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[Asian Thought and Society, New York, vol.2, n·3, décembre 1977, p.328-38. I restore the footnotes, which were garbled at the time of publication and correct the misprints.]

 

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THE SOCIAL CLASSIFICATION OF PEASANTS

IN VIETNAM

 

Serge Thion 1

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The very process of historical expansion of Vietnamese territory, from the Red River Delta southward, represents peasant colonization on conquered land. Villages of veterans were established under military rule on newly acquired borderlands, pushing away Hinduist Chams or reducing them into small isolated clusters. Tramps, outlaws and beggars, could be integrated into new villages, on a somewhat inferior footing, and were given land to till. Communal land was regularly redistributed to allow for an elasticity in population change. Writers during the colonial period, along with the Vietnamese tradition, insisted strongly in regarding the village commune as the main base of the Vietnamese state and society.

This predominallce of such a village structure has remained a constant factor up to recent years, and it has been affected only by intensive aerial bombing. In the North, villages provided shelter and a means of survival to urban people. I)igging itself into the mud, the village proved to be the backbone of a society under extreme pressure. In large tracts in the Southern part of the country, however, the continued existence of a number of villages was made impossible either through the threat of air attacks or the forceful transportation of the farmers to refugee camps near the towns. Viet-Nam is as much a peasant country as other regions of Asia but it appears to be a village society more than many others. That fact makes the Vietnamese peasant, by necessity and education, a particular type of Zoon politikon.


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The French colonial system adapted its own metropolitan pattern of communal administration to local conditions by cleverly redirecting some of the village institutions. Land and the trade of agricultural goods were seen as the main assets of the Indochina colony. Modern sectors were developed to produce rubber, tea and coffee. Rice was bought in the surplus producing areas, mainly the Mekong Delta, through the traditional channels of Chinese traders. Canals were dug, and large tracts of swampland in the Delta were cleared up and given to Vietnamese officials and French firms. Peasants were then attracted and induced to accept oral contracts of tenancy. As a result 50 to 70 percent of the crop retained by the owner, who also lent money, seeds and farm implements. Even huge estates were cultivated by small farmers. There was almost no modern mechanized enterprise. For the biggest part, rice was kept to feed the population,and the peasants without land could only struggle to avoid starvation by looking for menial or seasonal tasks. As it was, the traditional, precolonial type of peasantry survived, although on a poorer diet, late into the 20th century, at least up to World War II.

"In our country-- said two not yet famous communist organizers in 1937-- farm tools are made of bamboo or wood, seldom of metal... The peasant is exhausted by primitive tools of production and slow individualistic methods of production... If they had machines they would not know how to use them" 2

The colonial system, based on this inefficient economy, made no real attempt to modernize it. Social tensions increased in the twenties and the thirties and, with the so-called Soviets of the Nghe Tinh, were met with the strongest repressive measures. The government in Paris never felt the urge for a change in rural matters. The profitability of private French business remained of predominant importance, which meant low prices for the peasants' products.

World War II and the Japanese occupation came as a deep political blow within this rather unstable situation. Peasants felt no big difference in the new Japanese taxes and requisitions but were electrified by the August Revolution (1945) which proclaimed independence. In the process of the struggle which followed, peasants were for the first time in human memory dragged into the forefront because they constituted the main social force that had to be attracted, or at least to be neutralized in order to achieve complete political supremacy.

The practical view of the French administrators was to regard the peasantry as composed of a small group of large landowners (dien chu) and a vague multitude of tiny landowners, landless workers and small farmers (ta dien). This crowd was categorized according to specific professions (ploughing, reaping, etc...) and were required to pay poll-tax. The real concern of the colonial administrators was concentrated on the wealthy landowners who controlled village councils, collected taxes and bribes, and could give their children opportunity to receive a French education in order to master modern techniques or join the administration. More and more, the big dien chu entered finance and politics. They had strong roots in their province but spent most of their time in the big towns or travelling abroad. Their political role was ambiguous: considered as the "natural" leaders of the peasantry by the colonial authorities, they had only a very limited share in the decision process. 3

This view conflicted with the traditional Confucian classification in four orders: si, scholar, nong, peasant, cong, craftsman, thuong, trader, ranked in that order. In a society where feudal tendencies were consistently checked by the royalty, local power was in the hands of the scholars, who formed a kind of landed gentry which had to struggle with each new generation to retain its position.4

These scholars were selected by examinations and this fact contributed to the conviction that even peasant children had a chance to achieve higher status.

The Confucian elite was divided in a great number of subtle rankings according to the mandarinal degree, services rendered to the state, wealth, age, etc. The general terms of classification were more ethical than economic: more than 90 percent of the population fell in the second order. Tillers were roughly divided between "registered" and "unregistered", a difference in fiscal and political responsibility.5

The overall result produced a widely open hierarchy, with minute but significant differentiations in status, sometimes altered by local custom. The uniformity which prevailed in the French administrative practice was not reflected in the attitudes of the Vietnamese individual who was forced to adopt a rather strict position inside his own social hierarchy. He found his place there through a set of ritual attitudes. All subtle stratification was somewhat blurred in the Mekong Delta by the relatively recent origin of most of the settlements. North and Central Viet-Nam were much more rigidly organized.

Two factors contributed to relieve the influence of this web of ordinated positions. The emergence of the big absentee landlords and the recruitment by the French of petty civil servants estranged more and more rural elite from the ordinary peasants. Supervision of work was assumed by ruthless employees of the landlord who himself moved to the towns. Secondly the intensification of economic exploitation after 1900, and more after 1920, combined with the depressing effect of the world crisis, profoundly disrupted the farm economy. Hundreds of thousands of peasants were forced to seek employment outside of their villages, often far from their own provinces. Bare subsistence could not be assured for many ta dien when credit disappeared. This social situation created a fertile soil in which communist propagandists were to sow the seeds of social upheaval.


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Small communist groups had merged in a party in 1929-30. The "Political Theses" (Oct. 1930) take the stance that "the revolution in the present period can only be agrarian and anti-imperialist", and that this "bourgeois democratic" revolution must lead to a "government of the workers and the peasants." The principle was also established that land must be taken from the "native landlords" and distributed to the middle and poor peasants, with the ownership laying with the government.6

In this program, peasants as a social group look as undifferentiated as in the colonial political analysis.

The failure of the Soviets in the province of Nghe Tinh (1930-31) gave way to a more radical program in 1932 which emphasized the leading role of the CP in the "revolutionary block of the workers of Indochina-- workers, peasants, toilers and urban destitutes."7

The agrarian situation was now regarded as part of a general political scheme, described as follows: "Landowners, mandarins, the elite (les notables), and also the native bourgeoisie, are bringing help to the imperialists in their role of tormentors. Out of gratitude to them, French imperialism has elaborated for them a `reform' program to which its native agents have reacted by publishing an address called the `Wishes of the Annamese'. These reforms and these wishes have only one purpose: to reinforce the power of imperialists in the country, to broaden their social basis, and to include once and for all in the counterrevolutionary block the native bourgeoisie and to attract into it the higher stratas of the urban petty bourgeoisie and the exploiter elements of the countryside." 8

In this most leftist period of its existence (1932-36), the Indochinese CP viewed peasants as a big homogeneous mass of rural workers struggling against all kinds of exploiters: landowners and notables (very often one and the same person) along with their auxiliaries. After 1936, the Popular Front policy set a different course: to attract rather than to antagonize the local elite. Since the party dropped the demand for "confiscation of ricefields" from big landowners, its analysis of rural classes had to remain rather vague. We have an interesting document, a study of the Peasant Question by two young communist organizers who later rose to prominence. Although this text was slightly doctored in 1959, it provides the deepest view on the subject by party members before 1945.

"In class terms, peasants are members of the rural petty bourgeoisie, that is to say, a class of people who own some means of production used to support themselves. Generally speaking, peasants are not members of the proletariat because usually they have some land, farm tools, draft animals, buildings, orchards, vegetable gardens, etc... Neither are peasants members of the bourgeois class, for peasants work to support themselves; they just idly sit and exploit the labor of workers like factory owners. Peasants are a class between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

"Peasants are divided into several strata:

a) - Landless peasants (co nong): peasants with no land, draft animal or farm implements at all. Throughout the year, they must work for the landlord and the rich peasant; they are mercilessly exploited and extremely poor.
b) - Poor Peasants (ban nong): peasants with a little land, but not enough to support themselves, so they must work for wages or as tenants for rich families. Peasants in this category farm for themselves to some extent but mainly for others.
c) - Middle peasants (trung nong): average peasants who have enough farmland to support themselves. They do not rent land, and generally speaking, do not hire laborers.
d) - Rich peasants (phu nong): Peasants with more than enough land. They and their family farm one part; the remainder, which they cannot farm themselves, is farmed by hired laborers or tenants. Thus the rich peasant exploits the labor power of agricultural laborers.

Above the rich peasant is the landlord class (dia chu). They rent their land to tenants, sit idly and collect profits, and never touch a plow." 9

Other stratas include "seasonal workers", "half workers half-peasants", tenants (ta dien), intermediaries who subrent land (qua dien), capitalist landlord (dia chu tu ban) who own plantations, etc...

This method of classification is mainly but only a way of "slicing" a society. The touchstone here is the exploitation of labor and the way it is exerted. There is nowhere shown the idea that exploitation of labor power might be seen as progressive. It is a post-1917 marxism: the positive role of capitalism is not recognized. Capitalist landlords are part of the same class with the "feudal" ones. The political conclusions drawn remain neutral: "Since the interests of the various strata of the peasantry differ, peasant views are not unified. Their attitude is unstable, especially in the case of the middle peasants. Examining history we can see the times at which they have joined one class or another."10

Thence the necessity of leading the peasants.

This early classification has a particular value since it indicates the framework of thought which has prevailed in the communist movement in Indochina until today. It has been repeated hundreds of times, without significant alteration, in support of various tactics evolved from the necessities of war.


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Before examining the practical consequences of this scheme, it might be worth considering its origins. This classification of peasants in strata, even defined in economic terms, cannot be found in Marx's ideas. This is not the place to deal adequately with Marxian views on the peasant question. It will be enough to record that, for him, differences in economic positions would not automatically generate fully grown social classes. Such terms as "small" or "middle peasant" are meant by him as statistical descriptions and not as existing social groups. At the same time, these statistical categories are to be found, although they are not part of a systematic model, for example in this late article of Engels: "A small peasant, as we understand it, is owner or the tenant-- but mostly the owner-- of a small piece of land which is not bigger than what he can regularly till with his family and not smaller than what is necessary to feed it." 11

Incidentally, this would describe, in the Vietnamese communist classification, the "middle" peasant.

But, for Engels, this fact has only a transitory interest. Small farmers are a thing of the past, soon to be wiped out by economic progress. "From the economic point of view, we feel certain that middle or big peasants will also be unfailingly crushed by capitalist competition and by cheap grain production from overseas; this is proved by the growing indebtedness and the manifest decadence of these peasants."12

This prophecy might have not been very sound. Yet Engels quotes Marx as having said repeatedly that the best and cheapest way to get rid of all big landlords was to "buy them off." 13

This advice was followed by the Americans in Vietnam, with a limited success...

This classification system has its main source in the early period of the Soviet Union. Until 1917, Russian Marxists discussed the best way to remove obstacles that prevented the broadening of capitalist influence in the countryside. Most often, the Russian village was still deeply archaic. The possibility of a direct passage to socialism was not even considered, although in a then unknown text, Marx, in his own flexible way, had given some thought to the problem in the Russian context of the traditional commune.14

After the February Revolution, the Bolsheviks had to give up their own agrarian program and adopt a very mild policy of rural laissez-faire. 15

Desolation was brought by the war and the NEP restored market economy. In the process, land transfers had been substantial as is shown by figures which fit into the new classification:



Before 1917 1929
Bedniak (poor p.) 65 pct. 35 pct.
Serednyak (middle p.) 20 pct. 60 pct.
Kulmak (rich p.) 15 pct. 5 pct.

 

The Soviet author adds: "One criterion alone, such as the area, is not sufficient to determine whether a peasant farm belongs to one or other group." 16

The real criterion, for the authorities, was very crudely the ability to produce surpluses. The distribution of these surpluses had become a matter of life or death for the regime, since the industry was not able to offer to the food producers any incentive for them to sell. It was then decreed (Jan. 1930) that what was an economic group-- the kulaks-- was a dangerous den which had to be "liquidated".17

We have here the real mechanism of classification, in the most genuine meaning of the word: to transform a group into a class. It is, at some point, in the vital interest of the (Communist) State to suppress a social group if, as such, it hinders the government's policy.

For the Soviet Union it was mainly an economic matter since the long term effects of a free-market circulation could be considered as threatening the evolution towards socialism. In China, the same process, using such classificatory concepts was undertaken, not so much as an imitation of the Soviet experiment (which in the end was not very successful in terms of productivity) but out of the same type of needs. The need was in that case, political: to increase the peasant support for the party in the period of the ultimate struggle with the Guomindang. Trials and errors, rectifications and reclassifications, took place even in remote villages in accordance with the changing overall necessities of the moment.18

A very minute description of this process, at times quite puzzling for the peasants, is described by William Hinton in Fanshen. 19

In Vietnam the same phenomenon occurred, also out of political need. The bitter end of the struggle against the French colonial forces and the strengthening of the regime after 1954 were decisive factors toward creating a new and more precise classification.

In all three cases (North Korea could also be called for testimony) the pattern has been the same-- a vital need of the State-- and reactions from the peasants have also been identical. They enthusiastically overpowered the party apparatus; they ransacked and plundered propertied families in savage waves. Popular courts hastily judged influential citizens, and even party members were at times thrown into this boiling pot. It happened that peasants took land reform and reclassification into their own hands; such was the outburst of all the frustrations accumulated by generations of oppression. The revolutionary government, with its working class label, had great difficulties to channel this upsurge and to bring it back under control. Armed force had sometimes to be used.

In the Soviet Union, vagabond bands of peasants spread havoc in some provinces and because of these excesses, Stalin had to issue his famous speech Dizzy from success (30.3.30), calling for restraint and setting a limit of three percent to the proportion of farmers to be named kulaks. Chinese leaders had also to call several times for rectification.20

Vietnamese leaders did the same. A classification decree was passed in 1953 explaining in detail how to discriminate in practice the whole rural population. Complicated calculations were seen as necessary to establish the origin of income and the proportion of it which is derived from the exploitation of others' work. If this part represents more than 25 percent of the total income, the person must be classified with the rich peasants. But the case of the "new rich" preasants-- those who have acquired land thanks to the Viet Minh land reform-- must be treated in a different way. There is a special treatment for Revolution fighters but not for intellectuals. The case of the children, married or adopted is also taken into account.21

This decree is almost a carbon copy of Chinese party instructions as we see them in Fanshen. A new acceleration was given in 1955-56, bringing turmoil in many places. Severe criticisms were issued against party organizations; in the wake of what looks the most serious crisis of the Hanoi regime, Truong Chinh, the secretary general, was demoted and a Rectification campaign was launched. 22

A further consequence of classification was apparently to destroy internal bonds of solidarity in the village. The greed for land caused successful farmers to be victimized by less-successful neighbors. Old family hates boiled up again and the scramble created a certain diffidence among people who previously considered themselves as belonging to the same stock.

The elimination of the landed gentry, the breaking of internal hierarchy and solidarity were conceived as necessary steps to dismantle the old system, to unleash new productive forces and finally pave the way to collectivization. The constant threat of being individually reclassified in a more disadvantageous class acted as an added incentive towards conforming with local party directions. Peasants had to ratify collectively the new classification of individuals, a fact that certainly transformed the old community into a new one, more open to the influence of of the central government. Such, in the very long intermediary period, is the efficiency of rural classification.


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Concerning Asian peasantries, the policy of the Western powers apparently seemed oriented towards quite different goals. French policy, tangled in its own contradictions, may be described as conservative. Some individuals, even among high ranking administrators, were convinced of the need for a deep change in rural relations, but their influence was powerless when confronted with the huge vested interests (banks, planters, latifundists' syndicates, export traders, etc.)23

Reforms were planned but not carried out. Only after the Geneva Agreements did the French government agree to the transfer of French-owned rice estates to the South Vietnamese government (300,000 ha, 1958).

Americans, after 1945, were confronted with a vast array of outside problems which were new to them; agrarian development in Asia was one of the foremost. Drawing on their own historical experience, they saw the basis of a democratic government in the establishment of small landownership, able to check feudalism and rural misery. These two plagues were considered as the complementary roots of corrupted or dictatorial governments. US military and civilian authorities then proceeded to reform the landownership systems in Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, South Korea, and, after 1954, South Vietnam.

But each country has its own peculiarities. A sceptical observer notes that "for nearly twenty years most of the clamor for agrarian reform in Viet Nam has come from American sources rather than Vietnamese. There are two reasons for this remarkable imbalance: the nostalgic, almost mystical American recollection of the virtues of homesteading, combined with a guiltladen national regret over the fall of Chiang Kai-Shek, and the political passivity and patient inarticulateness of the Vietnamese peasant himself."24

This statement does not seem to do justice to the uncontested dynamism of the NLF, the bulk of which consists of peasants. The author adds a disputable but interesting point: "Even the Viet Cong, unrestrained by concern over the niceties of property rights in the areas under their control have not obtained much political mileage out of their desultory experiments in land reform. The problem evading both contestants for peasant loyalty is how to introduce a political process that will engage villagers in a constructive relationship with the central government."25

The point of view here expressed is interesting not because of what it states about the villagers' involvement in the Viet Cong, but because it reveals what lies at the core of American thinking about the political function of their military intervention. Here even a critic of the American official position conveys that very point of view. The most general assumption was always that peasants' loyalty towards the Saigon regime would stem from self interest for security and prosperity. This concept never seems to have been doubted by social scientists and policy makers alike. But the argument goes further: if all legitimate power comes from the roots, then a government established and supervised by the United States must go down to the roots to achieve full legitimacy. The experiment has been attempted twice, with Diem and Thieu. The Viet Cong would be defeated when it would be uprooted from the villages. All this gives the unavoidable feeling of being just a reverse application of a communist proposition, i.e., taking for granted the maoist explanation of the maoist success in China.

Experts from the US Department of Agriculture with experience in Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan were sent to Saigon, like M. Wolf Ladejinski, to assist President Diem.26

It took 16 years for the American pressure to become strong enough to obtain a reshaping of the peasantry along a new classificatory pattern: the elimination of latifundia (already accomplished) and the transformation of most if not all tenants into a class of middle peasants, owning legally an average of 4 to 5 ha., which should be enough to be self sufficient and give a surplus for investments and modernization. (Ownership entitles bank credit.) Landless workers are not taken into account and come far down in the priorities on the list of potential landacquirers, the tenants being the first.

It would require a book to reproduce the congratulatory pieces that were mouthed by US officials, social scientists, and journalists when the law was passed in Saigon (March 1970). With this agreeable vision of a solid mass of proprietors, full of gratitude towards the government and strongly decided to defend their new property against its vicious enemies, US public opinion was to become convinced that a decisive step had been taken towards political victory. But a time was to come which would show that the entire program was just another misapplication of the American Dream.

The Vietnamese peasant, tied in a network of reverences, did not act as the predicted homo economicus. He could feel that if part of his interests were met by the reform (probably an increase of income first, before the title deed) it resulted from a conflict which too often had trampled him down and could catch him again. Moreover, in the eyes of the peasants, after 25 years of struggle, the abolition of tenancy was probably seen as a credit for the Viet Cong side. The obvious fact that this Land-To-The-Tiller law did not alter at all the political scene in the villages does not seem to have yet attracted the interest of the many social scientists who strongly advocated it.27

Final conclusions may still have to be drawn, but it has been in any case a very interesting social experiment in vivo.


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In the meantime, the Viet Cong showed their usual flexibility in the use of social classification. Again the emphasis was put on a frontist policy of national union. But at the same time, some areas had remained under the continuous influence of the communist movement and had been exposed to the various effects of the classificatory process, while other areas had not felt it; all shades of color could be put on the map.28

Local policies perforce differed widely from one place to the other and this heterogeneity remained to the end. This situation probably creates a problem even today.

In neighboring Cambodia, we find an even more simplified pattern of classification. Official texts published between the fall of Phnom Penh (April 1975) and the establishment of the new Constitution (probably January 1976) mention "poor and lower middle peasants who represent more than 90 percent of the population." The constitution speaks only of "the workers, the peasants and all the other workers."

Four models of classification have been applied to the Vietnamese peasant: Traditional, administrative (French), communist, and American. Although none of them could be considered as a really adequate description of social reality, they were used as a basis for the shaping of specific policies. Such models were more predictive than cognitive. From a scientific point of view, they are entirely worthless. They are functional in political action but their efficiency is difficult to assess because they cannot be really isolated from other components of political action. It is also remarkable that they all have foreign origins (Chinese, French, Russian, American) and that they had to be adapted to very specific conditions.

They are also static: even used as instruments of change, they have no built-in mechanism for social change. They may be manipulated to fit new situations but any impetus to apply them comes from outside their realm which is the description of the peasantry. They serve well only from the bureaucracy's need to impose its own vision of whom should be subjected to what power, and how. This gives some weight to the remark of J.L. Sorenson: "Even those US social scientists who have been critical of the Vietnam war seem to agree tacitly with the view that pacification will lead to stability. The view is congruent with the model dominant in the social sciences today which emphasizes the equilibrium of societies or their parts such as communities."29

In the practical sphere of power, ideas do not need to be true or to adequately describe reality. Ideas have to provide the most efficient way to apply power. They are the sound, not the fury.


The author is grateful to J. Thomas Rimer who read the draft and offered many valuable suggestions.


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