Monday, January 03, 2011

Discussion with Leading Left Cadre on Socialist Orientation in Vietnam

Discussion with Tran Dac Loi on Socialist Orientation in Vietnam

By Michael Karadjis

This post is based on some ideas put forward by Tran Dac Loi during discussions I had with him in Hanoi in May 2007. Loi is the Executive Vice President of the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organisations, the General-Secretary of the Vietnam Peace and Development Foundation (whose president is Madame Nguyen Thi Binh), and a member of the Presidium of the Vietnam Peace Committee.

Loi wants this to be the beginning of a process in which we help each other elaborate our ideas on socialist orientation in underdeveloped countries, obviously in particular in Vietnam. He wants to produce material that can help the international left understand what is going on in Vietnam better, but more importantly, intelligent material from the international left, together with his own views and those of like-minded cadres, on the true nature of capitalism, presented in a way to be convincing to CPV members, many of who now have illusions in capitalism or permanent market economy.

At this preliminary stage, it is largely a matter of him speaking and me writing up, with my own suggestions, as he feels he needs someone to help express his thoughts more clearly. Below is only the first conversation, on the question of socialist orientation, in bare outline; we have also began one on capitalism, but intend to do much more, even if over email at present. Thus I am not submitting this as an exhaustive presentation of his views but as a work in progress.

In posting this, I am not necessarily indicating that I agree with everything he says, though overwhelmingly I do. It is on some of the political aspects related to socialist democracy and the single party that some of the disagreements are likely to arise, though he has not yet gone into any depth on this, and this should not be understood to mean that he is not very open on these issues (he is, but within a certain framework), or that western leftists should react dogmatically from our perceived framework either.

From here on are Loi’s words (mine in parentheses).

It has been said that:

“Capitalism is a system that has a mechanism but no ideal, while socialism has an ideal but no mechanism”

Which is more or less true, if we exclude the “old mechanism” of socialism, which we rejected with Doi Moi

Doi Moi is based on two key aspects:

1. Firstly, and very importantly, we re-stated that socialism is necessary

2. Secondly, we recognised that we had been applying a system of distribution that was beyond the capacities of the forces of production we possessed at the time (ie, the post-1975 period). We had free education, free health, free housing etc – all excellent socialist ideals – but in reality we did not have the capacity to fully implement them

At the same time, regarding the second point, Loi emphasizes that the incorrect “mechanism” being applied was only one of five major causes of the systemic crisis of the mid-1980s that led to Doi Moi. In order, the five causes of the crisis were:

1. The decades of war and destruction of the country, without any reparations, with millions of people affected by war-injuries, loss of family members, Agent Orange etc
2. International embargo (from the US, Europe, Asian countries, China, Australia etc) lasting until the end of the 1980s (except the US embargo, which lasted until 1994)
3. The Khmer Rouge, its murderous attacks on Vietnam from 1975 to 1978, leading to Vietnamese intervention for self-defense and also to save the Cambodian people from genocide, meaning hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese troops in Cambodia right throughout the 1980s
4. China, not only its 1979 invasion, but the continual threat, requiring some half a million troops being stationed on the northern border
5. The incorrect mechanism of applying socialism

Doi Moi represents a kind of ‘withdrawal’ but not from the road to socialism, just back from the voluntarist road, to the recognition that we are in a stage of transition to socialism, requiring among other things the building of the productive forces, which includes among other methods, the utilization of the market and the private sector, and integration with the capitalist-dominated world economy. But if that was all we did, it could just as easily be a transition to capitalism (as most western academic “transition theory” regards it to be) as a transition to socialism.

Therefore, socialist orientation is very important.

There are three main aspects to socialist orientation: economic, social and political.

The economic aspect is based on four main concepts:

1. The market is a tool, not an end in itself. How the tool is used depends on who is using it. This leads to the question of the political nature of the state. If the state mainly serves the interests of the corporations, the management of the market will take a different form.

2. The market has a double face. Our market economy should not be a “free market” economy. The so-called “free market” is based on the law of the jungle. The market must be regulated, and our system must combine the market with planning. Economic planning does not have to only mean the old form of planning that existed before 1986, Planning incorporates both planning from the ‘top’ and from the grass-roots, as well as being combined with use of the market. A capitalist market economy always tends to what is nowadays called neo-liberalism, that is, the pursuit of profit at all cost will, when other factors are not involved, tend towards the most naked forms of capitalism. Capitalism does not always take this form of course, but this is mainly due to the struggles of working people, which have won many rights in the more advanced capitalist countries, often at a very high cost. But in general, the tendency is towards neo-liberalism. A socialist-oriented market economy must have the opposite tendency.

3. In capitalism, the private sector is not only the major sector, it is the sector which is absolutely dominant, which dictates everything. In a socialist-oriented market economy, the importance and key role of the public economy is stressed. A state-owned company is a multi-purpose organisation. While it needs to pursue profit to survive and not depend on subsidies, it must not be led solely by the profit motivation, but also has a social role. For example, at times during the rice harvest, the private sector will refuse to buy farmers’ rice in order to drive down the price; by contrast, when world prices fell very low in 2000-2001, the state companies were obliged to buy up huge quantities of farmers’ rice at a floor price higher than the world market price. This was obviously not good for company profits, but had a huge social benefit for poor farmers.

4. A fourth overall concept is that during the transition period, it is necessary to utilize market and non-market elements in harmony, while at the same time conserving, consolidating and gradually expanding non-market spaces in the socio-economy. One very important aspect of this, which we have not yet been able to implement, is that there is a need for a non-market space for labour. When someone is unemployed, it does not mean he or she does not want to work; it also does not mean that society does not need his or her labour. On the contrary, there is a great deal of work that needs to be performed, such as cleaning up the environment, building houses for poor people etc. We need an expanded non-market space for the public sector to employ these people who are made unemployed by the market in order to carry out socially useful work. Therefore, the labour market should not rule in an absolute and undiluted form, and its exploitative nature can gradually be overcome. (MK: presumably, the problem to date is mostly finance – this will require significant public investment which the state does not yet have?)

All these aspects are being discussed in the party, and there is by no means agreement with all of the above; the discussion remains very intensive.

Secondly, the social aspect of social orientation is that economic development must be combined with social progress at every step of the way. We see this in practice with the very rapid rate of poverty reduction and the continually improving health and education indicators, though of course we still have a long way to go. If in the past we tried to move too rapidly towards certain goals, which were not attainable at the time, this does not mean these goals, such as universal free education and health care, are not still our ideals. We must move towards them as our economy permits. So for example, we currently have 43 million with free health cover – around 20 million covered by the Health care for the Poor, 9 million children under 6, 12 million covered by enterprise-paid workplace-based health insurance, and some smaller categories (heroic mothers etc), not including the 9.3 million who have bought cheap voluntary health insurance. However, the party currently has a perspective of increasing this free cover to 55 million by 2010, as well as trying to extend health insurance (ie, including voluntary cover) to the entire population by then. This would represent a very concrete application of this principle.

Thirdly, the political aspect of socialist orientation is based on the fact that socialism can only be built via a conscious process, which in this period requires stable leadership. The CPV can remain in that position of leadership as long as two main conditions are met: firstly, that it represents the wisdom and the conscience of the time (Lenin), and secondly, that its members are an example of wisdom and ethics (Ho).

The party is attempting to confront some of the more negative ideological effects of the market. One recent example is the current campaign to follow Ho Chi Minh. However, it is not that simple. For any party in power, and particularly when the only party in power, corruption is always a danger. The tendency of the present Politburo is to strengthen the relationship between the leadership and the base of the party. Among other things it has also regulated that no-one on the Politburo is to have a villa, and that the must all attached to their grass-roots constituencies. There is also more democracy in the National Assembly, with the way members are grilled publicly etc, plus there is the grass-roots democracy legislation, which has made a great impact, of course, depending on the area and other factors.

The mass organisations need to do more to re-connect to the masses. They play a great role, but there are many limitations. For example, the Youth Union is not connected to the exploited young workers in the industrial zones. In some cases, individual unions in factories support the bosses instead of the workers, though this is not the policy of the VGCL.

(MK: This was the end of the ‘three aspects’. WE then proceeded to discuss a couple more issues):

Chavez is not only important for Venezuela, and not only for Latin America, but for the whole world. There are some hesitations about fully committing to Chavez among some sections of the CPV. Part of this is due to his origins – some were concerned that he was not a Communist and not completely ideologically clear (though this has changed since the formation of the PSUV); and partly because in today’s context, some of his approaches are seen as too radical or even that he is an ‘adventurer’. However, from my point of view, I am completely committed to Chavez and believe Venezuela has enormous lessons for Vietnam: on the walls of my office, I have only three photos: Ho Chi Minh, Vo Nguyen Giap and Hugo Chavez.

Confusion of popular consciousness

Confusion of popular consciousness, including among many cadres, is caused by a number of factors:

1. The old socialist model corresponded to years of war, destruction, embargo and horrendous poverty. The old model also contributed to these problems, but it is seen as much worse than it may have been due to the other factors. By contrast, the period of Doi Moi has corresponded to peace, the end of the Cambodian conflict, the end of the embargo etc, and has corresponded to continually rising growth and affluence. Of course this is due to the more correct polices under Doi Moi, but again the context is better. Therefore, popular consciousness sees the new elements introduced since Doi Moi – the market and private sector – as purely responsible for this growth, and therefore has illusions that advancing further in the same direction – towards capitalism – can make things even better, an undialectical way of seeing things. This is the line currently being pushed by international development and lending agencies, which have recognised Vietnam’s exceptional social indicators (compared to countries of similar and in many cases higher economic level) and poverty reduction and claim this is all the work of the market. What they neglect is that all these other poor third world countries that Vietnam is being compared favourably with have never lacked markets or private sectors, and what is different about Vietnam is precisely the socialistic elements that are combined with the market elements.

2. Over the years, large numbers of cadres and other young professionals have gone to study overseas, or to conferences, training etc overseas, bringing a great deal of benefit to the country. However, when they go abroad, they only ever mix with the upper and upper-middle layers in the West. They do not get a full perspective on the lives of working class, poor, unemployed and homeless people, and often come back with a glowing picture of what capitalism can deliver.

3. In the post-Cold War period, imperialism has launched a huge ideological offensive, from the “end of history” to the “war on terror”, in combination with launching global neo-liberalism as the only way forward nations are allowed. “There is no alternative” (TINA) has been widely accepted by many following the collapse of the old socialist model. For Vietnam, this means being told to “take it or leave it” – for example, either join the WTO on the basis of the neo-liberal rules laid down, or be condemned to isolation.

‘The old model’

Capitalism does not have a stagnant fixed form (the problem is more that of ‘capitalist nature’). Even in capitalist countries, there are ‘elements of socialism’ (due to struggle etc). This is part of the proof of Marx’s vision that at the end of the day socialism will replace capitalism in highly developed countries.

The ‘old model of socialism’ (specifically in Vietnam), a centrally planned economy based mostly on state ownership and cooperatives, played an essential role during the rime of the liberation struggle. Firstly, it allowed the country to mobilise the resources for the struggle. Secondly, it provided social equity, equal care for all. Basically it was a model of war communism, and was effective and necessary for victory.

But continuing the model after the war was a mistake which was one factor leading to the socio-economic crisis of the late 1970s and 1980s.

The problems of the old model can be looked at in three aspects:

Firstly, the question of ownership.

We applied a highly socialised form of relations of production, based on a very low level of development and primitive character of the forces of production existing in Vietnam. This contradicted the Marxist view that they should be in relative conformity. Collectivised agriculture, for example, was implemented, though agriculture was still based on manual labour; when there is mechanization, there is an objective need to cooperate. Even barbers were put into cooperatives.

Secondly, management.

A centrally planned form of management was implemented, despite the fact that production was mostly very small scale and mostly based on agriculture, so therefore this was not a rational form of management. This limited the initiative from the bottom.

Thirdly, distribution.

Being eager to get rid of exploitation and achieve equality and social progress, we applied a system of distribution that was beyond the capacity of the forces of production. Therefore, no resources remained for investment, for economic development. In Vietnam’s circumstances at the time, this form of distribution erased material motivation for productive work, resulting in very low productivity. But Lenin said that at the end of the day, socialism must defeat capitalism due to higher labour productivity, because workers are not exploited, but that did not happen. Being an agricultural country, we were always short of food, we had to import rice; but when land was distributed from the collective to the household, in only two years the country became self-sufficient in rice.

Factors leading to this incorrect thinking after 1975:

1. The very success of this model in achieving its aims under war communism gave rise to the incorrect assumption that it could also be successful in normal times

2. The existence of the USSR – an industrialized socialist country that could help us – meant we thought we could attempt to progress to socialist forms more quickly than otherwise.

3. Pressure from the Soviet leadership: Soviet advisors pressured the CPV to put everyone onto collectives (MK: he has studied the archives on this question; it is an interesting point that it would be good to get more information about; it challenges our standard views that it was the Soviet bureaucracy always trying to “hold back” more revolutionary development in favour of reformist approaches – at least in the later 1970s, and specifically in Vietnam, there is a good case to be made that bureaucratic ultraleftism in national economic policy was pushed by the Soviets just as much as it had earlier been pushed by the Maoists)

4. Voluntarism

The issue of socialist management still needs to be studied in depth. Not only ownership, but also management and distribution systems are necessary aspects of correct application in order to progress towards socialism. The issue is how to make workers feel the state enterprises are ‘theirs’, are run in their interests, when they are not the owners; this is a management issue, of workers’ participation. The problem of the wrong way of thinking about this results in some people saying, since some SOEs are inefficient, therefore we must change the form of ownership, via equitisation and privatisation. But the problem may not be ownership, the problem is not state-ownership, the problem may be management and distribution.

Political aspects of the old model

In all ruling Communist Parties, the first generation, the founders, are the outstanding people, intellectually, morally, organizationally, they wee leaders who attracted people by their ideas and example. But it is very difficult to renew the leadership, and somehow we see the downgrading of the capabilities of leadership in the new generations. This is related to the issue of internal party democracy.

(Ends here obviously on what are very interesting issues that need elaboration)

To be continued.