The Vietnamese philosopher Trần Đức Thảo brought Marxism and existentialism together and developed an innovative Marxist theory of language. But Thảo’s heterodox approach often set him at odds with the postrevolutionary state that ruled his native country.

Hanoi, Vietnam, on December 29, 2011. (Giovanni Mereghetti / Education Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Few people today remember the name of Vietnamese philosopher Trần Đức Thảo (1917–93). He stands at the crossroads of too many opposing positions for anyone to want to “claim” him as their own.

Too Marxist for the phenomenologists, he was also too much of a phenomenologist for the Marxists. His Marxism was never orthodox enough for the Stalinists, but far too orthodox for the left-wing opponents of Stalinism. Too militant for academic philosophers, he is on the other hand too much of a philosopher for political militants.

Yet this complexity is what makes him interesting. The story of Trần Đức Thảo expresses many of the tensions and contradictions of the twentieth century around colonialism and independence, the role of intellectuals in both capitalist and communist countries, Marxism and its relationship to other currents of thought, the struggles of the Cold War, and the history of Asian communism.

Thảo’s life was an attempt to confront and overcome these contradictions. But he found himself constantly butting his head against them, and his life took on a tragic aspect, proving to be a political and philosophical failure. By revisiting the story of that failure, we can better understand the wider tragedies of the last century.

An Unclassified Intellectual

Thảo’s initial journey in life seemed like an ideal justification for the supposedly positive work of French colonization. The son of a postal official, born on September 26, 1917, he became a brilliant student at the Lycée Albert Sarraut in Hanoi and passed the French baccalauréat in 1935. In 1936, he was awarded a scholarship by the government of Indochina to go to France to prepare for the prestigious École normale supérieure (ENS), before entering the ENS itself in 1939.

Trần Đức Thảo’s initial journey in life seemed like an ideal justification for the supposedly positive work of French colonization.

In 1940, as French military resistance to the Nazi invasion collapsed, Thảo went to Clermont-Ferrand, where he met Jean Cavaillès. Cavaillès introduced him to the work of the founder of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl. He wrote a remarkable dissertation on “Husserl’s phenomenological method” and tied for first place in the philosophy agrégation of 1943. He then began a thesis on Husserl and spent time at the Husserl Archives in Leuven. A brilliant academic and philosophical career was now open to him.

However, we can only guess at the heartbreak lying beneath this successful track record. Vietnamese access to the benefits of French education remained an exception to the rule, and Thảo was constantly reminded of his colonial status at every step of the way. When he became the first Vietnamese to pass the agrégation in philosophy, he was given “unclassified” status, which precluded him from applying for a position in the French education system.

Such experiences contributed to the creation of these “monsters” (Thảo’s own term) who constituted the intellectual elite of the colonies. These individuals were torn between two loyalties: on the one hand, to France, on account of their schooling and the French culture to which they belonged; on the other, to their people of origin.

Thảo probably made his choice between France and the struggle for an independent Vietnam during the war. Opposition to French rule took on different forms, nationalist and communist, and he opted for the communist tendency. At the beginning of his career as a militant, he was close to the Vietnamese Trotskyists, who had a significant influence during the 1930s and ’40s. He became a major player in efforts to organize workers from Indochina in France.

Thảo probably made his choice between France and the struggle for an independent Vietnam during World War II.

At a press conference in September 1945, when Hồ Chí Minh had just declared the independence of Vietnam, Thảo was asked how the French expeditionary corps would be received in his native country. He answered: “With rifles!”

Already under close surveillance by the French authorities, he was arrested on September 21 and imprisoned at La Santé prison until December. He continued his political activism after his release and was suspected of organizing the refusal of dockworkers in Marseille to handle war material bound for Indochina.

Existentialism and Marxism

At the time of the Liberation in France, those who wanted to combine political commitment and philosophical reflection could choose between “orthodox” Marxism, in its Communist or Trotskyist versions, and existentialism, whose leading figures were trying to reach an understanding with Marxism. One of Thảo’s first teachers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, exemplified the latter approach.

Thảo’s first philosophical program sought to forge a synthesis between existentialism and Marxism. He argued that a “radical revision” of Marxism was necessary, since Marxism in its existing form was too mechanical and did not pay enough attention to phenomena that it considered to be part of the “superstructure.” It also lacked a solid epistemological foundation. These shortcomings could for Thảo be resolved through the application of the phenomenological method, combined with a Marxist understanding of praxis, history, social classes, and revolution.

For Thảo, this “revision” would in fact be a return to the “original inspiration” of Karl Marx himself. To the “scientistic” Marx of Capital he opposed a younger, Hegelian Marx whose analyses were compatible with a phenomenological reading.

Thảo’s first philosophical program sought to forge a synthesis between existentialism and Marxism.

This philosophical orientation was in evidence in the first two essays that Thảo published, “Marxism and Phenomenology” in Revue Internationale and “On Indochina” in Les Temps modernes. He composed the second of these articles — his first on the situation in Indochina, at a time when the war of independence had not yet really begun — from his prison cell.

During 1946–47, Thảo aligned himself with Hồ Chí Minh and his movement, having encountered the Vietminh leader at the time of the Fontainebleau conference in July 1946. He took his distance from Trotskyism with a critique of an article by Claude Lefort that he published in Les Temps modernes in June 1947, titled “On the Trotskyist Interpretation of Events in Indochina.”

Hồ’s pro-Soviet communist party had once cooperated with the Vietnamese Trotskyists around a joint publication called La Lutte (the Struggle). By this point, however, relations between the two movements were bitterly hostile, and the Vietminh assassinated several leading Trotskyists.

For Thảo, there was a close connection between his political and philosophical evolution. This was also the period in which he distanced himself from existentialism, rallying to the communist philosophical program under the banner of “dialectical materialism.” In 1948, he defined a new philosophical project, which he pursued to the end of his life: to achieve a Marxist understanding of man, or rather, to found a Marxist psychology or anthropology.

Thảo first formulated this project in a 1948 article for Les Temps modernes, “The Phenomenology of Spirit in Its Real Content.” This was a review of Alexandre Kojève’s celebrated lectures on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, delivered between 1933 and 1939 and later published in transcript form. Kojève’s lectures played a fundamental role for the thinking of the postwar existentialist generation in France.

Return to Vietnam

Thảo felt a growing contradiction between his role as an intellectual in France and his support for the Vietnamese national liberation movement. In 1951, the same year in which he published his work Phenomenology and Dialectical Materialism, he decided to leave the French intellectual milieu in which he had lived for the past fifteen years and return to Vietnam.

Thảo felt a growing contradiction between his role as an intellectual in France and his support for the Vietnamese national liberation movement.

When he arrived home in 1952, the war of independence was raging, and he was assigned to various jobs in service of the struggle. These tasks included writing reports and working on translations of Hồ Chí Minh’s works. One observer described him as having been “naïve and enthusiastic,” abandoning Western clothes and even refusing to use a mosquito net — he contracted malaria as a result.

This all testifies to a desire to transform his relationship with the world, to deny his Western training, to become what he would have been had he not been educated by the French colonial system. But it was in 1953 that Thảo’s “inaugural trauma,” in the words of Philippe Papin, occurred, with his assignment to an ideological reeducation brigade.

Thảo arrived in Vietnam at a time when Maoism was gaining influence in the wake of the Chinese revolution. The slogan of broad national unity against France was a thing of the past. According to the communist party’s general secretary, Trường Chinh, the man behind this Maoist shift, the avowed aim was to “create a rift and provoke a collective emotional shock.”  We have no evidence of what Thảo did, saw, or experienced during this period, except that he was, according to Papin, “in the worst place at the worst time.”

At last, with the end of the war in 1954, a calmer, more peaceful period appeared to be opening up. Thảo returned to academic duties, initially teaching ancient history at Hanoi University before becoming professor of the history of philosophy in 1955 and dean of the history faculty the following year.

Thảo arrived in Vietnam at a time when Maoism was gaining influence in the wake of the Chinese revolution.

The major change in his intellectual production came with the abandonment of French, as all the articles he wrote during these years were in Vietnamese. We can divide those publications into two main groups: five articles on Vietnamese history and literature and two more extending his materialist work on consciousness.

From Dawn to Dusk

The situation of intellectuals in Vietnam was about to be turned upside down as the entire communist world underwent a process of opening up, with de-Stalinization in the USSR and the Hundred Flowers movement in China. In Vietnam, the enthusiasm of intellectuals for this moment was all the greater since, with the end of the war, they no longer felt obliged to submit to the party’s political line. Two magazines were born, Humanités and Les Belles lettres, which were to be in the vanguard of the critical movement.

Thảo took part in this movement. It was he who found a translator so that a text on China’s Hundred Flowers movement would be available in Vietnamese. He also published two articles in 1956.

The first, titled “Social Content and Forms of Freedom,” deals with the relationship between individual and collective freedom under socialism. For Thảo, communism must not be the negation of freedom but, on the contrary, its realization. The second article, “Let’s Strive to Develop Freedom and Democracy,” is bolder, denouncing in particular the bureaucratization of the government in Vietnam and the “errors” committed during the agrarian reform.

For Thảo, communism must not be the negation of freedom but, on the contrary, its realization.

These two texts would decide Thảo’s fate for the rest of his life. Despite his limited role in the protest movement, he became a kind of scapegoat for the general campaign launched by the party against “revisionism.” Dismissed from his university post in December 1956, he was put on trial in March-April 1957.

At the same time, a smear campaign was waged against him in the press. In particular, he was accused of “Trotskyism” because of his past. In June 1957, he was declared an “enemy of the fatherland (patrie) and of socialism” by the party Central Committee’s Ideology and Culture Commission. He was accused of being an “deracinated person” who had lost touch with the Vietnamese people.

In May 1958, Thảo made a public self-criticism, but it was not deemed satisfactory. This marked the beginning of his long internal exile.

Internal Exile

We have very little information about this period of Thảo’s life. Between 1958 and 1961, he was sent to an agricultural farm for reeducation. Upon his return to Hanoi, he was barred from working at the university and denied housing. He had the status of an “external collaborator” with the Su That publishing house, for which he did translations.

The man who had hoped to put his intellectual knowledge at the service of Vietnam’s socialist construction now found himself marginalized and useless.

The man who had hoped to put his intellectual knowledge at the service of Vietnam’s socialist construction now found himself marginalized and useless. Yet at no time did he seek to assume the role of a dissident. On the contrary, he seemed to be waiting for his “rehabilitation.”

Despite his isolation, Thảo was allowed to receive a few publications from abroad, though not enough to keep up with the development of the European intellectual milieu. Olivier Todd, when traveling to Vietnam, was asked by Jean-Paul Sartre to try and get in touch with Thảo, and he attempted to do so, albeit in vain.

Thảo was always on the lookout for new interlocutors, as the letter he sent accompanying an article to the French communist journal La Pensée shows:

You know that we have almost nothing here of what appears in France. Would it be possible for you to inform me of any criticisms that might be addressed to me? You would be a great help to me in continuing my research.

Although he did not publish any texts in Vietnam during this period, he was allowed to send a number of articles to France for La Pensée and another communist publication, Nouvelle critique.

Despite all these difficulties, the 1960s were a period of revival for Thảo in his creative philosophical activity. Until the 1980s, his work was divided into two main areas. The first was an analysis of dialectics, and in particular of the relationship between Hegel and Marx. The second, comprising the main part of his research, was a re-elaboration of his materialist analysis of consciousness, with a reassessment of the place of language.

Thảo made an important contribution to Marxist or materialist conceptions of language, criticizing the structuralist perspectives according to which language merely refers to itself, and stressing the need to understand language in terms of its referential purpose. One important Marxist concept he introduced in this work was that of the “language of real life,” which is a set of objective meanings that are constituted independently of consciousness in the material activity of human beings.

Reflections on Stalinism

Thảo’s situation improved in the 1980s. Once again, this was a consequence of the changing international situation, with the onset of glasnost and perestroika in the USSR. Toward the end of the decade, he once again became a figure of some political importance. This also enabled him to relaunch his philosophical activity.

Part of his work sought to formulate a critical assessment of Stalinism and Maoism. In his 1986 text “The Philosophy of Stalin,” Thảo analyzed the undialectical worldview expressed in Stalin’s pamphlet Dialectical and Historical Materialism. In opposition to Stalinism and Maoism, he defended the idea of a “Marxist humanism.”

With the collapse of the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc and eventually the Soviet Union itself, the situation in Vietnam hardened once again. Advocates of glasnost and perestroika, including Thảo, found themselves in a difficult situation. It was against this backdrop that he left Vietnam in 1991 for France, a country he had not seen for forty years.

In opposition to Stalinism and Maoism, Thảo defended the idea of a ‘Marxist humanism.’

There are differing versions of the reasons for the trip. Thảo himself is quoted as saying that he was sent to France to undergo a political trial conducted by the French Communist Party. However, we must take account of the fact that, by the end of his life, his persecution complex had been transformed into outright paranoia.

In fact, Papin found an official letter from the Central Committee of the Vietnamese party, appointing Thảo to an “official political mission” to be carried out “at the Party’s expense.” He was housed in premises belonging to the Vietnamese embassy in Paris.

In Paris, Thảo tried to reconnect with his old philosophical acquaintances, while keeping his distance from the disciples of Louis Althusser. He delivered a number of lectures and began work on another philosophical volume.

He also wanted to keep abreast of the latest discoveries in biology and anthropology, no doubt with a view to continuing his original 1948 project. However, he was in very poor shape, both mentally and physically, after a fall, and he died in the Broussais hospital on April 24, 1993.

Uncharted Territory

Thảo’s destiny has an undeniably tragic dimension. It is first and foremost a political failure. Like so many others in the twentieth century, he committed himself body and soul to the construction of communism, only to come up against the rigidity of Stalinism and of bureaucratic regimes.

When it comes to his philosophical work, it is more difficult to make an assessment. While part of that work was written under the weight of political censorship or self-censorship, Thảo attempted to carry out original research in fields little explored by Marxism, such as the study of language and the origins of the human species. His philosophical failure arose from a shortage of interlocutors during his lifetime, and the fact that his writings were almost never studied or even read.

Thảo committed himself body and soul to the construction of communism, only to come up against the rigidity of Stalinism.

However, his posthumous fate has yet to be decided. In Vietnam, he seems to be enjoying some kind of rehabilitation, having been posthumously awarded the Hồ Chí Minh Prize in 2001. Moreover, the bulk of his theoretical output from the 1960s on has still not been published.

There are said to be over eight thousand pages of unpublished manuscripts, drafts, and notebooks in his archive. Perhaps an important part of Thảo’s thought has yet to be discovered?

This is an abridged translation of an essay first published in French by Contretemps.

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