Nguyen Phu Trong Would Find An Ally In Dickens

by David Hutt

Dec 20, 2023 in CEIAS Insights

Nguyen Phu Trong Would Find An Ally In Dickens

The political vision of the Communist Party chief is built on a bedrock of Victorian moralism.

Outside my window, as I write, snow is falling in clods, scattering powder on the ground I fear won’t last until the 25th. Christmastime is upon us and, naturally, a worn-down copy of “A Christmas Carol” is being thumbed through a chapter per day in the Hutt household. Concurrently, I’m also reading, less merrily, the translated speeches and articles of Nguyen Phu Trong, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). At moments, slightly in jest, I have to remind myself which book I’m currently on. There is something Dickensian about Trong: a ghost of Christmas past, present, and yet-to-come, all wrapped up in one, scolding his wayward apparatchiks about their greed, caprice, and uncaring attitude.

One imagines that Trong’s dream would be for his communist colleagues to wake up one morning – Scrooge-like on Christmas Day, exclaiming, “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a school-boy. I am as giddy as a drunken man” – and recant their immoral past actions and offer up maximal charity and paternalism over the poor.

Indeed, Trong’s ambition for the CPV is nothing short of Dickensian moralism. It’s the job of the powerful and wealthy, he implies, to live simple lives, be upstanding, and dole out better wages and handouts to the poor. (“I will honor Communism in my heart and try to keep it all the year. I will not shut the lessons you have taught me,” they might proclaim.) Never in question is the poor having their own liberty and autonomy to take control of political or economic systems for themselves, thereby not requiring the intervention of a benevolent benefactor. No, no, it’s noblesse oblige all the way.

Trong’s grand, “burning furnace” anti-corruption campaign is a story in moralism: simple, uncorrupted lives for the political aristocracy and the contented commoners. The CPV becomes the reformed Scrooge: adoring its inferiors; obsessed with honor not wealth; and indulgent of ordinary folk, at least at some times of the year. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese people become Bob Cratchits and Tiny Tims: admiring of their betters; contented with an annual pay rise and the provision of an annual feast; overworked but happy to have a job.

It’s not only with “A Christmas Carol”; all of Charles Dickens’ novels have a common thread: If men would behave decently, the world would be decent. It’s never that political or economic systems are wrong. It’s never a problem of irresponsible power. Indeed, according to Dickens, even if systems are changed, that never achieves anything if it isn’t coupled with a change in human nature. Read (say) “A Tale Of Two Cities” and one can only come away with the view that revolutions only succeed in devouring their own. Give eye to what George Orwell had to say, in his lengthy essay on Dickens, on this rather Victorian mindset:

Consequently two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another. Marx exploded a hundred tons of dynamite beneath the moralist position, and we are still living in the echo of that tremendous crash. But already, somewhere or other, the sappers are at work and fresh dynamite is being tamped in place to blow Marx at the moon. Then Marx, or somebody like him, will come back with yet more dynamite, and so the process continues, to an end we cannot yet foresee. The central problem – how to prevent power from being abused – remains unsolved.”

It’s tempting to say that Trong, a committed ideologue, sees this as having more of a dialectical nature than Orwell. Indeed, Ho Chi Minh was not a great Marxist thinker, nor was Che Guevara, but what the two bastions of sixties socialism fashioned was an innate morality to socialism that, as Orwell noted, Marx had no truck with. While Le Duan and others were getting on with forming the North Vietnamese state, Ho Chi Minh was, although in a slightly confected way, reaffirming the idea that it was as important to act like a socialist as to think like one. (He would never be as explicit about this as Che Guevara, who sought to create a “New Man” in his own image.) Of course, Ho Chi Minh also thought like a socialist, although, as noted, he was found wanting in originality. But it was his morality that the CPV venerated in the 1990s when it came up with the notion of Ho Chi Minh Thought, not least because it was apparent to all communists at the time that few people in society wanted to keep thinking like socialists.

Think of it not so much as “Ho Chi Minh Thought” as “Ho Chi Minh Conduct.” Read the Communist Review, for instance, and it’s the conduct of Uncle Ho’s life that is most often referenced: his unpretentious lifestyle; communication directly with the people; honor in public service; and instinctual distaste for hoarders of wealth. It focuses on the idea that a true socialist should be someone the masses look up to.

One can be cynical and say that Trong’s moralist crusade is a confection. Corruption was getting out of hand in the mid-2010s because of the communist, one-party political system, while all interest in ideology or values were seeping out of the Party. And, as a committed communist and not wanting to tear down the system to fix the rot, Trong invented an alternative solution: improve the morality of the people in charge of the system. To quote Orwell again: “A ‘change of heart’ is in fact the alibi of people who do not wish to endanger the status quo.”

That ought to be about as obvious as anything in how Trong has conducted the anti-corruption campaign. But that doesn’t mean Trong is being cynical in his thinking or that he has invented a way to simply purge his rivals and stay in power. Put differently, Trong and the moralists inside the CPV do actually believe wholeheartedly in their project, and they do not see that there is a distinction between an institutionalist and a moralist way of looking at the world.

Indeed, moralism is as much a part of the Communist Party’s heritage as historical materialism, a lineage fathered by Ho Chi Minh, who believed the two viewpoints to be complementary. Make of that what you will. To me, it suggests not only that Vietnam’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign is far more intellectually intriguing than it can appear at first blush, but also that what is happening in Vietnam today is universal in nature. Indeed, a Victorian moralist like Dickens might have made a fine ally for Trong.

The article was originally published by The Diplomat.


David Hutt
David Hutt

Research Fellow | Editor

Key Topics

Communist Party of VietnamCPVNguyen Phu TrongVietnam


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