one of the main reasons that DK is so interesting to me is that there is almost no real consensus, of any political persuasion, on what sort of a revolution and country this was. even the anticommunists who have written on the topic can't seem to get their story straight. you'll be told that pol pot was a maoist, because there were peasants involved, or then that he was a stalinist because he purged people, or that he was sort of like a fascist but we're not going to actually come out and say that so let's just kind of imply it(this one isn't a joke it's what ben kiernan really says in his book!).
there aren't many marxists who have written about it, and the ones that have are either promising but perhaps not a complete picture (e.g. michael vickery's work), largely unhelpful because of weird sino/soviet split era sectarianism combined with a lack of data, or promising but probably still have weird limitations(james tyner). one of the reasons that the interpretations seem to vary so much probably relates to the lack of sources - DK is (with one notable exception, the confession documents from S-21, which aren't straightforward to interpret because they were written under torture) very lacking in primary source documents. there are a handful of CPK internal documents that have survived and they are useful, but they're fairly limited in what they show and some of them raise more questions than they answer. i think DK might be unique among 20th century states in that the main primary sources for day to day conditions in the country are actually oral accounts, most collected after the ouster of the CPK by the vietnamese, or some even later. the secrecy of the CPK, especially in communicating with their own people, also adds to the difficulty of understanding what was going on. most citizens had no idea the country was being run by what was ostensibly a communist party, and knew the state/the government only as Angkar(khmer for 'the organisation'). DK was also particularly odd in that it didn't have many of the structures that we would usually associate with states - it didn't have a legal system for example, or currency. being a small country cambodia is also not something that a huge number of people decide to study, so the pool of academics and writers and such is much shallower than you get for a major country like china or the ussr.
i am going to put some stuff i've read on DK in this post and keep it updated as i read more. i'll also put some things that look promising but that i haven't read yet here for future reference.
Michael Vickery - Cambodia 1975 - 1982 - one of the earliest academic books on DK and one of the best. argues for a peasant utopianism as one of the major factors in DK, lots of focus on things at a grassroots level. Tries to argue against a lot of the more common anticommunist viewpoints that you'll find in the literature.
Kelvin Rowley & Grant Evans - Red Brotherhood at War - book about the second indochina war and some of the foreign policy going on around cambodia, vietnam and laos. but has an interesting section on conditions within cambodia where they argue that DK was not an example of 'ideology run amok', but almost the opposite - pragmatism run amok! just a nice overview of other stuff going on the region at the time as well.
Ben Kiernan - The Pol Pot Regime - kiernan is a sort of left liberal(although a reasonably honest one) and really stresses the nationalist and chauvinist aspects of DK, possibly a bit too much. he's also been criticised for portraying the conflict between factions within the CPK as almost manichean, which is somewhat valid i think. but it's still a reasonably informative overview book and also has coverage on areas not covered by vickery, like foreign policy.
Peg Levine - Love and Dread in Cambodia - this is pretty different from most of the books i've read on the topic, Levine comes from a psychology background and started to interview people who survived DK to find out more about the so called 'forced marriages' that took place. she concludes that it's actually misleading to call them forced, and shows that the actual situation was actually not that far from established marriage practises in cambodian culture. the more interesting parts of the book though are where she talks about how traditional khmer folk beliefs seem to have influenced the way that Angkar was perceived and understood. there's some downright eerie quotes from survivors who say that Angkar is only sleeping under the ground, and could return at any time. recommended if you want something a bit more impressionistic.
Steve Heder - Cambodian Communism and the Vietnamese Model -Heder is a former left wing academic turned anticommunist. perhaps because of his left wing past though, he seems more nuanced and more interesting in his viewpoint than most anticommunists on DK do. he apparently argues in this book that contrary to many interpretations and the nationalist ideas of the cambodians themselves, vietnamese communism was the biggest influence on the CPK. i'm very interested in reading this but i can't find a copy anywhere online, please let me know if you have one!
anyway in many ways this book is a pretty interesting interpretation of DK disputing many aspects of the "Standard Total View", however, i think his being a trot muddles his analysis somewhat. he argues that DK's economic strategy of boosting rice production was intended explicitly as a means of accumulating capital, and cites a number of primary sources that make this reasonably convincing. he also argues that with the elimination of money, the rice rations that were provided to the population acted like a minimum wage system, which is why the CPK were planning to increase rice production while not increasing the rations correspondingly - the rice rations were not intended to be increased beyond the minimum required to allow rice production to continue and generate more surplus. he concludes further that DK was 'state capitalist', but doesn't really explain where the state capitalist class actually came from or who in the CPK actually constituted them(there's a reference at one point to the surplus being appropriated by 'certain elements' of the cpk but he frustratingly doesn't elaborate on which elements). my impression is that this is a common feature of trot conceptions of state capitalism although maybe someone more familiar with that stuff can elaborate a bit here. he also thinks the ussr(and presumably other socialist states) was state capitalist, although DK is basically analysed only on its own terms and he doesn't really refer to other socialist states much at all in terms of how their class structure might have been similar or different. one thing that he spends a bit of time on is the idea that DK as a whole was organised according to the principles of democratic centralism, but this didn't strike me as very convincing because he starts off by saying that democratic centralism can mean very different things according to different people, and then never really makes clear which of those conceptions the DK variant was drawing on. it's also not really clear where the democratic part of democratic centralism would come from in DK because as he tells it rank and file party members or even most officials had no control over policy decisions. so it seems to just be centralism! there's a persistent issue through the book with the sources he cites not always convincingly supporting his assertions.
there is some strange characterisation of lenin as well. at one point he gives a correct description of the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, but then starts talking about lenin's concept of a cadre of professional fulltime revolutionaries, and then asserts that lenin understood the small group of professional revolutionaries to constitute a dictatorship of the proletariat. he then says further that the cpk shared this specific conception of the DOP, but the only evidence he cites is a pol pot speech which references the achievements of the cambodian DOP, but seems to be referring to the state in general rather than the idea that a small group of people was somehow a DOP. this strongly suggested to me that the cpk at least thought that their country currently had a DOP(in the sense that we would use that term), and it would have been nice if tyner had engaged with that through analysis rather than trying to link them to something that lenin probably didn't think either.
there's also quite a bit made of the idea that the CPK didn't utilise many normal state structures because they had read 'the state and revolution' and took seriously the concept of the withering away of the state. this is a bit weird to me because 1. if the state didn't exist in the usual sense i'm not totally sure where that leaves the trot conception of state capitalism 2. there's not really much evidence that the cpk did expect the state to stop existing, he's not able to cite any sources that support the idea that they had taken this from lenin and 3. he doesn't really engage with the possibility that the rudimentary construction of the state was a temporary measure that arose from the post war conditions the cpk were dealing with, despite the fact that he (imo correctly) argues elsewhere in the book that their policies in general were intended as a mean of postwar reconstruction. there is actually some evidence(mentioned iirc in ben kiernan's book) that the cpk by 1977 were starting to transition to a more 'normal' state structure, including the leadership becoming more open and visible, which seems to contradict the idea that they expected the state to remain rudimentary.
i'm making the book sound pretty bad i think, but there are some interesting ideas in it. i've been sort of mulling over the idea in my head for a while that the popular idea of the CPK as far leftists or ultra leftists has it completely backwards, and that maybe it makes more sense to think of them as what mao would have called capitalist roaders - committed to a kind of hyper productivism obsessed with raising output before anything else. mobo gao notes somewhere that during the great leap forward, contrary to popular belief, after the initial enthusiasm it was actually the likes of deng and liu shao chi who were trying to encourage production at all costs, whereas mao started to urge caution. this seems not too different from what the CPK were trying, just that they were in a far worse situation, and there was no effective opposition to them within their party. tyner at one point quotes some CPK reports that seem to explicitly state that they didn't think that political education could proceed at all before rice production had been increased beyond a certain amount, which is more straightforwardly productivist than any CPK documents i had previously read. so i think maybe tyner is onto something here, in spite of some of his arguments being nonsensical or filtered through questionable trot concepts. it is also nice to see someone counter a lot of the more pervasive errors about DK that you find in popular perception and sometimes in the literature, like the idea that all of their cities were ghost towns for the entire time the country existed, or that the CPK were anti technology primitivists. all in all it's a flawed but interesting book, and i notice that he has a few more which i'll probably read at some point too.
the book is also lacking when it tries to interpret DK more broadly. chandler seems to fit into the anticommunist mould of making out pol pot to be a sincere marxist, as most of the scholars in the field tend to, but he doesn't really have a clear interpretation beyond that. we're told at various times that mao, lenin and stalin may have all been inspirations, but it's never particularly convincing, and he runs into problems because he seem to have a very poor understanding of marxism. for example, at one point when he's discussing pol pot's trip to china, he notes that the 'conspiratorial' aspect of mao's thought may have been an influence on pol pot. what does this mean? there's no further explanation, and i struggle to think of examples of conspiratorial thinking in mao. but then later in the book when referring to the cpk's purges we have this:
The existence of enemies was necessary for class warfare, which was essential in Maoist theory for the transition for socialism and communism. Contradictions among the people impelled the party forward. To maintain momentum, instability was essential. The party's leaders nourished themselves on suspicion, and they prided themselves on their ability to uncover plots. Those suspected of treason provided the instability the nation needed to move forward, but whether any of them were truly guilty is difficult to ascertain.
so it seems that he's come up with some sort of bizarre backwards version of maoism, where class struggle itself is a conspiracy on the part of a communist party rather than an actual phenomenon. i think this is a good example of how impoverished the academic field is on DK - chandler is one of the most prominent and long standing academics on the subject, and here he is just saying absolute clown shit about marxism, which is ostensibly central to DK's ideology. there are some fairly standard references to typical anticommunist stuff about stalin too, robert conquest and such, but that struck me as much less ridiculous than how he interprets mao.
if you're not very familiar with DK already i don't know if i can recommend this book particularly, since much of the useful information can be found elsewhere, although i did find some of the stuff about pol pot after the DK period useful. not really a good book but interesting in that it illustrates some of the problems with the academic field around DK.
This is making me want to do a Laos effortpost
i would be very excited to read that, the laos chapter in 'red brotherhood at war' made it sound super interesting(and an interesting contrast with the cambodian communist movement, because the cambodians ended up turning into khmer chauvinists, whereas the laotian party had to be extremely multiethnic from the beginning because the country is so diverse that aligning themselves with a particular ethnic group just wouldn't have allowed them to develop a wide base of support)