British historian John Callow (Photo: VNA)
President Ho Chi Minh’s stay in London was the very outset of his revolutionary career, which had a profound effect on him, especially the development of his own thinking, British historian John Callow told the Vietnam News Agency (VNA)’s correspondents in the UK on the occasion of the late leader's 133th birth anniversary (May 19,1890 - 2023).
According to the historian, as part of his great journey, in May 1914, President Ho Chi Minh, called Nguyen Tat Thanh at that time, came to London - the power center of imperialism, the financial centre of capitalism and the capital of a system that stretched to India through Africa.
The UK, at that time, was still the workshop of the world, with enormous fleets and armies. President Ho Chi Minh wanted to learn about secrets of imperialism, and to have a sense of the developed industrial world.
There had been risings against imperialists, colonists and capitalism, but these had all failed. President Ho Chi Minh wanted to understand reasons behind those failures and find out different patterns to development for Vietnamese people as a nation. He arrived in London at time of great industrial unrest with a lot of strikes, such as the one in Liverpool and the Irish people’s rising in 1916 to fight for their own independence.
According to Callow, this was a crucial period that affected President Ho Chi Minh enormously. When in London, the President first took a job shovelling snow in a school playground in the incredibly cold. He then moved to Drayton Court Hotel on the railway line, further to the east, before working at the Carlton Hotel, where the President washed dishes, and later became a skilled worker under the wing of the great pastry chefs.
Here he saw the gulf that separated the rich from the poor. He was shocked at the waste that the rich who ate here, throwing out whole chickens or whole sides of steak. He collected these together, and every night dispersed them to the poor who waited at the back of the building here for something to eat. While being here, President Ho Chi Minh joined an organised labour association that brought together Chinese, Lao and Vietnamese workers.
The British historian said much of what we know about President Ho Chi Minh in this period comes from the postcards he sent to his friends and comrades in Paris, three of which had got intercepted. The French police’s records also showed reports on a Vietnamese worker in London joining the movement of trade unionists.
According to Callow, President Ho Chi Minh probably lived in a little flat just at the back of Tottenham Court Road as the French police intercepted some of his writings and had the English police raid the address. But he was long gone by then.
At that time, the British labour movement was very well developed with a lot of socialist writings. President Ho Chi Minh got a lot of social socialism journals, so it was probably the first time he encountered the work of Karl Marx in London. Callow pointed out that President Ho Chi Minh was walking in the footsteps of the father of modern socialism.
What he got from Marx would be an explanation for all the things he saw in this period, the historian said, adding this was the bedrock of the President’s political economy and thought. But at the very same time, President Ho Chi Minh left Britain just after the 1917 revolution in Russia and was also incredibly influenced by Lenin's work on the colonial peoples.
Callow said the brilliance of President Ho Chi Minh was looking at the founders of scientific socialism, of Marx and Angles, but then updating what they were saying and combining with the new thoughts of Lenin that spoke directly to the peasant workers and peoples of the world and directly had an impact on a country like Vietnam which was colonised, brutalised under the thumb of the great trading companies.
The historian said the greatness of Ho Chi Minh was his ability not to follow ideas for their own sake, but to take ideas, to create and develop them, and to never lose sight of the need for the national liberation of the Vietnamese people to make their lives better, healthier, happier, more decent.
Speaking of President Ho Chi Minh’s thought, Callow said its greatness lied with its adaptability, its refusal to turn Marxism into a dogma, into something to be worshipped, to be nodded at, but to make it applicable in Vietnam, to never lose sight of the revolutionary conditions.
The President thought every day and every night about achieving his goal of revolution, and to have a revolution that would be really worthwhile to sweep away the empires that dominated the fates and the life chances of the Vietnamese people and to put something better and brighter in their place.
Callow noted that President Ho Chi Minh took the best traditions of Vietnamese culture, of it's amazing ancient society that existed long before the City of London, but put it within new times. His thought gave the Communist Party of Vietnam the adaptability that led them to Doi Moi (Reform).
Speaking of personal qualities of President Ho Chi Minh that made him an outstanding leader, Callow said alongside his enormous political qualities for organisation and inspirational leadership, there was also the essential simplicity of the President.
“He had an amazing intellect but he had never lost his contact with the people, whether it was the people of London or small farmers of Vietnam that he spoke to directly. He never lost sight of the people themselves and did not let power go to his head. He did not set himself apart from the people. He understood the people and was a part of the people, but was a leader of the world in the true sense,” the historian said.
“He was humble, quiet and unassuming, and brave and had enormous dignity at the same time. His poetic Prison Diary gave a sense of the man himself. His humanity, his calmness under great stress, his creativity that he used in jail turned out a work of art, a work of poetry and a work to fire the imagination of his comrades in the underground movement.”
The historian concluded that President Ho Chi Minh was a great world figure who could combine intellect with passion, with decency, with the sense of a man who was absolutely incorruptible and put the people of his own nation before everything else in his life. And his work, while it is art or politics, was always there first and foremost at the service of the people.