Vietnam: The Revolutionary Path
Milton Osborne reviews a book by Thomas Hodgkin.
This is a work of passion and commitment. Whether it is good history is a less certain matter. At least the author is frank about his political orientation. In his own words he suggests that an alternative title for this book might be 'The Intelligent Young Third-World Radical's Guide to Vietnamese History'.
Thomas Hodgkin originally intended to write a 'brief introduction' to Vietnamese history. His wide-ranging study of the published literature and a three-month visit to the then Democratic Republic of Vietnam led him to attempt a different task: to place the August 1945 Vietnamese Revolution in the context of Vietnam's long history. The result in terms of length and coverage is far removed from a short history. Instead Mr Hodgkin surveys Vietnamese history from the earliest times to the end of the Second World War, drawing on literary as well as more strictly historical sources, and paying the most detailed attention to the periods from the end of the nineteenth century to the initial Communist proclamation of Vietnam's independence.
Students will be grateful for the summary Mr Hodgkin has provided of the early history of Vietnam, particularly if they are not comfortable reading in French or do not have access to a major South East Asia library collection, But from the very beginning of his book the author sticks resolutely to the views being developed by the official historians of the current Vietnamese Communist state. To note this fact is not to suggest that the judgements that have been made in Hanoi are simply those of dogmatic Marxists. Nor should it be thought that historical interpretation in Hanoi has followed an unswerving path dictated by contemporary political considerations. What is important and what detracts from the book's worth is the fact that in embracing current Hanoi orthodoxy, Thomas Hodgkin gives far too little attention to views that run contrary to his own.
This criticism is valid whether one is considering an issue such as the importance of cultural borrowing from the Chinese as a factor enhancing Vietnam's ability to prevent China's attempts to subjugate its southern neighbour, or seeking to account for the success of the Vietnamese Communist Party rather than any other political grouping in the twentieth century.
The Hanoi historians whose views Mr Hodgkin follows are probably right to suggest that in the past there has been an excessive tendency to stress the importance of Chinese cultural and bureaucratic models in an effort to explain the remarkable survival of an independent Vietnamese state in the face of continuing Chinese challenge. To discuss the significance of those models as 'myth' is another matter. Vietnam's relationship with China is one of the most complex and ambiguous between states whether one is considering the historical or the contemporary period. There is room for debate about degrees of importance but that the Chinese provided an arsenal of cultural and administrative practices from which the Vietnamese did draw – to preserve their capacity to maintain an independent existence – seems beyond debate.
It is, however, in the recounting of the modern history of Vietnam that the limitations of the author's approach are most clearly revealed. The reader is not offered historical analysis in which there is a searching effort to plumb the intricacies of major- political developments. Rather Mr Hodgkin retells the story as his historian friends in Hanoi would tell it. This does not mean that his account of modern Vietnamese history is without value, since historical research is taken seriously in Vietnam. It does not mean the uncritical acceptance of one particular point of view with an uncomfortably frequent and intellectually smug readiness to dismiss or devalue alternative explanations. The book, in particular, contributes little to an understanding of the highly complex interplay of factors that led to the triumph of the Vietnamese Communist Party instead of alternative contenders for the leadership of the nationalist movement. The picture that emerges is of inevitability – a satisfying approach for a Marxist, perhaps, but not for others.
All in all this book is best considered as a guide to current Vietnamese Communist historical thinking. It cannot be recommended as an introduction to Vietnamese history nor can it be judged to have provided a fair summary of the many historical controversies that remain for debate in any balanced approach to the subject. Its shortcomings are quite apparent when it is compared to the much more sophisticated and helpful analyses to be found in such works as Alexander Woodside's Community and Revolution in Modern Vietnam (Boston, 1976) and David Marr's Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945 (Berkeley, California, 1981).
Vietnam: The Revolutionary Path
Macmillan; 433 pp.
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology