In 1978-9 our organisation, then called the International-Communist League, had a debate on Cambodia which, in hindsight, was a stage on our road away from the "degenerated and deformed workers' state" thesis which we had inherited from our "orthodox Trotskyist" origins, and towards recognising that the Stalinist states were exploitative class societies.
The national liberation war in Vietnam, led by Stalinists against US imperialism, had been a formative experience for the left. Hundreds of thousands of young people came into revolutionary politics by way of the anti-war movement.
Many saw the Stalinists as revolutionary socialists. Even Trotskyists, like ourselves, who were more critical, tended to sideline the criticism in favour of "anti-imperialist" solidarity.
No-one knew much about the Cambodian Stalinists, but they benefited from the generally warm attitude of Western leftists to the Vietnamese Stalinists and their allies.
In mid-1975 both the Vietnamese and Cambodian Stalinists won their wars. Disillusion quickly followed.
"Boat people" started fleeing Vietnam, especially after the February 1979 invasion of Vietnam by China.
The regime in Cambodia massacred its own people on a scale never seen before in history. Yale University's Cambodia Genocide Program estimates that about 1.7 million people, over 20% of the country's population, were killed by the regime between 1975 and 1979 as it emptied the cities and turned the people to forced labour in the rice-fields.
"Orthodox Trotskyist" doctrine seemed to indicate that this regime was a "deformed workers' state", reprehensible in its political regime but in some social or economic respects an advance on capitalism. How could it be?
We debated that. The debate started with a discussion article in Workers' Action, in January 1978. There was nothing further in the paper. There were discussions in 1978, of which, so far, we have been able to find only the sketchiest minutes. The fuller minutes here are from a discussion in 1979.
The minutes use pen-names for the participants in the debate: "Lejeune" is Cheung Siu Ming, "Keith" is Andrew Hornung, "Landis" is Rachel Lever, "Foster" is Bruce Robinson, "Ramsey" is Stephen Corbishley, "Macaulay" is John Bloxam, "O'Keefe" is Sean Matgamna, and "Alan" is Martin Thomas.
1963: Pol Pot and other Khmer Rouge leaders take to the countryside and start guerrilla war, at first low-key.
From 1965: US covertly bombs Cambodia to attack supply routes from North Vietnam to Stalinist forces in South Vietnam.
March 1970: Marshal Lon Nol and his pro-American associates stage a coup and depose Prince Sihanouk. Sihanouk, in exile, allies with Khmer Rouge, and the war between Khmer Rouge and the Phnom Penh government intensifies.
Mid-1970: US invades Cambodia.
By 1973, Khmer Rouge controls 85 percent of Cambodian territory despite intense US bombing. A big proportion of the population have fled from the countryside into the capital, Phnom Penh. The US strategic thinking has been set out earlier by General Curtis LeMay: "we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age".
April 17, 1975: Khmer Rouge takes Phnom Penh. A few days later, they force approximately two million people in Phnom Penh and other cities into the countryside to undertake agricultural work.
1976: The first "Four-Year Plan" calls for the collectivization of all private property. All Cambodians are required to bring their private possessions to government officials. Cambodian families are split up and people are assigned to work groups, working in rice fields for long hours.
Late 1977: Clashes between Cambodia and Vietnam.
December 1978/ January 1979: Vietnam invades Cambodia and installs a pro-Vietnamese government. Khmer Rouge flees.
February 1979: China invades Vietnam, in retaliation.
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