From Revolutionary Culture to Original Culture and Back: “On New Democracy” and the Kampucheanization of Marxism-Leninism, 1940-1965

Matthew Galway, University of British Columbia
Pol Pot with Chinese delegation to Democratic Kampuchea led by Wang Dongxing, 1978. Source: Nate Thayer.
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In Mao Zedong’s 1940 essay “On New Democracy,” he states that the Chinese Communists fought to build a new China with new politics, a new economy, and, most crucially, a new culture. Decades later, Saloth Sar (Pol Pot, nom de guerre) read French translations of Mao’s works in Paris, and drew from the Khmer past and Buddhism to call for democratic reform of a Khmer cultural type. While he had read and appreciated Mao Zedong Thought before, it was not until he visited Beijing in 1965–1966 that Sar awoke fully to Mao’s ideas, returning to Cambodia a Maoist convert. In Democratic Kampuchea (DK, 1975–1979), Sar, like Mao, sought to create a new culture, but this time through the lens of Maoism (exported Mao Zedong Thought). Party documents and speeches show how he sought to create a “Kampucheanized” Marxism-Leninism along the lines of Mao’s “Sinified” Marxism and with a “clean” revolutionary culture. This article argues that by tracking Pol Pot’s approaches to rebranding Cambodia, from his earliest political writing to his experiences abroad to the grotesque human experiment of DK, we can uncover the underlying problems of “Kampucheanizing” ideas from Maoist China. As the article shows, despite some similarities, Mao’s application of Marxism to the Chinese case—as he outlined in “One New Democracy”—and his vision for a new revolutionary culture were vastly different from Pol Pot’s efforts in Kampuchea.

Keywords: intellectual history, Mao Zedong, Maoism, Pol Pot, Democratic Kampuchea, Cambodia, communism