allies are essentially: the national liberation movements, and in these there must naturally be included countries recently liberated, especially in Africa; socialist countries; the labouring masses, especially the working class; and the progressive anti-colonialist and anti-fascist forces in the capitalist countries.

Our experience has shown that it is possible to establish a broad front throughout the peoples of the world for the isolation of Portuguese colonialism. Within countries committed to NATO, which support the colonial war economically and militarily, action from the people can make governments dissociate themselves from Portuguese colonialism, as has been shown by the positions taken by the governments of Holland, Denmark and Norway. The recent stand taken by the people in Italy and Belgium, among others, has had a positive effect on the governments. Other governments, such as those in Sweden and Finland, which traditionally had good relations with Portugal, are now, thanks to the people’s sentiment, committing themselves to support our cause.

Progress by the representative movements of the European labouring masses, development in the trends that strive for unity of the progressive forces within capitalist society, are tending to weaken imperialism and so contribute to our common success.

Of particular importance to us is the development of the anti-war movement in Portugal. Increasingly heavy casualties for the colonial troops, the astronomic rise in the cost of living due to the war, along with campaigns by the Portuguese democratic forces, have led to increasing consciousness on the part of the broad masses. The labouring masses and the working class who bear the main brunt of the war in lives, taxes and worsening living standards, and students and intellectual circles, have played a relevant part in this. We must emphasise that the Portuguese Communist Party and other progressive and democratic forces have been crucial to this process. We find today that all social strata and non-fascist sectors are committed to struggling against the colonial war.


The men and women who accompanied Marx at his burial in a London cemetery were few. Today the lives of thousands of millions of men and women have been profoundly affected and changed by the enduring ideas of Marx. In four continents, workers, taking control of their destiny, are building a happy future, are building socialism, communism. Against Marxism, against Leninism, which is our epoch’s Marxism, imperialism mobilises incalculable human and material resources. The most sophisticated weapons, the threat of thermonuclear, bacteriological and chemical disaster, the ocean depths and cosmic space are deployed in an attempt to neutralise and destroy Marxism-Leninism. The spectre that haunted the bourgeoisie in Europe a hundred years ago still haunts them, but now it is perceptible throughout the world.

For the oppressed peoples and classes, for the peoples and workers who have taken control of their destiny, Marxism is a shining path, a sun of hope and certainty that never sets, a sun that is always at its zenith. Marxism, the science of revolution, is the fruit of practice, of mankind’s struggle for a better future and so is renewed and developed through human practice. The experience of revolutionary struggle of the Mozambican people provides an illustration of this principle… A century after the death of Marx, the cause of socialism and communism has ceased to be a dream and has become a reality that changes the world. The vitality of revolutionary science, systematised by Marx, can have no better proof than the facts themselves.

The accumulated experience of mankind in the struggle against exploitation, synthesised in Marxism, enabled the Mozambican revolutionary movement to benefit from and absorb that experience. In the process Marxism was enriched.

 Liberation struggles and the Portuguese revolution

The heroic struggle of the Mozambican people led by Frelimo, and the struggles of the brother peoples in Angola and Guinea-Bissau, led by the MPLA and the PAIGC, brought the collapse of the Portuguese colonial-fascist regime. The 25 April movement was thus a product of our peoples’ heroic struggles – we liberated the metropole. Without the struggle in the colonies, fascism would not have fallen. It was not an act of charity but a sacrifice by our peoples. Portuguese colonialism in Mozambique crumbled in the face of Frelimo’s decisive victories.

Problems after liberation

Discontent will arise. All those who were hoping to exploit the people, to step into the shoes of colonialism, will oppose us. Erstwhile companions of ours who initially accepted the popular aims of our struggle, but who in practice reject the internal struggle to change their values and customs, will move away from us to the extent of deserting or even betraying… The reactionary forces, the disgruntled elements, will see in an alliance with the enemy a way of safeguarding their petty and anti-popular interests, while the enemy will find in such an alliance a golden opportunity to strike a blow against the revolution.

Real liberation versus neocolonialism

We often say that in the course of the struggle our great victory has been in transforming the armed struggle for national liberation into a revolution. In other words, our final aim in the struggle is not to hoist a flag different from the Portuguese, or to hold more or less honest elections in which Blacks and not Whites are elected, or to put a black president into the Ponta Vermelha Palace in Lourenco Marques instead of a white governor. We say our aim is to win complete independence, establish people’s power, build a new society without exploitation, for the benefit of all those who identify as Mozambicans.

The patronising western view of ‘Africanness’

samora neto After independence, we went on with our fight for liberation: the fight to restore dignity, identity and the Mozambican culture; the fight to build a new society, a new outlook, a New Man; the fight to destroy exploitation; the fight to build socialism. We freed the land. We nationalised the schools: education ceased to be a privilege; we abolished the private schools and private tutors. We nationalised the health service: the hospitals were opened to all the people; we did away with private medical practice. We abolished private legal practice: justice ceased to be a commodity. We nationalised the funeral parlours: we ensured dignity for the burial of any citizen. We nationalised rented property: the cities became the property of those who built them; the cement cities, for the first time in our history, took on a Mozambican face.

These are our people’s revolutionary victories. They were the first steps towards the building of a new society, a socialist society. A socialist society means the welfare of all: the right to work; the right to education and health without discrimination; the right of every citizen to decent housing, to reasonable transport, to butter and eggs for our children and for all of us; the right to be decently dressed… that’s what we want.

Bur our friends in the west say that if we go about well dressed, if we shave, if we have decent housing, we shall lose our ‘African characteristics’. Do you know what ‘African characteristics’ are? A skin, a loincloth, a wrap-around cloth, a stick in hand behind a flock, to be skinny with every rib sticking out, sores on the feet and legs, with a cashew leaf to cover the suppurating wound – that is African. That’s what they see as African characteristics. So when the tourists come, they are looking for an African dressed like that, since that is the ‘genuine African’. Now when they find us dressed in a tunic and trousers – we are no longer the Africans. They don’t take photographs. They need Africa to have no industry, so that it will continue to provide raw materials. Not to have a steel industry. Since this would be a luxury for the African. They need Africa not to have dams, bridges, textile mills for clothing. A factory for shoes? No, the African doesn’t deserve it. No, that’s not for the Africans.

The decadent nature of colonial armies

The exploitative mentality of the colonial army naturally leads it to pillage and robbery of the people’s possessions. The enemy’s corrupt mentality in regard to women leads him naturally to immorality and rape. The decadent tastes of capitalism lead to a taste for drunkenness and drug-taking, as a way of smothering and alienating consciousness. Fascist and colonialist logic, and its intrinsic contempt for human dignity, leads to systematic use of the most barbarous, inhuman and sadistic crimes, just as it provokes human degradation and bestiality in the repressive forces themselves.

Production as an act of militancy

The enterprise, the workshop, is for us the incubator where class consciousness is nurtured. What we manufacture, the way we work, how we discuss and plan production, provides a window on our class consciousness. In our republic where power belongs to the worker-peasant alliance, production is an act of militancy. Now that we no longer have the whip and forced labour, production is an act of militancy.

The main tasks

We want to create conditions such that in this generation disease, hunger, poverty, illiteracy and ignorance should begin to vanish forever from our country. Just as we emerged victorious from the struggle against colonialism, just as we smashed the racist aggression of the illegal Ian Smith regime, so we shall also emerge victorious from this battle, because once again we shall be able to bring together the energy and intelligence of the entire people for peace, progress, prosperity and plenty. It is the task of all of us to organise society so that we can conquer underdevelopment.

Fifty years on the frontline: the revolutionary contributions of Ho Chi Minh

People of Ho Chi Minh’s calibre don’t come around often. One of the great revolutionaries of the twentieth century, he excelled as a leader, a teacher, a journalist, a strategist, an internationalist, a unifier, a guerrilla fighter, a negotiator, a creative thinker, a poet. He endured decades of exile and then decades of war. He suffered prison and torture in China in the early 1940s (by which time he was already in his fifties). As a guerrilla leader and then as the president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam under attack from French colonialism, he lived with his comrades in the most basic possible conditions in the caves of Cao Bang, often having to forage for food. And yet, his dedication to the causes of Vietnamese independence, Vietnamese unification, and global socialism never faltered. With relentless energy, profound intelligence and undying passion, he led his people through every up and down over the course of half a century.

His most notable achievements include:

  • Providing the major inspiration and strategic vision for the Vietnamese Revolution from the early 1920s up until his death in 1969.
  • Connecting the Vietnamese independence struggle with the global socialist and anti-imperialist movement, and thereby providing it with a source of decisive support.
  • Uniting different political trends and backgrounds into a single, extremely effective fighting organisation.
  • Purposefully building and training a close-knit team of serious revolutionaries capable of providing leadership to the Vietnamese masses.
  • Promoting and building maximum national unity against imperialism, bringing the peasantry, working class, intellectuals and patriotic capitalist elements together in order to struggle against French, Japanese and US colonialism.
  • Along with the other top leaders of the Vietnamese resistance, consistently making a correct analysis of the prevailing balance of forces, enabling historic victories such as the capture of power in August 1945, the defeat of the French occupation in 1954, the building of socialism in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam), and the Tet Offensive of 1968, which served as the major turning point in the war with the US.
  • Leading the work of inspiring, organising and educating the masses of the Vietnamese people for their long struggle against imperialism and for socialism.

With very good reason, ‘Uncle Ho’ continues to be revered, loved and studied in Vietnam, and his legacy remains a source of profound inspiration for anti-imperialists throughout the world. However, given how great a role he played, surprisingly few people know anything about him other than that he was the leader of the Vietnamese Revolution and that he once said “nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.” Therefore, in writing this article (which is published on the 125th anniversary of Ho’s birth), I try to give some insight into his legacy, focusing in particular on his first few decades of activity and on those events that served to shape his ideas and strategy – and in turn the course of the Vietnamese revolution.

The article is followed by a selection of quotes that I hope the reader will find useful.

ho flowersFor any reader looking for more detail, the best place to start is unquestionably Ho Chi Minh’s selected works, which tell the story of the Vietnamese Revolution better than any other book. The well-known biographies by western authors William Duiker and Jean Lacouture are both very useful, although they’re not written from a communist or anti-imperialist perspective. Duiker in particular has done a huge amount of painstaking work to dig out the details of Ho’s life – a job made very difficult by the fact that Ho operated for much of his life in conditions of strict secrecy, in many different countries, using dozens of pseudonyms. The biographies by Ho Chi Minh’s comrades-in-arms Pham Van Dong and Truong Chinh will strike most western readers as being overzealous in their praise, but they nonetheless contain useful insights and moving recollections, as does the collection of articles entitled ‘Reminiscences of Ho Chi Minh’.

Evolution of a revolutionary

Nguyen Sinh Cung, as he was then called, was born on 19 May 1890 in the tough mountain terrain of Nghe An. His father was a scholar, well-respected but penniless as a result of his opposition to French colonial rule. Ho Chi Minh was raised in a spirit of patriotism and with a deep respect for the Vietnamese heroes of past centuries who had waged long and bitter struggles against foreign domination. As a student in Hue in the first decade of the twentieth century, he became involved in the protest movement against the brutality of the French occupiers. In order to avoid arrest for his activism, he went south to Saigon – at that time the capital of the French colony of Cochin China – from where he decided to go abroad. Working on ships, he spent two years at sea. William Duiker, in his exhaustive biography ‘Ho Chi Minh: A Life’, writes:

Exposure to the world outside Vietnam had a major impact on his thinking and attitude toward life. Over a decade later, when he began to write articles for French publications, his descriptions of the harsh realities of life in the colonised port cities of Asia, Africa, and Latin America were often shocking, dealing with the abject misery in which many people lived and the brutality with which they were treated by their European oppressors. By the beginning of the twentieth century, much of the world had been placed under colonial rule, and the port cities of Africa and Asia teemed with dockworkers, rickshaw pullers, and manual labourers, all doing the bidding of the white man. It may have been during this period of travel abroad that the foundations of his later revolutionary career were first laid.

After working for some months in New York and Boston (including, in the latter city, at the same hotel at which Malcolm X worked some thirty years later!), Ho Chi Minh came to London, where he worked in various kitchen jobs and came into contact with Marxist ideas for the first time. Whilst in London, he found out about the Irish independence struggle and became an agitator for that cause. Writing in 1920 about the death on hunger strike of the Irish Republican leader Terence MacSwiney (in Brixton Prison), he wrote: “A nation that has such citizens will never surrender” (see Peter Berresford Ellis ‘A History of the Irish Working Class’). Ireland’s epic anti-colonial struggle became an inspiration, and helped to refine Ho Chi Minh’s strategic thought in relation to the situation in Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh arrived in France around the time of the end of the First World War and quickly established contact with the Vietnamese community there, as well as with French socialists and communists, and members of numerous exiled and immigrant communities from other colonies, including Korea, China, Algeria, Madagascar and the French colonies of West Africa. Adopting the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the patriot), he started to write passionately and copiously. As his reports and declarations seeped back into Indochina (under which name Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were collectively administered by France), the name Nguyen Ai Quoc increasingly inspired curiosity, then support, then loyalty from the people of Vietnam, suffering as they were under the heel of France’s “civilising mission” – a civilising mission that denied people the right to education, to land, to decent working conditions, to even the most basic forms of democracy; a civilising mission that promoted opium addiction as a means of pacifying the masses and enriching the colonisers.

Global struggle against imperialism and for socialism

In France, Ho Chi Minh was introduced by French communists to the key elements of revolutionary ideology. In a small library in Paris, he devoured Marx’s Capital and other classic texts. However, he soon came to see some of the problems and contradictions afflicting the French communist and socialist movement – problems that, a century later, continue to afflict the left in Western Europe and North America. Focused exclusively on the class struggle in France, they knew little of the anti-colonial struggle and didn’t have a consistent policy regarding liberation of the colonies.

This was around the time of the founding of the Communist International (variously known as the Third International and the Comintern), made necessary by the descent of its predecessor (the Second International) into what Lenin referred to as ‘social chauvinism’: a position of collaboration with, and support for, the various capitalist governments in pursuit of the First World War. This war was, after all, an imperialist war; a war based on competition between different imperialist powers for control of the colonies. The revolutionary position put forward by the Bolsheviks and a handful of others was: refuse to cooperate with the war, take advantage of the crisis to defeat capitalism in Europe, and help to bring about freedom for the colonies. In a short but profound and moving article called The Path Which Led Me To Leninism, Ho Chi Minh discusses his trajectory as a revolutionary and how he came to be totally aligned with the Third International.

What I wanted most to know was: which International sides with the peoples of colonial countries? I raised this question – the most important in my opinion – in a meeting. Some comrades answered: It is the Third, not the Second International. And a comrade gave me Lenin’s ‘Thesis on the national and colonial questions’ published by l’Humanite to read. There were political terms difficult to understand in this thesis. But by dint of reading it again and again, finally I could grasp the main part of it. What emotion, enthusiasm, clear-sightedness and confidence it instilled into me! I was overjoyed to tears. Though sitting alone in my room, I shouted out aloud as if addressing large crowds: ‘Dear martyrs, compatriots! This is what we need, this is the path to our liberation!’

After that, I had entire confidence in Lenin, in the Third International. Formerly, during the meetings of the Party branch, I only listened to the discussion; I had a vague belief that all were logical, and could not differentiate as to who were right and who were wrong. But from then on, I also plunged into the debates and discussed with fervour. Though I was still lacking French words to express all my thoughts, I smashed the allegations attacking Lenin and the Third International with no less vigour. My only argument was: ‘If you do not condemn colonialism, if you do not side with the colonial people, what kind of revolution are you waging?’

On the basis of his groundbreaking study of imperialism, and seeing how imperialist profits had allowed the European capitalists to ‘buy social peace’ and bribe much of the working class leadership, Lenin came to understand that the anti-colonial struggle was a crucial part of the global struggle for socialism. Armed with this understanding, the Soviet Union became a massive ‘liberated territory’ for the anti-colonial struggles, and the Third International updated Marx’s slogan “Workers of the world, unite” to read: “Workers and oppressed peoples of the world, unite!”

Thus, in the age of imperialism, the liberatory ideas expressed in the Communist Manifesto had become relevant not just to the working class of Europe but also to the oppressed and downtrodden people of the entire world. Ho Chi Minh was the first Vietnamese, and one of the first globally, to fully understand the significance of this and to apply it to his own nation’s liberation struggle. For the remaining five decades of his life, he would stay true to the principle of the unity of the global struggle against imperialism and for socialism. With his uncanny ability to sum up political ideas in a simple way, he said:

Capitalism is a leech with one sucker on the working class in the imperialist countries and the other on the oppressed peoples of the colonies. To kill that leech, its two suckers must both be cut off. If only one sucker is removed, the other will continue bleeding the workers white and the leech will still be alive and grow a new sucker.


In France, Ho Chi Minh set up a journal called Le Paria (The Pariah), which from 1922 to 1926 was a leading voice for the anti-imperialist struggle. Copies were smuggled into Indochina, providing a first window into the world of global revolution for people whose access to information was severely limited by French censorship. One biographer of Ho Chi Minh, the French journalist Jean Lacouture, comments of Ho’s writing at the time that “the remarkable thing … is the global conception of the problem of the oppressed, the constant determination not to isolate what was only one of many colonial questions.”

Late in 1923, having earned a reputation for himself as a capable and fiery propagandist against colonialism, the young Nguyen Ai Quoc [Ho Chi Minh] had the chance to travel to the Soviet Union. Given work at the Far Eastern Bureau of the Comintern, he quickly became an important and popular figure in Moscow, providing valuable information about the situation of the Indochinese people and their sufferings under French colonialism. In Moscow he became friends with several key figures of the international movement, including Georgi Dimitrov (later the General Secretary of the Comintern and first leader of post-war Bulgaria) and Zhou Enlai (a top leader of the Chinese Revolution and first Premier of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 until his death in 1976).

Towards the end of 1923, Ho enrolled at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East, at which there were then over a thousand students from 62 different countries. “As Nguyen Ai Quoc described it in his article, the school was an idyllic place to study. There were two libraries containing over forty-seven thousand books, and each major nationality represented at the school possessed its own section with books and periodicals in its own national language. The students were ‘serious and full of enthusiasm’ and ‘passionately longed to acquire knowledge and to study.’ The staff and the instructors treated the foreign students ‘like brothers’ and even invited them to ‘participate in the political life of the country.’” (Duiker) The experiences studying, and later teaching, at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East undoubtedly helped to cement the ideas of the budding revolutionary Nguyen Ai Quoc.

In Moscow, Ho was disappointed to find that not all personalities and parties of the Comintern – including the party of which he was a founder member, the French Communist Party – were living up to Lenin’s demand to highlight and support the anti-colonial struggle. Taking the floor at the Fifth Congress of the Comintern in June 1924, he reiterated the importance of workers in the ‘metropolis’ joining hands with oppressed peoples: “You all know that today the poison and life energy of the capitalist snake is concentrated more in the colonies than in the mother countries. The colonies supply the raw materials for industry. The colonies supply soldiers for the armies. In the future, the colonies will be bastions of the counterrevolution. Yet in your discussions of the revolution you neglect to talk about the colonies… Why do you neglect the colonies, while capitalism uses them to support itself, defend itself, and fight you?” (cited in Duiker). Specifically pointing to the hypocrisy of the west European parties, he added: “As for our Communist Parties in Great Britain, Holland, Belgium and other countries – what have they done to cope with the colonial invasions perpetrated by the bourgeois class of their countries? What have they done from the day they accepted Lenin’s political programme to educate the working class of their countries in the spirit of just internationalism, and that of close contact with the working masses in the colonies? What our parties have done in this domain is almost worthless. As for me, I was born in a French colony, and am a member of the French Communist Party, and I am very sorry to say that our Communist Party has done hardly anything for the colonies.”

Throughout his life, Ho would struggle consistently against this weakness he saw in the western left: its adherence to a narrow, pre-Lenin, eurocentric version of Marxism that sees the world purely in terms of the battle between workers and capitalists in the west, ignoring the key questions of imperialism and national oppression. It’s worth pointing out that, sadly, this weakness is not some sort of historical relic, confined to the ‘bad old days’. Indeed it is still decidedly recognisable today, in an era when huge numbers of supposed socialists and communists in the west refuse to side with peoples under attack from the imperialist powers (Syria, Libya and Ukraine come to mind).

At the Comintern Congress, Ho Chi Minh also took the opportunity to highlight the revolutionary role that could and would be played by the peasantry in the colonies: “Famine is on the increase and so is the people’s hatred. The native peasants are ripe for insurrection. In many colonies, they have risen many times but their uprisings have all been drowned in blood. If at present the peasants still have a passive attitude, the reason is that they still lack organisation and leaders. The Communist International must help them to revolution and liberation.”

Towards the end of 1924, Ho left Moscow to work in China on behalf of the Comintern, on a mission to support the Chinese Communist Party. Based in Canton, he was able to link up with a number of young Vietnamese revolutionaries, many of whom continued to be part of the nucleus of Vietnam’s anti-colonial struggle for decades to come. In 1925, a small group called the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League was formed by Ho and a few of his comrades; this was the first Vietnamese communist organisation. Over the course of two years in Canton, Ho Chi Minh acted as teacher and organiser, making contact with as many Vietnamese revolutionaries as he could, and running a school for training them in ideology and organisational skills. “He taught his charges how to talk and behave in a morally upright manner (so as to do credit to the revolutionary cause), how to speak in public, how to address gatherings of workers, peasants, children, and women, how to emphasise the national cause as well as the need for a social revolution, how to behave without condescension to the poor and illiterate. He anxiously checked on their living and eating conditions to make sure that they were healthy and well cared for; when they were gloomy and despondent, he cheered them up. One ex-student recalled his incurable optimism. When students appeared discouraged at the petty corruption of Vietnamese mandarins and the general ignorance and lethargy of the village population, he replied, ‘It’s just these obstacles and social depravity that makes the revolution necessary. A revolutionary must above all be optimistic and believe in the final victory’” (Duiker).

Ho and his comrades in the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League set up a journal, Thanh Nien, which was issued weekly and sent into Vietnam by sea. Between 1925 and 1930, over 200 issues were published, allowing Ho Chi Minh to systematically agitate, educate and organise significant numbers of people inside Vietnam itself. By the late 1920s, the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League had around two thousand members inside Indochina, and more in China, France and elsewhere. In his period of editing Thanh Nien, Ho perfected his ability to communicate a version of revolutionary Marxism that was understandable and acceptable to ordinary Vietnamese peasants and workers. His style is simple but powerful, as can be seen from the following example:

The workers and peasants are the leading force of the revolution. This is because, first, the workers and farmers are more heavily oppressed; secondly, the workers and peasants are united and therefore possess the greatest strength; and thirdly, they are already poor; if defeated, they would only lose their miserable life; if they win, they would have the whole world. That is why the workers and farmers are the roots of the revolution, while the students, small merchants, and landowners, though oppressed, do not suffer as much as the workers and farmers, and that is why these three classes are only the revolutionary friends of the workers and farmers. (Ho Chi Minh – The Road to Revolution (1926))

The work in Canton was very fruitful, but it was brought to an abrupt end when Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek initiated his vicious purge in April 1927. Thousands of communists were rounded up and murdered in Shanghai and Canton, thus finishing off the Communist-Kuomintang alliance (until 1936, when Chiang was forced to cooperate again with the Communist Party in the war of resistance against Japan). Ho escaped Canton just hours before his office was raided, and made his way to Hong Kong. From there, he travelled to Paris, Brussels and Berlin for various conferences and consultations, before heading back to Asia. He arrived in Siam (now Thailand) in mid-1928, and began organising among the large Vietnamese exile community there.

Around a year later, he heard that the revolutionary movement in Vietnam was descending dangerously into sectarianism and internal conflict. He travelled immediately to Hong Kong, where he called together the competing factions, arbitrated the various disagreements, and called for the existing revolutionary organisations to be disbanded and replaced with a single new party: the Indochinese Communist Party. The inaugural meeting of the ICP took place on 3 February 1930, and agreed a ten-point programme calling for the complete overthrow of French imperialism, an end to Vietnamese feudalism, the confiscation of land from the colonisers and big landowners and its distribution to poor peasants, an eight-hour working day, universal education, and equality between men and women – a simple, profound revolutionary programme giving voice to the deepest aspirations of ordinary Vietnamese people. This is the party, later renamed as the Communist Party of Vietnam, that went on to lead the Vietnamese masses in the overthrow of imperialism and the pursuit of socialism, a task it remains engaged in to this day.

ho deskIn the following two months, acting under the instructions of the Comintern, Ho found time to preside over the establishment of the Siamese Communist Party and attend a meeting establishing the Malayan Communist Party. Meanwhile, the influence of the ICP was rapidly expanding, along with the militancy and self-confidence of the Vietnamese workers and peasants. Strikes were breaking out in all parts of the country, and in 1931 a series of insurrections led to the creation of the Nghe Tinh soviet in two provinces of central Vietnam, Nghe An and Ha Tinh (more details of this period can be found in the article Fight to Win: How the Vietnamese people rose up and defeated imperialism). As Ho later wrote, “although the movement was drowned by the imperialists in a sea of blood, it testified to the heroism and revolutionary power of the Vietnamese working masses. In spite of its failure, it forged the forces which were to ensure the triumph of the August Revolution.”

Ho continued in his role as the ICP’s chief strategist until he was arrested and imprisoned in Kowloon by the British colonial authorities – reporting to Ramsey MacDonald’s Labour government.

After a year and a half in prison, having successfully been defended by the British lawyer Denis Pritt (who later earned the honour of being expelled from the Labour Party on account of his pro-Soviet views), Ho was able to avoid extradition to France and to make his way instead back to the Soviet Union. In Moscow he was put in charge of the Vietnamese section of the Far Eastern Bureau of the Comintern, and he also enrolled in a course at the Lenin University. Nguyen Khanh Toan, who would later serve in various high-level governmental positions in Vietnam from 1945 until the 1980s, was one of the 150-ish Vietnamese students under Ho Chi Minh’s supervision at the time, and he gives a moving description of Ho’s interaction with the students:

“While studying at the Lenin University he kept in very close touch with the Vietnamese group. In the evenings he often came to talk to them about his experiences in revolutionary action, putting heavy emphasis on revolutionary morals, especially the sense of solidarity. Among the younger students there sometimes arose squabbles of mostly a personal character, and he had to arbitrate them. What he sought to combat among them was arrogance, egoism, indiscipline; he wanted them to be united and put the interest of the revolution above everything else. He often said to them: ‘If even this little group of ours cannot live in harmony and solidarity, how could we hope, once back in the country, to unite the people and rally the masses against the colonialists in order to save the nation?” (Reminiscences of Ho Chi Minh)

Leading Vietnam to victory

After a few relatively peaceful years studying and organising in the Soviet Union, Ho returned in 1938 to China, where he was appointed as a political commissar, working to educate troops at the Whampao Academy. In China, Ho was reunited with his closest allies, including Vo Nguyen Giap, Pham Van Dong and Truong Chinh. In 1940 they decided that the time was ripe to infiltrate themselves back into Vietnam with a view to organising a nationwide insurrection. In early February 1941, they made the short but difficult journey across the border from China into the northernmost part of Vietnam, establishing themselves in a cave near the village of Pac Bo, a small village in Cao Bang province, just the other side of the Chinese border. Duiker writes:

With the aid of a local sympathizer, the group established their accommodations in a cave known to the locals as Coc Bo (the Source) and situated behind a rock in the side of one of the local cliffs. About 140 feet below the mouth of the cave was a stream that Nguyen Ai Quoc named for his hero Lenin. Overlooking the site was a massive outgrowth that he dubbed Karl Marx Peak. From the cave, a secret path wound straight to the Chinese border, less than half a mile away. In later years, Nguyen Ai Quoc and his colleagues would remember their days at Pac Bo as among the most memorable in their lives. Yet conditions were harsh. They slept on a mat of branches, leaving them with bruised backs in the morning. The cave itself was cold and damp, so the occupants kept a small fire going all night. As was his habit, Nguyen Ai Quoc rose early, bathed in the stream, did his morning exercises, and then went to work on a rock at the edge of Lenin Stream. As always, he spent much of his time editing, this time working on the Party’s local newspaper, Viet Nam Doc Lap (Independent Vietnam), which was produced on a stone lithograph. Meals consisted of rice mixed with minced meat or with fish from the stream. In the evening, the group would gather at the edge of the cave, where Nguyen Ai Quoc lectured to his colleagues on world history and modern revolutions.

Later on, they were often forced to forage for food. It must have been extraordinarily tough for the veteran revolution, by now in his fifties, to endure the life of a mountain guerrilla. However, he did so without complaining. “When spirits flagged or enthusiasm grew to excess, he counseled his comrades: ‘Patience, calmness, and vigilance, those are the things that a revolutionary must never forget.’”

The key event from this period is the formation of the Viet Minh front on 19 May 1941, in the cave at Pac Bo. The Viet Minh was formed as an anti-imperialist front to unite all forces, communist and nationalist, in a single fighting organisation able to rid the country of colonial occupiers. In the space of a few years, its membership grew to over half a million (out of a total population of less then 25 million). A leaflet announcing the Viet Minh’s existence describes the broad class basis of the front, pointing out that, in the conditions then prevailing, maximum unity must be forged in order to defeat the French:

The problem of class struggle will continue to exist. But at the present time, the nation has prime importance, and all demands that are of benefit to a specific class but are harmful to the national interest must be subordinated to the survival of the nation. At this moment, if we do not resolve the problem of national liberation, and do not demand independence and freedom for the entire people, then not only will the entire people of our nation continue to live the life of beasts, but also the particular interests of individual social classes will not be achieved for thousands of years.

In August 1942, Ho made his way back over the border to China in a bid to shore up international support for the Vietnamese revolution. He didn’t get very far before he was captured by the Chinese authorities and placed in prison under suspicion of being a spy. After enduring horrific conditions for over a year (during which time he contracted tuberculosis), he was finally released in September 1943 on the condition that he coordinate with the Kuomintang.

Meanwhile events were proceeding at a fast pace inside Vietnam. A pamphlet distributed in early 1944 shows that the Viet Minh leadership had an extremely clear-sighted understanding of the local and international situation: “Zero hour is near. Germany is almost beaten, and her defeat will lead to Japan’s. Then the Americans and the Chinese will move into Indochina while the Gaullists rise against the Japanese. The latter may well topple the French fascists prior to this, and set up a military government… Indochina will be reduced to anarchy. We shall not even need to seize power, for there will be no power… Our impending uprising will be carried out in highly favourable conditions, without parallel in the history of our country. The occasion being propitious and the factors favourable, it would be unforgivable not to take advantage of them. It would be a crime against the history of our country.” (cited in Jean Lacouture, ‘Ho Chi Minh’)

With precisely such a power vacuum starting to emerge in late 1944, the Viet Minh started to expand its base outwards from Cao Bang, with units under the command of General Giap pushing further and further south, creating extensive liberated areas.

With the Japanese surrender of 15 August 1945, Viet Minh forces launched the August Revolution. On 17 August, Ho read out his appeal to the people of Vietnam to take power:

The decisive hour in the destiny of our people has struck. Let us stand up with all our strength to liberate ourselves! Many oppressed peoples the world over are vying with one another in the march to win back their independence. We cannot allow ourselves to lag behind. Forward! Forward! Under the banner of the Viet Minh Front, move forward courageously!

Two days later Hanoi was liberated, and within a few days the Viet Minh had established power throughout the country. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam was born. On 2 September, Ho Chi Minh read out the Declaration of Independence in the Ba Dinh square in Hanoi, to a crowd of over half a million ecstatic Vietnamese.

Immediately, the new government, led by President Ho Chi Minh, started to deal with the most pressing problems: eradicating famine, eradicating illiteracy, redistributing land, setting up a stable government, and organising local militia units across the country to defend the revolution from the combination of French, US, British and Chinese forces that would almost certainly seek to reverse it.

Just over a year later, in spite of the generous concessions offered by Ho’s negotiating team, France went to war against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, in a bid to maintain its domination of the region. The Viet Minh returned to guerrilla warfare, and Vietnam’s president and the rest of the leadership returned to the northeastern mountains. Duiker writes: “With his return to the Viet Bac in late December 1946, Ho Chi Minh resumed the life that had appeared to come to an end with his election as president during the August Revolution of 1945. He arrived at the old base area with an entourage of eight men, comprising his personal bodyguard and those responsible for liaison with other units and for food preparation. The group erected a long hut built of bamboo and thatch that was divided into two rooms… To guard against wild animals, they obtained a shepherd dog, but it was soon killed and eaten by a tiger. Ho and his companions led a simple life. Their meals consisted of a little rice garnished with sautéed wild vegetables. On occasion, they were able to supplement their meager fare with small chunks of salted meat, thinly sliced and served with peppers. Ho laughingly described it as ‘conserves du Vietminh.’ Sometimes food was short, and all suffered from hunger… During the day, Ho worked on the ground floor, but at night he slept on the upper floor as protection against wild beasts and the humidity. His bedding consisted solely of a mosquito net and his clothing. When the group was compelled to move (by the end of the decade, Ho would live in at least twenty different houses as he continually escaped detection by the French), they were able to pack up and leave in minutes. Ho carried a few books and documents in a small bag, while his companions took charge of his typewriter.” 

Duiker adds some fascinating detail as to Ho’s role during the war: “In the liberated zone, Ho Chi Minh was highly visible, acting not only as a war strategist, but also as chief recruiter and cheerleader for the revolutionary cause. In February 1952, a released French POW reported that Ho was seen everywhere at the front, in the villages, in the rice fields, and at local cadre meetings. Dressed like a simple peasant, he moved tirelessly among his followers, cajoling his audiences and encouraging them to sacrifice all for the common objective. Although living conditions in the liberated zone were probably somewhat better than they had been during the final months of World War II, French bombing raids on the area were frequent and Ho continued to change his residence every three to five days to avoid detection or capture. Although he was now over sixty, Ho was still capable of walking thirty miles a day, a pack on his back, over twisting mountain trails. He arose early to do exercises. After the workday was over, he played volleyball or swam and read in the evening.”

From this point, the story of Ho Chi Minh’s life becomes one and the same as the history of the Vietnamese victory over France (1954), the building of socialism in the north, the support for guerrilla struggle in the south, and the era-defining war against US imperialism. More on all of this can be found in my recent article on the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Saigon.

Ho Chi Minh died on 2 September 1969, at the age of 79. Although he had played a reduced role in the last few years of his life (due to ill health), he remained a major contributor, particularly in negotiations and foreign relations. Eulogies flooded in for this outstanding leader of the global anti-imperialist movement – according to Duiker, the Hanoi authorities received more than 22,000 messages from 121 countries offering condolences to the Vietnamese people.

Ho’s legacy is as poweful and as relevant today as it ever was; his name remains synonymous with determined struggle for freedom, with the spirit of unity, with heroism, selflessness, perseverance, moral uprightness, and with the global fight against imperialism and for socialism. He was unquestionably one of the greatest leaders in the history of the anti-imperialist and communist movement.

homalcolmIt is particularly fitting that he shares a birthday with Malcolm X (who was born on 19 May 1925). The two are linked by more than the relative position of earth and sun at the time of their birth: they both made decisive contributions to the development of the worldwide struggle against imperialism. Ho Chi Minh was a communist and an atheist; Malcolm X was a black nationalist and a Muslim. But, in spite of differing ideological and spiritual traditions, they were absolutely on the same side in the “global rebellion of the oppressed against the oppressor, the exploited against the exploiter”, to use Malcolm’s phrase.



Unity is an extremely precious tradition of our Party and people. All comrades, from the Central Committee down to the cells, must preserve the unity and oneness of mind in the Party as the apple of their eye. (Source)

Without this unity we would be like an orchestra in which the drums play one way and the horns another. It would not be possible for us to lead the masses and make revolution. (Source)

Our people must learn the word ‘unity’: unity of spirit, unity of effort, unity of hearts, unity of action. (Source: Duiker)

The war against colonialism

We, a small nation, will have earned the signal honour of defeating, through heroic struggle, two big imperialisms – the French and the American – and of making a worthy contribution to the world national liberation movement. (Source)

[At Dien Bien Phu], for the first time in history a small colony had defeated a big colonial power. This was a victory not only of our people but also of the world forces of peace, democracy and socialism. (Source)

The Vietnamese people are waging the greatest war of resistance in their history. For the sake of the independence and freedom of the Fatherland, in the interest of the socialist camp, the oppressed peoples and progressive mankind, we are fighting and defeating the most cruel enemy of humanity. In our land a fierce struggle is taking place between justice and injustice, between civilisation and barbarity. The people of the brother socialist countries and progressive people all over the world are turning their eyes toward Viet Nam and warmly congratulating our compatriots and fighters. (Source)

Our people are very heroic. Our line is most correct. We have justice on our side. We are inspired by an unbending will and determination to fight and win. We have the invincible force of the unity of our entire people and enjoy the sympathy and support of all progressive mankind. The US imperialists are sure to be defeated! Our people are sure to be victorious! Compatriots and fighters in the whole country, march forward! (ibid)

Our resistance is by all the people and is in turn a people’s war. Thirty-one million compatriots in the two regions, irrespective of sex and age, must be thirty-one million heroic combatants to fight the US for national salvation … Unity, unity, great unity; success, success, great success. (Source)

Johnson and his clique should realize this: they may bring in half a million, a million or even more troops to step up their war of aggression in South Vietnam. They may use thousands of aircraft for intensified attacks against North Vietnam. But never will they be able to break the iron will of the heroic Vietnamese people, their determination to fight against American aggression, for national salvation. The more truculent they grow, the more serious their crimes. They war may last five, ten, twenty or more years; Hanoi, Haiphong and other cities and enterprises may be destroyed; but the Vietnamese people will not be intimidated! Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom. Once victory is won, our people will rebuild their country and make it even more prosperous and beautiful. (Source)

Our people are living a most glorious period of history. Our country has the great honour of being an outpost of the socialist camp and of the world’s peoples fighting against imperialism, colonialism and neocolonialism. Our people are fighting and making sacrifices not only for their own freedom and independence, but also for the freedom and independence of other peoples and for world peace. On the battlefront against the US imperialist aggressors, our people’s task is very heavy but also very glorious. (Source)

You must know of our resolution. Not even your nuclear weapons would force us to surrender after so long and violent a struggle for the independence of our country. (Source)

US imperialism is the main enemy of world peace, consequently we must concentrate our forces against it. (Source)

The Vietnamese people’s future is as bright as the sun in spring. Overjoyed at the radiance of the sun in spring, we shall struggle for the splendid future of Viet Nam, for the future of democracy, world peace and socialism. We triumph at the present time, we shall triumph in the future, because our path is enlightened by the great Marxist-Leninist doctrine. (Source)

Unity between the socialist and anti-imperialist movements

Lenin laid the basis for a new and truly revolutionary era in the colonies. He was the first to denounce resolutely all the prejudices which still persisted in the minds of many European and American revolutionaries… He was the first to realise and assess the full importance of drawing the colonial peoples into the revolutionary movement. He was the first to point out that, without the participation of the colonial peoples, the socialist revolution could not come about… Lenin’s strategy on this question has been applied by communist parties all over the world, and has won over the best and most active elements in the colonies to the communist movement. (Source)

Anti-war movement

To the American people who are courageously opposing the aggressive war waged by the US government, I convey my greetings on behalf of the Vietnamese people. Let them intensify their opposition to the US government’s aggressive war in Vietnam so as to prevent their sons and brothers from being use as cannon-fodder for the private interests of their oppressors and exploiters. Officers and soldiers of the United States and its satellites, who have been driven into this criminal war, listen to reason! There is no enmity between you and the Vietnamese people. The US imperialists are forcing you to serve as cannon-fodder and die in their place. They are doomed to defeat. Demand your repatriation so that you can be re-united with your parents, wives and children! The Vietnamese people will support your struggle. (Source)

Revolutionary morality

Ours is a party in power. Each Party member, each cadre must be deeply imbued with revolutionary morality, and show industry, thrift, integrity, uprightness, total dedication to the public interest and complete selflessness. Our Party should preserve absolute purity and prove worthy of its role as the leader and very loyal servant of the people. (Source)

To make the revolution, to transform the old society into a new one is a very glorious, but also extremely heavy task, a complex, protracted and hard struggle. Only a strong man can travel a long distance with a heavy load on his back. A revolutionary must have a solid foundation of revolutionary morality in order to fulfil his glorious revolutionary task. (Source)

Individualism is something very deceitful and perfidious, it skilfully induces one to backslide. And everybody knows that it is easier to backslide than to progress. That is why it is very dangerous. To shake off the bad vestiges of the old society and to cultivate revolutionary virtues, we must study hard, and educate and reform ourselves in order to progress continuously. Otherwise we shall retrogress and lag behind, and shall eventually be rejected by the forward-moving society. (ibid)

Separated from the Party and the class, no individual, however talented, can achieve anything. (ibid)

Revolutionary morality does not fall from the sky. It is developed and consolidated through persevering daily struggle and effort. Like jade, the more it is polished the more it shines. Like gold, it grows ever purer as it goes into the melting pot. What can be a greater source of happiness and glory than to cultivate one’s revolutionary morality so as to bring a worthy contribution to the building of socialism and the liberation of mankind! (ibid)

No system equals socialism and communism in showing respect for man, paying due attention to his legitimate individual interests and ensuring that they be satisfied. In a society ruled by the exploiting class only the individual interests of a few people belonging to this class are met, whereas those of the toiling masses are trampled underfoot. But in the socialist and communist systems, of which the labouring people are the masters, each man is a part of the collective, plays a definite role in it and contributes his part to society. That is why the interests of the individual lies within those of the collective and are part of them. Only when the latter are secured can the former be satisfied. (ibid)

Revolutionary ideology

At first, patriotism, not yet communism, led me to have confidence in Lenin, in the Third International. Step by step, along the struggle, by studying Marxism-Leninism parallel with participation in practical activities, I gradually came upon the fact that only socialism and communism can liberate the oppressed nations and the working people throughout the world from slavery. (Source)

All Party members should strive to study Marxism-Leninism, strengthen their proletarian class stand, grasp the laws of development of the Vietnamese revolution, elevate their revolutionary morality, vigorously combat individualism, foster proletarian collectivism, be industrious and thrifty in the work for national construction, build close contacts with the labouring masses, and struggle whole-heartedly for the interests of the revolution and the Fatherland. (Source)

Cultural imperialism

In the areas still under his temporary occupation, the enemy strives to disseminate a depraved culture and hooliganism in order to poison our people, especially our youth. He seeks to use religions to divide our people. (Source)

The split in the world communist movement

Being a man who has devoted his whole life to the revolution, the more proud I am of the growth of the international communist and workers’ movement, the more pained I am by the current discord among the fraternal Parties. I hope that our Party will do its best to contribute effectively to the restoration of unity among the fraternal Parties on the basis of Marxism-Leninism and proletarian internationalism, in a way which conforms to both reason and sentiment. I am firmly confident that the fraternal Parties and countries will have to unite again. (Source)

We fully believe that the differences in the international communist movement will be resolved. Marxism-Leninism will certainly be victorious, the socialist camp and the international communist movement will grow ever more united and powerful. By giving a strong impetus to the revolutionary struggle of the working class and the world’s people they will win ever greater victories for peace, national independence, democracy and socialism. (Source)

Guerrilla warfare

What matters the most is that our armed forces, be they regulars, regional or guerrillas, must hold fast to the people; divorce from the latter will surely lead to defeat. To cling to the people means to win their hearts, gain their confidence and affection. This will allow us to overcome any difficulty and achieve sure success. (Source)

The aim of guerrilla warfare is not to wage large-scale battles and win big victories, but to nibble at the enemy, harass him in such a way that he can neither eat nor sleep in peace, to give him no respite, to wear him out physically and mentally, and finally to annihilate him. Wherever he goes, he should be attacked by our guerrillas, stumble on land mines or be greeted by sniper fire. (Source)

It will be a war between an elephant and a tiger. If the tiger ever stands still the elephant will crush him with his mighty tusks. But the tiger does not stand still. He lurks in the jungle by day and emerges by night. He will leap upon the back of the elephant, tearing huge chunks from his hide, and then he will leap back into the dark jungle. And slowly the elephant will bleed to death. That will be the war of Indochina. (Source)

Secrecy, always secrecy. Let the enemy think you’re to the west when you are in the east. Attack by surprise and retreat before the enemy can respond… Stealth, continual stealth. Never attack except by surprise. Retire before the enemy has a chance to strike back. (Source: Duiker)

Remember that the storm is a good opportunity for the pine and the cypress to show their strength and their stability. (Source)

Racism and the national question

It is well-known that the Black race is the most oppressed and the most exploited of the human family. It is well-known that the spread of capitalism and the discovery of the New World had as an immediate result the rebirth of slavery. What everyone does not perhaps know is that after sixty-five years of so-called emancipation, American Negroes still endure atrocious moral and material sufferings, of which the most cruel and horrible is the custom of lynching… Thanks to the slave traders, the Ku Klux Klan and other secret societies, the illegal and barbarous practice of lynching is spreading and continuing widely in the states of the American Union. It has become more inhuman since the emancipation of the Blacks, and is especially directed at the latter. The Negroes, having learned during the war that they are a force if united, are no longer allowing their kinsmen to be beaten or murdered with impunity. (Source)

All the martyrs of the working class, those in Lausanne like those in Paris, those in Le Havre like those in Martinique, are victims of the same murderer: international capitalism. And it is always in belief in the liberation of their oppressed brothers, without discrimination as to race or country, that the souls of these martyrs will find supreme consolation. (Source)

Our country is a united multi-national country. All nationalities living on Vietnamese territory are equal in rights and duties. All the nationalities in our country are fraternally bound together; they share a common territory and in the course of our long history have worked and fought side by side in order to build our beautiful Fatherland. (Source)

Imperialism and feudalism deliberately sought to undermine the solidarity and equality between the nationalities and to sow discord among them and carried out a “divide-and-rule” policy. Our Party and Government have constantly called on the nationalities to forget all enmities caused by imperialism and feudalism and to unite closely on the basis of equality in rights and duties. The minority nationalities have, side by side with their brothers of the majority nationality, fought against their common enemies, and brought the August Revolution and the war of resistance to success. Since the restoration of peace, our State has helped the brotherly nationalities to achieve further progress in the economic, cultural and social fields. (ibid)

The October Revolution and the socialist camp

Like the shining sun, the October Revolution illuminated the five continents, and awakened millions and millions of oppressed and exploited people. In human history, there had never been a revolution with such great and profound significance. (Source)

Our Party has matured and developed in the favourable international conditions created by the victory of the Russian Socialist October Revolution. All achievements of our Party and people are inseparable from the fraternal support of the Soviet Union, People’s China and the other socialist countries, the international Communist and workers’ movement and the national-liberation movement and the peace movement in the world. If we have been able to surmount all difficulties and lead our working class and people to the present glorious victories this is because the Party has coordinated the revolutionary movement in our country with the revolutionary movement of the world working class and the oppressed peoples. (Source)

After nearly half a century of struggle, the imperialist and feudal domination was not yet overthrown and our country was not yet independent. It was then that the Russian October Revolution broke out and won glorious victory. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was founded. The colonial system of imperialism began to collapse. The Soviet Union brought to the oppressed peoples a model of equal relationships between the nations. The oppressed peoples of the world saw that only by relying on socialist revolution and following the line of the working class was it possible to overthrow the imperialists, win back complete national independence and realize genuine equality among the nations. The Russian October Revolution welded the socialist revolutionary movement and the revolutionary movement for national liberation into an anti-imperialist front. (Source)

In the eyes of the peoples of the east, Lenin was not only a leader, a commander. He irresistibly attracted our hearts. Our respect for him was close to filial piety, one of the fundamental virtues in our country. For us, the victims of ill-treatment and humiliation, Lenin was the embodiment of human fraternity.” (Source: Yevgeny Kobelev – Ho Chi Minh)

Lenin is dead! This news struck people like a bolt from the blue. It spread to every corner of the fertile plains of Africa and the green fields of Asia. It is true that the black or yellow people do not yet know clearly who Lenin is or where Russia is… But all of them, from the Vietnamese peasants to the hunters in the Dahomey forests, have secretly learnt that in a faraway corner of the earth there is a nation that has succeeded in overthrowing its exploiters… They have also heard that that country is Russia, that there are courageous people there, and that the most courageous of them all was Lenin. (ibid)

Building socialism and educating the masses

The present society in the North is one of working people who are collective masters of the country and uphold the spirit of self reliance, industry and thrift in order to build socialism and a new life for themselves and for all generations to come. The present society in the North is a great family formed by all strata of the population, all fraternal nationalities, closely united and helping each other, sharing weal and woe and working for the common interests of the Fatherland. Our regime is a new regime; our people are cultivating new ethics; the socialist ethics of working people: “one for all and all for one.” (Source)

In simple terms, the aim of socialism is to free the working people from poverty, provide them with employment, make them happy and prosperous. (Source)

To defeat the imperialists and feudalists is relatively easy, but to do away with poverty and backwardness is much more difficult. (Source: Pham Van Dong – A Man, a Nation, an Age and a Cause)

To reap a return in ten years, plant trees. To reap a return in 100, cultivate the people.

Formerly, when they ruled over our country, the French colonialists carried out a policy of obscurantism. They limited the number of schools; they did not want us to get an education so that they could deceive and exploit us all the more easily. Ninety-five per cent of the total population received no schooling, which means that nearly all Vietnamese were illiterate. How could we have progressed in such conditions? Now that we have won back independence, one of the most urgent tasks at present is to raise the people’s cultural level. Every one of you must know his rights and duties. He must possess knowledge so as to be able to participate in the building of the country. First of all he must learn to read and write. Let the literates teach the illiterates; let them take part in mass education. Let the illiterates study hard. The husband will teach his wife, the elder brother his junior, the children their parents, the master his servants; the rich will open classes for illiterates in their own houses. The women should study even harder for up to now many obstacles have stood in their way. It is high time now for them to catch up with the men and be worthy of their status of citizens with full electoral rights. I hope that young people of both sexes will eagerly participate in this work. (Source)

Workers and peasants have a lot of work to do. If the method of teaching is not suitable to the learners, to their work and mode of life, if we expect classes provided with tables and benches, we cannot be successful. The organization of teaching should be in accordance with the living conditions of the learners, then the movement will last and bear good results. Our compatriots are still poor and cannot afford paper and pens, therefore a small pocket exercise-book is enough for each person. Reading and writing exercises can be done anywhere, using charcoal, the ground or banana leaves as pens and paper. Clandestine cadres had to teach and make one person literate every three months. At that time, there was no assistance from the Government, no Ministry, or department in charge of educational problems, but in such precarious conditions, the movement kept developing, like oil spreading, the literate teaching the illiterate. (Source)

The worker-peasant alliance

The victory of the proletarian revolution is impossible in rural and semirural countries if the revolutionary proletariat is not actively supported by the mass of the peasant population…. In China, in India, in Latin America, in many European countries (Balkan countries, Rumania, Poland, Italy, France, Spain, etc.) the decisive ally of the proletariat in the revolution will be the peasant population. Only if the revolutionary wave sets in motion the rural masses under the leadership of the proletariat, will the revolution be able to triumph. Hence the exceptional importance of Party agitation in the countryside. (Source: Duiker)

Revolutionary art

Literature and art are also a fighting front. You are fighters on this front. Like other fighters, you combatants on the artistic front have definite responsibilities: to serve the Resistance, the Fatherland and the people, first and foremost the workers, peasants and soldiers. To fulfil your tasks, you must have a firm political stand and a sound ideology; in short you must place the interests of the Resistance, the Fatherland and the people above all… Some of you may think: President Ho is trying to link art to politics. That is right. Culture and art, like all other activities, cannot stand aloof from economics and politics, but must be included in them. (Source)


Lenin said that one should make a compromise even with bandits if it was advantageous to the revolution. We needed peace to build our country, and therefore we forced ourselves to make concessions in order to maintain peace. Although the French colonialists broke their word and unleashed war, nearly one year of temporary peace had given us time to build up our basic forces. (Source)

Manure is dirty; but if it’s good for the rice plants, would you refuse to use it? (Source: Duiker)

Some people, intoxicated with our repeated victories, want to fight on at all costs, to a finish; they see only the trees, not the whole forest; with their attention focused on the withdrawal of the French they fail to detect their schemes; they see the French but not the Americans; they are partial to military action and make light of diplomacy. They are unaware that we are struggling in international conferences as well as on the battlefields in order to attain our goal. They will oppose the new slogans, which they deem to be rightist manifestations and to imply too many concessions. They set forth excessive conditions unacceptable to the enemy. They want quick results, unaware that the struggle for peace is a hard and complex one. Leftist deviation will cause one to be isolated, alienated from one’s own people and those of the world, and suffer setbacks. Rightist deviation will lead to pessimism, inaction and unprincipled concessions. It causes one to lack confidence in the people’s strength and to blunt their combative spirit; to lose the power to endure hardships and to aspire only to a quiet and easy life. Leftist and rightist tendencies are both wrong. They will be exploited by the enemy; they will benefit them and harm us. (Source)

Fight to Win: How the Vietnamese people rose up and defeated imperialism

“They may bring in half a million, a million or even more troops to step up their war of aggression in South Vietnam. They may use thousands of aircraft for intensified attacks against North Vietnam. But never will they be able to break the iron will of the heroic Vietnamese people, their determination to fight against American aggression, for national salvation. The more truculent they grow, the more serious their crimes. They war may last five, ten, twenty or more years; Hanoi, Haiphong and other cities and enterprises may be destroyed; but the Vietnamese people will not be intimidated! Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom. Once victory is won, our people will rebuild their country and make it even more prosperous and beautiful.” (Ho Chi Minh, Appeal to compatriots and fighters throughout the country, July 17, 1966)

tankForty years ago, on the 29th of April 1975, the joint forces of the North Vietnamese Army and the National Liberation Front entered the southern capital of Saigon, where they were greeted with the open joy of a population which had endured untold misery over the course of decades at the hands of foreign invaders and puppet governments. Just a day later, at around 10:45am, a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the gates of the presidential palace and raised the red flag. The head of the collapsing South Vietnamese regime, Duong Van Minh, reportedly told North Vietnamese colonel, Bùi Tín, “I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you,” to which Bùi Tín replied: “There is no question of your transferring power. Your power has crumbled. You cannot give up what you do not have.”

In the words of Fidel Castro, it was “one of the greatest events in modern history”.

Meanwhile, what was left of the US military and diplomatic staff in Saigon was hurriedly (ignominiously, you could say) airlifted out of the country, in what remains the biggest helicopter rescue operation of all time (7,000 people in two days).

In the course of just a few months, the revolutionary forces’ Spring Offensive had succeeded in occupying the whole of the country, finally bringing an end to the Vietnam War, and closing the 90-year chapter of colonial domination and division of their country. The Vietnamese became the first people in history to deal an outright defeat to the world’s biggest imperialist power: the United States of America. This incredible achievement was the culmination of decades of heroic and brilliant struggle.

“Our entire country resisted for thirty years, and those years trained us as people, trained our soldiers, and gave us much precious experience. The victory of the August Revolution established conditions for our victorious resistance against the French. The victorious resistance against France created conditions for us to build the North into a firm revolutionary base for the whole country to defeat the United States. When we chased the American troops out, it finally created conditions for us to topple the puppets.” (Van Tien Dung – Our Great Spring Victory)

This article will give a basic outline of the history of the war, as well as exploring some ideas as to how Vietnam – a small, poor, Southeast Asian country – came to defeat the most aggressive, most militarised imperialist power of all time.

The long struggle for independence and freedom

French colonialism

Western colonialism first came to Vietnam in the mid-19th century when, in 1858, a French naval squadron attacked the port city of Da Nang, on the central coast. This attack, the supposed purpose of which was to protect Christian missionaries operating in the area, quickly turned into a war of conquest. By 1887, France had political control of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, which it ruled collectively as French Indochina. The name ‘Vietnam’ was declared extinct in 1883, and its territory was broken up into three separate entities: Tonkin (the northernmost province, incorporating Hanoi and bordering China), Annam (the long central strip, incorporating Da Nang and the old capital Hue), and Cochin China (the southernmost province, incorporating Saigon). Tonkin and Annam were French protectorates; Cochin China – the area blessed with the greatest natural wealth – was a full colony.

Like most colonial occupations, the French presence in the region was driven by economics – Indochina offered rice, rubber and cheap labour. In the world wars, Indochina was also forced to provide hundreds of thousands of military-age men as cannon-fodder.

In alliance with the local feudal class, the French colonialists succeeded in destroying the centuries-old land ownership system, thereby causing dire poverty and widespread famine. Ngo Vinh Long notes that: “As soon as the French occupied a certain area after fierce struggles with the local populace, they confiscated the land belonging to the locals and gave it to themselves and their Vietnamese collaborators. Tens of thousands of acres of peasants’ lands changed hands this way… Rice exporting was the biggest and most profitable way of making money for the French and the Vietnamese ruling class. By the 1920s and 1930s over half of the peasants in Tonkin and Annam were completely landless, and about 90 percent of those who owned any land owned next to nothing.” (‘Coming to Terms: Indochina, the United States, and the War’)

An inevitable side-effect of this mass theft was the creation of a rural working class: large numbers of peasants who, deprived of their land, had no choice but to work as agricultural labourers or sharecroppers, or to move to the cities in order to join the ranks of the industrial working class. It was these landless and propertyless Vietnamese who would come to form the mass base of a resistance movement that would successfully expel the French, and would later defeat the armed might of the United States of America.

The exploitation was ruthless and vindictive. Starvation in the countryside became the normal state of affairs. Vietnamese agronomist Nghiem Xuan Yem wrote in 1945: “All through the sixty years of French colonisation our people have always been hungry. They were not hungry to the degree that they had to starve in such manners that their corpses were thrown up in piles as they are now. But they have always been hungry, so hungry that their bodies were scrawny and stunted; so hungry that no sooner had they finished with one meal than they started worrying about the next; and so hungry that the whole population had not a moment of free time to think of anything besides the problem of survival.” (cited in Ngo Vinh Long, op cit)

Conditions in the cities were not much better. Vietnamese men, women and children laboured in factory conditions that make Britain’s famously brutal industrial revolution look like a picnic. “In the mines and rubber plantations workers were frequently severely punished for even the slightest ‘infractions’ and hence they called these places ‘hell on earth’. Few escaped from that hell. The usual punishment for workers who ran away was death by torture, hanging, stabbing, or some other means that made examples of the ‘criminals’. Because of this – and overwork, inadequate food, and terrible housing – the mortality rate was about 30 percent, according to the rubber companies’ own records.” (ibid) Furthermore, Vietnamese were denied the right to education – it was estimated that, in 1945, 90 percent of the population was illiterate. So much for France’s ‘mission civilisatrice’ (civilising mission).

National resistance

hochiminhOppression breeds resistance, and the Vietnamese people resisted the French occupation from the beginning. Marilyn Young, in her extremely useful book ‘The Vietnam Wars’, notes that, for the entire period of French occupation, “Vietnamese struggled against French rule in sporadic uprisings that sometimes achieved the intensity of full-scale guerrilla warfare.”

For the first few decades of French colonisation, the Vietnamese resistance was disunited and disparate; although heroic and on occasion spectacular, it failed to unite and engage the masses of the population, and was therefore relatively easy for the colonial authorities to suppress. However, with the victory of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the establishment shortly after of the Communist International (a coalition of communist parties designed to give guidance and support for revolutionary movements around the world), new avenues opened up for many liberation movements in Asia and Africa.

Global anti-imperialism was a key part of the young Soviet state’s ethos, and the extension of Marxist philosophy and political economy to the oppressed nations remains one of Lenin’s most important contributions to revolutionary science. Without so much as a hint of chauvinism, Lenin proved that, in the age of imperialism, the liberatory ideas expressed in the Communist Manifesto had become relevant not just to the working class of Europe but also to the oppressed and downtrodden people of the entire world. Ho Chi Minh was one of the first to recognise the full significance of this, writing, shortly after Lenin’s death:

“Lenin laid the basis for a new and truly revolutionary era in the colonies. He was the first to denounce resolutely all the prejudices which still persisted in the minds of many European and American revolutionaries… He was the first to realise and assess the full importance of drawing the colonial peoples into the revolutionary movement. He was the first to point out that, without the participation of the colonial peoples, the socialist revolution could not come about… Lenin’s strategy on this question has been applied by communist parties all over the world, and has won over the best and most active elements in the colonies to the communist movement.” (Lenin and the Colonial Peoples, 1925)

The establishment of a socialist base had a dramatic effect on the global struggle against colonialism. In increasingly large numbers, the representatives of these movements came to the Soviet Union to see the transformations taking place, to learn from the Soviets’ experience, and to get political education and military training. The Communist University of the Toilers of the East, set up by the Comintern in 1921, trained leading liberation fighters from Vietnam, China, Indonesia, Greece, South Africa, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere. Its alumni include Ho Chi Minh and other prominent Vietnamese radicals.

On 3 February 1930, at a meeting in Kowloon (China) convened by Nguyen Ai Quoc (the famous Vietnamese revolutionary later to be known as Ho Chi Minh), the Indochinese Communist Party was formed, uniting the three existing parties of the Vietnamese left. The meeting agreed a ten-point programme calling for the complete overthrow of French imperialism, an end to Vietnamese feudalism, the confiscation of land from the colonisers and big landowners and its distribution to poor peasants, an eight-hour working day, universal education, and equality between men and women.

As Naomi Cohen notes, “this was a revolutionary program to fundamentally change the property relations in society. It gave the Vietnamese people the political confidence, backed up by a strong, centralised organisation, to take up arms against the French and begin the long struggle for liberation.” The party’s programme and energetic activity quickly won the support of large numbers of Vietnamese, and it “soon emerged as the undisputed leader of the Vietnamese revolution,” organising “massive peasant demonstrations and workers’ strikes in most parts of the country” (Ngo Vinh Long, op cit).

Within a year, a series of insurrections led to the creation of the Nghe Tinh soviet in two provinces of central Vietnam, Nghe An and Ha Tinh. “For several months peasant associations and unions, often led by Communist cadres, abolished taxes, shortened the work day, distributed confiscated land, conducted literacy classes, administered justice — in short, they ruled themselves” (Young). The French military eventually brought this experiment to an end the best way they knew how: with brutal and excessive firepower. A local French newspaper commented: “Corporal punishment, tortures, brutal methods will teach the crowds cowardly enough to listen to the inciters of rebellion that we, too, are terrible in repression and that the last word will be ours.” (cited in Joseph Buttinger ‘Vietnam: A Dragon Embattled’).

The ICP continued to grow in experience and influence. “Thousands of party cells were formed all over the country, hundreds of organisations of all types were set up, and an average of five hundred demonstrations and strikes were staged every year. As a result, by the time World War II was about to begin, the revolutionary movement in Vietnam was already well prepared politically and organisationally, both in the towns and in the countryside.” (Ngo Vinh Long, op cit)

Meanwhile, the ripples of World War II were felt in Vietnam. In 1940, Japan occupied all of Indochina, which it then proceeded to rule in collaboration with the French Vichy administration – the stooge French government propped up by Nazi Germany. The Viet Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam) was formed a year later by the ICP as an anti-imperialist front to unite all forces, communist and nationalist, in a single fighting organisation able to rid the country of the colonial occupiers from both east and west. By the end of World War II, the Viet Minh’s membership had grown to over half a million (out of a total population of less then 25 million).

It was around this time that Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam after three decades of exile, in order to take direct leadership of the liberation struggle – a fight for which he had been the principal strategist since the mid-1920s. The Viet Minh leadership based itself in the mountainous areas near the Chinese border, where they could relatively easily elude the colonial authorities, and make trips to China when necessary to coordinate with their comrades in the Chinese Communist Party. William Duiker, in his detailed biography of Ho Chi Minh, describes something of the hardships they faced: “To survive they were often forced to forage for food, such as corn, rice, or wild banana flowers. Despite the concerns of his colleagues, Nguyen Ai Quoc [Ho Chi Minh] insisted on sharing the deprivations with the rest. When spirits flagged or enthusiasm grew to excess, he counselled them: ‘Patience, calmness, and vigilance, those are the things that a revolutionary must never forget.’”

In spite of brutal repression, not to mention a policy of forced rice collection by the French authorities that caused an unprecedented famine (it led to two million deaths in Tonkin – a full quarter of the population), the Viet Minh continued to expand its activities, including the establishment of hundreds of guerrilla bases and raids on French and Japanese rice stores.

August Revolution

In March 1945, Japan unilaterally ended French rule in Indochina and established a nominally independent Vietnam under Emperor Bao Dai, who had until then been king of the Annam (central Vietnam) protectorate. With the axis collapsing, the Potsdam Conference of soon-to-be victors in World War II agreed that Vietnam would be temporarily separated, with the Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang) taking control of the northern part and Britain taking control of the south.

Needless to say, the Viet Minh had different ideas, rapidly expanding its base in the far north and setting up a large liberated zone in the rural areas. In this territory, “entirely new local governments were established, self-defence forces recruited, taxes abolished, rents reduced and, in some places, land that had belonged to French landlords was seized and redistributed. Above all, the Viet Minh acted to alleviate the famine then raging, by opening local granaries and distributing the rice.” (Young).

With the Japanese surrender on 15 August, the revolutionary forces moved quickly to fill the power vacuum, launching what came to be known as the August Revolution. “As soon as the order for general insurrection was issued, people’s organisations and guerrilla and self-defence units everywhere moved into action. From 14 to 18 August the administration centres of almost every village, district and province of 27 provinces were attacked and taken over, and revolutionary power was established in many of them almost immediately. The administrations of the three major cities of Hanoi, Hue and Saigon held out a few days longer, but the victory of the Viet Minh was swift and bloodless… For the first time in the long history of Vietnam, the administration of the entire country was in the hands of the people.” (Ngo Vinh Long)

On 2 September, Ho Chi Minh read out the Declaration of Independence in the Ba Dinh square in Hanoi, to a crowd of over half a million ecstatic Vietnamese.

The French have fled, the Japanese have capitulated, Emperor Bao Dai has abdicated. Our people have broken the chains which for nearly a century have fettered them and have won independence for the Fatherland. Our people at the same time have overthrown the monarchic regime that has reigned supreme for dozens of centuries. In its place has been established the present Democratic Republic… The whole Vietnamese people, animated by a common purpose, are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer their country.

They didn’t have to wait too long for such an attempt by the French colonialists. The US, desperate to prevent Vietnam falling into the Soviet sphere and anxious to strengthen the capitalist forces in France itself, was adamant that Vietnam should remain in French hands. In late September, the French – using US-supplied weapons and backed by British troops – launched their war of reconquest.

With their massive superiority of firepower, the French were able to re-establish basic surface-level political power throughout the country. However, the Viet Minh retreated to the countryside, launching a guerrilla struggle that would allow the French no peace until the end of the war. “Resistance villages were built everywhere. French storage depots, strategic and economic centres, and communication lines were under constant attack. The war was even brought to the hearts of big cities such as Hanoi, Saigon, Hue and Haiphong, where the French had thought they were secure. Hand in hand with the guerrilla force, during the 1949-50 period the People’s Army launched a series of campaigns over the entire country, destroying more than 200 fortified positions, killing more than 10,000 colonial troops, and liberating large territories.” (Ngo Vinh Long)

Defeat for France

The victory of the Chinese Revolution in October 1949 provided a tremendous boost to the Vietnamese Revolution. Ho Chi Minh travelled to Beijing the next month to congratulate Mao Zedong and Ho’s old friends Zhou Enlai and Liu Shaoqi. A few weeks later, Beijing issued a declaration that China and Vietnam were together “on the front lines in the vanguard of the struggle against imperialism” (cited in Duiker). Shortly after, both China and the Soviet Union recognised the Democratic Republic of Vietnam – the government led by the Viet Minh – as the sole legitimate representative of the Vietnamese people. What’s more, the Viet Minh secured a steady supply of weaponry, and the assistance of dozens of battle-hardened Chinese military advisers (ironically, many of the weapons they received were North American: “Mao Zedong’s victory in China gave the Vietnamese not merely an ally but, for the first time, direct material aid. In addition to formal recognition, the Chinese shipped across the border a rich supply of American arms captured from Chinese Nationalist troops during the Chinese Civil War.” (Young))

The French were on their last legs. In March 1954, in a last-ditch attempt to reverse the tide of the war, they initiated an operation to insert a large number of soldiers at Dien Bien Phu, in the north-west of the country. The purpose of the operation was to cut off Viet Minh supply lines and draw the Viet Minh out of its guerrilla warfare comfort zone and into a major confrontation in which the French troops could make use of their superior military technology. They soon found out that they had badly underestimated the bravery and military brilliance of the Vietnamese.

Marilyn Young writes: “Through terrain the French had considered impassable, 200,000 peasants hacked trails and moved supplies as far as 500 miles to the battlefront. They laid hundreds of miles of roads. All through the North, women and men mobilised to transport dismantled howitzers and mortars (American in the main, captured by the Chinese in Korea), tons of ammunition, and rice by bicycle and shoulder pole. Troops and equipment, doubly camouflaged by jungle foliage which they attached to themselves and through which they moved, scattered whenever they heard the engines of the French planes searching for them. The combat troops, four divisions strong (49,000 men), carried their own weapons and food supply… Daily the column of porters and soldiers was strafed, bombed, napalmed; and daily they advanced.”

With everything in place, General Vo Nguyen Giap commenced the attack on 13 March. A few weeks later, on 7 May, the French surrendered. The Viet Minh had won its war against French colonialism – the first time in history a small colony had defeated a big colonial power” (Ho Chi Minh). A BBC report acknowledges that, “in the history of decolonisation, [The Battle of Dien Bien Phu] was the only time a professional European army was decisively defeated in a pitched battle.”

Analysing the historic Dien Bien Phu victory some years later, Giap wrote:

“We established a great historic truth: a colonised and weak people, once it has risen up and is united in the struggle and determined to fight for its independence and peace, has the full power to defeat the strong aggressive army of an imperialist country. Thus, Dien Bien Phu was a victory not only for our people, but also for all weak peoples who are struggling to throw off the yoke of the colonialists and imperialists.” (Vo Nguyen Giap, People’s War People’s Army)

US imperialism takes over from French colonialism

Within days of the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu, the Geneva Conference (convened by the big powers to resolve outstanding issues related to Korea and Indochina) agreed a programme to formally end the conflict. The Geneva Accords mandated that France withdraw and that Vietnam be temporarily partitioned into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (the north, ruled by the Viet Minh) and the State of Vietnam (the south, ruled by Bao Dai). Nationwide general elections would be held by July 1956, and these would result in the creation of a unified Vietnamese state.

At this point, the US started to seriously ramp up its involvement. A congressional study at the time made it only too clear what was at stake: “The area of Indochina is immensely wealthy in rice, rubber, coal and iron ore. Its position makes it a strategic key to the rest of Southeast Asia. If Indochina should fall, Thailand and Burma would be in extreme danger; Malaya, Singapore and even Indonesia would become more vulnerable to the communist drive… The communists must be prevented from achieving their objectives in Indochina.”

In the south, the US installed its puppet Ngo Dinh Diem as president, with clear instructions to do everything possible to prevent the scheduled elections and reunification from taking place. All parties, including the US government, were perfectly aware that the Viet Minh would win the national elections by a landslide and that this would quickly bring an unambiguous end to imperialist domination of the region. President Eisenhower acknowledged in his memoirs: “I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that, had elections been held as of the time of the fighting, possibly 80 percent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh” (cited in William Blum, ‘Killing Hope’). So it goes without saying that the US – the self-proclaimed global standard-bearer of democracy – would have to stop the elections from taking place at all costs.

Repression in the south, socialism in the north

While the north was preparing for reunification, the Diem government focused on organising large-scale repression and pacification. “The Diem regime moved, publicly as well as covertly, to eliminate or stifle all opposition. Despite the Geneva Agreements’ prohibition against political reprisal, it quickly targeted the most visible of large numbers of Viet Minh sympathisers in the South.” (George Kahin, ‘Intervention’)

Under Law 10/59, promulgated in May 1959, anyone found to be committing “crimes of sabotage, or infringing upon the security of the state”, or even indeed belonging “to an organisation designed to help or perpetrate these crimes” was to be given the death sentence. That most terrible of crimes, “spreading by any means unauthorised news about prices”, was also punishable by death. By 1963, “not a day passes without the US-Diemists terrorizing, mopping up, and killing people, burning down villages, spraying poisonous chemicals, destroying crops, forcing people into concentration camps, those hells on earth which they call ‘strategic hamlets’” (Ho Chi Minh, Address to the National Assembly, 8 May 1963).

Diem’s repression failed to eliminate the widespread popular demand for reunification. Much of the South Vietnamese countryside had been liberated territory during the war against the French, and the peasants had enjoyed the benefits of land reform and direct democracy. Added to this was the example of the north: while in the south Diem was busily handing land back to big landlords and murdering Viet Minh supporters, in the north the population was moving forward and building socialism.

poster2Having secured its state in 1954, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was making remarkable progress. Agricultural production was significantly increased, as was industrialisation. Legal equality between men and women was established. Famine was defeated, and education was opened up to the masses for the first time. Ho Chi Minh reported in 1964 that ”95 per cent of the population have become literate while under French rule 95 per cent were illiterate… Alphabets have been designed for the languages of some minority peoples, and many young people from minority nationalities have graduated from our universities. Health work has recorded many achievements, many epidemics and old social diseases have been checked, the people’s health has been improved… Over the past ten years, the North has made big strides forward without precedent in our national history” (Report at the Special Political Conference, March 27, 1964).

The way that socialism manifested itself at the basic everyday level is described by a villager from a Central Highlands tribe: ”The living conditions of the people were getting better and better every day. The people were well off. They had enough to eat. They were able to attend school. They were free with no oppression from anyone. There were no imperialist foreigners in the North. They had land to work and buffaloes to help them plow the land. There were no more cruel landlords to lord it over them” (cited in Young).

A fascinating account by Noam Chomsky of his trip to North Vietnam in 1970 gives a vivid impression of what life was like. Visiting a village school, he writes: “We sat in a mathematics class (seventh grade, children of twelve to fourteen) for some time. There were forty-five children studying geometry. I looked through some of the children’s notebooks, which contained neatly done, quite advanced algebra problems. The lesson was lively. Children tried to work out proofs of theorems as the teacher sketched their proposals on the blackboard. The level was remarkably high, easily as advanced as anything I know of in the United States. It was particularly striking to find such work in a remote village, barely a generation removed from illiteracy.” He continues: “There is no doubt that the spirit of national independence and dignity is high, and that the Vietnamese are proceeding to lay the basis for a modern society.”

Chomsky quotes British journalist Richard Gott, who had also recently travelled to North Vietnam, summing up Vietnamese socialism: “By getting rid of the rich, and avoiding extremes of poverty, Vietnam gives the impression of a prospering, cohesive society, unique in the under-developed world.”

Birth of the National Liberation Front

nlf-flagThe people of Vietnam, north and south of the 17th parallel, had assumed that they would win reunification and independence through the elections promised by the Geneva Accords. When it became clear that the US and its puppet Diem would never allow the elections to take place, and that Diem was stifling all opposition in order to create a permanent neocolonial state in South Vietnam, the resistance in the south was forced to formulate a new strategy. On 20 December 1959, several political and religious groups joined together into the National Liberation Front with a view to overthrowing Diem, establishing a coalition government, and setting Vietnam back on the road to reunification.

The NLF, along with the People’s Liberation Army it established a few months later, quickly took root among the masses of the people, establishing liberated territory across much of the countryside. Diem’s programme of repression became increasingly ineffective against this tried-and-tested resistance movement (largely led by veterans of the war against the French, and supplied by Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) forces). Realising the hopelessness of his government’s situation, Diem secretly established contact with the NLF and the DRV government with a view to negotiating a peaceful solution. This proved to be his undoing. His US backers, totally unsympathetic to the idea of negotiating away their dream of permanent domination of the region, had him overthrown and killed. “The deeply shaken Saigon regime and army were plunged into an endless crisis: within 20 months since the fall of Diem, thirteen coups, nine cabinets and four charters followed one after another.” (Ngo Vinh Long)

Meanwhile, the US military escalation in the early 1960s had not had the desired effect. ”There were 800 American military personnel in South Vietnam when Kennedy took office [January 1961] and 16,700 when he died in November 1963. The National Liberation Front controlled the majority of villages in the South when Kennedy took office; they continued to do so in the year of his death, and basic American policy was also unchanged” (Young). With the NLF controlling at least 75% of the country, the US understood that it was only a matter of time before the South Vietnam government and army were defeated outright. In that context the US would have been well advised to accept the situation and to negotiate for a united Vietnam that was neutralist and not overtly hostile to the US – the NLF and DRV regularly stated their willingness to negotiate on such a basis (in the famous words of Ho Chi Minh, “If the Americans want to make war for twenty years then we shall make war for twenty years. If they want to make peace, we shall make peace and invite them to afternoon tea.”). Sadly, President Johnson and his advisors chose the other option: death and destruction on an unprecedented scale.

On 2 March 1965, ‘Operation Rolling Thunder’ – the bombing of the north – began. A week later, the first few thousand US ground troops landed in the south.

Unparalleled destruction

The US war against Vietnam was, and remains, the most atrocious colonial war in human history – a case of brutal, uneven violence of holocaust proportions. Nick Turse, in his meticulously-researched book ‘Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam’, describes vividly the obscene ‘technowar’ perpetrated by the US:

They shook the earth with howitzers and mortars. In a country of pedestrians and bicycles, they rolled over the landscape in heavy tanks, light tanks, and flame-thrower tanks. They had armoured personnel carriers for the roads and fields, swift boats for rivers, and battleships and aircraft carriers off shore. The Americans unleashed millions of gallons of chemical defoliants, millions of pounds of chemical gases, and endless canisters of napalm; cluster bombs, high-explosive shells, and daisy-cutter bombs that obliterated everything within a ten-football-field diameter; antipersonnel rockets, high-explosive rockets, incendiary rockets, grenades by the millions, and myriad different kinds of mines. Their advanced weapons included M-16 rifles, M-60 machine guns, M-79 grenade launchers, and even futuristic technologies that would only later enter widespread use, like electronic sensors and unmanned drones. In other words, in Vietnam the American military amassed an arsenal unlike any seen before. As it faced off against guerrillas armed with old rifles and homemade grenades fashioned out of soda cans—or North Vietnamese troops with AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers—the United States had at its disposal more killing power, destructive force, and advanced technology than any military in the history of the world.

Reliable academic studies put the total death toll at just under 4 million people, the overwhelming majority of them Vietnamese peasants. The total munitions unleashed by the US in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia “added up to the equivalent of 640 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs” (ibid). Highly toxic defoliants such as Agent Orange were sprayed far and wide, directly affecting up to 5 million Vietnamese. “Immediate reactions to exposure included nausea, cramps, and diarrhoea. In the longer term, the defoliants have been associated with higher incidence of stillbirths as well as a variety of illnesses, including cancers and birth defects such as anencephaly and spina bifida. Children born decades after the war still suffer the aftereffects.”

US military scientists, keen to build on their chemical weapons innovations from the Korean War, developed new variants of napalm and white phosphorus. “An estimated 400,000 tons of it were dropped in Southeast Asia, killing most of those unfortunate enough to be splashed with it.”

Thanks to the landmark reporting by Seymour Hersh and the bravery of the whistleblower, Ron Ridenhour, the March 1968 massacre at My Lai crept into the international media and became one of the defining moments of the war. Nick Turse describes the unmitigated horror unleashed on the people of My Lai by Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment: “The Americans entering My Lai encountered only civilians: women, children, and old men. Many were still cooking their breakfast rice… Soldiers of Charlie Company killed. They killed everything. They killed everything that moved. Advancing in small squads, the men of the unit shot chickens as they scurried about, pigs as they bolted, and cows and water buffalo lowing among the thatch-roofed houses. They gunned down old men sitting in their homes and children as they ran for cover. They tossed grenades into homes without even bothering to look inside. An officer grabbed a woman by the hair and shot her point-blank with a pistol. A woman who came out of her home with a baby in her arms was shot down on the spot. As the tiny child hit the ground, another GI opened up on the infant with his M-16 automatic rifle. Over four hours, members of Charlie Company methodically slaughtered more than five hundred unarmed victims, killing some in ones and twos, others in small groups, and collecting many more in a drainage ditch that would become an infamous killing ground. They faced no opposition. They even took a quiet break to eat lunch in the midst of the carnage. Along the way, they also raped women and young girls, mutilated the dead, systematically burned homes, and fouled the area’s drinking water.” (ibid)

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the My Lai massacre is that it was by no means out of the ordinary. The only really unusual thing about it was that it made the news in the west. In truth, numerous massacres on a similar scale took place. “Murder, torture, rape, abuse, forced displacement, home burnings, specious arrests, imprisonment without due process—such occurrences were virtually a daily fact of life throughout the years of the American presence in Vietnam… They were no aberration. Rather, they were the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military.”

Turse notes that US soldiers in Vietnam were brainwashed with an intense racist hatred of the Vietnamese people. He cites an army veteran, Wayne Smith: “The drill instructors never ever called the Vietnamese, ‘Vietnamese.’ They called them dinks, gooks, slopes, slants, rice-eaters, everything that would take away humanity … That they were less than human was clearly the message.” The message of Vietnamese inferiority came right from the top: “To President Johnson, Vietnam was ‘a piddling piss-ant little country.’ To McNamara, a ‘backward nation.’ President Nixon’s national security adviser Henry Kissinger called North Vietnam a ‘little fourth-rate power,’ later downgrading it to ‘fifth-rate’ status. Such feelings permeated the chain of command, and they found even more colourful voice among those in the field, who regarded Vietnam as ‘the outhouse of Asia,’ ‘the garbage dump of civilisation,’ ‘the asshole of the world.’” (ibid)

While the people of the south were being subjected to the systematic terror of the US ground war, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was victim to the most intense bombing campaign in history. International law was flouted again and again, as the US air forces bombed water supplies, fuel depots, bridges and transportation systems, essentially in a bid to starve North Vietnam into submission. Turse notes that, “on average, between 1965 and 1968, thirty-two tons of bombs per hour were dropped on the North.”

When President Johnson was forced to call an end to the bombardment of the north in 1968, he simply diverted his B-52s to Laos in order to attack the Pathet Lao resistance movement and to bomb the Ho Chi Minh Trail – the covert supply route from north to south Vietnam, much of which ran through Laos. In the Plain of Jars region in northeastern Laos, “nothing was left standing… In the last phase, bombings were aimed at the systematic destruction of the material basis of civilian society” (George Chapelier, UN advisor in Laos, cited in Young). Similarly, Cambodia was carpet-bombed from 1969 to 1973, resulting in an estimated 150,000 deaths and a refugee crisis affecting two million people (over quarter of the population). The Ho Chi Minh Trail, meanwhile, stayed open. According to the US National Security Agency’s official history of the war, it was “one of the great achievements of military engineering of the 20th century.”

The stark inhumanity and painful futility of the US war is brilliantly captured by poet Bryan Alec Floyd:

This is what the war ended up being about:
We would find a V.C. village,
and if we could not capture it
or clear it of Cong,
we called for jets.
The jets would come in, low and terrible,
sweeping down, and screaming,
in the first pass over the village.
Then they would return, dropping their first bombs
that flattened the huts to rubble and debris.
And then the jets would sweep back again
and drop more bombs
that blew the rubble and debris
to dust and ashes.
And then the jets would come back once again,
in a last pass, this time to drop napalm
that burned the dust and ashes to just nothing.
Then the village
that was not a village any more
was our village.

Victory to Vietnam

“B-52s and computers can’t compete with a just cause and human intelligence” – Pham Van Dong (Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, 1970).

“Be loyal to the country and devoted to the people, fulfil all tasks, overcome all difficulties, defeat all enemies.” – Ho Chi Minh

For all the sophisticated military technology and the obscene brutality; in spite of the billions of dollars spent, the millions of lives destroyed, the endless strategic shifts and the best efforts of numerous US presidents (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford); the US simply could not win in Vietnam. From north to south, the ordinary Vietnamese people refused to be defeated. As Ho Chi Minh correctly predicted: “We, a small nation, will have earned the signal honour of defeating, through heroic struggle, two big imperialisms – the French and the American – and of making a worthy contribution to the world national liberation movement.”

The US escalation reached its highest point in 1968, at which point there were over half a million US troops, along with over a million mercenary troops from the South Vietnamese puppet army, and a few thousand from South Korea, Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Thailand and Taiwan. Totally confident that victory was just around the corner, and failing to understand the extent of popular support for the NLF, the US refused to negotiate with the NLF or DRV at any point during the first three years of full-scale war. Yet the US and Saigon forces couldn’t make any headway in defeating their enemy. In early 1967, a US Senate Armed Forces Committee report stated that “the Viet Cong [pejorative name for the NLF] still control 80 percent of South Vietnam territory” (cited in Ngo Vinh Long). Attacked ferociously with napalm and helicopter gunships, and sustaining tens of thousands of casualties, the NLF nevertheless continued to grow in number and influence, using guerrilla warfare “not to wage large-scale battles and win big victories, but to nibble at the enemy, harass him in such a way that he can neither eat nor sleep in peace, to give him no respite, to wear him out physically and mentally, and finally to annihilate him.” (Ho Chi Minh)

Naomi Cohen writes: “The NLF was fighting a people’s war… Having won the vast majority of the people over to the resistance, the NLF was in fact indistinguishable from the people. Thus the US and its puppet regime in Saigon engaged in one tactic after another to isolate the NLF from the general population. When it became clear that the rural population was feeding and sheltering the resistance fighters, the US tried to herd the people into ‘strategic hamlets’, which were nothing but concentration camps, to try to cut off support to the NLF fighters. The Pentagon used chemical warfare, dropping Agent Orange to defoliate jungle hideouts and destroy crops. When these tactics didn’t work, relentless bombing of so-called ‘free-fire zones’ followed.”

None of the US’ strategies worked. Since the US would not voluntarily sit down and negotiate, the Vietnamese revolutionaries had to force the issue. They did so with dazzling effectiveness. The Tet Offensive, widely considered to be the major turning point of the war, was launched during the Tet (Lunar New Year) celebrations in January 1968. This coordinated attack by NLF forces took place in 140 cities and towns simultaneously, to the complete shock and surprise of the US and its quislings in South Vietnam.

“The NLF forces, without any modern means of transportation or communications attacked almost every major military and administrative installation in South Vietnam in complete secrecy under the noses of the most sophisticated military machine that has ever taken the field… Among the objectives attacked were all four zonal headquarters of the Saigon Army, eight out of 11 divisional headquarters, and two American army field headquarters. Among the 18 major targets attacked in Saigon itself were the US embassy, the ‘Presidential Palace,’ the joint US-Saigon armed forces headquarters, and the South Vietnam naval headquarters.” (Wilfred Burchett, ‘Vietnam Will Win’)

The Tet Offensive proved to the world that the Vietnamese could not be defeated; that the US would have no choice but to negotiate; that all the saturation bombing and state terrorism were only strengthening the resolve of the NLF and DRV. It caused a major re-think in Washington and led to Lyndon Johnson’s refusal to stand for a second term as president (in itself a clear admission that the Vietnam War was unwinnable). It also inspired Richard Nixon’s policy of ‘Vietnamization’: getting the South Vietnamese puppet army to fight the ground war, with the US gradually withdrawing its ground troops and focusing on the genocidal aerial bombing of Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam.

Tet also had a big impact on the willingness of ordinary US soldiers to fight the war, and on the anti-war movement in the US itself, which grew to become an important source of pressure on the government.

womenfightersMeanwhile, the US air war against the north was going far from smoothly. In the course of the war, the US lost approximately 10,000 aircraft and helicopters to surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery and Soviet MiG fighter planes. Thousands of small air raid shelters were built across the north in order to protect the population. Vietnamese doctor Ton That Tung put it bluntly: “The Americans thought that the more bombs they dropped, the quicker we would fall to our knees and surrender. But the bombs heightened rather than dampened our spirit.” 

With an army in crisis (AWOLs and desertion were rampant, morale was the lowest it had ever been, and drug addiction was becoming an epidemic among GIs), an increasingly effective anti-war movement at home, and no prospect of wiping out Vietnamese resistance in South Vietnam, Nixon turned his attention to Cambodia, where the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN, the DRV’s political headquarters in charge of running its war effort) was rumoured to be located. “In May 1970, over 50,000 US and Saigon troops invaded Cambodia to ‘clean up the sanctuaries’ and dismantle the ‘Vietcong Pentagon’. This invasion was preceded by the most massive air bombardments since the start of the Vietnam war, including for the first time B-52 bomber raids against towns, wiping out half a dozen frontier towns in as many minutes.” (Ngo Vinh Long)

One unintended effect of the Cambodia invasion is the breathing space it gave to the NLF inside South Vietnam, which by the end of 1971 had fully recovered from the post-Tet counter-offensive.

poster1On 30 March 1972, the DRV People’s Army tanks “rolled across the demilitarised zone in the first of a three-pronged offensive whose force and power should have been, but were not, expected… In the mountains where the Laos, Cambodian, and Vietnamese borders meet, American advisers on advanced fire bases could hear the bulldozers of the North Vietnamese engineer corps widening old roads and building new ones. Using tanks and heavy artillery, a combined force totalling 200,000 North Vietnamese and NLF troops swept aside ARVN defences, challenging the premise as well as the substance of Vietnamization. For Hanoi, this was the main point of the entire effort: to demonstrate to Nixon that Vietnamization would not work, that his administration would have to sit down to serious negotiations or look forward to an endless war in Vietnam.” (Young)

The US leadership could see the writing on the wall. On 17 January 1973, the Paris Peace Agreements were signed. The accords called for an immediate ceasefire, the full withdrawal of US troops, and negotiations between Saigon and the NLF towards inclusive elections and reunification. That is to say: the US went to Indochina, killed millions of people, devastated the environment and infrastructure, and agreed to a peace deal on pretty much the same terms as it had rejected 19 years earlier (the Geneva Accords).

The last American ground troops left Vietnam on March 29, 1973. With the US forces largely out of the picture, it was a foregone conclusion that the puppet government in Saigon would collapse soon enough. Two hundred thousand men deserted the South Vietnamese army in 1974 alone.

At the end of 1974, the DRV generals made the decision to push for final victory, with the hope of liberating Saigon in 1976 or 1977. In fact, victory came far quicker as the South Vietnamese forces, demoralised and disintegrating, gave very little resistance. Sweeping down from the north, the joint forces of the North Vietnamese People’s Army and the National Liberation Front quickly liberated Hue and Da Nang. Much of the central strip was liberated without a fight.

With the revolutionary army approaching Saigon, US Ambassador Martin asked the South Vietnamese president, Thieu, to resign, in the hope that the NLF would be willing to reach an accommodation with his successor, Duong Van Minh, who had a reputation for being more favourable to a peaceful resolution to the conflict. However, Saigon was already encircled. “On the morning of April 30, Minh ordered a general cease-fire. ‘In a final extraordinary irony,’ James Harrison writes, ‘the man who transmitted Minh’s cease-fire order, a one-star general named Nguyen Huu Hanh, was a longtime Communist agent.’” (Young)

The revolutionary forces had won control of the entire country. It was a profoundly significant and emotional moment, one that should be remembered and treasured by all who long for freedom and who oppose imperialism.

“At the front headquarters, we turned on our radios to listen. The voice of the quisling president called on his troops to put down their weapons and surrender unconditionally to our troops. Saigon was completely liberated! Total victory! We were completely victorious! All of us at headquarters jumped up and shouted, embraced and carried each other around on our shoulders. The sound of applause, laughter, and happy, noisy, chattering speech was as festive as if spring had just burst upon us. It was an indescribably joyous scene. Le Duc Tho and Pham Hung embraced me and all the cadres and fighters present. We were all so happy we were choked with emotion… This historic and sacred, intoxicating and completely satisfying moment was one that comes once in a generation, once in many generations. Our generation had known many victorious mornings, but there had been no morning so fresh and beautiful, so radiant, so clear and cool, so sweet-scented as this morning of total victory, a morning which made babes older than their years and made old men young again.” (Van Tien Dung, ‘Our Great Spring Victory’)

A legacy that will never lose its relevance

History is meaningless if it’s just a bunch of interesting stories from the past. History is rendered meaningful through the lessons it offers, the tools it gives us to help solve the problems we have today. The people of Vietnam – a relatively small, underdeveloped, oppressed country – were able to comprehensively defeat French and then US imperialism. Given that imperialism still exists in the world; given that the number one task for the liberation (and indeed survival) of humanity is to end imperialism at a global level; it’s clear that we need to understand how the Vietnamese achieved what they did.

The role of ideology

As discussed above in relation to the birth of the Indochinese Communist Party and the Viet Minh, Marxist-Leninist ideology played a decisive role in defining the tasks of the Vietnamese Revolution (which can be considered to have started in the 1920s and which is ongoing) and creating a lasting alliance of workers, peasants and intellectuals. Truong Chinh, in his pamphlet ‘Forward Along the Path Charted by Karl Marx’, writes: “During nearly a century under French colonialist rule, finding life impossible under the oppressive regime of the colonialists and the feudalists, our people had risen up to struggle courageously for the independence and freedom of the fatherland. For one who fell, others rushed forward. But all national-liberation movements before the birth of our party had failed. One of the causes for this failure lies in the inability of those revolutionaries to develop the scientific world outlook of the working class, the most revolutionary class of our time, hence to work out an adequate programme capable of leading the Vietnamese revolution to victory.”

Marxism for the first time places the masses at the centre stage in history. The oppressed, the exploited, the sufferers, the people who slave and toil, for the first time become the active element, the force driving society forward. Le Duan, leader of reunified Vietnam until his death in 1986, writes: “It was not until the birth of Marxism that the masses were recognised as makers of history… Workers, peasants, urban and rural toilers, and revolutionary intellectuals, all belong to the family of the toiling masses. Only by paying attention to their aspirations and interests, can we rouse their determination and enthusiasm, and develop their inexhaustible creativeness to overcome all difficulties and speed up the revolution.”

Combined with Leninism, which extends Marxism from its European birthplace and applies it to the conditions of an imperialist-dominated world, this ideology enabled Ho Chi Minh and his comrades to define the social classes that could be brought into the struggle; to build a vast revolutionary mass movement capable of fighting and winning; to make revolutionary science comprehensible to ordinary workers and peasants; and to develop the level of unity needed to defeat the strongest enemies (“Without this unity we would be like an orchestra in which the drums play one way and the horns another; it would not be possible for us to lead the masses and make revolution” – Ho Chi Minh). Furthermore scientific socialism, with its emphasis on equality and social progress, helped the Vietnamese resistance to draw women into political activity on an equal basis with men. The unprecedented role of female guerrilla fighters in the Vietnam wars attests to this.

It was the communists who had the understanding, the strategy and the vision that was needed to bring about liberation – as was the case in China. Naomi Cohen puts it simply: “The Vietnamese people, who began their war of liberation with only bows and arrows, were organised by communist revolutionaries into the most determined and experienced anti-imperialist fighting force ever seen. This is how they defeated the most powerful military on earth.”

Global solidarity

On the frontline of the global struggle against imperialism, Vietnam had the support of progressive people worldwide. The support of the socialist camp was certainly a crucial factor in the continued successes of the Vietnamese Revolution.

Red China provided a rear base, along with hundreds of thousands of troops, large quantities of weapons and other supplies, and valuable military experience gained in the struggle for national liberation (not to mention the experience of the millions of People’s Volunteers who fought alongside North Korea between 1950 and 1953).

The Soviet Union provided decisive support in the form of advanced weaponry, including surface-to-air missiles and fighter jets, as well as medical supplies, tanks, helicopters, and several thousand troops. Soviet military schools and academies also provided training for thousands of Vietnamese soldiers.

A North Korean air force regiment helped to defend North Vietnam against air attacks (providing a counterpart to the thousands of South Korean ground troops sent to fight in Vietnam on the side of the US by the stooge dictatorship of Park Chung-hee). Kim Il-sung encouraged the North Korean pilots to “fight in the war as if the Vietnamese sky were their own.” Even Cuba, thousands of miles away, sent military advisers.

As Ho Chi Minh put it: “All achievements of our Party and people are inseparable from the fraternal support of the Soviet Union, People’s China and the other socialist countries, the international communist and workers’ movement and the national-liberation movement and the peace movement in the world. If we have been able to surmount all difficulties and lead our working class and people to the present glorious victories this is because the Party has coordinated the revolutionary movement in our country with the revolutionary movement of the world working class and the oppressed peoples.”

With his obsessive focus on unity, Ho Chi Minh was able to skilfully navigate the Sino-Soviet split (which he correctly regarded as a disaster), maintaining close relations with both sides right up to his death in 1969. (It is telling that one of the key paragraphs in his testament addresses the split: “Being a man who has devoted his whole life to the revolution, the more proud I am of the growth of the international communist and workers’ movement, the more pained I am by the current discord among the fraternal Parties. I hope that our Party will do its best to contribute effectively to the restoration of unity among the fraternal Parties on the basis of Marxism-Leninism and proletarian internationalism, in a way which conforms to both reason and sentiment. I am firmly confident that the fraternal Parties and countries will have to unite again.”)

peace-to-vietnamThe anti-war movement in the US also had an important impact. Although the role of this movement is sometimes overstated by those who want to negate the role of the Vietnamese masses in freeing themselves, there’s no question that this movement struggled bravely and creatively, and as a result was able to pull a large portion of the US public towards an anti-war position. This in turn served to somewhat restrain the US government, and may well have influenced the decisions to withdraw troops and to end congressional funding to the South Vietnamese army. The role of civil rights and black liberation movement leaders in the anti-war movement made a historically important link between the struggle against imperialism abroad and the struggle against imperialism and racism at home; a link that needs to be emphasised today, when the same imperialist ruling classes are fuelling civil war in Syria, seeking the overthrow of the government in Venezuela, and killing unarmed black people on the streets of Baltimore, New York and Ferguson.

In many ways, Vietnam was a victory not just for the revolutionary forces of Vietnam but for the progressive forces of the world, and a lesson as to what we can accomplish if we’re united.

Building socialism and solidarity, against all odds

Our rivers, our mountains, our people will always be; The American aggressors defeated, we will build a country ten times more beautiful.

With invaders and puppet armies finally defeated, the Vietnamese Revolution moved immediately on to a new phase: reunifying the country, rebuilding it, coming to terms with the extent of the destruction, dealing with the abundance of social, economic and political problems that the war left behind, and trying to move forward to socialism. Van Tien Dung writes movingly of his thoughts in the hours and days following victory: “We thought of the welter of jobs ahead. Were the electricity and water in Saigon still working? Saigon’s army of nearly 1 million had disbanded on the spot. How should we deal with them? What could we do to help the hungry and find ways for the millions of unemployed to make a living? Should we ask the centre to send in supplies right away to keep the factories in Saigon alive? How could we quickly build up a revolutionary administration at the grassroots level? What policy should we take toward the bourgeoisie? And how could we carry the South on to socialism along with the whole country? The conclusion of this struggle was the opening of another, no less complex and filled with hardship. The difficulties would be many, but the advantages were not few. Saigon and the South, which had gone out first and returned last, deserved a life of peace, plenty and happiness.”

The Vietnamese leadership had hundreds of very real problems to deal with; new problems needing creative solutions. In the south, the new government inherited, according to its own estimates, “twenty million bomb craters, ten million refugees, 362,000 war invalids, one million widows, 880,000 orphans, 250,000 drug addicts, 300,000 prostitutes and three million unemployed; two-thirds of the villages were destroyed.” 

The population of Saigon had multiplied during the course of the war, with millions seeking refuge from the war in the countryside; by 1975, it was far and away the most densely populated city in the world. The war had caused immense environmental destruction throughout the country, creating significant health and economic problems. Much of the industrial infrastructure of the north had been damaged and needed rebuilding.

If there was ever a country in need of development aid, it was Vietnam. And yet very little was forthcoming. Everybody’s favourite ‘liberal’ US president, Jimmy Carter, refused to normalise relations with Vietnam or to provide any aid whatsoever, stating that “the destruction was mutual”. (As Chomsky said, “if words have meaning, this must stand among the most astonishing statements in diplomatic history”). Meanwhile, the growing hostility between Vietnam and China (related to the Sino-Soviet split and to the ongoing war in Cambodia) led to China cutting off aid to Vietnam in the late 70s. Vietnam was left very much dependent on a Soviet Union that, by the mid-80s, was in a state of terminal decline.

Those who walk the road know it is hard.
Scale one mountain and another appears.
But once you mount the highest peak,
10,000 miles appear before your eyes.

(Ho Chi Minh, prison diary)

In spite of everything, the Vietnamese people and government have re-built their country; have constructed a modern, viable, strong, independent, socialist state. It has been, and remains, a complex and difficult path to a brighter future, with many unexpected twists and turns, but one thing we can say for certain is that the Vietnamese people are in a position thousands of times better than what they endured under French and US colonialism.

When the Soviet Union and the eastern European people’s democracies fell in the late 80s and early 90s, economic hard times quickly fell on Vietnam. It had to change tactics, but it didn’t change its road. Along with Cuba, China, North Korea and Laos, Vietnam forms part of a small group of heroic countries that “did not abandon the principles of Marxism-Leninism, or of popular democratic government, or of the leadership of the Communist Party” and that are “persisting in socialism – in spite of the enormous difficulties resulting from us being left almost alone – using our intelligence, using our hearts, using our creative spirit, … capable of introducing innovations which will not only save socialism, but will improve it, and one day will bring it to a definitive triumph.” (Fidel Castro speech in Ho Chi Minh City, 1996)

chavez-giapThe unity, bravery, heroism, creativity, discipline, endurance and selflessness of the Vietnamese people is a profound lesson to all those struggling for freedom, independence and socialism. In the 60s, 70s and 80s, Vietnam gave great inspiration to the masses of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Guinea Bissau and South Africa. Today, it is our duty to study and understand how the history of the Vietnamese freedom struggle informs our modern-day anti-imperialist struggle, be it in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Congo, Yemen, or in the streets of London, Paris and Baltimore.

Suggested further reading

  • Ho Chi Minh – Selected Works
  • Marilyn Young – The Vietnam Wars 1945-1990
  • Nick Turse – Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam
  • Ngo Vinh Long – Coming to Terms: Indochina, the United States, and the War
  • Van Tien Dung – Our Great Spring Victory
  • William Duiker – Ho Chi Minh: A Life
  • Nguyen Thi Dinh – No Other Road to Take
  • Vo Nguyen Giap – Selected Works
  • Truong Chinh – Forward Along the Path Charted by Karl Marx

Remembering Chris Hani

10 April 2015 marks the 22nd anniversary of the tragic assassination of Chris Hani, a legendary freedom fighter and one of the most courageous and talented leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle. Although he was only 50 at the time of his death, Hani’s contribution to the struggle was that of several lifetimes.

Born in 1942 in the Transkei, he was politicised by the sheer poverty that he saw around him in his early life. He joined the ANC’s Youth League at the age of 15, and quickly went on to become a dedicated organiser. As a student radical at the University of Fort Hare (whose alumni include Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Robert Mugabe, Julius Nyerere and Kenneth Kaunda), he was recruited to the South African Communist Party (SACP) by the veteran anti-apartheid leader, Govan Mbeki. In 1962, Hani became a member of the newly-formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) – the military wing of the ANC – and it was above all his heroic activities in this organisation over the course of three decades that led to his well-deserved reputation as one of the most important figures in the history of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Regenerating the struggle

Throughout the 1950s, the ANC’s stock had grown as a result of its effective disobedience and defiance campaigns along with its propaganda work. The Freedom Charter, which put forward the core principles of the Congress Alliance (which included the ANC, the SACP, the South African Indian Congress, the South African Congress of Democrats and the Coloured People’s Congress), was adopted in 1955 at the Congress of the People and became a rallying cry for opponents of apartheid across the country.

However, with the banning of the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and other liberation organisations in 1960; the introduction of ever more repressive laws; and the Rivonia Trial of 1963 – which saw the imprisonment of almost the entire leadership of the MK (including Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Walter Sisulu) – the movement had hit a low point by the mid-1960s. Underground activity inside South Africa was almost non-existent, and the exile movement had not yet become an effective force.

At this point, a critical lifeline was offered by the Soviet Union, which provided financial support and extensive military training to hundreds of MK cadres, including Hani (as detailed at length in Vladimir Shubin’s book, ANC – A View From Moscow’). Tanzania and Zambia, which gained their independence from Britain in 1961 and 1964 respectively, allowed the ANC and MK to set up bases in their newly liberated territories, and Hani was involved in setting up the first military camps of South African liberation fighters.

In 1967, Hani led an operation to insert ANC and ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union) troops into Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), with a view to opening up infiltration roots into South Africa. Militarily the campaign was far from successful – ending as it did in the loss of more than half the cadres and a forced retreat into Botswana – and yet it raised the spirits of black South Africans at an exceptionally difficult period for the liberation struggle. As Nelson Mandela says in ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, “it was a milestone in the struggle” to see MK cadres engaged militarily with the enemy for the first time, even killing some soldiers of the racist Rhodesian regime.

Hani noted at the time:

“This was a virgin victory for us, since we had never fought with modern weapons against the enemy. For us that day was a day of celebration because with our own eyes we had seen the enemy run. We had seen the enemy frozen with fear … We had also seen and observed each other reacting to the enemy’s attack. A feeling of faith in one another and recognition of the courage of the unit developed.” (cited in Shubin)

Veteran people’s lawyer Albie Sachs noted that this operation (known as the Wankie Campaign, owing to its location in the Wankie Game Reserve) turned Hani into “an admired leader … he’d been in combat and now had an unofficial, intangible sense of authority”. (More can be read about the campaign here)

Deepening the armed struggle

By the mid-1970s, Hani was at the head of an MK base in Lesotho, the purpose of which was to reinfiltrate small groups of cadres back into South Africa for short periods in order to organise armed sabotage cells. Hani was one of the first to be reinfiltrated, in 1974, successfully avoiding the South African intelligence services and setting up several cells in Johannesburg, before making his way back over the border four months later. Chris wrote of that period:

“Now we were actually building a number of units from Lesotho into South Africa … We built a network of structures inside the country. We trained people in guerrilla affairs, in politics, in intelligence and everything else … Those were exciting days for me because I was receiving these cadres coming from the Transvaal, from the Orange Free State, from the Cape and Natal. I was in touch with trade unions. I used to go in and out. Meet comrades at Sterkspruit in Transkei. I used to send some of my colleagues from our collective in Lesotho to Cape Town, to Johannesburg, to Durban for a few days. We had little meetings and discussed strategy… We began to build education groups inside Lesotho. We prepared them in terms of understanding the ANC and our struggle. We would select the best to send back into the country underground. We would say: go and form a cell or two, then come back. We are giving you a week … all the theory that we had acquired in our training and our limited experience we began to apply creatively in a new situation. And for me that was a turning point in terms of our struggle.” (cited in ‘Hani: A Life Too Short’ by Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp)

This activity quickly became the main theatre of the armed struggle. The operations stepped up in a serious way after 1976, as thousands of young militant South Africans were forced out of the country in the aftermath of the Soweto Uprising. These young people were ready to fight, and eagerly joined the MK’s camps in Tanzania and Zambia. Chris, who by this time had been placed on the ANC’s Revolutionary Council (and was Assistant General Secretary of the SACP), was at the forefront of providing military training and political education for these new recruits.

“All those who worked with Hani noted his humility, his charm, his deep concern for the troops, and his incorruptibility – refusing to enjoy the privileges that his reputation might have earned him, and eating, sleeping and training with his comrades” (op cit).

In an interview with the ANC journal Mayibuye in 1985, Hani spoke of the need to extend the war into the white areas in order to create greater pressure for the dismantling of apartheid:

“It’s a situation of complete ruthlessness, of acts of atrocities against the blacks in our country. Now, in the face of that situation, it is important that the whites should realise that our country is in a state of civil war, because nothing is taking place where they stay. Their suburbs are still pictures of peace and stability and the usual rhythm of life continues. Their lives are not disturbed… Life for white South Africans is good. They go to their cinemas, they go to their barbecues, they go to their five-star hotels. That’s why they are supporting the system. It guarantees a happy life for them, a sweet life. Part of our campaign is to prevent that sweet life.”

Through this revolutionary upsurge in South Africa, the liberation forces started to break the back of apartheid. Hani’s key role led to him being made MK’s political commissar in 1982 and its chief of staff four years later.

Return to South Africa

In April 1990, Hani was able to return to South Africa on a provisional amnesty order from the white government, as it inched towards a negotiated settlement. He immediately began working tirelessly, travelling the country to educate people about the political process taking place and also to raise their socialist consciousness. He was everywhere received with undisguised joy, perhaps second only to Nelson Mandela in popularity.

Although he had been a military man for nearly thirty years, Chris strongly believed in the peace process. He understood only too well that the revolutionary forces were not strong enough to defeat the South African state outright, but that the combination of armed and mass struggle, described by Nelson Mandela as the liberation movement’s hammer and anvil, could together force a negotiated solution which would move the overall freedom struggle many important steps forward. Hani stated: “In the current political situation, the decision by our organisation to suspend armed action is correct and is an important contribution in maintaining the momentum of negotiation”. And just a few days before his death, he said : “The issue now is not armed struggle but elections. That needs a climate of peace and stability; we cannot afford to have that process delayed and disrupted by violent elements … Every ANC supporter should be a combatant, but a combatant now for peace.”

In December 1991, Hani was elected to the post of general secretary of the SACP, and gave up his post as MK chief of staff in order to focus on grassroots development of the party. By this time it was fairly clear that the apartheid era was coming to an end, and Chris saw the need to consolidate the position of the left within the Congress alliance, in order to push for the specific interests of the workers and peasants in the post-apartheid era. This was consistent with the vision he had always had, articulated in some brief autobiographical notes he wrote in 1991: “In 1961 I joined the underground South African Communist Party as I realised that national liberation, though essential, would not bring about total economic liberation.”

Communism and the struggle against apartheid

Hani described his enduring commitment to socialism and the SACP in the following terms:

“Why did I join the SACP? Why was I not just satisfied with the ANC? I belonged to a world, in terms of my background, which suffered I think the worst extremes of apartheid. A poor rural area where the majority of working people spent their time in the compounds, in the hostels, away from their families. A rural area where there were no clinics and probably the nearest hospital was 50kms away – generally a life of poverty with the basic things unavailable. Where our mothers and our sisters would walk 3km and even 6km whenever there was a drought to fetch water. Where the only fuel available was going 5-6 km away to cut wood and bring it back.

“I had seen the lot of black workers, extreme forms of exploitation. Slave wages, no trade union rights, and for me the appeal of socialism was extremely great. Where it was said that workers create wealth, but in the final analysis they get nothing – they get peanuts in order to survive and continue working for the capitalists. I didn’t get involved with the workers’ struggle out of theory alone. It was a combination of theory and my own class background. I never faltered in my belief in socialism despite all the problems currently. For me that belief is strong because that is still the life of the majority of the people with whom I share a common background.” (cited in Smith and Tromp)

One important – and controversial – issue related to the life of Chris Hani is the relationship between the struggle for socialism and the struggle for national liberation; and more specifically, between the ANC and the SACP. This relationship has been under almost constant attack from the 1930s onwards. The apartheid regime and its western imperialist backers used the relationship to ‘prove’ that the anti-apartheid struggle was simply part of an evil Soviet plot against western-style freedom and democracy. Meanwhile, there were plenty of people within the anti-apartheid camp who opposed the relationship on the basis that the SACP was allegedly white-dominated and that Marxism was an imported ideology that was not relevant for Africans.

Nelson Mandela comments on this issue in ‘Long Walk to Freedom’:

“It is perhaps difficult for white South Africans, with an ingrained prejudice against communism, to understand why experienced African politicians so readily accepted communists as their friends. But to us the reason is obvious. Theoretical differences amongst those fighting against oppression are a luxury we cannot afford at this stage. What is more, for many decades communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals; who were prepared to eat with us; talk with us, live with and work with us. Because of this, there are many Africans who, today, tend to equate freedom with communism.”

The fact is that the communists were extremely consistent in their support of the national liberation goals of the Congress movement, and proved themselves in struggle to be capable, courageous fighters and strategists. Indeed, the SACP “has the distinction of being the first organisation in the history of Africa to call unambiguously for black majority rule on the basis of universal suffrage. This was at a time when even the ANC stopped short of this demand.” (Statement of the SACP Central Committee in 1976)

Longtime ANC President Oliver Tambo notes:

“There was a time when anti-communism reared its head in the ANC and there were often moves for the removal of communists from ANC ranks, but … to all intents and purposes we are running a common struggle together.” Pointing out that the leading members of the Party were also leading members of the ANC, Tambo said: “From my experience, you could not have asked for more loyalty.” (cited in Shubin)

In another interview, in response to the question “is the ANC under the undue influence of white communists?”, Tambo responded:

“I don’t know where these white communists are. When I ask who they mean, they reply: Joe Slovo. When I ask who else, they are silent. It is extraordinary how white communists are credited with so much power and influence and supremacy and superiority. Why are we not being influenced by black communists? And why can’t the influence go the other way? Individual members of the Communist Party are like any member of the ANC … Our movement has never hidden the fact that there is a relationship between the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party on those questions of policy which both organisations share in common. In particular both organisations believe that in the present stage of the revolutionary process in South Africa, the primary aim is the national liberation of the most exploited and most oppressed section of the South African people – the Africans.”

The ANC-SACP alliance also helped to cement Soviet, Eastern European and Cuban support for the liberation struggle, which proved to be invaluable.

Looking towards a non-racial future

Another important and controversial issue relating to Chris Hani’s legacy is that of the ANC/SACP policy of non-racialism: the idea that the struggle against apartheid, whilst primarily fought in the interests of the most oppressed group (black Africans), was also a struggle to transcend the division of society along racial lines, and that therefore the struggle should embrace people of all races, so long as they were genuinely committed to a non-racial democracy.

The ANC’s Strategy and Tactics paper – one of its defining documents – outlines the policy as follows:

“This confrontation on the lines of colour is not of our choosing; it is of the enemy’s making. It will not be easy to eliminate some of its more tragic consequences. But it does not follow that this will be so for all time. It is not altogether impossible that in a different situation the white working class, or a substantial section of it, may come to see that their true long term interest coincides with that of the non-white workers. We must miss no opportunity to try and make them aware of this truth and to win over those who are ready to break with the policy of racial domination … Our policy must continually stress in the future (as it has in the past) that there is room in South Africa for all who live in it but only on the basis of absolute democracy … Committed revolutionaries are our brothers, regardless of the group to which they belong. There can be no second class participants in our Movement. It is for the enemy we reserve our assertiveness and our justified sense of grievance.”

Tambo also elaborated on this idea: “We call upon those in the white community who stand ready to live a life of real equality and nonracialism to make common cause with our struggle for genuine liberation … In sharp contrast to the racists who have sought to divide our country and people into racial and ethnic compartments, we have upheld the ideal of one country, one people and one democratic and nonracial destiny for all who live in it, black and white.”

The close links between the liberation movement and the Soviet Union likely had an important role in affirming the ANC’s non-racial perspective. In their biography of Hani, Smith and Tromp describe his first visit to the Soviet Union (in the early 1960s):

“In the USSR now, the men were witnesses to the way a powerful nation was run. For Hani, having joined the Communist Party a mere two years earlier, but having read extensively on socialism and Marxism, it was the culmination of theory, reading, imagining… There were no beggars and no blatant poverty. The activity in the city was frenetic: houses being built on one side, flats on the other. Later the men marvelled at the fact that education and medical attention were free to all. This was the product of the revolution. All the propaganda, the lies cranked out by the Western imperialists denouncing life in the Soviet Union, had been disproved.

“For some of the cadres, this was the first time they had experienced compassion, understanding and support from white people. This treatment strengthened their will to fight for a nonracial society.

“With three square meals a day cooked by white women, and being taught by white instructors, this was ‘a new world of equality where our colour seems to be of no consequence … where our humanity is recognised,’ wrote Hani.”

Although the policy of non-racialism was criticised harshly and frequently by separatist elements within the movement, it proved its value in practice, creating a highly effective fighting alliance, and providing a vision that the masses could relate to.

The legacy of Chris Hani

hanimandelaChris Hani was murdered on 10 April 1993 in Johannesburg by a fascist gunman by the name of Janusz Waluś, who was working with a senior Conservative Party MP on a plot to assassinate a number of prominent liberation fighters and thereby spark a civil war along race lines, derailing the negotiations to end apartheid. Their plot was unsuccessful, as the massive wave of shock and grief at Hani’s death was channelled towards a new momentum in the peace process. South Africa’s first democratic election – one of the most historic events of the twentieth century – took place a year later, on 27 April 1994.

Looking at some of the problems that South Africa still suffers today, it seems obvious that Hani would have been hugely important in the search for solutions. His words just two weeks before his death were prophetic:

“I think finally the ANC will have to fight a new enemy. That enemy would be another struggle to make freedom and democracy worthwhile to ordinary South Africans. Our biggest enemy would be what we do in the field of socio-economic restructuring. Creation of jobs; building houses, schools, medical facilities; overhauling our education; eliminating illiteracy, building a society which cares, and fighting corruption and moving into the gravy train of using power, government position to enrich individuals. We must build a different culture in this country… and that culture should be one of service to the people”.

Chris was a relentless voice for the poor and oppressed, a legend of the struggle, a man of the people who had the confidence and support of the radical youth. As Nelson Mandela wrote in his autobiography: “He was a great hero among the youth of South Africa, a man who spoke their language and to whom they listened. South Africa was now deprived of one of its greatest sons, a man who would have been invaluable in transforming the country into a new nation.”

Mandela’s moving words at Hani’s funeral perhaps give an indication of the type of man that the world lost on 10 April 1993:

“I would like to address a final word to Chris himself – comrade, friend and confidant. We worked together in the National Executive Committee of the ANC. We had vigorous debates and an intense exchange of ideas. You were completely unafraid. No task was too small for you to perform. Your ready smile and warm friendship was a source of strength and companionship. You lived in my home, and I loved you like the true son you were. In our heart, as in the heart of all our people, you are irreplaceable. We have been struck a blow that wounds so deeply that the scars will remain forever. You laid down your life so that we may know freedom. No greater sacrifice is possible.

“We lay you to rest with the pledge that the day of freedom you lived and died for will dawn. We all owe you a debt that can only be repaid through the achievement of the liberation of our people, which was the passion of your life. Fighter, revolutionary, soldier for peace, we mourn deeply for you. You will remain in our hearts forever!”

The memory of Chris Hani should strengthen the resolve of all those on the side of socialism and national liberation. Ho Chi Minh correctly pointed out that, “in order to become truly deserving revolutionaries, all of us must follow the examples of heroism, of utter devotion to the public interest and complete selflessness… of those who watered with their blood the tree of Revolution which has now bloomed and borne fruit.” Hani’s legacy sets an example for us all to follow.


Huey Newton – Revolutionary Suicide

Today is the 73rd anniversary of Huey P Newton’s birth. Huey’s autobiography, ‘Revolutionary Suicide’, remains an important contribution to the field of revolutionary strategy and tactics, particularly for those working in the ‘belly of the beast’ – the imperialist countries of Europe and North America. While it is of course a work-in-progress, and many of its ideas are untested or incomplete, it raises some hugely important issues that are still very relevant to socialists, communists and anti-imperialists.

What made the Black Panther Party and affiliated black/brown power organisations so special? What made them stand out from the myriad of other radical/progressive/socialist organisations? What can we learn from them today? The key aspects are that they were able to mobilise the *masses* – moving beyond dogma and outdated methodologies (“fanning our pamphlets to the hurricane”, to use George Jackson’s vivid expression) in order to engage oppressed people in the struggle for their own freedom; and that they explicitly and tangibly linked up the struggle ‘at home’ with the wider global struggle against imperialism.

Some of the key themes emerging from ‘Revolutionary Suicide’ are:

  • BUILD UNITY THROUGH REAL STRUGGLE. Learning to fight the oppressor is the way to stop fighting each other. Huey communicates this idea by relating the story of how, at his high school, the black students created unity amongst themselves in response to the dominance of white racist gangs.
  • BUILD UNITY THROUGH SHARED GOALS. Nobody agrees on everything, and yet left organisations insist on defining themselves on the basis of petty differences with each other. Work out a basic platform and move on it.
  • BUILD A SENSE OF COMMUNITY. Modern capitalism takes away our sense of community, of togetherness, of shared purpose. It promotes individualism and fear. Any revolutionary organisation or movement must seek to build unity and cooperation in the communities it works within. Socialism is built from the ground up.
  • BUILD ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION. The education system fails oppressed people. It teaches self-hate and subservience. The revolutionary must be an educator. Raising consciousness is a long-term, arduous, essential project and needs constant attention.
  • MOBILISE AMONG THE MOST OPPRESSED. Although the traditional US left was focusing its attentions on the industrial working class, the Panthers realised that this was not the most revolutionary class in society, as it had largely been bought off and was enjoying the fruits of imperialism and racism. Huey points out that any successful revolution will likely have its base in those elements in society that have nothing to lose; that are ready to go against the system.
  • REVOLUTION STARTS NOW. Meet the survival needs of the people, in the here and now. Build power in the communities. Take responsibility. Political power doesn’t drop from the skies; it is built in real life, and that process begins now with the fight for survival.
  • BE RELEVANT. You don’t have to dumb down your ideas to be acceptable to the masses; you don’t have to take ‘popular’ positions; but you *do* have to be relevant. Many groups fail because they are completely divorced from the masses, and because they adopt an alienating, doctrinaire, superior attitude in relation to oppressed people.
  • STUDY THE ART OF REVOLUTION. Learn how others have developed movements and won freedom, and let their strategies inform yours.
  • NO REVOLUTIONS ARE ALIKE. While learning from others, remember that your struggle has its own unique characteristics, and therefore you must develop your own unique strategy based on a deep analysis of concrete conditions, rather than relying on blueprints or dogmas.
  • FIGHT THE POWER. Develop the skills to deal with the system on a daily level. Know your rights – with police, in school, with bailiffs etc. This is key for building pride, confidence and solidarity.


On being a revolutionary

“I will fight until I die, however that may come. But whether I’m around or not to see it happen, I know that the transformation of society inevitably will manifest the true meaning of ‘all power to the people.'”

“By surrendering my life to the revolution, I found eternal life”

“The first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man. Unless he understands this, he does not grasp the essential meaning of his life.”

“The oppressor cannot understand the simple fact that people want to be free. So, when a man resists oppression, they pass it off by calling him ‘crazy’ or ‘insane'”

“You can only die once, so do not die a thousand times worrying about it.”

On building a movement

“We discussed Mao’s program, Cuba’s program, and all the others, but concluded that we could not follow any of them. Our unique situation required a unique program. Although the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed is universal, forms of oppression vary. The ideas that mobilised the people of Cuba and China sprang from their own history and political structures. The practical parts of those programs could be carried out only under a certain kind of oppression. Our program had to deal with America.”

“Che and Mao were veterans of people’s wars, and they had worked out successful strategies for liberating their people. We read these men’s works because we saw them as kinsmen; the oppressor who had controlled them was controlling us, both directly and indirectly. We believed it was necessary to know how they gained their freedom in order to go about getting ours. However, we did not want merely to import ideas and strategies; we had to transform what we learned into principles and methods acceptable to the brothers on the block.”

“To recruit any sizeable number of street brothers, we would obviously have to do more than talk. We needed to give practical applications of our theory, show them that we were not afraid of weapons and not afraid of death. The way we finally won the brothers over was by patrolling the police with arms.”

“Mao and Fanon and Guevara all saw clearly that the people had been stripped of their birthright and their dignity, not by any philosophy or mere words, but at gunpoint. They had suffered a holdup by gangsters, and rape; for them, the only way to win freedom was to meet force with force. At bottom, this is a form of self-defence.”

“We came to an important realisation: books could only point in a general direction; the rest was up to us.”

“Interested primarily in educating and revolutionising the community, we needed to get their attention and give them something to identify with.”

“It was my studying and reading in college that led me to become a socialist. The transformation from a nationalist to a socialist was a slow one, although i was around a lot of Marxists. I even attended a few meetings of the Progressive Labour Party, but nothing was happening there, just a lot of talk and dogmatism, unrelated to the world I knew. It was my life plus independent reading that made me a socialist – nothing else.”

“The street brothers were important to me, and I could not turn away from the life I shared with them. There was in them an intransigent hostility toward all sources of authority that had such a dehumanising effect on the community. In school the ‘system’ was the teacher, but on the block the system was everything that was not a positive part of the community.”

“[When we started patrolling the police] many community people could not believe at first that we had only their interest at heart. Nobody had ever given them any support or assistance when the police harassed them, but here we were, proud Black men, armed with guns and a knowledge of the law. Many citizens came right out of jail and into the party, and the statistics of murder and brutality by policemen in our communities fell sharply.”

“If we developed strong and meaningful alliances with white youth, they would support our goals and work against the establishment”

“Too many so-called leaders of the movement have been made into celebrities and their revolutionary fervour destroyed by mass media. The task is to transform society; only the people can do that – not heroes, not celebrities, not stars. A star’s place is in Hollywood; the revolutionary’s place is in the community with the people.”

“Revolution is not an action; it is a process.”

“The survival programs are a necessary part of the revolutionary process, a means of bringing the people close to the transformation of society.”

“The Breakfast for Children program was set up first. Other programs – clothing distribution centres, liberations schools, housing, prison projects, and medical centres – soon followed. We called them ‘survival programs pending revolution’, since we needed long-term programs and a disciplined organisation to carry them out. They were designed to help the people survive until their consciousness is raised, which is only the first step in the revolution to produce a new America. I frequently use the metaphor of the fact to describe the survival programs. A raft put into service during a disaster is not meant to change conditions but to help one get through a difficult time. During a flood the raft is a life-saving device, but it is only a means of getting to higher and safer ground.”

“We had the base now on which to construct a potent social force in the country. But some of our leading comrades lacked the comprehensive ideology needed to analyse events and phenomena in a creative, dynamic way. We [formed the] Ideological Institute, which has succeeded in providing the comrades with an understanding of dialectical materialism. About three hundred brothers and sisters attend classes to study in depth the works of great Marxist thinkers and philosophers.”

“I dissuade party members from putting down people who do not understand. Even people who are unenlightened and seemingly bourgeois should be answered in a polite way. Things should be explained to them as fully as possible. I was turned off by a person who did not want to talk to me because I was not important enough. After the Black Panther Party was formed, I nearly fell into this error. I could not understand why people were blind to what I saw so clearly. Then I realised that their understanding had to be developed.”

“My experiences in China reinforced my understanding of the revolutionary process and my belief in the necessity of making a concrete analysis of concrete conditions. The Chinese speak with great pride about their history and their revolution and mention often the invincible thoughts of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. But they also tell you, ‘This was *our* revolution based upon a cornet analysis of concrete conditions, and we cannot direct you, only give you the principles. It is up to you to make the correct creative application.’ It was a strange yet exhilarating experience to have traveled thousands of miles, across continents, to hear their words. For this is what Bobby Seale and I had included in our own discussions five years earlier in Oakland, as we explored ways to survive the abuses of the capitalist system in the Black communities of America. Theory was not enough, we had said. We knew we had to act to bring about change. Without fully realising it then, we were following Mao’s belief that ‘if you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution. All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience.'”

“We must never take a stand just because it is popular. We must analyse the situation objectively and take the logically correct position, even though it may be unpopular. If we are right in the dialectics of the situation, our position will prevail.”

On education

“During those long years in Oakland public schools, I did not have one teacher who taught me anything relevant to my own life or experience.”

“Throughout my life all real learning has taken place outside school. I was educated by my family, my friends, and the street. Later, I learned to love books and I read a lot, but that had nothing to do with school. Long before, I was getting educated in unorthodox ways.”

“The clash of cultures in the classroom is essentially a class war, a socio-economic and racial warfare being waged on the battleground of our schools, with middle-class aspirating teachers provided with a powerful arsenal of half-truths, prejudices and rationalisations, arrayed against hopelessly outclassed working-class youngsters. This is an uneven balance, particularly since, like most battles, it comes under the guise of righteousness.” (quote from Kenneth Clark, ‘Dark Ghetto’)

“Strong and positive influences in my life helped me escape the hopelessness that afflicts so many of my contemporaries. My father gave me a strong sense of pride and self-respect. By brother Melvin awakened in me the desire to learn, and because of him I began to read. What I discovered in books led me to think, to question, to explore and finally to redirect my life.”

“I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. My homemade education gave me, with every additional book I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness and blindness that was affecting the black race in America.” (quote from the Autobiography of Malcolm X)

On community

“When people in the congregation prayed for each other, a feeling of community took over; they were involved in each other’s problems and trying to help solve them. Here was a microcosm of what ought to have been going on outside in the community. I had the first glimmer of what it means to have a unified goal that involves the whole community and calls forth the strengths of the people to make things better.”

“Among the poor, social conditions and economic hardship frequently change marriage into a troubled and fragile relationship. A strong love between husband and wife can survive outside pressures, but that is rare. Marriage usually becomes one more imprisoning experience within the general prison of society.”

“Those in the community who defy authority and ‘break the law’ seem to enjoy the good life and have everything in the way of material possessions. On the other hand, people who work hard and struggle and suffer much are the victims of greed and indifference, losers. This insane reversal of values presses heavily on the Black community. The causes originate from outside and are imposed by a system that ruthlessly seeks its own rewards, no matter what the cost in wrecked human lives.”

On prison

“The state believes in the power of euphemism, that by putting pleasant name on a concentration camp they can change its objective characteristics. Prisons are referred to as ‘correctional facilities’ or ‘men’s colonies’, and so forth; to the name givers, prisoners become ‘clients’, as if the state of California were some vast advertising agency. But we who are prisoners know the truth; we call them penitentiaries and jails and refer to ourselves as convicts and inmates.”

“I have often pondered the similarity between prison experience and the slave experience of Black people. Both systems involve exploitation: the slave received no compensation for the wealth he produced, and the prisoner is expected to produce marketable goods for what amounts to no compensation. Slavery and prison life share a compete lack of freedom of movement. The power of those in authority is total, and they expect deference from those under their domination. Just as in the days of slavery, constant surveillance and observation are part of the prison experience, and if inmates develop meaningful and revolutionary friendships among themselves, these ties are broken by institutional transfers, just as the slavemaster broke up families.”

“Many white inmates are not outright racists when they get to prison, but the staff soon turns them in that direction. While the guards do not want racial hostility to erupt into violence between inmates, they do want hostility high enough to prevent any unity. This is something like the strategy used by southern politicians to pit poor whites against poor blacks.”

“The whites are not only duped and used by the prison staff, but come to love their oppressors. Their dehumanisation is so thorough that they admire and identify with those who deprive them of their humanity.”

“The spirit of revolution will continue to grow within the prisons. I look forward to the time when all inmates will offer greater resistance by refusing to work as I did. Such a simple move would bring the machinery of the penal system to a halt.”

“James Baldwin has pointed out that the United States does not know what to do with its Black population now that they ‘are no longer a source of wealth, are no longer to be bought and sold and bred, like cattle.’ This country especially does not know what to do with its young Black men. ‘It is not at all accidental,’ he says, ‘that the jails and the army and the needle claim so many.'”

“The great mass of arrested or accused black folk have no defence. There is desperate need of nationwide organisations to oppose this national racket of railroading to jails and chain gangs the poor, friendless and black.” (Quote from WEB DuBois)

“The masses must be taught to understand the true function of prisons. Why do they exist in such numbers? What is the real underlying economic motive of crime? The people must learn that when one ‘offends’ the totalitarian state, it is patently not an offence against the people of that state, but an assault upon the privilege of the few.” (George Jackson, ‘Blood in my Eye’)

“Giving a prisoner a number is another way of undermining his identity, one more step in the dehumanisation process. Of course, it has historical roots: the SS assigned numbers to prisoners in Nazi concentration camps during World War II”

On Malcolm X and black consciousness

“White America has seen to it that Black history has been suppressed in schools and in American history books. The bravery of hundreds of our ancestors who took part in slave rebellions has been lost in the mists of time, since plantation owners did their best to prevent any written accounts of uprisings.”

“Malcolm X’s life and accomplishments galvanised a generation of young Black people; he helped us take a great stride forward with a new sense of ourselves and our destiny. But meaningful as his life was, his death had great significance, too. A new militant spirit was born when Malcolm died. It was born of outrage and a unified Black consciousness, out of the sense of a task left undone.”

“IQ tests are routinely used as weapons against Black people in particular and minority groups and poor people generally. The tests are based on white middle-class standards, and when we score low on them, the results are used to justify the prejudice that we are inferior and unintelligent. Since we are taught to believe that the tests are infallible, they have become a self-fulfilling prophecy that cuts off our initiative and brainwashes us.”

“As far as I am concerned, the party is a living testament to Malcolm’s life work. I do not claim that the party has done what Malcolm would have done. Many others say that their programs are Malcolm’s program. We do not say this, but Malcolm’s spirit is in us

“Malcolm X impressed me with his logic and with his disciplined and dedicated mind. Here was a man who combined the world of the streets and the world of the scholar, a man so widely read he could give better lectures and cite more evidence than many college professors. He was also practical. Dressed in the loose-fitting style of a strong prison man, he knew what the street brothers were like, and he knew what had to be done to reach them.”

On China

“What I experienced in China was the sensation of freedom – as if a great weight had been lifted from my soul and I was able to be myself, without defence or pretence or the need for explanation. I felt absolutely free for the first time in my life – completely free among my fellow men. This experience of freedom had a profound effect on me, because it confirmed my belief that an oppressed people can be liberated if their leaders persevere in raising their consciousness and in struggling relentlessly against the oppressor.”

“The behaviour of the police in China was a revelation to me. They are there to protect and help the people, not to oppress them. Their courtesy was genuine; no division or suspicion exists between them and the citizens.”

“The Chinese truly live by the slogan ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,’ and their behaviour constantly reminds you of that. For the first time I did not feel threatened by a uniformed person with a weapon; the soldiers were there to protect the citizenry.”

On democracy

“Institutions work this way. A son is murdered by the police, and nothing is done. The institutions send the victim’s family on a merry-go-round, going from one agency to another, until they wear out and give up. this is a very effective way to beat down poor and oppressed people, who do not have the time to prosecute their cases. Time is money to poor people. To go to Sacramento means loss of a day’s pay – often a loss of job. If this is a democracy, obviously it is a bourgeois democracy limited to the middle and upper classes. Only they can afford to participate in it.”

Long walk to socialism: celebrating the Workers Party victory in Brazil

The recent presidential elections in Brazil, which saw the re-election of Dilma Rousseff in a tightly-fought second-round contest against Aécio Neves of the Social Democratic Party (PSDB), were accompanied by an extended hostile media campaign directed at the Workers Party (PT) government. Loud criticism has come from both ends of the political spectrum. Apparently, this Brazilian government is at once ‘neoliberal’ and ‘communist’; it panders to the elite and it panders to the masses; it squeezes the rich and the poor; it’s part of a conspiracy both with and against the United States; it’s “sold out” to both China and the IMF; its programmes of poverty alleviation are simultaneously ‘irresponsible’ and ‘inadequate’; it attacks trade unions whilst at the same time allowing them to render the economy uncompetitive; it reminds some of the bad old days of the dictatorship, while it makes others miss the good old days of the dictatorship.

With the exception perhaps of the Brazilian electorate, one might be forgiven for thinking that nobody likes the PT very much.

It’s relatively easy to understand the position of the Brazilian elite and the national news media over which they hold a virtual monopoly. They look at the former Marxist guerrilla Dilma Rousseff, who served time in prison for her role in the underground struggle against Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship, and they see the International Communist Conspiracy. They despise the fact that the government wastes so much money on ending extreme poverty and illiteracy; they despise the fact that so many government members have close links with trade unions and/or were part of the armed resistance to the dictatorship; they detest the government’s use of affirmative action policies to try and resolve the abhorrent racial injustice that endures from centuries of slavery.

The PT’s founder and guiding figure, Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, comes in for special vitriol, as a man without a university education; an uppity peasant-turned-strike-leader from the Northeast; an untouchable who sold peanuts by the roadside as a child to supplement the family’s income; a bearded, uncouth oaf who speaks with a working class accent and has none of the slickness of respectable bourgeois politicians (there are vicious rumours circulating that he doesn’t even put Brylcreem in his hair).

The position of the western left is a little less easy to understand. This group tends to look upon the PT government with a certain sense of disappointment. The many European “revolutionaries without a revolution” (as Emir Sader rather unkindly but painfully accurately describes them) were clearly hoping that Lula and his comrades would be able to wave the magic wand bequeathed to the world by Lenin and that Brazil would be transformed in an instant from one of the most unequal societies on the planet into a socialist paradise. When it appeared that Lula – a working class man from the most humble Nordeste background – couldn’t read the instruction manual to the magic wand, many became disillusioned. Tariq Ali, for example, described the PT as “the big disappointment” of the Latin American left, and claims that “the PT administration, frightened of its own shadow, remains mired in the IMF swamp.” He even went so far as to say that Lula was “a weak leader who is so excited at being in power, that he forgets why he is”.

When large protests erupted in Brazil last year, both the mainstream press and much of the left press went into overdrive with denunciations of a supposedly anti-popular Brazilian government. The aim of the right was clear enough: to stoke popular disatisfaction to such a degree that the PT would lose the elections.

The ruling class, the capitalists, those who represent US imperialist interests and their ideological spokespeople, who appear on television every day, have one big goal: Wear down the Dilma government. Weaken the organizations of the working class, defeat any proposed structural changes in Brazilian society and win the 2014 elections to restore full rightist hegemony in command of the Brazilian state, which is now under dispute.”

It was all too predictable that the ultra-left would be brought into this project. Emir Sader writes:

“The progressive governments of the continent (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia) are victims of massive campaigns driven by forces of the international right, and several European voices echo these campaigns… People of the left itself, including the more radical left, reproduce these narratives, doing the work of the international right against these progressive governments.”

This is nothing new. Such a heart-warming de facto unity of the right and ultra-left can be found the world over, from Brazil to South Africa, from Syria to Venezuela. However, in the context of such a concerted critique of the PT government, it’s important to take a detailed look into the history and trajectory of that government, and furthermore to explore ideas around how the PT’s strategy fits into a longer-term movement in pursuit of socialism.

The record in power of the PT

Poverty, inequality and discrimination

Brazil is, and has for centuries been, one of the most unequal countries in the world. While the (almost exclusively white) inhabitants of affluent Rio and São Paulo suburbs fly in and out of their gated communities in helicopters, tens of millions of (predominantly black, indigenous and mixed) workers and peasants live in slums and villages with extremely limited access to education, employment and basic services. The basic economic structure of colonial times remains more-or-less intact in large parts of the country. Land ownership is still dominated by a few latifundistas, and there are many areas where something akin to slave labour is still in force. At least until the 90s, the export economy – built on the back of the most extensive and longest-lasting system of slavery in the Americas – benefitted the oligarchs alone.

openveinsIn his classic 1971 work, Open Veins of Latin America, Eduardo Galeano describes the levels of intense poverty and inhumanity prevailing in Brazil:

The Brazilian Northeast is today the most underdeveloped area in the Western hemisphere. As a result of sugar monoculture it is a concentration camp for 30 million people — on the same soil that produced the most lucrative business of the colonial agricultural economy in Latin America… In large areas the owner’s or administrator’s ‘right of the first night’ for each girl is still effective. A third of Recife’s population lives in miserable hovels; in one district, Casa Amarela, more than half the babies die before they are a year old. Child prostitution — girls of ten or twelve sold by their parents — is common in Northeastern cities. Some plantations pay less for a day’s work than the lowest wage in India.

Galeano remarks on how Brazil’s subject status within the global economy perpetuates the intense poverty of the producers:

To keep their chocolate cheap, the big cacao consumers — the United States, Britain, West Germany, Holland, France — stimulate competition between African cacao and cacao from Brazil and Ecuador. Controlling prices as they do, these nations bring on periods of depression which put cacao workers back on the road. The unemployed look for trees to sleep under and green bananas to fool their stomachs: one product they certainly don’t eat is the fine chocolate that Brazil actually imports from France and Switzerland. Chocolate costs more and more; cacao less and less.

Under the military dictatorship of 1964-85, there was a major industrialisation drive; numerous industries were built up; an entire capital city (Brasilia) was created; and fortunes were made for some big Brazilian families and their foreign backers. However, industrialisation in itself is not a panacea; it is a necessary but not sufficient condition for creating a prosperous and modern society. The dictatorship’s version of development was to open Brazil up to maximum exploitation by Europe and the US, creating wealth that dismally failed to ‘trickle down’. It was an early neoliberal experiment that ran parallel to the violent free-market fundamentalism of Pinochet’s Chile. “The concentration of income that accompanied this growth was marked, a direct result of the regime’s early, and crude, version of ‘Reaganomics’: 75 per cent of the increase in Brazilian income between 1964 and 1974 was appropriated by the richest 10 per cent of the population, while the poorest half took in only 10 per cent.” (Emir Sader and Ken Silverstein, ‘Without Fear of Being Happy’, 1991)

Even relying on the dictatorship’s statistics, by the early 80s, “around 70 percent of the population had less than the minimum daily calorie intake necessary for human development, and around seventy-one million were defined as undernourished.” (Richard Bourne, ‘Lula of Brazil’, 2009)

slumWriting in 2003, shortly after Lula’s first election victory, Australian travel writer Peter Robb vividly describes a country not much different from that depicted by Eduardo Galeano thirty years earlier:

The gap between rich and poor was more than six times the difference in countries like India, Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia. It was more than double the wealth gap in Russia, Mexico, Nigeria. Double the gap in Chile, Venezuela, Colombia too — the only Latin American country that came anywhere close to Brazil’s inequalities was Guatemala. Brazil’s wealth gap was more than six times Japan’s or Germany’s, four times Canada’s, more than three times the differences in Britain, the United States or Australia…

In Brazil, the street children seemed to number in the millions, and they had no real ties to the adult world at all. Recife teemed with skeletal child glue sniffers. They were the bottom layer of a whole heap of Brazilian children abandoned by the society they were born into, a society whose violence in home and neighborhood made them take their chance on the streets as the lesser evil.

Steps towards a solution

Such was the situation Lula and his government inherited in 2003; such was the extent of the problem they had been elected to fix. The commitment to eradicating extreme poverty has been the defining feature of successive PT administrations over the past 12 years; and, more than anything, it has differentiated the PT-led government from the governments that came before it. The Bolsa Família welfare programme, which benefits around 50 million people, has become “a worldwide reference – an example of how to fight poverty… Such is the fascination of Bolsa-Família that Brazil is now being consulted for advice on income transfer programmes by countries across Africa, the Middle East and Asia.” Brazil is described by the UN World Food Program as “a world champion in the fight against hunger”.

bolsa_familiaAn important document by Mark Weisbrot, Jake Johnston, and Stephan Lefebvre, entitled The Brazilian Economy in Transition: Macroeconomic Policy, Labor and Inequality, analyses very thoroughly the data on poverty and inequality, and it’s worth quoting from at length:

Since the Workers’ Party came to power with President Lula taking office in 2003, poverty has been reduced by over 55 percent, from 35.8 percent of the population to 15.9 percent in 2012. Extreme poverty has been reduced by 65 percent, from 15.2 percent to 5.3 percent over the same time period. Over the last decade, 31.5 million Brazilians were lifted out of poverty and, of that number, over 16 million out of extreme poverty.

From 2003 to 2012 the number of people covered by Bolsa Familia benefits increased from 16.2 million to 57.8 million. As a percent of the population, coverage increased from below 9 percent in 2003 to nearly 29 percent in 2012.

Both unemployment and informality – the percentage of workers in the informal sector – have decreased considerably over the past decade. Unemployment peaked at 13.0 percent in 2003 and has declined pretty steadily, except for some temporary upticks during recession, to 5.0 percent today – a historic low.

The percentage of workers employed in the informal sector has fallen sharply from 22.5 in December 2003 to 13.3 percent in August 2014. This shift toward formal sector employment is important for protections such as pensions, sickness and disability benefits, paid annual leave, and regulation of working hours.

For 2003-2014, the real minimum wage increased in Brazil by 76.2 percent. This was a major contributor to the decline in inequality over the past decade.

While Brazil remains an extremely unequal country in terms of income distribution, since 2003, the Gini coefficient has also been reduced. After remaining nearly constant for the decade prior, beginning in 2003, the Gini has fallen from 0.59 to 0.53.

During this period, the income of the poorest 20 percent increased at a rate seven times that of the richest 20 percent. According to the current trajectory, extreme poverty will be completely wiped out within the next few years – this is largely a matter of reaching out to poor families in the most remote areas. Referring to the estimated 700,000 Brazilians still suffering extreme poverty, President Rousseff says: “We must find them. The state should not wait for them to come knocking on our door.” This is echoed by the minister for social development, Tereza Campello: “We need to change the mindset that it is up to a poor person to come to the state, and ensure that the state reaches out to the poor person.” Rather different to the government attitude in, say, Britain or the US.

While the international mainstream media outlets have little interest in such trivia as employment, poverty, education, healthcare, life expectancy and the like (their concern for the wellbeing of the Brazilian masses only manifests itself when it comes to spitting venom in relation to bus fare increases in Rio), the impact of the PT’s policies on the most humble sectors of the population is vast and unprecedented.

“‘This is the first government to pay any attention to us, and before they did we could really go hungry out here,’ said Mr. Francisco, a wiry 47-year-old … who lives with his small family on a dusty plot outside the town of Paulistana in Piauí state. Illiterate himself, he sent his son to school thanks to Bolsa Familia payments… He lived the first 35 years of his life without electricity. Now his home is connected to the grid under a program called ‘Light for All.’”

The lifting out of poverty of over 30 million people is a frankly extraordinary achievement, and should frame the debate over the strengths and weaknesses of the PT administrations. While huge social, economic and political problems persist – and a capitalist economic system remains firmly in place – it is crucial to recognise the historic nature of the changes that have taken place.

In the same time period (2003 to now), Brazil’s infant mortality rate has been drastically reduced: from 58 deaths per every 1,000 live births (one of the highest in the world) to 16 deaths per every 1,000 live births. The government’s AIDS prevention programmes “have kept AIDS from being an epidemic for millions of Brazilians. Brazil is recognized internationally as a leader in AIDS prevention and treatment programs that are available absolutely free to anyone who needs them.” The Mais Médicos initiative has seen several thousand Cuban doctors deployed to urban slums and poverty-stricken rural villages that previously had no resident doctors. Their arrival “has been welcomed as a godsend … in the poorest corners of Brazil”. What’s more, it provides much-needed foreign currency for Cuba and promotes the blossoming Brazil-Cuba relationship.

slaveryWide-ranging efforts are being made to end modern slavery: Caio Magri writes that “Brazilian efforts to eradicate slave labor are considered an international reference”. Each year, the government’s anti-slavery task force frees thousands of debt slaves who have been trapped into a life of producing charcoal, “cutting sugar cane or clearing tracts of Amazon rainforest for cattle ranchers. Housed in isolated and often squalid jungle camps, they are forced to work until they have paid off debts for food, medicine and housing.”

Public expenditure on education increased from $17bn in 2002 to $94bn in 2012, and will increase even more as a result of the Oil Royalties Bill that was passed in response to the large student-led demonstrations of 2013. This bill stipulates that 75% of oil profits derived by the Brazilian government will be apportioned to education (with the remaining 25% going into the health system). The result of this focus on education is that more children are attending school; they are spending longer in school on average (“The average years each Brazilian spends in school is now increasing at a rate of almost two years of study per decade.”); more are heading on to university; and there is vastly increased availability of adult learning opportunities.

University enrollment has “increased by over 130 percent from 3.04 million to 7.04 million,” largely as a result of government programmes that “provide whole or partial remission of student fees for low-income students. Full costs were paid for students from families whose income was less than 1.5 times the minimum salary, and in the first semester of 2006 there were 800,000 students enrolled under this programme… Expansion of the university sector was accompanied by advice to institutions that they provide a minimum quota for black, the poorest, and American Indian (sic) students.” (Richard Bourne, Lula of Brazil)

An increasing number of Brazilians have access to computers and the internet. In 2013 alone, “the number of households with a personal computer increased by 8.8%, with higher growth in the poor Northeastern region. Today, almost half of Brazilians have a computer at home. Of the 32 million households with computers, 28 million already had access to the internet.”

gilbertoAt all levels of society, the PT is trying to tackle the incredible levels of racial inequality that exist. From the beginning, “Lula signaled that he was serious about social change: Gilberto Gil, the black popular musician who had performed at Lula’s rallies, was made minister of culture; Benedita da Silva, also a black Brazilian, was given a social welfare portfolio… Crístovam Buarque, who had run the University of Brasília and gone on to be governor of Brasília, was put in charge of education; he was a passionate enthusiast for raising the poor standards of state schooling, and an admirer of Paulo Freire” (ibid). A recent innovation is to set aside 50% of places in all federal (ie non-private) universities for students of African or indigenous descent, who have historically been majorly under-represented in higher education.

Lula’s government created a Special Secretariat for Policies for the Promotion of Racial Equality, which has been involved in promoting “the controversial programme to promote racial quotas for university entrance, and support and recognition for two thousand quilombos, the settlements for escaped slaves in the 17th to 19th centuries that were symbols of the survival of African (often Yoruba) culture in Brazil.” (ibid)

Over a million affordable homes have been built, with more on the way. The ‘Luz Para Todos’ (Light For All) programme has brought electricity to 15 million rural Brazilians who didn’t previously have it. It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of such a measure in terms of social and economic progress – after all, didn’t Lenin famously remark that “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country”?

Crisis management

Much like nearly every other country in the world, Brazil has been negatively affected by the global economic crisis. A large part of its economy is based on the export of primary commodities, for which demand and prices have dropped considerably. As a result, GDP growth over the last three years has been relatively slow.

What’s interesting in the case of Brazil is that, in attempting to tackle its economic problems, it has refused to adopt the austerity policies prescribed by the west. While the working classes of Europe and North America are hit with rising unemployment and the gutting of the welfare state, the Brazilian poor have continued to see increases in jobs, wages and social spending; that is to say, the cost of the recession has been borne largely by the rich rather than the poor. The wealth gap has continued to narrow, just as in the imperialist countries it has continued to widen.

This refusal to adhere to ‘orthodox’ economic policies of ‘fiscal responsibility’ has earned the PT’s economic team the relentless scorn of western neoliberal economists; it is precisely what The Economist and the various other organs of ‘Reaganomic’ policy are complaining about when they accuse Dilma of “mismanaging the economy”. They want to see the economic crisis used as it is being used in Britain (and as it was in Brazil under the dictatorship when crisis hit in the 1970s): as a means to increase inequality; as a means to promote privatisation, deregulation and laissez-faire capitalism; as a means to roll back the gains won by working class and marginalised communities.

Independence from the North and integration with the South

For many centuries Brazil was a Portuguese colony; then for most of the 20th century it was basically a US neocolony, with large parts of its economy controlled by US multinationals, and with its politicians kept in line by the CIA. The period of military dictatorship (1964-85) was characterised by almost total submission to US foreign policy and an enthusiastic acceptance of US leadership in the global crusade against communism. “Never had there been such ideological convergence with the United States.”

Even the post-dictatorship governments of Sarney, Collor and Cardoso kept Brazil largely within the bounds of the Washington Consensus. In the last decade, however, Brazil has been increasingly breaking away from US interference and transforming itself into a genuinely independent state of the Global South. Emir Sader writes that “Brazil was always the privileged ally of the United States, whether it was during the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964–85) or during the government of Cardoso. The Lula government abandoned this inferior position, adopting a clearly multipolar direction in its foreign policy.”

assad-lulaUnder successive PT governments, Brazil has become deeply aligned with the progressive wave sweeping Latin America; it plays an enthusiastic role in BRICS and is a strong supporter of multipolarity; it has massively upgraded its relationship with Africa; and it has played a valuable role at the global diplomacy level, for example with its very consistent support for Palestine and its vocal opposition to the Iraq war. The progressive global outlook of the new Brazil is recognised and appreciated across the Global South. For example, during his visit to Brazil in 2010, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad declared that “the world needs Brazil in the UN Security Council because it can help establish a new and more just international order.”

In an excellent article in The Nation, Greg Grandin comments that, “as the region’s economic center of gravity, … Brazil has been absolutely indispensable in countering Washington on trade, war and surveillance… If it were not for Brazil’s often quiet maneuvering over the last thirteen years, Washington would have had the upper hand on any number of issues that would have made the world a nastier, more unstable place — extending its extraordinary rendition and torture program, for instance, isolating Cuba and Venezuela, implementing a hemisphere-wide Patriot Act, or institutionalizing corporate power in [the] ‘Free Trade Area of the Americas’. The diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks a few years ago give a good window onto how Brazilian diplomats gently derailed the United States’ hemispheric agenda; often times, Washington’s envoys were long out of the room before they realized they had been played. Lula recognized Palestine’s claim to a state within its 1967 borders and Dilma spoke out against Israel’s disproportionate use of force in its recent assault on Gaza.”

What a tranformation from the period of the dictatorship, whose generals considered themselves the “great administrators of US interests in the region” and aimed to shape Brazil into “the same sort of boss over the south as the United States is over Brazil itself.” (Open Veins)

Latin America Rising

chavez-bolivarThe project of Latin American regional integration – most strongly associated in our era with the late, great Hugo Chávez – has formed a major part of the agenda of the various progressive Latin American governments over the last 15 years. Chávez’s concept was that, if the closest of economic, political, social and cultural links could be built among the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, these countries would stand a much better chance of successfully standing up to US domination, bribery and destabilisation. This is an idea with deep roots. Nicaraguan analysts Toni Solo and Jorge Capelán state that the pursuit of regional integration is “the legacy of Bolivar, … the legacy of Martí, of Sandino, Mariátegui, Gaitán, Che, Fidel Castro and many other Latin American revolutionaries since Independence. This is so because the colonial and imperial powers needed to split the region up into small countries in order to exploit its resources and labor… In Latin America, it is impossible to engage in the construction of socialist and anti-capitalist alternatives without at the same time struggling to integrate the region politically, economically and even culturally.”

Since the election of Lula in 2002, Brazil has been an active participant in this process. Associated Press journalist Adriana Licon whines that “more than a decade of Workers Party rule has seen Brazil prioritize ties with its leftist regional neighbors, from helping muscle socialist Venezuela into the Mercosur trade bloc to financing a billion-dollar transformation of an industrial port in Cuba.”

The PT government has strongly opposed bilateral deals between individual Latin American countries and the US, and has instead pushed regional blocs. Lula set the tone when, in one of his first major foreign policy decisions, he led the rejection of the US-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). The aim of the FTAA was to cement the unequal trading relationship between North and South America, removing barriers to US investment whilst maintaining the tariffs that protect US markets and producers. At the Summit of the Americas meeting in January 2004 where the FTAA was discussed, Lula correctly noted that the previous decade of free trade policies between North and South America had led to “a decade of desperation” for the people of the South, who live with “the awful reality of widespread and disgracefully increasing poverty.” This historic victory for Latin America was a joint effort of the progressive Latin American governments, including Brazil’s: “[Without the joint leadership] of Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Lula da Silva and late Argentinean president Néstor Kirchner, this strategic defeat of imperialism in Latin America would not have been possible.”

The FTAA rejection opened the way for the revival of Mercosur (the Common Market of the South) and other regional bodies that emphasised reciprocity, equality and solidarity. Emir Sader writes that ”the new Brazilian foreign policy allowed and promoted the emergence of new forms of integration and regional cooperation, such as UNASUR, the Bank of the South, the South American Defense Council and the South American Community of Nations. A strong association of diverse countries from across the Global South joined this alliance of Latin American nations, among whom, of course, the BRIC nations — Brazil, Russia, India, and China — are an emblematic example.”


dilma-raulRecent developments notwithstanding, maniacal hostility to Cuba has been a central plank of US foreign policy since the first days of the Cuban revolution (in 1959). Since that time, the State Department and the CIA have worked day and night to prevent the emergence of the next Cuba. This strategy has seen direct US interference in Chile, Grenada, Nicaragua, Jamaica, El Salvador, Ecuador and elsewhere (all comprehensively documented in William Blum’s very useful book Killing Hope). As a recent Wall Street Journal article put it, rather mildly: “Cuba remains a lightning rod in US domestic politics and a sticking point for US relations with other Latin nations.”

As if to reward the US for its crucial support in the 1964 military coup, the Brazilian dictatorship moved quickly to break diplomatic relations with Cuba. These relations were restored after the fall of the dictatorship (in 1985), but have blossomed under the Lula and Dilma governments. Brazil supports Cuba at the international diplomatic level; it ignores the US economic blockade; and is Cuba’s fourth-largest trading partner (after Venezuela, China and Spain). As Cuba’s then Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque put it in 2008: “Respect, trust, friendship and mutual understanding mark the Cuba-Brazil nexus.” Pushed by the US and the Brazilian right wing to make a critique of Cuba’s human rights record, Dilma Rousseff retorted: “We’re going to begin talking about human rights in the US, in regard to a base called Guantanamo. It’s not possible to use human rights as a political and ideological weapon.”

médicos-cubanosThe most prominent collaboration project to date has been Mais Médicos, as mentioned above. Under this programme, over four thousand Cuban doctors are working in urban slums and other needy areas such as rural towns, the Amazon River basin and impoverished northeastern states, where medics have long been scarce.” Brazil’s federal government pays for this service with a monthly salary of around $4,000 per doctor, generating desperately-needed foreign currency income for the Cuban state.

Aside from Mais Médicos, Brazil is also involved in some crucial economic development projects in Cuba, most notably the construction of a port at Mariel. This port – which Brazil’s state development bank is financing to the tune of $680 million – is located along the route of the main maritime transport flows in the Western hemisphere, and experts say it will be the largest industrial port in the Caribbean in terms of both size and volume of activity.” Unquestionably, this will provide an important boost to Cuba’s economy. Meanwhile, Brazil and Cuba are also planning cooperation in an array of fields. “Brazil has also indicated that it is studying potential investments in generic pharmaceuticals, including anti-cancer drugs, petroleum refining, and the production of lubricants, while Cuban officials have said that Brazil and Cuba are studying projects in the areas of health care, education, computers and agriculture and livestock.”

Brazil has also worked closely with Cuba and Venezuela in the development of a public health system in Haiti. In 2010, Lula’s government set aside $80 billion for this project, with the bulk of the money going to Cuba, which has been using its unparalleled expertise and history of medical solidarity in order to set up a national network of disease control centers and also provide training to Haitian healthcare professionals.

Brazil’s willingness to stand against the US blockade, to cooperate with Cuba and to invest in Cuba is an act of solidarity, and an unambiguous statement of Brazil’s alignment with the socialist and progressive nations.


It’s also significant that Brazil has stood firmly with Venezuela in confronting the ongoing destabilisation campaign it faces. There are more than a few influential journalists who try to drive a wedge between ‘centre-left’ Brazil and ‘ultra-left’ Venezuela (even former poster-boy of the Venezuelan opposition, Henrique Capriles, claimed to be a Lula fan). There are also a few on the left that like to bifurcate ‘revolutionary’ Venezuela and ‘capitulationist’ Brazil: Richard Bourne notes that, while Chávez was greeted as a hero at the January 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Lula was jeered. “Some participants accused him of failing to fulfill promises to eradicate Brazil’s mass poverty and of caving in to corporate interests, the IMF, and the United States. Chávez had to defend him. ‘I love Lula!’ he yelled at the stadium. ‘I respect him. Lula is a good guy.’” (Indeed, there is an ultra-left critique of Chávez which is decidedly similar to the ultra-left critique of Lula: “While Chávez talked up twenty-first-century socialism, many economists considered his policies ‘gradualist reform’ that had far more in common with European-style social democracy than Cuban communism. Former Marxist guerrillas such as Douglas Bravo even thought their onetime ally was a sellout. Rather than a revolutionary, Bravo said, Chávez was a neo-liberal.” (Bart Jones – The Hugo Chavez Story from Mud Hut to Perpetual Revolution))

In spite of all this, the two countries under the leadership of Lula, Dilma, Chávez and Maduro have constructed what Raúl Zibechi calls “the most solid strategic alliance in the region.”

In 2003, the trade between the two countries amounted to $800m. By 2011, this figure had gone up to $5bn… In 2005, Lula and Chávez signed the Brazil-Venezuela strategic alliance and in 2007, they started holding quarterly presidential meetings – an unheard-of regularity – to accelerate the integration of infrastructure, which continued until 2010… The friendly relations forged by Chávez and Lula have continued under Rousseff. They present a challenge to those seeking to undermine Venezuela by promoting a so-called “Brazilian” way: in fact the two models are closer than we are led to believe.

As we have seen, Brazil was instrumental in getting Venezuela admitted to Mercosur, the South American trading bloc. “It was the clout of Dilma’s government that persuaded Mercosur to set aside fears about possible violation of its democracy rules and welcome Venezuela into membership.” This bloc, currently comprising Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, is increasingly aligned with the general project of regional integration, and provides a counterweight to the Pacific Alliance, whose members – Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Chile – are generally seen as being closer to US-led neoliberal ‘orthodoxy’ (although hopefully this will change with the election of centre-left governments in Chile and Peru).

Lula formed a close friendship with Chávez, and repeatedly threw his weight behind Chávez’ election bids. He underscored his support for the Bolivarian Revolution with a video message in 2012, congratulating Chávez on what would turn out to be his final election:

Under the leadership of Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan people have made extraordinary conquests. The working classes have never been treated with such respect, care and dignity. Those conquests must be preserved and consolidated. Chávez, count on me, count on us in the PT, count upon the solidarity and support of each militant of the left, of every democrat and every Latin American. Your victory will be our victory. A warm embrace, and thank you comrade for everything that you’ve done for Latin America.

chavez-lulaIn what turned out to be an important message of support (given Lula’s popularity and the narrowness of the vote), Lula also videoblogged in support of Nicolas Maduro in the presidential election after Chávez’s death: “One phrase sums up what I feel: Maduro for president and a Venezuela that Chávez dreamed of.” President Dilma has also given strong backing to Maduro. “‘We wish you great success with your presidential mandate and your government,’ Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said after a meeting in which she promised Venezuela food supplies, expanded trade and cooperation in the oil and gas sector… The clear endorsement from the largest and most influential Latin American nation will strengthen Maduro’s grip on power following his contested election in the oil-producing nation last month.”

Most significantly, the Brazilian leadership gave active solidarity to Venezuela when it was hit by a wave of extended protests and economic sabotage aimed at destabilising the country. Politically, Dilma refused to buckle to pressure to distance herself from Venezuela. Economically, Brazil stepped up to provide the Venezuelan government directly with products being targeted by economic sabotage. Maduro expressed his gratitude:

“We appreciate the spirit of solidarity and support of Brazil and President Dilma Rousseff, who will supply us with all key products that have been hit by this economic war of speculation and hoarding developed by the Venezuelan right. Brazil is our bigger sister, our South American power, we have to thank life, history, God and our commander Chavez that we are placed in this world together as brothers. Our relations are based on respect and solidarity.”

It goes without saying that, under the dictatorship, Brazil would have acted as the US’ regional policeman and done everything within its power to strengthen the Venezuelan opposition – just as they actively supported the forces of the far-right in Chile, Argentina and elsewhere.


One of Lula’s clearest policies in international relations was to establish close ties with Africa. As he put it, “Brazil – not just me – took a political decision to make a re-encounter with the African continent.” This ambition was not purely borne out of business or geopolitical needs (although these certainly exist), but primarily out a sense of historical obligation – a recognition of the horrors of slavery and its lasting impact on the African continent. (Galeano writes that, “from the conquest of Brazil until abolition, it is estimated that some 10 million blacks were brought from Africa; there are no precise figures for the eighteenth century, but the gold cycle absorbed slave labor in prodigious quantities.”)

Lula, on tour in Cape Verde, stated that “Brazil would not be what it is today without the participation of millions of Africans who helped build our country.” In the course of nine years of his presidency, Lula made a dozen trips to Africa, visiting a total of 25 countries. Visiting the Slave House on Gorée Island, Senegal, in 2005, he apologised for Brazil’s role in the slave trade: “I want to tell you … that I had no responsibility for what happened in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, but I ask your forgiveness for what we did to black people.” If only the governments of certain other countries built on slavery, colonialism and genocide would have so admirable a moral framework!

lula-zumaBrazil retains a strong cultural affinity with Africa – in no small part because it has the largest population of African origin in the world, excluding Africa. This allowed us to not only begin to repay the historic debt our country has to Africa, but also establish tight connections of economic exchange, supporting large projects in infrastructure and educational and scientific cooperation, from a completely non-paternalistic perspective, and clearly in solidarity and brotherhood.”

After a period where relations with Africa were almost completely rejected, as the governments of Collor and Cardoso focused instead on cultivating relations with the US, the PT-led Brazil went into a frenzy of activity in relation to Africa diplomacy. Brazil now has a total of 37 embassies in the continent of Africa, up from 17 in 2002. The only countries that have more embassies in Africa are China, the US, Russia and France. And the love is reciprocated, it seems. Since 2003, 17 African embassies have opened in Brasília, adding to the 16 already there, making the Brazilian capital home to the largest concentration of African embassies in the southern hemisphere.”

The political diplomacy is backed up with aid and trade. Without attracting much attention, Brazil is fast becoming one of the world’s biggest providers of help to poor countries.” In the last few years, Brazil has been involved in “around 200 cooperation projects with African countries in areas ranging from agricultural research to medicine and technical cooperation, among others.” These cooperation projects include an antiretroviral drug factory in Mozambique; a Human Breast Milk Banks Network in several countries; the training of Angolan military personnel in Brazil; a Mother-Child and Teenage Health Institute in Mozambique; and a $100 million credit facility to help small-scale farmers in Zimbabwe. Announcing the Memorandum of Understanding between Brazil and Zimbabwe, the Brazilian Ambassador in Harare, Marcia Maro da Silva, stated that Brazil would contribute “to the sustainable development of Africa through technical co-operation that comes with no strings attached as it is based on solidarity with no conditionality imposed.”

Brazil is actively involved with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, through which it works with a number of African countries to strengthen food security, food sovereignty and agricultural research. Its cooperation with Angola and Mozambique (both former Portuguese colonies) is particularly strong. Brazil also aims for maximum knowledge transfer, strengthening agricultural research capacity in Africa, an area that has for long been neglected by governments and traditional donors.”

Speaking about the recent South-South Cooperation agreement signed between Brazil and Angola, through which Angolan researchers will receive technical assistance and short-term training from the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation, Laurent Thomas, FAO Assistant Director-General for Technical Cooperation, noted that “Brazil has much to offer in terms of proven technical know-how and this agreement is an important milestone in South-South Cooperation between the two countries. We believe it is a model that we hope will be followed by other countries of the Global South.”

Just last year, Dilma announced, on a trip to Addis Ababa to mark the African Union’s 50th anniversary, that Brazil was cancelling nearly a billion dollars’ worth of debt to 12 countries. This debt cancellation would be combined with the setting up of a new development agency.

Meanwhile, in a reflection of ever-deepening Brazil-Africa relations, trade flow between Brazil and Africa grew from $4.3 billion in 2002 to $27.6 billion in 2011. The BNDES, Brazil’s government-owned development bank, has opened its first Africa office, in Johannesburg (its only other international branches are in Montevideo and London).

BRICS – towards a multipolar world

A major developing South American nation such as Brazil has a clear choice in terms of its international outlook: accept the domination (and hope for the protection) of the US, or align closely with the forces of an emerging multipolar world and join the historic struggle to end imperialist hegemony. This multipolar model – “a pattern of multiple centres of power, all with a certain capacity to influence world affairs, shaping a negotiated order“ (Jenny Clegg, China’s Global Strategy) – has been promoted in recent decades by the more advanced political forces of the developing world (in particular the Chinese Communist Party) as the only realistic means of containing imperialism and creating a democratic and stable world order in which formerly oppressed countries can develop in peace.

“It is their common history that brings the BRICS countries together. This is a history that distinguishes the BRICS countries from the traditional powers. It is a history of struggle against colonialism and underdevelopment, including the spirit of Bandung. Circumstances of history have put these countries on the same side.” (Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation)

On coming to power in 2003, Lula and the PT made their stance very clear: they would stand with the Global South, with the developing world, with the forces of multipolarity. Visiting China for the first time in 2004, as part of a delegation that included eight cabinet ministers, six state governors and 450 business leaders, Lula pre-empted the emergence of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa):

“He urged China to consider joining the embryonic G3 alliance consisting of Brazil, India and South Africa. ‘We dream that in the near future it will be a G5 with Russia and China,’ Mr Da Silva said. ‘We want to build a political force capable of convincing rich nations … that they can ease their protectionist policies and give access to the so-called developing world.’”

Emphasising the importance of Brazil-China relations, Lula stated: “Many are hoping this alliance is a failure. But there are more people around the world who are on our side than against us.” A huge number of commercial deals and cooperation projects were signed off on this trip, paving the way for a growth in bilateral trade from 6.7 billion dollars in 2003 to more than 80 billion dollars in 2012 (making China Brazil’s number one trading partner since 2009).

As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pointed out on a recent visit to Brasilia: “China and Brazil are the largest developing countries in their own hemisphere. Being an important part of the emerging economic entities, our relationship is beyond the traditional scope of bilateral ties, and has strong strategic meanings and extensive significance… China and Brazil should work together to promote the world multipolarisation process, steer the international political and economic order toward a more fair and rational direction, and boost the overall interests of the developing countries.”

Dilma’s government has continued along this path, continuing to cement relations with the BRICS countries and with progressive Latin America (as outlined above). Speaking in late 2012 of Brazil’s growing relationship with Russia, Dilma said: “Our countries champion a multipolar world that reflects the profound transformation humanity is going through.” Brazilian relations with Russia – political and economic – have also blossomed in recent years.

The five BRICS countries constitute around 40 percent of the global population, and are responsible for a fifth of global GDP. Their average econonic growth is 4 percent, compared to 0.7 percent for the G7 countries. As these countries and their allies continue to grow, and as they continue to deepen their unity (developing into what Putin has called “a full-scale strategic cooperation mechanism”), over time they will be able to exercise increasingly meaningful power on the world stage. “The BRICS grouping has shown that the West can no longer co-opt emerging powers into falling into line, even about crucial geopolitical issues,” according Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at Brazil’s Getulio Vargas Foundation.

Brazil’s enthusiasm for these political projects is a great boon for progressive and anti-imperialist forces worldwide. The day is approaching where the coordinated forces of the developing world can break imperialist hegemony and open the way for the construction of a world that is more just, more peaceful, more prosperous, more equal; a world free from domination, war, hunger and ignorance.

Not creating socialism, but creating the conditions for a transition to socialism

pcdobFor all the profoundly important and progressive changes that have taken place in Brazil since the PT came to power, capitalism remains firmly in place. Brazil remains a country of vast inequality; there has been no real expropriation of the land owners and big capitalists; land reform has been painfully slow; the political right remains very powerful; the state forces (police, army) have not been overhauled; racist and anti-poor attacks by police are commonplace; the media is still almost exclusively owned by enemy forces; the federal system allows right-wing tyrannies to reign supreme within their own regions; and the basic patterns of ownership have not changed.

Brazil remains in many ways a conservative society, where the wealthy exercise far greater influence than they deserve. Meanwhile, it faces some of the same major problems that plague many countries of the Global South in the 21st century: a tension between industrial development and environmental preservation; a tension between tribal, feudal, capitalist and socialist ideologies and ways of life; needing foreign investment but wanting to maintain economic sovereignty; a large population with divisions along several axes – race, religion, ethnicity, region; a highly complex balance of power that involves not just the working class and peasantry but also the old latifundistas, the pro-imperialist elements of the capitalist class, as well as the more nationalistic elements of the capitalist class; a corrupt political system dependent on private campaign financing; and so on.

Frankly, these problems would be a lot easier to deal with if the working class and its allies had a monopoly on political power; that is, if the old elite were expropriated and denied political rights; if the police and army were dismantled and replaced by popular militias that were loyal to the working class and the peasantry; if the deeply flawed system of parliamentary representation were replaced by a genuine popular democracy; that is, if there was a socialist revolution.

The capitalist root of the problem is indeed recognised in the PT programme (approved in 1990 and reaffirmed at the 1999 congress):

“It is capitalist oppression that results in the absolute misery of more than a third of humanity… It is the capitalist system – founded, in the last analysis, on the exploitation of man by man and the brutal commercialisation of human life – that is responsible for frightful crimes against democracy and human rights, from the gas chambers of Hitler to the recent genocides in South Africa, coming to our own sadly celebrated torture chambers. It is Brazilian capitalism, with its predatory dynamic, that is responsible for the hunger of millions, for illiteracy, for social exclusion, and for the violence that is spreading through all parts of national life.” (cited in Bourne)

And yet the tearing down of capitalism and construction of socialism are not simple tasks (what, for example, have you done towards fulfilling them?). It goes without saying that the possibilities for a successful revolutionary process are determined by a number of variables, including: the level of preparedness of the working class; the existence of a tried and tested revolutionary leadership; the building of alliances with other social classes that stand to gain from getting rid of the existing order; a favourable regional context; a favourable global context; a state of crisis in the existing order (breaking the imperialist chain at its weakest link, as Lenin would have it). Global imperialist hegemony – compounded by the fall of the Soviet Union and East European people’s democracies, the rise of global mass media (controlled almost exclusively by the US), US military supremacy, the ever-increasing reach of the CIA and equivalent organisations, the ‘victory’ of neoliberal economics, along with the decline of the left in many parts of the world – serves to make socialist revolution ever more difficult.

Emir Sader explains this phenomenon as follows in his important 2008 article, ‘The Weakest Link’:

”Why has a full-fledged challenge to capitalism not emerged? The answer must be sought in the global balance of forces following the victory of the West in the Cold War. The extensive processes of deregulation and marketization that this unleashed did not produce an era of sustained economic growth; instead, productive investment was in large part transferred to the speculative financial sphere. The social and geographical concentration of wealth has intensified. The limits and contradictions of the capitalist system are revealed on a greater scale than ever before. Yet the subjective factors — forms of collective organization and of consciousness, politics and the state—necessary for the construction of alternatives have been disequipped by these same processes. The state and the public domain have withered under the onslaught of rent-seeking capital, backed by international agencies that relentlessly preach the doctrine of free trade. Ideologically, the triumph of liberalism has imposed its own interpretation of the world as a hegemonic monopoly: democracy could only mean representative parliamentarism; the economy could only mean the capitalist market economy; the client and the consumer occluded the citizen and the worker; competition replaced rights and the market subsumed the public sphere.”

Those Latin American countries in which neoliberalism gained its firmest footing and in which the left was most brutally repressed – Brazil, Chile, Argentina and, to this day, Colombia – clearly have a different balance of class forces to countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia, where the governments have been able to pursue a much more radical and clearly socialist-oriented programme.

The defeat and rebuilding of the Brazilian left

In Brazil, as in most of Latin America, the left was almost completely broken in the 60s, 70s and 80s through brutal repression and the coordinated action of right-wing militarists and the CIA. In the early 1960s, Brazil’s cautiously progressive nationalist government, headed by Joaõ Goulart, “expropriated private oil refineries and decreed that underused landed estates close to roads, railways or federal irrigation projects could be taken over by the state. He said that he was planning to introduce rent controls, to give the vote to illiterates and servicemen, and to change the Constitution” (Bourne). Goulart also demanded independence in foreign policy, for example expanding trade links with (gasp) the Soviet Union and initiating them with the People’s Republic of China. This all proved too much for the far-right and its friends in the US, who put together what the Washington Star at the time described fondly as “a good, effective, old-style coup by conservative military leaders may well serve the best interests of all the Americas” (cited in Open Veins). William Blum gives a flavour of this coup:

“The Brazilian military, with Castelo Branco at its head, overthrew the constitutional government of President Goulart, the culmination of a conspiratorial process in which the American Embassy had been intimately involved. The military then proceeded to install and maintain for two decades one of the most brutal dictatorships in all of South America… In the first few days following the coup, several thousand Brazilians were arrested, ‘communist and suspected communist’ all… political opposition was reduced to virtual extinction, habeas corpus for ‘political crimes’ was suspended, criticism of the president was forbidden by law, labor unions were taken over by government interveners, mounting protests were met by police and military firing into crowds, the use of systematic ‘disappearance’ as a form of repression came upon the stage of Latin America, peasants’ homes were burned down, priests were brutalized… Then there was the torture and the death squads, both largely undertakings of the police and the military, both underwritten by the United States.”

This experience should underscore the need for a highly strategic and nuanced approach to the problem of building and maintaining power for Brazil’s oppressed. Revolutionary strategy must always be rooted in concrete reality, in “seeking truth from facts”, in a thoroughgoing analysis of objective and subjective conditions. The bitter defeat of the Tupamaros in Uruguay, the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes and Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres in Guatemala, and even the constitutional socialism of Unidad Popular in Chile demonstrate all too clearly the strength and responsiveness of US imperialism and its regional allies.

dilma4In that context, the rise of the PT has been remarkable, and represents an entirely new era in Brazilian politics. Before the formation of the PT, the Brazilian working class had never had a mass political party to represent it. Although the governments of Goulart and Quadros had been relatively progressive, they represented a forward-looking progressive national bourgeoisie rather than the workers and peasants. The PT, on the other hand, was the product of militant self-organisation of the working class.

In the mid-late 1970s, Lula – who had experienced ruthless oppression in both rural and urban form – emerged as Brazil’s preeminent trade unionist and strike leader, standing at the forefront of an industrial working class that had faced decades of intense oppression and repression and which was looking for new forms of political expression. The Workers Party – the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) – was formed by Lula and his comrades in 1980 as a means of uniting the left forces, providing cohesive leadership to the working class, making a final push to get the military back to barracks, and pursuing political power.

“The PT’s campaign theme was ‘work, land and liberty’. It wanted to end the dictatorship, to end hunger, to provide land and better wages for rural workers, to promote better health and less profit from illness, to define access to education and culture as a right, not a class privilege, to promote equality and an end to discrimination, to prevent the stealing of public money, to end the exploitation of public contracts by private companies, and, in a rhetorical flourish, to claim ‘power to the workers and the people – the workers’ struggle is the same all over the world – only socialism will solve our problems once and for all.’” (Bourne)

Lula and the PT found a way to mobilise, energise and organise the working class, whilst pursuing a political programme that was broad enough to ally wider sections of society behind it. Where they were able to win power at a regional level, they focused on promoting a much richer vision of democracy than that represented by the weak parliamentarism of the post-dictatorship governments. Bourne notes: “Capturing power in Porto Alegre in the mid-1980s, the PT resolved to share it with local communities, especially the poor, by means of a series of public meetings to set the budget. The process was inspired … partly by the ideas of the educationist Paulo Freire, who linked learning by doing to a deeper public ownership of democracy… The process had measurable social benefits, especially in poorer neighbourhoods, with the building of fifty schools, improvements to the housing stock, and a rise in coverage of the sewer system from 46 percent to 86 percent of the city in just over a decade… There was even a significant drop in school truancy.”

Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto that “the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation.” In a sense, this is precisely the process represented by the rise of the PT, which has always focused not just on improving the standard of living of the oppressed but on engaging the oppressed in the task of running society in their own interests, thereby deepening the democratisation process and creating a mobilised, educated working class and peasantry. As Richard Bourne points out, as a result of the PT’s strategy, “for the first time ever, the working class would occupy centre stage of the country’s political scene.” It shouldn’t be difficult to understand how this helps to create the conditions necessary for building socialism. Tereza Campello, the current Minister for Social Development and the Fight against Hunger (quite a portfolio!), makes clear the link between poverty alleviation and empowerment: “Critics quote Confucius and say it is better to teach people how to fish than to give them fish, but bolsa familia recipients aren’t poor because they are lazy or don’t know how to work, they are poor because they have no opportunities, no education and poor health. How can they compete with those disadvantages? By giving people the money to survive, we are empowering them, including them and giving them the rights of a citizen in a consumer society.”

The PT’s rise in the 1980s marks the beginning of the recovery of the Latin American left, which, a quarter of a century later, holds power across the greater part of the continent and can truly claim to have recovered from the darkest days of dictatorship. As Lula himself says:

“In 1990, when we created the Sao Paulo Forum, we never imagined that two decades later we would get to where we are now. In that era, the left was only in power in Cuba. Today, we govern a great number of countries, and even where we are in the opposition, the parties of the Forum have a growing influence in political and social life. The progressive governments are changing the face of Latin America. Thanks to them, our continent is developing itself at an ever-accelerating pace, with economic growth, job creation, distribution of wealth and social inclusion. Today we are the international reference of a victorious alternative to neoliberalism.

Supporters of Brazil's President Rousseff react to first results of runoff presidential elections in Porto AlegreThis continental recovery would have been impossible but for the creative strategic thinking of people like Lula, Hugo Chávez, Daniel Ortega, the Kirchners in Argentina, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and others. Across the continent, progressive movements have found ways to start to capture power in order to empower the masses and move in the direction of socialism. The progress made has required a great deal of tactical flexibility and a willingness to make a deep study of existing conditions rather than rely on dogma. All sorts of compromises and shaky class alliances have been, and continue to be, required. As Joe Slovo wrote in relation to South Africa: “By rejecting class alliances and going it alone, the working class would in fact be surrendering the leadership of the national struggle to the upper and middle strata… Along this path, ‘class purity’ will surely lead to class suicide and ‘socialist’- sounding slogans will actually hold back the achievement of socialism.” The question is one of whether to play the game, to whatever extent it is possible, in the interests of the workers and oppressed; or whether it is better simply to leave politics to the old rich-and-white elite with their mansions, their helicopters and their Washington connections.

One undeniable virtue of the progressive governments of Latin America is that they continue to exist, and continue to exercise political power in the interests of the masses. They make all sorts of compromises with local and international capital, but such is the nature of reality. Better to pursue a relatively cautious, socialist-oriented programme than to be overthrown by a CIA-backed junta. What the PT government is doing is objectively – in the long-term and on a global scale – revolutionary, because they are creating favourable conditions for breaking imperialist domination and constructing socialism in the future. The PT and its allies have been able to:

  • Rebuild a vibrant, powerful, vocal left
  • Establish a stable democracy with vastly expanded participation
  • Establish a government that incorporates some of the most revolutionary voices in the country (including Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB) members in the cabinet)
  • Establish some level of economic and political independence from the US
  • Make impressive progress in reducing poverty, inequality and prejudice
  • Align Brazil with the increasingly-dominant progressive trend in Latin America
  • Align Brazil with an emerging multipolar world that has the potential to break imperialist domination for once and for all.

Taken together, these elements constitute historic progress. In the words of Francisco Dominguez (Secretary of the Venezuela Solidarity Campaign, speaking at the recent Latin America Conference in London), the PT government is the most important gain made by the Brazilian people in their history.

Support the PT

It should be clear that socialists, communists, anti-imperialists and progressive people worldwide have a duty to support the PT, along with the rest of rising Latin America.

Dilma’s recent victory in the presidential election creates 16 years of uninterrupted PT-led rule. The coming period will throw up all manner of problems and difficulties, in terms of expanding the united front, returning to economic growth, continuing to deliver to the poor (and improving still further on this) and reducing the scope of the conservative elite to disrupt and destabilise – the remarkable unity of international capital and its local representatives around the election campaign of Aécio Neves demonstrates that the Brazilian right is very much still a force to be reckoned with.

If possible, steps should be initiated to move beyond simple parliamentary democracy – to start to institutionalise the rule of working people and their allies; to create an anti-imperialist, national democratic state, as is being done, to varying degrees and in different ways, in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. Easier said than done, of course, especially whilst broadening rather than narrowing the united front. But Dilma’s talk of a constitutional convention could conceivably provide an opening to initiate this process.

Brazil’s continuation down the progressive, democratic, anti-imperialist path forged by the PT is crucial to Latin America, to BRICS, to the entire developing world, and to working people everywhere. May it enjoy continued success.