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The role of the Communist International in Vietnam’s struggle for independence

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A public meeting of the Communist International held in Moscow, 1927. The man on the far right of the image is believed to be Ho Chi Minh. Public Domain

In the 24 years of its existence (1919–43), the Communist International (Comintern) struggled incessantly for the rights of the proletariat and oppressed peoples of the world. In this time, it quickly became the largest globally operating revolutionary organization.

Luong Viet Sang works at the Institute of Party History at the Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics in Hanoi.

For the Vietnamese revolution, the contributions of the Comintern are undeniable. This article focuses on the impact of the national and colonial politics of the Comintern on the Vietnamese revolution, as well as on the implementation of Comintern policies by Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh) and the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV).

National Liberation versus French Imperialism

In September 1858, French warships together with their Spanish allies invaded Vietnam. The Vietnamese feudal authority, the Nguyen Imperial Court, proved unable to lead the people to a successful resistance, and surrendered to the French invaders. With the Patenôtre Treaty signed on 6 June 1884, the French colonialists completed the process of conquering Vietnam. French colonists set up a colonial-feudal system in Vietnam, dividing the country into three regions: Cochinchina (Southern Vietnam) became a French colony, while Tonkin (Northern Vietnam) and Annam (Central Vietnam) became French protectorates. They later were merged into the French Indochinese Union.

French colonialists implemented policies of political repression, harsh economic exploitation, and policies of cultural superiority that favoured French language and culture over indigenous traditions. While the feudal mode of production prevailed in most of the country, the colonialists introduced capitalist production into Vietnamese cities. This led to significant changes in Vietnamese society: in addition to the dominant classes of landowners, peasantry, and the traditional Confucian scholars, new classes appeared—the working class, the bourgeoisie, and petite bourgeoisie.

The landowning class maintained the traditional way of exploiting land rent. The conflict between the landowning class and the peasant class continued to exist. With the exception of the large landowners, who were closely connected to the French colonialists, both small and medium-scale landlords were opposed to the invaders and oftentimes were willing to join the national liberation movement.

The peasantry accounted for more than 90 percent of the population. In addition to conflicts with the landowning class, they also objected to French capitalism and were to a large degree willing to participate in patriotic movements against foreign aggression.

The Confucian scholars did not accept the situation of the colonized country. They were elites in the traditional society of Vietnam, gave a lot of thought to the future of the nation, and were oftentimes ready to participate in the struggle for national liberation. Many of them took part in leading anti-French patriotic movements.

The working class remained small until 1914, when there were 55,000 people working in 200 mines and factories. By 1929, the number of workers had increased to 221,052, with most of them working in mines, on the railways, and on plantations.[1] The workers used to be farmers who were impoverished by the exploitative policies of the colonial-feudal authority, so when they became workers, they still felt a close relationship with the plight of the farmers.

The Vietnamese bourgeoisie emerged after the working class, but grew in number. They were held back from fully blossoming as a class by the French imperialists, so many of them supported the struggle for national liberation.

The Vietnamese petite bourgeois class included mainly students, intellectuals (many of them educated in Western countries), civil servants of the colonial regime, craftsmen, and small traders. They were sensitive to the country’s situation, especially with regard to new ideas from outside Vietnam. Many of them participated in movements of national liberation.

However, class divisions in Indochina in general, and in Vietnam in particular, were not as radical as in Western countries at the time. This created a basis for a joint struggle against imperialism in order to gain national independence.

In short, at the beginning of the twentieth century, Vietnamese society underwent significant changes. The main dividing line was between the Vietnamese people and the French imperialists. Members of all classes of society, whether old or newly formed, felt a need to bring down the yoke of French colonialism and to liberate the country.

This is why the French imperialists—right after invading Vietnam—had to face the resistance of the Vietnamese people. Even when the Imperial Court was forced to sign the Patenôtre Treaty, the resistance continued. Typical movements were the Can Vuong—led by Ton That Thuyet and Phan Dinh Phung—who followed Confucian ideology, while the movements of Dong Du and Duy Tan, led by Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh respectively, and the Yen Bai uprising led by Nguyen Thai Hoc, subscribed to a rather bourgeois ideology of modernization and reform. Although these patriotic movements eventually failed, they proved that nationalism was one of the country’s great resources of liberation. They also demonstrated a desire to continue the fight for liberation from colonialism.

The Comintern Line and Nguyen Ai Quoc’s Strategy to Save the Nation

Right from the First Congress in March 1919, the Comintern determined its mission to develop close relationships between the struggles of the proletariat in imperial countries and the national liberation movements of the colonies. The Platform of the Comintern affirmed that “international proletarian communism will support the exploited colonial peoples in their struggles against imperialism, in order to promote the final downfall of the imperialist world system.”[2] The Manifesto of the Comintern to the Proletariat of the Entire World showed the way to bring freedom to the peoples of the world:

The small peoples can be assured the opportunity of a free existence only by the proletarian revolution, which will liberate the productive forces of all countries from the constraint of the national State, unite the peoples in closest economic collaboration on the basis of a common economic plan, and afford even the smallest and weakest people the opportunity of conducting their national cultural affairs freely and independently.[3]

The Manifesto also emphasized a theoretical point:

The emancipation of the colonies is possible only in conjunction with the emancipation of the metropolitan working class. The workers and peasants not only of Annam, Algiers, and Bengal, but also of Persia and Armenia, will gain their opportunity of independent existence only when the workers of England and France have overthrown Lloyd George and Clemenceau and taken State power into their own hands.[4]

The national and colonial question was an important topic of reference and debate at the Comintern Congresses. In order to prepare for the document on national and colonial issues of the Second International Congress, to be held in the summer of 1920, Vladimir I. Lenin wrote The Draft Theses on National and Colonial Questions in order to receive feedback. In these theses, Lenin pointed out that:

The Comintern’s entire policy on the national and the colonial questions should rest primarily on a closer union of the proletarians and the working masses of all nations and countries for a joint revolutionary struggle to overthrow the landowners and the bourgeoisie. This union alone will guarantee victory over capitalism, without which the abolition of national oppression and inequality is impossible … all Communist parties should render direct aid to the revolutionary movements among the dependent and underprivileged nations (for example, Ireland, the American Negroes, etc.) and in the colonies.[5]

In Paris, Lenin’s Theses had been published in L’Humanité, the newspaper of the French Socialist Party, over the two days of 16 and 17 July 1920. The title of the article, concerning the issue of colonialism, attracted Nguyen Ai Quoc’s attention immediately. More than a year before that, on 18 June 1919, with hopes raised by the Fourteen Points of US President Woodrow Wilson, Nguyen Ai Quoc had sent The Claims of the Annam People to the Versailles Conference on behalf of Vietnamese patriots, but did not receive any answer from the Allied Powers; instead he became the subject of a French spying operation. With Lenin’s Theses, Nguyen Ai Quoc found everything that he had spent nearly ten years searching for. From then on, it was his belief that to save the country and liberate the nation it was necessary to follow the path of Lenin and the Comintern. In December 1920, at the Tours Congress of the French Socialist Party, Nguyen Ai Quoc voted for affiliating to the Comintern. With this decision, Nguyen “placed the destiny of liberating his people in the political and organizational ways of the Comintern, following the proletarian revolution”.[6]

Thus, Nguyen Ai Quoc moved from being “a progressive patriot to a socialist soldier” by joining the Comintern.[7]

Nguyen Ai Quoc’s Creative Application of Communism to the Vietnamese Revolution

Shortly after becoming an adherent of Lenin and the Comintern, Nguyen Ai Quoc developed theory on the relationship between the national revolution in colonial countries and the proletariat revolution in the metropolitan. In a journal article entitled "Indochina" published by La Revue Communiste in May 1921, Nguyen wrote:

The day hundreds of millions of Asian people who are massacred and subjugated awaken to dispel the despicable exploitation from  bottomless greedy colonists, they will form a massive force and, while annihilating one of the existing conditions of capitalism as imperialism, they will be able to help their brothers in the West in the task of complete liberation.[8]

In 1924, at the fifth Congress of Comintern, Nguyen stated: “The destiny of the world’s proletariat depends largely on the colonies, which provide food and soldiers to the big imperialist countries. If we want to defeat these countries, we must first deprive them of their colonies”.[9]

As a “World Communist Party”, the Comintern played a very important role in the establishment of the CPV. In the late 1920s, conditions for the birth of a Communist Party in Vietnam were created. The Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League (Thanh Nien, or “Youth” for short) was founded by Nguyen Ai Quoc, who somewhat came of age spending day after day with politically trained cadres in Guangzhou and Moscow. Due to the dynamic activities of Youth League members, Marxism-Leninism was spreading more and more in Vietnam, promoting the patriotic movement to follow the trend of proletarian revolution as well as making sure that the workers’ movement “became an independent political force that [could extricate itself from] the influence of non-proletarian political trends”.[10]

The Executive Committee of the Comintern knew about the development of the communist movement in Indochina. According to the Theses on the revolutionary movement in colonial and semi-colonial countries, adopted by the Sixth Congress of the Comintern, “Indochina had a strong and concentrated proletariat; and a revolutionary mass organization would have to be created to take the lead; the Comintern must give its attention to founding a CP and trade unions in Indochina, as well as peasant organizations”.[11]

Owing to internal disagreement on the establishment of a single Communist Party, the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League had been divided into the Indochinese Communist Party and the Annam Communist Party. These two parties were vying for the masses, and meanwhile were locked in criticism of each other. In this situation, the Comintern issued the document On the Establishment of One Communist Party in Indochina, dated 27 October 1929. After criticizing the Communist organizations for hesitating and delaying the establishment of a single Communist party, the Comintern directed: “The task of the Indochinese communists is to establish a revolutionary party based on the class nature of the proletariat, meaning a Communist Party having a large presence in Indochina. The party must have only one and be the only Communist organization in Indochina”.[12] The directive gave detailed instructions on the way to unify the communist organizations in Indochina.

Nguyen Ai Quoc received the information about the division of the Youth League, “as an envoy of the Comintern being sufficient to decide all issues related to the revolutionary movement in Indochina”,[13] before coming to China on 23 December 1929, then convened the conference to unify the two parties and establish the CPV. Convening the conference was Nguyen Ai Quoc’s initiative, because at that point in time he had not yet received the Comintern’s document on the establishment of the Indochinese Communist Party. The conference discussed and adopted the Party’s Political Outline, the Party’s Brief Strategy, the Party’s Summary Programme, and the Party’s Brief Charter drafted by Nguyen Ai Quoc. After the conference, Nguyen Ai Quoc wrote The Call (on the occasion of the establishment of the Party).

The Party’s Political Outline generalizes the characteristics of the Vietnamese economy and concludes: “indigenous capitalists have no power, we cannot say they follow the imperial side, only the great landlords are powerful and stand completely on the imperial side”. The Policy Outlines defined the path of liberation and development of the Vietnamese people: “bourgeois-democratic revolution and agrarian revolution [are required] to advance to communist society”, and set the task of national liberation as the first priority in the field of politics:

  1. Defeating French imperialism and feudalism.
  2. Making Vietnam completely independent.
  3. Setting up the government of workers, peasants, and soldiers.
  4. Organizing the army of workers and peasants.[14] 

As for this task, the Party’s Brief Strategy advocated the construction of a wide unity block of patriarchs, patriotic strata, and revolutionary organizations, only to overthrow those counter-revolutionary forces and factions:

The Party must make efforts to contact the petite bourgeoisie, intellectuals, middle-class farmers, Youth League, Tan Viet (New Vietnam), etc. to drag them onto the proletarian side. As for the rich peasants, mid-landowners, sub-landowners and An Nam capitalists who do not yet know they are on the anti-revolutionary side, we must take advantage of them, at least making them neutral.[15]

The Party’s Brief Strategy affirmed the principle: “To be very careful while contacting the [political] classes, never giving the slightest benefit of the workers and peasants but rather coming to the way of compromise; while propagating the slogan of independence for An Nam, [one] must co-propagate and contact oppressed nations and the world proletariat, especially the French proletariat”.[16]

It can be said that this set of documents constituted the first Political Platform of the CPV.

The goal of national liberation required uniting all classes, not only two (i.e. the working class and farmer class), but also the petty-landowner, the mid-landowners, and the national bourgeoisie, as long as they were not counter-revolutionaries. The diverse character of the national democratic movement, with Soviet Nghe-Tinh at its peak, demonstrated the wisdom in the CPV’s path of great national unity from the outset.

However, the aforementioned “great national unity” of the Founding Conference of the CPV differed from the Comintern’s official points of view at that time. In 1928, the Sixth Congress of Comintern adopted the Theses on the revolutionary movement in colonial and semi-colonial countries with the evaluation on indigenous landlords, national bourgeoisie, and petite bourgeois intelligentsia as follows: for the indigenous landlords, the Comintern did not classify them but evaluated that they were closely associated with French imperialism. Between them, there was not only a political alliance but also an economic one. Thus, the bourgeois-democratic revolution must overthrow landlords and confiscate their land without compensation.

For the national bourgeoisie, the Comintern evaluated that:

In general, they maintain, more or less consistently, an anti-national, imperialist point of view, directed against the whole nationalist movement. The other parts of the native bourgeoisie, especially those representing the interests of native industry, support the national movement, but this tendency, vacillating and inclined to compromise, may be called national reformism.[17]

For the petite bourgeois intelligentsia, the Comintern evaluated that they were:

…frequently the most determined representatives not only of the specific interests of the petite bourgeoisie, but also of the general objective interests of the entire national bourgeoisie … In general, they cannot represent peasant interests, for the social strata from which they come are connected with landlordism … The mass movement may draw them in, but may also push them into the camp of extreme reaction, or encourage the spread of Utopian reactionary tendencies in their ranks.[18]

The reassessment of the above classes of the Comintern is understandable if we place it in the context of proletariat revolutions in the world, especially in China. In 1927, the cooperation between Chinese Communists and the Kuomintang ended. A large number of Chinese Communist Party members and others were murdered by Chiang Kai-shek. That made the Comintern more rigid in assessing and defining the roles of the social and political classes in colonial and semi-colonial societies.

In the midst of the revolutionary “high tide” of 1930–31, the CPV’s Central Committee Conference was held in October 1930. The Political Platform of the Party was written from the point of view of the Comintern in regard to the position, role, and attitude of the aforementioned social strata. However, on 18 November 1930, the Central Standing Committee issued a directive on the establishment of the Anti-Imperialist Alliance. The directive stated that the limitations and shortcomings of the Party in developing mass organizations were due to a narrow focus on workers and peasants and the colour red  (the Red Union, Red Farmers Association), lacking the breadth to develop real mass organizations that could attract the strata of national intellectuals and national bourgeoisie, whether they are the upper or middle class, and even the landlords who hate the French empire and want national independence—yet the Party must bring all those classes and individuals into the fold against French imperialism, to keep up with the general mobilization of the entire people to act simultaneously against white terrorism and support the worker and peasant’s revolution.[19]

The line from the Founding Conference of the CPV—which advocated for a great national unity that would gather the entire people to liberate the nation—was reborn with the Directive of the Central Standing Committee, less than a month after it was denied by the Central Executive Committee Conference in October 1930.

In 1935, in a new international context especially with regard to the rise of fascism, the Seventh Congress of the Comintern proposed the line of establishing broad anti-fascist popular fronts. By this time, the line of the united front for anti-imperialism, the national liberation of the CPV, and Nguyen Ai Quoc were all in line with the Comintern’s guidelines. The culmination of leading the implementation of the “great national unity” line in Vietnam was the decision of the Central Executive Committee Conference in May 1941, establishing the Vietnamese Independent Allied Front (referred to as the Viet Minh). The Viet Minh movement developed widely and led to the victory of the revolution in August 1945, gaining independence for the nation.

From the beginning, the CPV and Ho Chi Minh received the support of the Comintern creatively, and the support of the people of the world to lead the national liberation revolution to success. The solidarity of all classes in a combined front during the revolution constituted a strategy, mission, as well as a valuable lesson of the Vietnamese revolution. 


[1] Le Thanh Khoi, Vietnamese History from the Origin to the Middle of the 20th Century, Hanoi: Thế Giới Publishing House, 2014 (Vietnamese), p. 524.

[2] Jane Degras (ed.) (1952), The Communist International: 1919–1943 Documents, Vol. 1: 1919–1922, Oxford University Press, 1956, p. 23, available at https://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/documents/volume1-1919-1922.pdf. Last accessed on 3 November 2020.

[3] Ibid., p. 42.

[4] Ibid., p. 43.

[5] V. I. Lenin, Complete, Vol. 41, Hanoi: Publishing House of National Politics, 2005, pp. 197–206.

[6]Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics, Ho Chi Minh Biography, Hanoi: Publishing House of Political Theory, 2006 (Vietnamese), p. 84.

[7] Ho Chi Minh, “40 years’ foundation celebration of the French Communist Party”, Complete collection of Works 12 (1959–1960), Hanoi: Publishing House of National Politics, 2012 (Vietnamese), p. 740.

[8] Ho Chi Minh, Complete, Vol. 1, Hanoi: Publishing House of National Politics, 2002 (Vietnamese), pp. 45–48.

[9] La Correspondance Internationale, no. 41, 1924, cited in “President Ho Chi Minh's creative ideas on ethnicity and colonial issues”, Bao Dien tu Dang Cong san Viet Nam (Communist Party of Vietnam), available at cpv.org.vn/tieu-diem/nhung-luan-diem-sang-tao-cua-chu-tich-ho-chi-minh-ve-van-de-dan-toc-va-thuoc-dia-71775.html. Last accessed on 3 November 2020.

[10] Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics, Institute of Party History, History of the Communist Party of Vietnam, Vol. 1 (1930–1954), Book 1 (1930–1945), Hanoi: Publishing House of National Politics, 2018 (Vietnamese), p. 99.

[11] Jane Degras (ed.) (1959), The Communist International: 1919–1943 Documents, Vol. 2: 1923–1928, Oxford University Press, 1960, p. 527, available at www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/documents/volume2-1923-1928.pdf. Last accessed on 3 November 2020.

[12] The Communist Party of Vietnam, The Complete Collection of Party Documents, Vol. 1: 19241930, Hanoi: Publishing House of National Politics, 2002 (Vietnamese), pp. 617–624, available at http://tulieuvankien.dangcongsan.vn/van-kien-tu-lieu-ve-dang/book/van-kien-dang-toan-tap/van-kien-dang-toan-tap-tap-1-15. Last accessed on 3 November 2020.

[13] Ho Chi Minh, “Report to the Communist International”, Complete Collection of Works 3 (19301945), Hanoi: Publishing House of National Politics, 2011 (Vietnamese), p. 12.

[14] The Communist Party of Vietnam, The Complete Collection of Party Documents, Vol. 2, 1930, Hanoi: Publishing House of National Politics, 2002 (Vietnamese), p. 2, available at http://tulieuvankien.dangcongsan.vn/van-kien-tu-lieu-ve-dang/book/van-kien-dang-toan-tap/van-kien-dang-toan-tap-tap-2-82. Last accessed on 3 November 2020.

[15]> Ibid., p. 2.

[16] Ibid., pp. 4–5.

[17] Degras (ed.) (1959), The Communist International: 1919–1943Documents, p. 538.

[18] Ibid., p. 539.

[19] The Communist Party of Vietnam, The Complete Collection of Party Documents, Vol. 2, pp. 231–232.