Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Chris Harman on Ho Chi Minh

[[This humourous account of the late Chris Harman's intervention on behalf of the International Socialists at the Ho Chi Minh memorial meeting held in London's Conway Hall in 1969 appears in an excellent collection edited by David Widgery, The Left in Britain, 1956-68, (Harmondsworth, 1976), pp. 412-15.]]

The Ho Chi Minh memorial meeting took place to commemorate the death of Ho Chi Minh. There had been two massive demonstrations on the subject of Ho Chi Minh. the first of which had occasioned a conflict in Grosvenor Square which outraged and shocked the bourgeois press and at the same time greatly cheered those who participated provided they didn't have to go through it all over again. On the second Vietnam demonstration great precautions were made by the bourgeoisie to prevent the seizure of state power. But the revolutionaries organized in such a way that they spent most of their time stewarding the march to prevent people breaking the law, like a large number of sheepdogs chasing each other into tidy shapes. The memorial meeting was effectively an epitaph on the solidarity campaign as far as I was concerned.

'A large number of people who had come into VSC [Vietnam Solidarity Campaign] had, after those two marches, decided either to piss off back home and play their records or alternately to join a political organization. Some did both. The death of Ho Chi Minh provided the last gasp of opportunity for the VSC to call a meeting with some hope that it would gather people from quite a wide political spectrum and drag back the various warring elements within the VSC. These were effectively the International Socialists and the International Marxist Group. Around these two groups was a whole number of small Maoist organizations and on one edge and feeling very unhappy was the Communist Party.

'Everybody agreed that the death of Ho Chi Minh was a bad thing. It was not particularly surprising that Jack Woodis as the representative of the Communist Party took the chance to reappear on a VSC platform. Nor was it surprising that a representative of the North Vietnamese Embassy should be there too. This in fact suited everyone because it convinced Jack Woodis that he was part of the young aware radical generation or something and it suited the IMG's belief that they were part of some world-wide movement striding to victory after victory in Indo-China and elsewhere. It suited me because I had to dish out leaflets for the Irish Civil Rights Solidarity Campaign, which was considered at that time a going concern, and this was a very handy concentration of lefties to do it. Also there were Maoists who had broken away from the great Vietnam demonstration-that-never-was to go to Grosvenor Square and now felt their hair might fall out if they went inside the Conway Hall and so stood outside failing to flog stuff. Inside the score was about 40 percent IS, 30 percent IMG, 30 percent CP, Maoist etc. Most of the meeting was taken up with various people saying that the death of Ho Chi Minh was a great loss to the revolutionary movement throughout the world. Which is probably true but got a bit repetitive. Chris Harman got up for IS and made a speech showing no sign that he might be addressing other than an IS meeting. He addressed the meeting with a certain lack of style but no more than one would expect and proceeded in fairly forthright terms. He dealt first with Ho Chi Minh's contribution to the world revolutionary movement. And everybody sat there soaking up the usual collection of left-wing platitudes to which they had been well accustomed in the Conway Hall. Left-wing audiences are aware of the times that they gather together to clobber hell out of each other and they are aware of the times they gather together to indulge in mutual self-congratulation about the strength of the Left. The latter occasion is rare, but when it comes people thank god for it and think how great it is to be part of the united left against Fascism or the Spanish Civil War or something.

'After a while Harman proceeded to get on to the question of Ho Chi Minh's contribution to killing off the Trotskyist movement in North and South Vietnam. He expanded on various themes and pointed out that from the International Socialists' point of view, though they supported fully the Vietnamese people's struggle against American imperialism and had done a great deal practically in Britain on this theme, it was crucial to realize that Ho Chi Minh and the regime he had headed were not the answer to North Vietnam or Vietnam as a whole and what was eventually necessary was a workers' republic which would have to get rid of the present set-up. This went almost unnoticed by the audience. I regarded all this as fairly sound stuff which I'd heard before anyway hundreds of times. Anyway, Harman finished his speech and a lady aged about 55 to 60 got up and marched to the front and said that it was absolutely outrageous that people should just sit there and vegetate when somebody had just made a totally slanderous attack on the leader of the Vietnamese Revolution who had just died. Whereupon there was thunderous applause from the 60 percent of the audience who weren't in IS. Harman looked slightly surprised and slightly grieved and slightly pleased by the reaction to his address. Tariq Ali looked very unhappy indeed because he could see his meeting falling apart in front of him. At the back of the hall a Maoist shouted "Washington spy!" at Chris Harman, which seemed to please him further. The audience now became somewhat heated. The Communist Party started to denounce the IMG, the IMG in its turn started to denounce the IS. The IS stood there looking grieved in some cases, sheepish in others and quite pleased with themselves for causing so much fuss and bother among the other groups. One Communist came up to the IS contingent and said "You're always like this. You were like this during the thirties. You'll try and wreck anything." By this time the platform was somewhat depleted since half of it had stormed off. The IMG speaker then proceeded to make a declamatory speech that no one could understand.

'Harman had wandered off the platform for some reason and Tariq Ali was left making occasional remarks about the IS letting the side down. The IS shouted at Tariq, "So you support the Communist Party, when did they ever join the VSC?", "Opportunist" etc. People at the back shouted at each other. The general atmosphere that came over for anyone who took a slightly detached view of the proceedings was one of a collection of nutters screaming at each other, and achieving very little. The IMG seemed quite pleased, however, to have photographs of the IS failing to stand up or sit down, whichever the case may be, during the Vietnamese national anthem. This created considerable problems because they seemed to be playing the Red Flag at the same time and I was not sure whether you should stand for either or both or leave, since my reaction since childhood has always been that wheneve a national anthem gets played I walk out of the room as fast as possible. All IS being rude meant to me was that instead of dying a quiet private death three weeks later, VSC died in Conway Hall. But because the IS actually said that after all Ho Chi Minh wasn't such a good thing the VSC got off its bed and ran around for a couple of minutes before collapsing in two minutes in a dead coma.'

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At 9:26 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is a fine article, but not convinced that it is Widgery. the book is so badly produced that it is often unclear what is him and what is someone else. Somewhere in my brain is a memory of who the author is. will look up and consider.

At 1:27 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Cheers comrade - it is anonymous, true...

At 5:54 pm, Anonymous Grim and Dim said...

Widgery says quite clearly that he is using "personal diaries ... including my own". He may have had good reason to protect authors' anonymity - the book appeared only eight years after the events. My own feeling on stylistic grounds is that it isn't Widgery, but I can't be sure. He was very young in 69 and his style may not have matured. But if Anonymous can discover the author that would be most interesting.

At 1:48 pm, Anonymous S said...

I was just thinking of typing this up myself, thanks for saving me the effort. A great piece.

At 9:59 pm, Anonymous bysshe said...

BTW No polemical point intended. I haven't had a chance to search but a knawing memory is there. Reading it somewhere else atributed to someone else. Though this may simply be a long lost pub conversation i have mis remembered.
PS bysshe is as transparent (and therefore not anonymous) internet moniker as grim and dim :)

At 2:16 pm, Anonymous chjh said...

I checked in the book, and it's definitely not credited to a named author. I'm glad to see G&D saying
that it doesn't sound like Widgery, as I've always had my doubts.

At 11:36 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 4:12 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rowbotham left IS after this meeting; Widgery stayed in the group. I don't think he would have been quite so dismissive of the VSCers position if someone as close to him as Sheila had been annoyed by it


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