Sad Days for Vietnam
It has been a sad time for Vietnamese civil society since the Formosa disaster and the protests that followed it in 2016. There has been an increasingly harsh crackdown on dissent and those who dared to defy the regime’s violation of human rights and authoritarian governance. Mother Mushroom was sent into exile in 2018; prominent journalist and activist Pham Doan Trang was arrested in 2020 and is currently awaiting trial; Nguyen Thuy Hanh, who had been running a private charity fund to support the families of prisoners of conscience, was also arrested a year later; and an entire family who had fought in land disputes against the government were also imprisoned. The list goes on.
As a political scientist, I try to observe and make sense of the patterns of these arrests. My thoughts are often centered around “red capitalists” who are behind land-grab cases, intra-Party politics and its effect on activists, or the need of the authoritarian regime to reinforce its rule by using fear.
However, reading the news these days about the trial of the Clean Newspaper (Bao Sach) group and everything else going on, I was struck by a picture of a mother of one of those who were convicted; it reminded me of Antonio Gramsci’s letter to his own mother in 1928 and made me recall how I became a student of Gramsci’s thought.
I realised that Gramsci’s letter and his inspiring life were essential in my decision to devote myself to the cause of democracy in Vietnam, just as much as was the anguish in the faces of Vietnamese mothers as they watch their sons and daughters be taken away by the state.
Figure 1. Picture posted on the Facebook page of Khanh Nguyen, with accompanying text about 'the trial of those who were devoted to a free press'
Antonio Gramsci: a Revolutionary and Thinker
Antonio Gramsci was born on the island of Sardinia, in the south of Italy, in 1891 – around the same time as Vietnam’s Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh. His early life was marked by economic hardship and poor health. These factors influenced his decision to enter revolutionary politics with a dream of making Italy a better place for poor farmers and workers.
His career in activism started when he was a student in Turin, an industrial city in northern Italy. He went on to become an organiser and an educator in workers’ councils, a collaborator in the newspaper L’Avanti and editor of L’Ordine Nouvo, and finally, a leader in his political party representing the interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie and its repressive government. Gramsci’s heart and spirit can be read through his letter to his wife in 1924:
The rebellious instinct which, when I was a child, was directed against the rich because I was unable to pursue my studies – I, who obtained a 10 in all subjects in elementary school – whereas the sons of the butcher, the pharmacist, the shopkeeper all went to school well-dressed. That rebellious instinct grew against all the rich people who oppressed the peasants of Sardinia; and at that time I thought that it was necessary to struggle for the national independence of the region: "Drive the mainlanders to the sea!" How many times did I repeat those words! Then I came to know the working class of an industrial city and I understood the real meaning of those things of Marx's that I had first read out of intellectual curiosity. Thus I became passionate about life, the struggle, the working class.
Gramsci is known for his thought on cultural hegemony and civil society. In his theory of cultural hegemony, one would find a diagnosis of the problems faced by the Italian working class, the revolution Gramsci wished to see, as well as a prescription for what needed to be done. For Gramsci, revolutionary change was essentially the change in the “hearts and minds” of the people; change had to begin here before a direct attack on the formal economic-political system could be done.
He was arrested and sent to trial by Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime in May 1928 and he was given a 20-year sentence for trying to undermine the Italian state. He died on April 27, 1937, at the age of 46, after years of suffering from severe illnesses in prison. He left behind many notebooks which became the main sources for others to study his intellectual thought, as well as his many letters to his loved ones. Amongst the latter was his letter to his mother in May 1928 which he wrote around the time he was convicted:
Mother dear, I hate to repeat the things I’ve written so often, to tell you not to worry about my physical and moral health. For my own peace of mind, I need to feel that you won't be agitated or upset by whatever sentence they give me, and that you understand, even in your heart, that I am presently under political arrest and will be a political prisoner. I'm not ashamed, nor will I ever be ashamed of this fact. Basically, I myself willed this arrest and condemnation. I've always refused to compromise my ideas and am ready to die for them, not just to be put in prison. For this reason, I feel serene and satisfied with myself. Mother dear, how I'd like to hold you close, very close, so that you'd know how much I love you and regret the unhappiness all this causes you. There was no other way to act. Yes, life is difficult, and sometimes sons, for the sake of their own honor and dignity, have to make their mothers suffer.
Figure 2. Portrait of Antonio Gramsci (Wikipedia) (left). Right, Gramsci's letter to his mother (Lawner, 1979) (right).
An Evening with Gramsci, for Myself and Vietnam
I read Gramsci’s letter to his mother for the first time in the spring of 2020. Back then, I was going through a lot of soul-searching to contemplate what it takes to pursue the cause of democratisation for Vietnam.
I was no stranger to social movements and activism so I knew how unforgiving Vietnam’s ruling regime was and continues to be. I was also aware of the increasingly harsh measures it takes to maintain its power, as dissidents and activists grew bolder through 2010-2019. My heart was heavy with fear, and I could not bear the thought of what would happen to my loved ones without me if one day I end up languishing for years in prison.
During those days, Gramsci’s letter gave me comfort and reassurance. First and foremost, it gave me a sense of historical continuity. Gramsci wrote to his mother in 1928 and I read his words in 2020; despite how far apart our lives were from each other, our struggles remain similar and this gave me a sense of solidarity, a feeling that we are not alone and that we are connected to all those before us who have fought this fight for our rights to live free and with dignity.
In fact, one does not need to look further than the history of Vietnam since the early twentieth century; Phan Boi Chau, Phan Chu Trinh, Nguyen Ai Quoc, the Ngo brothers, and subsequent patriotic South Vietnamese leaders have all dedicated their lives to the pursuit of freedom and dignity for the Vietnamese people. Historical continuity also means that the goals I pursue in this life will be built upon by those who come after me.
Second, a sense of historical duty dawned on me. I realised that each historical epoch has its own questions and challenges and that each generation has its own struggle. One may choose to conform to the demands of the era they live in or they may choose to question and change the status quo. For me, I chose to follow the call of duty.
When I look back to the lives and works of the two Phans, of Ho Chi Minh, of my great grandfather, who was a nationalist revolutionary, and of my grandfather who fought to defend South Vietnam until its last moment, all of them faced the call of duty of their time and chose to answer it. Likewise, Gramsci chose his choice and turned down a scholarship in Turin.
Third, the struggle for ordinary Vietnamese to live free and with dignity, unlike many other struggles in history, has always had a patriotic dimension to it. The start of the 20th century saw scholar patriots dedicating their lives to fight the French and to construct a Vietnamese national identity despite French rule.
Those after them continued their work through political upheavals that tore apart and wrecked the country many times over. The pursuit of human rights and dignity, coupled with patriotism, gives people the strength to face their fears and overcome them; it shows them that they play a part in a much bigger story.
Finally, Gramsci’s letter steeled my heavy heart about the inevitability of the price that must be paid, if one chooses to do the right thing.
I cried for a long time while reading his words, “Yes, life is difficult, and sometimes sons, for the sake of their own honor and dignity, have to make their mothers suffer.”
It is difficult to explain how this simple sentence made me feel; all I can say is that everything finally made sense to me. I think I found the meaning behind my vocation and duty in his words. What emerged from that evening with Gramsci was a decisive yet serene version of myself.
To Vietnam, with Love and Strength
A pro-democracy activist who once had a gun pointed at his head because of his work told me this:
I do what I am doing now not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because I care about all those who built this nation before me. I feel the thread of history extending all the way to me, and now is my time, my generation’s time, to hold that thread and be charged with the duty to continue it.
Nowadays, this can sometimes feel like an exercise in futility. Unlike the age of revolutions of the two Phans, Ho Chi Minh, and even the Vietnam War, it seems that contemporary Vietnamese pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders are pursuing a lonesome and futile cause.
Their efforts in challenging the status quo seem to be in vain in a country so busy taking care of economic growth and seemingly subdued by the strength of the police while the justice system remains controlled by the ruling Communist regime.
Yet, one must always keep in mind that what is commonplace in society is not necessarily good. I believe that Vietnamese pro-democracy activists and human rights defenders are fighting for a good and just cause. They refuse the status quo of political apathy, fear, and economic pacification that maintains Vietnamese society and the power of the authoritarian regime.
In doing so, many of them pay a price and many of their loved ones, elderly parents, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters, young children, and their fellow activists, end up suffering survivor’s guilt.
All this reminds me of Tatiana, Gramsci’s sister-in-law; Gramsci’s revolutionary life was also the story of Tatiana’s faith in him and her complete devotion until his last breath. Because of Tatiana’s care and her tireless advocacy, Gramsci was able to leave this world free from the confines of his prison cell. He lived out his final days in a clinic where he was taken care of, under the vast expanse of Italy’s clear blue sky.
I wish only the best for everyone brave enough to be the Tatiana for their own Gramsci. And I, as one following in his footsteps, send them all my love and strength.
- Buttigieg, J. A. (1995). Gramsci on civil society. Boundary 2, 22(3), 1–32. https://doi.org/10.2307/303721
- Lawner, L. (1979). Letters from Prison by Antonio Gramsci. Quartet Books.
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