In the 1930s and 1940s Van was a Trotskyist. In later years, after he had fled to France to escape the massacres being carried out by the Vietnamese Stalinists, he rejected Trotskyism and Leninism and became a supporter of “council communism”.
The bulk of In the Crossfire deals with Van’s youth and political activities in Vietnam. The latter part of the book consists of two chapters from Van’s unfinished story of his life in France and three articles written by Van in the 1960s.
The book has its defects.
It is too brief to provide a full insight into Van as an individual and his record of political activities. It is likewise too brief to allow for a proper understanding of Vietnamese politics in those years. The material covering Van’s years in France is really no more than snippets.
And the less said of the appendix entitled “Note on Stalinism and Trotskyism” (not written by Van himself) the better.
Even so, the book is well worth reading for its portrayal of the waves of worker and peasant struggles which swept through Vietnam in the years leading up to the Second World War, and for its graphic descriptions of the brutalities and massacres committed by the French in their efforts to maintain colonial rule over the country.
Equally importantly, the book illustrates what Trotsky meant when he said Trotskyism was divided from Stalinism by “rivers of blood”.
In the stormy class struggles of the late 1930s the Vietnamese Trotskyists campaigned for an end to the French occupation, a united front of workers and peasants against the approaching war, opposition to national defencism, the creation of workers’ committees and peasants’ committees to take over the factories and the land, and the establishment of a soviet federation of Asia.
The Vietnamese Stalinists, organised in the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), advocated very different policies. In the 1930s they even supported higher taxes and the launch of government bonds to finance French imperialism in the coming war:
“The covetous glance Japan is casting towards the island of Hainan directly threatens the security of Indochina (!!! – Indochina was a French colony). In the face of these fascists’ territorial designs, the ICP approves of the measures (taken by the French government of occupation).”
In the upheavals following the end of the Second World War the Vietnamese Stalinists opposed land seizures by the peasantry and the creation of workers councils by miners and factory workers.
According to the ICP: “Those who are encouraging the peasants to take over landed property will be punished without mercy. The communist revolution, which will resolve the agrarian problem, has not yet taken place. Our government is a democratic and bourgeois government, even though the Communists are in power.”
Nor did the ICP hesitate to ally themselves with the extremist nationalists of the JAG (Vanguard Youth). “The Communists, as the militant vanguard of our people, are prepared to put the interests of the Fatherland before class interests,” it explained.
The right-wing class-collaborationist policies pursued by the ICP in the 1930s allowed the Trotskyists to emerge as a more significant force in sections of the urban working class. According to one police report:
“The influence of revolutionary agitators sympathetic to the (Trotskyist) Fourth International has increased in Cochinchina (South Vietnam), particularly among workers in the Saigon-Cholon region. The workers are supporting the Trotskyist party more than the ICP.”
On the eve of the outbreak of war the French colonial governor explained the difference between the Trotskyists and the Stalinists in a cable to the French Colonial Minister.
The former “want to take advantage of a war in order to win total liberation”, whereas the latter “are following the position of the Communist Party in France” and “will thus be loyal if war breaks out.”
From 1937 onwards the ICP denounced the Vietnamese Trotskyists as agents of fascism. According to a statement issued by the ICP that year: “Our comrade Stalin … has noted that Trotskyism ceased to be a political current in the working class seven or eight years ago. Trotskyism is the ally and agent of fascism.”
With the end of the Second World War the ICP progressed from slandering the Trotskyists to massacring them. “The Trotskyist gang must be smashed immediately,” proclaimed the Hanoi paper of the ICP. Ho Chi Minh expressed the same sentiment: “Any one who does not follow the line determined by me will be smashed.”
It is from this period that the book takes its title: the Trotskyists were caught in the crossfire between the French military (which massacred two hundred Trotskyists on a single day in late 1945) and the ICP and its military wing.
On page after page of the book Van recounts how long-standing revolutionaries who had often shared the same prison cells as their Stalinist executioners were murdered by the latter: “Of those who had taken part in the revolutionary opposition movement and who had remained in the country, hardly one survived.”
In his introduction to the book Van draws a parallel between events in Vietnam and events in Spain a decade earlier: “In Vietnam, as in Spain, we had been engaged in a simultaneous battle on two fronts: against a reactionary power and against a Stalinist party struggling for power.”
But whereas the counter-revolutionary role played by Stalinism in Spain is common knowledge, at least on the non-Stalinist left, the same cannot be said of Vietnam. In fact, in the 1960s the butcher of the Vietnamese Trotskyists, Ho Chi Minh, became a cult figure for much of the Western left.