But agrarian reform necessarily will provoke intense opposition from the agricultural bourgeoisie, since agrarian reform is inimical to its interests. In many peripheralized nations, the agricultural bourgeoisie is the single most powerful sector. And it has powerful allies in the world-economy, including transnational corporations that also are large-scale landholders, or that purchase the agricultural exports, or that find in the underdeveloped nation a market for its surplus manufactured goods. Moreover, the political leaders of core nations, who see their role as the protection of the interests of the corporations of the nation, will treat any nation that seeks autonomous development as a dangerous example. Thus, agrarian reform measures, if they are not limited in nature, provoke opposition from powerful actors in the nation and the world, who will use all means at their disposal to discredit and undermine the revolutionary process. In many revolutionary processes, opposition to agrarian reform and accusations of denials of rights of the agricultural bourgeoisie became the rallying cry of the counterrevolution. As we observe revolutionary processes, we should be aware that conflict between revolution and counterrevolution over agrarian reform is a natural and unavoidable tendency.
Since the Vietnamese nationalist revolution unfolded in the context of French colonialism and French military efforts to re-conquer its possessions in Indochina, it made a distinction between patriotic and collaborationist landholders, and it promised that patriotic landholders would be able to keep their land. This distinction was necessary in order to obtain the support of landholders in the nationalist struggle, but it was a distinction difficult to implement in practice. In general, one would expect a natural tendency for landlords to present themselves during the agrarian reform as having been patriotic during the anti-colonial struggle, and an equally natural tendency for peasant tenants to denounce unpatriotic landlords pretending to be patriotic. In the case of the Vietnamese agrarian reform, there emerged conflict concerning the extent to which patriotic landlords had been unjustly treated.
In 1946, the constitutionally-established National Assembly of the newly declared Democratic Republic of Vietnam approved a limited agrarian reform program, consistent with the agrarian reform proposal of the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930. It confiscated land belonging to French colonialists and Vietnamese collaborators and distributed it to peasants; and it distributed common lands. With respect to land not appropriated, there was rent reduction from 50% or more to 20%. The great majority of land was not redistributed. During this stage, agrarian reform did not generate conflict, but it also had limited impact on the social conditions of the peasantry (Ho 2007:165; Fall 1967:224, 265; Duiker 2000:444; Brocheux 2007:153-54).
Even though the war of national liberation was still raging in 1953 and the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had not yet returned to Hanoi, the government controlled the countryside, and it was able to initiate a more extensive agrarian reform program than that of 1946. Ho presented the land reform proposal in a report to the Third Session of the National Assembly on December 1, 1953. Describing the revolution as a “people’s democratic revolution against aggressive imperialism and its prop, feudalism,” he maintained that the liberation of peasants from feudalism is necessary in order to expand and deepen peasant support and obtain the military victory over imperialism. He expressed the belief that the agrarian reform would serve as a stimulus and an encouragement to peasants in the free zones and well as those in the areas under French control, thus strengthening the worker-peasant alliance and the support of peasants for the revolution. He noted that the government beginning in 1946 took significant steps to improve the conditions of peasants, but the peasants still do not have adequate land: the landlord class is less than five percent of the population, yet they and the colonialists occupy seventy percent of arable land; whereas the peasants, who comprise ninety percent of the population, own thirty percent of arable land. Land reform is necessary, he maintained, to liberate the productive forces in the countryside and overcome poverty and backwardness. The new agrarian reform was to confiscate all large landholdings, and the landlords would be permitted to retain only land necessary for their personal livelihood. Patriotic landlords would be compensated through government bonds, but others would not be compensated. Tribunals were to be established, with authority to punish landlords who had engaged in criminal behavior with impunity in the past. Ho noted that specific decisions were to be made at the local village level, taking into account the political attitudes of individual landlords, and giving emphasis to those peasants most in need of land (Ho 2007:128-33).
The Cuban scholar Julio García Oliveras, who served as head of the Cuban military mission in Indochina from 1966 to 1969, maintains that the Agrarian Reform Law approved by the National Assembly on December 1, 1953, was enthusiastically received by the peasants and stimulated mass activity among the peasantry, although it also stimulated greater counterrevolutionary activity among the landlords, which the colonial power attempted to exploit (García Oliveras 2010:83). In contrast, US historian William Duiker and French historian Pierre Brocheux have criticized the Vietnamese agrarian reform. They maintain that popular tribunals were established throughout the countryside without protections of due process; that many small landholders were wrongly classified as large landholders; that the support of the Vietminh by patriotic landholders was ignored; and that many were wrongly punished for crimes, with the punishments including thousands of executions. They also note Ho Chi Minh repeatedly criticized the excesses, and there emerged in 1956 a campaign of rectification of errors, during which landlords that had been wrongly imprisoned were released (Duiker 2000: 444-46, 474-88; Brocheux 2007:152-60).
Both Duiker and Brocheux concede, however, that the land reform program essentially accomplished its goals. Duiker writes, “In some respects, the land reform program could be viewed as a success by the regime. More than two million acres (800,000 hectares) of land were distributed to over two million farm families, a total of well over half the total number of agricultural workers in the DRV. The historic domination by the landed gentry at the village level was broken and a new leadership composed of poor and middle-level peasants emerged” (2000:488). Brocheux maintains that the land reform “took effect progressively from 1953 to 1961, and gradually spread from the liberated zones of North Vietnam to the rest of the territory after the retreat of French troops. In the end, the goal of rebalancing the land base and depolarizing society in order to bring about equality and freedom for the greatest number among the rural masses was essentially met. It was a giant step toward resolving the problems within an agrarian system bequeathed by the French colonial regime” (2007:154).
Duiker believes that the source of the errors and excesses in the land reform was the influence of the Chinese model and Chinese advisors, as a result of which leaders were encouraging poor peasants to speak out against tyrannical behavior of landlords (2000:444-45, 475-76). My own inclination, however, is to think that the problem is rooted in the intrinsic nature of agrarian reform. How do you empower those who have been subjugated, without unleashing a popular wrath for vengeance, which previously had been constrained by structures of social control? Once the thirst for popular vengeance is unleashed, how do you control it? Will not those who had been in power previously, and who had justified the indignities imposed on the people, feel frightened by the inversion of power, and will they not believe that the decisions now taken by popular power are unjust? Can such class conflict be avoided, if structural social inequalities are to be transformed? As Duiker acknowledges, “Undoubtedly, some of the violence associated with the land reform campaign was a natural and spontaneous consequence of the class anger emanating from the rice fields. As such, it was a familiar, albeit tragic, by-product of revolution” (2000:477).
Regardless of what decisions we may make with respect to the agrarian reform, we must not lose sight of fundamentals. There is basic moral difference between a society whose structures are rooted in conquest, colonial domination, and the dispossession of the people of the land; and a society that seeks to negate the colonial process, restore the autonomy of the nation, and establish popular control over the land and other resources of the nation.
Brocheux, Pierre. 2007. Ho Chi Minh: A Biography. Translated by Claire Duiker. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Duiker, William J. 2000. Ho Chi Minh. New York: Hyperion.
Fall, Bernard B., Ed. 1967. Ho Chi Minh On Revolution: Selected Writings, 1920-26. New York: Frederick A. Praeger.
García Oliveras, Julio A. 2010. Ho Chi Minh El Patriota: 60 años de lucha revolucionaria. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.
Ho Chi Minh. 2007. Down with Colonialism. Introduction by Walden Bello. London: Verso.
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