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The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression
by stéphane courtois, nicolas werth, jean-louis panné, andrzej paczkowski, karel bartosek, and jean-louis margolin
harvard university press, 856 pages, $37.50

Publication of The Black Book of Communism in November 1997 in France stirred up a major political and intellectual debate, propelling this academic study of the nature of tyranny onto the best-seller list. For anyone who doubts that communism produced anything but scores of millions murdered in the service of a higher ideal, the evidence is presented here in all its ghastly detail.

Despite the book’s success, some of its contributors openly dissociated themselves from the introduction and conclusion written by Stéphane Courtois. According to Nicolas Werth and Jean-Louis Margolin, Courtois went too far in his estimate of the numbers killed by all Communist regimes—over 100 million, he approximated. More importantly, Courtois crossed the line when he compared the Soviet Gulag with the Nazi Holocaust. Courtois argued that in addition to the sheer numbers of dead—and the death toll of those killed by Communists far exceeds those murdered by the Nazis—a similarity exists between the “class genocide” preached by Lenin and Stalin and the “race genocide” of Hitler. Eschewing the argument that one evil was lesser than the other, Courtois firmly asserted that both totalitarian regimes practiced “crimes against humanity” on a monumental scale.

Why, one wonders, does this judgment produce such a heated debate, even among the volume’s own contributors? The answer, I think, is to be found in another important volume about communism: The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, by François Furet (see the discussion by Brian C. Anderson elsewhere in this issue). Furet, like many of the authors of The Black Book of Communism, was himself a former Communist. Furet argues that Stalin was able to mask the terror of the Soviet state, and indeed to widen its appeal to many in the West, by assuming the mantle of anti-fascism. Stalin’s tactics allowed him to present himself as a defender of the bourgeois tradition he disdained. The result was that in the West, especially in Europe, Communists were able to pose, at least temporarily, as champions of liberal democracy. Communists were thus able to gather as allies not only parties of the left but also those of the center and the right. As Furet explains, “The movement to stop Hitler gave communism its most glorious moment and its militants whatever nobility illusion could allow.”

For decades, the legions of Stalin’s followers were able to depict themselves as fellow partisans in the good fight. Moreover, they were also able to deflect attention from the crimes committed by Stalin and his henchmen, especially since anyone who told the truth about what was taking place in the USSR was immediately branded a Fascist. Thus we had the strange spectacle of the French left erupting in anger after publication of Courtois’ book, which they claimed (in a throwback to the days of the Popular Front) was a new apologia for fascism. Even today, it seems, critics of communism face stern resistance in the West.

It will be interesting, therefore, to see whether the American publication of The Black Book of Communism will produce any significant response. On one level, its appearance in the United States, in a translation by Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer, is of even greater importance than its European publication, for it is in the United States, ironically, that a friendly interpretation of communism has had its largest hearing. Among many intellectuals, Communists still have the reputation of having been idealistic heroes motivated by the fight against fascism. Even as new evidence reveals the extent to which the American Communist Party officially used its apparatus to recruit agents for Soviet espionage, communism’s apologists respond that they meant no harm, that the gallant Soviet ally needed all the help it could get, and that, after all, the Communists supported racial equality and workers’ rights.

The insistence that communism and fascism be weighed on different moral scales continues, says Martin Malia in his introduction to the American edition of The Black Book, because “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.” The problem, as Malia sees it, is that “by the time of communism’s fall the liberal world had had fifty years to settle into a double standard regarding its two late adversaries.” Communism’s collapse took place without the equivalent of a Nuremberg trial, without a de-Communization comparable to the de-Nazification that took place in postwar West Germany. Moreover, there are no museums testifying to the evils of communism, no memorials to communism’s victims, and no Gulag camps maintained as reminders to new generations of the crimes committed by Communist regimes.

So it is that many people—and not just Communist apologists—blanch at the equation of Stalin’s Russia with Hitler’s Germany. Malia acknowledges that Nazi terror was distinctive: Hitler’s genocidal policy was meant to exterminate a religious and cultural group, the Jews, as an end in and of itself. Stalin’s murders, on the other hand, were undertaken against all groups he saw as political challenges to his power, and were therefore carried out for a political objective.

Many liberals are reluctant to attack Communists unreservedly out of a fear that doing so would “play into the hands of the right.” Anticommunism, in this view, is but a variant of antiliberalism, and it tends, moreover, to legitimate reactionary regimes and movements. To many well-meaning Western liberals, therefore, it is more important to ignore or minimize the crimes of communism—they are in the past, after all—than to do anything that would aid the primary enemy on the right. In the extreme version of this position, as Malia notes, “a moral man can have ‘no enemies to the left.’” From this perspective, it matters not that Communists and Fascists committed comparable crimes; what counts is that their “moral auras were antithetical.” Malia responds to this view by citing the argument of East European dissidents that “mass murder in the name of a noble idea is more perverse than it is in the name of a base one.”

The strength and importance of The Black Book is that the compendium of horrors it presents is itself an answer to all the spurious arguments of Communist apologists. It establishes not just that Communist states committed criminal acts, but that they were essentially criminal enterprises. Not surprisingly, the worst offender among the Communist states is not the former Soviet Union, but the still-Communist People’s Republic of China. In that state, peasant families sold their children to be eaten during the era of state-created famine. The Chinese Gulag—the so-called laogai, a prison system virtually unknown in the West—still holds the most political prisoners in the world, and they live under barbaric conditions. Jean-Louis Margolin tells us in The Black Book that twenty million died in that system after the Communist victory in 1949; twenty million others during the Great Leap Forward of 1959–61; and many thousands more during the Great Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. But why expose all this now—when “most favored nation” status, growing trade and investment by Western corporations, and the continuation of stable diplomatic relations are at stake? As so often in the past, Western business leaders aid and abet historical amnesia.

Martin Malia suggests that it is the lingering desire for a utopia on earth that leads so many to resist condemning the Communist project; to do so might force them to forsake the utopian dream. Communism was a warped religion, one with its own saints, its own founding fathers, and its own group of heretics and renegades. And yet, ironically, the authors of the book—along with François Furet, Arthur Koestler, and George Orwell among others—were at one time themselves men of the left who were tempted by the utopian dream. Many of the most important insights about communism have come from former Communists, those who came to realize that the road to hell was paved with good intentions. It was precisely their humane motivations, their belief in a moral social order and a good society, that led those who became ex-Communists to comprehend, and to devote their lives to testifying about, Communist reality. It was the betrayal of the ideals they cherished that led them to turn against their faith.

This book needs most to be read by the remaining remnants of the Western left who still cling to leftover illusions. Still trying to create a “new man,” they now insist that real socialism was never tried, conveniently forgetting that when “real existing socialism” was in power they consistently honored and defended it, at the same time condemning its critics as scoundrels. There are, unfortunately, enough such people still around that, as Martin Malia concludes, it will be “a very Long March indeed before communism is accorded its fair share of absolute evil.”

Ronald Radosh, Senior Research Associate at the Center for Communitarian Policy Studies, George Washington University, is coauthor with Mary R. Habeck of Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union and the Spanish Civil War, forthcoming from Yale University Press.