When I was nineteen, I spent fifteen days in Cambodia, and in that time, I learned of the horrors of communism and how utopian beliefs had ravaged that land.
The Khmer Rouge, under the leadership of the Marxist Pol Pot, caused the deaths of nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s total population from 1975 to 1979, and when I was there in 2014 Cambodia was still reeling from this devastation. Beggars, often missing limbs, roamed the streets. Drug use and prostitution abounded. When my group was in a remote area in the province of Pailin we travelled with armed guards, as bandits had robbed a nearby homestead and killed the family who lived there. Cambodia is a beautiful country, but I felt that the trauma of its past lingered everywhere I went.
While in Phnom Penh I visited S-21 (Security Prison 21), a former school that was converted into a prison and torture chamber by the Khmer Rouge, which now serves as a museum of their crimes. I recall the instruments of torture and murder on display – whips, chains, hammers, pickaxes, as well as the cabinets filled with rows of human skulls (many of which had been shattered by blunt instruments). For some reason, I found the artwork on display more unsettling. The Khmer Rouge had found a prisoner who was a painter and, wishing to document their atrocities, had him paint scenes he witnessed, which he did to survive.
His paintings depicted fingernails being ripped off with pliers, babies being stolen from mothers, drownings, and even a large centipede being placed on a woman’s naked body while she was tied up. Such tortures were performed to extract false confessions of betraying the communist regime. I looked at these paintings for a long time, contemplating what could cause human beings to inflict such cruelty and suffering on others. These were systematic, state-sanctioned acts of torture and murder, all performed in the name of a utopian vision of equality. I further contemplated this at one of the Killing Fields just outside of Phnom Penh, where I stood in front of a large tree which Khmer Rouge officers smashed babies’ heads against, swinging them by their legs.
I’m not trying to be macabre. It simply struck me at the time, powerfully, that these things really did happen, and I struggled to understand how they could have been done in the name of a political cause. At the very least, communism had served as a rationalisation for such actions, even if the Khmer Rouge soldiers didn’t really believe in it.
It’s tempting for Westerners, who have enjoyed relative peace, liberty, and prosperity for so long to dismiss such heinous acts as things that would only happen in a strange, faraway land. Somehow, I’ve always known that Solzhenitsyn’s words are true, that “all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.” I did not want communism or anything resembling it to come to Australia. Cambodia made me realise that I had to understand Marxism and how people could do such evil in the name of ideology and equality.
It has been said that Marxism is a heresy. It is important to remember that, as with all deadly heresies, there is a hint of truth in Marx, and it is because he recognises only a hint of truth that Marxism is so dangerous and able to possess the mind. The most serious heresies are the most deceptive. We ought to care about the poor and the dispossessed in our midst, and we ought to ensure that the wealthy do not laud their wealth and power over the poor and working class. Capitalism can go wrong if it places profit and the principles of the market over human flourishing. Powerful people can exploit others in any political or economic system. However, Marx’s antidote to the ills of capitalism was more poisonous than what he was purporting to treat. He utterly dismissed the God-given rights and dignity of every individual, viewing them as mere members of classes and products of a historic struggle between oppressors and the oppressed. Gone was the notion that an individual can affect his own destiny, as was the notion that divine providence guides us. For Marx, there is only material power wielded by one class over another, and this logically necessitates violence if there is to be liberation.
Sadly, after returning to Australia, I realised that Marx’s ideas were taking hold here, too. I noticed how we were becoming obsessed with group identity. What I had formerly dismissed as “political correctness” I now recognised as the pernicious doctrine of intersectionality – the idea that membership of groups along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, etc, determined one’s place on the oppressor/oppressed spectrum. It was Marxism repackaged for a modern world obsessed with “rights”, peddled shamelessly by our institutions. We had failed to learn from history.
In recent times, the abolition of private property, a core tenet of Marx’s vision, has been touted as a social good by the World Economic Forum, which has a good deal of influence in Australia, with their dystopian catchphrase “you’ll own nothing, and you’ll be happy.” This is an organisation funded by some of the wealthiest companies in the world, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, BlackRock, Mastercard, Meta, and Pfizer arguing that private property should be abolished. Why is it that wealthy “intellectuals” are happy to benefit from capitalism but insist it’s wrong for anyone else to? Could it be that Marx’s ideas serve as a justification for attaining more power – the very thing that Marx supposedly opposed?
Wherever Marxism is applied without restraint, nothing but death, misery, oppression, and violence ensue. It is a heresy, and like all heresies, it will never lead to salvation but only damnation. Whether it’s Cambodia, Russia, North Korea, Cuba, or any other nation that has experienced it, the results are the same. The only difference across communist nations is the scale of destruction, but the destruction is certain. As Solzhenitsyn said, “All the apparent differences among the Communist Parties of the world are imaginary. All are united on one point: your social order must be destroyed.”
The Khmer Rouge performed the most heinous actions human beings can perform. Some might have believed in the utopia to come, some might have done these things so that it wouldn’t happen to them, others probably just wanted to kill and maim as much as possible. Communism created the context for all this misery. It gives tyrants absolute control and views human life as disposable if life stands in the way of the new society. It serves as a powerful rationalisation for the most evil human impulses that original sin has left us with. It is fitting that “utopia” literally translates from the Latin into “nowhere.”
To quote Jordan Peterson, “Why… is it still acceptable to profess the philosophy of a Communist or, if not that, to at least admire the work of Marx?… No political experiment has ever been tried so widely, with so many disparate people, in so many different countries and failed so absolutely and so catastrophically.” Marxism deserves to be dismissed as readily as Nazism (arguably more, given the scale of death it has wrought) yet it is still fashionable.
Whatever arguments anyone puts forward in defence of Marx, I have no doubt I understand his ideology better than they do. I understood it when I stood before that tree in Cambodia.