Stéphane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, Jean-Louis Margolin
Excerpt from Foreword by Martin Malia
[pg. xiv] Yet if we let the divided contributors to The Black Bookarbitrate the dispute, we find no disagreement in this matter: the Leninist matrix indeed served for all the once “fraternal” parties. To be sure, the model was applied differently in different cultural settings. As Margolin points out, the chief agent of repression in Russia was a specially created political police, the Cheka GPU-NKVD-KGB, while in China it was the People’s Liberation Army, and in Cambodia it was gun-toting adolescents from the countryside: thus popular ideological mobilization went deeper in Asia than in Russia. Still, everywhere the aim was to repress “enemies of the people”–“like noxious insects,” as Lenin said early on, thus inaugurating Communism’s “animalization” of its adversaries. Moreover, the line of inheritance from Stalin, to Mao, to Ho, to Kim Ii Sung, to Pol Pot was quite clear, with each new leader receiving both material aid and ideological inspiration from his predecessor. And, to come full circle, Pol Pot first learned his Marxism in Paris in 1952 (when such philosophers as Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty were explaining how terror could be the midwife of “humanism”). So if the debate remains on the level of the quantitative atrocity, the double standard collapses, and Communism appears as the more criminalif the debate is shifted to qualitative crime, this outcome is easily reversed. And here the decisive factor is, again, the Holocaust as the confirmation of Nazism’s uniquely evil nature. Indeed, this standard has become so universal that other persecuted groups, from Armenians to the native peoples of both Americas, have appropriated (with varying degrees of plausibility) the term “genocide” to characterize their own experience. Not surprisingly, many of these implicit comparisons to the Holocaust have been rejected as illegitimate, even slanderous. And in fact one overexcited op-ed piece in Le Monde, from a respected researcher, denounced Courtois’s introduction as antisemitic.
Yet there are other, less emotionally charged arguments for assigning a significant distinctiveness to Nazi terror. The criminal law everywhere distinguishes degrees of murder, according to the motivation, the cruelty of the means employed, and so on. Thus, Raymond Aron long ago, and Francois Furet recently, though both unequivocal about the evil of Communism, distinguished between extermination practiced to achieve a political objective, no matter how perverse, and extermination as an end in itself. And in this perspective, Communism once again comes off as less evil than Nazism.
This plausible distinction, however, can easily be turned on its head. In particular, Eastern European dissidents have argued that mass murder in the name of a noble ideal is more perverse than it is in the name of a base one. The Nazis, after all, never pretended to be virtuous. The Communists, by contrast, trumpeting their humanism, hoodwinked millions around the globe for decades, and so got away with murder on the ultimate scale. The Nazis, moreover, killed off their victims without ideological ceremony; the Communists, by contrast, usually compelled their prey to confess their “guilt” in signed depositions thereby acknowledging the Party line’s political “correctness.” Nazism, finally, was a unique case (Mussolini’s Fascism was not really competitive), and it developed no worldwide clientele. By contrast, Communism’s universalism permitted it to metastasize worldwide.
A final position, forcefully expressed by Alain Besancon, is that murder is murder whatever the ideological motivation; and this is undeniably true for the equally dead victims of both Nazism and Communism. Such absolute equivalence is also expressed in Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism: both systems massacred their victims not for what they did (such as resisting the regime) but for who they were, whether Jews or kulaks. In this perspective, the distinction made by some, that the term petit-bourgeois “kulak” is more elastic and hence less lethal than biological “Jew,” is invalidated: the social and the racial categories are equally pseudoscientific.
[… pg. xvii] It is this syndrome that gives the permanent qualitative advantage to Communism over Nazism in any evaluation of their quantitative atrocities. For the Communist project, in origin, claimed commitment to universalistic and egalitarian goals, whereas the Nazi project offered only unabashed national egoism. Small matter, then, that their practices were comparable; their moral auras were antithetical, and it is the latter feature that counts in Western, domestic politics. And so we arrive at the fulcrum of the debate: A moral man can have “no enemies to the left,” a perspective in which undue insistence on Communist crime only “plays into the hands of the right”–if, indeed, any anticommunism is not simply a mask for antiliberalism.
In this spirit, Le Monde’s editorialist deemed The Black Bookinopportune because equating Communism with Nazism removed the “last barriers to legitimating the extreme right,” that is, Le Pen. It is true that Le Pen’s party and similar hate-mongering, xenophobic movements elsewhere in Europe represent an alarming new phenomenon that properly concerns all liberal democrats. [Of course, the whole point of this web site is that Le Pen’s attitudes make perfect sense if one understands human nature in terms of evolutionary psychology. Xenophobia is caused by reaction against multiculturalism and is perfectly normal if one understands human evolution.] But it in no way follows that Communism’s criminal past should be ignored or minimized. Such an argument is only a variant, in new historical circumstances, of Sartre’s celebrated sophism that one should keep silent about Soviet camps (in order not to throw the auto workers of Billancout into despair). To which his onetime colleague, Albert Camus, long ago replied that the truth is the truth, and denying it mocks the causes both of humanity and of morality.
In fact, the persistence of such sophistry is precisely why The Black Book is so opportune. What, therefore, do its provocative pages contain? Without pretension to originality, it presents a balance sheet of our current knowledge of Communism’s human costs, archivally based where possible and elsewhere drawing on the best available secondary evidence, and with due allowance for the difficulties of quantification. Yet the very sobriety of this inventory is what gives the book its power; and indeed, as we are led from country to country and from horror to horror, the cumulative impact is overwhelming.
At the same time, the book quietly advances a number of important analytical points. The first is that Communist regimes did not just commit criminal acts (all states do so 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. Werth’s section on the Soviet Union is thus titled “A State against Its People” and takes us methodically through the successive cycles of terror, from Great October in 1917 to Stalin’s death in 1953. By way of comparison, he notes that between 1825 and 1917 tsarism carried out 6,321 political executions (most of them during the revolution of 1905-1907), whereas in two months of official “Red Terror” in the fall of 1918 Bolshevism achieved some 15,000. And so on for a third of a century; for example, 6 million deaths during the collectivization famine of 1932-33, 720,000 executions during the Great Purge, 7 million people entering the Gulag (where huge numbers died) in the years 1934-1941, and 2,750,000 still there at Stalin’s death. True, these aggregates represent different modes of state violence, not all of them immediately lethal; but all betoken terror as a routine means of government.
And the less familiar figures in Margolin’s chapter on China’s “Long March into Night” are even more staggering: at a minimum, 10 million “direct victims”; probably 20 million deaths out of the multitudes that passed through China’s “hidden Gulag,” the laogai; more than 20 million deaths from the “political famine” of the Great Leap Forward of 1959-1961, the largest famine in history. Finally, in Pol Pot’s aping of Mao’s Great Leap, around one Cambodian in seven perished, the highest proportion of the population in any Communist country.
The book’s second point is that there never was a benign, initial phase of Communism before some mythical “wrong turn” threw it off track. From the start Lenin expected, indeed wanted, civil war to crush all “class enemies”; and this war, principally against the peasants, continued with only short pauses until 1953. So much for the fable of “good Lenin/bad Stalin.” (And if anyone doubts that it is still necessary to make this case, the answer may be found, for example, in the maudlin article “Lenin” in the current edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.) Still another point is of a “technical” nature: the use of famine to break peasant resistance to regime economic “plans.” And ever since Solzhenitsyn, such “pharaonic” methods have been contrasted with the technologically advanced Nazi gas chamber.
A more basic point is that Red terror cannot be explained as the prolongation of prerevolutionary political cultures. Communist repression did not originate from above, in traditional autocracies; nor was it simply an intensification of violent folk practices from below–whether the peasant anarchism of Russia, or the cyclical millenarian revolts of China, or the exacerbated nationalism of Cambodia, although all these traditions were exploited by the new regime. Nor does the source of Communist practices reside in the violence of the two world wars, important though this brutal conditioning was. Rather, in each case, mass violence against the population was a deliberate policy of the new revolutionary order; and its scope and inhumanity far exceeded anything in the national past.
A final point, insisted on by Courtois yet clear also in his colleagues’ accounts, is that Communism’s recourse to “permanent civil war” rested on the “scientific” Marxist belief in class struggle as the “violent midwife of history,” in Marx’s famous metaphor. Similarly, Courtois adds, Nazi violence was founded on a scientistic social Darwinism promising national regeneration through racial struggle.
This valid emphasis on ideology as the wellspring of Communist mass murder reaches its apogee in Margolin’s depiction of escalating radicalism as the revolution moved East. Stalin, of course, had already begun the escalation by presenting himself as the “Lenin of today” and his first Five-Year Plan as a second October. Then, in 1953, four years after Mao came to power, his heirs ended mass terror: it had simply become too costly to their now superpuissant regime. To the Chinese comrades, however, Moscow’s moderation amounted to “betrayal” of the world revolution just as it was taking off in Asia. Consequently, in 1959-1961 Mao was goaded to surpass his Soviet mentors by a “Great Leap Forward” beyond mere socialism, Moscow style, to full Communism as Marx had imagined it in the Communist Manifesto and the Critique of the Gotha Program. And in 1966-1976, by directing the anarchy of the Cultural Revolution against his own Party, he proceeded to outdo Stalin’s Great Purge of his Party in 1937-1939. But the most demented spin-off of this whole tradition was Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge of 1975-1979; for this rampage against urban, “bourgeois” civilization expressed nothing less than an ambition to propel tiny Cambodia beyond Mao’s “achievements” into the front rank of world revolution.
Yet the long-term inefficiency of such “progress” eventually led Mao’s heirs, in their turn, to “betray” the Marxist-Leninist impetus by halting mass terror and turning halfway to the market. Thereby, after 1979, Deng Xiaoping ended worldwide the perverse Prometheanism launched in October 1917. Thus the Communist trajectory, as The Black Booktraces it from Petrograd to the China Seas, inevitably suggests that ideology, not social process, fueled the movement’s meteoric rise, and that ideology’s practical failure produced its precipitate fall.
This transnational perspective goes far toward answering the great question posed by Communist history: namely, why did a doctrine premised on proletarian revolution in industrial societies come to power only in predominantly agrarian ones, by Marxist definition those least prepared for “socialism”? But socialist revolution for Marx was not just a matter of economic development; it was at bottom an eschatological “leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.” Since such quasi-miraculous transformation has the strongest allure for those who have the greatest lag to overcome, it is hardly surprising that Marxism’s line of march turned out to lead ever farther into the politically and economically backward East. Only by taking account of this paradoxical eastward escalation through increasingly extravagant “leaps” can we build a real historiography of the great twentieth-century story that was Communism.
And this brings us back to the vexed–and vexing–question raised by Stephane Courtois in The Black Book: What of the moral equivalence of Communism with Nazism? After fifty years of debate, it is clear that no matter what the hard facts are, degrees of totalitarian evil will be measured as much in terms of present politics as in terms of past realities. So we will always encounter a double standard as long as there exist a left and a right–which will be a very long time indeed. No matter how thoroughly the Communist failure may come to be documented (and new research makes it look worse every day), we will always have reactions such as that of a Moscow correspondent for a major Western paper, who, after the fall, could still privately salute the Russian people with: “Thanks for having tried!”; and there will always be kindred spirits to dismiss The Black Book, a priori, as “right-wing anti-Communist rhetoric.” For more mundane observers, however, it is at last becoming clear that our current qualitative judgments are scandalously out of line with the century’s real balance sheet of political crime.
And this very absurdity perhaps brings us to a turning point. Ten years ago, the authors of The Black Book would have refused to believe what they now write. And exploration of the Soviet archives–and eventually those of East Asia–will continue to redress the balance. This comes at a time, moreover, when historical writing is turning increasingly to retrospective affirmative action, to fulfilling our “duty of remembrance” to all the oppressed of the past–indeed, when governments and churches formally apologize for their historic sins. Surely, then, the Party of humanity can spare a little compassion for the victims of the inhumanity so long meted out by so many of its own partisans.
Even so, such an effort at retrospective justice will always encounter one intractable obstacle. Any realistic accounting of Communist crime would effectively shut the door on Utopia; and too many good souls in this unjust world cannot abandon hope for an absolute end to inequality (and some less good souls will always offer them “rational” curative nostrums). And so, all comrade-questers after historical truth should gird their loins for a very Long March indeed before Communism is accorded its fair share of absolute evil.