empire defeated - vietnam war, lessons for today by Peter Taaffe
appendix 1: The theory of permanent revolution
We summed up the theory of the permanent revolution in Cuba: Socialism & Democracy:
Trotsky and Lenin, indeed the whole of Russian Marxism, were at one in seeing the main task of the Russian Revolution as the completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution: elimination of feudal and semi-feudal relations in the land, unification of the country and the solution of the national question, democracy – the right to vote for a democratic parliament, a free press, trade union rights, etc – and the freeing of the economy from the domination of imperialism. Lenin and Trotsky differed from the Mensheviks who believed that the task of the working class was to tail end the liberal bourgeoisie who they considered were the main agent of the bourgeois democratic revolution. Moreover they saw this as a necessary and inevitable stage of development for Russia without any serious international ramifications. However the belated development of the bourgeoisie as a class and bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia meant that it was incapable of completing this historic task. The capitalists invested in land and the landlords invested in industry. Therefore any thoroughgoing bourgeois-democratic revolution would come up against the opposition not just of the landlords but of the bourgeoisie and their political representatives, the liberal bourgeois parties. They had demonstrated again and again not just in Russia, but in Germany in the nineteenth century and elsewhere that they were incapable of carrying their own revolution through to a conclusion.
The powerful and then unique development of the Russian proletariat, explained Trotsky, also affected the liberal bourgeoisie’s preparedness to carry the revolution through. It was terrified, quite correctly as events demonstrated, that a struggle against the thousand-year old Tsarist regime and the social foundations upon which it rested would open the floodgates through which the working class, together with the peasantry, would pour and place on the agenda its own demands. Both Trotsky and Lenin agreed therefore that it was an alliance of the working class and the peasantry, the majority of the population of Russia, who were the only force capable of completing the bourgeois-democratic revolution. Where they differed was on the issue of who would exercise the leadership in this alliance. Would it be the working class or the peasantry? Moreover, once this alliance had come to power, who would be the dominant force in the government? Would it just carry through the bourgeois-democratic revolution or would it be forced to go further?
Trotsky, in his Theory of the Permanent Revolution, argued that history attested to the fact that the peasantry had never played an independent role. It must be led by the one of the other two great classes in society: the bourgeoisie or the working class. However, Lenin and Trotsky agreed that the bourgeoisie could not carry through their own revolution. Therefore, argued Trotsky, the working class must assume the leadership of the revolution drawing behind it the masses in the countryside. In a very important summing up of the ‘Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution’ in August 1939, a year before his assassination by the Stalinists, Trotsky makes the following comments about Lenin’s formula of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’. He states:
“Lenin’s conception represented an enormous step forward in so far as it proceeded not from constitutional reforms but from the agrarian overturn as the central task of the revolution and singled out the only realistic combination of social forces for its accomplishment. The weak point of Lenin’s conception, however, was the internally contradictory idea of ‘the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’. Lenin himself underscored the fundamental limitation of this ‘dictatorship’ when he openly called it bourgeois. By this he meant to say that for the sake of preserving its alliance with the peasantry the proletariat would in the coming revolution have to forego the direct posing of the socialist tasks. But this would signify the renunciation by the proletariat of its own dictatorship. Consequently, the gist of the matter involved the dictatorship of the peasantry even if with the participation of the workers.” 1
But then Trotsky goes on to comment:
“The peasantry is dispersed over the surface of an enormous country whose key junctions are the cities. The peasantry itself is incapable of even formulating its own interests inasmuch as in each district these appear differently. The economic link between the provinces is created by the market and the railways, but both the market and the railways are in the hands of the cities. In seeking to tear itself away from the restrictions of the village and to generalise its own interests, the peasantry inescapably falls into political dependence upon the city. Finally, the peasantry is heterogeneous in its social relations as well: the kulak stratum [rich peasants] naturally seeks to swing it to an alliance with the urban bourgeoisie while the nether strata of the village pull to the side of the urban workers. Under these conditions the peasantry as such is completely incapable of conquering power.
“True enough, in ancient China, revolutions placed the peasantry in power or, more precisely, placed the military leaders of peasant uprisings in power. This led each time to a redivision of the land and the establishment of a new ‘peasant’ dynasty, whereupon history would begin from the beginning; with a new concentration of land, a new aristocracy, a new system of usury, and a new uprising.” 2
Lenin argued that history would decide whether or not the peasantry could assume an independent role in the proposed alliance. Lenin’s idea was in effect an ‘algebraic formula’ as to which class, proletariat or peasantry, would lead the alliance, what the precise complexion of the government would be and how far it would encroach on the powers of the capitalists. Despite all the attempts… to defend this formula, its author, Lenin himself, said in April 1917, that history had filled this with a “negative content”. He indicated that the task was now for the proletariat to seize power supported by the peasantry. To emphasise this, Lenin also proposed that the Bolsheviks should change their name to the ‘Communist Party’.
appendix 2: Agent Orange and chemical weapons
The effects of the US deployment of ‘chemical weapons’ have been detailed in a truly remarkable study by Kathy Scott Clark and Adrian Levy.1
This has special significance today in the light of the completely hypocritical attacks of US representatives, beginning with Bush, on Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons. Saddam used gas against 5,000 Kurds in 1988, which was a horrendous crime, and one which the left, including us, denounced at the time, while the imperialist powers remained silent. However, US imperialism’s crimes were much greater and are visible today in the terrible suffering of a generation in Vietnam unborn at the time of the Vietnam War.
They comment: “Hong Hanh is falling to pieces.” This is a description of a girl condemned to a nightmare existence because of the spreading of toxins by the US 30 years ago. “Hong Hanh is both surprising and terrifying. Here is a nineteen year-old who lives in a ten year-old’s body.” Whole families are condemned to illnesses where, Hong Hanh’s mother says, “fingers and toes stick together before they drop off. Their hands wear down to stumps. Every day they lose a little more skin. And this is not leprosy. The doctors say it is connected to American chemical weapons we were exposed to during the Vietnam War.” There are “an estimated 650,000 like Hong Hanh in Vietnam, suffering from an array of baffling chronic conditions. Another 500,000 have already died.”
At the time when these weapons were deployed, above all Agent Orange, US government scientists claimed that these chemicals were harmless – a benign ‘tactical herbicide’ that saved many hundreds of thousands of American lives by denying the Vietnamese the jungle cover that allowed it to ‘ruthlessly strike’ at US forces and then melt away. Through this study and others it has now been conclusively proved to be a complete lie. The US melodramatically postured at the UN during the Iraq crisis with a phial of mock anthrax spores. This contrasts to that of the Vietnamese government, which has its own symbolic phial that it, too, flourishes in scientific conferences but gets little publicity. It contains 80g of TCCD, just enough of the super-toxin contained in Agent Orange to fill a small talcum powder container. If dropped into the water supply of a city the size of New York it would kill the entire population.
Groundbreaking research by Doctor Arthur H Westing, former director of the UN environment programme, a leading authority on Agent Orange, reveals that the US sprayed 170kg of it over Vietnam! It was Kennedy, the great ‘liberal’, who in November 1961 first sanctioned the use of defoliants in the covert operation codenamed ‘Ranch Hand’. This was not without opposition as one reporter who witnessed the secret spraying mission wrote that the US was dropping ‘poison’. Congressman Robert Kastenmeier demanded that the President abandon “chemical warfare” because it tainted America’s reputation. This was in 1964.
It was only when the American Federation of Scientists warned in that year that Vietnam was being used in a laboratory experiment did the rumours become irrefutable. More than 5,000 American scientists, including 17 Nobel laureates and 129 members of the Academy of Scientists, signed a petition against “chemical and biological weapons used in Vietnam”. US President Nixon was under such pressure in December 1969 that he was compelled to make a seemingly radical and controversial pledge that America would never use chemical weapons in a first strike. Clark and Levy point out: “He made no mention of Vietnam or Agent Orange and the US government continued despatching supplies of herbicides to the South Vietnamese regime until 1974.”
By the time the war finally ended in 1975 more than ten per cent of Vietnam had been intensely sprayed with 72 million litres of chemicals, of which 66 million were Agent Orange, laced with its super strain of toxic TCCD. The invaders were not immune from the fallout or the deployment of such weapons. Almost as soon as the war finished, US veterans began reporting chronic conditions: skin disorders, asthma, cancers, gastro-intestinal diseases. Their babies were born limbless or with Down’s syndrome and spina bifida.
Effects on US forces
But it would be three years before the US Department of Veteran Affairs reluctantly agreed to back a medical investigation examining 300,000 former servicemen – only a fraction of those who had complained of being sick – with the government warning all participants that it was indemnified from lawsuits by them. Clark and Levy point out: “When rumours began circulating that President Reagan had told scientists not to make any link between Agent Orange and the deteriorating of the veterans, the victims lost patience with the government and sued the defoliant manufacturers in an action that was finally settled out of court in 1984 for $180 million (£150 million).”
The ‘fallout’ from the use of these weapons was indiscriminate, leading to the sons of the top military brass also being affected. The former commander of the US Navy in Vietnam, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, intervened on behalf of his son, forcing the government to finally admit that it had been aware of the potential dangers of the chemicals used in Vietnam from the start of Operation Ranch Hand. The admiral acted in this fashion because of a deathbed pledge he made to his son, who was a patrol boat captain when he contracted a cancer he believed had been caused by his exposure to Agent Orange. Zumwalt’s subsequent discoveries were a massive indictment of the US and the indiscriminate use of Agent Orange, on which Clark and Levy go into some detail.
But the costs to the US forces are as nothing compared to the terrible, not to say excruciatingly painful, price paid by the Vietnamese right up to today. One former guerrilla sprayed by Agent Orange, commented to the authors:
“‘Sometimes we have been so desperate for money that we begged in the local market. I do not think you can imagine the humiliation of that.’ And this man is not alone. All the adults here, cycling past us or strolling along the dyke, are suffering from skin lesions and goitres that cling to necks like sagging balloons. The women spontaneously abort or give birth to genderless swabs that horrify even the most experienced midwives. In a yard Nguyen, a neighbour’s child, stares into space. He has a hydrocephalic head, as large as a melon. Two houses down, Tan has distended eyes that bubble from his face. By the river, Ngoc is sleeping, so wan he resembles a pressed flower. ‘They told me the boy is depressed,’ his exhausted father tells us. ‘Of course he's depressed. He lives with disease and death.’ This is not a specially constructed ghetto used to wage a propaganda war against imperialism.”
Such are the effects of the terrible despoliation carried out by the US in Vietnam that, according to Clark and Levy,
“It is extremely difficult to decontaminate humans or the soil. A World Health Organisation briefing paper warns: ‘Once TCCD has entered the body it is there to stay due to its uncanny ability to dissolve in fats and to its rock solid chemical stability’… The researchers recommended the immediate evacuation of the worst affected villages, but to be certain of containing this hot spot, the WHO also recommends searing the land with temperatures of more than 1,000C, or encasing it in concrete before treating it chemically.”
The evidence in relation to the criminal actions of the US is, according to Clark and Levy, “categoric. Last April, a conference at Yale University attended by the world's leading environmental scientists, who reviewed the latest research, concluded that in Vietnam the US had conducted the ‘largest chemical warfare campaign in history’. And yet no money is forthcoming, no aid in kind. For the US, there has only ever been one contemporary incident of note involving weapons of mass destruction - Colin Powell told the UN Security Council in February that, ‘in the history of chemical warfare, no country has had more battlefield experience with chemical weapons since World War I than Saddam Hussein's Iraq’.” But the data pursued by these courageous authors completely refutes that. Saddam Hussein is guilty of using chemical weapons. But his crimes, terrible though they are, pale before those of US imperialism in Vietnam.
It is truly one of the greatest crimes perpetrated by one power, in this case, the mightiest on the planet, against a relatively defenceless and weak country. A similar kind of crime – sanctions resulting in death – was perpetrated against Iraq, not against Saddam Hussein, but against the defenceless Iraqi people over a twelve-year period preceding the recent war.