The following article below was originally published by the Return to the Source news blog:
January 8, 2012
At Return to the Source, we frequently use the term ‘actually existing socialism’ to describe various countries that we identify as socialist. The term specifies ‘actually existing’ to highlight the need to approach socialism from a materialist, rather than idealist perspective. We would define actually existing socialism as the material manifestation of the socialist ideal. Imperfect as it may be, it is the reality of what it takes to build socialism in a world dominated by imperialism.
But what does actually existing socialism mean for revolutionaries in the 21st century, long after the fall of most of the socialist bloc? Five countries – Cuba, China, Vietnam, Laos, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) – survived the wave of counter-revolutions in the early 1990s, but their survival has forced them to make certain concessions and retreats to the market system in varying degrees.
Much to the dismay of many leftists, China, Vietnam and Laos have all pursued a path of development that emphasized the role of a heavily regulated market economy in continuing to build socialism. Cuba and the DPRK maintained planned economies more similar to the Soviet Union’s model, but even recently they have accepted strategic market reforms.
Though the market reforms of China and Vietnam have both led to tremendous economic growth, the actual implementation of these new economic policies is decidedly unique. For Trotskyites and left-communists, these market reforms are simply manifestations of state capitalist policies. However, a closer look reveals that these market reforms were deliberate policy decisions demanded by the masses to continue building socialism in a post-Soviet world.
Like China, the commanding heights of the Vietnamese economy remains in the hands of the state. The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) – the party of the working class and peasantry – remains at the helm of the state, and it still relies on a planned economic model that incorporates some market elements. The working class still holds political and economic power in Vietnam, and the market reforms were implemented as a means of strengthening socialism rather than weakening it.
Indeed, if many critics of actually existing socialism actually looked into Vietnam, they would find a vibrant protest movement by workers and peasants who work with, rather than against, the CPV to improve socialism. The state subordinates the interests of capital, both foreign and domestic, to the class interests of the people, and the CPV plans the economy to address the needs and demands of the working class first and foremost.
At varying points in history, socialist countries have had to make certain temporary concessions to the market in order to strengthen and preserve socialism. Economically backwards nations that have socialist revolutions face the task of revolutionizing the productive forces in order to meet the material needs of the masses. As Lenin so adequately put it, “Electricity plus soviets equals socialism.”
Vietnam is continuing the arduous task of socialist construction. Hardened by the experience of savage onslaught by US imperialism and inspired by their victory over it, the Vietnamese people have persevered through periods of retreat and economic crisis to continue building socialism in the 21st century. Though market reforms have brought many challenges and negative consequences, the overall orientation of the Vietnamese state and economy is towards the working class, and that alone makes socialism in Vietnam worth studying and defending.
This essay is broken into smaller, digestible chapters:
- Doi Moi, Market Reforms & Socialism in Vietnam
- Socialist Market Economies vs. Capitalist Market Economies
- Actually Existing Socialism in Vietnam
- Trade Unions & Actually Existing Socialism in Vietnam
- Market Reforms as a Mass Demand
- ‘Let A Thousand Flowers Blossom’: Protest & the Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Vietnam
- What Does Actually Existing Socialism Mean for Socialists in the US?
While the specifics of Vietnam’s market reforms are discussed at length in this piece, we see no reason to reinvent the wheel and one again demonstrate how market socialism is rooted firmly in the direct ideas and experiences of Marx and Lenin. Readers interested in our discussion on market socialism and Marxism-Leninism should refer back to China & Market Socialism: A Question of State & Revolution.
Doi Moi, Market Reforms & Socialism in Vietnam
In his 2010 book, Vietnam: Rising Dragon, journalist Bill Hayton argues that despite market reforms, Vietnam remains a patently socialist country. Sympathetic but not apologetic towards Vietnamese society, Hayton is a Western liberal but even he cannot escape the conclusion that Vietnam is decidedly different from the other capitalist countries in Asia. His book may be the most useful and telling study on modern Vietnam available in English, and we will quote it profusely throughout this piece. Unless otherwise denoted, all quotes come from his book.
After the devastation wrought by the US imperialist war against Vietnam and the continued legacy of French colonialism, “the rural economy was in ruins, the north had been bombed back to a pre-industrial age and the war had killed, wounded or displaced millions.” Vietnam’s ravaged infrastructure forced the country to import about “200,000 tonnes of rice just to prevent starvation.” Further adding to the economic problems, Vietnam was drawn into a war against its neighbor, Democratic Kampuchea (DK), after Khmer Rouge troops attacked Vietnamese citizens on the border. This led to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), an ally of the DK, to cut off essential economic aid to Vietnam.
In this context, limited market reforms were implemented to preserve, rather than dismantle, socialism. These reforms strikingly resembled the New Economic Policy (NEP) that Lenin and the Bolsheviks implemented in the Soviet Union in 1921. Under this first set of market reforms, “State-owned enterprises still had to meet their commitments to the central plan – but they were now allowed to buy and sell any surplus independently.” In the agricultural sector, “Farmers could also sell any rice they had left over once they’d supplied their allotted quota.”
Rather than undermining socialism, these reforms actually protected the working class orientation of the Vietnamese economy. Like in the Soviet Union, “some State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) were already trading informally, and even doing business with foreigners, just to pay the bills. By tacitly approving these informal transactions the Party leadership hopes to control them and gradually rein the in.” These initial efforts failed, and illegal trading doubled from 1980 to 1982, creating a similar ‘second economy’ to the one seen in the Soviet Union.
The CPV responded and “tried to get tough” with measures like Decree 25-CP, which ordered “all state firms to register their market trading.” At this point, the CPV introduced the policy of doi moi, which means ‘change to something new’. Doi Moi boosted agricultural output and reduced the country’s rampant inflation, which had “hit almost 500 per cent” in 1987.
Just as Lenin and Stalin saw the NEP as a temporary retreat in order to meet the challenges posed to socialist construction, the CPV used – and continues to use – market reforms to strengthen socialism, and continued control of the economy by the state insures that the fledgling class of business owners never develops an independent class character.
However, the limited scope of these market reforms changed in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union. No event had a greater impact on the remaining five socialist countries than the dissolution of the USSR, which was the largest trading partner for four of the five countries. Not unlike Cuba, Vietnam was heavily dependent on Soviet aid, especially following China’s hostility after the war for the liberation of Kampuchea. It is critical to understand that the loss of the USSR as a trading partner forced the CPV to consider the long-term viability of these reforms to insure continued economic growth and prevent the overthrow of socialism in Vietnam. Hayton writes:
“In 1981, aid from the Soviet Union funded about 40 per cent of the Vietnamese state budget. In 1991, it was cut off completely. The Party declared Vietnam open for foreign investment and the combination of low wages, under-used factories and a great geographical location was too tempting for overseas corporations to miss.”
However, this was decidedly different from the counter-revolutions and capitalist restoration wave that swept Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Hayton continues:
“But even at this point, the state remained in control, and foreign investment was directed into joint ventures with state firms. In every other communist country that has embarked on economic transition, the proportion of the economy controlled by the state has fallen. In Vietnam it actually rose: from 39 per cent in 1992 to 41 percent in 2003 – and these figures exclude foreign-invested firms, which were usually joint ventures with SOEs.”
The economic reforms performed their stated purpose and strengthened Vietnamese socialism. With the state taking an increasingly greater role in the economy, Vietnam’s SOEs began to produce at a level that replaced the lost Soviet aid that had devastated the economy a decade earlier. Once again, we quote Hayton:
“But unlike many other countries, state control did not mean economic torpor – growth rocketed to 8 per cent a year. The boom was particularly strong in the south. By the end of the decade, state firms in Ho Chi Minh City contributed about half of the national state budget. In effect Saigon and its surroundings had taken over the role performed by the Soviet Union two decades earlier.”
Vietnam’s involvement in the World Trade Organization is often criticized as a deep concession to international capital, but this view demonstrates a mistaken, ill-informed view of Vietnamese socialism. Although the World Bank and the IMF were allowed to lend to Vietnam starting in 1993, Vietnam resisted taking even the most enticing loans from both since the “country had very little debt and was making enough money from exports and commercial foreign investment not to need cash.”
In 1998, Vietnam was offered more loans by the World Bank in the form of more than $2.7 billion in conditional and unconditional funding “if it [the government] agreed to implement a timetable to sell off the remaining SOEs, restructure the state banking sector and introduce a trade reform programme.” Although the CPV took the deal, they “took no action to implement it” because the “demands were too much for the mainstream of the Party to accept.” Hayton notes that “Over the course of three years, it turned down a total of $1.5 billion because it placed political stability ahead of the promises of economic liberalisation,” political stability meaning the working class orientation of the economy. He says, “Vietnam had gone eyeball-to-eyeball with the mighty institutions from Washington and won.”
Hayton takes exception to the idea that the presence of private businesses and commercial trade makes Vietnam a capitalist country. He argues instead that academic fixation on “the froth of petty trading is distracting.” He writes:
“Vietnam has not developed in the way it has – balancing rocketing economic growth with one of the most impressive reductions in poverty anywhere, ever – by completely liberalizing the economy. Yes, restrictions on private enterprise have been lifted, markets have been allowed to flourish and foreign investment has been encouraged – but Vietnam’s success if far from being a triumph of World Bank orthodoxy. Some might snicker at the official description of a ‘socialist-oriented market economy’ but it’s not an empty slogan. Even today, the Communist Party retains control over most of the economy: either directly through state-owned enterprises which monopolise key strategic sectors, through joint ventures between the state sector and foreign investors, or increasingly, through the elite networks which bind the Party to the new private sector.”
We cannot fully understand the importance of these market reforms without comparing Vietnam’s experience to that of the USSR. In their book, Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny meticulously detail how the growth of the ‘second economy’, or black market, in the Soviet Union materially undermined socialism and led to its overthrow in 1991. They point out that the short-lived ascension of Yuri Andropov as the General Secretary of the CPSU could have led to a crackdown on the black market economic relations that had developed in the Soviet Union, but his premature death led to the ascension of forces within the Party who had grown to accept and profit from the ‘second economy’. These forces, embodied in Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika, unleashed a wave of counter-revolution in the Soviet Union that led to the dissolution of socialism.
In Vietnam, the gradual implementation of market reforms allowed the CPV to insure the continued dominance of the socialist state over the private sector. Additionally, it forced ‘second economy’ enterprises to emerge from the black market and placed them under control of the state. The Enterprise Law of 1999, for instance, led to 160,000 enterprises registering with the government, most of which were “existing businesses which had been operating without licenses and took advantage of the new law to register.”
Socialist Market Economies vs. Capitalist Market Economies
The fundamental difference between a socialist market economy and a capitalist market economy is the role of the state. As Lenin describes in State and Revolution, the state is an instrument of class rule. It does not exist above class, but is wielded by one class to dominate another. In the US and the capitalist countries in Western Europe, state intervention and regulation in the economy is wielded by and in the interests of the capitalist class.
However, in a socialist market economy, the state is controlled by workers and dominates the private sector. It allows it to flourish only to the degree that it helps in the economic development of the whole country and serves the greater class interests of the working class and peasantry. The vast majority of businesses and companies are not independent of the government and are instead dominated by the workers state. Hayton describes this in Vietnam specifically:
“There are bigger private firms but they’re few in number. Although 350 companies are now listed on the country’s two stock exchanges, 99 per cent of the country’s businesses are still small or medium sized. In 2005 there were just 22 domestic privately owned firms among the top 200 companies and…’private’ is a debatable term.”
Even in the realm of foreign investment, the Vietnamese state dominates international capital ventures, rather than the other way around. In addition to its rebuke of the World Bank and IMF privatization policies, Hayton points out:
“The foreign-invested sector is a highly visible part of the economy, employing millions of people and providing plenty of tax revenue, but it doesn’t dominate the commanding heights. They are still, in theory at least, controlled by the state. In 2005, 122 of the 200 biggest firms in Vietnam were state-owned. The figure has changed only marginally since then, although some privately owned banks are now marching up the league. For the Party, a strong state sector is the way it can maintain national independence in an era of globalisation. It means the Party can still set the big goals – like its decision, in December 2006, to develop the country’s ‘maritime economy’ – a catch-all concept covering everything from oil to dish and ships. It is also determined to maintain high degrees of state control over strategically important sectors such as natural resources, transport, finance, infrastructure, defence and communications.”
Workers overwhelmingly support these policies as well, even those employed in joint enterprises with foreign firms. Hayton quotes Vu Thi Tham, a shoe production line worker, who noted that the work provided higher income and a better way of life “than being a peasant.” She said, “It’s OK. I’m working here because the income is stable. Before I was a farmer and my income depended on the weather. If it was good, I could make good money. But if it was bad, I couldn’t. Even in good times I could only make $30 per month but working here I can make $60 or more if I do overtime.”
Actually Existing Socialism in Vietnam
None of this is to say that the introduction of market reforms has not brought negative effects associated with capitalist markets to Vietnam, but the overall orientation of the state and the economy is still in the class interests of the workers and peasants. Hayton writes, “Growth is vital, but not at the expense of creating too much inequality.” He continues by saying, “The beneficiaries have been the peasants and proletarians.” For instance, poverty in Vietnam dropped from 60% to less than 20% between 1993 and 2004, according to government data. In 2010, the government reported that poverty had dropped to a mere 9.45%, further demonstrating the positive effects of Vietnamese market socialism on the people.
Like most socialist countries, Vietnam has eliminated illiteracy and significantly reduced its infant mortality rate, corresponding to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. The state continues to have guaranteed employment, which it’s able to achieve efficiently through the market reforms.
In a March 2011 article for Direct Action, Hamish Chitts notes the overall impact that these policies have had on the economy in raising the overall population out of poverty and underdevelopment. Chitts writes:
“According to World Bank figures, Vietnam’s gross domestic product per capita (measured in current US dollars) has grown from $239 in 1985 to $1155 in 2010. The government has ensured that this growth benefits the people. Vietnam has made impressive progress, reducing the poverty rate from 70% in 1990 to 22% in 2005.”
Much like China, market reforms have brought forth contradictions in health care and education, which are no longer purely administered through public channels. A May 4, 2005 article by Michael Karadjis writing for GreenLeft notes that, “Following the Soviet collapse, Vietnam introduced small fees for education and health.” Although Karadjis calls this a “blow against socialist fundamentals,” he also acknowledges that it “was forced by necessity” because ”Vietnam’s per capita GDP had dropped to $78 by 1990.”
Nevertheless, health care in Vietnam is planned and administered by provincial people’s committees, according to Chitts, and 100% of rural communes now have health workers, demonstrating the CPV’s prioritization of insuring health care access for rural areas.
Further highlighting Vietnam’s socialist character, Karadjis notes that the government – as a part of the Poverty Alleviation and Hunger Elimination Program, launched in 2001 – ”builds schools, health centres, clean water systems and roads in remote areas, delivers free healthcare and education, and delivers a large amount of subsidised, low-interest collateral-free credit to the poor, to help them set up or improve small household businesses in farming, handicrafts and the like.”
Of the inequalities brought about as a result of market reforms, Chitts describes the changing productive forces that allow Vietnamese socialism to both survive and prosper, which lays the material basis for providing these services on an increasingly widening mass basis. He says:
“While doi moi has introduced some inequity through “user pays” systems for essential social services, this has always been alleviated as much as possible at every level. As the productive forces grow, more is available to improve people’s lives. Without doi moi, millions of people would have been condemned to poverty and disease. If it had ignored the objective reality of Vietnam, the government would have brought about what the French, US and allies like Australia could not achieve by 30 years of brutal war – the defeat of socialism in Vietnam. Instead the CPV and the people continue to build a stronger base for socialism in Vietnam and by example a stronger base for socialism internationally in the 21st century.”
The market reforms in Vietnam were essential measures designed to cope with the difficult task of socialist construction for a poor country in a post-Soviet world. They allow the revolution to move forward and continue revolutionizing the productive forces so the state can more adequately meet the needs and demands of the people.
For all of its shortcomings, socialism perseveres in Vietnam and deserves recognition for its achievements. The aforementioned article by Karadjis compares Vietnam’s economic performance with comparably impoverished nations. He writes:
“Vietnam is a “low income” country (US$430 per capita GDP), but its educational and health indicators are on par with, or better than, “middle income” countries such as Thailand ($2000 GDP per capita), China and the Philippines, and far above those of similarly poor countries, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya and Tanzania.”
Karadjis goes on to note that “Primary school enrollment rose from 88% to 95% between 1990 and 2001,” despite an enrollment decline in the overall East Asia and Pacific region in the same period. Secondary school enrollment is up, class sizes are down, and the nominal fees associated with school – mostly for supplies – are waived for poorer families.
In the realm of health care, Vietnam “cut child mortality to 23 per 10,000 live births, and infant mortality to 19, lower than Thailand, China and the Philippines, and dramatically lower than India and Indonesia,” according to Karadjis. Vietnam’s life expectancy outstrips comparably poor countries in the region and ranks equivalent to wealthier East Asian countries, like Thailand. The country’s elaborate health care infrastructure insures access to medical care for even the most rural citizens, and ethnic minorities, the poor, and children pay nothing for health care.
Even amid the world economic meltdown of developed capitalist nations like the US, Vietnam maintains a 2.29% unemployment rate. Unemployment that low indicates only frictional unemployment for workers who are going between jobs, meaning that Vietnam is essentially able to employ all of its people.
Though these observations of Vietnamese social programs are an important aspect of evaluating the orientation of the state and the economy, they are by no means the only determinant. We will now examine the relationship between the Vietnamese state and the most basic economic organization of the working class: the trade union.
Trade Unions & Actually Existing Socialism in Vietnam
On the subject of trade unions, the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL) plays a vital role in representing workers’ day-to-day needs and grievances, but it also acts as their representative on larger legislative matters. Cynical critics claim that trade unions in socialist countries act as rubber stamps on government initiatives, but Simon Clarke and Tim Pringle of the University of Warwick, UK, find that the opposite is usually true. Writing in a comparison study between trade unions in Vietnam and China entitled ‘Can party-led trade unions represent their members?’, Clarke and Pringle find:
“Until 2007 VGCL was directly involved in drafting all labour legislation, and it continues to have the statutory right of consultation. Over the past ﬁve years VGCL has taken an increasingly independent position in pressing its own views on the government, most notably in criticising the inadequacy of government enforcement of labour legislation, in pressing for increases in the minimum wage and in insisting on the retention of the right to strike in the 2006 revision of the Labour Code.”
Contrary to propaganda put out by the Western media (and gobbled up by misguided leftist critics), strikes are legal in Vietnam, though there is a formal legal procedure required for launching strikes. However, most strikes in Vietnam, like China, are not necessarily legal but are also not interrupted or broken up by the government. Clarke and Pringle write:
“Faced with growing industrial unrest the trade union and the party-state are forced back into a ﬁre-ﬁghting role. In Vietnam the local ofﬁce of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (MOLISA) generally takes the lead, persuading the management to meet the workers’ demands, at least to the extent that the strike has been provoked by legal violations, while the local VGCL representative encourages the workers to return to work before the strike spreads to neighbouring enterprises. The police will also be called to maintain order as the workers spill out onto the streets. It is rare for there to be any police action against strikers, although strike leaders, if identiﬁed, may subsequently be victimised by the employer.”
Strikes, even unauthorized strikes, function as critical pulse-checker for mass sentiment and economic conditions faced by workers, and they usually provoke new pro-worker legislation by the Party. In this sense, the true class nature of the Vietnamese state is revealed as proletarian. After all, if the state steps in to mediate and force concessions from management, the duration of the strike will naturally shorten. We look again to Clarke and Pringle’s findings:
“The strikes in the new booming capitalist industries in both China and Vietnam have been steadily increasing in scale and extent, so that ‘collective bargaining by riot’ (Hobsbawm 1964, pp. 6 –7) has become the normal method by which workers defend their rights and interests. Workers have developed a very good idea of what they can get away with and how far they can go, so that short sharp strikes and protests have become an extremely prompt and effective way of redressing their grievances.”
Indeed, this unravels the criticism levied against socialist countries by many leftist critics, who focus on the legal limitations on strikes rather than the outcome of unauthorized strikes and other forms of worker activism. For the last time, we quote Clarke and Pringle’s conclusion:
“The limitation of the right to strike has been by no means as signiﬁcant a factor as the absence of freedom of association in inhibiting worker activism and the reform of the trade unions in China and Vietnam. The important issue is not so much whether or not a strike is legal as whether or not it is effective. In China and Vietnam strikes have proved to be an extremely effective method for workers to achieve their immediate demands, as the authorities refrain from repressing strikers for fear of exacerbating the situation and press employers immediately to meet the workers’ demands, to prevent the strike from spreading.”
Anytime strikes take place in socialist countries, leftist critics are quick to argue that this inherently demonstrates the antagonistic interests of the state and the workers. Time and time again, they blur the real issue at play, which is that the workers demands are almost always met by the state. This, in fact, highlights the importance of the concept of ‘actually existing socialism’.
For some leftist critics, there should be no class struggle under socialism. Every worker should be in a state of perpetual bliss, according to their view, because any evidence of poor working conditions or exploitation – usually from foreign companies – is evidence that the country in question is not socialist. Socialism is a complete end; a utopia. Intrinsically, this is an idealist conception of socialism that will never manifest itself in reality, ever.
Socialism is only as valuable as it actually exists in the material world, hence ‘actually existing socialism’. Class struggle continues because of the necessary measures taken to improve the lives of oppressed people; measures that often bring many unsavory, and indeed capitalist, contradictions. This struggle, however, does not disprove the existence of socialism. In actuality, it confirms its existence.
We learn about the essential class character of the state when looking at its overall orientation. A capitalist state does not mediate disputes between trade unions and management in favor of the workers. Strikes are short in capitalist countries because they are repressed with force. The capitalist state doesn’t allow trade unions to sit in the pilot’s seat in drafting labor law.
But all of these things happen in Vietnam. When looking at the class orientation of the state, it defies all logic and evidence – and if these Western leftist critics were honest with themselves, it defies their own experience with capitalist states – to claim that Vietnam is a capitalist country.
Market Reforms as a Mass Demand
There is a misunderstanding of market reforms as a purely top-down phenomenon, rather than an actual demand of the masses in Vietnam. While many of the policies were crafted by the CPV – itself made up predominantly of workers and peasants – many emerged as actual mass demands raised from villages and cities. In Saigon, for instance, urban workers began renovating their own homes and creating their own food production centers to meet demands where the crisis-stricken state economy could not. Although these economic changes were technically illegal, the Vietnamese state had no interest on cracking down on them because they strengthened, rather than weakened, socialism. Hayton notes:
“The houses and livelihoods were illegal, but if the state had enforced the law the result woul have been mass destitution and instability. Instead, households and state reached a compromise which was both pragmatic and tasty. In 1989, as state-owned enterprises and the military laid off a million and a half people, the streets were ‘opened’ and Vietnam’s street-food revolution began. Women led the way. They took control of the means of production: a charcoal burner, a large pot and a few wooden (later plastic) stools, and began to support themselves and their families by selling tea, pho noodle soup, bun cha mini kebabs on noodles, lau stew and all the other homemade delights for which Vietnamese food has now become justly famous. Previous petty trading would have been quickly, and literally, stamped out. Now, a change in police behavior made it obvious that they’d been told to leave the women alone.”
Economic market reforms benefited urban workers, particularly women, by allowing them to meet demands that were going unmet because of the period of crisis brought on by declining aid.
Many detractors from the left view market reforms simply from the perspective of the top leaders in the CPV and view it as a policy concocted by the Party bureaucracy to make more money. As the experience of Saigon in the late 80s demonstrates, nothing could be further from the truth.
Actually existing socialism finds itself within the confines of a world dominated by imperialism. After the Sino-Soviet split and the fall of the Soviet Union, the continued improvement of material conditions for the masses was compromised, and despite its best efforts, the state could not continue to provide services at the same level that they were before.
Ever the innovative animus of society, the masses pushed for many of these market reforms to meet their own needs directly. Women in particular led this charge in the late 80s, and the state respected their act of civil disobedience. This demonstrates the unity of class interests between the masses and the state, which are both oriented towards the working class in Vietnam. Therein is the essence of actually existing socialism.
‘Let A Thousand Flowers Blossom’: Protest & the Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Vietnam
The Right relies on the image of socialist countries as totalitarian to fuel its propaganda war against Marxism-Leninism. Even left anti-communists – most commonly in the form of Trotskyites and anarchists – frequently argue that existing socialist countries stifle dissent and that this makes them categorically not socialist.
Leaving aside the peculiar reading of socialism as a question of bourgeois civil rights, these criticisms have no basis in actual fact. Protest and criticism play an important role in actually existing socialism, albeit a role very different from that under capitalism. Nowhere is the vibrancy and dynamism of protest and criticism-self-criticism seen more prominently than in Vietnam.
In an article for Asia Sentinel called “Vietnam’s Not-So-Rare Protests,” reporter David Brown describes the frequent protests that take place in Vietnam on all manner of issues. He begins by quoting Article 69 and 79 of the Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which enshrine the right of the people to free speech and assembly, but also reinforce the demand of the people to enforce and obey the law. Protests are frequent in Vietnam, despite what the Left and Right detractors claim. Brown writes:
“Invariably AFP, Reuters and the Associated Press, etc. describe these demonstrations as “rare.” The wires are wrong. Though a recent informal poll of academic Vietnam specialists failed to turn up anyone who’s been keeping careful count, a consensus readily formed that public protests have become relatively common in Vietnam.”
The state has a dialectical understanding of these two constitutional articles that follows in the tradition of Mao Zedong’s “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People,” in which protests and demonstrations that emerge from real demands of the masses – rather than hopes of capitalist restoration and counter-revolutionary efforts – should be encouraged, promoted, and respected. Mao writes:
“People may ask, since Marxism is accepted as the guiding ideology by the majority of the people in our country, can it be criticized? Certainly it can. Marxism is scientific truth and fears no criticism. If it did, and if it could be overthrown by criticism, it would be worthless. In fact, aren’t the idealists criticizing Marxism every day and in every way? And those who harbour bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideas and do not wish to change — aren’t they also criticizing Marxism in every way? Marxists should not be afraid of criticism from any quarter. Quite the contrary, they need to temper and develop themselves and win new positions in the teeth of criticism and in the storm and stress of struggle. Fighting against wrong ideas is like being vaccinated — a man develops greater immunity from disease as a result of vaccination. Plants raised in hothouses are unlikely to be hardy. Carrying out the policy of letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend will not weaken, but strengthen, the leading position of Marxism in the ideological field.”
We find evidence of the CPV’s attitudes towards principled criticism and dissent by the country’s working masses in the Party’s recent announcement to consider legalizing same-sex marriage. The Vietnamese Justice Ministry announced plans to include same-sex marriage in a new marriage reform law proposed in July 2012, according to the Huffington Post. While this move has raised the cynical ire of Vietnamese ex-pats in the US, it comes in response to the growing gay rights movement in Vietnam and the re-evaluation of the gay question by Marxist-Leninist ruling parties all over the world. If this proposal becomes law, Vietnam will become the first socialist country and the first Asian country – and only the 12th country in the world – to fully legalize same-sex marriage.
Indeed, an AFP article from August 5, 2012, describes the first gay pride parade in Hanoi that followed the Justice Ministry’s announcement. Though small, the activists and organizers faced no repression from the state and feel tremendous support from Vietnamese society in publicly demonstrating for gay rights. We quote a brief excerpt from the article:
“The first gay pride parade in communist Vietnam took place in the capital Hanoi on Sunday with dozens of cyclists displaying balloons and rainbow flags streaming through the city’s streets.
Organised by the city’s small but growing Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community, the event went ahead peacefully with no attempt by police to stop the colourful convoy of about 100 activists despite their lack of official permission.
“There was no intervention which is a good thing for Vietnam,” said one of the organisers, Tam Nguyen.”
Whether or not same-sex marriage is legalized is still on the table, but the issue highlights the relationship between the Party and the masses. Protests that strengthen socialism and the position of the masses are allowed and supported.
However, the other side of this is the dealing of non-Marxist criticisms and dissent. In the same work, Mao writes, “What should our policy be towards non-Marxist ideas? As far as unmistakable counter-revolutionaries and saboteurs of the socialist cause are concerned, the matter is easy, we simply deprive them of their freedom of speech.” This is the protective function of the dictatorship of the proletariat – the class power of the workers to crush agents of imperialism, wreckers, and counter-revolutionaries.
Evidence of the dictatorship of the proletariat abounds in Vietnam. During a series of small-scale political dissent between 2006 and 2007, the Vietnamese state took measures to distinguish between criticism directed at improving socialism – in other words, criticism that came from a desire for unity – and criticism designed at undermining the workers’ power. Hayton writes:
“The events of 2006-7 seem to have generated a new modus vivendibetween the dissidents and the security forces. The dissidents who were arrested and jailed were not those who simply held dissident thoughts or even wrote about them online. They transgressed the Party’s limits of tolerance in much more significant ways – in particular by breaking its monopoly of political organisation with independent parties and trade unions. They were also involved at a much deeper level with activists based outside Vietnam, they took money from anti-communists overseas and they tried to take their message to the people in the offline world – in the universities, factories and streets of Vietnam.“
Indeed, the only protest and dissent that is dealt with harshly in Vietnam and repressed is that which is instigated from abroad for the purpose of undermining socialism. “Dissidents who did not do these things – the majority of signatories of the original Manifesto – may have been harassed or questioned by the police but they were not jailed,” according to Hayton.
This too follows along in the political tradition of Mao, who writes later in the same work:
“There are also a small number of individuals in our society who, flouting the public interest, wilfully break the law and commit crimes. They are apt to take advantage of our policies and distort them, and deliberately put forward unreasonable demands in order to incite the masses, or deliberately spread rumours to create trouble and disrupt public order. We do not propose to let these individuals have their way. On the contrary, proper legal action must be taken against them. Punishing them is the demand of the masses, and it would run counter to the popular will if they were not punished.”
The dissidents that receive the bulk of attention in the West are those who seek to restore capitalism in Vietnam, like the Bloc 8406 that gained notoriety in 2006. Hayton dedicates a substantial part of his book to describing the rise and fall of this so-called movement and why it failed to gain any substantial traction. Even liberal estimates put the Bloc’s membership at “around 2,000 open supporters within the country – about one in 40,000 of the Vietnamese population.” The US and European media praised this pathetic movement that lacked any mass base as a reform wave in the vein of Solidarity, which was the CIA front that overthrew the People’s Republic of Poland. Hayton dismisses the comparison on its face:
“Their [Bloc 8406's] idealistic comparisons with Poland and Solidarity were misplaced. In the 1980s, Poland’s economy was stagnant. Vietnam’s is growing; Solidarity had the backing of the Catholic Church but there is no equivalent mass support in Vietnam and the activists were not the same either – not so much shipyard trade unionists as capital-city lawyers. They didn’t have the same community roots. The parallels are less with Poland than with Czechoslovakia. The Czech dissident movement, the group known as Charter 77, comprised outspoken intellectuals who remained isolated and unknown by the mass of the population until the Party leadership finally cracked in 1989.”
Idealist leftists who attack Vietnam and other socialist countries often look to dissent movements as evidence of the state’s oppressive nature, but in doing so, they ignore the severe degree of isolation these dissidents face from the masses, who overwhelmingly support the Vietnamese government.
Furthermore, they ignore the blatantly imperialist, anti-socialist, and downright illegal practices and beliefs of these ‘opposition groups’. One of Bloc 8406′s ‘largest’ constituency groups was a small, bizarre faction mistakenly called the Vietnamese National Progressive Party (VNPP). Hayton describes their call for independent trade unions ‘opportunistic’ because their “interim platform had little to say on workers rights. Indeed, the only thing it had to say on economic matters was that it would ‘Re-establish and exercise the full and legitimate right of the Vietnamese People to private ownership,’ which suggests that it might have been more favorable to the interests of the owners of capital than to those of the proletariat.”
While not all protests and calls for reform are anti-communist and pro-imperialist in socialist countries, these groups are often organized and supported by the US and Western Europe to push a pro-capitalist agenda. That these groups only face repression when they actively organize is a testament to the level of dissent and debate allowed in a country like Vietnam. Hayton sums up the relationship between the Vietnamese state and the so-called dissident movements nicely:
“The authorities’ paranoia is not entirely misplaced. Various US-based zealots have periodically hatched hare-brained plans to instigate uprisings in Vietnam. Their plans have underestimated both the security forces’ degree of control and the allegiance the vast majority of Vietnamese have to their country. Most people are, in fact, relatively pleased with their improving lot and quite happy to be loyal citizens of the Socialist Republic.But from their [foreign-based dissidents] faraway vantage point, the exiles convince themselves that this must be the result of propaganda and that if only they could break its stranglehold on the media, the Communist Party would be overthrown.”
What many leftist critics cannot seem to grasp is that the masses rule in socialist countries like Vietnam. Like these out-of-touch foreign dissidents, they convince themselves that the propaganda they hear is correct and they focus purely on the cosmetic changes in Vietnamese society. Yes, there is a private sector. Yes, there is state repression of some dissent. But by failing to properly contextualize these facts, they obfuscate the real class nature of Vietnam, which is ruled by and oriented towards the working class.
What Does Actually Existing Socialism Mean for Socialists in the US?
Market socialism is imperfect and certainly unorthodox. Some may call it revisionist. The important point is to contextualize these shortcomings and flaws so we can understand where they come from. Actually existing socialism will always fall short of the socialist ideal because it is precisely that ideal implemented within the confines of reality. The objective conditions limit the subjective conditions that revolutionaries can create, and Vietnam’s objective conditions became a lot more difficult after 1991.
Nevertheless, socialism continues to exist and prosper in Vietnam. For the student of Marx, the defects and inequalities still present in Vietnamese society should trigger Marx’s own words in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, in which he describes the ‘lower’ stage of socialism:
“What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made — exactly what he gives to it.
But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.”
Vietnam was a colonized, oppressed nation that was forcibly partitioned by the Western imperialist powers. After its partition, the nation suffered a vicious onslaught by the US military over fifteen years, and against all odds, the Vietnamese people defeated imperialism. Beaten and battered, but not broken, the CPV led the nation forward out of multiple economic crises to establish a better, more democratic society ruled by the working class.
The reality of the fall of the Soviet Union, the continued impact of the Vietnam War (Agent Orange, in particular), and their encirclement by imperialist powers forced the Vietnamese revolution to make some tactical, strategic retreats into market reforms. With these reforms, Vietnam has maintained the structural integrity of class-based socialism and improved living conditions for its almost 88 million people.
For socialists in the US, defending Vietnamese socialism is very important. Vietnam represents continued defiance of imperialism, and it exists as a symbol of hope that another – better – world is possible. Although Vietnam remains a poor country and its example is not as dynamically inspirational as the USSR in the 1920s or China in the 1960s, socialists in the US should use the experience of Vietnam when explaining the positive aspects of government by and for workers, i.e. socialism.
At a time when trade unions in the US are facing extermination by right-wing state governors, corporate handouts are disguised as ‘health care reform’, and public education funding gets slashed to the bone, actually existing socialism in Vietnam provides a powerful what-if for workers to consider.
Long live the Vietnamese revolution!