HANOI -- The Communist Party of Vietnam, which celebrated its 70th anniversary Wednesday, has proudly announced that last year's induction of 114,000 new members was its biggest increase in more than a decade.
But what party leaders are not saying publicly is that they're concerned -- if not alarmed -- that fewer and fewer young people are joining up. Political apathy is particularly obvious and widespread among urban youth.
"The party is completely irrelevant to me and my friends," said My Linh, one of the country's hottest young pop singers. "I'm sure they would like to use me (to promote the party to young people). But why should I join? The party does nothing for my career or for other artists. We don't need it."
Not so for Dang Dinh Duc, a child of the revolution and the future of the Communist Party.
Duc, 23, lives with his parents in Hanoi, speaks perfect French and can deliver a hearty rendition of that old revolutionary anthem "Liberating the South." He rides a beat-up motorbike, enjoys the poems of Ho Chi Minh, and occasionally does weekend training with an AK-47 in a far corner of Lenin Park.
Like millions of other Vietnamese kids, Duc joined the red-scarved Young Pioneers when he was in elementary school. Then in the eighth grade he moved up to the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union, a nationwide group with 3.5 million members. Nominally a social-service organization, the Youth Union feeds new members into the Communist Party while screening out the undesirables.
Later, as a college student majoring in French at the Hanoi Foreign Language University, Duc actively recruited fellow students to join the Youth Union, and he recalls those efforts as "the most beautiful time of my childhood." He expects his happiest moment is yet to come -- perhaps later this year -- when he joins the Communist Party as a full-fledged adult member.
Vietnam is one of communism's few remaining outposts -- along with China, Cuba, North Korea and Laos -- but the Communist Party here still holds absolute control over the political, social, economic and religious life of the nation. No opposition parties are permitted, no significant dissent is tolerated.
"Obviously, the number of socialist-communist countries has decreased in recent years," said Duc, plainly chagrined at the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. "But in Vietnam and China we're going on with socialism. And countries like North Korea, if they follow the right path, they'll continue, too.
"After this period of capitalism, I am sure there will be a time of socialism again."
Duc confidently talks the socialist talk, and he predicts that party membership will continue to grow over the next two years.
3 percent membership
But very few Vietnamese -- only about 3 percent of the population -- are actually members of the Communist Party. Total membership today stands at about 2.4 million, with the bulk of the members being farmers, government careerists, military officers and conscripts, and workers in state-owned agencies and factories.
Government and party officials refused to furnish annual membership details to the Mercury News, but party sources said enrollments during much of the 1990s were largely flat, with some years showing declines.
The big increase last year largely comprised farmers and rural laborers, with young people, blue-collar workers and intellectuals increasingly refusing to come on board.
Party seen as stodgy
"These three types of people don't want to join the party, because they see many members as undeserving," said Pham Van Dong, one of the country's most respected political figures. Dong, a hero of the communist revolution, served as Vietnam's prime minister for 33 years, until 1987.
This trend that Dong despairs about -- a sort of self-perpetuating stodginess in the party -- also worries the current leadership. A party boss in Thai Nguyen recently complained that the average age of party members in his province is now over 55.
He said the local young people aren't showing much interest in joining the Youth Union, and growing numbers of Youth Union members are refusing to "graduate" into party membership. He said youngsters merely want to spend more time at their jobs, making money.
His suggested remedy: "More lessons on politics should be given to them."
Widely seen as riddled with graft and corruption, from the smallest village councils to the highest circles of power, the party launched a two-year campaign last May to clean up its image. A few senior officials have been ousted, but the thousands of "punishments" that the party advertises have amounted to little more than verbal warnings.
"Corruption is normal and it happens all over the world," says young Duc. "I feel very bad about the corruption situation in Vietnam. We have to take action against this. While we can't say corruption will disappear, we have to try to get rid of it."
He also says that a violent peasant revolt against corruption in rural Thai Binh province amounted to "a good lesson for the party in the future."
Duc is an affable, well-scrubbed fellow who wears simple clothes and dusty brown shoes. He is bright, optimistic and well-indoctrinated.
He comes by his party loyalties honestly. His father, 58, is a high school physics teacher who served in an ideology brigade during the Vietnam War. He taught children such patriotic songs as "My Village" and "Liberating the South."
"Of course I still remember the words," Duc says, reciting a quick stanza. "My father taught me. Many of his students fought and sacrificed."
Duc's father, a staunch party member, schooled his son in the history of the party and encouraged him to join the Young Pioneers. One warm afternoon in May, Duc, his sister and his parents squeezed onto the family motorbike and rode to the Young Pioneer induction ceremony.
"I vividly remember that day," says Duc, adding that he became so emotional during the ceremony that he couldn't properly tie the red Pioneer scarf around his neck. "It was a big day for the whole family. My sister joined at the same time."
Duc remembers art shows, musical skits and camping trips, plus school campaigns in which the Young Pioneers collected glass and paper for recycling.
"It was a very different time in our country," Duc says, recalling his childhood days of ration books and standing in line for meat, rice and cooking oil. "But I still have a good feeling of that period. Through our Young Pioneer activities, we avoided negative things like smoking and drinking wine."
Duc says that he was not inundated with political education during his Pioneer days -- "I can say it is not true that we were brainwashed," he adds politely -- and that neither he nor his classmates were forced to join the group.
Membership opens doors
Nor did his Youth Union activities help him gain entrance to the highly competitive Foreign Language University, although he says he's aware that party membership is virtually a necessity if he wants to have a career in the government or the party.
Tran Dac Loi, the director of the International Department of the Youth Union, is one of Duc's political mentors, and Loi says he will happily sponsor Duc's application for party membership.
Members of their local party cell in Hanoi will examine Duc's service records in the Young Pioneers and the Youth Union, and they'll explore his family background for subversive elements. It's not an easy process, and not all applicants are passed along. But if ever there was a poster boy for a Communist Party of the 21st century, Dang Dinh Duc is it.
"We can see a bright future, most definitely," he says. "It won't be an overnight accomplishment and it's a long-term target, but I do have a vision of the time when the rest of the world comes back to socialism."
COMMUNIST PARTIES, political organizations designed to establish and maintain a Communist system, theoretically dominated by the working class and generally patterned on the party established in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Most Communist parties have been totalitarian and monolithic in both spirit and practice. Communist parties exist in most countries of the world. In the 1980s more than one-fourth of the world's population lived under Communist rule. Two of the world's most populous nations, China and the USSR, had Communist governments, and Communist parties also held power in Afghanistan, Albania, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Ethiopia, Hungary, Laos, Mongolia, North Korea, Poland, Romania, Vietnam, and Yugoslavia. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, political and economic upheavals in Eastern Europe, the USSR, and elsewhere led to the collapse of numerous Communist regimes and severely weakened the power and influence of Communist parties throughout the world.
Through the end of the 1980s, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was the dominant political party in the USSR. Its parent organization was the Russian Social Democratic Labor party, established in 1898. That group split into Bolshevik ("majority") and Menshevik ("minority") factions in 1903. The Bolsheviks, headed by Vladimir Lenin, were actually a minority of the party membership after 1904. In 1912 they broke away from the Mensheviks to form a separate party, which in 1917 seized control of the Russian revolutionary movement and founded the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In 1918 the Bolsheviks adopted the name Russian Communist party (Bolshevik). In 1925 this name was changed to the All-Union Communist party (Bolshevik). The name Communist Party of the Soviet Union was adopted in 1952.
Organization and composition
Traditionally, the structure of the CPSU paralleled the administrative structure of the USSR. At the lowest level were an estimated 400,000 primary party organizations; above them, in ascending order of power, were a much smaller number of rural, city, district, regional, and republic committees. At the apex of the pyramid were the All-Union Congress, nominally the party's supreme policymaking body; the Central Committee, elected by the Congress; the Political Bureau (Politburo), chosen by the Central Committee; and the Secretariat. The general secretary of the CPSU, the party's highest official, wielded preeminent political power in the USSR. The composition of the Politburo and Secretariat generally reflected the preponderance of ethnic Russians in party affairs.
The 1977 constitution recognized the CPSU as "the leading and guiding force of Soviet society and the nucleus of its political system, all state organizations and public organizations." As such, the party permeated all facets of Soviet economic, political, military, and cultural life. Mass organizations that regularly carried out CPSU policies included the Communist Youth League (Komsomol), from which nearly 75 percent of party members were recruited, and the All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions, with more than 100 million members. The main CPSU organs were the newspaper Pravda (Truth), with a circulation of nearly 10 million, and the ideological journal Kommunist.
Until the end of the 1980s, the CPSU was the leader of the international Communist movement by virtue of the power and prestige of the USSR. Its authority was particularly evident in relations with the Communist parties in Eastern Europe and with the smaller parties of Western Europe and the western hemisphere. Although the primacy of the CPSU was challenged by certain European parties, and above all by the Chinese Communist party, the CPSU long remained the most powerful Communist political organization in the world.
The CPSU in crisis
As the 1990s began, economic and political upheavals in Eastern Europe and the USSR forced the CPSU to give up its leading role both domestically and internationally. CPSU membership declined from about 19.5 million in 1988 to 15 million in 1991. The USSR legalized opposition parties in February 1990, and a new party charter proposed in July 1991 veered away from Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. In August hard-line Communists sought to reestablish their authority by ousting Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The collapse of the coup marked a disastrous defeat for the CPSU. Within days, the Central Committee was disbanded, CPSU operations were suspended, and the party's assets were frozen. By the end of 1991 the USSR had dissolved and its Communist remnant was in disarray.
Following the breakup of the USSR, Communist parties in the former Soviet republics reorganized along national lines. With a message emphasizing nationalism rather than Marxist-Leninist ideology, these parties had regained some of their power and influence by the mid-1990s. In the 1995 elections, for example, the Communist party of the Russian Federation emerged as the leading vote getter and more than tripled its representation in parliament.
The drastic decline of the CPSU closely followed the collapse of many Eastern European Communist parties, which had been historically linked to the CPSU. After more than 40 years of domination, every Communist government in Eastern Europe surrendered its monopoly on political power between 1989 and 1991. East Germany first ousted its Communist leaders and then dissolved itself to become part of the unified Federal Republic of Germany. Communist regimes gave way to multiparty governments in Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland. Romania's Communist leader Nicolae Ceau escu was killed in a bloody coup, while the Communist government of Yugoslavia was paralyzed by conflicts among its constituent republics.
With the exception of the Albanian party (founded in 1941), all the Communist parties of Eastern Europe had their origins in the period 1891-1921. Most were outlawed during the 1920s and functioned illegally until the end of World War II. Their assumption of power in the late 1940s followed the occupation of the countries of Eastern Europe by the Soviet army. Until 1948, when the Yugoslav party removed itself from Soviet tutelage, all Communist parties of Eastern Europe were almost totally subordinated to the CPSU. The East German organization, known from 1946 to 1989 as the Socialist Unity Party of Germany, was always firmly allied to the CPSU, as were the Hungarian Socialist Workers' party and Poland's United Workers' party. The Albanian Party of Labor remained Stalinist even after the CPSU began turning away from Stalinism in the late 1950s. In Romania, the Communist party, although organized strictly along Soviet party lines, pursued a semi-independent foreign policy.
Bowing to the new political realities of the 1990s, some Eastern European Communist organizations sought to mask their origins by changing their names. The Bulgarian Communist party restructured itself as the Bulgarian Socialist party, and the Communists who continued to rule Romania until 1996 called themselves first the National Salvation Front, then the Democratic National Salvation Front, and finally the Social Democracy Party of Romania. In Poland, the Communists split into rival Social Democratic factions. As in the former Soviet Union, economic hardship associated with the introduction of a free-market system contributed to the political resurgence of Communists or former Communists in the mid-1990s, notably in Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Poland.
Unlike the Communist organizations of Eastern Europe and the USSR, the Chinese Communist party (CCP) was able to stem the tide of democratic protest in the late 1980s. Founded in 1921, it is the largest Communist party in the world, with an estimated membership of more than 58 million in the late 1990s. Since the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949, it has been the country's only legal party. The Chinese and Soviet parties were once closely allied, but were divided by an ideological dispute during the 1960s and subsequently became bitter rivals.
The leading body of the CCP is the National Party Congress, which is convened every five years. In 1997 the congress elected a Central Committee of 193 full and 151 alternate members. To direct policy, the committee appointed a Politburo of 22 full members and 2 alternates; the top 7 members of the Politburo comprise the Standing Committee. Below the Central Committee is a network of party committees at the provincial, special district, county, and municipal levels. Through these committees and its leaders the party controls all levels of government.
Because of the political instability that followed the death of its longtime chairman, Mao Zedong in 1976, the CCP sought to lessen the monopoly of power by individual leaders. Thus, according to the state constitution of 1982, the highest organ of state power is the National People's Congress, which consists of close to 3000 members elected by the CCP to 5-year terms. The congress exercises its power through its Standing Committee, to which the State Council (analogous to a cabinet of ministers) is responsible. Despite these reforms, political power in China is closely held; CCP leader Deng Xiaoping remained the dominant national figure into the 1990s even though he was not a member of the government after 1989. Central control of the economy was loosened, however, as entrepreneurial industry and trade expanded, especially in southwest China. Upon Deng's death in 1997, China's president, Jiang Zemin, who had become general secretary of the CCP in 1989, held China's foremost leadership positions.
The Communist movement in Southeast Asia was closely tied to both the CPSU and the CCP. The Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh was trained in the USSR and founded the Indochinese Communist party (ICP) in China in 1930. The ICP organized a national liberation front, the Viet Minh, and eventually gained control of Vietnam (see VIETNAM WAR). Two left-wing nationalist groups, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Pathet Lao in Laos, allied themselves with the Viet Minh and were eventually successful in forming governments in their respective countries. By the 1990s, however, multiparty coalitions governed both countries. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Communists were generally excluded from the political process and were unable to mount successful antigovernment guerrilla operations.
The French Communist party was founded in 1920 by members of the French Socialist party who wished to follow the lead of the Russian Bolsheviks. The party's secretary-general from 1930 until 1964, Maurice Thorez, was briefly (1946-47) vice-premier of France; the party was led by Georges Marchais (1920-97) from 1972 to 1993. Since the early 1960s the party has followed a policy of forging electoral alliances with other parties. Although it has never won a majority of the voters, the Communist party by the late 1970s was the largest of all French parties, with a membership of some 700,000. Four Communists served in the cabinet from June 1981 to July 1984; two Communists were named to the cabinet in June 1997.
The French party was organized along the same lines as the CPSU. At its peak the Communist Youth Movement had 100,000 members. The General Confederation of Labor, with a membership of some 1.6 million, has been a major factor in the Communist movement. The party maintains an active press and publication program; its principal daily newspaper is L'Humanit. During the 1970s the French Communist party joined with those of Italy and Spain in advocating a more liberal, pluralistic form of communism (Eurocommunism). The proportion of votes cast for the party in national elections has declined to less than 15 percent.
The Italian Communist party was established in 1921 by a radical group of the Italian Socialist party. It was outlawed by the Fascist regime but reappeared as a major force in Italian politics in 1944. The party was well organized, in a manner similar to the CPSU, with local sections forming federations, which in turn were grouped into regional committees that reported to the national headquarters. Since the late 1940s the Italian Communist party has held power in many municipalities, and since the 1970s it has shared control of major urban centers in the country with the Socialist party. Under the leadership (1944-64) of Palmiro Togliatti and his successors, the Communists played a significant role in national affairs even though they never held any cabinet posts. With a membership averaging about 1.5 million from the 1940s until the early '80s, the party was second in numbers only to the Christian Democrats.
Beginning in the 1970s, the national party was closely identified with so-called Eurocommunism and was the principal opponent of those policies of the CPSU considered oppressive of human rights. These positions, however, found little favor with the Italian peasantry and middle class or with some radical left-wing factions; the latter turned to terrorism instead. The party itself thus became increasingly irrelevant. Responding to upheavals in the USSR, the Italian Communist party in 1991 took a new name, the Democratic Party of the Left, and sought to redefine its position by emphasizing social democracy, women's rights, and environmental issues; it continued to publish an official newspaper, L'Unit. After the parliamentary election of April 1996, the center-left Olive Tree coalition, which included the Democratic Party of the Left, joined with a Marxist party, the Communist Refoundation, to form majorities in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.
Other Western European Parties
The Communist parties of Western Europe were all established between 1918 and 1923, following the Russian Revolution. Their history has varied with the fortunes of international relations. The strongest Western European parties, other than the French and the Italian, have been those of Greece, Finland, Portugal, and Spain. At their peak, the Finnish and Portuguese parties captured about 20 percent of the total vote in national elections, and the Spanish, approximately 15 percent. Generally the Finnish party was neutral toward the CPSU, and the Greek and Portuguese parties supportive; the Spanish party is Eurocommunist.
The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) is descended from the Communist Labor party and the Communist party, both founded in 1919. It has been known as the Workers' party and the Communist Political Association. Under whatever name, it has served more as a target for government investigation and prosecution than as a political force (see UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES, HOUSE COMMITTEE ON; SEDITION). Even in the party's heyday, under the leadership of Earl Browder in the 1930s and '40s, the Communists were unable to elect a candidate to U.S. national office. Vito Marcantonio (1902-54) of the American Labor Party , a member of Congress for 14 years (1934-36; 1938-50), was often accused of being a "fellow traveler" who followed the Communist party line. The party's membership was decimated in the 1950s by the investigations of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy and by revelations about the despotic rule of Joseph Stalin in the USSR; by the 1980s, membership in the CPUSA had fallen to a few thousand. The party is structured on the CPSU prototype. It has no formally affiliated organizations, but the Young Communist League serves as its youth arm.
The CPUSA was one of the most consistently pro-Soviet parties and, as such, echoed all the USSR's positions on international policy and internal U.S. affairs. It has been challenged frequently by rival Marxist political organizations, of which the most important is the Socialist Workers' party.
Other Parties in the Western Hemisphere
Communist parties in the western hemisphere, except for those of Cuba and Nicaragua, are generally small and sometimes illegal. Their significance, particularly in Central and South America, stems from their support of leftist coalitions and, on occasion, of guerrilla activities as well. The Communist parties of Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico have been among the most active in these respects. Latin American parties have usually supported both the CPSU and the Cuban Communist party, from which they have received financial assistance.
The Cuban party, dominated by Fidel Castro, is the only ruling Communist party in the western hemisphere. It was organized strictly along the lines of the CPSU, was dependent on the USSR for financial support, and during the 1970s and '80s acted in fulfillment of CPSU policies by providing military assistance to Communist governments in Angola and other places. In the 1990s, without Soviet support, Cuba slipped into poverty, and the Communist party continued to lose the suppor