As written work, “The Experience of Vietnam on the Multi-Organisational United Front” doesn’t begin with Dr. Kenneth Koma’s trademark “Thakaa!” which those who perform impression of the now deceased Botswana National Front founder have led everyone to believe is how he opened his every conversation. Had there been absolute need to use a non-English word, it is likely it would have been Vietnamese which Koma salts his book with – not liberally but enough soupcons of it to tickle the reader’s taste buds.
Published under all his national-registration-card names (Shololo included) this is Koma’s first book and if the process by which it came about can be replicated, it is likely there is a manuscript lying somewhere about Congo and Patrice Lumumba. Not once does Koma mention the BNF (or Botswana for that matter) but from reading the book, one reaches a deeper appreciation about how the party is structured and operates. Even today, it is not uncommon to hear BNF activists chastise some of their comrades for not being thoroughly steeply in the front ideology – “seforanta” in Setswana. That could well be Koma speaking. In the introduction of the foreword, he writes that the leadership of the National Liberation Movement in Vietnam had a clear understanding of the character and tasks of the revolution because “the leaders had mastered MARXISM-LENINISM.” The upper-case emphasis is his and represents his conception of the centrality of such ideology in the attainment of a true revolution. In Koma’s time, the task of getting the seforanta message into the bloodstream of activists was achieved through study groups which the BNF set up all over the country.
The modern iteration of the Vietnamese revolution finds its most robust expression in the political career of Ho Chi Minh and Koma devotes substantial editorial acreage to this icon. The author traces the roots of this revolution to 500 BC. Vietnam enjoyed self rule until the 11th century when it was conquered by imperial China but even as they suffered under the oppression of a colonial master, the Vietnamese fought back any way they could. In Koma’s determination, that was when the struggle began. Self-rule was restored after Ngo Quyen defeated the Chinese and installed himself as king and successive regimes managed to repel Chinese invaders. The 13th century brought a new and formidable enemy ÔÇô powerful Mongolan armies under Emperor Kubla Khan which had conquered China itself and a sizeable chunk of Europe. After a 27-year war, the Mongolans finally conquered some parts of Vietnam but General Tran Hung Dao organised peasants into guerilla units that launched a spirited counter offensive while the former waged a conventional warfare with his regular army. The success of this campaign brought home the message that there is absolute need for broad popular participation of the whole nation against powerful enemies. Thus the same strategy was used when Chinese rule was reinstated under the Ming Dynasty, during homegrown feudal overlords as well as against French colonialists and American invaders. Koma introduces Ho in the French phase.
Deploying the novelistic technique of withholding the central detail to build suspense, the author rhapsodises awhile about “the man who exerted the greatest influence on the national liberation struggle, the man whose patriotism had already become legendary among the new generation of Vietnamese revolutionaries and the intellectuals of the newer generation which was emerging, the man whom fate and destiny had chosen to fill up the vacuum in the leadership of the working class, the peasants and the new generation of revolutionary intellectuals.” He continues in that fashion for six more lines and reveals in line 7: “This committed patriot who skillfully combined patriotic nationalism with internationalism was Ho Chi Minh.”
As an international citizen who had cut his teeth in politics in France, Ho went to Canton (present-day Guangzhou, China) in 1924 and it was during this sojourn that he fatefully organised Marxist study groups.
“These study groups which Ho Chi Minh organised were virtually a party school and some of the young people who were trained in the Canton Centre of the Vietnam Revolutionary Youth Association were sent to Vietnam to lead the revolution from inside Vietnam. The goal was to lay a sound foundation for a Vietnamese revolutionary movement. Inside Vietnam, the graduates of the study groups organised more study groups in various areas,” Koma writes.
The evolution of the Vietnamese revolution occurred in two phases. The first was the national democratic revolution in which “the instrument to use in organising the people was to arouse the patriotic indignation of the masses of the ordinary people, including even the liberal democrats.” Koma mentions “a frequent narration of the brutalities and atrocities of the colonialists” as the main feature of the first phase.
During this phase, the masses (or the hoi polloi in the characterisation of a linguistic convention that has thankfully ridden off into the sunset) and the liberal democrats coalesce into an all-embracing united front.
“The United Front is not only the best organisational tool because all interest groups will join their efforts and their talents without any interest group losing its group identity. In the national democratic revolution, the basis for participation should not be the social class, the ethnic group, the interest group but patriotism,” he explains.
As Koma was keen to stress during his life time, the BNF was not a party but a “united front.”
The second phase was a socialist revolution “which could be achieved only with the leadership of a communist party.” The explanation that Koma gives of the first phase is that the communist party doesn’t play a major role.
“It is only under the leadership of the communist party that a national democratic revolution can rightly be conceived as a phase ÔÇô the first phase. It is, that is to say, only under the leadership of the communist party that the national democratic revolution easily develops into a socialist revolution [because] otherwise there are two separate revolutions,” he argues.
Two short paragraphs later, he adds that if a revolution is not led by a communist party, it is unlikely that “the participation of the masses can be made democratic in the real sense of the word.”
Koma is restating what Ho wrote in “The Road to the Vietnam Revolution’. In that book, the Vietnamese author stresses that there cannot be a revolution without a revolutionary party which is equipped with revolutionary ideology: “This ideology must be grasped by all the revolutionaries hence the need for political education and for study groups. These study groups should be organised throughout the country and the revolutionaries must be trained in several thousands because a great revolution which is carried to the very end can be accomplished only with the participation of several trained cadres.” Such standard notwithstanding, Ho submitted a report to his party in 1939 in which he emphasised the need to incorporate the national bourgeoisie into the front.
It is worth pausing here to note that with Koma at the helm, Botswana’s opposition parties tried to unite numerous times and over a protracted period of time and that his conception of the pecking order within the context of the Ho-led Vietnamese revolution may have influenced the outcome. The result was catastrophic disaster after catastrophic disaster which, on the bright side, laid the ground work for the formation of the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC).
The fruits of Ho’s leadership were borne on August 14, 1945 when the League for the Independence of Vietnam overthrew the French colonial government. Reflecting on this development, Koma writes that “it was the first occasion in modern history in which a revolutionary national movement under the leadership of the communist party successfully overthrew the power of a colonial state.” Four pages letter, he has something more profound to say.
“The August Revolution was a climax of the Vietnamese national revolutions which extended over 4000 years of their national history. The Vietnamese revolutionary tradition is made up of 2900 years of struggle against local oppression and about 1000 years of struggle against foreign feudal invasion and another 100 years of national struggle against colonial aggression and oppression,” Koma concludes.
The book almost didn’t see the light of day. The story its editor, Professor Bojosi Otlhogile, tells is that in 1996 he had offered to type the manuscript. After what he describes as a protracted back-and-forth process, “a final typed copy and manuscript were, I assume, returned to Dr. Koma.” In 2011, Otlhogile (who is the immediate former Vice Chancellor of the University of Botswana) made a chance discovery of the manuscript when clearing a mountain of personal reading materials built over decades. He got in touch with the BNF whose 50th Anniversary Committee financed the publication of the book. Some five years before his death, Koma said he was writing a book on Congo and its ill-fated revolutionary leader, Patrice Lumumba. It is likely the manuscript is somewhere also straining to see the light of day.
The experience of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics and China might cause one to think that socialism belongs in the past because it failed dismally in the former and faltered for too long in the latter. Conversely, Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent in the British Labour Party and the populist enthusiasm for the election campaign of Bernie Sanders in the US strongly suggest that it is just a matter of time before capitalism ceases to be the hallmark not just of Anglo-American but global life. After all, 800 years of capitalism have given the world little more than climate change, illicit financial flows, income inequality and tax havens. Both Corbyn and Sanders have embraced progressive left politics and have a huge following among young people ÔÇô the future. The famed US writer and linguist, Noam Chomsky, asserts that Sanders’ policies are supported by a majority of Americans.
Here at home, the current leadership of the BNF, the main party in the UDC coalition, is largely made up of people who graduated from Koma’s study groups. Appreciated within such parametres, Koma’s treatise on Vietnam’s political past portends a global future that lies yonder.