He could be a favourite uncle, with a luxuriant, curved moustache and a long, tapering beard framing the bottom of a V-shaped face. Perhaps he could be a typical Vietnamese fisherman. All that’s missing is the conical, woven hat.
But although this man worked as a schoolteacher, a cook on a French steamer, a gardener, a street sweeper, a waiter, a photograph retoucher and an oven stoker, he was far more than a jack of all trades. He was the 20th century’s fiercest and most successful anti-imperialist activist. He was a fighter and a thinker. Turning Marxist theory into revolutionary practice, he freed his country from Japanese and French colonialism, and defended it against American imperialism.
He was none other than Ho Chi Minh, the founder of the Viet Minh and President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. A man of many talents, Ho was also one with many names: born Nguyen That Thanh, he began using the name Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot), while in France from 1917 to 1923; and adopted Ho Chi Minh (He Who Enlightens) around 1940. As an ardent Leninist, it’s understandable that Ho may have wished to emulate Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov’s name-shifting, though he fell well short of Lenin’s whopping 160 pseudonyms.
It is as a scourge of colonialism and of fake revolutionaries that Ho speaks directly to the South Africa of 2018. This is the 60th anniversary of his searing text On Revolutionary Morality. Come December, it will be 65 years since his speech, focused on land reform, to the third session of the National Assembly in 1953. And 66 years ago, he delivered the forthright To Practise Thrift and Oppose Embezzlement, Waste andBureaucracy.
There has been much abuse in South African politics of the term “counter-revolutionary”. It has been misapplied to true revolutionaries by the actual counter-revolutionaries, who delight in masquerading as “saviours and guardians of the revolution”. Ho saw through those who wished to corrupt and steal the revolution, and skewered all of their self-seeking and expedience. Here is some of what this remarkable thinker and doer, a vital and lifelong double act, had to say in On Revolutionary Morality:
“Having not cleansed themselves of individualism, some Party members still boast of ‘their services to the Party’, for which they claim the Party’s ‘gratitude’. They want to enjoy favour, honour, rank and privilege. If their desires are not satisfied they bear resentment against the Party, complaining that they have ‘no future’ and are ‘sacrificed’. They gradually drift away from the Party; worse still, they sabotage its policies and discipline.”
A few paragraphs down, he cautions:
“However, there still remain some Party members who, unable to shake off individualism, become arrogant and conceited and keep flaunting their merits. While criticising others, they do not like being criticised; they avoid self-criticism or practice it without sincerity and seriousness. They are afraid they might lose face and prestige. They pay no attention to the opinion of the masses, and make light of non-Party cadres. They do not realise that it is difficult not to commit any errors in one’s work. We are not afraid of possible mistakes, but of failure to correct them resolutely. To redress them, we must listen to criticism by the masses and practise sincere self-criticism.”
Penetrating words the political class as a whole in South Africa, not just members of the ruling party, would be wise at least to ponder.
Ho gives precise and scathing definitions of corruption and theft in To Practise Thrift and Oppose Embezzlement, Waste and Bureaucracy. Given the longstanding deviousness around corruption in South Africa, it is a pleasure to read Ho’s directness:
“For the cadres, embezzlement means: To rob public property, to extort money from the people, to pick and steal from army funds, to falsify expenditure reports. To abuse public property and government funds, and divert them to the benefit of one’s locality or one’s unit is also embezzlement.”
Perhaps most valuably, he reminds his listeners (or readers) that: “Embezzlement, waste and bureaucracy are evils left by the old society. They spring from self-interest and selfishness. They are begotten by the regime of ‘exploitation of man by man’.
“We want to build a new society, a free society where all are equal, a society where industry, thrift, integrity and uprightness prevail, hence we must wipe out all bad habits of the old society.”
It is worth noting how carefully Ho laid out plans for land reform in his 1953 speech. He said: “No locality is allowed to start a mass mobilisation for land reform without authorisation by the government.
“Land reform is a peasant revolution, a class struggle in the countryside; it is a large-scale, hard and complex struggle which requires careful preparations, clearly mapped-out plans, close leadership, judicious choice of places, strict timetable and correct implementation. These are conditions for success.”