by Ananya Agustin Malhotra

In February 1946, before the outbreak of the first Indochina War, the Vietnamese Marxist philosopher Tran Duc Thao (1917–93) outlined for the French reading public a nascent philosophy on the phenomenology of colonized existence. From the pages of Les Temps Modernes, Thao argued that the French and the Vietnamese lived in different worlds of possibilities. “Annamites,” he wrote, “live in a world where the possibilities of an independent Vietnam are part of a project, a Vietnam free to industrialize, to create the number of schools it would have seen fit, to send its students to all the universities of Europe and America.” In contrast, the French are “taught in school that Indochina is French” and that it is “contradictory” to think “something that is part of French domain” could ever “have an independent existence. This is unthinkable.”

Under the auspices of a colonial scholarship, Tran Duc Thao had initially arrived in Paris in the late 1930s to study at prestigious schools like the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, from which Aimé Césaire had graduated just four years earlier, and École Normale Supérieure (ENS), the alma mater of Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Weil and Jean-Paul Sartre. There, as one of the first Vietnamese students among very few non-European students, Thao was active in both anti-colonial circles and the European “Generation of 1933” who helped import German phenomenology to the French intellectual elite. As a student at ENS, Thao was closely surveilled by the police, arrested for his leadership in anti-colonial student groups and accused of being a Nazi by French right-wing newspapers—all while publishing a pathbreaking master’s thesis on the German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl.

Thao led Les Temps Modernes’ first theoretical discussions on strategies of liberation from colonialism, grounding the journal’s approach to anticolonialism squarely in phenomenology. Despite this, Thao’s anti-colonial thought has been largely neglected in the literature of global intellectual history. On one hand, most existing French and English scholarship on Thao highlights his additions to continental philosophy as a scholar of Husserl and as a later influence on Derrida. On the other hand, Thao is characterized flatly as a Vietnamese Communist, especially in the context of his return to Vietnam in 1951 and his later forced self-recrimination by the Vietnamese Communist Party. Both portrayals undermine Thao’s role in generating a unique strand of anti-colonial phenomenology and political thought. Although some scholars have begun to comment on the importance of Thao’s intellectual contributions to the history of phenomenology, the intersection between his philosophical interventions and his political activism deserves greater treatment. A closer look at Thao’s life and oeuvre demonstrates that one cannot disentangle his philosophical scholarship from his political writings and anti-colonial commitments. His public commentary in magazines like LTM and Confluences, even more so than his academic-facing scholarship, illustrates Thao’s striking praxis of anti-colonial phenomenology.

This tendency in Western scholarship to emphasize Thao’s role in Marxist and Husserlian phenomenology, at the expense of his anti-colonial activism, likely arises from a broader tendency in intellectual history to render the ideas of non-Western thinkers legible to a Euro-American academy. As Omnia El Shakry puts it: “[T]he non-West often makes its appearance only as an afterthought—producing exemplars but rarely epistemologies.” To gain historical purchase on the problem of colonialism, as a thinker like Thao saw it, the two sides of Thao’s life and work ought to be united in a worldmaking praxis expressed in his political and philosophical writings. Only then can scholars appreciate what, as Cyrus Schayegh and Yoav Di Capua point out, has not been sufficiently explored: the “story of decolonisation as a constructive revolutionary endeavor that sought to radically and holistically transform all aspects of life within an ethical global context.”

Writing to a French public at a time when the French colonial strategy sought to reinforce the notion that Vietnam was an inseparable part of Greater France, Thao contested the colonial construction of a shared horizon between all members of the French overseas “community.” He opposed the constitutive common ground of French language, education, and sensibilities proclaimed as foundational for a supposedly common culture. Instead, Thao argued that the colonized Vietnamese experience, perception, and horizons of existence were separate from and incommensurate with the French horizon, and thereby grounded Vietnam in Southeast Asian history and geography. Writing in the 1940s against the world envisioned by French liberal policymaker Henri Laurentie, architect of the “French Union,” Thao articulated the uneven stakes of colonialism in the Vietnamese and the French life-worlds. He recovered the political possibilities foreclosed by the epistemological hegemony of French colonialism and applied phenomenology to the task of anti-colonial and anti-capitalist revolution.

“A Child of Our Empire”?

Born in Thaï-Binh in North Vietnam in 1917, Thao’s scholarship to study in Paris was the byproduct of a wave of colonial expansion efforts beginning in the late-1920s in which French officials sought to promote scholarships for colonial students to attend French universities to inculcate in them “French” values. As a beneficiary of this project, Thao’s admission to l’École Normale Supérieure was repeatedly praised as a ‘success story’ of colonial education. French newspapers extolled: “This brilliant result, won by a . . . child of our Empire, is it not striking proof of the colonising genius of our country, and of the effort she makes to transfer her culture to her adopted sons?” The French press continuously attributed Thao’s successes to French culture and language, and never to his own merit.

Thao’s years at ENS coincided with the consolidation of Vichy rule in France and the growth of Vietnamese nationalism which culminated in the creation of the Communist-led Viet-Minh party in 1941. Upon Thao’s research visits to Louvain, Switzerland in 1944, to consult Husserl’s manuscripts to finish his diplôme, right-wing newspapers accused Thao of collaborating with the Germans simply for researching a German philosopher using a German permit. Backed by left-wing outlets like l’Humanité and Combat, the budding activist, Thao, vigorously asserted that his “anti-Nazi position cannot be contested” and reminded the French public that his visits had been undertaken on a French passport issued by the police on order from the Ministry of Colonies, and that Husserl—himself a Jew—was blacklisted by the Nazis. Such accusations demonstrated the battle between the right and left-wing press over the sympathies of the French reading public for Vietnamese and other anticolonial liberation movements—a project in which Thao’s articles in Les Temps Modernes played a decisive role.  

In March 1945, General Philippe Leclerc’s “Declaration on Indochina” introduced to the French and Indochinese publics the official policy of the new federated structure of the “French Union,” which continued to strengthen French Indochina’s ties with the metropole while allowing some constitutional, political, and economic self-governance in response to colonial and international pressure for reform. Reacting to these trends, Thao took up leadership positions in several Vietnamese anticolonial groups, leading to his arrest by Parisian police in October 1945. According to Paris police records, Thao was charged with “threatening the state’s internal security” and “encouraging separatism” or distributing anti-colonial tracts as the President of the General Delegation of Indochinese, a group with “two aims: the defense of the rights of Indochinese workers and the establishment of a democratic regime in Indochina.”

A contextual historical approach to Thao’s life and work demonstrates that his philosophy cannot be understood as distinct from his anticolonial activism. For Thao, there was no difference between theory and praxis: good theory contained within it the tools for praxis, and for him, the role of theory was to explain lived experience. To that end, his philosophical endeavors grounded the doctrines of phenomenology and Marxism towards a new end to which these dialectics had not yet been applied: anticolonial struggle, resistance, and revolution. Thao’s early works demonstrate his belief in phenomenology’s capacities for epistemic rupture, grounding theories of dialectical materialism in lived experience and the life-world.

An Anticolonial Horizon: Incommensurate Worlds and ‘”Unthinkable” Worldmaking

The French Provisional Government’s ‘‘Declaration on Indochina’’ had answered Vietnamese nationalists’ increasing demands for “freedom” with the promise of eventual French citizenship within a “progressive federalist” structure. From 1944 to 1948, Thao articulated a contrasting vision of epistemological and political revolution, writing against the liberal colonial policymaking of the architects of the French Union in journals like Les Temps Modernes, Confluences and La Pensée.

Thao’s earlier scholarship, published before his Phenomenology and Dialectical Materialism (1951), argued that Marxism required a phenomenological revision if it was to contribute towards human emancipation, rooting “economic liberation” in human experience as the “essential condition of human freedom.” With this reading, Thao extended Marxist analysis beyond its orthodox theoretical framings by grounding it in the experiences and “life-world” (Lebenswelt) of colonized people. For Thao, Marxist revolution required the uprooting of related forms of oppression, especially colonialism, which he described as that “particularly perfected form of capitalism.”

Life under colonial rule thus had implications for Thao’s philosophy: He held that any “separation of theory and practice” only stemmed from an “insufficient understanding of theory.” Because of the necessity of returning to the “real” conditions of one’s life, Thao defined theory as “the project in which the demands of the objective situation are expressed.”  In this way, concurrent with his activism in the metropole, Thao’s interest in pure phenomenology evolved into a phenomenologically inflected dialectical materialism attentive to the lived experiences of colonialism.

Thao thereby maintained that Vietnamese and French life-worlds held incompatible conceptions of the “possible” and, thus, incommensurate “horizons.” For the French, Vietnam’s independent existence was “unthinkable.” For France, Vietnam only existed as part of the French community. For the Vietnamese, any liberal federalist form of belonging to France was unacceptable. For Thao, these divergent horizons of existence precluded the possibility of discussion between the French and Vietnamese. “Facts, which are incontestable,” Thao wrote, “cannot convince the French. They insist that, in whatever form modern civilization has been brought in, it has indeed been brought.” The only solution was revolution.

Illustrating the distance between the two life-worlds, Thao held that the French viewed these colonial “developments” as benevolent gifts, vital for bringing Vietnam into modernity. The Vietnamese, however, saw such “developments”—all financed “at a high price, by the Indochinese worker”—as a product of French self-interest: Colonial officers needed roads for transport, schools to train personnel, and hospitals to prevent the spread of diseases to colonial officers. Indeed, the Ferryist philosophy of education in Vietnam required schools for colonial functionaries and interpreters for French administrators as essential to realizing the French colonial project.

Thao further critiqued developmentalist temporal logics of colonialism by drawing on the grammatical conditions of the possible and the potentialities of the past-conditional and subjunctive tenses. Pointing to Japan and other “neighboring countries” to Vietnam, Thao contended that while “the French see what has been done” by them in Indochina, using the indicative tense, the Vietnamese people see, using the subjunctive tense, “what has not been done and could have if they had been left to themselves, free to develop without interference.”

Here, Thao articulates a latent Annamite consciousness in spite of French colonial hierarchies of knowledge and temporality. The French colonial and federal logics categorized Vietnam as an “Associated State,” which only upon achieving a degree of “political maturity” would be capable of achieving self-government within the French “community.” Thao points out that the French, however, could not imagine an independent Vietnam; such notions constituted for them mere “hypotheses.” They instead “remain persuaded that, without them, nothing would have happened” in Vietnam. In contrast, Vietnamese people, according to Thao, were interested in “Vietnam as such, whether or not it is a part of France” and, thus, any failures of colonialism demanded a wholesale “condemnation of the system” itself. In turn, Thao repositioned Vietnam in a transnational context, rooting it firmly in its Southeast Asian history. Vietnam, Thao held, “as it would have become without colonization, is not for the Vietnamese ‘a mere ‘hypothesis’ for [Vietnamese people],” but rather, as the history of pre-colonial Vietnam proved, a project “effectively experienced, the very project of their existence, that which defines their existence as Annamites.” In calling the French reading public’s attention to such incompatibility in worldviews, Thao forcefully conveyed the existential stakes of their continued complicity. The First Indochina War, for France was “to recover part of its domain. For Vietnam, what matters is its very existence, which emerges from the memory of twenty centuries of history.”

Existing secondary literature, too focused on situating Thao within a European canon of letters, has failed to contextualize his anti-colonial phenomenology within the colonial nation-state-building efforts of the Third and Fourth Republics to which he directly responded. In articulating the existential and material stakes of colonialism, Thao illuminated the divergent worlds of the Vietnamese struggle for self-articulation and independence against the French paternalistic struggle to maintain control. “All the Annamese at this decisive moment desperately testify their will for independence,” Thao wrote, which “shows that their actual existence has not been lifted up, but trampled upon, and that it has always been experienced as separate. Consequently, the battle being waged in the current moment can only be understood as the aggression of one existence against another existence.”

By reframing the stakes of colonialism and centering the lived experiences of the Vietnamese, Thao unravelled France’s colonial myth of progress. While his own fate was one of internal exile at the hands of the Vietnamese Communist Party, the legacies of Thao’s anticolonial Marxist phenomenology are far from lost. Indeed, one need only look as far as six years after Sur l’Indochine was published to find substantial traces of Thao’s postcolonial materialism in perhaps the greatest text of anticolonial phenomenology:  Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1951).  

Ananya Agustin Malhotra recently received an MPhil in History (Modern European History, 1850-2000) from the University of Oxford. Her BA is from Princeton University, and her research interests lie in global intellectual history, anticolonial political thought, and the history of international order.

Edited by Tomi Onabanjo

Featured image: “Tran Duc Thao near the end of his life,” Silvia Federici, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.