The Black Book of Communism

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The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression
By Stephane Courtois, Mark Kramer (Translator), Jonathan Murphy (Translator), Karel Bartosek, Andrzej Paczkowski, Jean-Louis Panne, Jean-Louis Margolin (Contributors); Introduction to the U.S. edition by Martin Malia
Published by Harvard University Press, 1999
Originally published in France, 1997

Reviewed by Claire Wolfe

Examining the photos and reading their captions in The Black Book of Communism, you might expect the surrounding 700+ pages to contain a wail of outrage. The photos, though few, are as graphic and heart-rending as the worst from Nazi Germany.

But the text is no impassioned partisan cry. It's something more powerful than that; it's the facts. The Black Book has been called a catalog, an indictment, a prosecutorial manual against Communist crimes. It is a simply a dispassionate account - article after article - of the history of Communist power. Beginning with Leninist terror policies and concluding with the starvation produced by Afrocommunism, the historians of The Black Book list the events, tally the numbers, describe the conditions, name the names.

Their conclusion:

Nearly 100 million deaths. Not casualties of war, but civilian slaughter. Deaths in gulags and concentration camps. Deaths from a bullet to the head. Most of all, deaths by starvation - the result either of planned famines, meted out as punishment to internal foes (as in Stalin's USSR), or unintended consequences of central policy.

American historian R.J. Rummell has tallied similar figures in his book Death by Government. But The Black Book is different in that 1) it focuses on death and terror in Communist regimes only 2) many of its contributors were (or are still) members of the left and 3) this book touched off an international storm when it was first published in France.

The "crime" of revealing Communist crimes

Why would this scholarly book - with its "just the facts, Ma'm" approach and its extensively documented claims - ignite a firestorm?

Partly it is because many crimes of Communism have gone unexamined, due both to bias among the intelligentsia and lack of access to archives of Communist countries. As such, this book is a shock to those who haven't been paying attention.

Partly it is that in Europe, and France especially, it is still chic to identify oneself as a Communist or Socialist. This book is an embarrassment and a shame to those who have practiced "ideological self-deception."

But appallingly, the controversy arose largely because the Black Book's authors - in particular chief editor and contributor Stephane Courtois - dare to compare the horrors of Communism to the horrors of Nazism. (The title itself is reflects the famous Black Book of Nazi crimes compiled after the Nuremberg Trials.) An unbiased scholar might consider this a natural thing to do; some political partisans considered it an offense.

In the introduction, "The Crimes of Communism," (one of just three essays that analyze, rather than merely report, the century's events), Courtois writes:

Time and again the focus of the terror was less on targeted individuals than on groups of people. The purpose of the terror was to exterminate a group that had been designated as the enemy. Even though it might be only a small fraction of society, it had to be stamped out to satisfy this genocidal impulse. Thus, the techniques of segregation and exclusion employed in a "class-based totalitarianism" [Communism] closely resemble the techniques of "race-based totalitarianism." The future Nazi society was to be built upon a "pure race," and the future Communist society was to be built upon a proletarian people purified of the dregs of the bourgeoisie. The restructuring of these two societies was envisioned in the same way, even if the crackdowns were different. Therefore, it would be foolish to pretend that Communism is a form of universalism. Communism may have a worldwide purpose, but like Nazism it deems a part of humanity unworthy of existence.

That Courtois finds no moral distinction between the barbarities of right and left, between mass slaughter of races and mass slaughter of classes (the Russian bourgeoise and the kulaks, for example), led the left-leaning newspaper Le Monde to trot out the familiar charge of anti-Semitism and to damn the entire book by association.

Courtois further irritated France's intellectuals (and indeed some of the book's co-authors) by concluding that Communists actually benefitted by promoting the illusion that the Holocaust was a unique crime - thus diverting suspicion from themselves and ensuring that the "fascist right" always appeared more heinous than its twin on the left.

Spanning time and the globe

You need not agree with Courtois, or even spend time with the book's three analytical essays, to be deeply moved - and informed.

The catalog of horrific deeds encompasses:

In addition, the book is fascinating for its many insights into Communism's roots. You might be surprised to learn who these French authors consider to be the real father of Communism (hint: not Marx). And most readers would certainly be surprised to learn that Soviet leaders so greatly respected one Western saint that they erected a monument to him at the Kremlin.

The Black Book's revelations are so broad and detailed that no mere review could describe them adequately. Anyone who cares about history or truth should read this book. (Fortunately its lucid prose makes it easy to follow even the most arcane or gut-wrenching events).

Why should we care?

But with Communism in collapse nearly everywhere, and even China (so the media tells us) on the road to capitalism, why should anyone other than a historian or a crusader for justice care about any of this? Yes, it was awful, but isn't it just about over? Shouldn't we simply nod in acknowledgment, feel sincere sorrow, an appropriate degree of horror perhaps - and move on?

But of course we should care for many reasons - above all because trust in the Omnipotent State is still with us, still waiting to darken humanity again. For that is the essence of both Nazism and Communism - the belief that the state (whether claiming authority from The Culture, The Ideology, The Class, The Race, The People or some yet-to-be-concocted Authority) is supreme. This leads first to the assumption that individuals and groups who don't fit the collective ideal are irritants, then enemies - then that they should be disposed of "for the good of the whole."

If we are not careful and aware, this pervasive evil may spring in a new form. If we point fingers only at "right" or "left," depending on our own inclinations, we may fail to oppose the same phenomenon when it arises wearing a new face - a face that looks friendly, perhaps even familiar. We must study both the Nazis and the Communists, leaving aside the fundamentally meaningless distinctions of left or right, nationalist or universalist, race-hating or class-hating, and know the shared soul of the beast within.

For anyone who wants to protect the future by knowing the past, this book is a Very Important Read.

But could such horrors ever really come to our own doorsteps? At first blush, it seems not. Reading this book I was often struck by how foreign the recounted events are. It's impossible to imagine a Pol Pot-style agrarian "utopia" imposed upon a modern U.S. or Britain. Clearly, the savageries of Peru's Shining Path guerrilla's are uniquely Peruvian. Clearly Afrocommunism arises in part from tribal roots, so unlike ours. Clearly, the ACLU would prevent the development here of conditions described by Black Book contributor Pascal Fontaine - Nicaraguan prisons so crowded that inmates had to sleep standing up, with so little water that prisoners drank their own urine to survive, with such non-existent sanitation that cells and even hallways ran thick with excrement.

No, we can assure ourselves, such third-world horrors couldn't happen here. And there's a certain amount of truth in that. Even at its height, Communism gained power almost exclusively in nations with entrenched, institutionalized class divisions or nations in extreme stress (like Cambodia caught between U.S. bombardment and threats from Vietnam).

But similar tyrannies, we already know, have risen even from the "civilized" West. At times, you read the dispassionate words of The Black Book and you feel a chill of familiarity.

Controlling the language

Above all, there are the passages about the Communist's skillful manipulation of language for political purposes.

This manipulation took two forms, both of which are in use in American and Europe today: The first is a demonization and dehumanization of everyone unpopular with the regime. It was not people the Communists killed. It was "capitalists," "running dogs," "enemies of the people," "saboteurs," "the bourgeoise," or "wreckers." Just as Nazis didn't exterminate Jewish human beings but "maggots," "menaces to society," "parasites" "corrosive influences on Aryan culture" and "masters of the lie." Just as today government and the media do not merely disagree with, but demonize and marginalize "militia nuts," "right-wing extremists," "haters" and "religious fanatics." (And just as it might be "fags," "knee-jerk liberals" or "godless humanists" shoved to the fringes if politicians of a different viewpoint got into power.)

Of course no sane person would declare that the political manipulation of words in first world countries has reached Stalinist danger levels. Nevertheless, as Richard W. Stevens has pointed out, official or quasi-official margnialization of groups is an early stage in a deadly process. As the Black Book says:

Terror involves a double mutation. The adversary is first labeled an enemy, and then declared a criminal, which leads to his exclusion from society. Exclusion very quickly turns into extermination. [The] idea [of a purified humanity] is used to prop up a forcible unification - of the Party, of society, of the entire empire - and to weed out anyone who fails to fit into the new world. After a relatively short period, society passes from the logic of political struggle to the process of exclusion, then to the ideology of elimination, and finally to the extermination of impure elements. At the end of the line there are crimes against humanity.

The other form of language manipulation noted in the Black Book is a simple denial - putting a prettier face on ugly realities. Concentration camps become "reeducation" centers. Millions were forced from their farms and livelihoods in a process of "voluntary collectivization" (language reminiscent of the compulsory "volunteerism" forced upon many American students as a graduation requirement). Political opponents receive "therapy" for their "mental illness." (Do you suppose they take Prozac or Ritalin?) Even today, in China political inmates are called "students" in token of the fact that their punishment is designed to force them to accept the ideology of those they oppose.

Related to these forms of manipulation is the institutionalized use of terms that simply by being spoken or written perpetuate political assumptions. For instance, the word "kulak" in the USSR began as an insult; it quickly became the only acceptable word to describe the independent farmers who were fighting for their land and livelihood; thus every time they were spoken of they were implicitly damned. In our own culture we have near-universal (media-inspired) use of the term "gun violence." Simply by speaking the phrase, one perpetuates a set of suppositions: that guns, not people are responsible for crime, that guns are inherently more violent than objects such as hammers or knives; that they are in a special class that must be rigidly controlled. We talk of "hate speech," and thereby convey that the speaker has no legitimacy; he is simply motivated by incomprehensible loathsomeness; everything he believes, says or does should be disregarded or condemned. If you are a "redneck" you are no doubt the epitome of both "gun violence" and "hate speech" and nothing more needs to be said of you. Those whose "self-esteem" is so damaged by your "insensitivity" that they can't function may have to collect their "entitlements" (which is quite unlike the shame of going on welfare, accepting a handout or collecting a dole).

With such loaded terms, no debate is possible. The assumptions have been imposed in the very words.

Another aspect of language control is simply imposing certain terminology upon everyone through social or political pressure - even if the terminology itself is value neutral. One day, you may say "crippled." The next, you're insensitive: the proper term is "handicapped." The next, you're out of the intellectual loop: Everyone knows the politically correct word is "disabled" (then "differently abled," then "physically challenged"). One day your neighbors are "Negro." But the next you're a bigoted rube if you fail to say "Black." Then you can't be sure: Is it "Black" or "Afro-American" or "African-American" and what if your neighbor is from Jamaica, not Rhodesia, is she still "Afro-hyphen"? One day, even Dan Rather says "Red China." The next, suddenly everyone makes an abrupt switch to praise our friend "The People's Republic," as if the term "Red China" had never existed. I'm not speaking of the natural flow and change of language - which in English is rich, abundant and one of our great cultural treasures. I'm not speaking of the clubby, ever-changing jargon of various social groups. I am speaking of imposed language which ensures that only those "in the know" (as defined by an elite group) can ever feel confident discussing, or even thinking about, politically sensitive topics. Common people lose power over political issues because they fear they can't speak safely or astutely about them. They fear they will be ridiculed, that their views won't be taken seriously. Since they aren't sure of the acceptable terminology, they often assume they must also be lacking salient facts. They shut up. They become submissive to the intellectual dictates of interest groups - which is often exactly the intent. Note that such language is nearly always imposed when government is in the process of taking more control in a given area. It does not just happen.

In this latter case, the terms themselves are less important than the fundamental question: Who shapes the language? As Orwell observed so powerfully in more than one of his works, when you control people's language, you control how they think - and ultimately how they behave.

Denial of responsibility

Another curious echo between Communism and our world arises in the concept of absolute power without even minimal responsibility. One example from The Black Book: "On March 2, 1930 all Soviet newspapers carried Stalin's famous article 'Dizzy with Success,' which condemned 'the numerous abuses of the principle of voluntary collectivization' and blamed the excesses of collectivization and dekulakization on local bosses who were 'drunk on success.'"

Of course we now know - as The Black Book explains so well - that the "abuses" of agricultural collectivization - including the millions of deaths by famine that followed - were deliberate, and were planned by Stalin himself.

Yet as Vasily Grossman details in his poignant novel, Forever Flowing, the public continued to believe Stalin's claims of innocence. If only someone could tell the great, caring leader what was really happening, they believed, he would put a stop to the horror. Thus, they put their utmost trust in the very agent of the catastrophe.

Stalin's denial of responsibility was no isolated case. Later, in his 1956 "Secret Speech" openly discussing Stalin's evils for the first time, Nikita Kruschev very carefully failed to mention that he himself, as head of the Communist Party in the Ukraine (the focus of the famine), played a role in implementing Stalin's policies of collectivization and deliberate starvation.

Today, in U.S. politics, we have "leaders" who demand ever greater power, while at the same time taking less and less responsibility for the consequences of their actions. This is true on both a policy level and a personal one.

They are not accountable for bombings of Sudanese pharmaceutical factories or Balkan hospitals. Likewise, they cannot even consider that their intervention could be a cause, not the cure, of "crises" in health care, education or poverty. Every act of official violence or overkill is dismissed as the doing of some low-level functionary on the scene - and even that person usually escapes punishment (ala Lon Horiuchi) due to his status as a government employee. Even when an authority figure "takes full responsibility" - as Janet Reno did for the Waco debacle - she can do so safely, knowing there are no consequences.

On the personal level, when caught in wrongdoing, politicians at most admit they "made mistakes," "gave the appearance of wrongdoing," or were helpless to know right from wrong in the absence of "controlling legal authority." But actually accept moral or legal responsibility and act accordingly? Not they. You may go to prison for committing similar acts. They are exempt.

Again, nothing that has occurred in modern America even begins to approach the devastation or the sheer cruelty described in The Black Book. But we must question the intentions of politicians who demand ever more power with less accountability. Down that road - the road of complacency or downright State Worship - lies ruthlessness for leaders and helplessness for ordinary people.

Perpetual war

To justify their harshest measures, Lenin and Trotsky early on developed the concept of perpetual war. That is, anyone who opposed them was not merely an opponent, but an enemy - of the state, of the proletariat, of Communism, therefore of all that was good and progressive and desirable. Thus it was necessary not only to argue against opponents, but to crush them utterly. Trotsky wrote:

The question about who will rule the country - that is, about the life or death of the bourgeoisie - will be decided on either side not by reference to the paragraphs of the constitution, but by the employment of all forms of violence.

As writer and critic Tzvetan Todorov elaborated:

The enemy is the great justification for terror, and the totalitarian state needs enemies to survive. If it lacks them, it invents them. Once they have been identified, they are treated without mercy. Belonging to the [enemy] class is enough; there is no need actually to have done anything at all.

It is important to read The Black Book to get the full impact of what it means to wage perpetual war against one's own fellow citizens. But we're already seeing the beginnings of it in America today.

Is it any coincidence that we now not only have such things as Wars on Poverty, Wars on Illegal Immigration, Wars on Crime and a perpetual War on Drugs but - irony of ironies - that we set up "czars" to conduct them?

And no one should imagine that "war" is merely a catchy metaphor. In this case, when politicians use a word, they mean it. Because our nation is at "war" with drugs, we see increasing use of military equipment and militaristic tactics in law enforcement. Instead of two uniformed officers knocking at a door to present a non-violent suspect with a warrant, we now send a 20-strong, ninja-clad SWAT team armed with German MP5s to kick down his door in the middle of the night, screaming, hurling flash-bang grenades, and shooting his children, his parents or himself if, in the confusion, they either move when ordered to halt or fail to move fast enough when ordered to move. We have roadblocks with random, warrantless searches of automobiles. We have courts that send people accused of drug trafficking to prison on the word of criminal informants - without even requiring hard evidence of drugs or drug transactions. We have Supreme Court decisions that discard the Constitution in favor of "overriding government considerations." Increasingly, we are approaching conditions like the one The Black Book describes prevailing in Cuba:

In 1978 a law was adopted to prevent criminality before it actually happened. What this meant in practice was that any Cuban could be arrested on any pretext if the authorities believed that he presented a danger to state security even if he had not committed any illegal act. In effect the law criminalized any thought that did not accord with the ideas of the regime, turning every Cuban into a potential suspect.

Even in America, we have nearly reached a point where certain suspects - usually in drug, weapon or political crimes - are simply enemies to be expunged, not citizens with rights.

Other rings of familiarity

In other areas we can also see echoes of Communist-style mega-state power. U.S. officials today:

Imposition of Utopia

The Black Book of Communism begins to show us that totalitarianism is totalitarianism, whether we call it fascist, Communist or some other name. Totalitarianism's central feature is a state that desires total control and assumes the right to impose that control at any cost. If you already know the nature of tyranny, read this book to vindicate your wisdom and provide yourself with intellectual ammo against those who believe that a little statism is a harmless thing. If you don't already know, read and be glad that these authors speak so dispassionately; otherwise your heart would break.

We should never forget that we, too, are vulnerable to this danger - and are perhaps most vulnerable when we believe "it can't happen here." in the end, Courtois reminds us, terror can (and does) grow out of even the most heartfelt idealism:

Why should maintaining power have been so important that it justified all means and led to the abandonment of the most elementary moral principles? The answer must be that it was the only way for Lenin to put his ideas into practice and "build socialism." The real motivation for the terror thus becomes apparent: it stemmed from Leninist ideology and the utopian will to apply to society a doctrine totally out of step with reality. ... In a desperate attempt to hold onto power, the Bolsheviks made terror an everyday part of their policies, seeking to remodel society in the image of their theory, and to silence those who, either through their actions or by their very social, economic, or intellectual existence, pointed to the gaping holes in the theory. Once in power, the Bolsheviks made Utopia an extremely bloody business.

Read The Black Book of Communism and join the Holocaust cry: Never again!

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