Theory’s Evolution in Practice: Lessons from Ho Chi Minh

The speeches and writings of Ho Chi Minh, though sadly overlooked by many Western leftists, have unique and deep-cutting lessons to teach socialists in America today.

It comes as no surprise that the story of Ho Chi Minh has been elevated to the status of myth. Even a cursory look at his life reveals an extraordinary human experience. He held, at various points, the titles of sailor, cook, student, dissident, revolutionary leader, and first President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. His speeches and writings inspired a people who did not have so much as a state to call their own to take up arms in what became one of the premier national liberation movements of modern history.

Beyond its obvious merit for study, a close investigation of Ho’s oeuvre is particularly enlightening to students of Western political thought, as he was one such student. Though an ardent anti-imperialist, Ho was a great admirer of Western political theory. Though he often disparaged the West, it was never on the basis of its virtues but for its failure to practice them. Ho’s political speeches and writings thus constitute a decades-spanning critique of theory without practice as exemplified by the Western hegemons of the 20th century. 

Imagine that while strolling through the woods one day, you are beset upon by a stranger who seeks to take your life. He tackles you with his tremendous weight and sends you both down to the thicketed forest floor. As you struggle beneath him, you search your surroundings for something — anything — to bludgeon him with. Your fingers find purchase on a stone, which you grip firmly in your hands and use to strike down your foe. You make your escape as he lies there unmoving from the blow. Once you are at a safe distance, you look down and find that you have held onto the stone, now bloodied. You decide to keep it for the duration of your time in the woods. Ideally, you would like something better to protect yourself with than a mere stone. The thought may have even flashed in your mind, during the scuffle or in the aftermath, of how you would have preferred a baseball bat or high-powered rifle. Regardless, a stone is what you have, and a stone is what saved you. So, until you are free from your current situation, you will keep the bloodied stone in hand.  

Your confidence in the stone is not based on any theory you had in mind on your way into the forest but on your firsthand experience with the stone. And you are happy with the stone because it has fulfilled a very pressing and material need. 

Many of the revolutionary leaders of the 20th century started out this way. Before they were adherents to a political philosophy, they were dissidents motivated simply by their anger toward the institutions that oppressed them, whether they were authoritarian domestic regimes, as in China or Cuba, or colonial administrations, as in the cases of Algeria, Angola, and Vietnam. If these revolutionaries labeled themselves at all, it was in strictly ethnocentric or patriotic terms; they were Cuban nationalists, Vietnamese nationalists, etc. Allegiance to a specific political ideology, such as Marxism-Leninism, often resulted at a later date due to personal inquiry or, as some suggest, in order to garner support from one side or another in the Cold War. 

Ho Chi Minh is no exception to this. In fact, he provides history with a record of his political development over the span of his life. By tracking his development from patriotic reformer to Marxist-Leninist revolutionary leader, we can discern the evolution of his relationship with Western political thought from his first point of exposure through a lifetime of scholarship, leadership, and war.

Ho began writing politically in his 30s, when he was living, working, and studying in Paris. The earliest known work by him is a petition to the delegates of the Paris Peace Conference entitled “Demands of the Annamite People,” which he signed with the name Nguyen Ai Quoc — “Nguyen the Patriot” — one of the many pseudonyms he would use over the years. Written in collaboration with other Vietnamese dissidents living in Paris, this text demanded amnesty for Annamese (Vietnamese) political prisoners, a permanent Annamese representative in the French Parliament, a right to education, and the freedoms of press, opinion, association, assembly, and emigration. Though the text mentions “waiting for the sacred right of nations to self-determination to be recognized,” it notably does not demand immediate national independence. Nguyen the Patriot is, at this point, a liberal reformist — far from the revolutionary he would one day become. 

Just as his departure from Vietnam had opened his eyes to reform, his experiences at this stage of life pushed him further along the path of radicalization. Incensed after his petition was completely ignored at Versailles, the young dissident fell in with the French Socialist Party. Ho first turned to the French socialists not for their political theory — he later admitted he had no idea what socialism was at this time — but because they had displayed sympathy for their colonial subjects. He approached them first and foremost as potential allies to the Vietnamese nationalist cause. However, he found himself still discontented even among the Left, which he felt did not sufficiently prioritize national liberation. Reflecting on this period later in life, Ho recalled: “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?’” 

Though his disputes with the Western Left would go unresolved, he continued to study and learn. He warmed to the idea of socialism over time, eventually becoming a champion of Marxism-Leninism. Ho’s writings through this time exhibit the slow merger of Marxism with his nationalist beliefs. This relationship surfaces in his 1922 essay, ‘Some Considerations on the Colonial Question’: 

“The French workers look upon the native as an inferior and negligible human being,
incapable of understanding and still less of taking action. The natives regard all the
French as wicked exploiters. Imperialism and capitalism do not fail to take advantage of
this mutual suspicion and this artificial racial hierarchy to frustrate propaganda and divide
forces which ought to unite.”

The association between Vietnam’s experience under colonialism and the French working class’s experience under capitalism, and how it reveals the need for international proletarian solidarity, is textbook Marxism applied to the Vietnamese context. Ho has been grappling with the bandit in the forest for some time now, and here he is asking himself whether he has finally found the stone hidden in the underbrush. 

This period also marks the beginning of another trend that will become, over time, a trademark of Ho Chi Minh’s political voice: his simultaneous excoriation of Western governments and appreciation for Western people and traditions. He never pulls a punch, not even when criticizing fellow leftists. In a letter to M. Léon Archimbaud, member of parliament and representative of the French Communist Party, he writes: 

“You speak fondly of ‘duty,’ ‘humanity,’ and ‘civilization!’ What is this duty? You showed what it is throughout your speech. It is markets, competition, interests, privileges. Trade and finance are things which express your ‘humanity.’ Taxes, forced labor, excessive exploitation, that is the summing up of your civilization! 

While you are waiting to receive ‘one of the finest claims to glory that can be dreamt of,’ allow me to tell you, M. Archimbaud, that if Victor Hugo had known that you would write such stuff today in his newspaper, he would never have founded it.”

This is a far cry from the meek Nguyen the Patriot. The invocation of Victor Hugo’s name is particularly scathing. Ho quotes the greatest minds of Western thought and, in the very same breath, criticizes Western leaders for their crimes against colonized people. That he is willing to bombard a member of the French Communist Party no less indicates his unwillingness to toe an ideological line at the expense of his people.

Later in the 1920s, Ho would set the sights of his scrutiny on the Americans as well. In essays on lynching and the Ku Klux Klan, he depicts race relations in America with chilling detail. “It is well known,” he writes, “that the black race is the most oppressed and exploited of the human family.” He describes lynching with the same graphic detail and dramatic flair he uses to describe French atrocities in Vietnam in other essays. This here is a concerted effort to build along lines of racial solidarity, connecting the struggle of Asian people in French Indochina and of African people in America.

He builds on this further in one of his longest and most famous works, French Colonization on Trial, where he describes the “blood tax” paid by the colonial subjects who fought and died en masse in the colonizers’ armies during the First World War. Ho presents the war as evidence of how the West nourishes itself on the mutilation of African and Asian bodies. “As soon as the guns had their fill of black or yellow cannon fodder,” he writes, “the loving declarations of our leaders were magically silenced, and Negroes and Annamese automatically became people of a ‘dirty race’ [again].” A transformation takes place in the mind of the European in the course of his travel from Europe to his colonies, Ho believes, which compels him against his better nature to commit terrible abuses against the people he finds there. Ho visualizes this, writing:

“Justice is represented by a good lady holding scales in one hand and a sword in the other. As the distance between Indochina and France is so great, so great that, on arrival there, the scales lose their balance and the pans melt and turn into opium pipes and official bottles of spirits, the poor lady has only the sword left with which to strike.”

Ho carries this analysis with him through the decades of war that span the remainder of his life. In 1945, after the Japanese are defeated and Ho is freed from a Chinese Nationalist prison, he begins the arduous task of building an independent Vietnam in the vacuum provided by global war. He pens the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, beginning with a familiar proclamation: “All men are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” 

Indeed, this is a direct quote from the Declaration of Independence of the United States. The document continues with a quotation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in turn. It issues an explicit judgment of the French: “Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.” In celebrating Western political thought while humiliating its heirs, Ho Chi Minh carves out just enough space in the world for his theory and his people. 

In the 1950s, the Vietnamese at long last succeed in casting off the French yoke, but their struggle does not end there. The country plunged into civil war, and went toe-to-toe against a new Western behemoth. In 1964, when the war with America began in earnest, Ho sunk his teeth into the U.S. with renewed ferocity in essays and speeches. In a 1965 interview with British journalist Felix Greene, Ho delegitimizes the continued political division of Vietnam by comparing it to America’s own history of division, arguing that “the contention that the southern part of our fatherland is ‘a neighbor country’ separate from the North is a misleading one. It is just like saying that the southern states of the United States constitute a country separate from the northern states.” When asked if he has a message for the American people, he delivers us this: 

“I would like to tell the American people that the aggressive war now being waged by the U.S. Government in Viet-Nam not only grossly flouts the national fundamental right of the Vietnamese people, but also runs counter to the aspirations and interests of the American people. This aggressive war has also besmeared the good name of the United States, the country of Washington and Lincoln. I wish to tell the American people about the determination of the entire Vietnamese people to fight the U.S. aggressors till complete victory. But as for the American people, we want to strengthen our relations of friendship with them.”

At the root of Ho’s rhetoric from the final two decades of his life is his belief that Western peoples have allowed evil to proliferate in the world because they have become fundamentally disconnected from the values on which their societies were built — or, rather, because they never lived up to them in the first place. He repeatedly illustrates the cruel double standard to which all the colonized people of the world have been subjected to since the advent of Western imperialism: the standard that seems to say, Liberty for me, but not for thee. Such an absurd worldview, he believes, could only be the result of a people forgetting who they are. 

This begs the question: Where will Vietnam, and by extension the revolutionary socialist movements around the colonized world, succeed where the Western hegemons failed? Ho offers an explanation in a 1957 speech given at the opening of the Nguyen Ai Quoc School. In this speech, Ho places praxis at the nucleus of his hope for the success of the Vietnamese political project. “We do not carry on studies to learn by heart every sentence and every word and apply the experience of brother countries in a mechanical way,” he says. Rather, “We must learn Marxism-Leninism to analyze and solve the actual issues of the revolution in our country according to its particular conditions.” Reality, as Ho defines it, is “problems to be solved and contradictions lying within things.” Your task as a revolutionary is to make theory answerable to reality. This is done through praxis. Without praxis, the muscles of your beliefs will atrophy and decay, and you will lose control of your own body. Eventually, you will forget who you are. This is what has happened to the West, and the Vietnamese people must remain ever vigilant lest it happen to them. 

The people must remember what they came from and how it made them who they are. They must always remember their time in the forest, even if it is long behind them. They must never forget the feeling of the bloodied stone in their hand.

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