Monday, 30 July 2018

Not True Communism - the left and Cambodian genocide

It was in 1980 when I first encountered the Western academic response to the Khmer Rouge, Angkar and Pol Pot. This was something of an eye-opener - my spectacularly low opinion of Noam Chomsky was formed at this time - as we considered the still emerging evidence of communist atrocity in Cambodia set alongside the dominant commentary, inspired by the likes of Chomsky, that the refugee tales couldn't be believed and it was just "...a rationally conceived strategy for dealing with the urgent problems that faced postwar Cambodia."

Cambodian academic, Sophal Ear and US researcher, Donald W. Beachler call this the "Standard Total Academic View" - it was pretty much what that part of my South East Asian Politics module taught. Question the reports, challenge the numbers (we had a whole seminar dissecting the numbers who died - downwards and sideways mostly) and argue that the sources of criticism were either 'neo-colonialist', US imperialist or Viet imperialist. Even as we read reports about children killed, their heads smashed against trees, starvation and mass murder using the most basic of implements - shovels, mattocks, axes, our reading list contained stuff like this:
Chomsky invites us to consider historian Ben Kiernan’s hypothesis that the Khmer Rouge leaders never properly established discipline over insubordinate soldiers: “[Kiernan] notes that most of the atrocity stories come from areas of little Khmer Rouge strength, where orders to stop reprisals were disobeyed by soldiers wreaking vengeance, often drawn from the poorest sections of the peasantry.”
This quote comes from a frightening article by Matthew Blackwell describing both the personal tragedy, the scale of death and the manner in which so much of what we'd now call "progressive academia" denied or down-played what was happening. These were heroic socialist liberators, how could they possibly install such a reign of murderous terror? Even today some still deny - here from 2012 in American 'radical' magazine, Counterpunch:
The Pol Pot the Cambodians remember was not a tyrant, but a great patriot and nationalist, a lover of native culture and native way of life. New Cambodia (or Kampuchea, as it was called) under Pol Pot and his comrades was a nightmare for the privileged, for the wealthy and for their retainers; but poor people had enough food and were taught to read and write. As for the mass killings, these are just horror stories, averred my Cambodian interlocuters.
Set against a million dead people, torture and starvation, we have people - academics, commentors, reporters - prepared to spin and prevaricate so as to suggest that, far from the Killing Fields being the direct consequence of a deliberate policy imposed by the Angkar and inspired by the Marxism they'd learned in 1950s Paris, they were some sort of accident or mistake.

This is a pattern for these progressive academics and writers - from G B Shaw's apologia for Stalinism through Chomsky's excusing of Pol Pot to today's left fawning over Chavez's Venezuela and Castro's Cuba. And when the denial of the violent oppression communism requires becomes to painful, our leftists fall back on "that wasn't true communism".


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am presently in Cambodia. Long-time married expats say that this (both book and film) accords with what their Cambodian in-laws remember:-