Spring 2001

Holiday in Cambodia

The terror and cruelty of idealistic politics

David Hawkes

The revolutionary is a dedicated man. He has no interests of his own, no affairs, no feelings, no attachments, no belongings, not even a name. Everything in him is absorbed by a single exclusive interest, a single thought, a single passion—the revolution.
—Sergei Nechayev, Catechism of the Revolutionist

These words were written a century after the French Revolution, and a century before the fall of the Berlin wall. They are historically situated halfway along the trajectory of the Age of Revolution. Between 1789 and 1989, repeated violent attempts were made to destroy traditional and customary institutions in virtually every nation in the world, and to replace them with a more rational mode of social organization. The French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions, and those they inspired, were attempts to impose Enlightenment by force. Their architects shared the belief that history was a process guided by reason, and that clearing the path for the progress of reason was a task so vital that it subsumed all other considerations. In particular, in theory and in practice, they were characterized by a hostility toward individualism, and by a pronounced willingness to subordinate the individual to the collective interest.

The four years during the 1970s in which the Khmer Rouge held power in Cambodia exhibit, in microcosmic form, the tragic paradox of modern revolutions. Like Jacobin France or Bolshevik Russia, “Democratic Kampuchea” was not ruled by tyrants, but rather by romantic idealists. Communist and Fascist regimes may have claimed similar numbers of victims, but there remains one vital difference between them: Communism is idealistic, while Fascism is cynical. Hitler was privately known to his subordinates as the “carpet-chewer,” due to the frothing, uncontrollable rages he would fly into when contradicted. Mussolini was derided by many acquaintances as a strutting, vainglorious lout. But everyone who ever encountered the reclusive figure of Saloth Sar, who will be remembered by history as “Pol Pot,” found him to be a thoroughly pleasant person. Those who knew or met him recall his gentleness and mild humility, his kindly, humorous, and intelligent aspects. This raises a pertinent question: How could such a man be responsible for what may very well be the vilest atrocities committed in all of history?

There are many possible answers. Pol Pot may have been an actor, a hypocrite. Deeply rooted social conflicts may have rendered the Cambodian wars unusually visceral. Much of the suffering may have resulted from the exigencies of emergency, rather than from deliberate design. But even taken together, these answers are unsatisfactory. The contradiction between the character of Pol Pot and his actions represents, in microcosm, the most perplexing political contradiction raised by the revolutionary era of 1789–1989. The answer may lie less in the character of the man than in the nature of modern revolution. As Edmund Burke first observed, idealistic politics, in practice, produce terror and cruelty. The mild-mannered schoolteacher known as Saloth Sar and the dreadful monster known as Pol Pot turn out to be the same man.

In ideology and methodology, the Khmer Rouge was essentially Maoist, but the major difference was that no personality cult was erected around Pol Pot. In fact, Pol Pot’s aim was nothing less than the eradication of the individual personality, and he started with his own. The Khmer Rouge had been in power for over a year before anyone beyond the inner circle realized that the easygoing Sar and the terrifying Pot were one and the same. The official line was that Comrade Sar had been killed in the fighting of the early 1970s. And in one sense, this was true. Whatever motivated Pot, it was not a desire for personal fame or aggrandizement. It may even have been the opposite.

The underdeveloped nature of Khmer society, along with the devastation and social dislocation produced by the American bombing of 1969–70 meant that Cambodia appeared to the Khmer Rouge as an enormous tabula rasa, a place where few barriers existed to the immediate implementation of the most idealistic theories of agrarian communism. As soon as they captured Phnom Penh in 1975, the Khmer Rouge evacuated it and every other city in Cambodia. The child-soldiers who marched into the capital were so unfamiliar with commodity goods that they were seen eating looted toothpaste. In an orgy of iconoclasm that recalls the religious riots of 16th-century Europe or 8th-century Byzantium, even potentially useful commodities were physically destroyed. Television sets, furniture, cars, and money (even desperately-needed US dollars) were all consumed in public bonfires.

The Khmer Rouge then set about the task of destroying the individualism it saw as the root of all social ills. It “democratized” the language, cleansing it of words implying differences in social status. It abolished private property, dressed the entire population in identical black costumes, and gave the people identical jobs producing rice. It made Cambodians eat identical foods in communal halls and sleep in identical buildings. It killed anyone who held opinions different from that of the Khmer Rouge, including the entire urban middle-class, which was presumably contaminated by foreign influences. In its obsessive drive toward a new beginning, it recruited children as cadres on the assumption that they were least corrupted by the past, and most readily amenable to the stated Khmer Rouge project of “taming a man to become a machine.” Pol Pot later recalled this project in terms he must have learned from Nechayev’s Catechism: Everyone must “become a perfect tool of the revolution... [the revolutionary] must have no feelings.… We had but one duty: think of the collective and purify ourselves.” To this end, the population was forced to engage in regular bouts of “self-criticism,” in which their previously existing personalities were supposed to be broken down and replaced by a more rational model.

The Khmer Rouge, like Mao Zedong, viewed individualism as a characteristic of Western capitalism, at odds with traditions of Asiatic collectivism. The destruction of the individual would thus represent resistance to encroaching industrial imperialism and reassert a continuity with an ancestral agrarian past. But this view is contradicted by the Khmer Rouge’s other conspicuous aim, which was precisely the total eradication of traditional culture in all its forms. Its attitude towards existing culture once again echoes Nechayev’s Catechism, which claims that the revolutionary “has broken every tie with the civil order and the entire cultivated world, with all its laws, proprieties, social conventions and its ethical rules. He is an implacable enemy of this world, and if he continues to live in it, that is only to destroy it more effectively.” To this end, temples and schools were closed, monks and teachers murdered, and 1975 declared “Year Zero.” The influence of the Western Enlightenment notion that hierarchy and inequality are the inevitable fruits of reverence for tradition is unmistakable, as is the French Revolutionary impulse to shake off the burden of the past and re-design society on a rational, rather than a customary, basis.

A major thread of 20th-century thought has been to rethink the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the social models it has created. The history of Cambodia in the 1970s is a powerful support to Theodor Adorno’s theory, first proposed in Dialectic of Enlightenment as an analysis of Nazi Germany and modern totalitarianism, that total rationalization of society transforms into its opposite—total barbaric irrationality. The germ of Adorno’s idea is found in Georg Lukacs’s History and Class-consciousness, in which the author notes that all societies use rational thought as one element of their epistemology, but only Western modernity works on the assumption that reason offers the only means to a correct understanding of experience. Reason, in post-Enlightenment Europe, argues Adorno, became a fetish, which is, by the Enlightenment’s own criteria, characteristic of primitive, barbaric thought. The Khmer Rouge seemed to have fetishized reason in just this way. Its assumption was that Cambodia could be transformed into a rationally organized communist state by magic. Like a magician, Pol Pot believed he could achieve this transformation by simply commanding that it occur.

The consequences are well-known, and they are still highly visible in Cambodia. Two years ago a book was published which occasioned among the expatriate community of Phnom Penh not so much scandal or consternation as murderous, vengeful fury. Written by a young Israeli named Amit Gilboa, Off the Rails in Phnom Penh: Into the Dark Heart of Guns, Girls and Ganja opens with the following sentence: “Phnom Penh is an anarchic festival of cheap prostitutes, cheap drugs, and frequent violence.” Its depiction of life in Cambodia becomes progressively more salacious and sensationalistic from this point on, and while Gilboa comments about the Khmers themselves, his real concern is with the expatriates, whom he depicts as a marauding horde of debauched maniacs. As the title’s allusion to Conrad suggests, the book proposes to describe the degeneration of the rational Western individual in irrational and supposedly barbaric (Gilboa’s word is “primitive”) surroundings.

Anyone visiting Cambodia today will realize that Gilboa is exaggerating—but not wildly. In truth, many of the Westerners in Phnom Penh—a collection of wild-eyed mercenaries, fevered whoremongers, addled addicts and thrill-seekers who believe that slums have soul—would not look out of place in Apocalypse Now. The only comparable city in the world is Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. In both places, the veneer of civilization is stretched very thin over the personalities of many of the Western residents. Both cities seem to encourage the disintegration of Western reason as typified by Western individuality. The drunken IRA veteran, now a “security consultant” with nebulous but palpable influence in high places; the crazed Glaswegian hotelier who spends his evenings blasting an AK-47 into the darkness; the Swiss speedfreak flitting manically between male and female brothels; the former rock star currently tending bar on the banks of the Tonle Sap: such figures have always exemplified reaction formations to the paradoxical demand at the heart of subjective autonomy: a simultaneous demand for increased individuation and for increased conformity.

The Royal Palace in Phnom Penh is stupendously beautiful, and Angkor Wat is one of the wonders of the world. But most tourist attractions in Phnom Penh are attractive, presumably, because of the evidence they provide of sheer disregard for human life. There are the Killing Fields, whose most prominent feature is an enormous obelisk composed entirely of human skulls; there is the Toul Sleung interrogation center, whose most prominent feature is a map of Cambodia composed entirely of human skulls; there is the firing range, where one can hurl grenades and fire rocket launchers at human-shaped targets; finally, there is the brothel district of Toul Kork, where teeming masses of HIV-riddled children sell two-dollar blow-jobs. These last two are enthusiastically patronized by many expatriates, as are the astonishingly uninhibited purveyors of opium and heroin.The chaos and viciousness of contemporary Phnom Penh provides a sharp contrast to the days of “Democratic Kampuchea,” when marriages were often arranged by the state, and when adultery and even flirting were capital offences. Today, Cambodia ricochets between tyranny and sensuality—the two oldest and most persistent Western caricatures of the Orient, dating back to Alexander’s depiction of Darius. Whereas a hundred years ago, southeast Asia offered refuge to the dissolute younger sons and rootless adventurers of imperial France, today it is the favored haunt of their postmodern equivalents, “backpackers” and “world travelers.” Such people had already replaced traditional imperialists by the days of the Hippy Trail, but over the last decade they have multiplied to the degree that a year or two of lounging around the Third World has become as de rigueur for bourgeois European youth as the Grand Tour was for their aristocratic forbears.

The wild popularity of the recent film The Beach, which evocatively portrays the despoilation of native culture and environment perpetrated by mass tourism, captures the perversity of the situation. With marvelous irony, the production of this film caused significant real environmental damage to the Thai island of Phi Phi. Over the course of the film, Garland’s narrator, a peppy American tourist hanging out on an idyllic island, gradually disintegrates. The films he has seen about the Vietnam war intrude on his perceptions of the real southeast Asia. He ends by acting out the plot of the most famous Vietnam war film of all: he turns into Mistah Kurtz.

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was the first literary description of this process; today, “Heart of Darkness” is the name of the most notorious backpacker bar in Phnom Penh. In post-imperial Western culture, Kurtz has achieved the status of myth, and the Kurtzian condition of many of the expatriates of Phnom Penh suggests that history is doing Pol Pot’s work for him. The disintegration of the individual self and the spilling over of Western reason into barbaric unreason are well underway in Cambodia’s expatriate community and similar strongholds of touristic decadence. The inarticulate announcement by Conrad’s African of the demise of the European—“Mistah Kurtz—he dead,”—has become something of a cliché, even a catchphrase, used to encapsulate the ironic encounter of Enlightenment reason with its other. The rational individual subject is a creature of Cartesian philosophy, bourgeois morality, democratic politics, and early capitalist economy. There is no reason to assume that it can flourish outside those conditions.

To Pol Pot, clearly, the individual was indissociable from the imperialistic Western culture that he sought to resist. His desire to subordinate the individual to a supra-human rationalism suggests the underlying dialectical complicity between the two great ideological adversaries of the Enlightenment. In the eyes of future generations, capitalism and communism, like Protestantism and Catholicism appear today, will seem remarkable for what they hold in common, rather than for the differences that spur their adherents into battle. Like communism, capitalism also involves the exaltation and fetishization of reason. The transformation of an object into a commodity occurs through the imposition of a rational concept upon irrational things. In a commodified society, as in a fetishistic one, things acquire anthropomorphic attributes, including the very rationality that reason projects upon the world. As it is applied to human beings, however, commodification has the opposite effect. When human life, in the form of labor-power, becomes a commodity, it ceases to be fully human. Objectified, turned into a thing, a life is stripped of the reason it would exemplify. In other words, the crowning dialectical irony of the Enlightenment might be that the Maoist doctrine of the Khmer Rouge and the disorientating domination of global capital turned out to be different means to the destruction of the rational subject, the replacement of the individual with an inhuman, perhaps supra-human system, a total state, a global fetish object for reason. If this is the case, then Saloth Sar and Pol Pot may turn out in the end to be two faces of the same postmodernity.

David Hawkes is associate professor of English at Lehigh University and the author of Ideology. His new book, Idols of the Marketplace: Idolatry and Commodity Fetishism in Renaissance English Literature will be published by Palgrave Press in 2001.

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