The Left

Caldwell’s Legacy

The story of Malcolm Caldwell is a modern parable: the story of the death of the deluded revolutionary socialist academic who died at the hands of Pol Pot, who he had lionised and defended.

Michael Ezra’s article on this fool is worth reading again.

Now, there’s a new piece on Caldwell in The Observer, by Andrew Anthony. A couple of extracts:

According to Becker, Caldwell had not read François Ponchaud’s Cambodia: Year Zero, the book that first catalogued the Khmer Rouge genocide. A friend of François Bizot, Ponchaud was a Catholic missionary who was in Phnom Penh when the victorious Khmer Rouge army marched into town. His book became required reading for anyone interested in what was happening in Cambodia. “The fact that Malcolm, a professor, had not read it before he went, that I couldn’t believe,” says Becker. “I think it was almost ideological that he didn’t read it.”

It’s perhaps not that strange that Caldwell had neglected to read Ponchaud, given that he had already dismissed the Frenchman’s credibility in print. He based his damning opinion on a brief extract of Year Zero which the Guardian had published and a critique of the book by the American academic, Noam Chomsky. An icon of radical dissent who continues to command a fanatical following, Chomsky had questioned the legitimacy of refugee testimony that provided much of Ponchaud’s research. Chomsky believed that their stories were exaggerations or fabrications, designed for a western media involved in a “vast and unprecedented propaganda campaign” against the Khmer Rouge government, “including systematic distortion of the truth”.

He compared Ponchaud’s work unfavourably with another book, Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution, written by George Hildebrand and Gareth Porter, which cravenly rehashed the Khmer Rouge’s most outlandish lies to produce a picture of a kind of radical bucolic idyll. At the same time Chomsky excoriated a book entitled Murder of A Gentle Land, by two Reader’s Digest writers, John Barron and Anthony Paul, which was a flawed but nonetheless accurate documentation of the genocide taking place.

We can never know if Caldwell would have taken Ponchaud more seriously had Chomsky not been so sceptical, but it’s reasonable to surmise that the Scotsman, who greatly admired Chomsky, was reassured by the American’s contempt. In any case, the 47-year-old Caldwell arrived in Cambodia untroubled by the story that Ponchaud and others had to tell. In fact, he had just completed a book himself that would be posthumously published as Kampuchea: A Rationale for a Rural Policy, in which he wrote that the Khmer Rouge revolution “opens vistas of hope not only for the people of Cambodia but also for the peoples of all other poor third world countries”.

There is also this:

Somehow the link between Marxist-Leninist ideology and communist terror has never been firmly established in the way, for instance, that we understand Nazi ideology to have led inexorably to Auschwitz. As if to illustrate the point, earlier last year the [Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia]  announced that Helen Jarvis, its chief of public affairs, was to become head of the victims unit, responsible for dealing with the survivors, and relatives of the dead, of S-21.

Jarvis is an Australian academic with a longterm interest in the region, who was recently awarded Cambodian citizenship. She is also a member of the Leninist Party Faction in Australia. In 2006 she signed a party letter that included this passage: “We too are Marxists and believe that ‘the ends justify the means’. But for the means to be justifiable, the ends must also be held to account. In time of revolution and civil war, the most extreme measures will sometimes become necessary and justified. Against the bourgeoisie and their state agencies we don’t respect their laws and their fake moral principles.”

Jarvis refused to speak to me about these matters. But Knut Rosandhaug, the UN’s deputy administrator for the tribunal, said that the administration “fully supports” her. In this sense, although she was never a Pol Potist herself, Jarvis shows that the spirit of Malcolm Caldwell has survived the last century. It lives on in the conviction that the ends justify the means, and in the manner that liberal institutions can house the most illiberal outlooks.

We can hear echoes in Caldwell’s voice within that part of the Left which has now allied itself with Islamism.

Share this article.

shares