Many progressives grew up following the activities of Cuban revolutionaries as they battled and won the war against imperialism and the global capitalist system. We were drawn to the transcendent meaning of Che Guevara, advocate for the new “man,” defender of the proposition that human beings can be for more than themselves, and believer in the power of creating transformative institutions. Socialism was to be about empowerment, betterment, and the maximization of an individual’s creative potential in the context of solidarity in communities. What Che stood for we stood for: the replacement of greed, avarice, competition, violence, self-aggrandizement, and “human nature” with sharing, love, cooperation, peace, selflessness, and a new nature. In our hearts and minds capitalism stood in the way of creating a humane world. Most of us still believe in Che’s vision but we understand now that its achievement is fraught with struggle and requires patience.
A delegation of socialists recently returned from a study tour of Vietnam. Hosted by the Vietnam Women’s Union and sponsored by the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS), participants visited women’s shelters and a meeting hall, museums, workplaces, a university, ethnic communities near the Chinese border, large cities and small villages including Hanoi, Da Nang, Hue, Ho Chi Minh City, and Sa Pa. We saw a society in transition; expanding education, growing economic infrastructure, facilities for poor women, booming tourism, and increasing exports of agricultural and manufactured products. We also saw a burgeoning system of commercial and manufacturing capitalism.
The second day of our visit to Hanoi, our hosts booked cycle rides for us around the downtown area. We recoiled at the thought of older men peddling bicycles with overweight tourists on front seats. But most of us did not want to make a fuss and on reflection we decided that these men at least had work.
I began to think of Marx’s concept of “contradiction” as my driver pushed me through the busy streets of Hanoi past stores with names such as Gucci on them. Next to streets with the expensive Western stores were those with densely packed shops and sidewalks with street vendors. We learned that most of the vendors were women. Many came from rural areas, desperate to earn enough money to support their families in the countryside. Some lived 10 to a room when they were in town selling flowers, cooked food, crafts, or vegetables and fruits. The totality of the experience was of a cacophony of bicycles carrying passengers, elegant shops, street vendors, and thousands upon thousands of speeding motor bikes. Nothing seemed further from Che Guevara’s image of pristine socialism.
The fourth day of our visit we traveled by train and bus to an ethnic minorities region near the Chinese border. When we arrived at the town of Sa Pa we encountered aggressive bands of Hmong sales persons, mostly women and girls, who were trying to sell their wares to tourists. The Hmong women would not accept no or negative waves of arms or hands. They continued to pursue prospective customers until the latter escaped to newly-constructed hotels overlooking beautiful valleys and terraced rice paddies. Again, the image of the reality of commerce erased long-held mental pictures of socialism.
While capitalism seemed in the air to the superficial foreign observer, and particularly to the foreign observer steeped in the passion for building Che’s communism, the reality of Vietnam is more complicated. As our site visits reminded us, only 35 years ago a brutal war on the Vietnamese people ended. Three times more bombs were dropped on the country than all the bombs dropped during World War II. Vast stretches of the land, one-seventh of the rice paddies, were laid waste. Three to four million Vietnamese people, mostly non-combatants were killed in the American war between 1964 and 1975. And we saw the lingering impacts of the war as second and third generation victims survive who were directly or indirectly exposed to the 10 million gallons of Agent Orange. An estimated 4.8 million people were touched by the poisons dropped from the skies by American airplanes.
What often slips the minds of observers are the centuries of foreign invasion and conquest. These include the thousand year Chinese occupation of the country, the 100 year colonial control by the French, and the World War II presence of Japanese militarists. And all this preceded the American war which began in 1950 when President Harry Truman decided to fund the French effort to beat back Vietnamese anti-colonial forces.
Because of invasion, occupation, colonialism, massive bombing campaigns, and genocide against the country, the vitality of the people had been channeled toward the struggle for independence. Since the end of the American war (and after the short war with China in 1979) the Vietnamese had to redirect their energies, creativity and human resources to economic development in a global political economy not of their making. In the context of underdevelopment and poverty, the leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1986 adopted a set of development policies called “doi moi,” or renewal. These were to constitute what translations refer to as a socialist market economy. With government oversight foreign investments and limited domestic capitalism would be encouraged. Vietnamese party and government leaders decided that markets, investments, and profits were necessary to develop the country. So Vietnam created an economy open to foreign assembly plants, exports (especially rice), and tourism, In a global economy dominated by neo-liberal institutions and policies, the Vietnamese people felt they had no choice.
So foreign investments were encouraged, Vietnamese were allowed to participate in joint capitalist ventures, and peasants and workers could establish their own modest businesses. The significant negative byproducts of almost 25 years of doi moi are readily visible; foreign infusions of commercial images and products, inequalities among the Vietnamese people (particularly between urban and rural peoples who still represent 70 per cent of the population), and serious environmental problems.
However, and this to me is the bottom line, the basic living conditions of the Vietnamese people have markedly improved since the state adopted the socialist market economy. BBC and Financial Times journalist Bill Hayton, whose book,Vietnam Rising Dragon, 2010, was largely critical of Vietnam, reluctantly admitted that:
“Vietnam’s achievements in reducing poverty are impressive. In 1993, according to government figures, almost 60 per cent of the population lived below the poverty line. By 2004 that figure was down to 20 per cent. The country has met most of its Millennium Goals, the development targets set by the United Nations, early and escaped the ranks of the poorest countries to join the group of ‘middle income states.’ People’s living standards are soaring, their horizons are widening, and their ambitions are growing” (3-4).
Although many commentators emphasize the negative, it is important for sympathetic observers to remember the history that Vietnam has experienced, the contemporary context of the global political economy, and the fundamental obligation of the state, indeed every state, to participate fully in the economic and social uplift of the people. While socialists are very much aware of the danger of capitalist penetration, they also realize that prioritizing the needs of the people come first. Observing mass organizations, such as the Vietnam Women’s Union (see Harry Targ, “The Vietnamese Women’s Union: An Effective Mass Organization,” www.heartlandradical.blogspot.com) makes it clear that at this stage of Vietnam’s renewal, the doi moi policies do put the people first. And, it is the task of the Vietnamese people to maintain the socialist character of the development of Vietnamese society. International solidarity activists should follow the lead of our Vietnamese friends and give support as best we can.