What ‘communist chic’ really means

It is one of the most common sights on the streets of Vietnam.

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In Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, Da Lat and Nha Trang, tourists abound whose style might best be described as ‘communist chic’.

You will have seen examples of this style back home. Its most common incarnation is Alberto Korda’s famous photo of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, ‘Guerrillero Heroico’, which appears festooned across shirts and shoulder bags throughout the inner-cities with depressing regularity. In Vietnam, it is the face of Ho Chi Minh that appears on such garb and accessories, usually accompanied by an amusing tagline such as: “Oh, Ho you didn’t!”

Ho Chi Minh’s image and legacy were recently at the centre of a controversy in Brisbane as well, where Uncle Ho’s restaurant in New Farm was forced to change its name after protesters rallied outside last weekend, arguing against precisely this kind of historically ignorant appropriation.

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This is the level to which communist iconography has inevitably declined: its images have become mere brands and logos, consumable status objects like any other in the capitalist system they once played an important propaganda role in opposing.

But, like many other logos, they are usually worn without care or concern for the often bloody histories behind them.

Guevara’s image remains the most egregious example, if only because it is also the most common. No liberal-minded person worth their salt, let alone any left-wing progressive or pacifist, should ever consider donning the image of a man who, by his own admission, ordered the summary executions of hundreds of men and boys, and who once claimed that his “nostrils dilated, tasting the acrid odor of gunpowder and blood, of [the] dead enemy”. This is true even if one opposes US imperialism, as Guevara did, and truer still if one’s reason for wearing his image is supposedly “ironic”. If nothing else, it shows profound disrespect for the man’s victims.

The case of Ho Chi Minh is a little more complicated. Vietnam’s most famous son was a great admirer of American democracy and based the country’s 1945 Declaration of Independence explicitly on Jefferson’s famous preamble. He also reached out to American elites, including President Harry Truman, multiple times through the middle part of last century for support against imperialism in his country. (The United States’ failure to provide it was a historical mistake that pushed Vietnam into the arms of the Chinese and the Soviets and set the stage for the war that was to cost both countries so much in lives and treasure.) His anti-imperial credentials and achievements are beyond doubt or reproach.

But to plaster the old man’s face across one’s chest today is to willingly forget or ignore the tens of thousands of North Vietnamese who were killed and imprisoned as a part of his land reform programs in the mid-1950s, as well as the excesses of the North Vietnamese Army during the decade of war that followed. (Both sides were often as brutal as the other.) It is also to buy into, or at the very least tacitly support by perpetuating, the current regime’s own manipulation and exploitation of Ho’s image to authoritarian ends. (Personality cults are never a good sign.) To wear the country’s admittedly striking flag — the standard of a regime that jails bloggers, has turned corruption into an art form, and that is actively destroying its natural environment in the name of econnomic development, to say nothing of its immediate post-war crimes, such as its imprisonment of thousands in reeducation camps — is even worse. To adorn the old hammer-and-sickle, as a surprising number of young travellers do, is even worse than that.

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They have many reasons for doing so. Some have been to Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum — an excellent establishment, though obviously and perhaps forgivably one-sided — and experienced the rumblings of a nascent anti-Americanism in their waters. Others, as mentioned earlier, cite irony, though there’s nothing ironic about the Vietnamese government’s propaganda efforts, including those targeted at tourists, regardless of the wearer’s intentions.

But most people are simply ignorant about what they’re wearing, about history and the contemporary situation alike. (The claim of Uncle Ho’s director, Anna Demirbek, that the restaurant has “no position on the political or historical landscape of Vietnam” illustrates this ignorance pretty well, though why she thought it was a good thing to say, rather than a self-damning one, is beyond me.) This says something about the caliber of history teaching today, as well as about how little people read about the places they’re visiting.

Of course, all this is true of corporate brands and logos, too. Behind the Apple logo is the exploitation of workers in the tech giant’s Chinese factories, behind the Nike swoosh the Bangladeshi sweatshops. It’s all there in NaomiKlein’s No Logo, still the go-to textbook for young anti-capitalists everywhere. But these are precisely the kind of people who wind up as walking billboards for communism, readily buying into the false dichotomy. They would be better off sporting illegal brand knock-offs, purchased for a steal at Ho Chi Minh City’s Ben Thanh Market, and sticking it to the man that way, on an intellectual property level. That really would be indicative of an ironic mind at work.

Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent.