Vietnam's long fight for liberation and socialism
By Hamish Chitts
(This article is based on talks presented to Brisbane and Sydney seminars on Vietnam on September 18 and 25. Chitts is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party and a founder of Stand Fast, the organisation of military veterans campaigning against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.)
Vietnamese soldiers on a destroyed Chinese 8th Army tank.
To understand Vietnam today, we have to understand its recent history. Many know about the 45-year struggle for liberation and the US war, but the pressures and external attacks on the courageous people of Vietnam did not end with the liberation of Saigon.
The Vietnamese Revolution in 1975 inherited a country in ruins. Large areas of both the north and the south had been physically destroyed. The economy of the south had been geared to supplying goods and services, both legal and illicit, for the US-led occupation forces, with no thought for domestic economic development. With the collapse of the puppet regime, 3-4 million people in the south were suddenly left without any means of support. There was starvation in some parts of the country, and up to 300,000 tonnes of unexploded munitions were left around the countryside — mines, bombs and shells that continue to kill people to this day (104,000 people killed since 1975). Millions were and are still affected by dioxin poisoning from Agent Orange.
Despite this situation, the revolution was able to solve the most immediate problems, like preventing mass starvation, in a very short time. Society was being reconstructed on Marxist-Leninist lines, but not on Moscow’s line, Beijing’s line nor on Trotskyist lines. It was a Vietnamese socialism for Vietnamese conditions that had a powerful attraction for other exploited countries of the region — so much so that this revolution aroused tremendous fears and hatred in imperialism and reactionary governments of the region: ASEAN, the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, the reactionary bureaucracy of China. For them, this threat of a good example could not be left unchecked.
Once more the Vietnamese were plunged into war in defence of their revolution, this time against a ferocious border war organised by the Khmer Rouge and then a brutal Chinese invasion. During the US war, the US agreed to leave China alone, and while the US bombed most of the north “back to the stone-age”, it left a safety margin along the Chinese border. After the war, this area of agriculture and industry became extremely important as a base for Vietnam’s reconstruction. On February 17, 1979, China attacked with 600,000 troops along the entire 1460 kilometre border. This huge and well-equipped army was halted at the Red River delta and driven back, but not before it had laid waste to 10,000 square kilometres over the six northern provinces, the very area spared by the US during its war.
The Chinese attack was systematic in its destruction: infrastructure, factories, railways, industrial and agricultural plant were destroyed or taken to China. The invaders went so far as to detonate explosive charges at the base of every power and telegraph pole they came across. Crops and livestock were systematically stolen or destroyed. There were massacres of whole villages and factories by the invaders. The cruelty of the invading troops has been described as barbarity on a medieval scale.
Despite not having much to spare, the Vietnamese gave selfless material and military aid to the people of Cambodia to save them from genocide and the return of the Khmer Rouge. Vietnam did not see peace until 1989. Other blows to Vietnam’s recovery were the US-led international trade blockade from 1979 to 1991 and the loss of Vietnam’s Eastern Bloc trading partners in 1991 following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Impact in Australia
Vietnam moratorium march in Melbourne, 1970.
In Australia the mass protest movement against the war in Vietnam raised people’s consciousness and gave rise to other progressive movements based on taking their demands to the streets, where it hurts the establishment most. We have gained a lot in this country from the Vietnamese people’s refusal to bow down, yet after the US war, those same progressive forces to a large extent turned their backs on the Vietnamese people.
The Vietnamese Revolution did not follow the dogma of the main socialist/communist currents in this country at the time. This effect was further compounded among the loyal supporters of China and the Khmer Rouge when their “heroes” attacked Vietnam.
In the broader antiwar movement, many felt they’d won their fight and moved on. Some with liberal views of reforming capitalism could not or would not see the difference between Vietnam’s socialism and the horrors of Stalinism. Things like Vietnam’s re-education programs aimed at reconciling the people of Vietnam were misunderstood and regarded with horror as forced labour camps or mass brainwashing.
As Allen Myers wrote in his pamphlet The Vietnamese Revolution and Its Leadership, “In Saigon there was no revenge, no lording it over those who had sided with the puppet regime. The slogan was: ‘There are neither victors nor vanquished. It is the Vietnamese people, all the people, who have defeated American imperialism.’ There was a conscious policy of attempting to reconcile former enemies and begin building a new society.”
On re-education, an official of the Vietnamese Communist Party at the time described it thus:
“They study and work. That’s what we did during the whole war. You can call it ‘brainwashing’; it’s a matter of definition. For us studying is a privilege, not a punishment.
“As for manual work, that’s something the country has an enormous need of. If you discuss it with the puppets, they all reassure you they want to participate in the reconstruction of the country; they discuss it in the cafes. But if you put a shovel in their hands and ask them to fill up craters made by their own bombs and those of the Americans, then they tell you they’re at forced labour.”
Many socialists today, in order to justify their own dogmas and schemas, say that because Vietnam has some foreign investment, it is no longer or never has been socialist. This is a serious mistake.
Vietnam exists in the same world we live in, one economically dominated by capitalism. The Vietnamese Revolution could not have survived, and millions of Vietnamese would have been condemned to the worst Third World conditions if Vietnam had not had dealings with the dominant economic system. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there is no other way for so-called developing countries like Vietnam to access new technologies in order to develop.
Vietnam has a planned socialist economy that puts the interest of its people before the profits of corporations or individuals. Private and foreign business is tightly controlled. A Vietnamese government website reports that foreign investment was 13.1% of total investment capital in 1990, 32.3% in 1995, 18.6% in 2000, 14.9% in 2005 and a bit over 16% in 2007. Since 2000 Vietnam has had a stock market, but this accounts for only 5% of its US$90 billion GDP.
The Vietnamese Revolution had to risk exposure to capitalism in order quickly to begin raising living standards and to develop economically. There was no other way. In 1990 rural poverty was 70%; by 2002 it was reduced to 28%. According to the World Bank, 58% of all Vietnamese lived in poverty in 1993; by 2006, this had declined to 16%. Vietnam also does better on a range of indicators than countries at comparable or even higher levels of per capita GDP. Vietnam has 170 village primary health clinics per million population, compared to only 32 in Indonesia, 63 in China and 141 in Thailand. There is a hospital bed for every 389 Vietnamese, compared to every 465 Chinese, 665 Thais, 910 Filipinos and 1743 Indonesians. By the late 1990s, nearly every one of Vietnam’s 10,000 communes had a primary school and a commune health centre.
While many private businesses attempt exploitation in Vietnam, unions are given state support to fight. Taiwanese bosses complain that they are unable to beat workers or arbitrarily force them to work long hours in Vietnam, as they do in other countries in the region. They complain, “If the managers pushed them too far, they would just go on strike.” The Vietnamese state and unions are strict in demanding compliance with the labour law. Workers’ rights sentiments are backed by a conciliation system and a judiciary sympathetic to labour demands. Investors complain that Vietnam’s law protects employees more than employers; according to the manager of Nike Vietnam, when workers go on strike unlawfully, officials support them.
The good example of socialist Vietnam is still there despite everything it has to cope with. A major challenge it faces today is the legacy of Agent Orange. The US chemical bombardment of Vietnam is still claiming victims. More than 3 million Vietnamese have suffered the effects of Agent Orange, the name given to dioxin-bearing herbicides sprayed by the US military over large parts of central and southern Vietnam. There are a million victims in Vietnam today, many of them children born with serious deformities, as a result of their parents’ or grandparents’ exposure to the chemical.
While the US and Australia have moved on to new wars and are poisoning new countries with depleted uranium, which causes many effects similar to dioxin, there have been no reparations for their war on the people of Vietnam, who are still suffering from it.
While the future for Vietnam remains one of struggle that requires the solidarity of working people around the world, if there is only one thing you leave here with today, it should be a deeper understanding and respect for the courage and resilience of the people of Vietnam and their unwavering commitment to self-determination. This courage and resilience are not the products of any cultural or genetic disposition but the products of genuine socialist leadership and the powerful force of human solidarity it can unleash. Long live the Vietnamese Revolution!