Political influences no.1: John Pilger – speaking truth to power

This is the first post in a series. For the introduction to the series, see the post below this one.

Skulls (pic: DM)

It was the discussion of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia in the comment thread on this post of Andrew Coates’ that reminded me that I’ve had it in mind to write this post for some time. For a complicated reason it is not worth explaining, this genocide was the first issue on which I became passionately engaged, and on which my views were not formed by my parents.

To summarise, the Khmer Rouge were a bizarre and extreme Maoist sect who were sponsored by China, allied to the Communist North Vietnamese against the Americans in the Vietnam war and incubated by the Viet Cong when the latter were based in Cambodia in the late 1960s. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, they came to power in 1975, and launched probably the most brutal totalitarian regime of the modern era. The death toll of the regime is disputed, but the most authoritative accounts put the figure at around 1.7 million, 20% of the population. The slaughter came to an end in 1978, when Vietnam invaded and liberated the country. Vietnam installed a puppet government (the People's Republic of Kampuchea – PRK) and started the task of re-building and healing the shattered nation, although the Khmer Rouge continued their insurgency until 1998 from bases on the Thai border. By 1978, the Cold War had shifted on its axis, the US was building up relations with the Khmer Rouge’s main sponsor, China. The United Nations, under pressure from America and China, refused to recognise the new administration, instead giving a seat to a government in exile, the CGDK, which included the Khmer Rouge. Only the Soviet Union and its allies recognised the PRK.

I am not sure if John Pilger took up the cause of Cambodia in the period when Pol Pot was America’s enemy (that is, during the worst years of the genocide), but after he took up the cause he did more than anyone to expose the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime. Jams listed Pilger as one of his political influences, writing: “Although I don't care for a lot of what Pilger has to say, Cambodia: Year Zero had a profound effect on me.” Many others of mine and Jams’ generation would say something similar.

I am still haunted by the images of Pilger on the killing fields, walking in the heat among mountains of bones. These images had an enormous impact on me. I could not understand how, decades after the Holocaust, the world had allowed this to happen. Naively, I was baffled and enraged that America (where I was living at the time) recognised the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate rulers of Cambodia.

There were three things that I took away from the experience. First, I was captivated by Pilger as this lone, brave, sun-tanned journalist, penetrating deep into the heart of darkness, bringing back an awful truth which the powers that be didn’t want us to hear. For the next fifteen years or so, I followed Pilger and his exposure of Indonesian brutality in East Timor, another story the West refused to hear, as well as his extraordinarily clear and articulate denunciations of George Bush Sr’s first Gulf War and later of the cruel western sanctions on post-war Iraq. At least part of me wanted to be John Pilger.

Now, of course, I recognise my hero worship of the man as a flawed, adolescent, romantic vision. Nevertheless, he was the first in line of such figures I idolised, a line that included Martha Gellhorn, George Orwell, Christopher Hitchens, Paul Foot and Michael Moore. All of them are flawed, in one way or another, and none more so than Pilger, and I have long since definitively parted ways with him.

Beyond Pilger himself, the second thing I took away from this early engagement was a distrust of what I now know as “realist” geopolitics. America’s turn from enemy of Khmer Rouge to its enabler had no basis in principle whatsoever (and nor did, to be fair, the Soviet Union’s turn from its supporter to the champion of its overthrowing). These decisions were cynical, and build on a base and amoral calculation of America’s interests, which were defined ultimately as the interests of American business.

The third thing, closely related, that I took from this was a commitment to what I now know as “humanitarian intervention” or the “responsibility to protect”. The Vietnamese may have had cynical realist reasons for their invasion/liberation (just as the West had cynical, realist reasons for its invasion/liberation of Nazi Germany or Taliban Afghanistan), but this intervention had a consequence that no one with any working moral compass could possibly see as anything but hugely desirable.

Over the years, I have wrestled with these questions, in relation to Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur, and other situations. There is rarely a clear cut right answer. But on this issue, I remain as convinced as I was then, that the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to remove the Khmer Rouge dictatorship was as near as it is possible to get to a just war.


An extract from Year Zero: The Silent Death of Cambodia, Pilger’s 1979 film which did so much to bring the genocide to Western attention:



jams o donnell said…
Ah I had forgotten about that meme. If it is on Youtube I must give Year Zero another look. It did so much to radicalise as a teen.

Shame that a lot of his later output was swill
Noga said…
So, having run out of monsters to slay the intrepid Pilger was not satisfied to fade into the sunset horizon like any cowboy worth his salt. And lacking popular monsters to seek out he settled into the comfortable sinecure of a monster-manufacturer.

This is a sorry tale of a moral debasement if I ever read one. He is fit to be included in the same sentence as Michael Moore but not Hitchens or Orwell. HE failed the real test of "speaking truth to power" (awful, much debauched phrase, btw). Maybe because he is incapable of recognizing genuine evil power when that power flatters that faltering, insatiable ego.
bob said…
Jams, I hate to say but parts of Year Zero made me squirm watching it again now, it was so ideologically obvious - avoid if you want to keep your memories intact.

Noga, I am not proud of my younger self's infatuation with Pilger and Moore, and meant to inflect my title with a slight touch of irony that I should have marked with some scare quotes or a question mark perhaps. Roy Hattersley aptly derided Pilger for his inability to be "right without being righteous", which sums him up well, I think.
johng said…
This is an oft told story so apologies in advance. David Aronovich turned up to give a talk at SOAS during what I think was the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. Pilger, Chomsky et al came up. He said something like: that generation of liberals and leftists was right about America then. He then argued that they were wrong today because America had changed. And that in fact the proposed invasion was an indication of that change. He ended his talk by suggesting that if events were to prove him wrong he would buy everybody a pint. But the Aronovich who gave that meeting didn't seem to have a problem with Pilger the author of Heroes. He just had a problem with the present. Question is does he owe us a pint?
jams o donnell said…
Still for a 16 year old who was thinking that the Tories were crap after all (my dark secret is that I thought they weren't crap!) it was a huge eye opener

Being older and having a big dollop of cynicism, I daresay I would not view the prog in the same light
SnoopyTheGoon said…
Yeah, Bob and Jams, I am glad that we wouldn't have to take you out to the wall at sunrise after all.

Oh, and Bob - Noga is right about that list. Of course, Hitch has his moments too, but Moore always was and remains detestable self-aggrandizing liar.

Meanwhile, I am waiting for the next post in the series.
Waterloo Sunset said…
Moore? Really? I have bad experiences of working in a bookshop where Moore was doing a signing. Let's just say his 'man of the people' posture doesn't extend to actually being nice to people working fucking late so he can sign his shit book. (Unlike Julian Cope, who is adorable, but was responsible for several members of staff being in no fit state to work the next day).

On top of that, Moore really isn't that funny. At least Mark Thomas knows how to tell a joke.
Will said…
"(my dark secret is that I thought they weren't crap!)"

Tells you all you need to know about you and your sort. Hope you die of some evil shit that makes a lot of pain before you die.
Will said…
That Noga fuckwit is one of the most slimeiset fuckkers ever met on the internet. the writing style is like a slug with illusory self-consciousness.

Needs to be locked up in a tent with a bunsen burner and highly flammable material.
Bob: Don't you dare consider deleting Will's comment above.


Will, I've been thinking about you as I was reading the chapter in Hitch 22, where Christopher Hitchens describes how he came to know he was "semi-semite". Do you think he meant that he had Jewish blood flowing in his body?
Bob said…
On Michael Moore, I watched his Roger and Me a few years after it was made, and thought it was brilliant. I was also a huge fan of his TV Nation show in the mid-1990s, and did think he was very funny.

I'm not sure when I began to turn against him, and have neither seen nor have any interest in seeing any of his blockbuster movies.

I have heard similar accounts to WS's of what he is like in person from others in the book trade. (Not too rare a trait among celebrity "progressives": hymning the common man in public, shitting on him in private.)

On other aspects of Moore's doublethink, see this.


I won't delete Will's comment, even thought it violates my comments policy!
Waterloo Sunset said…
I have heard similar accounts to WS's of what he is like in person from others in the book trade. (Not too rare a trait among celebrity "progressives": hymning the common man in public, shitting on him in private.)

It does seem that way, sadly. In fact it seems more common with celebrity "progressives" than it does with your everyday celebrities. (Although, Ian Bone, for better or worse, is exactly how you'd expect). I've not met him myself, but I've heard similar things about Ben Elton. Whereas Michael Aspel was a really nice bloke. And Graham Norton was just lovely. If anything, I can't help feeling it should be the other way round. Actually, Jeremy Clarkson was very well mannered and respectful. Which I was uncomfortable with. I really don't want to have nice things to say about Jeremy Clarkson.

I'm glad the comics/fantasy people are generally pretty sound, or all my childhood illusions would have been shattered!
Will said…
The Cunttetris has a couple of posts about Hitchens on her blog. She's been reading the new Hitchens book in bits and pieces at the big box bookstore in her suburb cos money is apparently too tight to buy it. Funny that she spends many thousands of dollars per year putting her children through private education yet cannot buy (or steal) a book.

Tosspot. Scum. etc.
Frank Partisan said…
I wouldn't call Moore a liar. He is confused, particularly on the Democratic Party.

The idea of peasants leading a society, is not Marxism. There is not one example, of a peasant led society, that didn't become Bonapartist (led by the sword). Cambodia was extreme, not unique.
Noga said…
Why is Will mentioning my kids in this thread? What does he know about them? How does he know anything about them?
Pineapple said…
Personally I don't think that genocide happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. But, saying that can get you accused of being something akin to a holocaust denier.

For me, the more illuminating views of DK have come from the likes of scholar Michael Vickery, who applies Marxism to Cambodian history, including the DK regime, and has demonstrated the un-Marxist choices made by them, and that the poor-peasant social forces, among other things, ended up pulling the Communists along the path to disaster. Or rather, it may be illuminating to those interested in wanting to understand the nature of the Cambodian Revolution, which doesn’t begin from the “I told you so” starting point that Communism, or specifically its Bolshevised version, is bad, and therefore, unsurprisngly, Communists are bound to do bad things. Pol Pot's ally Ta Mok, for example, while although perhaps being unable to grasp the finer points himself, nevertheless represented certain poor-peasantist and nationalist tendencies which are important in understanding Pol Potism.
bob said…
Thank you for your comments Pineapple. Your website looks fascinating and I will spend some time there.

I did read Vickery's 1984 book a long time ago, and haven't re-visited it. I know Chomsky uses Vickery's low estimate of deaths in the DK period as part of his argument that "genocide phase 1" had a higher death toll than "phase 2". (Chomsky uses high estimates for "phase 1", estimates which use different methodologies from Vickery - a dishonest comparison in my view. I haven't read anything Vickery has written more recently, and therefore don't know whether he still holds to his early low estimates of DK deaths.

Pineapple, I am curious about your denial of the genocide. Are you saying the word "genocide" is the wrong word for what happened, or that the numbers don't stack up?

Also, I am curious about what you mean by "poor-peasantism"? How did "poor-peasant social forces" do the dragging in the DK?

I am certainly not someone, incidentally, who would a priori assume that it was bad because Communists are bad. In fact, although vulgar anti-Communists now can point to Pol Pot as the ultimate example of Communist evil, this is not an argument widely made, because it was Communist Vietnam that liberated Cambodia from Pol Pot. (See my post here for examples of mainstream anti-Communists effectively endorsing Pol Pot in opposition to Communist Vietman http://brockley.blogspot.com/2005/06/hitch-and-cambodia.html ).

And, as a Marxist, I take it as a basic premise that Pol Pot was utterly un-Marxist. The most cursory reading of Marx would make it clear Marx had nothing to do with what the KR did.
Pineapple said…
Good morning Bob. Thanks for your response. And apologies for the delay in replying to you.

On the genocide label, my issue is not one of "denial." Far from it. The evidence is there, clear to see, aside from piles of sun bleached skulls reproduced by the sensationalist press. I am not denying that horrific things happened there, nor do I have a problem with the now generally agreed death toll; rather for me, it is about the context in which this very real suffering and death occurred.

There have been compelling arguments made (from Ben Kiernan in particular) that the Cambodian Revolution was genocidal in intent, and for a general reader, The Pol Pot Regime is the book to point to. But other works, and from Kiernan too, still describe the confused, fragmented skeletal state power of DK; the regionally influenced divisions and disagreements among the Communists themselves; the varying sets of circumstances inside the country which were not always under the tight control of the Pol Potists in the central government. To make the claim, then, that the CPK, or to be more specific the Communist Party's Standing Committee, deliberately perpetrated genocide would be, in my opinion, counter-intuitive to this overall confusion and aggressive mass of contradictions that the DK regime was.

It is perhaps too complex to go into now, in a single comment here, but I will, with some irony, given his disgrace over revisionism regarding the Holocaust of the European Jews, quote Serge Thion, who in my opinion neatly explained the situation in DK well:

“at no time between 1975 and the end of 1978 were the central authorities close to having complete control over the national economy, the state power system, the army, the party, and possibly even the state security office, S-21. All of these were riddled with political factions, military brotherhoods, regional powers, personal networks, all contending for influence and the purging of rival forces. The state never stood on its feet.”

For me (in pretty much re-typing words from a comment made on my own blog), the ghastly death toll was largely caused by the, want of a better word, enslavement and the overwork or neglect, lack of medical treatment etc of the labouring population, and who were to build this new infrastructure required for the mass production of rice. And we also have the attempt made by a group within the CPK to centralise political and military power in the country, and the terror used as the principle tool for subordinating the regional administrations to the central government. This process was never completed, and perhaps this bloody restructuring of the state would have seen the establishment of a familiar one man dictatorship. Of course we'll never know, for the Vietnamese invaded.

I'll come back and add more later, on the poor-peasantism interfering with the modernising ambitions (derived from Leninist voluntarism) of the Communists. I do not believe the popular view peddled for years (with a misunderstanding of the term Year Zero), that the DK regime wanted to send the country and its people to live in an enclosed and simple agrarian 'utopia.' Their aim was rapid industrialisation, and the peasant nature of the revolution, the "social forces" I mentioned earlier, were incompatible with that. And of course revolutions are not just made of ideas, but resources.

I work nights, so have to get some sleep now.
sackcloth and ashes said…
I would like to remind johng that at various points in their careers the likes of Pilger (and indeed our swuppie friends) have been passionate opponents of the following:

(1) The West's policy of engagement with Saddam prior to 1990 (even though most of his weaponry, and the training for his military and security forces, came from the Soviet bloc).

(2) The decision by the USA and the UK to go to war to liberate Kuwait in January 1991, rather than to wait for sanctions and diplomacy to work.

(3) The decision by the USA and UK to cease military operations once Kuwait had been liberated, allowing Saddam's forces to crush the intifidas in Kurdistan and the Shia South.

(4) The fact that the Americans and the British maintained sanctions on Iraq after 1991, even though these were the same sanctions that were supposed to have provided an alternative to war.

(5) The maintenance of the no-fly zones over Iraq by the USA and the UK, even though it protected the Kurds (see point 3).

(6) The fact that in 2002-2003 the USA and the UK were unprepared to work through the UN and the inspections process (irrespective of the fact that Pilger et al denounced UNSCOM during the 1990s).

and finally ...

(7) The decision by the USA and the UK to invaded Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein (again, see point 3).

So the fact is that the likes of Pilger have through a complete lack of scruple repeatedly altered their position on Iraq and on the Baathist regime, the only consistent point being opposition to the Anglo-American 'imperialists', rather than any consideration as to the interests of the Iraqi people themselves. And if we remember Pilger's comment that 'we cannot be too choosy' (which was his excuse for being an apologist for scum like Zarqawi), the words 'hypocrisy', 'amoral' and 'pusillanimous' are more than appropriate.

So, johng, you and the rest of your crowd don't owe Aaronovitch a pint - you owe him the entire fucking brewery.
sackcloth and ashes said…
Incidentally, I recall that Pilger's only comment on the UK's intervention in Sierra Leone (in 'The New Statesman', 18th September 2000) was that it was all in order to seize the country's diamonds.

Our friend from Oz did not feel compelled to offer any evidence to support this argument.
bob said…
Pineapple, I have not completely digested your point, so this is a provisional response.

I agree that the DK was contradictory and confused, and not a monolithic whole. But the same could clearly be said of the Nazis. Looking at the Nazis, there are arguments about the degree of intentionality in the final solution, the extent to which genocidal intent was threaded through the whole Nazi machine, the elements of the regime which obstructed the final solution, and so on. Asking these questions is completely legitimate. There are also legitimate questions about the extent of the final solution's success and efficiency. But there is no question about the fact of genocide. There is no good faith way of doubting the Nazi genocide. It seems to me that, even if you are completely correct in your analysis of the incomplete and contradictory nature of the DK regime's killing machine, that does not mean that the term genocide is wrong. I don't get the logic.

Stronger grounds for saying it was not genocide would be to argue that it was not a specific people who were targeted - the victims came from across society and across ethnic groups. This would be a definitional issue around the term. A debate about this is completely legitimate, and anyone who accuses people of "denialism" for raising these concerns is wrong to do so.

Similarly, there is an argument about the death toll, and new evidence regularly revises estimates up or down. Arguing about the details here is also completely legitimate. But I think it is hard in good faith to really depart that far from Ben Kiernan's estimates. I am assuming, when you talk about the "ghastly death toll" that you can't depart that far from them.
Pineapple said…
Good morning Bob.

Sorry for the delay, life away from the computer beckons!

Well, I understand what you say on the logistics of mass death, as it were, and it is instructive that you mention the Final Solution, and German fascism's attempt to exterminate a people from the face of a continent was a very different phenomenon to DK. And of course, remember, the Vietnamese-backed, "Khmer Hanoi" and Khmer Rouge defector Salvation Front were quick to make the Nazi analogy, as part of the attempt to legitimise the revival of the revolution from the very low base the Pol Pot clique left it in, calling them fascists. But, given the context, the label was meaningless. I'm not saying that you make this analogy, but it has been made beyond Marxist-Leninists wanting to convince a wary population of some kind of "genuine socialism," rather than a false one they were forced to experience.

You second paragraph is what I missed out, admittedly. The DK phenomenon does not fit, in a technical or legal framework, the definition of genocide. It's a highly contentious piece of semantics, for sure, and I understand about the problems when it is related to something so clearly terrible as that which happened in Cambodia, and that it can come across as making excuses for the Khmer Rouge. The politocide, or even democide labels are persuasive, and anyway some workable definition has to be used to somehow categorise crimes and if convicted, then fit the punishment accordingly.

The UN Genocide convention defines the term as ‘acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’ – but as has been pointed out elsewhere, the victims of Pol Pot's revolution were persecuted largely on political grounds. If we change the word to politocide, replace 'national, ethnical, racial or religious group' with political group (which were, with artificial social divisions, created by the fiat of the regime), and keep the definition and we might have something that fits DK rather well.

With the above in mind, though, was the treatment of the Cham Muslims, for example, that different to the overall insulation of the country’s population from what the Communists thought were rival and alternative value systems, and incongruent with that which they wanted to create in all people through their participation in the simultaneous building of a new Kampuchea, a mental reforging into a pure ‘socialist’ Khmer? I'm sure you're aware of the Khmer version of 'war communism' and that their cooperative system was supposed to be the seedbed for the rapid building of infrastructure, the first stage in a series, to bring modernity by the 1990s. Interfered with by the objective material conditions of the bombed-out and exhausted country, and the hubris of the central government, overriding at-first rational decisions, with extreme and foolish ideological considerations. This was where most deaths occurred. Mismanagement of the economy wasn't genocidal, and the way in which this was carried out, with brutal inefficiency, would fit on the much more grey sliding scale of 'crimes against humanity.' The terror of the regime, during the centralisation drive against DK's own 'political class': of arrest, torture, confession and disposal, follows a grimly familiar Stalinist pathology.
Pineapple said…
In Marxist terms, it could be said that this Khmer war communism made a great leap into a neo-asiatic mode of production, but that is perhaps for another discussion. I’m off to sleep soon, so what I meant by the poor-peasantism earlier is explained only a little here. The rural masses saw the 1970 coup and the removal of the Prince as a supreme act of blasphemy which removed the merit which had justified the elite’s privileged rights to rule. It was this, as well as the bombing, and the round-the-clock saturation bombing of the USAF from January 1973 in particular, which mobilised many rural people to fight the Khmer Republic. Another thing which is not portrayed as being popular in the western press, however, was the support of the peasantry for the Communists’ decision to evacuate all the towns and to close all current markets, for at a stroke it wiped out peasant debt. The peasants participated in the revolution for their own personal benefit, and just as the peasants of France, Russia and China and other revolutionary states had before them, initially without being converted to radical visions of constructing a new society. It is true that the Communists had success in their collectivisation of property and their efforts to mobilise farmers collectively during the war years, but it largely made sense to the peasants when faced with adversity, and the organisational strategies the revolutionaries offered them to cope in wartime. After the war they were attracted, more than the idea of communism, to the prospect to have access to more land, raise their material level by way of it, and particularly an abundance of food, with no outside claims on their surpluses (the towns), to have the opportunity to exploit the former town dwellers and to be left alone. Anything more radical was seen as absurd.

Pol Pot’s revolution, with its sincere attempt to rapidly modernise the country within a compressed time-scale, building society anew from a very low base and creating a fully-functioning socialist state by the 1990s failed just as much because of the triumph of peasant conservatism (aside from the popular decision to get rid of the towns) than the Communists’ moves to then control land and lay their own claims to the food the peasants produced, for the needs of their warped Maoist-inspired development. The peasantry couldn’t have cared less about Plan after Plan to make the country in some respects an approximation of Kim Il Sung’s North Korea, or Enver Hoxha’s Albania. What support they had among the masses was quickly lost, and not just because of the brutality of the regime. The radical changes were met with well-practiced inertia in a deeply conservative, if severely disrupted society.
bob said…
Thanks Pineapple, that's really interesting, and very persuasive.

Just to be clear on the Nazi comparison: I did not meant to equate the DK regime with the Nazi regime, I was trying to point out what I think are legitimate areas of debate versus illegitimate ones, and to show that the argument for a genocide's incompletness/un-intentionality/etc does not necessarily invalidate the description of it as a genocide.

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