Monday 16 October 2006

"Dear fellow-citizens, this is what we need"

In 1922, when he first read Marxist-Leninist documents, Ho Chi Minh was touched so fiercely that almost immediately he thought of embracing these philosophies under Vietnamese circumstances. Maybe he cried a little, and, as he wrote later in his memoirs, “Sitting alone in the tub, I yelled as if I was speaking before the public: Dear fellow-citizens, this is what we need. This is the path to liberation for Vietnam!”, he was determined at that moment that Vietnam would go into the track.

In 1974, shortly after Magaret Thatcher became leader of the British Conservative Party, she attended an academic discussion among the nation’s chief economists. Someone delivered a speech, saying the party should adopt a neutral line which is more like a central wing than a left or a right extreme. Maggie Thatcher, ‘the Steal Woman’ as people called her, reached into her briefcase and took out a book. It was Friedrich von Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty. Rudely interrupting the speaker, she held the book up for all of them to see. “This”, she said sternly, “is what we believe”, and banged the book down on the table.

It must be a foolish thing to think ones can turn back the wheel of time, and I know well enough that The Constitution of Liberty was written by Hayek in 1960, i.e nearly 40 years after Ho Chi Minh got to know Marxist-Leninnist philosophies. Yet I had a foolish thought. How I wished Ho Chi Minh had taken The Constitution of Liberty (or any other book giving the same philosophies) and talked to his imaginary audiences, “Dear fellow-citizens, this is what we need” instead of doing so with the Marxist thesis. If only our bible were The Constitution of Liberty or some other kind of book that advocates liberalism, things might not have gone this way and Ho Chi Minh would undeniably have been the great founding father of the nation. Anyway, I am going banana with this rubbish argument of a “postwar Kong Minh [Zhu Ge Liang]”. History is a stream that keeps running, and at that very moment of time, maybe Ho Chi Minh had no other choice but Marxism - Leninnism. Given the contemporary world panorama, we can see now, though with little confidence, that Ho Chi Minh possibly fell into the drift of unfavourable events. After all, it was not he who chose our path; it might be that we were destined to take this way. That was our destiny.

All of what I am saying may lead you to think of me as a fan of Hayek and his doctrines of liberty. No, thanks. Actually, I am not a believer in classical liberalism, for I know absolute liberty fostered in a society would surely lead to social chaos where some people are “more free” than the others. Liberty and equality cannot go hand in hand, as stated by US historian Will Durant, “Nature has never read the Declaration of Independence. It continues to make us unequal.” People are born unequal, some with beauty, some with genius, some with defect, some with lethal deseases, and so on. (In terms of physical life, the only thing they have in common is that they all will die sooner or later). If people are let live freely as they wish, they will definitely be divided into the ruling and the ruled class, and this devision usually takes place quite cruelly. So there always needs be a neutral force standing in between to guarantee equality and stability. The temporary power is given to a body called ‘the government’. (To whom does permanent power belong? I don’t know.)

Those who support liberalism - now we have enough arguments to say they are born with more favour than the others - advocate a policy of liberalism because they are more confident than the others that they can live in freedom and happiness without any control from any outside force. But it is likely that they would change their view quickly if they were born with defect, in poverty, or if they were disabled people.

Now that the planned command economy has failed on a global scale, “more free” people raise their voice, once again, about the necessity of adopting liberal policies, which will clear the way for development and growth. They argue that each step backward that the government takes means a step forward of the whole economy. Despite that all, I am not yet totally convinced that the closer we get to individualism, the more progressive the society becomes, for individualism is one of the favourable conditions upon which the inherent inequality of the society may grow.

And we must take into account the circumstances that postwar governments worked in to see why almost all nation-states embraced a planned economy after World War II. Perhaps history is a flow of unresistable events that washes away every obstacle. Under the very circumstances after the savage second world war, when the whole world was haunted by looming economic recession, chaos, and unemployment became a burning issue, perhaps governments did not have enough options. A planned command economy was probably the only choice they had to take, which they thought was the only way to guarantee full employment. In other words, it was history which drove us to choose, it was not truly someone’s decision. For this reason, any blame on Ho Chi Minh and contemporary leaders goes wrong, and redundant.

We too should not deny the role that governments played in the postwar world economy. Without governmental support, Korea might never seen the huge growth of chaebols (big corporations) which would later become world-known. Without governmental support, women in many Asian countries, including Vietnam, might never have any access to school and education. Conservative heads in Vietnam formed such a strong citadel that none other than the government could give women just a little chance to receive education. Unequality can otherwise expand much further not just between men and women, but also among mountainous, rural, and urban areas.

So if asked to chose between absolute liberalism and a form of “less absolute” freedom, I may hesitate a lot. It takes time to discuss on this matter. After all, what I’d like to lay stress on here is just that it was history which drove us to choose. We are destined to go this way. We are in the hand of fate.

Not yet concluded. Next post: Who Wins in the End?

Forgive me making a lot of spelling and syntax errors. The illustrative picture is a painting by my favourite artist Kandinsky. There's no specific link between the illustration and the writing.