A Contribution from Merle Ratner

I have comrades in the US, part of my very geographically spread-out network, some known to me only through email or meetings, who are reading this blog and have agreed to contribute. Here is Merle Ratner, a long time Vietnam activist and the Co-Coordinator of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief & Responsibility Campaign. She currently works at an international labor rights organization. She writes:

Re: ” Whether Vietnam has surrendered to global capitalism or whether it is using a mixed economy as a way to preserve and build its socialist economy is a big question”

I think this is a question that will play out in the years to come and there are, as the Vietnamese say, both opportunities and challenges ahead.

 To understand why Vietnam went in the direction they have, you have to understand what life was like after the war. We first came to Vietnam in 1985, ten years after liberation, when most everyone was very revolutionary and collective — sharing what little they had. But they lived in real poverty, with malnutrition for many and very difficult living conditions. I remember Party leaders telling me during the beginning of doi moi that you can’t build socialism when people are starving. In the countryside, communes had great daycare and other social services, but to run them they had to tax the peasants so much that they stopped wanting to grow…

 While many of my friends in Vietnam, who fought during the war, were imprisoned in the tiger cages and made unimaginable sacrifices, miss the community solidarity of those years, not one would like to go back to that level of poverty and hunger.

 Vietnam has had to make many concessions to build up its economy, including those that many Party leaders and activists are very worried about the implications of, but Vietnam’s poverty alleviation is a world leader, women’s literacy is too, Vietnam has just increased paid maternity leave back to 6 months (where it has been after the revolution and then been somewhat reduced), GLBT rights are being recognized more and more, and workers strike with impunity and are winning more than almost anywhere else… This doesn’t mean that there aren’t serious problems with the growing disparity between rich and poor, corruption, etc., that factories still have serious health and safety violations (although nowhere like the most of the rest of SE and South Asia.)

 People in Vietnam have a lot of agency – they are generally free to protest, strike, say what they want, etc. as long as it doesn’t threaten the revolution or is not financed/supported by right wing forces from abroad.

Vietnam is a work in progress as is every socialist country.  As you say, it is unrealistic to think that after victory, the class contradictions immediately go away…

 I can’t adequately report this experience by myself, by saying only what I see. So I’m grateful when others who have knowledge and experience speak up and help make the story more complete.