The Black Book of Communism (Translation by Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer) (Review) / (book review)
Author: Daniel J. Mahoney

Issue: March, 2000The Black Book of Communism By Stephane Courtois et al., translated by Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer Harvard University Press, 858 pages, $37.50.

The Black Book of Communism is one of those rare books that really matters. It is the first systematic and comparative analysis of the "crimes, terror and repression" that accompanied Communism everywhere and that seemed to define its "genetic code." The book's centerpiece is a relentlessly documented narrative of political violence and repression in the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin, drawing on extensive archival materials made available to researchers since the collapse of Communist rule in 1991. But The Black Book also contains absorbing accounts of Communist repression in Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Third World.

This book richly displays the diverse variants of Communism throughout the twentieth century. But even Communists like Tito, Mao, and Enver Hoxha who eventually broke with Moscow always looked to Lenin for inspiration. Orthodox Communist regimes reveal a strikingly similar ideological profile. Everywhere Communism became entrenched, one discovers the same things: a single party dictatorship, the imposition of a pseudo-scientific ideology as the key to understanding all aspects of life, and an abusive and "wooden" rhetoric that demonized real or imagined enemies. Communist regimes engaged in large-scale social engineering and systematically ignored the concerns of ordinary human beings. This led to tragedy, even genocide, in cases like the Soviet "war against the kulaks" (1929-34), the Chinese "Great Leap Forward" (1958-61), and the Khmer Rouge's massacre of a quarter of Cambodia's population between 1975 and 1979.

The six contributors to this book are all French, and all hail from the Left. The book's original publication in France created a sensation, because its cumulative effect is to establish that Communism is the twentieth century's fiercest practitioner of state violence and "crimes against humanity." It forthrightly challenges the claim that Nazism has a monopoly on "absolute political evil" in our time.

The chapters on the Soviet Union and China are as powerful as they are in large part because their authors, Nicolas Werth and Jean-Louis Margolin, avoid excessive polemics and allow the evidence to simply speak for itself. If anything, Werth is excessively conservative in his estimates, drawing almost exclusively from not always reliable "official" party and state archival materials to verify politically--inspired deaths and incarcerations in the Soviet Union. Despite the limits of this method, Werth concludes that the Bolshevik regime was responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of 20 million people between 1918 and 1956, and for the imprisonment in camps of millions more. He demolishes the notion of a good Lenin and a bad Stalin by showing that terror defined the Soviet regime from its inception. And he concludes that there is no basis for the claim that the terror of the 1930s was driven by overzealous Party and police officials acting independently of orders.

Likewise, Margolin's chapter on China shows that the crimes of Maoism are rooted in ideological hubris and a denial of the humanity of political or class "enemies." Margolin demonstrates that Mao committed crimes unprecedented in Chinese history, and damaged the nation in everything from economics to ethics. The devastating consequences of Mao's rule: 65 million lost lives. Perhaps the deepest reason The Black Book has sparked controversy is that it argues Communism is as intrinsically perverse as Nazism. Editor Stephane Courtois argues that Communist crimes, like Nazi ones, partake of the desire to eliminate groups of people on the basis of their origins, not because of any individual culpability or responsibility. He denies that Communism's crimes have any right to be excused or qualified because they were committed in the name of egalitarian principles. Courtois shows that Communism is an exterminationist ideology which selects its enemies on the basis of class. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn suggested in The Gulag Archipelago that the USSR's war against the independent peasantry--the so-called "de-kulakization" campaign --was the first systematic effort to eliminate an entire class of people for ideological reasons. In this sense, Hitler was Lenin's and Stalin's faithful pupil. There remain obstacles to Communism receiving its moral due as one of the two essentially criminal political enterprises of the century. Many historians and political theorists tend to write off its crimes as the fault of secondary factors ranging from Mao's cruelty to Castro's vanity--every thing except Communism itself. Secondly, there are few photographic or cinematic images of Communism's misdeeds. In an age dominated by media images, this is a major obstacle to public recognition of the enormity of Communism's crimes. And we probably cannot expect any help from Hollywood on this score. There's a final obstacle: As Martin Malia points out in his splendid introduction, "any realistic accounting of Communist crime would effectively shut the door on Utopia; and too many good souls in this unjust world cannot abandon hope for an absolute end to inequality." For this reason, legions of academics and others will continue to ignore Communist totalitarianism and instead blame its criminality on accidental features such as "Stalinism." Communism may be dead, but the utopian impulse persists.

Daniel J. Mahoney is completing a book on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. COPYRIGHT 2000 American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group