Why did Ho Chi Minh turn to Communism?

The purpose of this paper is to answer how and why did Vietnamese revolutionaries such as Ho Chi Minh adopt Communism to shape the nationalist movement for independence, and furthermore, what the key turning points were in this process. This paper will demonstrate that multiple factors influenced the rise of Communism in Vietnam. First this paper will look at how Ho Chi Minh’s early education and exposure to Socialist and Communist ideas in the early 1920s to late 1930s contributed to his personal ideology. A second point that will be discussed is the neglect and lack of support from Western governments, such as the US and France, towards Vietnamese independence movements and how this pushed Ho Chi Minh to adopt Communism as his principle ideology. Third, this paper will look at the increased antagonization against revolutionaries in Vietnam and against Communists more broadly. This created an “Us vs. Them” mentality that solidified Ho Chi Minh and the revolutionaries’ Communist ideologies. Their inherent social and military successes were then fused with Communism and this contributed to the ideology being adopted by normal populations in Vietnam. Lastly additional points will contribute to understanding Communisms growth in Vietnam such as the historical social context within Vietnam for socialist models, and the similarities of thought with Communism and Confucianism. Together, these points will develop a clear understanding as to how and why the Vietnamese revolutionaries adopted Communism in their nationalist quest for independence.

This paper will not go over the history of Vietnam, or of French/Japanese colonialism, but rather will focus on how Communism became adopted as the guiding ideology for a nationalist movement for independence. Foundational to this understanding is Ho Chi Minh’s early education and exposure. Ho went to France in the early 1900s to study in a formal Western education system. It was in France where he began to deeply immerse himself into concepts such as Socialism, anti-colonialism, Marxism, and ideas of self-determination and independence.1 Education both formal but also through differing groups organizational meetings in Paris and Moscow were crucially important to Ho’s theoretical foundation. In the early 1920s in France Ho joined the French Socialist Party, the first major turning point in the ultimate shift to Communism.2 It is very evident his exposure to Socialist and Communist ideas profoundly influenced his personal ideology. We can see this in the way he borrows concepts and discourses from other Communist theorists such as Lenin. An example includes an article he wrote called “Colonial Policy” in which he heavily referenced Lenin’s “Theses on National and Colonial Questions.”3 Ho learned from these ideas and they were the theoretical foundation for his opposition to colonialism and imperialism. When Ho was sick in the hospital in 1921 he wrote an article titled “La Reavue Communiste” where he criticized French socialists for doing little to promote Communist revolutions in colonies. This article was much more aggressive in tone than some of his previous writings. He was furious with French occupation, he considered the occupiers to be imperialist capitalists and militantly supported a socialist uprising in Indochina.4 Furthermore, his experiences in Moscow, beginning in 1922, also undoubtedly influenced him. He attended the Communist International meetings and became heavily involved with the Comintern. In 1925 he joined up with an Algerian Communist named Massali Hadj and created a magazine titled “La Paria” which focused on anti-colonial and pro-communist ideas.5 Furthermore, from Lenin’s work he was able to learn profound ideas about the nature of colonialism and revolution. Lenin’s work explains that colonialism and the struggle for independence was part of the universal struggle of workers against the owners of Capitalism.6 These concepts and ideas played a key role into Ho’s adoption of Communism. Ho’s experiences in France and Moscow gave him a strong theoretical foundation to understanding Communism and Socialism, he learned what it was, how it worked, what its benefits were, and how the concepts can be used in his foremost struggle, the liberation of Vietnam.

Versailles_1919

It is clear that Ho’s experiences in France and in Russia were the first key turning points to Vietnamese revolutionaries becoming Communist. His education and exposure to new ideas, and his joining of committees and political groups, greatly affected his personal ideology. The next point to explore then, is why Communism became the revolutionaries’ dominant ideology; education and exposure alone would not be sufficient to explain this movement. What really set the stage for Ho and others to adopt Communism was set off by Western countries such as the US and France ignoring him and ignoring his calls for self-determination and independence. The first real experience of this was during the Versailles Conference following the First World War in 1919. Part of the Versailles Conference was to increase the independence of colonies, to lead to more self-determination, and to hear the voices of many nations; Ho Chi Minh created a petition and argued for the self-determination of Vietnam but was largely ignored.7 In this period Ho became very disillusioned with the West. He found that many Western leaders didn’t care about Indochina, or didn’t even know where it was.8 France at this point was still the colonial controller of Indochina; resistance to France was present almost from the onset of French rule in 1862.9 Ho wanted the ideas of liberty and independence that he learned from the US and France for his own people in Vietnam. The Western powers, by ignoring his claims and upholding the colonial system denying self-determination to the Vietnamese people, deeply alienated and disillusioned Ho Chi Minh. Where Ho Chi Minh saw potential progress, was in the new ideas of Socialism and Communism. On September 20 1919 the Chinese Newspaper “Yishibao” published an interview with Ho Chi Minh in which Ho states that “besides the demarches I have made to members of parliament, I have tried to gather support form all over. The Socialist Party has shown itself to be unhappy with Government actions and has willingly given us its support. This is our only hope in France.”10 He referenced the success of Korea gaining world attention and argued that “we need to make a lot of noise in order to become known.”11 From this period onward Ho Chi Minh would give up on using the West as a means to independence in Indochina and focus his energies on Communism and a socialist revolution where he saw more potential.

The already oppositional framework against France was obvious in Indochina due to their colonial presence. This however strengthened Ho Chi Minh’s push for revolutionary actions. This paper argues that the key reason that Communism, and groups like the Indochina Communist Party (ICP) which formed in Hong Kong with Comintern influence in 193012, were able to grab hold so powerfully in Indochina was not simply due to an inherent ideology within Communism. Rather it was due to the success that Ho Chi Minh and other revolutionaries were able to solidify the idea that the socialist revolution and the Vietnamese national independence were the same movement. Kim Khanh Huynh further argues that the reason the Communist movement was so effective at growing was because it became fused with the anti-imperialist movements.13 Ho Chi Minh was under constant pressure to hide his identity and run from French authorities. The French government began to establish themselves as an oppositional figure against him, and since Ho and his party the Vietminh began to represent not only socialism, but more importantly the independence movement, this made any action against him only embolden his imagine and strengthen his cause.14 He was also arrested in China in 1931 with attempts made to jail him for any illegal actions committed by the Comintern; Ho increasingly viewed any of the colonial powers as opposition, their hostile responses to him only further radicalized his ideas.15

5125184846_fe6a8a2f34_o

Ho Chi Minh was both a nationalist and a Communist. His people’s anti-imperial goals were his first priority, Communism and a socialist revolution was how Ho saw this goal as ultimately possible. Ho’s ICP stated two goals for its organization, first a national democratic revolution, then secondly a socialist revolution.16 Ho was cautious in using Marxist language when in Indochina, he did not want to alienate pure nationalists; his low-key Communism attracted many non-Communist nationalists and strengthened his party and movement.17 Many in Indo-China viewed the Viet Minh as “the only representation of the national movement for independence.”18 By the First Indochina War, SarDesai argues, the Communists were established as the leading positive force within Vietnam, the Communists were the ones who were going to win independence for the Vietnamese people.19 What transpired was a nationalist revolution guided by Communist leaders who wanted both independence, but also a socialist society in the end. Ho Chi Minh and the revolutionaries were the answer the Vietnamese people were looking for, a solution which would end imperialism, would end colonialism, would end feudalism, and would create a new society with the principles of self-determination. Communism grew in Vietnam differently than it had in the West, where a more genuine industrial class struggle guided the movement. In Vietnam it was more so the energy of the “anti-colonial patriotic movement and the anti-feudal peasant movement” which ultimately were the determinative causes of revolution and dissent.20 Following the Second World War and the fall of Japan, Vietnam became established as an independent entity. The Viet Minh took Hanoi as a nationalist victory with Ho Chi Minh as the leader.21 Ho delivered a speech that really encapsulated the complexity of his movement; he used American notions of independence, in a nationalist speech, won by a Communist party.22

Vo_Nguyen_Giap,_Vietminh_forces,_1944

A final discussion needs to be held to understand in what ways did the Vietnamese people adopt Communism, and why potentially the transition and adoption was so easy. Ultimately, two different considerations demonstrate ways in which Communism could be transferred to the already existing system; first by having similarities to the already operating social structures, and secondly to its ideological similarities to Confucianism. Ho actually argued Asia had a deep desire for reform and that Socialism could do this. He referenced an ancient Chinese practice called “equal field” or “jing tian” in which farmlands were divided into equal parts with separate plots for common ownership. He argued there was a history of communal living and shared resource systems and this would help the socialist revolution.23 Huynh also identifies many communal factors within Vietnamese villages that could have aided to the adoption of Communist ideas. Examples include shared spaces of ancestral worship, as well as in villages where specialized crafts were the focus of production many worshiped a so-called “first master.” There was huge emphasis on communal living, respect of craft and of labour. These concepts can easily lend themselves towards Communist land reforms and agriculture sharing, as well as to the strength of communal villages and labour forces.24 Communism asked of the Vietnamese people to structure their lives in ways many were already accustomed to, such as communal farming, and with new promises such as self-determination, free press, and prosperity. A tangible example of a Communist project that could easily be supported by Vietnamese farmers and peasants was the rural land reform projects which looked to strip away feudal systems and recreate more communal agricultural initiatives.25 These were grievances already in existence, and the new Communist party in theory offered the necessary solutions, for these reasons Communism was more easily adopted by revolutionaries and also by the greater population. Furthermore, the worldwide economic depression in this period also contributed to grievances and problems for peasants and villagers, and a group such as the Viet Minh offering a solution and assisting in times of hunger and economic trouble were bound to gain popular support.26

Confucianism also likely played a key factor in the adoption of Communism. Historians such as Alexander Woodside and William Dukier argue that within Confucianism there existed many similar attributes and ideas that mirrored the new Communism. Dukier claims that Confucian teachings can easily be read under Communist interpretations.27 An example is when Confucius wrote “One need not fear of having a little, but of not having equal distribution of goods.”28 Furthermore, Confucianism and Communism both have an emphasis upon the totality of human beings, social connections, dislike of individualism, and a common humanist opposition to religious mysticism which made it more easily develop in a Vietnamese society in comparison to an Islamic or Christian one.29 A Communist leader and a wise Confucian elder can be viewed as similar in the sense that they are both governed by idealism and are rulers who are representative of the people’s collective struggle; they live with a code of elite ideal behavior.30

                  A common competing argument for why Communism spread in Vietnam was due to a centralized structure in Moscow funding and forcefully implementing its ideas onto a vulnerable Vietnam. This was one of the principle arguments during the US invasion. This paper dismisses that argument due to its simplicity and disregard for the social and historical factors contributing to the rise and adoption of Communism which this paper has demonstrated are numerous, and complex.

In conclusion, the reason that Communism was adopted by revolutionaries in Vietnam and especially by Ho Chi Minh is due to multiple factors. First that Ho himself was deeply educated in the West, learning about independence and self determination, but more importantly being educated in Marxist/Leninist teachings, and being involved in Socialist committees and groups which shaped his personal ideology and led Ho to incorporate ideas of a social revolution into the already existing anti-imperialist nationalist movements. The second factor leading to the adoption of Communism is the Western states, primarily Woodrow Wilson from the US and from France more broadly, completely ignoring Ho’s petitions and grievances turning him away and leading him deeper into the Socialist and Communist communities where he was accepted, encouraged, and his ideas further nurtured. Third, the constant pressure on him from French and Chinese colonial officials on Ho and the Viet Minh more generally created and “Us vs. Them” mentality in which the Communist party became the leading party of the revolution, not due to its Communist ideology, but due to it being the foremost leading party capable, interested, and known to be leading a nationalist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, anti-feudalist movement. Lastly, Communism was adopted due to the existing social structures already in place which made the transition more desirable and relatable. Communal land sharing, similar idealist structures, and similarities between Communism and Confucianism created a relatable and transferring ideological structure which aided the rise and growth of Communism.

By Daniel Govedar (2015)

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End Notes

  1. Fischer, Ruth. 1954. “Ho Chi Minh: Disciplined Communist”. Foreign Affairs 33 (1). Council on Foreign Relations: Pg. 87
  2. Ibid
  3. Quinn-Judge, Sophie. “Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years 1919-1941.” University of California Press. 2002. Pg. 31
  4. Duiker, William J. “Ho Chi Minh: A Life.” Hachette Books. 2012. Pg. 42
  5. Fischer, Ruth. Pg. 88
  6. Anderson, David L. “Vietnam War.” Palgrave Macmillian Ltd. 2005. Pg. 9
  7. SarDesai, D R. Southeast Asia : Past and Present. Boulder: Westview Press. 2012. Pg. 167
  8. Quinn-Judge, Sophie. Pg. 28
  9. SarDesai, D R. Pg. 166
  10. Quinn-Judge, Sophie. Pg. 19
  11. Quinn-Judge, Sophie. Pg. 29
  12. Duncanson, Dennis J. 1974. “Ho-chi-minh in Hong Kong, 1931-32”. The China Quarterly, no. 57. Cambridge University Press: Pg. 84
  13. Huynh, Kim Khanh. “Vietnamese Communism, 1925-1945.” Cornell University Press. 1986. Pg. 20
  14. Quinn-Judge, Sophie. Pg. 30
  15. Duncanson, Dennis J. Pg. 89
  16. Steibel, Gerald L. 1972. “Communist Expansion in Indochina: Part One. The First Indochina War and After”. Southeast Asian Perspectives, no. 6. Taylor & Francis, Ltd.: Pg. 37
  17. Ibid
  18. Fischer, Ruth. Pg. 94
  19. SarDesai, D R. Pg. 171
  20. Huynh, Kim Khanh. Pg. 23
  21. SarDesai, D R. Pg. 169
  22. Minh, Ho Chi. “Selected Works  3. – Declaration of Independence for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.” Foreign Languages Publishing House. 1960–62.
  23. Duiker, William J. Pg. 43
  24. Huynh, Kim Khanh. Pg. 31
  25. Woodside, Alexander. 1989. “History, Structure, and Revolution in Vietnam”.International Political Science Review / Revue Internationale De Science Politique10 (2). Sage Publications, Ltd.: Pg. 154
  26. Anderson, David L. Pg. 10
  27. Duiker, William J. Pg. 43
  28. Ibid
  29. Woodside, Alexander. Pg. 125
  30. Ibid

Work Cited

Anderson, David L. “Vietnam War.” Palgrave Macmillian Ltd. 2005.

Duncanson, Dennis J. 1974. “Ho-chi-minh in Hong Kong, 1931-32”. The China Quarterly, no. 57. Cambridge University Press: 84–100. http://www.jstor.org/stable/652230.

Duiker, William J. “Ho Chi Minh: A Life.” Hachette Books. 2012.

Fischer, Ruth. 1954. “Ho Chi Minh: Disciplined Communist”. Foreign Affairs 33 (1). Council on Foreign Relations: 86–97. doi:10.2307/20031077.

Huynh, Kim Khanh. “Vietnamese Communism, 1925-1945.” Cornell University Press. 1986.

Minh, Ho Chi. “Selected Works Vol. 3. – Declaration of Independence for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.” Foreign Languages Publishing House. 1960–62.

Quinn-Judge, Sophie. “Ho Chi Minh: The Missing Years 1919-1941.” University of California Press. 2002.

SarDesai, D R. Southeast Asia : Past and Present. Boulder: Westview Press. 2012. http://MCMU.eblib.com/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=991067

Steibel, Gerald L. 1972. “Communist Expansion in Indochina: Part One. The First Indochina War and After”. Southeast Asian Perspectives, no. 6. Taylor & Francis, Ltd.: 35–59.

Woodside, Alexander. 1989. “History, Structure, and Revolution in Vietnam”.International Political Science Review / Revue Internationale De Science Politique 10 (2). Sage Publications, Ltd.: 143

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