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Marxism After Ho Chi Minh

Reading Marx and Marxist theory has always produced a mixture of excitement and discomfort.
Viet Thanh Nguyen

Issue #45, October 1999

Reading Marx and Marxist theory has always produced a mixture of excitement and discomfort, and this, I dare say, is a healthy reaction. The roots of my attraction to and discomfort with Marxism are found in my family's history. In 1954, as Viet Nam was about to be partitioned along the 17th parallel, my parents, devout Vietnamese Catholic peasants who had never finished the equivalent of high school, fled from the north, fearing religious persecution as much as economic deprivation. In the south, with no education and little capital, they started their own business, and through hard work and good luck they became in succession tailors, merchants, auto dealers, and jewelers. If they lived in the United States, we would call their adventure the successful pursuit of the American Dream. The ongoing war would provide my parents with the unlucky opportunity to discover that dream.

In 1975, as the south collapsed under northern invasion, they had to flee one more time, leaving almost everything behind. Their hard work and good fortune were again compounded with more luck, disguised as near-tragedy. On the eve of the invasion, my father went to Saigon with enough gold to buy a house. My mother, brother and I in stayed behind in our hometown of Ban Me Thuot — a town famous for its coffee and the first town captured in the 1975 invasion of the south. Without my father, my mother made the difficult decision to flee town with me and my brother, leaving our adopted sister behind to take care of business. My mother somehow managed to take us to Saigon and onto a barge, while my father decided on his own that he, too, would jump on a ship. Many families were separated for decades as a consequence of decisions made in those fateful days, but we were reunited by accident days later, on a ship in the South China Sea; we were reunited except for my adopted sister, whom I have not seen to this day. My family's story of dislocation and hardship is all too common and forms the bedrock of anger against communism in Vietnamese communities overseas.

I grew up in San Jose, California, in a concentration of Vietnamese refugees that was strongly, even violently, anti-communist. I lived within this anti-communist environment that was compounded by a deep familial obligation, filial piety, and Catholic guilt. Spoken and unspoken gestures of the sacrifice of the parents for the children, along with my Catholic elementary and Jesuit prep-school education, constantly reminded us of our divinely-sanctioned good fortune. The combination of traditional small-business, immigrant-family capitalism with devout Catholicism did not bode well for an individual drawn to Marxism. Yet, Marxism has always been an ideology for rebels from the middle class. My disaffection from middle-class values had something to do with the familiar constrictions of an immigrant's life — the fact that my parents, who were working constantly to secure our family's future, ironically had little time left for me. My estrangement stemmed partially from my atheism, which arose despite (or perhaps because of) all my Catholic education. And if anyone has spent time in San Jose, they will also understand that it is the embodiment of a suburban America bent on work and leisure, with little inclination to foster countercultures, artists, radicals, world travelers — or so it seemed to me as a teenager struggling to define my angst.

When my parents warned me about the communist proselytizers at Berkeley, they had more to be concerned about than they realized. It wasn't the Socialist Workers' Party they needed to worry about, however. I received my first doses of Marxism in Asian American Studies, through a Gramscian analysis of race, class, and American history. This initiation was soon to be supplemented by Marxist-influenced studies of ethnic and postcolonial literature in the English Department; not exactly a hotbed of Marxism, but there were a couple of avowed Marxists and those few who dabbled. The materialist analysis of ethnic studies filtered to the undergraduate political types, who without any self-consciousness resurrected the rhetoric of the United Front in order to secure minority faculty tenure and multicultural curricula. We had ourselves arrested in the name of diversity, and we called ourselves people of color and organized "new social movements" based on race and progressive interests that challenged the university. We were, however, unaware of the contradictions between a fast-growing multiculturalist agenda and the Marxist-based Ethnic Studies classes that helped politicize us.

ho For a brief moment in my undergraduate life, it seemed as if my dreams of youthful rebellion were coming true, through an intellectual awakening whose ramifications I scarcely understood, and through political practice whose contradictions escaped me. The road that led to this moment was highly personal, as is everyone's who comes to grapple with Marxism. Indeed, Marxism is an ideology that is both highly personal and impersonal, and there lies the inescapable moment of truth for anyone who wishes to study it and profess it. On the one hand, most people who come to Marxism, regardless of whether they are good human beings or not, earnestly seek an answer to pressing questions concerning economic inequality and social injustice. Marxism's seduction lies in its ability to provide total answers; even Marxist theories that refuse the teleological destination of an end to History nevertheless form a consensual platform against capitalism. Marxism is thus highly personal in its ability to harness these emotional energies we bring to it, the passionate questions that allow us to build bridges between theory and practice, even in the rarefied world of the academy. Marxism is also highly impersonal, as is any ideology: human beings count only in the abstract, only in their status as members of classes and ideological positions. How does anyone reconcile their theory with the possible reality that one day their family and friends may be taken out and shot, or taken away and imprisoned because they belong to the wrong class?

While Marxists after Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot have struggled to answer such a question, their results have not been satisfactory to me. My discomfort stems not only from an inherent distrust of anything that provides all the answers, but also from my family and communal history. Marxism's fraught history should make the experience of reading it and using it difficult for anyone. In the historical example of Viet Nam, the devastation wreaked upon the economy, culture, and society after 1975 was partially due to an American embargo, but also due to Vietnamese economic policy. The human weaknesses that led to corruption, discrimination, and persecution in Viet Nam are pervasive and latent in all societies, and certainly manifest themselves in capitalist, democratic nations; nevertheless, corruption, discrimination, and persecution have served capitalist methods and designs much more ably than they have communist goals. In capitalism, corruption, discrimination, and persecution produces profits, at least some of which benefit the middle class and, arguably, the poor. In communism, only the Party benefits. Marxist apologists may argue that Viet Nam never had a chance to properly develop its economy due to the twenty-year US embargo, but this is essentially an idealist defense. If certain conditions could be realized, then communism may prosper. It's better to consider that the military-industrial complex of capitalism is far better suited than communism, both to wage wars and run profitable economies, which were mutually interdependent in the Cold War.

From the perspective of historical hindsight, we may say that capitalism has not yet run its course (which was the precondition, according to Marx, for a successful, international communist revolution). The legacy of communist efforts in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, and Viet Nam to fuel the International revolution leaves me in severe doubt about the ability of Marxism to provide a blueprint for the post-capitalist future and the operation of state, culture, and economy. Marxism has proven to be an effective tool in terms of addressing the ability of capitalism to exploit and reify; in short, Marxism remains more useful and convincing as a negative critique than as a positive program. The power of Marxism's critique, along with its consequences, make working and living with it a practice of discomfort.

Yet, it should not be a discomfort that compels disbelief, once we consider that Marxism is not the only doctrine that believes in the gun as a final solution. Living in a society bombarded with capitalist values, assumptions, and history, it becomes easy to forget the ways in which capitalism also counts human beings only in the abstract, only in their status as members of classes and ideological positions. The examples are many: slavery, colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy, industrialism, and current U.S. migrant labor practices. The body count of capitalism is high; capitalism is just as willing as communism to take people out and shoot them when it comes to the bottom line. Keeping this in mind puts Marxism's errors in perspective. In the end, Marxism is simply a tool we use to shape an unknowable future — a potentially sharp tool — and one of the only tools that has the necessary imagination to confront capitalism's global sweep.

Viet Thanh Nguyen is an Assistant Professor of English and Asian American Studies at USC. He has an article on race, violence and the Chinese American novel forthcoming in American Literary History and has had another article on Vietnamese autobiography published in positions: east asia cultures critique. He is working on a book concerning the representation of the body in Asian American literature since the 19th century. He welcomes you to contact him by e-mail.

Copyright © 1999 by Viet Thanh Nguyen. All rights reserved.