The weight of history bears down on humankind such that, paraphrasing Marx, people make history but not precisely as to their own choosing. The rise of capitalism out of feudalism in Northern Europe spread over the centuries to Africa, Asia, and Latin America ripping asunder traditional patterns of economic, social, and cultural relations. A new political economy dynamic, now called “neoliberal globalization,” spread across the face of the earth extracting natural resources, enslaving and exploiting human labor power, and expanding production and distribution such that by the twentieth century the whole world was touched. The impact of capitalist globalization included enormous scientific and technological advances, significant increases in the capacity to sustain life, coupled with the capacity to exploit, destroy, kill, uproot traditional cultures and communities, and defile the human landscape.

Capitalism created a global empire. It also created global resistance. The drive to construct empires and to build economic, political, and cultural hegemony stimulated revolution, non-violent resistance, and desperate efforts to create new forms of social and economic being. During the period since World War 11, socialist regimes and radical nationalist movements have challenged the hegemony of U.S., European and Japanese capitalism. The twentieth century socialist project disintegrated for a variety of reasons but its loss spurred new and diverse forms of resistance that complicated the rule of “victorious” empires. The economic, political, and military crises of the early 21st century, coupled with renewed resistance raised the specter of new “21st century socialist” visions. These visions became concrete programs, again paraphrasing Marx, that were not precisely of peoples’ choosing but necessary transitional steps to socialism nonetheless.

Vietnamese History

Southeast Asia, a diverse space geographically, culturally, politically, and economically, has experienced many kinds of imperial rule and resistance. Vietnamese national identity emerged about 100 BC as a result of Chinese expansion and resistance to it among indigenous kingdoms. But China established its hegemony over Vietnam from 200-900 AD. After that time Vietnam consolidated its independence.

During the 1850s Vietnam came under the domination of the French. Occupied by France, Indochina (now Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) became a classic colony. The Japanese military conquered Indochina during World War II. The Japanese had collaborated with the old French colonial administrators and land owners to control the Vietnamese people. After the Japanese were defeated, the Vietnamese people rose up to challenge the French effort to reestablish their old colony. 

From 1946 to 1954, revolutionary forces led by Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh fought and won a victory against the French. At the Geneva Conference, 1954, the war was settled. The United States, however, in violation of the main agreements reached, established a puppet regime in South Vietnam that became the basis for continuing war on the Vietnamese people. The Vietnam War, with the U.S. replacing the French, continued until 1975, when the Saigon military collapsed. Finally, after short and brutal battles with hostile forces in neighboring Cambodia and a short war initiated by China in 1979, violence ended. Now the Vietnamese had to rebuild their country and begin constructing the socialist society they had struggled for since the end of World War II.

Post-war reconstruction was initiated after “the U.S. military and their allies dropped four times the tonnage of bombs used in World War II in Vietnam, which is equivalent to 725 nuclear bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More than 3 million Vietnamese were killed and 4 million were wounded. At the same time, the U.S. military used up to 80 million liters of chemicals to ‘clear’ the land.” (Tran Dac Loi). Agent Orange sprayed liberally over the entirety of Vietnam from 1961 and 1971 affected millions of Vietnamese and U.S. soldiers and poisoned the land. Unexploded ordinance and descendants of Vietnamese exposed to Agent Orange/Dioxin remain part of the Vietnamese experience today. The devastation of land and people was reinforced by a U.S. initiated economic blockade of Vietnam that lasted from 1975 until 1994.

From a Socialist Command Economy to Doi Moi (a socialist-oriented market economy)

Tran Dac Loi, Vice-President of the Vietnam Peace and Development Foundation, wrote about post-war economic policies in Vietnam in an essay in Vietnam: From National Liberation to Socialism (Changemaker, Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, forthcoming). Loi explained that after the war against the United States ended the newly united Vietnamese nation adopted a centrally-planned socialist economy. 

Although small shops based on family labor were allowed the bulk of the economy was state-run  as “…all essential production materials and consumer goods were circulated through the state distribution system.” The evolving command economy reduced inequalities but labor productivity was low, inflation-rates grew, and the Vietnamese experienced chronic food shortages. Over 60 percent of the Vietnamese people by the early 1980s lived below the country’s self-defined poverty rate. 

Loi asserts that state ownership, management, and distribution became inappropriate for the post-war Vietnamese economy. Adequate “economic, material and technical conditions, as well as cultural development” did not exist to achieve a fully developed socialist society. Entrepreneurial skills and corporate and individual competition, characteristic of economic development in market economies, it was realized, were necessary to stimulate economic growth. Vietnamese leaders recognized that economic development was “a long-term process, not a one-day business and cannot be realized only by political will. In fact, we did not yet have socialism; we were at the beginning of the process of building it. And there is a need for sustainable policies and steps relevant to the existing context and objective conditions.”

Thus at the 6th Party Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (1986) a new set of policies were adopted called Doi Moi. They called the new policy “a market economy with a socialist orientation.” Doi Moi included the following:

-a regulated market economy.

-a market that should be coordinated with planning to maximize the rational distribution of resources and economic development.

-a rationally encouraged use of “external resources” such as foreign investment.

-construction of a multi-level pattern of ownership including a state sector controlling energy, natural resources, heavy industry, communications, railways and public transportation, aviation, banking and insurance and the distribution of lands for agricultural use on a household and cooperative basis.

-the expansion of foreign trade, particularly the export of rice.

-the provision of primary education for all Vietnamese.

-free health insurance for the poor.

Many observers, including the Vietnamese themselves, point to serious economic, political, and cultural problems that have emerged since Doi Moi. However, basic economic changes have resulted from the programs embraced in the 1980s. Per capita GDP has risen by a factor of ten since 1986. Vietnam no longer ranks as one of the UN’s most underdeveloped countries. Industrial growth has doubled. Having overcome the post-war shortage of food, Vietnam is now the second largest rice exporter in the world. Vietnam, since Doi Moi, has increased access to education and health care, significantly increased life expectancy, reduced rates of poverty from over 60 percent to 11 percent, and, according to the United Nations, has increased its Human Development Index score (HDI) from .498 in 1991 to .733 in 2007. 

With the weakening of state socialism as a world force and the shift virtually everywhere to neoliberal economic policies by the 1980s, the Vietnamese came to the realization that transitioning to 21st century socialism would require the construction of a more complicated economic model that continued to support a renovated state sector, allowed a regulated marketplace, and encouraged local socialist forms, such as workers cooperatives. 


This discussion of Vietnam draws heavily on materials from Vietnam: From National Liberation to Socialism, Changemaker, Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, forthcoming, 2013. Essays referred to include Tran Dac Loi, “Vietnam: 65 Years of the Struggle for National Independence and Socialism;” Merle Ratner and Ngo Thanh Nhan, “Vietnam Update 2013: Opportunities and Challenges,” and Duncan McFarland, “Origins of Doi Moi in Vietnam and the Relationship to Lenin’s New Economic Policy.” Also the essay by Paul Krehbiel, “A Nation at Work,” and his suggestions for revision of this paper were very helpful.

(Prepared for a presentation at The Labor and Working-Class Studies Project, Working Class Studies Association, Madison College, Madison Wisconsin, June 12-15, 2013. “Transitional Steps to Socialism: Part 2, The Cuban Case” will discuss reforms in Cuba and their similarities and differences with Vietnam.)