Time Essay: Cambodia: An Experiment in Genocide

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Lévy has clearly pointed out the abyss to which worship of revolution leads. Nonetheless, many Western European intellectuals are still reluctant to face the issue squarely. If the word "pure," when used by adherents of revolution, in effect means "barbarous," perhaps the best the world can hope for in its future political upheavals is a revolution that is as "corrupt" as possible. Such skewed values are, indeed, already rife in some quarters. During the 1960s, Mao's Cultural Revolution in China was admired by many leftist intellectuals in the West, because it was supposedly "pure"—particularly by contrast with the bureaucratic stodginess of the Soviet Union. Yet that revolution, as the Chinese are now beginning to admit, grimly impoverished the country's science, art, education and literature for a decade. Even the Chinese advocates of "purity" during that time, Chiang Ch'ing and her cronies in the Gang of Four, turned out to have been as corrupt as the people in power they sought to replace. With less justification, there are intellectuals in the West so committed to the twin Molochs of our day—"liberation" and "revolution"—that they can actually defend what has happened in Cambodia.

Where the insane reversal of values lies is in the belief that lotions like "purity" or "corruption" can have any meaning outside an absolute system of values: one that is resistant to the tinkering at will by governments or revolutionary groups. The Cambodian revolution, in its own degraded "purity," has demonstrated what happens when the Marxian denial of moral absolutes is taken with total seriousness by its adherents. Pol Pot and his friends decide what good is, what bad is, and how many corpses must pile up before this rapacious demon of "purity" is appeased.

In the West today, there is a pervasive consent to the notion of moral relativism, a reluctance to admit that absolute evil can and does exist. This makes it especially difficult for some to accept the fact that the Cambodian experience is something far worse than a revolutionary aberration. Rather, it is the deadly logical consequence of an atheistic, man-centered system of values, enforced by fallible human beings with total power, who believe, with Marx, that morality is whatever the powerful define it to be and, with Mao, that power grows from gun barrels. By no coincidence the most humane Marxist societies in Europe today are those that, like Poland or Hungary, permit the dilution of their doctrine by what Solzhenitsyn has called "the great reserves of mercy and sacrifice" from a Christian tradition. Yet if there is any doubt about what the focus of the purest of revolutionary values is, consider the first three lines of the national anthem of Democratic Kampuchea:

The red, red blood splatters the cities and plains of the Cambodian fatherland,

The sublime blood of the workers and peasants, The blood of revolutionary combatants of both sexes.

— David Aikman

Currently stationed in West Berlin as TIME'S Eastern European bureau chief, Aikman was the magazine's last staff correspondent to leave Cambodia, a few days before Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge.

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