The Black Book on Red Blood

 

                                                                  Jeremiah Reedy

 

                In the October, 2000 issue of Colloquy David Moore 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."  (p.  11)  While no doubt true, this

surprising statement brought to mind the heated debate that raged in France

four years ago following the publication of Le Livre Noir du Communisme

(the English version, The Black Book of Communism, Crimes, Terror,

Repression was published by Harvard University Press in l999, and seems to

be gathering dust in libraries, having attracted very little attention

here).  The Black Book, a weighty tome of 858 pages was written by six

leading French scholars all associated with the Centre d'Etude d'Histoire

et de Sociologie du Communisme.  All are former Communists or "close

fellow-travellers." (TLS, p. 3)  The controversy was triggered by Stephane

Courtois' introduction.  Francois Furet, author of The Passing of an

Illusion, the Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century and also an

ex-communist, had been invited to write the introduction but died

unexpectedly; Courtois stepped into the breach.  Critics of The Black Book

which included two of the contributors, Nicolas Werth and Jean-Louis

Margolin, were upset inter alia by four claims advanced by Courtois: l.) re

the number of victims,  2.) the comparison of communism and nazism, 3.) the

complicity of western scholars, and 4.) the unusual silence that exists

vis-a-vis the crimes of communism.

 

                 In the first place they accused Courtois of inflating the number

of victims of communism to reach l00,000,000.  Relying where possible on

recently opened archives, Courtois gives these statistics:

 

                U.S.S.R: 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 & Communist parties not in

                                power: 10,000

 

                On the other hand, Martin Malia in his review of the book in the

Times Literary Supplement defends Courtois and calls the Communist record

"the most colossal case of political carnage in history." (TLS, p. 3)

 

                Secondly Courtois sees 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."  (Riding, p. 2)  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 perhaps still are) Communists in the French

government, Courtois' equation of Communism and Nazism provoked a furious

debate in France; it was no doubt the most inflammatory aspect of his

introduction.  Of course, other had claimed this earlier, e.g. George

Orwell and Hannah Arendt.  Furet in his book had said that Communism and

Fascism were "identical in every significant way." (quoted in J. Arch Getty

p. 113), and de Benoist called them "heterozygous twins." (p. l3)  Tony

Judt, writing in the N.Y. Times asserted that they "are, and always were,

morally indistinguishable" (p. 3).  Anson Rabinbach summed it up thus:

",..communists regimes were far more murderous than Nazism and should not

be given second rank in the moral ledger of twentieth-century genocide."

(p. 63)  This is not to deny the obvious differences: the Nazis practiced

racial genocide, the Communists "class genocide," the Nazis killed "the

Other,"  the Communists their own; the Nazis had extermination camps, the

preferred weapon of the Communists was famine (an easy thing to do when

there is central control of all resources).

 

                Thirdly Courtois 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 (a point also made by Robert Conquest in The Great

Terror) and of the "Great Helmsman" from the 1950s to the 1970s.  "Much

closer to our time," writes Courtois, "there was widespread rejoicing when

Pol Pot came to power." (p. 11)

 

                In the fourth place, how can we account for the strange silence of

academics vis-a-vis the crimes of Communism and the lack of knowledge on

the part of the general public when it "metastasized" (Malia's word also

used by Solzhenitsyn of the Gulag) affecting "one third of humanity on four

continents during a period spanning eight years" (Courtois, p. 20)

Courtois suggests many causes: 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," (p. 18) 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 naivete, self-deception, "cupidity, spinelessness, vanity,

fascination with power, violence and revolutionary fervor..." (p. 20)

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 of what seemed to me to be the most

controversial claims made by Courtois 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" and Courtois'

introduction itself.

 

                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." (p. xiv)  Malia thinks that The Black Book refutes this, a

point on which there was unanimous agreement among the six authors.  The

ideology runs from Lenin, to Stalin, "to Mao, to Ho, to Kim Il Sung, to Pol

Pot." (p. xiv)

 

                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 leave it

to readers to decide whether the Soviet Union should be considered "a

global villain on the scale of France or Britain."

                                                                                Bibliography

 

                S. Courtois, N. Werth, J-L. Panne, A. Paczkowski, K. Bartosek, J-L.

Margolin, The Black Book of Communism, Crimes, Terror, Repression (Harvard

U. Press, 1999)

 

                J. Arch Getty, "The Future Did Not Work," The Atlantic Monthly,

March, 2000.

 

                Tony Judt, "Communism Was Mass Murder From the Outset," New York

Times, November,16, 1998.

 

                Martin Malia, "The Lesser Evil?" Times Literary Supplement, March

27, 1998.

 

                Anson Rabinbach, "Communist Crimes and French Intellectuals,"

Dissent, Fall, 1998.

 

                Alan Riding, "New Book About Crimes of Communism Fuels Heated

Debate in France," www.l.omnitel.net/arkadija/a14.htm