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A Special Supplement: In North Vietnam

Each factory has a congress once a year of all workers, to which the manager reports. A party cell in the factory, containing 10 to 20 percent of the work force, gives advice to the manager. There is also a trade union organization which seems to concern itself largely with education and welfare programs. There are also, in each workshop, production teams of skilled and unskilled workers, and apparently there are plans, the details of which I had no time to investigate, to rearrange the internal organization of various enterprises.

This account is based on information provided in conversations with officials at various levels of administration and other knowledgeable people whom I met. Clearly, I am in no position to flesh out the account with detailed impressions or the results of personal investigation.

The central planning role of the Lao Dong Party is stressed in the major government documents. Le Duan, in his recent “analysis of the great problems, essential tasks, and principles and methods of action of the Vietnamese revolution,”7 lays great stress on this governing role:

An important task of economic organization is to determine correctly the relationships between the Party, the State and the popular masses in the matter of economic management. As director and general staff of the army of builders of the economy, the Party has the mission of defining the line and fundamental measures, fixing the leading principles, the programs and methods, mobilizing the masses for a powerful offensive on the economic front, supervising the activity of the governmental services. Party direction is a historical necessity which guarantees for our economy an economic development conforming to a fixed orientation, safeguards the rights and interests of various strata of the population, and reinforces incessantly the governing role of the people.

In the revolution in general and economic development in particular, our Party has no interest particular to itself. The totality of the national economy, just as each factory and each rice field, is the property of the people, under different forms and in various economic and technical conditions. This objective reality requires the Party to arrange for different modes of direction that fit each case (industry, agriculture, factories, cooperatives) and that permit the Party to maintain its directing role, making sure that the managerial prerogatives of administration are respected and at the same time assuring to the popular masses the direct exercise of their right to rule.

Le Duan’s policy statement reveals clearly the extent to which the Vietnamese revolution, in its current state at least, is a revolution of modernization and development:

To tighten the belt,” to reduce all inessential expenditures and to resolutely commit capital for accumulation, is a dominant necessity, and testifies to a high level of political understanding with respect to the construction of socialism.

This revolution of development, it is made clear, must be the work of the masses of the population and must involve direct participation and self-education. In the present state of Vietnamese society, management of the economy.

…must be very flexible, in conformity with the economic laws of socialism and of the process of development proceeding from small-scale to heavy production; it must combine unified central direction with the right of governance of the various branches, regions and units of the base; it must extend the system of planing while making use of market relations where appropriate […for regulating economic indices and economic activities of secondary importance not provided for by the general plan…] and extending the domain of general accounting; it must promote both the material interest and the political and ideological education, the socialist education, of the great masses of the population.

That all of these tasks are compatible is not obvious, and it remains to be seen how they can be realized. Present plans appear to be a composite of Communist Party ideology, traditional Vietnamese social and cultural patterns, the exigencies of a wartime economy and of the general problems of modernization and development. My personal guess is that, unhindered by imperialist intervention, the Vietnamese would develop a modern industrial society with much popular participation in its implementation and much direct democracy at the lower levels of organization. It would be a highly egalitarian society with excellent conditions of welfare and technical education, but with a degree of centralization of control which, in the long run, will pose serious problems that can be overcome only if they eliminate party direction in favor of direct popular control at all levels.

At the moment, the leadership appears to be approaching these problems in a flexible and intelligent fashion. But the problems of creating a modern, egalitarian, democratic industrial society are not slight. They have not been solved successfully anywhere in the world as yet, and it will be extremely interesting to see how they will be faced in the future, if the Vietnamese are given the opportunity to deal with their internal problems under the conditions of independence and peace that they are at present struggling to achieve.

Richard Gott, a journalist with much experience in underdeveloped countries, summed up his impressions after his recent trip for The Manchester Guardian as follows:

To anyone familiar with the underdeveloped rural areas of the world, especially in Latin America, North Vietnam is by no means an abjectly poor country. The population is poor, of course, but there is no “misery”—that appalling hopeless poverty one encounters too often in the Third World.

Of course there are inequalities. Hanoi is better off than the countryside. The delta areas are richer than the “panhandle.” The mountainous regions have less pressure of population and more access to wood. But by getting rid of the rich, and avoiding extremes of poverty, Vietnam gives the impression of a prospering, cohesive society, unique in the under-developed world.

He quotes an old man in a southern province:

When a landlord passed in the road, the peasants used to fold their arms and bow. Not until we had the land reform could we get rid of the influence of the landlords. This was our greatest difficulty. Vietnamese peasants lived under feudal lords for thousands of years. They were psychologically subservient to landlords. Whenever they wanted to do anything, they felt they ought to ask the landlord first. Basically, peasants have a very conservative attitude and are very mean. They have to be educated. This was the biggest problem.

As Gott notes, the land reform of 1954 took a fearful toll; it was “a chaotic affair, with thousands of people using the opportunity to pay off old scores,” and thousands were killed in an eruption of violence and terror.8 It also, in his view, laid the basis for a new society which has overcome starvation and rural misery and offers the peasant hope for the future:

The most important change of all is in the peasants themselves. It would be hard to find now a more purposeful or determined people. There is none of that awful cringing deference that you encounter among Latin-American peasants—who remain beaten into apathy by centuries of landlord oppression. The departure of the landlords has lifted a yoke from the peasantry and liberated an almost unprecedentedly powerful force.

The British China scholar Jack Gray recently summarized Mao’s socio-economic theory of development as stressing the need for

…inducing the villagers gradually, through their own efforts toward an intermediate technology, to mechanize out of their own resources and to operate the machines with their own hands, in a milieu in which local industry, agricultural mechanization, agricultural diversification, and the education (both formal and informal) growing out of these activities mutually enrich each other.9

Similarly, “the collectives will be run by peasant cadres for the peasants.” From what I have seen and read, I would say that North Vietnam is successfully applying these concepts of development.

To understand just how remarkable is the achievement of development in North Vietnam, it is useful to return to some of the forecasts made by the most knowledgeable experts at the end of the First Indochina War. Bernard Fall, writing in 1954, regarded the situation in the North as almost hopeless:

The southern part of the country is its “iron lung,” with its huge rice surplus and dollar-earning exports of rubber, pepper, coffee, and precious woods. It is obvious that, deprived of the south, the Ho Chi Minh regime would face either starvation—as in 1946 when it was deprived of southern imports—or a type of integration into the Red Chinese economy that would be the equivalent of annexation.10

The DRV was cut off from the South by American duplicity and force. It has been severely bombed and drawn into a ruinous war. But there is no starvation—far from it. And it has not been integrated into the Chinese economy. Its achievements are, indeed, quite remarkable.

One purpose of the American bombing of the North, in Gérard Chaliand’s characterization, was “to demoralize ordinary citizens until, directly or indirectly, they pressurized the Hanoi government into suing for peace.” Thus the bombing aimed at

…undoing the hard, patient work of many years. In a world whose basic problem is surely the backwardness and penury of two thirds of the planet, the United States government—whatever excuses it may invoke—has systematically destroyed the economic infrastructure of one of the three or four “underdeveloped” countries which have seriously laid the foundations for their own industrialization…. In the view of most countries—especially the newer ones—the American intervention in Vietnam is an attempt to stifle national independence and dignity. [See note 6.]

This assessment is, I believe, entirely correct. The attempt has failed, dismally. There is no doubt that the spirit of national independence and dignity is high, and that the Vietnamese are proceeding to lay the basis for a modern society.

I have some sense of their achievement in this respect from discussions with Vietnamese scientists and intellectuals. After a long and very productive meeting, I was asked to lecture about current work in linguistics at the Polytechnic University, and was able to do so for about seven hours, to a group of about seventy or eighty linguists and mathematicians.

Their work, in this rather remote field of science and scholarship, meets international standards. I lectured approximately as I would at Tokyo, Oxford, or the Sorbonne. They are not familiar with the most recent work because of the unavailability of materials, but they can, I believe, catch up with the others if this problem is overcome—and to help them to overcome it, in all fields, is one small effort that Americans might make in the hopeless task of compensating for the destruction of much of what the Vietnamese have created with such remarkable enterprise, diligence, and courage.

One of the members of the group at the Polytechnic University had studied in East Berlin in one of the main centers of linguistics in the world. Beyond what he could supply, the group made good use of the meager resources available. Other scientists and intellectuals too were extremely eager to discuss current work and educational curricula, and to hear about colleagues whom they knew by reputation or had, occasionally, met at international conferences. So far as I could judge, the work in some branches of mathematics was also excellent, though here too there was a general problem of access to recent work. The problem is not limited to technical and scientific areas. Thus a professor of American literature approached me to speak about current writing—he had not seen an American novel for fifteen years and wanted to know, in particular, what Norman Mailer had been doing lately.

The students generally read English, but, having little familiarity with the spoken language, were not able to follow a technical lecture. The translators, though excellent in general discussion, had considerable difficulty as the material became more technical and complex. One tried for about an hour, and then, apologetically, asked to be relieved. A second translator also made a noble effort, but the problems were severe. When they floundered, an older man in the audience intervened, and corrected mistakes or explained obscure points. It was obvious that he followed everything very well and understood the material I was trying to present. Finally he took over completely, and translated for several hours without a break.

I was introduced to him later. He was the Minister of Higher Education of North Vietnam, Ta Quang Buu, a mathematician of note who had, in fact, sent me a reprint on mathematical linguistics several years ago, which I could not read, since it was in Vietnamese, but which astonished me by its familiarity—in the midst of the air war—with current technical material. I did not think to ask, but I assume that this is the Ta Quang Buu who was a general during the First Indochina War. We had only a brief chance to talk afterward, to my great disappointment. I think there are few countries where the Minister of Higher Education could have taken over the task of translating an advanced technical lecture of this sort, or would have been willing to do so. I was also impressed by the easy familiarity of relations within the group and the quality of the debate and discussion as we proceeded.

After my last lecture I was given several presents, one a Vietnamese dictionary that the linguists had compiled and printed while they were dispersed in the forests and mountains during the air war. With justifiable pride, they observed that this work had been done while the American government was attempting to “drive them back to the Stone Age.” In fact, at the Polytechnic University the Vietnamese are training scientists of whom any society could be proud.

I was surprised to find myself lecturing on technical material in Hanoi and spending hours with colleagues discussing work in progress in the United States. This surprise is a result of my own failure to overcome regrettable stereotypes. The Vietnamese are devoting themselves not only to securing their independence in a bitter war but also to creating a modern society with a high level of general culture. Given half a chance, they will, I am convinced, succeed in this. To meet with Vietnamese colleagues, to explore our common interests, and to learn of their work and plans was a great personal pleasure to me.

In his will, President Ho Chi Minh wrote that though the war may last long and though new sacrifices will be necessary, still “our rivers, our mountains, our men will always remain.” With nuclear weapons, the United States could destroy these hopes, but short of that, I doubt that it can overcome the resistance of the Vietnamese or impose client governments on the people of Indochina.

I left Southeast Asia, after this brief stay, with two overriding general impressions. The first was of the resilience and strength of Vietnamese society. It is conceivable that the United States may be able to break the will of the popular movements in the surrounding countries, perhaps even destroy the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, by employing the vast resources of violence and terror at its command. If so, it will create a situation in which, indeed, North Vietnam will necessarily dominate Indochina, for no other functioning society will remain.

The American intervention, like all other imperialist wars, has stirred up ethnic and class hatreds, set groups against one another, intensified every conceivable antagonism to bloody conflict. The Vietnamese and the Thai, the two strongest and most dynamic societies in the region, are virtually at war. The Cambodian army has massacred Vietnamese. The Meo have been set against the Lao and other hill tribesmen. The Thai are driving the mountain tribesmen from their homes and fear the native Lao population. The Thai and Saigon elites are now laying plans to devour Cambodia. Chinese Nationalist troops remain active in border areas. Khmer mercenaries fight the Viet Cong alongside Thai and South Koreans brought by the Americans. Native elites, dependent on the flow of American goods and war expenditures, have been drawn into a brutal war against the peasantry.

Not all of this is a direct consequence of the American war in Indochina, but there is no doubt that every potential conflict, every form of latent hostility, has been exacerbated as a result of the American intervention, often by design and direct manipulation. Even if the United States were to leave Indochina to its own people—and there is, for the moment, not a sign of any such intention—this legacy of hatred would remain, embittering the lives of the people of Indochina and denying them the hope of creating a decent future.

  1. 7

    La Révolution Vietnamienne: problèmes fondamentaux, tâches essentielles, Hanoi, 1970, Introduction.

  2. 8

    According to the very well-informed French journalist Georges Chaffard, the land reform “was carried out in an excessively brutal manner by inexperienced cadres mostly originating from the armed forces, who had only received a few weeks’ training [in land reform problems] prior to being sent into the villages, their heads full of badly assimilated theories.” Quoted by Bernard Fall, Viet-Nam Witness, Praeger, 1966, p.97, from Le Monde Weekly Selection, December 5, 1956.

    Much American discussion of the land reform is based on Hoang Van Chi. From Colonialism to Communism, Praeger, 1964. This book, subsidized (without acknowledgment) by USIA, is an extremely dubious source. For a careful analysis of errors and bias, see Steven Seltzer, “The Land Reform in North Vietnam,” Viet Report, June-July, 1967.

    In the Introduction, P.J. Honey writes that the author, in his various writings, “has explained the reasons for the failure of communist agriculture, not only in Vietnam, but in China and North Korea too.” In fact, North Vietnam has succeeded, contrary to general expectation, in resolving successfully an extremely difficult problem of agricultural production. For some discussion by a serious observer, see Keith Buchanan, The Southeast Asian World. On the “failure” in China, see John Gurley, Bulletin of the Concerned Asian Scholars, April-July, 1970. For some recent comment on the North Korean “failure,” as seen by a hostile though knowledgeable observer, see Joungwon Kim, Foreign Affairs, October, 1969. It is remarkable that Honey is taken seriously as a commentator on North Vietnam. Where his statements can be checked, they often prove merely ludicrous. For a few examples, see my American Power and the New Mandarins, p. 290.

  3. 9

    Economics of Maoism,” China after the Cultural Revolution, selections from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Random House, 1969, Gray also notes that Western theorists of development are belatedly coming to some of the same conclusions.

  4. 10

    The Nation, March 6, 1954. Reprinted in Viet-Nam Witness, pp. 15-21.

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