The beginning point, on a “very unpleasant, theoretical question”, lay on a bedrock position that didn’t think it was meaningful “to consider the Khmer Rouge a left organization.”
He argued, So the beliefs, programs and plans of the Khmer Rouge were completely at right angles to Cambodian reality. Which is why it all got so bloody.
This edited synopsis of exchanges on a List discussion has conflate various postings that appeared in the original exchange for the sake of clarity in treatment of themes. It had the adversarial form against the misconceptions and the factual inaccuracies in the contribution of principally one member. There were differences in the various responses however the spirit of enquiry rather than dogmatic assertion characterised such differences. As true of most internet-based exchanges, no unanimity or consensus was reached.
So what then was the nature of the Khmer Rouge regime?
It was not a workers state of even the most deformed possible nature, as a workers state, even deformed, defends the *social interests* of the working class in sociological terms. They were modernizers not primitivists, with a vision of some sort of socialism sometime in the future, except starting on a purely agrarian primitive-communist basis. But that is simply wrong and impossible.
I would characterize the Khmer Rouge as a failed attempt at creating a bureaucratic collectivist society, as per the notions of Burnham and Shachtman.
“Angka” had clearly taken on the features of a new ruling class, with absolutely no roots among these workers forced into workshops at gunpoint, and by then damn little roots among the peasantry. …”Angka” was simply an alien oppressor exploiting the workers and peasants and killing them when they complained, or if even suspected of complaining.”
Countering a lot of the automatically quoted “facts” and presenting a nuanced view of the Khmer Rouge and Democratic Kampuchea should not be taken as being sympathetic to the Khmer Rouge. As one blogger explained, challenging the narrative based on the facts we all believe we know about the Khmer Rouge like the eyeglasses = death fact doesn’t make you a pol potist!
“ I am the owner of the site The Eyes of the Pineapple. I am not pro-Khmer Rouge, or a ‘sympathiser.’ I merely want to present a better understanding of the Cambodian revolution, how it came to be, looking at pre-war and pre-revolutionary Cambodian society, Vietnam, international politics and the reasons why it failed so rapidly. I do counter some so-called ‘facts’ of the movement and DK regime, but not to excuse or deny what happened there. Rather to help people understand WHY what happened, happened in the way it did.”
“ I am critical of both vulgar non-communist interpretations of the revolution (Communists are by default bad, and so unsurprisingly Communists do bad things), as well as the old Marxist-Leninist left who have tried to, at times inaccurately, place and explain the DK regime’s failings in the framework of their own political understanding (it was the fault of US imperialism, it was Maoism’s fault, it was the revisionism of the Khmer revolutionaries that was at fault – insert the suffix ism here). I am not a Maoist either. “
“ A lot of it is about trying to make sense of the peasant social forces, moved to action by the spread of a major war, but not interested in socialism after it, …. I counter the assertion that they were primitivists, for example. They were in my view modernisers, aiming for the rapid development and industrialisation of the country. That was the point of their rural infrastructural programme – a Khmer version of ‘war communism’ was used for developing the productive forces needed for building a modern, industrialised society in a compressed time-scale. But it all ended in failure, with rapid structural collapse.”
[Incidentally On the now defunct Eyes of the Pineapple internet site, there was discussion on the 1971 Chinit River: Third Congress of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, on Soft drinks and cigarettes the industrial sector of the ill-fated DK economy, Pol Pot’s Abandoned Airport and Pol Pot’s forgotten steel mills amongst other topics.]
“The Khmer Rouge were not a working class party. In a very literal sense. The tiny Cambodian working class was pretty much exterminated by them.”
Now Maoism in general does move in that direction, wanting to base itself on the peasantry but not the working class. But in power Mao didn’t wipe out the working class
I would be extremely surprised if the image I have, which I thought was universal and taken for granted, of extreme CPK hostility to the working class is inaccurate.
- That all factory workers were killed is as false as the claim that anyone who wore glasses, or had soft hands was singled out for execution.”
Back tracking slightly, the argument is refined: “ I was exaggerating a bit in commenting that they had a line of killing all workers. But … evacuated the cities thereby deproletarianizing those who were not killed… they drove out *everybody,* evacuating the cities 100%.”…So the Cambodian proletariat, such as it was, was literally destroyed as a social class. If that is not deproletarianization I don’t know what is.”
When question on where that notion came from, the reply was:
My understanding was that it was 100% evacuated, and that Everybody Knew That…. And no, I don’t recall where this idea came from. Kiernan perhaps, or maybe it was just general opinion 30 years ago.
- Phnom Penh was not 100% evacuated.
As to why it was evacuated, a very material factor was raised:
There was a report to the US Congress from the Office of the Inspector-General of Foreign Assistance in March of 1975 which was before FUNK took over Phnom Penh. An excerpt is:“Cambodia: An Assessment of Humanitarian Needs and Relief Efforts,” Inspection Report, March 12, 1975, in Congressional Record, March 20, 1975, Vol. 121, 94th Congress, 1st Session, pp. 7891-7894
“In Phnom Penh, there are between one and two million refugees in a city that had a pre-war total population of about 375,000. The added hundreds of thousands of destitute victims has proven a burden with which relief programs cannot cope. . . . Almost the totality of those refugees entering Phnom Penh and the provincial capitals for protection were farmers from the neighbouring countryside. The impact of this influx of farmers into urban areas and away from the productive farm areas had great economic impact, reducing the agricultural production of the country to the point where instead of being a substantial exporter of rice, fruit, fish and livestock. Cambodia has become a massive importer of rice. . . “
So, this US congressional report, made before FUNK took over Phnom Penh, seems to be in contradiction to what you’re saying. You’re saying the cities were evacuated (they weren’t) whereas the US congressional position was that the cities were being filled with a starving influx of millions of peasants from the countryside (due to the US bombing campaign) – thus FUNK taking power hadn’t “evacuated the cities” but sent recent refugees back to their farms. This also isn’t “deproletarianizing” as the refugees were not proletarian, but farmers who had recently fled their farms. As the US congressional report said “this influx of farmers into urban areas and away from the productive farm areas had great economic impact, reducing the agricultural production of the country to the point where instead of being a substantial exporter of rice, fruit, fish and livestock. Cambodia has become a massive importer of rice”, sending the farmers back to their farms to farm would seem to be sensible thing.
Another contributor noted… Yeah, the depopulation of Phom Penh, regardless of the incredibly bumbled fashion it was done, was initially a desperate move to re-establish agriculture after the refugee crisis, in part fuelled by “free” American food aid, had de-agriculturalized Cambodia in an attempt to destroy the revolution and concentrate, artificially, populations in the cities (a similar strategy was attempted by the US in el Salvador, with less success).
Like with the peasant revolution=maoism canard, the view that somehow Phom Penh was this sprawling proletarian citadel that the peasant-chauvinist murdered and de-proletaraized by the millions is simply not true, and ignorant of how Phom Penh functioned in the years before the KR arrived.
This depopulation was a desperate attempt to actually *save* lives by creating a sufficient harvest in the face of impending doom. It failed, this is true, but the initial intent was not deproletarization, but re-peasantization of refugees in order to produce food so people wouldn’t die because there was no longer foreign aid.
That doesn’t mean that once this steps were set in motion, a whole bunch of ugly shit (and pie in the sky dreams of Sorbonne Université educated “advisors”) then came up. But on the question of the depopulation, the trot tropes, reactionary retellings and the liberal lies are wrong.
I hold no sympathy with the degeneration of DK, and in general break with anti-revisionism on this question (ie the Vietnamese acted mainly out of internationalism, not proxy imperialism – although it wasn’t as altruistic as some also argue), but there is a lot of highly inaccurate stuff that contradicts even bourgeois sources at the time that many in the left take as truth.
“The theoretical basis of the Khmer Rouge had a strong component of Fanonism as opposed to Marxism or even Maoism.”
- Response from the owner of the now defunct [http://padevat.info ] site, The Eyes of the Pineapple, was firstly that
“Fanon had no influence, indirect or otherwise, at all on Khmer Rouge thinking. I also think you fundamentally misunderstand Maoism regarding the peasantry too. “
More than one contributor had made the basic point that Fanonism is meaningless in the context of Cambodian peasant violence, and the need to acquaint yourself with the history of the Cambodian Communist movement.
They argued that “Khmer Rouge violence, which was as much to do with not only regional intra-party political and military divides, as it was an empowered peasantry against an enemy whose bases were the towns. And both things can’t be viewed in complete abstraction from what was generally happening in Cambodia during the 1970s.
There is no correlation whatsoever between Fanon’s work and the line of the CPK, unless you are simply drawing a parallel between any two sets of figures you use the terms “violence” and “politics” in the same sentence.
Again, the argument shifted: “Did Saloth Sar derive his ideas directly from Fanon? No. I don’t think one will find references to Fanon in his famous dissertation*….. Anyway, these ideas were in the air at the time….Fanon’s ideas, right or wrong, were highly applicable to Cambodia. I think it is irrelevant whether or not Fanon had direct influence, parallel situations create parallel ideas” .
- Saloth Sar did not produce a dissertation, famous or otherwise. It was Khieu Samphan who wrote a thesis on the Cambodian economy and industrial development.
Although he cited Ben Kieran as a secondary source used, the valid criticism was that his position was derived from “second-hand and inaccurate interpretations of it to bolster your argument”.
His argument was undermined by being dismissive of assessing the (conflicting) academic research, in believing “life is too short to read Samphan’s dissertation”. In a nutshell, his politics “support the official Spartacist position that Mao’s victory in 1949 meant the creation at that point of a bureaucratically-deformed workers’ state in China”.
As for Pol Pot’s Kampuchea, frankly I think your factual information here only proves my point. Whatever theoretical notions for the future the CPK had, in practice they destroyed what little industry existed, emptied Pnom Penh and other cities, and forced the workers at gunpoint to become serfs of Angka in the rice fields, and sometimes in brand new small industries as well. Not at all what happened in the Soviet Union or Mao’s China. “
At first, Samphan thesis was seen as influential by western academics, and back in 1976 the bi-monthly Indochina Chronicle gave an overview of Khieu Samphan’s 1959 doctoral thesis, and presented in abridged form the first chapter of Laura Summer’s translation.
British academic Laura Summers had this to say about Samphan’s thesis, and CPK policy:
“The other important historical point to note when reading this particular work–not his only one– by Samphan is that he was trying to explain why Cambodia had NOT industrialized. The research was inspired by what is known in development studies as dependency theory. In the west, this tradition is usually associated with Andre Gunder Frank, or in the Francophone-African worlds, Samir Amin, one of Samphan’s tutors in the University of Paris. Aidan Foster Carter and others refer to this sociological tradition as “neo-Marxist” partly because it makes use of some Marxian language and concepts (e.g. class conflict) in spite of departing very fundamentally from defining elements of Marxist analysis (e.g. Samphan’s work might be described as a study of the relations of international trade–this is not a Marxist study–or not a very rigorous study– of the means of production and relations of production in Cambodia). He is conscious of what that involves but not interested in doing what Hou Yuon and Hu Nim did (because they produced quite solidly Marxist studies on different subjects). Part II of Samphan’s recommends state intervention in the economy of a social democratic character and lots of technocratic fixing, including state investment in infant industries and import controls to protect national producers from foreign competitors. The thesis was not a blueprint for the CPK, not least because its author wasn’t even a member of that party until 1971 (and got himself in trouble soon afterwards for being in favour of joining the talks in Paris and negotiated an end to the war according to reports at the time). But in 1975 and 1976, when everyone was scratching their heads trying to figure out what was going on inside Cambodia, a number of us could see in his student dissertation how such radical, separatist, economic nationalism could emerge from the mounting, excruciating legacies of colonial, royalist (feudal if you wish) and imperialist incubation. Cambodia was a cauldron full of contradictions, if you like, and the collective fantasizing or hubris of the militarists were just symptoms of the confusion, bottled up ambitions and weaknesses of essentially poorly organized forces.”
Another contributor stated Samphan’s dissertation had no influence whatsoever on Communist Party of Kampuchea policy. Samphan’s influence in the CPK was marginal anyway, compared to others who had a Marxist-Leninist, Vietnamese-trained cadre background. Stephen Heder’s excellent study Cambodian Communism and the Vietnamese Model will be illuminating in tracing the Marxist-Leninist, Vietnamese-trained politics of the Khmer Communists.
It used dependency theory then fashionable among some academics – It was also a study on why Cambodia had not industrialised as much as finding a path to future industrialisation. For that it proposed reformist, capitalist, and technocratic measures. Pol Pot’s ambitions to industrialise Cambodia did not amount to the same thing, with regards to the proposed reforms found in Samphan’s dissertation.
Samphan was only brought in to do some work on structuring the new economy in DK because of his past experience in partially nationalising industries, as a member of the National Assembly in the years of Sihanouk’s Sangkum government. He was late into the maquis – among the second movement of radicals who left for the countryside in 1967, and was not a member of the Party at the time he disappeared. His candidacy for membership officially ended in 1971 when he became a full member of the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
He wasn’t that influential in formulating DK government policy, and nor was his thesis. This policy formulation came more from Vietnamese-trained cadre, including the more influential Nuon Chea, who was well-versed in Marxism-Leninism as filtered to him through study while in the Thai Communist Party and later his membership of the ICP and related organisations in Cambodia.
Someone raised the suggestion to read the Yale University monograph Pol Pot Plans the Future, which contains English translations of CPK documents, on economic planning, indeed their Four-Year Plan to Build Socialism in All Fields. I’m sure you’ll find some congruity with the above and Samphan’s doctoral thesis
He repeats the error : “My impression at least is that the relationship between head of state Khieu Samphan’s concept of modernizing Cambodia and party leader Pol Pot’s is that Samphan’s dissertation is the reformist class-collaborationist version and PP’s the revolutionary version of pretty much the same thing.”
The infrastructural development undertaken by the Democratic Kampuchea government, as the first stage of a comprehensive economic plan, never formally launched, but sometimes referred to as the Super Great Leap Forward, should not be viewed in a linear fashion with the Great Leap Forward in China. It diverges from it to a significant degree, despite the inspiration and rhetoric.
The ambition of Cambodian Communists to outdo not only the Vietnamese Stalinists – from who they borrowed heavily in the formative years and after 1975 – and both Stalin and Mao with the ‘building of socialism’ – to outdo them at a ‘revolution from above,’ and a great leap forward respectively.
There was little in the way of industrial development in the country pre-war, apart from small-scale light industries established during the Sangkum years. Industry was ‘neglected’ only up to a point, in that the first priority was the building of infrastructure needed for agricultural development. There was tentative industrial activity in DK, however, and Phnom Penh had thousands of workers labouring in those small-scale light industries, refurbished by Chinese and North Korean aid and technicians. The rural focus on enlarging agricultural production was to create huge surpluses for export, which in turn would bring in the revenues to be ploughed into the economy. That was the path to a more large-scale industrial development, however unrealistic, and was the first stage they never got beyond.
But repeats a framing that has already been challenged:
Whatever theories of future industrialization that one might find in CPK documents, in practice they deurbanized the country and destroyed what very little industry existed.
The condemnation is free of context of the global south, and a society emerging from war or material consideration of what could be accomplished by the regime in its three years and eight months and twenty-day existence.
More than once challenged that as somewhat uninformed about the reality of CPK policy, the ideological factors that composed their line, and the concrete circumstances of Democratic Kampuchea within the overall framework of Marxism in ex-Indochina.
The theoretical background to the KR is not simply Maoism, nor is it the GPCR period. It was a complex mixture of factors in the Southeast Asian region – the experience of the Indochinese Communist organizations (after all Nuon Chea was trained in the Thai party), and the long years of guerrilla struggle in Cambodia contributed much more to the ideological formation of “Angkar” than simply an imported Maoism.
There are many reasons for not simply dropping the CPK into a pre-fabricated schema of the Sino-Soviet split: the role of the Vietnamese party in training pre-DK cadres (which of course had to be denied later once the Vietnamese party became the major enemy), and the influence of the PCF (during their time in France, many leading DK cadres were close to the party.
“Did the “CPK” have a similar idea in theory? Probably not. But they certainly had an extreme version of the same idea in practice, and praxis makes perfect, as we Marxists say.” He excuses his poor formulations and opinions that drew criticism as “a piece of bad polemic.”
“Mao saw the peasantry not the proletariat as the basis of the Chinese Revolution, and Pol Pot took that to its logical conclusion I suppose
An American contribution laid into the sloppy theoretical assertions regarding attitude towards the peasantry during the Chinese revolution:
“One key point is that Maoism never established the peasantry as the universal revolutionary subject. It established as the revolutionary subject under the conditions of China at the time the revolution was waged. In particular it identified the annihilation of the organized industrial workers at the hand of the Kuomintang and the Japanese as a class annihilation, which meant only the peasantry had the objective capacity and the subjective will to rise against reaction.
This experience opened the door of marxism to places who shared china’s reality of a weak industrial proletariat, or in which the peasantry had a revolutionary role to play as a class in itself, rather than an “ally”.
In fact, more often than not, peasant-led revolutions were led by pro-Soviet (Latin America and Africa were -and still are in some cases – full of peasant led revolutions led by non-Maoist forces), not Maoist, forces, and many Maoist movements (in particular some mildly successful ones like the Maoists in Bloco in Portugal, the German MLPD, the PTB in Belgium and the AKP(ml) in Norway) had explicit industrial workerist orientations (and while some have abandoned strong links to maoism, they were strongly workerist in their peak as ml and mlm periods.
The Hoxhaist groups PCMLE and Bandera Roja (which are Maoists in origin) were also heavily workerists (and got criticized for this both by vulgar maoism and pro-Cubans), yet became hugely successful (in different ways).
In the USA the only group that appealed to the peasantry (in the form of Farmers) was the trotskyist SWP. Even when going to the rural heartland, NCM forces explicitly appealed to miners and farmworkers (proletarized agricultural workers) not farmers (industrialized peasants). The entire NCM was characterized by an understanding that the peasantry was not a force in the USA, and this was encouraged by Mao, who always spoke of workers and proletarians in the USA not peasants.
So it is a vulgarization of Maoism to say that it merely substitutes the industrial workers with the peasant. More correct would be to say it doesn’t make a fetish out of the industrial workers, unlike Trotskyism and left-communism, or sees peasants as simply allies creating a rear-guard for the industrial workers in the countryside, as pro-soviet ML does.
Now, this perspective might be a correct or incorrect one, but it is important not to debate against a strawman.”
The term Khmer Rouge was originally a pejorative term coined by Sihanouk and “the CPK did not even announce its existence until late September 1977, immediately prior to Pol Pot’s visit to China.
Those who question the easy Maoist designation given to the Khmer Rouge because of the obvious international alignment [explainable on geo-political terms] argue that
“The KR in DK was not following a new democratic program, a key factor of maoist state building. It had no national democratic front or such other party-led patriotic organization. It didn’t follow the mass line.”……” their version of Maoism (if it can be called that) was developed after they took (and lost) power, not in their origins and guiding politics during the revolutionary upsurge. As correctly noted, the PCF and the Vietminh probably had much more to do with the DK coming to existence than Mao and the CPC.”
This is partly countered by reference to the period May 1970 to September 1977 when FUNK , the Cambodian resistance’s public face was entirely that of the “national democratic front or such other party-led patriotic organization. Sihanouk even remained the (titular of course) head of state for about a year after April 1975.” Openly declaring its existence in 1977, some judgements and opinions expressed by the CPK (in power) over Mao’s death and the absence of any ideological solidarity shown with the arrested Gang of Four that some see as motivated by the alliance with the Chinese state.
It was suggested that the Khmer Rouge were not Maoist in the sense that their paradigm was not China or the Chinese revolution [but] in that they developed their theories and policies based on how they viewed Cambodian society and were first and foremost Cambodian nationalists (chauvinists might well be an appropriate description), but the influence on them of the Chinese revolution, not least of aspects of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, cannot reasonably be denied.
Another contribution argued: I do not negate the many similarities, in particular with the Great Leap Forward, of many of the CPK policies. I just think they pale in the face of the more appropriate comparison with war communism in the Soviet Union, and in the pan-Indochina ideas of the Vietminh and the Pathet Lao. A popular front does not equal a national democratic front (I feel weird saying this out loud), and the FUNK was more like a popular front up until the CPK hegemonized… ie more soviet than maoist. And DK was more like (soviet) war communism than great leap forward.
Further explorations of these topics and themes can be found at Cambodia to Kampuchea