Combining Confucianism with ancestor worship
The original Lac Viet inhabitants of Vietnam were tribal people living in large clans. The patriarchal clan structure, with deference toward elders and filial piety as basic virtues, was the adhesive that bound together a closely-knit, consanguineous community. The feudal nature of the clans harmonised with both Chinese Confucianism and ancestor worship.
Confucianism can be summarised as a set of beliefs that, for the average Vietnamese, creates a sense of being a unit in a collective entity rather than a distinct individual. The effect is that the will and interest of the group always takes precedence over the wishes of an individual or couple. The result is a people who have no concept of privacy, or of having one’s ‘own space’.
Ancestor worship extended the concept of family beyond mere kinship by linking three or four living generations to two or three generations of family members who had died and become spirits. A belief that good or bad behaviour by ancestors during life had a positive or negative effect upon the fortunes of the succeeding generations further extended the family unit.
In a practical sense, these two influences merged the interests of individuals a communal society in which all members were jointly responsible for the each other’s behaviour, and paved the way for the introduction of communism Vietnam.
The seed bed of Communism
Communism first entered Vietnam early in the last century in the coalfields of Ha Long Bay. The appalling workplace conditions and the brutality of the French colonialists created a fertile seedbed for radical ideas, and the theories of Marx and Lenin provided a philosophic rationale. Unlike the people of the USSR and its satellites, the Vietnamese were already communalised – Marxist-Leninism was adopted as an organising framework for revolution.
The underlying tenets of communism: an emphasis upon ends rather than means, collective action and responsibility, discipline and sacrifice for the greater good: all these and more were already part of everyday life, instilled through Confucianism and, to a lesser extent, ancestor worship.
The resilient strength of Vietnamese communalism meant that communism was easily absorbed the collective consciousness of the Vietnamese people, and transformed something that fitted their existing structure rather than a vehicle to reconstruct society.
The communalist instinct
Today, doi moi has created what appears to be a classic capitalist market economy, so much so that several western commentators have, according to their political stance, either condemned or hailed what they believe to be the demise of ‘communism’ in Vietnam. In so doing, they betray an inadequate understanding of the country’s history and culture.
Apart a disastrous flirtation with Stalinist collectivisation, the ideology of communism has always taken second place to the Vietnamese communal instinct. The organising principles of communism have served Vietnam well, and still do, but the purpose is to achieve a communally-organised society, not a centralised monolith.
The greater community
Most of the socialist ‘litmus test’ icons – free health, free education, subsidised food and transport, generous social benefits, for example - are noticeably absent in Vietnam. Absent, but not abandoned! For the Vietnamese, the ‘community’ is not just the here and now people and the Diaspora, but also the ancestors. For us, doi moi is principally a vehicle to strengthen our community, not to create wealth. We notice that people in the west are generally willing to make sacrifices to protect the weaker members of their national and local communities, but less so for future generations. In Vietnam, the future generations are part of our extended families and communities. During the last century, we fought to secure a better life for our children, not an ideology. The privations of doi moi are for the same purpose