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Fall 2017

One Hundred Years of Communism

Francis P. Sempa

One hundred years ago in October 1917, communism as an ideology and a political system seized power in Russia. Bolshevik rule was not a result of a popular uprising—that had occurred in March 1917, when Czar Nicholas II abdicated in favor of a provisional government. Lenin, Trotsky, and their co-conspirators took power in a classic coup d’etat. Russia’s brief experiment in democracy and popular government was crushed.

One hundred years later, communism survives in power in China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba. It has lost much of its ideological luster, except in faculty lounges at major Western universities and certain media outlets. Its hundred-year history is one of tragedy, suffering, and murderous evil. It has claimed more than 100 million lives by waging wars, producing famines, and murdering its enslaved populations.

In 1997, less than a decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, six writers—four from France and one each from the Czech Republic and Poland—published The Black Book of Communism in Paris. Two years later, the English translation was released. It is, in essence, an encyclopedia of communism; a record, in the words of Martin Malia, of “the most colossal case of political carnage in history.” The book details—in numbing, relentless fashion and from country to country—the misery, the horror, and the devastation caused by a revolutionary ideology and the gangster-statesmen who imposed it on untold millions.

Perhaps it was fitting that this book had French origins because as its authors note, “Robespierre laid the first stones on the road that spurred Lenin to terror.” The origins of communism actually predate Marx and Engels. The idealism and utopianism of the French Revolution turned to the Terror to, in François Furet’s words, “forge the new human beings of the future.”

Communism promised to create a classless society; a utopia, where each gave according to his abilities and each received according to his needs. When societies and individuals resisted, coercion was inevitable. Lenin’s answer was the dictatorship of the proletariat; a ruling elite that would usher in a secular utopia by any means necessary. The means turned out to be the Red Army, the NKVD, the OGPU, the KGB, and their counterparts in other countries. The means included torture, slave labor, concentration camps (gulags), espionage, reeducation, show trials, forced confessions, ideological indoctrination, and murder. The ruling elites were the Communist Parties that seized power in Russia and the states of Central Asia, Poland, Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Albania, the Baltic States, Mongolia, China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Cuba, Grenada, and Nicaragua.

The Black Book of Communism provides an overview, a summation of the crimes of communism. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s monumental Gulag Archipelago took us deeper into the belly of the beast; it revealed the soul, or rather the soullessness, of communism. Part of Solzhenitsyn’s literary achievement was in demonstrating that the Soviet slave-labor camp system, known by the acronym GULAG, was not a symptom of communism, but rather its essence.

Solzhenitsyn points out that as early as December 1917, Lenin proposed the use of forced labor as a form of punishment for the regime’s opponents. Less than a year later, a Soviet decree ordered the isolation of “class enemies” in “concentration camps.” Soon thereafter, the regime opened the first prison of the archipelago in an old monastery on the Solovetsky Islands on the White Sea. Thus began the Gulag’s “malignant advance through the nation.”

He compared the system of slave labor camps to a cancer metastasizing throughout the country, the “malignant cells … creeping and creeping.” “The camps,” he noted, “are not merely the ‘dark side’ of our postrevolutionary life. Their scale made them not an aspect, not just a side, but very nearly the liver of events.”

Great projects were undertaken, canals built, gold mined, forests cut down, industrialization achieved—all on the backs and bodies of political prisoners, common criminals, class enemies. Solovetsky, Kolyma, Vorkuta, Ukhtpechlag, Dmitlag, Dallag, and Karlag are not as well known as the Nazi death camps, but Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago exposed the ubiquity of slave labor in communist Russia and the relentless cruelty of communism in power.

In the third and final volume of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn pronounces the communist Soviet government as the most vicious, most bloodthirsty in world history. “[N]o other regime on earth,” he wrote, “could compare with it either in the number of those it had done to death, … in the range of its ambitions, in its thoroughgoing and unmitigated totalitarianism.”

One of the Soviet regime’s worst crimes was the forced collectivization of agriculture between 1929 and 1933, an ideological and political program that produced widespread famine and death, especially in Ukraine and the Kazakh Republic. Robert Conquest, in his meticulously researched and compelling book The Harvest of Sorrow, called it a “terror-famine” and a war against the Soviet peasantry. Conquest estimated the death toll at 14.5 million men, women, and children. It was death by starvation, sometimes by cannibalism, often by consignment to the camps of Gulag, and by outright murder (“liquidation of the kulaks”). “The main lesson,” Conquest writes, was that “the Communist ideology provided the motivation for an unprecedented massacre” of human beings.

Conquest was also responsible for the first full account (and subsequent reassessment) of Stalin’s purge of Communist Party officials, military leaders, and secret police operatives between 1936 and 1939, known ever since by the title of Conquest’s book, The Great Terror. Originally written in 1970, The Great Terror was updated in 1990, just as the Soviet Union was coming apart.

Stalin’s purges resulted in the arrest of between seven and eight million people. It is likely that at least one million were executed and about two million more died after being sentenced to the camps. Higher-level party officials were sometimes subjected to show trials, wherein their confessions (coerced by torture and threats) were read to a startled country and world. Conquest notes that less than two percent of the delegates to the 1934 Communist Party Congress still held their positions in 1939—most had been shot on Stalin’s orders. More than seventy percent of the Central Committee members of the early 1930s met their death by execution or in the camps.

It was the Leninist system that made this possible. And not only in Russia.

China under communism in the late 1950s and early 1960s produced a greater famine than Russia’s, and caused even more deaths—up to 45 million according to Frank Dikotter in his groundbreaking book Mao’s Great Famine—in what Chinese ruler Mao Zedong called “the Great Leap Forward.” It was the Communist Party’s effort to industrialize China in record time, and involved “the forcible herding of villagers into communes” and the torture and summary executions of millions. Dikotter explains that, “[t]he term ‘famine’ tends to support the widespread view that the deaths were largely the result of half-baked and poorly executed economic programs. But the archives show that coercion, terror, and violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward.”

Once again, communism’s “pursuit of utopia” led to human catastrophe on an unimaginable scale.

Dikotter followed up his book on Mao’s famine with The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, an account of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that tore through China from 1966 to 1976. This was Mao’s version of the Great Terror, but instead of using the Party machinery to carry out the purge like Stalin did in the 1930s, Mao unleashed student radicals and young Party members (the Red Guards) to uncover and punish “class enemies,” “capitalist roaders,” “revisionists,” “traitors,” “renegades,” and “spies.” The Cultural Revolution caused the deaths of between 1.5 and 2 million people, and ruined the careers and lives of millions more.

In smaller countries where communists gained power, populations were enslaved, perceived opponents were murdered, political prisoners were confined in gulags or reeducation camps, Party members were purged, and utopian social experiments produced misery and tragedy. Cambodian communists committed genocide. Vietnamese communists produced “boat people.” East German communists shot people attempting to escape to freedom through the Berlin Wall. Polish communists persecuted the Catholic Church. North Korean communists starved their own people.

The history of communism also has a geopolitical aspect. It is a revolutionary expansionist ideology. After Lenin seized power in Russia, he created the Comintern to promote world revolution. Some in the West, most notably Winston Churchill, early on perceived the threat communism in power would pose to the world.

In The World Crisis: The Aftermath, 1918-1928, Churchill describes Lenin as a “plague bacillus” whose government “sprang from Revolution and was fed by Terror.” The Bolsheviks “repudiated God, King, Country, morals, treaties, debts, rents, interest, the laws and customs of centuries … the whole structure … of human society.”

In speeches to his constituents and Parliament in 1919-1920, Churchill described Russia’s communist regime as “the worst, the most destructive, and the most degrading” in human history. It consisted, he said, of a “foul combination of criminality and animalism.” It is assuming, he noted, “an aggressive and predatory form.” He warned that an expansionist communist Russia could crush the weak states of Eastern Europe and create an empire that “would stretch from China to the Rhine.” The Bolsheviks, he said, were the “avowed enemies of the existing civilization of the world,” and he urged the Western democracies to “resist by every means at our disposal … the morbid doctrines of Bolshevism and Communism.”

Stalin’s Russia was a willing accomplice of Hitler in starting the European phase of the Second World War. The Soviet Union annexed the eastern half of Poland and the three Baltic States in accord with a secret protocol of the Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact. The Soviets next invaded Finland in 1940.

When Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, Stalin and the Western democracies cooperated against their common enemy. But as James Burnham noted in his postwar book The Struggle for the World, once the Soviets perceived that Germany’s defeat was certain, the communists began a new war—what Burnham called the Third World War and what subsequent historians called the Cold War. Communists in Russia, China, Yugoslavia, on the Korean peninsula, and in Southeast Asia turned from fighting the Axis to struggling to achieve greater power and territory in the postwar world.

Burnham followed-up The Struggle for the World with The Coming Defeat of Communism and Containment or Liberation?, which examined the Soviet geopolitical strategies of expansion and suggested the elements of a Western strategy of victory in the Cold War. Burnham’s books were based on an understanding of the ideological and historical sources of Soviet conduct (he had flirted with Marxism in the 1930s) coupled with a shrewd grasp of classical geopolitics.

Burnham, from 1955 to 1978, wrote a regular column on the events and personalities of the Cold War for National Review. When he suffered a debilitating stroke, British writer Brian Crozier took over the column. Crozier and co-authors Drew Middleton and Jeremy Murray-Brown wrote one of the best analyses of the long Western struggle with communism in This War Called Peace (1985).

What made this ideology, which produced such suffering and misery in the countries where it held power, and posed such a great threat to the global balance of power, so appealing?

Whittaker Chambers, the ex-Soviet courier who broke with the communists and provided information about communist cells and operatives within the United States, offered a plausible answer in his great autobiography, Witness. Chambers described the Cold War as a struggle between "two irreconcilable faiths”—faith in man and faith in God. The utopian vision of communism that appealed (and still appeals) to so many is

[T]he vision of man without God. It is the vision of man’s mind displacing God as the creative intelligence of the world. It is the vision of man’s liberated mind, by the sole force of its rational intelligence, redirecting man’s destiny and reorganizing man’s life and the world. It is the vision of man, once more the central figure of the Creation, not because God made man in His image, but because man’s mind makes him the most intelligent of the animals.

It is that vision that inspired Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and lesser communist leaders. It is that vision that so often led Western liberal intellectuals to ignore communist atrocities, act as apologists for the worst communist regimes, and serve as agents and fellow travelers for the communist experiment. It is that vision that still guides the leaders of China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba.  

Francis P. Sempa is the author of books including Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.

Posted: December 3, 2017 in Essays.

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