A more scientific outlook is necessary on the Khmer Rouge

42 years ago this month, the Vietnam War ended with the victory of the anti-imperialist forces in all of Vietnam and in Kampuchea. The Khmer Rouge moved into the Kampuchean capital of Phnom Penh on April 17th, 1975 while the North Vietnamese forces and the Viet Cong liberated Saigon two weeks later on April 30th. Pathet Lao would enter Vientiane in August of that year, with the conflict in Laos formally ending in December. Despite many years of occupation and indiscriminate bombing, the U.S. and its allies had been defeated and forced to withdraw from Indochina. The unprecedented victory shattered the U.S.’ previously-held ideas of invincibility and supremacy. Unfortunately, the victorious national liberation forces eventually reneged and yielded to capitalism-imperialism. Vietnam had become a neo-colony of Soviet social-imperialism and would proceed to adopt the Đổi Mới economic policies in the 1980s. For nearly four years, however, the Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea embarked on a different path from 1975 until a Vietnamese invasion in late 1978, which ended with Vietnam occupying Kampuchea and establishing a pro-Vietnamese/pro-Soviet government in Phnom Penh.

In April 1975, upon entering Phnom Penh, with the U.S.-backed government of Lon Nol having fled Kampuchea in a panic, the Khmer Rouge immediately began to clear out the city and move most of the city’s population to the countryside. This is decried in imperialist media as one of the first acts by which angry peasant forces ruined the lives of Kampucheans. What is often ignored or glossed over is the fact that, before the Khmer Rouge captured state power, the United States carried out an intense bombing campaign as it did throughout Indochina and destroyed much of the produce and infrastructure on the ground, killing more than half a million people in Kampuchea alone. This country was attacked with more bombs than the United States used in all of WWII. This, as well as the fighting between the anti-imperialist forces and the U.S.-backed forces on Kampuchean soil, resulted in more than two million people becoming refugees and fleeing from the countryside into Phnom Penh and other population centers if not leaving the country altogether. [1] With hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced internally and to other countries, as well as agriculture being nearly destroyed, the country was on the verge of a catastrophic famine as food supplies were coming to an end. It was in this situation that the Khmer Rouge had overthrown Lon Nol’s comprador government. In order to prevent catastrophic starvation, as well as seeing Phnom Penh as a symbol of reaction due to the city having been the center of imperial finance capital for France and the United States, Khmer Rouge forces very quickly and forcefully cleared out the city by the end of April 1975 and moved the refugees and the city’s residents to the countryside. Upon being moved to the countryside, they began work by harvesting crops and building irrigation networks. [2]

The Khmer Rouge government, which established itself as Democratic Kampuchea in early 1976 and enacted a new constitution, sought to abolish private property as quickly as possible and make all agriculture and industry collective state-owned property, establishing communal kitchens, major cooperatives and communes throughout the country in a matter of months. The government explained this as part of an unprecedented revolution that would surpass the past revolutions, the revolutions in China and the Soviet Union. [2] The Khmer Rouge is heavily criticized by many leftist circles today for rejecting gradual collectivization efforts, such as in China, in favor of state-enforced rapid collectivization. Much like the Soviet Union, however, it seems to be the case that there was no option here but to move rapidly, considering that mass starvation was always a threat for Kampucheans in this period and the Khmer Rouge was also worried about the possibility of conflict with Vietnam.

The projects undertaken at this time in Kampuchea were influenced by the productive forces theory as well as a push for self-reliance and independent development. The Khmer Rouge encouraged creative solutions to agricultural problems and other contradictions to some degree, claiming to have built weapons, ammunition and other defense equipment from destroyed vehicles and scraps, and encouraging peasants to utilize industry relocated to the countryside and to recycle parts and scraps. Those who applied such creative solutions were recognized by the state media. The Khmer Rouge also recognized the importance of light industry which would be used to help agricultural growth. At the same time, the Khmer Rouge clearly conceived socialism as increased living standards to some degree, as Pol Pot said in a 1977 speech to the Communist Party of Kampuchea, “Though not yet to the point of affluence, our people’s standard of living has reached a level at which people are basically assured of all needs in all fields.” [3] Communism = affluence. Class struggle loses its primacy when this idea is upheld. Efforts of the Khmer Rouge to initiate a ‘Super Great Leap Forward’, which by its name is a statement that the purpose is to surpass the Chinese Great Leap Forward, as well as the claims of surpassing the past revolutions altogether, also mean that class struggle takes a lesser role, which undermines proletarian rule altogether and promotes revisionism.

Had the rule of Khmer Rouge persisted, it is safe to say that Democratic Kampuchea today would look much like China or Vietnam, capitalist states with extreme inequality and promoting peaceful relations with imperialist forces, especially considering the fact that upon overthrow in 1979, the Khmer Rouge actually allied with U.S. imperialism under the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea based outside of Kampuchea as an opposition force to the new pro-Vietnamese government in Phnom Penh. This opportunism of the Khmer Rouge was also apparent in claiming to be ‘Maoist’ during their rule in the late 1970s as a means of receiving aid and diplomatic support from the revisionist government of China, while supporting the arrest and trial of the Gang of Four and other remnants of the revolutionary period of China. [4] This is similar to Fidel Castro and the 26th of July Movement in Cuba claiming to be ‘Marxist-Leninist’ in order to receive support from and establish an alliance with the Soviet Union. Also like Castro, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge kept their masses in the dark for a period regarding information on their movement, while Marx wrote in the closing of the Communist Manifesto, “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.” [5]

The program of the Khmer Rouge was being undertaken in a very difficult period for all of Southeast Asia, which is why the policies were enforced in the way that they were, and why there was a significant toll in lives. The policies of the previous U.S.-backed government and the extreme violence brought about by the U.S. campaign to crush the Viet Cong and the Khmer Rouge devastated much of the country and resulted in hunger and suffering on a very large scale. In these circumstances, the Khmer Rouge did not have the kinds of alternatives imagined by many First World leftists. It was imperialism that caused much of the suffering and placed the masses of this region in this position. The claims of one-quarter or one-third of the country’s population being killed by the Khmer Rouge are over-exaggerations which do not have basis in reality. The population of Kampuchea dropped from 7.5 to 6.8 million from 1973 to 1979, up to and during the period that the Khmer Rouge held state power, which was the population stagnating and then dropping the wake of the imperialist bombing campaign as hundreds of thousands either died or fled the country. [6]

The opportunism and the theoretical errors of the Khmer Rouge should be acknowledged and criticized, as they led to capitulation and becoming a pawn of imperialism, but the extreme circumstances in which the Khmer Rouge captured state power and began to build a new society should be remembered as a very important part of the overall story.


  1. http://forcedmigration.ccnmtl.columbia.edu/book/export/html/26
  2. http://factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Cambodia/sub5_2b/entry-2857.html
  3. http://countrystudies.us/cambodia/61.htm
  4. https://www.prisoncensorship.info/archive/etext/faq/polpot2.html
  5. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch04.htm
  6. https://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/DVD/Files/1_Indicators%20(Standard)/EXCEL_FILES/1_Population/WPP2015_POP_F01_1_TOTAL_POPULATION_BOTH_SEXES.XLS

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s