The prehistory of the Vietnamese Communist Party


The Communist road to power in Vietnam was a long and arduous one. It was 10,000 days from when Ho Chi Minh read Vietnam's Declaration of Independence in Hanoi to when this was actually achieved, and the history of the Vietnamese revolutionary movement stretches back even farther than this. Indochina (which comprised of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) had been under French rule since the 19th century. The Vietnamese were no strangers to foreign occupation, and they yearned for total control over their own affairs. As Ho Chi Minh reminded those who suggested he look to China for help in liberating the nation, "last time the Chinese came they stayed for a thousand years". Although the struggle to finally control their own fate would be gruelling, the Vietnamese people faced up to the challenge remarkably, and eventually they achieved it. This is their story.

In my telling of the story of Vietnamese independence, I have chosen to lump all of the history before the formation of the Vietnamese Communist Party together into this one node. The political activities of the Vietnamese prior to the formation of this party (and even for a time afterwards) were disunited and primitive. It was during the 1920s that the political sophistication of urban Vietnamese began to rise, and the first strong challenge to the French began to emerge.

The early parties

The early nationalist organizations in Vietnam barely deserve to be referred to as political parties, being

"more like secret societies than modern political parties, centered around an individual or based on regional and ethnic identities rather than on a mutual devotion to common political principles."1

Although the parties bore in common a dislike for the French, they disagreed on a range of issues. Should rebellion be violent2 or nonviolent? How vocal should they be in their criticism of French colonial rule? The most notable of the early parties was the Constitutionalist Party, which was the first formal political party in French Indochina. The party had limited goals in that it did not oppose French rule, but wished to create better conditions for Vietnamese within it - however, it went a long way to giving the urban masses a political education.

Ho Chi Minh and the Revolutionary Youth League

Ho Chi Minh was born in Nghe An province, probably in 1890. Nghe An had a history of rebellion, and the child of her's born Nguyen Sinh Cung, later to be named Ho Chi Minh3, would stage the ultimate rebellion of them all. Ho Chi Minh left his country in 1911, politically naive but charged with patriotism and a desire to solve the problems of his country. He stated his reasons for travelling abroad to be so that he could view Western civilization at its source, and hence understand it better. He was taken by the concepts of liberty, equality and fraternity (the "keywords" of the French Revolution), and wished to travel to France to discover more about them. He left Saigon as a ship's cook (Ho would take many jobs in kitchens throughout his travels) and travelled the world, spending time in France, China, the Soviet Union and America before returning to his homeland. These were his formative years - he read Theses on the National and Colonial Questions by Lenin in 1920, studied at the Stalin School for the Toilers of the East and attended the Fifth Congress of the Comintern (the Comintern, or Communist International, was the Soviet organization designed to promote the international Communist movement and bring about a global proletarian revolution. It trained revolutionaries, published doctrine, and had a fair amount of control over its children organizations).

This is where the Revolutionary Youth League comes in. The League was a Marxist-Leninist organization founded by Ho Chi Minh while in the south of China. Patriotic elements from Vietnam often sought refuge in Southern China, and Ho had no difficulty in contacting local dissidents and forming the League. The ideas of the League conformed to those put forward by Lenin and at the Second Comintern Congress, and a school was set up in Canton to indoctrinate new recruits. The organization appealed to scores of young Vietnamese because it promoted national independence. The focus on nationalism was also a problem, however - there was an ongoing raging debate about whether the main aim of the League was nationalism or Communism. Certainly nationalism was the tool used to attract recruits and to seek co-operation from other radical elements in Vietnam (although Comintern doctrine on whether this was appropriate or not shifted rapidly from side-to-side).

Certainly, it was Ho's goal to eventually bring about a proletarian revolution. He penned articles on how the revolution might eventually be brought about, and even differed from the wisdom of the Comintern. Ho believed that the peasantry were an integral part of bringing about the revolution, and in this he would be proved correct. However, the League's focus on nationalism was starting to cause problems. Ho Chi Minh departed to the Soviet Union in 1927, and while he was gone a breakaway faction appeared within the League. Under the leadership of Tran Vun Cung, the Tonkin (Tonkin was a region of Vietnam, defined by the French) delegates to a League Conference stormed out, vowing to form their own party and declaring the League "antirevolutionary".

The break

The League was charged with this for several reasons. One was that it had made few efforts to recruit among the proletarian class, the class which was seen as most important to the revolution. Another was its focus on nationalism as opposed to ideology, which was seen as a betrayal of the masses. The lack of ideology, when put together with the apparent failure to go about the practical part of the revolution (recruiting the proletariat), led to the breakaway.

The Communist cell from Tonkin formed the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) in Hanoi. Then things started getting a little laughable - shocked by the influx of members the ICP was drawing from them, the League renamed itself the Annam Communist Party. Then, to make matters worse, the non-Communist Tan Viet Party changed into a Communist party (the Indochinese Communist League) in an effort to preserve their membership. The parties resorted back to the factionalism of old, spending their time in petty squabbles and insults (including "menshevik").

Moscow wasn't pleased. It dispatched a letter attacking the Vietnamese for their incompetence in allowing the movement to become disunited, and suggested that a conference be called to draw the parties together. This conference was to be held in Hong Kong and chaired by Ho Chi Minh, who would return from Siam as quickly as possible.

Ho Chi Minh's shining character came through, and the output of the conference (the majority of which, it is said, was conducted in "the spirit of unity and love") was the Vietnamese Communist Party. The VCP would, it was said, seek support from as many classes as possible, and it did not reject the support of any other party but the Constitutionalists. Ho Chi Minh, with his now mostly unified party, was ready to move the Vietnamese revolution to the next stage. The first Marxist-Leninist inspired rebellion would soon occur at Nghe Tinh.


1. William J. Duiker, The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam (2nd ed., Westview, 1996).

2. Lenin saw violence as a fundamental part of the revolution, and when the Indochinese Communist Party came under the doctrine of the Comintern, there was no doubt in the members that violence must be employed.

3. Ho Chi Minh used a multitude of different names throughout his life. Ho Chi Minh is an assumed name which means "He who enlightens", and hereafter in this work this shall be the sole name he is referred to by.

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