Violence, Surplus Production, and the Transformation of Nature during the Cambodian Genocide

James A Tyner. Rethinking Marxism. Volume 26, Issue 4. 2014.

The Communist Party of Kampuchea (the CPK, also known as the Khmer Rouge) constitutes one of the most violent political movements of the twentieth century. Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge carried out a program of mass violence that led to the death of approximately one-quarter of Cambodia’s prewar population. In less than four years, upwards of two million people died of torture, murder, starvation, disease, and exhaustion. These deaths are attributed to specific administrative policies and practices initiated by the CPK, all of which were geared toward the basic objective of increasing agricultural production as a means of “building socialism.”

The purported facts of the Cambodian genocide are fairly well established (see Kiernan 1985, 1996; Chandler 1991). Upon their ascension to power, the Khmer Rouge evacuated urban areas and forcibly relocated men, women, and children to agricultural collectives and work camps. Hospitals were destroyed; medicines were unavailable. Education, marriage, religion, and other institutions were likewise eliminated. Nature itself was transformed to meet the unrealistic goal of tripling rice production within one year. Reservoirs, dikes, and canals were constructed hastily; many failed catastrophically.

Such an account is not so much wrong as it is incomplete, for it has become something of a vulgar caricature of the events that transpired; indeed, the above account conforms to what Michael Vickery (1984) terms the “Standard Total View.” According to Vickery, the Standard Total View imparts a limiting framework from which to understand the policies and practices of the CPK. It is commonly held, for example, that Khmer Rouge policies were simply “perverse and had no rational basis in either economic or political necessity” (39). To limit discussion to the evacuation of urban areas and the destruction of hospitals and other buildings is incomplete. Thus, while Phnom Penh was initially evacuated—leading directly to the murder of tens of thousands of people—the city was also repopulated. And while selected buildings were targeted for destruction, hospitals, factories, and government offices were reopened and made operational; locally produced goods were shipped to and from the city and countryside; and foreign exports and imports circulated (Tyner 2012).

There is also an important political component to the Standard Total View adopted by many writers of the Cambodian genocide: the Khmer Rouge—much like Maoist China and the Stalinist Soviet Union—is employed to discredit Marxism. It has become somewhat de rigueur among many commentators on genocide and mass violence to cast Marxism (or socialism or communism; the terms are often and erroneously conflated) as intrinsically violent, as if there is “something” about Marxist-based forms of governance that is inherently brutal. Valentino (2004, 93) for example asserts that the “communist utopias” of the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia represent “history’s greatest slaughterhouses.” That Valentino is able to make this specious claim is made possible only through the omission of the Holocaust, Rwanda, and innumerable other incidents of mass violence that were conducted by noncommunist regimes. Equally significant, it is notable that Valentino errs in taking at face value the claims that these governments (i.e., the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia) were communist and that the governments of capitalist societies are somehow immune to violence. Indeed, in a statement that mirrors Marx’s own description of primitive accumulation, Valentino explains that it is “the revolutionary desire to bring about the rapid and radical transformation of society that distinguishes radical communist regimes from all other forms of government.” Indeed, Valentino continues, “Radical communist policies … have often had the effect of completely dispossessing vast numbers of people, stripping them of their personal belongings, the products of their labor, their land, their homes, and their livelihood” (93). One would be hard pressed to write a more apt description of the colonial dispossession of Native Americans and the First Nations peoples in North America, or of the Aborigines in Australia and New Zealand, or the myriad other populations that have been (and continue to be) displaced and brutally slaughtered by the rapacious spread of capitalism.

To that end, and as part of a larger project in which I apply a Marxist critique to the Khmer Rouge’s so-called communist revolution, I begin here the tasks of (1) retheorizing Democratic Kampuchea’s economy as one of production for exchange and (2) articulating the Khmer Rouge’s conception of nature as manifest in this mode of production. In so doing I highlight how the unity of production for exchange and the production of nature more accurately accounts for the mass death that occurred. My work therefore parallels that of Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff’s (1993, 1994) retheorization of the political economy of the former Soviet Union, for it is my argument that the form of governance of Democratic Kampuchea is best understood as a form of state capitalism.

My paper unfolds in three sections. The first section is a broadly sketched Marxist conception of nature—a task that has been widely addressed but with little consensus. Marx did not explicitly formulate a theory of nature; it has fallen to subsequent interlocutors to detail what such a theory might hold (see Schmidt 1971; Smith and O’Keefe 1980; Benton 1989; Castree 1995a, 1995b, 2003; Smith 2008). Here I build on these previous attempts—but with one significant departure, this being a more extended discussion of alienation. In the second section, I provide a detailed discussion of the generation of surplus production under the Khmer Rouge. I argue that, rhetoric aside, the CPK revolution was neither Marxist, socialist, nor communist and that the economic system planned and implemented by the Khmer Rouge was an exploitative system of production for exchange. Despite the brutal elimination of landlords and private property, class distinctions in Democratic Kampuchea were not eliminated; indeed, exploitation remained in that the surplus labor produced by workers was appropriated and distributed not by the workers themselves but rather by the state apparatus (see Resnick and Wolff 1988). This argument is crucial, for it provides the material foundation for an understanding of the CPK’s conceptualization of nature, as detailed in the third section of this paper. This understanding is especially salient because it addresses specifically how the Khmer Rouge’s attempt to transform nature was necessary—and necessarily wrong—to its greater objective of building a socialist consciousness.

An early caveat is in order, however. The level of Marxist theory among top-ranking officials of the CPK remains unclear. It is known, for example, that Pol Pot and Ieng Sary, among others, participated in a “Study Circle” on communism while attending school in Paris in the 1950s. According to David Chandler (2000), the members of this Marxist group discussed Stalin’s “The National Question” and Lenin’s On Imperialism. They read, in parts if not in its totality, Marx’s Capital. They were also exposed to commentaries and articles that appeared in the various journals produced by the French Communist party. Likewise, throughout the 1960s Pol Pot in particular made numerous journeys to China and quite possibly drew upon Mao Zedong’s conception of nature—although by this point China had broken ties with Marx (see Shapiro 2001). What remains unclear is how the Khmer Rouge leadership actually understood or internalized the arguments of Marx: it is one thing to use pat phrases in political propaganda; it is quite another to put into practice Marx’s use of, say, dialectics or abstraction.

A Marxist Conception of Nature

“Our knowledge of the real world,” Ollman (1976, 12) writes, “is mediated through the construction of concepts in which to think about it; our contact with reality, in so far as we become aware of it, is contact with a conceptualized reality.” Nature, in other words, is a concept; it is an abstraction and, as such, is constituted by (and constitutes) a particular historical and geographical moment.

To argue that “nature” is a concept—an abstraction—is not to deny a material reality. Such a position does not deny the concrete existence of trees, rocks, and rivers. But to view nature as an abstraction is to contemplate which concrete realities constitute nature. For example, are humans part of or apart from nature? In our contemporary capitalist society, nature is often premised as something separate from humanity, as if people were external to nature. As Castree (2005, 35) explains, “Once we distinguish ideas of nature from the things they refer to we can make an apparently startling claim: namely, that there is no such thing as nature! Nature is simply a name that is ‘attached’ to all sorts of different real-world phenomena. Those phenomena are not nature as such but, rather, what we collectively choose to call ‘nature.’”

According to Marx, what constitutes “nature” is not attainable by empiricism. For Marx, the real world, the world of appearances, is simply that: an appearance. What is required is an understanding of how nature is socially constructed and how this construct is dialectically related to production processes. Consequently, I begin—as does Marx in Capital—with the commodity, for just as Marx was trying to get at the essence of capitalism through the commodity, so too do I attempt to get at “nature” under a particular mode of production. It is necessary, therefore, to cover some familiar ground in order to highlight subsequent unfamiliar terrain.

Commodities, according to Marx, are not “things” but rather “relations,” foremost among them being the relationship between “use value” and “exchange value.” On the one hand, commodities, as products of human labor, possess some useful quality for people and, on the other hand, commodities have exchange values, in that one commodity may be exchanged for another commodity.

Within an economic system predicated upon exchange, such as capitalism, commodities are not exchanged according to their degree of usefulness; instead, a quantitative relation that appears in all commodities facilitates their exchange. This common denominator, as Marx concluded based on his reading of David Ricardo, is labor power. As Marx (1990, 274) identifies, labor power “exists only as a capacity of the living individual. Its production consequently presupposes his existence. Given the existence of the individual, the production of labor-power consists in his reproduction of himself or his maintenance.”

Although long subject to debate, the relationship between use value and exchange value is crucial to understanding Marx’s conception of nature (Althusser and Balibar 1977; Hartsock and Smith 1979/1980; Hall 2003; Ollman 2003a, 2003b). As this relationship is well known to readers of this journal, here I will simply restate that, at a very basic level, Hegel premised that (1) societies must be viewed as totalities, (2) societies are in constant dialectic change, (3) change is predicated on contradictions that are internal to society, and (4) these contradictions originate in the collective consciousness of society. Marx was in general agreement with the first three premises. Marx also shared Hegel’s understanding that “ideas” or “concepts” did not have an independent existence: that laws, regulations, and institutions were not transhistorical but particular to any given society. But it was Hegel’s notion that change is found in consciousness—and how consciousness is formed—with which Marx disagreed. For Marx, concepts are abstracted from the existence of specific, real things.

“Nature” is consequently an abstraction, and yet as an abstraction it is materially grounded. It is indeed for this reason that Castree (1995b) maintains that any Marxist conception of nature must engage with the materialities of nature. A materialist conception of nature would begin, following Marx and Engels (1998, 36-7), “with real individuals, their activity and the material conditions of their life.” Such a beginning is not arbitrary, they write, but rather predicated on what they term the “first premise” of all human history: namely, “the existence of living human individuals.” Food, water, shelter, clothing—at a bare minimum, these are the conditions for human existence, for individual and collective survivability. Furthermore, Marx argued that it is imperative to understand how humans satisfy these needs, for any given society will have its own “unique” way of satisfying (producing) these material needs: self-production, trade, barter, exchange, and even theft.

For Marx, the dialectical relationship between “human” and “nature” proceeds from his conception of production in general. As explained by Marx (1990, 283),

Labor is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature.

In this quote nature appears as something external to human activity, and such a presumption could possibly lead one to conclude that Marx conceived of nature as something to be appropriated and mastered by men and women. Thus, as Smith (2008, 54) writes, humans are born with certain natural needs, such as food, water, and shelter, and they are born into a world where nature provides, either directly or indirectly, the means for fulfilling these needs. But a reconstructed Marxist conception of nature, as Smith points out, is dialectical, for his reading of Marx suggests a general unity of physical nature with human nature (55). Simply put, to countenance that humanity is external to nature is to promote a Hegelian vision of mystical origin, for if humans are external to nature, whence did humanity arise?

The production of consciousness is an integral part of the general production of material life (Smith 2008, 55) and is dialectically related to the transformative possibilities of labor. This, according to Marx, is what separates “humans” from “animals.” In a widely cited passage, Marx (1990, 283-4) clarifies this process:

We presuppose labor in a form in which it is an exclusively human characteristic. A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cell in his mind before he constructs it in wax. At the end of every labor process, a result emerges which had already been conceived by the worker at the beginning, hence already existed ideally. Man not only effects a change of form in the materials of nature; he also realizes his own purpose in those materials. And this is a purpose he is conscious of, it determines the mode of his activity with the rigidity of a law, and he must subordinate his will to it. This subordination is no mere momentary act. Apart from the exertion of the working organs, a purposeful will is required for the entire duration of the work.

Marx suggests therefore a general unity of nature with society—a unity derived from the concrete activity of natural beings, produced in practice through labor on material nature (Smith 2008, 55-6). To this end, following Marx and Engels (1998, 49-50), “Consciousness is … from the very beginning a social product.” But it is a social product that is not descended from the heavens but is rather of human material activity. As such, the specific form of human activity both shapes and is shaped by consciousness itself.

In his reading of Marx, Smith identifies a fundamental transformation between production in general and production for exchange. With production for exchange, the relation with nature is no longer exclusively a use-value relation, in that use values are no longer produced for direct use but for exchange. This is crucial, for as Smith (2008, 63) concludes, “With production for exchange rather than direct use, there arises first the possibility and then the necessity for alienation of the individual.” A particular form of nature transformed, in other words, works to estrange humans from their human nature.

Marx’s theory of alienation is most fully developed in the posthumously published Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, where he presents alienation as comprising four broad relations that cover the whole of human existence: workers’ relationships to (1) their productive activity, (2) their products, (3) other people, and (4) the species-being (i.e., humanity; see Ollman 1976, 136). First, according to Marx, alienation exists when laboring activities are external to the worker. Those workers assigned to assembly lines, for example, exist as mere appendages to the surrounding machinery; they do not control their own productive activities but rather exist at the beck and call of those who own the means of production. Second, under such conditions workers become alienated from the object of their productive activity: the commodities produced are owned not by the worker but rather by those who own the means of production. And again, if the worker does not own his or her own products, who does? The answer is: someone else. This leads to a third form of alienation—namely, the alienation of people from other people.

Last, Marx held that under systems of exchange production, workers become alienated from humanity itself. This final form, “species alienation,” is of a qualitatively different type and requires some elaboration. To begin, this form of alienation does not mean that there is some essential human nature that is not produced by human activity but is rather given a priori. Species alienation should be understood not as alienation from an ideal human nature but as alienation from historically created human possibilities, and especially from the human capacity for creativity (Petrović 1991, 14). Recall that Marx premised “purposive will” as that which separated humans from animals and that it was a form of consciousness that separated architects from bees and weavers from spiders. In a well-known passage, Marx (1990, 76-7) explains:

The animal is immediately identical with its life-activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life-activity. Man makes his life-activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life-activity … In creating an objective world by his practical activity, in working-up inorganic nature, man proves himself a conscious species being, i.e., as a being that treats the species as its own essential being, or that treats itself as a species being. Admittedly animals also produce. They build themselves nests, dwellings, like the bees, beavers, ants, etc. But an animal only produces what it immediately needs for itself or its young. It produces one-sidedly, while man produces universally. It produces only under the dominion of immediate physical need, while man produces even when he is free from physical need and only truly produces in freedom therefrom.

Marxist conception of nature therefore holds that it is through the deliberate transformation of what we take as physical nature that humanity assumes its own historically contingent nature; that consciousness emerges dialectically between the concrete activities undertaken by humans and the objective, material world. According to Marx, however, under an exploitative system of production for exchange, men and women—but humanity as a whole—are precluded from developing an unalienated, unestranged consciousness. As Ollman (1976, 151) concludes, “The human species is deprived of its reality, of what it requires to manifest itself as the human species.” Indeed, the exploitative practices of a system built upon production for exchange reduces humanity “to performing undifferentiated work on humanly indistinguishable objects among people deprived of their human variety and compassion” (134). It was for this reason that Marx believed that communism—as a collective, nonindividuated form of production—was necessary to overcome the alienated life that typified capitalism. It was in part for this reason that the Khmer Rouge sought to “build socialism” in the fields and factories of Democratic Kampuchea. In Democratic Kampuchea, however, rather than building a nonexploitative socialism, the Khmer Rouge replaced one exploitative system with another and, ultimately, denied its population the liberating possibilities that, in principle, follow from the elimination of production for exchange.

Surplus Production under the Khmer Rouge

Thus far I have sketched a Marxist conception of nature as a way to theorize the potential consequences of an exploitative system of production for exchange. To what extent does this shed light on, first, the conception of nature as articulated by the CPK and, second, on the particular concrete practices planned and implemented (albeit incompletely) by the CPK?

The CPK rhetorically described their society as communist. Such claims, as we have seen, have subsequently been uncritically adopted by many historians of the genocide. As prima facie evidence, both the CPK and later historians point to the abolition of currency and domestic markets, the elimination of private property, and the creation of agricultural communes. Similarly, the use of central planning in the production and distribution of goods and services is held as exemplary. A class analysis, however, indicates that the political economy of Democratic Kampuchea—similar to the Soviet Union—was a particular form of capitalism and not socialism or communism (see Resnick and Wolff 1994, 9). As Wolff (2012, 104) explains, “What defines an economic system … is not primarily how productive resources are owned nor how resources and products are distributed. Rather, the key definitional dimension is the organization of production. More precisely, the definitional priority concerns how the production and distribution of the surplus are organized.”

Within Democratic Kampuchea, privatized forms of capitalism were indeed eliminated—violently so. And yet, under a system of commodity exchange developed by the CPK, workers remained exploited, their surplus labor appropriated for state use. Recall again Marx’s well-known discussion of commodity exchange. Marx (1990, 188, 200) writes, “Because all commodities, as values, are objectified human labor, and therefore in themselves commensurable, their values can be communally measured in one and the same specific commodity, and this commodity can be converted into the common measure of their values, that is into money.” Consequently, the “process of exchange is … accomplished through two metamorphoses of opposite yet complementary character—the conversion of the commodity into money, and the re-conversion of the money into a commodity.” This is illustrated in Marx’s well-known form: “Commodity-Money-Commodity,” or simply C-M-C. The first transformation, C-M, represents the conversion of a commodity into money (i.e., the act of selling), while the second transformation, M-C, represents the conversion of money into a commodity (i.e., the act of buying). Hence, this single process is two-sided: from one pole, that of the commodity owner, it is a sale, and from the other pole, that of the money owner, it is a purchase (203).

This simple model of circulation would appear to bear little resemblance to the practices of the Khmer Rouge. As part of its overall goal of achieving autonomy and self-mastery, the CPK championed self-sufficiency and self-reliance, both of which would suggest a policy of economic isolation. But as explained in its “Four-Year Plan,” developed between 21 July and 2 August 1976, the CPK (1988b, 51; emphasis added) identified two economic objectives. The first was “to serve the people’s livelihood, and to raise the people’s standard of living quickly, both in terms of supplies and in terms of other material goods.” This was to be accomplished through the satisfaction of a second objective: namely, to “seek, gather, save, and increase capital from agriculture, aiming to rapidly expand our agriculture, our industry, and our defense.” Therefore, to achieve industrial self-sufficiency—including both light and heavy industry—the CPK decreed that they would “only have to earn [foreign] capital from agriculture” (96).

Capital, in theory, was to be generated through the cultivation of rice. This is clearly illustrated in a series of remarks prepared and delivered by Pol Pot to a special meeting of the CPK “center” during 21-3 August 1976. Here, Pol Pot considers “the production of rice as it is related to rice fields.” He explains:

We have greater resources than other countries in terms of rice fields. Furthermore, the strength of our rice fields is that we have more of them than others do. The strength of our agriculture is greater than that of other countries in this respect … It is the Party’s wish to transform agriculture from a backward type to a modern type in ten to fifteen years. A long-term strategy must be worked out. We are working (here) on a Four-Year Plan in order to set off in the direction of achieving this 10-15 year target. (CPK 1988a, 131)

Thus it was determined by the CPK that Democratic Kampuchea would need to triple annual rice production, to a national average yield of three tons per hectare. Only by attaining such a surplus could the CPK raise sufficient revenues to obtain necessary goods and commodities from abroad.

Despite rhetorical flourishes of “building socialism,” the CPK identified the necessity of both capital accumulation and foreign trade. With the abolition of money this seems problematic at best. Following the simple model of circulation, C-M-C, commodities are exchanged (sold) for money; that money is then used to purchase additional commodities. Clearly this was not the model developed by the Khmer Rouge. Indeed, historical reconstructions would seem to indicate a system of barter, along the lines of C-C, whereby the CPK would exchange rice, for example, for textiles, medicines, and other commodities not available in Democratic Kampuchea. And indeed, documentary evidence remains of vast shipments of rice exported to China, Yugoslavia, Madagascar, and Hong Kong. To give but one example, between January and September 1978 the Khmer Rouge exported 29,758 tons of rice, valued at USD $5,911,833, to China.

To leave the CPK’s economy at this surface level is unsatisfactory, for it risks losing sight of the specific mechanisms introduced to generate surplus capital. One is tempted, for example, to conclude that “surplus” capital was simply derived from increased rice production, that the “surplus” identified by the CPK was not “surplus” from a Marxist understanding but merely additional rice to be traded with foreign governments. Surplus value, as opposed to simple surplus (i.e., excess quantities), is a defining feature of capitalism and thus sounds discordant with the Standard Total View of Democratic Kampuchea. I maintain, however, that the CPK did explicitly attempt to realize surplus value through a system of production for exchange and by the exploitation of its population.

As readers are well aware, surplus value is generated through the exploitation of labor capacity and assumes two basic forms: absolute surplus value and relative surplus value. Within Democratic Kampuchea, initially the CPK devised a means to generate absolute surplus value. Increased rice surpluses were obtained through the use of forced labor and the extension of the working day—structural conditions that led to widespread exhaustion and death. But there are physical limits to the amount of capital accumulated in this process, limits that I argue the Khmer Rouge overcame by the generation of a form of relative surplus value.

For Marx, it was not “necessary” labor time that defined labor power’s value; rather it was socially necessary labor time. Understood by Marx (1990, 129) as “the labor-time required to produce any use-value under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labor prevalent in that society,” a consideration of socially necessary labor time transfers the level of argument from any individual capitalist to society as a whole. This is possible because, as Fine and Saad-Filho (2010, 38) explain, “Production of relative surplus value depends critically upon all capitalists, since none alone produces a significant proportion of the commodities required for the reproduction of the working class.”

Simply put, an increase in average productivity increases the average number of commodities produced per unit of time; it thereby decreases the amount of socially necessary labor time required for the production of a single commodity and, hence, the value of each commodity (Postone 1993, 193). With an increase in the productivity of labor—through refinements of the division of labor or the introduction of machinery—the value of labor-power falls and the portion of the working day necessary for the reproduction of that value will be shortened. Capital thus “has an immanent drive, and a constant tendency, towards increasing the productivity of labor, in order to cheapen commodities and, by cheapening commodities, to cheapen the worker himself” (Marx 1990, 436-7).

How then did the CPK foster the accumulation of relative surplus value in the absence of currency? It was accomplished, I argue, by the substitution of food rations for wages. Beginning in 1976 the CPK initiated an elaborate system of food rations; this is widely documented and routinely cited as a contributing factor to the hundreds of thousands of deaths resultant from famine. But these accounts largely fail to consider the economic implications of the Khmer Rouge system. The specific allocation of food rations warrants attention, for it provides a quantitative insight into the qualitative distinctions made by the CPK. Consider, for example, that the CPK (1988b, 51) proposed that from 1977 onward, “The [food] ration for the people will average … 312 kilograms of rice per person per year throughout the country.” More specifically, a fourfold system was devised to distribute food rations based on the type of workforce. Those workers classified in the number 1 system (robob) would be allocated three cans of rice per day; those in the number 2 system, two and one-half cans; number 3, two cans; and number 4, one and one-half cans). This numeric system refers to the type of labor involved; those people performing the heaviest manual labor, in principle, were to receive the highest rations. The lightest tasks, performed by the elderly or the sick, received the smallest rations. Pregnant women, or women who had just given birth, were at times given higher rations. Ostensibly, two side dishes (either soup or dried food) were to be provided to all workers; desserts were to be offered once every three days. Moreover, detailed work schedules were devised—although not necessarily implemented—that determined how many days of work were required, and for how many days, for society as a whole.

In this way, the CPK determined the average amount of surplus that could be produced for the country as a whole. Stated differently, the CPK calculated an amount of rice based on the socially necessary labor time required to plant and harvest rice. Thus, in its Four-Year Plan, the CPK calculated that the average amount of rice production would increase from 245,000 tons in 1977 to 462,000 tons in 1980; this would, according to their estimates, result in a gain of USD $121,000,000 over the four-year period. To meet these objectives, however, workers were to remain vigilant in their revolutionary zeal and, with the “proper” consciousness, thereby increase productivity. Crucially, the amount of rations to be allocated for worker consumption was to remain at 320,000 tons per annum (CPK 1988b). In other words, it was assumed that as productivity increased and workers became more efficient, there was no need to increase the amount of food rations allocated.

Consequently, both absolute and relative surplus value were in theory to be generated through the establishment of food rations. It is crucial to emphasize that, under communism (in general), the products of surplus labor are received collectively by the same workers (see Resnick and Wolff 1988, 19). Within Democratic Kampuchea, designated state officials—persons other than the producers—appropriated the products of worker labor (see Resnick and Wolff 1994). One readily sees in this the class structure of an exploitative economic system of exchange. Private property was abolished, but crucially, the people were still separated from the means of production; they owned neither land nor tools. More importantly, workers did not collectively appropriate their own surplus labor and distribute it according to collective need; rather, state functionaries appropriated the surplus and exchanged it for commodities on the global market. At this point, Democratic Kampuchea begins to appear less like a “communist” state and more like a form of state capitalism (see Resnick and Wolff 1993, 1994).

Such a system of economic exchange was necessary for the CPK for reasons beyond the generation of surplus; indeed, it was through the transformation of physical nature that a “correct” political consciousness was to be cultivated. But to the degree that an economy predicated on commodity exchange contributed to the exploitation and alienation of workers within Democratic Kampuchea, such a consciousness could not be achieved. It was, subsequently, this disconnect between a lack of “proper” political consciousness and economic (labor) activities that underlay the need for widespread violence.

The “Nature” of the Khmer Rouge

The Standard Total View would hold that “nature” for the Khmer Rouge was something to be mastered in order to produce a socialist utopia. Such a vulgar position is held, in part, by the Khmer Rouge slogans, “Let us be master of the water, master of the nature,” and, “Let us not be defeated by nature” (Locard 2004, 246, 249). Consequently, so the story goes, it was necessary for every work site to become “a fiery battlefield” (227). The CPK’s (1988b, 48) line of reasoning was apparently simple: “We fight in the field of agriculture because we have agricultural resources. We’ll move to other fields when the agricultural battle is finished.” Following this conception of nature—as something to be mastered—Bultmann (2012, 48) concludes that for the CPK “the aim was to build an environment defeating nature and operating purely in line with socialist functions, inhabited by pure socialist people, using pure revolutionary methods. This ideal socialist space aimed to operate beyond natural conditions, geographic specifics and environmental diversity.”

There is an element of accuracy in this position. The transformation of nature was pitched as a crucial element in the policies of the CPK and the planned transformation of Khmer society. But this position risks losing sight of several key elements that deepen our understanding of both CPK ideology and material practice, for embedded within Khmer Rouge agricultural policy was a dialectical relationship between the natural environment and human nature. Simply put, and in response to Bultmann’s conclusion, we need to ask: How were “pure socialist people” to be developed? The answer, I maintain, stems from the Marxist idea of the unity of nature, which holds that the production of consciousness is an integral part of the production of material life.

The CPK conception of nature, while neither ambivalent nor ambiguous, is difficult to pigeonhole. Nature for the CPK was largely premised as some thing external; nature was something to be used and/or overcome; it was a barrier to progress but also laden with possibilities. This is seen in various discussions of potential rice yields. For example, the CPK classified rice fields into two categories: those that could be harvested once a year and those that could be harvested twice. Calculations provided by the CPK indicate that in 1977 there would be an anticipated 2.4 million hectares of land suitable for rice production; of these, 1.4 million hectares could sustain a single harvest per year; the remaining would be conducive to two harvests. Over the next four years, according to Pol Pot, the land devoted to single harvests would remain constant while the amount of double-cropped lands would progressively increase from 200,000 hectares in 1977 to 500,000 in 1980 (CPK 1988c, 132).

Beyond flourishes of political rhetoric, the CPK did propose detailed (if impractical) strategies to increase rice production; these on the whole were based on the introduction of “rational” and “efficient” agricultural techniques. Thus, the Khmer Rouge initiated a spatial practice to rearrange the distribution of rice paddies. Historically, rice fields in Cambodia were arranged haphazardly in parcels of varying shapes and sizes, the end result being a pastiche of land-use patterns. Under the Khmer Rouge, these paddies were reorganized into regular, quadrangular plots—ostensibly a more efficient spatial arrangement of farming practices (Ebihara 1990, 26). Pol Pot and the CPK identified also a number of “objective” problems related to the production of rice, including but not limited to the availability of water for irrigation, access to necessary fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and adequate numbers of agricultural tools.

In their attempt to transform physical nature as a means of securing capital, the CPK leadership sought to transform human nature. Consequently, men, women, and children were deployed to wage war on nature—but with a “purposeful will,” not as spiders or bees, for it was through their specific laboring activities that socialism was to be built. Here, though, the CPK adopted a caricature of a Marxist conception of nature: namely, one in which economic relations were considered to be preeminent. This accounts for their belief that political consciousness would follow economic production. 7 It was not, therefore, that people under the Khmer Rouge were blank sheets of paper or lumps of clay to be molded by ideology; rather, it was through labor itself, the cultivation of rice fields, that “right minds” and “right attitudes” were to be cultivated. At this level, therefore, physical nature and human nature were united. The transformation of Democratic Kampuchea’s natural environment would, according to the CPK, result in a transformation of consciousness; in turn, a proper political consciousness would lead to additional transformations of the country’s natural resources. And it was through this dialectical unity, according to the Khmer Rouge, that any production quota could be achieved.

The implications of nature so conceived proved quite fatal. If production quotas were unmet, the theoretical conclusion to be drawn was that a proper level of consciousness had not been achieved. Bultmann (2012, 49) is correct in his assessment that “the leadership suspected sabotage within its own ranks” and that “the occurrence of shortcomings in the actual implementation of the Four-Year Plan were directly linked to a resistance against the sovereign power behind the plan.” But such a brutal conclusion conforms readily to the “socialist” economy envisioned by the CPK. Collective production was, in theory, to overcome individuality and lead to the proper consciousness.

A document from 1976 vividly illustrates the CPK’s belief in the transformative nature of collective labor. In this 58-page report dated 20 December 1976, it is noted that the “problem of individualism still exists.” This problem remains, allegedly, because there are “contradictions between collectivism and individualism” and because “traitors” continue to “create antagonistic contractions” (CPK 1988d, 185). Consequently, “In comparative terms, political consciousness lags behind the other aspects” of the revolution. The report explains that an expanded collectivism throughout society is required and that collectivism must proceed at all administrative levels. This requires a “rejection of old relations of production” and a transformation to “collective relations of production” (186).

But as discussed earlier, the CPK did not implement a communist economy; rather, it implemented—and at an international scale—an exchange-based mode of production. Following Marx (1993, 247-8),

The presupposition of exchange value, as the objective basis of the whole of the system of production, already in itself implies compulsion over the individual, since his immediate product is not a product for him, but only becomes such in the social process, and since it must take on this general but nevertheless external form; and that the individual has an existence only as a producer of exchange value, hence that the whole negation of his natural existence is already implied; that he is therefore entirely determined by society.

Paradoxically, the CPK report that bemoans the lack of political consciousness reaffirms the necessity of generating surplus through the implementation of subsistence wages (i.e., food rations). The report also details the need to increase and diversify exports: “We can export and sell many products such as kapok, shrimp, squid, elephant fish, and turtles. All of these products can earn foreign exchange. There are great possibilities for exporting peanuts, wheat, corn, sesame, and beans. The objective would be to save up these products for export. Almost anything can be exported, so long as we don’t consume it ourselves, but set it aside” (CPK 1988d, 200). This last statement is particularly telling in that it demonstrates both the CPK’s indifference to use value—that is, anything can be commodified and exchanged—and also the CPK’s overall strategy of minimizing wages—that is, food stuffs—in order to garner relative surplus value.

Living within a system of production for exchange, those who labored in Cambodia’s fields became alienated from labor itself, from the products of their labor, from other persons, and from humanity as a whole. Work under the Khmer Rouge was something external to those who labored. Instead of cultivating a “pure socialist” consciousness, the Khmer Rouge produced the opposite: compulsory collectivized labor within a production-for-exchange system, or estranged and alienated labor. This in turn imparted a tragic, fatal irony: the commodities produced (e.g., rice) were the substance of life, and yet production was not principally for consumption but instead for exchange. Workers were to serve the revolution; more abstractly, however, workers were to exist only as producers of exchange value. The natural existence of humanity within Democratic Kampuchea was negated not because the CPK initiated a socialist/communist revolution; rather, humanity was negated precisely because such a revolution did not occur.


In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels (1998, 42) famously wrote, “It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness.” My reading of CPK policies suggests that Pol Pot and other high-ranking Khmer Rouge officials most likely internalized this statement. For it is my argument that the CPK recognized (political) consciousness as related to a particular production of nature and, specifically, as laboring activities that transform nature into use values. Indeed, party documents indicate that another famous Marxist maxim appears to have been internalized. In his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx declared that philosophers had only interpreted the world while the point was to change it. Marx’s statement was in part a critique of idealism—concrete action is required as opposed to idealist thinking. The CPK (1988d, 202) report delivered in December 1976 stated, “We have not relied on theory. We have acted clearly.”

Arguably, the CPK also understood—from a Marxist standpoint—that communism in principle would lead to liberation from the exploitation, alienation, and estrangement that are endemic to capitalism. They failed to recognize, however, that the system they imposed was neither socialist nor communist; rather, the peculiar economy established by the CPK was nothing less than an exploitative system of production for exchange. This impacted their approach both to “physical” nature (as something to be mastered, dominated, and perverted to a particular exchange value) and also to “human” nature.