We just returned from a first visit to Cambodia. Of course, we visited the temples, but we also read the appropriate stuff, including Edward Short’s excellent biography of Pol Pot ( subtitled The History of a Nightmare and published in 2004) and Loung Ung’s moving account of a childhood destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, First They Killed My Father, first published in 2001. Pol Pot was one of the most bizarre and terrifying figures in twentieth century history, tough league though that is. Actually, purely in terms of the bizarre he is outranked by his contemporary and compatriot, Sihanouk (1922-2012), who was variously prince, king, god, prime minister, playboy, film maker, reactionary monarchist and communist revolutionary and who is in the Guinness Book of Records for the widest range of offices ever held by one man, but that is another story.
Pol Pot bears little resemblance to more familiar communist revolutionaries. Marx, Engels, Lenin & co. were intellectuals who saw the revolution in terms of a superior “scientific” understanding of the forces of history. Also, they saw the industrial working class as the most important force in revolutionary change. Pol Pot’s Cambodia almost entirely lacked a proletariat and he was hostile to those who did exist. He was an anti-intellectual who based his revolution on the peasantry, as far removed from Marx’s comments on “the idiocy of rural life” as it was possible to be. In fact, his role model seems to have been Jack Cade; I don’t mean the real historical figure, but the character in Henry VI, Part 2, who wants to start by killing all the lawyers and executing everyone who can read and write. This was Shakespeare’s grammar school boys’ nightmare and the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot killed people for wearing spectacles, having professional qualifications or having pale skin.
Nevertheless, I concluded that though Pol Pot’s revolution was the most abhorrent of revolutions it was also the most coherent. The Khmer Rouge evacuated cities: most notoriously they insisted on evacuating Phnom Penh as soon as they captured it in April 1975. This was a ridiculous thing to do even on its own terms since it clogged up all the roads; at least twenty thousand people died in the first three days of the attempted evacuation. Later, they abolished money. All ludicrous and lunatic we might agree. But Pol Pot argued that if you allowed people to live an urban life there would be a division of labour, exchages and accumulation and these would amount to capitalism. Memorably he remarked that if the people were allowed to return to the cities capitalism would re-emerge “within an hour”. Money allows accumulation, individualism, security and some independence, making socialism impossible. Socialism can only be achieved by remorseless and exhausting contact with the land, which alone can make humans as equal as blackbirds (though party leaders and enforcers, as necessary roles for the enforcement of equality, have, of course, to be treated unequally).
And here we must agree with Pol Pot. Subsequent history has proved him right: seventy years of supposedly trying to develop a new “homo Sovieticus” collapsed into a robber baron form of capitalism more or less within an hour. China took a more evolutionary pace of journey to capitalism. A genuine anti-capitalism denies the fundamental instincts of competion, accumulation and the search for security which define us not just as humans, but as mammals.
Lincoln Allison April 2015