Pol Pot and the Marxist Ideal

by Vincent Cook

The passing of the former Communist dictator of Cambodia, Pol Pot, has been marked by a mixture of relief that he can no longer torment his countrymen by his loathsome presence and anger that he has escaped the bar of justice. As the head of the radical Maoist Khmer Rouge, Pol Pot was the architect of the "killing fields," a seemingly incomprehensible genocide where Cambodian cities were systematically depopulated and the entire Cambodian population enslaved on collective farms with a draconian equality imposed on all. Typically, the slightest dissent would be punished by the offender getting clubbed or starved to death, and so many Cambodians were dispatched by such methods (approximately 1.7 million between 1975 and 1979 according to one estimate) that fields filled with corpses became the macabre hallmark of the regime.

Mass death is certainly no stranger to Communism; even today a terrible famine stalks North Korea to remind us of the lethal nature of Marxism. However, Pol Pot has earned a special place in the history of Marxian Communism as his Khmer Rouge earned the special distinction of being the one Communist movement in history to actually attempt the full and consistent implementation of the ideals of Karl Marx.

Most Marxists would recoil at the suggestion that Pol Pot is the logical conclusion of their social philosophy, yet any honest assessment of Marx's theory cannot conceal the fact that the radical egalitarianism of the Khmer Rouge is precisely what Marx predicted would be the ultimate culmination of all human history. It must be clearly kept in mind that industrial socialism, as it was known in the former Soviet Union and other mainstream Marxist states, is not the endpoint of Marx's philosophy of history. In his view, the abolition of capitalist production relations is only the first stage of the worldwide proletarian revolution.

Marx anticipated that there would be a radical redistribution of wealth and a withering of the global socialist state (the "crude" stage of communism) followed by a fundamental transformation of human nature as all individual culture, personality, and economic uniqueness disappeared (the "higher" stage of communism). Marx looked forward to a time when individuals would be freed from an alleged alienation from their own humanity supposedly caused by the division of labor and money-based economic transactions. Individuality would be replaced by a new generic species-being personality, a personality that would specialize in nothing and be an expert at everything.

If the impossibility of accountability and economic calculation under pure socialism weren't absurd enough, the notion that a rational economy can survive an abolition of the division of labor and suppression of individuality is sheer lunacy. Most Communist movements, faced with the utter infeasibility of industrial production under socialist central planning (let alone an abolition of the division of labor), chose to reconcile themselves with capitalism in various ways and to defer the Marxist ideal of higher Communism to a remote future that would conveniently never come. Some Communists, notably the Soviets and especially the Yugoslavs, practically admitted that the species-being ideal would never be realized and were willing to settle for varying degrees of centralized socialistic control mixed with elements of capitalism.

Maoists were always more enamored of the pure Marxist ideal than their Soviet counterparts, and after the Sino-Soviet split of the late 1950's the Chinese Communists made a couple of attempts to radically communize China, the "Great Leap Forward" which attempted to decentralize industrial production and the "Cultural Revolution" which attempted to alter people's attitudes in line with the expected communist transformation of human nature. While radical Maoists had to back off their program in China itself after some spectacular failures fueled a backlash by pragmatists, Maoist-oriented revolutionary movements elsewhere had the luxury of cleaving to the pure ideology insulated from any pragmatic elements that might have a vested interest in preserving some semblance of an industrial economy. Fortunately, most of these unreconstructed radical Maoist movements have failed to take power (e.g. the Shining Path in Peru), but there was one horrible exception in the mid 1970's: Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge leadership recognized that if the Communist ideal was incompatible with industrial civilization and an urban existence that a division of labor implies, then a principled Communism would have to thoroughly deurbanize society and eliminate all industry. When the Khmer Rouge seized power and took the shocking step of evacuating Phnom Penh in April of 1975, they were merely acting with the courage of their Marxist convictions. The worst that can be said of Pol Pot was that he was sincere; the Cambodian people were in fact freed of the "alienation" of a division of labor and individual personality, and were reduced to a perfectly uniform egalitarian existence on the collective farms.

If the cruel reality of the Khmer Rouge slave state didn't quite come up to the extravagant eschatological expectations of Marxist true believers, the fault lies exclusively with those who think of the Marxist pattern of historical development and its egalitarian outcome as a desirable state of affairs. It is not enough to say of Pol Pot, as Prince Sihanouk did: "Let him be dead. Now our nation will be very peaceful." We must also acknowledge that a Pol Pot-type passion for equality remains as a threat to the peace and well-being of every nation even if the former dictator himself is dead. Rather than retreating into amnesia about the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, we should never forget that the killing fields of Cambodia will stand forever as a grotesque monument to egalitarianism, and take heed that those who preach the egalitarian gospel of envy are, whether they know it or not, apostles of Pol Pot.

Vincent Cook is the creator of the Epicurus & Epicurean Philosophy Page.