Comments on Pol Pot and Communist History

Every person sympathetic to communism is questioned on the legacy of historic communist parties. Some communists, mainly Trotskyists and ultra-lefts, sidestep the question by denying that any “real” communist parties have existed, other than ones that are easy to defend. (For example, defending the CPSU for its role in defeating feudalism but not after 1924, or defending the Spanish Republic.) Marxist-Leninists generally defend communist parties, regardless of their circumstances. There is one party which is the exception to this, because it is considered such a tremendous and indefensible failure, and that is the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK). In my opinion, the stance one holds towards the CPK exposes an individual’s ability (or inability) to grasp the problems of party building and correctly handling contradictions. There are some people who uncritically uphold the CPK for the entirety of its existence, right up to its own liquidation into the Party of Democratic Kampuchea. There are others who simply write it off as an imperialist offshoot. (Was the CPK an imperialist stooge when it fought the US-backed Lon Nol regime? On the other hand, was it not an imperialist stooge when it was backed by Deng Xiaoping and the US as a buffer against Vietnam?) In my opinion, it is not enough to do either of these. They reflect an inability to criticize, and it is this inability that drives communist parties to revisionism and opportunism.

Every dialectician should understand that every party has a dual aspect, positive and negative, and at any moment one of these is dominant. Parties develop quantitatively in various ways, which once they reach a certain point, can become a qualitative change that represents a shift in which aspect is dominant. The CPSU was a great example of this. The CPSU played a historically positive role during the Lenin and Stalin eras—this is beyond dispute for communists. The CPSU led the people to defeat absolutism, and then went on to defeat fascism in Europe, and built up parties all over the world. After the Stalin era came the Khrushchev thaw, which was a step backward in the party’s development. Yet the party continued to play a mostly progressive role in global politics for decades after this. During these decades however, the dictatorship of the proletariat was liquidated. The theoretical level of the party leadership diminished, and opportunism and liberalism became powerful influences in the party. The rise of Gorbachev and the beginning of glasnost and perestroika marked a qualitative change in the party, which had gone from revolutionary to all-out counterrevolutionary, despite the existence of some remaining Marxist Leninists within the party. So, in any analysis of the CPSU, there are two mistaken roads we must avoid. We must not buckle under the pressure of the bourgeoisie, and join in their wholehearted denunciation of it. However, we cannot be totally uncritical of it and blame its demise on external factors, because this prevents us from understanding how it failed. After all, contradiction is internal: external factors can only exacerbate an already existing contradiction.

Yet these are the exact attitudes many communists hold towards the CPK. They are not fully to blame, of course. The CPK was maybe the most secretive and isolated communist party the world has ever seen. In addition to this, Cambodia is not a country many people outside of Asia study in depth. It is very easy to write off the CPK as an American-backed warlordist clique that adopted the name of communism to secure foreign funding. But that would not only ignore the commendable work the party undertook in its youth, but absolves us of having to examine how a communist party can turn into its opposite.

I do not feel it is necessary to go to in depth on the CPK’s history, since an excellent summary of it was written here. I will simply say that, in its early days, the CPK waged a principled fight against feudal absolutism, and genuinely represented the aspirations of the workers and peasants of the country. However, once they came to power, under Pol Pot’s leadership serious errors were made, which were severely exacerbated by the conditions they inherited. The population was centered around Phnom Penh, due to migration caused by extensive US bombing of the countryside. This also meant total destruction of what meager productive forces existed in the country, as well as imminent famine due to a lack of rice production. Therefore, Pol Pot was fully justified in evacuating the cities and collectivizing agriculture to prevent profiteering. However, the party made extreme errors which resulted in unfortunate deaths. This included antagonizing the “new people”, particularly intellectuals, even ones who were sympathetic to the party. The party could have won over many of the city dwellers, who would have been a powerful asset in a country with such a low literacy rate. There was also no reason to antagonize Vietnam—every effort should have been made to promote peace and economic cooperation with the unified Vietnam. In addition, there was constant mistakes in planning as well as “left” errors. (Page 63 of this book details the CPK’s plan to leap to full communism without a need for “stages” and this book details their overly optimistic economic and political plans.) As for Pol Pot himself, he clearly harbored a serious prejudice against Vietnamese people, and while he made great sacrifices to free Cambodia from imperialism, he was little more than a gangster and a warlord by the time he died, having renounced Marxism-Leninism well before then.

Rebirth by Fonki

Do I consider Pol Pot a communist worth studying? No, not really. Do I consider him a role model for communists? Not in the slightest. However, I do think his party had positive elements to it, and there are many lies surrounding it that serve to erase the US’ mass murder in the Indochinese region during the invasion of Vietnam. The CPK is an example of a party which, if its worst tendencies are not checked, will quantitatively develop until the very nature of the revolutionary party has a qualitative shift to a counterrevolutionary party, which is the role the Khmer Rouge played during the era of the PRK in fighting against the KPRK, which was led by former Khmer Rouge members. It is not enough for any communist to simply say, “It was not real communism.” Communism has not been reached, yes, but as Marx said, communism is the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. And for a moment, in a corner of the Earth, the CPK was a part of that movement.

For more in-depth reading on the particular policies, this blog has many fantastic documents on Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, most notable this and this. Counterpunch also has an article on the incursions into Vietnam, brutality against “new people,” and the counterrevolutionary era. A wealth of documents, including interviews from Pol Pot, are available here.

Michael Vickery’s writing on the power struggles within the DK leadership and the differences between regions is incredibly detailed. His contribution to the Marxist Regimes series here as well as this book are extremely insightful and cover internal conflicts rarely discussed elsewhere.

Update 2 February 2021: Interesting autobiography from cadre Ke Pauk here, and the Khmer Rouge’s Black Paper, published in 1978 on the history of relations between Vietnam and Cambodia, with interesting details regarding the Soviet, Cambodian, and Vietnamese parties. At the moment I am working on digitizing Henri Locard’s book, Pol Pot’s Little Red Book.

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