To the best of my recollection, I’d never heard of Malcolm Caldwell until yesterday. Then I read The Observer‘s letters page, dominated by self-righteous tirades from (amongst others) Noam Chomsky and Richard Gott.
As both Chomsky and Gott are (IMHO, and in their different ways) jerks, my natural reaction was to to rally to the opposite side of this argument. Then I realised that I didn’t have the slightest idea of what the argument was about. And as a long-standing critic of the “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” school of politics, I thought I aught to at least look into this matter before taking a side.
The cause of all this pseudo-w-w-wadical petulance was an article by Andrew Anthony about a middle class British Maoist-Third-Worldist-Development Theorist – SOAS academic called Malcolm Caldwell who’d glorified the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, went over there to visit in 1978, and ended up being murdered by the very regime he worshipped. Caldwell sounds like a prototype for John Game, though we all earnestly hope that Comrade ‘G’ never meets such a fate at the hands of the forces of clerical fascism he so admires.
Anyway, I read Anthony’s piece: It’s a sombre, non-polemical analysis that quotes friends of Caldwell saying what a personally nice man he was, and Tariq Ali (a friend in the 1970′s) saying, “it was later on that his Cambodian deviation was a bit off-putting. And he could never completely explain it.” Anthony also spells out the context of the Vietnam war:
“In an effort to close down North Vietnamse supply lines to the South, the US also launched a devastating bombing campaign on neighbouring Cambodia.. Instead of winning the war in the former, it only served to destabilise the latter. To make matters worse, an American-supported coup put in place the corrupt government of Lon Nol in Phnom Pen. So there was a tendency among many anti-war protesters to see the Khmer Rouge as just another national liberation movement, fighting to escape from under the American yoke.”
So Anthony’s article is not a right-wing diatribe, not a character-assassination and most certainly not an apology for the role of US imperialism in the region. I don’t like or accept Anthony’s description of the Khmer Rouge and its apologists/supporters in the West as “Communists” and “Marxists”, but the essential facts of the case he puts forward seem to me to be irrefutable:
“…the question that reverberates down the years, growing louder rather than dimmer is: why? Why were they (academics like Caldwell and ‘Duch’, the senior Khmer Rouge torturer and mass-murderer now on trial for crimes against humanity-JD) in thrall to a system based on mass extermination? It’s estimated that around two million Cambodians, more than a quarter of the population, lost their lives during the four catastrophic years of Khmer Rouge rule. What could have led these two individuals, worlds apart, to embrace a regime that has persuasive claim, in a viciously competative field, to be the most monstrous of the 20th century?”
Richard Gott at least attempts to put forward a case and explanation for his fellow third-worldist and notes that Malcolm cannot properly be described as a Marxist:
“Malcolm was a revolutionary leftist, but not a Marxist. He drew his inspiration from the French Physiocrats of the 1760′s and from the 19th-century German economist Friedrich List. Malcolm believed these neglected thinkers provided a model for third world development and he imagined that Pol Pot’s French-educated economists were kindred spirits.”
Chomsky, however, makes no effort to refute any of Anthony’s arguments or factual points and no effort to defend Caldwell: he simply bleats rather incoherently, that
“The only reason to waste even a moment on such a performance (ie: Anthony’s article -JD) is that it encapsulates so well the common technique of apologetics for the crimes for which one shares responsibility.”
Like so much of what Chomsky (whose academic specialism is – remember – linguistics) writes, this is a thoroughly ambigious and obscurantist use of language that, one suspects, deliberately conceals slippery and evasive thinking. How, for instance, can Anthony “share responsibility” for “crimes” -and what “crimes” does Chomsky have in mind anyway?
I strongly suspect that Chomsky’s vacuous but self-righteous response is down to his inability to account for his own (to be charitable) less than clear-cut attitude to the Khmer Rouge, very fairly described here (though, again, I don’t like or accept the author’s desciption of the Khmer Rouge as “communists”):
“How did a man (Chomsky – JD) who describes the Khmer Rouge regime as ‘the great act of genocide of the modern period’ come to be vilified as a vocal supporter of Pol Pot?
“In a long, illustrious career, Chomsky has amassed a formidable array of books, articles and speeches. He has been a tireless advocate of the underdog, and has demonstrated admirable commitment to his principles.
“The underdogs, however, are not always the good guys, a fact clearly illustrated by the Khmer Rouge. The question of whether or not Noam Chomsky supported the Khmer Rouge is not as clear as either his critics or his defenders would like to pretend. His critics frequently extract a handful of quotes from “Distortions at Fourth Hand” or “After The Cataclysm” and suggest that Chomsky was an enthusiastic advocate for the Cambodian communists. His defenders, meanwhile, limit their collections of quotes to Chomsky’s disclaimers and qualifiers, conveniently ignoring the underlying theme of his articles: that Khmer Rouge Cambodia was not nearly as bad as the regime’s detractors claimed. Gathering all of Chomsky’s fig leaves into a single pile, they exclaim: My what a lot of greenery.
“There is something vaguely unsettling in Chomsky’s words, even as he acknowledges the horrible toll of the Cambodian communists: there was an atrocity, people were outraged, so on and so forth, blah blah blah. The reaction is Chomsky’s primary concern; genocide itself is a lesser point.
“If Chomsky was initially sceptical of the reports of Khmer Rouge atrocities, he was certainly not alone. Given that he now acknowledges the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime, is it fair to continue to criticise him?
“A peculiar irony is at the heart of this controversy: Noam Chomsky, the man who has spent years analyzing propaganda, is himself a propagandist. Whatever one thinks of Chomsky in general, whatever one thinks of his theories of media manipulation and the mechanisms of state power, Chomsky’s work with regard to Cambodia has been marred by omissions, dubious statistics, and, in some cases, outright misrepresentations. On top of this, Chomsky continues to deny that he was wrong about Cambodia. He responds to criticisms by misrepresenting his own positions, misrepresenting his critics’ positions, and describing his detractors as morally lower than ‘neo Nazis and neo Stalinists.’ Consequently, his refusal to reconsider his words has led to continued misrepresentations of what really happened in Cambodia. Misconceptions, it seems, have a very long life.”
Bruce Sharp’s critique of Chomsky on Cambodia (from which the above quote is taken) is a forensic, meticulous, fair and sourced (ie: checkable) destruction of the man’s methodology and his relaxed attitude to such banal matters as facts and truth and his own record: but IMHO Chomsky’s fundamental flaw can be understood by means of the simple saying: “My enemy’s enemy is my friend.” All his literary sophistication, erudition and linguistic gymnastics boil down to that simple and simplistic saying – one that afflicts much of the present-day so-called “left” with often horrifying results.
Interesting to note that this (to be charitable, again) less than clear-cut opponent of genocide and totalitarianism, calls himself a “libertarian”…
Michael Ezra at ‘That Place’ delivers this devasting blow to Chomsky’s record on Cambodia though I don’t entirely endorse all of Ezra’s background commentary and comments about sections of the left.