The Black Book of Communism

by Stéphane Courtois
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1767

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.

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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 that criminality and violence are an inherent part of communist regimes. Their extensive cataloging of examples goes far to support this argument. The incorporation of numerous excerpts from government files, official statistics, and other archival documents presents a chilling illustration of the bureaucratic, ingrained role of state violence in communist regimes. Numerous photographs further provide a graphic depiction of communism’s victims. The collective effect is sobering indeed.

There can be no question that these regimes—Stalin’s Soviet Union, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Mengistu’s Ethiopia, and many others—were murderous. Even so, the sheer scale and obviousness of their crimes has a numbing effect. People tend to mentally encase the millions of tortures and murders within a nondescript, featureless term such as “dekulakization,” “the Great Leap Forward,” or “collectivization.” This book helps disaggregate the crimes and remind of the tragic human consequences. It is important to underscore just how abhorrent, loathsome, and inhuman people placed in power, especially power in the name of utopianism, can be.

At the same time, it is not clear that a long, authoritative list of crimes perpetuated by communist regimes should prove the inevitability of those crimes. Communism has a bad track record, to be sure, but does this prove its irredeemable nature? This may well be the case, but proving it requires a different approach than the one used here. Rather than a social scientific analysis of communism, the book is most successful as a focused history of communist regimes’ crimes.

The Black Book of Communism is divided into five parts, each focusing on a geographical or functional area. Part 1, written by Nicolas Werth and the longest of the five, recounts the state violence in the Soviet Union. This section is primarily concerned with the country’s early history, from the revolution and subsequent civil war through the Stalin period. As the first and most powerful communist country, the Soviet Union warrants the place and space afforded it in this book.

Part 2 concerns international aspects of communism, such as the Comintern, an organization founded in Moscow to promote communist revolutions in countries outside Russia, and Soviet involvement in Spain. The chapters in this part are written by Stéphane Courtois, Jean-Louis Panne, and Remi Kauffer.

The remainder of the book examines major geographical areas of communist influence. Part 3 discusses Eastern Europe, a region portrayed as a “victim” of communism that had Soviet- defined communism imposed on it after World War II.

Part 4 looks at the development and practices of communist regimes in Asia. The authors of this part, Jean-Louis Margolin and Pierre Rigoulot, focus in particular on China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. They note similarities and differences between communist regimes in Asia and Europe and discuss, without a firm conclusion, whether there is a uniquely Asian form of communism.

Part 5 includes three chapters on communism in what was formerly referred to as the Third World. Written by Pascal Fontaine, Yves Santamaria, and Sylvain Boulouque, these chapters examine communism in Latin America, Africa, and Afghanistan, respectively.

Finally, Courtois offers a conclusion entitled “Why?” After summarizing the preceding pages, he poses the question of why communist regimes felt a need to kill their own people. His answer centers on the Marxist-Leninist utopianism that requires a “purifying” of society, a goal evocative of “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia or the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. In the end, the book returns to the point that communism inevitably engages in crimes against humanity as a result of its ideological foundations and political requirements.

The authors’ moral and political condemnation of communism infuses this book, even as they attempt to offer objective summaries of the results of the regimes’ policies. However, the authors are not right-wing ideologues seeking to banish a communist straw man. Indeed, most of the authors are associated with the left side of the political spectrum, and some were earlier associated with Trotskyism or other forms of communist ideology. Rather than dyed-in-the-wool opponents of communism, they are disillusioned idealists and leftists.

Moreover, the authors are not unanimous in the larger lessons they draw from the assembled data. Some of the authors have publicly disassociated themselves from some of the fiercer assertions written by Courtois in the introduction. In addition, debates about the book’s data and conclusions have caused divisions among the left in European academia and politics.

Although the book focuses on the sins of communism, some of its greatest controversies center on the comparability of Nazism and communism. As Courtois makes clear in the introduction, the authors were partly motivated to undertake this project by their belief that the world has failed to come to terms with communism the way it did with Nazism. They note that Nazism, as an ideology and as the political framework of Hitler’s Germany, has been minutely examined in history books, has been roundly and universally condemned by politicians of all stripes, and remains today virtually synonymous with evil. Yet, the authors are disturbed that there has been no comparable examination and condemnation of communism. Even if one totals all the civilian deaths attributable to Nazism (not just the six million Jews exterminated in the Holocaust, but also the Communists, the socialists, people with disabilities, the Gypsies, and others killed by Hitler’s regime), the approximately twenty-five million people is considerably less than the eighty-five million to one hundred million deaths the authors attribute to communism. Was the communists’ “class genocide” any less repugnant than the Nazis’ race genocide?

The authors have created some controversy by simply raising this question. The comparison has been assailed as anti-Semitic by some. While such criticism may seem misdirected, the book’s concern with the relative opprobrium meted out to Nazism and communism may smack of pedantic scorekeeping. The record of the communist regimes exposed in these essays, including wholesale executions of dissidents, torture of political prisoners, assassinations of political rivals, engineered famines, forced collectivization of agriculture, and forced relocations of entire nations, would appear to speak for itself. How it stacks up against the crimes of the Nazis should be beside the point.

Still, the authors are convincing in their basic premise: The true nature of communism as an ideology and its record as a major political force during the twentieth century deserves to be scrutinized, analyzed, and discussed more thoroughly than it has so far. This book is a forceful and solid first step in remedying that shortcoming.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (September 1, 1999): 41.

Publishers Weekly 246 (August 23, 1999): 36.

The Times Literary Supplement, March 27, 1998, p. 3.

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