(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

For several dramatic years at the end of the 1980’s and the beginning of the 1990’s, communist regimes in Europe, Eurasia, and elsewhere collapsed from within. The demise of the Soviet Union and its allied regimes provided an unexpectedly sudden and relatively bloodless conclusion to the Cold War, which had defined the world’s military and ideological fault lines since the 1940’s.

This disintegration of the world communist movement prompted a reevaluation of central ideological and political questions. Should the demise of communism be seen as a vindication of capitalism? Were the communist regimes in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere properly identified as “communist,” or were they instead flawed or counterfeit apostles of that ideology? Does it indeed make sense to group together such a diverse group of regimes under the single label “communist”? Was it the economic or political aspects of communism that ultimately failed? Does the failure of the communist experiment warrant a rethinking of principles embraced by the Western political left?

Surprisingly, Western politicians and media have shown little interest in examining questions such as these. It is as though the defeat—if that is the right word—of communism has made further examination of the topic moot. Whereas once there were fervent, even violent, arguments over the efficacy and morality of the communist “model,” for most of the 1990’s there was, above all, a desire to leave behind the debates of the Cold War and move toward the business of the new millennium.

The authors of The Black Book of Communism have returned to those debates and sought to create “a fair and just assessment [of communism’s record] from both historical and moral viewpoints,” partly out of a social scientist’s desire to reveal truth but also in the interest of gleaning critical lessons for the future of governance and politics. In so doing, they marshal and present what they regard as overwhelming evidence that communism necessarily brings with it tyranny, repression, terror, and other forms of political violence against the population. The authors, who are all distinguished European historians, cull from documents, records, and other official information from recently opened archives as well as interviews and analyses from secondary information sources. The result is a far-ranging, data-laden series of essays that collectively comprise a voluminous catalog of communism’s human costs.

The Black Book of Communism was originally published in France on November 8, 1997, the eightieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The first printing sold out in a matter of weeks, and the book became the center of political and academic debates in France and across Europe. If the authors’ goal was to kindle a discussion about the nature and record of communism, they were successful. However, at the time of its publication in the United States, the book seemed unlikely to provoke a similar reaction on the west side of the Atlantic Ocean.

The book’s central thesis asserts that communist regimes are necessarily violent, criminal enterprises. The Gulag prisoner camps of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, the planned famines of Mao Zedong’s China, and the shooting of East German citizens trying to flee to the West were only dramatic illustrations of a more prosaic, fundamental rule of force necessary to the survival of communist regimes. These regimes operated without regard for human life and were unfettered by considerations of rule of law or consent of the governed. In general, the authors argue that the ideological foundation of such regimes required a class enemy, and their political foundations required an atmosphere of fear or terror. These regimes could not obtain the consent of the people they ruled, because their central ideological precepts—the subordination of the individual to the collective, state ownership of capital and real property, state control of beliefs and speech, and others—were so odious.

The authors also generally accept that the communist regimes were always this way. Their violent, lawless nature did not arise from sadistic or paranoid leaders; they were not noble experiments gone awry. Rejecting such apologetics as the “good Lenin, bad Stalin” thesis, the authors argue...

(The entire section is 1767 words.)