Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Half the Story

Expos?s of communism are not new -- they date back to the Russian Revolution. And 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, Repression," as the subtitle runs, than with contemporary politics.

For lead author Stephane Courtois, communism's 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, communism's death toll greatly exceeded that of Nazism.

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 in fact dispose of "the fable of 'good Lenin/bad Stalin,'" as its American introduction claims?

The book's 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 useless - probably for the next hundred years. But strangely, like those who persist in its use, Courtois also believes that the name itself is of central importance. "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," he writes. Indeed, there was a reason, but it had less to do with "theoretical communism" than the Bolsheviks' desire to distinguish themselves from contemporary Social Democratic parties.

What of the claim that Stalin "was the logical result of the movement begun by Lenin," and his "worthy heir"? Certainly Lenin's conception of his own role was closer to that of a general than a democrat - ruthless and effective. This book will only enhance the sense of that ruthlessness, while 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."

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 error - practical, if not moral - in its prior relationship to the peasant majority.

"The Black Book" seems destined to be more talked about than read. 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 Gorbachev." The astute reader will note that Khrushchev crushed Nagy's government in Hungary just months after denouncing Stalin, an action that only served to illustrate further how far removed Soviet communism was from any moral core.

As for the claim that all Communist states are essentially the same, Courtois himself 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 don't seem to register with him at all.

This book often seems similarly one-sided. In concentrating solely on the misdeeds of the current Vietnamese government, those of France and the United States, 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."

The story of how the dream of a few has turned into a nightmare for the many deserves to be told. But "The Black Book of Communism" might best be read in conjunction with another volume in the works in Germany - "The Black Book of Capitalism."

"The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression," by Stephane Courtois et al. 856 pages. Harvard University Press. $37.50