Benny Lévy 1977
Source: Les Temps Modernes, #370, May 1977;
Translated: for marxists.org by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2009.
Aside from its other particularities, the
Chinese people of six million men
possesses two remarkable particu-
larities...It is poor and blank... On
a sheet of blank paper nothing is
written; one can write on it the newest
and most beautiful words.
The spirit of the vulgar... is like a blank
sheet ready to receive all that
will be printed by the public authority.
Brandishing the rifle, in the revolutionary imagination of the ‘60’s, the guerrillero of Indochina took on the place of the Bolshevik worn out by conspiracies and the apparatus. Thanks to this figure we were able to reinvent the opposition between the weak and the strong; elusive and mobile, the small ended by confounding the all-powerful. Escape routes were laid out from the imperial circle. However far power wanted to go, beyond it there opened an inviolable space: jungle, forest, mountain; a secret and irreducible mass. From this abyss there surged up our idea of revolution. Instead of the class, fixed to the soil, and standing at ease; accumulating its forces like capital its capital. Declassed, heterogeneous, scattered bands, soluble fish. We could discreetly dream: the grip of the occidental monster was finished: Komintern, bureaucracies... The guerrilla: shimmering, multiple.
“Their mission is to observe (“lop”) the conduct of other villagers on order to inform the Angkar (Organization).” (F. Ponchaud, p. 131). The guerrilla, or : the regime of tight surveillance, penetrating the impenetrable, violating the sanctuaries. Since the guerrillero knows even the most hidden places, he will place his observation post there. He knows the secret of ambushes; on the vast battlefield that is the sprit of every Cambodian he will launch his surprise attacks. The war is not over, the war can not end.
“In the past the word used as the equivalent for the French term ‘to work’ meant ‘commit an act’ (theu kar), or to search for something to eat (rok si). Now it is the words ‘struggle’ or ‘launch an offensive,’ employed without complements, which replace the old terms...
“In a quite ordinary account of the realities of the ‘production movement in the canton of Banteay Frey’ which lasted five minutes and twenty seconds, we were able to count six expressions composed of the term ‘to struggle,’ two with the term ‘to attack,’ one with ‘victory,’ three with ‘strategic,’ as well as seven adverbial expressions expressing determination or military courage.” (Ponchaud, p. 139)
Once power is seized through war, the taking of man remains. By war also. He must be touched “in his depths.” (Mao). Well then, the guerrilla, who admirably knows the popular depths, will know how to handle this. Everything is a battlefield, war being the supreme form of politics and everything being political. After having wiped out the foreign enemy, and then the enemy within, war must be made against the most secret of enemies that man hides: the old man within him. We already saw in 1793 revolutionary committees, emanations of the assemblies of the sections, metamorphose into policemen in the service of the revolutionary government. Since then things have been perfected: thanks to the guerrilla they descend deeper into the people and thanks to the Chinese Cultural Revolution there is no corner of the soul that isn’t accessible to popular war, no interior that is not visible to the guerrillero. The final revolution is the densest. Curse of the revolution: the higher the aim, the harder the fall.
And here is the end of the guerrilla: while at its beginnings everything was depth, the people are now nothing but surface. Surface to be inscribed upon, blank page on which the Angkar counts to write an epic poem: “Cambodia, year zero.”
So when, then, does the regeneration begin? “The glorious 17th of April” the capital falls like the head of Louis XVI. At that fatal instant history is broken in two:
“They had been promised an era of happiness, and it was going to begin after the taking of Phnomh Penh” Coming out of the night of pre-history, in the early morning the Cambodians are cast into the broad daylight of history. In fact, onto the road, where the elderly, the ill, and children die by the thousands. Ordinarily, revolutionaries get bogged down in transitions; of course the Winter Palace was taken, but is the state now a worker state, worker-peasant, worker-peasant with a bureaucratic excrescence, truly new or still largely old? Lenin stumbled about: he felt that between the before and the after there were still networks of complicity. Marshy nuances: Angkar hates mixes. April 17 cuts things off; it has the perfection of the instant, the radical purity of lightning.
Under the bar: the before. Above it: the after. The bar cuts time and man. Below: the degenerate. Above: the regenerated. The bar cuts self from self:
“Every request for food invariably received in response: ask the Angkar! Because they always heard the same response, the people asked: but who is the Angkar? The Khmers Rouges answered: it’s each of you! You should shift for yourselves to find what to eat.” [In relation to the question of the deportees from Phnomh Penh. (Ponchaud, pp 41-42). In other words, there is the small self (each of you) and the big self (Angkar, which is each of you). An air known here for two centuries:
“Finding a form of association that defends and protects with the entire common force the person and property of each associate, and by which, each person uniting with everyone, nevertheless only obeys himself, and remains as free as before.” (The Social Contract, I chap. 6).
It’s Rousseau’s fault:
“The radicalism of the Cambodian leaders, who reduce to nothing the distance between the state and the citizen, is a serious experiment.” (Fr. Debre, p.22)
Angkar is you. Or better: the people are the people. When Rousseau produced this statement he, in a sense, conferred on the people all their dignity: the people are no longer that multitude, that populace that the powerful fear. The multitude, “which enslaved only one” retreats before the “people who are the people,” space without height, without division, without conflict. But what is the “act” by which the people are a people? The social contract, says Rousseau; insurrection, specifies the sans-culottes, who make a clean slate of established authority, which is a (re-)commencing. The sans-culottes defined insurrection as “the people arisen.” And the latter testified to the disorders of the crowd and its jubilation. Rousseau didn’t forget the “primitive festival,” the sans-culottes the farandole of the insurrections and federations: fraternity was still confusion. But in the era of the Angkar it is no longer possible to dream, even seriously:
“A bit later, at around 6:00 pm, a certain number of Khmers Rouges arrive, circle the marketplace three times, followed by a festive crowd. We are surprised, for they remain silent and don’t seem happy to have won the war. At night we enjoy ourselves, dance, sing as if for the new year. Yet the Khmers Rouges refuse to mix with us. Why?” (Ponchaud, p.59).
It’s because during the Angkar era the people are one and bears no relation to the crowd, a “confused magma.”
“How would they control the tumult of Phnomh Penh... where, if they didn’t watch over them, the population would fraternize with their men; crowd movements are dangerous when they are spontaneous...On the afternoon of April 17 the order is given to empty the city of its inhabitants. No more demonstrations to fear, no more fraternization and reconciliation possible.” (Debré, pp. 219-220). Henceforth, below the bar: chaos, magma, communion, freedom of circulation. Above: order, “the people,” Angkar, the traffic patrol. The bar designates processes of separation. “What is infected must be incised” (slogan of the new regime). The people must be cut off from the non-people. Figuring in the non-people:
“The population of the zones liberated after 1975 (more than 3 million inhabitants) seems to still be considered a vast mass of prisoners of war...pariahs, foreigners in their own country.” In any case, “they are men of the cities, quasi-foreigners with slanted eyes and light skin, métis whose fathers came from Siam and China to oppress the Khmer people.” (Debré, p. 230). To be re-educated with no great illusions, and since contamination has to be watched out for, cuts must sometimes be made.
The latter are, in any event, condemned to extinction, at least culturally...
Once cut off from the non-people, are the people purely one? That would mean counting without its internal disorder: one has to pass now to a finer cut. This is a work requiring qualifications: the people must be forged (lôt dam, smooth out the surface, trim). What is too long must be shortened to the right size (slogan of the regime). What is attached to the bottom must be scratched off. Man must be detached from the land: by deportation. In the era of the Angkar a free person is a displaced person. Separate him from the family: “the radio, confirmed on this point by the refugees, calls the current period the ‘papa-mama’ period (samay-poukmay), for now all adults are globally called papa or mama by the cadres and the young people...all children are considered the children of the Angkar” (Ponchaud, p. 150).
And do you not perceive the vegetal scalp, that metallic asperity, the shadowy mountains: the ‘somber nucleus’ (Sartre) in man. Cut down, raze, level. It’s the renunciation of the little self (egoist man) for the great self (the-man-who-is-Angkar).
The renunciation takes on three particular forms: “renunciation of one’s own mentality, renunciation of property, renunciation of personal conduct.” (Ponchaud, p.142). Angkar doesn’t want to know that “black light” (Sartre). For Angkar the light is not black and it illuminates all:
“Hiding something is subject to the death penalty. Everything must be clear to all. Everyone must know everyone else as well as they do image of our face sent by a mirror.” (Ponchaud, p. 90)
All that is needed is an apparatus. Occidentals call it Panopticon. Orient oblige: “through chlops (spies) Angkar has eyes like pineapples and sees all.” (Ponchaud, p.131)
Once the person has been abstracted his relations must still be watched over. Any reciprocity is excluded. Men on one side and women on the other, and if the man and woman want to marry they request authorization. And when the husband and wife succeed in living together the child makes the best of spies against this risk of intimacy. At all levels there is never two without three, authority itself is always tricephalic.
It is only when you reach this point that you have understood the people in the purity of its concept.
We know that for Rousseau there must be, between the people and the people, between self and self, an intercessor: the legislator, “He who dares undertaking the establishment of a people must feel himself capable, so to speak, of changing human nature” (Social Contract, II, 7.)
“Our soul is revived thanks to Angkar” (Ponchaud, p. 144) Thanks to the Legislator and Angkar heaven’s mandate falls to earth. “But it is not every man who can make the gods speak.” (Social Contract) That place mid-way between heaven and earth was symbolized by Mount Meru, according to ancient Indian beliefs. The memories of the great Angkarian power resided there.
“As in the time when the king was the earthly incarnation of Brahma, anonymous Angkar is the incarnation of the popular will.” (Ponchaud, p.135)
There was little doubt that Angkar wrote on a blank page; the little men in black who burned all signs of the West in the ghost city of Phnomh Penh saved from the flames...pens, for Angkar. Does the blank page have a reverse side, as Mao suspected in the 50’s?
“April 17, 1975, a glorious date in the history of Kampuchea, inaugurates a more prestigious era than that of Angkorian times” (slogan frequently heard on Radio Phnomh Penh.)
The beginning was thus a recommencement, and the fatal moment returns us to the Golden Age. See what is on the emblem of the regenerated people: the towers of Angkor Wat. So be it: let us return to the Golden Age, to oriental despotism. An ideologue of Angkar had warned us in a thesis written in Paris: “In the Cambodian countryside the frequent practice of mutual aid, the great works in the fields, the construction of houses in the villages and every other labor that requires common effort, including the repair and construction of roads, the digging of wells and canals, the construction of dams, gives birth to collective forms of labor.” (Hou Yuon, La Paysannerie du Cambodge).
This collective labor which Hou Yuon refers to is all the same: mutual aid and what Marx called “generalized slavery.”
“Upon assuming kingship he (Indravarman I) swore before all that within five days he would begin the work on the cisterns.” (“Inscriptions de Cambodge,” vol 2). Here, for our radicals, is the break with the past: on the blank page they recopy the trace of Angakarian power. At that time the city already had a superfluous character (exchange was reduced to a minimum). The mode of production, “despotico-villageois,” concealed a doubling of the community:
“A portion of the over work of the community belongs to the higher community, which ends up existing as a person, and this excess labor is expressed both by tribute and by common labors for the glorification of either the actual despot, or the god, imaginary representative of the tribe...
“In most forms of an Asiatic base the rallying unit which is situated above all these communities appears in the form of the higher landlord, or the sole landlord, and the real communities as hereditary possessions."” (Marx, Fondments de la Critique)
“All the important means of production are the collective property of the people’s state and the collective property of the communal people.” (Constitution of Kampuchea, chap 2, art. 2)
Already, for the great hydraulic works of the Twelfth Century, Angkor exploited the sub-people, the prisoners of war of the vanquished communities. Marxists, through bitter debates, characterized that era as the passing form of a society without classes to a class society. The era of the Angkar is doubtless the passing form of class society to a society without classes: “A society...without exploiting or exploited class, a society in which the people live in harmony” (preamble to the constitution). In summary, a direct round trip.
Tocqueville had already revealed, under the regeneration of our Revolution, the continuity with the centralist past of the ancien régime. A difference: “Since everything that could once have limited centralization remained destroyed, from the very bowels of a nation that had just overthrown royalty we suddenly saw appear a more extensive, more detailed, more absolute power than that which had been exercised by any of our kings.”
To say it differently: Agkar erases the popular foundation (the recto of the blank page) and purifies the despotic tradition (the verso).
Again, the “more extensive” power which Tocqueville speaks of – that of Napoleon – wanted, starting from the recto and verso, to “compose” a new page. This was the principle of the amalgamation and fusion of opposites which Napoleon made the cornerstone of his system.
“Napoleon, arriving at sovereign power, thus found, as is vulgarly said, the earth razed and the house cleaned, and was able to compose a court according to his wishes. He sought, he said, a reasonable middle path, wishing to harmonize the dignity of the throne with our new mores.” (Memorial de Las Cases, Pleiade, Vol 1, p. 396)
But as we know, the Angkar hates mixes. The power of Angkar is not the fusion of the people and the monarchy, but the fusion of the people and the people. In its eyes Napoleonic power is a pale, because blurred, thing. Pure profile of Angkar, unprecedented horrific challenge: a power that doesn’t compromise.
Dissolve the guerrillero brandishing the rifle; retain only the basics: a secret and irreducible people. Forget a certain idea of radicality, break away from that tradition which Sylvain Maréchal summarizes in a now mournful prophecy:
‘We will consent to anything [for equality], to make a clean slate so as to cling to it alone. If necessary, let all the arts perish as long as real equality remains.” (Manifesto of the Equals)