In April 1975, North Vietnamese forces overwhelmed the South and took Saigon. American troops, who had mostly withdrawn by 1973, had no way of stemming the tide. “COMMUNISTS ENTER SAIGON,” ran the AP wire: “U.S. EMBASSY LOOTED.” “COLLAPSE IN VIET NAM,” proclaimed Time, with an image of a weeping Vietnamese child.
“VICTORY IN INDOCHINA” was the banner that ran across the New Left Review’s May-June issue of that year. Alongside the usual fare—articles on Bruno Bettelheim, Hungarian Communism, and Georg Lukacs’s relationship to Stalinism, and commentary by Rainer Werner Fassbinder on the melodramas of Douglas Sirk—the editors wrote:
Indochina has been lost to capitalism at a time of mounting disarray on every front: slumpflation, 15 million unemployed in the advanced capitalist countries, together with the diverse political convulsions which removed Nixon, Heath, Brandt, Tanaka, Selassie, Caetano, Papadopoulos and Kittikachorn in less than a year. The precise tactics and strategy which triumphed in Indochina no doubt apply only to a limited number of countries: even in many third world states the decisive battles may well be fought as much in the towns and cities as in the countryside. But the example of a socialist revolution succeeding against such formidable opposition, and after so many cruel disappointments, will stimulate the struggles of the exploited and oppressed everywhere.
Here the much-feared “domino effect” that had exercised the Johnson administration became the rallying cry of independent socialism—and the next domino would fall, so the NLR hoped, in Europe.
Events fell short of expectations. In 1976, the Portuguese revolution ended in the adoption of a disappointingly bourgeois constitution. In the United States, the Black Panther party, after a final bout of violent internal feuding, collapsed. 1978: In Italy, Aldo Moro—who had brokered a historic powersharing deal between the Italian Communist Party and the centrist Christian Democrats—was kidnapped by a Marxist terrorist group and murdered; Communist Cambodia, the site of a genocide of at least 200,000, was invaded by Communist Vietnam. (“At last,” cried Louis Althusser, with strange satisfaction, “the crisis of Marxism.”) In February 1979, Communist China invaded Communist Vietnam; in May, Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; in December, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. At the end of 1980, Ronald Reagan was president-elect of the United States, and Jean-Paul Sartre was dead.