Book Review Essay: Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare

Who was Pol Pot and how did he come to symbolize one of the most horrible and repressive regimes in the history of modern times? The subtitle of Philip Short’s biography says it all-- a nightmare! Short knows his subject well, having been a reporter for the BBC, the “Times” (London) and “The Economist” and living in China and Cambodia during the 1970s and 80s.

His book is more than a biography of Pol Pot. It is a history of modern Cambodia as well. He attempts to explain the rise and fall of the Khmer Rouge, also known as the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK).

As a Marxist, I was particularly interested in what Short had to say about the origins of the political party, the CPK, that Pol Pot headed. How could it be possible for a Marxist party to do what the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia. That is, to be responsible for the killing one and a half million people-- at least-- 500,000 outright by mass executions of whole villages including women, children and old people and another million through malnutrition and disease.

Could it be that the Khmer Rouge was not really a “Marxist” party at all? Was it possible that the CPK’s relation to “Marxism” was analogous to the relation that the National Socialist German Worker’s Party had to “Socialism” or Pat Robertson to “Christianity? That is to say, the word was used but it was empty of any of its traditional content. To me this was a distinct possibility as all the folks I know who consider themselves Marxists or Marxist-Leninists are repulsed by the actions of the Pol Pot government.

I had read Jean-Louis Margolin’s essay “Cambodia: The Country of Disconcerting Crimes”, chapter 24 in The Black Book of Communism the new anti-communist Bible (and just as historical) and he maintains that the CPK is part of the history of the international communist movement. If Margolin was correct my theory would be insupportable.

So, I read Short’s book with great anticipation to see if their was any evidence to support my thesis. Before going any further, let me define what I mean by “Marxism” or “Marxism-Leninsm,” and most especially what I consider a “Marxist” ( “Communist”) party to be. This is a definition based both on history and theory. Needless to say a Marxist or Communist party will have its program rooted in the theories of Marx, Engels, and Lenin as a minimum. It will be a party based on, and in, the working class and represent the material and spiritual interests of that class, especially its industrial component. It will be internationalist in outlook and represent the most historically advanced ideas based on an objective materialist and scientific outlook.

According to these criteria, I would conversely consider a party to be in various degrees “anti-communist” in so far as it deviated from them. Since the term “anti-communist” has already been associated with the fascist movements and other right-wing political groupings, I will use the term “non-communist” or “non-Marxist” to describe ostensibly radical parties that fail to reflect the criteria expressed above. Now I will try to show, on the basis of Short’s research, that Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge associates were “non-communists” and in fact, their values and actions were diametrically opposed to the teachings of Marxism.

That this is the case has been hinted at by the leadership of the Khmer Rouge. Consider the following statement by Ieng Sary (vice-premier) who claimed, quoted by Short, the Khmer Rouge would rule “without reference to any existing model” and would go where “no country in history has ever gone before.” They certainly did that!

Margolin, in his anti-communist essay, writes: “The lineage from Mao Zedong to Pol Pot is obvious.” This is a superficial observation. Short argues that the Pol Pot regime morphed into what it became as a result of the cultural background unique to Cambodia. This cultural backdrop was the Khmer version of Theravada Buddhism “which teaches that retribution or merit, in the endless cycle of self-perfection, will be apportioned not in this life but in a future existence, just as man’s present fate is the fruit of actions in previous lives.”

There was a “cultural fracture” between Khmer culture and the cultures of China and Vietnam, based as they are on Confucian values. Throughout the history of Cambodia this fracture has led to “mutual incomprehension and distrust, which periodically exploded into racial massacres and pogroms” by the Khmers against the Chinese and Vietnamese inhabitants of the country.

Short presents a picture of Khmer society as having within it all the violence and brutality that the Khmer Rouge so horribly displayed. Previous movements and governments engaged in the same type of murder and mayhem that the Khmer Rouge indulged in-- the difference was one of magnitude. A case of quantitative change leading to qualitative change.

Pol Pot and his associates were conditioned as children into Khmer culture (naturally) and when they joined in the nationalist and anti-colonial struggles of the 50s through the 70s they naturally allied themselves and identified with the Communist movements in Asia which were their only possible allies. But, as Short, points out: “Marxism-Leninism, revised and sinified by Mao, flowed effortlessly across China’s southern border into Vietnamese minds, informed by the same Confucian culture. It was all but powerless to penetrate the Indianate world of Theravada Buddhism that moulds the mental universe of Cambodia and Laos.”

The Pol Pot leadership, made up of former students who had been educated in France as well as local anti-colonialist elements based themselves on the class of the poorest peasants and this was reflected in the ideology of the leadership. Here is Pol Pot talking about his “Marxism”-- “the big thick works of Marx... I didn’t really understand them at all.” Ping Say (one of the founders of the CPK ) remarked “Marx was too deep for us.” In fact, although influenced by their own version of “Marxism,” only two Cambodians ever attended the French CP’s school for cadres. For Pol Pot and his cronies “Marxism signified an ideal, not a comprehensive system of thought to be mastered and applied.”

The tragedy that befell Cambodia was that a basically ignorant leadership gained control of the Cambodian revolution and carried out an atavistic racially based program against non-Khmer nationalities inside Cambodia as well rooting itself in the values of the lower peasantry (abolishing money, formal education, traditional arts and technology).

The policies of the US government, as well as those of China and Vietnam, helped this leadership come to power. The US aggression in Vietnam, as well as its attacks on Cambodia, were primarily responsible. In sheer numbers of people killed and mutilated the US aggression was twice as deadly as the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.

As for the support from China and Vietnam, it is only fair to point out that, as Short says, until 1970 Pol Pot had not done “or permitted to be done by the Party he led any intimation of the abominations that would follow.” But after Lon Nol overthrew the Sihanouk government (1970) the Khmer Rouge waged, with Chinese and Vietnamese help, a guerilla war that eventually, after much bloodshed and indiscriminate killing (including massive bombing of civilians by the US) on all sides, led to their victory (1975). Short points out that, “The United States dropped three times more bombs on Indochina during the Vietnam War then were used by all the participants in the whole of the Second World War; on Cambodia the total was three times the total tonnage dropped on Japan, atom bombs included.” The US claimed to be bombing Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge troops, “but the bombs fell massively and above all on the civilian population.”

But why were the Khmers so violent? Short maintains that the Chinese and Vietnamese communists treated their prisoners and enemies under the Confucian expectation that human beings are capable of change and reform. He also says that in Khmer culture there is no such expectation. Enemies will never change and have to be destroyed. “In the Confucian cultures of China and Vietnam, men are, in theory, always capable of being reformed. In Khmer culture they are not.” It was, as one Pol Pot’s bodyguards put it, a “struggle without pity.”

After they came to power, the Khmer Rouge became xenophobic nationalists. Turning against the Vietnamese as the “hereditary enemies” of Cambodia they became anti-Vietnamese as Vietnamese of no matter what ideology. They also distrusted China and struck out on a path to be completely self-sufficient and dependent on no one (“independence-mastery” was the slogan). This is of course completely contradictory to any Marxist theory. Marxism stress internationalism and cooperation of fraternal and working class parties. It was that very internationalism which the Khmers Rouge banked on to get into power and which they immediately betrayed.

What followed was disaster. By 1979 the Khmer Rouge had driven hundreds of thousands Vietnamese out of Cambodia and created a “slave state” at home. They finally began attacking across the Vietnamese border and this resulted in their being attacked in return and deposed from power.

Earlier I quoted Ieng Sary to the effect of making a revolution that would be unique in history. He also said that theory was to be avoided and that the Khmer Rouge would just rely on revolutionary consciousness. In other words, they are a revolution now and will make their own reality. Short says this calls into question whether “Cambodian ‘communism’.... could be considered Marxist-Leninist at all.”

I think it clear that it could not. Here is Pol Pot remarking that “Certain [foreign] comrades take the view that our party... cannot operate well because it does not understand Marxism-Leninism and the comrades of our Central Committee have never learnt Marxist principles.” His reply was that the CPK “did ‘nurture a Marxist-Leninist viewpoint’ but in its own fashion.”

Its own fashion was not good enough. Short remarks that the “Cambodian Party had never been an integral part of the world communist movement... and it took from Marxism only those things which were consonant with its own worldview.” That worldview was narrow, insular and constricted and completely incompatible, I believe, with the ideas we usually, and properly, associate with the names of Marx, Engels and Lenin.

After the Khmers Rouge were deposed by the Vietnamese, and the whole world could no longer pretend not to know what type of regime they had been running, how did that world react? The US, China, and the UN General Assembly sided with the Khmer Rouge and condemned the Vietnamese!

As for the CPK, in 1981 it abandoned its claim to being a “communist” party and turned to the West and Sihanouk as allies. Pol Pot said “the communists are fighting us [i.e., the Vietnamese and the anti-Khmer Rouge Cambodians]. So we have to turn to the West and follow their way.”

Short writes that this action by Pol Pot “provided confirmation, were any needed, that the veneer of Marxism-Leninism which had cloaked Cambodian radicalism had only ever been skin- deep.” Q.E.D.

The rest of Short’s book continues the history of the Khmer Rouge to the death of Pol Pot and the final end of the movement in 1999. This is a book that should be read by everyone who wants to understand what happened to the Cambodian Revolution. It should also help to remind us that Marxism-Leninism is not just a name-- it is a working class movement not a movement to be dominated by petit bourgeois intellectuals and peasants.