Professors Zhang Weiwei and Jeffrey Sachs call for multilateralism and an end to the New Cold War

On 24 October, No Cold War hosted a dialogue between Zhang Weiwei (professor of international relations at Fudan University, former interpreter to Deng Xiaoping, and author of several books including the best-selling The China Wave: Rise of a Civilizational State) and Jeffrey Sachs (a leading expert in sustainable development, former director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, and author of several books including the influential The End of Poverty). The online event was attended by over 400 people, with registrations from 62 countries.

Chairing the event, Jenny Clegg (academic, activist, and the author of several books including China’s Global Strategy: Towards a Multipolar World) outlined the rationale for organising the dialogue. When the countries of the world should be coming together to find common solutions to common problems – the climate crisis, the pandemic, a fragile global economy – we find ourselves at the cusp of a New Cold War.

With the rise of China and the decline of the US, there’s more and more talk of the Thucydides Trap, in which the rising power is destined to come into conflict with the prevailing power. Clegg stated that a massive effort and bold vision will be needed if the world is to avoid a catastrophic confrontation. This is the reason for bringing high-level figures from the US and China together: to expand and deepen communication, and to start to forge a path towards a future of peace, multipolarity, cooperation, and global prosperity.

Zhang Weiwei calls for global cooperation in the interests of humanity

In his introductory remarks, Professor Zhang offered a broad outline of China’s vision for a multipolar world order, pointing out that China has no desire to be a hegemonic power or to impose its will on other countries. He stated that China wishes to see a democratic and peaceful system of international relations from which everybody can benefit, consistent with the ancient Chinese concept of harmony in diversity. Unfortunately US political culture seems to be stuck in the idea of the zero-sum game, and can only imagine China’s rise being at the expense of the US.

Zhang asserted that China has no interest in exporting its ideology or its values, although it is certainly happy to offer its advice and the fruits of its experience. For example, the US is desperately in need of political and economic reform. China has some expertise in reform, since the Chinese engage in continuous pragmatic reform in order to further their development and improve living standards. Meanwhile, a large number of developing countries increasingly look to China for inspiration, having tried unsuccessfully to follow a Western development model.

China firmly opposes war, both hot and cold, and it believes all disputes can and should be solved through negotiations, dialogue and compromise. It believes in multilateralism and a global approach to peace. For example, ever since China became a nuclear weapons power in 1964, it has maintained a no-first-use policy, and has pledged never to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state. The world would be a safer place if all nuclear powers would make similar commitments.

Professor Zhang responded to the popular characterisation of China as a ‘one-party dictatorship’ with a deteriorating human rights situation. He pointed to the results of multiple surveys, including those conducted by US academic institutions, that indicate an extremely high level of public satisfaction with the Chinese government. Over 90 percent of Chinese people express satisfaction with their central government, compared to around 40 percent for their US counterparts. Meanwhile, approximately 150 million Chinese tourists leave China every year, and 99.999 percent of them come back; this isn’t indicative of a disastrous human rights situation.

Zhang also pointed to the rank hypocrisy of US criticisms of China’s human rights, given that the US itself is responsible for perpetrating by far the worst human rights violation this century: the war on Iraq, in which at least 100,000 civilians died and millions became homeless. Over the course of 2020, the brutal murder of George Floyd and the violent suppression of the Black Lives Matter movement have revealed the depths of ongoing human rights abuses in the US.

Professor Zhang urged the US leadership to stop pursuing the path of war, which would be disastrous for China, for US and for the world. Instead of fighting endless wars and devoting vast resources to the military, it would be far better to direct this investment towards developing the US economy and upgrading its infrastructure. Meanwhile, to handle the challenges it faces of economic rehabilitation, tackling the pandemic and tackling climate change, the US may find that it needs China’s help. Rather than launching a Cold War, it would be better if the US sought China’s help and cooperation. The correct path for the US and China is to reject Mutually Assured Destruction and work instead towards Globally Assured Prosperity, in which the US and China work together with other countries for the common interests of humanity, for peace and development.

Jeffrey Sachs calls for a US foreign policy reset

Professor Sachs opened his contribution by stating that, with Donald Trump in the White House, it is simply not possible for the US to shift towards a rational and multilateral foreign policy. Trump’s trade war has been conducted via executive decree and doesn’t reflect any serious public debate; as such, it doesn’t reflect the will of the US people. His xenophobia, racism and stupidity have very much stood in the way of developing better relations between the US and Chinese people. This is disturbing since, in an increasingly interconnected world, people-to-people exchanges and programmes developing mutual understanding are so important.

Under the Trump government, and with the active support of much of the media, anti-China sentiment has been rising. This reflects a particular strain of American thinking – a Protestant evangelical ideology that views the US as having the providential right to dictate the affairs of the rest of the world.

Sachs observed that the rise of China has made the notion of US hegemony increasingly infeasible, and this has inspired a level of panic in US foreign policy circles. We’re at the end of the period of American domination. The US share of the global economy and technical leadership is declining. We have reached a new era, in which no one country can or should lead. This is an era in which we need cooperation; we need multilateralism. We’re not moving towards a China-led world or a US-led world, but a multilateral rule-based world. Such a system will allow us to work together to effectively fight climate change, poverty and pandemics.

Professor Sachs pointed out that the countries of the world have already agreed to certain basic approaches to the future, particularly around sustainable development. These are embodied in the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement, both agreed in 2015. The most important thing now is to follow through on these. In this regard, President Xi’s recent commitment that China will reach net zero emissions by 2060 is very important. The European Union has made a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. Sachs stated his belief that, if Joe Biden wins the presidential election, he will commit the US to net zero emissions by 2050. With these parallel commitments, we will then need extensive cooperation between China, the US and Europe so that the world can meet this challenge.

Sachs said that the idea of ‘decoupling’ – the division of the world into two hostile blocs of nations – is sheer insanity; an invitation to mutual destruction rather than solving the problems we face as a species. Instead, the US and China must figure out how to build more institutional connections, more and more cultural and intellectual exchanges; which is why he appreciates the opportunity to have this dialogue with Zhang Weiwei and to address hundreds of audience members from around the world. With these connections, and with a clearly-defined multilateral system, the world can thrive.

A consensus for multilateralism and peace

Kicking off the discussion section of the event, Zhang Weiwei commented that China is taking ecological matters extremely seriously and that it has changed many policies in the last few years in order to reduce its environmental impact. He said that green technology and sustainable development could be the ideal project to give substance to US-China cooperation.

In answer to a question of whether there were significant forces in the US that were opposed to Cold War, Jeffrey Sachs said that the situation wasn’t beyond hope; that there’s a strong contingent of academic and policy leadership that believes in multilateralism. Many people in the US have fought vociferously against aggression and wars, from Vietnam to Iraq, and will continue to hold up the UN Charter as the key means for preserving peace.

Zhang Weiwei responded that China is a staunch supporter of the UN Charter and the overall framework of international law. Indeed China has been a beneficiary of that system, and believes it can usefully contribute to it going forward. If China and the US can both move in the direction of mutual understanding and cooperation, it would be a tremendous boost for world peace and common prosperity.

In response to a question about whether Cold War could develop into Hot War, the speakers agreed that the situation called for deep institutionalised engagement between the two countries; an agreed approach to disarmament and de-escalation; and sophisticated early warning systems. Professor Zhang pointed out that the US had spent trillions of dollars fighting wars in the 21st century, whereas China has devoted its resources to developing its infrastructure and improving living standards. For the US to reduce the risk of war, it would be well advised to follow China’s example.

A question was raised about whether economic ‘decoupling’ was a serious possibility. Zhang stated that China is firmly opposed to decoupling and won’t be drawn into a system of international relations based on hostile blocs. In reality, most supply chains are too globalised and complicated to be broken up into separate blocs. In terms of technological competition, the US and China have their own strengths and areas of expertise; it would be best if they could cooperate and share. China is promoting a vision of a single global community – a shared future for mankind – and it considers this to be a far better option than decoupling and Cold War.

Sachs noted that the issue of decoupling is most relevant in the digital area: connectivity, computation, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and so on. There’s proven value to having global standards in this domain. Agreed standards and interoperability have accelerated technological progress and economies of scale. A decoupled digital world with different camps would be a costly mistake. Technological advance can do so much to improve human existence; it would be hugely damaging if it were to be subjected to a Cold War mentality.

In his closing statement, Sachs stated that the most pressing issue right now is to deal with the pandemic. China and other countries have shown that the pandemic can be suppressed. The US, Europe and Latin America need to be willing to learn from this. Sachs outlined an optimistic vision for 2021, in which the world is able to get the pandemic under control and re-focus on sustainable development and poverty alleviation. COP15 on biological diversity, COP26 on climate change, and the World Food Systems Summit are all scheduled for 2021, and each of these will offer an opportunity for the countries of the world to cooperate in a professional and systematic way.

Zhang Weiwei noted that there is currently a bipartisan consensus in the US around being “tough on China”, and the Chinese very much appreciate the fact that Jeffrey Sachs stands outside this framework. Trump and Pompeo are pushing a dangerous and stupid New Cold War. The Chinese leadership is strongly promoting an alternative vision based around peace and cooperation. Zhang urged the US not to let a Cold War mentality become embedded.

Closing the event, Jenny Clegg thanked the panelists, the audience and the organisers, and urged people to visit nocoldwar.org and sign the campaign’s statement, A New Cold War against China is against the interests of humanity.

The full proceedings can be viewed on YouTube.

Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 4: Imperialist destabilisation and military pressure

Not for a moment since 1917 have the fascist and democratic Western powers abandoned the idea of defeating the Soviet Union.1

Full-court press against the USSR

Seeing the Soviet Union experiencing economic and political difficulties, and noting the deepening split within the socialist camp, it dawned on US strategists that there was potentially a historic opportunity to push the USSR off the cliff. Having identified this opening in the late 1970s, the US ruling class pursued it relentlessly: rolling back detente, expanding sanctions, massively increasing spending on military technology, and drawing the Soviet Union deeper and deeper into war in Afghanistan. As Yuri Andropov recognised in 1982: “The more warlike factions in the West have become very active, their class-based hatred of socialism prevailing over considerations of realism and sometimes over plain common sense… They are trying to win military superiority over the USSR, over all the countries of the socialist community.”2

Inaugurated as US president in January 1981, the ultra-conservative Ronald Reagan launched a “full-court press” against the Soviet Union: “a tough US global military strategy aimed at promoting internal Russian reforms and ‘dissolution or at least shrinkage’ of the Soviet empire.”3

Arms race

The arms race that the United States in the Reagan era forced upon the Soviet Union reached its desired objective: that the Soviet Union armed itself to death. The consequent economic burden for the USSR led to serious social dislocations in the country, which meant that the leading power of the socialist camp could hardly do justice to its domestic and foreign policy responsibilities.4

The Soviet Union had long stuck to a system of ‘strategic parity’ of nuclear weapons development, sparing no effort to keep up with (but not surpass) the US. As long as it had the ability to retaliate against any US-initiated nuclear strike, it could more-or-less guarantee that such a strike wouldn’t take place (such is the brutal but compelling logic of ‘mutually assured destruction’).

At the core of Reagan’s full-court press was a strategy to bankrupt the Soviet Union by vastly increasing military expenditure, forcing the USSR to follow suit. Sam Marcy observed that “the Reagan administration went all out and spent more than $2 trillion to overwhelm the USSR. Previous agreements on nuclear treaties, which seemed to have stabilised the situation, were undermined by the Reagan administration.”5

As discussed briefly in the second article in this series6, capitalism has a built-in advantage over socialism in areas of production that don’t directly benefit people. In a capitalist economy, an arms race creates demand (for high-tech weaponry), which stimulates investment, which creates profit, which keeps the ruling (capitalist) class happy, which in turn keeps its governments stable. In a socialist economy – oriented specifically to meeting people’s needs rather than generating profit for a small minority – an increased focus on military development requires divestment of resources from other areas of production – “diverting material and human resources from the civilian to the military economy, to meet the challenge of Western military pressure”.7 Given slowing economic growth, and given existing problems with food production, housing provision and light manufacturing, the arms race caused genuine difficulties. These served to make the ruling (working) class less happy and the domestic political situation less stable.

Although western propaganda predictably portrayed the Soviet Union as a hostile, aggressive power, the Soviet government was in fact desperate to put an end to the arms race and to agree a stable detente. The USSR unilaterally committed to a no-first-strike policy, and put forward a range of disarmament proposals, including a two-thirds reduction of medium-range weapons by both the USSR and Nato.

Boris Ponomarev summed up the Soviet attitude concisely: “The arms race has been imposed on the Soviet Union entirely by the US and other Nato countries. The US has taken the initiative all along in developing and perfecting nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles ever since the advent of the atom bomb. Each time the USSR was forced to respond to the challenge to strengthen its own defences, to protect the countries of the socialist community and to keep its armed forces adequately equipped with up-to-date weaponry. But the Soviet Union has been and remains the most consistent advocate of the limitation of the arms race, a champion of disarmament under effective international control. Since the end of World War II the USSR has tabled dozens of proposals in this area… The arms race being whipped up by imperialism has already produced giant arsenals of lethal weapons of unprecedented destructive capacity and has devoured colossal resources that could otherwise have been used for the benefit of mankind.”8

Contrast this with the leading representative of the US ruling class, Ronald Reagan, arguing in March 1983 for a ramping up of US nuclear arms production and for a permanent end to detente:

In your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride — the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil… The reality is that we must find peace through strength.9

Showing off the depth of his ideologically-driven idiocy, he added: “I would rather see my little girls die now, still believing in God, than have them grow up under communism and one day die no longer believing in God.”

The escalation in rhetoric was accompanied by an escalation in economic warfare and geostrategic manoeuvring. Keeran and Kenny point out that the US aimed to “deny high technology to the Soviet Union and reduce European imports of Soviet gas and oil. By 1983, American high-tech exports to the Soviet Union were valued at only $39 million compared to $219 million in 1975. This economic warfare did not stop with denying the Soviets access to high-tech; the US also sabotaged the goods the Soviets did receive.”10

Meanwhile, realising that the Soviets were heavily dependent on oil exports to generate hard currency with which they could pay for the imports they needed from the west (particularly grain and high-tech products), the US organised for its client states in the Persian Gulf to increase oil production, thereby reducing the price of oil on the world market. Added to all this was “an increased propaganda offensive, diplomatic moves to reduce Soviet access to Western technology, the disruption of the Soviet economy by exporting faulty equipment, and an effort to bankrupt the Soviets by initiating a military build-up”.11

The defining moment of the arms race was Reagan’s announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) – ‘Star Wars’, an anti-ballistic missile system designed to prevent the possibility of nuclear missile attacks against the United States. Although not discussed in such blunt terms, its military objective was to disrupt the system of mutually assured destruction and strategic parity, allowing the US to freely engage in nuclear blackmail. An additional aim was to entice the USSR into developing a rival system, thereby further damaging the Soviet economy. In the end, Star Wars was abandoned – having had around $100 billion thrown at it. The US didn’t succeed in building a nuclear missile defence system on anywhere near the scale it had planned, but it did succeed in inspiring another round of frantic investment in military R&D in the USSR.

The cold war heats up

In the late 70s and early 80s, the global situation seemed quite favourable to the Soviet leaders, with the defeat of US imperialism in Vietnam12, the the first socialist revolution in the Caribbean (in Grenada)13, the victory of the revolutionary national liberation movements in Mozambique, Angola, Guinea Bissau and Zimbabwe, the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, along with revolutionary experiments in Ethiopia and Afghanistan. Ponomarev wrote in 1983 that “revolutionary processes are now at work in many developing countries. The national democratic revolution in Afghanistan under the leadership of the People’s Democratic Party has enabled the people of that country to topple the former reactionary anti-popular regime and to embark on the path of progressive socio-economic development. The victorious revolution in Ethiopia, the revolutionary liberation of the peoples of Angola, Mozambique and other former colonies of Portugal, the ending of the racialist regime and the gaining of independence by the people of Zimbabwe gave an inspiring impetus to the progressive forces of Africa. The victory of the popular revolution in Nicaragua, the rising tide of liberation struggles in Central America and the Caribbean have signified an expansion of the zone of freedom in the Western hemisphere. The peoples of South Yemen, the People’s Republic of the Congo and of some other countries are following the path of socialist development.”14

By this time, however, the western powers were engaged in a massive ‘rollback’ programme, supporting rebellions against progressive governments in Angola, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Cambodia and South Yemen. Vijay Prashad writes that the CIA and the Pentagon “abandoned the idea of the mere ‘containment’ of communism in favour of using military force to push back against its exertions — even when these were met with massive popular support”.15 All the states under attack had an urgent need for military and civilian aid, which the Soviet Union had little choice but to provide. In 1983 the US took advantage of the chaotic situation in Grenada’s ruling New Jewel Movement to overturn the Grenadian Revolution by means of military invasion. Meanwhile Vietnam and Cuba continued to be very reliant on Soviet generosity. The USSR was becoming over-extended. Keeran and Kenny note that “Soviet society never enjoyed the luxury of internal development free of the threat of outside aggression. The cost of defending itself and aiding its allies escalated yearly and drained resources away from socially useful domestic investments. By 1980, Soviet aid to its allies cost $44 billion a year, and arms spending consumed 25 to 30 percent of the economy.”16

Peaceful evolution

Combined with the military escalation, the US also pursued a ‘peaceful evolution’ strategy, stepping up its support for the dissident movement in the USSR and for assorted ‘pro-democracy’ (pro-capitalist) movements in Eastern/Central Europe. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty spearheaded a round of intense ideological warfare: “Both stations fomented nationalism, stirred up outrage over the Chernobyl disaster, encouraged opposition to the Soviet war in Afghanistan, provided a platform for pro-market advocates like Yeltsin, and aired unsubstantiated corruption charges against the Party leader, Yegor Ligachev, after he opposed Gorbachev.”17

Speaking in 1979, Andropov noted the pro-western orientation of, and imperialist support for, the dissident movement:

A few individuals have divorced themselves from Soviet society and engage in anti-Soviet activity, violate the law, supply the west with slanderous information, circulate false rumours, and attempt to provoke various antisocial incidents. These renegades have not and cannot have any support within the country. This is precisely why they do not dare to come out openly at a factory, on a collective farm or in an office. They would have to take to their heels from there, figuratively speaking. The existence of the so-called ‘dissidents’ has been made possible exclusively by the fact that the enemies of socialism have geared the western press, diplomatic, as well as intelligence and other special services to work in this field. It is no longer a secret to anyone that ‘dissidence’ has become a profession of its own kind, which is generously rewarded with foreign currency and other sops that differ but little, in effect, from what the imperialist special services pay to their agents.18

China expert David Shambaugh points out that ‘peaceful evolution’ figures prominently in the Chinese Communist Party’s post-mortem on European socialism. “Chinese analysts, and the CCP itself, have been obsessed with this subject and have alleged a US strategy for years – dating back to John Foster Dulles’s first use of the term in the 1950s. Peaceful evolution strategies are said to employ a variety of what today would be described as ‘soft power’ tools: shortwave radio broadcasts, the promotion of human rights and democracy, economic aid, support for nongovernmental organisations and autonomous trade unions, spreading the ideology of capitalism and freedom, supporting underground activists, infiltrating Western media publications into closed countries, academic and cultural exchanges, and so on. Peaceful evolution was said to be the ‘soft twin’ of ‘hard containment.'”19

Probably the most important element of the ‘full-court press’, however, was US support for the Mujahedin uprising in Afghanistan, which led to manifold economic and political difficulties in the Soviet Union.

Disaster in Afghanistan

Background

Making a considerable part of the Soviet Union’s southern border, Afghanistan had always been important to the USSR, and the first treaty of friendship between the two countries was signed in 1921 (indeed it was one of the first agreements signed between the Soviet Union and any country). The crucial nature of Soviet-Afghan relations is illustrated by the fact that, in his 1924 book Foundations of Leninism20 (a key text seeking to summarise Marxism-Leninism in a way that could be easily digested by the Soviet masses), Stalin discusses the ideological basis of Soviet support for Afghanistan in its struggle against British domination:

The revolutionary character of a national movement under the conditions of imperialist oppression does not necessarily presuppose the existence of proletarian elements in the movement, the existence of a revolutionary or a republican programme of the movement, the existence of a democratic basis of the movement. The struggle that the Emir of Afghanistan is waging for the independence of Afghanistan is objectively a revolutionary struggle, despite the monarchist views of the Emir and his associates, for it weakens, disintegrates and undermines imperialism.

Good relations between the two countries survived the entire period of existence of the USSR. Although there were some ups-and-downs in the relationship – largely related to whether the Afghan administration under the extended rule of King Zahir Shah (lasting from 1933 through 1973) was leaning more towards the US or the USSR at any given moment – Afghanistan was generally considered a friendly neighbour, and its leaders had a vision of independence and national modernisation that the Soviet Union supported.

From the mid-1950s onwards, Afghanistan was the beneficiary of significant aid, investment and preferential loans from the Soviet Union. Khrushchev and Nikolai Bulganin announced the first major development loan – worth $100 million – on visiting Kabul in 1955. In the ensuing decades, hospitals, schools, roads, irrigation systems, plumbing systems, factories, power stations and more were built (and sometimes operated) with Soviet assistance. Tens of thousands of Afghans were educated in Soviet universities.

The first Afghan communist organisations were set up in the mid-1960s: Eternal Flame, which was strongly aligned with China, and the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which was closer to the Soviet Union. The PDPA split soon after its formation into two rival factions – the Khalq (‘masses’) and the Parcham (‘banner’) – whose murderous feud would be one of the defining problems of Afghan politics for the ensuing two decades.21

Faced with increasingly harsh repression by the state forces headed by President Mohammad Daoud (whom the PDPA had helped to seize power in 1973), the PDPA leadership made the decision to leverage its significant support base in the army to take power, in what became known as the Saur (April) Revolution. The Presidential Palace in Kabul was stormed on 28 April 1978, Daoud and his guards were killed, and the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) was proclaimed, with veteran communists Nur Mohammad Taraki and Babrak Karmal as its president and vice-president.

The proclaimed objective of the new government was to break the centuries-old grip of feudalism and to establish Afghanistan as a progressive, modern country – a tall order for a country that faced infant mortality levels of 269 per thousand, an average life expectancy of 35, a literacy rate below 10 percent and a primary school attendance rate of 17 percent.22 Stephen Gowans points out that “half the population suffered from TB and one-quarter from malaria.”23 Women in the villages faced total subjugation, were forced to wear the chadri (veil) and were denied access to education. Forced marriage, child marriage and bride-price were pervasive in the countryside.

Therefore the essence of the PDPA’s programme was: “land to the peasants, food for the hungry, free education for all.” A PDPA militant reflected: “We knew that the mullahs in the villages would scheme against us, so we issued our decrees swiftly so that the masses could see where their real interests lay … For the first time in Afghanistan’s history women were to be given the right to education … We told them that they owned their bodies, they could marry whom they liked, they shouldn’t have to live shut up in houses like pets”.24

The PDPA government introduced laws cancelling all debt for poor peasants (thereby benefiting nearly two-thirds of the population) and initiating land reform. It made a clear commitment to gender equality, setting up public education for girls and abolishing bride-price, arranged marriage and child marriage. Michael Parenti writes that “the Taraki government proceeded to legalise labour unions, and set up a minimum wage, a progressive income tax, a literacy campaign, and programmes that gave ordinary people greater access to health care, housing, and public sanitation. Fledgling peasant cooperatives were started and price reductions on some key foods were imposed… The Taraki government moved to eradicate the cultivation of opium poppy. Until then Afghanistan had been producing more than 70 percent of the opium needed for the world’s heroin supply. The government also abolished all debts owed by farmers, and began developing a major land reform programme.”25

These changes weren’t to everybody’s taste. In the capital, Kabul, the PDPA’s initiatives won widespread support. The landlords in the countryside, however, were able to tap into a deep-rooted social conservatism in order to stoke up opposition to the government. Afghan central governments have always had limited control over the villages and tribes, and the more stable governments have enjoyed an uneasy accommodation with the countryside that consists largely of leaving it to its own devices. For a socialist government determined to break the back of feudalism, however, this wasn’t an acceptable option.

Land reform, debt cancellation and gender equality should have been popular among the masses of poor peasants, but the landowners and mullahs had better access to these people and were able to convince many of them that the PDPA’s programme was a ruthless attack on Islam by godless urban communists.

Writing just a few months after the PDPA’s capture of power, Fred Halliday described the early beginnings of the organised opposition to the DRA:

The forces of counter-revolution have, after initial hesitations, begun to reassemble. Most of the royal family itself is now either dead or complacently exiled, and is unlikely to lead a counter-revolution; but other forces that benefited from the old order are active. These include landowners, tribal chiefs, upper civil servants and mullahs, and there are reports of thousands fleeing to Pakistan where they have predictably appealed for help to Saudi Arabia and Iran… Taraki has made a point of inviting tribal delegations led by their khans to come to Kabul and meet him — in the historic traditions of Afghan rulers — and has repeatedly stressed the DRA’s respect for Islam. Nevertheless, the dangers of counter-revolutionary action, given the nature of Afghan society, the weakness of the PDPA and the ferocity of the DRA’s enemies, must be substantial… 26

He added, with remarkable prescience: “It is evident that a peasantry plagued by tribalism and religious mystification can, under certain circumstances, be temporarily mobilised to fight a new urban-based revolutionary regime. The United States, China, Iran and Pakistan could all exploit the DRA’s difficulties.”

The Soviet intervention

The US and Pakistan immediately started to assist anti-PDPA groups. As Halliday predicted, it wasn’t difficult to find Afghans willing to take up arms against the government, particularly when these (increasingly sophisticated) arms were accompanied by a steady income paid for by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The CIA and ISI (Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence) coordinated to launch “a large scale intervention into Afghanistan on the side of the ousted feudal lords, reactionary tribal chieftains, mullahs, and opium traffickers”.27

Zbigniew Brzezinski, then National Security Advisor to president Jimmy Carter, later admitted that the operation against the Afghan government started well before the arrival of the Soviet army: “According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujaheddin began during 1980, that is to say, after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. But the reality, closely guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul”.28

Faced with major outbreaks of resistance to government authority – most prominently the Herat uprising of March 1979 – the PDPA was forced to defend itself through heavy repression against the insurgents. Braithwaite estimates that “by midsummer 1979 the government controlled perhaps no more than half the country”. To make matters worse, the longstanding split within the PDPA between the Khalq (led by president Taraki and his minister of national defence, Hafizullah Amin) and the Parcham (led by vice-president Karmal) had deteriorated again after a period of tense unity. The leading Parchamites were despatched as ambassadors to various far-flung countries, and many lower-ranking ones were shot.

Throughout 1979, the Afghan government made repeated requests to the Soviet Union to intervene militarily to save the Saur Revolution from a reactionary, US-backed uprising. Fearing a final collapse of their strategy of detente with the west – not to mention the possibility of upsetting their allies in the developing countries (“all the nonaligned countries will be against us”, predicted Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko29) – the Soviet leadership was not at all keen to get involved beyond providing weaponry, advice and economic support to the PDPA.

The turning point came when violent disagreements and recriminations, no doubt fuelled in part by the increasingly worrying and unstable situation in the country as a whole, led to an intense power struggle between the most prominent Khalq leaders, Taraki and Amin. Amin gained the upper hand, removing Taraki from power and ordering his death on 14 September 1979. This turn of events caused the Soviets to re-assess. They had considered Taraki more trustworthy than Amin, and were justifiably concerned that the murderous infighting within the PDPA was jeopardising the efforts to defeat the insurgency. “Step by step, with great reluctance, strongly suspecting that it would be a mistake, the Russians slithered towards a military intervention because they could not think of a better alternative.”30

The first Russian troops crossed the border into Afghanistan on 25 December 1979. The scope of their mission was limited: help their contacts in the PDPA to overthrow Amin and establish the Parcham leader Babrak Karmal as head of state; end the feuding in the PDPA; help the Afghan Army gain the upper hand against the uprising; and come home soon. “The aim was not to take over or occupy the country. It was to secure the towns and the roads between them, and to withdraw as soon as the Afghan government and its armed forces were in a state to take over the responsibility for themselves.”31

More than a little hypocritically, the US administration led a campaign of global outrage against the Soviet intervention, claiming it was a violation of international law and an example of imperialism. Sanctions against the Soviet Union were hurriedly put in place, as was a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. More importantly, “the Soviet intervention was a golden opportunity for the CIA to transform the tribal resistance into a holy war, an Islamic jihad to expel the godless communists from Afghanistan. Over the years the United States and Saudi Arabia expended about $40 billion on the war in Afghanistan. The CIA and its allies recruited, supplied, and trained almost 100,000 radical Mujahedin from forty Muslim countries including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Algeria, and Afghanistan itself. Among those who answered the call was Saudi-born millionaire right-winger Osama bin Laden and his cohorts.”32

In spite of their public displays of horror, the evidence indicates that the US was more than happy to see the Soviet Union intervene military in Afghanistan. Brzezinski was candid on this point:

We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would… That secret operation [support for the Mujahedin from mid-1979] was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Russians into the Afghan trap and you want me to regret it? The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter, essentially: ‘We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam war.’ Indeed, for almost 10 years, Moscow had to carry on a war that was unsustainable for the regime, a conflict that bought about the demoralisation and finally the breakup of the Soviet empire.33

Vast quantities of money and weapons were channelled to the Afghan resistance via Pakistani military intelligence, who established training camps on the Afghan border, designed supply routes, and worked feverishly (albeit largely fruitlessly) to establish some unity between the seven major Islamist resistance groups.

Stalemate

For the Soviets, the intervention turned out to be much more difficult than they had imagined. Their Afghan allies were divided and often demoralised; meanwhile their enemies were armed with sophisticated weaponry, had significant support among the local population, were fuelled by a vehement hatred of the infidel communist invaders, and were able to leverage Afghanistan’s mountainous territory to their advantage. Meanwhile the Red Army was not trained for a counter-insurgency war. The last major war it had fought was World War II. The war it was trained to fight was a defensive operation against a large-scale Nato land invasion and aerial bombardment. Fighting mujahids in mountain hideouts was a long way outside the Soviet generals’ comfort zone.

Odd Arne Westad writes that “from 1981 onwards the war turned into a bloody stalemate, in which more than one million Afghans died and at least 25,000 Soviets. In spite of well-planned efforts, the Red Army simply could not control the areas that were within their operational zones — they advanced into rebel strongholds, kept them occupied for weeks or months, and then had to withdraw as the Mujahedin concentrated its forces or, more often, because its opponents attacked elsewhere.”34

While there were undoubtedly atrocities on both sides, the Soviets as a whole acted honourably, conceiving of their mission as an internationalist duty to aid a fraternal state that was being subjected to a US-sponsored war of regime change. In the areas they controlled, they built schools, wells, irrigation systems and power stations, and helped the local population to live something along the lines of a normal life. British journalist Jonathan Steele, an opponent of the Soviet intervention, writes: “What I saw in 1981, and on three other visits to several cities over the 14 years that the PDPA was in charge, convinced me that it was a much less bad option than the regime on offer from the western-supported Mujahedin.”35 Braithwaite concurs: “When I visited Afghanistan in September 2008 — a national of one of the foreign countries now fighting there — I was told by almost every Afghan I met that things were better under the Russians… The Russians, I was told, had built the elements of industry, whereas now most of the aid money simply ended up in the wrong pockets in the wrong countries. In the Russian time everyone had had work; now things were getting steadily worse. The last Communist president, Najibullah, had been one of the best of Afghanistan’s recent rulers: more popular than Daoud, the equal of Zahir Shah. Video recordings of Najibullah’s speeches were being sold round Kabul, with their warnings — which turned out to be true — that there would be civil war if he were overthrown.”36

The Red Army didn’t lose any of its major battles in Afghanistan; it won control of hundreds of towns, villages and roads, only to lose them again when its focus moved elsewhere. The US deployed increasingly sophisticated weaponry to the rebel groups at just the right rate so as to prevent the Soviet Union from either winning or withdrawing. Taking over as president in 1981, Reagan majorly stepped up US support for the Mujahedin, and from 1985 the weapons deliveries were increased by a factor of ten and came to include the famous FIM-92 Stinger infrared homing surface-to-air missiles.

Soviet withdrawal and its impact

After several rounds of negotiations and failed attempts to get assurances from Pakistan and the US that they wouldn’t continue to pursue regime change if the Red Army left, the Soviet Union began a phased withdrawal on 15 May 1988. It had not been defeated as such, but it had manifestly failed in the objective of cementing PDPA rule and suppressing the reactionary uprising. Meanwhile, it had expended vast economic, military and human resources. Thousands of young lives were lost. Soviet diplomatic clout had reached its nadir. As the Soviets had themselves predicted, the intervention in Afghanistan weakened their position among the developing nations: “The Soviet entry into Afghanistan divided the NAM states. It weakened their bloc in the UN, where eighteen countries (led by Algeria, India, and Iraq) refused to go along with the US resolution asking for the Soviet withdrawal.”37 Furthermore, the tens of thousands who came home badly injured from Afghanistan mostly found that they weren’t well cared for in terms of housing, pensions and psychological support; their fallen comrades were not, for the most part, given a status befitting their internationalist mission. This correlated with the expanding anticommunism and nihilism of the Gorbachev era.

Beyond the direct economic impact, the Afghanistan war served to further undermine Soviet self-confidence and the popular legitimacy of its government.

To the great majority of Soviets the involvement in Afghanistan had become a byword for an unloved and increasingly superfluous role that their government played in the Third World. To them, withdrawing from Kabul therefore meant the end of a failed intervention. By 1989 the common pride in the Soviet global role that had existed only a few years before was no longer there. It had been replaced not only by a lack of faith in the Soviet system, but also by a conviction that its leaders squandered their resources abroad while people at home lived in poverty… Since a substantial part of the CPSU regime’s overall legitimacy was based on its superpower role abroad, the failure in Afghanistan became a deadly challenge to the key concepts of its foreign policy: Soviet military power and the global advance of socialism.38

Some US hawks – and indeed some Mujahedin leaders – claimed that it was the failure in Afghanistan that brought about the end of the Soviet Union. Burhanuddin Rabbani, a prominent Mujahedin leader who would go on to become President of the Islamic State of Afghanistan from 1992 to 1996, proclaimed: “We forced the communists out of our country, we can force all invaders out of holy Afghanistan … Had it not been for the jihad, the whole world would still be in the communist grip. The Berlin Wall fell because of the wounds which we inflicted on the Soviet Union, and the inspiration we gave all oppressed people. We broke the Soviet Union up into fifteen parts. We liberated people from communism. Jihad led to a free world. We saved the world because communism met its grave here in Afghanistan!”39

The reality is, as ever, more complex. The Afghan war was just one of several factors in the Soviet collapse; after all, the US sustained a comprehensive and shameful defeat in Vietnam, but this didn’t come close to bringing about its collapse as a political entity. The economic decline, the leadership’s attack on Soviet ideology and history, the ongoing process of destabilisation and disinformation: these were all more important contributors to the disintegration of the USSR. But unquestionably the Afghan debacle played its part.

The next (fifth) article in the series will examine the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and the role that his policies of perestroika and glasnost played in weakening and ultimately destroying Soviet socialism.


  1. Samir Amin, Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism, Monthly Review, 2017 

  2. T&F: Report by general secretary Yuri Andropov (excerpts) 21 December 1982 (paywall) 

  3. UPI: Reagan approves tough strategy with Soviets, 1982 

  4. Workers World: Interview with Margot Honecker, 2015 

  5. Sam Marcy, Perestroika: A Marxist Critique, 1987 

  6. Why doesn’t the Soviet Union exist any more? Part 2: Economic stagnation 

  7. Stephen Gowans: Seven Myths about the USSR, 2013 

  8. Boris Ponomarev, Marxism-Leninism in Today’s World, Pergamon Press, 1983 

  9. New York Times: Reagan Denounces Ideology of Soviet as ‘Focus of Evil’, 1983 

  10. Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny, Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, International Publishers, 2004 

  11. ibid 

  12. See Fight to Win: How the Vietnamese people rose up and defeated imperialism, 2015 

  13. See The Legacy of the Grenadian Revolution Lives On, 2014 

  14. Ponomarev, op cit 

  15. Vijay Prashad, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South, Verso, 2014 

  16. Keeran and Kenny, op cit 

  17. ibid 

  18. Yuri Andropov, Speeches and Writings, Pergamon Press, 1983 

  19. David Shambaugh, China’s Communist Party – Atrophy and Adaptation, University of California Press, 2008 

  20. Stalin, Foundations of Leninism, 1924 

  21. The details of this split are beyond the scope of this article, but Fred Halliday’s article from 1978 gives a useful overview. 

  22. Figures from Halliday, op cit 

  23. Stephen Gowans: Women’s Rights in Afghanistan, 2010 

  24. Cited in Rodric Braithwaite, Afgantsy, Profile Books, 2011 

  25. Michael Parenti, Afghanistan, Another Untold Story, 2009 

  26. Fred Halliday, op cit 

  27. Parenti, op cit 

  28. Cited in David Gibbs: The Brzezinski Interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, (1998) 

  29. Cited in Vijay Prashad, op cit 

  30. Braithwaite, op cit 

  31. ibid 

  32. Parenti, op cit 

  33. Brzezinski interview, op cit 

  34. Arne Odd Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times, Cambridge University Press, 2011 

  35. The Guardian: Red Kabul revisited, 2003 

  36. Braithwaite, op cit 

  37. Vijay Prashad, op cit 

  38. Westad, op cit 

  39. Cited in Braithwaite, op cit 

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)

Huey Newton – Revolutionary Suicide

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

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

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

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

Quotes

On being a revolutionary

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

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

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

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

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

On building a movement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On education

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

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

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

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

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

On community

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

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

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

On prison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Malcolm X and black consciousness

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

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

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

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

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

On China

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

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

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

On democracy

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

Assata: An Autobiography – review and quotes

The following book review first appeared in the Morning Star on 1 September, 2014. It is followed by a selection of important quotes from the book.


Assata Shakur’s autobiography – first published in 1988 and newly republished this year by Zed Books – has lost none of its relevance. It remains an essential text for understanding both the prison-industrial complex and the state of race relations in the US, as well as providing a profound insight into the successes and failures of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Born in 1947, Assata Shakur (then JoAnne Deborah Byron) grew up between North Carolina and New York, experiencing the intense racism that prevailed – and prevails – both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. As a black, working class female, she became acutely aware of the special oppression she and others like her faced. As a college student, she came across activists – especially students from newly-liberated Africa – who challenged her anti-communist prejudices and her internalised stereotypes, and encouraged her to get involved in the struggle for black power and against capitalism and imperialism. This led to her membership of the Black Panther Party and, later, the Black Liberation Army.

The larger part of the book is devoted to documenting Assata’s experiences with the ‘justice’ system, in courts and prisons, between her arrest in 1971 and her escape eight years later. Few readers would fail to be shocked at the extent to which this human being, whose real ‘crime’ in the eyes of the state was to be a loud campaigner for justice and equality, was tortured and abused in prison – often at the hands of openly fascistic prison officers.

Her account also serves as a crucial reminder that there remain many political prisoners in the US, languishing behind bars for decades on trumped-up charges. International pressure must be maintained and intensified until Mumia Abu-Jamal, Sundiata Acoli, Leonard Peltier, Oscar López Rivera, Kenny ‘Zulu’ Whitmore, Albert Woodfox and all political prisoners are freed. Furthermore we must maintain the fight against an phenomenally unjust prison system which disproportionately targets poor and non-white people (and this is not restricted to the US – a recent study showed that black people in Britain are seven times more likely than their white counterparts to be imprisoned).

Assata’s profound and thought-provoking reflections on the decline of the Black Power movement deserve to be studied and discussed, as they could help illuminate a path for the current generation of organisers and activists. Aside from the objective factor (the FBI’s large-scale covert assault on the Panthers and others), Assata gives a great deal of attention to the subjective factor, in particular an element of adventurism, sectarianism, amateurishness, failure to consistently raise levels of political consciousness, and alienation from the masses.

Assata’s continuing relevance is not lost on the FBI, which last year added her to its list of Most Wanted Terrorists (she is the first female to enjoy this honour – good to see US imperialism doing its bit for gender equality). Thankfully, she is safely in exile in Cuba, a country she describes as “one of the largest, most resistant and most courageous palenques (maroon camps) that has ever existed on the face of this planet.”

‘Assata: An Autobiography’ is essential reading.


Quotes

On the hypocrisy of the power structure

assata-quote They call us thieves and bandits. They say we steal. But it was not we who stole millions of Black people from the continent of Africa. We were robbed of our language, of our Gods, of our culture, of our human dignity, of our labor, and of our lives. They call us thieves, yet it is not we who rip off billions of dollars every year through tax evasions, illegal price fixing, embezzlement, consumer fraud, bribes, kickbacks, and swindles. They call us bandits, yet every time most Black people pick up our paychecks we are being robbed. Every time we walk into a store in our neighborhood we are being held up. And every time we pay our rent the landlord sticks a gun into our ribs.

They call us thieves, but we did not rob and murder millions of Indians by ripping off their homeland, then call ourselves pioneers. They call us bandits, but it is not we who are robbing Africa, Asia, and Latin America of their natural resources and freedom while the people who live there are sick and starving. The rulers of this country and their flunkies have committed some of the most brutal, vicious crimes in history. They are the bandits. They are the murderers. And they should be treated as such.

On the prison-industrial complex

[The prison-industrial complex] explained why jails and prisons all over the country are filled to the brin with Black and Third World people, why so many Black people can’t find a job on the streets and are forced to survive the best way they know how. Once you’re inprison, there are plenty of jobs, and, if you don’t want to work, they beat you up and throw you in the hole. If every state had to pay workers to do the jobs prisoners are forced to do, the salaries would amount to billions… Prisons are a profitable business. They are a way of legally perpetuating slavery. In every state more and more prisons are being built and even more are on the drawing board. Who are they for? They certainly aren’t planning to put white people in them. Prisons are part of this government’s genocidal war against Black and Third World people.

On liberalism

The Upper West Side, as the neighborhood was called, was supposed to be a “liberal” stronghold. I have never really understood exactly what a “liberal” is, though, since i have heard “liberals” express every conceivable opinion on every conceivable subject. As far as i can tell, you have the extreme right, who are fascist racist capitalist dogs like Ronald Reagan, who come right out and let you know where they’re coming from. And on the opposite end, you have the left, who are supposed to be committed to justice, equality, and human rights. And somewhere between those two points is the liberal. As far as i’m concerned, “liberal” is die most meaningless word in the dictionary. History has shown me that as long as some white middle-class people can live high on the hog, take vacations to Europe, send their children to private schools, and reap the benefits of their white skin privilege, then they are “liberals.” But when times get hard and money gets tight, they pull off that liberal mask and you think you’re talking to Adolf Hitler. They feel sorry for the so-called underprivileged just as long as they can maintain their own privileges.

On overcoming anti-communist prejudice

I continued saying the first thing that came into my head [in a debate over Vietnam]: that the u.s. was fighting communists because they wanted to take over everything. When someone asked me what communism was, i opened my mouth to answer, then realized i didn’t have the faintest idea. My image of a communist came from a cartoon. It was a spy with a black trench coat and a black hat pulled down over his face, slinking around corners. In school, we were taught that communists worked in salt mines, that they weren’t free, that everybody wore the same clothes, and that no one owned anything. The Africans rolled with laughter.

I felt like a bona fide clown. One of them explained that communism was a political-economic system, but i wasn’t listening. I was just digging on myself. I had been hooping and hollering about something that i didn’t even understand. I knew i didn’t know what the hell communism was, and yet i’d been dead set against it. Just like when you’re a little kid and they get you to believe in the bogeyman. You don’t know what the hell the bogeyman is, but you hate him and you’re scared of him

I never forgot that day. We’re taught at such an early age to be against the communists, yet most of us don’t have the faintest idea what communism is. Only a fool lets somebody else tell him who his enemy is… It’s got to be one of the most basic principles of living: always decide who your enemies are for yourself, and never let your enemies choose your enemies for you.

On Marx and Lenin

Usually, after a disagreement, they [my comrades] suggested i read this or that, often Marx, Lenin, or Engels. I preferred Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung, Che, or Fidel, but i ended up having to get into Marx and Lenin just to understand a lot of the speeches and stuff Huey Newton was putting out. It wasn’t easy reading, but i was glad i did it. It opened up my horizons a hell of a lot. I didn’t relate to them as the great white fathers or like some kind of gods, like some of the white revolutionaries did. As far as i was concerned, they were two dudes who had made contributions to revolutionary struggle too great to be ignored.

On capitalism and communism

I wasn’t against communism, but i can’t say i was for it either. At first, i viewed it suspiciously, as some kind of white man’s concoction, until i read works by African revolutionaries and studied the African liberation movements. Revolutionaries in Africa understood that the question of African liberation was not just a question of race, that even if they managed to get rid of the white colonialists, if they didn’t rid themselves of the capitalistic economic structure, the white colonialists would simply be replaced by Black neocolonialists. There was not a single liberation movement in Africa that was not fighting for socialism. In fact, there was not a single liberation movement in the whole world that was fighting for capitalism. The whole thing boiled down to a simple equation: anything that has any kind of value is made, mined, grown, produced, and processed by working people. So why shouldn’t working people collectively own that wealth? Why shouldn’t working people own and control their own resources? Capitalism meant that rich businessmen owned the wealth, while socialism meant that the people who made the wealth owned it.

I got into heated arguments with sisters or brothers who claimed that the oppression of Black people was only a question of race. I argued that there were Black oppressors as well as white ones. That’s why you’ve got Blacks who support Nixon or Reagan or other conservatives. Black folks with money have always tended to support candidates who they believed would protect their financial interests. As far as i was concerned, it didn’t take too much brains to figure out that Black people are oppressed because of class as well as race, because we are poor and because we are Black. It would burn me up every time somebody talked about Black people climbing the ladder of success. Anytime you’re talking about a ladder, you’re talking about a top and a bottom, an upper class and a lower class, a rich class and a poor class. As long as you’ve got a system with a top and a bottom, Black people are always going to wind up at the bottom, because we’re the easiest to discriminate against. That’s why i couldn’t see fighting within the system. Both the democratic party and the republican party are controlled by millionaires. They are interested in holding on to their power, while i was interested in taking it away. They were interested in supporting fascist dictatorships in South and Central America, while i wanted to see them overthrown. They were interested in supporting racist, fascist regimes in Africa while i was interested in seeing them overthrown. They were interested in defeating the Viet Cong and i was interested in seeing them win their liberation. A poster of the massacre at My Lai, picturing women and children lying clumped together in a heap, their bodies riddled with bullets, hung on my wall as a daily reminder of the brutality in the world.

On left arrogance

allpower I had begun to think of myself as a socialist, but i could not in any way see myself joining any of the socialist groups i came in contact with. I loved to listen to them, learn from them, and argue with them, but there was no way in the world i could see myself becoming a member. For one thing, i could not stand the condescending, paternalistic attitudes of some of the white people in those groups. Some of the older members thought that because they had been in the struggle for socialism for a long time, they knew all the answers to the problems of Black people and all the aspects of the Black Liberation struggle. I couldn’t relate to the idea of the great white father on earth any more than i could relate to the great white father up in the sky. I was willing and ready to learn everything i could from them, but i damn sure was not ready to accept them as leaders of the Black Liberation struggle. A few thought that they had a monopoly on Marx and acted like the only experts in the world on socialism came from Europe. In many instances they downgraded the theoretical and practical contributions of Third World revolutionaries like Fidel Castro, Ho Chi Minh, Augustino Neto, and other leaders of liberation movements in the Third World.

Another thing that went against my grain was the arrogance and dogmatism i encountered in some of these groups.

A member of one group told me that if i was really concerned about the liberation of Black people i should quit school and get a job in a factory, that if i wanted to get rid of the system i would have to work at a factory and organize the workers. “When i asked him why he wasn’t working in a factory and organizing the workers, he told me that he was staying in school in order to organize the students. I told him i was working to organize the students too and that i felt perfectly certain that the workers could organize themselves without any college students doing it for them. Some of these groups would come up with abstract, intellectual theories, totally devoid of practical application, and swear they had the answers to the problems of the world. They attacked the Vietnamese for participating in the Paris peace talks, claiming that by negotiating the Viet Cong were selling out to the u.s. I think they got insulted when i asked them how a group of flabby white boys who couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag had the nerve to think they could tell the Vietnamese people how to run their show.

Arrogance was one of the key factors that kept the white left so factionalized. I felt that instead of fighting together against a common enemy, they wasted time quarreling with each other about who had the right line.

On white supremacy

Most of our fights [as kids] started over petty disputes like stepped-on shoes, flying spitballs, and the contested ownership of pens and pencils. But behind our fights, self-hatred was clearly visible… We would call each other “jungle bunnies” and “bush boogies.” We would talk about each other’s ugly, big lips and flat noses. We would call each other pickaninnies and nappy-haired soand-so’s…

Black made any insult worse. When you called somebody a “bastard,” that was bad. But when you called somebody a “Black bastard,” now that was terrible. In fact, when i was growing up, being called “Black,” period, was grounds for fighting.

“Who you callin’ Black?” we would say. We had never heard the words “Black is beautiful” and the idea had never occurred to most of us…

We had been completely brainwashed and we didn’t even know it. We accepted white value systems and white standards of beauty and, at times, we accepted the white man’s view of ourselves. We had never been exposed to any other point of view or any other standard of beauty. From when i was a tot, i can remember Black people saying, “Niggas ain’t shit.” “You know how lazy niggas are.” “Give a nigga an inch and he’ll take a mile.” Everybody knew what “niggas” like to do after they eat: sleep. Everybody knew that “niggas” couldn’t be on time; that’s why there was c.p.t. (colored people’s time). “Niggas don’t take care of nothin’.” “Niggas don’t stick together.” The list could go on and on. To varying degrees we accepted these statements as true. And, to varying degrees, we each made them true within ourselves because we believed them.

On black consciousness

In a country that is trying to completely negate the image of Black people, that constantly tells us we are nothing, our culture is nothing, i felt and still feel that we have got to constantly make positive statements about ourselves. Our desire to be free has got to manifest itself in everything we are and do. We have accepted too much of a negative lifestyle and a negative culture and have to consciously act to rid ourselves of that negative influence. Maybe in another time, when everybody is equal and free, it won’t matter how anybody wears their hair or dresses or looks. Then there won’t be any oppressors to mimic or avoid mimicking. But right now i think it’s important for us to look and feel like strong, proud Black men and women who are looking toward Africa for guidance.

On Abraham Lincoln

Little did i know that Lincoln was an archracist who had openly expressed his disdain for Black people. He was of the opinion that Black people should be forcibly deported to Africa or anywhere else. We had been taught that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves, and it was not until i was in college that i learned that the Civil War was fought for economic reasons. The fact that “official” slavery was abolished was only incidental. Northern industrialists were fighting to control the economy. Before the Civil War, the northern industrial economy was largely dependent on southern cotton. The slave economy of the South was a threat to northern capitalism. What if the slaveholders of the South decided to set up factories and process the cotton themselves? Northern capitalists could not possibly compete with slave labor, and their capitalist economy would be destroyed. To ensure that this didn’t happen, the North went to war.

On negative gender relations in the black community

Back then, when i was growing up, boys gang-banging or gang-raping a girl was a pretty common thing… If a girl was caught on the wrong side of a park or in the wrong territory or on the wrong street, she was a target. It was a common thing back then for boys to downgrade girls and cuss at them in the street. It was common for them to go to bed with girls and talk about them like dogs the next day. It was common for boys to deny they were the fathers of their babies. And it was common for boys to beat girls up and knock them around. And then the girls would get hard too.

“If the nigga ain’t got no money, I don’t want to be bothered.”

“If the nigga ain’t got no car, then later for him.”

The more i watched how boys and girls behaved, the more i read and the more i thought about it, the more convinced i became that this behavior could be traced directly back to the plantation, when slaves were encouraged to take the misery of their lives out on each other instead of on the master. The slavemasters taught us we were ugly, less than human, unintelligent, and many of us believed it. Black people became breeding animals: studs and mares. A Black woman was fair game for anyone at any time: the master or a visiting guest or any redneck who desired her. The slavemaster would order her to have six with this stud, seven with that stud, for the purpose of increasing his stock. She was considered less than a woman. She was a cross between a whore and a workhorse. Black men internalized the white man’s opinion of Black women. And, if you ask me, a lot of us still act like we’re back on the plantation with massa pulling the strings.

On partying and hedonism

This party is a lost cause. I get my beach towel and my book and ease on down the beach a little piece. Looking out at the ocean, i wonder how many of our people lie buried there, slaves of another era. I’m not quite sure what freedom is, but i know damn well what it ain’t. How have we gotten so silly, i wonder. I get back off into James Baldwin… Me and James Baldwin are communicating. His fiction is more real than this reality.

On political evolution

images No movement can survive unless it is constantly growing and changing with the times. If it isn’t growing, it’s stagnant, and without the support of the people, no movement for liberation can exist, no matter how correct its analysis of the situation is. That’s why political work and organizing are so important. Unless you are addressing the issues people are concerned about and contributing positive direction, they’ll never support you. The first thing the enemy tries to do is isolate revolutionaries from the masses of people, making us horrible and hideous monsters so that our people will hate us.

On unity

Some of the laws of revolution are so simple they seem impossible. People think that in order for something to work, it has to be complicated, but a lot of times the opposite is true. We usually reach success by putting the simple truths that we know into practice. The basis of any struggle is people coming together to fight against a common enemy… One of the most important things the Party did was to make it really clear who the enemy was: not the white people, but the capitalistic, imperialistic oppressors. They took the Black liberation struggle out of a national context and put it in an international context. The Party supported revolutionary struggles and governments all over the world and insisted the u.s. get out of Africa, out of Asia, out of Latin America, and out of the ghetto too.

On problems in the black liberation movement

panther One of the basic laws of people’s struggle was to retreat when the enemy is strong and to attack when the enemy is weak. As far as I was concerned, defending the office was suicidal. The pigs had manpower, initiative, surprise, and gunpowder. We would just be sitting ducks. I felt that the Party was dealing from an emotional rather than a rational basis. Just because you believe in self-defense doesn’t mean you let yourself be sucked into defending yourself on the enemy’s terms. One of the Party’s major weaknesses, i thought, was the failure to clearly differentiate between aboveground political struggle and underground, clandestine military struggle.

An aboveground political organization can’t wage guerrilla war anymore than an underground army can do aboveground political work. Although the two must work together, they must have completely separate structures, and any links between the two must remain secret. Educating the people about the necessity for self-defense and for armed struggle was one thing. But maintaining a policy of defending Party offices against insurmountable odds was another. Of course, if the police just came in and started shooting, defending yourself made sense. But the point is to try and prevent that from happening…

On the whole, we were weak, inexperienced, disorganized, and seriously lacking in training. But the biggest problem was one of political development. There were sisters and brothers who had been so victimized by amerika that they were willing to fight to the death against their oppressors. They were intelligent, courageous and dedicated, willing to make any sacrifice. But we were to find out quickly that courage and dedication were not enough. To win any struggle for liberation, you have to have the way as well as the will, an overall ideology and strategy that stem from a scientific analysis of history and present conditions.

Some of the groups thought they could just pick up arms and struggle and that, somehow, people would see what they were doing and begin to struggle themselves. They wanted to engage in a do-or-die battle with the power structure in amerika, even though they were weak and ill prepared for such a fight. But the most important factor is that armed struggle, by itself, can never bring about a revolution. Revolutionary war is a people’s war. And no people’s war can be won without the support of the masses of people. Armed struggle can never be successful by itself; it must be part of an overall strategy for winning, and the strategy must be political as well as military…

Revolutionary war is protracted warfare. It is impossible for us to win quickly. To win we have got to wear down our oppressors, little by little, and, at the same time, strengthen our forces, slowly but surely. I understood some of my more impatient sisters and brothers. I knew that it was tempting to substitute military for political struggle, especially since all of our aboveground organizations were under vicious attack by the FBI, the CIA, and the local police agencies. All of us who saw our leaders murdered, our people shot down in cold blood, felt a need, a desire to fight back. One of the hardest lessons we had to learn is that revolutionary struggle is scientific rather than emotional. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t feel anything, but decisions can’t be based on love or on anger. They have to be based on the objective conditions and on what is the rational, unemotional thing to do.

On COINTELPRO

Nobody back then had ever heard of the counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) set up by the FBI. Nobody could possibly have known that the FBI had sent a phony letter to Eldridge Cleaver in Algiers, “signed” by the Panther 21, criticizing Huey Newton’s leadership. No one could have known that the FBI had sent a letter to Huey’s brother saying the New York Panthers were plotting to kill him. No one could have known that the FBI’s COINTELPRO was attempting to destroy the Black Panther Party in particular and the Black Liberation Movement in general, using divide-and-conquer tactics. The FBI’s COINTEL program consisted of turning members of organizations against each other, pitting one Black organization against another. Huey ended up suspending Cet and Dhoruba from the Party, branded them as “enemies of the people,” and caused them to go into hiding, in fear for their very lives. No one had the slightest idea that this whole scenario was carefully manipulated and orchestrated by the FBI.

On anti-religious arrogance

After the resurgence of the Puerto Rican independence movement, Lolita Lebrón was visited by all kinds of people. Some were pseudorevolutionary robots who attacked her for her religious beliefs, telling her that to be a revolutionary she had to give up her belief in God. It apparently had never occurred to those fools that Lolita was more revolutionary than they could ever be, and that her religion had helped her to remain strong and committed all those years. I was infuriated by their crass, misguided arrogance.

On exposing oppression

Every day out in the street now, i remind myself that Black people in amerika are oppressed. It’s necessary that I do that. People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.

On nationalism and internationalism

It was also clear to me that without a truly internationalist component nationalism was reactionary. There was nothing revolutionary about nationalism by itself — Hitler and Mussolini were nationalists. Any community seriously concerned with its own freedom has to be concerned about other peoples’ freedom as well. The victory of oppressed people anywhere in the world is a victory for Black people. Each time one of imperialism’s tentacles is cut off we are closer to liberation. The struggle in South Africa is the most important battle of the century for Black people. The defeat of apartheid in South Africa will bring Africans all over the planet closer to liberation. Imperialism is an international system of exploitation, and, we, as revolutionaries, need to be internationalists to defeat it.

On life in Cuba

SHAKUR No 2 5.11.13 My neighbors ask me what the u.s. is like, and they accuse me of lying when i tell them about the hunger and cold and people sleeping in the streets. They refuse to believe me. How can that be in such a rich country? I tell them about drug addicts and child prostitutes, about crime in the streets. They accuse me of exaggerating: “We know capitalism is not a good system, but you don’t have to exaggerate. Are there really twelve-year-old drug addicts?” Even though they know about racism and the ku klux klan, about unemployment, such things are unreal to them. Cuba is a country of hope. Their reality is so different. I’m amazed at how much Cubans have accomplished in so short a time since the Revolution. There are new buildings everywhere — schools, apartment houses, clinics, hospitals, and day care centers. They are not like the skyscrapers going up in midtown Manhattan. There are no exclusive condominiums or luxury office buildings. The new buildings are for the people.

Medical care, dental care, and hospital visits are free. Schools at all educational levels are free. Rent is no more than about ten percent of salaries. There are no taxes — no income, city, federal, or state taxes. It is so strange to pay the price actually listed on products without any tax added. Movies, plays, concerts, and sports events all cost one or two pesos at the most. Museums are free.

On Saturdays and Sundays the streets are packed with people dressed up and ready to hang out. I was amazed to discover that such a small island has such a rich cultural life and is so lively, particularly when the u.s. press gives just the opposite picture…

I spent my first weeks in Havana walking and watching. Nowhere did I find a segregated neighborhood, but several people told me that where i was living had been all white before the Revolution. Just from casual observation it was obvious that race relations in Cuba were different from what they were in the u.s. Blacks and whites could be seen together everywhere — in cars, walking down streets. Kids of all races played together. It was definitely different. Whenever i met someone who spoke English i asked their opinion about the race situation.

“Racism is illegal in Cuba,” i was told. Many shook their heads and said, “Aqui no hay racismo.” “There is no racism here.” Although i heard the same response from everyone i remained skeptical and suspicious. I couldn’t believe it was possible to eliminate hundreds of years of racism just like that, in twenty-five years or so. To me, revolutions were not magical, and no magic wand could be waved to create changes overnight. I’d come to see revolution as a process. I eventually became convinced that the Cuban government was completely committed to eliminating all forms of racism. There were no racist institutions, structures, or organizations, and i understood how the Cuban economic system undermined rather than fed racism.

On tacit support for death and destruction

Too many people in the u.s. support death and destruction without being aware of it. They indirectly support the killing of people without ever having to look at the corpses. But in Cuba i could see the results of u.s. foreign policy: torture victims on crutches who came from other countries to Cuba for treatment, including Namibian children who had survived massacres, and evidence of the vicious aggression the u.s. government had committed against Cuba, including sabotage, and numerous assassination attempts against Fidel. I wondered how all those people in the states who tried to sound tough, saying that the u.s. should go in here, bomb there, take over this, attack that, would feel if they knew that they were indirectly responsible for babies being burned to death. I wondered how they would feel if they were forced to take moral responsibility for that. It sometimes seems that people in the states are so accustomed to watching death on “Eyewitness News,” watching people starve to death in Africa, being tortured to death in Latin America or shot down on Asian streets, that, somehow, for them, people across the ocean — people “up there” or “down there” or “over there” — are not real.

On the future

How much we had all gone through. Our fight had started on a slave ship years before we were born. Venceremos, my favorite word in Spanish, crossed my mind. Ten million people had stood up to the monster. Ten million people only ninety miles away. We were here together in their land, my small little family, holding each other after so long. There was no doubt about it, our people would one day be free. The cowboys and bandits didn’t own the world.

Interview: Understanding and Defending North Korea

What follows is an extensive interview with Yongho Thae, Minister of the Embassy of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in London, conducted by Carlos Martinez. The interview took place at the DPRK embassy in London in October 2013. Topics covered include the DPRK’s nuclear programme, the nature of the DPRK’s political system, the DPRK’s place in a changing global political landscape, tourism, Syria, and Latin America. Given that the DPRK is considered by the imperialist states as ‘enemy number one’, it is essential for anti-imperialists to make an effort to understand and defend it.


The western media narrative claims that DPR Korea’s nuclear programme is a major threat to world peace. Why does the DPRK have nuclear weapons?

When the western press comments on the nuclear programme of the DPRK, it never talks about the core reasons behind that programme; it is only interested in justifying US bullying; it wants people to be blind to the underlying logic of our position. Our policy is simple and easy to understand: we need a nuclear deterrent.

Before I go into this issue, I’d like to clarify that it is still the DPRK’s policy to denuclearise the Korean peninsula. It has always been our policy to get our country out of the threat of nuclear war. In order to reach that aim, there was no choice but to develop our own nuclear capacity.

After the Second World War, the US was the only country in the world that had nuclear weapons. In order to further their strategy of global domination, they decided to use an atomic bomb against Japan. The facts show that there was no need for the US to use such a weapon in that situation. In Europe, in May 1945, Hitler was defeated and the war ended. In the Pacific, the tide had turned totally against Japanese imperialism. It was obvious that the Soviet army would take part in the war against Japan, and Japan was losing the war with the US. It was just a matter of time before the Japanese war effort collapsed. Japan could not win against the combined forces of the Soviet Union, Europe, China and the US, so they were looking for a way out. There was absolutely no need for the US to use nuclear weapons. Inside the US establishment, there were fierce arguments as to whether these weapons should be used. The people of the world didn’t understand about the destructive power of nuclear weapons – only US leaders knew. They wanted the world to find out about how mighty these weapons were, so that the world would be forced to go along with US policy. In order to achieve this aim, they didn’t take into account how many lives would be lost. To them, the lives of ordinary Japanese people are like the lives of dogs, of animals. They would kill as many as possible in support of their geopolitical aims.

So the US dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Later on the USSR developed nuclear weapons too. As time went on, the Soviet nuclear arsenal played the role of counterbalancing the possibility of US nuclear weapon usage. That is the main reason that the US couldn’t use these weapons in the second half of the 20th century. Later on the nuclear weapons club was expanded to include China, Britain and France. In terms of world peace as a whole, the enlargement of the nuclear club would intuitively be seen as a bad thing, but the reality was that the possession of nuclear weapons by China and the Soviet Union was able to check the use of nuclear weapons by anyone for any purposes. I think this is a fact we should admit.

As far as Korea is concerned, you know that Korea is just next door to Japan. Many Japanese lived in Korea, because Korea was a colony of Japan. Our media system at the time was run by Japanese. So when Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred, we heard about it and we understood very well the scale of this disaster. The Korean people understood very well how many people were killed in the space of just a minute. So the Korean people have a very direct experience of nuclear warfare from the beginning.

The Korean War started in 1950. The Americans thought they could easily win this war, because they had all the advanced conventional weapons and they mobilised 16 satellite countries. At this time China was only just liberated – the People’s Republic of China was just one year old. Meanwhile the Soviet Union was still recovering from the vast destruction of the Second World War. So, the US thought it could easily win the Korean War. However, they found out that their arrogance was misplaced. In fact, the Korean War was the first war that checked US ambitions.

The Korean People’s Army and the Chinese volunteers fought with incredible strength against the US. From the US point of view, this was a war against communism. But the communists had the full support of the people of these countries. Korea and China were rural countries, where the people were motivated by the idea of getting their own land. It is the Communist Party – the Workers’ Party of Korea – that distributed land equally to all farmers. So the WPK had the full support of the people, and the masses of the people took part in the Korean War. They knew the situation of their brothers and sisters in South Korea – dominated by landlords and US interests – and understood that if the DPRK lost the war, the rule of the landlords would be restored and the land reform reversed. So that is why the ordinary Korean people got involved. Everybody got involved and did not hesitate to make every sacrifice.

When he saw that the war was not going according to plan, Eisenhower asked his advisers: how can we win this war? The American generals suggested using the nuclear threat. The US felt that if they warned the population that they were going to drop a nuclear bomb, the people would flee from the front. Having witnessed the effects of nuclear warfare just five years previously, millions of people fled North Korea and went to the south. The result of this is that there are still 10 million separated families.

So you can see that the Korean people are the direct victims of nuclear bullying – us more so than anybody in the world. The nuclear issue is not an abstract one for us; it is something we have to take very seriously.

After the Korean War, the US never stopped its hostile policy towards Korea. Today they say that they cannot normalise relations with the DPRK because the DPRK has nuclear weapons. But in the 60s, 70s and 80s, we didn’t have nuclear weapons – did they normalise relations then? No. Rather, they continued trying to dominate the Korean peninsula with their own military force. It is the US that introduced nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula. In the 70s, in order to check the influence of the Soviet Union, they deployed nuclear weapons in Europe and also in South Korea. The US never stopped threatening the DPRK with these weapons, which were just next to us, the other side of the demilitarised zone. Korea is a very small country, with a high population density. It is quite clear that if the US used its nuclear weapons, the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe would be unimaginable.

The DPRK government had to find a strategy to prevent the US from using these weapons against us. In the 1970s, there were discussions among the big powers as to how they could prevent nuclear war. What the big five counties agreed is that they would stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Only five countries would be allowed to have nuclear weapons; the others would not. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was born in 1970. The NPT clearly states that nuclear power states cannot use nuclear weapons for the purpose of threatening or endangering non-nuclear states. So the DPRK thought that if we joined the NPT, we would be able to get rid of the nuclear threat from the US. Therefore we joined. However, the US never withdrew its right of pre-emptive nuclear strike. They always said that, once US interests are threatened, they always have the right to use their nuclear weapons for pre-emptive purposes. So it’s quite obvious that the NPT cannot ensure our safety. On this basis, we decided to withdraw and to formulate a different strategy to protect ourselves.

The world situation changed again after 11 September 2001. After this, Bush said that if the US wants to protect its safety, then it must remove the ‘axis of evil’ countries from the earth. The three countries he listed as members of this ‘axis of evil’ were Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Bush said that, in order to remove these evils from the earth, the US would not hesitate even to use nuclear weapons. Events since then have proved that this was not a simply rhetorical threat – they have carried out this threat against Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now it comes to North Korea. There was DPRK Framework Agreement between the Clinton administration and the DPRK in 1994, but the Bush administration canceled this, saying that America should not negotiate with evil. The neo-cons said that ‘evil states’ should be removed by force. Having witnessed what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, we came to realise that we couldn’t put a stop to the threat from the US with conventional weapons alone. So we realised that we needed our own nuclear weapons in order to defend the DPRK and its people.

In additional to the direct nuclear threat, I must point out that there is also the issue of the ‘nuclear umbrella’. The US extends its nuclear umbrella to its friends, such as Japan, South Korea and the Nato countries. But Russia and China aren’t willing to open up a nuclear umbrella to other countries, because they are afraid of the response from the US. We realised that no country will protect us from US nuclear weapons, and therefore we came to understand that we must develop our own.

We can say now that the choice to develop our own nuclear deterrent force was a correct decision. What happened to Libya? When Gaddafi wanted to improve Libya’s relations with the US and UK, the imperialists said that in order to attract international investment he would have to give up his weapons programmes. Gaddafi even said that he would visit the DPRK to convince us to give up our nuclear programme. But once Libya dismantled all its nuclear programmes and this was confirmed by western intelligence, the west changed its tune. This led to a situation where Gaddafi could not protect Libya’s sovereignty; he could not even protect his own life. This is an important historical lesson.

The DPRK wants to protect its security. We ask the US to give up its hostile policy; to give up its military threat; to normalise relations with the DPRK; to replace the armistice treaty with a peace treaty. Only when the American military threat against the DPRK is removed; only when peace-guaranteeing mechanisms are established on the Korean peninsula; only then can we talk of giving up our nuclear weapons. In other words, the US should take the issue seriously; it should take a positive approach to solve this matter.

We are proud that, even though there is a huge US military presence in the Korean peninsula and in northeast Asia, so far we have been very successful in preventing another war on the Korean peninsula. The US war machine never stops. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and now Syria… every day, hundreds of innocent people are dying because of imperialist policy led by the US. But after the Korean War finished in 1953, the DPRK has been able to maintain peace on the Korean peninsula, and we think this is a great achievement.

Were you hopeful that, with the election of Barack Obama, the US position on Korea would improve?

Well, Obama’s policy is different from that of Bush and the conservatives. Instead of solving these problems directly, he is moving to a position of ‘strategic neglect’. Obama wants to keep the issue as it is rather than taking real steps to improve the situation. The current administration says that there are too many pending issues for the US to solve.

There have been some interesting visits to the DPRK recently, for example by Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, and by Dennis Rodman, the basketball star. Do these perhaps – even in a very small way – indicate that there are some people within US ruling circles that are interested in improving relations with the DPRK?

It’s very difficult to say whether those visits will have a positive influence. What the DPRK wants to do is to deliver a message to the American people that the DPRK is always willing to address and solve problems; that the DPRK wants to improve its relations with the US; that the DPRK does not consider the US as its permanent enemy. We hope that these visits of prominent US citizens will help to convey this message.

Do any of the other imperialist powers – for example Britain, France, Australia – have a more constructive position in relation to the DPRK, or do they follow the US lead?

There is a bit of a different approach. For instance, the US government has never extended diplomatic recognition to the DPRK as a sovereign state, whereas US allies such as Britain and Australia do accept our existence; these countries support a policy of engagement with the DPRK.

Does the US still maintain nuclear weapons in South Korea?

That is really hard to say, because US nuclear weapons are more sophisticated and modernised compared with the 70s and 80s. They have more nuclear submarines. They have weapons that are smaller and more difficult to detect. So it is difficult to say if there are nuclear weapons permanently stationed in South Korea. But it is very obvious that US nuclear weapons visit South Korea on a regular basis. Just recently, the US engaged in joint military exercises with Japan and South Korea. For those exercises, the US aircraft carrier George Washington entered the South Korean harbour of Busan for three days. What kind of planes are carried on the George Washington? Fighters and bombers that can easily drop nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.

In March this year, the US introduced B52 bombers on the Korean peninsula for military exercises, simulating nuclear bombing raids on North Korea.

The US policy is to neither deny nor confirm whether they have nuclear weapons on South Korea. But the fact is that they can introduce these weapons and launch a strike at any time, so whether these weapons are actually there on the ground right now is not so relevant.

You’ve lived here in London for some time and presumably have some idea about how British people think about North Korea. The stereotype is that it’s an ‘undemocratic’ country where people don’t have the right to vote; where people don’t have any freedom of speech; they don’t have the right to criticise the government; they don’t have the right to participate in the running of the country. Is that a fair characterisation?

I think the general impression the British people have is shaped by the bourgeois media. What I can say is that those people who have done more serious investigation, especially those who have visited the DPRK and have seen our achievements with their own eyes, have a totally different impression of my country.

Pyongyang skylineThe number of British tourists has been increasing in recent years – this year alone it will be almost 500. There are nine British travel agencies who operate tours of the DPRK. Visas are never denied for tourists. I have met with some British tourists who had just returned from the DPRK, and they were so surprised to see how different it is from their impressions that they had picked up in the media. They didn’t know that the DPRK is a socialist country where there is free education, where there is free medical care, where people’s health is fully guaranteed, where there is free housing. They didn’t know all these good aspects of North Korea. Most of them, before they visit my country, imagine that our streets are full of malnourished people, that there is no decent transportation, that everyone looks sad, that there is no real cultural life, etc. But when they get to Korea they see that it is entirely different. For example, public transportation is almost free – you pay a little money but compared with what you pay in Britain or the US it is basically free. They couldn’t believe that Pyongyang city is full of big apartments and houses, built and given to the people free of charge. They were also surprised that there were so many schools, much better equipped than British state schools. They found out that North Korean children are generally at a much higher educational level than their British counterparts; that the vast majority of North Korean children enjoy free after-school activities, learning piano, violin and so on. They found out that there was no begging in the streets, no drug problems. They found out that they could leave their hotels at any time of night and go out in the streets without fearing for their safety, since there are no problems of robberies and gangs.

So they were shocked, and they asked me why the British media is so negative all the time about the DPRK and never mentions its positive aspects. My answer is that the media wants to depict the DPRK as an evil, as a type of hell, because they want to tell the British public that there is no alternative to capitalism, to imperialism. They want people to believe there is only one economic and political system; therefore it is against their interests to say anything positive about the socialist system.

So if people in this country want to visit North Korea, it’s easy to do so?

Yes. There are many well-known companies such as Regent Holidays, Voyagers, Koryo Tours and others that organise group tours. Because the media depicts the DPRK so badly, the number of people interested in visiting is actually getting bigger and bigger.

If you go on a tour, would you typically visit only Pyongyang?

Pyongyang schoolNo, you can visit any place you like. There are more and more options emerging all the time. For example, many tourists want to visit for just one day, so they can do a one-day trip via the border with China. Another trip we have started is a train trip, with trains going from China to Korea. Also now there is an air trip, with outdated passenger aeroplanes (typically made in the USSR in the 50s or 60s), which are quite fashionable with many tourists. Now a New Zealand company is organising a motorcycle tour of the whole Korean peninsula. One can find such tours available on the internet.

These tours have increased a lot over the last 3-4 years, as we have much more of the supporting infrastructure now, so the tourist industry is more open and diverse. We feel that it helps us to establish stronger cultural relations with other countries.

Each socialist country has had its own way of organising popular democracy and participation, for example the Soviets in the USSR, and the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution in Cuba – structures that allow people to manage the affairs of their workplaces and localities, solving their basic problems and electing people to higher bodies at regional and national levels. Is there something along these lines in North Korea?

Of course. We operate democracy at every level of our party and government. As you know, the major party of government is the Workers’ Party of Korea. This party is a mass party with a membership of millions, and is organised along democratic centralist lines. If someone in a given party structure (a cell) is not working according to the party line that has been discussed and agreed upon, then there would be a criticism by other party members and that member is given a chance to correct his behaviour. At each level of the party we use this system of criticism, self-criticism and accountability in order to maintain efficient and correct work.

We have a Supreme People’s Assembly, which could be considered the equivalent of the British parliament. Under this Supreme People’s Assembly, there are assemblies at province, city and county levels. The members are all elected, and these bodies meet frequently. They are responsible for taking important decisions, in a normal democratic way. For example, given a limited budget, they might have to take a vote as to whether to spend money on building a new kindergarten, or improving a hospital, and so on. In this way, broad masses of people are involved in the process of managing society. If the bodies don’t function correctly, there are mechanisms for people to criticise them and to appeal against bad decisions and negative work. For example, if water sanitation in a particular village needs to be improved, then local people can go to the council to protest. If their protest is taken into account and the situation is improved, that is good. If not, people can appeal higher up – to the city or province level – to make sure that the council is representing them properly.

Is the WPK the only political party in North Korea?

There are many parties and mass organisations besides the WPK, such as the Catholic Party and the Social Democratic Party. We do not consider that we have ‘ruling’ and ‘opposition’ parties – the parties are all on friendly terms and cooperate in developing our society. These other parties all participate in the people’s assemblies – as long as they get enough votes. They are even represented in the Supreme People’s Assembly.

People have a prejudice against our country that decisions are only made at the top by only one person, but how is this even possible? Running a country is a complicated process that needs the energy and creativity of many people.

I’m interested to understand how has DPRK been able to survive the last two decades, in such a difficult global political context. The Soviet Union – the biggest socialist country – collapsed; the people’s democracies in Eastern Europe no longer exist. How is it that, in a hostile international environment, the DPRK has been able to keep going?

Arirang mass gamesThe past two decades have been the most difficult period for us. We suddenly lost our major trading partners, out of nowhere, with no warning. This had a major impact on our economy. And with the disappearance of the USSR, the US moved to a policy of intensification, believing that our days were numbered. The US intensified its economic blockade and its military threat. They stopped all financial transactions between the DPRK and the rest of the world. The US controls the flow of foreign currency: if they say that any bank will be the target of sanctions if it does business with the DPRK, then obviously that bank has to go along with them. The US issued such an ultimatum to all companies: if they do business with North Korea, they will be subject to sanctions by the US. This is still in place. The US government thought that if they cut economic relations between the DPRK and the rest of the world, we would have to submit to them. The only reason that we have been able to survive is the single-hearted unity of the people. The people united firmly around the leadership. We worked extremely hard to solve our problems by ourselves.

If the UK one day suddenly lost its markets in the US and Europe, would it survive? If all financial transactions are stopped, how can a country survive? And yet we did survive.

Is the global situation more favourable now for North Korea and for other countries that are pursuing an independent path?

Yes. The past two decades were very difficult: not only did we have to survive economically but we also had to frustrate US military intentions; therefore we had to put a lot of investment and focus on strengthening our army, building weapons and developing our nuclear capability. Now that we have nuclear weapons, we can reduce our military investment, because even a small nuclear arsenal can play a deterrent role. We are in a position where we can make the US hesitate to attack us. Therefore we can focus more on people’s welfare now.

Do you think that the relative economic decline of the US and Western Europe will help Korea?

We have to wait and see. It is true that US economic power is declining, but precisely because of this, the US is trying to consolidate its political and military power. At the moment, this is reflected in the ‘pivot to Asia’, which is really about China. The importance of the Korean peninsula is therefore increasing, due to its proximity to China and Russia. The Korean peninsula is sort of a pivot point from which the US thinks it can exercise control over the big powers.

The war in Syria has been a key issue in world politics over the last 2-3 years. The DRPK continues to be a supporter of, and friend to, Syria. What is the basis for this relationship?

Mural celebrating DPRK-Syria friendshipIn the past, our late president Kim Il Sung had very comradely relations with President Hafez al-Assad. Both leaders shared the viewpoint that they should fight against imperialist policy. Syria was always a strong supporter of Palestinian self-determination, and was an important pillar against US and Israeli policy in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the DPRK was an important pillar against US policy in the Korean peninsula. So both countries share the same policy in relation to struggling against imperialist policy worldwide. This is the basis for the solidarity between the two countries.

Historically, Syria was not our only friend in the Middle East: we were very close with Nasser’s Egypt and with Yasser Arafat and the PLO – these leaders and countries shared the same philosophy of independence and development. This shared philosophy still exists between Syria and North Korea.

Under the pretext of introducing human rights and democracy in the Middle East, the US and its partners are creating chaos. Their so-called ‘Arab Spring’ policy has created a situation where hundreds of innocent people are killed every day. People are fighting each other in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, everywhere. This is a reflection of US divide and rule policy. Israel – the most important regional partner of the US – is a small country, whereas the Arab world is quite big; so the US and Israel are afraid of the unity of the Arab world. How can they break this unity? They try to create hatred among the different political organisations, among different religious groups, among different countries. Once this hatred is created, they encourage people to fight each other. This is the “freedom” they have brought: the freedom for people to kill each other. This is the strategy for guaranteeing the security of Israel.

It is essential that the Arab people understand the policy of divide and rule. This policy has been used for hundreds of years by the British Empire, the Americans and other imperialist empires. People have to unite in order to protect their children.

Over the past 10-15 years, there have been some important changes in South and Central America, the region historically considered as the US ‘backyard’. There are now progressive governments not only in Cuba, but also in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Do you think this is a promising development?

I think so, yes. The people of South America are more conscious than ever before. Previously, Latin America was dominated by US imperialism, with most governments – many of them brutal military dictatorships – directly supported by the US. But these states didn’t improve the lives of the ordinary people. So now people have come to understand that they must break the relationship of dependency with the US. They have decided to take up their own destinies. Just look at Venezuela: Venezuela has been an oil-rich country for a long time, but only once Chávez got into power was the oil wealth distributed so that ordinary people could benefit.

The DPRK has positive relations with Latin American countries. We have now opened our embassy in Brazil. We have good relations with Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela; Cuba of course. Chávez wanted to visit North Korea, but in the end his health didn’t allow it. But he always promoted good relations between Venezuela and North Korea. He is certainly very much missed.