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Ian H. Birchall

The Vietnamese Road to State Capitalism

(June 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.89, June 1976, pp.12-13.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

In the late sixties the struggle for national liberation by the Vietnamese people had a profound impact on political developments around the world. It divided the ruling class of the United States and caused a deep social crisis in the heartland of imperialism. In Europe the anti-war movement brought thousands upon thousands of students and young workers towards revolutionary politics.

It is now just a year since US imperialism was finally and ig-nominiously ejected from Indochina, and the puppet regimes of Thieu and Lon Nol were overthrown. There has been relatively little discussion on the left of the experience of the new regimes [1]; presumably most people on the British left believe that South Vietnam and Cambodia [2] are either workers’ states or in some sort of transition to socialism.

During the struggle against the war in Vietnam, the International Socialists were often criticised for casting doubt on the socialist content of the liberation struggle. As an editorial in this journal [3] put it:

‘However, to say that the NLF is a genuine popular movement is not to say that the NLF – much less the developed regime of the North – is either socialist, or will lead to socialism, or is no more than the authentic embodiment of the aspirations of the workers and peasants of Vietnam ... in almost all countries of the third world today the radical drive is towards state ownership, and it is the attempt to create a state-class, not a private or bourgeois class, that is spearheaded by the NLF and has already been instituted in the North. The aim is, however, the same: capital accumulation to build an independent nation-state.’

This position was elaborated within the framework of a more general theoretical view. [4] Very briefly, this argues that world capitalism forms a single, interconnected whole. Within this system, the backward countries become increasingly dependent on the advanced, and poorer and poorer in relation to them. Since capitalism is a world system, the working class can come to power even in a backward country where it forms a small minority of the population. But in most backward countries since the Second World War, the potential revolutionary role of the working class has not been realised (for a variety of reasons, notably the political misleadership of the Communist Parties). The peasantry cannot substitute for it, because by its nature it does not pose collective solutions to the problems of society. (Crudely, peasants on an estate see their salvation in dividing the land up among themselves; workers on an assembly line can’t divide it up, they can only collectively appropriate it). The vacuum is filled by a nationalist, state capitalist leadership. Sometimes such leaderships – for example Mao or Castro – pay lipservice to the working class but in fact come to power without any intervention by workers. But the state of world capitalism makes it increasingly impossible for such regimes to achieve the industrialisation necessary for development. Their vain efforts to develop drive them to exploit workers more and more, thus opening up new social conflicts. The regime in Vietnam is still young, still picking up the pieces after one of the most brutal wars in history. Nonetheless, what evidence exists suggests that this analysis is valid for Vietnam.

The International Context

The Vietnamese fought, and won, a military struggle against imperialism. But imperialism as an economic system survives, and the newly independent Vietnam seems to be prepared to live with it. (North Vietnam, which allows the Italian state company ENI to explore for offshore oil [5], has done so for some time). People close to the new Saigon government are said to regard the relationship between France and Algeria (that is, the neo-colonial relationship established after Algeria won political independence) as a ‘good model’ for South Vietnam’s own relations with France. [6] The French Renault company is establishing a bicycle components plant in North Vietnam. [7]

French and Japanese imperialisms both saw possibilities as soon as the US withdrew. The New York Times [8] reported:

‘In business circles generally, hope was expressed that Japanese industry could play a role in the economic reconstruction of South Vietnam.’

Clearly Japanese capitalists did not see the liberation of South Vietnam as having removed it irrevocably from the orbit of imperialism. In October 1975 Japanese businessmen visited South Vietnam for the first time since the fall of the Thieu regime and a fisheries deal was concluded. [9] This was paralleled by increasing trade between Japan and North Vietnam.

Sections of American capitalism, too, would like to make a fresh start in Vietnam. In July a Vice-President of the Bank of America spent a week in Hanoi discussing trade [10], and in December it was reported that certain American Chambers of Commerce were urging the US government not to obstruct access to the potential market in Vietnam. [11] On 12 April the North Vietnamese paper Nhan Dan published an article praising commercial quarters in the US which wanted good relations with Vietnam, and criticising Ford and Kissinger for obstructing them. [12]

The other alternative for Vietnam is closer economic links with Russia and China. Here there are two problems – the exploitative nature of Russia’s normal relations with its satellites, and the dangers of being used as a military pawn in the Sino-Soviet dispute. The Vietnamese have always been careful to stay unaligned in the Sino-Soviet dispute and get what they can from both sides.

The option to co-exist with imperialism necessarily imposes limits on Vietnamese foreign policy. Hanoi and Saigon support progressive causes at a safe distance, such as the MPLA and the Polisario Front. But on Asian questions they are more cautious, for example supporting Mrs Gandhi’s emergency measures in India. [13] The real test between proletarian internationalism and peaceful coexistence will come with the growing workers’ struggles in Thailand.

Class Forces

The second Vietnam war, after the Geneva agreements of 1954, began as a war about land. The Diem regime established in the South began to restore peasants’ land to the old landlord. It was only the brutality of the Southern regime, and subsequently US intervention, which brought North Vietnam rather reluctantly into the struggle. As a result, it was always the peasantry which provided the main dynamic of the struggle. The war was waged in the countryside, and, following the pattern of China in 1949, the towns were encircled and taken from the outside.

In 1945, when the Japanese were defeated, there was a real possibility that the Vietnamese working class could spearhead the struggle. But the Vietnamese Communist Party held back the workers, and murdered the Trotskyists who might have given them leadership. [14] From this point onwards the Vietnamese struggle was always fought on the basis of a ‘class alliance’. The National Liberation Front programme of 1967 called for ‘unity of all social strata’. The working class as such played a relatively minor role in the liberation, and no efforts were made to mobilise workers for specifically proletarian forms of struggle. When liberation forces captured Saigon Radio on 30 April, one of the first messages they broadcast was an appeal to workers to return to work the next day. [15]

The call for class collaboration continues after the overthrow of the Thieu regime. The official theory insists that while North Vietnam is ‘socialist’, the South is still simply ‘democratic’, though it is hard to see what such a distinction will mean when the two states are reunited. For the time being, private capitalists who support national reconstruction are allowed to carry on in South Vietnam. Last July, at the Congress of the National Liberation Front, an appeal was made to workers ‘in the interest of the people and in their own interest, to unite with the employers to build an independent and sovereign economy’. [16]

There are two reasons why such a class collaboration policy has some plausibility in the short run. Firstly, the Thieu regime was so corrupt, and the American aggression so nakedly brutal that a call for the alliance of all classes could succeed. Secondly, the American occupation so distorted South Vietnamese society that the working class proper forms only a tiny part of the urban population. Saigon, its population swollen from one to three millions, inherited from Thieu 200,000 prostitutes, 150,000 drug addicts, 200,000 police, 300,000 orphans, and half a million defeated soldiers. [17]

Since workers will have to play a key role in ‘national reconstruction’, efforts will be made to win their support for the regime. But in the longer term, reconstruction can take place only at their expense, and class conflict will inevitably reemerge. In North Vietnam, there are already reports of go-slow actions by miners in the Hong-Gai coalfields, which produce coal for export, in support of demands for more and better food. [18]

Economic Tasks

The economfc problems confronting the new regime in South Vietnam are formidable ones. There is a massive task of reconstruction after the enormous damage caused by the war. South Vietnamese industry is heavily dependent on imports for energy and raw materials. The heritage of the corrupt and decadent Thieu regime means a chronic shortage of technically trained personnel. Hence a continued emphasis on productivity at all costs.

Yet at the same time one of the major problems facing South Vietnam is unemployment. It is estimated that the country has some three million unemployed out of a total population of eighteen million. [19] One solution proposed is to make the urban population move out to the countryside; it is aimed to persuade one third of Saigon’s three million population to leave the city this year. [20]

Unemployment is accompanied by inflation. Various measures have been taken to control it – price-fixing, threats against speculators – but these cannot solve the fundamental cause, which is shortage of basic commodities including food.

The economic crisis in South Vietnam poses the problem in its starkest terms. The new rulers of South Vietnam may be humane, sincere and idealistic, genuinely committed to the construction of a socialist society. But the tasks they have to carry out in order that the society may simply survive, let alone begin to develop, mean raising productivity and engineering massive movements of population. The burden will fall on the workers and peasants of South Vietnam. More and more their needs and aspirations as workers and as human beings will come into conflict with the norms imposed by the logic of the economic system.

Political Structures

For Marxists, the smashing of the state machine and its total replacement is an essential part of any revolutionary process. In Vietnam, there is no doubt that the corrupt edifice of the Thieu state was well and truly demolished. It was replaced by a military body established on 30 April; and in January of this year a new civil authority was set up. Although some bureaucrats from the old regime have been integrated into the new structure, most have been put through a massive ‘re-education’ scheme.

But the key question here is not the smashing of the old state, but the class nature of the new state power. The basic form of political control in liberated South Vietnam is the committee structure that has been built up.

‘First, last summer, came the formation of the "solidarity cells", groups of 10 neighbouring households who now constitute the smallest administrative and social unit. In scores of meetings, these cells elected officials, tried them out for short periods, and then re-elected or replaced them until they arrived at some kind of stability. Such committees do not, apparently, confine themselves to routine tasks like street cleaning. They have a participatory and exhortative role and spend much time discussing public affairs ... One such committee in Saigon, for instance, decided on rice handouts for needy families within the group, persuaded an army officer who had not registered to do so, and discussed at length a case of habitual drunkenness.’ [21]

These committees clearly play a crucial role in administering the life of the country in a period of difficulty. But it is important to be clear as to the nature of these committees. They were established from above by the military authorities [22], and they are clearly heavily influenced by the ten thousand cadres sent from the North after the liberation. [23] And their responsibility for detailed and local issues does not mean that they play any role in establishing the overall targets and priorities of the society. In short, they have nothing in common with authentic workers’ councils or Soviets.

Up to the present, the main source of opposition to the regime has come from some small-scale armed attacks by supporters of the old regime. These have been quickly dealt with, not least because few people have any desire to return to the old set-up. At the same time a regime is being established which combines centralised authority with an element of participation. When opposition begins to emerge from different quarters, it will be ready to deal with it.


About Cambodia much less can be said, since part of the strategy of the new rulers is to isolate Cambodia from the rest of the world, so that most information is second-hand and based on rumour; clearly many of the more lurid reports have been quite deliberately fabricated.

What does seem clear is that one of the first measures taken by the new regime was the forced, immediate and total evacuation of Phnom Penh. The situation in Phnom Penh was similar to that already described in Saigon, of a swollen parasitic population. Nonetheless, the methods applied were bureaucratic ones with not a trace of working-class democracy. Other even more radical economic measures have been imposed. Conscript labour is moved around the country to where it is needed; money has been virtually abolished, and barter is widespread. [24] Clearly the new leaders find themselves forced to give overwhelming priority to agriculture in order to provide minimal subsistence for the population.

The intellectual leaders of the ‘Red Khmers’ have now broken with Sihanouk, who for a while was useful to them, and established complete dominance. The new Constitution provides for an Assembly of 150 peasants, 50 workers, 50 soldiers. But within the framework of an economic strategy already established, it is clear that such an Assembly will not exercise any real power.

The ‘Red Khmer’ strategy of an agricultural economy requires the isolation of Cambodia, a Stalinist Shangri-La which opts out of the pressures of a world economy. But this cannot succeed. Already last October the Cambodian leaders made a trade deal with Thailand, and attempts to keep the frontiers hermetically sealed have failed.

As a result, the original strategy of abandoning industry has been partially dropped. Some reports say that workers who were forced out of Phnom Penh last April, were brought back in the autumn to work the rubber and textile factories, and to show government officials how to operate the machines. [25] One report claims that twenty-seven workers from a textile mill in Battambang were executed in January. [26]


‘Create two, three, many Vietnams,’ declared Che Guevara. The victory in Vietnam has been an inspiration to millions of workers and peasants around the world. It has shown that the military might of the greatest power on earth can be defeated.

But it is one thing to be inspired, another to follow an example. The possibilities for a nationalist, state capitalist regime in a backward country to achieve development get less and less. China itself is now going deeper into political crisis; and Vietnam will not be able to achieve even what China has achieved.

At the same time, in many backward countries – Thailand, Egypt, etc. – the working class is beginning to go forward on a class basis. Not only does Vietnam seek to coexist with the repressive rulers of Thailand, but it offers no model of working class democracy which could inspire Thai workers. The victory in Vietnam marks the end, not the beginning, of an era.


1. Symptomatically, neither London’s best-known left-wing bookshop nor one of the main Maoist bookshops was able to offer any literature on post-liberation Vietnam. Nor was it possible to obtain material from the London Embassy of liberated South Vietnam. In the absence of such literature I have had to rely largely on bourgeois sources. The most informative of these, Le Monde, while clearly reflecting the interests of French imperialism, was sympathetic to the Vietnamese liberation struggle, and has published a number of favourable reports from liberated Vietnam.

2. I have not attempted to deal with the question of Laos, where the Patriotic Front established control of the whole country by August 1975. Developments in Laos clearly need to be understood in the peculiar context of Laotian traditions and political history. (For the record, I do not believe Laos to be a ‘workers’ state’.)

3. IS 32, Spring 1968, published at the time of the second big Grosvenor Square demo.

4. As developed by Tony Cliff in Permanent Revolution (IS 61) and by Nigel Harris in innumerable articles, many of them collected in India China (Vikas Publishing House, 1974).

5. The Economist, 19 July 1975.

6. Le Monde, 25 June 1975.

7. Le Monde, 9 December 1975.

8. 2 May 1975.

9. Intercontinental Press, 24 November 1975.

10. Le Monde, 20-21 July 1975.

11. Le Monde, 25 December 1975.

12. Le Monde, 14 April 1975.

13. The Guardian, 23 September 1975.

14. Cf. I.H. Birchall, Workers Against the Monolith, pp 35-36, and the account by a Vietnamese militant in Solidarity, Vol.5, No.5.

15. Le Monde, 2 May 1975.

16. Le Monde, 20 August 1975.

17. Le Monde, 9 October 1975.

18. Le Monde, 3 January 1976.

19. Intercontinental Press, 5 April 1976.

20. The Guardian, 28 January 1976.

21. The Guardian, 6 April 1976.

22. Le Monde, 14 May 1975.

23. Le Monde, 3 January 1976.

24. Le Monde, 17 February 1976.

25. Intercontinental Press, 9 February 1976.

26. Le Monde, 18 February 1976.

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