Title: From Colonialism to Communism
Author: Hoang Van Chi
Hoang Van Chi (1964). From Colonialism to Communism by Hoang Van Chi. New York: Praeger
Date Updated: February 16, 2017
From Colonialism to Communism is a study of the so-called Land Reform campaign in North Vietnam, written by Hoang Van Chi, a member of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (an anti-Communist group). The author had originally supported the Viet Minh, when this movement had been an alliance between Communists and nationalists. As North Vietnam was turned into a Communist one party state, Hoang became disaffected and eventually left for South Vietnam. Despite being critical of Diem’s unpopular regime in Saigon, Hoang seems to have supported it to the bitter end.
Published in 1964, this book is still considered a classic. About half of the book deals with Vietnam’s modern history, with special emphasis on the nationalists and Communists. The other half is the main one, and deals with the Land Reform campaign in the Communist-controlled areas of North Vietnam between 1953 and 1956. The Land Reform was inspired by a similar policy in Mao’s China, and carried out under close supervision by Chinese advisors.
The book speaks for itself, but a few things stand out. One is that Vietnamese village communities were more egalitarian than Chinese ones. About 20% of Vietnamese land was communally held, in some areas as much as 40% or even 70%. It’s therefore not clear whether a radical “land reform” was needed at all at the village level. Most of the people targeted by the land reform weren’t landlords or even rich peasants, but middle peasants wrongly classified, probably deliberately so. Most of the real landlords affected had loyally supported the Vietminh and the Communist regime against the French. Very often, the Land Reform campaign was used to purge the Communist Party itself. In another typical move, people exempted from the “land reform” during the early phases of the campaign were targeted at a later occasion. All peasants, including poor ones, paid exorbitant taxes to the state, and (ironically) poor peasants who had received more land thanks to the reform got their taxes raised as well.
Hoang argues that the actual amount of land or animals redistributed from landlords or rich peasants to poor peasants must have been relatively modest. It’s also unclear how much of the confiscated land really belonged to landlords and kulaks in the first place. Apparently, the Communist regime confiscated the communal land, pretending it was controlled by landlords, and then graciously parceling it out to poor peasants (who were already using it).
The Land Reform campaign was accompanied by mass terror, executions, political “re-education courses” and ritualized “denunciation meetings”, which often had a downright cultic character. In 1956, the campaign came to a sudden halt, perhaps under the impact of Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization in the Soviet Union. Instead, the Communist Party embarked on a “rectification campaign”, during which it admitted that serious errors had been made. The author has mined a trove of valuable information from these later admissions. Of course, not everything was “rectified”. A number of peasant uprisings were suppressed by the army and critical intellectuals jailed. The already achieved collectivization of the countryside was left in place, with the returning “landlords” often finding their homes destroyed and their furniture or animals sold off. A piquant problem was the return of many purged Communist Party cadres, who now had to negotiate an uneasy truce with their replacements, who often refused to “rectify” themselves.
The real point of the Land Reform campaign, according to Hoang, wasn’t to redistribute property or money in the countryside. This could have been carried out by purely administrative means. As already mentioned, the actual redistribution was probably much smaller than the regime claimed. Rather, the Party wanted to clear the way for a complete collectivization of everyone’s property (including that of the poor and middle peasants). In order to accomplish this, a wave of terror had to be unleashed in the countryside, in order to destroy the traditional loyalties of the peasant communities, turning people against each other. By instilling fear and resentment in the population, the Party could increase its control over civil society. Another purpose was to make the Party more “proletarian” by purging members with an unsuitable social background (many members were former landlords, sons of landlords, or educated intellectuals). These were replaced by people of peasant stock, often backed up by pardoned thugs and hooligans. The “proletarianization” of the party went hand in hand with its turn from a policy of broad alliances with non-Communist forces to fight the French, to a more exclusive Communist outlook. The author even believes that the campaign to rectify errors was, at least to some extent, part of the original plan. After years of terror, order had to be restored in the villages, but (of course) an order on a new basis, with the collectivized property forms kept intact. Thus, the Land Reform served narrowly political purposes, not strictly economic ones.
While I don’t share the author’s support for the regime of South Vietnam, I nevertheless consider From Colonialism to Communism to be a useful, interesting and somewhat disturbing study of Mao-Stalinist praxis. The fact that it was published under aegis of the CIA makes one wonder about its real purpose.