»  National Review

October 23, 2000

   Leninism in Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh
        by William J. Duiker

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One of the great moving forces of the world in the early twentieth century was the resentment felt by Asians towards those European powers that had seized their territories. Intelligent young people from these old, proud countries seethed with rage at the effrontery of the white men. The other side of this anger was shame — shame that one's culture had proved too feeble, one's countrymen too supine, to resist the alien onslaught.

Those young Asians who set out to right the wrong therefore had two things on their minds: to expel the foreigners, and to reform their own societies. Both intentions were summed up in the slogan of the May Fourth movement in Peking, 1919: Da dao lie qiang! Zhen xing Zhong Hua! — "Down with the great powers! Strengthen the nation!" Both were liable to curdle: the first into xenophobia, the second into a cruel contempt for one's own people.

This was the intellectual and political environment in which Ho Chi Minh grew up. Born in 1890 to a family of scholar-gentry in French Indo-China, Ho's actual surname was Nguyen. He went through a great many pseudonyms in his career, settling decisively on "Ho Chi Minh" only in 1940. I shall refer to him here as he is commonly known.

For Americans, Ho is of course principally associated with the war that bears his country's name. That war is still a subject of bitter debate in the U.S. today, and will probably continue to be so for decades to come. (For a masterly survey of recent Vietnam War books, see the long piece titled "The Never-Ending War" by Jonathan Mirsky — whom God preserve! — in the May 25th New York Review of Books.) From this point of view, William Duiker's biography of Ho must be regarded as deep background. The U.S. Marines do not come ashore at Da Nang until page 543 of his 580-page main narrative. This is properly to scale: by 1965 Ho was pretty much out of things — a revered figurehead, but no longer much of a decision-maker. He died four years later.

Ho was never, in fact, a total dictator like Stalin, Mao or Castro. He actually declined the post of General Secretary of his party in 1941 and seems, by Duiker's account, to have been wary of assuming too central a position in affairs, perhaps as a result of having witnessed Stalin's terror-purges at first hand. Communism is a horrible, inhuman business, and the sufferings of the Vietnamese people under Ho's party should not be understated; but as Leninist regimes go, the Vietnamese was one of the milder varieties. Central decision-making was always collegial, and senior figures who found themselves on the wrong side of the Party line, like the odious Truong Chinh, rarely suffered more than demotion. There were no mass party purges in the manner of Stalin, few gangsterish intrigues of the Castro style, and no quasi-religious leader cults like Mao's.

Ho left his homeland in 1911, returning thirty years later as a seasoned revolutionary. Those thirty years included long sojourns in China and the U.S.S.R., shorter ones in France, England and the U.S.A. He was already a patriot and an anti-imperialist at the time he went abroad, but his ideas about what to do for his country were inchoate. The formative event of his life was reading Lenin's "Theses on the National and Colonial Questions" in July of 1920. Here he found the strategies that were to guide him to the very end.

In the "Theses," Lenin approved of nationalism as a permissible tactic for colonial peoples, and argued — erroneously, of course — that capitalism survived past the date Marx had given for its demise only by exploiting overseas colonies. He thus provided Asian intellectuals with answers to their two great questions. How to get rid of the foreigners? By temporarily cooperating with bourgeois nationalist groups, while preserving one's separate, communist, identity. How to reform one's own society so that such humiliations could never recur? By proceeding to socialism via class warfare. The second of these prescriptions was, of course, horribly mistaken. Where applied, it let loose a flood of human misery, and resulted at last in corrupt and cynical kleptocracies like the ones that rule China, Vietnam and North Korea today. This, however, is hindsight; it all seemed perfectly logical in 1920.

It is in his seduction by those "Theses" that we find the answer to the question most often asked about Ho: was he more of a nationalist, or more of a communist? Always, to the very end of his life — in the advice he offered on dealing with the Diem government of South Vietnam in the 1960s, for example — he held firm to the strategy laid out by Lenin: first, expel the foreigners and unify the country. Then set about building socialism in earnest. Ho was a convinced Leninist; but it was the "Theses" that had convinced him, because it was in them that he found his license to be a nationalist as well as a socialist. It was nationalism, not socialism, that really engaged his emotions. Hard to blame him: I wouldn't want to be ruled by Frenchmen, either.

Although Ho occasionally expressed himelf in Leninist diction (e.g. in 1946: "All those who do not follow the line that I have set out will be smashed"), Duiker's account suggests that Ho resorted to the more severe of Leninist methods with an ill conscience. How convincing is this? My own impression of Ho, after reading this book, is closest to the one voiced by James O'Sullivan, the U.S. Consul in Hanoi immediately after WW2. O'Sullivan described Ho as "a very shifty character."

Duiker's book has been thirty years in the making, and is a monument to diligent research. I am not a Vietnamist and am in no position to challenge the author's selections and interpretations. From the evidence he has presented, his inferences seem to me to be logically sound. As always in such cases, though, one compensates by over-sensitivity in areas where one does have some specialist knowledge. Here I found that Duiker sometimes left me feeling mildly uneasy. It is, for example, odd to see Osip Mandelshtam referred to (twice) as "a journalist," and Lu Xun as "a poet." No doubt Mandelshtam did some reporting and Lu wrote some verses; but those are not what either man is remembered for. Nor does the Chinese word tao mean "apple"; it means "peach" … and so on.

The style of the book is, too, very dry, almost bereft of humor or anecdote. The first half is a chronicle of seedy revolutionary activism — changes of name, squalid lodgings, factional squabbles and tiny-circulation radical journalism — leaving one with the impression that being a revolutionary is much less fun than being a bus driver. Matters only really get off the ground after 1945, when the fantastic complexity of events in liberated Vietnam demands a reader's full attention. At this point the dramatis personae included at least five major nationalist and religious sects, three factions of Vietminh and a powerful crime syndicate, not to mention five different sets of foreigners: the Japanese, the French, the O.S.S., the British in the South and the Chinese in the North. Nobody would dare write a novel this involved.

In true Leninist style, Ho seems to have had very little personal life. He used women briefly, then wandered off to make more revolution. He wrote almost nothing but party tracts and some didactic verse. It is very difficult to get much feel for the man, and a relentlessly factual style like Duiker's does not help. Simply as a chronicle of Ho's career, however, I do not see how this book could be surpassed.