The scholar-gentry class from which Phan Dinh Phung originated was an important component of traditional Vietnamese society. It consisted of men who had been educated in the Confucian classics in preparation for rigorous examinations that would qualify them for posts in the national and provincial governments. Members of the class were government officials, teachers in government schools, founders of private schools, and private tutors. They had a higher standard of living than most peasants, but they were not wealthy, and many supplemented their incomes with farming.
Drawing upon a tradition of nationalism rooted in the Vietnamese historic struggle against Chinese domination, the scholar-intellectuals played a leading role in the nationalist movement in opposition to French colonialism (García Oliveras 2010:21-22). One of them was Phan Chu Trinh, who resigned his government post in 1905 in order to travel throughout the country and meet with scholars. He maintained that, although the French claimed to be on a “civilizing mission,” in fact they were interested in the economic exploitation of Vietnam. In an open letter to the French Governor General, Trinh conceded that the French had brought some advantages, such as introducing modern systems of transportation and communication; he argued, however, that the colonial regime was perpetuating a corrupt imperial bureaucracy. He advocated a reform of colonialism on the basis of progressive Western and Chinese concepts (Duiker 29-31).
Another important member of the scholar-gentry class was Phan Boi Chau. Rather than pursuing a career in the government bureaucracy, he traveled throughout the central provinces, seeking to organize among scholars a movement in opposition to the imperial court and French colonialism. He believed that Vietnam ought to modernize, and he adopted as a model the modernization of Japan under the Emperor Meiji. Whereas Phan Chu Trinh hoped for French cooperation in the reform of the French colonial system, Phan Boi Chou proposed violent resistance in order to drive out the French and establish a constitutional monarchy similar to that of Japan (Duiker 2000:25-26, 40).
As a consequence of the objective conditions of French colonialism, opposition to French colonial rule was not confined to the scholar-gentry class. Peasants were forced to pay high rents on land and new taxes on alcohol, salt, and opium, and they were subjected to forced labor requirements. Conditions on the rubber plantations of Cochin China were especially harsh. Factory workers and coal miners suffered low salaries and long working hours (Duiker 2000:31, 35-36, 110).
French colonialism brought changes in the characteristics of the Vietnamese scholar-gentry class. The Confucian examination for bureaucratic careers was abolished, and French educational institutions were established. A new generation of educated Vietnamese emerged in the 1920s, who originated from the families of the traditional scholar-gentry class, but who were educated in the French educational system. These Western educated intellectuals continued the tradition of the scholar-gentry class of opposition to French colonial domination, and they formed various patriotic nationalist political parties during the 1920s. Most of the leaders of the new political parties originated from the traditional scholar-gentry class. The most prominent was Nguyen An Ninh, the son of a Confucian scholar who had been educated in Paris and who had been a part of Phan Boi Chau’s movement. Like Phan Chu Trinh, he believed that Western values could overcome the limitations of the traditional Confucian system, which, in his view, had stifled creativity and had contributed to French domination. (Duiker 2002:107-12, 116, 138-39)
In the earliest decades of the Vietnamese nationalist movement in opposition to French colonialism, we find a situation different in fundamental respects from revolutionary processes in Western Europe and Russia. In Western Europe and Russia, the progressive members of the petit bourgeoisie espoused the goals of the popular movements from below, but not having objective interest in a political system governed by the popular classes, they ultimately betrayed the popular revolution. But in the colonial situation of Vietnam, the national petit bourgeoisie is part of the oppressed social sector. As a result, the traditional scholar-gentry class, a Southeast Asian expression of the petit bourgeoisie, possessed an objective interest in ending European domination. They thus played a leading role in the emergence of the nationalist movement, and their commitment to it would be deeply rooted. And this would occur in the context of a society in which the industrial working class was very small, and peasants comprised 90% of the population. These differences would lead Ho Chi Minh to a reformulation of Marxism-Leninism, adapting it to the conditions of Southeast Asia, an issue to which we turn in subsequent posts.
Duiker, William J. 2000. Ho Chi Minh. New York: Hyperion.
García Oliveras, Julio A. 2010. Ho Chi Minh El Patriota: 60 años de lucha revolucionaria. La Habana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, Vietnam, French colonialism, French Indochina, Confucian scholars, Vietnamese nationalism