Tuesday 12 January 2010

The Nightmare of Utopia

I’d never heard of Malcolm Caldwell until I read an article in The Observer Magazine last Sunday. His is a bizarre story of wrong-headed politics and the peculiar blindness induced by certain forms of corrupted idealism.

Caldwell was a Scottish academic and Marxist heavily involved in protest politics in the 1970s. Chairman of CND and active in demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, he was also a member of the Labour Party, standing as a candidate in the local elections in Bexley in 1977, the year before his death. He also identified closely with ‘progressive’ causes and ‘progressive’ states, notably the North Korean regime of Kim Il-Sung. He was one of these people who could forever be deluded by what I call Potemkin visions, accepting what his ‘progressive’ hosts showed him as the absolute standard of truth. When he returned from a trip to the termite state he wrote that it 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.

‘Juche’ was the word used to describe the mixture of self-reliance and ultra-nationalism upon which Kim built his personality cult, monstrous even by Stalinist standards, and that really is something.

But Caldwell’s greatest sympathy was for the Khmer Rouge and for Brother Number One, the Orwellian title given to the utterly loathsome Pol Pot. Ironically it was a sympathy that was to kill him.

In 1978 he was one of a small party of foreigners allowed in to Cambodia, or Democratic Kampuchea as it was known then, since it had been isolated from the world by the Khmer Rouge. In Phnom Penn he was even granted a personal interview with Pol Pot himself. Apparently the two men discussed revolutionary economic theory. He returned to his guest house full of praise for the endlessly grinning little psychopath. Soon after he was murdered, though the two Americans in the same party were unharmed.

The reasons for this crime remain unexplained, simply another part of the grotesque horror that was Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge. The guards assigned to protect the party were taken to S-21, the notorious Toul Sleng torture centre. From there the following ‘confession’ emerged’ from a man simply referred to as ‘the Contemptible Chhan’;

First, we were attacking to ruin the Party’s policy, to prevent the Party from gaining friends in the world…And in attacking the guests on this occasion, we would not attack them all. It would be enough to attack the English guest, because the English guest had written in support of our party and the Kampuchean people for a long period of time already…Therefore we must absolutely succeed in attacking this English guest, in order that the American guests would write about it.

He then hung around to be arrested.

The simple truth is that Caldwell’s dream was always a dreadful nightmare, one into which he was absorbed, and absorbed forever. He died, in other words, by his own illusions.

His story is yet another example of the way in which those on the liberal left have a tendency to identify with some of the most illiberal causes ever devised in the name of liberation; then it was Maoism, now it is Isalmofascism. These are people, who while detesting classic fascism, perform all sorts of intellectual gymnastics when it comes to ‘anti-imperialist’ causes. Time and time again we have seen them seduced; by Stalin’s Russia, by Mao’s China, by Castro’s Cuba and, in the case of Caldwell, by Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Recognition of past ‘mistakes’ does not bring present enlightenment; for the hope survives that it will all be better ‘next time.’ Of this Jean-François Revel, the French philosopher, has written;

Utopia is not under the slightest obligation to produce results: its sole function is to allow its devotees to condemn what exists in the name of what does not.

On that foundation some of the worst crimes in human history have been built.


  1. An unfortunate way to go for a Scotsman, for being an English guest. I'm not very well read when it comes to political history, if at all, but coming out in favour of the Khmer Rouge or Mao suggests a fairly large flaw in a man/womans character, I'm not sure how one would begin to justify having ever been in favour. Maybe I just have the fortune of being born at a later date.

  2. Others had the same flaw, Jimmy, that fraud Noam Chomsky comes to mind.