Remembering Communism's Bloody Century

Authored by Stephen Kotkin via The Wall Street Journal,

In the 100 years since Lenin’s coup in Russia, the ideology devoted to abolishing markets and private property has left a long, murderous trail of destruction...

A century ago this week, communism took over the Russian empire, the world’s largest state at the time. Leftist movements of various sorts had been common in European politics long before the revolution of Oct. 25, 1917 (which became Nov. 7 in the reformed Russian calendar), but Vladimir Lenin and his Bolsheviks were different. They were not merely fanatical in their convictions but flexible in their tactics—and fortunate in their opponents.

Communism entered history as a ferocious yet idealistic condemnation of capitalism, promising a better world. Its adherents, like others on the left, blamed capitalism for the miserable conditions that afflicted peasants and workers alike and for the prevalence of indentured and child labor. Communists saw the slaughter of World War I as a direct result of the rapacious competition among the great powers for overseas markets.

But a century of communism in power—with holdouts even now in Cuba, North Korea and China—has made clear the human cost of a political program bent on overthrowing capitalism. Again and again, the effort to eliminate markets and private property has brought about the deaths of an astounding number of people. Since 1917—in the Soviet Union, China, Mongolia, Eastern Europe, Indochina, Africa, Afghanistan and parts of Latin America—communism has claimed at least 65 million lives, according to the painstaking research of demographers.

Communism’s tools of destruction have included mass deportations, forced labor camps and police-state terror - a model established by Lenin and especially by his successor Joseph Stalin. It has been widely imitated. Though communism has killed huge numbers of people intentionally, even more of its victims have died from starvation as a result of its cruel projects of social engineering.

A communal Chinese farm in the 1950s during the Great Leap Forward. Photo: UIG/Getty Images

For these epic crimes, Lenin and Stalin bear personal responsibility, as do Mao Zedong in China, Pol Pot in Cambodia, the Kim dynasty in North Korea and any number of lesser communist tyrants. But we must not lose sight of the ideas that prompted these vicious men to kill on such a vast scale, or of the nationalist context in which they embraced these ideas. Anticapitalism was attractive to them in its own right, but it also served as an instrument, in their minds, for backward countries to leapfrog into the ranks of great powers.

The communist revolution may now be spent, but its centenary, as the great anticapitalist cause, still demands a proper reckoning.

In February 1917, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated under pressure from his generals, who worried that bread marches and strikes in the capital of St. Petersburg were undermining the war effort against Germany and its allies. The February Revolution, as these events became known, produced an unelected provisional government, which chose to rule without the elected parliament. Peasants began to seize the land, and soviets (or political councils) started to form among soldiers at the front, as had already happened among political groups in the cities.

That fall, as the war raged on, Lenin’s Bolsheviks undertook an armed insurrection involving probably no more than 10,000 people. They directed their coup not against the provisional government, which had long since become moribund, but against the main soviet in the capital, which was dominated by other, more moderate socialists. The October Revolution began as a putsch by the radical left against the rest of the left, whose members denounced the Bolsheviks for violating all norms and then walked out of the soviet.

The Bolsheviks, like many of their rivals, were devotees of Karl Marx, who saw class struggle as the great engine of history. What he called feudalism would give way to capitalism, which would be replaced in turn by socialism and, finally, the distant utopia of communism. Marx envisioned a new era of freedom and plenty, and its precondition was destroying the “wage slavery” and exploitation of capitalism. As he and his collaborator Friedrich Engels declared in the Communist Manifesto of 1848, our theory “may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.”

Once in power in early 1918, the Bolsheviks renamed themselves the Communist Party as they sought to force-march Russia to socialism and, eventually, to history’s final stage. Millions set about trying to live in new ways. No one, however, knew precisely what the new society was supposed to look like. “We cannot give a characterization of socialism,” Lenin conceded in March 1918. “What socialism will be like when it reaches its completed form we do not know, we cannot say.”

But one thing was clear to them: Socialism could not resemble capitalism. The regime would replace private property with collective property, markets with planning, and “bourgeois” parliaments with “people’s power.” In practice, however, scientific planning was unattainable, as even some communists conceded at the time. As for collectivizing property, it empowered not the people but the state.

The process set in motion by the communists entailed the vast expansion of a secret-police apparatus to handle the arrest, internal deportation and execution of “class enemies.” The dispossession of capitalists also enriched a new class of state functionaries, who gained control over the country’s wealth. All parties and points of view outside the official doctrine were repressed, eliminating politics as a corrective mechanism.

The declared goals of the revolution of 1917 were abundance and social justice, but the commitment to destroy capitalism gave rise to structures that made it impossible to attain those goals.

In urban areas, the Soviet regime was able to draw upon armed factory workers, eager recruits to the party and secret police, and on young people impatient to build a new world. In the countryside, however, the peasantry—some 120 million souls—had carried out their own revolution, deposing the gentry and establishing de facto peasant land ownership.

Russian Communist Party supporters participated in a march in Moscow on Defender of the Fatherland Day, Feb. 23. Photo: Serebryakov Dmitry/TASS/ZUMA PRESS

With the devastated country on the verge of famine, Lenin forced reluctant party cadres to accept the separate peasant revolution for the time being. In the countryside, over the objections of communist purists, a quasi-market economy was allowed to operate.

With Lenin’s death in 1924, this concession became Stalin’s problem. No more than 1% of the country’s arable land had been collectivized voluntarily by 1928. By then, key factories were largely owned by the state, and the regime had committed to a five-year plan for industrialization. Revolutionaries fretted that the Soviet Union now had two incompatible systems—socialism in the city and capitalism in the village.

Stalin didn’t temporize. He imposed coercive collectivization from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, even in the face of mass peasant rebellion. He threatened party officials, telling them that if they were not serious about eradicating capitalism, they should be prepared to cede power to the rising rural bourgeoisie. He incited class warfare against “kulaks” (better-off peasants) and anyone who defended them, imposing quotas for mass arrests and internal deportations.

Stalin was clear about his ideological rationale. “Could we develop agriculture in kulak fashion, as individual farms, along the path of large-scale farms” as in “America and so on?” he asked. “No, we could not. We’re a Soviet country. We want to implant a collective economy, not solely in industry, but in agriculture.”

And he never backtracked, even when, as a result of his policies, the country descended into yet another famine from 1931 to 1933. Forced collectivization during those few years would claim 5 to 7 million lives.

The Soviet Union’s awful precedent did nothing to deter other communist revolutionaries. Mao Zedong, a hard man like Stalin, had risen to the top of the Chinese movement and, in 1949, he and his comrades emerged as the victors in the Chinese civil war. Mao saw the colossal loss of life in the Soviet experiment as intrinsic to its success.

Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing, 1952. Photo: Lyu Houmin/Visual China Group/Getty Images

His Great Leap Forward, a violent campaign from 1958 to 1962, was an attempt to collectivize some 700 million Chinese peasants and to spread industry throughout the countryside. “Three years of hard work and suffering, and a thousand years of prosperity,” went one prominent slogan of the time.

Falsified reports of triumphal harvests and joyful peasants inundated the communist ruling elite’s well-provisioned compound in Beijing. In reality, Mao’s program resulted in one of history’s deadliest famines, claiming between 16 and 32 million victims. After the catastrophe, referred to by survivors as the “communist wind,” Mao blocked calls for a retreat from collectivization. As he declared, “the peasants want ‘freedom,’ but we want socialism.”

Nor did this exhaust the repertoire of communist brutality in the name of overthrowing capitalism. With their conquest of Cambodia in 1975, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge drove millions from the country’s cities into the countryside to work on collectives and forced-labor projects. They sought to remake Cambodia as a classless, solely agrarian society.

The Khmer Rouge abolished money, banned commercial fishing and persecuted Buddhists, Muslims and the country’s ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese minorities as “infiltrators.” Pol Pot’s regime also seized children to pre-empt ideological infection from “capitalist” parents.

All told, perhaps as many as 2 million Cambodians, a quarter of the population, perished as a result of starvation, disease and mass executions during the four nightmarish years of Pol Pot’s rule. In some regions, skulls could be found in every pond.

Marx’s class analysis denied legitimacy to any political opposition, not just from “bourgeois” elements but from within communist movements themselves—because dissenters “objectively” served the interests of the international capitalist order. The relentless logic of anticapitalist revolution pointed to a single leader atop a single-party system.

A Cambodian man prayed during a ceremony in front of a map of skulls of Khmer Rouge victims at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, March 10, 2002. Photo: Andy Eames/Associated Press

From Russia and China to Cambodia, North Korea and Cuba, communist dictators have shared key traits. All have conformed, more or less, to the Leninist type: a fusion of militant ideologue and unprincipled intriguer. And all have possessed an extreme willpower—the prerequisite for attaining what only unspeakable bloodshed could bring.

Communism was hardly alone over the past century in committing grand carnage. Nazism’s repression and wars of racial extermination killed at least 40 million people, and during the Cold War, anticommunism spurred paroxysms of grotesque violence in Indonesia, Latin America and elsewhere.

But as evidence of communism’s horrors emerged over the decades, it rightly shocked liberals and leftists in the West, who shared many of the egalitarian aims of the revolutionaries. Some repudiated the Soviet Union as a deformation of socialism, attributing the regime’s crimes to the backwardness of Russia or the peculiarities of Lenin and Stalin. After all, Marx had never advocated mass murder or Gulag labor camps. Nowhere did he argue that the secret police, deportation by cattle car and mass death from starvation should be used to establish collective farms.

But if we’ve learned one lesson from the communist century, it is this: That to implement Marxist ideals is to betray them. Marx’s demand to “abolish private property” was a clarion call to action—and an inexorable path to the creation of an oppressive, unchecked state.

A few socialists began to recognize that there could be no freedom without markets and private property. When they made their peace with the existence of capitalism, hoping to regulate rather than to abolish it, they initially elicited denunciations as apostates. Over time, more socialists embraced the welfare state, or the market economy with redistribution. But the siren call to transcend capitalism persists among some on the left.

It also remains alive, though hardly in orthodox Marxist fashion, in Russia and China, the great redoubts of the communist century. Both countries continue to distrust what is perhaps most important about free markets and private property: Their capacity to give independence of action and thought to ordinary people, pursuing their own interests as they see fit, in private life, civil society and the political sphere.

But anticapitalism also served as a program for an alternative world order, one in which long-suppressed nationalist aims might be realized. For Stalin and Mao, heirs to proud ancient civilizations, Europe and the U.S. represented the allure and threat of a superior West. The communists set themselves the task of matching and overtaking their capitalist rivals and winning a central place for their own countries on the international stage. This revolutionary struggle allowed Russia to satisfy its centuries-old sense of a special mission in the world, while it gave China a claim to be, once again, the Middle Kingdom.

Vladimir Putin’s resistance to the West, with his peculiar mix of Soviet nostalgia and Russian Orthodox revival, builds on Stalin’s precedent. For its part, of course, China remains the last communist giant, even as Beijing promotes and tries to control a mostly market economy. Under Xi Jinping, the country now embraces both communist ideology and traditional Chinese culture in a drive to raise its standing as an alternative to the West.

Communism’s bloody century has come to an end, and we can only celebrate its passing. But troubling aspects of its legacy endure.


snodgrass Sun, 11/05/2017 - 21:51 Permalink

Communism was an offshoot of Judaism. Karl Marx was the son of a Rabbi. Lenin was half Jewish. Trotsky full Jewish. A good proportion of those running the Soviet Union were Jews. One of the first acts of the communists was to make anti-semitism a capital crime. Collectivization of agriculture was nothing but the Kibbutz on a national scale. Stalin was an employee of the Rothschild at one time and was the perfect man to carry out mass genocide against Orthodox Russians. Churches were looted and burned and their valuables sold in the West. But communism also suited the elites of the West who saw it as a way of bringing back the old order. The Vatican benefited by having their competitor - the Orthodox Church - eliminated.

Escrava Isaura Déjà view Mon, 11/06/2017 - 04:03 Permalink

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Article by the Wall Street Journal. Talking about propaganda and engineering history in steroids. The whole article gets most wrong that it’s hard to know where to start. Comparing the Russia coup with the Chinese Revolution it’s ridiculous at best. Indoctrination at its worse. Example: Bolshevism was the right wingers. China revolution was a left wing. China used to have a famine every year for over 100 years. After the revolution they had it once and never again. This article reminds me of this quote: “Filter bullshit, focus on outcomes.” – Dave Cohen - “Decline of the Empire” (DOTE)  

In reply to by Déjà view

nmewn Escrava Isaura Mon, 11/06/2017 - 06:21 Permalink

You keep trying to fix Marxism and we'll keep pointing out that its unsustainable, unworkable and most of all inhumane. How many more have to starve to death or worse...remain slaves to the state and its minions under the guise of them being helpful to "the masses"? Distribution of misery equally is hardly a bargain Escrava. 

In reply to by Escrava Isaura

RedBaron616 Escrava Isaura Mon, 11/06/2017 - 08:48 Permalink

There is no RIGHT wing or LEFT wing. This is just some political professor's nonsense. There are those who side with freedom and liberty and those who promote the state over the people. Clearly, Russia and China are on the side of the state against the people. Neither had any qualms about killing millions in their quest for their perfect world. Please explain how THAT is so different between them? Totalitarian states behave the same, so don't trot out the right wing, left wing nonsense.As for your famine nonsense, what good is food when, if you say anything against the state, they haul you away and put you in prison? With freedom of speech and expression, food isn't the answer. Apparently, as long as your stomach is full, you have no problems saying your Zeig Heils to the dictator of the moment. You will make a wonderful useful idiot.

In reply to by Escrava Isaura

fleur de lis Escrava Isaura Mon, 11/06/2017 - 10:28 Permalink

Your poor education is showing.Bolshevism was not right wing.If they were they would have tried to keep the traditional systems in place.They were murderous left wingers.They attacked and destroyed all symbols, systems, buildings, etc., of Russia's own history and culture, and remodeled them in Communist form.And killed anyone who stood in their way.They killed entire populations whom they thought might pose a future problem.As for China, something like 40-50 million Chinese starved to death under Mao, and there are some estimates that go higher.Both bloodfests were planned, instigated, and managed by the same psychopaths.You should listen to JFK's, "Secret Society Speech" if you want to know how pervasive these parasitic central banker swarms were and still are.That speech cost JFK his life because he tried to warn us.The least you could do is listen.  

In reply to by Escrava Isaura

CC Lemon El Vaquero Mon, 11/06/2017 - 00:00 Permalink

I used to work for a guy who escaled the Khmer Rouge. Had to watch out for pirates in the jungle. Told me in the re-education camp, when somebody found a rat it was Thanksgiving party time.Dude came from a rich family before, commies took everything, but when he came to the states he re-made himself. Probably the most respectable person I'd ever met.Also saw a photo exhibit. Fucker in the Khmer Rouge had the job of taking photos of people before they were going in to be tortured to death. An entire room filled with pictures of people staring at the camera while they heard how they were going to be killed.Good Story: A guy in SoCal put up a picture of Ho Chi Mihn in his video store. Local viets wouldn't stand for it. Kicked his ass out of town quick. He needed police protection to keep them from ripping his shop apart.

In reply to by El Vaquero

Creative_Destruct 7thGenMO Sun, 11/05/2017 - 22:58 Permalink

“abolish private property” was a clarion call to action—and an inexorable path to the creation of an oppressive, unchecked state."The State" and government in general are somehow thought of by the left as the ultimate force for good that will somehow save us people from ourselves. They forget that the state is composed of the SAME flawed people, susceptible both to the allure of and absolute corruption by power.

In reply to by 7thGenMO

Utopia Planitia Creative_Destruct Mon, 11/06/2017 - 01:07 Permalink

Shockingly, nearly all of those who worship kommunism are the same people who had a sh1t fit anytime their parents asked them to take out the garbage (or do their homework).  Yet they seem to be just fine with giving unlimited power to the State.  That alone should be enough to deter all but the most insipid from wanting anything to do with it.

In reply to by Creative_Destruct

earleflorida snodgrass Sun, 11/05/2017 - 22:25 Permalink

china would have been worse off if the japanese conqured it or chiang kai shek had defeated mao.the ussa backed both!lenin hated stalin and wanted him expelled from the bolshevik party and was up to different approaches of reaching his goals. lenin dies in 1925 and satlin causes living hell for the russian people from 1925-53.krushchev (1954 -65) onward changed the ussr until its collapse in 1992, but the important message from all this is that famine and drought, hard winters, desease killed 60% of the people brought about by natural disasters in a climate like russia.yes, their are still hardliners in russia today..!the ussa in korea, vietnam, south america, african, phillipines, malaysia and the MENA i would say in aggragated balances out with the communist deaths, but ours was deliberate in the name of freedom and capitalism and a good proportion of chians and russia's death were brought about by natural disasters as i've mentioned above.just look recently at iraq/ syria/ palestine/ yemen/ libya and say it to my face!!! 

In reply to by snodgrass

Scornd earleflorida Sun, 11/05/2017 - 22:53 Permalink

i think thats called "plausible deniability" when u understand Crown Corps and Contract Law dating thousands if years before the 1900s-- it would be foolish to assume the Vatican and its Church had nothing to do with development of Prussia. which is in fact, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire. it would be work to ignore that.

In reply to by earleflorida

land_of_the_few snodgrass Mon, 11/06/2017 - 05:25 Permalink

"Stalin  was an employee of the Rothschild at one time and was the perfect man to carry out mass genocide against Orthodox Russians" - oh really? Strange, because his parents were both Orthodox Christians and he was a Russified Georgian himself.Doubtful if the Rothschilds liked him much, because  he found employment at the Rothschild refinery storehouse, where  he co-organised two workers' strikes.Let's have a look at those "genocided Orthodox Russians", shall we? Nope, they're still there. You wouldn't know, because you don't give a hoot about actual Russians.Stalin, born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, was from an Orthodox family in Georgia--Stalin's mother, Keke (Ekaterina Gabrielis asuli Jughashvili (née Geladze) was born to a family of Georgian Orthodox Christian serfs in Gambareuli near Gori (Georgia) in 1858.-Besarion Ivanes dze Jughashvili was the father of Joseph Stalin. He was commonly known as "Beso". Besarion was born into an Orthodox Christian serf family from the village of Didi Lilo in Tiflis Governorate (Tbilisi, Georgia)Beso was also an alcoholic, and drunkenly beat his wife and son.To escape the abusive relationship, Keke took Stalin and moved into the house of a family friend, Father Christopher Charkviani. She worked as a house cleaner and launderer for several local families who were sympathetic to her plight. Keke was determined to send her son to school, something that none of the family had previously achieved. In late 1888, aged 10 he enrolled at the Gori Church School. This was normally reserved for the children of clergy, although Charkviani ensured that Stalin received a place.-After Stalin's death, Khrushchev made the claim that Stalin hinted that he should incite anti-Semitism in the Ukraine, allegedly telling him that "the good workers at the factory should be given clubs so they can beat the hell out of those Jews."-In 1946, Stalin allegedly said privately that "every Jew is a potential spy." 

In reply to by snodgrass

RedBaron616 snodgrass Mon, 11/06/2017 - 08:41 Permalink

Get your facts straight. Lenin’s maternal grandfather was born Jewish, and converted to Christianity. At the most then, Lenin would be 1/4 Jewish. Of course, the fact that she converted sort of wipes out your conspiracy theory. Just found all this though a simple web search. Apparently you couldn't be bothered.You mostly just spout off numbers and "facts" and expect no one to check them. That's the problem with comments.

In reply to by snodgrass

snodgrass RedBaron616 Mon, 11/06/2017 - 10:22 Permalink

So he's quarter instead of half. Nothing else with my facts are wrong so I'd say you have the problem. Apparently if Jews murder 20 to 60 million people it's okay because they are VICTIMS!!!! Always playing the victim card even though they are bottom feeding losers who have been kicked out of just about every country they inhabit. Yet being as narcissistic as they are, they still don't understand why. Morons.

In reply to by RedBaron616

fleur de lis Bigly Sun, 11/05/2017 - 22:04 Permalink

That is because the ignorant millenials are taught that Communism, Marxism, and Socialism are better systems.They are taught this because most of academia is parasitic and parasites thrive on all three systems.They may as well include Tapewormism as a viable option.Academians are tapeworms that drain the life out of all the brains and lives they influence.By extension they drain our society, and leave nothing but an intellectual wasteland.   

In reply to by Bigly

HenryHall UselessEater Mon, 11/06/2017 - 08:19 Permalink

Stalin not so much wanted war with Germany as saw the inevitability of it. If he had not entered into the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact the Soviet Union would have been at war with Germany in 1939 and Germany would have won. That extra 18 months of military industrialization made all the difference, even so it was a close thing.With USSR conquered the Nazis would then have been well placed to completely change the outcome of WW2. Probably defeating both Britain and Japan.

In reply to by UselessEater