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Chaos and the Grave

If the only lesson we learn from the Cambodian revolution is that the Khmer Rouge were evil, then we have learned nothing at all. It is only when we begin to understand the forces that create such evil that we have learned something of value. The best analysis of these forces may well be a book that was written more than 15 years before the Khmer Rouge existed: Eric Hoffer's The True Believer.

The True Believer. Cover art by Suzanne Noli. Hoffer argues that nearly all mass movements have certain elements in common. At times these elements combine to form dynamic, sweeping changes that result in tremendous progress. At other times, however, those same elements come together in the service of evil. Think of Hitler's Germany. Think of China's Cultural Revolution. Think of the Ku Klux Klan. Think of Osama Bin Laden and the al Qaeda network. Think of Khmer Rouge Cambodia.

The people who populate these movements are the true believers. They are fanatical, driven, immune to reason, convinced of their rightness, convinced of the infallibility and inevitability of their cause.

What factors give strength to these movements? According to Hoffer, the first is a dissatisfaction with the present. Such dissatsifaction breeds not only a desire for change, but a desire for a cause. Something must take the place of all that is missing: not merely the material wealth that is lacking, but spiritual fulfillment as well. The poor, misfits and outcasts, adolescents, the selfish, the bored, those seeking redemption... these are some of the groups who form the core of a movement's true believers.

The ultimate rewards promised by movements like communism, however, are not necessarily what motivates the devoted followers. As Hoffer notes, "A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by its doctrine and promises but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence. It cures the poignantly frustrated not by conferring on them an absolute truth or by remedying the difficulties and abuses which made their lives miserable, but by freeing them from their ineffectual selves - and it does this by enfolding and absorbing them into a closely knit and exultant corporate whole."

Peasants were not merely motivated to serve the Khmer Rouge because they believed they would be freed from the cycle of poverty that characterized their lives prior to the revolution. They were motivated because they, as a group, would become the masters. Mass movements derive much of their power from their followers' belief that they belong to something greater than themselves. It was the bond of this membership that strengthened their resolve and enabled them to achieve formidable feats. That the Khmer Rouge could triumph in the civil war against Lon Nol's forces was in part due to their indoctrination that they were part of a heroic tradition: they were the builders of Angkor. It did not matter that they were of the same stock as the soldiers who fought for the republic: they were armed with a belief and and a drive that their opponents did not have.

The glorification of past generations was only one of several factors that gave the movement its strength. Hoffer identies other significant "unifying agents," including hatred, imitation, leadership, persuasion and coercion, action, and suspicion. The Khmer Rouge understood and employed all of these factors to varying degrees. The role of leadership, however, was arguably different than that of most mass movements, which typically center on a single charismatic individual. The Khmer Rouge resorted to simple deception with regard to leadership: by adopting deposed head-of-state Prince Norodom Sihanouk as their figurehead, they were able to build support for their movement, without sacrificing any control over their organization. Sihanouk himself understood his true role; privately, he correctly predicted that he would be discarded once the Khmer Rouge had seized power. But many of the peasants who formed the core of the Khmer Rouge believed that they were fighting for the return of a rightful, beloved ruler.

Among the other unifying factors, hatred and coercion were clearly the dominant elements for the members of the Khmer Rouge. Coercion existed in the form of the Khmer Rouge's intolerance for dissent of any kind: Khmer Rouge executioners believed, probably correctly, that if they did not kill, they themselves would become their own movement's next victims. But coercion became a significant motivator only after the Khmer Rouge had already gained power. For the Khmer Rouge, the most vital unifying agent was always hatred. That hatred was directed at different targets at different phases of the Khmer Rouge's existence: at Lon Nol personally, at the Americans, at the urban elite, at the Vietnamese. The enemy changed; the hatred itself did not.

What creates these intense feelings of hatred? "They are an expression of a desperate effort to suppress an awareness of our inadequacy, worthlessness, guilt, and other shortcomings of the self. Self-contempt is here transmuted into hatred of others.... Even in the case of a just grievance, our hatred comes less from a wrong done to us than from the consciousness of our helplessness, inadequacy and cowardice - in other words from self-contempt. When we feel superior to our tormentors, we are likely to despise them, even pity them, but not hate them...there is no surer way of infecting ourselves with virulent hatred toward a person than by doing him a grave injustice.... To wrong those we hate is to add fuel to our hatred." And, as Hoffer observes, "We do not look for allies when we love. Indeed, we often look on those who love with us as rivals and trespassers. But we always look for allies when we hate." Members of the Khmer Rouge found, among their brethren, others who harbored the same hatred toward the priveleged classes.

There were no doubt many people who joined the Khmer Rouge because they believed in the nobility and rightness of their cause. But the hatred their movement preached ultimately insured the destruction of not only their enemies, but their dreams as well. Hatred, Hoffer notes, "... does not, in the long run, come cheap. We pay for it by losing all or many of the values we have set out to defend."

The price would become clear later, as the Khmer Rouge regime began to destroy its own ranks. The once fearless Khmer Rouge fighters became powerless and lost. Hoffer describes a similar transformation that took place in the Soviet Union: "The same Russians who cringe and crawl before Stalin's secret police displayed unsurpassed courage when facing - singly or in a group - the invading Nazis. The reason for this contrasting behavior is not that Stalin's police are more ruthless than Hitler's armies, but that when facing Stalin's police the Russian feels a mere individual while, when facing the Germans, he saw himself a member of a mighty race, possessed of a glorious past and an even more glorious future." Like the Soviets before them, the same Khmer Rouge who had withstood Lon Nol's superior firepower and massive American air support were helpless in places like Tuol Sleng prison. By the time they reached Tuol Sleng, they were no longer the heroic builders of Angkor: they were nothing but meek, frightened individuals who had suddenly been thrust outside the group that had become the very center of their lives.

For those who remained within the favored factions of the Khmer Rouge, the torment of the population was a source of dark satisfaction. "There is a deep reassurance for the frustrated in witnessing the downfall of the fortunate and the disgrace of the righteous. They see in a general downfall an approach to the brotherhood of all. Chaos, like the grave, is a haven of equality. Their burning conviction that there must be a new life and a new order is fueled by the realization that the old will have to be razed to the ground before the new can be built. Their clamor for a millennium is shot through with a hatred for all that exists, and a craving for the end of the world."

A hatred for all that exists. A craving for the end of the world: Hoffer's dispassionate essay describes the mindset of fanaticism, but this is as close as he comes to one terrifying truth: there is nothing on Earth more dangerous or deadly than the true believer. That danger is at its greatest among people who believe that they have nothing left to lose, and everything to gain.

In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge were indeed bent on destroying the world as they knew it. Their thirst for a new millenium was clear in their proclamation that the dawn of the revolution was "Year Zero."

Creating a new order, however, is far more difficult than destroying an existing one. Here again, Hoffer's analysis is prescient. Mass movements require three distinctly different types of personalities in order to succeed at different stages: men of words, the fanatics, and the practical men of action. The Khmer Rouge had men of words, in the likes of intellectuals like Khieu Samphan; they had fanatics, like the illiterate, enraged peasants who rose up against Lon Nol. But they did not have practical men of action. The ability to compromise, the ability to improvise: the Khmer Rouge lacked these traits. And as Hoffer notes, "When the same person (or the same type of person) leads a movement from its inception to maturity, it usually ends in disaster."

Indeed, "disaster" summarizes the history of Khmer Rouge Cambodia more perfectly than any other single word.

"The danger of the fanatic to the development of a movement," Hoffer wrote, "is that he cannot settle down.... He keeps groping for extremes.... Hatred has become a habit. With no more enemies to destroy, the fanatics make enemies of one another."

So it was with the Khmer Rouge: they became their own worst enemy, consuming their own ranks in purges and pogroms. Their egalitarian dream ended in chaos. Their legacy was a land strewn with graves.

The True Believer was written by Eric Hoffer in 1951. It is still in print as a Harper Perennial paperback. It can be purchased online from

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