The Communist Holocaust and Its Lessons for the 21st Century
by Philip Vander Elst
For at least half a century, nearly every secondary school pupil and university student in Britain has learnt about the evils of Nazism and Fascism, and the crimes of Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. One enormously important subject, however, has generally been missing from the education curriculum: namely, the horrendous and universally destructive nature and record of Communism.
Whilst mainstream historical textbooks and political commentary have typically described Stalin’s purges and repressive rule during the 1930s and ’40s, and the post-war Soviet occupation and subjugation of Eastern Europe, their coverage of 20th-century history has tended to downplay the role of Lenin and Trotsky as the original architects of Soviet totalitarianism, rarely emphasising the full extent or scale of the bloodletting for which these two men were responsible during the early years of Communist rule in Russia (1917-1924).
The repressive nature and sanguinary record of Communism in Asia, Africa, and Latin America – in countries like China, Vietnam, Cuba, and Mozambique, to mention only a few examples, has been similarly minimised or ignored. Worst of all, there has usually been little adequate discussion of the totalitarian ideological roots of Communist tyranny – of the fact, for example, that Marx and Engels were quite open and explicit about their hostility to freedom and democracy, and their support for revolutionary violence, the physical extermination of their opponents, and the ruthless suppression of all dissent in their future Socialist State.
Not surprisingly, these failures of omission have helped to produce a lopsided and morally distorted understanding of recent modern history, particularly that of the Cold War. Instead of recognising, from the very beginning, the inherently totalitarian and globally aggressive character of Communist ideology, many on the Left spent decades constructing alibis to excuse Soviet and Chinese despotism, a pattern repeated in relation to other Communist regimes in Cuba, North Vietnam, Nicaragua, and other parts of the Third World.
To counter these misconceptions, we must begin at the beginning, with a brief explanation of the central link between Marxist ideology and Communist totalitarianism.
The overwhelmingly powerful moral case against full-blooded revolutionary socialism, or communism, is based on one very simple truth amply confirmed by experience. And that is, that abolishing private property, nationalising industry, and giving the State control over all housing, employment, education and welfare, necessarily destroys personal independence as well as the economic autonomy of all non-governmental media and social institutions.
The resulting centralisation of all authority, resources and decision-making in the hands of government and its omnipotent bureaucracy renders it inevitable that such a concentration of absolute power in the ruling socialist elite will eventually prove corrupting and end in tyranny. To believe otherwise is to disregard the moral frailty of imperfect and fallible human nature, as well as the lessons of history. Even if the motivation of the ruling socialist revolutionaries in any particular society is purely altruistic, their passionate desire to use the coercive power of the State to remake the world, and create a perfect utopia of social harmony and justice, will always make them intolerant of all disagreement and resistance. And that, of course, brings us back to the historical phenomenon of the Communist Holocaust.
The terrible and neglected truth is that not only is revolutionary socialism an experiment in coercive social engineering that has failed in every continent, but the price in blood and tears of its global failure over the past century has also been colossal, dwarfing by far the combined loss of life incurred in both World Wars. According, for instance, to The Black Book of Communism, the English edition of a scholarly and exhaustively documented country-by-country indictment of Communism written by a group of mainly French historians, some of whom are former Marxists, at least 94 million people have been killed by Communist regimes since 1917, through executions, assassinations, forced labour, man-made famines, and the civil wars and uprisings provoked and bloodily repressed by them.
Other estimates of the human cost of Communism are even higher than this already shocking figure of 94 million. For instance, in his equally exhaustive landmark study, Death by Government, the late Professor R. J. Rummel, political scientist and former Director of the Haiku Peace Research Centre at the University of Hawaii, calculated that the total death toll from Communism was over 105 million, and his detailed estimates did not include the human cost of Communism in most of Eastern Europe, or in Third World countries like Cuba and Mozambique. Even so, his figure is double the total number of casualties (military and civilian) killed on all sides during World War 2.
Another more recent study, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism, by the American historian and political scientist Dr Paul Kengor, offers a particularly powerful, wide-ranging, and well-documented critique of revolutionary socialism, including a damning analysis of its fellow travellers in the West. And it too suggests that the Black Book seriously underestimates the human cost of Communism.
“Take the figure for the Soviet Union, where the Black Book records 20 million dead,” writes Dr Kengor: “Most accounts of the total Soviet death toll exceed 33 million, and some estimates are twice that… Alexander Yakovlev, a high-level Soviet official who became one of Mikhail Gorbachev’s chief reformers and in the 1990s was given the official task of trying to tabulate the victims of Soviet Communism, estimates that Stalin alone ‘annihilated… 60 to 70 million people’… A similar level of bloodshed was wrought solely by China’s Mao Zedong, who was responsible for the deaths of at least 60 million in China, and more likely over 70 million, according to the latest biographical-historical research… Also too conservative is the Black Book’s North Korea number, which does not include the 2 to 3 million who died in the famine of the late 1990s, a famine resulting directly from Communist policies.”
Indeed, to get a full sense of the scale of the devastation and human tragedy of this particular Communist man-made famine, adds Dr Kengor, you need to realise that “Two to three million dead was roughly 10 to 15% of the North Korean population. That percentage of the American population would be 40 million people. (America lost 300,000 dead in all of World War 2).”
All in all, concludes Dr Kengor, and allowing for the fact that the Black Book may have also underestimated the dimensions of the Communist holocaust in Cambodia (Kampuchea), “The total deaths caused by Communism in the twentieth century are closer to 140 million” – a figure more than twice the population of Britain and more than 23 times the total number of Jews murdered by Hitler.
Dreadful though these statistics may be, they obviously cannot convey the full horror of what decades of Communist rule has meant for the populations beneath its iron yoke. Numbers, however impressive, cannot tell the citizens of a free country what it feels like to have to conceal one’s thoughts and opinions daily, for fear of being denounced to the secret police, or what it feels like to be in their prisons awaiting interrogation and torture. They cannot tell you what it feels like to be a slave in the Gulag, or to have to spend a whole day in a queue for the most basic necessities, because shortages of food, medicine and clothing, and other staple products, are endemic within a centrally planned State-controlled economy. Nor, finally, can statistics convey what it must be like to have to ask for official permission to travel, or to change one’s job, or how it feels to be denied freedom of conscience and worship.
To begin to visualise and appreciate something of the suffering endured by different categories of people, as well as whole populations, you have to read the memoirs and listen to the personal testimonies of the victims of Communism. Of this now extensive literature, the most plentiful, for obvious reasons, describe the experience of life under Soviet Communism, notably the writings and speeches of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, particularly his great and partly autobiographical three-volume history of Soviet totalitarianism, The Gulag Archipelago. Less well-known, but equally powerful, is Against All Hope, the prison memoirs of the Cuban poet and human rights activist Armando Valladares, first published in Britain by Hamish Hamilton in 1986 and dedicated “To the memory of my companions tortured and murdered in Fidel Castro’s jails, and to the thousands of prisoners still suffering in them.”
Given that the late Fidel Castro, and his revolutionary sidekick, Che Guevara, were revered and popular political and cultural icons of the New Left in the 1960s and ’70s, and remain widely admired figures on Western university and college campuses, Left-wing fans of the Cuban Revolution would do well to read Valladares’ memoirs, as well as his speech of February 23 1988 to the UN Commission on Human Rights, describing and reflecting upon his 22 years as a political prisoner in Cuba.
To quote just a short but vivid extract from his testimony on that occasion: “I recall when they kept me in a punishment cell, naked, with several fractures on one leg which never received medical care; today, those bones remain jammed up together and displaced. One of the regular drills among the guards was to stand on the steel mesh ceiling and throw at my face buckets full of urine and excrement. Mr Chairman, I know the taste of the urine and the excrement of other men: That practice does not leave marks; marks are left by beatings with steel rods and by bayonet thrusts. My head is still covered with scars and you can feel the cracks.”
Liberal admirers of the Cuban Revolution, who have included Hollywood stars and prominent American journalists and politicians, should also take note of the fact that Castro’s Communist regime is estimated by scholars and human rights organisations to have been responsible for the deaths of around 100,000 Cubans and the flight of well over a million refugees to the USA since 1959. Furthermore, to quote the Cuban exile and historian of the Cuban Revolution Humberto Fontova: “According to the [New York based] human rights group, Freedom House, 500,000 Cubans (young and old, male and female) have passed through Castro’s prison and forced-labour camps. This puts Fidel Castro’s political incarceration rate right up there with his hero Stalin’s.”
Double standards and an inability to acknowledge the full truth about Communism have not only characterised the attitude of large sections of the Western Left towards Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. It also characterised (and continues to do so) Left-wing attitudes to the Vietnam War (1963-1975) and American foreign policy in general. As a result, a widely accepted narrative has grown up which portrays the “anti-war” movement of the 1960s and early ’70s as a movement of noble idealists, bravely resisting an “immoral war” waged by successive American Presidents against a heroic and supposedly authentic South Vietnamese “national liberation movement”. The reality, of course, was very different.
From the very beginning, Ho Chi Minh, founder (in 1930) and leader of the Indo-China Communist Party, and a Comintern agent and loyal follower of Lenin and Stalin, aimed to establish an all-powerful Communist dictatorship over the whole of formerly French Indo-China. The first stage of this process, the setting-up and consolidation of his Communist regime in North Vietnam, in the mid-1950s, was as characteristically bloody as the equivalent stage in all other Communist revolutions. According to Professor Rummel’s painstaking and detailed calculations, for example, drawing on a variety of credible sources, around 150,000 North Vietnamese peasants were slaughtered during the so-called “land reforms” of this period, and that is a relatively conservative estimate. In 1956 a further 70,000 North Vietnamese were murdered in campaigns of political repression, a figure that does not include the many victims of periodic internal Communist Party “purges”. Not surprisingly, all this repression provoked armed peasant rebellions that were also bloodily suppressed, at an estimated cost of between 10,000 to 15,000 lives. “All told,” writes Professor Rummel, “from 1953 to 1956 the Communists likely killed 195,000 to 865,000 North Vietnamese. I conservatively estimate the toll as around 360,000 men, women, and children.”
Around the same time all this blood was being shed, knowing the fate that awaited them if they stayed in the North, some 727,000 to 1 million North Vietnamese refugees (about 60 per cent of them Catholics) fled to the non-Communist South after 1954 – further powerful evidence that whenever ordinary people have had the chance, they have always voted against Communism with their feet, risking life and limb to do so, like the Cubans fleeing Castro after 1959, and their equivalents fleeing equally repressive Marxist-Leninist dictatorships in Red China, North Korea, and other parts of the Communist world.
Unfortunately for those Vietnamese refugees, however, their escape from the North did not in the end secure them from the danger of Communist violence and tyranny. Like the rest of the majority non-Communist South Vietnamese population, they became the victims of Ho Chi Minh’s terrorist campaign against the South, planned, organised and meticulously controlled by the North Vietnamese Communists in Hanoi. Long before the arrival of any significant American military presence in South Vietnam in 1963 and 1965, the Communist Viet Cong guerrillas of the so-called “National Liberation Front” were murdering South Vietnamese soldiers, officials and civilians in every part of the country, a campaign of terror and mayhem that escalated throughout the 1960s and was accompanied by every kind of atrocity, including kidnapping and torture, the decapitation of village headmen, the bayoneting of pregnant women, and the burying alive of other unfortunate captives.
Rummel estimates that a total of about 66,000 South Vietnamese civilians were assassinated by Hanoi’s terror squads, people who “because of the good job they were doing in a village, their honesty, industriousness, or leadership, or because of their beliefs or outspokenness, were murdered – sometimes with the greatest cruelty and pain.”
Finally, far from ushering in some new reign of peace, liberty, and social justice, as so many in the anti-war movement predicted or hoped, night descended on South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia (Kampuchea) after the withdrawal of the Americans and the final Communist victory in 1975. In a matter of just weeks or months, the unfortunate inhabitants of these three countries plunged from the frying pan of political authoritarianism, or partial, corrupt and imperfect democracy, into the totalitarian fire of revolutionary socialism.
The nature and scale of the Cambodian genocide organised by Pol Pot and his fellow Khmer Rouge revolutionaries, which killed around 2 million people, or roughly one third of the entire population between 1975 and 1979 (to cite Rummel’s careful, conservative estimate), is too well-known to require detailed elaboration here. The fate, by contrast, of the conquered people of South Vietnam, did not, it is true, involve quite the same descent into Hell as in Cambodia (Kampuchea), but it was terrible enough.
According to Nguyen Cong Hoan, a former official of the new post-war Communist government in the South, anything from 50,000 to 100,000 South Vietnamese were executed outright during the first year under the new regime. Others estimate the true number of post-war executions to have been at least or at most a quarter of a million. Taking these and other sources into consideration, Rummel’s conservative calculation hovers around a figure of 100,000 executions.
In addition to all this and the abolition of freedom of enterprise, movement, conscience and speech, the collectivisation of society and destruction of liberty in South Vietnam also involved the imprisonment of vast numbers of her citizens in the “re-education” and forced labour camps of the Vietnamese gulag.
“Based on a 1985 statement by [Vietnamese] Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach,” states Rummel, “ 2,500,000 people may ultimately have passed through these ‘re-education’ camps.” Furthermore, he continues, “One estimate is that at least 200,000 people also died or were killed in them. This is probably a high, however. Taking account of the death toll in the similar Stalinist and Maoist gulags, a more likely figure is around 95,000.”
Little wonder that Truong Nhu Tang, a former Communist Minister of Justice in the Provisional Revolutionary Government, had this to say in 1981, two years after his own flight from Vietnam: “Never has any previous regime brought such masses of people to such desperation. Not the military dictators, not the colonialists, not even the ancient Chinese overlords.”
The post-1975 Communist holocaust in Indo-China should not have taken anyone by surprise, not only because of the lessons of previous Communist revolutions, but also because Communism’s crimes against humanity have been the inevitable outcome of its ideology, one which from the very beginning made no secret of its commitment to terror, violence and repression, to bring about the triumph of the socialist revolution. Only by gaining total and undivided control of the coercive power of the State, and then using that concentrated power to control every institution and every facet of the individual’s existence, its founding fathers believed, could the utopian goal of a radically transformed society, and the creation of a perfect new socialist man, be achieved. That is why Marx and Engels never hid their belief that their socialist end justified whatever means might be necessary to bring it about, however bloody, as this concluding quote from their collective correspondence demonstrates:
“It will be necessary to repeat the year 1793 [the beginning of the “Reign of Terror” of the French Revolution]. After achieving power, we’ll be considered monsters, but we couldn’t care less.”
Philip Vander Elst is a writer and C.S. Lewis scholar.
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