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  • A World Transformed: The Politics of Culture in Revolutionary Vietnam, 1945–1965
  • Carl Thayer
Kim N. B. Ninh, A World Transformed: The Politics of Culture in Revolutionary Vietnam 1945–1965. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. 317 pp.

Western, and more particularly American, views of the nature of Vietnam's Communist revolution have been shaped by the writings of Paul Mus, Nguyen Khac Vien, and Frances FitzGerald. These three scholars have been influential in promoting the argument [End Page 177] that the Communists triumphed largely by tapping Vietnamese traditions. Mus, for example, argued that the Communists had assumed the Confucian mandate of heaven. Vien, in an influential essay published in English in 1974, argued that Confucianism and Marxism were essentially similar in their moral outlook. As for FitzGerald, Kim Ninh writes that her "overarching use of the concept of the mandate of heaven [in her best-selling book Fire in the Lake] essentially embalmed modern Vietnamese nationalism" (p. 5). Le Duan, the first secretary (and later general secretary) of the Vietnamese Workers' Party popularized the slogan that "the nation and socialism are one," thus setting the seal of party orthodoxy on this issue.

Ninh terms these views the "continuity thesis," by which she means "the tendency to attribute Vietnamese success in repelling foreign domination largely to the traditional strengths of a country that possessed an ancient civilization and a strong sense of national identity" (p. 238). A World Transformed challenges the "continuity thesis" by exhaustively examining the politics of culture and state-intellectual relations in the two decades following Vietnam's declaration of independence. Ninh argues that the "continuity thesis" ignores major transformations during the colonial period. "My concern," she writes, "is that the pervasiveness of the continuity thesis has unwillingly engendered a static view of revolutionary politics in Vietnam, ignoring its radical and modern dimensions" (p. 6).

Ninh's conception of revolutionary politics includes the interaction of both ideology and structure in the creation of Vietnam's post-revolutionary state. A World Transformed is divided into two parts, each focusing on a distinct historical period. Part one covers the 1945-1954 period, when the politics of culture was conducted at the same time that protracted armed resistance was under way against French colonialism. Part two considers developments from 1955 to 1965, the early years of Vietnamese Communist attempts to construct Southeast Asia's first socialist state.

During the War of Resistance (1946-1954), Vietnam's Communist leaders sought to shape cultural policy along Marxist lines and win over the intellectual class to their anti-French united front. A key role was played by the party ideologue Truong Chinh, who penned the "Theses on Culture" in 1943 and "Marxism and the Issue of Vietnamese Culture" in 1948. Both of these tracts borrowed from earlier writings by Mao Zedong. Ninh argues that the "Theses on Culture" negatively defined Vietnamese culture "as being against the nation, against science, and against the people" (p. 34).

Truong Chinh's 1948 report, delivered at the Second National Conference on Culture, had a decisive impact on later events. He argued that culture (including literature and art) could not be neutral or objective in a society undergoing class struggle. Culture, in his view, was a tool held by the party to advance its ideological objectives, and Vietnam's intellectuals were expected to accept this principle. Responsibility for winning over Vietnam's intellectuals was left to the Cultural Association for National Salvation, a component of the united front. Once again Vietnam's popular cultural heritage and traditions were attacked as backward.

Vietnamese intellectuals, who widely supported the goal of gaining national independence, were uneasy about the party's heavy-handed views on culture. A well-known [End Page 178] painter, To Ngoc Van, was one of those who dissented, arguing that not all art should be considered propaganda. The party responded by pressing its class struggle line and tightening its grip over intellectual activities.

A turning point was reached at the Conference of Debate convened by the Association of Art and Literature in the remote Viet Bac area in September 1949. Thereafter, the party took a commanding role in determining the ideological content, literary and...