Vietnam: Socialism or pacifism? - John Sullivan

Vietnam: Socialism or pacifism? - John Sullivan

Article written by John Sullivan, expert on Spanish politics and famous for his satirical pieces on the British left in 1966. This article is significant because it demonstrates the plurality of views within Solidarity and was also written during the group's move away from 'the peace milieu'.

As the war in Vietnam increasingly becomes a central issue, the uneasy alliance between socialist and pacifists which has been a feature of political life during the past few years must inevitably disintegrate.

Socialist have no alternative but to support all struggles against imperialism while remaining sceptical about the possibility of these struggles leading to the establishment of a democratic or socialist society. They cannot condemn all parties equally for their use of violence as the pacifists do. Socialist recognize that where the objective prerequisites for socialism do not exist (as in the case in all undeveloped countries) the struggle against imperialism should still be supported.

There is a difficulty in determining the precise attitude which we should take to particular national liberation movements: they arise out of circumstances different from ours and therefore we will find it impossible fully to identify ourselves with them. We can legitimately criticize the uncritical acclaim which some socialist have give to colonial nationalist leaders, but it would be a pity if socialists became so engrossed in internal polemics that they neglect to make the more basic distinction between the socialist and the liberal-pacifist position.

Anyone who claims that socialists can support only socialist demands rejects the whole tradition of anti-colonialism in the Labour movement. If there are almost no struggles which qualify for our support, what is the point of calling ourselves socialist or engaging in anything but purely educational activities? Those who claim to be socialist but remain indifferent to such struggles reduce socialism to an abstract ideal, not as the culmination of peoples’ real struggles in the real world.

A more sophisticated case for abstention states that struggles for national independence which in the past were worth of support are no longer so, because of the involvement of the great powers. The Vietnamese are ‘unconscious pawns in this world-wide struggle’ 1 – therefore we are absolved from any duty of solidarity with the Vietnamese or any other colonial revolution. Peter cadogan has stated that it is a slander to equate the Vietcong’s struggle withthat of the Resistance to the Nazis during the war. This attitude combines a highly romanticized picture of the Resistance with residual assumptions of European racial superiority. Both Bob Potter’s and Peter Cadogan’s attitudes are only possible for those who lack all sense of urgency about the dilemma of the countries under imperialist domination.

The Vietnamese are not ‘unconscious pawns’ They are compelled to fight in conditions not of their own making, and to obtain arms wherever they can (in practice Moscow or Peking) . Certainly this distorts and cripples their revolution, in the same way that the Resistance was fatally compromised by its involvement with the Allies, its only course of assistance.

This brings me to the crux of our differences with the pacifists. The fact that we both criticize Moscow and Peking should not be allowed ot obscure the fact that our criticisms are not the same. They are in fact diametrically opposed!

The socialist criticism of Peking/Moscow is essentially the same as our criticism of Stalin’s role in Spain. It is that their aid to the Vietnamese guerrillas is limited, conditional, and aimed at serving the interests of their own foreign policy. The pacifist criticism of Peking/Moscow is that they send arms at all! They see the solution to the Vietnam war in a negotiated agreement, not in an American defeat.

Significantly, India is the pacifist’s favourite example of a national independence movement. Here a bourgeois nationalist party was able to achieve independence from Britain, while keeping mass involvement in the struggle to a minimum and leaving an archaic social structure intact: conflict was channelled in the direct of communal massacres. But a movement like the Vietcong which can only exist if it retains the support of the mass of the population cannot stop short at mere formal independence, whatever the wishes of its leaders. While a regular army can be the instrument of a policy conceived by others, the Vietnam guerrilla movement is not the unconscious tool of foreign powers. Within the limits imposed by the necessity of obtaining aid from Moscow or Peking the movement does pursue its own objectives. Socialists are aware of the limitations of these struggles but have no alternative but to support them.

However sceptical we may be about the successful outcome of the Vietnamese struggle and however little inclined to indulge in a romantic worship of violence we must recognize that the Vietnamese have no alternative but to resist American aggression. No socialist can criticize them for their resort to arms.

The pacifists’ reiteration of their traditional refusal to distinguish between the violence of the oppressors and of the oppressed should encourage us to take stock of the condition of the Peace Movement.

It is beside the point to criticize today’s Peace Movement for being ineffective. This assumes that the function of the movement is to achieve some external end. But the real function of the Peace Movement’s activity is to reinforce the participant’s self-esteem. The predilection of the remnants of the Peace Movement for rural demonstrations is extremely significant. The beauty of a rural demonstration is that one is relieved of the necessity of mingling with outsiders. The Peace Movement has become a semi-religious cult with its own ritual, customs, and uniform. Rural demonstrations are the equivalent of Christian retreats. Certainly this kind of secularized Christianity is relatively harmless and is at least preferable to support for Billy Graham or adherence to Zen Buddhism. But it has nothing to do with the problems which ordinary face today and it does not provide a suitable milieu for socialist activities.

A decomposing movement tends to produce strange and exotic growths. We have already seen the appearance of a Narodnik-Terrorist tendency (‘Scots against War’). It is time for socialists to abandon this stinking corpse before the Christians and the pseudo-anarchists are joined by spiritualists, phrenologists, and all the sad company of utopians. It may be difficult for many socialists to sever their connection with the pacifist movement – after all many of them came from it. But continued association with it is now not merely time-wasting but deeply compromising.

john sullivan

Solidarity: For Workers’ Power, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Nov 1966), pp. 23-24
Marky b's blog

  • 1. Vietnam by Bob Potter (Solidarity pamphlet No. 20, p.3 )

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Apr 7 2011 19:02


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Apr 10 2011 10:54

Marky b has posted a lot of useful stuff from the defunct British Solidarity group on Lib Com and on his very worthwhile blog (which I would recomend), but I wonder what the purpose of posting this particular text is, especially out of the context in which it was written.

I understand John Sullivan was briefly a member of the Solidarity group though it is unclear if he was at the time of writing this article, which was (the first) one of a whole series written in the Solidarity magazine by ''readers and supporters'' of that group.

It is unclear if John is particularly addressing some presumed, but unproven, pacifist tendency in Solidarity or rather, more likely, a pacifist tendency in the wider 'socialist' movement?

Whilst no theoretical framework is offered in this rather thinly argued text we can reasonably assume this to be a throwback to the kind of troskyist influenced leftism that Solidarity was struggling to leave behind it but which John was to rapidly return to.

This text on it's own is largely worthless. Perhaps if Marky b were to publish together the whole discussion it might contribute something to understanding the emergence of a more critical and genuinely communist critique of 'national liberation' post 1966, within and outside of Solidarity, though readers might get more out of the various discussion threads here, including that on the strengths and weaknesses of the recent AF pamphlet on nationalism.

Aug 20 2011 03:28

Spikeymike said:

we can reasonably assume this to be a throwback to the kind of trotskyist influenced leftism that Solidarity was struggling to leave behind it but which John was to rapidly return to.

Just to be precise: John Sullivan joined IS (International Socialism - now the SWP) a bit later than this and produced a text attacking Solidarity from a "democratic centralist" point of view. Not exactly the most pressing subject, but i just came across this article ...

Aug 20 2011 05:04

Spikeymike said:

we can reasonably assume this to be a throwback to the kind of trotskyist influenced leftism that Solidarity was struggling to leave behind it but which John was to rapidly return to.

Just to be precise: John Sullivan joined IS (International Socialism - now the SWP) a bit later than this and produced a text attacking Solidarity from a "democratic centralist" point of view. Not exactly the most pressing subject, but i just came across this article ...

...but to make it slightly more relevant to today - check this out:

Hanoi bans unauthorized demonstrations
Last updated: 8/18/2011 17:50
Authorities in Hanoi Thursday ordered a ban on all unauthorized demonstrations citing political and security concerns, the Vietnam News Agency reported.
The Hanoi People’s Committee asked related agencies to carry out campaigns to inform the public about the order and encourage them to comply.
If anyone deliberately refuses to follow the order, all necessary measures will be taken to maintain public security, the news source quoted authorities as saying.
The municipal administration said that since June many demonstrations, marches and gatherings protesting China’s violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty have been taking place every Sunday.
While the early ones were patriotic in nature, some of the recent activities have been provoked by anti-government forces, disturbing public security, it said.
The forces aimed to divide the people of Vietnam, undermine diplomatic relations between Vietnam and China, and cause political disorders, the committee said.
It also said that the "spontaneous" gatherings, marchings and demonstrations had caused "bad influences" on security and contradicted the capital’s reputation and image as “the city of peace,” they said.
No crackdown on anti-China patriots: police
On May 26 a Chinese marine surveillance vessel cut the exploration cables of a Vietnamese vessel which was conducting seismic surveys in the nation's territorial waters.
Two weeks later, Viking II, a Norwegian ship contracted by PetroVietnam Technical Services Corporation and the French-owned CGG Veritas Joint-venture, was also harassed by Chinese ships.
Both incidents happened well inside Vietnam’s 200 nautical mile (370 kilometers) Exclusive Economic Zone, sparking an outcry among the public, both in Vietnam and abroad, and continuous demonstrations were held in the capital over the past weeks.

Pure speculation on my part, but it could well be that, as the Middle East situation erupts (again, speculation, but it looks like the predictable "distraction" from class struggle is developing there), we can imagine that there'll be increasing conflicts between nations that'll remain largely unreported, eclipsed by the larger conflict, but which eventually might become significant.