“Communism has been the great story of the twentieth century,” says Martin Malia, in his Foreword to The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, ed. Stephane Courtois et al. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, c. 1999). So to understand that century, this book is mandatory reading, for it documents what happened wherever Communism prevailed. It’s been a story, as the subtitle of the book indicates, laced with deceit, brutality, and genocide. Courtois’ introductory essay, “The Crimes of Communism,” reminds us that our century has “outdone its predecessors in its bloodthirstiness” (p. 1). Far exceeding its rivals, such as Nazism, Communism has proved malevolently genocidal. However they differed in terms of nationality and temperament, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot–united by their Communist ideology– systematically killed multiplied millions of innocent people. Now that archives in the former Soviet bloc are opening, scholars estimate that Communist regimes liquidated between 85 and 100 million people. The contributors to this volume, all of them politically aligned with the French Left, have reluctantly faced the inescapable archival truth and recorded it in 850 dismal pages.
Nicolas Werth takes 200+ pages to examine “A State against Its People: Violence, Repression, and Terror in the Soviet Union.” Basically, Werth says, “the first thirty-five years of Soviet history underscores the continuity of extreme violence as a means of political control of the society” (p. 265). Once Lenin seized control, he sought to replicate policies of the French Revolutionaries. He found a “solid proletarian Jacobin” to head the Cheka (later re-named the NKVD), the lawless secret police entrusted with enforcing his aims. Rather than the guillotine, “a bullet in the head” sufficed to eliminate enemies. Lenin said “‘A good Communist is also a good Chekist'” (p. 79), prophetically revealing the nature of his movement. Under Lenin’s directions, “In the space of a few weeks the Cheka alone had executed two to three times the total number of people condemned to death by the tsarist regime over ninety-two years” (p. 78).
During the Civil War which followed WWI, the Bolsheviks methodically eliminated their political enemies as well as the White Russians who fought them. Social Revolutionaries, Anarchists, Mensheviks, priests, workers who dared strike, and peasants who resisted requisitions of their crops, all perished during the conflict. In the Crimea, 50,000 civilians were slain, usually by Cheka agents; as many as 500,000 (out of 3,000,000) Cossacks were eliminated in the Don and Kuban regions. Explaining their brutality, a Cheka newspaper declared: “We reject the old systems of morality and ‘humanity’ invented by the bourgeoisie to oppress and exploit the ‘lower classes.’ Our morality has no precedent, and our humanity is absolute because it rests on a new ideal. Our aim is to destroy all forms of oppression and violence. To us, everything is permitted, for we are the first to raise the sword not to oppress races and reduce them to slavery, but to liberate humanity from its shackles . . . Blood? Let blood flow like water! Let blood stain forever the black pirate’s flag flown by the bourgeoisie, and let our flag be blood-red forever! For only through the death of the old world can we liberate ourselves forever from the return of those jackals!” (p. 102). A “new morality.” As Dostoevsky predicted, “everything is permitted.”
Famine followed war, something Lenin actually welcomed as a way to crush the peasant’s opposition to his policies. Foreign “relief” efforts (by the Red Cross) were only reluctantly accepted. Intellectuals who criticized the regime’s indifference suffered. Lenin’s attitude had surfaced earlier when, as a young lawyer, he was living in Samara during a 1891 famine which took the lives of 500,000. He openly opposed all efforts to help the hungry! Like some “lifeboat ethicists” today, he was a consistent Social Darwinist. A friend of his said: “Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov had the courage to come out and say openly that famine would have numerous positive results, particularly in the appearance of a new industrial proletariat, which would take over from the bourgeoisie . . . Famine, he explained, in destroying the outdated peasant economy, would bring about the next stage more rapidly, and usher in socialism, the stage that necessarily followed capitalism. Famine would also destroy faith not only in the tsar, but in God too'” (p. 123-124).
Succeeding Lenin, Joseph Stalin extended his predecessor’s genocidal policies. To break the resistance of the peasants, particularly the smallholding “kulaks” who clung tenaciously to their property, he collectivized Russia’s farms and in the process deported 2,000,000 to Siberia. His policies (requisitioning stock and even seed grain) starved 6,000,000 people (4,000,000 in the Ukraine alone) in the years 1932-1933. While the peasants perished, “the Soviet government continued to export grain” to subsidize its grandiose industrial objectives. Following the “Great Famine,” the “Great Terror” eliminated still more Soviet citizens in the years 1936-1938. All Stalin’s critics, all real and imagined enemies of his system, were targeted.
Then there were highly-publicized, notorious trials, wherein prominent Party officials (many of them earlier members of Lenin’s inner circle–Party stalwarts such as Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Bukharin) confessed to assorted crimes and “willingly” went to their deaths. In the Ukraine, under Nikita Khruschev’s direction, only three “of the 200 members of the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party” survived (p. 192). The Red Army and Navy purged their officers’ corps–three of the five marshals, 13 of the 15 army generals, eight of the nine admirals, 50 of 57 the army corps generals were eliminated within two years. Werth cautiously estimates that 700,000 people were killed in the Great Terror. More hostile critics assert that as many as 3,000,000 people were executed; another 2,000,000 went to the camps.
The documentation Werth provides concerning the USSR is replicated by other contributors in The Black Book as they deal with Communist activities in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Since the end justified the means, anything necessary could be tried in order to foment world revolution and the eventual triumph of Communism. In the Spanish Civil War, for instance, a leading Communist, Dolores Ibarruri (known as “La Pasionaria”), declared: “It is better to kill one hundred innocents than to let one guilty person go” (p. 343). Reflecting on his failure in Greece following WWII, Ares Velouchiotes said: “We didn’t kill enough people. The English were taking a major interest in that crossroads called Greece. If we had killed all their friends, they wouldn’t have been able to land. Everyone described me as a killer–that’s the way we were. Revolutions succeed only when rivers run red with blood, and blood has to be spilled if what you are aiming for is the perfectabilty of the human race” (p. 328).
The European pattern became global. “Every Communist country or Party, Stephane Courtois concludes, “has its own specific history and its own particular regional and local variations, but a linkage can always be traced to the pattern elaborated in Moscow in November 1917. This linkage forms a sort of genetic code of Communism” (p. 754). The code was followed in Asia by Mao Zedong, Kim Il Sung, Ho Chi Minh, and Pol Pot. Jean-Louis Margolin estimates that some 10 million of Mao’s opponents were killed outright; another 20 million died in the labor camps; another 40 million died in the famine which accompanied the Great Leap Forward, 1959-1961. “Mao and the system that he created were directly responsible for what was, and, one hopes, will forever remain, the most murderous famine of all time, anywhere in the world” (p. 487). Of all the monsters in human history, Mao Zedong may well head the list. Then, on a smaller scale, Communist tyrants in North Korea, Vietnam, and Cambodia, duplicated his endeavors. In Cuba, Nicaragua, and Peru, in Ethiopia, Angola, and Mozambique, in Afghanistan, the story continues. Almost without exception, the pattern Lenin prescribed prevailed wherever Communists imposed their control on a country, slaughtering innocent people in the process. Anyone who imagines Communism assumed a more benevolent form in Cuba or Nicaragua need only read the materials assembled in The Black Book to lose his naiveté.
Millions died, we must recognize, because an ideology, Communism, prevailed. The battle which was lost, before the slaughter began, was waged with words. “Perhaps,” writes Stephane Courtois, “the single greatest evil was the perversion of language” (p. 19). Leninists manipulated words, “decoupling” them “from the reality they were supposed to represent” (p. 739). Once in power, Lenin referred to “his enemies as ‘harmful insects,’ ‘lice,’ ‘scorpions,’ and ‘bloodsuckers'” (p. 750). The USSR’s concentration camp system was called a “reeducation system,” and inmates in Mao’s prisons were called “students.” Folks killed were “capitalists” or “enemies of the people,” not persons. Half-truths, skewed definitions, perverted words riddled the Communist world. And multiplied millions in the non-Communist world capitulated.
Thoroughly distressing, Courtois says, is the constant “complicity” of the West’s intelligentsia, which routinely supported the communist cause. “Like common prostitutes, intellectuals found themselves inveigled into counterpropaganda operations” (p. 20). Western journalists and professors, writing biographies of Stalin, Mao, and Castro routinely celebrated their grand “social justice” objectives, blandly ignoring the concentration camps, famines, and massacres perpetrated in their quest. “Incredibly, from the 1920s to the 1950s, when hundreds of thousands of people served in the ranks of the Communist International and local sections of the ‘world party of revolution,’ Communists and fellow-travelers around the world warmly approved Lenin’s and subsequently Stalin’s policies” (p. 11). Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, strongly supported North Korea’s assault upon the South–and Sartre, we know, helped shape the thinking of young Pol Pot when he studied in Paris.
Even today, American academics such as Robert Thurston insist that “Stalin was not guilty of mass first-degree murder from 1934 to 1941” and U.C. Professor J. Arch Getty limits Stalin’s victims to thousands, not millions. Lenin and Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro, enjoyed–and still enjoy–a certain cultic status among university professors and students, journalists and media pundits. A prominent “post-modernist” professor, Fredric Jameson, calls Stalinism a “success,” insofar as it “fulfilled its historical mission to force the rapid industrialization of an undeveloped country.” The support of Fidel Castro recently received–from the National Council of Churches and Clinton Administration illustrates the continued favor Communists enjoy in sophisticated American circles. A Seattle artist salvaged a 7-ton bronze statue of Vladimir Lenin which the Slovaks had tossed in the dump following their liberation from communism in 1989 and recently put it up in Fremont, a Seattle neighborhood. Just imagine someone trying to erect a statue of Hitler anywhere in the U.S.! In 1998 a prestigious publisher issued a celebratory edition of “The Communist Manifesto,” accompanied by many laudatory comments in the media. Imagine a publisher issuing a fresh edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf! Despite the fall of Communism in Russia, the nostalgia for its vision of a perfect world lingers.
In the battle for man’s mind, few thought clearly enough, few spoke courageously enough, to resist Communist nostrums. Remarkably, Roman Catholic popes discerned the truth concerning Communism. In 1931, Pope Pius XI, in Quadragesimo anno, declared: “‘Communism teaches and seeks two objectives: unrelenting class warfare and the complete eradication of private ownership. Not secretly or by hidden methods does it do this, but publicly, openly, and by employing any means possible, even the most violent. To achieve these objectives there is nothing it is afraid to do, nothing for which it has respect or reverence. When it comes to power, it is ferocious in its cruelty and inhumanity. The horrible slaughter and destruction through which it has laid waste to vast regions of Eastern Europe and Asia give evidence of this'” (p. 29). Six years later, Pius XI said (in Divini redemptoris) that all of us have inalienable rights, “the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the necessary means of existence; the right to pursue one’s ultimate goal in the path marked out for him by God; the right of association, and the right to possess and use property'” (p. 29).
Revelations in The Black Book of Communism did not surprise Robert Conquest, long one of Communism’s most severe critics. In Reflections on a Ravaged Century (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, c. 2000), Conquest focuses his attention on “human beings, thinking certain thoughts and as a result performing certain actions” (p. ix). Ideas shape us. And “rogue ideologies” have devastated our century in what he calls a “Mindslaughter,” an outflowing of notions birthed in the French Revolution by an intelligentsia convinced that Reason could resolve all problems, that Reality itself could be conformed to human ideas.
The great “irruption” of this notion was Marxism, which led in time to the “Soviet Morass” and its assorted atrocities, amply illustrated in The Black Book of Communism. Yet Western intellectuals, ever enchanted by the allure of the French Revolution’s ideology, proved quite susceptible to Communist myths. “Socialism,” as Lenin and Stalin called it, seemed so right, so just, so in line with human hopes for an equitable world. The American writer Lincoln Stiffens, after visiting Russian in the 1920s declared “I have seen the future and it works.” The World Council of Churches solemnly condemned various crimes against humanity around the world–“except in Communist countries” (p. 120). Walter Duranty, who received a Pulitzer Prize for “dispassionate, interpretive reporting of the news from Russia” for The New York Times, fed the American public a litany of lies. He was, Conquest says, silent concerning Soviet atrocities because the KGB threatened to disclose scandalous information they’d unearthed concerning him
Academics, following the lead of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, leaders of the Fabian Society and founders of the London School of Economics, published apologetics for the true faith. “In general,” Conquest says, “radical misapprehension was more common among academics than among the Western public” (p. 148). So, in 1984, John Kenneth Galbraith, Harvard University Professor of Economics and intimate of the Kennedy Administration– declared: the “Soviet System has made great economic progress in recent years. . . . One can see it in the appearance of solid well being of the people in the streets'” (p. 135). Having personally walked the streets of Moscow and Leningrad in 1988 and observed their third world appearance, I wonder exactly where Galbraith saw the “people in the streets”! One of the few clear-sighted journalists who visited the USSR in the 1930s, “Malcolm Muggeridge describes Quakers applauding task parades, feminists delighted at the sight of women bowed down under a hundreweight of coal, architects in ecstasies over ramshackle buildings just erected and already crumbling away” (p. 121).
Conquest then explores the “Cold War,” pointing out how only a few in the West fully understood the Communist threat. Fortunately, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan rightly understood the issues and, by standing firm, led the West to its current security. Despite its “victory,” however, it’s a “Wayward West” in Conquest’s judgment. The ideas of Marx and Lenin still intoxicate too many in our culture. Socialist nostrums are smuggled into children’s brains under the guise of ecological concerns, judicial activism, and feminist rhetoric, and big–and bigger–government.
In an illuminating chapter, “The Answer Is Education,” Conquest challenges readers to question why so many highly educated people have cooperated in the genocidal programs of our century. He believes that what’s called “education” hardly deserves the name, for it’s deficient in historical understanding and philosophical rigor. That fashionable absurdities, clothed in such robes as “deconstructionism,” gain standing in universities, illustrates the poverty of higher education.
The ideological war continues, despite new configurations in the battle lines. Conquest’s work helps us grasp its import.
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