Learn more about the Sixties Project.Recent additions to the Sixties Project site.Visit the Sixties Project Bookstore.Information about the SIXTIES-L discussion list.Information about the Sixties Generations conference.Explore the resources on the Sixties Project site.Reviews of books from and about the Sixties.Add your own story about the Sixties to our archive!Poetry from and about the Sixties.Our archive of primary documents from the Sixties.Special exhibitions on the Sixties Project site.A full map of the Sixties Project Web Site.Search the Sixties Project Site by keyword.

Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
The Viet Nam Generation Big Book

Volume 5 Number 1-4
March 1994

Texts made available by the Sixties Project, are generally copyrighted by the Author or by Viet Nam Generation, Inc., all rights reserved. These texts may be used, printed, and archived in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of U.S. Copyright law. These texts may not be archived, printed, or redistributed in any form for a fee, without the consent of the copyright holder. This notice must accompany any redistribution of the text. A few of the texts we publish are in the public domain. For information on a specific text, contact Kalí Tal. The Sixties Project, sponsored by Viet Nam Generation Inc. and the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, is dedicated to using electronic resources to provide routes of collaboration and make available primary and secondary sources for researchers, students, teachers, writers and librarians interested in the 1960s.

Reaction, Revolution and Radicalism, Part II

Tony Williams, Cinema and Photography, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

One important area necessitating familiarity and investigation is the relatively unknown (for most of us) terrain of pre-World War II Vietnamese history. Usually treated cursorily in most works, the early years of colonial domination appear as a prelude to the eventual victory of Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese Marxist-Leninism. However, Viet Nam had a history of social and cultural struggle before Ho's eventual dominance. Like the world of the pre-October Russian Revolution there were other competing movements present. Hue-Tam Ho Tai's Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution is a welcome work presenting the reader with crucial information concerning little-known struggles in the 20s and 30s so crucial to the evolution of modern Vietnam. These involved strikes, revolts against the patriarchal family, debates on female emancipation, and enquiries into alternative strategies to replace the bankrupt Confucian ideal. Written by a female Vietnamese Harvard professor making astute use of literary sources, archival materials in the Bibliotheque Nationale, and family memoirs, a fascinating picture emerges of the complex ferment of ideas usually overlooked in most studies concentrating on the eventual communist victory.

During the 1920s and 1930s radicalism formed the major oppositional force to both French colonialism and native accommodation to that rule. Ho-Tai reveals the particular Vietnamese texture to this movement. It arose from the combined national and personal concerns of young patriots mixing the political with the personal. Although associated with contemporary yearnings of urban and Western educated youth for personal and national freedom, Vietnamese radicalism had historical antecedents. "They can be summed up in the traditional literary trope which pits talent (tai) against destiny (mang). Every Vietnamese is familiar with the lines from the nineteenth-century classic, the Tale of Kieu:

One hundred years; in this life span on earth
Destiny and talent are apt to feud" (1-2).

Activists understood strategic parallels between struggles for national independence and emancipation from oppressive traditional social institutions. These involved important pre-Marxist movements which formed crucial background components to the later successful revolutionary strategy. A particular form of Social Darwinism colored the movement, more bleak than its Western counterpart, seeing cultural traditions engaged in a desperate race for survival against a dominant colonial power. Viewing the accommodation of Confucianist representatives to their new masters, these early twentieth century radicals sought to define a new Vietnamese identity mixing the best of Western learning with the positive aspects of national culture. In this search, old negative traditional ideas of family oppression and outdated social values needed opposition and rejection no matter how deeply rooted they were within national identity. Tai notes that the outcome was uncertain, a factor resulting in the eventual success of the more assured Marxist model. "Amid the vagaries of revolutionary life, the Marxist promise of certain victory must have seemed irresistible. In the meantime, the Leninist party balanced iron discipline with comradely warmth, and acted as a substitute for the despised patriarchal family" (5). Tai's work is scrupulously researched, well-documented, and affording the reader important glimpses into this little known chapter of Vietnamese history. Although Ho Chi Minh (known as Nguyen Ai Quoc and other pseudonyms) appears as an actor in this historical study), we learn that he was one of a number of figures in this era, often overshadowed by now forgotten figures within Tai's appropriately named chapter two "Different Roads to Freedom," such as non-Marxist activists Phan Boi Chau and Nguyen Ai Ninh. The former actually was the first modern Vietnamese intellectual to discuss women's role in society viewing women "primarily as effective anticolonial warriors whose services it would be foolish to sacrifice to traditional notions of feminine decorum" (95). As Tai's third chapter, "Daughters of Annam" reveals, the legacy of the Trung sisters was by no means absent in an era debating the 20s significance of the New Woman ideal. Examining contemporary literary representations, particularly the journal Southern Wind, Tai shows the revealing nature of radical contests against traditional family morality and the French regime's efforts to "put the family metaphor at the service of colonial rule" making the first attempts at revolution "vitally necessary to emancipate women along with the nation" (113). It was a revolt involving Tai's own aunt Nguyen Trung Nguyet, whose mug-shot she found in the archives of the French Surete, revealing to the author "the marriage of feminism and anticolonialism within the Vietnamese Revolution" (88-89) appropriately blurring personal and national concerns.

Political radicalism and cultural iconoclasm often united as in the 1926 protests and strikes, characterized by formerly apolitical youths, the product of educational reforms ironically introduced by Sarrault, gave students a taste of Western culture resulting in challenges against parental and traditional mandarin authority. Expelled from schools, these prodigal children often had little choice but to leave the country, travelling to France and discovering political and cultural worlds which would feed into important strands of national struggle. These involved introduction to competing brands of thought, libertarian, anarchist, and socialist, at a time when the eventual victory of the last could not be foreseen. Tai's fourth chapter, "Organizing Revolution" offers a fascinating picture of the various personalities and doctrines in competition within this era, as well as the growing development of Nguyen Ai Quoc and his 1927 pamphlet, The Road to Revolution. At the same time important debates occurred over the "Feminization of Revolution" concerning female roles in the journal Youth between its male editors and female readers. While the former were "less concerned with the issue of male domination than with the problem of persuading women to unite with them in the anticolonial struggle" the latter were engaged in questioning oppressive relationships necessitating "restructuring of gender roles and a redistribution of familial obligations and authority" (213).

The 1920s era was certainly one of intense debate and intellectual ferment, often forgotten due to the eventual Marxist ideological victory in the 1930s. This movement won because of its promise of hope for the future sidestepping the difficult bourgeois democratic revolutionary issues offering tentative hopes but problematic calamities in the 1920s. Class issues became dominant especially in debates over female emancipation between progressive heirs of the 1920s radical tradition and Marxists. Gender relations and domestic exploitation became subordinate to classical Marxist economic definitions (244). As Tai points out, the Party's attempt to recruit women could not really succeed unless the issue of domestic exploitation received sufficient emphasis. Also, progressive fictional writers also needed to address women's roles beyond the immediate family context. However, as individualistic and experimental movements leading to the more organized phase of the Vietnamese Revolution, they were nonetheless valuable.

"Yet, for all the limitations of their approach, it is possible to argue that, by exposing the evils of the `family system' and familism, the radicals of the 1920s and the progressives of the 1930s succeeded in stripping the family of the accommodationist connotations that neoconservatives and colonial officials had foisted on it.... Filial piety no longer need signify blind obedience to one's elders or the selfish pursuit of family interests; it was more reasoned and noble and could serve as the wellspring of patriotism. And the literary romanticization of revolution, however devoid of real substance, helped restore sympathy for the revolutionary enterprise among a middle class that had been shaken by the mass protests. This renewed sympathy made it possible for the rhetoric of kinship to recover its former resonance and to be put, finally, in the service of revolution" (254).

It was thus possible for "Uncle" Ho to combine piety and patriotism in his speeches during August 1945 to a newly liberated Hanoi. As Tai documents, the 1920s and 1930s were really a period of great turmoil and complexity in the history of Viet Nam. The radicalism she describes had little relationship with the more successful Marxist doctrine. However, its dominant concerns are more relevant to a future Viet Nam than the economic neocolonialism LeBoutillier hails in Viet Nam Now. Together with Schalk's valuable historical survey in War and the Ivory Tower: Algeria and Vietnam, Ho-Tai's work reveals the important lessons of the past from both progressive tradition in West and East awaiting future reapplication than the devious traps of LeBoutillier and Nixon. Hopefully, they will characterize a future Viet Nam.

"By emphasizing the importance of class at the expense of the individual, Marxism-Leninism brushed aside the humanist concerns--in particular the desire for personal freedom and moral autonomy as distinct from social justice, equality or political independence--that had brought so many young Vietnamese into revolutionary politics.... Some of the dominant concerns of the 1920s, including personal self-realization and the emancipation of the individual from the tyranny of the group and from ideological conformity, thus remain unaddressed. Because of the continued lack of interest in these issues, radicalism remains more than a transition from scholarly patriotism to revolutionary communism for Vietnam: it represents the unrealized ideals, the unfinished agenda of the Vietnamese Revolution" (262-263).

Back to Contents page.

Updated Thursday, January 28, 1999

This site designed by New Word Order.