The left must resolutely oppose the US-led New Cold War on China

This article first appeared in Ebb Magazine on 24 June 2021. Reproduced with permission.


Since the launch of Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ in 2012, the US has prioritised China containment over all other foreign policy commitments. This includes steadily increasing its presence in the South China Sea and encouraging China’s neighbours in their various territorial claims. Obama also initiated an expansion of US military, diplomatic and economic cooperation with other countries in the region. The overarching strategic goal of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was to isolate China and to draw East and Southeast Asia back into the US economic – and ideological – orbit.

The Trump administration, while dropping the TPP due to its domestic unpopularity, escalated the Pivot in other respects: launching a trade war in January 2018, imposing a ban on Huawei, attempting to ban TikTok and WeChat, spreading conspiracy theories about the origins of Covid-19, and turning ‘decoupling’ into a buzzword. Anti-China propaganda became – and has remained – pervasive in the West.

Alongside the economic and information warfare, there has been a rising militarisation of the Pacific and a deepening of a ‘China encirclement’ strategy that goes back to the arrival of the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Straits in 1950, just a few months after the establishment of the People’s Republic. Recent years have witnessed ever more frequent US naval operations in the South China Sea; increased weapons sales to Taiwan; the encouraging of Japan’s re-armament; the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile defence system in South Korea and Guam; the establishment of a US marine base in northern Australia; and the bulking up of the Indo-Pacific Command.

Continue reading The left must resolutely oppose the US-led New Cold War on China

Book review: Samir Amin – The Long Revolution of the Global South

A slightly modified version of this article first appeared in the Morning Star on 25 June 2019.

The first volume of Samir Amin’s memoirs, A Life Looking Forward: Memoirs of an Independent Marxist, was first published over a decade ago, in 2006. It dealt primarily with his early life and the experiences that contributed to his intellectual formation and the major ideas with which he is associated: the critique of Eurocentrism; the notion of the ‘long transition to socialism’; and his insistence on ‘delinking’ from the imperialist triad of the US, Europe and Japan.

This second (and final) instalment, published now a few months after his death, combines a reiteration of Amin’s key political ideas with a whirlwind tour of the dozens of countries he visited – from Algeria to Zambia, and including many places one doesn’t hear about often enough: Mauritania, Benin, Mali, Senegal, Western Sahara, Peru, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Madagascar, Mongolia, Niger, Nepal and East Timor.

Sometimes an advisor to the government, sometimes a guest lecturer, and sometimes just visiting friends, Amin always sought out the local movements working for progressive change, be they part of socialist or radical nationalist states or underground groups fighting for liberation. As such, the reader is introduced to a dizzying array of fascinating people and important ideas from around the world. The book gives a flavour of the state of politics across the continents (with a particular focus on Africa, Asia and Latin America). In particular, the reader gets a feel for the innumerable challenges and contradictions involved in the process of building towards socialism in a hostile world.

A recurring theme in the the book is the idea of responding to capitalist globalisation with a globalisation of struggle. This concept is all the more urgent in a context where long-established networks of solidarity are being (or have been) broken down, the result of fragmentation of production, sustained attacks on unions, casualisation of labour, and the replacement of certain branches of productive labour by automated processes. Amin calls on the global progressive movement to take on board the Occupy movement’s slogan of “We, the 99 percent”, recognising both the diversity and common fundamental interests of “the new generalised proletariat” in order to unite a broad array of forces: workers (including ‘informal’ ones), peasants, critical intelligentsia, and the progressive elements among the middle classes.

Amin notes that Latin America – led by Cuba and Venezuela – has taken the lead in this project. “The movements that have mobilised there are not small, marginal organisations or movements limited to the middle classes. There are large, popular (in the good sense of the term) movements, leading into action masses of people counted in the millions. That is what I call a revolutionary advance.”

Amin also reminds us of the number one priority for progressive forces throughout the world: “defeating the US project for military control of the planet.” This project of US global hegemony specifically aims to divide and rule those countries outside the imperialist triad. All the more important therefore that we promote the closest possible coordination between China, Vietnam, Russia, India, and the progressive states of Africa and Latin America. Writing elsewhere, Amin puts forward a straightforward proposal: “Russia should unite with China, the Central Asian countries, Iran and Syria. This alliance could be also very attractive for Africa and good parts of Latin America. In such a case, imperialism would be isolated.”

Having witnessed the radical nationalist projects in both Egypt (in the Nasser era) and Algeria at close quarters, and seen their successes and weaknesses, Amin proposes ‘democratisation’ as a key measure for sustaining progressive projects and allowing them to develop in a socialist direction. This democratisation means constantly pushing to engage more people in the organisation of society; it means constantly struggling against corruption, alienation and bureaucratisation; it means serving the masses and putting their needs first. Amin distinguishes democratisation, a continuous and complex process, from the simplistic idea of democracy that’s promoted by the major capitalist countries: a plutocratic “low-intensity democracy” where multiple parties represent the same (capitalist) class interests. This all too easily “turns into farce and runs a serious risk that the struggle for democracy will lose legitimacy.”

The Long Revolution of the Global South is a captivating and endearing read that will spark the interest of all those interested in the worldwide struggle for socialism.

To honour Fidel Castro means to continue his work of fighting imperialism and building socialism

Fidel Castro Alejandro Ruz will be forever remembered as the pre-eminent leader of the Cuban Revolution; its chief strategist and charismatic comandante; a deeply principled, courageous, compassionate and intelligent human being; a guerrilla and a statesman; a relentless fighter against exploitation, oppression and injustice.

But we should be careful not to treat him as some kind of museum relic or historical curiosity. One can study the life of Genghis Khan for the sake of general interest, without expecting to harvest lessons with direct application to modern political life; however, Fidel operated in the current political era: the era of the transition from capitalism to socialism. Cuba was the first country in the western hemisphere to have a socialist revolution and to construct a new type of society. Cuba is the only country outside Southeast Asia to have kept its socialist system intact through the reverses of 1989-91. It has been, and remains, steadfast; a beacon of hope for progressive people worldwide; an example of how an oppressed people can break their chains and build a dignified life, even in the face of blockade and destabilisation orchestrated by the world’s foremost imperialist power – just the other side of the Straits of Florida.

The purpose of this article is to explore Fidel’s political legacy and highlight the aspects that are most relevant to continuing the project that he dedicated himself to: defeating capitalism and imperialism, and constructing in its place a new, socialist world based on the principles of solidarity, respect, equality and peace.

An unswerving revolutionary

In Highgate Cemetery, London, around 134 years ago, Frederick Engels described Karl Marx as being “before all else a revolutionist”, whose “real mission in life was to contribute, in one way or another, to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the modern proletariat … Fighting was his element. And he fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success such as few could rival.”

One could say something very similar about Fidel Castro: that he was an unswerving revolutionary; that he dedicated his long life to the pursuit of socialist revolution, to the overthrow of capitalism and imperialism, to the cause of freedom and national self-determination. He too fought with a passion, a tenacity and a success such as few could rival.

Capturing power in Cuba

15250705_10154106164540950_5351735307546115495_oThe very existence of the Cuban socialism provides ample proof as to Fidel’s persistence, courage, imagination and strategic vision in pursuit of revolution. Nineteen-fifties Cuba was by no means an obvious place for socialism to blossom, given its geographic and cultural proximity to the US, the McCarthyite anti-communism that was prevalent at the time, and the enormous volumes of water separating it from any other socialist country. There was no revolutionary ‘model’ to follow: the Cuban Revolution didn’t develop directly out of the industrial centres like the October Revolution did; it didn’t grow out of a protracted people’s war like the Chinese Revolution; it didn’t take advantage of a post-war power vacuum such as had existed in Vietnam, Korea and Eastern/Central Europe. To even see an opening for revolution in Cuba at that time required great originality.

A theme that runs through Fidel’s political life is that he had the knowledge and creativity to identify opportunities that few others would see, and the strength, courage, vision and skill to sieze those opportunities. Cuba’s Communist Party (then called the Popular Socialist Party) also saw the revolutionary potential of the moment, but it had no tangible plan for the capture of power. Fidel and his small group of guerrillas were unique in understanding that, in order to take advantage of the objective element (economic and political crisis, along with widespread popular discontent), it was necessary to apply the subjective element (in this case: conducting armed struggle in order to weaken the Batista regime to breaking point, whilst simultaneously providing a rallying point for the masses). Blas Roca, who was head of the PSP (and who would later become one of Fidel’s most trusted comrades), reflects on this question:

“We [the PSP] rightly foresaw, and greatly looked forward to, the prospect that in response to conditions created by the tyranny, the masses would organise and eventually engage in armed struggle or popular insurrection. But for a long time we failed to take any practical steps to hasten that prospect, because we believed that these struggles, including a prolonged general strike, would culminate in armed insurrection quite spontaneously. Hence, we did not prepare, did not organise or train armed detachments… That was our mistake. Fidel Castro’s historical merit is that he prepared, trained, and assembled the fighting elements needed to begin and carry on armed struggle as a means of destroying the tyranny.” (KS Karol, Guerrillas in Power)

Bay of Pigs

Fidel’s relentless pursuit of revolution was further evidenced during the Bay of Pigs invasion. In April 1961, only two years after the establishment of the revolutionary state, the CIA coordinated a large-scale military invasion of Cuba by exiles and mercenaries, backed by US Air Force bombers and transported by US Navy ships, with the objective of overthrowing Castro’s government. It is almost unimaginable that a small, isolated, newly-established state would be able to defend itself against the world’s most powerful military entity, but the Cuban government under Fidel’s leadership had anticipated this attack and was prepared for it.

The entire population was mobilised and trained; millions of people were under arms. The Cuban Air Force, although small, had been drilled in preparation for just this kind of invasion. Fidel personally coordinated the defence, which within 48 hours was able to capture the leaders of the invasion, sink a supply ship and achieve air superiority. Faced with defeat on the ground, embarrassment at the United Nations, and the threat of Soviet involvement on the side of Cuba (“The Soviet Union will render the Cuban people and their government all necessary help to repel an armed attack”), US President John F Kennedy was forced to withdraw support for the invasion, which promptly crumbled.

Survival in a post-Soviet world

The survival of Cuban socialism beyond the ‘end of history‘ era of the early 1990s is another extraordinary achievement that few people anticipated; another testament to the revolutionary spirit of the Cuban people and leadership. Cuba’s economy had been deeply integrated into the socialist world, with over 85% of its foreign trade being conducted through the CMEA (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, also known as Comecon, comprising the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic, Vietnam, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Mongolia, Poland and Hungary). The CMEA was disbanded in 1991. Of its member states, only Cuba and Vietnam resisted counter-revolution. Both faced major economic crises.

At this moment, Fidel and the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party could quite easily (and even understandably) have converted themselves into social democrats. They could have followed the path laid down by Gorbachev and abandoned their commitment to working class rule, to social justice, to political independence, to internationalism. They could have availed themselves of an IMF ‘bailout’, and before long they would have been accepted into the imperialist fold. Perhaps a few European heads of government might even have attended Fidel’s funeral (in the event, Alexis Tsipras of Greece was the only one). In the absence of a Cuban Yeltsin, the US would have been more than happy to work with a Cuban Gorbachev.

But Fidel understood from fairly early on that Gorbachev’s path was the road to ruin, commenting that “Perestroika is another man’s wife; I don’t want to get involved.” In his well-known and exceptionally powerful speech on 7 December 1989 in honour of the Cubans that gave their lives in the struggle to save Angola, Fidel made a clear denunciation of the Soviet Union’s programme of dismantling working class power, and made it plain that a parallel process would not be taking place in Cuba.

“In Cuba, we are engaged in a process of rectification. No revolution or truly socialist rectification is possible without a strong, disciplined, respected party. Such a process cannot be advanced by slandering socialism, destroying its values, casting slurs on the party, demoralising its vanguard, abandoning the party’s guiding role, eliminating social discipline and sowing chaos and anarchy everywhere. This may foster a counterrevolution, but not revolutionary changes.”

Continuing, he firmly re-stated Cuba’s commitment to socialism and willingness to be the global standard-bearer of the communist cause if necessary:

“We owe everything we are today to the revolution and to socialism. If Cuba were ever to return to capitalism, our independence and sovereignty would be lost forever; we would be an extension of Miami, a mere appendage of US imperialism; and the repugnant prediction that a US president made in the 19th century — when that country was considering the annexation of Cuba — that our island would fall into its hands like a ripe fruit, would prove true…

“We Cuban Communists and the millions of our people’s revolutionary soldiers will carry out the role assigned to us in history, not only as the first socialist state in the western hemisphere but also as staunch front-line defenders of the noble cause of all the destitute, exploited people in the world. We have never aspired to having custody of the banners and principles which the revolutionary movement has defended throughout its heroic and inspiring history. However, if fate were to decree that, one day, we would be among the last defenders of socialism in a world in which US imperialism had realised Hitler’s dreams of world domination, we would defend this bulwark to the last drop of our blood.”

When it became clear that Cuba wasn’t going to ride the wave of counter-revolution, the US decided to make things even more difficult by ramping up the economic blockade of the island. With the clouds of destitution and collapse looming ominously, the survival of Cuban socialism required incredible sacrifices and a creative overhaul of the national economy. Eighty percent of imports disappeared pretty much overnight, and many important goods were simply no longer available; the loss of fuel imports in particular meant that industry and transport were paralysed. Belts had to be tightened significantly in terms of food consumption and housing distribution; there was a renewed emphasis on tourism as a means of generating foreign exchange; small agricultural cooperatives and urban gardens sprang up with the government’s encouragement; car use was massively reduced (partly through the purchase of 1.2 million low-cost bicycles from China).

People had to get used to getting by with less, and the increase in foreign tourism brought complex new economic and social problems; however, the revolution survived. Socialism was preserved, Cuban independence was not put on the market, and nobody starved – even if many felt hunger pains for the first time. This survival would clearly not have been possible were it not for the level of revolutionary mobilisation of the Cuban people; if they did not feel passionately about defending the gains of the preceding three decades; if they weren’t willing to engage their energy and creative ingenuity for the sake of overcoming obstacles that must have appeared close to insurmountable. In this, they again had Fidel as their example and leader.

Yes, it is possible

Speaking at Fidel’s funeral, Raúl Castro gave an insightful and moving summary of his brother’s unique qualities; his blend of courage, creativity, foresight, knowledge, military/political acumen, energy, and ability to inspire.

“Fidel showed us that yes, it was possible to reach the coast of Cuba in the Granma yacht; that yes, it was possible to resist the enemy, hunger, rain and cold, and organise a revolutionary army in the Sierra Maestra; … that yes, it was possible to defeat, with the support of the entire people, the tyranny of Batista, backed by US imperialism… that yes, it was possible to defeat in 72 hours the mercenary invasion of Playa Girón and at the same time, continue the campaign to eradicate illiteracy in one year…

“That yes, it was possible to proclaim the socialist character of the Revolution 90 miles from the empire, and when its warships advanced toward Cuba, following the brigade of mercenary troops; that yes, it was possible to resolutely uphold the inalienable principles of our sovereignty, without fear of the threat of nuclear aggression by the United States in those days of the October 1962 missile crisis.

“That yes, it was possible to offer solidarity assistance to other sister peoples struggling against colonial oppression, external aggression and racism. That yes, it was possible to defeat the racist South Africans, saving Angola’s territorial integrity, forcing Namibia’s independence and delivering a harsh blow to the apartheid regime.

“That yes, it was possible to turn Cuba into a medical power, reduce infant mortality first, to the lowest rate in the Third World, then as compared with other rich countries; because at least on this continent our rate of infant mortality of children under one year of age is lower than Canada’s and the United States’, and at the same time, significantly increase the life expectancy of our population.

“That yes, it was possible to transform Cuba into a great scientific hub, advance in the modern and decisive fields of genetic engineering and biotechnology; insert ourselves within the fortress of international pharmaceuticals; develop tourism, despite the U.S. blockade; build causeways in the sea to make Cuba increasingly more attractive, obtaining greater monetary income from our natural charms.

“That yes, it is possible to resist, survive, and develop without renouncing our principles or the achievements won by socialism in a unipolar world dominated by the transnationals which emerged after the fall of the socialist camp in Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

“Fidel’s enduring lesson is that yes it is possible, that humans are able to overcome the harshest conditions as long as their willingness to triumph does not falter, they accurately assess every situation, and do not renounce their just and noble principles.”

An outstanding Marxist-Leninist

“Marxism taught me what society was. I was like a blindfolded man in a forest, who doesn’t even know where north or south is. If you don’t eventually come to truly understand the history of the class struggle, or at least have a clear idea that society is divided between the rich and the poor, and that some people subjugate and exploit other people, you’re lost in a forest, not knowing anything.” (Fidel Castro and Ignacio Ramonet: My Life – A Spoken Autobiography)

At a time when it’s not particularly fashionable to be a Marxist, a communist, it’s worth remembering that Fidel was exactly that. Some have tried to cast him as more of a Cuban nationalist or a stereotypical Latin American caudillo, but Fidel was of the consistent belief that “The future of mankind is the future of socialism and communism”; that “Marx was the greatest economic and political thinker of all times”.

The Cuban Revolution was, from the beginning, a socialist revolution; a process aimed at expropriating the capitalist class, foreign monopolies and landlords, and establishing working class rule. Fidel had become convinced of the correctness of Marxism-Leninism while at university in the late 1940s. “Toward the end of my university studies, I was no longer a utopian communist but rather an atypical communist who was acting independently. I based myself on a realistic analysis of our country’s situation… We were convinced Marxists and socialists… we had already read almost a whole library of the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and other theoreticians.” (Speech at the inauguration of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, cited in the Fidel Castro Reader)

However, due to the widespread acceptance of McCarthyite propaganda, the terms ‘socialism’ and ‘Marxism’ weren’t often used until 1961. Fidel explains:

“Those were times of brutal anticommunism, the final years of McCarthyism, when by every possible means our powerful and imperial neighbour had tried to sow in the minds of our noble people all kinds of lies and prejudices. I would often meet an ordinary citizen and ask them a number of questions: whether they believed we should undertake land reform; whether it would be fair for families to own the homes for which at times they paid almost half their salaries. Also, if they believed that the people should own all the banks in order to use those resources to finance the development of the country. Whether those big factories – most of them foreign-owned – should belong to, and produce for, the people… things like that. I would ask 10, 15 similar questions and they would agree absolutely: ‘Yes, that would be great.’ In essence, if all those big stores and all those profitable businesses that now only enrich their privileged owners belonged to the people, and were used to enrich the people, would you agree? ‘Yes, yes,’ they would answer immediately. So, then I asked them: ‘Would you agree with socialism?’ Answer: ‘Socialism? No, no, no, not with socialism.’ Let alone communism… There was so much prejudice that this was an even more frightening word.” (ibid)

After three years of intense revolutionary activity following the capture of power – ending illiteracy, implementing land reform, setting up popular democratic structures, defending the revolution from invasion and destabilisation – the leadership decided to declare its ideological stance. By this point, the revolution had proven itself through actual socialist construction, and US ideological propaganda had lost much of its impact on the Cuban people. In a speech on 2 December 1961, broadcast on TV and radio, Fidel announced: “I am a Marxist-Leninist, and I shall be a Marxist-Leninist to the end of my life.”

Reflecting a few years later on McCarthyism and the saturation of anti-communism throughout the capitalist world, Fidel pointed out:

“The reactionary classes have always used every method to condemn and slander new ideas. Thus, all the paper and all the resources at their disposal are not sufficient to slander communist ideas; to slander the desire for a society in which human beings no longer exploit one another, but become real brothers and sisters; the dream of a society in which all human beings are truly equal in fact and in law – not simply in a constitutional clause as in some bourgeois constitutions which say that all men are born free and equal. Can all individuals be considered to be born free and equal in a society of exploiters and exploited, a society of rich and poor – where one child is born in a slum, in a humble cradle, and another child is born in a cradle of gold? How can it be said that these people have the same opportunities in life? The ancient dream of humankind – a dream that is possible today – of a society without exploiters or exploited, has aroused the hatred and rancor of all exploiters…

“The word ‘communist’ is not an insult but rather an honor for us… Within 100 years, there will be no greater glory, nothing more natural and rational, than to be called a communist. We are on the road toward a communist society. And if the imperialists don’t like it, they can lump it. From now on, gentlemen of UPI and AP, understand that when you call us ‘communists,’ you are giving us the greatest compliment you can give.” (Speech at the first central committee meeting of the newly-formed Communist Party of Cuba, 3 October 1965, cited in the Fidel Castro Reader)

Against dogmatism and revisionism

The twin curses of revisionism and dogmatism have clung to the left-wing movement with impressive tenacity over the years. ‘Revisionism’ means, essentially, stripping Marxism of its revolutionary objectives; reducing it to a slow reformism that doesn’t recognise the need to defeat the capitalist class. ‘Dogmatism’ means treating the works of Marx, Engels and Lenin (plus, variously, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao or whoever) as biblical sources of timeless and absolute truth, with universal application in all times and places; favouring the application of formulas and learned phrases over serious analysis of concrete conditions; and rejecting all forms of strategic compromise.

The Cuban Revolution came about at a time when the Soviet Union was elaborating an increasingly revisionist theory around its particular strategic needs (to peacefully rebuild and avoid further war), and the People’s Republic of China was reacting to this with an anti-revisionism which before long morphed into a rather dogmatic and unrealistic assessment of the global balance of forces. These differences fed into the Sino-Soviet split, which was to prove painfully destructive to the communist cause.

Fidel understood the potential danger that the Sino-Soviet split posed to the socialist camp and to progressive forces around the world; meanwhile he saw the impact of both revisionism and dogmatism within the Latin American left, and wanted to show that there was a different path.

“Due to the heterogeneity of this contemporary world, with different countries confronting dissimilar situations and most unequal levels of material, technical and cultural development, Marxism cannot be like a church, like a religious doctrine, with its Pope and ecumenical council. It is a revolutionary and dialectical doctrine, not a religious doctrine. It is a guide for revolutionary action, not a dogma. It is anti-Marxist to try to encapsulate Marxism in a sort of catechism. This diversity will inevitably lead to different interpretations… Marxism is a doctrine of revolutionaries, written by revolutionaries, developed by other revolutionaries, for revolutionaries. We will demonstrate our confidence in ourselves and our confidence in our ability to continue to develop our revolutionary path…

“We believe that revolutionary thought must take a new course; that we must leave behind old vices and sectarian positions of all kinds, including the positions of those who believe they have a monopoly on the revolution or on revolutionary theory. Poor theory! How it has suffered in these processes. Poor theory! How it has been abused, and is still being abused! All these years have taught us to meditate more and analyse better. We no longer accept any truths as ‘self-evident’. ‘Self-evident’ truths are a part of bourgeois philosophy. A whole series of old clichés should be abolished. Marxist, revolutionary political literature itself should be renewed, because if you simply repeat clichés, phraseology and verbiage that have been repeated for 35 years, you don’t win anyone over.” (Speech on 3 October 1965, op cit)

As discussed above, the Cubans didn’t try to model their revolution on anything that had come before. They didn’t attempt to apply some sort of Marxist template for building socialism; rather they combined their wide-ranging political and historical understanding with a deep analysis of prevailing conditions. The ideas with which they inspired the Cuban people were grounded in Marxism-Leninism but were also specifically Cuban. Fidel more than anyone understood the need to give Cuban socialism its own national flavour, which he successfully did by connecting the revolution with the Cuban (and wider Latin American) struggle for independence – tapping into an existing reverence for independence heroes such as José Martí and Antonio Maceo – and also the Cuban resistance movements against dictatorship and injustice in the 1930s and 40s.

In the first decade or so of the Cuban Revolution, it could perhaps be argued that, within the Latin American left, Cuba wanted to replace dogmatic adherence to the Soviet or Chinese models with dogmatic adherence to the Cuban model. The means by which the 26th of July movement captured power were promoted, and Cuba gave its support to rural guerrilla groups across the continent (“The only place where we didn’t try to promote revolution was Mexico”, Fidel noted), heavily criticising those leftist organisations that didn’t embrace guerrilla struggle.

The defeat of these attempts at revolution forced the Cubans to re-evaluate. In Cuba, Fidel and his comrades had benefitted from the element of surprise. By the time guerrilla struggles were launched elsewhere in Latin America, this element of surprise was gone, and the insurgents found that the CIA and its local allies were able to gain the upper hand through the use of advanced surveillance technology, air reconnaissance, psyops, propaganda, fostering disunity, and so on.

fidel-allendeThe victory of Salvador Allende in the Chilean presidential election of September 1970 represented the first time that an openly socialist government had come to power by constitutional means. Fidel was sufficiently inspired by, and curious about, Allende’s project that he toured Chile over the course of 25 days in late 1971 (a highly unusual amount of time for a head of state to spend visiting another country, especially given it was Fidel’s first trip to the South American mainland since 1959). As a result, he was able to make a serious study of the forces operating for and against the process. Speaking a couple of years later, in the wake of the Pinochet coup that brought the Popular Unity project to a tragic end, he sums up the Cuban leadership’s open mind regarding Allende’s Chilean path to socialism:

“President Allende and the Chilean revolutionary process awakened great interest and solidarity throughout the world. For the first time in history, a new experience was developed in Chile: the attempt to bring about the revolution by peaceful means, by legal means. And he was given the understanding and support of all the world in his effort – not only of the international Communist movement, but of very different political inclinations as well. We may say that that effort was appreciated even by those who weren’t Marxist-Leninists.

“And our party and people – in spite of the fact that we had made the revolution by other means – and all the other revolutionary peoples in the world supported him. We didn’t hesitate a minute, because we understood that there was a possibility in Chile of winning an electoral victory, in spite of all the resources of imperialism and the ruling classes, in spite of all the adverse circumstances. We didn’t hesitate in 1970 to publicly state our understanding and our support of the efforts which the Chilean left was making to win the elections that year.”

maurice-fidel-daniel-1The end of the 1970s brought socialist forces to power in both Grenada and Nicaragua. The Grenadian revolutionaries, led by the brilliant and charismatic Maurice Bishop, came to power in a bloodless coup; meanwhile the Sandinistas in Nicaragua came to power on the basis of a guerrilla struggle that would have looked relatively familiar to their Cuban comrades. By now recognising the immense variety and specificity of revolutionary processes, Cuba gave an extraordinary level of fraternal support to Chile, Grenada and Nicaragua, whilst also giving some pertinent advice: that, in a regional context of near-total US domination, no revolutionary process can survive unless it protects itself with firm unity and militant self-defence (one can find a haunting tribute to this message in the last photo of Allende, facing Pinochet’s fascist CIA-backed coup on 11 September 1973, holding the AK-47 given to him personally by Fidel).

These experiences, in addition to the degeneration and demise of the Soviet Union, the unprecedented technological/military changes that have taken place in recent decades, plus the emergence of a raft of progressive governments in Latin America, have led the Cubans to a continually more advanced understanding of revolution and the different means of pursuing it. Ricardo Alarcón, President of the National Assembly of People’s Power from 1993 to 2013, sums up this learning well:

“What characterises Latin America at the present moment is the fact that a number of countries, each in its own way, are constructing their own versions of socialism. For a long while now, one of the fundamental errors of socialist and revolutionary movements has been the belief that a socialist model exists. In reality, we should not be talking about socialism, but rather about socialisms in the plural. There is no socialism that is similar to another. As Mariátegui said, socialism is a ‘heroic creation'”.

The link between 20th and 21st century socialism

The history of “actually existing socialism” thus far is sometimes considered in terms of two more-or-less distinct phases. The more recent one was famously labelled by its chief protagonist, Hugo Chávez, as “socialism of the 21st century” or “21st century socialism” (these constructions are the same in Spanish: socialismo del siglo 21); for the sake of a simple demarcation, the period starting with the October Revolution (1917) and ending with the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1991) is generally called “20th century socialism”.

Other than the incremental difference in the number of full centuries since the birth of Jesus, the conceptual contrast between the two phases is not entirely well-defined. However, if we define 21st century socialism on the basis of its history thus far, its characteristics seem to include: capturing (some) power via parliamentary elections; empowering workers and oppressed groups through social programmes, education, local democratic structures; moving towards a redistributive economic model whilst avoiding an all-out attack on capitalist economic power. Socialism of the 21st century has a clear, urgent focus on tackling neoliberalism, environmental destruction, and justice for indigenous, African and LBGTQ+ communities – problems that are more pressing and better understood than they were a few decades ago. In summary, it constitutes a pragmatic and creative approach to defending the needs of the oppressed in the modern era, in a context where more thorough revolutionary transformations (dismantling the capitalist state, expropriating the capitalist class, establishing a monopoly on power by the poor) aren’t realistically possible for the time being.

The status of Cuba – along with China, Vietnam, DPR Korea and Laos – in this distinction of “20th century socialism” and “21st century socialism” is a subject that deserves more attention. In terms of Fidel’s legacy as a Marxist-Leninist thinker and revolutionary, it’s worth noting that his influence spans both phases, and is a key link between them.

Fidel Castro at no point disavowed 20th century socialism. Not once did he imply that building a workers’ state (a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, to use Marx’s phrase for it) had been the wrong thing to do. He strongly believed that the European socialist countries had made a terrible, historic mistake in abandoning the socialist path and embracing capitalism. In a forceful speech given in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, in 1996, he said:

“There are many people in [the USSR and the former socialist countries in Europe] who vacillated, but who now are thinking, meditating. They see the disorder, lack of discipline and chaos, and they are perceiving that capitalism has no future. Only the countries which 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, are capable of introducing innovations which will not only save socialism, but will improve it, and one day will bring it to a definitive triumph.

“Because of this, today, in these times, we can say: the future – and this can be said with more conviction than ever before – is one of socialism. Capitalism is in crisis, it does not have solutions to any of the world’s problems; only peoples such as those of Vietnam, Cuba and other countries, who did not abandon the principles of Marxism-Leninism, or of popular democratic government, or of the leadership of the Communist Party, are now forging ahead and achieving results not experienced by any other country in the world.”

fidel-chavezNonetheless, when a radical wave hit Latin America – with the election of, among others, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela (1999), Lula in Brazil (2002), Evo Morales in Bolivia (2005), Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua (2006) and Rafael Correa in Ecuador (2006) – Fidel embraced it with open arms, understanding that it represented an unprecedented step forward for the peoples of the continent and towards the Latin/Caribbean integration that Cuba had long pushed for. He understood that, with the US focus directed towards the Middle East, and with a certain strength in numbers, it was possible for this kind of project to succeed where Allende’s government had been defeated.

Speaking at the inauguration ceremony of Hugo Chávez (to whom he was a longstanding friend and mentor), Fidel highlighted the immense significance of the election of a socialist in Venezuela: “Opportunities have often been lost, but you could not be forgiven if you lose this one.”

All the left-wing governments that have emerged in Latin America over the last 17 years have had enormous respect for Cuba and have sought the wisdom and guidance of its leadership. Like millions of people across the continent, they understand the extraordinary efforts Cuba has made to build and defend its revolution; to create the best education and healthcare systems in the Americas; to wipe out malnutrition and illiteracy; to make huge strides in eliminating racism, sexism and homophobia; to meaningfully tackle inequality; to send internationalist missions around the world; to establish Cuba as a centre of scientific innovation and environmental protection; and to achieve all this in the face of permanent hostility, threats and destabilisation coming from the US. No other country in Latin America can claim anywhere near such a level of success.

Not one of the left-wing governments in Latin America has sought to distance itself from Cuba on account of it not being ‘democratic’; they understand very well that it is far more democratic than the countries that slander it as a dictatorship (in terms of a government representing the will of its people, Cuba might well be the most democratic country in the world).

Through the strong bonds progressive Latin America has formed with Cuba – as well asnwith China – a clear thread of continuity has been established between 20th and 21st century socialism. The key differences are not ideological as such; rather they represent strategic differences corresponding to changed circumstances. Socialism of the 21st century will have a brighter future if, rather than rejecting the experiences of the socialist world so far, it considers itself the continuation of that project and leverages its vast experience. The most advanced contingents of 21st century socialism – specifically the PSUV (Socialist Unity Party of Venezuela), MAS (the Movement to Socialism in Bolivia), the FSLN (Sandinista Liberation Front of Nicaragua) and FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in El Salvador) – clearly do this. This is a valuable aspect of Fidel Castro’s legacy: understanding that the transition from capitalism to socialism is a single, global, multi-generational project with diverse problems, phases and strategies.

The consummate internationalist

“For the Cuban people internationalism is not merely a word but something that we have seen practised to the benefit of large sections of humankind.” (Nelson Mandela, Cuba, 26 July 1991)

“Being internationalists is paying our debt to humanity. Those who are incapable of fighting for others will never be capable of fighting for themselves. And the heroism shown by our forces, by our people in other lands, faraway lands, must also serve to let the imperialists know what awaits them if one day they force us to fight on this land here.” (Fidel Castro, 1989, cited in Cuba and Angola: Fighting for Africa’s Freedom and Our Own)

Fidel Castro thought and operated on a global scale. He understood from the beginning that unity is strength; that socialist and anti-colonial states could not survive except through coordination and mutual support. He therefore pushed the Cuban Revolution to become the extraordinary example of revolutionary internationalism that it is.

fidel-mandelaHis thinking was shaped early on by the extensive support given to Cuba by the Soviet Union, without which the Cuban Revolution simply would not have been able to hold out against the military, economic and political attacks of its neighbour to the north. Raúl Castro emphasises this point: “We must not forget another deep motivation [for our internationalism]. Cuba itself had already lived through the beautiful experience of the solidarity of other peoples, especially the people of the Soviet Union, who extended a friendly hand at crucial moments for the survival of the Cuban Revolution. The solidarity, support, and fraternal collaboration that the consistent practice of internationalism brought us at decisive moments created a sincere feeling, a consciousness of our debt to other peoples who might find themselves in similar circumstances.”

Cuban internationalism has become legendary, and has converted a small Caribbean island of 11 million people into one of the most respected countries on the planet. Speaking in relation to Cuba’s decisive contribution to the defeat of South African apartheid, the liberation of Namibia and the survival of Angola, Nelson Mandela commented: “The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice unparalleled for its principled and selfless character… We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us.”

Aside from its support for Angola, Cuba also sent troops, advisers and health workers to support the liberation movements and revolutionary states in Guinea Bissau, Algeria, Guinea, Congo, Ethiopia, Western Sahara and South Yemen. Training and supplies were given to the heroic liberation movements in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique and elsewhere. Hundreds of Cuban tank commanders came to Syria’s aid during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Cuba gave abundant support to the revolutionary governments in Grenada (1979-83), Nicaragua (1979-90), Chile (1970-73) and to numerous liberation struggles around the South American continent.

fidel-vietnamIt should be mentioned that Fidel didn’t delegate internationalism to others – he led by example. Indeed, he was the only foreign leader to visit the liberated zones of South Vietnam during the war. There were periods during the height of the struggle for Angola (1987-88) when Fidel devoted most of his time to giving strategic and tactical leadership to that fight; such was his dedication to the cause of ending colonialism and apartheid in Africa.

Havana has provided a home to many revolutionary exiles from the US, including Assata Shakur and Robert F Williams. Cuba has given unprecedented levels of medical support to West Africa, Haiti, Pakistan and many other places. At its Latin American School of Medicine it provides free or subsidised medical training for hundreds of African, Caribbean and Latin American students every year – even a handful of US students from poor families attend the school, on the condition that, on returning to the US, they use their training in the service of their communities. Fidel has been a consistent friend to the cause of Irish unity and self-determination.

As noted above, Cuba has been an inspiration for the wave of progressive governments in Latin America and has been central to the project of developing regional unity. The Second Declaration of Havana, 1962 captured the spirit of Latin American collective struggle long before it became an actual possibility: “No nation in Latin America is weak – because each forms part of a family of 200 million brothers and sisters, who suffer the same miseries, who harbour the same sentiments, who have the same enemy, who dream about the same better future and who count on the solidarity of all honest men and women throughout the world.”

Cuba has been, and remains, a vocal supporter of small countries struggling to maintain their independence and freedom in the face of imperialist pressure. That has included siding with several countries that have been more-or-less abandoned by the fashion-conscious western left, such as Syria, Libya, DPR Korea, Algeria, Zimbabwe and Belarus.

Fidel also recognised the importance of multipolarity as an important emerging trend in world politics, writing in one of his last essays that “the deep alliance of the peoples of the Russian Federation and China based on advanced science, strong army and the brave soldiers is capable of ensuring the survival of mankind”. He understood that, in a context where the US is desperately trying to maintain the uncontested hegemony it won after the fall of the Soviet Union, the establishment of alternative, non-imperialist world powers is a very promising development, creating a much more favourable space for other countries to follow a political and economic path that suits their own needs.

Man of the people

“The people, and the people alone, are the motive force in the making of world history.” (Mao Zedong)

Fidel had an extraordinary level of faith in the people, an insistence on people-centred government, and a profound understanding that the masses are the true makers of history. The revolution he led remains unsurpassed in its construction of a socialist morality that privileges social justice, fairness, equality, solidarity and participation.

Cuba is often maligned as a dictatorship, but such a label is hard to square with its record in practice of building socialist democracy. One of the first acts of the revolutionary government was to establish brigades of students willing to go out into the countryside in order to teach literacy to peasants who had been deprived even a basic education. Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly on 26 September 1960, Fidel described some of the first actions of his government:

“The revolution discovered over 10,000 teachers without a classroom, without work, and it immediately gave them jobs, because there were also half a million children who needed schools… What was yesterday a land without hope, a land of misery, a land of illiteracy, is gradually becoming one of the most enlightened, advanced and developed nations of this continent. The revolutionary government, in just 20 months, has created 10,000 new schools. In this brief period of time, we have doubled the number of rural schools that had been established in 50 years, and Cuba today is the first country of the Americas that has met all its educational needs, having teachers in even the most remote corners of the mountains. In this brief period of time, the revolutionary government has built 25,000 houses in the countryside and the urban areas… Cuba will be the first country in the Americas that, after a few months, will be able to say it does not have a single illiterate person in the country.”

A ruthless, exploitative dictatorship has no need to provide education to people that have never had education. Growing sugar cane for export does not demand a familiarity with the works of José Martí, Cervantes and so on. The only motivation of the Cuban government in setting up such a programme was to improve the lives of ordinary people, and to empower them to participate more actively in running their society, in making history. Cuba continues to have an education system that is the envy of the world – and which is free at every level.

A ruthless, exploitative dictatorship will exacerbate and leverage racial and gender divisions in order to keep people divided and ruled. And yet the Cuban government has made remarkable progress in tackling discrimination and inequality, and promoting unity. As Isaac Saney writes in his excellent book ‘Cuba – A Revolution in Motion’: “It can be argued that Cuba has done more than any other country to dismantle institutionalised racism and generate racial harmony.”

fidel-malcolmFrom the beginning, Fidel saw racism as a major obstacle to the revolution; he considered that a better society could only built with “a united revolutionary people, whose consciousness is constantly developing and whose unity is indestructible” (speech given on the centenary of Cuba’s first declaration of independence, 10 October 1968). Racism was systemic in pre-revolutionary Cuba, with a system of racial segregation in place that would have brought a contented smile to the faces of the architects of South African apartheid. Fidel appreciated that, even with the defeat of the reactionary classes that benefited from racism, it wouldn’t simply die out of its own accord. In a speech on 21 March 1959 – just a couple of months after the capture of power – he made a profound point:

“In all fairness, I must say that it is not only the aristocracy who practise discrimination. There are very humble people who also discriminate. There are workers who hold the same prejudices as any wealthy person, and this is what is most absurd and sad and should compel people to meditate on the problem. Why do we not tackle this problem radically and with love, not in a spirit of division and hate? Why not educate and destroy the prejudice of centuries, the prejudice handed down to us from such an odious institution as slavery?”

Displaying an outstanding humanity and depth of historical understanding, Fidel also connected the struggle against racism in Cuba with the centuries-old colonial domination of Africa, and in turn with the global struggle against colonialism, imperialism and apartheid. At a mass rally of over a million people in Havana in December 1975, where he explains the reasons for Cuba’s solidarity with Angola, he affirmed:

“African blood flows freely through our veins. Many of our ancestors came from Africa to this land. As slaves they struggled a great deal. They fought as members of the Liberating Army of Cuba. We’re brothers and sisters of the people of Africa and we’re ready to fight on their behalf.

“Racial discrimination existed in our country. Is there anyone who doesn’t know this, who doesn’t remember it? Many public parks had separate walks for blacks and for whites. Is there anyone who doesn’t recall that African descendants were barred from many places, from recreation centres and schools? Is there anyone who has forgotten that racial discrimination was prevalent in all aspects of work and study?

“And today, who are the representatives, the symbols of the most hateful and inhuman form of racial discrimination? The South African fascists and racists. And Yankee imperialism, without scruples of any kind, has launched South African mercenary troops in an attempt to crush Angola’s independence and is now outraged by our help to Angola, our support for Africa and our defence of Africa.

“In keeping with the duties rooted in our principles, our ideology, our convictions and our very own blood, we shall defend Angola and Africa! And when we say defend, we mean it in the strict sense of the word. And when we say struggle, we mean it also in the strict sense of the word. Let the South African racists and the Yankee imperialists be warned. We are part of the world revolutionary movement, and in Africa’s struggle against racists and imperialists, we’ll stand, without any hesitation, side by side with the peoples of Africa.”

fidel-supporterWhat has been built in Cuba – through education, through struggle against discrimination, through the establishment of political structures such as the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution – is a genuine people’s democracy; a government that relies on mass participation and that derives its legitimacy entirely through its efforts to represent the interests of the people.

Cuba doesn’t conform to the western liberal concept of democracy, for the simple reason that it has developed a political structure that is better suited to the people’s needs; which is in fact more democratic. In western parliamentary democracy, the masses have the right to say what they think (a right that is usually respected), and the government has the right to completely ignore them (a right that is almost always respected). For example, the recent constitutional changes and associated economic reforms in Cuba were shaped through a process of debate and consultation lasting four years and involving practically the entire population. This was a huge exercise in democracy that stands in stark contrast to the way in which austerity has been rolled out in Europe.

In Cuba there is only one political party – the Cuban Communist Party – but this reflects the fact that this party represents the needs of the ruling classes in Cuban society: the working class and peasantry. And within that party there is a massive variety of opinions on every matter under the sun. The only political question on which unanimity is expected is that of moving forward with socialism, rather than capitulating to imperialist pressure and returning to capitalism. What reasonable person would argue with that? Cuba returning to capitalism would be like France returning to feudalism, South Africa returning to apartheid, the US returning to slavery. As ever, Fidel puts it well:

“Within the revolution, everything; against the revolution, nothing. Against the revolution, nothing, because the revolution also has its rights, and the first right of the revolution is the right to exist, and no one can oppose the revolution’s right to exist. Inasmuch as the revolution embodies the interests of the people, inasmuch as the revolution symbolises the interests of the whole nation, no one can justly claim a right to oppose it.”

Living up to Fidel’s legacy

As Nicaraguan revolutionary Tomás Borge said about his comrade Carlos Fonseca, Fidel is “among the dead that never die.” His life as a revolutionary, a Marxist-Leninist, an internationalist, an outstanding and compassionate builder of a new society, now becomes the collective property of the progressive millions of the world: the anti-imperialists, the socialists, the communists. The only condition of ownership is that we use it to help us move humankind further along the path towards a world without war, oppression, discrimination, exploitation, domination and prejudice; a world that protects the earth, which restores community, and which creates conditions for every single human being – of this and future generations – to be able to enjoy a dignified, fulfilling, healthy, interesting and happy life.

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.

Solidarity

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.

Racism

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.

Marxism

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.

Internationalist

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.

Quotes

Unity

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)

Compromise

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

The Revolutionary Legacy of Amilcar Cabral

Amílcar Lopes da Costa Cabral, one of the greatest anti-colonial leaders of the twentieth century, was born on the 12th of September 1924 in Bafatá, a small town in central Guinea-Bissau. Today, ninety years later, let us take a moment to remember this brilliant revolutionary – the undisputed leader and architect of the struggle to liberate Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde from the yoke of Portuguese colonialism.

As a revolutionary theorist, as a guerrilla fighter, as an inspiring agitator, as an uncompromising internationalist, Cabral’s legacy continues to inform the global struggle against imperialism and for socialism.

From a base of almost nothing, he was able to lead the construction of the most successful guerrilla movement in Africa and a strong, disciplined political party: the Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC). Fidel Castro referred to him as “one of the most lucid and brilliant leaders in Africa, who instilled in us tremendous confidence in the future and the success of his struggle for liberation.”

130120_amilcar_cabral_0Cabral built close links with the liberated African countries (in particular Guinea, Ghana, Tanzania, Algeria and Libya) as well as the liberation movements fighting colonialism in Mozambique, South Africa and Angola. Furthermore, he located the PAIGC’s struggle against colonialism within the global struggle against imperialism and for socialism, and on this basis forged close ties with the entire socialist camp, including the Soviet Union, China, the German Democratic Republic, Cuba and Vietnam. (The PAIGC was one of the few movements in the 60s and 70s to successfully navigate the Sino-Soviet split and maintain close relations with both the Soviet Union and China).

Cabral was surely a man of action, but he was also an important and innovative political thinker who made an outstanding contribution to anti-imperialist, socialist, pan-Africanist and revolutionary nationalist ideologies. Tetteh Kofi writes that Cabral “charted a new ideological path, extending the works of Marx and Lenin to suit African realities. Cabral was the leading political theorist of the Lusophone leaders, until his assassination in 1973” (cited in Reiland Rabaka ‘Concepts of Cabralism: Amilcar Cabral and Africana Critical Theory’).

Portugal’s racist policy – along with its own backwardness – meant that very few people in its colonies had access to higher education. In Guinea Bissau at the time, there was only a handful of university graduates in the whole country. However, Cabral displayed exceptional academic ability, and this enabled him to study at the University of Lisbon, where he met people like Agostinho Neto and Eduardo Mondlane (who would go on to lead the revolutionary movements in Angola and Mozambique respectively). In Portugal, his fellow African students introduced him to socialist ideology, and they spent much of their time studying, discussing and strategising: how to end colonial domination of their homelands? How to inspire the broad masses of the people to engage in struggle?

Cabral returned to Guinea Bissau in 1951 and worked for some years as an agronomist – which experience provided him with ample opportunity to learn at first hand of the dire poverty and intense suffering of his people, especially in the countryside. His experiences made him more determined than ever to find ways and means of working for the freedom of his country and delivering his people from the yoke of colonial bondage.”

Living for a brief spell in Angola, he was a founder member of Angola’s preeminent liberation organisation, Movimento Popular Libertação de Angola (MPLA), along with his university friend Agostinho Neto. In the same year (1956), he and his comrades founded the African Party of Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde Islands (PAIGC).

ANC and SACP stalwart Yusuf Dadoo writes: “Under his leadership the PAIGC mobilised the country’s patriots to struggle for the freedom of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde Islands, created the people’s army and led the national-liberation war against the Portuguese colonialists. Cabral knew and understood his enemy well, and every phase of the struggle was carefully planned and action meticulously organised. The cadres of the PAIGC were given political education as well as military training and he stressed always ‘that we are armed militants and not militarists.’”

cabral-and-fightersIn 1963, after several years of careful planning, study and strategising, the PAIGC launched its military campaign, which over the course of a few years was able to win the support and loyalty of the Guinean and Capeverdian masses and which managed to shake the rotting colonial entity to its foundations. The first liberated zones were set up in 1965, and these continued to expand unstoppably until independence in 1974, by which time practically the entire country was in the hands of the revolutionary forces.

Sadly, Cabral did not live to see the final victory of the national liberation struggle, and Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde were deprived of the insightful leadership that he would doubtless have provided in the post-colonial period. On 20 January 1973, he was kidnapped and shot by disgruntled PAIGC members working in collaboration with the Portuguese secret police.

Nonetheless, the heroic people of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde stepped up their fight, with Amílcar Cabral’s name on their lips.

Piero Gleijeses notes that, “a few weeks after Cabral’s death, the PAIGC was decisively strengthened by the delivery of surface-to-air missiles from the Soviet Union. Until then, the rebels had not had an effective defense against Portuguese air power, but in late 1972, Luis Cabral recounts, ‘we learned about a Soviet anti-aircraft weapon that was light and very efficient. Amilcar made a special trip to Moscow to explain our needs to the Soviet authorities and to urge them to give us that precious weapon.’ The mission, in December 1972, proved successful. In March 1973 the Portuguese prime minister wrote, ‘surface-to-air missiles unexpectedly appeared in the enemy’s hands in Guinea-Bissau and within a few days five of our planes had been shot down.’ This meant that ‘our unchallenged air superiority, which had been our trump card and the basis of our entire military policy … had suddenly evaporated.’” (Conflicting Missions)

By mid-1973, the PAIGC had extended its liberated territory to cover more than two-thirds of the country. On 24 September 1973, the Popular National Assembly proclaimed the independent state of Guinea-Bissau. Full independence was finally granted a year later, on 10 September 1974. Portugal had, in the course of 11 years’ severe warfare, been well and truly defeated.

Meanwhile, the revolutionary anti-colonial wars had played a major part in bringing about the economic and political crisis within Portugal itself, and had been an inspiration for the most progressive elements within the Portuguese left. The overthrow of fascism in Portugal owes much to the heroic struggle waged by the people of Guinea Bissau, Cape Verde, Angola and Mozambique.

Patrick Chabal, in ‘Revolutionary Leadership and People’s War’, sums up Cabral’s legacy succinctly:

In less than twenty years of active political life, Cabral led Guinea-Bissau’s nationalists to the most complete political and military success ever achieved by an African political movement against a colonial power. At the time of his death in 1973, months before Guinea-Bissau became independent, his influence extended well beyond the Lusophone world and Africa. Friends and foes alike admired his political acumen and skills and saw in him a potential leader of the non-aligned movement. His writings have shown him to be a sophisticated analyst of the social, economic and political factors which have affected and continue to affect the developing world.

We publish below a selection of valuable quotes by (and a few about) Amílcar Cabral, which are meant to serve as an introduction to his ideological legacy. The quotes are followed by some suggestions for further reading.

Theory and practice

As someone born in a country where a foreign colonial power pointedly refused to allow the vast majority of the population access to learning, Cabral had little time for anti-intellectual strands within the progressive movement. Indeed he strongly felt that the existing anti-imperialist movements were much in need of greater ideological grounding.

The ideological deficiency within the national liberation movements, not to say the total lack of ideology – reflecting as this does an ignorance of the historical reality which these movements claim to transform – makes for one of the greatest weaknesses in our struggle against imperialism, if not the greatest weakness of all. (source)

On the connection between theory and practice, he strikes a similar chord to Mao:

Every practice produces a theory, and though it is true that a revolution can fail even though it be based on perfectly conceived theories, nobody has yet made a successful revolution without a revolutionary theory. (ibid)

Very early on in their struggle, and with hardly any resources at their disposal, the PAIGC founders set up a political school in order to create cadres.

The fact that the Republic of Guinea was next to us enabled our Party to install there, temporarily, some of our leaders, and this enabled us to create a political school to prepare political activists. This was decisive for our struggle. In 1960 we created a political school in Conakry, under very poor conditions. Militants from the towns – party members – were the first to come to receive political instruction and to be trained in how to mobilise our people for the struggle. After comrades from the city came peasants and youths (some even bringing their entire families) who had been mobilised by Party members. Ten, twenty, twenty-five people would come for a period of one or two months. During that period they went through an intensive education programme; we spoke to them, and night would come and we couldn’t speak any more because we were completely hoarse. (source)

In his celebrated directive ‘Tell no lies, claim no easy victories’, he urges:

Educate ourselves, educate other people, the population in general, to fight fear and ignorance, to eliminate little by little the subjugation to nature and natural forces which our economy has not yet mastered. Convince little by little, in particular the militants of the Party, that we shall end by conquering the fear of nature, and that man is the strongest force in nature. Demand from responsible Party members that they dedicate themselves seriously to study, that they interest themselves in the things and problems of our daily life and struggle in their fundamental and essential aspect, and not simply in their appearance. Learn from life, learn from our people, learn from books, learn from the experience of others. Never stop learning. (source)

Socialism

Cabral’s major focus as a revolutionary was to create maximum national unity against Portuguese colonialism, and therefore much of his thought is framed in terms of revolutionary nationalism rather than specifically socialism. Nonetheless, he was very clear about what he thought post-colonial Africa should look like. Furthermore, he established very close links with the existing socialist camp, including the Soviet Union, Cuba, the German Democratic Republic, China and Cuba.

In our present historical situation — elimination of imperialism which uses every means to perpetuate its domination over our peoples, and consolidation of socialism throughout a large part of the world — there are only two possible paths for an independent nation: to return to imperialist domination (neo-colonialism, capitalism, state capitalism), or to take the way of socialism. (source)

Further:

The essential characteristic of our times is the general struggle of the peoples against imperialism and the existence of a socialist camp, which is the greatest bulwark against imperialism. (source)

In response to the question of to what extent Marxism and Leninism as an ideology had been relevant to the national liberation struggle of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde, Cabral stated:

Moving from the realities of one’s own country towards the creation of an ideology for one’s struggle doesn’t imply that one has pretensions to be a Marx or a Lenin or any other great ideologist, but is simply a necessary part of the struggle. I confess that we didn’t know these great theorists terribly well when we began. We didn’t know them half as well as we do now. We needed to know them, as I’ve said in order to judge in what measure we could borrow from their experience to help our situation – but not necessarily to apply the ideology blindly just because it’s very good. This is where we stand on this. (source)

Cabral’s writings on the class structure of Guinea-Bissaun and Capeverdian society are fascinating and deserve to be studied in detail. Here is a particularly interesting passage on the problem of trying to create a working class mentality in a country that only had a tiny working class:

We were faced with another difficult problem: we realised that we needed to have people with a mentality which could transcend the context of the national liberation struggle, and so we prepared a number of cadres from the group I have just mentioned, some from the people employed in commerce and other wage-earners, and even some peasants, so that they could acquire what you might call a working class mentality. You may think this is absurd – in any case it is very difficult; in order for there to be a working class mentality the material conditions of the working class should exist, a working class should exist. In fact we managed to inculcate these ideas into a large number of people – the kind of ideas which there would be if there were a working class. We trained about 1,000 cadres at our party school in Conakry, in fact for about two years this was about all we did outside the country. When these cadres returned to the rural areas they inculcated a certain mentality into the peasants and it is among these cadres that we have chosen the people who are now leading the struggle.” (source)

Speaking at a seminar on ‘Lenin and National Liberation’, held at Alma Ata, capital of Soviet Socialist Republic of Kazakhstan, in 1970, Cabral made the crucial connection between Lenin’s ideas and the national liberation struggles being waged across Africa:

“How is it that we, a people deprived of everything, living in dire straits, manage to wage our struggle and win successes? Our answer is: this is because Lenin existed, because he fulfilled his duty as a man, a revolutionary and a patriot. Lenin was and continues to be, the greatest champion of the national liberation of the peoples.” (source)

Yusuf Dadoo’s obituary of Cabral notes that “he had very close association with the Soviet Union which he visited on many occasions and made a major contribution to the promotion and strengthening of friendship and cooperation between the peoples of Guinea-Bissau and the Soviet Union, between the PAIGC and the CPSU.”

The socialist countries and the liberated African states were the major suppliers of weapons, training and finance to the PAIGC (as indeed they were to the MPLA in Angola, Frelimo in Mozambique, SWAPO in Namibia, ZANU and ZAPU in Zimbabwe, and the ANC and SACP in South Africa).

A socialist camp has arisen in the world. This has radically changed the balance of power, and this socialist camp is today showing itself fully conscious of its duties, international and historic, but not moral, since the peoples of the socialist countries have never exploited the colonised peoples. They are showing themselves conscious of their duty, and this is why I have the honour of telling you openly here that we are receiving substantial and effective aid from these countries, which is reinforcing the aid which we receive from our African brothers. If there are people who don’t like to hear this, let them come and help us in our struggle too. (source)

Further:

We want to mention the special aid given to us by the peoples of the socialist countries. We believe that this aid is a historic obligation, because we consider that our struggle also constitutes a defence of the socialist countries. And we want to say particularly that the Soviet Union, first of all, and China, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and other socialist countries continue to aid us, which we consider very useful for the development of our armed struggle. We also want to lay special emphasis on the untiring efforts – sacrifices that we deeply appreciate – that the people of Cuba – a small country without great resources, one that is struggling against the blockade by the US and other imperialists – are making to give effective aid to our struggle. For us, this is a constant source of encouragement, and it also contributes to cementing more and more the solidarity between our Party and the Cuban Party, between our people and the Cuban people, a people that we consider African. And it is enough to see the historical, political, and blood ties that unite us to be able to say this. Therefore, we are very happy with the aid that the Cuban people give us, and we are sure that they will continue increasing their aid to our national liberation struggle in spite of all difficulties. (source)

Anti-imperialist unity

badgeAmílcar Cabral was a consummate internationalist, who understood anti-imperialist unity not simply in abstract intellectual terms but as a matter of life and death for his movement. After all, the enemy has shown itself to be very capable of developing unity when it needs to:

The Portuguese government has managed to guarantee for as long as necessary the assistance which it receives from the Western powers and from its racist allies in Southern Africa. It is our duty to stress the international character of the Portuguese colonial war against Africa and the important and even decisive role played by the USA and Federal Germany in pursuing this war. If the Portuguese government is still holding out on the three fronts of the war which it is fighting in Africa, it is because it can count on the overt or covert support of the USA, freely use NATO weapons, buy B26 aircraft for the genocide of our people (including from ‘private parties’), and obtain whenever it wishes money. jet aircraft and weapons of every sort from Federal Germany where, furthermore, certain war-wounded from the Portuguese colonial army are hospitalised and treated. (source)

In a fiery opening address at the conference of the Conference of Nationalist Organizations of the Portuguese Colonies (CONCP) held in Dar Es-Salaam in 1965, we see the breadth and depth of his internationalism:

Our hearts beat in unison with the hearts of our brothers in Vietnam who are giving us a shining example by facing the most shameful and unjustifiable aggression of the US imperialists against the peaceful people of Vietnam. Our hearts are equally with our brothers in the Congo who, in the bush of that vast and rich African country are seeking to resolve their problems in the face of imperialist aggression and of the manoeuvres of imperialism through their puppets. That is why we of the CONCP proclaim loud and clear that we are against Tshombe, against all the Tshombes of Africa. Our hearts are also with our brothers in Cuba, who have shown that even when surrounded by the sea, a people is capable of taking up arms and successfully defending its fundamental interests and of deciding its own destiny. We are with the Blacks of North America, we are with them in the streets of Los Angeles, and when they are deprived of all possibility of life, we suffer with them.

We are with the refugees, the martyrised refugees of Palestine, who have been tricked and driven from their own homeland by the manoeuvres of imperialism. We are on the side of the Palestinian refugees and we support wholeheartedly all that the sons of Palestine are doing to liberate their country, and we fully support the Arab and African countries in general in helping the Palestinian people to recover their dignity, their independence and their right to life. We are also with the peoples of Southern Arabia, of so-called ‘French’ Somaliland, of so-called ‘Spanish’ Guinea, and we are also most seriously and painfully with our brothers in South Africa who are facing the most barbarous racial discrimination. We are absolutely certain that the development of the struggle in the Portuguese colonies, and the victory we are winning each day over Portuguese colonialism is an effective contribution to the elimination of the vile, shameful regime of racial discrimination, of apartheid in South Africa. And we are also certain that peoples like that of Angola, that of Mozambique and ourselves in Guinea and Cabo Verde, far from South Africa, will soon, very soon we hope, be able to play a very important role in the final elimination of that last bastion of imperialism and racism in Africa, South Africa. (source)

On Palestine:

We have as a basic principle the defence of just causes. We are in favour of justice, human progress, the freedom of the people. On this basis we believe that the creation of Israel, carried out by the imperialist states to maintain their domination in the Middle East, was artificial and aimed at the creation of problems in that very important region of the world. This is our position: the Jewish people have lived in different countries of the world. We lament profoundly what the Nazis did to the Jewish people, that Hitler and his lackeys destroyed almost six million during the last World War. But we do not accept that this gives them the right to occupy a part of the Arab nation. We believe that the people of Palestine have a right to their homeland. We therefore think that all the measures taken by the Arab peoples, by the Arab nation, to recover the Palestinian Arab homeland are justified. (source)

On Vietnam:

For us, the struggle in Vietnam is our own struggle. We consider that in Vietnam not only the fate of our own people but also that of all the peoples struggling for their national independence and sovereignty is at stake. We are in solidarity with the people of Vietnam, and we immensely admire their heroic struggle against US aggression and against the aggression of the reactionaries of the southern part of Vietnam, who are no more than the puppets of US imperialism. (ibid)

Visiting the US, Cabral met with representatives from a number of black liberation groups, and demonstrated a solid understanding of, and solidarity with, their struggle.

You can be sure that we realize the difficulties you face, the problems you have and your feelings, your revolts, and also your hopes. We think that our fighting for Africa against colonialism and imperialism is a proof of understanding of your problem and also a contribution for the solution of your problems in this continent. Naturally the inverse is also true. All the achievements towards the solution of your problems here are real contributions to our own struggle. And we are very encouraged in our struggle by the fact that each day more of the African people born in America become conscious of their responsibilities to the struggle in Africa.

We think that all you can do here to develop your own conditions in the sense of progress, in the sense of history and in the sense of the total realization of your aspirations as human beings is a contribution for us. It is also a contribution for you to never forget that you are Africans. (source)

He also makes an important point about the politics of non-alignment, specifying that this doesn’t mean “neither east nor west”, or “neither capitalism nor socialism”, but rather retaining independence of decision making:

Non-alignment for us means not aligning ourselves with blocs, not aligning ourselves with the decisions of others. We reserve the right to make our own decisions, and if by chance our choices and decisions coincide with those of others, that is not our fault. We are for the policy of non-alignment, but we consider ourselves to be deeply committed to our people and committed to every just cause in the world. We see ourselves as part of a vast front of struggle for the good of humanity. (source)

Cuba

cabral fidelIn his incredible book ‘Conflicting Missions’, Piero Gleijeses writes in some detail about the relationship between Cuba and Guinea Bissau:

In January 1966, Cabral made his first trip to Cuba when he led the PAIGC delegation to the Tricontinental Conference in Havana. He was ‘the most impressive African in attendance,’ U.S. intelligence reported, and he made a powerful impression on his Cuban hosts. ‘His address to the Tricontinental was brilliant,’ Risquet remembered. ‘Everyone was struck by his great intelligence and personality. Fidel was very impressed by him’…

Amilcar Cabral had decided that Cuba alone should send its fighters to Guinea-Bissau. He chose Cuba in part because he felt some cultural and ethnic affinity with the Cubans and, above all, because he respected the Cuban revolution. ‘I remember that when I was in Cuba, Fidel told me that Cuba is also Africa,’ he told a group of Cubans in August 1966. ‘I don’t believe there is life after death, but if there is, we can be sure that the souls of our forefathers who were taken away to America to be slaves are rejoicing today to see their children reunited and working together to help us be independent and free.’ Thirty years later, other PAIGC leaders echoed his words. ‘We greatly admired the struggle of the Cuban people. The Cubans were a special case because we knew that they, more than anyone else, were the champions of internationalism,’ one recalled. ‘Cuba made no demands, it gave us unconditional aid,’ said another.

It was the Soviet bloc whose help was decisive. It provided arms, educational opportunities, and other material and political support. The Soviet Union was, by far, the major source of weapons. Cuba, too, gave material help, in the form of supplies, military training in Cuba, and scholarships. This was a considerable and generous effort for a poor country. But Cuba did much more, and its role was unique. Only Cubans fought in Guinea Bissau alongside the guerrilla fighters of the PAIGC…

Luis Cabral (Amilcar’s brother) later stated: ‘We were able to fight and triumph because other countries and people helped us … with weapons, with medicine, with supplies… But there is one nation that in addition to material, political, and diplomatic support, even sent its children to fight by our side, to shed their blood in our land alongside that of the best children of our country. This great people, this heroic people, we all know that is the heroic people of Cuba; the Cuba of Fidel Castro; the Cuba of the Sierra Maestra, the Cuba of Moncada… Cuba sent its best sons here to help us in the technical aspects of our war, to help us wage this great struggle against Portuguese colonialism.’

Visiting Cuba in 1966, Cabral stated:

If any of us came to Cuba with doubts in our mind about the solidity, strength, maturity and vitality of the Cuban Revolution, these doubts have been removed by what we have been able to see. Our hearts are now warmed by an unshakeable certainty which gives us courage in the difficult but glorious struggle against the common enemy: no power in the world will be able to destroy this Cuban Revolution, which is creating in the countryside and in the towns not only a new life but also — and even more important — a New Man, fully conscious of his national, continental and international rights and duties…

We guarantee that we, the peoples of the countries of Africa, still completely dominated by Portuguese colonialism, are prepared to send to Cuba as many men and women as may be needed to compensate for the departure of those who for reasons of class or of inability to adapt have interests or attitudes which are incompatible with the interests of the Cuban people. Taking once again the formerly hard and tragic path of our ancestors (mainly from Guinea and Angola) who were taken to Cuba as slaves, we would come now as free men, as willing workers and Cuban patriots, to fulfill a productive function in this new, just and multi-racial society, and to help and defend with our own lives the victories of the Cuban people. Thus we would strengthen both all the bonds of history, blood and culture which unite our peoples with the Cuban people, and the spontaneous giving of oneself, the deep joy and infectious rhythm which make the construction of socialism in Cuba a new phenomenon for the world, a unique and, for many, unaccustomed event. (source)

Solidarity with the working class movement in the ‘first world’

Cabral never tired of highlighting the need for global solidarity and unity against imperialism – a unity that should include the oppressed classes within imperialist society itself. However, he understood from direct experience that the creation of a ‘labour aristocracy’ had the effect of vastly reducing the anti-imperialist sentiment of the working class in western Europe and North America. Frankly, he understood this phenomenon better than 90% of western leftists.

I should just like to make one last point about solidarity between the international working class movement and our national liberation struggle. There are two alternatives: either we admit that there really is a struggle against imperialism which interests everybody, or we deny it. If, as would seem from all the evidence, imperialism exists and is trying simultaneously to dominate the working class in all the advanced countries and smother the national liberation movements in all the underdeveloped countries, then there is only one enemy against whom we are fighting. If we are fighting together, then I think the main aspect of our solidarity is extremely simple: it is to fight…

We are struggling in Guinea with guns in our hands, you must struggle in your countries as well – I don’t say with guns in your hands, I’m not going to tell you how to struggle, that’s your business; but you must find the best means and the best forms of fighting against our common enemy: this is the best form of solidarity. There are, of course, other secondary forms of solidarity: publishing material, sending medicine, etc; I can guarantee you that if tomorrow we make a breakthrough and you are engaged in an armed struggle against imperialism in Europe we will send you some medicine too. (source)

Interestingly, Cabral saw imperialism as being a greater threat to the European working class than to the masses of the oppressed nations – while revolutionising the latter, it had pacified the former, ”encouraging the development of a privileged proletariat and thus lowering the revolutionary level of the working classes.”

As we see it, neocolonialism (which we may call rationalised imperialism) is more a defeat for the international working class than for the colonised peoples. Neocolonialism is at work on two fronts – in Europe as well as in the underdeveloped countries. Its current framework in the underdeveloped countries is the policy of aid, and one of the essential aims of this policy is to create a false bourgeoisie to put a brake on the revolution and to enlarge the possibilities of the petty bourgeoisie as a neutraliser of the revolution; at the same time it invests capital in France, Italy, Belgium, England and so on. In our opinion the aim of this is to stimulate the growth of a workers’ aristocracy, to enlarge the field of action of the petty bourgeoisie so as to block the revolution. (ibid)

In his overview of class society in Guinea Bissau, he notes that the settlers of working class origin are often the most reactionary. This is another manifestation of the success of the western ruling classes in brainwashing workers.

The European settlers are, in general, hostile to the idea of national liberation; they are the human instruments of the colonial state in our country and they therefore reject a priori any idea of national liberation there. It has to be said that the Europeans most bitterly opposed to the idea of national liberation are the workers, while we have sometimes found considerable sympathy for our struggle among certain members of the European petty bourgeoisie. (ibid)

Talking with a degree of frustration about the endless criticism meted out to the liberation struggles by left sects in Europe, he says:

The criticism reminds me of a story about some lions: there is a group of lions who are shown a picture of a lion lying on the ground and a man holding a gun with his foot on the lion (as everybody knows the lion is proud of being king of the jungle); one of the lions looks at the picture and says, “if only we lions could paint”. If only one of the leaders of one of the new African countries could take time off from the terrible problems in his own country and become a critic of the European left and say all he had to say about the retreat of the revolution in Europe, of a certain apathy in some European countries and of the false hopes which we have all had in certain European groups… (ibid)

Against dogmatism

amilcar22Amílcar Cabral is famous for his insistence on a concrete approach to concrete problems, rather than the dogmatic application of formulas. He was by no means against ideology, but he was adamant that no set of revolutionary principles could simply be transplanted wholesale from one situation to another. English historian, Africanist and the major chronicler of the Guinea-Bissau revolution Basil Davidson wrote that “if one had to define a single influential aspect of Cabral’s approach, perhaps it would be his insistence on the study of reality. ‘Do not confuse the reality you live in with the ideas you have in your head’, was a favourite theme in his seminars for party militants. Your ideas may be good, even excellent, but they will be useless ideas unless they spring from and interweave with the reality you live in. What is necessary is to see into and beyond appearances: to free yourself from the sticky grasp of ‘received opinions’, whether academic or otherwise. Only through a principled study of reality, of the strictly here and now, can a theory of revolutionary change be integrated with its practice to the point where the two become inseparable. This is what he taught.” (source)

After all, there were definitely no ready-made formulas ready for use in the context of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde. These highly complex African societies, whose history had been diverted by centuries of oppression by a colonial power that was itself very backward and dependent, were hardly the revolutionary centres that Marx and Engels had in mind when they produced the Manifesto of the Communist Party in 1848. Mao Zedong’s groundbreaking application of Marxism to the conditions of semi-fuedal China provided a much closer analogy to the conditions prevailing in Guinea Bissau, but even then there were important differences that required concrete analysis.

Naturally, there are certain general or universal laws, even scientific laws for any condition, but the liberation struggle has to be developed according to the specific conditions of each country. This is fundamental. The specific conditions to be considered include economic, cultural, social, political and even geographic conditions. The guerrilla manuals once told us that without mountains you cannot make guerrilla war. But in my country there are no mountains, only the people. In the economic field we committed an error. We began training our people to commit sabotage on the railroads. When they returned from their training we remembered that there were no railroads in our country. The Portuguese built them in Mozambique and Angola but not in our country. (source)

The PAIGC made an extensive study of production relations in the countryside, which led them to a campaign of mobilising the peasantry that was decidedly different to what had taken place in other African and Asian countries.

It so happens that in our country the Portuguese colonialists did not expropriate the land; they allowed us to cultivate the land. They did not create agricultural companies of the European type as they did, for instance, in Angola, displacing masses of Africans in order to settle Europeans. We maintained a basic structure under colonialism – the land as co-operative property of the village, of the community. This is a very important characteristic of our peasantry, which was not directly exploited by the colonisers but was exploited through trade, through the differences between the prices and the real value of products. This is where the exploitation occurs, not in work, as happens in Angola with the hired workers and company employees. This created a special difficulty in our struggle – that of showing the peasant that he was being exploited in his own country.

Telling the people that “the land belongs to those who work on it” was not enough to mobilise them, because we have more than enough land, there is all the land we need. We had to find appropriate formulae for mobilising our peasants, instead of using terms that our people could not yet understand. We could never mobilise our people simply on the basis of the struggle against colonialism-that has no effect. To speak of the fight against imperialism is not convincing enough. Instead we use a direct language that all can understand:

“Why are you going to fight? What are you? What is your father? What has happened to your father up to now? What is the situation? Did you pay taxes? Did your father pay taxes? What have you seen from those taxes? How much do you get for your groundnuts? Have you thought about how much you will earn with your groundnuts? How much sweat has it cost your family? Which of you have been imprisoned? You are going to work on road-building: who gives you the tools? You bring the tools. Who provides your meals? You provide your meals. But who walks on the road? Who has a car? And your daughter who was raped-are you happy about that?” (source)

Class suicide

Given the near-absence of an industrial working class, and the prevalence of petty bourgeois (or middle class) elements in the leadership of the national liberation movement, Cabral talked of the need for the petty bourgeoisie to commit ‘class suicide’ in order that the gains of the revolution not be reversed.

To retain the power which national liberation puts in its hands, the petty bourgeoisie has only one path: to give free rein to its natural tendencies to become more bourgeois, to permit the development of a bureaucratic and intermediary bourgeoisie in the commercial cycle, in order to transform itself into a national pseudo-bourgeoisie, that is to say in order to negate the revolution and necessarily ally. In order not to betray these objectives the petty bourgeoisie has only one choice: to strengthen its revolutionary consciousness, to reject the temptations of becoming more bourgeois and the natural concerns of its class mentality, to identify itself with the working classes and not to oppose the normal development of the process of revolution. This means that in order to truly fulfill the role in the national liberation struggle, the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie must be capable of committing suicide as a class in order to be reborn as revolutionary workers, completely identified with the deepest aspirations of the people to which they belong. (source)

Armed struggle

The people of Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde fought for the independence – successfully – with guns in hand (and, thanks primarily to the Soviet Union, with sophisticated military technology). However, Cabral never romanticised the armed struggle and the loss of human life.

The past and present experiences of various peoples, the present situation of national liberation struggles in the world (especially in Vietnam, the Congo and Zimbabwe) as well as the situation of permanent violence, or at least of contradictions and upheavals, in certain countries which have gained their independence by the so-called peaceful way, show us not only that compromises with imperialism do not work, but also that the normal way of national liberation, imposed on peoples by imperialist repression, is armed struggle.

I am not a great defender of the armed fight. I am myself very conscious of the sacrifices demanded by the armed fight. It is a violence against even our own people. But it is not our invention – it is not our cool decision; it is the requirement of history. This is not the first fight in our country, and it is not Cabral who invented the struggle. We are following the example of our grandfathers who fought against Portuguese domination 50 years ago. Today’s fight is a continuation of the fight to defend our dignity, our right to have an identity – our own identity.

If it were possible to solve this problem without the armed fight – why not?! But while the armed fight demands sacrifices, it also has advantages. Like everything else in the world, it has two faces – one positive and the other negative – the problem is in the balance. For us now, it (the armed fight) is a good thing in our opinion, and our condition is a good thing because this armed fight helped us to accelerate the revolution of our people, to create a new situation that will facilitate our progress. (ibid)

African history and culture

The colonists usually say that it was they who brought us into history: today we show that this is not so. They made us leave history, our history, to follow them, right at the back, to follow the progress of their history. Today, in taking up arms to liberate ourselves, in following the example of other peoples who have taken up arms to liberate themselves, we want to return to our history, on our own feet, by our own means and through our own sacrifices. (ibid)

In his speech at the first Tricontintal Conference in Havana, 1966, Cabral questions the idea put forward in the Communist Manifesto that “all history is the history of class struggle”, noting that this cuts pre-class society out of history.

Does history begin only with the development of the phenomenon of ‘class’, and consequently of class struggle? To reply in the affirmative would be to place outside history the whole period of life of human groups from the discovery of hunting, and later of nomadic and sedentary agriculture, to the organization of herds and the private appropriation of land. It would also be to consider — and this we refuse to accept — that various human groups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America were living without history, or outside history, at the time when they were subjected to the yoke of imperialism. It would be to consider that the peoples of our countries, such as the Balantes of Guinea, the Coaniamas of Angola and the Macondes of Mozambique, are still living today — if we abstract the slight influence of colonialism to which they have been subjected — outside history, or that they have no history. (source)

In place of class struggle as the driving force of all history, Cabral proposes instead the development of the means of production:

If class struggle is the motive force of history, it is so only in a specific historical period. This means that before the class struggle — and necessarily after it, since in this world there is no before without an after — one or several factors was and will be the motive force of history. It is not difficult to see that this factor in the history of each human group is the mode of production — the level of productive forces and the pattern of ownership — characteristic of that group. Furthermore, as we have seen, classes themselves, class struggle and their subsequent definition, are the result of the development of the productive forces in conjunction with the pattern of ownership of the means of production. It therefore seems correct to conclude that the level of productive forces, the essential determining element in the content and form of class struggle, is the true and permanent motive force of history…

Eternity is not of this world, but man will outlive classes and will continue to produce and make history, since he can never free himself from the burden of his needs, both of mind and of body, which are the basis of the development of the forces of production.

Through this logic, Cabral seeks to break the inferiority complex that is pushed onto the masses of the oppressed nations by colonial ideology, and reassert Africa’s place in history. He also uses this theory to situate the national liberation struggle within the movement of history toward socialism: colonial domination has actually retarded the development of the productive forces (this is especially the case for Portugal’s colonies) and is a block on progress.

Both in colonialism and in neo-colonialism the essential characteristic of imperialist domination remains the same: the negation of the historical process of the dominated people by means of violent usurpation of the freedom of development of the national productive forces.

The colonies must remove this block and, in the interests of rapid development, align themselves with the socialist states:

Whatever its level of productive forces and present social structure, a society can pass rapidly through the defined stages appropriate to the concrete local realities (both historical and human) and reach a higher stage of existence. This progress depends on the concrete possibilities of development of the society’s productive forces and is governed mainly by the nature of the political power ruling the society… A more detailed analysis would show that the possibility of such a jump in the historical process arises mainly, in the economic field, from the power of the means available to man at the time for dominating nature, and, in the political field, from the new event which has radically changed the face of the world and the development of history, the creation of socialist states.

He also notes the process of intense human development that takes place within the national liberation struggle itself:

Our national liberation struggle has a great significance both for Africa and for the world. We are in the process of proving that peoples such as ours – economically backward, living sometimes almost naked in the bush, not knowing how to read or write, not having even the most elementary knowledge of modern technology – are capable, by means of their sacrifices and efforts, of beating an enemy who is not only more advanced from a technological point of view but also supported by the powerful forces of world imperialism. Thus before the world and before Africa we ask: were the Portuguese right when they claimed that we were uncivilised peoples, peoples without culture? We ask: what is the most striking manifestation of civilisation and culture if not that shown by a people which takes up arms to defend its right to life, to progress, to work and to happiness? (source)

Cabral was also strongly focused on the role of cultural imperialism in suppressing the peoples of the oppressed nations, and the importance of culture as an element of resistance to imperialism:

A people who free themselves from foreign domination will be free culturally only if, without complexes and without underestimating the importance of positive accretions from the oppressor and other cultures, they return to the upward paths of their own culture, which is nourished by the living reality of its environment, and which negates both harmful influences and any kind of subjection to foreign culture. Thus, it may be seen that if imperialist domination has the vital need to practice cultural oppression, national liberation is necessarily an act of culture”

The value of culture as an element of resistance to foreign domination lies in the fact that culture is the vigorous manifestation on the ideological or idealist plane of the physical and historical reality of the society that is dominated or to be dominated. Culture is simultaneously the fruit of a people’s history and a determinant of history, by the positive or negative influence which it exerts on the evolution of relationships between man and his environment, among men or groups of men within a society, as well as among different societies. (source)

Although he stressed the importance of African culture and identity, Cabral always made clear that this was not based on any type of discrimination or feelings of superiority.

We are not racists. We are fundamentally and deeply against any kind of racism. Even when people are subjected to racism we are against racism from those who have been oppressed by it. In our opinion – not from dreaming but from a deep analysis of the real condition of the existence of mankind and the division of societies – racism is a result of certain circumstances. It is not eternal in any latitude in the world. It is the result of historical and economic conditions. And we cannot answer racism with racism. It is not possible. In our country, despite some racist manifestations by the Portuguese, we are not fighting against the Portuguese people or whites. We are fighting for the freedom of our people – to free our people and to allow them to be able to love any kind of human being. You cannot love when you are a slave… In combating racism we don’t make progress if we combat the people themselves. We have to combat the causes of racism. If a bandit comes into my house and I have a gun I cannot shoot the shadow of this bandit. I have to shoot the bandit. Many people lose energy and effort, and make sacrifices combating shadows. (source)

Further reading

Needless to say, a selection of quotes can only serve as an outline of, and introduction to, the political, cultural and philosophical thought of Amílcar Cabral. Some other material that you may find useful:

Libya and the Project for a New American Century – a review of ‘Toppling Qaddafi’ by Christopher Chivvis

This is an expanded version of an article that appeared in the Morning Star on 16 June, 2014.


While a few books have been written about the 2011 Libya war from a critical, anti-imperialist perspective (the most important being Cynthia McKinney’s The Illegal War on Libya and Maximilian Forte’s Slouching Towards Sirte), Topping Qaddafi is the first attempt by a mainstream western political scientist to provide a retrospective justification for the war.

The author, Christopher Chivvis, works at a US government-funded think-tank (RAND Corporation) and is a well-connected analyst whose articles have been published in Foreign Policy, the International Herald Tribune, the Washington Times, Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere. His book is, as you might expect, unashamedly pro-imperialist, and presents a more-or-less official narrative. As such it should be read critically. Nonetheless, it provides some useful insight into the behind-the-scenes machinations that led to the war, as well as revealing the full extent of NATO’s role.

The re-telling of tall stories

Chivvis starts by reiterating the official justification for going to war: that the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was engaged in a deadly crackdown on peaceful demonstrators calling for democracy. What’s interesting is that Chivvis doesn’t manage to introduce any new or convincing evidence, but instead simply recycles the various reports that appeared in the mainstream press at the time and which have since been comprehensively discredited. For example he cites “evidence of systematic rape by regime militias”, a story refuted three years ago by none other than Amnesty International. He further claims that “Qaddafi had reinforced it [the Libyan army] with mercenaries from Africa and Eastern Europe”, with no mention of the discovery that the only ‘mercenaries’ ever captured were not in fact mercenaries at all but rather “undocumented labourers from Chad, Mali and West Africa”.

Any far-fetched and unsubstantiated claims made by supporters of the uprising are treated as being uncontrovertibly true. Among the book’s sources is a Guardian article containing the following passage:

Reports from inside the country claimed pro-regime forces had deliberately aimed at protesters’ heads. A mass funeral for 35 people who died on Friday came under fire from pro-government snipers who killed one person at the procession and injured a dozen more, according to sources in the city. The shootings came amid credible reports of a round-up of government opponents who were taken from their homes in raids by security forces. The crackdown has been led by the elite Khamis Brigade, led by Gaddafi’s youngest son… Unconfirmed reports claim that force has been backed by African mercenaries brought into the country in five separate flights. A video on the Libya 17th February website appeared to show an injured African mercenary who had captured by anti-government protesters.

These few short sentences yield a particularly high-scoring game of spot-the-euphemism. We have “reports from inside the country”, “sources in the city”, “credible reports”, “unconfirmed reports” and “a video” which “appeared to show” something or other – but what we don’t have is any reliable evidence. Indeed, every single one of these “unconfirmed reports” turned out to be untrue.

Real reasons for the invasion

Chivvis goes into detail about the US’ initial reluctance to take military action, correctly pointing out that France and Britain were the main ‘hawks’ in the weeks leading up to the start of the bombing campaign. “As of early 2011, the chances NATO would go to war again seemed remote at best.” Indeed, US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates stated on 24 February 2011 that “any future defence secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” Chivvis notes that, in early March, “less than a third of Americans favoured helping the rebels militarily.”

It’s not that the US wasn’t convinced of the virtues of overthrowing the Gaddafi government – in spite of eight years of rapprochement and somewhat improved relations, the US remained decidedly uneasy about Libya’s resource nationalism, its increased economic ties with China and Russia, and its efforts toward African political, economic and military integration. Continued CIA support for covert anti-Gaddafi organisations like the National Front for the Salvation of Libya is well-known. Meanwhile, the US quickly saw in the ‘Arab Spring’ an opportunity to turn the situation to its own advantage – indeed, Chivvis suggests that one of the motives for intervention in Libya was that a failure of the uprising “could reverse a democratic surge expected to be in the US interest in the long haul”. Hillary Clinton was fairly explicit on the subject: ”The entire region is changing, and a strong and strategic American response will be essential.”

There were no shortage of motives for a NATO war on Libya. However, the Pentagon was hoping that the rebels might be able to conduct a successful coup without the help of the international high-tech-destruction community. Apart from anything else, there was a preference to avoid another unpopular war in the Middle East, especially in light of the hugely negative public perception of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. ”Secretary Clinton had favoured keeping all options on the table, while sometimes leaning toward the more cautious position of the Defence Department, largely in hope that Qaddafi might simply yield to the rebels without an intervention.”

When it became clear that a successful rebel uprising was not even a slightly likely outcome, we saw a swift metamorphosis in US foreign policy circles as doves turned into hawks. Chivvis tries to cover NATO’s tracks by claiming that “it was the imminent threat Qaddafi’s forces posed to the civilian population of Benghazi combined with the emergence of a military option that could save thousands of imperiled lives that led to intervention”. But it is common knowledge that the ‘imminent threat’ was massively and deliberately overstated in order to build a case for war – as Stephen M Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard, wrote back in April 2011, “the claim that the United States had to act to prevent Libyan tyrant Muammar al-Qaddafi from slaughtering tens of thousands of innocent civilians in Benghazi does not stand up to even casual scrutiny.”

It is again common knowledge that it was armed insurgents that were under threat rather than the ‘civilian population’. The only meaningful change that occurred between the beginning of March and the middle of March was that the Libyan state had moved decisively to suppress a coup. ”The … most important change was Qaddafi’s rout of the rebel forces. Over the weekend, Qaddafi’s army began to make rapid progress, pushing rebels out of the oil port of Ras Lanuf on March 11 and crushing the uprising in Zawiyah.”

Beyond the removal of an inconveniently anti-imperialist and independent government, the possibility of NATO intervention had certain other attractive qualities in the eyes of western policy-makers. Perhaps the most important of these was the example an intervention would provide for other regional powers. Acknowledging that the level of violence went well beyond what was authorised in the UN Security Council’s resolution for a no-fly zone, Chivvis admits that it “was no doubt intended to demonstrate US capabilities to other regional powers – such as Iran and Syria.”

One subtle and often-overlooked factor in the US decision to join – and take charge of – the military campaign against Libya is that it was keen to reassert its dominance over a Europe that is no longer so unambiguously tied to the Washington Consensus as it once was. Implying (not entirely unfairly) that a British/French-led attack would be little more than a vanity project for Cameron and Sarkozy, Chivvis states his doubt that the EU forces would have been up to the job of regime change in Libya. “The outlook for the European Union’s decade-long effort to build an EU alternative to NATO was rather gloomy. Toppling Qaddafi was exactly the kind of operation the EU had originally aspired to with its security and defence policy, but it had proven totally useless for this purpose.” Chivvis goes on to gloat that “the United States was the ‘indispensable nation’ for these kinds of military operations. No other country – China, Russia, and India included – could have provided the capabilities that the United States did.” Thus, the regime change operation in Libya served as a message of US supremacy, directed not just to the baddies in Tehran and Damascus but also to the major west European powers.

For NATO, by NATO – a brutal colonial war

UN Security Council resolution 1973, approved on 17 March 2011, called for “a ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in order to help protect civilians” and the seizing of Libyan state assets. The wording did not allow for a regime change operation, nor for direct assistance to anti-government groups in Libya, nor for wide-ranging attacks against targets on the ground. The no-fly zone was presented as being a very limited operation, not a massive aerial onslaught. In practice, as Chivvis is forced to admit, it was a NATO war on a similar scale to the brutal attack on Yugoslavia, fought and won by a western imperialist air force with the assistance of special forces on the ground.

All told, the operation would draw on more than 8,000 personnel, 21 warships, and some 250 aircraft flying more than 26,000 sorties. Nineteen countries contributed military forces, including four from the Middle East.

Chivvis notes a close level of tactical collaboration between the rebels and NATO, without which the overthrow of the Gaddafi government would not have been possible. “The thuwwar could never have won by themselves. Without NATO’s intervention, their uprising would most likely have been snuffed out by Qaddafi’s assault on Benghazi, and even if it had not, it would probably have become a low-level insurgency and dragged on for years… ‘I can’t say we dislike or like NATO,’ said one tha’ir on the eastern front, but ‘without them we would have been finished.’”

Although he is slightly cagey on the subject, the author also has to admit that there was direct military assistance on the ground – something that was strenuously denied at the time.

“It is now clear from official statements, news reporting, and other published sources that special forces from Britain, France, Italy, Qatar, and the UAE were on the ground at various locations across the country from the start of the conflict, and they became more and more engaged as the situation evolved. These forces were never more than a few hundred, of which Europeans figured only a small portion, but they were enough to make a significant difference on the course of the war.”

The role of these “few hundred” special forces was not limited to friendly advice. “Special forces were training thuwwar, providing advice at the tactical and strategic level to thuwwar commanders, deconflicting NATO air strikes with thuwwar movements, providing intelligence to them, and ultimately fighting alongside them as they took Tripoli and tracked down Qaddafi afterward.”

Chivvis denies that the rebels were “calling in air strikes”, but states that they “eventually learned where to go and not to go and would wait as NATO hit targets to clear a path for them to advance”. Further, “as the war progressed, special forces teams on the ground were doing this for the rebels, with greater and greater frequency, in a rough approximation of the ‘Afghan Model’”. The situation was summed up quite neatly by a rebel commander in June 2011: “we don’t move unless we have very clear instructions from NATO.”

The above sounds a lot more like a ‘war of regime change’ than a ‘no-fly zone’. NATO’s actions were so outrageous as to draw a complaint from Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa (in spite of the fact that the Arab League had been cheerleading for the NFZ): “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians.”

In March, at the beginning of the invasion, the chief of the UK defence staff, General David Richards, told the BBC that targeting the Libyan leader was “not allowed under the UN resolution”. And yet Chivvis describes in some detail the crucial involvement of NATO forces in the capture and murder of a sovereign nation’s head of state: “On October 20, after several days of gradual rebel advances on Sirte, NATO planes spotted a convoy leaving the city. Before it was even two miles outside, a Predator that had been circling overhead fired a Hellfire missile that destroyed the leading vehicle. Two French Mirages then also attacked, scattering the convoy, and Thuwwar gave chase on the ground. Qaddafi leapt from one of the cars into a nearby drainpipe, where he attempted to hide. Nearby rebel fighters, however, converged on the spot and quickly pulled him out, beat him, and shot him in the head.”

There are some curious omissions in ‘Toppling Qaddafi’. Chivvis barely mentions, for example, the ferocious NATO onslaught on Sirte – perhaps because bombing a city “into the Dark Ages” is not entirely consistent with his overall narrative. Nor does he see the need to discuss the “compendious evidence of mass abduction and detention, beating and routine torture, killings and atrocities by the rebel militias Britain, France and the US have backed”. While it was apparently essential to protect anti-Gaddafi protestors in Benghazi, the victims of mass execution in Sirte are not worthy of so much as a passing mention in Chivvis’ book.

Another key element of the war ignored by Chivvis is the racist violence meted out by NATO’s ‘rebel’ mercenaries. Reports of widespread lynching and torture of black Libyans and sub-Saharan migrant workers by rebel forces were appearing as early as February 2011 – before the NFZ was even being discussed. Seumas Milne wrote a few months later that “African migrants and black Libyans [were] subject to a relentless racist campaign of mass detention, lynchings and atrocities”. NATO-backed forces were found to be caging black Africans like animals in a zoo; there were reports of black Libyans being forced to climb up a pole shouting ‘monkey need banana’. And yet the widespread ethnic cleansing, torture and murder of black Libyans and sub-Saharan migrant workers by rebel forces doesn’t make it onto Chivvis’ balance sheet when assessing the overall success of NATO’s war on Libya.

Give peace a chance?

Chivvis claims that the NATO bombing was necessary in order to avert a humanitarian crisis, but he almost completely fails to mention all the other options available for restoring stability and peace in Libya. The Gaddafi government offered a ceasefire immediately after the passing of Resolution 1973, including a full amnesty for rebels who had taken up arms. In late April, Gaddafi again offered a full ceasefire, stating: “We were the first to welcome a ceasefire and we were the first to accept a ceasefire… but the Crusader Nato attack has not stopped. The door to peace is open.”

Well before the NFZ declaration, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez offered to broker a ceasefire between the rebels and the government. The rebels – clearly confident that the west would come and wage war on their behalf – simply responded that they would “never negotiate with Gaddafi”. Tellingly, the Guardian noted that “reports that Chavez’s proposal was being taken seriously by Arab leaders has pushed down oil prices.” The implication of which is: the oil companies wanted war on Libya.

South African president Jacob Zuma led African Union efforts to design a comprehensive ceasefire, which was agreed to by Libya. However, this was rejected out of hand by both Washington puppet-masters and Benghazi puppets on the basis that a ceasefire would only be considered if Gaddafi agreed to leave the country. In fact, between March and September 2011 – including in June and July when government positions were looking extremely strong – Gaddafi consistently called for a ceasefire and his calls were consistently ignored. The attitude of NATO and the rebels was: “accept defeat and we’ll stop bombing you” – hardly a serious approach to the project of saving lives and restoring peace.

Another conundrum is that “Qaddafi’s air force and long-range surface-to-air systems were flattened in a matter of a few short days”. That is to say, the mandate of the NFZ was complete in less than a week. So why didn’t the bombardment end? Chivvis does not address this question.

Disaster for Libya and the entire region

“In the years ahead, Libya could become a peaceful democracy or it could face protracted civil war, or it could descend into chaos. The stakes are high.” (Hillary Clinton)

So was it all worth it? In the eyes of Christopher Chivvis, yes. The toppling of the Gaddafi government was “ultimately just an opening toward a richer and more meaningful kind of freedom that might allow Libya’s new citizens to go about their lives with less fear and greater dignity.” He continues: “The results are far from perfect and postwar stabilisation has faltered, but ultimately the choice to intervene was the right one.”

Chivvis struggles to qualify the assertion of success, given the “faltering postwar stabilisation” – a pretty transparent euphemism for “complete and utter mess”. Seumas Milne notes that “three years after Nato declared victory, Libya is lurching once again towards civil war.” Patrick Cockburn concurs: “Libya is tipping toward all-out civil war as rival militias take sides for and against an attempted coup led by a renegade general that has pushed the central government towards disintegration”.

Furthermore, “Libya’s turmoil is acquiring continental significance”. One of Gaddafi’s major priorities was to promote regional stability and coordination. The post-Gaddafi power vacuum has created space for militias of every shape and size to create havoc across the region, from Mali to Chad to Syria to Nigeria.

However, ‘success’ depends on how you measure it. The key to Chivvis’ thinking can be found in the following passage:

“In general, Libya should remain a positive, if smaller-scale, antidote to the sense of helplessness and cynicism about American power setting in after the deeply trying experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, and this is a good thing.”

This is a brutally honest statement about the role of the Libya war in the geostrategic context of the Project for a New American Century – the US’ desperate attempt to maintain its hegemony and prevent the emergence of a multipolar world order. According to Chivvis’ logic, the deeply unpopular, expensive and catastrophic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were damaging to US hegemony, but the Libya war furnishes new proof of the US’ role as the world’s policeman. The US maintains its “responsibility to take the actions that we can take, however imperfect, to uphold the values in which our model is grounded.”

NATO’s war on Libya was therefore a key part of an ongoing strategy to “divide and ruin” – violating national sovereignty, creating civil wars, and removing states that refuse to go along with its diktat, all serving to create an unstable global political environment that only the western powers (led by the US) have the military weight to control. The wars in Libya and Syria; the NATO- and EU-sponsored boiling pot in Ukraine; the ‘revolt of the rich’ in Venezuela; the CIA-funded social media campaigns in Cuba; Obama’s “Pacific Pivot”: these are all part of a wide-ranging strategy to maintain western imperialist hegemony. It is the duty of all progressive humanity to recognise and oppose such a strategy.

Towards a common ideology in the struggle against imperialism

This is an expanded version of a speech given by Carlos Martinez at the event ‘STRIKE THE EMPIRE BACK: legacies and examples of liberation from neo-colonialism and white supremacy’


As far as most people are concerned, ‘ideology’ is a term of abuse, an insult you fling around: we accuse people of being “too ideological”, of being bookworms, of dividing people with “isms and schisms”, of “thinking too much” (I have to say I’ve never in my life met anyone who actually thinks too much, but I’ve met plenty of people who don’t think enough!).

The Cult of Activism

There is this view that ideology divides us, that it gets in the way of working together, that it’s not really relevant, and that we need to focus purely on ‘action’, on practical activity, on campaigning. We don’t have need to inform our activism with analysis and understanding, we need to do like Nike: just do it. Pickets are good, placards are good, campaigns are good, petitions are good, demonstrations are good, fundraising is good, concerts are good; debate, books, history, study, analysis: not so much. Inasmuch as we need to occasionally need to spread ideas, we do it in cute 140-character slogans on Twitter, or Lord of the Rings memes on Instagram.

In part, this is a reaction to what’s called “ivory tower syndrome” – academics and intellectuals, sitting up in their ivory towers, writing beautiful words but having neither the intention nor the ability to put theory into practice. And even the beautiful ideas the generate are very flawed because they’re so divorced from reality and from the masses.

That is a genuine problem. However, as the saying goes, you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If I bite into an over-ripe strawberry and it tastes rotten, I don’t conclude from that experience that I’ll never eat a strawberry again. If there are ivory tower ideologues who are over-ripe and rotten, let’s ignore them and develop the ideology we need, the ideology that serves us.

The state of the movement

As it stands, we as a movement (inasmuch as there is a ‘movement’ – here I am using it as a general label for the various individuals and groups who oppose the status quo and who want to build an alternative) are quite active. There’s quite of lot of activism around, and yet, if we’re honest, we’re getting nowhere.

We’re no more united than we ever were – in fact we’re less united. We’re no more effective than we ever were – in fact we’re less effective. We have meetings, demonstrations, campaigns, pickets and so on, but almost never win anything, and we don’t really play to win; we’re just out there flying the flag.

And yet oppressed and working class people are under attack. In the course of the last three decades, the ruling class have managed to smash the majority of the unions and the community organisations. They’ve privatised everything. They’ve gone to war, killing our brothers and sisters in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya in the hundreds of thousands. Benefits are cut, jobs disappear, wages are reduced, zero-hour contracts are introduced, bedroom taxes are introduced, banks are bailed out, student fees keep on rising, people are thrown in prison for protesting. Racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia are still prevalent with the dominant culture.

Meanwhile our political representation gets worse and worse, as the whole mainstream spectrum shifts to the right – as evidenced by UKIP’s success at the European election, and by the increasingly blurred lines between Tory and Labour politics.

As for the ruling class, the elite, the government, the police, the corporations, the 1% – they know what situation we’re in and therefore they know they can get away with pretty much anything they want. They know we are not in a position to fight the fight. That’s one of the main reasons we have whatever democratic rights we do have; that’s one of the main reasons they let us have the vote; that’s one of the main reasons they allow some level of freedom of speech: because they know full well we won’t use it to achieve anything meaningful.

Our ‘activism’ hasn’t prevented any of this. In some situations it’s even made it worse. To give a (thankfully) extreme example: when NATO was gearing up for its regime change operation against Libya, a sovereign African state, quite a few well-known activists thought the best thing to do would be to occupy Saif Gaddafi’s house in London, thereby totally playing into the mainstream agenda of demonising a state that the west was about to bomb into the stone age. What a situation, where you have courageous, passionate, righteous people – activists, people who are supposed to be on our side – and the media is able to play them like puppets!

Ideology is nothing to be scared of

If we don’t want to be played like puppets, we need ideology, we need understanding. It’s nothing to be afraid of. An ideology is simply a system of ideas – a set of beliefs, goals and strategies in relation to society. I think this scary word, ideology, can be summed up by three simple questions:

  • What is the current situation of society?

  • What changes do we want to achieve?

  • How do we go about creating those changes?

If you look around the world, and you look into history, you see that every movement that ever achieved anything meaningful is or was built on some kind of ideology. For example:

  • Malcolm X had an ideology, which one could argue was a mix of black nationalism, anti-imperialism, global south unity, socialism and pan-africanism, with Islam providing a moral-spiritual basis.

  • The Black Panthers had an ideology, based in Marxism, Maoism, black nationalism.

  • Closer to home, Sinn Fein and the IRA – who fought the British state to a stalemate (I wish we could do that!) – have an ideology, grounded in Irish nationalism, anti-imperialism and socialism.

  • The leaders of the Iranian revolution had and have an ideology, based in radical Islam, anti-imperialism, anti-zionism and orientation towards the poor. You can say something similar about Hezbollah, the only fighting force in the world to have defeated the Israeli army in battle (#JustSayin).

  • The liberation struggles in Vietnam, South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Ghana, Kenya, Guinea Bissau, Zimbabwe, Palestine, Namibia, Algeria, Korea; the revolutions in Cuba, China, Russia, Grenada, Nicaragua: they all had/have an ideology, a system of ideas/beliefs/goals/strategies that people unite around.

These ideologies have plenty in common, particularly in terms of opposition to imperialism, opposition to colonialism, opposition to racism, and a general orientation in favour of the poor and marginalised. However, none of them are identical, and each reflects to some degree the history, traditions, culture and conditions of the people involved.

The President of the Cuban Parliament made an interesting self-criticism recently, when discussing the variations within the revolutionary process in Latin America:

“What characterises Latin America at the present moment is the fact that a number of countries, each in its own way, are constructing their own versions of socialism. For a long while now, one of the fundamental errors of socialist and revolutionary movements has been the belief that a socialist model exists. In reality, we should not be talking about socialism, but rather about socialisms in the plural. There is no socialism that is similar to another. As Mariátegui said, socialism is a ‘heroic creation’. If socialism is to be created, it must respond to realities, motivations, cultures, situations, contexts, all of which are objectives that are different from each other, not identical.”

There are theories that can point us in the right direction; there is history to learn from; but there’s no cookie-cutter that we can pick up to get rid of capitalism and imperialism.

What about us?

We too need an ideology. We need to work out a shared belief system, an agreed set of goals, an agreed set of strategies, that we can unite around and work together to create meaningful change. We need to answer those three questions: where are we at? Where do we need to be? How do we get there?

We will not agree on everything. There are a whole host of important issues that we have to be willing to agree to differ on. But I am convinced that there is space for a common platform.

Just look at the other side. The enemy has ideology. The elite, the rulers of society, the ultra-rich, the government, the state – they have an ideology. It’s imperialism and neoliberalism: the most brutal, the most harsh, the most ruthless form of capitalism, promoting nothing less than ‘freedom’ – total freedom for the rich to get ever richer.

Plus they’re so generous, they realise that the masses need an ideology too, so they create a ready-made ideology for us! The ideology they give us is: consumerism, individualism, diversions, divisions, racism, sexism, homophobia, selfies, twerking, porn, Call of Duty…

And we congratulate ourselves on all this freedom and democracy we’ve got! “It’s a free country”, we say. No! It’s not freedom, it’s not democracy. It’s bread and circuses. Give the masses cheap food and cheap entertainment, keep them divided, and you’ve got them under your control.

Minimum platform

What type of ideology do we need? Good question :-)

That’s the long conversation that we need to continue, in a spirit of inclusiveness, openness, comradeship, creativity and generosity. It’s going to take a while.

To me, in today’s world, perhaps the most relevant examples to look at can be found in Latin America, in particular in terms of the legacy of Hugo Chávez, may he rest in peace.

What does Chávez represent? The essence of ‘Chavismo’, I believe, is: 1) creative, non-dogmatic, up-to-date socialism; 2) consistent, militant anti-imperialism.

Socialism – there’s another scary word that isn’t really that scary. What is the socialism that is being pursued in Venezuela (and Cuba, and Nicaragua, and elsewhere)?

  • Adopting policies that favour the poor: pursuing redistributive economics and social programmes that aim to permanently raise the status and living conditions of those at the bottom of society.
  • Promoting the interests of the indigenous, the African, the worker, the woman. Protecting freedom of worship. Addressing discrimination on every dimension, in the interests of building unity and justice.
  • Attempting to break the power of the old elite, the rich, the right, who have held society in their grip for so many centuries.
  • Constructing a popular democracy, a state that is “for us, by us”.

As for Chávez’s legacy of anti-imperialism, that means consistently uniting with the widest possible forces against the main enemy. Chávez built solid, meaningful alliances with a very diverse range of states and movements, from Cuba to Brazil to China to Russia, Syria, Iran, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Belarus, Gaddafi’s Libya, Angola, DPR Korea, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, and so on.

He wasn’t a gullible liberal or a radical fashionista; he didn’t disown his allies just because the western press was demonising them. He kept his eye on the prize of ending imperialist domination for once and for all and constructing a new, multipolar world where countries can develop in peace.

He always said that one should unite with anyone who had even the slightest chance of joining the fight against imperialism. I think that idea gives as a decent clue as to how we should move forward.