The Third Camp and the Vietnam war

Submitted by AWL on 2 June, 2015 - 5:08 Author: Bruce Robinson

Martin Thomas’ article on Vietnam and the left in Solidarity 364 rightly advocates a Third Camp position opposed to both the US and its allies and the victorious Vietnamese Stalinists. However the war also posed political problems for the Third Camp socialists of the time which he does not elaborate on. These issues remain relevant and, I think, unresolved today.

A central slogan in the Vietnam solidarity movement in the UK and across Europe was “Victory to the NLF”. The Vietnamese National Liberation Front (aka the Vietcong) was formed in 1960 and became the guerilla army and political organisation of the Stalinists and their allies in in South Vietnam. It became the dominant opposition to the US by the mid 60s. Its aims included national liberation in the sense of expelling the US, overthrow of the repressive South Vietnamese puppet regime and eventual reunification of the country which had been divided after the defeat of the French colonial power in 1954. Reunification meant the South joining the North, that was run by Ho Chi Minh and the Communist Party on the classical Stalinist model.

Thus the dilemma for Third Camp socialists, particularly in the US where they were involved in the quickly growing anti-war movement, was this: deeply opposed to the US presence and war, should they call for victory of the forces fighting them, knowing that they were undemocratic and would establish a class state ruling over the Vietnamese workers and suppressing their independent action?

The issue was complicated by two related issues. The NLF did have popular support, particularly in the countryside, and it grew as the war went on as a result of American action. At the same time, any forces that might have constituted an active third force independent of both the US/Southern regime and the NLF dwindled to nothing. In the period 1963-5 there had been active opposition to the Southern regime, particularly among the Buddhist population, which combined with “neutralist” movements and discontent in the cities. The development of the American war and the strength of the NLF led to their disappearance or absorption.

The argument for supporting “Victory to the NLF” had therefore to be that, as a genuine national liberation movement fighting to defeat the US, it was pursuing progressive aims despite its Stalinism.

This was not quite the argument put forward by Hal Draper in the debate in the US Independent Socialist Clubs/International Socialists in 1969.

He argued that the nature of the war had changed from a civil war in the South in which a Third Camp had existed and where it was right not to support the NLF, to a war of national liberation, “a new stage of the Vietnam situation” where “the element of American imperialist intervention... now determines the nature of the war... the NLF already seems to have won political power among the South Vietnamese people.” This support was decisive as it meant that self-determination became equivalent to a victory of the NLF. In this second war, it was right to support that military victory, while fighting illusions about their political nature or the likely eventual outcome.

Draper’s argument seems weak on two counts. Firstly, had the nature of the war changed? Milton Fisk wrote in his history of the ISC/IS that “The assessment that the war had been a civil war rather than one of national liberation till 1968 gave too much to the State Department... There was no time when these regimes were militarily or politically viable apart from the US.” It had been a war for national liberation from the start.

Secondly, it was based on a distinction between political and military support that did not make sense in the case of Vietnam: “We can give political support only on the basis of what we analyze as the real political character and real political program [of] this formation... Military support means that we prefer the military victory of one side in an armed struggle and the military defeat of the opposing side.” However in the case of Vietnam the military victory of those forces was to lead directly to the imposition of an anti-working class regime precisely because of their political nature. As Don Bacheller said in criticism of the position of support “A victory for the NLF in Vietnam would in no way promote the realization of the goals of revolutionary socialists .... A victory for the NLF would make the realization of these goals in the present period more difficult...”

There were two complementary alternatives to “Victory to the NLF” as slogans. One was to focus on unconditional US withdrawal. The other on the right of the Vietnamese to self-determination. As Fisk points out, whatever line the ISC/IS took, not being skilled opportunists like their British counterparts, their anti-Stalinism diminished support in the anti-war movement.

This was neither the first nor the last time that this problem would appear for Third Camp socialists. Apart from certain basic principles such as defending working-class independence and the right to self-determination, I do not think there can be a magic formula that will cover all cases.

Draper’s method of looking (with qualifications) at historical precedents and analysing the nature of the struggle and the political forces involved therefore seems to me to be the right one, even if — despite my own nostalgia for time spent shouting “Victory to the NLF” — his argument about Vietnam seems flawed.

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