New biography states that Ho Chi Minh attended Marcus Garvey rallies

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sun Oct 15 07:55:31 MDT 2000

NY Times Book Review, October 15, 2000

'Half Lenin, Half Gandhi'

A biography of Ho Chi Minh seeks to illuminate the leader who for all his
prominence preferred to remain a cipher.


Confucian humanist and Communist revolutionary, the architect of Vietnamese
independence and of the successful struggle against the French, the United
States and the Saigon government, Ho Chi Minh was one of the most
influential political leaders of the 20th century. Yet even after his death
in 1969 -- and for all the years the American troops fought in Vietnam --
he remained a shadowy figure, his life and career shrouded in myth and in
the myriad guises he assumed during his many years in exile and in the
maquis of Vietnam. As the French journalist Jean Lacouture wrote in his
1967 biography, ''Everything known about Ho's life prior to 1941 is
fragmentary, controversial and approximate.'' Thanks to William J. Duiker's
magnificent new biography, this is no longer the case.

A retired professor of history who served as a United States foreign
service officer in Saigon in the mid-1960's, Duiker spent over 20 years
gleaning new information from interviews and from archives in Vietnam,
China, Russia and the United States. Other Western historians have come
closer to Ho as a person and to the cultural context of his revolution, but
Duiker has managed not only to fill in the missing pieces of Ho's life but
to provide the best account of Ho as a diplomat and a strategist.

The Vietnam War -- as we call it -- was a watershed in 20th-century
American history, and we assume it was one in the history of Vietnam. But
as Duiker's biography reminds us, the major problem for the Vietnamese, as
for many others on this planet, was how to respond to the colonial power
and the destruction of traditional society. Ho Chi Minh dedicated his life
to this task.

Ho's childhood lay in a world lost in time. Born in 1890, just five years
after the French consolidated their control over all of Vietnam, Ho --
whose given name was Nguyen Tat Thanh -- grew up in Nghe An province, on
the narrow and mountainous coast of north-central Vietnam. One of the most
beautiful regions of the country, it was also one of the poorest and most
rebellious. Ho's father, Nguyen Sinh Sac, was a scholar from a peasant
family who managed to work his way up through the imperial examination
system. Under his tutelage, Ho studied the classical Chinese texts that
taught governance as the Dao of Confucius. According to Duiker, Sac was
well acquainted with the scholars Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh, the
most important Vietnamese nationalists in the first two decades of the
century. Like many of the patriotic scholar-gentry, Sac refused to serve at
court during a time of national humiliation, and by 1905 it had become
clear to him that the imperial system, preserved by the French, was
inadequate to cope with the new realities. That year he sent Ho off to a
Franco-Vietnamese school with the admonition of the 15th-century scholar
Nguyen Trai that one must understand the enemy in order to defeat him.

When Ho entered the prestigious National Academy in Hue in 1907, he was
already a rebel. The following year he was thrown out of school for lending
support to peasants demonstrating against high agricultural taxes and
corvee labor. Pursued by the police, he traveled south, taking jobs where
he could. In 1911 he signed on as an assistant cook on a steamer bound for
France, under the name of Ba -- the first of his 50 or more aliases. ''I
wanted to become acquainted with French civilization to see what meaning
lay in those words,'' he later told a Soviet journalist.

Ho's travels took him to ports in Asia and Africa, to New York and London.
He stayed for some time in New York, working as a laborer and going to
meetings of Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Trust in Harlem. In
London he landed a job as a pastry cook under Auguste Escoffier at the
Carlton Hotel. Toward the end of World War I he settled in Paris, the heart
of the French empire. While earning his living as a photo retoucher, he
formed an association of Vietnamese émigrés and denounced France's
treatment of its colonies at gatherings of the French Socialist Party. In
1919 he presented a petition to the Allied governments at the Versailles
conference, asking them to apply President Woodrow Wilson's principle of
self-determination to Vietnam. Only the French police paid attention to the
petition and its author, ''Nguyen Ai Quoc'' (''Nguyen the Patriot''). They
followed Ho everywhere, though ''Nguyen the Patriot'' was a penniless
scribe, a frail young man in ill-fitting suits who cut a Chaplinesque figure.

Ho came to Marxism in the summer of 1920, via Lenin's ''Theses on the
National and Colonial Questions.'' He had read Marxist works before, but,
as Duiker explains, Lenin's arguments about the connection between
capitalism and imperialism and about the importance of nationalist
movements in Asia and Africa to world revolution struck him forcefully,
setting him ''on a course that transformed him from a simple patriot with
socialist leanings into a Marxist revolutionary.'' When the French
Socialist Party split over the issue of joining Lenin's Third International
at its 1921 congress, he became a founding member of the French Communist
Party. Still writing as Nguyen the Patriot, he argued not only that
Communism could be applied to Asia but that it was in keeping with Asian
traditions based on ideas of community and social equality.

Full review at:

First chapter at:

Louis Proyect
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