Antithesis of communism

Pol Pot and the ‘killing fields’ of Kampuchea are meant to be a lesson in the evils of communism - or so we are told. Eddie Ford points to the true nature of the Khmer Rouge and what it really represented

After bitter in-fighting inside the notorious Khmer Rouge - the ruthless rulers of Kampuchea between 1975-79 - all evidence points to the fact that Pol Pot (born Saloth Sar in 1928) has been captured. According to general Nhek Bunchhay, who claimed to have met the ailing and fatigued Pol Pot, dissident Khmer Rouge forces will “give Pol Pot to the government very soon”.

This is questionable. Pol Pot is a key bargaining chip for the Khmer Rouge faction - rumoured to be led by his old comrade-in-arms for decades, Khieu Samphan - which wants to come to a settlement with the government in Phnom Penh and they will surely hang onto him for as long as necessary. But, whatever the case, the capture and possible trial of Pol Pot is of extreme significance - especially to all those who call themselves communist.

Already of course the stench of hypocrisy is becoming unbearable. The first prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, has sent a letter to the United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, which talks about seeking “assistance in bringing to justice those persons responsible for genocide and crimes against humanity during the rule of Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979”.

What this lofty letter omits to mention is the fact that the good prince was until quite recently in military alliance with the Khmer Rouge against the common enemy - the Vietnamese-backed government in Phnom Penh of Hun Sen, who came to power with the Vietnamese intervention in Kampuchea in 1979. Hun Sen was a former comrade of Pol Pot’s in the Communist Party of Kampuchea who eventually led a rebellion against him in the ‘Eastern Zone’. This had become a base for anti-Pol Pot Khmer communists who had linked up, and identified with, the Vietnamese revolutionary movement in their heroic struggle against US imperialism. Pol Pot himself strongly disapproved, to put it mildly, of any Khmer cooperation with “the hated Vietnamese”, whom he regarded as the traditional enemy. Hun Sen is currently the second prime minister and is related to Son Sen, Pol Pot’s closest comrade and fellow thinker for over 30 years. Last week Pol Pot had him shot in the head, shot his wife as well and just for good measure ordered his henchmen to drive a truck over the heads of Son Sen’s nine children.  

The United States as well is now saying that Pol Pot must be put on ‘genocide trial’, in a similar way to the Israeli trial of Adolf Eichmann. One US senator, Robert Torricelli, has said, “Only the US government has the capability to extract Pol Pot from Cambodia.” This is nauseating hypocrisy coming from the mouths of US imperialism, which subjected Kampchea to a murderous ‘secret’ bombing campaign. The CIA’s chief strategy analyst at the time, Frank Snepp, described this bombing campaign as “the centre-piece of the administration’s ceasefire strategy” in Vietnam (see F Snepp Decent interval London 1997, p61). The US’s carpet bombing reduced the country to near stone-age barbarism and created fertile conditions for the emergence of Pol Potism.

The bloodstained crimes of US imperialism go deeper. Acting in tandem with the self-serving Chinese bureaucracy, in practice itbacked the Khmer Rouge in its reactionary war against the Vietnamese ‘aggressors’. It refused to recognise the regime of Hun Sen at the UN, insisting that a seat be reserved for the ‘legitimate’ government of Cambodia - ie, the anti-Vietnamese alliance headed by Pol Pot. The radical journalist, John Pilger, has also uncovered enbarrassing evidence which indicates that SAS officers were secretly training Khmer Rouge cadres, as part of imperialism’s anti-communist war drive.

When it comes to analysing the Kampuchea of Pol Pot, and attempting to understand the true nature of that society, we can only come to an understanding if we study ‘the thing in itself’ - through the realisation that Pol Potism operated according to its own laws. In other words, we should not slap arbitrary labels onto the Kampuchean society of the ‘killing fields’. Labels like ‘state capitalist’, ‘deformed workers’ state’ or ‘Stalinist’ - to name just three favourites - can only be an obstacle to all those who want to arrive at a scientific comprehension of the Pol Pot social formation.

But whatever the complexities of Kampuchean politics and history, one thing communists can say with confidence is that the regime of Pol Pot represented neither capitalism nor socialism, nor some sort of ‘blocked’ transition to the latter. The horrors of Pol Pot also demonstrably prove that that socialism is not ready-made inside capitalism, just waiting to sping up at the right time. The horrors of capitalism and imperialism can be superseded in a negative as well as a positive fashion. 

Pol Pot’s utopian aim of building ‘communism in one country’ (and a desperately impoverished one at that) inevitably led to barbarism and savage backwardness - the negation of the Marxist notion of self-activating, freely associated producers.

Sure, under Pol Pot, there was nomoney or wages. The likes of Jonathan Aitken, Lady Porter or Neal Hamilton would not have got very far in Pol Pot’s Kampuchea - indeed, corruption of that sort was an impossibility.  All private capital was appropriated or destroyed. No bourgeois ruling class, no aristocracy. Everything was nationalised. No capitalism.

But no civilisation either. The Kampuchean masses were reduced to the status of state slaves, flung back into the harshest primitiveness, with the state towered like a god above its humble subjects. It is hard to imagine a society further removed from the scientific socialism - and genuine humanism - of Karl Marx and VI Lenin.

In The German ideology, written during 1885-86,Marx discussed the possibility of  “freak societies” emerging. In other words, history does not have to follow certain preordained paths. He also warned of the dangers of a “local communism”, where “want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the filthy old business would necessarily be reproduced”; it could only be a society “surrounded by superstition” (K Marx The German ideology: student edition London 1974, p56, original emphasis). Not unlike Pol Pot’s Kampuchea, you could argue.

Even earlier, in the Economic and philosophical manuscripts of 1844, Marx was fulminating against “wholly crude and unthinking communism ... which negates the personality of man in every sphere”. With this “communism”, reasoned Marx, “Universal envy, constituting itself as a power, is the hidden form in which greed reasserts itself and satisfies itself, but in another way ... [in] the desire to level everything down.” 

Marx outlined how

“the crude communist is merely the culmination of this envy and the desire to level down on the basis of a preconceived minimum. It has a definite, limited measure. How little this abolition of private property is a true appropriation is shown by the abstract negation of the entire world of culture and civilisation, and the return to the unnatural simplicity of the poor, unrefined man who has no needs and who has not even reached the stage of private property, let alone gone beyond it” (K Marx Early writings London1975, p346, original emphasis).

Marx counterposed this “crude” or “local” communism to the communism which is

“the positive supersession of private property ... It is the complete restoration of man to himself as a social - ie, human - being, a restoration which has become fully conscious and which takes place within the entire wealth of previous periods of human development. This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism” (ibid p348, original emphasis).

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge had no plan to raise the material and the intellectual/cultural level of the masses. They consciously set out to physically exterminate all ‘intellectuals’ - which included anybody who could read, or even anyone who wore glasses. “Universal envy” indeed.

Let us be quite clear. Pol Pot and his genocidal forces were not laying the ‘base’ for socialism or any such reactionary nonsense. They did not make ‘mistakes’ or committ ‘excesses’. To suggest that is to legitimise or connive in the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. Their aim was to make society regress to a form of pre-civilisation, to build an anti-communist ‘communist’ society. Similarly, Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China were not examples of a “true appropriation” of private property.

The ‘pre-capitalist’ ideological zeal of the Khmer Rouge was made abundantly clear even before the Khmer Rouge unleashed their genocidal fury for real. Ben Kiernan, in his seminal study, How Pol Pot came to power (London 1985), comments that the

“kind of society the CPK Centre was attempting to create had ‘collapsed’ in as long ago as the 18th century, although the ‘aspirations’ of some elements of that traditional society were hanging on just as doggedly, notably in the CPK Centre” (p417). 

He also quotes a report from a CPK regimental political commissar, which chills the blood:

“Immediately upon liberation on April 17 1975, there was a special centre assembly for cabinet ministers and all zone and regional secretaries. Eight points were made at the assembly by Pol Pot:

      1. Evacuate people from all towns.
      2. Abolish all markets.
      3. Abolish Lon Nol regime currency, and withhold the revolutionary currency that had been printed. [Lon Nol was the rightwing military dictator of Kampuchea between 1970-75, who came to power in a United States-backed coup in 1970.]
      4. Defrock all Buddhist monks, and put them to work growing rice.
      5. Execute all leaders of the Lon Nol regime beginning with the top leaders.
      6. Establish high-level cooperatives throughout the country, with communal eating.
      7. Expel the entire Vietnamese minority population.
      8. Dispatch troops to the borders, particularly the Vietnamese border” (p415-416).

Pol Pot’s seventh point - the immediate launch of racialistic terror against the Vietnamese Khmers - reminds us of another deeply unpleasant aspect of Pot’s ultra-Maoist utopia. ‘Communism in one country’could only be constructed on the basis of an ethnically ‘pure’ Khmer state, and when in power the Khmer Rouge put this racialistic ideology into practice. The Pol Pot strand of national ‘communism’ has precedents in the Kampuchean revolutionary movement. In 1949 the anti-French revolutionary leader, Puth Chhay, lead a short-lived but violent rebellion, which stressed the revolutionaries’ “love for their country, race and religion” (quoted in ibid,introduction). 

An article in the CPK magazine, Tung Padevat (August 1975), gives us another insight into Pol Pot’s thinking. Commenting on the evacuation of the urban population, it warned: “Their economic foundation has already collapsed but their views still remain, their aspirations still remain ... If we had kept Phnom Penh, [private property] would have had much strength. It was true that we were stronger, and had more influence than the private sector when we were in the countryside. But in Phnom Penh we would have become their satellite. However, we did not keep them in Phnom Penh. Thus private property has no power” (ibid p417, original emphasis). After April 17 1975 - the start of Year Zero - the CPK in its official publications ceased all references to the workers being the ‘base’ for socialism.

Neither should we forget the criminal role of China, loyal ally of Pol Pot throughout these years. In a typical example of Chinese support for the Khmer Rouge, Chinese foreign minister Huang Hua in July 1977 declared: “We support the stand of Cambodia and her people against revisionist social-imperialism and will not watch indifferently” (p411). China poured huge resources into propping up the Pol Pot regime. In September 1975 China extended to Kampuchea one thousand million US dollars in interest-free economic and military aid, including an immediate $20 million gift. It backed Pol Pot when he we took up arms against Hun Sen and his Vietnamese backers. Pol Pot was a frequent visitor to Beijing over the decades, regularly enjoying the finest and most lavish medical attention - which is more than can be said for the suffering Kampuchean masses.

At the end of 1979 China invaded Vietnam in solidarity with the Khmer Rouge. World imperialism could hardly restrain its sympathies with the anti-internationalist actions of the Chinese bureaucracy, even though it never missed an opportunity to lecture the world on how Pol Pot’s regime was the very incarnation of the evils of ‘communism’ - a theme repeated ad nauseam by bourgeois hacks of all stripes and persuasions.

Nevertheless, anything was preferable to a further extension of Soviet influence through the Vietnamese-backed regime of Hun Sen.

The tragedy of Kampuchea only reiterates one of the fundamental tenets of Marxism - that real socialism can only be built internationally, on the most advanced achievements of capitalism through the development of a revolutionary democratic culture.