Vietnam: there are no alternatives
Published in Labour Worker, 7 September 1966. It was written in reply to Peter Sedgwick’s “‘Victory for the Vietcong’ Is it the right slogan?” in Labour Worker, 5 August 1966, available at http://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1966/08/vietcong.htm .
Peter Sedgwick’s article in the August Labour Worker criticising the paper’s position on Vietnam, and in particular my statement that “support the Vietcong” is a “basic slogan” is a valuable one. It raises issues that must be faced and thoroughly discussed by the British left.
Peter Sedgwick agrees that the demand for negotiations is pure fraud and plays into the hands of Wilson in any argument; he agrees that the suggestion that both sides in the war must take equal blame is a vicious slander. The question to which we both seek an answer is – what clear political demand will best gather the maximum support?
Sedgwick suggests “campaign against the US presence in Vietnam.” This is a good slogan in so far as it makes clear that the root responsibility for the war lies with American imperialism, and that peace cannot be obtained while imperialism remains in Vietnam.
Nonetheless, it seems to me that this slogan is rather abstract and, indeed, slightly dishonest. In the existing situation in Vietnam, there are, short of a Martian invasion, only two alternatives – continuing US domination, or taking of power by the Vietcong. If American troops are withdrawn, for better or worse, the only existing political leadership in South Vietnam, the NLF, will take over. Why should we try to evade this fact, or conceal it from those whose support we are trying to win? In the case of Algeria, which Sedgwick quotes, there was, until 1958, an alternative, the MNA, which seemed more deserving of support from socialists – however wrong that support may seem in retrospect. In Vietnam, there is not, to the best of my knowledge, any third alternative of the remotest plausibility.
Moreover, it seems unrealistic to divorce the support for a demand from support for those who are making it. In Vietnam those who are demanding and fighting for US withdrawal are the NLF. Similarly, in the event of an official strike called by a union with right-wing leadership, we would not allow political distrust of the leadership to prevent us from, for example, collecting funds, or distributing official union literature.
Sedgwick is dubious of the exact implications of “support” or “solidarity”. It does not mean complete acceptance of the full programme of the organisation we support. If any subsidiary demands of the NLF or North Vietnamese Government seem to us to contradict the basic demand of self-determination, we are entitled to reject them. Similarly, in a strike for higher wages, we might criticise the negotiators for, say, being prepared to accept some worsening of conditions in the pursuit of the demand. We would openly criticise them, but still fully support the strike.
Sedgwick has reservations about the possible use of Vietcong arms to suppress dissident opinion. It is, of course, well-known that Ho Chi Minh has been guilty of the extermination of left oppsitionists; and if similar acts in North Vietnam or the NLF come to light, I for one will do my utmost to see that they are publicised and condemned in Labour Worker, the Vietnam Solidarity Bulletin and elsewhere. But the major criticism would be that such crimes weaken the struggle against the main enemy. There is a clear comparison with the case of a right-wing trade-union leader who, during a strike, condemns “Red” or “Trotskyist” agitators. We denounce him, above all because he weakens his own cause, but we still pass round the strike sheets.
It is true, as Sedgwick points out, that national liberation movements in underdeveloped countries do not lead to the construction of socialist societies – but in most cases to the establishment of tyrannical regimes. But to refuse to support national movements on these grounds is to cut oneself off from the processes whereby socialist consciousness can be formed, and isolate oneself in negative detachment. To take the example of Algeria. It is true that, both under Ben Bella and the present Government, there have been repressions of trade unionists and left socialists. But I am quite sure that none of those thus victimised would claim that things would be just the same if the French had never left – and to say this in Algeria would be to cut oneself off from all progressive and potentially socialist forces.
Finally, I would stress that slogans should not be seen as dividing the movement. On the Vietnam question there are two distinct jobs to be done. One is to make the apathetic public of Britain aware of the horrors of war in Vietnam without any political sophistication. This job is being ably done by the British Council for Peace in Vietnam. Secondly, there is the need to explain and clarify, among the peace movement and the labour movement, the political implications of the Vietnamese war. This job is now being attempted by the Vietnamese Solidarity Committee. Labour Worker supporters, I would hope, are active in the work of both organisations.
Political questions of the type Sedgwick lists are “inane” only if they divide, not if they provide the basis for constructive discussion. One does not refuse to march with those “whose sole demand is peace in Vietnam” – but one does try to engage them in political discussion about how such peace can be achieved. Similarly, there may be absolute solidarity in action between those who believe Russia (or China) is a workers’ paradise, and those who see it as a reactionary tyranny. But this does not mean that the question of the rôle of Russia and China in the present situation should be seen as something that should not be discussed, as something “indecent” and “unmentionable”. Socialist unity must be based, not only on practical co-operation, but on openness, honesty and clarity in political discussion.