Getting Ready (11)

The conference to which so many representatives of so many nations came was in 1965. Joe points out that many of the countries that sent delegates were countries that were still under colonial control. He also tells me that it would have been illegal to bring this book into the US at that time. Published in Hanoi, someone spent a lot of effort translating it into good English. Someone must have smuggled it in and donated it to a library.

Then in 1966, here comes a speech by Le Duan, First Secretary of the Workers’ Party Central Committee, The Role of the Working Class and Tasks of the Trade Union at the Present Stage. It’s published as a pamphlet by Foreign Language Press, Hanoi. The copy I got came from Cal State Long Beach. Yellow paper, soft gray cover, about 60 pages, two rusty staples in the middle. Also translated into good English.

Reading this speech, I think I am beginning to understand what we’re supposed to be doing. But what does it mean that my question is being answered directly in a speech that was given 50 years ago?

Let me repeat my question. In my first Skype conversation with Dean Hoa and Ms. Vinh, I asked them: What did they want us to teach the students?

Dean Hoa gave me an answer that I could not make sense of. This is what he said – isn’t an exact quote, because I wasn’t able to take notes: “Teach them to work hard, to produce more, to do sports, to be healthy, to want education.”

I was completely unprepared for this. This is definitely not what labor educators do in the US. Instead of teaching workers to work hard, we teach them (or help them figure out how to) lower stress, slow down, work at a sustainable pace that won’t cause injuries—“work safe,” even, in the sense of following all the rules, including contradictory and unreasonable rules, as a way of putting pressure on employers. Also, “producing more” is the business of management, not workers, and certainly not the union. “Business” is used intentionally, here, since although how to produce more and better is within the capacity of workers and the union, you wouldn’t say it was their “business.” Making a living, earning wages, is the business of the workers.

In a later phone call, I asked Leanna and Hollis what Dean Hoa could possibly have meant. She said (again not an exact quote): “Well, it’s just what you’d want of a committed union member, isn’t it? And it’s a holistic view of a person, it’s about their whole life, not just one part.”

OK, she’s right about that.

But now listen to the answer to my question given by Le Duan in 1966. This is from the second part of this pamphlet, “Tasks of the Trade Unions at the Present Stage of the Three Revolutions.” The three revolutions are revolutions in production, technology, and ideology or culture.

Earlier he has explained that Vietnam is moving from a peasant economy straight into a socialist economy, without passing though capitalism. This means they have no big industry. Western countries that moved from peasant economies into capitalism built big industries, which then could be socialized. (I think he means Western Europe.) A country going straight from a peasant economy to a socialist economy has “a tremendously and extremely difficult and arduous task. For bypassing the stage of capitalist development, and modern industry being almost non-existent, we have to build the material and technical bases of socialist from scrap (sic – the translator meant ‘scratch’, but ‘scrap’ makes sense in a way.) In addition, though he hardly mentions it, it’s a country divided, invaded, and at war.

I’m going to go slowly, and quote a lot, starting on page 35:

In developed capitalist countries, class struggle between the working class and bourgeoisie is extremely arduous and sharp in this domain.

My comment: Just walking down the street in the US or shopping in a supermarket, you might not notice “arduous and sharp” class struggle. You will notice class difference, and all the indications of severe inequality, especially if you look in the shopping carts of people at the grocery store, but you won’t actually see class struggle. You’ll see people hurrying, or pulling their kids by the hand, or talking on their cell phones. But in any given workplace, unless there is a strong union that has won a decent contract and enforces it, you notice class struggle. It is indeed arduous and sharp. Of course you have to have the eyes to see it. You can spend the night in a hotel and walk past the woman who will clean your room, and not see it. The person who sees it most clearly is the steward or the rep, the person who workers come to if they have a problem. But I could write a book about this (I did, actually).

Continuing, he says that class struggle in Vietnam is not arduous and sharp. Instead, the workers are the masters:

 

Such, however, is not the case in our country….The fundamental and immediate target in the revolution in relations of production is to establish collective ownership of the means of production by the toiling people, that is, to make them masters in labour, production and distribution (36-37).

As masters, they have responsibility beyond negotiating the conditions of production:

..trade unions, while performing their function, take part in factory management as a workers’ mass organization, that of toiling people masters of their enterprises…The trade unions must direct their activities toward resolving difficulties in production, consolidating and intensifying labour discipline, heightening the workers’ cultural and technical standards and guaranteeing adequate working and living conditions to the workers and employees (38).

Yes, there are still managers and directors at the factory. Those roles exist and someone has to do them. But the workers, not the managers, are the masters of the enterprises.

Le Duan isn’t just talking about the workplace, either. He is talking about the whole life of a whole person. I think Dean Hoa means this when he says: ““Teach them to work hard, to produce more, to do sports, to be healthy, to want education.” Le Duan makes the trade unions responsible for getting people to raise vegetables and care for war victims:

 

It is the obligation of the State and all organs of economic management to take care of the workers’ and employees’ life; nevertheless, the trade unions also bear responsibility for it…In this urgent situation of the fighting and production the trade-unions must, on the one hand, impart to the workers and employees the spirit of self-reliance, of overcoming all hardships and difficulties in the struggle against US aggression, for national salvation, and on the other hand adequately care for their living and working conditions, while paying particular attention to air defense in order to safeguard their lives and carry out prophylactic hygiene and treatment of disease. We are not allowed to allege difficulties for overlooking all this. Many factories are credited with experiences for how to organize for improving the employees’ living conditions. They encourage them to grow vegetables and practice animal husbandry to meet part of their needs in foodstuff, they ameliorate board and lodging and study for them, and to a certain extent for their children (41)

 

…Yet, an urgent problem to which the trade unions and cooperatives must pay attention to is to give help to large families and war victims, not to let children lack food and warm clothes in winter, not to let the war victims and disabled and old-aged people live in too straitened circumstances. (41)

 

Club activities in factories must be made better, libraries set up and books and periodicals placed at the disposal of the workers so that they may acquire more knowledge (45).

 

The revolution aims at forming new men, men of the socialist society, masters of their own self, of society and nature, men, who, with zest, take part in production, in scientific and technological work, in literary and artistic activities, so as to bring about a new relationship between man and man in accordance with the principle “each for all and all for each..(47)

 

He warns against “vices incompatible with proletarian ethics, such as the penchant to do what one pleases, the lack of discipline and of concern for the requirement of one’s collective, inertness and conservatism, waste and corruption” (51). He quotes Lenin, says that trade union cadre must live and work with the workers, and notes the role of women both as workers and in combat. He mentions the “old cadre,” the many “veterans who under the colonial rule, fought for a wage-rise of a few cents.” This is the experience I am familiar with. “Fighting for a wage-rise of a few cents” is how OurWalMart made WalMart promise (have they actually done it?) to raise their minimum wage to $9 an hour, less than the cost of a sandwich.

I am looking in this speech for anything that could indicate how Le Duan would have felt about a day when state owned enterprises were being privatized through “equitization” plans, and direct foreign investment brought South Korean and Taiwanese factories, where the workers are not the masters in any way, shape or form, to Vietnam. Did he think that the transformation of a peasant economy to a socialist economy could be permanent, or even stable? Did he forsee a time when the experience of the veterans who fought for a few cents would be needed again?

At least theoretically, he has a place for such possibilities. On page 12 he says something that caught my eye:

Classes appear then disappear and so does class struggle; they all are linked to the existence and transformation of given economic bases. (12)

Hmmm. So it’s possible that under socialism, as it was developing in Vietnam in the 1960s and for perhaps a decade thereafter, the working class really was the master of the economy. Under these conditions, class struggle, even in factories, disappeared. But then Vietnam, needing currency to function in the increasingly free market neoliberal global economy – especially after 1989, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of their support – began to open to foreign investment. And class struggle re-appeared.

So classes “appear then disappear”? I think we can look at our own case. In the US, the working class “disappeared” the 1950s and 1960s, the period of time when inequality in the US was lowest. This was the period that got a lot of people thinking that the invisible hand of the marketplace in a capitalist economy would ultimately produce fair and relatively equal distribution of wealth. It became the basis of neoclassical economics. The “working class,” both an economic and a cultural phenomenon, was replaced by “the middle class,” inequality decreased, and class struggle went into hiding. The number of strikes dropped year by year and union membership declined. Unions were called “irrelevant.” Human Resources took care of everything.

But after a while (about 1975 or 1980) people started to notice inequality rising and began to complain. Not very loudly, yet. The loudest side of the class struggle was the “greed is good” party. Thomas Piketty wrote about all this. But the tide turned. Now it’s never a day without some news item about the 1%. Class struggle is happening. Unfortunately, it’s usually expressed as “save the middle class!” Even the AFL CIO expresses it that way. But demonstrations of all kinds, OCCUPY, StrikeDebt, campaigns like OurWalmart and the Fight for $15, the contingent or “excluded” worker movement, all have had an impact. Berkeley and San Francisco have passed higher minimum wage laws and little Emeryville, which is basically a shopping center plus Pixar plus some condos, just passed the highest minimum wage in the US, nearly $16 per hour. Also busy in the class struggle is Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, along with many of his buddies in the Republican party.

I am starting to understand enough about what this is all about so that I can think about my class.