In a recent – and fascinating – piece for The Spectator, James Bartholemew bemoaned what he called the “socialist indoctrination” provided by British universities to foreign students who then return home, rise to positions of power, apply what they’ve learned, and as a result do a lot of damage to their nations’ economies. A current example: Yanis Varoufakis, who as Greece’s financial minister earlier this year turned what had actually been an expanding economy into a total disaster. In passing, Bartholemew noted that while most of the British professors responsible for converting foreign students to bad economics “remain comfortably” in the U.K., “uninvolved in the misery they have sown overseas,” there has been one striking example to the contrary: Malcolm Caldwell.
We have to admit that we were unfamiliar with the Caldwell case, so we looked into it. It turns out to be quite a story. In the 1970s Caldwell, a lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, was a prominent British voice against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. An open Communist, he chaired the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and despised America. Caldwell, Michael Ezra has written, “was most in his element when writing about ‘the demonstrated strengths of the communist system.’” Five years ago, in an article for a Guardian, Andrew Anthony provided a glimpse into Caldwell’s politics:
It’s not that Caldwell was lost in bookish abstraction, for he did visit the various communist regimes he extolled. It was more that when he got there he was all too willing to accept state propaganda as verified fact. For example, he praised the “magnitude of the economic achievements” of Kim Il-Sung’s impoverished North Korea and, returning from a trip to the highly secretive state, he wrote that the country was “an astonishing tribute not only to the energy, initiative and creativeness of the Korean people, but also to the essential correctness of the Juche line.”…About the totalitarian surveillance and ruthless political repression, Caldwell said nothing.
Caldwell wasn’t just a fan of the North Korean regime. He also admired Pol Pot, the Communist ruler of Cambodia whom he apparently viewed as having devised a new and wonderful form of totalitarianism. As Ezra puts it, Caldwell “shamelessly regurgitated the propaganda provided by Pol Pot’s regime.” Caldwell was, of course, far from alone in this enthusiasm. Most Western “experts” in southeast Asia cheered the rise of Pol Pot’s vicious and violent Khmer Rouge, which ran Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During those four years, about two million of that country’s seven million people died – a million in executions, and another million from starvation, forced labor, and other such causes. Yet most Western “experts,” Caldwell included, strenuously denied reports that Pol Pot was committing atrocities. What distinguished him from Pol Pot’s other defenders in the West was that he actually went to Cambodia and met his hero.
This was in December 1978, less than a month before Pol Pot was driven from his capital by Vietnamese troops. For two weeks, Caldwell and a pair of American journalists, Elizabeth Becker of the Washington Post and Richard Dudman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, were shown around Cambodia by Khmer Rouge handlers. It was a transparent Potemkin-village sideshow, but Caldwell fell for every bit of it; as Becker later recalled, Caldwell “didn’t want to know about problems with the Khmer Rouge.” Convinced that the world was on the verge of famine, he saw Pol Pot as having the answer: the use of forced collectivization and slave labor to increase rice production. As Anthony explains, however, “owing to the shortage of technicians and experts (who were killed as class enemies) and lack of peasant support, production fell well short of targets.” The result was – yes – famine, which Pol Pot blamed on “spies and counter revolutionaries” who soon found themselves in torture camps. Cambodian refugees had brought with them to the West these and other horrifying facts about Pol Pot’s regime. But Caldwell, the truest of true believers, didn’t buy any of it.
Which brings us to the night of December 22, 1978. Caldwell, recounts Anthony,
was taken in a Mercedes limousine to see Pol Pot. The setting for the meeting was the former Governor’s Palace on the waterfront, built during the French colonial period. In a grand reception room replete with fans and billowing white curtains, the two men sat down and discussed revolutionary economic theory….
The perennially shabby academic and the fastidious dictator must have made for an odd couple. In any case, Caldwell left the meeting a happy man. He returned to the guest house he was sharing with Becker and Dudman, full of praise for Pol Pot and his political outlook.
What happened next? We’ll get around to that on Monday.