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North Vietnam and China: Reflections on a Visit

Paradoxically the approach to the Vietnamese language in the North has been very French. Scholars set about purifying it and hundreds of French and Chinese words have been replaced by forms constructed from Vietnamese roots. The progress made in this can be measured by comparing the official language in the North with that in the South which still retains a far higher proportion of Chinese words and expressions.

This conscious delight and pride of Vietnamese intellectuals in their language extends to all other aspects of their culture. Nearly all visitors to Hanoi remark on the amount of traditional activity going on. While I was there there were performances of five types of traditional opera. There are galleries largely devoted to traditional and folk art, and the bookshops were full of Vietnamese literature of all periods. All this during a full-scale war. Clearly the Vietnamese leaders believe in channeling scarce resources to national culture for its intrinsic value because they care deeply about it. The investment also brings in significant political dividends. It gives reinforcement to the already strong conviction among Vietnamese in the North and South that, like it or not, the regime in Hanoi is the only true representative of Vietnamese spirit and that therefore the war is essentially one between the National Resistance on the one hand and the foreigners and their collaborators on the other.

Right-wing intellectuals in Saigon and Hue inveigh against the decadence of literature, music, and all the other arts in the South, often pointing out that these things are done better in the North. Some of this feeling of cultural inferiority is traditional, the North being the original home of the Vietnamese, while in the South there are considerable Chinese, Cham (Malay), and Cambodian admixtures. But far more important is the continuity of the present government in Hanoi with the anti-French resistance which was considered legitimate by the whole population. Many people in the South still refer to the NLF as the Viet Minh. The participants are essentially the same, even though many of them have been killed. Those who fought with the French fight with the Americans. Those who fought against the foreigners remain patriots. Unlike Saigon, Hanoi has no foreign taint. As one conservative in Hue sadly put it, “Unlike us they have no foreign troops fighting with them; they do appear to be more Vietnamese than us.”

Not knowing that I had already been to Hanoi, the most bitterly anti-communist scholars in the South excused their own lack of activity in archaeology, transcription of texts, research in history and other fields, saying that much more was going on in the North. Indeed there was. During my stay in Hanoi I was the guest of the Vietnamese Society of Historical Sciences. I was much impressed by the intense activity in archaeology and history, remembering that all museums in London had been closed during World War II. In Hanoi I was astonished to see the excellent National Museum open with several special exhibitions going on. I was told that before 1954 the museum had been simply a French collection of orientalia. I later gained a sense of what must have been its original state when I visited the National Museum in Saigon, which has been untouched since the French left.

In Hanoi nearly all the original objects had been evacuated to avoid bombing but good reproductions had been put in their places. When I expressed surprise that precious resources should have been spent on this I was told that archaeology had always been considered a national priority and that the Archaeological Service had been established as early as November, 1945. It is considered of vital national importance to establish the length and richness of the Vietnamese past, so that people can make sense of their own roles in a continuing history.

The archaeologists are pleased that they can confirm Ho Chi Minh’s description of the war as a struggle between barbarism and 4,000 years of civilization. They have recently established a stratigraphy that links the clearly Vietnamese Bronze Age cultures to the late Neolithic. They are full of jokes about Curtis Le May’s “bombing the Vietnamese back to the Stone Age.” I asked whether bombing had revealed anything of importance and was told that it had not, but that the digging of air raid shelters had yielded fascinating results, and that the population, being enthusiastic about archaeology, cooperated in reporting finds. There are also many professional excavations taking place, one of which, at the ancient capital of Co Loa, I was able to visit.

Vietnamese history is considered important for the same reasons and a considerable amount of research on it is being carried out. Here the emphasis is on the many wars of independence, especially those of the Tran family against the Mongols, and of the Tayson brothers who, in their struggle against the Manchu Dynasty in the eighteenth century, combined a war of national independence with social radicalism. Parallels between these wars and the present struggle are always drawn. The present is seen as deeply influenced by the past. For example, one researcher argued that the Tayson Revolt created a tradition linking national independence to social revolution, which had a profound effect on the twentieth century.

Nevertheless, historians insisted that, because of the differences between socialism and imperialism, the present conflict is qualitatively different from previous wars of independence. They also tended to reject my attempts to establish specific parallels. In 1789 the national hero (Tayson) Nguyen Hue launched a devastating attack on the Chinese garrison in Hanoi during Têt. I tried to link this to the attack of Têt, 1968—which according to the Sino-Vietnamese sixty-year cycle is only one year away from 1789. However it was pointed out that as the Chinese “feudalists” in the eighteenth century were much weaker than the American imperialists in the twentieth it was possible to drive out the former in one sweep whereas this was out of question with the Americans.

I had the impression that much of the excitement of the Vietnamese scholars I met comes from the newness of their enterprise in carrying on such research. They are discovering a rich and heroic past, which is part of them and yet they were only half-conscious of it. By placing the Vietnamese elite at some distance from tradition, the cultural trauma of French rule has given them some perspective on it. The iconoclasm of the Chinese Cultural Revolutionaries may indicate their fear of being over-whelmed by traditional culture. For the Vietnamese leaders this danger is negligible. It is natural that for the time being national culture should be considered “positive” because it helps to unite patriots against the foreigners and their uncultured collaborators. However their confidence in it extends to the future. They appear to be convinced that after the achievement of independence and a fundamental change in “relations of production,” a new socialist culture will emerge naturally from tradition, enlarged by influences from abroad.

Mao is concerned with the dangers of tolerating traditional culture because it helps bourgeois counterrevolutionaries “to seize the cultural heights” from which to launch their attacks on socialist society. The Vietnamese like the Soviets follow Lenin in recognizing the importance of culture. Nevertheless they closely follow Marx and Engels in maintaining that the key to any situation is the economic base and the relations of production in particular.

The Vietnamese also stay close to Marx on the issue of internationalism. One of the amazing things about the Vietnamese people is that in the midst of a war of national liberation they remain profoundly internationalist both politically and personally. In the South there is of course considerable anti-Americanism, but friendliness to and respect for the opinions of foreigners is evident throughout the country. In the North I was constantly embarrassed by being thanked for the “achievements” of the peace movement in Britain, by the Vietnamese gratitude for the pathetically little help peace movements have been able to give them. They are also the last believers in “proletarian internationalism” and in the unity of the socialist camp. Their desire for the Russians and Chinese to heal their differences does not come solely from the immediate dangers the split brings to them. They see and hate it as un-Marxist, unhistorical, and wrong.

For Vietnamese theoreticians “proletarian internationalism” is not a mere cliché. They have the Marxist conviction that the proletariat is by its essence the most internationalist class. In recent years the Chinese have used the word “proletarian” so widely that it has almost come to mean simply good and unselfish. With the Vietnamese—and the Soviets—the original sense is much stronger. By “proletariat” they really do mean the urban working class. Furthermore they firmly maintain that their revolution has been, and must always be, led by this class. It is no accident that the Vietnamese party is called the Dang Lao Dong, the Workers’ Party—the word Lao Dong has unambiguously urban connotations. Two of the chief reasons I was given why the working class alone was qualified to lead the revolution were that it had experience of modern modes of production and that it was accessible to new and foreign ideas. In this way leadership by workers and “proletarianized” intellectuals is integrally connected to the concept of bringing world culture to the peasants.

Thus in Vietnam there are two large paradoxes. The first is that the Vietnamese Communists, who have fused their movement with patriotism more effectively than any other party so far has, should remain the most internationalist of all Marxist-Leninists. The second is that they who have created the most successful and tenacious peasant revolutionary movement in world history should remain so firmly wedded to the concept of the leadership of the urban working class, which made up less than 3 percent of the population in 1945.2

In China, because of its size, cultural pride, and Mao’s firm roots in his own culture, there has been a major attempt to “interpret creatively”—or to revise—Soviet Marxism-Leninism to fit local conditions. Thus ideology and actual politics are within sight of each other and there are constant attempts to bring the two together, the Cultural Revolution being only the most obvious example.

In Vietnam the leaders are unwilling to give up the Western part of their heritage, and ideology and politics are much further apart. The Marxist-Leninist ideology is seen as absolutely necessary to provide general directions in North Vietnam and to sustain a long and bitterly hard struggle. However it does not impede the political flexibility needed to deal with tactical problems. This is true both for practical decisions and for theoretical analysis. Among intellectuals the fruitfulness of this gap or contradiction between ideology and concrete situation is especially evident now when the patriotic revolution creates a solidarity in which everybody can be relied upon. There is remarkable freedom in the serious discussions and arguments that appear to take place virtually everywhere. I had the good luck to attend several meetings of social scientists in which I saw them using Marxist concepts in a remarkably flexible and creative way.

In neither China nor Vietnam is there any official discussion of these and other differences between them. They merely say that the two countries have different situations and are at different stages in their revolutions. When I told a Vietnamese friend how struck I had been by the differences between China and Vietnam he replied, “Of course, we are different nations.” Indeed why should we expect to find great similarities between, say, England and France, which are in fact far closer to each other than China and Vietnam: both were parts of the Roman Empire, share the Western Christian tradition, have a close linguistic relationship, and are capitalist bourgeois democracies. To that extent it is unhelpful to pose the question discussed here. China and Vietnam have been, are, and will be different. However, both are tackling in a heroic way huge problems, most of which have been created by the West, and in this process they have much to teach us.


The most plausible explanation of Nixon’s projected visit to Peking is that he sees it as the only way to avoid being the first President to preside over a defeat of the United States. Although he would, of course, like to escape the consequences of the trip, inevitably China will be given her place in the UN Assembly and the Security Council, and eventually US recognition and the military evacuation of Taiwan will follow (although doubtless the US will attempt to cover this up by stressing the American ability to fly troops across the Pacific in a few hours).

To be giving up so much, Nixon must expect great returns. He wants, no doubt, “to pull the rug from under the Vietnam issue” at home. Here he may succeed, though for a much shorter period than he hopes; in the long run the effect on public opinion of a dialogue with China will be to make the war seem even more absurd. Although he has for the moment neatly sidestepped the current pressures on the Administration created by the seven points of the PRG and the prisoner issue, he may find that the next waves of protest, following military disasters or the disclosure of new scandals in South Vietnam, will push him to defeat even before the election.

Nixon also hopes that the Chinese will put pressure on the DRV and the PRG to offer terms that will permit a continuation of US rule in South Vietnam. I should imagine that the scenario he and Kissinger have in mind calls for an “Eastern Geneva Conference”—to be held in Rangoon, with China and, say, Australia as co-chairmen. The results of such a conference might conceivably be to restore Sihanouk to Cambodia and to cede the two northernmost provinces of South Vietnam to the North. However, Thieu and his regime would have to remain, backed by over 100,000 US troops and full air support, if America is to “save face” in the indefinite future.

If this is Kissinger and Nixon’s scheme, it seems to me fantasy, not only in its details but in its conception. “Great power politics” tends to break down when the people are actively involved in a revolutionary movement. In 1918 and 1919, during the intervention in Russia, the victorious Allies all combined in an attempt to bring the Soviet Revolution to an end. In 1946 and 1947 the US and USSR agreed that Chiang Kai-shek should lead a coalition government. In 1954, the Soviets and the Chinese were quite prepared to abandon South Vietnam in pursuit of “peaceful co-existence” and the “Bandung spirit.” At that time, the DRV felt obliged to yield to the pressure of its allies and accept unfavorable terms, in the face of what appears to have been considerable popular resentment. It is extremely unlikely that the DRV will make the same mistake again. And even if by any extraordinary chance it were to do so, resistance in the South would continue to threaten the Thieu regime and cause more American casualties.

A much more difficult question to answer is why the Chinese, who have shown themselves so uncompromising in their own revolution, should make this sort of agreement now. Domestically it is, I think, a result of China’s zig-zag or dialectical policies. After the radicalism of the Cultural Revolution, there is now a period of calm and compromise—and incidentally Nixon’s visit is a clear sign to any remaining rebels that the Cultural Revolution is truly over.

This new phase of compromise coincides with a period of the greatest possible diplomatic opportunity. If the Chinese waited until the US had been driven out of Indochina, they would have virtually no leverage. But they know that Nixon needs them desperately now and they intend to exploit this need. America’s allies are already scrambling over one another to offer China better terms. She will become a great power in the UN and will be invited to Pacific regional conferences. Chou En-lai’s statement to the Australian opposition leader, Mr. Whitlam, shows that China is tempted by an “Eastern Geneva Conference” in which she could play a dominant role.

China will certainly gain a fair share of her coastal shelf for oil exploitation and her suzerainty over Taiwan will be recognized. What is more, her direct contact with the US will make any cooperation between America and Russia against her more difficult. Most important of all, China will be in a much better position to counter Japanese take-overs in Taiwan and South Korea. In view of all this, the Chinese must now be very embarrassed in their dealings with the Vietnamese government. But the Chinese will almost certainly take shelter behind their principle that each people must fight its own revolution.

In general, the isolation and self-sufficiency of the Chinese are so strong that the impotent fury of the left in the third world and in the West will not upset them in the slightest.

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    It is, however, interesting to speculate whether this stress on the working class will help future governments in the South to tackle the enormous problems that await them in the grotesquely swollen cities there, even though nearly all the new population can only be considered as éléments déclassés or Lumpenproletarians.

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