Hue-Tam Ho Tai argues that the 1920’s and 1930’s witnessed the formation of a particular strain of reaction to the colonial status quo. Hue-Tam coins the term Vietnamese ‘radicalism’ defined as “an essentially non-ideological current of reaction, both to colonial rule and to native accommodation to that rule, the chief characteristics of which were iconoclasm and the marriage of the personal and the political.” Characterizing radicalism as an ‘individualist’ phase of revolution, Hue-Tam thus connects the national struggle for independence with an individual’s anarchical emancipation from tradition and social institutions. Described as the yearning for new personal and collective forms of expression, radicalism was the “political mood” and also a form of cultural politics of the 1920’s and 1930’s generation of students. Hue-Tam locates the emergence of radicalism among a specific generation of Vietnamese intellectuals—mostly urban, French or French colonial educated, youth who came of age in the political climate of the 1920’s and expressed themselves through student strikes, associations, and newspapers.
The first part of the book discusses the cultural and political frustrations of radical youth: the contradiction between Confucian values and colonial society, the failures of reformism to deal with social and political inadequacies, and the debates on women. After establishing a ‘political mood’ of the period, Hue-Tam undertakes the challenging task of figuring out how and when a spirit of disenchantment and iconoclasm became politicized. She demonstrates that key events in the span of a couple years (1925-1927), the trial of Phan Boi Chau, the death of Phan Chau Trinh, and the arrest of Nguyen An Ninh would “light the torch of patriotism” and rapidly politicized the urban radical youth (“prodigal children”). Ho-Tai argues that this politicization happened too quickly to have developed an ideological framework, but instead there emerged ephemeral organizations, strikes, and heated political debates during this time. In her chapter “Organizing Revolution” Ho Tai focuses on the diverse interpretations of socialism, revolution, and Communist movement and the tension between Leninism and anarchism (rejection of authority, emphasis on moral transformation and populism). By 1930’s the mass politics shifted away from the elite centered politics of the 1920s.
This work challenges the existing historiography in its over-determined and teleological understanding of a Marxist-Leninist inspired Vietnamese Revolution, and sheds light upon the 1920’s and 1930’s as a period of variegated political and cultural mentalities and debates (constitutionalists, restorationists, patriotic reformers, cultural conservatives). Ho Tai pushes against the lens of the 1920s as the period of transition to 1930s mass politics and Marxist-Leninist class based arguments, and welcomes the interpretation of this period as the most individualistic, elitist, experimental stage of the Vietnamese Revolution. This book directs attention to the urban, elite radical Nguyen An Ninh and other radical intellectuals whose ideas did not fall clearly into the ideological platform of Marxist-Leninism.
Hue-Tam Ho Tai also introduces the intellectual and philosophical discussions on individualism, the family, social duty, freedom, equality, women’s roles, and how they manifested in radicalism and revolutionary rhetoric such as in the VNQDD Thanh Nien. Hue-Tam engages with these ideas in order to understand the mindset and logical processes that historical agents made as they considered the viability and appeal of certain political paths. Imbuing her historical actors with a tremendous sense of agency, Hue-Tam shifts the interpretation of Vietnamese intellectuals from simply reactionaries to colonial rule; instead she shows how individuals engaged with each other on interpretations of the past and future of Vietnamese society and negotiated a strategy of action.
In comparison to David Marr’s Vietnamese Tradition on Trial 1925-1945, Ho Tai focuses on philosophy of radicalism and social change, questions of individual, the family, women’s roles. This social question driven narrative of 1920s and 1930s Vietnamese political life differs from Marr’s chapters of analysis. Marr often frames these debates simplistically along lines of Confucianism or Marxism, often with eventual dominance of the ICP steering the conversation. Thus the story of how Communism became the leading path among intellectuals seems straightforward, rather than complex and contested as how Ho Tai shows in her study of the 1920s and 1930s.