The Third World and Cultural Reform

By Mr. Nguyễn Trần Bạt, Business Executive

Hanoi, Vietnam

1. The nature of cultural reform

Mr. Federico Mayor, former UNESCO general director, has a definition of culture that I heartily endorse: "Culture reflects and shows in a general and lively manner all fields of our life (of each individual and of the whole community) which happened before, and are happening at present. For many centuries, it has comprised a system of traditional, aesthetic, and lifestyle values based on which each nation asserts their own identity". In my opinion culture is the finest human product, one which has taken its shape in a patient, quiet, but vehement style. We may compare how culture evolves with the accumulation of alluvium, which silently builds and develops national identity.

Culture takes shape objectively, naturally and is relatively backward. Cultural reform is the only solution to prevent the backward factors of culture from penetrating and adversely affecting all fields of cultural life. However, the influence of human beings on culture may lead to two opposing directions of cultural development. If capitalizing on culture as a political tool, we will hold back its imminent development. On the contrary, sensible human impact may promote cultural development, turning culture into a catalyst for other important kinds of development.  

Reform does not distort culture, as culture is the combination of the past, present, and, to some extent, the future. After numerous studies on different components of human lives, many conclude that culture is a micro-agent existing in all domains of life.

Cultural reform is not a new issue. Lu Xun had the ambition of revamping Chinese culture. Others, like him, almost reached the so-called cultural reforms to better their respective nations. But they were all unsuccessful due to their failure to comprehend that cultural reform is, in essence, the change in human attitudes toward the responsibilities of culture in contributing to development. More specifically, cultural reform is the liberalization of culture from political prejudices, in essence an ending of the inappropriate and unnatural use of culture as a means of political communication.

The issue of cultural reform must be seriously raised in third world nations. At the present time these nations remain culturally mired in what they now have, forgetting what they need. Closed culture is one of the most significant causes of this nostalgia. An important fact for us to acknowledge is that if culture does not have the ability to absorb new factors it will become rigid and unable to contribute to development. The mission of cultural reform is to lead us toward a scientific attitude and to help us develop an appropriate philosophical attitude toward the role of cultural factors in our life.

2. The necessity of cultural reform

Reforming the culture to create the spiritual patronage for economic and political reforms

Many decades have passed since the third world nations escaped colonial domination and achieved national independence. Though leaders have conducted several economic and political reforms, at present third world nations remain in backwardness, poverty, and misery. At this juncture, a critical question is raised: what should third world nations do to emerge from their tragedy and avoid lagging behind in the world’s development process?

It cannot be denied that globalization is an opportunity for third world nations to recognize their drawbacks and seek solutions to improve their competitiveness and accelerate their development. Third world nations have long made efforts to overcome their backwardness through economic and political reforms. However, these reforms stumble over an invisible obstacle and achieve less-than-expected results. This leads them to gradually realize that negative attitudes toward culture is the most serious impediment to development, and thus cultural reform is the sole solution to break the destined vicious circle that is imprisoning third world nations.

Culture accumulates naturally in all fields of human life. It can penetrate into other communities, other cultures and create new avenues of awareness. Therefore, a backward culture may lead to the backwardness in all components of life, and thus impede political development and limit the success of political and economic reforms. Therefore, in addition to political and economic reforms, third world nations should implement cultural reform to create a spiritual patronage for the success of political and economic reforms. Moreover, implementation of cultural reform may ensure synchronism of the three other above-mentioned reforms. Without cultural reform, third world nations will not be able to escape their backwardness; a backward spiritual environment is highly likely to lead to huge obstructions both to progress and to thorough and effective political and economic reforms. These three reforms are the three steering components of social life. For that reason, any political system that can accommodate these reforms in a synchronous and flexible manner will be the optimal one.

Though dealing with different fields of life, the three reforms all aim at a free space for development. While the goal of economic reform is to build a free market economy, political reform is meant to bring the political system to closer to democracy, while cultural reform brings the culture toward openness. Therefore, cultural reform is no less important than the other two. Without cultural reform, political and economic reforms will achieve only modest results.

Cultural reform – the core of development

As indicated by varied experiences, in terms of awareness, third world nations only study culture to preserve their own national identities, forgetting that the study of other varied national identities would help each country, each nation, and each community improve their ability to develop. People once thought that only in third world nations does the fear of losing national identity during interaction with other cultures in globalization exist. In fact, many European countries also share the same feeling. From this example, it may be possible to conclude that backward countries are quick to resist the loss of their identities. This instinct seems to have become a reaction popular in countries in which competitiveness is relatively or absolutely lower. Cultural reform will put an end to this virtual worry and overreaction. From this point of view, I believe that culture is promoting its role as the nucleus of developmental theories, and cultural reforms have become the core of the development process.

Due to the great and direct impact of cultural reform on the intelligentsia of third world nations, cultural reform can play an important role in the development of a given nation. In the last century some progressive-minded people in third world nations might have demanded the separation of culture from politics. However, they only stopped at political claims rather than going further to show new ways of awareness of innovation and cultural reform. Moreover, they form only a small minority in comparison with the vast majority of the population which accepts stability (although this sometimes also results in a certain sluggishness). Thus, their ideologies and efforts were not enough to have any substantive influence on the communities of their nations.

An open culture will force political systems to change, thus cultural reform is necessary to cure the root case of backwardness in third world nations. The United States, currently the world’s most powerful nation, has had great achievement not only with its huge armed forces, free economy and a democratic regime, but also due to the fact that most members of the country’s intelligentsia are courageous enough to express their views and struggle for changes. The intelligentsia in third world nations often ponders over political issues. This courage to challenge the status quo is necessary and immensely valuable. But if the third world nations do not improve themselves with true value of allowing an outspoken intelligentsia and do not attempt to reform their cultures towards higher openness, any political changes will be precarious.

Reforming culture to avoid societal disorder

Revolution and reform are two means by which to approach development, but they are put into effect in very different ways. Reform consists of a series of regular, continuous and active innovations, thereby providing conditions for flexible development. On the contrary, revolution comes from the society’s rage on political insensitivity, in of itself representative of a cultural sluggishness, which leads to rupture across the society.

Culture is an exception of the rule “if reform is not implemented, revolution will break out.” A lack of cultural reform will not, in and of itself, result in any sort of cultural breakdown, and we cannot change a culture through revolution. Therefore, there is no real substance to the concept of a “cultural revolution.” However, without cultural reform, cultural backwardness will be the source of nationwide disorder. China’s Cultural Revolution is an example. It should be noted that Chinese culture at that time had problems, but the so-called “Chinese Cultural Revolution” was not a cultural revolution, but a political one. In other words, it was a tool for political purge. When leaders were running riot with power, the entire Chinese society fell into turbulence. The “cultural revolution” pushed many talents into a stagnant misery and had serious adverse impacts on China’s great inherent culture. Many cultural heritages were damaged, individual cults and a wave of leftist sabotage swept across the country. The revolution ended in mid-1970s, leaving behind one of the most terrible tragedies in China’s history. The lesson of the Chinese Cultural Revolution is that we should carry out reform in all fields of life to modernize social institutions to serve the new state of development.

3. Main contents of culture reform programs

Culture takes its shape in an objective and natural manner, and cultural reform is an active process. However, it is not a contradiction when we raise the question of cultural reform. Activism is not only interaction between different people but also the self-influence and encouragement of other people to do the same in order that attitudes toward culture can be changed. This process must be started with politicians self-influencing themselves by sifting political factors from culture. Commencing in this way, cultural communities will, by themselves, select their own values most appropriately and guarantee soundness of those values.

Apoliticizing cultural life

Apoliticizing cultural life is the first and most important solution to the natural development of culture and natural formation of cultural identities. Achieving these identities, culture will fulfill its responsibility nurture societal development. This is also a component of democratization because as cultural life is apoliticized, we will see the formation of a “free space” for development with the diversification of awareness and development modules.

Apoliticizing culture must begin with the apoliticizing of philosophical ideologies which direct people’s awareness. Politicizing culture in general, and doing so to philosophical ideologies specifically, disables culture’s function as a scientific tool serving fields of life, and can even annihilate the variety of awareness science. Third world nations should be well aware of this fact as only then does philosophy become the science of development and fulfill its responsibilities to our life.

Moreover, politically-purposed conservation of cultural identity is also a hindrance to cultural development. The conservation of cultural identity is a natural instinct of all nations. This cannot be condemned, as all nations tend to keep their own possessions, whether material or cultural. But we must condemn the integration of political-driven wishes into cultural identity to the effect that political factors are disguised under the cover of cultural ones. This deception is very dangerous, and can lead to the deformation of cultures, the distortion of human awareness capacity, the deterioration of natural values of culture, and the spoiling of natural processes in which cultural values take shape. Additionally, in terms of politics, politicizing behavioral culture will give rise to inconsistency in the eyes of the international community. Meanwhile, to truly benefit from integration and cooperation, third world nations must assure the international community of their stability and predictability. The modern world will not be home to nations whose actions and policies are unpredictable, as cooperation with them includes unacceptable possibilities of risk.

However, apoliticizing culture does not necessarily mean rejecting and voiding all political factors within the culture. The noble qualities of politics will be absorbed by culture, and political behavior will be more graceful and natural. In contrast, by politicizing culture, we will put an end to the ability to reflect life honestly and subjectively, and political behaviors become far from noble. Therefore, apoliticizing culture, in other words, separating culture from politics, is the first and most important solution to approach and establish an open culture.

Increasing cultural openness

To increase cultural openness, first and foremost, we should distinguish the appearance of new factors and intervention. For example, the introduction of French architecture in Hanoi in the early 20th century was a natural appearance of a new cultural factor and the Vietnamese people accepted it with admiration, viewing this influence as the quintessence of French culture. This architecture is so appropriate, beautiful, and attractive that we nowadays use it as a model for aestheticism and fine spatial thinking. The aforementioned is not an intervention, but rather the penetration of a new factor into Vietnamese culture, and Vietnamese architecture has been cleverly “Vietnamized” using French architectural influences. However, demolishing French architecture buildings in the name of Vietnamese architecture means intervention.

An open culture can accept the peculiarities of others and tolerate influences that are the quintessence of another culture. Moreover, in an open culture, people will be neither exaggerative nor pessimistic about their cultural values. Thus, this culture will not be left out during the interaction with cultures of other communities. This is one of the preeminent features of open cultures, while the exaggeration of one’s own cultural value may turn third world nations into modern Narcissus’. This exaggeration is also evidence of immodesty and intolerance of other communities’ peculiarities. Meanwhile, being pessimistic about their cultural values isolates third world nations from the process of human development. These attitudes will all lead to separation, rather than integration, of each community into the globalization of the entire world.

Moreover, an open culture is capable of rejecting outdated values. We often regret what we have picked up during the development process. It seems that third world nations are deterring their own development by equating the past with the present, forgetting the fact that doing so may drive away the factual life through dispossessing its present role. Only China knows how to handle this matter by arranging ideologies in a time-line order (Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zhe Tung’s ideology, Deng Xiao Ping’s tenet, and Jiang Ze Min’s “three representatives” theory). Chinese people see only glimmers of old doctrines instead of facing them day-by-day. Third world nations should be courageous enough to put those which have fulfilled their historical missions into a perspective reasonable with the realities of the contemporary world. An open culture may enable the components of cultural change, those being searching, classification, discharge, and suppression in a peaceful, natural, and appropriate manner. An open culture is the premise for the development of awareness as well as the only effective therapy for the backward-focused nostalgia persisting within third world nations during their history.

However, as in any other domain, culture has its own limitations. Of these limitations, the most important we should make note of is the critical point of openness required in order to have appropriate cultural reform to the extent that cultural reform does not limit freedom or even promote the decrease of essential and sound values. Moreover, to widen the range of cultural selection, leaders in the third world should encourage comprehensive relation exchange so that their cultures can make contact with others. Through contact, human beings, as the subject of cultures, can self-comprehend their selections, extend their cultural spaces and rationalize their cultural lives. Variety in the cultural life of each individual through interaction will give rise to the variety and openness of the entire culture.

Rejecting extreme cultural trends

One of the most important aspects of cultural reform is the necessary rejection of extreme cultural trends. The rejection of extreme cultural trends is nothing other than purifying cultural life and bringing culture closer to its natural state of development.

In his lifetime, Lenin was fond of the poets Maiacopsky and Exenhin. No one can praise V.I. Lenin better than Maiakopsky. But it seems that Lenin thought more highly of Exenhin, as his poems were more natural. In other words, Exenhin’s poems were not politically driven.      

In recent history, there have been three noteworthy cultural programs put forth by politicians. They include the program to build the Soviet people (prepared by Lenin and two other Bolshevik leaders), the Tian An cultural program by Mao Zhe Tung, and Vietnam’s cultural program devised by Truong Chinh. There were good reasons to prepare those cultural programs. However, fundamentally, they were, to some extent, extreme. Culture originates from nature and it is impossible for us to subjectively standardize a nation’s culture. For that reason, these political programs lacked vitality. They only existed during a limited period of time to serve certain political purposes.

Culture in any form originates from the admittance people’s feeling. Integrating political factors into culture interrupts cultural development and annuls its capacity to create and sort of genuine awakening. However, this assertion does not mean that political factors do not naturally penetrate into cultural life. The vast majority of Vietnamese people regard the Vietnamese revolutionary wars as valuable periods. Vietnamese culture has naturally created a cultural period to satisfy the fervent feelings and desires of the people. Few of us can forget the poem “Fatherland” by Nguyen Dinh Thi, an imposing work on the war against French colonialism. What lies behind this poem and others like it is the manifestation of political factors in a natural, sincere, and fervent manner. The song “Konia Shade” is another example. This is a love song of wars, which is the converging point of peaceful, bright and romantic feelings. It was sung by the people as they endured air raids, and touched the hearts of millions of people including those on the other side of the battle line. It is not an exaggeration to say that any artwork that reflects our life honestly with natural feelings will permeate the soul of any individual or community. This is an example of not only culture embracing the quintessential and appropriate factors of politics, but also culture’s ability to inspire.


Napoleon Bonaparte had a well known saying, "Losing money is losing nothing; losing faith is losing just half of what one has; but losing bravery means you have lost everything.” Cultural reform is one of the most important reforms for a nation, as it will restore the ability to voluntarily phase away from outdated values and inject new, progressive values into the culture. Nonetheless, true cultural reform is a complicated and difficult task which requires much fortitude and courage. My high expectation is that third world nations will be courageous enough to implement cultural reform in conjunction with political and economic reforms. Only by doing so can third world nations release themselves from darkness and usher in a bright future.


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