The Party now established, unity relatively assured, the Vietnamese spy their first opportunity for large, open revolt against their French colonial masters. Their struggle will not be over for a long time yet, in fact it is barely begun. Nghe Tinh was a time for mistakes to be made, and lessons learnt. In this respect it was a great success.
The roots of revolt
The year is 1930, and the newly formed Vietnamese Communist Party of Ho Chi Minh is seeking ways to improve the revolutionary conditions in Vietnam; to ripen his nation for the great proletarian uprising which would rip it from its occupiers.
A contented proletariat can rarely be agitated into revolt - but the proletariat and peasants of Indochina were by no means contented. Conditions in factories and mines were apalling. A Vietnamese worker describes the roll call before the working day -
"The roll call took only about 20 minutes, but what a very nerve-racking 20 minutes it was! The workers' hearts thumped with fear since during roll call the supervisors and French owners would try to find fault with them in order to have an excuse to scold them or beat them up."
By the late 1920s, there was a proletariat of about 200,000. Many put up with apalling conditions, and the French employed a fair degree of forced labour. During this period, there was a World economic crisis going on, and capital was starting to leave Vietnam. Unemployment was on the rise, and as with most newly-industrialising societies, conditions for the urban employed were comparable to those of pigs.
Labour strikes were fairly common by the late 1920s, even without Communist agitation. When the agitation of Uncle Ho's cadres was added to the mixture, a dangerous broth was brewing. Conditions were no better out in the countryside, and the peasants were growing increasingly annoyed with state monopolies on salt, opium and alcohol.
It is hard to isolate single causes in an event such as this; not least when contemporary commentators had little luck in doing so. The risings occured in different areas for different reasons - but the work of Communist agitators was certainly at work in that heartland of Vietnamese disobedience, Nghe An.
Bolshevism in Vietnam
In February of 1930, the VNQDD (the only other radical party in Vietnam) had organized a mutiny among Vietnamese soldiers serving in Tonkin. The VNQDD believed power could be seized from the French by an insurgency by an elite corps of armed troops, regardless of the thoughts of the common man. Mobilizing the French forces against their masters was a key strategy of this, but sadly they had been proved incorrect, at least in the case of the mutiny at Yen Bay.
But, as discontent grew in Central Vietnam, around Nghe An and Ha Tinh, Communist agitators set to work mobilizing the people towards their own greater goals. A "soviet" is a local community association, and they sprang up and spread like a plague at the epicenter of the revolt. They set about reforming their locality, redistributing resources to the needy, cancelling taxes, and removing land from the wealthy. The mandarians and French officials were unable to stop them, and many fled, but inevitably violence was the result.
Unfortunately, the party leaders in Hong Kong did not share the enthusiasm and zeal of the local organizers. Conditions were not uniformly right throughout Vietnam for the final confrontation with the colonial regime, and ambiguity existed as to what the Comintern wanted. The party could not disassociate itself from a rebellion which it had clearly agitated, but nor could it really afford to fail. Yet, when it became clear that the revolutionary fervour of Nghe An and Ha Tinh was not shared by the rest of the country, it was clear failure would result.
Again, the shots finally lay with the Comintern, yet this time it was found wanting. Its criticism of Ho Chi Minh's focus on nationalism as a part of his party led to it being renamed the Indochinese Communist Party (henceforth the ICP). The party authorities issued a statement saying that -
"If the enemy of the revolution is composed of a united force, then the Communist Party must also concentrate the force of the workers in all Indochina1"
Party members had been wrong in advocating violence, it was said. The masses and Party were simply not ready - they had not the infrastructure or the sophistication to support a full challenge to colonial authorities. That would have to wait until the August of fifteen years hence. The Comintern had been wrong in advocating a revolution by an ill-prepared Party and proletariat.
The French response
By early 1931, it was all over. The insurgents did not have the weapons, training or manpower to carry on. The French Foreign Legion was dispatched and stilled the masses with brutality. The French air force rained fire on defenceless peasants as they marched in protest. Soon, several pitched battles had been fought and the rebels were no longer a concern2.
One thousand suspected Communists were arrested, at home and abroad. Ho Chi Minh was seized from his apartment in Hong Kong. All this was disastrous for the party - yet they had proved their potential. Taking a fairly generic peasant uprising and turning it into something organized was no small thing, and it was a significant step on the learning curve that would eventually deliver them into power.