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The following is a primer on the death tolls of 20th century ‘Communism’ (see ‘Part 1’ for discussion on Communism’s relevance today, available here).
The Black Book of Communism is still heralded as the quintessential, legitimate source despite numerous issues and criticism. Listing only a few:
1.Two co-authors Werth and Margolin distanced themselves from the project after claiming the editor Courtois was ‘obsessed’ with arriving at a total of 100 million deaths and so inflated figures, resulting in ‘sloppy and biased scholarship’. The largest number of deaths – 43 million – is attributed to the Chinese Great Leap Forward, where, using Roderick MacFarquhar’s data, a decimal was misplaced in his writing to claim that Mao killed 10 times more people (Harvard University Press claims this was an error).
2 . Their methodology is flawed. Historian Ronald Suny remarked that Courtois’ comparison of 100 million victims of Communism to 25 million victims of Nazism ‘[leaves out]out most of the 40-60,000,000 lives lost in the Second World War, for which arguably Hitler and not Stalin was principally responsible’. According to Gilles Perrault, the books ignores the effect of international factors and most importantly, as Noam Chomsky argued:
[S]uppose we now apply the methodology of the Black Book and its reviewers to the full story, not just the doctrinally acceptable half. We therefore conclude that in India the democratic capitalist “experiment” since 1947 has caused more deaths than in the entire history of the “colossal, wholly failed…experiment” of Communism everywhere since 1917: over 100 million deaths by 1979, tens of millions more since, in India alone. The “criminal indictment” of the “democratic capitalist experiment” becomes harsher still if we turn to its effects after the fall of Communism: millions of corpses in Russia, to take one case, as Russia followed the confident prescription of the World Bank that “Countries that liberalise rapidly and extensively turn around more quickly [than those that do not],” returning to something like what it had been before World War I, a picture familiar throughout the “third world.”
Add ‘to the account the countries devastated by the direct assaults of Western power, and its clients, during the same years’ and you see – capitalism kills! In fact, The Black Book of Capitalism was published in response with an incomplete list reaching 100 million deaths just in its appendix, highlighting the absurdity of the comparison whereby any analysis of capitalism’s death-toll by the same methodology (in either its totality or selected socialist-periods) would prove it genocidal to humanity.
It becomes clear with rigorous scholarly work like Grover Furr’s Bloodlies, who systematically examines every source for a communism related fact-claim in Timothy Snyder’s infamous Bloodlands and finds almost all such claims to be false or misrepresentations, that many assumptions of the 20th century Communist endeavour are deeply suspect.
His findings significantly question the dominant anti-Communist consensus slowly being exposed as exaggerated, such as Stalin’s deliberate execution of the Ukrainian famine which even Dr. Robert Conquest who popularized the ‘deliberate famine’ narrative in 1986 (denounced at the time by anti-communist Soviet-studies experts, see Furr, p. 45), retracted his claim saying ‘that he does not hold the view that Stalin purposely inflicted the 1933 famine. No. What I argue is that with resulting famine imminent, he could have prevented it, but put “Soviet Interests” other than feeding the starving first’ (p. 47). Further research doubts this, showing a much more complex and practical picture through which Davies, Tauger and Wheatcroft conclude: ‘Persistent efforts of Stalin and the Politburo to establish firm and inviolable grain reserves… were almost completely unsuccessful… Stalin was not hoarding immense grain reserves in these years. On the contrary, he had failed to reach the levels which he had been imperatively demanding since 1929’ (pp. 48-49).
As Austin Murphy wrote in a similarly rigorous work, The Triumph of Evil:
Like the myths of millions of executions, the fairy tales that Stalin had tens of millions of people arrested and permanently thrown into prison or labor camps to die in the 1930-1953 interval (Conquest, 1990) appear to be untrue. In particular, the Soviet archives indicate that the number of people in Soviet prisons, gulags, and labour camps in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s averaged about 2 million, of whom 20-40% were released each year, (Getty, Rittersporn, and Zemskov, 1993). This average, which includes desperate World War II years, is similar to the number imprisoned in the USA in the 1990s (Catalinotto, 1998a) and is only slightly higher as a percentage of the population.’
Murphy also notes that the annual death rate for the Soviet interned population was about 4%, which incorporates the effect of prisoner executions (Getty & co., 1993) and excluding the desperate World War II years, the death rate in the Soviet prisons, gulags, and labour camps dropped to 2.5% (Getty & co., 1993), below the average of the “free” citizen in capitalist Russia under the czar in 1913 (Wheatcroft, 1993). He also asserts – citing respectively Bacon (1994) and Getty & co. (1993) that about one-third of confined people weren’t required to work and less than 10% of all arrests during Stalin’s rule were for political or secret police matters.
Here then, we can see the ‘Communism killed millions’ narrative is problematic and based off tenuous, dubious history, serving as the ultimate emotional straw man to avoid engagement with radical left challenges to inequality, private property, and the liberal-democratic order, rather than objective historical fact. I therefore encourage and recommend research into this topic alongside the sources mentioned for those interested, enlightened or apprehensive.