The staggering blows that the National Liberation Front has now dealt the American military expedition in Vietnam have changed history. When some half a million American troops with enormous technological superiority are no longer capable of keeping even the us Embassy in Saigon safe, the most rabid spokesmen of imperialism have temporarily lapsed into a stunned silence. The incredible heroism of the Vietnamese militants has awed the world. They have proved, once and for all, that revolutionary peoples, not imperialism, are invincible. Socialists everywhere owe them an immense homage.

It is now a truism that Vietnam dominates the whole international political situation, and that solidarity with the Vietnamese Revolution is today the duty that solidarity with the October Revolution was in 1917. Every Marxist knows this instinctively. What we now need is some initial theoretical analysis of the significance of the Vietnamese War for the world socialist movement. Le Duan, Secretary-General of the North Vietnamese Communist Party, has recently reminded us, in an important article commemorating the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution, that: ‘The Vietnamese Revolution is part of the world revolution and its success cannot be dissociated from that of the world revolution.’footnote1 What is the exact nature of the relationship between the two? This brief contribution is intended only as a first step to the elucidation of the problem.

A social conflict is not just a clash of two or more forces on a flat plane. It has a complex, multi-dimensional structure, which determines its prospects and limits. Some exponents of bourgeois political science have recently advanced the concept of the international political system, but they have mostly confined themselves to such formalistic categories as bipolarity, multipolarity, antagonism, complementarity, or co-operation. Marxist analysis naturally replaces this empty labyrinth with a concrete historical theory, centred on the dialectical concept of contradiction.

To understand the meaning and consequences of the Vietnamese War today, a comparison of it and the classical phase of the Cold War, above all in Europe, is essential. This is the fundamental context in which it emerges with all its explosive force. For American imperialism is fighting the Vietnamese Revolution today with the identical ideological banner—Anti-Communism—under which it trampled on the Greek Revolution 20 years ago. Yet the outcome and impact of the conflict has been totally different. Why?

No properly constituted theory of the Cold War exists. But its essential political character is clear. The Cold War was a fundamentally unequal conflict, that was presented and experienced on both sides as being equal. The Soviet Union was put forward as a direct alternative model of society to that of the Western capitalist countries. The conflict was seen, both within the Communist movement and within capitalism, as a struggle as to which was the better society, compared at a single moment of time. Posed like this, the conflict was inevitably detrimental to the advance of socialism everywhere. For Russia in no way represented an equivalent economic base to that of Western Europe or the United States. It was still a society marked by poverty and scarcity, aggravated by the tremendous losses and devastations of the Second World War, and engaged in the inhuman imperatives of isolated primitive accumulation. (This condition naturally determined its relationship to the countries of Eastern Europe.) The affluent and advanced West was never deeply challenged from within by this social model. Russia was manifestly authoritarian and violent, whereas Western capitalist societies had in most cases a long bourgeois-democratic tradition. But politically, violence and bureaucracy was pitted, without historical mediations, against the bland parliamentarianism of the West, in a world where socialism was an encircled enclave within the world imperialist economy. This was the meaning and genesis of the Cold War. The specific form taken by the contradiction between socialism and capitalism thus determined an internal neutralization of the contradictions within capitalism. The working-class was by and large mobilized in the anti-Communist crusade, because of its fear of the Soviet model, symbolized by a régime of shortages and repression. Both economic and political ‘competition’ between the blocs was, under these circumstances, to the advantage of the West. Neither, in the form they took, threatened bourgeois rationality. While the ussr, anyway a vastly poorer society, was shattered by the German invasion, the usa—already much the wealthiest society in the world—emerged not merely unscathed but actually economically assisted by the war. It was thus able to pour a profusion of dollars into Western Europe (while the ussr was securing reparations from Eastern Europe), and get it on the path of a successful capitalist restoration and reconstruction, greatly strengthened by the armaments boom of the fifties. Saturated with Cold War ideology, the working-class in the West was by and large enlisted in the cause of the Truman Doctrine and Nato, the defenders of both freedom (parliament) and prosperity (free enterprise) from the evils of international Communism. The Communists in Italy, France, Finland and elsewhere retrenched themselves in isolated enclaves, and waited for the international situation to change. The non-Communist Left was crushed or compromised. The Cold War, fought out as a competitive conflict between the ussr and the usa in Europe, resulted in the massive political and ideological consolidation of capitalism in the West. An unequal conflict fought as equal redoubles the inequality. The Cold War was a long penalization of socialism.

The contemporary conflict between imperialism and national liberation, of which the war in Vietnam is the principal aspect today, is totally different in structure. It is a conflict between unequal forces presented and lived as unequal. There is no question of any comparison between the desperately deprived and rebellious workers and peasants of Asia, Africa and Latin America and the wealthy capitalist societies of the West which sends its praetorians to obliterate them. The very essence of the struggle between them is their incommensurability. This, indeed, is the meaning of the military form of the conflict. The Cold War was a struggle on the same plane between two forces at different levels. The protracted war of a guerrilla army against an imperialist military expedition is the armed expression of a conflict where the inequality of the parties is matched by a struggle on disparate planes—each party fighting on different terrain. All of Mao’s writings on guerrilla warfare are concerned with this fundamental strategic asymmetry. The rule is, of course, that normally there is only a one-way connection between the two planes. Successfully fought and led, the guerrilla army can erode and eventually disintegrate the social, political and military position of its cumbersome conventional enemy, while the latter unavailingly unleashes its technological fury on the population—before being decisively defeated.

But this strategic asymmetry reflects a deeper historical relationship. The struggle in Vietnam today and Cuba yesterday is for liberation from imperialist exploitation and oppression. Given the global structure of capitalism, this means not merely secession from, but a frontal attack on, capitalism as a system and the bourgeois rationality that integrates it. Two social models are now in a quite new relationship with each other. Socialist liberation in Vietnam does not ‘compete’ with us capitalism, it focuses a diamond light on the internal structure of the rich capitalist societies which compels their negation of the freedom and development of other societies. Thus whereas the ‘competitive’ contradiction between socialism and capitalism during the Cold War blocked the contradictions within capitalism, the Vietnamese conflict has detonated the contradictions within us capitalism itself. For there is now no question of comparing a scarcity political model with the affluent societies of the West—the ideological device which successfully mystified a generation of the Western proletariat.footnote2 On the contrary, the ideologies of imperialism and racism with which the usa is fighting the war in Vietnam have recoiled on it. The war in Asia has triggered a war in the ghettoes. For the young in the West, the examples of dedication and heroism are now drawn from the movements of liberation in Asia, Africa and Latin America.