Noam Chomsky and Pol Pot: my enemy’s enemy

January 18, 2010 at 6:36 pm (anarchism, Human rights, Jim D, stalinism, thuggery)

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.


  1. Aguirre said,

    Excellent post and I loved Andrew Anthony’s response (online) to Chomsky’s truly pitiful letter. He nails the fucker cold in about 20 words.

    As for johng sharing Caldwell’s fate … can I just urge Mr Game to go and stay with Anwar al Awlaki in Yemen, some Hutu militiamen lurking in the Congo of some of the other subhuman wretches he admires and encourages.

  2. entdinglichung said,

    btw.: Khieu Samphan, the “chief theoretician” of the Pol Pot regime was (is?) like Malcolm Caldwell an advocate of the theories of Friedrich List, e.g. in his phd thesis which was translated and published by different maoist groups around 1979

  3. maxdunbar said,

    Chomsky’s dismissal of the testimony of Cambodian refugees in the 1970s was probably the low point of an undistinguished career – god knows why he wants to bring it up again on such a high profile basis.

    What strikes you from his response (as Oliver Kamm says, you can tell it’s him from the first few words) is the turgid, cliche-infested, self-righteous style, all to cover up his total lack of compassion for people who have experienced unbelievable suffering.

    In other news, I hear that Andy Newman has received an invitation to be part of a Western delegation to Iran. Apparently the clerics have been impressed by his principled defence of their regime and would like to give Andy a VIP holiday in Tehran where he can see the workings of Iran’s ‘mature democracy’ at close range, and gain a close-hand insight into how a modern Islamic republic deals with social tensions.

  4. sackcloth and ashes said,

    ‘Apparently the clerics have been impressed by his principled defence of their regime and would like to give Andy a VIP holiday in Tehran where he can see the workings of Iran’s ‘mature democracy’ at close range, and gain a close-hand insight into how a modern Islamic republic deals with social tensions.’

    Another Caldwell in the making? Hope he ends up in the Evin Prison.

  5. entdinglichung said,

    @sackcloth and ashes

    seems, that you little stalinist have understood nothing … Evin and all prisons must be abolished, not used!

  6. skidmarx said,

    Michael Ezra also has this to say at HP:
    North Vietnam were, with Communist expansionism, trying to take over South Vietnam.
    and on the same thread manages to link the SWP with Charles Manson and David Irving. No wonder you like him so much.
    Better commentary on this stuff can be found here:

  7. maxdunbar said,

    SA I was joking about Andy going to Iran (at least, he’s not been invited there to my knowledge)

  8. Jenny said,

    Chomsky’s against the BDS campaign of Israel too:

    I’m not sure about the above item though: it’s possible to denounce the Vietnam war and the Khmer rouge without glorifying either, The U.S. a-okayed Pol pot anyway.

  9. Voltaire's Priest said,

    Skiddy: wot does Michael Ezra have to do with any of this, whether or not we “like him”? Personally I don’t know the man, I think I once ran into him at a meeting.

  10. BobFromBrockley said,

    More to say on this later, but in the meantime, see here:
    (drawing heavily on )
    (at end of thread a discussion of the correct policy in the Vietnam war comes up, citing the AWL’s rabbi)
    and pro-Chomsky reply here:

  11. maxdunbar said,

    Jenny – so why is it that Chomsky has never been able to do this?

  12. johng said,

    The comments section in the debunking posted by skidmarx is absolutely excellent. I too was somewhat puzzled by the idea that Caldwell’s position was typical of anything very much. Highly unusual as it happens. So Caldwell unusual, then Chomsky, therefore, all leftists are bastards, seems to be the gist of the piece.

  13. Aguirre said,

    Well johng, I can confirm that all ‘leftists’ are not bastards. You and Jenny however, *are* bastards. Hope that clears it up for you.

  14. Jim Denham said,

    Letter in yesterday’s ‘Observer’ (07/02/10):

    Chomsky and the Khmer Rouge

    In his prickly response (Letters, 17 January) to Andrew Anthony’s “Lost in Cambodia,” (OM, 10 January 2010) Noam Chomsky does precisely what he accuses Anthony of doing: “Vilify the messenger, to ensure that unwanted history is forgotten.” That unwanted history is of Chomsky himself casting aspersions on critics of the Khmer Rouge. During Pol Pot’s reign, Chomsky disputed the refugees themselves. Since Cambodia, he has expanded his game to North Korea and Bosnia. I must hand it to him – more than three decades after wagging his finger at refugees like myself in “Distortions at fourth hand” (The Nation, 6 June 1977), and later in After the Cataclysm (South End Press, 1979), he continues to quote selectively and to obfuscate. Chomsky’s formula is straightforward: (1) quote a critic saying something supportive of one little piece of an argument you wish to make; (2) needle other critics with it; and (3) repeat ad infinitum until you weave an entire tapestry with this flimsy thread. It is a game that only a linguist of Chomsky’s calibre can master.

    I am merely a former Cambodian refugee, for whom English is my fourth language. Yet it does not take much effort to find precisely what Chomsky wrote in 1979 (After the Cataclysm) and to let it speak for itself: “In the first place, is it proper to attribute deaths from malnutrition and disease to Cambodian authorities?” Since my father died of malnutrition and disease, I am especially outraged by this question. While my family worked and died in rice fields, Chomsky sharpened his theories and amended his arguments while seated in his armchair in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I believe that he would probably have me blame the Americans and their bombs for causing everything around the Khmer Rouge to go wrong.

    Incredibly, Chomsky and Ed Herman did precisely that when they claimed: “If a serious study… is someday undertaken, it may well be discovered… that the Khmer Rouge programmes elicited a positive response… because they dealt with fundamental problems rooted in the feudal past and exacerbated by the imperial system.… Such a study, however, has yet to be undertaken.”

    Perhaps that study had already been undertaken but was ignored, as Chomsky and Herman intimate: “The situation in Phnom Penh resulting from the US war is graphically described in a carefully-documented study by Hildebrand and Porter that has been almost totally ignored by the press.” This is high praise for a book that contained a propaganda picture of a Khmer Rouge “hospital” operating room.

    It just so happens that my father died in a mite-infested Khmer Rouge “hospital”. Nam Mon, an illiterate Khmer Rouge “nurse”, testified in July 2009 at the Khmer Rouge tribunal now taking place in Phnom Penh that all she did was hand out paracetamol and aspirin, no matter the malady. To be sure, her patients got the special treatment; they were prisoners at S-21, the Khmer Rouge killing machine that produced more than 17,000 deaths.

    When it comes to allowing for honest error, Chomsky will have none of it. He refers for example to Father Ponchaud’s differing American and British editions of Cambodia: Year Zero as evidence of duplicity. If he had cared to check with the easily accessible French priest, he would have learned that the error was due to his translator, who submitted the wrong edition to the publisher.

    Writing about American leaders in At War with Asia (Pantheon, 1970), Chomsky poignantly argued that: “Perhaps someday they will acknowledge their ‘honest errors’ in their memoirs, speaking of the burdens of world leadership and the tragic irony of history. Their victims, the peasants of Indochina, will write no memoirs and will be forgotten. They will join the countless millions of earlier victims of tyrants and oppressors.” Indeed, perhaps someday Chomsky will acknowledge his “honest errors” in his memoirs, speaking of the burdens of academia and the tragic irony of history. His victims, the peasants of Indochina, will write no memoirs and will be forgotten. They will be joined by his North Korean and Bosnian victims.

    For decades, Chomsky has vilified his critics as only a world class linguist can. However, for me and the surviving members of my family, questions about life under the Khmer Rouge are not intellectual parlour games. While he is a legend in linguistics, in international affairs Noam Chomsky consistently falls short of Thomas Jefferson’s maxim that universities are “based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

    Professor Sophal Ear
    National Security Affairs
    US Naval Postgraduate School

    Monterey, California

  15. Nina said,

    Aught should have been ought… I stopped reading immediately after noting this

  16. sackcloth and ashes said,

    ‘having met people who were imprisoned in Evin, my sense of humor in this area is limited’

    I do not intend to mock those who’ve been imprisoned there, only those who excuse the jailers. I thought that was perfectly clear.

  17. John said,

    I love it… wrote, “I don’t like or accept Anthony’s description of the Khmer Rouge as “Communists” and “Marxists”

    The Khmer Rouge certainly thought they were Marxist. Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan were all members of a Marxist student group in Paris. Bou Meng, a survivor of S-21 was spared because he had artistic skills. He spent some time painting photos of Karl Marx and Pol Pot for the regime. The Khmer Rouge even hung photos of Karl Marx on the wall at many of their meetings. The Khmer Rouge certainly thought they were Marxists and certainly thought they were communists.

    What does one have to do to be officially considered a Marxist. Is this all not enough or do we need to get in a Marxist style debate about how the regime was not really the dictatorship of the proletariat, but the dictatorship of the peasants or shall we argue about the senior leaderships credentials as Bourgeoisie so therefore not even consider them to be communists.

  18. samir sardana said,

    What is the option for the Khmer Niggers to Pol Pot ? The clown Hun Sen ?

    The Vietnamese stooge !?

    What is the future of the Khmer Nation – when their leader Hun sen is a 4th pass 1 eyed 1 testicled limpdick ?


    But he has 21 Phd’s !

    Sample the IQ of Dr Hun Sen with 21 PHDs

    He believes in the concept of a Lighting Oath – wherein lighting strikes the liar !

    Hun sen actually believes in that oath !

    And so do Khmer !

    This was in 2014 !

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