The recent verdict and sentence announced in the trial of Khmer Rouge prison warden Kaing Guek Eav calls the world’s attention, however fleetingly, to the experience of Cambodia in the Pol Pot years. The Khmer Rouge seized complete control of Cambodia in April 1975 and embarked upon a methodical four-year attempt at a reconstruction of society along the lines of Stalin’s war against the Ukranian peasantry of the early 1930s and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge ended when Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979 and installed a compliant regime which held power for a decade.
The horrible outcome of Khmer Rouge rule was a death toll estimated to be as high as two million, or twenty percent of the population of the country at the time. The victims of the brutality perished from overwork, malnutrition, and incessant murderous purges of those deemed to be politically unworthy. As François Ponchaud put it in his book Cambodia Year Zero, the first account to expose to the world what was transpiring inside the country, “To learn a new art of living, many of the living have died.”
The trials are taking place so long after the events took place that they are transpiring virtually unnoticed by the world. The convoluted political history of Cambodia since 1979, during which the U.S. actually lent support to the deposed Khmer Rouge and other anti-Vietnamese political forces, has subordinated justice for the millions of victims to the interests of those competing to run the country. Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, died peaceably at his home on the border with Thailand in 1998. Duch (Kaing Guek Eav’s more commonly used name), received a sentence of only 35 years. In reality, Cambodia is now seen as just another low-wage haven for international capital, or as some might call it, “a normal country.”
This situation is convenient for those on today’s left unwilling or unable to stare the negativity of the Cambodian experience in the face. The revelations of the horrors of Khmer Rouge rule had an enormous impact on international intellectual opinion and, along with the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, contributed to the emergence of the so-called “New Philosophers” in France. These former defenders of Mao’s Cultural Revolution became influential proponents of what is essentially the standard liberal intellectual position of the day: revolution inevitably leads to totalitarianism. On the other hand, those who simply say, “Cambodia had nothing to do with Marxism,” while not wrong, shirk the burden of history.
Patrick Murray, a professor of philosophy at Creighton University and one of the best academics writing on Marx today, makes a fascination contribution to the effort to criticize the Cambodian events in a footnote to his 1988 book Marx’s Theory of Scientific Knowledge:
The regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia must rank as one of the most gruesome realizations of Hegel’s picture of the political logic of the French Revolution. “However, in recent theories, carried partly into effect, the fundamental presupposition is that a state is a machine with a single spring which imparts movement to all the rest of the infinite wheelwork, and that all institutions implicit in the nature of a society should proceed from the supreme public authority and be regulated, commanded, overseen, and conducted by it (The German Constitution in Hegel’s Political Writings, p. 161).