The 100 million killed under Communist regimes matter

Growing up as a child I didn’t know much about Communism except that it was bad. I knew that it was atheistic from the mosque…but early on I knew I was quite atheistic, so that was not a major issue to me (though the religious oppression was). There was a period when I was eight or nine when I was interested in military history and armaments. It was immediately obvious that the Soviet Union seemed to be maintaining parity with the United States of America, which impressed me a great deal (MiG-29‘s are still around!). Though I also read that it expended a much larger proportion of its GDP on that than the USA.

Even to me, it was clear that the Soviet Union was an authoritarian regime, but it wasn’t dramatically emphasized in the same way that the evils of Nazi Germany were. The Nazis had become dramatic legends even in my youth, but I’m old enough that in the 1980s and 1990s I also met survivors of the concentration camps, whether personally or during tours of schools. And then there was . The Holocaust and Nazism, and the bravery of the , were all prominent in our minds.

In the wake of the Brezhnev era, the Soviets were more sinister than evil, while with the rise to power of Mikhael Gorbachev they also seemed to be turning a new leaf.

Even after the fall of the Communist bloc in the early 1990s I did have later encounters with the ideology. One of my roommates, and friend, at university was an avowed Communist. Now, I knew of other self-identified Communists, but she was the real deal. She flew to Cuba to listen to a six-hour speech given by Fidel Castro at one point, even though she didn’t have the money for it. And, she seemed genuinely saddened by the shift of China to toward a mixed economy. It wasn’t just a pose. But I didn’t give it much thought. In the 1990s Communism had no future, so her ideological fervor struck me as a harmless affectation.

It was only later that that I understood the true impact of Communist ideology, especially earlier in the 20th century. Stalin’s and Mao’s political purges, and the tens of millions who died in famines. The death toll under Communist regimes is of incredible magnitude; without compare (though with parallel, alas).

It is fitting that Joseph Stalin is reputed to have been the one who said “the death of one person is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic.”

And yet whenever I dismiss and attack Communism for being an evil ideology I get a serious number of rebuttals from readers. Often they take the same forms as the arguments I read in Michael Parenti’s  back in 1990s, which initially led me down the path of exploring Communism more deeply (despite being supportive of the Communist project in the generality, even Parenti couldn’t deny the atrocities, even as he tried to mitigate).

One argument I often get is that they meant well. This is in contrast to the National Socialists in Germany, who were exterminationist. To a first approximation, this seems clear…but as someone who is personally from rural “landlord” background, I doubt they meant well to everyone! The dictatorship of the proletariat was going to overturn the old order, and the losers were not going to be happy about it. Not only were they going to be dispossessed, but they were often targeted and killed. There were class enemies, and it was clear early on that revolutionary Marxists were not going to be gentle with those class enemies. They would liquidate them.

But whatever their intent, with Communism we have several repeated instances of massive death counts of the very people that the revolutions were supposed to help. The famine in Ukraine, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cambodian Genocide are clear examples.Then there is the North Korean famine the late 1990s. And the greatest decline in poverty the world has ever seen has occurred after the Chinese Communist state veered away from the regnant Marxist-Leninist economic orthodoxy of the 20th century.

Today we face a new dilemma. Since 1970 the wage gap between skilled workers and the unskilled has been growing in the developed world. The egalitarian society of mass affluence seems to be fading away, as a new era of inequality and immiseration is facing us. At least in prosperous mature societies.

I do not see any plausible solution on the Left or Right on the horizon. The populist energies that have been unleashed in democratic societies reflects this lack of an answer from the elites. They have no fix which will present opportunities for broad-based prosperity. And, to be frank, populists are correct in suggesting that the elites partake extensively of crony capitalism and enforce policies which are self-serving.

Into this vacuum are stepping radical firebrands on the Right and the Left. On the Left journals such as Jacobin Magazine are taking a “fresh look” at Marxism. As the above indicates I see where the impulse comes from. But this experiment has been done, disastrously, multiple times. There is no way any major state should risk this sort of radical socialism.I know that people like Bill Ayers call themselves “Anarchist Communists,” but in practice, they praise states like Venezuela which do not practice anarchism from what I can tell. All reasonable alternatives are better, even muddling along through a mixed economy.

Despite the empirical record of Communism academics, in particular, seem to have a warm and fuzzy spot for the Marxists. They “meant well.” And, not only are there abstract Marxists in academia, there are literal self-identified Communists in the professoriate who egg on violent agitation. Obviously, there are no Nazi professors. And yet Communism is given a latitude, despite its 100 million person body count!

And the body count issue is interesting because apologists for Communism regularly suggest that these numbers may be exaggerated. Refutations of the statistics for the Chinese famine suggest that it was closer to 10 million, rather than 45 million. This is like saying the Nazi regime has been slandered, because they killed 2 million, as opposed to 6 million, Jews. Quibbling over numbers in a passionate manner like this is the domain of Holocaust deniers, and yet with Communism, I encounter this regularly.

In conclusion, I don’t ever want to hear about how “true socialism has never been done.” The only socialism which is acceptable are the “less true” socialisms, the inept French kind with all its regulations, the high taxation Scandinavian variety, and those states which dabble in the commanding heights, but don’t fully commit. Gale force socialism too often leads to genocide and makes as much sense in practice as crazy libertarianism which attempts to privatize all sidewalks.

Finally, granting that Communists had their hearts in the right places, what did they end up accomplishing? Yes, perhaps one hundred million died, but that was in the past. But what are post-Communist countries like today? The Russian state is now a right-wing nationalist authoritarian regime. The Communists were famously anti-racist, and I believe sincerely so. But sixty years of enforced anti-racism led to a populace which is notoriously racist against colored people once given freedom to make up their own mind (Moscow is considered a dangerous place for non-white people to travel without caution). North Korea is constitutionally racist at this point, and China’s authoritarianism is probably one of the major reasons that its populist nationalism is kept in check. And similar things might be said about gender egalitarianism and the subordinate relationships of women to men in post-Communist regimes. The Communist orders were long on rhetoric, but short on actually figuring out a way to change hearts and minds

And yet here we are when many proudly boast their sympathies with Communism and Communist regimes of yore. It doesn’t matter how many “mistakes” those regimes committed, it’s just an “experiment” which is too good to not try again….

Addendum: I recommend The New York Times series Red Century. I do think a detailed ethnographic portrait of Communists is warranted and interesting. But I also do think too many of the pieces see the movement and period through a rose-tinted filter.

20 thoughts on “The 100 million killed under Communist regimes matter

  1. Have you read “The Rise and Fall of the German Democratic Republic” by Feiwel Kupferberg? It’s an analysis of East German mentality throughout its history and after the reunification. It seems that inherited cultural traits in this society have found a fertile and long-lasting ground for Nazi/Communist thinking. Last election results are an excellent proof of it. Perhaps some biological aspect also plays a part here.

  2. I think it’s important not to conflate “classical Marxism” with Marxism-Leninism, Maoism, or any of the derivatives with state authority which happened in the 20th century. The whole “reform vs. revolution” debate on the left was still nascent during Marx’s life. Near the end of his life he did come out against reformism to a degree in his Critique of the Gotha Program . But he also had become more open to advanced economies undergoing revolutions not through violent conflict through the state, but through peaceful means. This is how Marxism drifted over time into a discourse which could contain everything from social democracy to the Khmer Rouge – one could build just about anything on the ideological framework that Marx constructed, provided it was class conscious.

    In my general experience as an anti-capitalist, the vast majority of academic Marxists essentially reject Marxism-Leninism. And the vast majority of academic Marxist-Leninists reject anything that happened in the Soviet Union after Stalin, and certainly reject Mao as well. The few people who don’t are part of lunatic ultraleft parties like Workers World which are loathed by everyone else on the left.

    Fundamentally, I think the record of Communist states in the 20th century comes down to how they gained power, not their ideology. In states where Communists won power through violent revolution or through external imposition of a puppet government, they governed as authoritarians (or totalitarians). But in the cases where Communists were elected through free and fair processes they have for the most part respected the democratic and liberal norms of the governing system.

  3. But in the cases where Communists were elected through free and fair processes they have for the most part respected the democratic and liberal norms of the governing system.

    the distinction is where communists had total control of national gov. is there any non-authoritarian case where this happened? in coalition or in regional gov means that they are forced into a pluralistic situation.

    I think it’s important not to conflate “classical Marxism” with Marxism-Leninism, Maoism, or any of the derivatives with state authority which happened in the 20th century.

    yeah, not sure if politically it is important. politically marxism is operationalized in a way that’s authoritarian. the marxist parties that are not scary become post-marxist and move on (SPD, element of labour that had marxist affinities).

  4. Being a geneticist, wouldn’t you appreciate the difference between murdering people for their unchangeable genetic makeup vs. social standing? The rural landlords could abandon their property and escape to new industrial centers. Their children could proclaim loyalty to the working classes and live on. Genocidal evil one way or another, but one has the absolute quality of immutable faith, and the other doesn’t

  5. the distinction is where communists had total control of national gov. is there any non-authoritarian case where this happened? in coalition or in regional gov means that they are forced into a pluralistic situation.

    In 2008 the Maoists in Nepal formed a government with the Marxist-Leninist party (albeit a slightly moderate one) as a junior partner. Together they had 52% of the vote and an absolute majority of the seats in parliament. Nepal did not become a dictatorship, although it’s of course had its share of issues – mostly related to corruption and not unique to any particular party. The two communist parties have both led governments since this time, as has the Nepalese Congress Party.

  6. Genocidal evil one way or another, but one has the absolute quality of immutable faith, and the other doesn’t

    i’m not defending the proposition that they were equally evil. i’m defending the proposition that their evil was close enough that there isn’t a non-pedantic point in distinguishing between them. and yet it is acceptable to be a communist academic but not a nazi one.

    also, the lack of immutability of the target classes for communism is what made it so popular world-wide, ironically leading to its high body count. fascism tends to be local structurallyl

  7. Many descendants of Bolsheviks made it to the US, not so much with descendants of fascists.

    Also, isn’t the range of factions and differing ideological splinters huge on the left compared to the narrowness on the right? Wouldn’t the fact that there were so many more opportunities for debate on the left appeal to academic types?

  8. i don’t think there is a symmetry btwn left and right revolutionary radicalism. so hard to compare. nazism was not really a system in any coherent sense, and obv not aspirational outside of germany. italian fascism was different, and frankly wouldn’t have been nearly as genocidal if not for nazi impetus (some fascistic anti-semitic regimes even in eastern europe blanched at what the nazis were proposing).

  9. i don’t think there is a symmetry btwn left and right revolutionary radicalism

    Right, there must be hundreds of books on “what went wrong and where with communism” as opposed to few if any on where fascism went wrong.

    If the limiting and narrowing of intellectual debate continues, will we see more intellectuals who value freedom of thought move to the right? Of course I don’t mean towards fascism, but rather away from the authoritarian left.

  10. ” The Communists were famously anti-racist, and I believe sincerely so. ”

    They used anti-racist propaganda in the US and in the third world. But, the Russians never practiced it, ever. They stamped their internal identity cards with the ethnicity of the bearer. And they discriminated against people on that basis. I know, because members of my own family were subject to that treatment.

  11. And they discriminated against people on that basis.

    Once in power, didn’t the early Bolsheviks practice a form of AA?

  12. “I don’t think there is a symmetry btwn left and right revolutionary radicalism”

    The whole meme that the Russian Communists were “Left” and the Germans Nazis were “Right”. is simply Soviet propaganda, intended to appeal to leftist intellectuals in the West. Both parties espoused ideologies derived from Sorel. Yes Hitler had a racialist bug, but the Russians were neither innocent, nor were they internationalist after Trotsky was booted. Franco, who empowered the Church and who specified the restoration of the Monarchy after his death, was the only one who was close to the definition of a traditional rightist.

  13. A fairly devestating critique of Communism is that the German Communist Party helped bring the NAZIs to power. This might seem to be an idiotic indictment given that these were enemies and had paramilitary offshoots that fought each other in the streets. But the combined use of legal and extra-legal means NAZIs used to gain power was legitimized by the Commmunists, and the Communist Party’s inability to distance itself from its USSR sponsor increasingly forced the middle class to choose between two extremist groups, one of which was not hostile to the bourgeoisie.

    Also, for all its disagreements with NAZIs, Communists seemed to spend most of their time and effort fighting Socialists. They didn’t oppose the NAZIs effectively because they thought fascism was the last stage of capitalism before its inevitable collapse and they were too busy preparing to lead the revolution-to-come and evaluating the purity of everyone’s Marxists beliefs.

  14. can you think of any others out of curiosity?

    I know that Cyprus’s communist party (AKEL) has led governments of the country in the past, although they have never gained a legislative majority (36% of seats was their all-time high) meaning they had to rely upon junior coalition partners who were more moderate leftists.

    Communists also won a free and fair election in San Marino in 1945, but they attempted to have a coup twelve years later rather than lose an election. Still, they recovered from this to become a viable electoral party again, even participating as a junior partner in a socialist-led government decades later.

  15. @Karl, part of the problem is that Marxists will tend to see existing Constitutional systems as compromised and in need of replacement, so they tend to abide by Constitutional norms only to the extent convenient.

  16. Communism is given leeway to re-invent itself in the West because it shares our core egalitarianism. Fascism does not. Leftist intellectuals strain to preserve the good name of Marxism and at least the good intentions of communism akin to the way Christians do with their own deeply regarded belief system. They don’t abandon the faith in light of its bloody history. They implore it to improve, to do better next time.

  17. I read the “Red Century” series. The commie apologia coming from the NYT is not really surprising. As I wrote elsewhere:

    “My explanation [of the apologia for Communism] is that the Left in this country has been (and still is) in love with the Marxist ideology for many decades since 1917, and tried (and still is trying) to whitewash communist crimes for the obvious reason of not to be associated with the murderous ideology. As a recent example of excusing violent left behavior, note how the “progressives” are adamantly refusing to include the “antifa” thugs as responsible for violence in Charlottesville.

    Surely, there are different degree of infatuation with Marxism, some may experience mild non-violent flu, like Stiglitz did, others may become truly sick with rabies, like the “antifa” crowd.

    O’Neill put it well, “It isn’t because they have huge ideological differences — it’s because they have so much in common.” Essentially, we are dealing with the same violent totalitarian phenomenon with some minor differences not really important for the final outcome, and history has shown that many times regardless of whether the disease sufferers label themselves “neo-nazis” or “antifa”.

    It is pretty well known (or should be) the Communist genocidal record is much worse that Nazi’s. And yet it is comme il faut for Varoufakis to use the cute self-appellation of “errant Marxist”. Is it also accepted in a polite economic society to call oneself an errant Nazi ?

    Parenthetically, I am wondering why Yale University does not offer “Nazism and Cultural Theory” course while providing education on Marxism and Marxist cultural theory ( One could also get a minor degree in “Marxist Studies” at UMN or UCR ( Why not in “Nazis Studies” ?

    Is it because the nazi ideology is responsible only for 20 million dead while the marxist ideology implementers managed to kill off close to 100 million (Russia and China combined) ? Not counting peanuts like Cambodia where Khmer Rouge managed to eliminate 50% of its population, an achievement on par with those of Gengiz Khan.”

  18. @Dain

    Communism is given leeway to re-invent itself in the West because it shares our core egalitarianism. Fascism does not.

    I think that you are on the right track here, universal brotherhood and all that. I wanted to be a commie for a few years, but have never given fascism the time of day. The Cultural Revolution in China was more or less the straw that broke the camel’s back for me.

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