BOOK REVIEW: David Marr’s Generational Arguments in Vietnamese Anticolonialism (1971) and Vietnamese Tradition on Trial 1920-1945 (1981)

Author Background

David G. Marr was born in 1937 and in his lifetime completed service in the marine corps, intelligence agency, and Vietnam (1962). He completed his MA and Ph.D. in History at UC Berkeley (1968) under the guidance of Chinese historian Joseph Levenson. Marr also contributed to Vietnam Today and the Indochina Resource center, an activist resource center. Marr currently is an emeritus Professor at the College of Asia and the Pacific at Australian National University. He is the author of multiple important monographs and articles for the field of Vietnamese hsitory:

Vietnamese Anticolonialism 1885-1925, University of California Press, 1971

Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945, University of California Press, 1981.

Vietnam. World Bibliographical Series, vol.147, Clio Press, 1992.

Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power, University of California Press, 1995.

Vietnam: State, War, and Revolution (1945–1946) University of California Press, 2013

In his preface to his book Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power (University of California Press, 1995), Marr explains that his first two books were shaped by the following goals: Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885-1925 “attempted to show the political will of a minority of Vietnamese in incredibly trying circumstances” and Vietnamese Tradition on Trial 1920-1945 “aimed to demonstrate that the Vietnamese deserved to be taken seriously as thinking people.”

Marr, David G. Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885-1925. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971

Marr addresses Vietnamese turn of the twentieth century responses to French colonialism and debates regarding the Vietnamese monarchy and civilization. Characterized as scholar-gentry that came of age in 1900, this generation of anticolonialists dealt with the political and cultural experience of ‘mất nước’ (losing one’s country).

Marr characterizes early Vietnamese anti-colonialism into three types: (1) the 1885-1896 Cần Vương (save the king) pro-royalist movement led by local scholar-gentry mandarins in a “traditional drama of loyalty and resistance” (77); (2) the 1903-1908 Duy Tân transitional activists and reformists which include the Đông Du, the Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục, and individuals such as Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh; (3) the 1924 and onwards moderns and communists inspired by Lenin and Sun Yat-sen political activism. (Marr also adds a short discussion of the 1911-1917 Quang Phục Hội activists in China and Hong Kong. However he remarks that between 1910 and 1920 many activists were imprisoned and that same period was marked by Sarraut’s associationist republican politics.)

Marr describes the responses of Vietnamese intellectuals to French colonialism as a search for explanations for the current state of colonial subservience and a future within or outside of colonialism, described as reformism or activism. In comparing Chau and Trinh, the former sought for traditional and violent modes of anti-colonial independence from France while the latter focused on anti-feudalist reform and gradual independence. In his concluding chapter called “Changing the Guard,” Marr describes a new generation of anticolonialists in the period after 1924. Described as “impatient at Mencius, Montesquieu, and Spencer” this new generation of youth would be participants in Lenin and Sun Yat-Sen inspired political organizations such as as Pham Hong Thai, Nguyen An Ninh, Ho Chi Minh, Thanh Niên Association, Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng, the Indochinese Communist Party, and the Fourth Comintern. For David Marr, the mid 1920s marked the transition from a traditional scholar gentry generation of anticolonialists such as Phan Bội Châu and Phan Chu Trinh to a generation of ‘modern’ mass politics and intelligentsia.

Marr uses never before examined Vietnamese language sources and French archival material. From his extensive research he provides detailed translations of organizational material and biographies of Vietnamese leaders such as Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chau Trinh.

Marr, David G. Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981

Marr’s argument consists of three parts: 1) this period was defined by three politically distinct generations of intellectuals 2) the 1920-1945 witnessed a change in political and social consciousness 3) these preconditions of national and political consciousness were crucial for mass mobilization in the 1945 onwards. In other words, rather than a passive, cohesive ‘tradition’, the 1920’s to 1945 was a period of tremendous political debate and experimentation that culminated in the application of Marxist-Leninist thought to political action.

Marr’s argument relies on a schema of three politically distinct generations of intellectuals: (1) the scholar gentry at the turn of the twentieth century, (2) the new intelligentsia of the 1920s and 1930s, and (3) the Marxist-Leninist educated cadre (who later absorb the new intelligentsia). Marr examines the fundamental changes in political and social consciousness in the period 1920-1945.

In contrast to the previous generation of scholar-gentry, the modern intelligentsia came of age within the socio-political changes of French colonialism—they were educated in French and Franco-Vietnamese schools and employed as clerks, teachers, and journalists. Furthermore, he argues that by the1920s, remnants of the past such as the emperor, mandarins, and education system had become evident as failures to a new generation of intellectuals, whose iconoclasm pushed them towards new ideas transform their current conditions. This is an intellectual and psychological study of a generation’s rupture from previous systems of morality and prolonged alienation of intellectual and political expression. Marr explains that this petit bourgeois generation “…stood unsteadily between two worlds and tried hard to envisage a third.”(9)With a Marxist lens on history, Marr again focuses on the intellectuals who were committed to “thinking, talking, reading, and writing about change.” (31) He focuses on the giới trí thức mới (new intelligentsia) of the 1920s and 1930s and the revolutionary cadre intellectual who rise in influence in the 1930s and 1940s. Marr argues that this generation drew from diverse sources of political and social ideologies such as voluntarism, Buddhism, science, Marxism-Leninism and “put on trial” these ideas as solutions to the injustices of colonialism.

Drawing from the vibrant social and political debates of quốc ngữ newspapers archived in the BNF, Marr organizes his book thematically: the colonial setting, morality, ethics and politics, language and literacy, the question of women, perceptions of the past, harmony and struggle, knowledge power, and learning from experience. These categories are exogenous to the historical actors and often overlap in a disorderly fashion. Furthermore, David Marr does not directly discuss nationalists, but conflates the portrayal of nationalism within the teleology towards scholar-cadre Marxist-Leninists.


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