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Book Review: The Black Book of Communism

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The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression
by Stephane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panne, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, and Jean-Louis Margolin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999); 856 pages; $37.50.

In 1875, Karl Marx wrote an article entitled, “Critique of the Gotha Programme.” At one point in the text there appear the following sentences:

“Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

In Marx’s theory of historical development, the state is the agency of force that is used by any ruling class to protect its property rights and power against those segments of the society it exploits and represses. When the historical processes of inevitable class conflict have reached the point at which capitalist society finally would have its demise, the working class would expropriate the expropriators.

But the former capitalist ruling class would not give up without a fight, and the victorious working class would have to use the violent and repressive power of the state to ensure its permanent victory over its class enemies. Or as Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels, put it the same year, 1875: “So long as the proletariat still uses the state, it does not use it in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries.”

Shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, Vladimir Lenin wrote, in reply to a critic of Bolshevik dictatorship and terror: “The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is rule won and maintained by the use of violence by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, rule that is unrestricted by any laws.”

When The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression appeared originally in France in 1997, it caused a firestorm of controversy. Here was a group of respected scholars and historians, some of whom were well known as being on the political left and often apologists for Soviet policies during the Cold War, publishing a series of detailed historical studies of communist regimes in the 20th century and documenting their murderous brutality and inhumanity. They demonstrated that communism had caused more death and destruction than even the Nazis. What was the response? One French reviewer of the volume said: “Agreed, both Nazis and communists killed. But while the Nazis killed from hatred of humanity, the communists killed from love.” Communists so loved the world they were willing to cruelly murder tens of millions in the name of creating a “new man” for a coming utopia.

It is impossible in a review to do justice to the chapters in this book, each one a carefully worked, meticulously researched account of communism in practice in various parts of the globe. The authors provide accounts of communist murder and terror in: Russia under Lenin and Stalin; Spain during the Civil War of the 1930s; Eastern Europe; China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; the African countries of Ethiopia, Angola, and Mozambique; Afghanistan; and Cuba and Nicaragua.

But what runs through all of these separate studies is the horrifying uniformity of the experience, regardless of time, culture, or historical circumstance in which communists have come to power. In every case, the same political script was followed and with the same terrible results. First, a rapid consolidation of political power into the monopoly hands of the communists. Second, the seizure and control over all means of information, production, and human association. Third, the formation of a secret police.

Fourth, the formal political dichotomizing of society into “class enemies” and “class friends.” Fifth, the institution of a reign of terror and violence to repress and destroy any and all forms of opposition and resistance, including the attempted destruction and control of all aspects of private life. Sixth, mass arrests of class enemies, leading to their imprisonment, murder, or exile into camps for slave labor and “reeducation.” Seventh, disastrous experiments with socialist central planning that led to famines, hunger, and mass murder as a result of government-created starvation.

The particular sequence of these “stages” of communist practice and consequence may have varied depending upon the historical circumstances under which the “proletarian dictators” came to power and consolidated it for journeying down the road to utopia. But the end product was always the same: a hell on earth. Let me at least quote from the chapter about Cambodia during the nightmare of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, and how hunger was used as a planned tool of control:

“The hunger that crushed so many Cambodians over the years was used deliberately by the regime in the service of its interests. The hungrier people were, the less food their bodies could store, and the less likely they were to run away. If people were permanently obsessed with food, all individual thought, all capacity to argue, even people’s sex drive, would disappear. The games that were played with the food supply made forced evacuations easier, promoted acceptance of the collective canteens, and also weakened interpersonal relationships, including between parents and their children…. Hunger dehumanized, causing one person to turn on another and to forget everything except his own survival. To survive, people were forced to cheat, lie, steal, and turn their heart to stone…. Everyone, by contrast, would kiss the hand that fed them, regardless of how bloody it was.”

By destroying every form of human relationship and any basic and normal sense of common humanity and decency, the communists hoped to eliminate all forms of human association so as to be able to then remold men and society into their vision of an “new world”

But in their eyes, it was all okay. After all, they did it from love. PURCHASE: The Black Book of Communism : Crimes, Terror, Repression

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).