“What choices confront revolutionary socialist movements immediately after they seize power?” – Research Paper
The twentieth century saw communism sweep through Russia, Eastern Europe and South East Asia. Communist parties fought their way to power using revolutionary means and most claimed to be based on the teachings of Karl Marx. It is a much debated topic as to how accurately socialist regimes have implemented the teachings of Marxism but this is not the concern of this
essay. The countries studied here all claim to be implementing Marxism and so his teachings will provide a starting point in determining what choices confront revolutionary socialist movements immediately after they seize power. Marx wrote that ‘the distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property.’ This belief forms one of the main choices that revolutionary socialist movements face; how to abolish bourgeois property which leads onto the question of how to deal with the defeated classes. The way that the South East Asian socialist states dealt with these two choices will be analysed here concluding that the choices faced by revolutionary socialist movements lie more in how to implement changes rather than what changes to make. All the countries examined here went through a process of land reform to abolish bourgeois property and then dealt with the defeated classes but they did it in different ways. These differences are caused by the domestic situation in each country.
Marx considered that private property in a capitalist society was ‘based on class antagonisms,’ and ‘on the exploitation of the many by the few.’ The road to communism would begin with one person recognising this situation and their own slavish and oppressed existence. Advanced communication would allow the proletariat to organise themselves into a national movement and then through a socialist revolution they would overthrow the bourgeoisie. ‘What the bourgeoisie therefore produces is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.’ Marx did not see his revolution happening for a long time, certainly not in pre-industrial Russia, China or Vietnam, because capitalism had first to create ‘a world after its own image’. Marx saw this image as a mainly urbanised population with centralised means of production, property concentrated into the hands of a few and a global spread of capitalism to uncivilised countries in order for them to survive. When the capitalist society produces too much wealth, ‘too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce,’ it will be unable to progress and will be ripe for a socialist revolution. The proletariat also had to go through a process of maturation, beginning with disorganised workers fighting against their factory owners, progressing through Trade Unions to a national organised class that will overthrow the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
Neither of these processes were allowed to develop in the South East Asian states, most of the countries had peasant based agrarian economies with little industrialisation. Also, capitalism was not as well developed in these countries as Marx had envisaged. Therefore, ‘rather than being an historical successor to capitalism, socialism became an historical substitute.’ This meant that there was not an easily identifiable bourgeoisie class whose property must be abolished once the Communists had seized power. However, oppression was still an issue in these countries, only it was in the form of colonial or invading powers. Vietnam had long been a French colony and once the communists had taken control of North Vietnam they used opposition to French rule to gain popular support for the party. The main choice faced by the Ho Chi Minh regime in North Vietnam immediately after the seizure of power was how to consolidate its power. The method they used was two-fold; first they needed to unite the people behind the party and second, they had to get rid of the French imperialists. As ‘Ho Chi Minh explained, “[A]t this moment we must unite the whole people … no distinction can be made between the old and the young, the rich and the poor; this is in order to safeguard our independence and fight the common enemy.”’ The domestic situation in North Vietnam necessitated, in a sense, the temporary redefinition of the main enemy of the Communists. This redefinition also changed the identity of the defeated class; it was not the landed bourgeoisie but the French imperialists. This was however, a tactical necessity as the party ‘had yet to consolidate fully their position of supremacy within the revolutionary movement, and they were not by themselves strong enough to effectively resist the return of the French.’ Nationalism helped to unite the people behind the party but unbeknownst to them Ho Chi Minh ‘had been personally negotiating with the French’ and on the 6th March 1946 signed an agreement whereby the French ‘recognised the Republic of Vietnam as a free state’. This agreement gave the regime time to consolidate its power.
Following this temporary departure from Marxism they then had to begin socialist construction. The regime had to decide ‘how to establish a system of production relations which combine socialist goals of co-operation, self-management and collective commitment on the one hand with micro-economic efficiency on the other.’ The party, therefore, set out a policy of land reform. Truong Chin, a member of the political bureau of the Vietnam Workers party, describes this process in his book Forward Along The Path Charted By K Marx:
‘In implementing land reform we applied different measures – confiscation, requisition, forced purchase and offer of land on the part of the landlords – depending on the political attitude of each of them. This was to divide the landlord class to the highest possible degree, to paralyse its resistance to a certain extent, and to win over landlords taking part in the resistance and their families.’
The land reform program was multi-faceted; it allowed the party to establish the views and mood of the peasants, it was used as a propaganda tool to convince the peasants that the Communists were working to improve their lives, and it identified any opposition. Teams of party cadre were sent into rural villages to perform the “three withs”, ‘(1) eat with the peasants, (2) live with the peasants, and (3) work with the peasants.’ This gave the party an intimate knowledge of the inhabitants of the villages and allowed them to educate the peasants in the ways of communism and convert them to the cause.
The Chinese Communist Party heavily influenced the Vietnamese land reform program, their objectives being the same, but the Chinese used a slightly different method. The Chinese used a system of classification of people into different classes, ‘everyone should be given a class designation through unanimous agreement – an agreement that should include the person being designated. Thus there would be a general feeling that justice had been done according to the terms of the land reform.’ This gave the peasants a practical demonstration of how communism and co-operation worked and would benefit them. The Chinese and Vietnamese land reform programs were relatively successful, particularly in their role of identifying opposition and winning over supporters among the peasantry.
The same cannot be said, however, for Laos. In Laos, the economy was very heavily reliant on agriculture as it made up some 65 percent of the GDP, and so the approach to collectivisation was intended to be incremental and on a voluntary basis in order to persuade the peasants that it was beneficial. ‘In practice, however, enthusiastic cadres pressured families into joining against their will.’ The party’s tactics did not convince the peasants and as a result there were many who were emphatically opposed to co-operativisation, some taking extreme measure such as ‘destruction of crops and slaughter of cattle … and even migration to Thailand.’ The peasants feared that the communists would abolish all property and they would lose land that they had hoped to hand down to their children. The land reform program here, with regard to opposition elements, had the opposite effect in that it strengthened the resistance movement and brought into question the authority of the government. Martine Stuart-Fox puts this down to a lack of ‘qualified cadres [meaning] that such fears were inadequately addressed.’
The nature of land reform brings to the fore the next choice that faces revolutionary socialist movements following the seizure of power: what is to be done with the defeated class? One of the main weapons used in dissuading opposition from surfacing was terror. Stalin’s great purges instilled a terror into the people that ensured that whatever their views they quietly made the best of their situation. In rural Vietnam a form of purge took place concurrently to the land reform program. Public denunciations were used to deal with the defeated landlord class in what were termed People’s Courts. These “trials” were very carefully stage-managed; the accused were made to stand on a lower level than the rest of the court to create the effect of raising the peasants above their oppressors and members of the land reform teams were placed within the audience to instigate heckling. The judge would ask the audience to determine whether the accused was guilty, to which the cadre would begin to chant ‘Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!’ and then they would shout ‘Death!’ when asked what sentence to pass. These trials also had a double-edged effect; on the one hand they had a liberating effect on the peasants but on the other they allowed the party to stamp out the landlord class and potential sources of opposition, at the same time publicly demonstrating what could happen to opponents of the regime.
Mao Tse Tung wrote; ‘to put it bluntly, it is necessary to create terror for a while in every rural area, or otherwise it would be impossible to suppress the activities of the counter-revolutionaries in the countryside or to overthrow the authority of the gentry. Proper limits need to be exceeded in order to right a wrong, or else the wrong cannot be righted.’ Despite this rather violent statement China had a very interesting way of dealing with the capitalists in the cities, where the party were faced with a dilemma. On the one hand good communists would nationalise all industry eliminating the capitalists, but on the other hand, the CCP did not have any experience or knowledge of how to run industry. Gordon White points out that ‘all socialist societies are bent on eventual, and hopefully rapid, industrialisation,’ therefore, the communists would be cutting off their nose to spite their face if they mismanaged industry leading to economic crisis. The Chinese adopted a dual policy of ‘uniting with, while at the same time restricting’ the capitalists. This involved allowing them to continue working, thereby capitalising on their knowledge and experience, and at the same time empowering and organising the workers so they could control working conditions and pay. ‘Thus over half the industry of Shanghai, which by itself accounted for something of the order of half the industrial production of China south of the Great Wall, remained under private enterprise.’ This produced a hybrid version of socialism that had elements of capitalism within it but the workers were ultimately in charge. This system worked well for the Chinese Communists as it ensured that the knowledge and expertise of the defeated capitalists was used to the full and it gave the workers a heightened role in policy formation in the factories.
This examination of the choices that confront revolutionary socialist movements immediately after they seize power has shown that a pattern has developed. Once the communists have taken power they must first consolidate their position. In the case of Vietnam this meant fighting the colonial French and ensuring that Vietnam was recognised as independent by the French. Gordon White points out that ‘the link between revolutionary socialism and national liberation struggles also helps explain the basic features of the post-revolutionary scene. Without exception, socialist ideology is merged with a fervent nationalism. This is clearly a positive force in so far as it bolsters national sovereignty against external threats and penetration.’ This task is largely unrelated to socialism but it is imperative that the party are fully in control of their territory before they begin to implement any socialist objectives.
When they take power, these revolutionary movements are not in the state that Marx would have expected, they are not an organised proletarian force that have overpowered a fully developed capitalist society. Therefore, the first socialist choice that confronts them is how to emancipate the peasants and convert them to the socialist cause. In the states examined here this has been implemented through a program of land reform, which was designed to, promote the communist cause by educating the peasants, install a collectivised economic structure and keep an ear to the ground listening out for both support and opposition. The ways in which the land reforms were implemented has differed, as noted above, and has had varying degrees of success.
The release of the peasants from their oppressors then raises the question of what to do with the defeated classes. China saw the advantages of working alongside the capitalists, whilst Vietnam eliminated those landlords that could not be re-educated. The reasons for this difference is that the North Vietnamese economy was devastated when Ho Chi Minh took control and was very agrarian based, whereas China had a small industrial base with which to work.
It is therefore clear that a consideration of the choices confronting revolutionary socialist movements immediately after their seizure of power cannot be confined to the writings of Marx or the study of one state. The choices are not so much in what course of action to take but rather, what method to use. Marx did not expect to see the revolution in his lifetime but foresaw a series of social upheavals, the first of which was the Paris Commune in 1848, which would bring about the revolution. However one must remember that Marx’s aim was to provoke thought and inform the proletariat of their fate in the hope of inspiring the revolution. The revolutionary leaders in China, Vietnam and Laos all believed in the essential element of the freeing of the proletariat from bourgeois exploitation and the necessity of a revolution. But they were also opportunists and brought about revolutions in countries that Marx had not foreseen revolutions being possible. It is for this reason that they cannot immediately go forward along the path charted by K Marx. The domestic situations in their countries necessitate revision of Marx’s work and the choices they face vary from country to country.
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