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Pierre Brocheux, trans. Claire Duiker, Ho Chi Minh: A Biography.

Pierre Brocheux, trans. Claire Duiker, Ho Chi Minh: A Biography, Cambridge: Cambridge UniversityPress, 2011 edn. ISBN 9781107622265, 288pp, 18.99 [pounds sterling], pb

Pierre Brocheux's biography of Ho Chi Minh, originally published in 2003 as Ho Chi Minh: Du revolutionnaire a l'icone, is informative and elegant. The framework of the book reiterates a strand of orientalist scholarship on East and South East Asian early communists, in reading them primarily as 'Confucian intellectuals' guided by ethical idealism rather than Marxism-Leninism. A brief foreword by William J. Duiker, author of the most detailed biography of Ho in English, echoes the same position: 'In Ho Chi Minh's eyes Karl Marx represented the realization of Confucian ideals in a modern historical context'.

The first chapter treats the childhood and youth of Nguyen Ai Quoc, later known worldwide as Ho Chi Minh. It touches upon his search for a 'modern' education--characteristic of the colonised intelligentsia in search of self-development in an impoverished, restrictive and repressive colonial milieu--and his eventual migration to Europe. The author shows that as a serious and self-taught young man, Ho (as he will be referred to throughout this piece, in order to avoid confusion) became interested in the plight of the oppressed through his experiences in rural Indochina (Vietnam) and the West. Living precariously on the margins of society as a sailor, a gardener and a cook during his travels through France, Britain and the United States, Ho was exposed to the impoverished realities of racialised subjecthood and working-class life. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917, with its anti-imperialist pronouncements in the midst of a World War being fought over colonies, attracted him, alongside many others in his situation. Soon afterwards he settled in Paris, where his thoughts and actions turned radical. He prepared and sent a petition for Vietnam's political freedom before the Allied leaders assembled at Versailles. There was no response. He also joined the French Socialist Party, and was a founder of the Communist Party of France (PCF) which emerged from it. He felt the PCF should pay greater attention to the colonial question, and developed a network among a tiny anti-colonial segment of Arab, African, Chinese and Vietnamese youth through the 'Intercolonial Union', founded in 1921. Its members led a semi-starved communitarian existence and supported each other. Their mouthpiece, Le Paria, was started in 1922, with Nguyen Ai Quoc as one of the chief contributors. As a member of the PCF's Colonial Commission he also started writing a book on French imperialism, ultimately published in 1925 as French Colonialism on Trial. His activities during his stay in Paris were watched closed by the French security police, and detailed surveillance reports were maintained. In 1923 he managed to slip away from this unwelcome gaze and arrived in Moscow.

The second chapter deals with Ho's experience and work in Russia and China. In his articles and lectures of the period he highlighted the specific conditions of social exploitation and revolution in the predominantly agrarian colonial world, which was different from Europe, where a developed industrial working class already existed. In 1924 he left Moscow and made his way to Canton. There he worked closely with the Comintern representative Borodin, as well as Chinese communists and Vietnamese expatriates. Officially, he was the press correspondent of a Soviet news agency. Unofficially, as a Comintern representative, he was working with the Communist Party of China (CCP), aiming to establish a Communist Party of Indochina and using Canton as his base. In 1925, he founded the Revolutionary Youth League of Vietnam with a core group of dedicated communist cadres in Canton. He supposedly married a Chinese woman in Canton, but he returned to Moscow in 1927, when the Chinese nationalists, backed by the western powers, came down on Chinese communists. After visits to Berlin and Paris Ho made his way back to Asia, and from late 1929 to early 1933 he was based in Hong Kong, from where he travelled to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore as a Comintern emissary. During early 1930 the Vietnamese communist splinter groups joined forces under his leadership and became known as a single entity, the Communist Party of Indochina (ICP), which led a short-lived mass uprising in Vietnam that was brutally crushed by the French authorities.

The third chapter examines Ho's continued involvements with the Comintern, the Chinese communist movement and the ICP. Jailed by the British in 1931 and returning to the USSR the following year, he enrolled at the Institute for the Study of National and Colonial Questions (the renamed Stalin University), and lectured and wrote extensively on the agrarian revolution. Subsequently he was protected from the purges of Comintern cadres in 1937-8, when Vera Vassileva and Dimitri Manuilsky of the Comintern disciplinary board, as well as Otto Kuusinen, head of the CI's Far Eastern Bureau, stood by him. In 1938, he was allowed to leave the USSR, and worked as a political commissioner of the Chinese Army, which was pitted against the imperial Japanese Army of occupation. In 1940 he started working with Vietnamese railway workers and other migrant labourers living in the Yunnan province. Since Vietnamese nationalists, with help from the Kuomintang, already had a political foothold among these workers, Ho organised systematic infiltration of their ranks to turn them in a left direction, and also offered revolutionary training to those inclined towards political radicalism. With the capitulation of France to Germany in 1940, and the plan of the nationalist government in China to send troops to Indochina to counter the Japanese troops being sent there, Ho's network of Vietnamese communists decided to return to their country of origin and build village-level resistance. Living in caves and other makeshift shelters in the Tonkin region, this army became the nucleus of a communist guerrilla army known as the Viet Minh. It was also around this time that Nguyen Ai Quoc finally arrived at the alias which was to make him famous as Ho Chi Minh ('The Enlightened One'). Following the fall of the Vichy regime in France, Ho guided the Viet Minh to take advantage of the Japanese uprooting of French colonial authority, and, with the weakening of the two sets of imperialist occupiers, to take control of the country's northern regions. In September 1945, a provisional revolutionary government was created in the name of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Ho was proclaimed president of this independent country.

The book's fourth chapter analyses the crises and complexities of decolonisation during the First Vietnam War against the French during 1945-54. In 1946, the election for a Vietnamese National Assembly was held. The Viet Minh won 97 per cent of the vote. The French, unable to bear the thought of voluntary withdrawal from what was once a colony, began negotiations. Ho visited France to prevent an all-out war immediately following the devastations caused by the Second World War. But the talks broke down, and the colonisers backed the creation of an anti-communist nationalist-collaborationist regime in the southern territories as they faced ultimate defeat in the hands of communist forces in the battle of Dien Bien Phu (1954). This was followed by Geneva accords and the partition of Vietnam. Brocheux here discusses Ho's role as a diplomatic and cautious head of state who attempted peaceful negotiation with colonisers despite their intransigence.

The fifth chapter treats the last phase of Ho's life (1954-69), as president of the DRV, when Vietnam faced internal turmoil due to land reforms and external threats posed by the Second Vietnam War which meant confronting the USA. The chapter also deals with how Ho tried to negotiate with the conflict raging within the Soviet bloc as Sino-Soviet relations spiralled downwards. His transformation from a mass leader to a mythical icon is also treated in the context of his infirmities linked with old age, and the rise of the next generation of leaders, who were responsible, according to the author, for 'sidelining' Ho entirely. This last chapter follows what Duiker and other scholars have already written, and it lacks the refreshing insights of a social historian that are present in the previous chapters.

Brocheux's rigorous empirical research and sensitive handling of the material are admirable, and the treatment of a range of primary sources through the lens of social history is truly impressive. In this sense, the biography surpasses the existing biographical literature on Ho Chi Minh, and, as it follows him through aliases, villages, cities, countries, roads, addresses, prisons, caves, rivers and mountains, the narrative resembles impressionist brush strokes, deftly depicting those aspects that could be traced and represented. However, the text also prompts certain questions that remain unanswered. An attempt to isolate Ho from the communist movement, as a Confucian figure standing apart while being involved, forms the overarching frame of the book. The author himself has pointed out that Ho was one of many intellectuals from the colonial world who were captivated by the 'charm of October'. Can this, rather than a reworked Confucianism, explain Nguyen Ai Quoc's lifelong commitment to revolutionary communist politics? Ho Chi Minh's life encompassed dreams of a world revolution and was manifested, in concrete terms, through his work with several communist parties, including the PCF, the CCP and the ICP. While he was a founder of the first and the third organisation, he was certainly associated with at least one of the founders of the second (Chou En-Lai) in France, encouraging the latter to turn left; he also worked closely with the CCP in pre-revolutionary China during extremely difficult moments of its history. This internationalist and radical cosmopolitan vision cannot be explained on the basis of Confucian ethical idealism. Ho's (and Mao Tse Tung's) pronouncements on the need to put Confucianism on its head for socialist and communitarian purposes implied stepping beyond and questioning the boundaries set by Confucianism as an imperial-patriarchal-bureaucratic ideology.

The book also fails to fully explore the links maintained by Ho as a leader in exile with the emerging communist movement in Vietnam, even if certain tensions and activities are mentioned in detail. Also left untreated are the social conditions through which this party, led by an often invisible leader, became hegemonic within the anti-imperialist movement directed against the French, Japanese and US forces, ultimately leading to decolonisation. Certain sections on Ho's personal actions appear weak in terms of material used and sources mentioned. They resemble anecdotes and suppositions, and do not provide a convincing or comprehensive or intimate account of Ho's life. What the book does evoke is the close relationship between the Chinese and Vietnamese communist movements during the decades of their formation and growth from the 1920s to the 1950s, even if the author's interpretations of the relations between the leaders, including Chou En-Lai and Ho Chi Minh, are open to debate. The significance for Ho of Dien Bien Phu, as symbol and reality of the humiliating defeat inflicted on one of the oldest colonial powers in Asia, is virtually left out of the narrative. The book focuses on and reiterates older positions on the excesses of the land reform movement in North Vietnam as Stalinist/Maoist crimes, while remaining silent on the conditions created by landlessness and bondage under predatory landlordism supported by colonial rule, and refusing to discuss why the famished peasants in the countryside desperately wanted and benefited from the redistribution of land--one of the crucial factors that propelled them towards communism. The author depicts Ho as a master tactician of deferral, postponing bloody confrontations with the enemy for as long as possible. He feels that the surge in warfare against the US during the 1960s was the work of a boorish troika from the north. This analysis sounds unconvincing given the political climate of the Cold War and US interventions in Asia from the 1950s. Despite these gaps and problems, the lucid writing style of the book blends elegantly with the care taken to excavate a wealth of details; they provide texture and depth to Ho Chi Minh's political and social milieu, as well as the persona of a man well-known for his enigma. The book will draw the interest of professional historians and lay readers alike.

Suchetana Chattopadhyay

Jadavpur University, Kolkata
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Author:Chattopadhyay, Suchetana
Publication:Twentieth Century Communism
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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