Ho Chi Minh: A Biography

Review of Ho Chi Minh: A Biography, by Pierre Brocheux (translation by Claire Duiker) (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007)

Pierre Brocheux opens this tightly-woven overview of Ho Chi Minh's life on an ominous note – "This book is dedicated to the idealists of the world, for whom history always ends in disappointment." The ironic turn of phrase serves as the author's subtle epitaph to "Uncle Ho." Sitting in the eye of a political storm that toppled French colonialism in Southeast Asia, exposing the shallow logic of the Cold War, and rallying anti-colonial views throughout the global South, Ho Chi Minh remains one of the most important figures of the twentieth century. Yet much of his controversial life is still shrouded in mystery. Spent largely at the fringes of European and Asian societies, Ho's complex experiences have been canonized at home and abroad, with records from former communist territories off-limits, and formal writings from Vietnam monitored carefully by state bureaucrats. Brocheux's goal is simple – to humanize the story of a man who shaped the possibilities and paradoxes associated with post-colonialism. As the author explains in his preface, "Ho Chi Minh had his virtues, illusions, weaknesses, and faults like everyone else; as he once said to his friends, 'I am a normal man.'" A normal man who moved in and out of the great political struggles of his times, influencing the trajectory of twentieth century world history until he was finally frozen by the cult of personality he helped create.

Brocheux approaches his subject with skill and sensitivity. Although his book measures only one-hundred eighty seven pages of text, it ambitiously blends published and unpublished sources in three languages, patching together the chronology of Ho's life and retracing the evolution of his ideological and strategic views. Unlike so many other biographies of political figures in recent years, Brocheux refrains from excessive psychoanalysis and speculation, focusing instead on the concrete actions, specifically the ways in which Ho Chi Minh engaged groups of communists, nationalists, socialists, and liberal democrats during his travels in France, the Soviet Union, China, and Vietnam.

The result is a measured portrait of a complex man. For Brocheux, Ho Chi Minh was neither a doctrinaire Marxist nor a simple patriot, but the product of a unique moment in time, with views that blended nationalism and material revolution under the rubric of anticolonialism. Indeed, one of the major themes of the work is the fluidity of Ho's ideology. Although enamored with the European Enlightenment throughout much of his youth, Ho's underlying sympathy toward Confucian communalism and perfectibility led him inexorably toward Marxism-Leninism in the wake of the Versailles Conference. According to Brocheux, the young revolutionary moved from Paris to Moscow in 1923 out of frustration with French politics and the latent racism of European socialists. Russian communists, in contrast, provided a fresh path forward, with the Comintern serving as an imaginative and institutional platform for global social change. Quickly distinguishing himself as an "expert" on Asia, Ho became involved in a range of revolutionary activities in Europe, Canton (Guangzhou), Siam (Thailand), and beyond throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

Brocheux goes to great lengths, however, to show that Ho Chi Minh was not a mindless lackey of the International Communist Party. Over the course his early career, he learned to build positive relationships with local communities by blending indigenous proverbs and broader lessons on social justice, in the process developing a hybrid message that emphasized Vietnamese unity, individual sacrifice, and peaceful material transformation. His was a practical agenda, born from the exigencies of local politics and a firm commitment to interpersonal fairness.

A second theme of Brocheux's book is the complex relations between communist agents in Asia and Europe. The philosophical disagreements that ran through the "second world" were intractable in nature, tied intimately to conflicting views of the revolutionary potential of peasants and workers, as well as the global importance of decolonization. These disputes were exacerbated by actual geo-political conflicts between the Soviet Union and Communist China, both of whom sought to shape the worldwide communist struggle in their own image. Despite a general dearth of primary source accounts, the author marshals evidence to show the hardships Ho experienced during the Stalin purges and the slights he suffered at the hands of Mao Zedong in the 1950s. The brilliance of Ho Chi Minh, in Brocheux's mind, lay as much in his patience and skill while navigating these political minefields as his leadership when organizing the autonomous Viet Minh. Divisions among communists at the local levels were no less salient. As the Vietnamese Worker's Party began implementing land reforms in the mid-1950s, North Vietnam's countryside was transformed into a social battlefield, with the language of communism mobilized toward various ends by competing actors. Far from the monolithic portrait so common in the West during the early years of the Cold War, global communism was a conflicted and complex social and political phenomenon.

A third theme of Brocheux's book is his stress on the contradictions of Ho Chi Minh's life-experiences. For the author, Ho's intellect, ambition, and political acumen propelled him to the forefront of the Vietnamese freedom struggle over the course of his lifetime, even while his restrained personality undermined his ability to hold on to the mechanisms of power. By the early 1960s, Vietnam's aging "father" was completely pushed aside by minions with little regard for his lessons of unity and peace. Ultimately, Brocheux tells the story of Ho Chi Minh as a tragedy. Far more complex than contemporary portraits allowed, Vietnam's first president avoided bloodshed at every opportunity, consistently embraced visions of unity over disorder, and watched helplessly as his name was transformed into a crass propaganda devise, used to perpetuate endless cycles of violence in the painful years after independence. Like the idealists Brocheux pays tribute to in his opening pages, Ho Chi Minh's life was bound to end in bitter disappointment.