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.