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The peasant movement in Vietnam

 

 

 

 

The national movement in Vietnam had to wage a bitterer and more protracted struggle than anywhere else. This was probably due to the lack of a national bourgeoisie in Vietnam that could have led the movement in such a way that the world market system could have come to terms with Vietnamese self-government. The bourgeoisie was Chinese, which led to the movement being largely a matter for the peasants. Those who undertook to lead it were ”peasant students”, i.e peasant youths who had studied to become officials in the traditional way but had not found a place in the French colonial administration. They had gained their first experience in connection with a peasant uprising against increased taxes in 1936.

They got their first opportunity in connection with the collapse of the Japanese occupation in 1945. During the war they had built up a small-scale resistance movement – Viet Minh – and after the war they entered the political vacuum and proclaimed a Vietnamese republic and land reform. The latter would give them the wholehearted support of the peasants.

As soon as the French reorganized after their occupation, they drove out the Viet Minh government, re-established their colony, and annihilated land reform. But this did not only antagonize the peasants. After the fall of the colonial system in India, European rule in Asia was not seen as legitimate anywhere and it became increasingly impossible for the French administration to find anyone who wanted to support it. In 1954 it fell militarily and the Viet Minh formed a new government in Hanoi.

The rulers of the world market system now set out to establish a national Vietnamese government that showed respect for European investment. This was especially important in southern Vietnam, where the countryside was controlled by plantations that were to be destroyed by the land reform. In the beginning, they found willing hands among Vietnam’s few Catholics. But its social base was weak and it had to rule with terrorist methods that also antagonized groups that were critical of the Viet Minh, e.g. the Buddhists. In 1960, all these were gathered in the FNL, the purpose of which was democracy.

The backbone of the resistance, however, was the peasants who had not forgotten the annihilated land reform. These were organized by old Viet Minh activists who reorganized after 1960 through the FNL. In a short time, they succeeded in carrying out an unofficial land reform and pushing government representatives back to the cities. The government then demanded help from the US military by waving the communist specter, and their indiscriminate violence, linked to government corruption and dependence on foreign lords, provoked a popular uprising. In 1965, everyone expected a soon change of power. But then the US government lost its head and triggered the most violent war in history to save its own prestige.

How did the Vietnamese manage to survive? You can point to five factors:
- The Saigon government's non-existent social base and solid incompetence and corruption
- The farmers’ determination to protect the land they received through the land reform, whatever happened
- FNL / North Vietnam's ability to divert US firepower to uninhabited forest areas
- The old anti-colonial alliance, ie that the Russian and Chinese governments, remembered their own anti-colonial past and assisted with, for example, air defense
- The cost of war for the United States. By 1968, it had led to a massive flight of dollars that not only frightened USA’s Western European allies but also large sections of USA’s middle class.

After 1968, the only question was how the United States could withdraw from the war without losing face. But when this finally happened 1975, Vietnam was a devastated country, not least socially. Large parts of the population lived off begging and crime in slums and refugee camps. Against this, the military style the Vietnamese leadership had developed during the war did not help and the problem is largely unresolved even today.

Reading
Gabriel Kolko: Vietnam, anatomy of a war, Allen & Unwin 1986

 

 

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