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Communism’s Get of Jail Free Card

There’s an interesting interview with Thierry Cruvellier in the New Yorker. Cruvellier spent everyday at the trial of Duch, a former school teacher turned Khmer Rouge camp commander who was responsible for the deaths of at least 12,000 men, women and children in Cambodia. There’s one particular point in the interview when the interviewer notes that the Duch trial was the first trial to address crimes of communism, and that the link between communism and mass murder was difficult for some people to face up to. Cruvellier has some interesting thoughts on this point.

There is a historical lineage between the far left and the human-rights movement. In the nineteen-sixties, after Stalin’s terror was widely acknowledged; in the seventies, after Solzhenitsyn’s denunciation of the Gulag; and then, finally, in the eighties, after the horrors of Pol Pot were fully revealed, many Western intellectuals moved from the discredited and disgraced Marxism-Leninism to the ideals of universal human rights. As opposed to the boredom of prosaic reforms, advocating for human rights is, in its own way, another grandiose and poetic enterprise where we, as a people, fight against exploiters. As the French philosopher Raymond Aron astutely noted, human rights, as a political philosophy, is based on a notion of purity. It’s not about taking responsibility for a decision “in unpredicted circumstances, based on incomplete knowledge”—that’s politics, said Aron. Instead, human rights function as a refuge for utopia.

What was interesting to observe at the Khmer Rouge tribunal was that former Western Maoists or fellow-travellers were not transformed, when they became disillusioned with Communism, into skeptical minds. They now presented themselves as human-rights defenders. The appeal of “pure” ideologies seemed irresistible to them. Revolutionaries get indignant about police abuse or ruthless capitalism, and then forgive, in the name of the revolution, every injustice they had otherwise denounced. Interestingly, the moral indignation of human-rights activists can suddenly be silenced when institutions that they helped create and that were supposed to exemplify their ideals—such as international war-crimes tribunals—start violating the very principles they have claimed to stand for. They say that criticism would serve the “enemies” of justice. They begin to accept that the end justifies the means. Double standards widely apply. The drive that often made them efficient when they worked in a hostile environment now, when they are empowered, transforms into an intransigence that can make them very insensitive to realities that don’t fit their ideological paradigm. International tribunals can be a harsh reminder that injustice and unfairness are not incompatible with humanist intentions.

At the Cambodia tribunal, a surprising number of Westerners who did not come from the far left also showed a level of sympathy for the “good intentions” of the Communist project. As a result, the trial was never going to be a trial of Communism as a political philosophy. Instead, it was all about Pol Potism, circumscribed and vilified as a despicable betrayal of a genuine revolutionary ideal. Such leniency would not be seen at trials against ideologies of the right.