Monday 18 June 2018

How many did Communism kill? — 65-70 million people.

This article aims to calculate the total numbers of victims murdered by Communist regimes and movements from 1917 to the present day. It tries to give a comprehensive figure by listing all the specific Communist atrocities that can be identified and adding up the total of victims. This is obviously a question that has been covered before, the canonical work being The Black Book of Communism (The Black Book) published in France in 1997. On the other hand, that book is 700 pages long, so this article tries to summarise the same question in a couple of pages. At the same time it breaks the total figure down as far as reasonably possible, rather than giving one single hand-waving figure. Summing reliable historical estimates for smaller specific crimes hopefully increases the accuracy of the final total.   

Calculating the total victims of Communist governments and movements is a complicated business, more so than calculating the victims of Nazism. While Nazism killed in vast numbers from 1939-45 in a relatively contained part of the world, Communism's crimes have been far more spread out: in time, over a century from 1917 to the present day; and in geography, from Berlin to Korea (to Peru). And while the Second World War is possibly history's most studied episode, Communist atrocities have never received the same attention.

This means we can say with confidence that Nazism had about 30 million victims, of which around 6 million were Jews killed in the Holocaust. But how many victims has Communism had in 100 years? And why should we care? And is it even fair to talk about a single total of victims of Communism?

The individual crimes listed below amount to some 65-70 million victims over 100 years, and though presented rather drily below (for reasons of space) the story they represent is breathtaking. Lenin's Bolsheviks begin the cycle in the Moscow and St Petersburg of 1917 with War, mass shooting, repression and imprisonment by secret police, resulting in a devastating famine caused by their destructive anti-market agricultural policies, altogether leaving five million dead. Following a lull in the late 20's Stalin launches the cycle again on a much larger scale, killing ten to fifteen million through the 1930s and 40s; by dekulakisation, purges, the Gulag, another round of famine, and the largest War in human history. However this time also achieving an expansion of Communist power to eastern Europe, where hopes of democracy and freedom are swiftly and brutally crushed.

Then the poison flows into a China and Korea weakened by a decade of war, on a new and even vaster human stage. The murder of millions and imprisonment of tens of millions in war and 'peace' from the late 40s through to the 70s is punctuated - like night follows day - by the largest and most terrible famine yet - 'The Great Leap Forward', which alone claims some thirty million lives. The third wave in the 60s and 70s, sees Communism spilling over into smaller countries: Vietnam, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, with more than a million dead in each, due to the same brutal methods - mass murder and imprisonment, persistent war and then famine. Smaller Communist revolutions and movements are barely noticeable against the totals of slaughter, but in Cuba, Peru, India, and elsewhere, they still ruin tens of thousands of lives.

Finally in the 1980s the tide begins to retreat as the Soviet and Chinese zones move away from lethal Communist 'economics' and more overt political repression. But still into the 21st Century nominal Communist regimes hang on throughout Asia, ruining lives. Russia, after a brief window of democracy that sadly coincided with a deep post-Soviet recession, has also slid back into dictatorship, now backed by gangster capitalism and nationalism, as in China, rather than Marxist philosophy and state-planning. But Communist regimes still kill, as the hundreds of thousands of Fulan Gong, and very recently, Uigher Muslims, have discovered.

In this article I take a conservative methodology, in every instance hedging my bets in the middle of respectable historical estimates for numbers of victims. My figure can be compared to the 95 million victims suggested by The Black Book, which is at the top end of reasonable, scholarly estimates. I have not seen any thorough historical totals that come to less than 60 million, or over 100 million. This difference is not just a matter of history but one of moral judgement; not just which wars, famines and murders happened, but which were crimes, and which were the responsibility of Communist aggression.

We should care about this because it is not some dry statistical exercise, but a large part of the history of the 20th Century and the modern world. Of the three great wars that shaped the 20th Century, Communism was born from the chaos of the 1st World War, and defined the 2nd World War and the Cold War. Far more importantly, the reality is that 65 million is not just a 'big number', it is 65 million individual lives destroyed; 65 million fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, children, loved ones. These people are shrouded in silence, invisible, disappeared, unless we remember them. I hope this article prompts you to read more about the individual crimes listed. And although here I focus on the dead, the dead are only the beginning. Consistently, in country after country, records show that for every person killed three or more were imprisoned, tortured, beaten, or devastated by the loss of dear husband or wife, or family member.

But is it reasonable to calculate a single total of victims of Communism as a phenomenon? I believe so. Yes, Communist regimes covered different countries over 100 years, some of which were even occasionally hostile to each other. But there is a direct and clear line of historical cause and effect from the original Bolsheveik revolution in Russia to each of the Communist regimes that followed it. These subsequent regimes were all created due to direct support from existing Communist states. Each overwhelmingly received military, political, and economic support, and trade, only from other Communist states. And each explicitly declared loyalty to Marxism-Leninism and the 'principles' of the October revolution. Again and again, each instituted a political programme that sought to directly emulate Bolsheveik Russia - one party rule, repression of class enemies, mass nationalisation, militarism, collectivism of agriculture.

One of the key criticisms made of The Black Book was that one could collect a similar book of the crimes of 'Capitalism' or 'Colonialism', to which I say, feel free. But the links between the examples of those phenomena are much weaker and vaguer than the real links: historical, political and ideological, between Communist states, which allows us to talk of a 'Communist' phenomenon as a single entity, if a multi-headed, multi-generational one.

The other major criticism concerns who has been counted as victims. The victims counted below fall roughly into three groups - victims of murder, famine and war, where murder means either direct shooting, or death due to deliberate mistreatment during deportation or in concentration camps. Critics of this kind of approach (used in The Black Book and elsewhere) have claimed in response they could count every person who died 'due to' poverty, or a lack of universal healthcare, or industrial accident, in a capitalist country, and come to an even greater, ghastly total of victims. But this is a false comparison. Communist countries suffered ordinary deaths due to industrial accident, pollution, poor healthcare, etc, as well. Those deaths are not the deaths counted here.

Those counted as murdered are those shot out of hand by Communist regimes, or those who died in scurvy concentration camps, or while being deported thousands of miles in horrific conditions to such places. Those counted as victims of War are not just all the casualties of wars in which Communists were involved, but specifically the casualties of wars caused by Communist aggression. These famine victims are counted because the famines they died in were directly caused by ideological Communist policies of state control and mass collectivisation that devastated farming. These famines were then made worse by the cynical paranoia that labelled any criticism as treason, and any warning of failure as sabotage, and responded with military repression aimed at crushing fictional class enemies and saboteurs. Any similar situations in capitalist countries should be rightly blamed on the governments there too.

This is a matter of historical and moral judgement, particularly in a few instances where I place only a proportion of the victims of a war or crime in the Communist tally. For example, in some wars mentioned I have only included casualties inflicted by the Communists, and not those killed by reckless action of the other side. The most controversial such case would be placing the blame on Stalin for 3 million of the Soviet casualties of the Second World War. I discuss the reasons for this special case in another article linked here.

I have labelled and dated every crime referred to below, and using these labels you can find more information and the sources for these estimates in online encyclopedias, The Black Book itself, and other articles online about the specific crimes. This article contains no original research, it seeks to catalogue a conservative, consensual historic view of the incidents and death tolls listed. I apologise for not being able to source every figure internally here, but doing so would make this article several times longer, and it is already probably too long. Any constructive comments are gratefully received.


Anonymous said...

"These famine victims are counted because the famines they died in were directly caused by ideological Communist policies of state control and mass collectivisation that devastated farming." True, and I think it is absolutely appropriate to count them as victims of these communist regimes, because they are to blame for them.

But that should not blind us to the reality that colonialist, neo-colonialist and capitalist practices commonly did, and often still do, the same. To treat famines caused by communist policies as totally distinct from famines caused by capitalist policies is to gravely downplay the latter.

Which is all the more dangerous. Most people nowadays don’t need to be explained that Mao and Stalin were evil dictators and mass murderers, almost everyone agrees on that. On the other hand, it requires a conscious effort, especially for those in developed countries who tend to benefit from these crimes (at least in the short term), to accept that our global political and economic system is built on the systematic oppression and exploitation of entire continents of people.

Anonymous said...

The currently prevailing neoliberal system is built on just as coherent an ideology (even if, just like communism, this ideology is always largely a pretext for powerful people to do what benefits themselves at the expense of others, irrespective of whether it fits in with their nominal political ideology. Just like China, a nominally communist country, embraces many neoliberal ideologies, so do many nominally neoliberal people happily embrace policies that would be labelled socialism if only they weren’t geared at benefitting only themselves) as communism ever was, and its causal linkage to mass human suffering is just as obvious.
For a well-known historical example we don’t even have to venture out of Europe (e.g. to any of the entire continents that were practically, if not literally, enslaved by Europeans), we have to look no further than the irish potato famine. This was clearly a disaster caused by capitalist policies and ideology (exploitative farming systems that forced the Irish to rely exclusively on one single crop because it was the only one that enabled them to sustain themselves under the circumstances), clearly one that could have been avoided otherwise (hence why it is the irish potato famine, not the worldwide potato famine), and that was made worse by the greedy, misanthropic and arguably racist policies of the English at that time (such as forcing the Irish to keep exporting other crops that they were farming instead of eating them themselves).

Of course we could find any number of such examples in any number of countries where Europeans gained dominance during the last few centuries. Aren’t for example the Opium wars fundamentally caused by capitalist aggression?

If we want to analyze the causalities even further here, it would be worthwhile to consider that communism and all the evil caused in its name (which is a phrasing a bit like "christianity and all the evil it has caused", of course that evil is done in the name of an ideology does not necessarily mean the ideology itself is evil) would never even have happened if it weren’t for the evils of capitalism that preceded it.

All that of course is just speaking of historical examples, and not even considering the future ramifications of the greatest catastrophe in human history, the climate and biodiversity crisis, that is currently under way and mostly caused by the capitalist economy (though indeed communist countries did have their part in it, it is undeniable that the steps necessary to mitigate it are fundamentally at odds with the central tenets of neoliberal philosophy, and it is consistently the most ardent neoliberal people and parties that undeniably oppose these steps. It is also important to note that communist countries, while not generally showing much regard for these issues, mainly contributed to them at a time when they were not yet common knowledge, whereas capitalist economies are overwhelmingly happy to continue causing them even after the causality had been scientifically proven beyond a shadow of a doubt).

So when will we get a calculation on how many people capitalism has killed? Even more interestingly, I’d be interested in how many people it will have killed. I am aware that such calculations are pretty much impossible to do, although it seems hardly plausible that it will be less than billions by the end of the century.

Stephen Wigmore said...

Thank you for your comment. I tried to cover this I'm the article, but to put it differently, in this article I'm considering Communism as a political system, not as a vaguely defined economic alternative to an even vaguer capitalism. I basically define Communism as the series of Regimes both ideologically and practically descended from the Russian bolsheveik'd of 1917.

Capitalism is a term used very vaguely of political regimes and economic systems that are really quite different, from 17thC Britain and Holland to modern states worldwide today. It would be meaningful to catalogue e.g. the victims of 19thC British Imperialism, and people have done so. But not really to tally all supposedly capitalist countries together over centuries and totally different political and economic systems.

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