Tuesday, May 19, 2009

By any means necessary

Today, May 19, is the anniversary of the birth of two great leaders in the modern struggle of the workers and oppressed: Ho Chi Minh and Malcolm X.

Ho Chi Minh, born on this date in 1890, was the leader of the Vietnam revolution, a brilliant Marxist thinker and consummate Leninist strategist. The Vietnamese people waged a grueling, bitter, hard, long but ultimately successful struggle for national liberation, first from French colonialism and then from U.S. imperialism, with Ho at the head of the fight. Vietnam is marking his birthday with many tributes and ceremonies. But the remembrances aren't limited to Southeast Asia. There are few more beloved figures in the history of the class struggle. For Comrade Ho Chi Minh cut down the colossus. With him providing political guidance and the great Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap (still alive and active at age 98) leading the military, the impoverished masses of Vietnam did what was supposed to be impossible: defeated the biggest, most technologically advanced, best funded imperial war machine in history. For this, Ho Chi Minh is honored by workers and oppressed people the world round, because his lesson provides hope that we can in fact win.

Youth Against War and Fascism, the youth arm of Workers World Party, held the first-ever protest against the U.S. war in Vietnam, in New York in August 1962. It was a small picket of perhaps two dozen people. Comrade Ho heard, and told an interviewer, "We appreciate such actions. ... Such activities are known here and greatly hearten our people."

Since this is a blog about books and reading, I'll close my note about Ho Chi Minh by mentioning Monique Truong's very fine novel The Book of Salt. This is a subtly written, finely wrought story about a gay Vietnamese man who works as the chef for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in France in, if I remember right, the 1930s. Among the themes Truong explores are the toll of colonialism on the individual psyche. She also manages to work in a cameo appearance by Ho himself.

Malcolm X would have been 84 today. He was cut down by an assassin on February 21, 1965. Just one week earlier, his home in Queens had been firebombed. That same night he was speaking at Ford Auditorium in Detroit. One of the things he said there was that the oppressed have the right to fight back "by any means necessary" against the oppressor. This is the complete text of that Detroit speech. Here is a video excerpt.

There is an event honoring Malcolm X tonight at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Center in Washington Heights. And for anyone who has not read it, The Autobiography of Malcolm X remains indispensable as an introduction to the life and thought of this great rebel against racism and imperialism, this soldier for international liberation.

Malcolm X's exhortation to battle on "by any means necessary" has become in the decades since his death a clarion call echoed time and time again in this country and around the world, by people of every nationality. It resonates and will continue to, I think, just as Ho Chi Minh's example of fighting on against seemingly impossible odds continues to inspire. Leaders like these are uncommon. Their legacy is inextinguishable.