An extract from my forthcoming thousand-plus-page book, Wildfire: Global Anarchist Ideological and Organisational Lineages.
The two leading lights of the pre-WWII Vietnamese anarchist movement represented the two main traditions: Phan Bội Châu (above) the "collectivist" mass line and Nguyễn An Ninh (below) the "individualist" insurrectionists.
The territory later known as Vietnam (Tonkin in the north, Annam in the centre and Cochinchina in the south) was originally Chinese tributary territory, but fell under French colonial administration from 1884, with Tonkin and Annam being placed under harsher rule as protectorates, but the people of Cochinchina given more breathing room because it had the “privilege” of being a direct colony. An isolated and divided people with a long quietist societal tradition under the heels of a dynastic empire propped up by Mandarin administrators and Confucian scholars who initially served Chinese, then French interests, radicalism was late in developing in Vietnam. Radicalism finally emerged in 1898 as the anti-colonial Reform Movement, which was inspired by the Chinese reform movement of that year. But the reformists would soon be challenged by two main anarchist currents, according to Hue-Tam Ho Tai's Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, 1992): the “collectivist orientation” that was “a component of anarcho-socialism” introduced by students returning from China and Japan; and the “libertarian and individualist strain” introduced from those whose studies had taken them to France. Only recently has the role of anarchism in the Vietnamese Revolution attracted scholarly analysis, despite anarchism’s "unmistakable influence on the revolution’s early phase." According to Arif Dirlik’s Encyclopaedia Britannica article on Chinese anarchism, it was “through association with Chinese anarchists in Tokyo that anarchism entered Vietnamese radicalism.”
An important figure was the Vietnamese scholar-turned-militant Phan Bội Châu (1867-1940), Tai’s “pioneer of the Revolution”, who was in Tokyo in the early 20th Century where he “engaged in common activities with Chinese and Japanese radicals.” The “Pan-Asian anti-imperialism of the Chinese anarchists resonated” with Phan's own concerns about the liberation of Vietnam from France. Born in Nghe An in Annam, he was 18 years old when it fell under French colonialism, firing his patriotism and driving him into the arms of a royalist opposition group (despite the fact that from 1885, the French controlled the royal succession). But Phan was soon moving towards radical republicanism. It is not known whether the defeat of Russia by Japan and the subsequent Russian Revolt of 1905 radicalised him, but in that year, he wrote the influential Viet Nam Vong Quoc Su (History of the Loss of Vietnam) and established the “Eastern Travel Movement” which encouraged Vietnamese students, stifled by the patronising style of French education, to travel abroad to improve themselves.
The movement successfully relocated a generation of Vietnamese youth to two centres of pre-war anarchism: Tokyo and Paris. Phan himself, then 38 years old, left for Tokyo in 1905 with Phan Chu Trinh, the son of a wealthy land-owner, where they befriended a wide circle of anti-colonial activists including members of the Japanese Socialist Party and Chinese nationalist Sun Yat-Sen. But in his article Vietnam: The War that the US Lost (International Socialist Review No.29, May-June 2003), Joe Allen wrote that Phan Chu Trinh “broke with Chau [sic.] over the question of Japan’s real intentions toward Indochina (French-occupied Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). He returned to Vietnam and opened a modern school to teach children of both sexes [presumably inspired by the anarchist educator Francisco Ferrer] and he railed at the French for their hypocrisy. While Phan Chu Trinh attacked the French, he also believed that with the help of the French bureaucracy, Vietnam could become a modern society.”
Back in Japan in 1907, Phan Bội Châu formed the Constitutionalist Association (Cong Hien Hoi) to advance the anti-colonial cause among Vietnamese exiles, but it was shut down by the Japanese authorities the following year, acting on a French request. But in that year, Phan appears to have gravitated towards anarchism, albeit still flavoured with Vietnamese nationalism, joining the Asian Friendship Association (Ashin Washinkai) – otherwise known as the League of East Asian Lost Countries (Tungya Wangkuo Tungmenhui) – founded by the Chinese exile anarchists Ha Zhen and Liu Shipei, with its paper Tien I (Natural Justice). Back in Vietnam in 1908, a series of anti-tax riots broke out, followed by peasant riots in Quand Nam. The French authorities used the excuse to smash the Reform Movement by arresting scores of its leading scholars including Phan Chu Trinh, and shutting down the Tonkin Free School which had been founded the previous year (presumably by Phan Chu Trinh) and the University of Hanoi which had been founded in 1902. Phan Chu Trinh was sentenced to death, but the sentence was later commuted to life in the Poulo Cordone prison.
Phan Bội Châu was expelled from Japan in 1909 and traveled to the independent monarchy of Siam (now Thailand) and the British enclave of Hong Kong – then emerging as a revolutionary syndicalist stronghold under IWW influence. The successful 1911 Republican Revolution in China inspired Phan to move to south China in 1912, where he founded the League for the Restoration of Vietnam (Viet Nam Quang Phuc Hoi) among Vietnamese exiles. Despite the fact that the League was funded in part by a 200 piaster donation from Liu, the League was republican in orientation. But its backers in Cochinchina wanted a monarchy free of French influence, so a pretender to the throne, Prince Cuong De, became its figurehead, with Phan as “prime minister” of its government-in-exile, demonstrating the mixed politics of the early anti-colonial movement. Allen claims, without supporting proof, that this meant Phan “believed that a strong emperor with the help of the Chinese and Japanese could defeat the French… His thinking at first was essentially feudal in outlook and aimed at restoring the power of the emperor supported by his mandarins in an independent Vietnam. He had almost nothing to say about the vast economic and social changes brought by French imperialism.” But this is clearly untrue because Phan Bội Châu also set up a “League for the Prosperity of China and Asia” to, in Tai’s words, “foster solidarity between China and the colonised countries of Asia, in particular Vietnam, India, Burma and Korea”. On a trip to Shanghai, Phan also joined with fifteen Chinese and one Japanese anarchist in the clandestine League for Humanity (The Goi Nhan Dao Hoi), immersing himself in the anarchist resistance movement.
In 1911, Phan Chu Trinh was released from jail, becoming according to Allen, a symbol of “resistance to the French for many educated Vietnamese”. In 1913, League assassins killed two French army officers in Hanoi in Tonkin and the Vietnamese governor of Thai Binh province – and influenced secret societies and religious sects to attack the French police headquarters in Saigon in Cochinchina. The young French-installed monarch Duy Tan was implicated in a plot against the French garrison in Annam and was promptly dethroned and replaced. Seven League members were executed and Phan Bội Châu was sentenced to death in absentia. In this period, it appears that the Esperanto-language edition of Chinese anarchist-communist Liu Shifu’s Minsheng (The Voice of the People), La Voco de la Popolo, was available to Vietnamese radicals in the country’s north. French entry into the First World War saw the authorities in Vietnam press-gang thousands of “volunteers” into service in Europe, leading to riots throughout Cochinchina. The French claimed Phan Bội Châu was behind the disturbances, further boosting his reputation as the key anti-colonial figure – but 38 League members were executed and 1,000 people jailed. Phan was betrayed in China by a double agent and spent the next three years in a Chinese prison, being released in 1917, the year the University of Hanoi was reopened.
In August 1917, there was a revolt in Thai Nguyen province, Tonkin, provoked by the brutality of the French résident named Darles who was held responsible for the death by murder or suicide of 670 prisoners in the first eight months of the year. Importantly, the revolt, which was lead by Luong Ngoc Quyon, united both prisoners and French colonial troops repulsed by Darles’ sadism, and lasted for three months. Quyon was a former member of Phan’s Eastern Travel Movement who had moved to Japan in 1905, was jailed in south China in 1915, losing the use of both his legs during two years in a tiny cell. The French killed 500 in suppressing the revolt and merely fined Darles a nominal amount for his inhumanity. He was only fired after photographs of him personally torturing a Vietnamese prisoner were published by an opposition newspaper.
Meanwhile the League had been kept afloat in Phan Bội Châu’s absence by militants like Dang Tu Man and Dan Thuc Hua, but in 1919, Hua left the League, criticising it for its elitism and calling for revolutionaries to, in echo of the slogans of the Chinese anti-colonial May 4 Movement of that year, “go barefoot into the streets and byways and live the life of the common people”. In 1920, Tai writes, Phan published his translation of a Japanese syndicalist work, Inquiry into the True Character of the Soviet Union. But a new generation was coming to the fore and in 1923, former League members regrouped as the Society of Like Hearts (Tam Tam Xa) – otherwise known as the New Vietnam Youth Corps (Tan Viet Thanh Nien Doan) – that Tai maintains was an anarchist organisation based on Liu’s One Heart Society (I Hsin She), a cell-based network that cloaked itself in nationalist terms. In 1924, members of the Society of Like Hearts contacted Soviet advisers at the newly-formed, communist-controlled Whampoa Military Academy in China. Armed with explosives acquired from the academy, Society militant Phan Hong Thai, a factory worker, attempted to kill the French governor-general of Indochina who was on an official visit to Guangzhou. Thai missed his target, but killed three and wounded two in his entourage, then drowned in the river while fleeing, giving Vietnam its first revolutionary martyr. Thai was later buried near the graves of the martyrs of the 1911 Wuchang mutiny.
In 1923, Nguyễn An Ninh, the son of a small land-owning Reform Movement “country scholar”, returned to Vietnam from France where he had become an individualist pacifist anarchist, and delivered a sensational speech on the aspirations of Annamite youth that inspired a generation. Born in 1900, Ninh originally worked as a journalist on the mainstream Courier Saigonnais (Saigon Courier) before studying law at the Sorbonne in Paris starting in 1920 where he joined the communist-initiated “Group of Annamite Patriots in France” and apparently wrote on Vietnam both for Paria (Pariah), the anti-colonial journal of the new French Communist Party (PCF), and for Le Libertaire (The Libertarian), the organ of the Anarchist Union (UA). Writing on the supposed “miracle” of France’s “civilising mission” in Southeast Asia, Ninh responded: “What is this miracle? It is a miracle indeed to be able in a short time to plunge a people with an already low intellectual level into thick ignorance; it is a miracle indeed to be able, in such a short time to plunge a people with democratic ideas into complete servitude.”
On Ninh’s return to Vietnam aged 23, he founded the outspoken anarchist bi-weekly newspaper Cloche Fêlée (Broken Bell), which Tai writes sold 1,500 to 2,000 copies despite its correspondence being intercepted by the French Sûreté security police and its street-sellers being frequently roughed up by police and French patriots.The publisher of Cloche Fêlée was the Vietnamese-French métis Eugene Dejean de la Batie. But despite the paper’s electrifying rapport among the Vietnamese, Ninh never converted its support into an organisational base. Still, though it lasted only seven months, its core was refounded in 1925 as the radical journal Indochine (Indochina), later Indochine Enchâinée (Indochina Enchained), which sold 5,000 copies and provided a locus around which the proto-revolutionary Young Annam (Jeune Annam) group revolved. Meanwhile, Cloche Fêlée was briefly revived with an even more radical tone in 1925 under the editorship of Phan Van Truong.
In 1924, Phan Bội Châu started talking about refounding his defunct League into a Guomindang-styled party (bearing in mind the Guomindang had been restructured under Comintern influence as a Leninist organisation), and spoke to both Chinese nationalist Chiang Kai-Shek and Comintern agents to this end. But his initiative was stillborn because of the visit to south China of the key Vietnamese communist, Nguyen Tat Thanh (Nguyen Ai Quoc, or “Nguyen The Patriot”) – better known as Ho Chi Minh. A teacher by training, Ho had left Vietnam aged about 20 in 1911, worked for two years as a cook’s assistant on ships plying the Atlantic, settled in London in 1913, moved to France in 1917 and founded the “Group of Annamite Patriots in France”, joined the Socialist Party (PS) as its Indochinese delegate and was among the founders of the PCF. Until Ho was sent to China in the company of Comintern agent Mikhail Borodin, the Bolsheviks had viewed Indochina as a mere province of China, but from that date on, the creation of an Indochinese Communist Party was on the Russian agenda.
In 1925, an organisation called Vietnamese Restoration (Phuc Viet) was founded among more radical League prisoners on the penal island of Con Son, later expanding into Annam and Tonkin where social and political freedoms were more restricted than in Cochinchina. The young student militant Tong Quang Phiet joined Phuc Viet. Then three events sparked the first true national resistance in Vietnam. Firstly, Phan Bội Châu was captured in China and brought back to Vietnam to stand trial. Allen notes that “[t]ens of thousands of Vietnamese followed his trial”. A national hero, his death sentence outraged even the “Constitutionalists” who favoured Vietnamese assimilation into French imperialism. Secondly, the 1926 funeral of veteran reformer Phan Chu Trinh – which Allen notes drew a procession of 60,000 people – sparked mass demonstrations that uniquely united some 15,000 workers, students and activists. Thirdly, in 1926, Jeune Annam, which became the Young Annam Party (PJA), hosted an unprecedented anti-colonial meeting of 3,000 people, and began transforming itself into a political party, but Ninh declined the offered leadership post. He was arrested shortly afterwards. Despite the new governor-general of Indochina, the Socialist Alexandre Varenne, commuting Phan’s sentence to an indefinite term under house arrest, popular outrage found expression in a two-year strike-wave that shut down many schools and French-owned businesses. The repression that followed radicalised the youth – with Cloche Fêlée beginning to serialise the Communist Manifesto – thousands of whom went into exile in France, China and elsewhere.
The PJA was rendered impotent by exile, but within a short space of time, four new competing, but overtly revolutionary, organisations developed. In southern China in 1925, Ho Chi Minh, former League member Lam Duc Thu and several members of the anarchist Society of Like Hearts had founded the clandestine Communist Youth Corps (Than Nien Cong San Doan), which acted as the ideological nucleus of the public Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth (Viet Nam Kach Mon Than Nien). Tai notes that Ho “wished to refute not so much the anarchist vision of post-revolutionary society as the anarchist critique of political parties and authority, which undermined his efforts to build a strong Leninist party”. Ho also created a “League of Oppressed People of the East” that Tai writes had members from Vietnam, China, India, Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and Indonesia – an apparent echo of Phan’s earlier League for the Prosperity of China and Asia. In response to the challenge, Phuc Viet in Annam renamed itself the Vietnamese Revolutionary Party (Viet Nam Cach Man Dang) in 1926, while the militants clustered around the Nam Dong Publishing Society in Tonkin founded the Vietnamese Nationalist Party (Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang, or VNQDD). And in Cochinchina, Ninh finally embraced organisation, founding, with working class organiser Pham Van Chieu and brilliant technician Phan Van Hum, the anarchist Nguyễn An Ninh Secret Society (Hoi Kin Nguyễn An Ninh), which had three guerrilla sections including one commanded by Ninh’s wife.
With between 700 and 800 members drawn mostly from among peasants, workers and criminals in the outskirts of Saigon, Ninh's Secret Society was substantially larger than the Vietnamese Revolutionary Party, but smaller than Ho’s League. In 1927, a Vietnamese section of the East Asian Anarchist Federation (EAAF), founded in China that year, was established, but it is not known which Vietnamese organisations were affiliated: the Secret Society or the Vietnamese Revolutionary Party. By 1928, the League’s Cochinchinese regional structure numbered about 200 members and another 250 adherents of auxiliary organisations – and communism was starting to spread among ordinary workers, who had been largely ignored by all revolutionaries until that point. About 40,000 Chinese “coolies” (general labourers) worked the rubber plantations of Cochinchina where, Tai writes, conditions were appalling and where the savage repression of a rebellion on the Phu Rieng plantation in protest at the death of a worker “gave the Youth League its first crack at enrolling plantation workers into its ranks”. It is not known whether any of these migrant workers had been exposed to the powerful anarchist union organising in south China, centred on Guangzhou.
Ninh discussed merging with the Vietnamese Revolutionary Party, but the old party stalwarts were wary of his extremism, as was the nationalist VNQDD to which he took a similar proposal. In 1928, Ninh and about 500 members of the Society were detained for questioning, and the following year, he and 115 others stood trial. He received a three-year jail term and Society militants like Pham Van Chieu and Truong Thi Sau kept the organisation alive in his absence. But the repression – and an inability to seize the initiative as Ho had done – would prove fatal for the broader anarchist movement. The League in Cochinchina also suffered a massive crackdown resulting from a police investigation into the party-sanctioned murder of its own regional head, Le Van Phat, in 1928 for forcing a young woman recruit to serve him sexually. Almost a third of the League’s Cochinchinese membership was either jailed or put to flight. The nationalist VNQDD, for its part, was virtually eliminated by the Sûreté following the assassination in 1929 of Hervé Bazin, the Indochinese director of manpower, by a party member who had been refused permission to carry out such an assassination. Hundreds of VNQDD members were arrested and 227 tried, prompting the party to call for a premature and suicidal insurrection in 1930. The insurrection was nipped in the bud and Nguyen Hai Thoc and twelve other party leaders were guillotined.
Also in 1929, a minority faction of the communist League split off and founded the Indochinese Communist Party (PCI) along Leninist lines, recruiting Tonkinese League and VNQDD members. In Cochinchina, the PCI was opposed by a rival Annamite Communist Party, but eventually swallowed almost all its rivals including many survivors of Ninh’s Secret Society – all except Phan Bội Châu’s “New” Vietnamese Revolutionary Party in Annam. Floods and famine in Vietnam in 1929 were met by a refusal by the French to allow Vietnamese relief work, fearing it would allow revolutionaries to raise funds under cover of humanitarian aid. This provoked a series of mass demonstrations across the territory, including the first Vietnamese May Day rally in Nghe An province. At a congress in Hong Kong in 1930, the League, which like the PCI had failed to gain Comintern endorsement, reunited with their now-powerful dissidents under the PCI aegis. This new PCI was finally given the nod by Moscow, but Ho was arrested in China in 1931 and only resurfaced in south China as an active participant in Vietnamese revolutionary politics in 1941, when the PCI formed the “League for the Independence of Vietnam” (best known as the Viet Minh).
Meanwhile the protests developed into a revolt, spurred on by a growing trade union movement, escalated into strikes, peasant demonstrations, riots, and, in Nghe An and Ha Tinh in Annam and Cao Lanh in Cochinchina, the formation of village soviets and peasant militias, the latter of which only surrendered to French forces in January 1931. Most accounts attribute the revolt to “communists” but support in Phan’s home town of Nghe An for his New Vietnamese Revolutionary Party suggests a more complex picture. Nevertheless, the formation of the PCI greatly weakened local anarchist counter-power. However, in 1936 a group of 25 Chinese anarchist militants – who had intended fighting in the Spanish Revolution, but were turned back at Marseille, France – returned to Vietnam and not China, so they established an organisation there. It is not clear whether there was any link between the Vietnamese anarchist movement and the unusual strength of Trotskyism in Cochinchina in the 1940s, the Trotskyist “Left Opposition” (Tai Do Lap) group having been formed in 1931. But Tai notes that the France-based Annamite Independence Party (PIA), formed in 1928 by former Secret Society militant Phan Van Hum, out of which the Tai Do Lap arose, had envisaged a Vietnamese “parliament” consisting solely of syndicalist delegates, not political party delegates. Another wave of repression by the French in 1939 – during which Nguyễn An Ninh was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment and 10 years’ exile for conspiring against the colonial regime and inciting a revolt of peasants and workers – followed by the occupation of Vietnam by Japan in 1940, drove all revolutionary factions further underground. Phan Bội Châu died under house arrest in 1940, while Nguyễn An Ninh died in the Pulo Condore prison in 1943.