Whatever Happened to ‘The Vietcong’?
In the 1960s leftwing demonstrators used to chant ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh’ and ‘Victory to the Vietcong’. We look at what sort of society emerged following their victory in 1976.
In 1956, during a brief relaxation of censorship, a Vietnamese literary journal published a story by Tran Duy entitled The Giants. The giants in the story are created by God to help mankind fight the devils, but they end up trampling and killing more people than devils. The allegory was readily deciphered: the giants were the ‘communist’ party leaders, while the devils were the hated French colonialists, recently defeated at Dien Bien Phu (1954).
The history of the ‘communist’ movement in Vietnam cannot be summarised in a short article, but the timeline will help the reader place events in context.
The Vietnamese ‘communist’ movement emerged from the struggle against French colonial rule as a top-down organisation. The leadership was a self-appointed and self-perpetuating group from the very start. The process of party formation began among Vietnamese emigrés in Canton – the French Sûreté (security police) made it too risky to place the central leadership inside the country. In 1925 Ho Chi Minh, backed by the Comintern, put together a group called the Vietnam Revolutionary Youth League, personally recruiting its members and deciding which of them should sit on its Central Committee (CC). In 1930 the League merged with other small groups to form the Indochinese Communist Party, later renamed the Vietnam Workers’ Party or Lao Dong.
As with other vanguard parties of the Bolshevik type, the internal functioning of the Vietnamese ‘communist’ party has always been guided by the principle of ‘democratic centralism’. Lower bodies are strictly subordinate to higher ones. Debate is allowed only until a definite policy is adopted, after which all members must support and implement that policy.
In practice, local party branches in Vietnam in the 1930s seem to have had considerable autonomy due to the difficulty of maintaining communication between them and the CC in China. However, once the leadership returned to Vietnam in 1945 control was tightened.
The activity of rank-and-file party members has almost always been confined to tasks assigned from above. On training courses they might be invited to raise objections to the policy of the leaders, but the purpose of this is merely to convince them that the leadership is right. Only during the brief thaws of 1956 and the late 1980s have they had greater freedom to criticize party policy.
At higher levels there has been freer discussion at certain periods, permitting the emergence of conflicting factions. (The most persistent though not the only important factional division has been that between supporters of a pro-China orientation and advocates of closer ties with European ‘socialist’ countries.) Such periods, however, alternate with others in which a narrow clique imposes rigid control. Thus the ‘anti-revisionist’ purge of the mid-1960s, in which hundreds of critical party and government officials and military officers were imprisoned without charge, inaugurated the ‘rule of the two Le’s’ – Le Duan (general secretary) and Le Duc Tho (head of the CC’s Organisation Department, in control of appointments, and negotiator at the Paris talks). This was just one of recurrent purges that frighten people and inhibit debate.
Relations with other political groups
The ‘communist’ party was not alone in fighting against French rule. There were also various ‘bourgeois’ nationalist parties, Trotskyist organisations and religious sects. At times the ‘communists’ judged it expedient to cooperate with this or that group. At other times they ruthlessly suppressed rivals who did not seem susceptible to their control, even resorting to assassinations and betrayal to the Sûreté (also a source of funds).
Especially dramatic were relations between Stalinists and Trotskyists. In the early to mid-1930s the ‘communists’ in Saigon cooperated with local Trotskyists – a practice denounced by the Comintern in 1937 and Ho in 1939. After the Vietminh took power in Hanoi in 1945, Trotskyists were hunted down as ‘traitors’ and they were almost all killed.
A sole survivor, Ngo Van, escaped just in time to France, where he wrote a valuable memoir (In the Crossfire: Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary, AK Press, 2010). His political views evolved in exile: he rejected Bolshevism and became a council communist.
The ‘communists’ again cooperated with other ‘patriotic’ forces in the fight against the Americans. Most members of the National Liberation Front (NLF) in the South were not ‘communists’ (the moniker ‘Vietcong’ – Vietnamese Communists – is misleading). After victory the NLF was suppressed (see: Truong Nhu Tang, A Vietcong Memoir: An Inside Account of the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath, Vintage Books, 1986). NLF veterans remained a disgruntled group in society. Taking advantage of the thaw of 1986, they set up a Club of Former Resistance Fighters, with a journal entitled Spirit of Resistance.
Outer and inner power elites
Within the party we can identify an outer power elite of 150–200 members of the party’s Central Committee (CC) and an inner power elite of 15–20 top leaders – members of the Politburo and occupants of important positions in the CC apparatus. The top leaders have chauffeur-driven cars and live in luxurious villas with guards, servants, and personal libraries. Other members of the CC have lesser though still substantial privileges, such as use of a special store in Hanoi stocked with goods not available to ordinary mortals and a spacious apartment (most people live in very crowded conditions).
There is also a graduated system of access to information. Certain periodicals are published specially for the power elite. A digest of the world press has a fairly wide circulation. Some documents like Politburo minutes, however, are restricted to the inner elite.
Ho Chi Minh
A few words on ‘Uncle Ho’. He was the creator and symbol of Vietnamese ‘communism’ but he was not a dictator like Stalin or Mao, nor did he have any pretensions as a theorist. His power declined over time. In her novel The Zenith, Duong Thu Huong portrays the aging Ho as virtually a prisoner of his colleagues. Like Lenin, after death he was embalmed and placed on public display in a mausoleum in defiance of his expressed wishes (he wanted to be cremated, just as Lenin wanted to be buried). His last testament was published but in censored form (thus his call for a moratorium on the land tax was deleted).
After Le Duan’s death in 1986 the Vietnamese leaders embarked on a policy called doi moi, meaning ‘renovation’. Initially, like Gorbachev’s perestroika, this was envisaged as a process of political as well as economic reform. Later, wishing to avoid the fate of the Soviet elite, they switched to the Chinese strategy of encouraging private enterprise and foreign investment while consolidating the power structure.
As we have seen, the old state-capitalist system had its inequalities. However, the new mixed system of state and private capitalism has generated inequalities that are more extreme and, perhaps above all, more conspicuous. This has given rise to feelings of nostalgia for the old days. In particular, the period of the war against America, for all its hardships and suffering, is recalled as a time of sharing and mutual aid.
I was told of a man who was surprised one day to find on his doorstep someone who had served with him in the same unit. His pleasure turned into shame when his old comrade-in-arms told him that he was destitute and begged him to take him in as a servant. He said that he was not asking for money: he would be satisfied with food to eat and a roof over his head.
The more things change…
The Vietnamese Revolution certainly brought changes in the composition, structure and ideology of the ruling class. But what changes did it bring to working people?
Many changes were more apparent than real. Here are a couple of examples.
One of the main demands raised by ‘communists’ and others under French rule was abolition of the corvée – a feudal institution that made peasants toil without pay on public works for a certain number of days per year. Under the Vietminh the same practice continued under a new name – citizen labour service.
Again, after ‘land reform’ (1954–56) peasants no longer had to pay rent to a landlord for the land they tilled. But instead they had to pay a land tax to the state. And the amount of the land tax happened to be about the same as the rent previously paid to the landlord. Later, after the collectivisation of agriculture, the same surplus was extracted by the state from the collective farms.
As the proverb says: ‘The more things change, the more they remain the same.’
The French colonialists and their American successors placed little value on the lives of the ‘natives’. But the ‘communist’ leaders too placed little value on the lives of their people. Even if one accepts the dubious propositions that the country had to be reunited and that this could be achieved only by war, the goal could have been reached at a much lower price in blood. For instance, the ‘Easter offensive’ of 1972, which cost the lives of almost an entire cohort of poorly trained 16-year-old boys, served no rational strategic objective. It was already clear that the US was withdrawing – all that was needed was a little more patience.
Impoverished by decades of war and devastation, Vietnam now lies alongside Bangladesh on the bottom tier of the global economic hierarchy, with wage levels only one half of those now prevailing in China. Chased out at such vast cost, the ‘imperialists’ are welcomed back to exploit Vietnamese workers and resources as foreign investors.
VIETNAMESE ‘COMMUNISM’ TIMELINE
1880s French complete conquest of Indochina
1925 Ho Chi Minh sets up Vietnam Revolutionary Youth League (VRYL) in Canton
1930 VRYL merges with other groups to form Indochinese Communist Party (ICP)
1941 Ho creates Vietnam Independence League (Vietminh)
1945 Japan surrenders. Vietminh takes power in Hanoi. Ho proclaims Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). ICP officially disbands
1945–54 Resistance War Against France
1951 ICP reappears as Vietnam Workers’ Party (Lao Dong)
1954 Geneva Agreement divides Vietnam into northern zone (DRV) and southern zone (Republic of Vietnam)
1954–56 ‘Land reform’ in DRV
1959 Collectivisation of agriculture begins in DRV
1960 National Liberation Front (Vietcong) established in South
1960–75 Resistance War Against America
1969 Ho dies. Le Duan becomes general secretary of party Central Committee
1976 Country reunified as Socialist Republic of Vietnam
1977 Collectivisation of agriculture begins in South
1978 Vietnam invades Cambodia
1979 Border war with China
1986 Le Duan dies. Start of doi moi (renovation)
1988 De-collectivisation of agriculture legalized