Sunday, July 8, 2007

Politics and the Past

On Thursday we had a lecture by Professor Mun Van Nhat and I came away with a much better knowledge of revisionist history. The premise of the lecture was the ideological nature of character of the Vietnamese resistance, and we got just that—ideology rather than history.

Vietnam, he began, has always been resisting the twin troubles of feudalism and foreign domination. In ancient times, they fought the Chinese, who oppressed the masses through feudal oppression. The French came and allied themselves with the big landlords and exploitive capitalist class. In the early 20th Century, a group of bourgeois intellectuals attempted to gain independence by imitating Japan and Europe. But they failed because they did not seek to tackle Vietnam’s other big problem—feudalism. Luckily, Ho Chi Minh arrived and realized that the only way to achieve independence was to mobilize the proletariat to rise up and create an independent socialist paradise. Nearly all Vietnamese came to support the communists, who won the support of the people by liquidating the bourgeois landlords.

Professor Nhat may be a distinguished Vietnamese scholar, while I’ve only been studying Vietnamese history for a few weeks. But I can poke holes in all these assumptions.

First, the anti-Chinese wars weren’t anti-feudal. They were waged by Vietnamese nobles who no longer wanted to pay tribute to Chinese overlords. The Vietnamese kings who won these wars were every bit as feudal as their Chinese counterparts.

The French did support some of the large landlords and created a small class of capitalist bourgeois industrialists. By levying excessive cash taxes, the French forced the Vietnamese to work on awful plantations and mines for a pittance. Thus Vietnam’s first experience with large-scale industry was very negative, but the problem was that the French were using their power to manipulate the labor market so that working conditions were poor and wages low. Any post colonial government could have remedied the situation by lowering taxes, improving working conditions and allowing unions. Shutting down businesses and liquidating capitalists, as the communists did, may have seemed just, but it prevented the natural industrial development of Vietnam. By contrast, South Korea and Taiwan, both poor agricultural countries in mid-century, promoted their burgeoning capitalist class and they’re now ten times wealthier than Vietnam.

Embracing communism was not the only way to expel the French. In the two decades after World War II, dozens of colonies succeeded in mobilizing their populations and throwing off colonial rule. Only a small handful of these liberation movements were led by communists. Millions of Vietnamese were drawn to Ho Chi Minh in 1945, because he was a proclaimed nationalist. Ho purposefully obscured his communist leanings so that the Viet Minh could gain a wide range of support in the French War.

Vietnam suffered periodic famines and most peasants didn’t have enough land to live comfortably. It’s no surprise that land reform was widely supported in Vietnam and that even the Americans tried to implement it in South Vietnam. The problem was that there weren’t enough big landlords to take land from. Rural Vietnam was nothing like the plantation society of the American South or the serf system of Russia. Vietnamese “landlords” typically owned just a few extra acres and hired a handful of seasonal workers to help harvest. They were local peasants who happened to own a bit more property than their neighbors, not absentee landlords who owned entire districts and distributed their land to sharecroppers. Nevertheless, there was a case for modern land reform and the peasantry supported the idea of peaceful land distribution. Instead, they got terror. Communist cadres, more often urban intellectuals or jungle warriors than common peasants, marched into unfamiliar villages and turned them upside-down. Based on suggestions from their Chinese counterparts, the Vietnamese Communists decided that 5% of the population was to be classified as landlords, publicly humiliated, punished, and stripped of their land. However, in most villages, only a very few farmers could be properly considered landlords. Yet the cadres forced the community to denounce 5% of the population. As a result, land reform turned into a vicious, paranoid witch-trial, rather than a constructive economic measure. Tens of thousands of “landlords” and other “class enemies” were killed in these land reform campaigns, and the fiasco remains widely reviled by modern Vietnamese.

One major assumption underlies Professor Nhat’s version of history—that Vietnam needed a socialist revolution and that the Vietnamese people supported communism. Like most Americans, I don’t accept that. So after the lecture, I asked him, “If Vietnam was in need of a socialist revolution, and so many of the people supported communism, then why was the system so undemocratic?” Professor Nhat was surprised by the question and asked me to clarify. “I mean, why didn’t the Viet Minh allow free elections, free press, and rival parties.”

Professor Minh’s answer was perplexing. “National independence was associated with democracy. The Viet Minh were democratic because they addressed the interests of the biggest groups. Farmers were the biggest group, so land reform was a big priority. Workers wanted jobs so we built factories.” The argument was as follows: there was (and is) no need for electoral democracy because the Communist Party knows what’s best for the people and acts accordingly.

But surely the communists would have benefited from more input from the people. If they had allowed the peasants to criticize the land reform process, would the zealous cadres have botched it so badly? If they’d given factory managers and shopkeepers direct representation in the government, would the government still have driven the economy into the ground in the 1970s and early 1980s?

Today the government is using Professor Nhat’s argument to slow down democratization. The Communist Party, it is argued, is performing well and pursuing popular policies. The Vietnamese want to replace their bicycles with motorbikes, and government policies have raised income levels to do it. Rural communities need jobs, so the government is encouraging foreign investors to build factories in the countryside. Most Vietnamese are happy, so what’s the problem?
The problem is that governments almost always loose touch with their people unless they’re held to account. Vietnam’s past shows this clearly. The country suffered under the French, because the French weren’t concerned with social welfare. Land reform was disastrous because it was mandated without much thought about actual conditions. The socialist economy failed to lift Vietnam out of poverty because it failed to motivate people to produce.

Every un-democratic government gives arguments why their country doesn’t need or can’t handle democracy. As the throngs of motorbike traffic show, the Communist Party is performing well and has succeeded in addressing the aspirations of the population. But this was not the case in the past and may not continue in the future.

Vietnam’s record shows that unelected leaders can occasionally do what’s right for their country. But why not let the people decide for themselves?

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