During his career, Ho Chi Minh was a teacher and journalist, professions that he practiced as an integral dimension of his revolutionary mission. As leader of the Vietnamese nationalist movement and President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, he was constantly giving discourses and writing essays that were pedagogical in nature. Affectionately known by the Vietnamese people as “Uncle Ho,” he has left us with a legacy of practical wisdom.
Ho Chi Minh believed that the world was divided between a democratic and socialist camp, and an imperialist camp. The democratic camp was headed by the Soviet Union, which had eliminated class exploitation and had socialized production, and it had established a foreign policy of support for the oppressed and colonized nations of the world. The democratic camp included China, which had adapted the concepts of Lenin to Chinese conditions and had developed a socialist society. It also included socialist Vietnam and the socialist republics of Eastern Europe. In addition, the democratic camp included the national liberation movements of Africa and Asia, and it included the progressive and socialist movements in the advanced capitalist nations. The democratic and socialist camp was seeking to end class exploitation, to develop a system of international relations based on respect for the rights of self-determination and sovereignty of nations, and to develop peace among nations. In contrast, the imperialist camp, directed by the United States and including the Western European powers, was engaging in aggression against the peoples of the world in pursuit of its imperialist objectives. Ho was convinced that the democratic camp would prevail (Fall 1967:127, 220-22, 259-61, 291, 296-97, 302, 310, 317-18, 323-27, 332-33, & 349).
Ho Chi Minh’s view of the Soviet Union is fundamentally different from a Trotskyite perspective that sees the Russian Revolution as having been reversed by a bureaucratic counterrevolution following the death of Lenin (see “Reflections on the Russian Revolution” 1/29/2014). But Ho’s view of the Soviet Union was based on his experiences. He had entered the Communist International at a time when it was still under Lenin’s ideological influence. He was one of many who benefitted from Marxist-Leninist training institutes for the education of leaders from Asia and other oppressed and colonized regions of the world, a process that continued to be developed for decades after the death of Lenin. Although the Soviet Union in essence abandoned the policy of supporting global revolution and pursued a foreign policy in accordance with its national interests, these national interests led it to provide diplomatic and material support for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. From Ho’s vantage point, whatever its limitations may have been, the Soviet Union was definitively on the side of those nations and social movements that were seeking to construct an alternative and better world. My orientation is to view both Ho’s interpretation and the Trotskyite interpretation as valid, with both identifying important and significant components of the complex reality that was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist republics of Eastern Europe and the failure of various socialist and nationalist projects in Africa and Asia, many would be inclined to view Ho’s reading of the world situation as wrong. Certainly, Ho appears to not have anticipated the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc. But we should not interpret Ho mechanistically. He was discerning and naming in his time the forces and movements that represented potential for human emancipation from imperialism and colonial domination. We should take this approach, and endeavor to identify the movements and forces of our time that are important examples of humanity seeking to liberate itself, and that therefore represent a potential for human emancipation. These include: the persistence of socialist projects in China, Vietnam, North Korea, and Cuba; the process of change unfolding today in Latin America, led by Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador; the emergence of the Islamic Revolution; the re-vitalization of Russia as an actor in global dynamics; and the interrelation of all of these forces with each other. At the same time, there has unfolded more clearly a factor that was only beginning to emerge in Ho’s time, namely, the terminal structural crisis of the world-system (“The terminal crisis of the world-system” 3/28/2014). Let us follow the example of Ho; let us identify and support the human quest for emancipation, continuing to unfold in our time, although in a different historical context and with different characteristics.
Ho Chi Minh taught that in the stage of monopoly capital, the imperialist powers have a greater capacity to financially penetrate colonies and benefit from their exploitation, thus strengthening the capitalist class in its struggle with the proletarian class in the advanced countries. Imperialism, therefore, is the common enemy of both the proletarian struggles in the advanced countries and the national liberation struggles in the colonies. The two types of social movements should support each other in a common struggle (Fall 1967:330-32). This insight has relevance in our time. Imperialism, the most profoundly anti-democratic force of the modern era, is the common enemy of all humanity. We must all be allies in a global anti-imperialist movement, even as we recognize that our national struggles take different forms, according to which side of the colonial divide we find ourselves.
Based on his experiences in leading a national liberation movement that triumphed and that waged successful wars of liberation against French colonialism and US imperialism, Ho Chi Minh formulated the essential components of a successful national liberation struggle. According to Ho, to be successful, a national liberation movement must: establish a broad united front that includes diverse popular sectors and the progressive wing of the national bourgeoisie; address the interests of peasants; form an army of the people; have the material and diplomatic support of other nations and movements; and be led by a vanguard party of the working class (Fall 1967:334, 332, 291).
We have previously discussed the issue of the proletarian vanguard in the history of Marxism-Leninism, noting that the notion of a revolution led by factory workers was formulated in the particular conditions of Western Europe, and that it ultimately would evolve today to a concept of a revolution forged by multiple popular sectors and led by a vanguard consisting of the most advanced and committed members of these popular sectors. Ho tended to apply the concept of the working-class vanguard with flexibility, viewing the vanguard in practice as consisting of enlightened and committed intellectuals, peasants, and workers (see “Marx on the revolutionary proletariat” 1/14/2014; “Ho reformulates Lenin” 5/7/2014).
But apart from the question of who belongs to the vanguard, the central point in Ho’s teaching on the vanguard is the notion that a successful revolution must have a vanguard that leads the people in the revolutionary process. We in the societies of the North are so oriented toward an abstract notion of equality and a distrust of authoritarianism that we often fail to appreciate the concept of the vanguard. The concept is based on certain undeniable truths: that social dynamics are complex and difficult to understand; that powerful sectors distort discussion of social dynamics by disseminating ideas that promote their particular interests; that most people are oriented to practical concerns, such as the price of food, rather than toward theoretical reflection; and that, nonetheless, some people are oriented to theoretical reflection, and some of them also are committed to seeking to understand social dynamics, are identified with the interests of the people, and are gifted with a capacity to lead the people. This is not to say that the vanguard decides; the vanguard leads, but the people decide. There is a relation between the vanguard and the people, in which the vanguard tries to lead the people in the correct course of action. When revolutions take off, that is, when they begin to have victories, the vanguard increases its experience and therefore its capacity to discern the correct way, and the people acquire increasing trust and confidence in the vanguard. But even when successful, it is the people, and not the vanguard, that ultimately decides. If the vanguard were to lose the capacity to persuade the people, the revolution would die. Thus, we find here an important teaching of Ho: when revolutions succeed, they are led by a vanguard that understands the national dynamics of domination and revolution, and that understands and has the support of the people
People are human, and they have their shortcomings, and so do vanguard parties. Ho was constantly exhorting the members of the vanguard party to work on overcoming their shortcomings. He gave special emphasis to the need to study and to develop a theoretical understanding that is connected to political practice. This would help to overcome common defects among party members, such as individualism, bureaucratism, and dogmatism. He considered dogmatism particularly pernicious, because it negates a fundamental characteristic of Marxism-Leninism, namely, its capacity to adapt and evolve. For Ho, the adaptation and evolution of Marxism-Leninism reflects the fact that theory and practice are unified. The unity of theory and practice requires that theoretical concepts be applied in a form that gives consideration to particular conditions, and because of this, there is a natural process of adaptation and evolution in theory. Accordingly, Ho understood the work of Lenin to be an evolution of the concepts of Marx, as Lenin adapted Marx to the conditions of the Russian Revolution. And he considered Mao to be a further evolution of Marxism-Leninism, inasmuch as Mao adapted Marxism-Leninism to the conditions of China (Fall 1967: 317, 321, 341).
This notion of the evolution of Marxism-Leninism is an important teaching of Ho Chi Minh. We can further apply this insight. Ho Chi Minh’s practical synthesis of Marxism-Leninism and Vietnamese nationalism was an important moment in the evolution of Marxism-Leninism, as he adapted Marxism-Leninism to the conditions of Vietnam and Indochina. Fidel Castro’s formulation also was an important evolutionary advance, as he adapted Marxism-Leninism to the conditions of Cuba and Latin America. And in the revolutions of Latin America today, charismatic leaders like Hugo Chávez, Rafael Correa, and Evo Morales are adapting Marxism-Leninism (and Maoism and Fidelism) to the conditions of Latin America in the twenty-first century. Intertwined with practice and formulated by charismatic leaders, Marxism-Leninism continues to evolve.
As we intellectuals and activists participate in the various national manifestations of the global revolution today, we should appreciate that we are participants in an historic process that began in the 1830s in Western Europe, unfolded in the early twentieth century in Russia, and continued to express itself during the course of the twentieth century in China, Indochina, South Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. This historic process of popular revolution and sacrifice has lifted up charismatic leaders, gifted with a capacity to lead and to teach us the people. Among these charismatic leaders was a man of humble character and dignified bearing, the son of a Confucian scholar, and beloved leader of a heroic people, who was known to the world as Ho Chi Minh, which means “He Who Enlightens.”
Fall, Bernard B., Ed. 1967. Ho Chi Minh On Revolution: Selected Writings, 1920-26. New York: Frederick A. Praeger.
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