Monthly Archives: September 2011

Book Review: Ngo Van – In the Crossfire

A Hidden History of National Liberation: Ngo Van’s In the Crossfire, AK Press

Recently translated from the original French, Ngo Van’s In the Crossfire, by the lovely people at AK press (cheers for the review copy!) is a fascinating biographical account of Ngo’s life and political activities in French (and Japanese) dominated Vietnam. Ngo humbly show’s us an insight into the ways in which struggles against the French colonial regime manifested themselves and reminds us that the resistance was far greater than that controlled by organised left groups and professional revolutionaries. The book describes secret propaganda centers, armed uprisings and the indifference of the Colonial apparatus (be it controlled by the French or the Japanese) to the suffering of the Vietnamese people. It traces a path through Vietnames history from Ngo’s early political involvement in 1931 to Japanese occupation in 1940 and culminating with armed uprising against the returning French. In 1948 Ngo took sail for France.

Ngo’s book publicises a previously (or at least to this readers) hidden history of the Vietnamese national liberation movement. Squeezed between the colonial regime and the increasingly murderous Soviet backed Viet minh an alternative radical movement of which Ngo Van was part of was crushed. As Ken Knabb, in his short but articulate introduction, reminds us anti-colonial struggles were not necessarily doomed to the horrors of Stalinism or hyper-exploitative capitalism. The outcome in Vietnam and China and many other places could have been very different. In Europe we could, possibly, say the same of Leninist Russia or Spain in the civil war. This book helps us to see a hidden, history of political struggle repressed by the victors. Once made public, this secret history simultaneously ‘opens history up’ and allows us to see the historical defeats and false victories of the Left as always contingent and uncertain. Left movements are and can be actors in political struggle who’s outcome is unknown not merely extra’s in a history beyond human intervention.

In the Crossfire presents an interesting, alternative history and a forceful critical perspective on anti-colonial and ‘third worldist’ struggles. Through his biographical account and some of his published articles we see the complex reality of third world struggles, the hardships of fighting brutal colonial regimes (in this case the French and Japanese) and the difficulties of organising with Soviet controlled organisations. This book provides a criticism of the simplified pro-resistance positions of many students movements in the West at that time. A criticism which still has resonance today as can be seen with regards to the Iraq, Palestinian and Sri Lankan conflicts amongst others (See Moishe Postone’s excellent ‘History and Helplessness’. Indeed Ngo explicitly critiques Western solidarity movements and their often uncritical support of national liberation movements in an article entitled ‘On Third World Struggles‘ included in this publication.

Also included is an article by Ngo describing experiences in a French factory in the throes of 1968. Although short and fairly narrative in tone, this article is a damning critique on the pacifying role of the Communists in the French struggles of 1968. Read together with his personal experiences of Stalinist sections of the Left in Vietnam, a strong thread of autonomist politics can be read through this book. Although a member of a Trotskyist organisation in Vietnam this was, as Ken Knabb notes in the introduction, down to the socio-political context in which Ngo found himself. After travelling to France Ngo did not join any organised leftist groups and remained critical of those attempting to pacify social struggles throughout the rest of his life.

Whilst similar to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, this is more than an anti-Stalinist book. Harnessed to a fascinating, thrilling personal narrative is an insight into another possible outcome of the Vietnam war and a critique of national liberation struggles those of us in regions with solidarity campaigns would do well to heed.

All Roads Lead to Manchester

The first of the party conferences took place last weekend in Birmingham. Whilst inside the conference Nick Clegg and Vince Cable tried to resuscitate the progressive reputation of the Liberal Democrats, those outside were trying their hardest to not let people forget the role the Liberal Democrats have played implementing the cuts.

Whilst the Birmingham protest did not mobilise as many people as the organisers would have surely wanted (estimates being around the 2000 mark), nor gained enough momentum to significantly challenge the Lib-Dem conference, this provided those of us in Manchester an opportunity to see how other places were mobilising against party conferences and to try and pick out some of the problems that they faced. There seem to be three problems that stood out clearly.

1.The lack of a diversity of protestors: From my (admittedly second hand) view it seems the demonstrations in Birmingham were mainly made up of trade unionists and local anti-cuts groups. There weren’t any national anti-cuts groups, no students (freshers week is this week) nor groups aiming to take direct action on the day.
2.The lack of numbers of protestors: With only 2000 protestors on the streets in Birmingham this protest lacked the sheer numbers to force its way into most major coverage of the event.
3.The size of the police operation pitted against them: From the reports I have seen the police were out in large enough numbers to contain the protestors, even if they had chosen different, more confrontational tactics on the day.

Ultimately, the demonstration was easy to contain due to its small size in relation to the police operation it faced and the tactical repertoire it had at its disposal. With no plans for decentralised or mass direct action (by no means a panacea for the Left I must stress) the protest was a simple A to B march which the police were happy to facilitate and the demonstration organisers were happy to have policed.

With less than two weeks to go until the Tories come to Manchester, only one of these factors is clear here in Manchester. It seems certain that there will definitely be a huge police presence in Manchester, complemented by a ring of steel through the centre of the city. The police are already gearing up, with last weekend seeing council officials shut down all political stalls on Market Street (the main highstreet). A place traditionally used for political campaigning. Next weekend will see a broad coalition of leftists return to Market Street to contest this seeming blanket ban on political stalls in the city centre.

Hopefully there will be lots more protestors for the main TUC demonstration on Sunday the 2nd of October at the start of the Tory conference. Lots of coaches have been booked from throughout the country and organisers expect a larger turn out than in Birmingham. This will be swelled by the return of the student population to Manchester (who are organising a feeder march), a section of society in particular that are facing the bleak reality of the cuts and the demolition of the myth of the ‘graduate future’.

Of course it remains to be seen just who will turn up. It’s expected that large amounts of unionists will attend, what remains unclear is the extant that students, anti-cuts groups and other activists and anarchists will attend. The Occupy! MCR proposed occupation of Albert Square is one attempt at bridging the gap between different political groups and tactical repertoires (simply: ways of doing things). In the blurb Occupy! explain that they hope there protest will help to blur the lines between activists and unionists, anarchists and concerned citizens, something which they claim (and I agree) happened at many of the student protests and to a (admittedly far lesser) degree at the March 26th demonstration in London. With a broad list of supporters including local anti-cuts groups, local anarchists, the SWP and UK Uncut hopefully Occupy! will appeal to lots of people for whom a march in itself wouldn’t be enough. The links with the Spanish, Greek and American occupations are made explicitly clear and it appears that the occupation of public space is hoped to be used as a way to breakdown barriers between different political positions and assumptions. Whether this can happen in the UK in the decidedly different political climate and the likely lack of the overwhelming numbers seen in other parts of the world (fingers crossed though!) is an open question.

Obviously the proof is in the pudding. I’ll be there on the day and hope to see you there also. It seems this will be the first large event that will kick off the second winter campaign against the Tories and it will be important to set the tone. What better place than Manchester, what better time than the 2nd of October?