Nigel Harris Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Nigel Harris

Heart of darkness

(February 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.84, February 1986, p.8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

IT TOOK quite a short time for the name Pol Pot to enter the lexicon of political monsters.

The Kampuchean is credited with the deliberate liquidation of Cambodia’s middle classes and intelligentsia, with the wholesale destruction of libraries, historical monuments and cultural remains, hospitals and medical services, education; and with the systematic murder or starvation of hundreds of thousands.

Wilfred Burchett, long-time supporter of Peking and an old journalist who ought to know better, faithfully recorded the stories that small children were fed to crocodiles in a farm at Siem Reap. And all this simply from ‘ideological commitment’.

The case was never convincing, not because the Kampuchean Communist Party had anything to do with socialism or popular emancipation, but because no social order can be built on such consistent and universal violence.

Most of us learn a wariness of such stories after seeing the headlines in the Daily Express and Daily Mail, where the strangled mixture of violence and terror in the minds of the readers turns a pennyworth of truth into a pound of fantasy. After all, no one made a monster out of President Suharto of Indonesia and his coming to power cost up to a million slaughtered – but then he was eliminating a leftist regime for the west.

The case on Pol Pot (presented in Francois Ponchaud’s Cambodia Year Zero and Barron and Paul’s Murder of a Gentle Land) is about as convincing as Attenborough’s dream film, Gandhi.

The myth was outdated almost as soon as created. The horrors of Pol Pot’s Democratic Kampuchea seemed invented to conceal the even greater horrors of the US military action in Cambodia (and even more, in Vietnam). If between half and one million were said to have been killed by Pol Pot, just as many or more died in the preceding years of US sponsored management.

But the overthrow of Pol Pot was achieved by Vietnam, close ally of the Soviet Union. Immediately the Washington history writing machine was put into reverse to prove the Vietnamese invaders were monsters and Pol Pot was not so bad after all. The CIA’s Kampuchea: A Democratic Catastrophe was one contribution to an amazingly swift turn-round.

The change of gear was helped by Pol Pot’s open campaign to convince Washington that he was the stoutest defender of democracy in Indo-China and should become a military client of the Pentagon. It was also helped by that legion of American liberals, yanked rudely to the right by Reagan and Rambo, who had fought against American intervention in Indo-China but now – faced with the endless grey militarism and famine of Vietnam, let alone Pol Pot – have begun to wonder publicly whether US intervention was, after all, so wrong.

However, the myth of Pol Pot is tough. An Oscar winner, The Killing Fields, has helped keep it alive (although dangerously introducing the complexity of good and bad Khmer Communists). In Peru, the Sendero Luminoso are accused of being a Latin American version of the Khmer monster. And a transparent effort by the right to whitewash Marcos of the Philippines alleges he must be supported because the Filipino Communist Party are ‘Pol-Pot-style’ horrors. If Pol Pot did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.

However, there were real horrors. If there is revisionism among the liberals, the left too has to absorb the shock of Pol Pot. Michael Vickery’s Cambodia 1975-82 (South End Press, Boston) is part of the attempt to come to grips with the issues. He seeks as carefully as possible to define what happened, where, when and why, and finds that some appalling things happened but in only a few places and times (mainly 1977). He shows fairly convincingly that, far from being the happy hobbit land portrayed by the western press, traditional Cambodia was pretty horrific. Thus,

‘for the rural 80 to 90 percent of the Cambodian people, arbitrary justice, sudden violent death, political oppression, exploitative use of religion and anti-religious reaction, both violent and quiescent, were common facts of life long before the war and revolution of 1970s. The creations of Pol Potism were all there in embryo.’

Second, the economic burdens on the peasantry increased steadily throughout this century (with the first major revolt in 1967-8), producing a strong hostility to the cities. Sihanouk’s educational policy, he says, produced a mass of partly educated youth that refused to work in the country and migrated to the city.

Finally, the war broke the social structure, inflicting terrible damage and disorganisation and driving masses of the destitute off the land to the cities. On the other hand, the new Communist Party rulers of 1975 consisted of powerful provincial groups operating in great rivalry with each other; they vested life and death powers in the hands of raw peasant lads. A thousand petty slights, real and imagined, as well as petty thefts, could be inflicted or avenged in the name of the proletariat.

Furthermore, alongside overblown Phnom Penh (the capital) were the empty lands that needed to be cultivated if Cambodia was to be able to export agricultural goods (and so import most other things); it was ‘understandable’ that the urban population should be transferred to productive rural labour, but it was done by inexperienced cadres without training or equipment, and soft city hands were destroyed tilling barely fertile soil.

Parts of the case are plausible even though much of it is special pleading and repeats – as if novel – ancient fragments of the conventional Third World Studies’ case, applicable everywhere.

Vickery says that the Cambodian events were a peasant revolution.

The ‘peasant-revolution’ tag provides him with a defence of non-peasant Vietnam and China. The Khmer regime failed, he concludes, because ‘it turned its back on “Marxist communism” (his unexplained inverted commas) and the economic failure of Democratic Kampuchea confirms the predictions of orthodox Marxism.’

No it doesn’t. Vickery is too weak on Marxism to draw any such conclusion. Nonetheless, this is the beginning of an attempt to penetrate the western fantasy to the real and complex, albeit savage, heart of darkness. It is very long (349 pages), and reading it occasions wonder at the contrast between the author’s meticulous industry and the paucity of his theory. But that was the same with most of the opponents of the Vietnam war. Many of them thought the war was about Vietnam itself and the regimes of north and south. When the north took the south, they had time to be disillusioned. In the spring of 1968, International Socialism (Neither Washington nor Moscow – but Vietnam?, IS 32) put it this way:

‘There is no contradiction between support [for the National Liberation Front (NLF)] and realistic appraisal. We must oppose the terrorism of US intervention in Vietnam, and we must defend unconditionally the right of the Vietnamese to be left free of outside intervention – to do so, in the circumstances, is to offer unconditional support to the NLF. But Ho Chi Minh is not thereby some genial uncle nor the NLF merely the Vietnamese YWCA ... when the issue of American power is settled, we know what kind of regime and politics the NLF will then choose – and be forced to choose by the logic of their situation. But that is, for the moment, another fight.’

Nigel Harris Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 10 April 2010