Vietnamese Perspectives on the War in Vietnam

VII. Works of Socialist Realism from the North and "Liberated" South

Listed here are works written according to the dictates of socialist realism, an approach to literature developed by Russian communist critics and party ideologues. Most of the works sugggested are translations published by the Foreign Languages Publishing House in Hanoi. The introduction traces the development of this approach, explaining how socialist realism has been defined in Russia and Vietnam, and warns that students may reject this literature as propaganda, a justifiable reaction that can lead to useful discussions of the relation of literature to politics in the U.S. and Vietnam.

Discussion: Socialist Realism in Russia and Vietnam

Neither Marx nor Engels used the term "socialist realism," but Engels, in a letter to a British writer, offered what has become his famous definition of realism: "Realism, to my mind, implies, besides truth of detail, the truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances."
1 Like most of Marx and Engels' comments on literature, this definition is vague enough to have spawned a host of interpretations. When in a report delivered in 1948 Tru+o+`ng Chinh, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Party, defines socialist realism, he quotes from Engels' definition, but it is clear that his formulation owes much to literary debates in Russia where the term "socialist realism" emerged in the early 1930's.

The term "socialist realism" and the theory it referred to were, like most everything in the Soviet Union at this time, ascribed to Stalin himself, but Soviet critics and writers, particularly Maxim Gorky, were chiefly responsible. A resolution passed by the Central Committee of the Communist party in 1932 created a single Union of Soviet Writers. Writers who wished to join had to accept the general policy of the Soviet government, support socialist reconstruction, and adhere to the method of socialist realism. Though socialist realism is now seen as a restrictive doctrine, it was formulated in Russia as a reaction to an even stricter regimentation by a group known as the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. This group insisted on proletarian literature that would serve Russia's Five-Year Plan for industrial and economic development. Approved works glorified workers in factories and on collective farms. Disappointed with the quality of this proletarian literature, party members established a new Union of Soviet Writers and the new doctrine of socialist realism in order to improve literary quality. Restrictions were still in place, writers had to produce socialist realism, but they were relieved of the requirement to write purely industrial or political novels.


In 1934 Maxim Gorky summarized the four key features of socialist realism. First, socialist realism is a programmatic literature that affirms something. Second, it is a literature in which collectivism is presented as the main factor in shaping man. "Socialist individuality can develop only in conditions of collective labor," said Gorky. Third, socialist realistic literature provides an optimistic outlook on life. Fourth, this literature must have an educative function.2 Zhdanov, another prominent critic at the time, offered this definition: "[T]ruthfulness and historical concreteness of artistic depiction must be combined with the task of ideological remolding and re-education of the toiling people in the spirit of Socialism. This method in fiction and in literary criticism is what we call Socialist Realism . . . ."3

Gorky and other critics who helped define socialist realism often contrasted it with critical or bourgeois realism--the realism of Balzac, for example, or of Russia's great nineteenth-century novelists Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. According to Gorky, the problem with critical realism was that it was too negative, too pessimistic. It was good at exposing the evils of pre-socialist society but it was not upbeat enough to develop a new socialist personality.


Vietnamese intellectuals followed debates in the Soviet Union relating to socialist realism by reading accounts in French journals, including l'Humanite', the official newspaper of the French Communist Party, and Monde, edited by Henri Barbusse, a leading communist intellectual. These journals were available in Vietnam when the Popular Front gained control in France (1936-39) and relaxed the censorship of materials sent to the colonies (See Hue^. Ta^m Ho^' Ta`i, "Literature for the People"). In Vietnam arguments over socialist realism emanating from the Soviet Union became part of a Vietnamese debate between a group advocating "art for art's sake" and another group in favor of "art for life's sake." The leading spokesperson of the latter group, a communist Party member named Ha?i Trie^u, aligned himself with Soviet (Maxim Gorky) and French (Romain Rolland and Henri Barbusse) critics who advocated flexible definitions of socialist realism. According to Hue^. Ta^m Ho^' Ta`i, Ha?i Trie^u was "the leading proponent of the communist conception of literature" before the outbreak of World War II (65). The war caused Soviet critics to tighten their definitions of socialist realism, primarily by making patriotism a dominant theme. It was these more rigid definitions, rather than Ha?i Trie^u's more moderate views, that were adopted by the Indochina Communist Party in its "Theses on Culture" that it promulgated in 1943--the Party's first formal statement of its position on literature.

Tru+o+`ng Chinh, General Secretary of the Central Committee, amplified these "Theses" in his 1948 report "Marxism and Vietnamese Culture." Here is how Tru+o+`ng Chinh defined socialist realism in that report:

As we understand it, socialist realism is a method of artistic creation which portrays the truth in a society evolving towards socialism according to objective laws. Out of objective reality we must spotlight "the typical features in typical situations" [from Engels' definition of realism] and reveal the inexorable motive force driving society forward and the objective tendency of the process of evolution. (285)

Even if we understand "objective laws" to mean Marx's laws of dialectical and historical materialism, his definition remains vague. Occasionally, however, Tru+o+`ng Chinh gives examples which clarify his meaning. After reiterating that "socialist realism is objective," he admits that some objective truths are unfavorable to the cause. Then he provides this example:

For example, shall we report a battle we have lost truthfully? We can, of course, depict a lost battle, but in doing so, we must see to it that people realize how heroically our combatants accepted sacrifices, why the battle was lost, what our gains were and notwithstanding the defeat, that our combatants never felt demoralized because all were eager to learn and draw the appropriate lessons in order to secure victories in future battles. (286)

A section on how to create works of art is also quite specific. Tru+o+`ng Chinh suggests that creation can be facilitated by having a clear view of who one's audience is. It should be the mass of the people, not the lowest artistic level but the majority of the people. Artists should live among the masses--workers, peasants, soldiers: "On-the-spot observation has always been profitable to artistic creation" (291). Finally, artists should get criticism from the masses before putting their work in final form. Even a playwright who is in the army should have his work performed in front of his fellow soldiers and take into account their criticisms (291-2).

Tru+o+`ng Chinh, despite his reputation as the most pro-Mao member of the Central Committee (Tru+o+`ng Chinh, his chosen pseudonym, means "long march"), does not refer in his address to Mao Tse-tung's speeches on literature and art at Yenan, which were delivered six years earlier. He, however, makes many of the same points as did the Chinese communist leader. According to Georges Boudarel, a Frenchman with close ties to the communist leadership in Hanoi, Maoism began to be imported massively into Vietnam beginning in 1950. Official policy in the arts "followed the guidelines laid down by Mao Tse-tung in Yenan in 1942":

Vietnamese writers and artists were urged again and again to reexamine their ideological stand. Their works were expected to revolve around stock characters or 'types' (DDie^?n hi`nh) and to serve the political requirements of the moment in a 'timely' fashion (phu+?c vu+? ki.p tho+`i). The catchword was 'hate' (ca(m thu`): hate for the foreign 'imperialists' (DDe^' quo^'c) and for the native 'feudalists' (phong kie^'n) or landowners. (155)

According to Boudarel, the Nha^n-Va(n Giai-Pha^?m affair, the precursor in some ways to the recent Renovation Movement (See Section X), was a reaction by writers and artists to these strict guidelines.4

Teaching Suggestions

If students know that the writers represented in this section had to follow the rules of "socialist realism," they will read their works more intelligently and sympathetically, even if they are still put off by the one-dimensional characters and clear political intent. Possessed of this information, they will not reject a story such as Nguye^~n Sa'ng's "Ivory Comb" too hastily. This story is narrated by an older Resistance fighter and features a brave female liaison girl who helps the narrator and other resistance fighters elude American helicopters in the Plain of Reeds. It turns out that the girl is the daughter of an old friend and comrade-in-arms of the narrator. The story ends with the narrator giving the liaison girl an ivory comb that her father had made for her many years ago.

"Ivory Comb" is a fairly typical story, the beautiful and brave female liaison girl is a stereotypical figure in revolutionary stories, but it does present a Vietnamese perspective. Instead of looking down on the Vietnamese from a helicopter, the perspective encouraged by American stories, the reader looks up at the Americans in the helicopter, seeing them through the eyes of Thu, the liaison agent, and the other cadres. The story also contains some common themes in this literature: how, from the revolutionary perspective, the resistance against the Americans was a continuation of the resistance against the French, all one "Long Resistance," to use the title of Nguye^~n Kha('c Vie^.n's history; and how though normal family life was sacrificed for the Revolution, still family loyalties were affirmed as sons and daughters followed their parents along the road to revolution.

Students will certainly recognize that stories like "Ivory Comb" are propaganda to further a cause, and no doubt they will and should judge them harshly, at least as harshly as many of their creators, Nguye^~n Sa'ng included, are now judging them in Vietnam (See Section XI). One can suggest, however, that the persistent emphasis on private experience in American narratives, although not overtly forced by the State, is not a universal tendency. Nor is propaganda absent from American works on the war. It might be instructive to make these stories part of a unit that included readings from U.S. Army magazines published during the war, some male adventure stories like those in Robin Moore's book the Green Berets (or the movie the Green Berets) and the anti-war movie Hearts and Minds. With these works in mind, one could try to identify American cultural stereotypes, counterparts to the brave liaison girl, and attempt a definition of propaganda. The goal would be to get students to see that American works on the war are not as politically disinterested as they might think.

For example, to generate discussion one could pair Robin Moore's "Home to Nanette" (a chapter from the Green Berets) with an excerpt from Nguye^n Ngo.c's the Village that Wouldn't Die. Moore's story is a semi-fictionalized account of a Major Arkin who is dropped into Laos to organize the Montagnard tribesmen to fight the communist Pathet Lao. Nguye^n Ngo.c's account, also semi-fictionalized, concerns the heroic efforts of a Montagnard village, assisted by a Vietnamese representative of Ho^' Chi' Minh's government, to defeat the French. Both accounts are formulaic, but written, of course, to different formulas.



1. Quoted in George Bisztray, Marxist Models of Literary Realism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978). My discussion of socialist realism is based on Bisztray's account and also that of Gleb Struve in Russian Literature under Lenin and Stalin: 1917-1953 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971).

2. My account here is based on Bisztray's summary of Gorky's address to the Pan- Soviet Congress of Writers which took place in 1934. See pp. 53-54.

3. Quoted by Struve, p. 262.

4. This "affair" take its name from two journals (Nha^n Va(n [Humanism] and Giai Pha^?m [Works of Beauty]) that were founded by writers demanding release from the strictures of socialist realism and also more democracy and respect for legal procedures. The movement began in 1955 and was squashed in 1958 with several writers getting long prison sentences.

Yale University Council on Southeast Asia Studies
Dan Duffy, Editor Viet Nam Publications
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Revised: June 18, 1996
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