Monday, 18 June 2018

How many did Communism kill?

This article calculates the total numbers of victims murdered by Communist regimes and movements from 1917 up to the present day. It tries to give a comprehensive figure by listing all the distinct instances of Communist atrocities that can be separately identified and adding them up. 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 a total figure down as far as reasonably possible, rather than giving one hand-waving total. Summing reliable historical estimates for smaller, more specific, identifiable crimes hopefully means the final total will be reasonably accurate.     

In contrast to calculating the victims of Nazism, calculating the total victims of Communist govts and movements is a more complicated business. 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 list of victims of Communism as a single thing?

The sum of the individual crimes listed below comes to some 65-70 million victims in 100 years. In this article I take a relatively 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. Certainly, I have not seen any thorough historical totals that come to less than 60 million, or over 100 million. The difference is not just a matter of different historical estimates 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 just some dry statistical exercise, but a record of a large part of the history of the last hundred years and the whole modern world. Of the three great wars that defined the 20th Century, Communism was born from the chaos produced by the 1st World War, and defined the 2nd World War and the Cold War. Far more important is the reality 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 find out more about the individual crimes I list below. And although here I focus on the dead, the dead are only the beginning. Consistently in country after country the records show that for every person killed three or more were imprisoned, tortured, beaten, or were 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 phenomena over 100 years? I believe it is. Yes, Communist regimes covered a whole list of different countries and governments over 100 years, some of which were even hostile at times. 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 almost 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 and the 'principles' of the October revolution. Again and again, each instituted a political programme that sought to directly emulate the Bolsheveiks in Russia - one party rule, repression of class enemies, mass nationalisation, militarism, collectivism of agriculture.

One of the key criticisms levied at 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 all 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 and multi-generational one.

The final criticism that needs answering concerns who has been counted as victims. In the below I have counted those directly murdered or killed by terrible conditions in prison camps and deportations, the casualties of wars of aggression by Communist states, and the victims of famines directly caused by idiotic Communist agricultural policies. 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. These 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 presumed responsible. If any similar situation occurred in a capitalist country it would be right to place blame at the feet of the government there too.

This is a matter of historical and moral judgement. This is particularly the case in a few instances where I place a proportion only 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 on 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.


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