Interview with Professor Tuong Vu on the Vietnamese Communist Party: War Legacies and Future Prospects
Ninety-four years ago, on Feb. 3, 1930, the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) was founded. The party took Vietnam into three
With the rising economy of Vietnam, many experts have observed that the country now closely resembles a capitalist country despite being ruled by a one-party regime under the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). From bustling city streets filled with motorbikes and smoky polluted air to widening inequality between different social classes, contemporary Vietnam looks nothing like a communist utopia.
In recent years, some scholars have argued that communist ideology is becoming less relevant in Vietnam’s policy-making process, especially in international relations. But is communist ideology being obscured in Vietnam?
Sociologist Jonathan London has an answer to the question. His article, “The Communist Party of Vietnam: Consolidating Market Leninism,” which appeared in the recently published Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Vietnam, demonstrates the continuous role of ideology in the making of the political and social order in Vietnam. Instead of trying to predict whether the VCP one-party rule would perish, London examines how the party has come to shape the socio-political order of the country in the past, present, and future.
Contrary to the idea that Leninism is incompatible with capitalism, London argues that it is genuinely not the case, as seen in the examples of contemporary Vietnam and China. Leninist political organizations are still seen in the two countries, where the monopoly of power by the vanguard party (i.e., the Communist Party) is maintained by its total domination of all aspects of society.
For example, Article 4 of Vietnam’s Constitution reinforces the party as “the vanguard of the working class” and “the leading force of the state and society.” Notably, the armed forces are formally accountable first to the party (not the country), a point that has been criticized, especially as the country is among those in the world with the highest number of military and security personnel. Additionally, the representation of military and police leaders in the Politburo has increased in recent years.
This political organization creates what we call the “party-state,” where the line between the party and the state is blurred by the total domination of the party, in contrast to democratic political systems with multiple parties competing for control of the state. A popular VCP saying says, “the party leads, the state implements, and the people inspect.” However, it seems that the party remains the only political force with effective power.
The party also has an influence on the everyday life of the country’s citizens. In schools, ideological training is highly emphasized. Political rituals are widely imposed on students as young as kindergarteners, with the constant visual and verbal preaching of Ho Chi Minh’s slogan “Learn, Learn more, Learn forever.” Even as the iconic loudspeakers used to spread propaganda disappear in urban areas, individuals cannot escape the party’s grip.
Hence, “Market-Leninism” is not simply a type of ideology in Vietnam but rather a description of the system itself. Communist ideology manifests itself in the form of propaganda and the many policy decisions of the VCP. Instead of the role of ideology waning in contemporary politics, it remains the VCP’s guiding principle.
To its credit, the party does try to stay faithful to its socialist promises by attempting to deliver welfare in the form of healthcare and education.
Interestingly, London makes the observation that the VCP promotes a “stratified citizenship regime,” which means that the standard of living is widely different for individuals depending on their relationship to the party or their geographic location in the country. While the regime has enabled access to basic healthcare and education, it is also a system in which, in London’s words, “you get what you pay for.”
In the healthcare sector, public servants are incentivized to seek alternative forms of income. As a result, the quality of the healthcare system is highly questionable and under-the-table payments are a common occurrence. Additionally, while higher education enrollment has significantly increased over the years, the quality of education is also questionable.
Facing the arduous task of policymaking while also protecting the one-party state apparatus, the VCP has been and will continue to be torn between investing in their socialist promises - healthcare and education - and investing in the rise of the politically powerful military and police forces to curb dissent. As London rightly points out, it is quite ironic that the VCP’s socialist promises have become social inequality and the severe restriction of fundamental human freedoms.
Vietnam's independent news and analyses, right in your inbox.