Vietnamese Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (right) with his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro.


By Harry Targ

Diary of a Heartland Radical


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.)


Spanish colonialism came to the Western Hemisphere in the fifteenth century. Indigenous people were killed or enslaved. Africans were brought to the occupied land to produce sugar, tobacco, coffee, dyes, and other commodities that would find their way to Europe and processing for sale in the new global market place. The era of primitive accumulation, as Marx called it, marked the “happy dawn” of a new era.

Cuba became part of this new imperial system. Indigenous people were destroyed. Sugar plantations were established. And Cuba became an administrative center of Spanish colonialism in the “new world.” Some of Havana’s landmark buildings were constructed in the fifteenth century to house Spanish administrators.

Resistance and the passion for national autonomy were embedded in Cuban culture. Slave revolts and revolutionary campaigns occurred throughout the nineteenth century. The so-called “Spanish American War” constituted the culmination of Cuba’s anti-colonial struggle and the imposition of United States neo-colonialism on the island.

From 1898 until 1959, U.S. investors controlled the plantations, businesses, tourist enterprises, and public utilities while American tourists enjoyed Cuban beaches and culture. When the Fidelistas marched joyfully into Havana in early January, 1959 after Fulgencio Batista’s armies were defeated, a new era of hostile Cuban/U.S. relations was born. From 1959 to the present, the Cuban regime has experienced non-recognition, an economic blockade, a nuclear crisis, sabotage, efforts to cut off Cuban relations with neighboring governments as well as those in Europe, and sustained campaigns to undermine and overthrow the Cuban revolution. Despite enormous pain and suffering and extensive internal debates about the direction the revolution should take, the Cuban revolution survives until this day.

Socialist Paths: Material vs. Moral Incentives, the Socialist Command Economy, Rectification, the Special Period, to 313 Guidelines

The United States project from 1959 on was to stifle, dismantle, and destroy the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban revolutionaries had two main projects in mind: national self-determination and achievement of the basic social and economic rights referred to in Fidel Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech. In this speech Castro proclaimed that the Cuban people wanted to secure basic social and economic justice within a framework of national independence.

Over the next sixty years, Cuban society has been an experimental laboratory for testing and evaluating the effectiveness of economic and political policies designed to achieve the goals of the revolution. During the 1960s, leaders of the revolution debated whether the Cuban people were ready to embrace fully an economic system of moral incentives modeled after altruism and self-sacrifice or whether, given the neo-colonial capitalist system out of which the revolution occurred, a period of continuing material incentives was needed to encourage production for revolutionary change. The system of moral incentives was put to the ultimate test during the campaign of the late 1960s to produce 10 million tons of sugar. It failed.

After the disastrous sugar campaign, Cuba joined the Eastern European common market (COMECON) and shifted more in the direction of Soviet bloc command economies. Despite economic growth over the 15 years of command economy experience, the Cubans, in 1986 committed themselves to a campaign of “rectification” or reintroducing incentives and exhortations to rebuild revolutionary enthusiasm which they believed had been stifled by the Soviet state socialist model. From the point of view of the Cuban leadership, bureaucratization and centralization of control had reduced ties between the revolution and the popular classes.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and COMECON, the Cuban regime, because of deep economic crisis, shifted away from socialist command economy policies and revolutionary enthusiasm to policies, referred to as the special period, designed to save the revolution from collapse. The Cuban economy was opened to foreign investment, tourism was reinstituted as a core foreign exchange earner, some shift to small scale markets was allowed to resume, and state farms were shifted to cooperatives. The result was, despite the predictions of U.S. “experts” on Cuba, some economic recovery and growth from the depths of depression in the mid-1990s until 2006.

For a variety of reasons, including the retirement of Fidel Castro, rising generations of post-revolutionary youth, reduced growth in tourism due to global recession, and severe natural disasters, the Cuban economy’s growth rates were modest after its remarkable recovery from the special period. Economic inequality and inadequate absorption of a highly skilled work force added to a growing malaise. Leaders of the Cuban Communist Party, economists, and social movement activists began to argue that substantial changes needed to be made to better satisfy the twenty-first century needs and wants of the Cuban people and to sustain economic growth in a world still dominated by global capitalism. The state-dominated economy led to excessive bureaucratization, corruption, too many state employees, and insufficient innovation and competition.

Raul Castro, who replaced his brother in 2006, initiated a public discussion of Cuba’s economic future. Literally 2.3 million proposals for policy changes were introduced in various assemblies over a three year period. These were concretized and publicized as 291 “Economic and Social Policy Guidelines for the Party and the Revolution.” In April, 2011 after extensive debate a new document with 313 guidelines was presented and adopted by the 6th Party Congress of the Cuban Communist Party.

These guidelines have become the basis of a model of 21st century socialism that incorporates a strong but rationalized state sector, expanding markets, and the encouragement of workers to form various cooperatives in urban as well as rural areas. Also the guidelines allowed the expansion of private enterprises in small business, service, production, and agricultural sectors. Almost two million state workers overtime would be shifted to the non-state sector of the economy, private enterprises and cooperatives.

While the guidelines have begun to be translated into policy, Camila Pineiro Harnecker suggests debates continue between those Cubans who believe that the regime should continue to maximize the role of the state, those who argue that markets should become primary, and those who see economic democracy and workers’ cooperatives as central to Cuba’s future development of twenty-first century socialism. Interestingly, all three positions are represented in the guidelines; a better organized state sector, broadening of markets, and a growing sector based on workers’ control of production and distribution.

Among the central features of the guidelines are the following:

-socialist planning will continue more efficiently and will open spaces for other forms of management, production, and distribution of goods and services in the economy. A significant shift in employment from the state sector to the marketplace and cooperatives will proceed over a modest time period.

-along with state enterprises, the guidelines allow capitalist enterprises including foreign investment, the leasing of state-owned farmland, the leasing of state owned premises, self-employment, and the encouragement of urban and rural workers’ cooperatives.

-Expansion of categories of self-employment.

-Economic entities of all kinds will be required to maintain themselves financially, without subsidies for losses.

-Wages and incomes in state, private, and cooperative sectors will be determined by real earnings.

-Self-sustaining cooperatives will be encouraged that will decide on the income of workers and the distribution of profits after taxes.

The guidelines, while incomplete and still being developed, represent an effort to move beyond the dilemmas of a poor, but developing country historically committed to improving the quality of life of its people as to education, health care, culture, and economic security.

Vietnam, Cuba, and 21st Century Socialism: A Work in Progress

Vietnam and Cuba share many experiences in common. They both are historic products of years of colonial and/or neo-colonial domination and patterns of national resistance. Twentieth century nationhood was formed during the period of emerging global industrial and finance capitalism. Both Vietnam and Cuba resisted imperialism and won revolutionary wars against it only to be forced to survive in an era of harsh neoliberal globalization and political/military subversion. Concretely both experienced economic blockades from the United States at their most vulnerable time of economic reconstruction. And both as allies of the Soviet Union were forced to embark on the path of transitioning to socialism at a time when the socialist bloc was collapsing.

The generation of revolutionaries who fought the U.S. marines in the countryside and creatively withstood horrific bombing in Vietnam and fought against U.S. puppet armies in the mountains of Cuba, brought to victory a hardened vision of constructing a radically new society based on state socialism. With the collapse of state socialism as a world force and the shift virtually everywhere to neoliberal economic policies, Vietnamese and Cubans 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.

Presently advocacy of workers’ cooperatives seems stronger in Cuba than Vietnam. As the Cuban guidelines suggest, workers cooperatives are advocated to continue the socialist vision by more effectively institutionalizing worker participation in decisions that affect their lives. Decisions about management, distribution of profits, commitments to the communities in which they work all would be determined largely by those in the cooperative units. Given the broad array of grassroots mobilizations that dot the map from the Middle East, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and North America, some creative combination of workers’ states and workers’ cooperatives might constitute the centerpiece of a 21st century socialism.


The discussion of Cuba draws upon Cliff DuRand, “Renovation of Cuban Socialism,” March, 2013, (and insightful editorial comments on a draft of this paper from that author) and Camila Pineiro Harnecker, “Visions of Socialism Guiding the Current Changes in Cuba,” translated by Emily Myers, Center for Global Justice, both available from Cuba@globaljusticecenter.org ; Roger Burbach, “A Cuba Spring?” NACLA Reports, Spring, 2013; Raul Castro, “Report to the 6th Communist Party Congress,” ; Olga Fernandez Rios, “The Socialist Transition in Cuba: Economic Adjustments and Socio-Political Challenges, Institute of Philosophy, University of Havana, translated by Emily Myers, Center for Global Justice, 2012; Pedro Campos, “New Cooperative Policy Big for Socialism,” Havana Times, April 9, 2012, http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=66858

Part 2 of a presentation prepared for The Labor and Working-Class Studies Project, Working Class Studies Association, Madison College, Madison Wisconsin, June 12-15, 2013. To access Part 1 see www.heartlandradical.blogspot.com

Category : Capitalism / Cooperatives / Cuba / Socialism / Vietnam

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