Growing up as a child I didn’t know much about Communism except that it was bad. I knew that it was atheistic from what I had heard at the mosque… but early on I knew I was quite atheistic, so that was not a major issue to me. There was a period when I was eight or nine when I was interested in military history and armaments. It was immediately obvious that the Soviet Union seemed to be maintaining parity with the United States of America, which impressed me a great deal (MiG-29‘s are still around!). Though I also read that it expended a much larger proportion of its GDP on that than the USA.

Even then, it was clear to me that the Soviet Union was an authoritarian regime, but it wasn’t dramatically emphasized in the same way that the evils of Nazi Germany were. The Nazis had become dramatic legends even in my youth, but I’m old enough that in the 1980s and 1990s I also met survivors of the concentration camps, whether personally or during tours of schools. And then there was Schindler’s List. The Holocaust and Nazism, and the bravery of the “Greatest Generation,” were all prominent in our minds.

In the wake of the Brezhnev era, the Soviets were more sinister than evil, while with the rise to power of Mikhael Gorbachev they also seemed to be turning a new leaf.

Even after the fall of the Communist bloc in the early 1990s I did have later encounters with the ideology. One of my roommates (and friend) at university was an avowed Communist. Now, I knew of other self-identified Communists, but she was the real deal. She flew to Cuba to listen to a six-hour speech given by Fidel Castro at one point, even though she didn’t have the money for it. And, she seemed genuinely saddened by the shift of China toward a mixed economy. It wasn’t just a pose. But I didn’t give it much thought. In the 1990s Communism had no future, so her ideological fervor struck me as a harmless affectation.

It was only later that that I understood the true impact of Communist ideology, especially earlier in the 20th century. Stalin’s and Mao’s political purges, and the tens of millions who died in famines. The death toll under Communist regimes is of incredible magnitude; without compare (though with parallel, alas).

It is fitting that Joseph Stalin is reputed to have been the one who said “the death of one person is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic.”

And yet whenever I dismiss and attack Communism for being an evil ideology I get a serious number of rebuttals. Often they take the same forms as the arguments I read in Michael Parenti’s Blackshirts and Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism back in 1990s, which initially led me down the path of exploring Communism more deeply (despite being supportive of the Communist project in general, even Parenti couldn’t deny the atrocities, even as he tried to mitigate its effects).

One argument I often get is that they meant well. This is in contrast to the National Socialists in Germany, who were exterminationists. To a first approximation, this seems clear… but as someone who is personally from rural “landlord” background, I doubt that Communists meant well to everyone! The dictatorship of the proletariat was going to overturn the old order, and the losers were not going to be happy about it. Not only were they going to be dispossessed, but they were often targeted and killed. They were class enemies, and it was clear early on that revolutionary Marxists were not going to be gentle with those class enemies. They would liquidate them.

But whatever their intent, with Communism we have several repeated instances of massive death counts of the very people that the revolutions were supposed to help. The famine in Ukraine, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cambodian Genocide are clear examples. Then there is the North Korean famine  in the late 1990s. And the greatest decline in poverty the world has ever seen has occurred after the Chinese Communist state veered away from the regnant Marxist-Leninist economic orthodoxy of the 20th century.

Today we face a new dilemma. Since 1970 the wage gap between skilled workers and the unskilled has been growing in the developed world. The egalitarian society of mass affluence seems to be fading away, as a new era of inequality and immiseration is facing us. At least in prosperous mature societies.

I do not see any plausible solution on the left or right on the horizon. The populist energies that have been unleashed in democratic societies reflect this lack of an answer from the elites. They have no fix which will present opportunities for broad-based prosperity. And, to be frank, populists are correct in suggesting that the elites partake extensively in crony capitalism and enforce policies which are self-serving.

Into this vacuum are stepping radical firebrands on the right and the left. On the left journals such as Jacobin are taking a “fresh look” at Marxism. As the above indicates I see where the impulse comes from. But this experiment has been done, disastrously, multiple times. There is no way any major state should risk this sort of radical socialism.I know that people like Bill Ayers call themselves “Anarchist Communists,” but in practice, they praise states like Venezuela which do not practice anarchism from what I can tell. All reasonable alternatives are better, even muddling along through a mixed economy.

Despite the empirical record of Communism, academics, in particular, seem to have a warm and fuzzy spot for the Marxists. They “meant well.” And, not only are there abstract Marxists in academia, there are literal self-identified Communists in the professoriate who egg on violent agitation. Obviously, there are no Nazi professors. And yet Communism is given a latitude, despite its 100 million person body count!

And the body count issue is interesting because apologists for Communism regularly suggest that these numbers may be exaggerated. Refutations of the statistics for the Chinese famine suggest that it was closer to 10 million, rather than 45 million. This is like saying the Nazi regime has been slandered, because they killed 2 million, as opposed to 6 million, Jews. Quibbling over numbers in a passionate manner like this is the domain of Holocaust deniers, and yet with Communism, I encounter this regularly.

In conclusion, I don’t ever want to hear about how “true socialism has never been done.” The only socialism which is acceptable are the “less true” socialisms, the inept French kind with all its regulations, the high taxation Scandinavian variety, and those states which dabble but don’t fully commit. Gale force socialism too often leads to genocide and makes as much sense in practice as crazy libertarianism which attempts to privatize all sidewalks.

Finally, granting that Communists had their hearts in the right places, what did they end up accomplishing? Yes, perhaps one hundred million died, but that was in the past. But what are post-Communist countries like today? The Russian state is now a right-wing nationalist authoritarian regime. The Communists were famously anti-racist, and I believe sincerely so. But sixty years of enforced anti-racism led to a populace which is notoriously racist against colored people once given freedom to make up their own mind (Moscow is considered a dangerous place for non-white people to travel without caution). North Korea is constitutionally racist at this point, and China’s authoritarianism is probably one of the major reasons that its populist nationalism is kept in check. And similar things might be said about gender egalitarianism and the subordinate relationships of women to men in post-Communist regimes. The Communist orders were long on rhetoric, but short on actually figuring out a way to change hearts and minds

And yet here we are when many proudly boast their sympathies with Communism and Communist regimes of yore. It doesn’t matter how many “mistakes” those regimes committed, it was just an “experiment” which is too good to not try again.


As an aside, I recommend the New York Times series “Red Century.” I do think a detailed ethnographic portrait of Communists is warranted and interesting. But I also do think too many of the pieces see the movement and period through a rose-tinted filter.

You can read more of Razib Khan’s writing here.

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  1. There’s many excellent and entirely non-Communistic reasons to avoid pushing propaganda about “muh 72 million victims of Communism” (acceptable during the Cold War when there was a lack of archival access; no longer so today).

    The records of the early Bolsheviks and Stalin are sordid enough that they don’t need any additional “blackwashing.” If one wants to be an ideologue and lie anyway (and the “100 million” definitely falls into that category), then people will start to suspect that maybe anti-Communists are lying about everything else as well, and well, maybe Stalin actually didn’t do nothing wrong after all.

    This is essentially what happened in Russia – the unhinged liberal propaganda of the 1990s meeting a retrograde Stalinophile reaction from the mid-2000s that was entirely grassroots in character.

    The Russian state is now a right-wing nationalist authoritarian regime.

    Only in the febrile imagination of low-information Clinton voters and the less informed members of the Alt Right. An appropriate pairing.

  2. OK, but can you logically defend your claim that all socialism/Marxism leads to genocide if it’s pursued with any seriousness? So far, other than social democracy, the only variant that ever had state power for any length of time was Marxism-Leninism, which is a highly authoritarian variant of socialism, something that’s widely acknowledged by many socialists.

    So are you arguing that any state that implemented socialism in any more than a half-hearted way would inevitably move toward totalitarianism? Or are you arguing that a more humane variety would simply be unable to hold power?

    I think there are several points that keep communism from being looked at as poorly as fascism, rightly or wrongly. The first would be the relativising effect of atrocities committed in the name of anti-communism. There is no “black book” for this, but the fact is, anti-communist purges in states like Chile, Indonesia, South Vietnam, etc killed many, not to mention the many wars and counterinsurgencies the US led during the cold war. This may not amount to Soviet or Chinese levels of bloodshed, but the death toll and human rights violations are not insignificant either.

    I think this can lead to a mindset that bloodshed was the norm of the struggle between communism and anticommunism, no matter which side you were on, and that if communist countries hadn’t been in a constant state of undeclared war, they might have actually achieved their socialist and eventually communist ideals more or less peacefully. I’m not saying this is correct, necessarily, but the fact that Western capitalism used more than a little bloodshed to triumph in the Cold War deserves acknowledgement.

    The second, and I think more serious reason why Marxists and communists acquired a better reputation than fascists is the contrast in the role of Marxist movements in democratic countries vs fascist ones. Fascism was not only awful in the countries where it took power, but they’ve contributed nothing positive (and quite a bit that was negative) to democratic countries where they failed to take power. Compare that to the more mixed legacy of western Marxism. Now it’s true, western Communists were often doing the bidding of the Soviet Union or other Communist states, they would often advocate for bad policies (eg, supporting US isolationism during the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact era), and could play a domineering and toxic role in social movements they were involved in. But on the other hand, western Communists often played highly committed roles in things like union organizing, fighting against unjust wars (like the Vietnam War), the fight for racial equality and civil rights, and played a pivotal role in starting the ACLU. There’s really nothing that western Fascists can point to that’s comparably positive, except maybe their relatively passive role in Supreme Court cases like Brandenburg and Skokie, where they became the examplars of the outer edge of what protected free speech should be.

  3. I was a socialist in the sixties (I’m 67), until I went to study and work in China in 1976. China was then still in the final stages of the Cultural Revolution. Food and clothes were rationed! Thought was controlled. That cured me of socialism.
    It’s been an abiding wonder to me that people are still infatuated with socialism. And of sadness that its likely they won’t be cured of the infatuation other than living in the likes, today, of Venezuela.

  4. Good article. If i had to choose between living under fascism or communism i would choose fascism. why? Because if i am going to have no freedom and be ruled by totalitarians, I at least want to have enough food to eat.

  5. Razib,

    I think you touch on something very interesting here. Why is it OK for people to sympathize with communism or outright call themselves communist in 2017? I don’t mean that its not ok in a authoritarian sense but from a societal acceptance sense. There is a significant amount of professors in academia who proudly proclaim they are Marxist with little regard to the atrocities that the ideology gave birth too. What is a professor said “i’m a national socialist”?

    We all know they would be immediately fired and publicly shamed into the shadows, never to return. I don’t really see the distinction between the two. Both are authoritarian ideologies that have been the cause of the most suffering and murder in the history of the world. Ghengis Khan doesn’t have shit on Mao or Stalin yet its quite alright to state you are a follower of those ideologies in contemporary society.

    The Communist Manifesto is one of the most common texts given to college students which begs the question, why? I hardly think it is to educate students on the horrors of communism, actually quite the opposite, it is to indoctrinate their minds in the ideology on oppression and victim-hood it espouses. We see this evidenced in academia today with the rise of neo-marxist,social justice, critical theory, post-modernist thought dominating discourse. This isn’t a new phenomenon, it has been building up for decades but what is new is how pervasive this ideology has spread out into society and is accepted as something good.

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