The Vietnamese Revolution Research Paper

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In one and a quarter century since the French conquest of southern Vietnam in the 1860s, Vietnam underwent a radical transformation from a Confucian monarchy to a Marxist–Leninist state. The Vietnamese revolution involved a violent clash with two major Western powers, France and the United States, as well as a fundamental transformation of the Vietnamese socioeconomic system.

1. Historical Background

Citing the Vietnamese monarchy’s persecution of Catholics and refusal of a trade request, France launched a series of attacks on Vietnam from 1858 onwards. By 1867, France had seized as a direct colony the frontier southern third of Vietnam (Cochin China or Nam bo) from the Vietnamese monarchy. By 1884, the northern and central Vietnam (respectively Tonkin or Bac bo, and Annam or Trung bo) had fallen under French control, although the Nguyen monarchy nominally still retained its direct administration of the latter.

In the aftermath of the French conquest, the resistance to French colonialism, mainly in the name of an ‘Aid-the-King’ movement, was led primarily by Confucian literati. It lasted the longest in central and northern Vietnam. By the time the Union of French Indochina was established in 1897, with Laos and Cambodia as the remaining two of the five components, the armed anticolonial resistance led by Confucian literati had virtually collapsed (see Marr 1971).

Many members of the Vietnamese elite collaborated with the French rulers, while a number of others searched for a more effective path of resistance, strongly influenced by Chinese reformist and revolutionary thoughts and inspired by the rise of Japan as an Asian power. At one end of the collaboration–

resistance spectrum in the first quarter of the twentieth century was the Confucian scholar Phan Boi Chau, a native of northern Central Vietnam, who organized a movement of students to Japan and inspired isolated armed resistance against French colonialism (Marr 1971). In the context of a strong French repression, Thailand and southern China served as important bases for exiled resistance leaders (Goscha 1999). At the other end were many collaborators, such as the northern neo-traditionalist Pham Quynh, as well as many southerners who were rewarded with large tracts of land sold at low prices as the cultivated acreage in Cochin China increased five times from 1870 to 1920 thanks to the French water control work. Many of the latter acquired French citizenship, experimented with the more open politics in the direct French colony of Cochin China, or even played a role in the southern millenarian movements of Cao Dai and Hoa Hao (Tai 1983, 1992), co-opting many poor peasants in the sharply stratified Cochin Chinese society.

With the last Confucian examination being held in 1919, a new Western-educated elite began playing a salient role in the anticolonial resistance from 1925 onwards. The major uprisings took place in northern Vietnam in 1930 under the leadership of the Vietnamese Nationalist Party (VNP), and in central and northern Vietnam in 1930–1 under the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP). The ICP-led movement in 1930–1 represented the most serious challenge to French colonialism since the Aid-the-King movement of the nineteenth century, as it involved the participation of half a million Vietnamese and threatened the colonial order in 25 provinces. At the peak of this movement, the colonial administrative apparatus virtually collapsed in many villages in the provinces of Nghe-An (birthplace of Ho Chi Minh) and Ha Tinh in northern central Vietnam. The ICP local leadership spontaneously seized village administrations, abolished taxes, reduced rents, and redistributed up to 8,500 acres of communal land in these two provinces alone.

In the short run, both the VNP and ICP-led movements in 1930–1 collapsed under the strong repressive measures by the French colonial regime with its superior military forces. Many revolutionary leaders were imprisoned, while Thailand and southern China again became important bases for exiled political activists, including Ho Chi Minh. It was not until the release of a number of political prisoners and the introduction of a more liberal political atmosphere in colonial Indochina under the Popular Front regime in the metropolis (1936–9) that revolutionary activism gained a significant momentum. In the context of the Japanese military advance into Indochina in Sept-ember 1940 and the French colonial government’s subsequent collaboration with Japanese military authorities, the Vietminh (abbreviation of Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh Hoi, or Vietnam Independence Alliance League) under Ho Chi Minh began building a base of operation in northern mountainous areas, working with many members of ethnic minorities, against both the Japanese and Axis-aligned French colonial administration (Marr 1995, Chap. 3).

2. Wars And Vietnamese Revolutionary Momentum

The major turning point was 1945, when French colonial power was humiliated by the Japanese supported coup of March 9, 1945, and when in the context of a power vacuum with the Japanese surrender to Allied forces in August 1945, the Communist-led Vietminh organized the seizure of power throughout the country. The last Vietnamese monarch abdicated under revolutionary pressure. Ho Chi Minh’s Declaration of Independence from France in September 1945 evoked a powerful nationalist sentiment from all social strata, and garnered widespread support for the first independent government of Vietnam (Marr 1995, 537–9). In the Vietnamese Marxist orthodox discourse, this seizure of power has been referred to as the August Revolution (cach mang thang tam). It was a revolution only in the narrowest sense of the term, that means, as a seizure of administrative power and official marking of the end of the monarchical era. However, even the maintenance of this administrative power in a territorially unified Vietnam came under a serious challenge by France’s desire to regain its influence and control of Vietnam and the complications of post-WWII international politics with the post-WWII rise of US power and the Cold War. France’s attempt to regain control of Vietnam and its underestimation of the support for Vietnamese independence led to the Franco-Vietnamese war from 1946 to 1954. The US’s greater concern with Europe and Soviet influence after WWII, in combination with the Chinese communists’ control of mainland China in 1949, shifted US policy towards a support for France and away from Franklin Roosevelt’s support for the aspiration for independence of colonized peoples in Asia and Africa. The violent Franco-Vietnamese war ended in 1954, after the Vietminh defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in the northern highlands. Vietnam was temporarily divided into two parts at the 17th parallel, with the north under Communist control, and the south under American influence.

Ho Chi Minh’s vision of a unified Vietnam was not achieved until 1975, after a long and violent war which, in the context of the Cold War, involved a massive US ground involvement in South Vietnam and US bombing of the north and parts of Laos and Cambodia. The Vietnamese Communist Party began lending support to the armed resistance against the US-allied government in Saigon in 1959, helped to establish the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam in 1960, and increased the flow of personnel and arms from the north to the south from 1960 onwards (Cao van Luong et al. 1995, pp. 285ff.). The United States responded by increasing military advisers in South Vietnam to 15,000 by 1963, bombing North Vietnam from 1964 onwards, and introducing ground combat troops to South Vietnam in 1965. At its peak, the US had half a million of combat troops in South Vietnam. In the context of the Cold War, North Vietnam in turn received significant military and economic aid from the Soviet Union, China, Eastern Europe, and Cuba. The intense warfare led to the migration of millions of peasants to urban areas in South Vietnam, seriously damaged the South Vietnamese economy, and increased the dependence of the US-supported government in South Vietnam on US aid.

In the US, the draft system and the protracted warfare in Vietnam, exposed daily in the mass media, intensified the antiwar movement, especially among the young. This contributed to the US policy of handling the war to South Vietnamese troops, and to the withdrawal of US ground troops and the end of bombing of North Vietnam by 1973 in the aftermath of the Paris Peace Agreement. South Vietnam enjoyed no peace, as the Paris Agreement was violated by both the Saigon-government troops on the one hand and the North Vietnamese troops and their southern allies on the other. The US-supported government in South Vietnam eventually collapsed in April 1975, under the attack of North Vietnamese troops and their southern allies.

Vietnamese Marxists’ seizure of political control in the north by 1954 and in the entire country by 1975 strengthened the foundation for the enactment of their socioeconomic vision. In North Vietnam, the socioeconomic revolution accelerated throughout the 1950s under the Communist vision of a collectivized economy where the state played the dominant role in the industrial and agricultural production process, as well as in the distribution of raw materials and finished products. By 1965, the northern economy was based mostly on the state and cooperative sectors, and sustained by aid from the socialist bloc, as North Vietnam became directly involved in the war against the US and the American-supported government in Saigon. The Communist party’s economic vision was imposed on the south after 1975. The economic crisis in the late 1970s, fueled by the resistance of peasants in the southern Mekong Delta to collectivization and the disenchantment of northern cooperative farmers, led to a gradual shift towards a market economy. This process of economic reforms (doi moi) started in agriculture in 1981. The economic reform was reaffirmed at the 1986 Communist Party Congress, and implemented in the rest of the economy by 1989. Cultivators consequently have long-term leases on land, and regain control over production and distribution processes. Private enterprises have been allowed to reemerge in industries and commerce, and foreign direct investments since 1988 have helped to fuel a generally strong economic growth in the 1990s.

3. The Vietnamese Revolution: Theoretical Debates

Many an important theoretical model on revolution has been constructed partly on the basis of the scholarly knowledge of the Vietnamese revolution. These models are embedded in the major traditions of contemporary Western social theory (John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, and Emile Durkheim).

In the literature on revolution and agrarian unrest, the political scientist S. Popkin’s rational choice model offers a good example of a theoretical model within the Millean tradition of inquiry (Popkin 1979). It considers the behavior of both the peasantry and the elite as the goal-directed acts of self-interested individuals. Popkin argues that modern revolutionary movements such as the Vietminh succeed because, as political entrepreneurs, their leaders can offer peasants concrete welfare improvements and effective organization against the marauding lords and notables of the old order. He emphatically rejects the view that modern agrarian movements involve defensive reactions to the violation of pre-capitalist normative structures by the colonial and capitalist order. In Popkin’s argument, the incorporation of indigenous agriculture into the capitalistic world market, the establishment of the colonial regime, and the expansion of state power are not necessarily deleterious to peasant welfare. According to Popkin, colonialism brings vital stability and an improved communication system which keeps prices from fluctuating widely and thus keeps peasants alive in times of local famine.

Intriguing as it is, Popkin’s model encounters its share of empirical anomalies in the Vietnamese case. For example, on which matrix of material costs and benefits did a large number of Vietnamese from different social strata volunteer for the Vietminh armed forces in the 1946–50 period, when Vietminh troops faced an enemy of overwhelmingly technological superiority, and before the poor recruits could foresee any substantial socioeconomic reforms in their favor?

In contrast to the Millean tradition of inquiry, the Marxist tradition seeks to situate economic transformation and revolutionary movements within the structure of conflict-ridden class relations. Both Western and Vietnamese Marxist analysts consider Western capitalist expansion as the root of the Vietnamese revolution. In this perspective, French colonialism in Vietnam as the representation of Western capitalist interests sought the maximal return on capital at the expense of the native working classes. The sociologist Martin Murray argues that capitalist exploitative measures included the concession of indigenous land to colonial settlers for the development of major cash crops; the introduction of direct and indirect taxes, and the conversion of tax payments from kind to cash to facilitate capitalist growth; and the oppressive appropriation of labor through the corvee system, the maintenance of rural labor reserves in Tonkin and Annam, and repressive labor laws to hold down labor costs for capitalist agro-mineral ventures.

Murray suggests that the impact of world capitalism was far from uniform in Vietnam. It was most striking in Cochin China which emerged as one of the top three rice exporting areas in the world, where approximately two-thirds of the rural population were separated from the means of agricultural production, where land and labor became strictly commodified, and where classes became increasingly differentiated. In contrast, in the north and center (Tonkin and Annam), although the rural population was increasingly drawn into market relations, the majority still tenaciously held on to their minuscule land holdings, buffered in many communities by their small shares of communal land. In North and Central Vietnam, the proportions of inalienable communal land averaged respectively 21 per cent and 25 per cent of the cultivated acreages. Murray suggests that the persistence of communal land in the north and the center contributed to the formation of non-capitalist labor reserves for the plantations, mines, and factories within French Indochina and beyond, reserves where workers could rely on kinship and communal ties for survival in times of recession and during the pre-productive and postproductive periods (youth and old age). It has been suggested that the cost of capitalist production was consequently held down because capitalist firms had to pay only the cost of short-term labor reproduction (the cost to sustain workers physically during the period of employment), and not the cost of long-term labor renewal (the cost of replacing a physically debilitated work force with a new generation of laborers and of maintaining a temporarily idle work force during economic downturns). In the long run, Murray suggests, ‘[t]hese ‘blockages’ to the homogeneous spread and deepening of the extended reproduction of capital coincided with economic stagnation, declining productivity, and the vicious cycle of rural poverty associated with the ‘underdeveloped’ regions of the globe’ (Murray 1980, p. x).

In the context of the capitalist world system, Marxist analysts consider the proletariat to be either largely located in the periphery of world capitalism, or composed of ‘ethnicities’ originating in the periphery; the bourgeoisie is heavily concentrated in, although by no means restricted to, the Western core. Within the Marxist world-system framework, class conflict takes on an international dimension, and revolution is seen as originating in the periphery where proletarian class interests emerge most clearly.

Within the same Marxist framework, the sociologist Jeffrey Paige suggests that ‘The strength of colonial and imperial political controls long prevented the political expression of these conflicts, but with the de-cline of colonial power in the postwar era, the commercial export sectors of the underdeveloped world have become centers of revolutionary social movements’ (Paige 1975, p. 3). Assuming inherent conflicts between agricultural producers and the dominant class, Paige attempts to construct an overall model of the forms which class conflict takes (Paige 1975, 1983). Paige deduces these actors’ behavior patterns and the form of agrarian unrest from their income sources. More specifically, he proposes, on the one hand, that the economic base of the landed dominant class is narrower, more static, and less efficient than that of its commercial and industrial counterparts. The former’s economic weakness gives rise to zero-sum class conflict as well as to its tyrannical political control of the means of production (both land and labor). On the other hand, the broader, more dynamic and efficient capital base of the commercial or industrial upper class can expand non-producers’ resources. This factor facilitates the adoption of more compromising solutions by the dominant class. In this context, class conflict involves the economic distribution of goods and products rather than the political control of labor and land. Adopting Marx’s theoretical arguments in his analysis of the French peasantry (Marx 1964), Paige further hypothesizes that cultivators’ dependence on land as their main source of income gives rise to a conservative, competitive, and structurally dependent peasantry. In contrast, their dependence on wages would result in a more radical, solidary, and structurally interdependent cultivator class. In the Vietnamese case, Paige’s model predicts that agrarian unrest will take the form of rebellion when both cultivators and non-cultivators derive their incomes from land, as is the case in North and Central Vietnam. Furthermore, in Cochin China, ‘A combination of non-cultivators dependent on income from land and cultivators dependent on income from wages leads to revolution’ (Paige 1975, p. 71, 1983, p. 706).

The Marxist framework has its share of empirical anomalies. First of all, the active resistance to French colonialism did gain support among numerous members of the native elite whose organizational efforts provided a crucial link among the rural communities. It is reflected in the necessity of the special category ‘resistance-supporting landlord’ in the land reform campaign in the north after independence. The active support of these members of the indigenous elite for anticolonial movements cannot be mechanically explained in terms of the struggle by the working classes of the periphery against the capitalists of the core. It is their nationalist aspirations that propelled towards a path of political activism (see also Woodside 1976, p. 303, Emerson 1960).

The regional variations in revolutionary strength and socioeconomic conditions in Vietnam present the Marxist models with a second major anomaly. In colonial Vietnam, the peasantry was most heavily dispossessed of the means of production in Cochin China (South Vietnam). However, from the mid-nineteenth century to 1975, the armed resistance to French colonialism and capitalism was generally more limited in the south than in the north and the center. With the sole exception of the 1940 armed insurrection in certain areas of Cochin China (Toan et al. 1985, pp. 318–9, cf. Paige 1975, pp. 323–4), at no point did the anti-colonial armed movement in the south exceed or even approach the intensity of the unrest in the center and the north. In the pre-World War II period, it was in Annam (Central Vietnam) that the 1930–1 unrest posed the greatest threat to the colonial order. During the first Indochinese war (1946–54), the French encountered considerably greater resistance in Annam and Tonkin. During the period of direct and massive American intervention (1964–75), it was not in the former Cochin China, but in the southern part of Central Vietnam that the National Liberation Front developed its strongest roots (Mitchell 1968, Paige 1975, pp. 326–32, Luong 1992, pp. 227–8). It is an historical fact that north and central Vietnam, despite the lesser degree of class polarization, constituted the areas with both stronger resistance to Western intervention and greater socialist revolutionary potential.

While influenced to varying degrees by the Marxist approach, anthropological analyses of agrarian revolutions, and of historical events in general, have paid closer attention to the dynamic interplay between capitalism and indigenous non-capitalist social formations as sociocultural systems (Wolf 1969).

In James Scott’s moral economy model, agrarian unrest is examined in terms of the reactive response of the peasantry in a pre-capitalist social formation to capitalism and colonialism. In the context of the world market and the colonial state, the pre-capitalist order’s subsistence ethic, by which lords and the state are supposed to respect peasants’ right to subsistence in exchange for legitimacy, is more often violated. The expansion of Western capitalism and the establishment of European colonies led to the violation of the subsistence ethic through the erosion of patron–client ties and the existing welfare mechanisms in the relation between cultivators and non-cultivators. Scott considers peasant movements quintessentially defensive reactions of a moral nature: defensive reactions against the violation of the subsistence ethic and the increasingly serious threat to peasants’ survival during subsistence crises. Under this threat and violation, any significant natural or human induced disaster potentially sparks off agrarian unrest. The prominent role of Third Word peasants in twentieth-century political movements, Scott argues, involves this dynamic interplay between a pre-capitalist socio-cultural order on the one hand and colonialism and capitalism on the other. Unrest is thus defined, within the Durkheimian tradition of social thought, in terms of a breakdown of the normative framework during a period of transition.

In the context of the greater socialist revolutionary potential in north and central Vietnam, Luong hypothesizes that the pre-capitalist tradition of the north and the center provided stronger ideological and organizational resources for the active resistance to French colonialism in particular, and to capitalist imperialism in general. Despite considerable internal tension, this tradition nurtures values conducive to the growth of nationalism, to collectivism in a relatively mild form, and to a hierarchical organizational framework (Luong 1992).

On one level, the indigenous pre-capitalist framework was characterized by both class cleavages, and a male-oriented and kinship-centered hierarchy. Luong suggests that the hierarchical structure of the local tradition, maintained partly through the socialization process, accounts for numerous features in Vietnamese anticolonialism and the Vietnamese revolution: the male-centered elitism in the VNP recruitment and organizational methods, the Vietminh’s reliance on male members of the intelligentsia for local leadership in the early period of anti-French resistance, and the male dominance in both domestic and public relations in postcolonial Marxist Vietnam.

On another level, the growth of nationalism and a collectivistic vision of political economy is facilitated by important communal institutions and corresponding conceptual categories in the local tradition of the north and the center. Northern and central villages maintained sharp boundaries through villagers’ participation in the collective worship of tutelary deities, an extraordinary degree of village endogamy, the institution of communal land, and their nucleated settlement pattern. In contrast, group boundaries were considerably less rigid in southern Vietnamese communities where settlements were non-nucleated, and where there existed significant geographical mobility due to the frontier environment. Luong suggests that through a sharp distinction between insiders and outsiders in the native conceptualization of kinship, communality, ethnicity, and nationality, the northern and central tradition has intensified the negative reaction of many Vietnamese to any foreign intrusion on the indigenous landscape and to the French domination in the colonial racial diarchy. Luong also suggests that in northern and central Vietnam, the relatively strong institution of communal land in particular, and the subsistence ethic of the pre-colonial period in general, nurtured a collectivist vision of political economy even among many VNP members in the 1920s, well before their exposure to Marxism. The existence of communal lands and the subsistence ethic also facilitated the process of land collectivization in northern and central villages, in comparison to its slow progress in the south since 1975. Finally, within the bamboo hedges of the corporate rural community, the extensive kinship and communal ties facilitated the mobilization of resources by local revolutionary leaders, especially the generally well-regarded members of the native intelligentsia. Luong suggests that the indigenous non-capitalist tradition thus cannot be ignored in any analysis of the Vietnamese encounter with French colonialism in particular and the capitalist world system in general (see Marr 1971, Woodside 1976).

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