Writing on Vietnam


We need a Prehistory of the Vietnamese Capitalist Class.

A decent amount of scholarship exists on the early colonial Vietnamese bourgeoisie, but much less looks into their precolonial origins.

Deeper origins?

“The historical unity of the ruling classes is realized in the State, and their history is essentially the history of States and of groups of States. […] The subaltern classes, by definition, are not unified and cannot unite until they are able to become a “state”: their history, therefore, is intertwined with that of civil society, and thereby with the history of the States and groups of States.”

In the above quote, Antonio Gramsci refers to the subaltern classes. While commonly employed to refer to the “proletariat” or “peasantry,” precolonial Vietnamese merchants fit the bill as well. The history of the Vietnamese capitalist class would be a history of the subaltern classes. We need to do for the Vietnamese capitalists what EP Thompson did for English workers: find their history in the social strata and culture from which they developed. 

But when and where to start? At first glance the obvious place to start is at the “colonial rupture”. But once one digs a little below the surface, there are serious issues with this approach.

Before getting into these issues, I’d like to go over the basic model more or less implicitly invoked by starting at colonialism. The first assumption is that colonialism represents a sudden and traumatic rupture from the past. The historian divides Vietnamese history into a precolonial, a colonial, and a post colonial era.

The precolonial era figures as an essentially “Vietnamese” dynamic, usually identified with its “autonomous history” embedded in a “Southeast Asian” village society which is veiled by an ultimately superficial “confucian” Chinese-style  imperial state. If you see the author cite the Vietnamese proverb phép vua thua lệ làng: “The king’s decrees yield to village customs”, then there is a 95% chance that you are reading a history that relies on this model!

The colonial period figures as a momentous rupture. The ritual authority of the court is severed: it is now a “puppet”. The economy is remade into a dependecy by French investment. A Vietnamese class of compradors come to the fore. They are at first Catholics, then later “conservatives” of various stripes. Their economic bases are in Mekong Delta land concessions, European trading houses, and employment in the colonial civil service.

Decolonization is the process of struggling against both the French and these Vietnamese collaborators. The collaborators can’t fully embody the will of the nation because of they are tainted by the temptations of colonialism. They can only represent their restricted economic interests instead of the broad national interest.

Although I disagree with this model, it makes some great points, and I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater! Mekong Delta land concessions, the civil service, and European trading houses are crucial aspects of the growth of the “public sphere” and “modern politics” leading into the 1920s, for example. The men who come out of the ensemble of institutions built around colonial resource extraction are without a doubt some of the major players of Vietnamese history.

However, just because these characters do come to the fore later by no means necessarily implies that the precolonial dynamic approximates the static Vietnamese model implied by the “colonial rupture”. Furthermore, there is no clear moment of rupture, and there are not two different populations! Finally, assuming such a rupture, whatever its intellectual merits, is also a convenient way of ignoring difficult precolonial sources.

This is all abstract, and my thinking on the topic is still muddled, but a concrete example I think displays the form this takes in orthodox historiography. To put it a bit schematically, perhaps unfairly so, the 1885 Can Vuong Movement is the dying breath of a traditional Vietnamese anticolonialism. The Dong Du and Duy Tan movements of Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chau Trinh are transitional politics of a disgruntled literati class. And the 1920s maturation of the communists, constitutionalists, and quoc dan dang hail the arrival of fully modern politics.

This formula makes sense as long as we look at a narrow field of characteristics: Can Vuong was a court conspiracy, Duy Tan and Dong Du were a limited network of putchists and cultural reformers, and the modern parties were “public” facing and relied more or less on mass politics. The crucial variable in all three accounts is the relative participation of the public, so of course the structural prerequisite is “the public”, and therefore something like the “imagined community” provides the general trajectory of the narrative.

The exception that proves the rule is the typically Mekong variety of “millenarianism”, but more on that in another post.

Where are the constituencies?

But why is this really a problem? After all, periodization always involve a dismissal of certain continuities and the emphasis of other discontinuities. I think this is both inevitable and in many cases totally necessary! It would be absurd to expect infinite complexity of historical narratives, that, like Borges’ famous map, perfectly represent the territory.

Nevertheless the map should get you from your departure to your destination, and if you are trying to navigate through early 20th Century Vietnamese politics, I think this map will lead you off a cliff! The problem is that the destination– the “modern politics” of the 1930s—is somewhat clear, but the map is smudged and faded at our departure point: the Nguyen Dynasty. By the time you get to the turn of the century, you are left with a cartoonish image of interest groups and coalitions. The dominant narrative is more or less “impact and response”: confucianism is tested, and the problem is overcome (by the communists). Tradition is on trial.

Compare this narrative to the sort of detailed analysis of English political history that you see in Robert Brenner’s Merchants and Revolution, and I think the problem becomes clear. One doesn’t have to sign on to a doctrinaire form of “historical materialism” to see that the basic framing of the issue is pretty superficial: before “modern politics” there are no constituencies! As long as we don’t examine political programs as negotiations of different economic interests, then the march into the 20th century will appear as an idealist dialectic between “tradition” and “modernity” thought out in the “brain” of the nation.


I think neglecting constituencies has forced us into a cartoonishly simplistic story of early 20th century Vietnamese politics. I would tentatively go even further and propose that it has put far too much emphasis on the “imagined community” as the great divider in Vietnamese politics. Now, let me hedge a bit here by saying that I think that the growth of “print capitalism” is a crucial component of the story. I don’t mean to imply that the “Vietnamese nation” is a transhistorical actor of any sort. Finally, neither do I mean to imply that no other historians have tried to tackle this problem! There are quite a few people working on topics that I want to highlight and build upon in later posts, like Li Tana, Nola Cooke, Vu Duc Liem, and Liam Kelley, among others. These people don’t all agree with one another, but I think they all work on projects amenable to the sort of revision that I am grasping towards, and in any event their insights are crucial foundations for what I will try to do in following posts.

The point is, to put it as starkly as possible, there is a whole dimension of late 19th and early 20th Century “Vietnamese” politics that is almost completely ignored: the  economic policies! And it is precisely from the economic aspects of activists’ policies that I think we can try to judge their constituencies. I think the prehistory of the Vietnamese capitalist class has to at least go as far back as the birth of the Nguyen Dynasty and the relationship between grain export, Northern mining, Mekong shipbuilding, littoral pirates, and the deltas’ gentries.

Sooner or later I hope to figure out a way to bring those earliest germs together, but don’t hold your breath! Instead, in the next post I’ll look at an individual that I think embodies some of the contradictions that I’ve talked about: Pham Phu Thu.

Any responses or leads for further research? Leave a comment!

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