This article reads like a review rather than an encyclopedic description of the subject. (December 2007)
Ngô Văn Xuyết (Tan Lo, near Saigon, 1913–Paris, 1 January 2005), alias Ngô Văn, was a Vietnamese Trotskyist who became a writer in France. Born in Vietnam, he joined the Trotskyist movement as a young man. After the repression of Trotskyism in Vietnam in 1945, he moved to France, where he wrote about his experiences and recent Vietnamese history.
Ngo Van left his village at the age of 14 to work in a metallurgical works in Saigon, and soon became involved in the strikes and demonstrations that erupted periodically against the French colonial power in support of freedom of assembly, of the press, of travel and of education. There was already a history of peasant revolts against colonialism, which were brually repressed, by the execution of leading activists, or their deportation to the infamous penal colony of Poulo Condore.
He was forced to end his formal education, but, enrolled under a false name, he read Marx in the Saigon municipal library after work. He came into contact with the Trotskyist left opposition group in Saigon opposed to the general line of the Indochinese Communist Party, emphasizing the importance of a movement based on the working class as against the nationalist oriented policy of Nguyen ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh).
In Saigon, the Trotskyists and Stalinists cooperated for three years (1933–36) in a united front around the legal newspaper La Lutte, which was published weekly in French to get around laws banning publications in the vernacular quoc nu or Vietnamese. Their candidates were elected to the municipal council. But after the French government signed a pact with Stalin’s Soviet Union in May 1935, the French, and soon the Indochinese, Communist Parties gave up their opposition to French militarism and colonialism. Following the October group led by Ho Huu Tuong, Ngo Van and some activists formed the League of Internationalist Communists for the Construction of the Fourth International, while other Trotskyists remained in the La Lutte alliance. Ngo Van set type for the new group’s clandestine literature.
Ngo Van also organised amongst workforce in his factory, who met under the guise of wedding and birthday parties – as all gatherings of more than 19 were illegal – and found himself the spokesperson when a strike for better wages broke out. Militant friends were arrested one after the other. The longer Van remained at liberty, the more acutely he appreciated their courage under torture.
At the age of 24, Ngo Van was arrested in the factory storeroom, where he secretly discussed anti-colonialist campaigns with other activists and hid underground literature and revolutionary publications from abroad. Van was imprisoned in the dreaded Maison Centrale in Saigon, where he, too, was tortured. Stalinist and Trotskyist prisoners were held together: Van later recalled that relations between them were wary, but civil, to avoid provoking tension to the advantage of the common enemy. He joined in a hunger strike demanding political prisoner status equal to that in France.
As a consequence, the prisoners were occasionally allowed French newspapers. This was how they learned about the Moscow Trials, in which Stalin was destroying what remained of the leadership of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party. The Trotskyists were ‘overcome with a profound unease, and a thousand questions without answers kept going round in our heads’, Van wrote in his memoirs. In 1937 the Vietnamese Stalinists, under orders from Moscow, abruptly left the La Lutte group and denounced the Trotskyists as ‘agents of fascism’.
Van and his comrades were constantly being arrested, tortured, imprisoned then briefly freed once more. Once, he was sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment simply for recommending books by Trotsky to a friend in a letter, and greeting in the street the well-known Trotskyist Ta thu Thau. Exiled to Travinh, in an island in the Mekong delta, at the end of 1940, he found himself in the middle of a peasant uprising that had engulfed western Cochinchina. Almost 6000 were arrested, over two hundred publicly executed, and thousands killed by bombing authorised by the Vichy governor general, Decoux. At about this time, Van discovered that he was suffering from tuberculosis.
The Japanese moved into south Vietnam in March 1945 and imposed a regime of martial law; allied forces bombed Saigon. The north of the country was by this time controlled by the Vietminh, as the armed front led by the Communist Party was called. They advocated an alliance with the imperialist Allies as a road to ‘national liberation’; the Trotskyists denounced this as an illusion and called on workers and peasants to rise up against all imperialist oppressors, of whatever nationality. Van and his comrades were elated when 30,000 miners in the Hon gai-Cam pha region set up elected councils to run the mines, public services and transport, and organised a literacy campaign.
Exile in France
He fled from the Vietminh to France in 1948.
- Việt Nam 1920-1945, révolution et contre-révolution sous la domination coloniale (1997)
- Revolutionaries they could not break, the fight for the Fourth International in Indochina 1930-1945 (1995)
- In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary (2010)
- Ngo Van. “Quelques biographies des révolutionnaires vietnamiens.” Cahiers Léon Trotsky, no. 41 (December 1989):
- Au pays de la cloche felee "Tribulation d'un cochinchinois à l'époque colonial", de Ngo Van Xuyet "Ngo Van Xuyet, réfugié en France depuis 1948, est décédé le 1er janvier 2005, à Paris, à l'age de 91 ans. Cet ancien trotskiste, exemple d'un type d'ouvriers militants qu'on ne connait plus guère aujourd'hui, était né en 1913, dans le village de Tan Lo, près de Saigon.
- Hommes & migrations 2005 p36 "Ngo Van, Au pays de la Cloche fêlée. Tribulations d'un Cochinchinois à l'époque coloniale, Paris 2000. Militant trotskyste, il échappe à la répression Viet Minh et se réfugie en France en 1948. "