A debate in raging in France about whether Communism was as evil as Nazism. Marxist thinkers resist the comparison because it puts them on the side of evil.
Since 9/11 attention has been rightly and understandably focused on terrorism and the Middle East. We must not, however, let this cause us to forget two other evils of the twentieth century: Nazism and Communism. It is the latter that I deal with here. A colleague recently observed that "many post-colonialist scholars...have been Marxists or strongly left, and therefore have been reluctant to make the Soviet Union a global villain on the scale of France or Britain." While no doubt true, this surprising statement brought to mind the heated debate that raged in France following the publication of Le Livre Noir du Communisme (in English The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression). The Black Book, a weighty tome of 858, pages was written by six leading French scholars, all of whom are former Communists or "close fellow-travelers." The controversy was triggered by the editor's introduction.
Critics were upset by four claims advanced there: 1) the number of victims; 2) the comparison of Communism and Nazism; 3) the assertion of complicity on the part of Western scholars; and 4) the explanation for the unusual silence that exists vis-a-vis the crimes of Communism.
In the first place they accused the editor of inflating the number of victims of Communism to reach 100,000,000. Relying where possible on recently opened archives, these statistics were given:
USSR: 20 million
China: 65 million
Vietnam: l million
North Korea: 2 million
Cambodia: 2 million
Eastern Europe: l million
Latin America: 150,000
Africa: l.5 million
Afghanistan: l.5 million
The international Communist movement and Communist parties not in power: 10,000.
On the other hand, Martin Malia, a well known American authority, in his review of the book confirms these numbers and calls the Communist record "the most colossal case of political carnage in history."
Secondly, there was the claim of striking similarities between Communism and Nazism, e.g. one party, a single ideology, total subservience of state to party, "a cult of a leader and mass terror." The methods used by the two totalitarian systems were also similar: deportations (in cattle cars), concentration camps (a Soviet invention borrowed by the Nazis), dehumanization and "animalization" of victims ("Kulaks are not human beings---they have no right to live." Enemies of the people must be crushed "like noxious insects," Lenin)
Because there were (and still are) Communists in the French government, the equation of Communism and Nazism provoked a furious debate in France; it was no doubt the most inflammatory aspect of his introduction. Of course, others had claimed this earlier, e.g. George Orwell and Hannah Arendt. One contributor to the Black Book wrote that Communism and Fascism were "identical in every significant way," and another called them "heterozygous twins." Tony Judt, writing in the N.Y. Times, asserted that they "are, and always were, morally indistinguishable." Anson Rabinbach summed it up thus: ". . . communist regimes were far more murderous than Nazism and should not be given second rank in the moral ledger of twentieth-century genocide." This is not to deny the obvious differences: the Nazis practiced racial genocide, the Communists "class genocide," the Nazis killed "the Other," the Communists killed their own; the Nazis had extermination camps, the preferred weapon of the Communists was famine (an easy thing to cause when there is central control of all resources).
Thirdly, the editor dared to raise the question of the complicity of those living outside the Communist countries. He accuses hundreds of thousands of "aiding and abetting" the crimes of Lenin and Stalin from the 1920s to the 1950s and of the "Great Helmsman" from the 1950s to the 1970s. "Much closer to our time," he writes, "there was widespread rejoicing [among leftist scholars] when Pol Pot came to power."
In the fourth place, how can we account for the strange silence vis-a-vis the crimes of Communism and the lack of knowledge on the part of the general public when it "metastasized" (the word used by Solzhenitsyn), affecting "one third of humanity on four continents during a period spanning eighty years" Several explanations have been advanced: the "tyrants" were good at concealing the facts, "the absolute denial of access to archives . . . , the total control of the print and other media as well as of border crossings, the propaganda trumpeting the regimes's 'successes,' and the entire apparatus for keeping information under lock and key were designed primarily to ensure that the awful truth would never see the light of day," They viciously attacked all who attempted to reveal the truth, they attempted to justify their crimes as a "necessary aspect of revolution," (You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs.), and they perverted the language. Other factors included naiveté, self-deception, "cupidity, spinelessness, vanity, fascination with power, violence and revolutionary fervor. . ." Finally the fact that the Soviets participated in defeating the Nazis and the focus on the Holocaust as a unique atrocity have distracted the world from Communist atrocities.
This brief summary obviously does not begin to do justice to the complexity and comprehensiveness of the account given in the book. Anyone who is interested is advised to read at least Martin Malia's foreword to the English version, "The Uses of Atrocity."
Two objections should be dealt with preemptively: First that Communism began as a benign movement of liberation that somehow got derailed. Malia believes that The Black Book lays this myth (that of "good Lenin, bad Stalin") to rest once and for all. Secondly, it has been argued that it is "illegitimate to speak of a single Communist movement from Phnom Penh to Paris." Malia thinks that The Black Book refutes this, a point on which there was unanimous agreement among the contributors. The ideology runs from Lenin, to Stalin, "to Mao, to Ho, to Kim Il Sung, to Pol Pot."
On pp. 9-10 of The Black Book one can find a breakdown of the ghastly statistics for the U.S.S.R., e.g. "The liquidation of almost 690,000 in the Great Purge of 1937-38," "The destruction of four million Ukrainians and two million others by means of an artificial and systematically perpetuated famine in 1932-33," etc., etc., etc. I shall say nothing about the millions who were enslaved or impoverished by the Soviet Union; nor shall I discuss the degradation of the environment that occurred in areas that came under its sway.
Still, perhaps the most devastating comment on Communism comes from Richard Pipes in his Communism, A History. Pipes writes that "the Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia (1975-78) represents the purest embodiment of Communism: what it turns into when pushed to its logical conclusion. Its leaders would stop at nothing to attain their objective, which was to create the first truly egalitarian society in the world: to this end they were prepared to annihilate as many of their people as they deemed necessary. It was the most extreme manifestation of the hubris inherent in Communist ideology, the belief in the boundless power of an intellectual elite guided by the Marxist doctrine, with resort to unrestrained violence in order completely to reshape life. The result was devastation on an unimaginable scale." I leave it to readers to decide whether the Soviet Union should be considered "a global villain on the scale of France or Britain." One wonders where "post-colonialist scholars" have placed Nazi Germany in their villainy hierarchy
Prof. Jeremiah Reedy is a Classic Professor at Macalester College.