In the autumn of 1997, on the 80th anniversary of the Soviet Revolution, six scholars in France brought out a toweringly ambitious work of history, The Black Book of Communism. It was more than 800 pages long, it was crammed with horror and it was written in matter-of-fact language. Nevertheless, it sold 150,000 copies, started thousands of arguments and began to alter the way the world thinks about recent history. The Black Book argued that we have hardly begun to assess the crimes committed in the name of Karl Marx.
Those crimes, the French scholars argued, were not aberrations perpetrated by a few insane dictators, like Stalin. Nor were they accidents. They were a crucial part of communism from the beginning. Marxism provided its believers with elaborate economic theory but no theory of justice and no conception of balance or human nature. So communism gathered all power in the state, which quickly and inevitably became corrupt and brutal.
The authors of The Black Book decided not to waste time on theory, which doesn't much matter any more. They instead adopted Ignazio Silone's view that "Revolutions, like trees, should be judged by their fruit." The Black Book could be called The Poisoned Fruit of Marxism. It brought together for the first time, in one monstrous ledger of suffering, the Soviet Gulag, Pol Pot's Cambodian killing fields, Mao's Great Leap Forward, the mass executions under the Ethiopian communists in the 1970s and many other outrages. The authors collated material from thousands of known sources with data recently found in communist archives.
To read the English translation, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Harvard University Press, 858 pages), by Stephane Courtois and five others, is to sit on the shores of a vast ocean of sorrow. In English The Black Book probably won't have the impact of the original French edition; this issue cuts closer to the bone in France, where communists were a force in national politics for half a century and served in the cabinet as late as the 1980s. Even so, The Black Book's influence will reach far beyond France. It will be discussed for years, until, as the facts accumulate, books with even more details supplant it.
Communism promised a great step forward in history and instead delivered a return to the darkness of the past, only worse. Over the centuries, many had committed murder while claiming God was on their side, but those who believed history was on their side proved far more dangerous. Kings and tsars were often murderers, but Lenin's revolution killed more people in its first few weeks than the tsars killed in the entire 19th century.
Courtois argues that communist crimes were comparable to the crimes of the Nazis. This has shocked many readers, but Courtois could have gone farther and said communism was in fact more devastating. After all, it killed more, spread farther and lasted longer. Whereas the Nazis were responsible for about 25-million deaths, the communists (The Black Book persuasively argues) were responsible for 85 to 100 million.
But here Courtois runs into a delicate moral problem, mostly ignored in the past, that will occur often in future discussions of communism. It has to do with varieties of hatred. There is a widespread belief that murderous race hatred is worse than murderous class hatred, though both have led to the degradation and death of millions. Those who hate for reasons of class justify themselves by arguing that they are oppressed by the powerful. But racial hatred can also come with explanations, ranging from similar claims of oppression (the reason Cambodians may hate Chinese, for example) to a desire to keep one's own group from mingling with others.
In each case, class or race, the original impulse fans an incoherent rage that overwhelms any allegedly rational motive.
Courtois puts "class genocide" in the same moral category as racial genocide. He quotes Vassily Grossman, a Russian Jewish writer who lost his mother to the Nazis. Grossman has written about Stalin's killing of property-owning peasants in the 1930s: "To massacre them, it was necessary to proclaim that kulaks are not human beings, just as the Germans proclaimed that Jews are not human beings."
The dehumanizing process surfaced often in the language of the communists. Many were articulate intellectuals, but they routinely described their enemies in banal animal metaphors. It was as if they wanted to make their speech as brutal as their acts, shedding their own human uniqueness while denying the humanity of others.
In 1930, Maxim Gorky, the famous writer, defended some arbitrary Soviet executions: "It is quite natural that a worker-and-peasant regime should stamp out its enemies like lice." (To this day, curiously, the Columbia Encyclopaedia praises Gorky's "eternal passion for justice.") Andrei Vyshinky, a prosecutor in the 1930s, later famous as the Soviet foreign minister, declared, "Shoot these rabid dogs!" The style spread to the West. "Any anti-Communist is a dog," Jean-Paul Sartre remarked in 1952, with the precision of a philosopher.
The Black Book makes Sartre's insouciance seem even more obscene than it did at the time. But for all its power, this volume never adequately explains what happened. Why would people commit these atrocities? In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Saul Bellow (a student of such matters since his misguided Trotskyite youth) raised a troubling question: Is it possible that humans are delighted when circumstances give them the chance to murder? Perhaps, he said, "murder is a privilege," an opportunity many are glad to seize. "Does humankind have a passion for mass murder?" Bellow couldn't answer his question, but he suggested that the events of the 20th century demand that we seriously think about it.
There's no Gulag memorial equivalent to the Holocaust memorials built or planned in many cities. For now, histories like The Black Book will have to suffice. The sorting out has hardly begun; even yet, we don't know how to think about communism. The 20th century endured it, and with a great sigh of relief outlived it. The 21st inherits the melancholy task of seeing it clearly.