Democratic Kampuchea was one of the most violent regimes to ever rule. During the course of their rule, they were responsible for the death of more than two million individuals; as a proportion of the nation’s size, this is an incredibly large number. The deaths were the result of a nearly fundamentalist adherence to the philosophies espoused in The Communist Manifesto, and were incredibly damaging to the nation in both the long term and the short term.
The years following the second world war were a tumultuous time for the world as a whole. The world knew that to have another world-wide conflict would be disastrous, but there was much dissent over what the proper course of action to take would be. Some felt that the world should move away from the capitalist system of the past towards a more egalitarian communist or socialist system, while others felt that the freedom offered by democracy was the only true solution to the problems in the world. Each political system felt threatened by the others, and there was a lot of strife and conflict as a result of this conflict. The United States soon became embroiled in a conflict in Vietnam during the latter part of the 1960s. During this time period, the United States was particularly concerned with the spread of communism in Southeast Asia; China had converted into a communist state, while the USSR was vying for power as a superpower against the United States.
Among all of these large, global forces lay a small nation: Cambodia was unwillingly embroiled in the political struggle between the United States and Vietnam, but this was the least of her worries. To properly understand the political philosophy of Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge reign of terror, it is fundamentally important to understand the history of the nation and the facts of the genocide.
The Khmer Rouge came into power in 1975 in Cambodia. The political party was made up of a few important leaders, notably Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Son Sen, and Khieu Samphan. These individuals were members of the Khmer Rouge Communist Party of Cambodia, and at first, they pledged to turn the country into a communist utopia, not unlike the other political groups of the time who were active in other newly-communist states. However, the Communist Party in Democratic Kampuchea faced many of the same problems that other Communist Parties faced during this time: corruption ran rampant, and fundamentalism in political philosophy began to run rampant.
Cambodia, during this time, began to adhere strictly to the political philosophy that the People’s Republic of China had adopted-- that is, Democratic Kampuchea began to practice extreme isolationism. China, being a large nation, practiced this isolationist policy very poorly and with little success; however, Cambodia quickly began to transform itself into an increasingly agrarian society. People were moved from the cities into the countryside; peasants from the countryside were known as the old people, while the new people were shunned as imperialist lapdogs and sympathizers.
The violence began in earnest once the movement of the people from the cities to the countryside began. The people from the cities often faced incredibly harsh conditions; they were split from their families and forced to work long hours in agrarian compounds. Locard writes, regarding the exodus of people from the cities:
Echoing Lenin’s famous aphorism: ‘Revolution is not a gala dinner party’, the Khmer Rouge leadership taught cadre: Revolution over imperialism is not about inviting guests to a dinner party not about being well-mannered and polite, not about fearing the enemy; the Revolution is about seething with anger against one class, about striking and destroying one class. Those words sum up the rationale of the Khmer Rouge mass extermination of their own people. Most state crimes perpetrated by the leadership originated from the brutal evacuation of all the towns, the trademark of that radical brand of Communism. Why this forced ruralisation followed by several relocations? Essentially, it was for security reasons. The KR were too few to be able to control the cities, Phnom Penh in particular.
Locard seems to believe that the Cambodian genocide was a practical result of the Communist Party’s inability to control the population; it seems to be the case with genocide, however, that once it begins, it is much easier for the government in question to continue on with the genocide than to stop it. This may be because to halt the genocide would be admitting wrongdoing, or because the genocide is a way of instilling fear into the population; whatever the reason, once the violence in Democratic Kampuchea began, it went on until Vietnam marched on Phnom Penh in 1979 to put an end to the violence. By the time Vietnam intervened, more than two million Cambodians were dead from the violence of the Communist Party.
The political philosophy of the Communist Party in Democratic Kampuchea certainly contributed to the violence that occurred in the country. Engels and Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto with a new style of society in mind, to be sure; what they did not expect was that their political philosophy could be so warped as to be used to excuse violence on a genocidal level.
One of the central ideas of The Communist Manifesto is that the existence of a class system within society-- particularly the existence of a middle class, or bourgeoisie--is detrimental to the development of a nation. This bourgeoisie must be eliminated for true equality to be found within society, the Manifesto suggested. The Khmer Rouge took this political philosophy deeply to heart; the people in the cities of Cambodia, particularly in Phnom Penh, were painted by the Khmer Rouge to be the enemy of their new society. As such, they were vilified and made to work in the countryside under terrible conditions. Many died as a result of this treatment.
The acceptance of this philosophy also meant that individuals who were well-educated or educated in foreign schools were seen as traitors or unwilling to support the new regime within Cambodia. The French, who had originally colonized Cambodia, had a variety of different schools open; individuals who were educated at these schools were seen as pawns of the bourgeoisie and the imperialists, and were similarly vilified. Anyone who was capable of speaking French was considered a traitor to Cambodia and her new government. This was problematic as many of the most well-educated individuals in the country were French-speaking; to this day, Cambodia has a problem with a lack of an educated middle class because many of her most educated citizens were either killed or left the country when the violence began.
Another important aspect of the Communist philosophy that was adopted by the Khmer Rouge was the abolition of personal property. Many communist nations made vague attempts to abolish private property, but the Khmer Rouge was very efficient at abolishing personal property. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels write:
The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would -be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes. The abolition of existing property relations is not at all a distinctive feature of communism. All property relations in the past have continually been subject to historical change consequent upon the change in historical conditions.
Marx and Engels saw the abolition of property rights as one of the fundamental values of communism; the Khmer Rouge took this philosophical idea to new levels of fervor with their abolition of property rights. Huge swaths of people were moved about the country with little to no regard for the feelings or abilities of the individuals being moved about.
Similarly, the Manifesto called for an abolition of religion. While westerners often think of this as an abolition of organized religion like Christianity, for people in Cambodia, it was an issue that ran deep. Like many Southeast Asian countries, the Cambodians had deep roots in Buddhism and other non-Abrahamic religious traditions. This religious connection provided Cambodians with a cultural and religious link to their relatives and their communities. When the link was severed by the Khmer Rouge, many Cambodians began to fear their religion, and it began to cause social turmoil and discontent. However, during this time, many Cambodians were unwilling or frightened to continue to participate in their religious ceremonies.
This concept of abolishing religion and relying heavily upon the rational is a philosophical concept rooted heavily in the European tradition of Enlightenment thinking. Even Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a noted Romantic philosopher, extolled the virtues of a rigorously logical upbringing in children. In regards to religion, Marx and Engels are very clear: religion has no place in a communist society, as it is just a method that the oppressors use to oppress the common man.
However, the Khmer Rouge managed to severely misinterpret many of the lessons taught by Enlightenment thinkers-- and by Engels and Marx themselves. Rousseau writes, “Every man having been born free and master of himself, no one else may under any pretext whatever subject him without his consent. To assert that the son of a slave is born a slave is to assert that he is not born a man.” This philosophy-- the philosophy that man should be free from the chains and bondage of society, not slave to them-- is fundamentally at odds with the philosophical teachings of the Khmer Rouge.
Many communist parties twisted the teachings of Marx, Engels, and the Enlightenment thinkers to suit their own ends-- absolute power over their citizenry. However, the purpose of the Manifesto and the Enlightenment was not to give groups more ways to enslave the people of the nation, but to give the people of the nation a way to govern themselves. Rousseau and Hobbes would have been particularly appalled with the ways in which their philosophical concepts were being applied by the Khmer Rouge; these philosophers wrote the works that eventually led to the formation of the United States and many other republics.
It is easy to see, however, how the Khmer Rouge twisted the ideology of thinkers like Rousseau; they cherry-picked the parts of The Communist Manifesto that they wished to apply to their country, and searched for philosophical ideas from other well-known thinkers to support their theories.
For instance, Rousseau writes, “The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had some one pulled up the stakes yelled: ‘You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!’” It is easy to see Marx and Engels obtaining philosophical ideas from Rousseau and his ideas that nature is not able to be owned by any man; however, Rousseau would never have supported the forcible uprooting of any individual in the name of the public good-- he supported the individual’s right to exist without molestation far too strongly to be supportive of this type of policy.
G.W.F Hegel, another of Marx and Engel’s philosophical influences, contributed ideas to The Communist Manifesto that the Khmer Rouge adopted with particular fervor. Hegel had the idea that history moved from a fragmented state towards a whole one; in this way, humanity was evolving from a fragmented, incomplete entity into one that is perfect and whole.
This concept was easily taken and twisted by the Khmer Rouge. It is impossible to say whether or not the Khmer Rouge truly felt that what they were doing was right when they were committing violence against their citizenry, but regardless of whether they felt it was right, they justified it by pointing out that the Khmer Rouge was helping Cambodia move towards a more successful, prominent future.
The idea of self-sufficiency was also very important to Marx and Engels. Without self-sufficiency, they argued, the individual and the nation can be taken advantage of; self-sufficiency in all manners of interactions is fundamental for success. The workers of the world, the authors write, must unite and form together to insist upon their rights, and the rights of others; this will give them the ability to work self-sufficiently and to avoid interacting with the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie.
There is no doubt that during the time Marx and Engels were writing The Communist Manifesto there was great upheaval in Europe. During this time, the political climate was increasingly unstable, and the working conditions for the average citizen were horrible. In Cambodia, during the rise of the Khmer Rouge, working conditions were similarly horrible for most of the country, and these conditions led to simmering resentment on the part of the workers.
The Khmer Rouge took advantage of this resentment and used it to their advantage. By pitting neighbor against neighbor, and friend against friend, they were able to create an atmosphere of complete terror in the country. No one knew who to trust, and like other genocidal regimes, there was a great deal of terror that someone that an individual knew would turn him or her in to the regime.
This whole atmosphere of fear and violence is completely contrary to the atmosphere that Engels and Marx would have supported for countries like Democratic Kampuchea. Nothing in their writings or scholarship suggests that they supported rule by authoritarian governments; on the contrary, all their writings are concerned with liberating the average citizen from the powers that be.
The Khmer Rouge was a unique regime, in that when it came to power, it did not vilify a single ethnic group. Unlike many other genocidal regimes, the Khmer Rouge did not terrorize a singular group of people. Instead, it terrorized an entire nation of people by targeting all of them. No one, during this time, knew what would happen to them if they stepped out of line; the Killing Fields were well-known and highly feared by politically powerful individuals and peasants alike.
It’s sadly common to see the philosophical ideals put forth by Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto manipulated and twisted by regimes like the Khmer Rouge. However, very few regimes were as successful in creating reigns of terror like the Khmer Rouge; this is because the Khmer Rouge was so effective at twisting the philosophy of communism and socialism into something ugly and evil.
The world ignored Cambodia in her time of crisis, and as a result, millions of people died for a revolutionary cause that was, by the end of the genocide, a pipe dream. Today, Cambodia is still recovering from the effects of the genocide. Academics in the country are still rare, and it is rare to see individuals over the age of fifty-- most of them died during the genocide. Cambodia’s genocide should act as a warning to all nations about the dangers of fundamentalism and charismatic leadership.
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