This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of the overthrow of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia. Talking about the anniversary last night, a BBC correspondent described Pol Pot's ideology as 'brutal backward-looking agrarian communism'. There's no doubt that many people would agree with such a designation: for many Westerners, in particular, the Khmer Rouge's journey to 'Year Zero' represents a violent rejection of every feature of the modern world.
Many scholars who specialise in the study of the traumatic modern history of Indochina are more cautious. Pol Pot's ferocious and obscurantist regime has long puzzled historians and political scientists, but the gradual publication of many of the internal documents produced by the Khmer Rouge from between 1975 and 1978 has assisted understanding.
The documents collected in English translation in a Yale University Press volume called Pol Pot Plans the Future would make interesting reading for anyone who believes that the Khmer Rouge were dedicated to an agrarian, autarkic society. The five-year plan that Pol Pot produced shortly after taking power calls for a massive increase in agricultural production, but it envisaged funneling increased yields of rice and other crops overseas, not back to the long-suffering Khmer people.
Pol Pot wanted to earn enough foreign revenue from agricultural exports to be able to fund the construction of heavy industry, and in particular steel mills, across Cambodia. He insisted on paying for this crash course in industrialisation without resorting to foreign capital because he believed that taking loans would make Cambodia dependent on foreign powers.
The notorious expulsions of the populations of Phnom Penh and other cities from their homes were partly motivated by Pol Pot's desire to massively increase the rural labour force, and thereby increase the size of the harvests of rice and other crops. The two other major reasons for the expulsion were probably the Khmer Rouge's belief that most city-dwellers were its ideological enemies, and the fact that deliveries of humanitarian aid to Cambodia had ended with the collapse of the Lon Nol regime, raising the spectre of mass starvation. (Of course, the incompetence and brutality of the Khmer Rouge ensured that starvation occurred across Cambodia anyway.)
The Khmer Rouge was always a deeply xenophobic organisation, but it was nevertheless strongly influenced by Mao Zedong's brand of communism. Mao's China was one of the few countries that Pol Pot's paranoid regime managed to maintain amicable relations with, and Mao's Great Leap Forward can be seen as the model for the Khmer Rouge's five year plan. The Great Leap Forward was a product of Mao's desire to turn China into an industrialised country with a First World standard of living, and it was as great a disaster as Pol Pot's plan.
Both Mao and Pol Pot are often considered exemplars of a peasant-based, agrarian communism, but their ambitions and some of their methods actually had more in common with the 'modernisation theory' still promoted enthusiastically in the capitalist Third World by Western-educated tehnocrats.
The reckless attempts to resettle millions of Javanese in remote areas of Suharto's Indonesia, and thereby raise the country's agricultural output, have something in common with Pol Pot's policies. Mao's forcible 'proletarianisation' of millions of peasants during the Great Leap Forward can only remind us today of the enclosure of the countryside in many parts of today's Third World, and the 'conversion' of small landowners into low-wage workers in factories.
The ferocity and incompetence of Pol Pot's regime were exceptional, but some of its ambitions were all too familiar. If we want to know what real 'agrarian communism' might look like, we should consider the story of East Timor's revolution, or Marx's late writings about Russia, rather than the regimes of Mao and Pol Pot.