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Karel Bartosek, Jean-Louis Margolin
Harvard University Press, 1999
Review by Tom Gallagher
Exposes of communism are not newthey date back to the Russian Revolution. Yet, The Black Book of Communism caused a sensation when it first appeared in France. The stir, however, had less to do with past crimes, terror, and repression than with contemporary politics.
For lead author Stephane Courtois, communisms brutal history dictates that the French Communist party, so long an apologist for the Soviet Union, not be allowed into a governing coalition. Nazis are banned from respectable politics, why not Communists as well? After all, communisms death toll100 million, in his estimationgreatly exceeded that of Nazism. With most political forces attempting to bar Jean Le Pens National Front from government, the implications of shunning the Communists would not be merely academic.
The book will not produce a comparable reaction everywhere, but the issues it raises are central to 20th century politics. Is communism the moral equivalent of Nazism? Does the book dispose of the fable of good Lenin/bad Stalin, as its American introduction claims? Are all forms of communism essentially the samecriminal enterprises in their very essence?
The books 11 authors, who appear to have differing opinions on these questions, endeavor to tell the stories of all the Communist countries in one volume. Its bulk and strength, however, lie in the section utilizing material newly available from Soviet archives.
After reading the grim rendering of Stalinism, the reader may wonder why any current political group would still adopt the name Communist. Seemingly the word has been rendered worse than uselessprobably for the next 100 years. But strangely, like those who persist in its use, Courtois also believes that the name is of central importance. He writes that, There will always be some nitpickers who maintain that actual Communism has nothing in common with theoretical Communism, but It was not without reason that the Russian Social Democrats, better known to history as the Bolsheviks, decided in November 1917 to call themselves Communists.
Indeed, there was a reason, but it had less to do with theoretical communism than the Bolsheviks desire to distinguish themselves (in 1918, actually) from contemporary Social Democratic parties. (Similarly, Marx and Engels wrote a Communist rather than Socialist Manifesto to differentiate themselves from their eras Socialists, a coincidence that has fostered the impression of a direct link between Marx and the Bolsheviks, as opposed to their Social Democratic rivals.)
But what of the claim that Stalin was the logical result of the movement begun by Lenin, and his worthy heir? Certainly Lenins conception of his own role was closer to that of a general than a democratruthless and effective. This book will only enhance the sense of that ruthlessness, while simultaneously tracing the origins of the brutality of at least the early stages of the Russian Revolution to the unprecedented massacre that European governments conducted in the Great War.
Lenins break with the more democratic western European socialist parties is discussed, but not the fact that those parties supported their governments in the slaughter, while the Bolsheviks did not. In a sense, the Bolsheviks argued, along with Woodrow Wilson, that they were fighting the war to end all wars.
As Courtois writes, Politics was reduced to a civil war in which two opposing forces, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie were in conflict. The Black Book reveals new levels of Bolshevik brutality, even extending into the period of the New Economic Policy, but the fact remains that this pause in the confrontation between society and the new regime represented a tacit admission of government errorpractical, if not moralin its prior relationship to the peasant majority. At this point Bolshevik policy might have turned in a number of directions. This book will probably not change strongly-held opinions on the question of the moral equivalence of Leninism and Stalinism.
At over 800 pages, The Black Book seems destined to be more talked about than read, and many of the claims made for it are actually undermined within. In his section on Central and Southeastern Europe, Karel Bartosek writes that Nazism never had a Khrushchev, nor men like Imre Nagy, Alexander Dubcek, or Mikhail Gor- bachev. The astute reader will note that Khrushchev crushed Nagys government in Hungary just months after denouncing Stalin. Although this only further illustrates how far removed Soviet communism was from its moral core, Bartoseks point is that it had onesmall consolation that this would provide to its victims.
As for the claim that all Communist states are essentially the same, Courtois exempts Cuba and the Nicaragua of the Sandinistas from some of his worst charges. But what of a country like Vietnam? Did the Vietnamese Communists ever engage in the execution of their political opponents? Yes, so Vietnamese communism is far from utopia, even if the predicted post-war massacres used to justify the American war effort never actually materialized.
Former U.S. presidential candidate, Senator John McCain recently displayed a profoundly one-sided view of Vietnam: The north Vietnamese who imprisoned and allegedly tortured him are brutal gooks, whom he cannot forgive. But the lives ruined or snuffed out by the bombs his plane dropped before being shot down dont seem to register with him at all.
This book frequently seems similarly one-sided. In concentrating solely on the misdeeds of the current Vietnamese government, those of France and the U.S., and the Saigon governments it supported are necessarily ignored, as is the fact that, as one foreign aid program manager recently put it, Vietnam is one of the best performers at poverty reduction in the developing world.
Some see this book as proof that all attempts to stay the invisible hand of the capitalist system must come to no good. As the American introduction says, Any realistic accounting of Communist crime would effectively shut the door on Utopia; and too many good souls in this unjust world cannot abandon hope for an absolute end to inequality (and some less good souls will always offer them rational curative nostrums.)
The story of how the dream of a few has turned into a nightmare for the many certainly deserves to be told. But The Black Book of Communism might best be read in conjunction with another volume currently in the works in GermanyThe Black Book of Capitalism. Z
Tom Gallagher is a freelance writer and activist.