New Criterion: Vol 18, No 4, 1999.
Hilton Kramer, editor.

A s we come to the end of this murderous and unrepentant century, in which a greater number of human beings has been violently put to death in the name of criminal political ideas than in any other century of recorded history, we are left confronting a moral void that shows few signs of being rectified or even addressed by what remains of serious thought in our civilization. A century of modernity, with everything this implies about the achievements of scientific inquiry and material progress, has proved to be a paradoxical benefaction. For our technological capabilities have long ago outdistanced our powers of moral discrimination, and this parlous condition has left us incapable of attempting either a moral reckoning of the past that has shaped us or a critical vision of the future that awaits us.

It is not only that at the end of this century we find ourselves devoid of political leaders who are equal to the task of comprehending the moral enormities that have shaped the modern age—and shaped it, moreover, under the banners of deranged social ideals. It is also a fact that much of mainstream intellectual life in our debased culture, especially in the universities and in what passes for ideas in the media, remains actively engaged in trivializing and subverting the scholarly disciplines which are essential to any true understanding of the catastrophes that have beset this terrible century. Let’s be clear about the scale of the horrors we are alluding to. In his introduction to The Black Book of Communism, [1] which is now published in English two years after causing an immense uproar in Paris, the French scholar Stéphane Courtois offers the following assessment of Communism’s victims:

U.S.S.R.: 20 million deaths
China: 65 million deaths
Vietnam: 1 million deaths
North Korea: 2 million deaths
Cambodia: 2 million deaths
Eastern Europe: 1 million deaths
Latin America: 150,000 deaths
Africa: 1.7 million deaths
Afghanistan: 1.5 million deaths
The international Communist movement
and Communist parties not in power:
about 10,000 deaths
“The total,” writes Mr. Courtois, “approaches 100 million people killed” to serve the political imperatives of Marxist-Leninist regimes, a number that dwarfs even Nazism’s achievement in causing what is now estimated to be some 25 million deaths. As for the disparate moral status still publicly accorded to the crimes of Nazism and Communism in the Western democracies, The Black Book of Communism also has some important things to tell us.
One cannot help noticing [writes Mr. Courtois] the strong contrast between the study of Nazi and Communist crimes. The victors of 1945 legitimately made Nazi crimes—and especially the genocide of the Jews—the central focus of their condemnation of Nazism. A number of researchers around the world have been working on these issues for decades. Thousands of books and dozens of films— most notably Night and Fog, Shoah, Sophie’s Choice, and Schindler’s List—have been devoted to the subject. …

Yet scholars have neglected the crimes committed by the Communists. While names such as Himmler and Eichmann are recognized around the world as bywords for twentieth-century barbarism, the names of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, Genrikh Yagoda, and Nikolai Ezhov languish in obscurity. As for Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and even Stalin, they have always enjoyed a surprising reverence.

And further:
The extraordinary attention paid to Hitler’s crimes is entirely justified. … But the revelaions concerning Communist crimes cause barely a stir. Why is there such an awkward silence from politicians? Why such a deafening silence from the academic world regarding the Communist catastrophe, which touched the lives of about one-third of humanity on four continents during a period spanning eighty years? … Is this really something that is beyond human understanding? Or are we talking about a refusal to scrutinize the subject too closely for fear of learning the truth about it?

In his preface to the American edition of The Black Book, Professor Martin Malia also addresses the question of this radical difference in the ways the crimes of Nazism and Communism are publicly perceived. “What of the moral equivalence of Communism with Nazism?,” he asks, and the answer he gives is dour indeed:

After fifty years of debate, it is clear that no matter what the hard facts are, degrees of totalitarian evil will be measured as much in terms of present politics as in terms of past realities. So we will always encounter a double standard as long as there exist a Left and a Right—which will be a very long time indeed. No matter how thoroughly the Communist failure may come to be documented (and new research makes it look worse every day), we will always have reactions such as that of a Moscow correspondent for a major Western paper, who, after the fall, could still privately salute the Russian people with “Thanks for having tried!”; and there will always be kindred spirits to dismiss The Black Book, a priori, as “right-wing anti-Communist rhetoric.”
In Mr. Courtois’s attempt to account for what he describes as “the cover-up of the criminal aspects of Communism,” the first reason he cites echoes Nadezhda Mandelstam’s observation, in Hope Against Hope (1970), about the appeal exerted by the very idea of revolution. “In today’s world”—and he is writing, of course, about the 1990s —“breast-beating over the idea of ‘revolution,’ as dreamed about in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, is far from over. The icons of revolution—the red flag, the International, and the raised fist—reemerge with each social movement and on a grand scale. … Openly revolutionary groups are active and enjoy every legal right to state their views, hurling abuse on even the mildest criticism of crimes committed by their predecessors and only too eager to spout the eternal verities regarding the ‘achievements’ of Lenin, Trotsky, or Mao.”

In Professor Malia’s view, too, all attempts “at retrospective justice will always encounter one intractable obstacle. 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). And so, all comrade-questers after historical truth should gird their loins for a very Long March indeed before Communism is accorded its fair share of absolute evil.”

It is the great virtue of The Black Book of Communism that it brings us an up-to-date, scrupulously researched, and clearly written survey of what is now known about the consequences of this “absolute evil.” From a volume that runs to more than eight-hundred pages of text and notes, it is obviously impossible to cite every horror that is documented in this grim accounting of Communist crimes, but here are a couple of representative examples. This is Jean-Louis Margolin writing about the “inhuman repression” in Cambodia in the 1970s:

The lineage from Mao Zedong to Pol Pot is obvious. … The Cambodian tyrant was incontestably mediocre and a pale copy of the imaginative and cultivated Beijing autocrat who with no outside help established a regime that continues to thrive in the world’s most populous country. Yet despite Pol Pot’s limitations, it is the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward that look like mere trial runs or preparatory sketches for what was perhaps the most radical social transformation of all: the attempt to implement total Communism in one fell swoop, without the long transitional period that seemed to be one of the tenets of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. Money was abolished in a week; total collectivization was achieved in less than two years; social distinctions were suppressed by the elimination of entire classes of property owners, intellectuals, and businessmen; and the ancient antagonism between urban and rural areas was solved by emptying the cities in a single week. It seemed that the only thing needed was sufficient willpower, and heaven would be found on Earth. Pol Pot believed that he would be enthroned higher than his glorious ancestors—Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong—and that the revolution of the twenty-first century would be conducted in Khmer, just as the revolutions of the twentieth century had been in Russian and then Chinese.

And, even closer to home, here is Pascal Fontaine writing about the Sandanistas in Nicaragua in the late 1970s and early 1980s:

Roughly 150,000 Indians live on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua: the Miskito, Sumo, and Rama tribal groups, as well as creoles and Ladinas (those of mixed Spanish and Mayan ethnic background). Under previous regimes these groups had enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy and were excused from paying land taxes and from military service. Soon after coming to power, the Sandanistas began to attack the Indian communities, which were determined to hold onto their land and their language. Lyster Athders, the leader of the Alliance for Progress of the Miskitos and Sumo (Alpromisu), was arrested in August 1979 and killed two months later. Early in 1981 the national leaders of the Misurasata, a political organization that united several tribes, were arrested. On 21 February 1981 the armed forces killed seven Miskito Indians and wounded seventeen others. On 23 December 1981 in Leimus, the Sandanista army massacred seventy-five miners who had demanded payment of back wages. Another thirty-five miners suffered the same fate the next day.
And so on. The state of siege lasted until 1987, and, as Mr. Fontaine writes, “Fidel Castro played the role of mentor to the new regime.”

Here at The New Criterion, some of us have vivid memories of Daniel Ortega’s visit to New York in this period. He was feted with a grand party in the home of a well-known American pop singer, who lived in an apartment directly across the avenue from our offices. The New York Police Department had to station klieg lights and sharpshooters on the roof of the building to secure the safety of this Nicaraguan dictator and the crowd of radical-chic celebrants who turned out to praise the leader of the Nicaraguan revolution. The whole event had the atmosphere of a glamorous Hollywood opening. It was afterwards reported that one of Daniel Ortega’s missions in visiting New York was the purchase of the kind of fashionable sunglasses that could not be obtained at home. And let it be recalled that this was the period in which the liberal press in this country regularly castigated the Reagan administration for supporting the Nicaraguan Contras in their resistance to Ortega’s murderous regime.

It is to the question of “Why?” that Mr. Courtois inevitably turns in the final chapter of The Black Book. “Why did modern Communism, when it appeared in 1917, almost immediately turn into a system of bloody dictatorship and into a criminal regime?,” he asks, and in search of some answers he— again inevitably—turns to the history of the French Revolution and to its preeminent twentieth-century analyst, the late François Furet. Quoting from the latter’s Dictionary of the French Revolution (Harvard, 1989), he follows Furet in concentrating on one particular aspect of the French Revolution— the Terror—as a means of comprehending Bolshevik practice.

In several respects [Furet wrote], the Terror prefigured a number of Bolshevik practices. The Jacobin faction’s clever manipulation of social tensions, and its political and ideological extremism, were later echoed by the Bolsheviks. Also, for the first time an attempt was made in France to eliminate a particular section of the peasantry. As the French revolutionary [Robespierre] declared to the Convention during the vote on the Prairie Laws: “To punish the enemies of the fatherland, we must find out who they are: but we do not want to punish them; we want to destroy them.”
In this, as in so many other aspects of modernity, the French were indeed in the vanguard of history.

Yet Mr. Courtois is also concerned to distinguish the ways in which Lenin went even further than Robespierre. “Unlike the terror of the French Revolution, which with the exception of the Vendée touched only a small section of the population,” he writes, “terror under Lenin was directed at all political parties and at all layers of society: nobles, the bourgeoisie, soldiers, policemen, Consititutional Democrats, Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries, and the entire mass of the population, including peasants and workers. Intellectuals were treated especially badly.” In the latter connection, he reminds us that when Maxim Gorky protested Lenin’s treatment of the intellectuals, Lenin responded by declaring: “They’re shit.” “This response on the subject of intellectuals,” writes Mr. Courtois, “is one of the first indicators of the profound disdain that Lenin felt for his contemporaries, even the most eminent among them. And he quickly passed from disdain to murder.”

As to why this blight on the moral history of the century continues to baffle even some of the contributors to The Black Book, we would do well to turn to the last work completed by François Furet before his death in 1997, The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, published in France in 1995 and now translated into English. [2] This may well be the most illuminating study ever devoted to the question of the appeal exerted not only by Communism but also by the Nazi and other fascist varieties of totalitarianism in this century. Furet’s analysis is not, however, one that is likely to assuage the historical anxieties of the bourgeois readers to whom it is largely addressed, for in this inquiry into the political and moral tragedies of our century the very existence of the bourgeoisie is found to have played a key role.

Thus, in his account of the revolutionary passions that fueled the horrors of our time, Furet writes, “Of all those passions —spawned by modern democracy and bent on destroying the hand that fed them—the oldest, the most constant, the most powerful is hatred of the bourgeoisie”—which, it need hardly be said, includes the self-hatred of the bourgeoisie that is everywhere reflected in its cultural life, and has been from its beginnings. Furet writes:

It can be found throughout the nineteenth century, before reaching its apogee in our time when the bourgeoisie, under its various names, would provide a scapegoat for all the calamities of the world for both Lenin and Hitler. The bourgeoisie incarnated capitalism, the forerunner (for Lenin) of Fascism and imperialism and (for Hitler) of Communism, which were the origins, respectively, of all they detested. Sufficiently abstract to contain many symbols, sufficiently concrete to offer a convenient object of hatred, the bourgeoisie furnished both Bolshevism and Fascism with their negative role, along with a supporting complement to older traditions and sentiments. It is an old, old story, as old as modern society itself.
It has been the melancholy fate of the bourgeoisie, Furet further observes, that “they would incarnate only the bad part of modernity: they would symbolize capitalism but not democracy.”

This is bad news, of course, and one is naturally tempted to reject its more sinister implications. Yet something akin to Furet’s reading of modern history has more recently come from the political philosopher Kenneth Minogue in an essay that poses a similarly melancholy question: “Totalitarianism: Have We Seen the Last of It?” [3] “If in the twenty-first century,” writes Professor Minogue, “we should be threatened by freedom-destroying ventures seeking to create an ant heap society, the one thing we can be reasonably confident of is that they will not feature men in jackboots. Far from being announced by the drumbeats of revolution, they are likely to be stealthy and insidious. For what one must never forget about all totalitarian experiences is that they are created (though not necessarily sustained) by idealists thirsting for virtue.

What adds to the melancholy of such observations is the realization that our culture is now so lacking in the intellectual and spiritual resources needed to come to grips with such a precarious historical prospect. As Professor Minogue writes at the conclusion of his essay:

The fact that modern technology has made so much of our culture instantly available tempts us to think that the world is now our oyster. In fact, all that is available to us is our culture as formulated, which is a small and insignificant part of what we are. … The reality is that cultural exhaustion is passing itself off as le dernier cri. Fortunately, because of the plurality of the West, we may still have the resources to find our freedoms anew. But it is important that we should know what is happening to us.
To which I would add that it is also important to know where we have lately been. And this returns us to the question of why as a culture we have been so morally delinquent in coming to terms with those one-hundred-million victims of Communist revolution in this century. The fact is, at the very moment in our history when we were most in need of rededicating ourselves to the telling of harsh truths about the crimes perpetrated by our Communist adversaries, our intellectuals were taking happy refuge in the mystifications of deconstruction and kindred attempts to discredit the very idea of historical truth. It was as if an intellectual Iron Curtain of highly sophisticated mendacity had been erected in anticipation of the fall of the actual Iron Curtain in order to forestall any prospect of a moral reckoning. With the idea of truth reduced to the status of a mere social construct—and thus dismissable as a malign instrument of power—history itself had been rendered absurd. Which may be why the tenth anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union in this last year of the century met with such a feeble response on this side of the Atlantic. Our culture was no longer in command of the moral intelligence that was needed to measure the scale of human suffering and loss that had been incurred as a consequence of eighty years of totalitarian terror. We can only hope that the price to be paid for such self-willed ignorance and complacency will not be as high in the next century as it has been in this one.


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  1. The Black Book of Communism, edited by Stéphane Courtois, Nicholas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, and Jean-Louis Margolin, translated from the French by Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer; Harvard University Press, 856 pages, $37.50. Go back to the text.
  2. The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, by François Furet; University of Chicago Press, 600 pages, $35. Go back to the text.
  3. In The National Interest (Fall 1999, pages 45–54). Go back to the text.

From The New Criterion Vol. 18, No. 4, December 1999
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