In June of 1956, Minh Tranh published an article in Văn Sử Địa with the long and awkward title of “Oppose the worship of individuals, but it is necessary to recognize the role of individuals in history” (Chống sùng bái cá nhân, nhưng cần nhận rõ vai trò cá nhân trong lịch sử). This article was clearly written in reaction to events which had transpired earlier that year in the Soviet Union.
In February of that same year, Nikita Khrushchev gave a report at the Twentieth Party Congress inMoscowentitled “On the Personality Cult and its Consequences.” This report constituted a critique of various aspects of Joseph Stalin’s rule and of the personality cult (or “cult of the individual”) that had developed around him.
This was followed in March by an editorial in Pravda entitled “Why the Cult of the Individual is Alien to the Spirit of Marxism-Leninism,” some of which Minh Tranh cites in his article.
The promotion of individual heroes was a critical element in Vietnamese nationalism. With Krushchev’s denunciation of the cult of the individual, Minh Tranh appears to have tried in this article to find a way to save these “personality cults” that were essential for Vietnamese nationalism.
Minh Tranh begins this article by noting that “Human society has existed and developed based on never-ending struggles; the struggle with nature and social struggles.” He then points out that it is not individuals who engage in these struggles, but groups of people, particularly workers and producers (người lao động sản xuất).
This is why, Minh Tranh notes, Marx stated that “the history of human society is first and foremost the history of producers” (Lịch sử xã hội loài người trước hết là lịch sử những người sản xuất). Actually what Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto in 1848 was that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” In any case. . .
Minh Tranh then asks if this means that the individual plays no role in history. “No,” he responds. Individuals do play a role in historical processes, however they do not play a defining role. That role is performed by the workers.
He then states that Vietnamese everywhere have always felt proud of their history and of the heroes who represent their nation, such as the two Trưng sisters, Ngô Quyền, Trần Quốc Tuấn (i.e., Trần Hưng Đạo), Lê Lợi, Nguyễn Huệ, and now Hồ Chí Minh.
Minh Tranh then clarifies here that pride in one’s nation then leads people to “revere” (tôn kính) heroes, because this is a way of expression one’s pride in one’s nation. This, he argues, is very different from the worship (sung bái) of individual heroes, which Minh Tranh says is a form of superstition (mê tin), because individuals are seen as divine gods (thần thánh) who decide all, while the people (nhân dân) are disregarded.
Minh Tranh then goes on to look at the case of Trần Hưng Đạo. Here argues that Trần Hưng Đạo is a hero because he succeeding by working together with the people. He was not some divine being who had supernatural powers.
There is much more to this article, but I will stop here. I posted an article recently about someone who visited Trần Hưng Đạo’s temple in 1942 in Kiếp Bạc in order to pay his respects to Trần Hưng Đạo the national hero only to find the temple overrun by people who were worshiping Trần Hưng Đạo as a deity. The author of that article criticized these “superstitious” practices, but did not call for their elimination.
This article here goes a step further in delimiting what is acceptable about Trần Hưng Đạo. In response to Krushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s personality cult, Minh Tranh strives to eliminate any such worship of Trần Hưng Đạo as an individual or a supernatural deity. Instead, to Minh Tranh, Trần Hưng Đạo could only be honored as a representative of the nation as a whole.
In her book on Trần Hưng Đạo, Phạm Quỳnh Phương argues that Trần Hưng Đạo has always been revered as a hero of the nation. If you read what is written about him in historical sources, from the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư onward, it is clear that this is not the case. It’s only in the twentieth century that Trần Hưng Đạo came to be regarded as a hero of the “nation” (dân tộc) because it’s only in the twentieth century that Vietnamese started to think of themselves as a nation, and to find the need for “national heroes.”
Minh Tranh’s article here is part of this process of creation. It was written in a rather unique context – by a Marxist in the aftermath of Krushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s personality cult – but it’s effort to distance Trần Hưng Đạo the national hero from the worship which surrounded Trần Hưng Đạo the deity was part of a larger process which was already underway by that point.
Vietnamese nationalists needed national heroes. Creating them was a challenge as the religious beliefs of common Vietnamese and the changing orthodoxy of international Marxism got in the way.