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Lenin’s thought on political commissar regime and its practice in building Vietnam People’s Army

In the wake of Russian October Revolution, the Red Army was founded and put under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party. In addition, political commissar regime was established and enforced in Red Army units. Later, our military also adopted this policy, and it has been an invaluable lesson in building and strengthening the people’s armed forces.

1. The October Revolution and the introduction of political commissars.

After the Russian Revolution succeeded, to preserve the achievements of the struggle, V.I. Lenin suggested: “The survival of the republic in the fight against imperialism, and the victory of socialism in Russia and all over the world heavily rely on the work of strengthening of the military”; “we have a great military machine; however, it would have not existed without political commissars.” To exercise the absolute, direct and comprehensive leadership of the Party over the Red Army, Lenin and the party leadership decided to establish the political commissar system along with the chain of command and party cells within the military. The resolution of 8th Bolshevik Party Congress in March, 1919 noted: “The military training and political education in the Red Army is based on the unity of the working class and socialism education. To that end, it is essential to put political commissars, who are selfless and trustworthy party members, beside military commanders, and establish party cells to develop ideological bonds and self-discipline within military units”. Because, “Political commissars are not only direct representative of the Soviet government, but first of all, they are bearers of the Party’s spirit, discipline, determination and courage in the struggle for common goals”. They are both party cell secretaries and military commanders, and there is a dialectical, united and organic interrelationship between the two functions. As a party cell secretary, a political commissar is the symbol of the Party in the unit, directly maintaining a close tie between that unit and the Party. As a commander, he is the envoy of the authority, responsible for political and ideology leadership and management, monitoring and inspecting the implementation of the party’s principles and resolutions in the unit. The commander status is the “institutionalization” of the leadership role held by party cell secretary position. In late 1917, party cell organization and political commissar regime were established in several units, and by April, 1918, this policy was fully implemented in every unit of the Red Army, and served as a foundation for developing the political strength of the revolutionary armed forces. In 1918 only, over 3,200 Bolshevik Party members were assigned as political commissars in the Red Army. According to the All-Russian Commissar Agency in December, 1918, there were 6,389 commissars serving in military units. The role of political commissars was highlighted in inspecting political work and operations of military experts (former officers of the Imperial Russian Army) in the Red Army. To assist the work of senior commissar in junior-level units, on October 14th, 1919, the State Military Council issued an order to assign political commissars to infantry companies, artillery batteries, cavalry companies and specialized units. Junior commissars were responsible for implementing political education for soldiers under the direction of senior commissars, participating in party cells’ work at company level and public organizations. And the result was: “Generally speaking, among units in which the work of political education and commissar was properly executed, military experts were unlikely to seek for treachery; the circumstance did not allow them to do so; also, there was no disintegration, orders were well-maintained, morale was high, and victories were more likely to be secured in said units.” The integration of political commissar systems into military units under the principles issued by V.I. Lenin and the Bolshevik Party had made great contribution to advancing the Red Army into a comprehensively powerful military force, especially in political strength, able to prevail in the Russian Civil War, the Great Patriotic War, defending the Soviet Union and accomplishing international duty missions. However, in late 1980s and early 1990s, the Soviet Communist Party and Soviet government abandoned this policy, and this was one of the most critical mistakes which led to the fall of the Soviet Union. Indeed, the political commissar regime ensured the absolute and comprehensive control of the Party over the military and provided legal status for party secretaries in the Red Army. This policy only exists in socialist military forces, and it is also a key feature to distinguish between proletariat armies and bourgeois armies. Without political commissars and the leadership of the ruling party, the military will be politically disoriented, neutralized and undermined, thus unable to defend its socialist motherland.

2. The practice of Lenin’s political commissar policy in building Vietnam People’s Army (VPA).

Grasping and creatively employing Lenin’s principles and lessons drawn from the October Revolution, in its first Platform, Vietnam Communist Party determined: the main political tasks are overthrowing French colonialism and feudalism, gaining absolute independence for Vietnamese people, establishing a worker-peasant-military government and founding a worker-peasant army under the leadership of the Party. In the first Party Congress (March, 1935), the Resolution on Guard units noted: an army of working class must be organized and put under the strict control of the Party; in each Guard unit, beside the commander and deputy commander, there must be a representative of the Party monitoring political work, and these cadres must work together to lead the unit. In daily activities, the unit must submit to the authority of its respective party cell. In military operations, Guard units must obey their superior command and respective party committees. If there is any disagreement between the unit commander and the party representative, the respective party committee or the superior command will have the final say. Throughout its history, the VPA has always firmly maintained this policy with adjustments made at times by the Party leadership to ensure its seamless control over the military.

On December 22, 1944, the Vietnam Propaganda Liberation Army Team, predecessor of the VPA, was founded. After Phay Khat and Na Ngan victory, the team was expanded into a company with 3 platoons, each platoon had a political commissar and a political working board put under the authority of company political commissar. In this period, the organization of individuals and bodies responsible for party work and political work included: political cadres, political offices, party cells and commanding officers. This structure proved to be very effective in implementing seamless, democratic and systematic political work in military units. In April, 1946, the Central Military Commission, the supreme leadership body of the Party in the military, was founded. On May 22, 1946, President Ho Chi Minh ratified Order 71/SL-CP, which determined: political commissars will be assigned from platoon level to military zone level. Every activity of a military unit will be implemented under the guidance of its political cadre and commander. In political matters, the main responsibility is taken by political commissar, and commander must negotiate with the commissar. At the same time, Ho Chi Minh asserted: “the personality of the commissar has a great impact on his unit. If he is an exemplary cadre, it will be a good unit. If the commissar does not fulfill his duty, neither does his unit.” He added, “a commissar must take great care of his soldiers in daily living, training, working and combat. Also, he must pay attention to discipline, cultural development and political education in the unit”, and “…must be caring as a sister, fair as an elder brother and understanding as a friend”. In conclusion, the absolute, direct and comprehensive control of the Party over the military was institutionalized with a unique system included: party organizations (party committees); military cadres (unit commanders), senior political commissars, junior political commissars and political offices. In this system, the party committee is the supreme leadership, while commanders and commissars, as chiefs of the unit, must comply with the authority of the party committee.

From November, 1947 to September, 1948, the Party leadership issued a new principle, in which party committees were responsible for leadership role, military and political commanders were in charge of executing tasks given by party committees. In October, 1948 the Central Party Committee decided to grant political commissars absolute authority in military units; dismiss party committees from central level to battalion level; and establish the position of General Commissar at central level, and political commissar positions at military-zone, provincial and regimental level. In this period, the Party held control over the military via the commissar system at all levels. Political commissars were in charge of various matters such as: general guidelines and policies, military, political and financial issues; and directing strategic and tactical approaches; but they did not directly command military operations unless there was an absence of the military commander. However, in practice, this mechanism had several downsides, especially in exercising the principle of democratic centralism. As a result, from July, 1952 to November, 1982, our Party adopted another principle: party committees were responsible for leadership role, military and political commanders and political heads were in charge of executing tasks given by party committees. This policy provided many advantages in upholding the role of party and political work and made great contribution in capability building for the VPA to fulfill its duties in the resistance wars against French colonialism and American imperialism, Northern and Southwest border wars and international voluntary missions.

In December, 1982, to meet new demands in the progress of building defense capabilities and preserving sovereignty, the 5th Politburo enacted Resolution 07/NQ-TW on reforming and complementing the leadership mechanism of the Party over the VPA; also, in July, 1985, it issued Resolution 27/NQ-TW on continued completion of the Party’s leadership over the VPA and the national defence cause. However, beside successes, these resolutions also demonstrated several downsides. As a result, in July, 2005, the 9th Politburo announced Resolution 51/NQ-TW to combine single command mechanism with political commissar system in the VPA. This resolution not only solved profound issues in exercising the leadership role of the Party in the military, but also realized lessons learned from V.I. Lenin’s principles and the October Revolution. So far, it has proven to be appropriate and very effective in enhancing the political strength of the VPA, directly contributed to the consolidation of the Party’s control over the armed forces, and served as a basis to enhance the combat capability of the military.

Nowadays, the tasks of developing defense capability and preserving national sovereignty are more demanding than ever. Therefore, maintaining and enhancing the Party’s authority over the military under the guidelines of Resolution 51/NQ-TW is not only a matter of principle, but also an imperative. Indeed, political commissars in the VPA have become symbols of Vietnam military culture and the “spirit” of our armed forces. In building a revolutionary, standardized, elite and gradually modernized, capable of firmly safeguarding our socialist motherland, upholding the value of principles and guidelines made by V.I. Lenin and President Ho Chi Minh on political commissar regime is a profound and directional factor.

Senior Colonel, Dr. Nguyen Huu Luan, Political Academy under the Ministry of National Defense

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