Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 4


Black Book of Communism

Stéphane Courtois, Nicholas Werth, Jean Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karol Bartosek, Jean-Louis Margolin
The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression
Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1999, pp. 856, £23.50

RIGHT from the start, the revolutionary Socialist movement has seen a steady stream of deserters leave its ranks, all convinced that they have seen the light, the blindingly obvious realisation that the cause for which they have struggled is nothing but a cruel hoax. Although common to all countries, it does seem to be especially de rigueur for intellectuals in France to be able to point to a now-disavowed radical past. Indeed, becoming an anti-Communist seems to be a more or less compulsory career move if one wants to make it in the French political or literary world. And just as it was once the height of fashion to wave a red flag, it is now the done thing to pour scorn on all of this childish nonsense, and to show that Bolshevism, far from showing the way to a realm of genuine freedom, can only lead to a veritable vale of tears.

The Black Book of Communism has all the hallmarks of such a shift of allegiances. So what is our authors’ rationale for throwing away their old convictions; have they discovered some new devastating critique of Bolshevism that will finally drive a stake through Lenin’s mummified body, assuming that it hasn’t been buried or otherwise disposed of in the meantime? Not at all; our intrepid team have adopted lock, stock and barrel the entire methodology of traditional anti-Communism, cranking out all the familiar explanations that were doing the rounds no doubt before any of them was born. Believe it or not, they do not view themselves as born-again reactionaries, and they even describe themselves as being still ‘closely wedded to the left’. ‘Left of what?’ might be legitimately asked, as their book is suitably introduced by the leading conservative Sovietologist Martin Malia, who believes that any attempt to go beyond capitalism will inevitably come to grief.

The Black Book is an oddly-constructed affair. Nicholas Werth’s chapters on the Soviet Union would make up a sizeable book by itself, whilst some other parts of the world are covered in short articles that would probably be rejected by academic journals on the grounds of superficiality. Apart from Werth’s piece, which does draw to some extent on Russian archival documents and other primary sources, there is little original research, as most of the authors rely heavily on other people’s work.

Basically, and with no attempt on my part at being flippant, this massive book could be boiled down to the formula ‘Leninism = Terror’, and an end-of-century death score of ‘Communism 85 million, Fascism 20 million’. There is no attempt at constructing a socio-economic analysis of Soviet-style societies, and the contributors only occasionally venture beyond superficial observations on the level of politics. But if one starts with the assumption that the essence of Bolshevism is terror, then everything from the October Revolution through to Kim Jong-Il’s madhouse in North Korea and the Pol Pot fan club in the Sendero Luminoso is easy to understand, and needs no further explanation. From the storming of the Winter Palace right through to the various hulks of Stalinism still in evidence here and there, it was thus and could not have been otherwise. Teleology has never been so easy.

If we look at history in a more objective manner, however, things aren’t quite so simple. Wearisome as it is to have to run through this whole business yet again, to look at the real issues, and to drag them out from the vast heap of anti-Communist outpourings to which Courtois & Co have added their two-penn’orth, it has to be done. Although Werth tries to dissociate himself from what he calls the ‘liberal’ (I’d say ‘conservative’) analysis of Bolshevism as a putschist conspiracy, he nonetheless completely ignores the evidence produced by various scholars that proves that the Bolsheviks enjoyed a close relationship with the Russian working class during 1917 and were steadily winning large majorities in soviets, unions and factory committees, and he sees the October Revolution as a ‘coup d’état’ – an old cliché if ever there was one. In other words, the Bolsheviks were not intrinsically linked with the Russian working class, but constituted some kind of alien force, taking advantage of the mayhem and chaos in order to impose their party rule. Now that’s the sort of explanation which has satisfied conservatives and vulgar anarchists ever since 1917, and the Black Book crowd presumably think that it will suffice today.

Nowhere do we read in Werth’s essay that the Bolsheviks saw their seizure of power as the first blow in inopportune circumstances, not least a backward and impoverished country with a small working class, of the world revolution. Bolshevism in power was a holding operation, a desperate attempt to cling onto power in the hopes that revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries would secure its rule – and in the knowledge that its collapse would demoralise militants in other countries. This is the essence of Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, which the Bolsheviks effectively adopted in the spring of 1917. Bolshevism cannot be understood unless this rationale is accepted.

Stalinism was by no means the inevitable product of Bolshevism, successful revolutions in Europe would have done much to rejuvenate the democratic thrust of Bolshevism that existed in 1917 and which fired State and Revolution, which – surprise, surprise – does not get a mention in this book. What emerged out of the Civil War and into the period of the New Economic Policy was a Bolshevik party that was victorious in war, but facing political defeat; bureaucratised and with no clear vision of where to go or what to do. It had survived through those difficult early years, but at the cost of putting its existence as a revolutionary proletarian party deeply in jeopardy. The rise of Stalinism represented the defeat of Bolshevism, the end-product of the fiercely difficult conditions of the early Soviet republic and its isolation in a hostile world, the transformation of many revolutionaries into state bureaucrats, and the extinction of the Soviet Communist Party as a revolutionary proletarian force. The democratic thrust of Bolshevism could now only manifest itself in oppositional trends. Once broken away from the working class, the general trend of the Soviet party-state apparatus was towards establishing itself as a ruling élite, a process that was guaranteed by the isolation of the Soviet republic, and which was consummated with the final consolidation of Stalinism during the First Five Year Plan. In short, what most people, including The Black Book’s contributors, have come to call ‘Communism’ is in fact the result of the defeat of Bolshevism. Official Communism – Stalinism – was a product of Bolshevism, but a negative one; the product of its defeat, not of its victory; the mutation of a Communist force into a form of anti-Communism, antagonistic to capitalism, but equally opposed to Communism.

If one looks at official Communism, the marks of that defeat are very clear. Never has official Communism, either as regimes or opposition parties, ever acted in the tradition of the Bolsheviks of 1917; it has always acted in the Stalinist tradition. What we had in China from the 1930s was the wreckage of the Communist Party going up-country as a bureaucratic military leadership heading a peasant jacquerie, with nothing to do with a proletarian revolution whatsoever. Other ‘Communist’ regimes followed suit, or, as in Eastern Europe, were implantations through territorial expansion. Official Communism in power was basically a substitute for a weak or even non-existent bourgeoisie, attempting to implement a programme of modernisation, including industrialisation, literacy and land reform. The Stalinist Five Year Plans of the 1930s usually served as a model, and in Third World countries, sometimes with an imitation of the Chinese experience thrown in. Each time, however, we had a new generation, it was like recording from an already badly recorded tape: the quality degenerates down the line, until we arrived at the mind-boggling irrationality of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, which, name apart, cannot be wedged into any permutation of Marxism, even of a degenerated Stalinist variety. Parenthetically, it’s a wonder that the authors did not extend their net wider to include the nasty dictatorships that could have been recruited, whatever the dictators’ wishes, into the pantheon of ‘Communist’ countries on the basis of Ted Grant’s assertion that Syria and Burma were workers’ states, and Gerry Healy’s lauding of Ba’athist Iraq as a Socialist country – as this could have jacked up the final score of ‘Communism’.

Our authors employ a sneaky sleight of hand when comparing Communism and fascism in that Bolshevism and Stalinism are lumped together, with the latter being the inescapable result of the former, whilst fascism is completely abstracted from capitalism, as if the authors are trying to dissociate the Third Reich from the capitalist system. Indeed, The Black Book manages to overlook the frightful number of deaths that have occurred under capitalism. What about the many millions of deaths in the slave trade? What about the First World War, the parts of the Second World War that did not involve the Soviet Union, the millions of deaths in various Third World famines and wars, the near-extinction of Australian aborigines and the extermination of Tasmanian natives, the slaughter of Native Americans and the deaths in the US Civil War, or the Turkish genocidal attack upon the Armenians? For all what they have done, North Korea or North Vietnam did not drop hundreds of thousands of tons of high explosive on the USA, like the USA did on them, killing several million people. What can one make of people who can write about the apparent treatment of dissidents in Castro’s Cuba and the Sandinistas’ Nicaragua without mentioning the considerably greater number of political oppositionists in Latin American bourgeois states who have met a much nastier end, or write about South-East Asia without mentioning the slaughter of half-a-million Communist Party members and sympathisers in Indonesia during the 1960s? If The Black Book’s authors are really ‘closely wedded to the left’, a small nod in that direction might be expected.

Perhaps the most virulent contributor to The Black Book is Courtois. A former Maoist, he is using this opportunity to expurgate himself thoroughly of his old sinful ideas. And in this he is true to himself; Maoists were notorious for taking seriously every bit of nonsense that emanated from the ‘Great Helmsman’, and he has merely junked one dogma for another. It just will not do to parade all these hoary old anti-Communist clichés, yet Nechayev’s Catechism is wheeled out yet again, as is What Is To Be Done? and the notion of Bolshevism as ‘a revolutionary party made up of professionals linked in an underground structure of almost military discipline’, etc., etc. The most remarkable thing is that he comes out with all this as if he has rolled away the stone and is revealing something startlingly original.

Having said this, I do not wish to take an uncritical attitude towards Bolshevism. Whether we like it or not, the spectre of Kronstadt hangs over the October Revolution, and Marxists, particularly those in and around the Trotskyist movement, should replace their rather romantic image of the first few years of the Soviet state with an analysis that attempts to explain how and why the party-state apparatus constructed by the Bolsheviks came into conflict with many of the workers who had supported them in 1917. Trotsky’s analysis of the evolution of the Soviet republic remains a profound critique, but he failed adequately to explain why the Bolsheviks (and especially himself) had ended up advocating the militarisation of labour and accepting the substitution of their party for the working class during the Civil War. This breakdown between the Bolsheviks and the working class must be carefully studied; the party-class relationship is something that the Bolsheviks themselves and the Socialist tradition from which they emerged did not really comprehend – it was no accident that State and Revolution broke off at the point when it was to be discussed. The relationship between the subjective factor – the Bolsheviks’ understanding of their tasks within a revolution – and the objective factors facing them must also be carefully studied, as it is clear that some of the Bolsheviks’ practices that emerged from the period of the Civil War, whilst by no means in and of themselves incurable, did help pave the way for the Stalinist degeneration. The Bolshevik experience provides many lessons for revolutionaries today; unfortunately some of them show what not to do, and what could happen if you did repeat them. We cannot successfully counter the anti-Communists’ blanket condemnation of Bolshevism by clinging to an uncritical attitude towards it.

The Black Book caused quite a stir when it was originally published in France, not only because of its contents, but because the various authors promptly fell out with each other in an unseemly dogfight. The reaction to its publication here in Britain has been much more muted. Perhaps it’s because we already have the works of Richard Pipes, Martin Malia and Vladimir Brovkin at first hand, and prefer the organ grinder to the monkey. A genuine accounting for the whole experience of Bolshevism and its mutation into Stalinism, one that stands on the basis of the liberatory promise of Bolshevism, has yet to be written. It will subject the days of Lenin to an objective critique no less than it would of what happened afterwards. Marxists should have no fear of that, understanding the mistakes the Bolsheviks made will leave the Socialist movement better placed to attend to the tasks that face it today and tomorrow. As for The Black Book, all I can add is that to compile a huge tome on the ‘crimes of Communism’, whilst barely mentioning the crimes of capitalism, and without giving anything but a time-dishonoured array of clichés about the basis of Bolshevism and the relationship between it and Stalinism, is an indication of the intellectual poverty of those who feel obliged to reject the promise of human liberation for the shabby reality of today.

Paul Flewers

Updated by ETOL: 6.10.2011