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“Viet Cong Philosophy: Tran Duc Thao”: Silvia Federici

In discussing ideologies, Gramsci pointed out that, “according to Marxism, ideologies are all but arbitrary; they are historical facts that must be fought and unveiled in their character of instruments of domination, not because of ethical reasons, etc., but precisely for reasons of political struggle: in order to render those who are dominated independent from those that dominate them, in order to destroy a type of hegemony and create another one, as a necessary moment in the overturning of praxis.” News reports in the past five years have made it clear to everyone that for all practical purposes the United States has been militarily defeated in Vietnam. What has remained entirely unknown is that, while General Giap has been unleashing Tet offensives in the battle-fields, Viet Cong philosophers have also: been busy waging an ideological battle on the philosophical level. Modern imperialism finds its ideological justification in the now fashionable linguistic philosophy which either regards all meanings as wholly arbitrary (e.g., Quine, White, Goodman, etc.), or reduces them to the facticity of everyday discourse (e.g., Wittgenstein, Austin, etc.). In this fashion, all meanings are either equally unfounded, or they can be founded only in the domain of the given. In either case, imperialism is implicitly justified, for, in the first case it is regarded as at least as rational a system as any other, thus neutralizing any possible rational arguments for its debunking, or else, in the second case, since all meanings reduce to the given and the given is, in fact, imperialist, imperialism itself becomes the criterion of all meaningfulness.

This ridiculous apologetic state of affairs cannot be tolerated and it is not at all surprising to find Tran Duc Thao, probably the most brilliant of Vietnamese philosophers, hard at work developing a theory of consciousness and a theory of language based on labor and historical becoming meant to show how all meaning is necessarily teleological in character and historically rooted in the concrete operations of human subjects. If such is in fact the case, then the abstract categories of imperialism are neither exempt from the need of a foundation, nor will the fact that they are coextensive with ordinary discourse provide them with the needed foundation. The task of revolutionary philosophy is, therefore, to show how the imperialist ideology is both unfounded and unfoundable and, furthermore, how the historical dialectic at work leads to its eventual overthrow. This is precisely what Tran Duc Thao has done in a series of articles recently published in the French philosophy journal, La Pensée.

Who is Tran Duc Thao? Although his work is central in terms of the latest developments of Marxian thought, since he has resided in “North” Vietnam for over fifteen years, he is practically unknown in the Englishspeaking world. The available biographical information is very scarce. He studied in Paris in the 1930s at the École Normale where he met Merleau-Ponty and became interested in phenomenology. His major work, Phénoménologie et Materialisme Dialectique, appeared in 1951, and remains today one of the best critiques of Husserlian phenomenology. It also marks, by Tran Duc Thao’s own admission, his shift from a phenomenological to a Marxist perspective. Having returned to Vietnam immediately after the French defeat in the first lndo-Chinese war, he has not been heard from since, with the exception of his few articles in La Pensée.

In many ways, Tran Duc Thao’s philosophical development is similar to Sartre’s and Merleau-Ponty’s. Their common interests center around the synthesis of phenomenology and Marxism — a major theme of post-World War II French philosophy in general. The differences among the three, however, are more important then the similarities. Sartre and Merleau-Ponty never succeeded in transcending the phenomenological frame of reference, thus producing a forced synthesis between the two. In the case of Merleau-Ponty, Marxism was eventually discarded altogether after his writing of Les Aventures de la Dialectique in 1955. For Tran Duc Thao, however, the transition to Marxism turned out to be the only “conceivable solution to the problems raised by phenomenology”, resulting in a radical change of viewpoint, i.e., a total rejection of phenomenology.

Viet Cong Philosophy: Tran Duc Thao

TELOS
Number 6 – Fall 1970
pp. 104-117

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