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Bodies in Perpetual Motion: Struggles over Meaning, Value, and the Purpose of Fuzzy Labor on the Eve of Collectivization

2 Bodies in perpetual motion
Struggles over the meaning, value,
and purpose of fuzzy labor on the
eve of collectivization
Ken MacLean
“We were tired and hungry all the time,” said the elderly but still fit woman. Her
statement caused the cadres who had been assigned to monitor my interview to
suddenly stop what they were doing in the background to listen carefully to what
Pham Thi Vach said next. I, too, was surprised by her blunt assessment of rural life,
for Vach was nationally known for the contributions she had made toward “build-
ing socialism” in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) four decades earlier.
My efforts to elicit further details from her were unsuccessful; the remainder of
our conversation, while pleasant, did not diverge far from the widely available
facts that are routinely cited in official depictions of her life.
Pham Thi Vach, who later became a Communist Party member and secretary
for the People’s Committee in Kim Ty District (Hung Yen Province), first demon-
strated her leadership potential in the late 1950s, while still a teenager. Concerned
by heavy rains, she mobilized her peers to save the fall harvest one year by carry-
ing out urgently needed repairs to dikes that protect Hung Cuong Commune from
catastrophic flood. Leading by example, Vach personally dug, then carried more
than 250 cubic meters of muddy soil to help reinforce the earthen embankments
holding back the branches of the Red River that completely surround the low-lying
commune on all sides. The ad hoc campaign, which lasted fifty days, was suc-
cessful; other noteworthy achievements followed, as did a series of increasingly
prestigious awards for the young woman affectionately dubbed the “Red River
girl” in the state-controlled press. These awards culminated in the title of “Labor
Hero” and a First-Class Medal of Merit, which Ho Chi Minh personally handed to
Vach in 1961 in recognition of the role she played in transforming the commune,
long known for producing more beggars than rice, into a more prosperous one.
This achievement was later celebrated in verse:
Hung Cuong has a newly built sluice,
A freshly packed dike, a recently planted tree [for]
Whoever stops and looks.
Nowadays there is a Party, and the banks of the Red River have levees
(Thanh Duy 1962: 44)
34 Ken MacLean
As the poem suggests, the Communist Party played an important role in this trans-
formation. Indeed, a casual review of the policies, books, pamphlets, newspaper
articles, and other forms of official discourse published during this period all reach
a similar conclusion. But the relationship of the Party to different segments of the
state’s then rapidly expanding bureaucracy and the rural populations under their
administrative purview was far more complicated and fraught with contradictions
as well as unanticipated consequences than has generally been recognized. These
contradictions do not reflect an inherent conflict between the Party, the state, and
local communities. Rather, they arose from a combination of conjunctural fac-
tors: competition among different ministries for labor power, mass campaigns that
overlapped with one another, and a series of droughts and floods. The competing
demands these three sets of factors placed on the time and energy of the rural pop-
ulations continually threatened their ability to feed themselves; as a result, they
were “tired and hungry all the time,” as Pham Thi Vach recalled.
These contradictions and tensions were perhaps most evident on construc-
tion sites where low-level cadres utilized a combination of volunteer, conscripted
(corvée), and wage labor to (re-)build essential infrastructure in the DRV follow-
ing independence. Details on the different labor “regimes,” drawn primarily from
archival documents, highlight why the category of labor was both indispensable
and inadequate for understanding official efforts to “lay the foundations” of state
socialism in the countryside between late 1956 and late 1959, as its boundaries
were neither distinct nor discrete; instead, the category of labor became increas-
ingly “fuzzy,” to borrow the term Katherine Verdery has used to describe the
property forms found in many parts of postsocialist Europe (1999). The “tran-
sition” out of state socialism, Verdery noted, did not completely transform the
political, economic, and jural systems of these countries or the cultural values and
practices that informed them; quite the contrary occurred, as the process trans-
formed some aspects of these systems, but left others intact and reconfigured still
others. Consequently, the property forms that emerged there after 1989 typically
contained a complex mixture of rights and obligations, which made it difficult to
determine where collective claims ended and private ones began (53–5) – hence,
Verdery’s use of the term “fuzzy” to describe them.
Verdery’s observations, although focused on the reorganization of property rela-
tions following decollectivization, are not limited to the European context or, for
that matter, the “transition” out of state socialism. A similar case can also be made
about the “transition” into socialism, as this process did not wholly eradicate one
order and replace it with another. Thiswas especially the case in the DRV between
late 1956 and late 1959 when most of the policies, procedures, and organizational
models needed to establish a centrally planned economy based on the collective
ownership of the means of production were first put in place. The “transition”
into state socialism turns out to have been as “indistinct, ambiguous, and partial”
(Verdery 1999: 55) as was its unmaking decades later (MacLean 2005). Many
factors contributed to this “fuzziness,” but few more so than the growing confu-
sion and conflict over the proper meaning, value, and purpose of peasant labor
on the eve of collectivization. Labor, it should be recalled, is not an abstract thing,
Bodies in perpetual motion 35
though the category is often quantified as such, but rather an embodied process that
generates things that can be used or exchanged. Labor, in other words, is a form
of property as well as productive of property. This helps explain why the same
action can be seen as a gift in one context, an in-kind contribution in another, and
a commodity in still another depending on the bundle of rights and obligations
associated with the labor performed (Lampland 1995; Hann 1998). Thus, close
attention to disagreements over how and under what conditions low-level cadres
could mobilize peasants and temporarily redirect their labor-time toward different
Party/state objectives offers insights into a number of interrelated trends, three of
which I explore here.1
First, low-level cadres utilized a combination of labor regimes to (re-)build
essential infrastructure in the DRV; but, since the logic that informed each
regime – volunteer, conscripted, and wage, respectively – ran counterto the others,
these same cadres frequently found it difficult to mobilize and to manage suffi-
cient numbers of peasants on a consistent basis to achieve all of the Party/state’s
declared goals. Second, the lack of standardization over the terms and conditions
of the different forms of labor used further exacerbated this problem, as the rights
and obligations the Party/state extended to volunteer, conscripted, and wage labor-
ers on these (re-)construction projects were neither stable nor widely enforced.
Third, the confusion and conflicts that resulted from these disagreements, both
“inside” and “outside” the Party/state, were not limited to the construction sites;
they had an adverse impact on other domains of life as well, but especially food
production as the labor mobilized for large-scale projects could not be released
in time for harvesting crops. These patterns, when taken together, complicate the
existing historiography on the “transition” into state socialism in the DRV, which
still depict the events leading to the collectivization of agriculture as being orderly,
sequential, and inevitable in nature; in fact none of these terms accurately apply.
Instead, quite the opposite was the case, as the labor regimes used at the time con-
tributed to the very forms of inequality and injustice Party/state policies sought to
eradicate – namely, exploitation, hunger, poverty, and landlessness. Thus the deci-
sion to fully collectivize land in addition to labor, animals, and tools in rural areas
in late 1959 did not represent the predetermined outcome of historical processes
so much as an official effort to forestall further socio-economic differentiation in
the countryside (MacLean 2005: 187–239).
Labor and its meanings
Postwar efforts to (re-)build the DRV’s essential infrastructure did not mark the
first time that representatives of the state had sought to take temporary posses-
sion of the labor-time of peasants and redirect it toward other ends. Vietnamese
had for centuries discharged their obligations to the state through a combination
of conscripted labor (corvée), taxes, and military service. Indeed, it is impos-
sible to understand state-formation during the precolonial and colonial periods
without reference to these demands or popular responses to them, which ranged
from passive forms of resistance and flight to armed rebellion and millenarian
36 Ken MacLean
movements (Scott 2009, 1977; Dutton 2008; Tai 1983). Similar claims can also
be made about the crucial role conscripted labor played duringthe First Indochina
War (1946–54), as independence would have been extremely unlikely without it
(Pham Luan 1966). However, the relationship of labor to agricultural production,
physical property, and personhood began to change profoundly during the final
years of the conflict, first in liberated areas and then, following the end of the First
Indochina War in 1954, throughout the DRV.
By this point, much of the essential infrastructure in the DRV was in dire
need of repair, upgrade, and/or expansion. This was especially the case for its
irrigation works, as French officials oversaw the completion of only twelve new
systems in Tonkin between 1902 and 1941, many of which failed on a regular
basis prior to the First Indochina War. Moreover, all of these systems sustained
significant damage during the lengthy conflict, which further increased the likeli-
hood of catastrophic floods, especially in the heavily populated Red River Delta
(Ha Ke Tan 1964: 20–1; Phan Khanh 1997: 23–37). To address this problem,
low-level cadres used several different methods to mobilize peasant labor at the
commune-level and below from 1954 onward.
The first relied upon voluntary labor contributions, such as those carried out
by Pham Thi Vach. These “self-supporting” (tu tuc) contributions, as they were
known during the 1950s, had much in common with the informal labor exchanges
peasants routinely organized during the pre-revolutionary era to collectively
(re-)build dikes and other related infrastructure on a seasonal basis to prevent
natural disasters and to lessen the impact of floods, rot, and drought when they
occurred (Tran Duc 1994). Since voluntary contributions were not sufficient to
complete mid- and large-scale irrigation works, which frequently required tens of
thousands of peasants working in stages over months and sometimes years to com-
plete, relevant ministries also authorized low-level cadres to conscript labor (dan
cong) and to offer labor contracts (khoan)to finish their assigned sections on time.
Both methods provided payment in cash and/or paddy; however, the meanings
associated with each differed significantly as did the amounts given. Conscript
labor was defined as a “duty” (nghia vu), which all qualified citizens had a moral
if not also legal obligation to provide to the Party/state on an annual basis, so
payment was fixed. Contract labor, however, was defined as a commodity, which
citizens who had satisfied their annual obligation to the Party/state were able to
sell, so payment varied. As a consequence, low-level cadres faced a difficult chal-
lenge; they had to mobilize substantial numbers of peasants throughout the year
to help (re-)build irrigation works, yet separately track their individual contribu-
tions and compensate them differently according to the type of labor (voluntary,
conscripted, or wage) performed – even where the task, such as carrying dirt to
reinforce a levee, was exactly the same.
Disagreements over the meaning, value, and purpose of different kinds of labor
were not limited to irrigation works; rather, they were merely one manifesta-
tion of those caused by the Party/state’s broader efforts to remake nearly every
aspect of life through a seemingly endless series of mass campaigns (MacLean
2005: 133–86). These “emulation campaigns” (phong trao thi dua) took different
Bodies in perpetual motion 37
forms, but all were connected to officially authorized “programs of improvement”
(Li 2007) which sought to increase the quantity of food produced, the quality of
the country’s citizens, or, as was often the case, both simultaneously. Since these
campaigns followed one another in quick succession and sometimes overlapped
with other development initiatives, peasants frequently experienced heavy and fre-
quently conflicting demands on their labor-power, which reduced the amount of
time and energy they could devote to other concerns not specifically linked to
official objectives. Verdery observed a similar phenomenon in Eastern Europe
(1996: 39–57); but whereas, according to her, Eastern European states immobi-
lized the bodies of their citizens in queues, in the DRV (MacLean 2008: 292–4),
the Party/state “seized” the time of its citizens by continually mobilizing them to
perform labor.
The negative consequences of this loss of time and labor were not limited
to the peasants it affected most directly; it also had an adverse impact on pol-
icy implementation and Party/state–society relations more generally (Rév 1987:
339–41). These emulation campaigns are best viewed not in isolation, but as
zones of contest where the “practice of government” – what Tania Murray Li
defines as the calculated attempt to direct conduct in particular ways – continu-
ally encountered the everyday “practice of politics” (2007: 12), both “inside” as
well as “outside” the formal boundaries of the Party/state (Mitchell 1999). So,
although these struggles were certainly not limited to the efforts to (re-)construct
the country’s irrigation works, the moral legitimacy and economic viability of
the nascent Party/state was nonetheless heavily contingent upon the ability of its
cadres to engineer a dramatic increase in food production (Szalontai 2005). For
this reason, these campaigns are at the center of my discussion. I focus particu-
larly on irrigation works in Hung Yen, which quickly gained national prominence
for the labor contributions of its inhabitants. These contributions were significant
and warranted official recognition, but they were not without costs of their own.
Official contradictions
The architects of the new, but not yet socialist, society of North Vietnam faced a
number of significant challenges. By early 1955, much of the population, includ-
ing residents of Hanoi, faced serious food shortages, while nearly one million
people urgently needed humanitarian aid to avoid starvation owing to bad weather
and the disruptive effects the land reforms had had upon agricultural production.2
However, the magnitude of the problem did not delay further waves of class strug-
gle connected to the land reforms (1953–6). Indeed, three more followed in rapid
succession, even though it quickly became apparent that the redistribution of land,
tools, and draft animals to the country’s most disadvantaged peasants would not
on its own prevent future famines (Yvon 2008).
To help address this problem, the National Assembly, the legislative arm of the
Party/state, issued a Three-Year Plan (1955–7) that outlined how the economy of
the DRV was to be “restored.” The eight policies that constituted its core con-
verged in a number of areas, but diverged in others. Some, in recognition of past
38 Ken MacLean
promises, provided tax incentives to encourage peasant households to expand the
amount of land under private cultivation and to revive small-scale entrepreneurial
activities, especially animal husbandry; others, which foreshadowed the future,
promoted the partial collectivization of the means of production through inter-
households labor exchanges to promote greater harmony in the countryside and to
raise agricultural yields simultaneously. The tensions among these policies, which
reflected theoretical as well as practical disagreements among political elites over
the most suitable path for the development of the DRV, were readily apparent on
irrigation works. This was because neither of these desired outcomes – social har-
mony and increased production – was possible without such infrastructure, yet
other emulation campaigns unfolding concurrently also required the labor-time
of peasants to complete. Since the amount of available labor-time was finite, the
competing agendas of the different ministries involved meant that peasant bodies
were in high demand and shortages inevitable.
The Three-Year Plan directly contributed to this competition since efforts to
“restore” the economy were not limited to policy interventions in the country-
side. The Plan also initiated a period of intense state formation and reorganization,
especially in areas that had remained contested territory until the end of the First
Indochina War. This was the case of the Left Bank Region (Khu Ta Ngan)which
included large parts of Hung Yen, Hai Duong, Thai Binh, and Kien An Provinces.
Strategically located between the cities of Hanoi and Haiphong, the region’s three
million inhabitants helped produce much of the north’s food supply; yet it had
experienced little or no State/Party authority before 1954.
To help fill these administrative gaps, the Prime Minister expanded the geo-
graphic reach of the Party/state and created new “organs,” such as the Bureau
of Irrigation, which he established in April 1955 within the Ministry of Com-
munications and Public Works. This arrangement, like many others at the time,
quickly proved to be unwieldy, so the National Assembly approved a large-scale
reorganization of bureaucratic responsibilities in September. One product of this
reorganization was the formation of the Ministry of Architecture and Irrigation,
headed by Tran Dang Khoa.3By year’s end, Khoa had opened a Department
and an Office of Irrigation in each of the country’s administrative regions (lien
khu) and all of the provinces they contained. However, the creation of these new
positions exacerbated the severe shortage of personnel who possessed the desired
combination of “morality and ability” (duc, tai).
This problem was not limited to this particular ministry; it was instead a per-
vasive one that adversely affected the “practice of government” at all levels of
the Party/state for many years. The reasons for this were complex and com-
pounded one another: limited access to formal education stemming from colonial
restrictions and nine years of war; ideologically driven purges of politically sus-
pect cadres; class tensions that reinforced divisions between the “old” officials
who remained and the “new” ones just appointed; and the sheer pace of bureau-
cratization more generally (MacLean 2005: 76–186). Between 1955 and 1959,
for example, the number of directors and vice-directors at central-level agen-
cies in Hanoi increased by more than 370 percent (Le Duc Tho 1961: 18–19).
Bodies in perpetual motion 39
Nonetheless, the personnel shortages were particularly acute within the Ministry
of Architecture and Irrigation, as its cadres needed to have advanced engineering
skills in addition to basic administrative ones to be effective.
As Table 2.1 indicates, cadres remained in short supply through 1960. But
archival documents reveal something that these figures do not: most of the reported
growth was in personnel with administrative rather than technical skills (BTLKT
Not surprisingly, the shortage of technically qualified personnel had a tremen-
dous impact on initial (re-)construction efforts, as the Ministry of Architecture
and Irrigation had little choice but to prioritize tasks that needed only minimal
expertise, massive amounts of labor, and simple hand tools to complete. While
this delayed the start of some major projects, the approach was nonetheless sur-
prisingly successful. Stunning volumes of dirt and rock were moved and concrete
poured to complete eight new irrigation systems and carry out repairs to exist-
ing ones throughout the country (Phan Khanh 1997: 46–7; BTLVP 1964: 20). Yet
the methods used to achieve these impressive results quickly created problems of
their own, as the field reports, conferences, and policies issued during the period
covered by the first Three-Year Plan (1955–7) make abundantly clear.
Inter-ministerial competition (1955–6)
In December 1955, Tran Dang Khoa, the Minister of Architecture and Irrigation,
announced an ambitious goal at the conclusion of its annual national conference.
He called for a 40 percent increase in the total area of arable land under irri-
gation by the end of 1956 (BTLKT 1955: 19). The conference minutes did not
record the audience’s response to this highly ambitious target; nor did the pro-
ceedings explicitly acknowledge that the land reforms then being implemented in
many parts of the DRV (Moise 1983: 201–2) dramatically limited the ability of the
cadres in participating provinces to achieve even modest gains in the amount of
arable land under irrigation, as successive waves of class struggle against “land-
lords” and other categories of ideologically suspect persons consumed much of
the labor-time peasants possessed at the time. Other documents produced during
this period in addition to those compiled after the fact provide some insights into
what happened over the next twelve months.
Table 2.1 Irrigation cadres and administrative staff (by number and level of education)
Cadres 1955–1957 1958–1960 1961–1964
University 18 99 584
Intermediate 144 636 3,538
Primary 1,296 1,735 1,567
Administrative staff 707 1,610 2,590
Totals 2,165 4,080 8,279
Source: BTLVP 1964: 30.
40 Ken MacLean
Rot, caused by waterlogged fields, was a significant problem throughout the Red
River Delta in 1955, including Hung Yen, which is only slightly above sea level
and receives 80 percent of its annual rainfall between June and September (Le Quy
Quynh 1966: 7; BTLKT 1957b: 4). Not surprisingly, the rot raised fears that the
1956 spring harvest would be badly affected and the province’s approximately
six hundred thousand inhabitants would again face severe food shortages, as they
had the previous year when widespread crop failures nearly plunged the DRV into
famine.5But what made these fears particularly acute was the province’s recent
history. Since the famine of 1944–5, which claimed over one million lives north
of the seventeenth parallel in only six months, severe weather had produced nine
droughts and three floods in Hung Yen (Le Quy Quynh 1966: 8).
To avoid disaster, authorities in the Left Bank Region launched a mass campaign
that lasted the first half of 1956. During this period, low-level cadres mobilized
the equivalent of three million workdays (cong) to (re-)build over 43 kilometers
of canals and ditches, irrigating approximately 90,000 mau of land (SVHTTHH
1995: 61). Even more strikingly, the most difficult and labor-intensive tasks were
largely completed during the first three days of the Lunar New Year celebration –
an immensely important festival in which all work not related to ritual activities
is normally suspended. That year, however, the threat to food security was suffi-
ciently great for the Central Committees for Bac Ninh, Hung Yen, and Thai Binh
Provinces to order large numbers of peasants in early Februaryto remove sections
of the dikes along the Red River and the Van Giang Canal in order to channel
more fresh water into the brackish fields. In Hung Yen, some ten thousand people
endured high winds, bitterly cold water, and thick mud to reach the goals officials
set for them: “Only when [fresh] water returns to the fields will the conscripted
laborers celebrate the New Year.” They finished on the fourth day and, accord-
ing to one local history, thousands of family members arrived at the construction
sites to cheer their kin who had “triumphed over nature” (Quoc Phuong 1964: 10;
BTLKT 1957a: 10).
The triumph was short-lived. Between December 1955 and April 1956 the
DRV received only 30 percent of its normal rainfall, adversely affecting over
145,000 mau – 32,000 of which were in the Left Bank Region (BTLKT 1956: 3).6
The Ministry of Architecture and Irrigation initiated a campaign to “fight [the]
drought” in responseto this new crisis and its cadres coordinated with their provin-
cial counterparts to outline plans which district- and commune-level officials
would later implement. Subsequent inspections noted what had been accom-
plished under severe conditions and very basic tools. Photos proudly showed
teams of men completing hand-dug wells that telescoped downward to reach new
sources of fresh water; while others featured women using shoulder poles with
baskets attached to gently pourwater from the wells onto rice seedlings in parched
fields. These and other interventions – such as the innovative use of bicycles
equipped with large ceramic cisterns mounted on both sides to deliver water to
distant fields – reportedly surpassed the campaign’s official targets, saving much
of the harvest and more than doubling the total area under irrigation (BTLKT
1957: 11). Again, Hung Yen led all other provinces and the Government Council
Bodies in perpetual motion 41
awarded the province an official pennant in July 1956 for its efforts to “fight
drought.” However, the methods used in Hung Yen, like those elsewhere, were
not sustainable. Nor were they without problems: official statistics give evidence
of an overall decline in agricultural yields over the next several years (Nguyen
Sinh Cuc 1995: 150).
Several factors other than drought or floods contributed to this decline, but few
more so than the land reforms (1953–6) and the “Rectification of Errors” (1956–8)
campaign, which immediately followed. Broadly speaking, the former utilized
class struggle to redistribute various types of private property in rural areas to
millions of peasants who had little or none as a way to destroy existing mecha-
nisms of socio-economic exploitation; the latter sought to return some of the land,
tools, animals, and personal belongings from those able to prove that these items
had been wrongly seized from them during land reform (Moise 1983: 178–268).
Both campaigns were thus highly contentious affairs since any effort to change
who owned what pieces of property directly affected the ability of rural families
to meet their subsistence needs as well as the size of their financial obligations to
the Party/state, which were typically paid in paddy after each harvest. As a con-
sequence, both campaigns encouraged those involved in them to neglect a range
of short-term concerns – such as existing initiatives to (re-)build dikes, canals,
and other necessary irrigation infrastructure – in order to protect their long-term
interests. The overall effect was the same in both instances: greater food insecurity
from one harvest to the next. However, each campaign contributed to this outcome
in different ways.
The land reforms, which officially began in some liberated areas in early 1953,
unfolded unevenly across the countryside in a series of five waves, with many
areas also undergoing multiple episodes of “land rent and interest rate reductions”
(giam dia to) as well as purges of Party members and administrative personnel
whose class backgrounds, behavior, or personal relationships made them ideolog-
ically suspect in the eyes of others. Since many parts of the Left Bank Region,
especially urban centers, had remained under the nominal control of French-led
military forces until mid-1954, its residents only participated in the fifth and final
wave, which officially began in December of 1955 and continued through July of
1956 (Moise 1983: 201–2).
It is difficult to generalize about what occurred as local circumstances shaped
when and how the land reforms were implemented in different parts of the Left
Bank Region. The mass campaign to end the drought, for example, delayed the
start of the land reforms in many places, such as Hung Yen, which did not begin
the process until late February of 1956, several weeks after the three-day effort
to divert fresh water to the fields over the Lunar New Year festival. While the
delay helped save the harvest, it dramatically reduced the time available to prepare
cadres throughout the province,much less ordinary peasants, on the procedures to
be used to carry out class struggle, redistribute property, and purge real and imag-
ined “enemies” from local positions of authority (UBCCRDTU 1955: 26–35).
The lack of preparation quickly proved to be a problem for the implementation
of land reforms as many of the procedures were highly technical in nature and
42 Ken MacLean
required a working knowledge of concepts drawn from Marxism, Leninism, and
Maoism to be fully understood. Moreover, instruction manuals provided to land
reform cadres stated that the entire process normally required sixty-five days in
each locale to complete. Yet, provincial authorities proudly announced in June that
the land reforms had already been successfully carried out in 149 of Hung Yen’s
communes (SVHTTHH 1995: 60), which suggests that the teams dispatched to
the countryside carried out some or all of the “steps” in considerable haste.
An internal review conducted shortly after the June announcement reached the
same conclusion. Authorsof the report cited a vast array of “errors” (sai lam)that
had occurred across much of the Left Bank Region and required immediate action
to correct, as detailed in Resolution No. 380. Toward that end, regional authorities
took steps to address them in August – several months before the Politburo autho-
rized a similar process nationwide (Dang Phong 2005: 258). Resolution No. 380
directed much of the blame toward low-level cadres who reportedly made one
of two fundamental errors: either they followed existing guidelines too closely
and thus failed to take local particularities into account or they disregarded them
entirely and behaved in arbitrary fashion. Both errors, although quite different in
nature, produced a similar result: false accusations. According to another internal
review, in the Left Bank Region alone, 7,000 out of a total 8,828 Party members
had been improperly “disciplined” (xu tri) – a vague term that covered a range of
different punishments from expulsion to torture and execution – as a consequence
of such accusations (Dang Phong 2005: 87). While the full scale of the problem is
not publicly known, aspects of them directly affected the mobilization and use of
labor on construction sites, especially those related to irrigation.
Heavy rains returned in the fall of 1956, which meant the mass campaignsto end
the drought had to abruptly shift their focus to flood prevention. This was again
accomplished largely by using woven baskets suspended from tripods to manually
scoop water, transferring it from lower-level fields to higher ones. But the above
average rainfall meant that hundreds of thousands of peasants nationwide had to be
re-mobilized to protect the Winter-Spring Harvest (1956–7) by reinforcing dikes,
berms, and other related infrastructure to divert excess water and thus protect the
crops ripening in the fields.
Unfortunately, the timing of this particular mass campaign conflicted with
another one, the “Rectification of Errors,” which officially began in late October
of 1956 and continued throughout 1957 and even into 1958 in some locations to
address the problems the land reforms had created (Moise 1983: 237–68). During
this period, teams of specially trained cadres were sent to the countryside to restore
public order. However, this too proved to be a difficult, time-consuming,and con-
tentious process since the Party/state lacked the resources, ability, and political
will to properly compensate the tens of thousands of people who lost their free-
dom, reputations, and property because they had been wrongly accused of a wide
range of ideological and/or economic “crimes” (toi ac).
The impact of the “Rectification of Errors” campaign on ongoing efforts to
(re-)build irrigation works appears indirectly in the progress reports that low-
level cadres submitted to their bureaucratic superiors. The details, which were
Bodies in perpetual motion 43
converted into statistical tables, indicate that substantial amounts of labor were in
fact devoted to irrigation works in the Left Bank Region during the land reforms,
with peasants moving more than 360,000 cubic meters of soil in Hung Yen alone
between March and May of 1956. Reports filed afterward, however, reveal that
no officially planned work was performed at the commune-level after this point,
though some ad hoc efforts to protect the next harvest did take place locally
(BTLKT 1957).7
This pattern was not limited to the Left Bank Region. Progress reports filed with
the Ministry of Architecture and Irrigationalso indicated a dramatic decline in the
amount of conscripted labor provided across the DRV, especially on large-scale
projects, during the height of the fifth and final wave of the land reforms. The
decline was particularly significant. The labor used to complete these projects –
fourteen in total (of which eight were new) – came from three main sources: some
11,000 cadres who had returned from the south after the 1954 Geneva Accords,
nearly 6,000 underemployed day-laborers from nearby townships, and substantial
numbers of conscripted peasants. In Inter-region III (Son Tay, Ha Nam, Ninh Binh,
Ha Dong, and Nam Dinh Provinces) alone, low-level cadres reportedly mobilized
102,999 peasants to provide corvée labor on such projects when work on them
resumed in March of 1956. Interestingly, the cadres attributed their achievement
to the “study sessions” peasants had participated in as part of the land reforms,
which they claimed made the latter more aware of their “duty” to the Party/state –
though they also admitted that some former landlords and other “class enemies”
had been physically forced to work on the sites as punishment (BTLKT 1956: 2).8
Despite the number of people initially mobilized, their overall productivity was
again much less than planned. Most of the cadres had held political or adminis-
trative posts in the south and found both the weather and the working conditions
in the north extremely harsh as well as tedious. (According to reports from Hai
Duong, a neighboring province, only one in ten could withstand the work for
any length of time.) Similar complaints were voiced by the day-laborers, many
of whom had performed the same repetitive tasks, transporting soil and rocks, for
two or more years and desperately desired employment in state-owned enterprises
elsewhere (BTLKT 1956).9
Peasants, although more accustomed to such intense labor, had complaints of
their own, which they conveyed to inspectors who periodically visited the con-
struction sites. Many claimed not to have been conscripted in accordance with
existing guidelines, a topic I examine in the next section. Working conditions,
especially food, water, and medical care were also identified as inadequate as were
efforts to raise literacy rates, which sought to improve not only peasants’ ability to
read official discourse, but to publicly perform it for others to learn, using popular
forms of oral expression, such as verse, plays, and songs (BTHUBCCRDKTN
1956). But the most widespread complaint concerned the relationship of wages
provided to the labor performed. In some cases, the relationship was arbitrary
(varying on sites as well as across them); while in others it was reportedly due
to the misuse of state funds, specifically embezzlement and profligate spending.
Regardless of the cause, these problems were a source of considerable confusion
44 Ken MacLean
and conflict, which the continued absence of official policies on compensation
exacerbated further.
To address these problems, the Ministries of Labor, Finance, and Architec-
ture and Irrigation concluded a joint agreement in March 1956 that established
standardized regulations across the DRV regarding the use of wage labor on
infrastructure projects. This development, while no doubt welcome, did little to
convince peasants to remain on the construction sites as the final wave of the land
reforms intensified (c. December 1955–July 1956). Not surprisingly, the number
of peasants willing to leave their villages to perform their “duty” (i.e. corvée labor)
at this sensitive time dropped precipitously and remained between 30 and 80 per-
cent below normal levels for the remainder of the year (BTLKT 1957a: 9–18).10
Ironically, some of those who did go (particularly in Kim Dong, Van Giang, and
Khoai Chau Districts of Hung Yen Province), stated that the physical labor was
a welcome change, as the ideological study-sessions they had been required to
participate in as part of the land reforms were “exhausting” (BTLKT 1956: 3).11
While it is likely that many peasants held similar views on this issue, compar-
atively few of them returned to construction sites after the land reforms ended
in late 1956. In fact, the number of peasants who provided labor on these sites
remained far below what had been planned until early 1958 (BTLKT 1957a: 6).12
Several factors contributed to this outcome, but paradoxically none more so than
the Party/state’s own efforts to extend greater protections to volunteer, conscripted,
and wage laborers on its construction sites.
Defending the people’s interests (1956–7)
In April 1956, one month after the national guidelines on compensation were
announced, the Communist Party issued another set to its members, detailing the
kinds of leadership and guidancethey were to provide to low-level cadres in addi-
tion to conscripted laborers on the construction sites.13 The document outlined
which officials were responsible for ensuring the ideological, economic, and phys-
ical well-being of peasants performing corvée labor on such sites. Despite these
efforts to clarify bureaucratic lines of responsibility, many of the same problems
continued through 1957; indeed, they arguably worsened, as evidenced by the
three different policies issued in quick succession between July and September of
that year.
The first, Decree No. 339, based on suggestions provided by the Ministry of
Labor, sought to better protect the “people’s interests” through temporary reg-
ulations on the “mobilization and use of conscripted labor during peacetime
construction.14 At first glance, the nine-page decree appears unsurprising, as its
contents provide expected details on who was eligible for conscription (nearly all
able-bodied adults who did nothold official posts) and defined the standard length
of service (nine hours per day for thirty days, with one rest day for every nine
worked). The decree also set fixed rates of pay for the different types of skilled
and unskilled labor performed (between 600 and 1,000 VND/day) and determined
Bodies in perpetual motion 45
what forms of compensation were appropriatefor those who fell ill or were injured
on site.
But two of the details, in particular, stand out. The first concerned travel
subsidies, which specified the amount provided and rest-periods permitted for
conscripted laborers who had to travel 11–15, 16–30, and 31–45 kilometers,
respectively, to reach a given construction site. Since irrigation projects (unlike
road construction in remote areas) were located close to densely populated rural
areas, peasants rarely traveled great distances to reach the sites. However, their
relative proximity meant that peasants were also expected to walk to and from
construction sites on a daily basis, which placed an additional burden on their
already limited labor-time. The second clarified internal lines of authority. Accord-
ing to the decree, low-level cadres were no longer authorized to requisition corvée
without the prior written approval of their superiors; moreover, the text expressly
limited their duties to four tasks: the dissemination of policies; the organization
of labor on site; its management; and regular progress reports on each. To help
reinforce this division of labor, the decree further announced the creation of “com-
mand committees” (ban chi huy) to help ensure that the temporary guidelines it
contained were followed appropriatelyand implemented in a timely fashion on all
construction sites.
Of course, the decree can also be read “against the grain” (Benjamin 1999:
248), which would suggest that the temporary regulations did not reflect existing
practice so much as a concerted effort by high-ranking officials to reassert their
authority over low-ranking ones by standardizing procedural norms. Two items in
the text of the decree lend credence to such an interpretation. The decree exhorted
local cadres not to mobilize corvée during critical moments in the agricultural
cycle, as this could adversely affect the ability of peasants to feed themselves in
the future. It also warned these same cadres not to rely upon “commandism” to
mobilize others since threats and intimidation would gradually undermine respect
for officials and compliance with the policies they sought to implement (see also
BLLNDTQ 1956: 7).
Such a counter-reading finds further support in the two circulars the Ministry
of Labor promulgated in September, less than two months later. The first, Circular
No. 17, provided additional information regarding how the temporary regulations
set out in Decree No. 339 should be properly implemented.15 The details, which
covered thirteen pages, are too complex to fully relate here; however, the lengthy
explanation of what tasks did and did not qualify as corvée, which tools laborers
were required to bring to the site and which would be provided for them, and
so on, suggests that previous policies had failed to fully resolve disagreements
over where the obligations of conscripted laborers to the Party/state ended and the
responsibilities of its representatives to those who performedit began. The content
of Circular No. 18, issued shortly afterward, also emphasized this point, albeit
indirectly.16 It detailed what kinds of infrastructure and services low-level cadres
had to put in place in order to make conditions at construction sites both safer and
more hygienic than they were currently. This included ten pages of guidelines on
latrines, on-site medical care, and compensation rates for work-related injuries and
46 Ken MacLean
deaths, which again suggests that central-level agencies had neglected to establish
minimal standards prior to this point.
Efforts to standardize the practices used on construction sites also occurred at
the regional and provincial levels. Since these decisions were not always in com-
plete alignment with central-level ones – indeed they often preceded as well as
deviated from them – attention to these dynamicscan provide insights into actually
existing government in particular times and places. Such dynamics were clearly
evident in the Left Bank Region where the “Rectification of Errors” campaign
badly disrupted nearly every aspect of daily life owing to the immense amount
of time and energy it consumed. Indeed, the problems the land reforms had cre-
ated proved to be so complex that different segments of the Party/state issued at
least eleven major policy statements during the first four months of the “Rectifi-
cation of Errors” campaign in the effort to define and then refine what procedures
cadres should use to restore public order, to identify and release victims of false
accusations from makeshift prisons, to re-categorize those who had received the
wrong “class fraction,” to resolve property disputes, and so on (VTTP 1957a).17
These initial, largely ad hoc efforts became better organized and standardized over
time (VTTP 1957b; Moise 1983: 237–68); however, they failed to convince rural
populations to carry out other essential tasks, such as paying their Winter-Spring
Harvest taxes on time, a feat only 211 out of a total of 804 communes in the Left
Bank Region managed that year.18
Non-compliance was not limited to agricultural taxes. The number of peasants
willing to perform their “duty,” i.e. conscripted labor, in the Left Bank Region
during the height of the “Rectification of Errors” campaign also plummeted from
a total of 24,973,250 workdays in 1956 to a mere 6,035,760 in 1957 (BTLKT
1957: 6). Since such work was crucial to the region’s food security, Tran Dang
Chap, the Director of the Ministry of Labor in the Left Bank Region, issued eight
circulars between March and July 1957 that outlined a range of material incentives
and organizational reforms he hoped would encourage peasants to once again pro-
vide corvée labor when needed (UBHCKTN 1957).19 Tran Dang Chap first raised
the wages paid to conscripted peasants in March to correspond to market prices so
that corvée would no longer make poor peasants poorer. The following month,
he also authorized the creation of hierarchically nested public works brigades
(doi), closely modeled after those used to supply military campaigns during the
First Indochina War (Pham Luan 1966), to more effectively and efficiently utilize
available manpower (Table 2.2).
This innovation was accompanied by a public awareness campaign that he
ordered low-level cadres to carry out in their respective locales. Its purpose was to
correct widespread misperceptions regarding corvée labor, to disseminate infor-
mation on current policies, and so on. This required these cadres to accomplish
a difficult task: low-level cadres were expected to explain what provisions had
been added to protect the “individual rights” of peasants, yet convince them that
it was still their “duty” to temporarily abandon their homes and fields to provide
corvée when requested.20 To make this task easier,Tran Dang Chap further recom-
mended that the Ministry of Finance coordinate with state-owned rice companies
Bodies in perpetual motion 47
Table 2.2 Public works brigades in the Left Bank Region, 1957
Brigade Avg. size Subsumes Command Scale of
(persons) committee operation
Large 70–150 2–5 medium 3–5 officials (district-level) Commune
Medium 20–40 2–5 small 2–5 officials (commune-level) Village
Small 9–15 Mutual assistance 1–3 officials (village-level) Hamlet
Source: MacLean 2007: 57.
and warehouses to pay conscriptedlaborers the equivalent of 1.5 kilos of paddy or
500 VND per day, depending on their stated preference.21
It is not clear whether the recommendation was ever approved, but other doc-
uments indicate that cadres throughout the Left Bank Region did not wait for
central-level authorities to offer material incentives. These details emerged as part
of a three-month inspection that officials from the Ministry of Labor carried out
in the Left Bank Region between mid-July and mid-October of 1957 (UBHCKTN
1957).22 In the lengthy report that followed, the officials described a wide-range
of “short-comings.” Some of these were attributed to the “Rectification of Errors”
campaign, which they noted had produced “ideological instabilities” across the
countryside. The particular forms these “instabilities” took were not identified in
this report. However, other documents issued at the time noted widespread fears
among peasants that efforts to correct past “errors” would result in new ones. The
three most commonly cited were: a change in their current “class fraction” to a
politically less desirable one; the loss of some or all of the property acquired dur-
ing previous waves of the land reforms; and/or personal injury at the hands of
those who had been wrongly punished for crimes they did not commit and now
sought vengeance (TT 1958).23
These fears had a number of immediate effects. First, the immense amount of
time and energy devoted to the “Rectification of Errors” campaign contributed
to a sharp drop in food production – per capita yields in 1957 were more than
40 kilograms lower than those the year before (Nguyen Sinh Cuc 1995: 150).
Second, this decline also prompted the Prime Minister’s Office to call on officials
in Hanoi and Haiphong to encourage and, where necessary, force people who had
sought refuge in the cities during the land reforms to return to the countryside to
help raise agricultural yields (TT 1957).24 Third, local officials in the Left Bank
Region also acknowledged a dramatic decline in the number of peasants who had
reported to construction sites to perform their “duty.” The daily average was a
mere 6–7,000 laborers instead of the 14–20,000 actually needed; consequently,
the total volume of soil moved, 488,000 cubic meters out of the 671,604 targeted,
was approximately one-third less than originally planned (UBHCKTN 1957).
Interestingly, the authors of the report did not attribute the entire problem to
the “Rectification of Errors” campaign; instead, they insisted that low-level cadres
were primarily to blame, as the majority of them purportedly lacked sufficient
48 Ken MacLean
“prestige” (uy tin) to mobilize others. This problem, the report continued, was
made worse by their provincial- and district-level counterparts, who had orga-
nized “study-sessions” to disseminate information regarding the eight circulars,
but only in a few locations; consequently, general awareness of these policies
and the broader political, social, and economic goals to which they were linked
remained scattered and uneven. This was particularly the case in two provinces,
Hung Yen and Hai Duong. Inspection teams found that at least five differenttypes
of labor contracts had emerged, all based upon the volume of earth moved within
a set period of time, typically by the day, but sometimes by the hour. Pay rates,
however, differed by type. Some contracts set specific targets in advance and paid
using official rates. Other contracts also took the quality of work performed into
consideration and paid at going commercial rates, which were higher. Still other
contracts relied upon a “middleman” to organize a group of laborers in return for a
percentage of the money earned. Since many of the contracts appeared to be little
more than “wage labor” in disguise, an ideologically unacceptable outcome given
its close political associations with “feudal” and “colonial” forms of exploitation,
central-level officials ordered their provincial-level counterparts to suppress them
(UBHCKTN 1957: 1–2; MacLean 2007: 51–6).
Rethinking transition (1958–9)
Field reports that low-level cadres submitted to different ministries during the
“Rectification of Errors” campaign indicate these and other “short-comings” were
not limited to the Left Bank Region. But, as Table 2.3 makes clear, these “short-
comings” affected (re-)construction efforts throughout the DRV, most obviously
the total volume of earth and rock moved, which declined dramatically despite
heavy capital investments in this sector.
Efforts to reverse this overall decline in labor contributions took several forms
both during and immediately after the “Rectification of Errors” campaign; they did
not, however, reflect a significant change in “government,” i.e. the methods used to
mobilize and manage voluntary, paid, and conscripted labor on irrigation works.
Table 2.3 Labor contributions and investment in irrigation works (1955–60)
Year Earth Rock Concrete Capital
(cubic meters) (cubic meters) (cubic meters) (1,000 VND)
1955 14,224,176 256,885 3,287 9,924
1956 18,222,423 220,017 7,554 15,510
1957 3,889,723 162,071 10,028 10,134
1958 5,538,428 234,457 5,674 12,224
1959 15,164,757 168,146 1,507 10,079
1960 14,381,445 128,240 2,188 9,246
Source: Vu Tai chinh Ke toan et al. 1994: 184.
Bodies in perpetual motion 49
Instead, the policies issued, particularly those related to the second Three-Year
Plan (1958–60), signaled their intensification.
Rot again destroyed a significant portion of the Winter-Spring harvest (1957–8)
across the DRV. This was followed by a drought that lasted much of the year,
with Hung Yen Province reportedly among the worst affected areas (Quang
Tuynh 1962: 5). In the midst of these natural disasters, the Ministry of Archi-
tecture and Irrigation held a large conference in Hung Yen with some 2,500 of
its cadres in attendance along with high-ranking Party members and selected
“labor heroes.” Ho Chi Minh opened the July conference and awarded represen-
tatives from Van Lam District with an honorary flag in recognition of their mass
campaign to “fight drought,” while the province’s Youth Union received a cer-
tificate of achievement as well. Afterward, Ho Chi Minh inspected construction
sites in a nearby commune. Such trips – he made three more to Hung Yen that
fall – marked renewed support for a massive irrigation scheme, first proposed in
1956 and then designed with the help of Chinese advisors. “Doing this project,
Ho Chi Minh stated during an inspection trip to Hung Yen, “will enable [our]
prosperity in perpetuity” (SVHTTHH 1995: 62). The scheme, later known as
the Bac-Hung-Hai Project, helped achieve this ambitious goal by providing fresh
water to the three provinces it eventually irrigated (Bac Ninh, Hung Yen, and Hai
Duong), dramatically improving food security in the process (MacLean 2007).
While it was a notable achievement, the decision to build this project also exem-
plified the broader turn toward technocratic solutions to development“problems.”
The emphasis on scientific forms of management quickly became a defining fea-
ture of the centrally planned economy then taking shape in the DRV, especially
in the agricultural sector where the first cohort of technocrats argued that an
increase in scale, made possible through the gradual collectivization of the means
of production, would result in a concomitant increase in yields. While this model
was eventually abandoned, the assumptions that informed it had two important
effects on how labor was mobilized and to what ends it was put on the eve of
The first was renewed emphasis on peasant self-reliance, which officials in
the Ministry of Irrigation announced at a conference in October of 1958, just as
the first stage of construction on the Bac-Hung-Hai Project began. The policy
shift, commonly known as the “Three Principles” (ba chinh), transferred all of the
organizational responsibility as well as much of the cost of construction and main-
tenance of small-scale irrigation works to peasants themselves. The stated goal of
this shift was to force rural populations to assume greater responsibility for their
own material well-being and thus rely less upon assistance from the Party/state,
which would enable its engineers to concentrate on the completion of large-scale
systems (Phan Khanh 1997). This message was reinforced with poems, short sto-
ries, and easy-to-follow instruction manuals that used hand-drawn diagrams to
illustrate how to reinforce dikes, reinforce the earthen walls of canals with woven
bamboo, and so on. It also appeared to work.
The Ministry of Labor reported a tremendous increase in local contributions
(see Table 2.3), including in Hung Yen Province where peasants sought to connect
50 Ken MacLean
their fields to the Cau Canal. Eventually completed in late 1960, the canal and its
side channels supplied fresh water to the entire province as well as parts of Hai
Duong and Bac Ninh. As part of this effort, conscripted peasants in Hung Yen pro-
vided 16,198,000 workdaysover a three-year period, during which they reportedly
dug and dredged 19,309,000 cubic meters of earth to help (re-)build 6,701 large-,
medium-, and small-scale irrigation works. When added together, these stretched
3,219 kilometers. Over this same period, peasants in Hung Yen also voluntarily
devoted 1,049,000 more workdays to move 1,668,000 cubic meters of earth as part
of seasonal campaigns to reinforce existing dikes, sluices, drainage canals, and so
on (Quang Tuynh 1962: 10; Quoc Phuong 1964: 13–20). The statistics, assum-
ing they reflect labor actually performed, are astonishing; they also underscore
the extent to which the ability to mobilize huge numbers of peasants remained
a crucial component of official efforts to quite literally “build socialism” in the
countryside during these years.
The second was renewed support for the “mutual assistance teams” (to doi
cong) among state planners, who asserted that working collectively would raise
agricultural yields more rapidly than working individually. The most basic form
was known as an “intermittent work exchange group,” which mimicked the infor-
mal quid pro quo arrangements rural households commonly used during the
pre-revolutionary era. Typically, such exchanges were organized around the most
labor-intensive activities associated with the agricultural production cycle: plow-
ing, transplanting, weeding, and harvesting crops. These ad hoc arrangements
were to be replaced with “regular labor exchange groups” that would, in principle,
carry out a much wider array of production-related activities on a routine basis
throughout the year, which required the semi-collectivization of draft animals,
tools, and so on. “Advanced labor exchange groups,” the precursor to low-level
agricultural cooperatives, were to take this processone step further by introducing
“work points” as a means to quantitatively measure each person’s labor contribu-
tions in addition to the full collectivization of all property (Tran Duc 1994: 75). In
theory, each successive form provided a sufficient number of social and material
incentives to households participating in them to voluntarily proceed to the next
stage of collectivization where the rewards were portrayed to be even larger. For
these reasons official histories typically describe the late 1950s as an important
transitional moment in which the tier-like organizational structure of the mutual
aid teams provided the “foundation”for the shift from private formsof agricultural
production to collective ones (MacLean 2005: 133–86).
Such an interpretation is problematic for several reasons. Among other things,
it obscures the fact this process did not occur in an orderly or sequential fashion;
quite the contrary, as official statistics reveal that total membership in the mutual
assistance teams fluctuated dramatically between late 1956, when the land reforms
ended, and late 1959, when collectivization officially began. The reasons for these
fluctuations are not yet fully understood; but it now seems clear the “Rectification
of Errors” campaign was one of them. In the Left Bank Region, for example,
the first teams were not formed until after the campaign ended there in late 1957
and, despite the official support for them, participation rates remained low: a mere
Bodies in perpetual motion 51
Table 2.4 Total membership in mutual aid teams (all types)
Membership End End Mid End End April End
1955 1956 1957 1957 1958 1959 1959
No. of rural 153,000 190,200 72,000 100,900 244,400 249,025 97,600
Avg. no. of 7.1 7.1 n/a 5.9 7.3 n/a 10.6
% of rural households 40 50 19 22 66 69 38
Source: Kerkvliet 1999: 83–4.
27 percent (n.a. 1958: 29).25 However, average rates elsewhere in the DRV, as
Table 2.4 indicates, were even lower.
The coercive tactics low-level cadres often used to pressure peasants to join
the teams likely did not help matters. Nor did the problems peasants personally
encountered once in them, which led many to conclude that the actual costs of
collective forms of production outweighed the promised benefits (Kerkvliet 1999:
While these interpersonal dynamics undoubtedly played a crucial role, the sta-
tistical patterns suggest why the fluctuations in membership rates on the eve of
collectivization cannot be reduced to either mistrust arising from previous waves
of class struggle or the forms of domination and resistance reportedly found on the
mutual aid teams themselves. The broader context also mattered, as the Party/state
dramatically reversed its position on the desirability of private property within the
space of only a few years. During the land reforms, the redistribution of private
property to those with little or none was officially touted as a way to eradicate a
number of problems – most obviously, the interlocking forms of exploitation that
contributed to chronic hunger, abject poverty, and landlessness in the countryside.
However, the “solution” to these problems failed to end them; instead, their sud-
den and unexpected re-emergence shortly after the land reforms prompted a new
series of policy interventions, the mutual assistance teams among them, which
were intended to prevent further socio-economic differentiation through the grad-
ual collectivization of the means of production in rural areas. This began with
peasant labor, which I previously noted is a form of property in addition to being
productive of it, and later expanded to include all arable land, animals, and tools
(MacLean 2005: 190–2). Not surprisingly, this reversal on private property gener-
ated significant confusion, anxiety, and disillusionment in the countrysidebecause
it asked for and, following collectivization, required rural families to place much
of their food security in the hands of others.
These problems were further compounded by the heavy and frequently con-
flicting demands different segments of the Party/state placed upon peasants whose
finite labor-time was continually taken up by a seemingly infinite number of mass
campaigns. Indeed, when these factors are taken together, the rapid rise and fall
of membership rates in these groups not only becomes much clearer, it also takes
52 Ken MacLean
on broader significance. The redistribution of property, a key feature of the land
reforms, dramatically reduced disparities in the average amount different “class
fractions” owned (Moise 1983: 208–9) – but only momentarily.
In the Left Bank Region, the disparities that previously existed across the three
poorest fractions – former “landless” peasants (1,442 m2), “land poor” peasants
(1,440 m2), and “middle” peasants (1,452 m2), respectively (BCHNHX 1958: 7) –
virtually disappeared. However, high population densities in the Left Bank Region
meant that these amounts – less than one-fifth of a hectare (10,000 m2)–were
rarely sufficient for rural families to meet their subsistence needs even under the
best of circumstances, much less reliably accumulate food surpluses year after
year. Owing to these material constraints, official efforts to build a new society in
the countryside ironically contributed to the re-emergence of the very problem the
land reforms were thought to have eradicated: rapid class differentiation.
Usury, tenant-farming, and other forms of socio-economic exploitation reap-
peared shortly after the land reforms were halted in late 1956. At the time, these
practices were commonly portrayed in official publications as “vestiges” of feu-
dalism and capitalism that would disappear over time (Tran Phuong 1960). This
assessment, while not altogether inaccurate, nonetheless obscures the role the
Party/state played in the proliferation of such exploitative practices. The relevant
ministries, for example, did not authorize any large-scale programs to provide
agricultural extension services or to improve access to formal credit to peas-
ants following the land reforms; so, most peasants continued to farm as they had
beforehand and to borrow money informally at high interest rates whenever cir-
cumstances required it. Consequently, the mass emulation campaigns, although
directed toward a range of official ends, inadvertently placed a tremendous addi-
tional burden on rural families. This was because the constant appropriation of
one form of property – their labor – as part of these campaigns increased their
economic vulnerability, which made the loss of another – their land – far more
likely when confronted with a failed harvest, illness, or other untoward event.
Some of those who had to sell part or all of their land to cover debts appear
to have become day-laborers for wealthier peasants and contract-workers on con-
struction sites, whereas others clearly opted to pool their meager resources and
enter the growing number of experimental cooperatives (n.a. 1989: 29). How-
ever, as the table above indicates, the vast majority of rural households appear
to have joined and abandoned the mutual aid teams from one season to the next
depending on their actual resources and the perceived risks of continuing to labor
either “individually” (lamancathe) or “collectively” (lam an tap the). For these
reasons, most peasants did not experience a gradual or well-coordinated shift
from a system where the relations of production were primarily organized around
individual property rights to another that was organized around collective ones;
instead, rural populations utilized a range of livelihood strategies – a tactic that
the diverse array of private, semi-private/semi-collective, and collective property
arrangements then still in existence made possible (MacLean 2005: 133–201) – to
survive the continual appropriation of their labor-time by representatives of the
Party/state for official ends that may or may not have aligned with their own.
Bodies in perpetual motion 53
The impacts these dynamics had upon the “transition” into state socialism were
significant and multi-faceted. Here, I summarize two of them, as they illustrate
why existing accounts of this process need revision. First, close attention to the
institutional arrangements that emerged between late 1956 and late 1959 to mobi-
lize and to manage large numbers of peasants involved in mass campaigns to
(re-)build essential infrastructure led the bundles of rights and obligations associ-
ated with the different labor regimes used on them to become increasingly “fuzzy.
In other words, official efforts to make volunteer, conscripted, and wage labor
more “legible” and thus amenable to bureaucratic administration tended to have
the opposite effect (cf. Scott 1998); they did so because other mass campaigns –
most notably the land reforms (1953–6) and the “Rectification of Errors” (1956–8)
that followed – radically transformed some aspects of life in rural areas, left oth-
ers intact, and reconfigured still others. Second, since these campaigns frequently
overlapped in time and space, the competition for peasant bodies inevitably gener-
ated significant confusion and conflict, both “inside” and “outside” the Party/state,
in addition to serious labor shortages.
As a consequence, existing accounts of the “transition” into state socialism also
need to be rethought since official efforts to “restore” the DRV’s economy through
the mass mobilization of peasants clearly contributed to the very socio-economic
problems the Party/state had set out to eradicate – namely: increased exploita-
tion, hunger, poverty,and landlessness. When these outcomes, which were neither
planned nor desired, are taken into account, the Party/state’s decision to fully
collectivize agricultural production in late 1959 appears to have less to do with
historical inevitability than a range of social, political, and economic contradic-
tions, many of which arose from disagreements over the proper meaning, value,
and purpose of peasant labor.
1 Neither the “Party” nor the “state” can be accurately understood as coherent entities
that think or act like people (MacLean 2005: xv–xviii). Nonetheless, I employ the terms
here, including their unorthodox combined form (Party/state), as a strategic essentialism
to signal instances where their institutional unity can be rhetorically presumed to exist.
2 Bo Lao dong, Bao cao cua Uy ban lanh dao cuu te xa hoi Trung uong ve tinh hinh doi
nam 1955 (H.s. 1620).
3 In April 1958, this ministry was again divided into two separate ones – the Ministry of
Architecture and the Ministry of Irrigation, respectively. To avoid confusion, I will use
the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation throughout.
4 Bo Thuy loi Kien truc (Van phong), Tap Bao cao cua BTLKT Tong ket 3 nam cong tac
thuy loi (1955–1957) phuc vu ke hoach khoi phuc kinh te (22/10/1957–2/11/1957) (H.s.
87, v/v).
5 Bo Lao dong, Bao cao cua Uy ban lanh dao cuu te xa hoi Trung uong ve tinh hinh doi
nam 1955 (H.s. 1620).
6 Bao cao tinh hinh cong tac de dieu va thuy nong da thuc hien trong qui I cua Lien khu
III (3/4/1956), in Bo thuy loi va Kien Truc (Van phong). Bien ban Hoi nghi kiem diem
viec thuc hien ke hoach thuy loi va kien truc trong 3 thang dau nam 1956 (6/4/1956–
10/4/1956). (H.s. 28, v/v).
54 Ken MacLean
7 Bo Thuy loi Kien truc, 1957, Bao cao Bo Thuy loi Kien truc Phong quan ly cong trinh
ca Cuc cong trinh thuy loi ve cong tai thuy nong de dieu nam 1956 (H.s. 61, v/v).
8 Bao cao tinh hinh cong tac de dieu va thuy nong da thuc hien trong qui I cua Lien Khu III
(3/4/1956), in Bo Thuy loi Kien truc (Van phong), Bien ban Hoi nghi kiem diem viec thuc
hien ke hoach thuy loi va kien truc tong 3 thang dau nam 1956 (6/4/1956–10/4/1956)
(H.s. 28, v/v).
9 Ibid.
10 Bao cao tong ket dai thuy nong 1956. In Ibid.
11 Bao cao tong ket cong tac chong lut, chong bao nam mua lut nam 1956 so 36/BC Ban
chi huy chong lut Hung Yen, in Bo Thuy loi va Kien truc (Quan ly cong trinh), Bao cau
cua Ban chi huy chong lut Hung Yen, Hai Duong ve cong tac de dieu, chong lut, bao
nam 1956 (28/5/1956–12/12/1956) (H.s. 74, v/v).
12 Bo Thuy loi va Kien truc (Van phong), Bao cao tong ket 3 nam cong tac thuy loi (1955–
1957) phuc vu ke hoach khoi phuc kinh te (H.s. 87, v/v).
13 Qui dinh ve cong tac Dang tai cac cong truong (4/1956).
14 Nghi dinh cua Thu tuong Chinh phu 339-TTg, ngay 27 thang 7 nam 1957 ban han ban
Dieu le tam thoi ve huy dong va su dung dan cong trong thoi ky kien thiet hoa binh.
15 Thong tu cua Bo Lao dong so 17/TT-DC, ngay 12 thang 9 nam 1957 giai thich viec thi
hanh ban Dieu le tam thoi ve huy dong va su dung dan cong trong thoi ky kien thiet hoa
16 Thong tu cua lien Bo Lao dong, Tai chinh, Y te, Thuy loi va Kien truc, Giao thong va
Buu dien so 18-TT-LB, ngay 23 thang 9 nam 1957 quy dinh chi thiet cac quyen loi cua
dan dong da duoc ghi trong Dieu le so 339-TTG, ngay 27 thang 7 nam 1957.
17 In Marxist-inspired social theory, class categories are typically used to describe the
domination of one group by another (e.g. the exploitation of the proletariat by the
bourgeoisie), whereas class fractions help distinguish small, but important social,
cultural, and economic differences within them (e.g. rich, middle, poor, and landless
18 Nghi quyet cua Ban Thuong vu khu Ta Ngan so 15-NQ, ngay 2 thang 3 nam 1957 ve
van de hoan thanh sua dien san va thu thue nong nghiep cua khu Ta Ngan. This problem
was not limited to the Left Bank Region. See Chi thi cua Ban Bi thu so 29-CT-TU, ngay
1 thang 6 nam 1957 ve viec ngan chan va giai quyet cac vu thanh chap tai san.
19 Thong tu cua Uy ban Hanh chinh khu Ta Ngan va tai lieu, cong van cua Khu lao dong Ta
Ngan ve to chuc va giao duc ve chinh sach dan cong nam 1957 (30/3/1957–18/7/1957)
(H.s. 26/413, v/v).
20 Thong tu so 10/LD-NL ty gop y kien v/v/ huy dong dan cong va giai quyet mot so mac
muu ve chinh sach dan cong (10/4/1957), in Thong tu cua Uy ban Hanh chinh khu Ta
Ngan va tai lieu, cong van cua khu lao dong Ta Ngan ve to chuc va giao duc ve chinh
sach dan cong nam 1957 (30/3/1957–18/7/1957) (H.s. 26/413, v/v).
21 Thong tu so 11/LD-NL Vu cong ty luong thuc va kho thoc cua Bo Tai chinh su dung
nhan luc (24/4/1957). Ibid.
22 Uy ban Hanh chinh khu Ta Ngan (khu lao dong), Bao cao cua khu lao dong Ta Ngan ve
cong tac kiem tra va mot so kinh nghiem ve cong tac thanh tra nam 1957 (12/7/1957–
13/10/1957) (H.s. 32, v/v).
23 Thong tu cua Thu tuong Chinh phu so 350/TTg, ngay 9 thang 7 nam 1958 quy dinh
nhiem vu can dan quan trong cong tac giu gin trat tu an ninh, bao ve kinh te va tai san
cong cong cua Nha nuoc o nong thon; Chi thi cua Ban Bi thu so 29-CT-TU, ngay 1 thang
6 nam 1957 ve viec ngan chan va giai quyet cac vu thanh chap tai san.
24 Thong tu cua Thu tuong Chinh phu so 495/TTg, ngay 23 thang 10 nam 1957, ve viec
han che dong bao o nong thon ra thanh pho.
25 Duoi su lanh dao cua Dang Lao dong Viet Nam. Nong dan Ta ngan quyet tam tien manh
tren con duong doi cong hop tac (tai lieu hoc tap cua Ban chap hanh nong hoi xa va cac
to truong doi cong, nong hoi) N.A. Hop tac xa An loat doan ket, 1958.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Bao cao cua khu lao dong Ta Ngan ve cong tac kiem tra va mot so kinh nghiem ve cong tac thanh tra nam
  • Ban Hanh Chinh Khu Ta Ngan
ban Hanh chinh khu Ta Ngan (khu lao dong), Bao cao cua khu lao dong Ta Ngan ve cong tac kiem tra va mot so kinh nghiem ve cong tac thanh tra nam 1957 (12/7/1957– 13/10/1957) (H.s. 32, v/v).
Nong dan Ta ngan quyet tam tien manh tren con duong doi cong hop tac (tai lieu hoc tap cua Ban chap hanh nong hoi xa va cac to truong doi cong
  • Dang Duoi Su Lanh Dao Cua
  • Viet Lao Dong
  • Nam
Duoi su lanh dao cua Dang Lao dong Viet Nam. Nong dan Ta ngan quyet tam tien manh tren con duong doi cong hop tac (tai lieu hoc tap cua Ban chap hanh nong hoi xa va cac to truong doi cong, nong hoi) N.A. Hop tac xa An loat doan ket, 1958.
10 Bao cao tong ket dai thuy nong 1956
  • Ibid
9 Ibid. 10 Bao cao tong ket dai thuy nong 1956. In Ibid.
Bao cao tong ket 3 nam cong tac thuy loi (1955– 1957) phuc vu ke hoach khoi phuc kinh te (H.s
  • Bo Thuy Loi Va Kien Truc
Bo Thuy loi va Kien truc (Van phong), Bao cao tong ket 3 nam cong tac thuy loi (1955– 1957) phuc vu ke hoach khoi phuc kinh te (H.s. 87, v/v).
Bao cao Bo Thuy loi Kien truc Phong quan ly cong trinh ca Cuc cong trinh thuy loi ve cong tai thuy nong
  • Bo Thuy Loi Kien Truc
Bo Thuy loi Kien truc, 1957, Bao cao Bo Thuy loi Kien truc Phong quan ly cong trinh ca Cuc cong trinh thuy loi ve cong tai thuy nong de dieu nam 1956 (H.s. 61, v/v).
BC Ban chi huy chong lut Hung Yen
  • Bao
Bao cao tong ket cong tac chong lut, chong bao nam mua lut nam 1956 so 36/BC Ban chi huy chong lut Hung Yen, in Bo Thuy loi va Kien truc (Quan ly cong trinh), Bao cau cua Ban chi huy chong lut Hung Yen, Hai Duong ve cong tac de dieu, chong lut, bao nam 1956 (28/5/1956-12/12/1956) (H.s. 74, v/v).
Nong dan Ta ngan quyet tam tien manh tren con duong doi cong hop tac (tai lieu hoc tap cua Ban chap hanh nong hoi xa va cac to truong doi cong, nong hoi) N.A. Hop tac xa An loat doan ket
  • Duoi Su
  • Viet Dao Cua Dang Lao Dong
  • Nam
Duoi su lanh dao cua Dang Lao dong Viet Nam. Nong dan Ta ngan quyet tam tien manh tren con duong doi cong hop tac (tai lieu hoc tap cua Ban chap hanh nong hoi xa va cac to truong doi cong, nong hoi) N.A. Hop tac xa An loat doan ket, 1958.