What better way to celebrate May Day than a retro review of The Black Book of Communism?
From March 13, 2001 …
Review: The Black Book of Communism, ed. Nicolas Werth, et. al., 1999.
“If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow.”, The Beatles, “Revolution 1”.
Unfortunately, those who blatantly profess their allegiance to communism still get seated at the polite tables of civilization. This book provides plenty of evidence why the communist should be afforded even less sympathy in civil society than the professed fan of Adolf Hitler. Indeed, amongst other startling revelations in this book is that Nazi death camps were partially modeled on Soviet labor camps.
To be sure the subtitle, “Crimes, Terror, Repression,” refers to a horrifying, sometimes mind-numblingly long list of tortures, familiar and unfamiliar, to the body and spirit, and the 700 plus pages of text are not a pleasant read. Still, this book is a valuable.
For starters, it refutes a propaganda point that communist governments, particularly the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, liked to use: that they were the bulwark against fascism. Not only did the USSR, in a non-aggression pact, collude with Hitler, but it actively killed fellow anti-fascists in Spain and before and during its war with Hitler. As the book documents, communist parties the world over habitually killed fellow communists who deviated from the necessary purity, and they also killed those who struggled with them against colonial powers in Southeast Asia and against Batista’s dictatorship in Cuba. The communists in Russia, after the 1917 revolution, killed more political opponents in two month’s than the Czar did in 80 years.
Though it’s not the first to do so, the book documents that the Russian experiment in communism was not some relatively peaceful affair launched by Lenin and betrayed by a bloodthirsty Stalin. To be sure, the paranoid Stalin launched immense purges, forced labor projects, and engineered famines, but terror was a principle embraced and practiced from the beginning by Lenin.
The book also refutes the commonly recited falsehood that Mao bettered the average Chinese’s lot. His policies directly led to perhaps the greatest famine in history, and he was not above conducting his own purges.
Most of these crimes against their supposed beneficiaries are documented not only through secondary histories but also primary sources of survivor accounts and government documents.
The book is divided into sections covering communism in five different manifestations: Soviet, Eastern European, Asian, the Third World, and attempts to foster international revolution via the Comintern and terrorism. China and Russia get several chapters each but most other countries that had communist regimes get at least one chapter. The book draws two general distinctions between the communism of Asia and the Soviet Union and its satellites. The Soviet model emphasized political murder of its opponents and citizens (though it was willing to simply exploit them as economic assets in labor camps). While China also has labor camps and a history of bloody repressions against its citizens, it also developed a program of trying to change the mind of its citizens as well as compel obedience through terror. The Khmer Rouge model, built by the secretive Pol Pot, combined the worst of both: ideological reprogramming and murder.
To be sure, if you’re not familiar with the history of some of the covered countries, the relevant chapters seem like a collection of strange names and obscure events. This is particularly true of the sections on Eastern Europe where the authors assume a certain knowledge of the background politics and figures. On the other hand, the book is genuinely informative even to someone like me, a neophyte, in its chapters on communist politics in Afghanistan and Ethiopia. Not only are communist crimes there covered but the background history is also explained well.
The chapter on NKVD death squads in Spain is not the first revelation of their activities but does serve as a good summary.
This book was originally published in France, and the introduction, added for the American edition, talks about its fallout there where a politician’s and intellectual’s previous relationship to communism can have some real effects on his public reception. The final chapter tries to answer the question on whether terror was a principle of communism from the beginning. Communists at the beginning of the twentieth century did not generally preach using terror as a tool to utopia. Indeed, communism was a formerly recognized political philosophy accorded legitimacy via officially recognized and tolerated parties in several countries before the Russian Revolution. The book seems to blame Lenin and Russia’s tradition of political violence for the brutal turn communism took.
Several of the authors are interested in the question of whether ex-communists in Eastern Europe should be punished and, if so, how.
What the book is starkly lacking is an attack on the practicality of communism as an organizing economic principle. I suspect this is not only because it is outside the book’s intended scope but also because, as alluded to in the introduction, some of the editors may sympathize with the proclaimed ends of communism.
The book also fails to mention the failed medieval experiments in communism, many of them violent, covered in Norman Cohn’s classic The Pursuit of the Millennium.
A commentator disputed the significance of the death figures for the early Soviet regime, and I responded.