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Where, when, and why 85 million people died.
The Price of an Idea

By MICHAEL SCAMMELL
Issue date: 12.20.99
Post date: 12.02.99


The Black Book of Communism:
Crimes, Terror, Repression
By Stephane Courtois, Nicolas Werth,
Jean-Louis Panne, Adrzej Paczkowski,
Karel Bartooek, and Jean-Louis Margolin
Translated by Jonathan Murphy and Mark Cramer
Harvard University Press, 858 pp.
(Click here to buy this book.)

I.
Two years ago the French Chamber of Deputies was thrown into uproar when a member of the center-right Union for French Democracy challenged Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, a Socialist, to justify the presence in his cabinet of three Communist ministers who had failed to repent of their "criminal past." The reason for this challenge was the recent appearance of a scholarly tome called Le livre noir du communisme, describing an eighty-year history of Communist "crimes and repression." Despite its enormous length and its great density of detail, the book became a huge commercial success, eventually selling more than 150,000 copies. It also set off an impassioned public debate that roiled the French political and intellectual establishments over many months. It is hard to see such a book--or any book, for that matter--setting off a comparable furor in this country.
The Black Book of Communism, which is finally appearing in English, is an extraordinary and almost unspeakably chilling book. It is a major study that deepens our understanding of communism and poses a philosophical and political challenge that cannot be ignored. The book's central argument, copiously documented and repeated in upwards of a dozen different essays, is that the history of communism should be read above all as the history of an all-out assault on society by a series of conspiratorial cliques led by cruel dictators (Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il Sung, Pol Pot, and dozens of imitators) who were murderously drunk on their own ideology and power.
There is also a second argument, formulated by Stephane Courtois in his introduction and his conclusion, and this is the argument that has provoked so much angry debate. It is that, given the nature and the magnitude of the crimes committed in its name, communism was fully the equal of Nazism as one of the supreme evils of our century. Courtois is not proposing a cheap or unsubstantiated equivalence. He fully understands the enormity of the Nazis' "Final Solution." But he suggests that the Holocaust was not unique, and that the relentless "class genocide" of the Communists, conducted over eight decades, is fully comparable with the "race genocide" of the Nazis. Both were "crimes against humanity" as such horrors were first defined at Nuremberg and later codified by the United Nations.
Courtois also undertakes the unpopular but obvious task of doing a body count. The numbers that he comes up with are breathtaking. He counts between 85 and 100 million deaths directly attributable to communism worldwide, extending over a period of 80 years. These astounding figures must be compared with about 25 million deaths for the Nazis over a period of six years.
Aware that he is treading on extremely delicate ground, Courtois cites the great Russian Jewish writer Vassily Grossman in his support. Grossman's mother was killed by the Nazis as part of their war against the Jews, and he was, with Ilya Ehrenburg, one of the editors of The Black Book on Nazi crimes against the Jews. (The book was assembled in the Soviet Union in the 1940s, but it was forbidden to be published there; it appeared in Jerusalem three decades later.) Grossman had written about Stalin's liquidation of the kulaks in the 1930s: "To massacre them, it was necessary to proclaim that kulaks are not human beings, just as the Germans proclaimed that Jews are not human beings." And of the killing of the children of kulaks: "That is exactly how the Nazis put the Jewish children into the Nazi gas chambers: `You are not allowed to live, you are all Jews!'"
Courtois chooses his words carefully and hedges his argument with all sorts of qualifications, but his comparison caused even more controversy when the book appeared than did its central allegation against communism. It turned out that there had been seventeen pre-publication meetings between Courtois and his fellow authors to discuss the contents of the introduction, and also the book's title. Courtois had wanted to call it The Book of Communist Crimes, but his two principal co-authors, Nicolas Werth and Jean-Louis Margolin, persuaded him to change it to The Black Book of Communism, which they thought to be a less inflammatory title. (To my mind, it is a stronger and more apposite title.) Werth and Margolin publicly dissociated themselves from Courtois's analogy between communism and Nazism, and accused him of overstating the number of victims, since he preferred the higher figure of "100 million" to the more modest figure of 85 million that they were prepared to endorse.
This quarrel was embarrassing and unfortunate, for it deflected attention from the bulk of the book's contents, and not least from the extremely powerful contributions of Werth himself on the Soviet Union, and of Margolin on China and Cambodia. Worse still, a number of otherwise judicious critics, having got excited about the introduction, were led to dismiss the remaining 800 pages as "old news." We already knew, didn't we, about the atrocities committed by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. They are all dead anyway, and communism has been defeated, so what was the point of bringing this all back? The liberal Le Monde even went so far as to call the appearance of The Black Book "inopportune," because it would give encouragement to the extreme right in France led by the neo-fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen.
If these critics had taken the trouble to read the book carefully, they would have realized that the proper interpretation of communism is very much a live issue-- as the French controversy clearly demonstrated--and that as more and more facts continue to emerge from the Soviet and East European archives (just as they will one day emerge from the archives of China), they are enlarging our understanding of communism in fundamental ways. This is amply borne out by the excellent contributions of Werth and Margolin themselves. Despite their disclaimers, they lend weighty support to Courtois's arguments about the extent of the "genocide" perpetrated by the Communists.
Courtois and his collaborators have performed a signal service by gathering in one volume (for the first time, as far as I am aware) a global history of communism's crimes from the Soviet Union to China, from the satellite countries of Eastern Europe to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and North Korea, and to a lesser degree in Latin America and Africa. In the face of the overwhelming case assembled by these writers, it hardly matters (for the sake of the argument, though not for the individuals concerned) whether the number of victims was 85 million or 100 million. We are facing a monstrous number, unprecedented in recorded history.
II.
The Black Book of Communism aspires to be encyclopedic in scope. It is divided into five parts, devoted to the Soviet Union, "World Revolution," "The Other Europe," communism in Asia, and the Third World. Not all the parts are of equal interest or of equal value. The section on World Revolution seems somewhat arbitrary, with weak and overly polemical articles on the Comintern and the Spanish Civil War, by Courtois and Jean-Louis Panne, and on communism and terrorism by Remi Kauffer. The articles on communism in Latin America (by Pascal Fontaine), Afrocommunism (by Yves Santamaria), and communism in Afghanistan (by Sylvain Boulouque) are somewhat perfunctory and largely exploratory in character, as is the article on North Korea (by Pierre Rigoulot) in the Asian section. They do not have the weight of the contributions on Russia, China, and Indochina, and seem to indicate a certain haste or carelessness in the way the final book was put together. Still, as a first attempt to take the full measure of global communism, and to draw up a balance sheet of its crimes worldwide, The Black Book is enormously impressive and utterly convincing.
The most novel aspect of this attempt at a "fair and just assessment" of communism from "both the historical and moral viewpoints" lies in what might be described as its "post-Nuremberg" point of view--though communism has never had its Nuremberg. The volume's thesis is that wherever they came into existence, "Communist regimes, in order to consolidate their grip on power, turned mass crime into a full-blown system of government."
It is true, writes Courtois, that most of the crimes committed by the Communists were carried out in accordance with their own laws, but this was also true of Nazism. "The crimes we shall expose are to be judged not by the standards of Communist regimes," he declares, "but by the unwritten code of the natural laws of humanity." The authors adopt a moral stance toward communism that presumes to judge it from the very outset. This, then, is the case for the prosecution. And a very powerful case it is, too.
The rock on which the rest of the book stands is the superb 268-page opening section--a book within a book--by Nicolas Werth, called "A State against Its People: Violence, Repression, and Terror in the Soviet Union." Werth begins, unavoidably, with the much mythologized history of the "Year Zero," the year of the October Revolution, noting that "more than eighty years after the event, the battle for control over the story of 1917 continues to rage" (not least, of course, in the pages of this book).
Werth once again rehearses the crucial role played by "the iron fist of the dictatorship of the proletariat," the Petrograd Revolutionary Military Committee, later to become the much-feared secret police known as the Cheka, in gaining the Communists their grip on power. He chronicles the abolition of "bourgeois law" less than three weeks after the start of the Revolution; the introduction of the novel judicial concept of "enemy of the people;" and the merciless calls by Lenin and his Party colleagues for the "liquidation" and the "execution" of all enemies and suspected enemies.
The key to the Bolsheviks' mode of operations, and ultimately to their success, in Werth's account, was their instant readiness to declare war on the rest of society. "War," in this case, was no mere metaphor. "Do not imagine, comrades, that I am ... looking for a revolutionary form of justice. We have no concern for justice at this hour," said Felix Dzerzhinsky, the first chief of the Cheka, in 1918. "We are at war, on the front where the enemy is advancing, and the fight is to the death." And "to the death" was no metaphor, either. From the very outset, the Bolsheviks announced that "the revolutionary terror of the masses" was their preferred instrument of government, and they did not hesitate to kill without mercy.
After a century of political violence, we have grown so hardened to stories of early revolutionary terror that it is difficult to imagine ourselves back to that more innocent time, or to recapture the horror felt by the population at large when confronted by cold-blooded killings. Werth took it to be his task to refresh our memories. He describes, for example, a "day of Red Terror" organized by the Cheka in Pyatigorsk in the North Caucasus in 1920, when 300 people were taken from their homes and executed as an example to the rest of the population. On the next day, the Cheka moved on to Kislovodsk, where, "for lack of a better idea, it was decided to kill people who were in the hospital."
I read this with a chill of scholarly recognition. This atrocity took place almost two years after Alexander Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk; and when I was researching his biography, I came across an account of similar executions by an eyewitness named Nikolai Zernov, who later escaped to England. "It is difficult to convey to anyone who hasn't experienced it," wrote Zernov, "the feelings of a man who falls into the category of individuals earmarked for liquidation in the interests of achieving ... the Communist utopia."
In such cases, death was not a punishment for some particular action; it was a consequence of the victim's social origin. The effect of these "sacramental murders," as Zernov called them, on the local population was overwhelming. The victims were murdered as an instrument of intimidation, and in many cases their women and their children were thrown out of their homes and the women turned into prostitutes. The term "sacramental murders" seems to me to rescue brilliantly these assassinations from the abstractions of political discourse and to restore their real meaning.
Werth describes the steadily widening ripples of these murderous policies with fearful precision, from the proclamation of "War Communism"--"we are now at war, and it is only with guns that we will get the grain we need," said Trotsky in 1918--through the Red Terror--"Hang (I mean hang publicly, so that people see it) at least 100 kulaks, rich bastards, and known bloodsuckers.... Single out the hostages per my telegram," said Lenin later in the same year--to the suppression of the Kronstadt workers' revolt in 1921 and the slaughter of 5,000 strikers in Astrakhan. As Werth writes: "When the prisons were full, the soldiers and strikers were loaded onto barges and then thrown by the hundreds into the Volga with stones tied around their necks."
It is true that many of these atrocities were known before, but Werth presents the reader with a suffocating torrent of fresh evidence (including the story of the Astrakhan strikers) from the newly opened Soviet archives, where we find striking evidence of the revolutionaries condemning themselves out of their own mouths. Here are excerpts from three reports, not by enemies but by Communist officials of the time:
I have checked up on the events surrounding the kulak uprising in the Novo-Matryonskaya volost. The interrogations were carried out in a totally chaotic manner. Seventy-five people were tortured, but is impossible to make head or tail of any of the written reports.... The local Cheka leader [said]: We didn't have time to write the reports at the time. What does it matter anyway when we are trying to wipe out the bourgeoisie and the kulaks as a class?

The Cheka are looting and arresting everyone indiscriminately. Safe in the knowledge that they cannot be punished, they have transformed the Cheka headquarters into a huge brothel where they take all the bourgeois women. Drunkenness is rife. Cocaine is being used quite widely among the supervisors.

It is impossible to get any clear idea of who was shot or why.... Orgies and drunkenness are daily occurrences. Almost all the personnel of the Cheka are heavy cocaine users. They say this helps them deal with the sight of so much blood on a daily basis. Drunk with blood and violence, the Cheka is doing its duty....
It has been argued that such excesses were the consequence mainly of the Civil War, and it is true that the Bolsheviks were involved in a real civil war by the time these reports were filed in 1919. But it was a war provoked by their own excesses; and those excesses by no means ended with the end of the war. Quite the contrary. The introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in the spring of 1921--the same policy that we were once taught to regard as a relaxation of the regime--was accompanied by a renewed drive against the Bolsheviks' socialist allies, ordered by the vitriolic Lenin: "If the Mensheviks or Socialist Revolutionaries so much as peek out again, they must all be shot without pity." That same spring, General Mikhail Tukhachevsky began gassing and shooting peasant rebels in Tambov province, and by the summer of 1921 at least seven concentration camps had been established.
At the center of this orgy of killing was the cold and calculating figure of Lenin, and not the least of Werth's services is the fresh scrutiny that he brings to the personality of this vicious and enigmatic leader. Solzhenitsyn was the first in recent times to draw attention to Lenin's role not just as the arch-begetter of the Revolution, but also as the figure who set the bloodthirsty parameters for the dictatorship of Stalin. Collectivization, famine in the Ukraine, the Great Terror of 1937-1939, the establishment of the huge network of the Gulag, the annexation of parts of East and Central Europe and the occupation of half a dozen countries there: all these "achievements" of Stalin were made possible by Lenin; and there were none, it seems, from which he would have flinched, had he lived.
Helped by the new archival revelations, Werth lays to rest once and for all the myth of the "good" Lenin versus the "bad" Stalin. And as The Black Book shows, Lenin blazed a path of tyranny and bloodshed not only for Stalin, but also for Mao, Ho Chi-Minh, Pol Pot, and a century's worth of psychopaths at every level of the Communist chain of command, from dictators to bureaucrats.
The "European" part of The Black Book is completed by two essays on Central and Eastern Europe: "Poland, the `Enemy Nation'" by Andrzej Paczkowski, and "Central South-Eastern Europe" by Karel Barto�sek. Packowski's piece is a rather sketchy survey of the five waves of repression to which Poland was subjected by its Communist rulers, but it is notable for its detailed bibliography, which emphasizes just how much new work has been done since 1989. (The inclusion of bibliographies with some essays and not with others also seems to point to the somewhat improvisatory nature of the volume as a whole.)
Barto�sek's contribution is more substantial. He points out how seamlessly the organized violence of the Nazis in World War II gave way to the organized violence of the Red Army, followed by SMERSH and the NKVD, as they moved into East Europe when the Nazis retreated. They in turn were replaced by homegrown Communist police and soldiers who enthusiastically embraced the Bolshevik model of violence and repression. The Czechs, the Slovaks, the Hungarians, the Romanians, the Bulgarians, and the peoples of the former Yugoslavia were all forced to endure a new purgatory after the horrors of the World War. Barto�sek adds to that list the plight of the "forgotten" Germans. More than six million Germans were forced to leave Silesia and Pomerania after the latter provinces had been given to Poland; three million were expelled from Czechoslovakia; hundreds of thousands were forced out of Hungary and Yugoslavia; and further repressions were inflicted on the inhabitants of the "people's democracy" of East Germany.
Barto�sek shows the many ways in which the satellite countries recapitulated the much longer experience of the Soviet Union, applying the methods that Stalin distilled and refined from Leninist principles. Their example throws new light on the original Soviet model--underlining such dark realities as the economic function of the Gulag; the role increasingly played by anti-Semitism after World War II; the "infernal pedagogy" (Annie Kriegel's term), whereby the most prominent anti-fascist fighters of the interwar years were among the first victims of the communist regimes; and the importance of the show trials, as the Communist Party in each country began to devour its own.
Among the fascinating new insights provided by Barto�sek is a glimpse of the inner mechanism of the show trials derived from an interview with the Czech Catholic intellectual Bed�rech Fu�cik. It is well known that most of the sensational confessions made at these trials, in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe, were induced by torture, but ever since Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon there has been much debate over the psychological processes involved. Fu�cik confirmed to Barto�sek that he had been tortured, but the worst part of the interrogation, he said, was the impact on his personality.
The one thing I'll never forget, the most horrible thing that will never leave me, is the way that suddenly there are two people inside you, two different men. The first one, me, the person I had always been, and me, the second one, the new one who says to the old one, "you're a criminal, you did such and such...." The first one fights back, and an argument follows between these two people, it's like a total doubling of the personality, the one relentlessly humiliating the other. "You're lying! It's not true!" And the other saying: "Yeah, okay, it's true, I did do it, I signed, etc."
This comes extraordinarily close to Koestler's re-creation of a Soviet show trial, and to the mental breakdown of his hero Rubashov--though Koestler was not as aware of the role of physical torture in Stalin's jails as we are now. But the extraordinary thing is that Fu�cik was a Catholic, not a Communist. He had no reason to "serve" the Party as Rubashov did; and yet the effect on his personality and his behavior was almost identical.
III.
The discussion of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe takes up just over two-thirds of The Black Book. The last third of the volume is devoted to communism in East Asia and the Third World, including three notable essays on China and Indochina by Jean-Louis Margolin. Margolin remarks upon several differences between Asian and European communism: the Asian regimes (with the exception of North Korea) all came to power through their own efforts; and all, with the partial exception of Cambodia, are still in power; and all still maintain censorship and keep their archives closed, so that much less information is available about these dictatorships than about the Soviet Union and Europe.
Still, by means of a close analysis of available sources, Margolin easily establishes the essential continuity between these regimes and their European counterparts, especially in the matter of violence and repression. In the case of China, the figures are mind-boggling. It is quite clear, writes Margolin, that "Communist actions" during the first twenty years of the Party's existence resulted in "between 6 million and 10 million deaths," not counting the civil war with the Kuomintang, which ended in 1949. Later, after the Communists came to power, "tens of millions of `counterrevolutionaries'" spent long periods of their lives in prisons or camps, "with perhaps 20 million dying there." And to that should be added the deaths caused by the Great Leap Forward: "estimates range from 20 million to 43 million dead for the years 1951-1961," plus "10 to 20 percent of the inhabitants of Tibet." (The latter certainly amounts to genocide in the strict sense of the term.) Margolin sardonically cites the "genuine surprise" of Deng Xiaoping at world reaction to the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989, where "only" 1,000 people died. This, said Deng revealingly, was utterly insignificant compared with the events of the recent past.
Margolin emphasizes how heavily Chinese communism, founded in the 1920s, was influenced by the military dimension of the Bolshevik example. For the Chinese, "Bolshevism was an intermediary means linked to a strategy for seizing power and reenforcing a national revolutionary state." Wherever it triumphed, it was "the socialism of the barracks, of courts-martial, and of firing squads that took power." Margolin also points out that a Chinese purge of 186,000 victims in the province of Jiangxi in 1927-1931 preceded Stalin's Great Terror, proving that they had drawn similar conclusions from Lenin's example.
Margolin then lists the long series of the Chinese Communists' massacres and persecutions of their own population, from the first collectivization of 1946-1949 ("between 2 million and 5 million dead," "6 million... sent to the laogai, or labor camps), to the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976 ("between 1 million and 3 million" dead), not to mention the shootings in Tiananmen Square. Along the way Margolin devotes special attention to Tibet, whose losses are virtually impossible to estimate, but where Tibetans, in the words of the Dalai Lama, "not only were shot, but also were beaten to death, crucified, burned alive, drowned, mutilated, starved, strangled, hanged, boiled alive, buried alive, drawn and quartered, and beheaded."
In terms of scale and sheer brutality, pride of place (if that is the right expression) must go to the so-called Great Leap Forward: "between twenty million and 43 million" dead. The Great Leap, which was launched in 1959, was the cause of "quite possibly the worst famine not only in the history of China but also in the history of the world." Its implementation, as Margolin describes it, was unbelievably horrible.
The order was given to smash all privately owned cutlery that had not yet been turned to steel to prevent people from being able to feed themselves by pilfering the food supply of the commune.... The excesses of repression were terrifying. Thousands of detainees were systematically tortured, and children were killed and even boiled and used as fertilizer--at the very moment when a nationwide campaign was telling people to "learn the Henan way...." In Henan and elsewhere there were many cases of cannibalism... children were sometimes eaten as a communal decision.
Margolin also cites Wei Jingsheng, who as an eighteen-year-old Red Guard took refuge in the province of Anhui eight years after the Great Leap Forward. Wei was shown an abandoned village, engulfed in weeds, whose entire population had been wiped out or deported.
Before my eyes, among the weeds, rose up one of the scenes I had been told about, one of the banquets at which the families had swapped children in order to eat them. I could see the worried faces of the families as they chewed the flesh of other people's children.... I felt sorry for the children, but not as sorry as I felt for the parents. What had made them swallow that human flesh, amidst the tears and grief of other parents--flesh that they would never have imagined tasting, even in their worst nightmares?
Wei continues: "In that moment I understood what a butcher he had been, the man `whose like humanity has not seen in several centuries, and China not in several thousand years'." (His reference is to Lin Biao's sycophantic description of Mao in 1966.)
Margolin is clear about the centrality of Mao to the carnage in China. While not devoting as much attention to the Chinese Party leader as Werth devotes to Lenin, he underlines the "Red Emperor's" essentially evil nature: "his unpredictable character, his ferocious egotism, the vindictive murders he committed, and the life of debauchery that he led right up to the end." Mao was at the heart of the Party's every excess, from 1927 until his death in 1976, and was personally responsible for the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
So much for the theories of Marx (and Tolstoy) that history is ruled by impersonal forces, not by individuals. You have to read Nietzsche and Dostoevsky to understand the likes of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and the rest of the "supermen" that make up their twentieth century progeny, but not even those great dystopian writers could have predicted the insane policies of the Cambodian leader Pol Pot. Margolin's long essay on Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge is the most eloquent in the entire book, as this opening paragraph demonstrates.
The lineage from Mao Zedong to Pol Pot is obvious.... The Cambodian tyrant was incontestably mediocre and a pale copy of the imaginative and cultivated Beijing autocrat who with no outside help established a regime that continues to thrive in the world's most populous country. Yet despite Pol Pot's limitations, it is the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward that look like mere trial runs... for what was perhaps the most radical social transformation of all: the attempt to implement total Communism in one fell swoop, without the long transitional period that seemed to be one of the tenets of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. Money was abolished in a week; total collectivization was achieved in less than two years; social distinctions were suppressed by the elimination of entire classes of property owners, intellectuals, and businessmen; and the ancient antagonism between urban and rural areas was solved by emptying the cities in a single week. It seemed that the only thing needed was sufficient willpower, and heaven would be found on Earth. Pol Pot believed that he would be enthroned higher than his glorious ancestors--Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong--and that the revolution of the twenty-first century would be conducted in Khmer, just as the revolutions of the twentieth century had been in Russian and then Chinese.
Thanks to the success of The Killing Fields, the American public has a more vivid and realistic picture of the dire results of the Cambodian experiment than of any other Communist revolution. Like their predecessors, the Khmer Rouge had to foment a civil war and then win it, which they did, with the help of the North Vietnamese, in 1975. The subsequent emptying of the cities put millions of people literally "on the road:" according to Margolin, close to fifty percent of the population was on the move at the height of the process. The evacuation itself was accomplished largely without brutality. It was only when the Khmer Rouge started to classify the population into poor and rich, to proletarianize the former city dwellers, and to deport thousands of people to different regions of the country up to three or four times, that the death toll began to climb.
One brutal paradox, given the regime's pious declarations of its desire for social welfare, was the deliberate elimination of the weak, the sick, and the infirm. Then came "a mania for the classification and elimination of different elements of society," that led first to a purge of the Party itself, and then to a horrendous winnowing of all sectors of society. After a brief rebellion in the region bordering Vietnam, for example, the Khmer Rouge condemned the entire population of the region to death. Fortunately they succeeded in killing off "only" a quarter of a million of the inhabitants. In other assaults, the Khmer Rouge killed between 40 and 50 percent of the Chinese population of Cambodia, 38 percent of the Vietnamese, 50 percent of the Catholic population, and between 40 and 50 percent of the Muslim Cham minority. (The latter is another example of genocide in the strict sense of the term.)
Margolin is cautious when it comes to the numbers of the dead in Cambodia. He cites an exhaustive variety of sources for estimates, noting that "everyone has an interest in stretching the figure in one direction or another." Suggested figures range from about 750,000 to three million; but the true numbers are still unknowable given the absence of precise data, and Margolin settles ultimately for a provisional figure of about a million.
It is a huge number, out of an original population of about seven million; but as Margolin correctly observes, "horror is not always a matter of numbers." The full list of Cambodia's horrors compels a morbid fascination. To live in revolutionary Cambodia was to enter a "nightmare world on the other side of the mirror." The first article of faith was that life was dispensable. "Losing you is not a loss, and keeping you is no specific gain," ran one official slogan. The condition of the former city-dwellers was "halfway between being a beast of burden and a war slave." All writing, all education, all medicine, all freedom of movement, and all religion disappeared. There were strict codes for dress and behavior. No public displays of affection, no arguments, no complaints, and no tears were allowed. All figures of authority were to be blindly obeyed.
It hardly comes as a surprise this late in the book to read that the worst result of the Khmer Rouge regime was the deep and enduring famine brought about (as in Russia and China) by Communist ignorance, arrogance, and misrule. Margolin's account becomes almost surreal. Cannibalism, he writes, was "perhaps less widespread than during the Great Leap Forward in China," but was common enough to be a huge problem. One teacher ate her sister; the inmates of a hospital ward ate a young man. A Khmer Rouge deserter was forced to eat his own ears before being killed.
There are also many stories about the eating of human livers.... Haing Ngor describes how in one prison the fetus, liver, and breasts of a pregnant woman who had been executed were treated; the child was simply thrown away (others had already been hung from the ceiling to dry), the rest was carried away with cries of "That's enough meat for tonight!" Ken Khun tells of a cook in a cooperative who prepared an eye remedy from human gall bladders (which he shared out quite liberally to his bosses) and who praised the tastiness of human liver.
A question arises. Was Cambodian communism "an extreme and aberrant case," a national Cambodian movement that differed radically from all other forms of communism, or was it "a grotesque but revealing caricature of certain fundamental traits" of communism itself? Margolin poses the question at the start of his essay, and by the end of his discussion he is ready to commit himself to some conclusions. It is true, he writes, that the Cambodian Communists were marked by an extreme form of nationalism, which was very much in the tradition of Sihanouk and Lon Nol, the rulers who immediately preceded them; and he grants a limited validity to the view that "Polpotist violence grew out of the brutality of the Sihanoukists." He cites Buddhist quietism and a wider tradition of violence in Indochina as also playing a role. Yet Margolin leaves no room to doubt that "the ideological foundations and the political ends of the Khmer Rouge were never a reaction to Sihanouk, but were instead part of the great tradition of Leninism found in the successive figures of Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Ho Chi Minh."
Was the Pol Pot regime, then, "some sort of red fascism that was thinly disguised as Communism"? Margolin replies that the Cambodian Communist Party certainly had its own peculiarities, "but so did Poland and Albania." Cambodian communism was "closer to Chinese Communism than Chinese Communism was to the Russian version," but it was communism just the same.
Similar questions to these have been posed about other Communist movements. Apologists for Russian communism long held that it was, among other things, a legitimate reaction to the cruelties of tsarism, just as Chinese supporters cited the civil war against the Kuomintang as a justification for the violence of the Communists. As The Black Book demonstrates, however, the Russian Communists had killed more of their fellow citizens within weeks of the Bolshevik coup than the tsars had managed in the entire preceding century; and the violence of Mao and his forces far exceeded that of his opponent Chiang Kai-shek (and began well before the struggle with Chiang).
There is another extenuating argument which holds that, since a majority of Communist regimes came to power as a result of civil war, or immediately after a larger conflict like the First and Second World Wars, the revolutionary violence grew out of a generalized experience of violence at the time. Werth and Margolin (and the other contributors to the book) acknowledge the temporary influence of such factors, as well as the deadening effect of the losses incurred in war; but as Margolin properly notes, only a fraction of the war victims were killed in cold blood, and as the result of a deliberate policy decision.
There is also a school of thought that looks to national traditions of violence to explain Communist excesses. Certainly there is no shortage of such traditions in any nation's history, but again the element of motive and intention is the decisive factor. Most nations can point to periods of amity and peace to balance the violent episodes. Finally it is ideology that determines the predominance of one tradition over another.
IV.
The Black Book is curiously "un-French" and refreshingly direct in the way its authors stick to recorded facts and avoid abstract theories. Indeed, the caution with which Werth and Margolin, the two principal writers, advance their arguments and express their tentative conclusions strikes me as somewhat excessive, given the vivid and eloquent narratives that precede them. Werth writes, too modestly, that "all" that he has done is synthesize existing studies with the new archival discoveries, so as to demonstrate that "cycles of violence lie at the heart of the social history of the Soviet Union" rather than being peripheral to it. His work is but a first step, he writes, and "many gray areas remain." Margolin similarly peppers his narrative with phrases such as "needs more serious study" and "more work needs to be done," though, unlike Werth, he does permit himself a brief chapter of "conclusions."
This scholarly caution probably accounts for their reservations about Courtois's introduction, but what one misses in their chapters is precisely the dimension of interpretation. It is fortunate, then, that after their exhaustive treatments of the "how" of Communist successes, Courtois examines the "why," in his penetrating and closely argued conclusion.
Courtois begins with the obligatory connection to the French Revolution, and especially to the Terror, which the late Francois Furet--who is the spiritual father of The Black Book--once characterized as "government by fear, which Robespierre theorized as government by virtue. Invented to destroy the aristocracy, it soon became a means to dispose of the wicked and combat crime ... terror became the means by which revolution, the history yet to be created, would forge the new human beings of the future." No wonder Lenin looked to the French Revolution to provide legitimacy for his own. It had everything that he needed.
And just as important to the formation of the Bolshevik mentality as the European revolutionary tradition was Russia's homegrown tradition of revolutionary terrorism. It was most perfectly personified by the late-nineteenth-century nihilist Sergei Nechayev, who described the ideal revolutionary as "an implacable enemy" of the entire world of civilization, who "continues to live only to be able to ensure the destruction of society." Lenin's achievement was to weld these two traditions together. He expanded them to encompass the idea of civil war as "a permanent form of political struggle," and through the sheer force of his "utopian will," and of course with the help of his revolutionary colleagues, he imposed his ideology on a feeble Russia. Unlike the French Terror, the Russian terror was directed against all strata of society; and after ten weeks Lenin's rule had lasted longer than the Paris Commune.
It was Karl Kautsky, the German socialist and Lenin's ideological rival, who as early as 1918 in The Dictatorship of the Proletariat outlined the consequences of Lenin's doctrine for socialism, and the way in which Lenin's version differed from his own democratic socialism. Both movements had the same end in view, Kautsky observed, which was "to free the proletariat, and with it humanity, through socialism." But the democratic socialists called for the fullest possible discussions in the context of free inquiry. The Bolsheviks, by contrast, called for a dictatorship of the proletariat: "Dictatorships don't ask for the refutation of contrary views, but forcibly suppress their utterance." Kautsky even expressed the "heretical" view that socialism was not a shibboleth. "Should it be proved to us that ... somehow the emancipation of the proletariat and of humanity could be achieved solely on the basis of private property, we would discard socialism without in any way giving up our objective."
Nothing better illustrates the distance between democratic socialism and Lenin's "socialism" than this statement by Kautsky, as Lenin confirmed in an article of rebuttal called The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. It was a classic statement of Communist theory that was conveniently forgotten in later times. "In reality," wrote Lenin, "the state is nothing but a machine for the suppression of one class by another . . . Dictatorship is rule based directly on force and unrestricted by any laws. The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is rule won and maintained through the use of violence by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, rule that is unrestricted by any laws." The consequence of this doctrine was endless civil war. The more a minority dictatorship was forced to rely on the army, the more it drove the opposition to meet violence with violence, so that, as Kautsky predicted, civil war became "a method of adjusting political and social antagonisms."
While Lenin was the prime progenitor of the Communist doctrine of lawlessness and violence, he did not lack for bloodthirsty allies. Writing of the "bourgeoisie" in 1919, Trotsky proclaimed: "We are forced to tear off this class and chop it away. The Red Terror is a weapon used against a class that, despite being doomed to destruction, does not wish to perish." After twelve years of such chopping, Gorky could still speak of the Communists as being involved in a civil war, and conclude that "if the enemies do not surrender, it is up to us to exterminate them." And between Trotsky and Gorky, a whole army of choppers and exterminators had been at work for over a decade.
Lenin's great genius, of course, was for ideology, which was re-defined all too often to support the tactical requirements of the moment. But owing to his fanatical conviction of his own righteousness, especially where socialism was concerned, and also to the Promethean force of his will, his pronouncements were enshrined by his followers as universal truths. After Lenin had spoken, it was possible only to produce exegeses and variations on his words, but it was not possible to question them. As Courtois notes, "ideology was transformed into dogma," a phenomenon that had its roots deep in Russian belief systems and Russian history. At the same time there was a peculiarly twentiethcentury dimension to this dogma, for it was avowedly atheist in character, and could not appeal to any transcendental authority. For religious truth it substituted "scientific" truth, and claimed to be conforming to the iron laws of progress, as pre-determined by "scientific" theory.
The allegedly "scientific" basis of communism had dire consequences. Courtois cites Cornelius Castoriadis's formulation of the disaster: "If there is one true theory in history, if there is rationality at work in things, then it is clear that its development should be entrusted to specialists in that theory." The "absolute power" of the Party attained a philosophical status, and if its materialist interpretation of history's laws was true, its power had to be absolute. The Party claimed to answer only to science, and science justified terror, since human life had to be made to conform with its laws.
The problem was that these "scientific laws" were a chimera. From the very outset there was a yawning gap between reality and Communist theory. This was overcome through the appropriation of symbols and the distortion of language. One such symbol was that of the proletariat, which, as Lenin himself admitted, barely existed in the Russia of 1917, but in whose name he claimed to exercise a dictatorship. The terms "bourgeois" and "counterrevolutionary" were equally symbolic entities that were so elastic and so changeable that they could mean anything at all; and they were used to denote virtually anyone whom the Communists regarded as an enemy (including workers and peasants, when necessary).
The deformation of language proceeded in two directions. First, it led to a high degree of abstraction. What took place in Communist societies was not the murder or the torture of innocent men, women, and children by thugs and sadists, not the theft of their belongings by criminals and recidivists, and not their incarceration in prisons and labor camps; what took place was their "liquidation" by representatives of the "proletariat," and the "appropriation" of their ill-gotten gains by the "lower classes," and their "re-education" in "penal institutions."
Along with this abstraction went another kind of abstraction, in the form of a systematic dehumanization of opponents. Again it was Lenin who set the tone. His letters and his instructions to subordinates were full of de-humanizing invective: opponents were "bloodsuckers," "rich bastards," "scum." Kirov, later to become the Party Chief of Leningrad, referred to the "White Guard lice" fighting in the civil war. Strikers were "noxious yellow parasites," and when they were arrested, were forced to sign confessions of guilt referring to themselves as "filthy, criminal dogs." (The Chinese later developed their own version of this epithet with the "running dogs of capitalism.") Andrei Vyshinsky, Stalin's infamous public prosecutor at the show trials of the 1930s, was the master of this oratorical tradition.
Shoot these rabid dogs! Death to this gang who hide their ferocious teeth, their eagle claws, from the people! Down with that vulture Trotsky, from whose mouth a bloody venom drips, putrefying the great ideals of Marxism! Let's put these liars out of harm's way, these miserable pygmies who dare to dance around rotting carcasses! Down with these abject animals! Let us put an end once and for all to these miserable hybrids of foxes and pigs, these stinking corpses! Let their horrible squeals finally come to an end! Let's exterminate the mad dogs of capitalism, who want to tear to pieces the flower of our new Soviet nation! Let's push the bestial hatred they bear our leaders back down their own throats!
The "animalization of the adversary," as Courtois calls it, treated the enemy literally as prey to be hunted and shot; and he cites Alain Brossat in support of his view that communism was closer to Nazism than even the post-war theorists of totalitarianism have thought. Brossat sees in the "liquidations" of the Soviet punitive organs a close parallel to the "treatment" administered by Nazi leaders, and in the animalization of "the Other" a mirror of the Nazis' obsession with cleanliness and contagion, even if the "implacably hierarchical" ideology of the Nazis was concerned with race, whereas for the Communists the agent of history was class.
Taking this line of thought a step further, Courtois espies in communism a "sociopolitical eugenics," a form of social Darwinism that was the exact opposite of what the Communists claimed to propagate. "Once a decision had been made on a `scientific' basis that the bourgeoisie represented a stage of humanity that had been surpassed, its liquidation as a class, and the liquidation of the individuals who actually or supposedly belonged to it, could be justified." The idea that the proletariat was the bearer of the meaning of history, Courtois continues, stemmed from "a millenarian cosmological planetary phantasmagoria" that was to be found in Nazism as well, and resulted in "crimes against humanity" that were just as serious as anything perpetrated by the Nazis.
Critics have often tried to make a distinction between Nazism and Communism by arguing that the Nazi project had a particular aim, which was nationalist and racist in the extreme, whereas Lenin's project was universal. This is entirely wrong. In both theory and practice, Lenin and his successors excluded from humanity all capitalists, the bourgeoisie, counterrevolutionaries, and others, turning them into absolute enemies in their sociological and political discourse . . . . These were the terms that led directly to crimes against humanity. And so The Black Book comes full circle, and ends where it began: with the analogy between communism and Nazism, and the claim for the moral and historical parity of these two evils.
V.
Is Courtois right? It is certainly possible to sympathize with his position. He is profoundly revolted by the unspeakable crimes of communism, and deeply disturbed by what he sees as their comparative neglect compared with those of the Nazis. But the implied rebuke to Holocaust historians and to the public at large for their preoccupation with fascism seems excessive, as is the hint that the Holocaust is taking up too much of our moral indignation, so that there is insufficient room left for a proportionate indignation over communism. Courtois and his colleagues are right to wish to generate a similar passion about communism, but they should take heart from the example of the Holocaust, rather than be discouraged by it; the seemingly exhaustive (but in reality inexhaustible) study of the Holocaust has, if anything, shown us the way. We cannot choose between our memory of Auschwitz and our memory of the Gulag, because history has mandated that we remember them both.
As Martin Malia points out in his excellent foreword to The Black Book, there is an element of French political jousting in Courtois's position, as in the response of his critics. French intellectual life of the past six decades has been dominated by a left notable for its love of theory and, with honorable exceptions, its infatuation with communism. For most French leftists--as for the Communists themselves during and after World War II--fascism was an ideological godsend. The enemy of their enemy was their friend, and how could you attack a friend? This attitude was not exclusive to France. It accounted also for the difficulties that Orwell experienced in finding an English publisher for Animal Farm.
It is true that the Holocaust has become the symbol of ultimate human evil, the universal standard by which to judge other evils, with the result that the term "genocide" is routinely appropriated to describe the situation of persecuted peoples everywhere, from the Armenians at the beginning of the century to the Rwandans and the Kosovars of very recent memory. Is such an appropriation justified? Many think not, leading to a lingering suspicion that perhaps Courtois is engaged in a similar sort of appropriation.
This is a pity, because ultimately this competition for primacy in the contemporary moral imagination is morbid and meaningless. What matters is that we understand the entirety of this century's terrible history. We already understand, or think we understand, the crimes of the Nazis; and it is equally our duty to grasp the fact that, as Malia puts it, "the Communist regimes did not just commit criminal acts (all states do on occasion); they were criminal enterprises in their very essence: on principle, so to speak, they all ruled lawlessly, by violence, and without regard for human life." As a civilization, we are obliged to come to terms with that truth, and admit our share of culpability, and draw the correct conclusions.
Courtois's frustration stems from his sense that the world has still not come to grips with the full enormity of communism's crimes, and especially not with the fact that these crimes constituted "crimes against humanity" in the Nuremberg sense of the term. He further fears, I suspect, that with the astoundingly peaceful collapse of communism, and the shortness of people's memories, there is a danger of these crimes being forgotten before a proper accounting can be made. Not the least of the services that The Black Book performs is to remind us how astonishingly slow and reluctant the West was to recognize the true nature of communism. Not at the time of its birth, to be sure: the French, British, and Czechs sent expeditionary forces to strangle the infant monster in its cradle. But it is shocking to contemplate how long it took for the proper understanding to return.
A good deal of the power of The Black Book is owed to the newly opened archives of the former Communist states and the many studies that they have generated; but a second and equally important group of sources consists of books and articles published between 1918 and about 1924-1925, that is, from the first seven years of Communist rule; and a third important group of sources is the statements that were made by Lenin and other communist leaders at the time. Which is to say, virtually the whole truth about communism, and about its aims and its practices, was known over half a century before its collapse. So why did it take so long for the repudiation of communism to become a normal, uncontroversial feature of Western intellectual and political life?
One reason, surely, was virtue by association. Communism benefited enormously from its association with socialism, with which it was constantly compared and confused, although the latter, in its democratic variety, was an entirely different animal. The distinction was further blurred by the creation of the Popular Front as a counterweight to the rise of fascism. It was then that French socialists coined the astonishingly long-lived slogan pas d'ennemis a la gauche, "no enemies on the left," which effectively disarmed many socialists who were opposed to communism. As late as the 1950s, Sartre was advocating silence about the Soviet labor camps "so as not to throw Billancourt [a working class suburb of Paris] into despair."
Then there was the blanket of censorship that covered the Soviet Union and other Communist countries, corners of which were selectively raised to show Potemkin villages to gullible foreigners. One effect of this censorship was to make the reports by refugees and defectors sound so fantastic that they were instantly disbelieved. Even figures such as Arthur Koestler and Arthur London encountered skepticism and outright disbelief in many quarters. But Werth and Margolin have no difficulty in showing how most of the accounts by fugitives from communism have been shown to be correct. It leaves the reader with a sickened feeling.
Communist censorship at home was abetted by the achievements of Soviet propaganda and public relations--a success relatively little remarked upon by historians and political commentators. Western intellectuals (particularly in Europe) can be relied upon to respond, usually negatively, to the barrage of advertising and commercials routinely broadcast by capitalism, and to analyze their impact; but very little has been written, to my knowledge, about the success of communism's "commercials." The reason usually given is that they are so transparent and so seemingly mindless as to be not worthy of study, but surely this applies to most advertisements, too--and it doesn't seem to hamper their effectiveness, or to dissuade a critical spirit in the study of them.
These subjects are treated only glancingly in The Black Book, for not even 800 pages are enough to exhaust its study of repression and criminality; but they do go some way to explain the huge delay in the West's comprehension of the phenomenon of communism. Still, the largest obstacle to such an understanding is to be found not in political or social or intellectual history, but in the human psyche. The otherwise unaccountable popularity of Communist ideology may have been owed to its militant expression of some of our deepest hopes and our deepest fears. What Marx and his disciples promised was nothing less than an eschatological "leap from the kingdom of the necessity to the kingdom of freedom"--hence the special attractiveness of the promise not to the developed societies for which Marx predicted social revolution, but to backward and undeveloped societies, where the torments of "necessity" were greater, and the "wretched of the earth" longed for salvation. But it is not just backward societies that experience this longing. There is something in all of us that hopes for justice in this world, and for an end to inequality.
There are those who understand how to manage hope, by keeping it at arm's length and worrying about its abuse. (The fantasy of perfection in the next world is certainly less dangerous than the fantasy of perfection in this world.) But others have a harder time. Hope fills them with impatience, and with certainty; and it looks to them less like a dream and more like a plan. Communism addressed itself most successfully to the pawns of hope. And there still is a certain nostalgia, even among some Western intellectuals, for the confidence and the righteousness of the Communist way, and the "certainties" of Communist ideology, compared with the amoralities and the insecurities of a market-driven society and the ideology of Mammon. It is the requirement that they "shut the door on utopia," as Malia puts it, that holds so many back from a complete rejection of the outlook that issued in all these catastrophes.
In modern history, the politics of utopia have been largely the politics of the left. It is worth noting that the authors of The Black Book of Communism are liberals; liberals have always been utopia's most ardent adversaries. The renovation of the left in the West is certainly not a prominent theme of The Black Book, but I do not doubt that it is a part of the authors' great purpose. Arriving at a proper understanding of our century's disastrous entanglement in a criminal ideology, and atoning for the colossal cost in human lives and human misery (and for our complicity in it), is a more urgent task for the left than for the right. It is also an essential prerequisite for taking up anew, and with the proper anti-revolutionary modesty, the business of the betterment of the human condition.





Currently (12.20.99 issue):
Race to the Bottom: The candidates scurry to dumb it down; our man Jonathan Chait is there.
Party Animals: Andrew Sullivan asks, GWB=JFK?
The Editors: The world betrays Rwanda, again.
TRB: Alan Ehrenhalt mourns the House of Lords, sort of.
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