What does it mean to be loyal to the Party? This is a question which Trần Huy Liệu asked in an article in Nghiên cứu lịch sử in 1967.

According to Trần Huy Liệu, the meaning of loyalty with reference to the Party is different from earlier usages when people used to say that they were loyal to the monarch or loyal to the country. The reason for this, he argues, is that in the DRV there is no clear distinction made between the country, the people and the Party, for they are all intimately connected.

He then says that to be loyal to the Party is to be loyal to the actions of the Party, which are dedicated to defeating the U.S., saving the country and protecting the socialist North.

As for historians, Trần Huy Liệu declares that not only do they need to be loyal to the Party, but they also must carry out the spirit of the Party (tính đảng) in their work. This spirit of the Party is related to science because the socialism of the Party is scientific socialism. The methods used in the thoughts and actions of the Party are also scientific methods.

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The philosopher of science, Michael Polanyi, visited the Soviet Union in the 1930s and discussed science with Nikolai Bukharin, one of the leading figures in the Communist Party. Polanyi was dismayed to find that there was no “pure science” (that is, scientists did not study a topic simply because they were curious about it) in the USSR, as scientists all worked to fulfill the needs of the state, engaging in what we could call “applied science.” Bukharin replied to Polanyi that Soviet scientists could study whatever they liked, but that “owing to the internal harmony of socialist society, they would inevitably be led to lines of research which would benefit the current Five Year Plan.” (Michael Polanyi, Science Faith and Society, 1964, pg. 8.)

Bukharin was killed in one of Stalin’s purges, as were many Soviet scientists. Polanyi, meanwhile, went on to write a great deal about science and to emphasize the need for intellectual freedom in scientific research.

The Soviet Union is gone, and today I would guess that most Russian scientists likely agree with the ideas which Polanyi went on to develop after talking to Bukharin, namely that “pure science” requires that individuals have the freedom to follow their curiosity and examine whatever they want, and that it is “pure science” which can lead to the greatest scientific achievements.

As for Vietnam, today the term “science” (khoa học) is still widely used, and its ubiquity is reminiscent of the “cult of science” that existed in the communist world at the time Trần Huy Liệu made his comments. Nonetheless, “science” in Vietnam today is different from what it was in the past. In the 1950s, for instance, historians in the DRV actually tried to use “scientific” Marxist theories of history to examine the past. Today Vietnamese historians no longer do so, but they still call their scholarship “scientific.”

So what is “scientific” about Vietnamese historical scholarship?

Trần Huy Liệu connected “science” to the nation, both literally and emotionally. Science, the nation and the Party all became one, and they did so at a emotionally powerful time (i.e., at the height of war). Such connections are difficult to loosen or take apart.

I would argue that the “scientific” aspects of khoa học have disappeared, and that what remains are nationalist emotions. These emotions are no longer burning passions. They are more subdued now, and have largely become second-nature.

For example, today writing about what is special (đặc biệt) or unique about Vietnam is “khoa học.”

So is this “pure science”? Is it “applied science”? I guess we might call it “pure applied science,” as people are free to study whatever they want, as long as it is khoa học. . .