The universal meaning of Vietnam
A heroic struggle for independence and socialism
“No liberation movement, no people that has struggled for its independence, has had to carry out a struggle as long and heroic as the people of Vietnam”—Fidel Castro, September 12, 1973.
The first human populations arrived in Vietnam nearly 500,000 years ago. Food cultivation arrived via diffusion from China around 12,000 B.C.E. By the third century B.C.E., the ancient state of Van Lang reached its fullest development on an economic foundation of fishing, agriculture, cattle breeding, and cloth manufacturing.
Van Lang was conquered by Nam Cuong, an empire located in Southern China and Northern Vietnam. The Chinese conquerors established Au Lac, a slave-based civilization dedicated to the exploitation of copper mines and the manufacturing of copper products. Thus began ten centuries of Chinese domination of Vietnam, under which emerged a feudal economy and a class of Vietnamese landholders. The period was characterized by struggles against Chinese domination, in which both the peasants and the landholders participated. These struggles succeeded in expelling the Chinese governors on two occasions, establishing two brief periods of Vietnamese independence (43-46 C.E. and 544-632). Finally, in 938, Ngo Quyen expelled the Chinese and established the Ngo dynasty (939-68), which initiated a period of Vietnamese independence that lasted until the French conquest of the nineteenth century.
During the period of Vietnamese independence, the Vietnamese empires had to resist repeated Chinese attempts to re-conquer the territory, which did result in a brief period of renewed Chinese domination in the early fifteenth century. There also were efforts to conquer the territory by other foreign invaders, including the Mongols and Siam.
Cuban scholar Julio García Oliveras, who served as head of the Cuban military mission in Indochina from 1966 to 1969, observes that during the long history of resistance to foreign domination, two types of military operations were developed by the Vietnamese: small-scale guerrilla attacks with dispersed forces; and larger battles with massive concentrations of troops. The Vietnamese military tradition included a received wisdom concerning the conditions in which these alternate strategies should be used. A fundamental lesson had been learned: an invading force of greater technical power and numerical superiority can be defeated by an organized movement that is struggling for a just cause, that is advanced politically and morally, and that has the support of the people.
The independent Vietnamese empires were feudal societies dominated by large landholders and bureaucratic officials, in which popular uprisings were common. During the fifteenth century, the Le dynasty initiated reforms involving the abolition of large-scale landholdings and the distribution of land. The reforms led to economic growth, the development of national literature, the spread of Confucianism, and the height of the centralized power of the state. However, economic decline occurred during the sixteenth century, accompanied by division of the national territory among the royal families and competition for land among local tyrants. Popular uprisings occurred continuously, and they reached their height in the eighteenth century, when the Tay Son uprising led to the reunification of the country. But in the nineteenth century, a reactionary feudal system of the Nguyen dynasty was established, provoking popular resistance from various social sectors, especially the peasants.
Beginning in 1750, European nations conquered vast regions of Africa and Asia, incorporating the conquered regions into the European-centered capitalist world-economy. As a particular manifestation of this global process, the French conquest of Vietnam began in 1859, when French troops attacked Saigon, a commercial port in the southern region of the empire of Vietnam. The French overcame the resistance of the imperial troops, whose weapons were less advanced. The emperor Tu Duc negotiated in 1862 the ceding to the French of three southern provinces, which later would become part of the French colony of Cochin China.
The French invasion of Vietnam resumed in the 1880s, when the French attacked Hanoi and occupied several major cities along the Red River in the North. The invasion occurred shortly after the death of Tu Duc, which had provoked successionist division. At the same time, the court was divided concerning how to respond to the renewed French aggression. An accommodationist faction came to dominate, and it ceded to France influence over the remaining territory of Vietnam.
Having seized power, the French proceeded to divide Vietnam into the protectorate of Tonkin in the far north, where the traditional capital city of Hanoi was located; and the protectorate of Annam, which included the imperial capital of Hue and stretched from Tonkin to the French colony of Cochin China in the far south. The Vietnamese imperial court and its bureaucracy were allowed to govern in the protectorate of Annam, functioning as a puppet authority under the direction of the French.
The global process of European conquest and colonial domination involved peripheralization, in which the newly conquered regions were converted into exporters of raw materials on a base of forced labor (see “The European conquest of Africa and Asia, 1750-1914,” May 28, 2021). This pattern was followed in Vietnam, as feudal Vietnamese agriculture was transformed into a system characterized by privately-owned large-scale plantations and mines oriented to the exportation of rubber, rice, and minerals. The plantations and mines were in the hands of a small number of owners, principally foreigners; and the puppet Vietnamese authority was required to supply forced laborers for them. In addition, during French colonial rule many small farmers became tenant farmers burdened by debt peonage.
The peripheralization of Vietnam was concentrated in the French colony of Cochin China in the South. The production of rubber and rice for export, on a base of forced and superexploited labor, provided the economic foundation for the colony. Rubber seedlings had been imported from Brazil, and rubber plantations under French ownership were developed along the Cambodian border. Rice was cultivated in the Mekong River delta, where the French had drained the marshlands, by sharecroppers who paid exorbitant rents to absentee Vietnamese landlords living in Saigon. Cochin China became the third largest rice exporter in the world.
The Chinese community, descendants of settlers of previous centuries, constituted a “middleman minority” in Cochin China. The Chinese owned rice-processing plants, and they controlled banking. They were an important force as merchants in Saigon, as well as in other cities of French Indochina. They lived in separate Chinese sections that maintained significant components of Chinese culture.
In addition, several thousand Europeans settled in Saigon during French colonial rule, attracted by nearby rubber, tea, and coffee plantations as well as opportunities vis-á-vis factory ownership and the import-export trade. Saigon became the largest industrial and commercial city of Vietnam, as textile mills, cement factories, and food processing plants emerged.
The accommodation of the imperial court to French colonial domination undermined the prestige and authority of the emperor. It led to a decline of fidelity to the Confucian ethic, which stressed service to the community, personal right conduct, and benevolence. Corruption became endemic among bureaucratic officials, and land that was previously reserved for poor families was now seized by the wealthy.
During the internal political conflicts that led to accommodation to the French by the Vietnamese imperial court, the child Emperor Ham Nghi was deposed, and an accommodationist emperor was installed. Ham Nghi and his regent fled into the mountains, continuing to claim that he was the true monarch.
Many civilian and military officials did not accept the decision of the imperial court to surrender to the French, and they organized local armed forces seeking to restore Ham Nghi to power. The scholar-official Phan Dinh Phung launched a Save the King Movement that sought the restoration of Ham Nghi, with the intention of driving the French from Vietnam.
The scholar-gentry class from which Phan Dinh Phung originated was an important component of traditional Vietnamese society. It consisted of men who had been educated in the Confucian classics in preparation for rigorous examinations that would qualify them for posts in the national and provincial governments. Members of the class were government officials, teachers in government schools, founders of private schools, and private tutors. They had a higher standard of living than most peasants, but they were not wealthy, and many supplemented their incomes with farming.
Drawing upon a tradition of nationalism rooted in the historic Vietnamese struggle against Chinese domination, scholar-intellectuals played a leading role in the nationalist movement in opposition to French colonialism. One of them was Phan Chu Trinh, who resigned his government post in 1905 in order to travel throughout the country and meet with scholars. He maintained that, although the French claimed to be on a “civilizing mission,” in fact they were interested in the economic exploitation of Vietnam. In an open letter to the French Governor General, Trinh conceded that the French had brought some advantages, such as introducing modern systems of transportation and communication; he argued, however, that the colonial regime was perpetuating a corrupt imperial bureaucracy. He advocated a reform of colonialism on the basis of progressive Western and Chinese concepts.
Another important member of the scholar-gentry class was Phan Boi Chau. Rather than pursuing a career in the government bureaucracy, he traveled throughout the central provinces, seeking to organize among scholars a movement in opposition to the imperial court and French colonialism. He believed that Vietnam ought to modernize, and he adopted as a model the modernization of Japan under the Emperor Meiji. Whereas Phan Chu Trinh hoped for French cooperation in the reform of the French colonial system, Phan Boi Chou proposed violent resistance in order to drive out the French and establish a constitutional monarchy similar to that of Japan.
As a consequence of the objective conditions of French colonialism, opposition to French colonial rule was not confined to the scholar-gentry class. Peasants were forced to pay high rents on land and new taxes on alcohol, salt, and opium, and they were subjected to forced labor requirements. Factory workers and coal miners suffered low salaries and long working hours, and conditions on the rubber plantations of Cochin China were especially harsh.
French colonialism brought changes in the characteristics of the Vietnamese scholar-gentry class. The Confucian examination for bureaucratic careers was abolished, and French educational institutions were established. A new generation of educated Vietnamese emerged in the 1920s, who originated from the families of the traditional scholar-gentry class, but who were educated in the French educational system. These Western educated intellectuals continued the scholar-gentry tradition of opposition to French colonial domination, and they formed various patriotic nationalist political parties during the 1920s.
Among the leaders of the new political parties, the most prominent was Nguyen An Ninh, the son of a Confucian scholar who had been educated in Paris and who had been a part of Phan Boi Chau’s movement. Like Phan Chu Trinh, he believed that Western values could overcome the limitations of the traditional Confucian system, which, in his view, had stifled creativity and had contributed to French domination.
Forced to flee French Indochina for his political activities in 1911 at the age of 21, Ho Chi Minh encountered the patriotic nationalism of Western educated Vietnamese intellectuals in Paris from 1917 to 1924. He attained a degree of fame as an activist in Paris for the cause of Vietnamese independence, speaking and writing under the name of Nguyen the Patriot.
Nguyen the Patriot attended meetings of the French Socialist Party, where he was received with great respect as a known leader of the city’s significant Vietnamese émigré community. In the split between the social democrats and the Leninists, Nguyen the Patriot was strongly on the side of the latter, having been most favorably impressed by Lenin’s writing on the national question. On December 29, 1920, he joined with those members of the French Socialist Party who voted to form the French Communist Party and to affiliate with Lenin’s Third International. He undertook a number of important activities in the name of the French Communist Party as a representative of Indochina, including the organization of colonial subjects in Paris. He traveled to the Soviet Union from June 1923 to October 1924, where he worked for a commission dedicated to analysis of the situation of the colonized peoples of Africa and Asia, and he took courses designed for the political education of Asian revolutionaries. On June 23, 1924, he addressed the Fifth Congress of the Communist International, where he criticized Party members, but courteously, for not sufficiently understanding the role of colonialism in sustaining world capitalism. In Confucian fashion, he declared that the comrades were “trying to kill a snake [capitalism] by stepping on its tail [Western European industry].”
In 1925, at the age of 35, Ho Chi Minh was sent to south China as an unpaid representative of the Communist International. There he formed the Revolutionary Youth of Vietnam, which included a journal as well as a training institute in downtown Canton for the education of new recruits. It was the first communist group of the Vietnamese revolutionary movement.
The Revolutionary Youth of Vietnam was committed not only to the independence of Vietnam from French colonial rule. It also was committed to the class struggle, of peasants against Vietnamese landholders and of workers against the bourgeoisie, and it supported the international proletarian revolution represented by the Communist International. Ho was forced to abandon China in 1927, because of repression by the forces of Chiang Kai Shek. But members of the Revolutionary Youth, after being released from prison, were able to maintain operations, moving its headquarters from Canton to Hong Kong.
In July 1928, Ho relocated to Siam, where he worked to create communist cells among Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian émigrés and to reorganize the networks of the Communist International in Southeast Asia. When two other Vietnamese communist organizations were formed in 1929, Ho convoked a Congress for the founding of a united party, and as a result, the Indochinese Communist Party was established in Hong Kong in February 1930.
On February 18, 1930, the newly formed party issued an appeal (written by Ho) to “workers, peasants, soldiers, youth, and school students” and to “oppressed and exploited fellow countrymen” and “sisters and brothers.” The Appeal called upon these popular sectors to participate in a revolution that was both a nationalist anti-colonial revolution as well as a class revolution. It described an unfolding world revolution that “includes the oppressed colonial peoples and the exploited working class throughout the world.” It maintained that in Indochina this revolution takes the form of an anti-imperialist revolution formed by workers, peasants, students, and merchants. And the appeal notes that the French imperialists “use the feudalists and the comprador bourgeoisie to oppress and exploit our people.”
The Appeal put forth a ten-point program that was a practical synthesis of Marxism-Leninism and the nationalist anti-colonial perspective. The program sought “to overthrow French imperialism and Vietnamese feudalism and reactionary bourgeoisie.” It sought “to make Indochina completely independent” and “to establish a worker-peasant-soldier government.” It sought “to confiscate the banks and other enterprises belonging to the imperialists and to put them under the control of the worker-peasant-soldier government,” and it included a plan “to confiscate all the plantations and property belonging to the imperialists and the reactionary bourgeoisie and distribute them to the poor peasants.” The program also proposed social reforms, including an eight-hour working day, elimination of unjust taxes that were particularly hurtful to the poor, an increase in education, and the promotion of gender equality.
For the next 15 years, the Indochinese Communist Party would experience a tremendous growth in Vietnamese popular support, such that it would arrive to a position of leadership of the Vietnamese Revolution when the independence of Vietnam was declared in 1945. This dramatic growth was a result of the party’s connecting the issue of national liberation to the interests of the peasants, who comprised more than 90% of the population. Its formulation of a clear program in relation to peasant interests differentiated it from the various bourgeois and petty bourgeois parties of the period. As Ho expressed 30 years after the forming of the party, the growth of the Party, at the expense of other parties, was a consequence of the Party’s formulation of a program that “fully answered the aspirations of the peasants, who made up the majority of our people.”
The ascent of the Indochinese Communist Party from 1930 to 1945 was not a straight line. During 1930 and 1931, the Indochinese Communist Party organized a number of workers’ strikes. But in 1931, there was harsh repression of the Party by colonial authorities. Ho Chi Minh was detained in Hong Kong on June 6, 1931, and he would spend 1934 to 1938 in exile in the Soviet Union.
In spite of the repression of the movement leaders, the mass organizations gradually resumed their activities. In 1935, there were strikes on the rubber plantations, and a number of strikes occurred in Saigon. In 1936, the Central Committee of the Indochinese Communist Party formed the Democratic United Front of Indochina, which united progressive and democratic forces in a single organization, including the national bourgeoisie, in a common struggle against French colonialism. The Democratic United Front had considerable progress in developing a popular movement, in part because leftist parties were part of a Popular Front government in France, and French colonial polices were less repressive toward political organizations in French Indochina. From 1936 to 1938, there was a significant growth in party membership, as the party was especially successful in recruiting members from the peasantry and the working class. But when the Popular Front government in France was replaced by a conservative government in 1938, and with the German occupation of France and the formation of the puppet Vichy regime in 1940, the Democratic United Front of Indochina was repressed by French colonial authorities. Nevertheless, the work, commitment, and spirit of sacrifice of the members of the Indochinese Communist Party in the cause of national independence was recognized in the consciousness of the people.
The surrender of France to Germany in 1940 and the entrance of Japanese troops in French Indochina had weakened French colonialism, but they also established an alternative domination in the form of Japanese occupation and superexploitation. During the Japanese occupation, the colonial government of French Indochina negotiated an arrangement with Japan, in which the French would maintain formal political sovereignty, but the Japanese would have full military control of northern Vietnam. Accordingly, the Japanese military governors imposed taxes to maintain the military, and they reoriented Vietnamese agricultural production toward exportation to Japan, leaving the people in a situation of extreme poverty. Popular resistance, which had been significant during the 1930s as a result of French colonialism and the effects of the Great Depression, intensified under the harsh conditions of the Japanese occupation. In the cities and villages, there was growing popular sentiment of the need for a struggle for independence.
In August 1938, Ho Chi Minh returned to China, where political conditions established by the Japanese threat obligated Chiang Kai Shek and the Nationalist Party of China to cooperate with the communist parties, including the Indochinese Communist Party. In early February 1941, Ho returned to his native country for the first time in 30 years, establishing headquarters in the small village of Pac Bo, not far from the Chinese border. At the Eighth Plenum of the Indochinese Communist Party in May 1941, held in a spacious cave near Pac Bo, the Vietminh Front (Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh, or League for the Independence of Vietnam) was established. Informally developed the previous year by Ho and other party leaders, the Vietminh sought to unite various political currents and religions in a common struggle to end Japanese occupation and French colonialism and to establish the independent nation of Vietnam.
The Vietminh gave primary emphasis to the goal of national independence from Japanese occupation and French colonial rule. Accordingly, seeking support from patriotic members of the landed bourgeoisie, it proposed the redistribution of land owned by the French and their Vietnamese collaborators, but not the land of patriotic members of the Vietnamese landed bourgeoisie, for whom it proposed the more limited measure of reduction in land rents.
The Vietminh adopted a strategy of guerilla warfare in opposition to the Japanese occupation, and it organized mass demonstrations, acts of sabotage, boycotts, and the looting of crops destined for exportation to Japan. From 1943 to 1945, Vietminh units increasingly operated in the north, such that by June 1945 seven provinces had been liberated from Japanese troops, and guerrilla activities and popular uprisings were occurring in other provinces.
At the Ninth Plenum of the Indochinese Communist Party on August 12, 1945, Ho convinced Party leaders that, when Japan announces its surrender to the allies, the Party should launch a general popular insurrection to seize power throughout the country. On August 16, shortly after the news of the Japanese surrender reached Indochina, Ho addressed a National People’s Congress, composed of delegates of the Vietminh Front. Ho reiterated the need to seize power, so that the Vietnamese nationalist forces would be in a strong position when the allied occupation forces arrive. Following his address, the Congress approved the creation of an independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam; and it established a National Liberation Committee, with Ho Chi Minh as chair, to lead a general insurrection and to serve as a provisional government. From August 16 to August 25, in cities, towns, and villages throughout the country, local committees were established that functioned as provisional local governments, taking power from the Japanese occupation army, which in most cases did not offer resistance. The local committees took power with the support of people’s armed militias and in the name of the Vietminh Front.
On the afternoon of August 25, accompanied by Party Secretary General Truong Chinh, Ho Chi Minh discreetly entered by car the old imperial capital of Hanoi, going directly to a three-story row house in the Chinese section of the city, where arrangements had been made for his accommodations on the top floor. That same afternoon, Ho convened at his new residence a meeting of the Indochinese Communist Party, which confirmed the decision of the Vietminh Front to create a National Liberation Committee that would function as a Provisional Government of the nation, with the exception, following Ho’s recommendation, that the committee would be expanded to include non-Party elements. Ho’s proposal for the formation of a broad-based provisional government representing all progressive sectors was unanimously accepted by the members of the National Liberation Committee at a meeting on August 27. Plans were made for a formal declaration of national independence to be held on September 2.
On August 29, the puppet emperor Bao Dai abdicated, presenting the imperial seal to a delegation representing the National Liberation Committee. On September 2, 1945, before a crowd of one-half million people, continually shouting “independence,” in Ba Dinh square in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
The Declaration began by citing the “undeniable truths” of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America: “All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” And it cited the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen emitted by the French Revolution: “All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.”
The Vietnamese Declaration of Independence lists grievances against the French colonial regime, including political repression and economic superexploitation. And it notes that the people have taken de facto control of Vietnam.
“When the Japanese surrendered to the Allies, our entire people rose to gain power and founded the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam. The truth is that we have wrested our independence from the Japanese, not from the French. The French have fled, the Japanese have capitulated, Emperor Bao Dai has abdicated. Our people have broken the chains which have fettered them for nearly a century and have won independence for Viet Nam. At the same time, they have overthrown the centuries-old monarchic regime and established a democratic republican regime”
In light of this independence in fact, the provisional government formally declared its independence from French colonial rule. “We, the provisional government of the new Viet Nam, representing the entire Vietnamese people, hereby declare that from now on we break off all relations of a colonial character with France, cancel all treaties signed by France on Viet Nam, and abolish all privileges held by France in our country.” The Declaration expressed its confidence that the Allies, who have affirmed the principle of equality among nations, “cannot fail to recognize the right of the Vietnamese people to independence.”
The Declaration concludes with an expression of the determination of the Vietnamese people to defend their independence. “Viet Nam has the right to enjoy freedom and independence and in fact has become a free and independent country. The entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their freedom and independence.”
The new government took immediate steps in defense of popular interests and needs. Taxes that had been established by the French, such as taxes on land and on the manufacturing of salt and alcohol, were abolished. Communal lands, which comprised more than twenty percent of land in the northern and central provinces, were distributed among villagers. In accordance with the program announced by the Viet Minh Front in 1941, the government confiscated land belonging to French colonialists and Vietnamese collaborators and distributed it to peasants, but most privately-owned land was not affected by the land redistribution program; on land that continued to be privately owned, land rent was reduced by twenty-five percent. In addition, a farm credit bureau, programs in literacy and mass education, and an eight-hour limit to the working day were established.
In September, the newly independent nation convoked free nationwide elections for a National Assembly, which were held in January 1946. The National Assembly approved the first Constitution in the history of the nation on November 9, 1946. The 1946 Constitution established a National Assembly as well as People’s Councils at local levels, with representatives elected by the people through universal suffrage. The National Assembly was established as the highest authority in the nation and as the only organ with legislative power, and with the authority to elect the president, the Standing Committee of the National Assembly, and the Council of Government.
Thus, the independence of Vietnam was established by the people in 1945. It was a fact of world historical significance, teaching lessons with respect to the taking of power by a people’s revolution. Such lessons include the need for the dissemination of a historically accurate understanding of the nation in the context of unfolding world historical dynamics; and clearly defined political objectives and a program in defense of the nation and the people, rooted in principles and universal moral values. The Vietnamese people’s revolution illustrated the power of a revolutionary project that, with political intelligence and historical consciousness, calls the people to sacrifices and unity in defense of their rights and needs.
But the attainment of the de facto independence of Vietnam by the people would not be accepted by the world imperialist powers, which would soon demonstrate an astonishing capacity for hypocrisy and barbarism.
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