On the Abolition of Money in Cambodia

Dear Editors

In a recent issue of the Socialist Standard Paul Bennett correctly identifies that money was not abolished in Cambodia during the brief regime (1975-1979) of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. Rather, senior members of the CPK suspended currency with the intent to revisit their decision at a later point. The defeat of the Khmer Rouge at the hands of the People’s Republic of China precluded any evaluation of their policies; that said, the presumption that currency was abolished remains a stalwart of the historiography of Democratic Kampuchea (as Cambodia was renamed by the CPK). More broadly, Bennett’s commentary addresses a fundamental question: What exactly was the economic system established under the Khmer Rouge?

For many scholars, the question is moot. As a self-professed Marxist-Leninist party, the Khmer Rouge were absolutely communist; what matters is the supposed variant of ‘communism.’ However, too often, the terms ‘Marxist’, ‘socialist’, ‘Maoist,’ and even ‘Stalinist’ appear as empty signifiers when assessing the policies and practices of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. As such, much of my scholarship documents the ‘actually existing’ social and structural relations executed—often literally—under the Khmer Rouge. I’m grateful therefore that Bennett calls attention to my recent article on currency in Democratic Kampuchea. By-and-large, we are in agreement; a possible point of divergence, however, pivots on my assertion that the resultant economic order of Democratic Kampuchea resembled more so a hybrid form of state capitalism and nonmarket socialism. You write: ‘But there simply cannot be a mixture of state capitalism (or any form of capitalism) and socialism: the former has money, wages, profits, the latter has none of these.’ Here, it is helpful to think beyond idealized abstractions of economic systems and consider the historical and geographical material realities of Democratic Kampuchea.

Although some people find the phrase ‘mode of production’ antiquated, as a concept it effectively underscores the observation that myriad relations of production can coexist, however uneasily. In the United States, for example, capitalism of a particular sort remains dominant; that does not preclude the co-constitution of localized forms of exchange, for example, the so-called informal economy. So too in Democratic Kampuchea, where senior cadre formulated a spatially variegated economic policy that separated foreign and domestic activities in word but not in practice. To posit Democratic Kampuchea as capitalist or socialist presents a false dichotomy, for although capitalism and socialism in the abstract are indeed contradictory, such an assertion misses the ambiguities of an economy in violent transformation. And therein lies the crux of my argument. The social relations that comprise productive, distributive, and consumptive activities do not materialize fully formed. And despite rhetoric to the contrary, the revolution that culminated in military victory on April 17, 1975 did not translate into a coherent whole. Whatever was unfolding in Democratic Kampuchea was certainly not a functioning capitalist society; nor was it a socialist society. Perhaps it is best to follow Vilfredo Pareto and conclude that the political economy of Democratic Kampuchea was like a bat, for in it we can readily see both birds and mice.



You object to our statement that there cannot be a mixture of capitalism and socialism, and point out that within capitalism there can be different relations of production, such as the informal economy. Certainly, capitalism can include workers’ co-operatives, but these still have to operate within the overall capitalist set-up, with wages, prices and the need to make a profit.

The question arises, however, whether what existed in ‘Democratic’ Kampuchea can really be described as some kind of hybrid between state capitalism and non-market socialism. This boils down to: was the domestic economy truly an example of socialism? Our answer is simply that no, it was not. As your original article notes, the vast majority of Cambodians were subjected to long working hours, high production quotas and insufficient rations, resulting in exhaustion, illness and death. As their productivity increased, the plan was not to increase the food rations they received.

Plainly this was not non-market socialism. If anything, a more apt comparison would be slavery or some kind of forced labour system, where those who perform the back-breaking toil are ‘rewarded’ with just enough to keep them alive and working away, producing the surplus that the rulers could, in Cambodia’s case, export in return for foreign exchange.

The Khmer Rouge takeover indeed ‘did not translate into a coherent whole’, given the differences between internal and external policies, but there was no connection to socialism. We cannot say what would have happened if they had remained in power for longer than four years, except that they would not have introduced the classless, stateless, moneyless society that you note Marx envisaged. Apart from the fact that such a socialist system will have to be global in scope, Cambodia lacked the essential conditions of being able to produce an effective abundance and having mass support for such a revolutionary change. – Editors


I was recently sent on a ‘business course’ as part of the government ‘helping’ me back into employment. So after stomaching a week’s worth of nauseating bollocks about the virtues of capitalism, I informed the class that ‘earning’ a right to exist entailed being legally thieved off on a daily basis while making some parasitic cunt rich (not the exact words I used, but the words I wanted to use). For my trouble I was removed from the class and sanctioned. So there you have it. In this country of ‘free speech’ and ‘democracy’, it’s a sanctionable offence to speak the truth.

John Lakin, London

2 Replies to “Letters”

  1. reply from James Tyner

    Thank you very much for the response. Unfortunately, there seems to be a misunderstanding. As I indicated in my original article, I do not describe the domestic economy as being socialist. I indicated on page 150 that certain members forwarded from their understanding a variant of nonmarket socialism; this accounts for the decision to suspend currency. After qualifying that there cannot be a pure form of any system, I described (page 151) Democratic Kampuchea as resembling a hybrid form of both, for that is what they attended. Notice that I indicated it ‘resembled’, as in ‘appears’, as Marx would write. I further write on that page, again, that it resembled a hybrid form, in that officials believed they were providing for the population—again, a misunderstanding concretely on their part. I follow (page 152) that the incipient economy “constituted a system of exchange”. I then explain (page 155) that the CPK participated as state capitalist although they instituted (but of course didn’t realize) a “nonmonetary, nonmarket domestic economy.” Notice, I do not say they engaged on a nonmarket ‘socialist’ economy—although that is what some members advocated, hence the crucial decision to suspend currency (the topic of the article). I continue (page 155) that they left “the basic exploitative relationship [of capitalism] intact.” In my response, I merely pointed out that the CPK sought to introduce a hybrid form of economic relations. As I’ve indicated in my other publications, including my book “Red Harvests”, of which this chapter is based, I describe the fundamental economy as agrarian capitalism—although sensitive to the fact that some members sought to introduce nonmarket socialism; again, to account for the elimination of currency. This is a necessary element of the argument, for when I explain to people that Democratic Kampuchea constituted a form of state (agrarian) capitalism, the rejoinder is always that Democratic Kampuchea could not be capitalist because they ‘eliminated’ currency. To that point, I need to demonstrate that capitalism can exist in the absence of money, as when rice is substituted for currency.

    Thank you for taking the time to continue our conversation.


    James A. Tyner, PhD
    Department of Geography

Leave a Reply