The Black Book of Communism

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The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression is a book authored by several European academics and senior researchers from CNRS, and edited by Dr. Stéphane Courtois. It attempts to catalog various crimes (murders, deportations, torture incidents, etc.) that the book argues resulted from the pursuit of communism (in the context of the book, this mainly refers to the actions of Communist states). The book was originally published in 1997 in France under the title, Le Livre noir du communisme : Crimes, terreur, répression. In the United States it is published by Harvard University Press. Its title echoes the title of Ilya Ehrenburg's and Vasily Grossman's documentary record of the Nazi atrocities, The Black Book.[1]


[edit] Contents

The introduction, by editor Stéphane Courtois, maintains that "...Communist regimes...turned mass crime into a full-blown system of government". Using unofficial estimates he cites a death toll which totals 94 million. The breakdown of the number of deaths given in the Black Book is as follows: 20 million in the Soviet Union, 65 million in the People's Republic of China, 1 million in Vietnam, 2 million in North Korea, 2 million in Cambodia, 1 million in the Communist states of Eastern Europe, 150,000 in Latin America, 1.7 million in Africa, 1.5 million in Afghanistan and 10,000 deaths "resulting from actions of the international communist movement and communist parties not in power" The authors explicitly claim that Communist regimes are responsible for a greater number of deaths than any other political ideal or movement, including fascism.

A more detailed catalog (from the introduction) of some of the crimes described in the book includes:

  • Soviet Union: executions of hostages, prisoners, rebellious workers and peasants from 1918 to 1922; the famine of 1922; the deportation of the Don Cossacks in 1920; the use of the Gulag system in the period between 1918 and 1930; the Great Purge; the deportation of kulaks from 1930 to 1932; the deaths of 4 million Ukrainians (Holodomor) and 2 million others during the famine of 1932 and 1933; the deportations of Poles, Ukrainians, Balts, Moldavians and Bessarabians from 1939 to 1941 and from 1944 to 1945; the deportation of the Volga Germans in 1941; the deportation of the Crimean Tatars on 18 May 1944; the deportation of the Chechens in 1944; the deportation of the Ingush in 1944.
  • Cambodia: deportation and extermination of the urban population of Cambodia.
  • China: the destruction of Tibetan culture.

The book, among other sources, used material from the (then) recently opened KGB files and other Soviet archives.

The authors, or a selection of them, claim to be leftists, and offer the motivation of their work as being that they do not want to give "the extreme right the privilege to alone tell the truth." (pp. 14 and 50, Finnish edition of the book, WSOY, 2001)

Two of the other authors, Nicolas Werth and Jean-Louis Margolin, sparked a debate in France when they publicly disassociated themselves from Courtois's opinions about the scale of Communist terror. They felt that he was being obsessed with arriving at a total of 100 million victims. The team of French historians estimated that communism has claimed between 85 and 100 million lives. They rejected his equation of Soviet repression with Nazi genocide. Werth, a well-regarded French specialist on the Soviet Union whose sections in the Black Book on the Soviet Communists are sober and damning, said there was still a qualitative difference between Nazism and communism. He told Le Monde, "Death camps did not exist in the Soviet Union." [2]

[edit] Reception

Unsurprisingly, because of the nature of the subject matter it deals with, the book has evoked a wide variety of responses, ranging from enthusiastic support to severe criticism.

The Black Book of Communism received praise from American and British mainstream media, including the Times Literary Supplement, New York Times Book Review, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, The New Republic, The National Review and The Weekly Standard [2].

Historian Tony Judt, reviewing the book for the New York Times:[3]

An 800-page compendium of the crimes of Communist regimes worldwide, recorded and analyzed in ghastly detail by a team of scholars. The facts and figures, some of them well known, others newly confirmed in hitherto inaccessible archives, are irrefutable. The myth of the well-intentioned founders--the good czar Lenin betrayed by his evil heirs--has been laid to rest for good. No one will any longer be able to claim ignorance or uncertainty about the criminal nature of Communism, and those who had begun to forget will be forced to remember anew.

Anne Applebaum, writer of Gulag: A History:[4]

A serious, scholarly history of Communist crimes in the Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, China, North Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam, Africa, and Latin America...The Black Book does indeed surpass many of its predecessors in conveying the grand scale of the Communist tragedy, thanks to its authors' extensive use of the newly opened archives of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Martin Malia, Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley, writing for the Times Literary Supplement:[5]

The publishing sensation in France this winter (1999) has been an austere academic tome, Le Livre Noir du Communisme, detailing Communism's crimes from Russia in 1917 to Afghanistan in 1989...[The Black Book of Communism] gives a balance sheet of our present knowledge of Communism's human costs, archivally based where possible, and otherwise drawing on the best secondary works, and with due allowance for the difficulties of quantification. Yet austere though this inventory is, its cumulative impact is overwhelming. At the same time, the book advances a number of important analytical points.

Scholar J.Arch Getty criticized a large amount of material in this book including the methodology employed by its contributors. He notes that famine accounted for more than half of Courtois's 100 million death toll.[3]

Are deaths from a famine caused by the stupidity and incompetence of the regime (such deaths account for more than half of Courtois's 100 million) to be equated with the deliberate gassing of Jews? Courtois's arithmetic is too simple. A huge number of the fatalities attributed here to Communist regimes fall into a kind of catchall category called "excess deaths": premature demises, over and above the expected mortality rate of the population, that resulted directly or indirectly from government policy. Those executed, exiled to Siberia, or forced into gulag camps where nutrition and living conditions were poor could fall into this category. But so could many others, and "excess deaths" are not the same as intentional deaths....It would be more polemical than accurate to equate famine deaths, victims of police terror, and deaths in Nazi gas chambers with the plight of Russians unable to buy food and health care today. One could place many of the century's deaths in any of several categories, according to the political point one wanted to make. Should we blame premature deaths in Russia today on the legacy of communism or on the failed policies of reformers? For how many deaths under Stalin should we blame communism? Stalin's personal paranoia? Backwardness or ignorance? We might do better to try to understand these grisly statistics in their contexts, rather than positing large polemical categories and then filling them up with bodies. Good history is about balanced interpretation and is usually more complicated than categorization or blame.

Mark Tauger similarly argues that the the book contains errors and misinformation, criticzing the book's claims about the 1932-33 famine being "man-made" [6] This is an ongoing controversy among historians. For example Robert Conquest also see this famine, the Holodomor, as intentional.

Scholar Daniel Singer criticized the motives behind the authors of this book:[7]

The real trouble is that the whole purpose of this book is, only too obviously, to pile up corpses--victims of bullets, the camps or starvation--to reach the total of 100 million dead (the Chinese provide two-thirds of that total, the bulk accounted for by the famine of 1959-61). Our preachers will use this magic figure to frighten the younger generation with the fate that awaits them should they not play according to the established rules. Which brings us back to the Hundred Million. Propaganda ought to be countered, though not by yet more comparisons with Nazism. If we were to produce another Black Book, one to name misdeeds perpetrated under capitalist regimes, there would be no need to go back to the Industrial Revolution. Sticking just to our cruel century, there are two world wars and numerous massacres, ranging from Armenia in 1915 through Indonesia, with its slaughter of more than half a million, to the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda. And since, in this comparison, the accounts are not limited to murder and executions, each annual UN Human Development Report brings us stories of lives lost or shortened through disease, lack of clean water, starvation--in short, through poverty in our increasingly unequal world. Contrary to the tale told by the establishment, young people must be shown that what is immoral and dangerous--because of the ecological limits of our planet--is not the attempt to change our society radically but the willingness to preserve it precisely as it is.

Different historians have published widely different estimates for the number of deaths that occurred in the countries mentioned by the Black Book. For instance, the estimates for Stalin's regime in the Soviet Union range between 8.5 million and 51 million [8], and those for Mao's China range between 19.5 and 75 million [9]. The authors of the Black Book defend their estimates for the Soviet Union (20 million) and Eastern Europe (1 million) by stating that they made use of sources that were not available to previous researchers (the archives mentioned above). At the same time, the authors acknowledge that the estimates from China and other nations still ruled by communist parties are uncertain since their archives are still closed. In recent years some authors have published progressively larger estimates of deaths under communist regimes; thus, recent books such as Mao: The Unknown Story and A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia have claimed higher death tolls than the Black Book for China and Russia respectively.

Critics of the Black Book have alleged that it uses the umbrella term "communism" to refer to a wide variety of different systems, and that it "arbitrarily throws together completely different historical phenomena such as the civil war of 1918-21, the forced collectivisation and the Great Terror in the Soviet Union, the rule of Mao in China and Pol Pot in Cambodia, the military government of Ethiopia as well as various Latin American political movements, from the Sandinistas in Nicaragua to the 'Shining Path' in Peru." [10] While not necessarily disputing the communist nature of the aforementioned countries, the French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique has argued that local history and traditions played a role at least as important as the role of communism in each case. [11]

A number of critics argue that some or all of the regimes mentioned in the book were not, in fact, "communist". This is not a new idea: the question of whether the historical communist states represented an accurate implementation of communist ideas into practice has been open since the 1930s. In the introduction to the Black Book, Stéphane Courtois claims that "there will always be some nitpickers who maintain that actual communism has nothing in common with theoretical communism."(p. 2) He does not elaborate on this point, and, for the purpose of the book, a communist state is defined as a one-party state where the ruling party openly proclaims its adherence to Marxism-Leninism. The Black Book does not attempt to judge whether such ruling parties were honest in their self-description as "communist".

The most common criticism of the Black Book is the charge that it lacks context. The book discusses the communist states alone, without making any sort of comparison to capitalist states. Critics have argued that, if one was to apply the Black Book's standards to capitalism, it could be held responsible for just as many deaths as communist states, or perhaps more according to some scholars (see The Black Book of Capitalism). Among the alleged crimes of capitalism are deaths resulting from colonialism and imperialism, repressions of the working class and trade unions in the 19th century and 20th century, pro-western dictatorships during the Cold War, and the sharp return to capitalism in former communist states after 1990. [12] [13] Le Monde Diplomatique points out that the Black Book incriminates the communist side in many wars and revolutions without mentioning the deaths and other crimes committed by the anti-communist side at the same time. [14] Noam Chomsky holds that the arguments used by capitalists to justify such deaths are very similar to the arguments used to defend the communist states. For example, it is alleged that colonialism and imperialism did not represent true capitalism, and that the deaths under pro-western dictatorships in the Cold War were necessary in order to fight communism.

The article Criticisms of communism contains a more in-depth discussion of the criticisms and counter-criticisms used in debates about communism.

[edit] References

  1. ^ Henry Rousso (edt), Stalinism and Nazism: History and Memory Compared (2004), ISBN 0803239459, p. xiii
  2. ^ J Arch Getty. The Atlantic Monthly. Boston: Mar 2000.Vol.285, Iss. 3; pg. 113, 4 pgs [1]
  3. ^ J Arch Getty. The Atlantic Monthly. Boston: Mar 2000.Vol.285, Iss. 3; pg. 113, 4 pgs

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