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Excerpt from Foreword by Martin Malia

November 22, 2006

[pg. xiv] Yet if we let the divided contributors to The Black Book arbitrate the dispute, we find no disagreement in this matter: the Leninist matrix indeed served for all the once “fraternal” parties. To be sure, the model was applied differently in different cultural settings. As Margolin points out, the chief agent of repression in Russia was a specially created political police, the Cheka GPU-NKVD-KGB, while in China it was the People’s Liberation Army, and in Cambodia it was gun-toting adolescents from the countryside: thus popular ideological mobilization went deeper in Asia than in Russia. Still, everywhere the aim was to repress “enemies of the people”–“like noxious insects,” as Lenin said early on, thus inaugurating Communism’s “animalization” of its adversaries. Moreover, the line of inheritance from Stalin, to Mao, to Ho, to Kim Ii Sung, to Pol Pot was quite clear, with each new leader receiving both material aid and ideological inspiration from his predecessor. And, to come full circle, Pol Pot first learned his Marxism in Paris in 1952 (when such philosophers as Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty were explaining how terror could be the midwife of “humanism”). So if the debate remains on the level of the quantitative atrocity, the double standard collapses, and Communism appears as the more criminal totalitarianism.But if the debate is shifted to qualitative crime, this outcome is easily reversed. And here the decisive factor is, again, the Holocaust as the confirmation of Nazism’s uniquely evil nature. Indeed, this standard has become so universal that other persecuted groups, from Armenians to the native peoples of both Americas, have appropriated (with varying degrees of plausibility) the term “genocide” to characterize their own experience. Not surprisingly, many of these implicit comparisons to the Holocaust have been rejected as illegitimate, even slanderous. And in fact one overexcited op-ed piece in Le Monde, from a respected researcher, denounced Courtois’s introduction as antisemitic.

Yet there are other, less emotionally charged arguments for assigning a significant distinctiveness to Nazi terror. The criminal law everywhere distinguishes degrees of murder, according to the motivation, the cruelty of the means employed, and so on. Thus, Raymond Aron long ago, and Francois Furet recently, though both unequivocal about the evil of Communism, distinguished between extermination practiced to achieve a political objective, no matter how perverse, and extermination as an end in itself. And in this perspective, Communism once again comes off as less evil than Nazism.

This plausible distinction, however, can easily be turned on its head. In particular, Eastern European dissidents have argued that mass murder in the name of a noble ideal is more perverse than it is in the name of a base one. The Nazis, after all, never pretended to be virtuous. The Communists, by contrast, trumpeting their humanism, hoodwinked millions around the globe for decades, and so got away with murder on the ultimate scale. The Nazis, moreover, killed off their victims without ideological ceremony; the Communists, by contrast, usually compelled their prey to confess their “guilt” in signed depositions thereby acknowledging the Party line’s political “correctness.” Nazism, finally, was a unique case (Mussolini’s Fascism was not really competitive), and it developed no worldwide clientele. By contrast, Communism’s universalism permitted it to metastasize worldwide.

A final position, forcefully expressed by Alain Besancon, is that murder is murder whatever the ideological motivation; and this is undeniably true for the equally dead victims of both Nazism and Communism. Such absolute equivalence is also expressed in Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism: both systems massacred their victims not for what they did (such as resisting the regime) but for who they were, whether Jews or kulaks. In this perspective, the distinction made by some, that the term petit-bourgeois “kulak” is more elastic and hence less lethal than biological “Jew,” is invalidated: the social and the racial categories are equally pseudoscientific.

[… pg. xvii]  It is this syndrome that gives the permanent qualitative advantage to Communism over Nazism in any evaluation of their quantitative atrocities. For the Communist project, in origin, claimed commitment to universalistic and egalitarian goals, whereas the Nazi project offered only unabashed national egoism. Small matter, then, that their practices were comparable; their moral auras were antithetical, and it is the latter feature that counts in Western, domestic politics. And so we arrive at the fulcrum of the debate: A moral man can have “no enemies to the left,” a perspective in which undue insistence on Communist crime only “plays into the hands of the right”–if, indeed, any anticommunism is not simply a mask for antiliberalism.

In this spirit, Le Monde’s editorialist deemed The Black Book inopportune because equating Communism with Nazism removed the “last barriers to legitimating the extreme right,” that is, Le Pen. It is true that Le Pen’s party and similar hate-mongering, xenophobic movements elsewhere in Europe represent an alarming new phenomenon that properly concerns all liberal democrats. [Of course, the whole point of this web site is that Le Pen’s attitudes make perfect sense if one understands human nature in terms of evolutionary psychology.  Xenophobia is caused by reaction against multiculturalism and is perfectly normal if one understands human evolution.]  But it in no way follows that Communism’s criminal past should be ignored or minimized. Such an argument is only a variant, in new historical circumstances, of Sartre’s celebrated sophism that one should keep silent about Soviet camps (in order not to throw the auto workers of Billancout into despair). To which his onetime colleague, Albert Camus, long ago replied that the truth is the truth, and denying it mocks the causes both of humanity and of morality.

In fact, the persistence of such sophistry is precisely why The Black Book is so opportune. What, therefore, do its provocative pages contain? Without pretension to originality, it presents a balance sheet of our current knowledge of Communism’s human costs, archivally based where possible and elsewhere drawing on the best available secondary evidence, and with due allowance for the difficulties of quantification. Yet the very sobriety of this inventory is what gives the book its power; and indeed, as we are led from country to country and from horror to horror, the cumulative impact is overwhelming.

At the same time, the book quietly advances a number of important analytical points. The first is that Communist regimes did not just commit criminal acts (all states do so on occasion); they were criminal enterprises in their very essence: on principle, so to speak, they all ruled lawlessly, by violence, and without regard for human life. Werth’s section on the Soviet Union is thus titled “A State against Its People” and takes us methodically through the successive cycles of terror, from Great October in 1917 to Stalin’s death in 1953. By way of comparison, he notes that between 1825 and 1917 tsarism carried out 6,321 political executions (most of them during the revolution of 1905-1907), whereas in two months of official “Red Terror” in the fall of 1918 Bolshevism achieved some 15,000. And so on for a third of a century; for example, 6 million deaths during the collectivization famine of 1932-33, 720,000 executions during the Great Purge, 7 million people entering the Gulag (where huge numbers died) in the years 1934-1941, and 2,750,000 still there at Stalin’s death. True, these aggregates represent different modes of state violence, not all of them immediately lethal; but all betoken terror as a routine means of government.

And the less familiar figures in Margolin’s chapter on China’s “Long March into Night” are even more staggering: at a minimum, 10 million “direct victims”; probably 20 million deaths out of the multitudes that passed through China’s “hidden Gulag,” the laogai; more than 20 million deaths from the “political famine” of the Great Leap Forward of 1959-1961, the largest famine in history. Finally, in Pol Pot’s aping of Mao’s Great Leap, around one Cambodian in seven perished, the highest proportion of the population in any Communist country.

The book’s second point is that there never was a benign, initial phase of Communism before some mythical “wrong turn” threw it off track. From the start Lenin expected, indeed wanted, civil war to crush all “class enemies”; and this war, principally against the peasants, continued with only short pauses until 1953. So much for the fable of “good Lenin/bad Stalin.” (And if anyone doubts that it is still necessary to make this case, the answer may be found, for example, in the maudlin article “Lenin” in the current edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica.) Still another point is of a “technical” nature: the use of famine to break peasant resistance to regime economic “plans.” And ever since Solzhenitsyn, such “pharaonic” methods have been contrasted with the technologically advanced Nazi gas chamber.

A more basic point is that Red terror cannot be explained as the prolongation of prerevolutionary political cultures. Communist repression did not originate from above, in traditional autocracies; nor was it simply an intensification of violent folk practices from below–whether the peasant anarchism of Russia, or the cyclical millenarian revolts of China, or the exacerbated nationalism of Cambodia, although all these traditions were exploited by the new regime. Nor does the source of Communist practices reside in the violence of the two world wars, important though this brutal conditioning was. Rather, in each case, mass violence against the population was a deliberate policy of the new revolutionary order; and its scope and inhumanity far exceeded anything in the national past.

A final point, insisted on by Courtois yet clear also in his colleagues’ accounts, is that Communism’s recourse to “permanent civil war” rested on the “scientific” Marxist belief in class struggle as the “violent midwife of history,” in Marx’s famous metaphor. Similarly, Courtois adds, Nazi violence was founded on a scientistic social Darwinism promising national regeneration through racial struggle.

This valid emphasis on ideology as the wellspring of Communist mass murder reaches its apogee in Margolin’s depiction of escalating radicalism as the revolution moved East. Stalin, of course, had already begun the escalation by presenting himself as the “Lenin of today” and his first Five-Year Plan as a second October. Then, in 1953, four years after Mao came to power, his heirs ended mass terror: it had simply become too costly to their now superpuissant regime. To the Chinese comrades, however, Moscow’s moderation amounted to “betrayal” of the world revolution just as it was taking off in Asia. Consequently, in 1959-1961 Mao was goaded to surpass his Soviet mentors by a “Great Leap Forward” beyond mere socialism, Moscow style, to full Communism as Marx had imagined it in the Communist Manifesto and the Critique of the Gotha Program. And in 1966-1976, by directing the anarchy of the Cultural Revolution against his own Party, he proceeded to outdo Stalin’s Great Purge of his Party in 1937-1939. But the most demented spin-off of this whole tradition was Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge of 1975-1979; for this rampage against urban, “bourgeois” civilization expressed nothing less than an ambition to propel tiny Cambodia beyond Mao’s “achievements” into the front rank of world revolution.

Yet the long-term inefficiency of such “progress” eventually led Mao’s heirs, in their turn, to “betray” the Marxist-Leninist impetus by halting mass terror and turning halfway to the market. Thereby, after 1979, Deng Xiaoping ended worldwide the perverse Prometheanism launched in October 1917. Thus the Communist trajectory, as The Black Book traces it from Petrograd to the China Seas, inevitably suggests that ideology, not social process, fueled the movement’s meteoric rise, and that ideology’s practical failure produced its precipitate fall.

This transnational perspective goes far toward answering the great question posed by Communist history: namely, why did a doctrine premised on proletarian revolution in industrial societies come to power only in predominantly agrarian ones, by Marxist definition those least prepared for “socialism”? But socialist revolution for Marx was not just a matter of economic development; it was at bottom an eschatological “leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.” Since such quasi-miraculous transformation has the strongest allure for those who have the greatest lag to overcome, it is hardly surprising that Marxism’s line of march turned out to lead ever farther into the politically and economically backward East. Only by taking account of this paradoxical eastward escalation through increasingly extravagant “leaps” can we build a real historiography of the great twentieth-century story that was Communism.

And this brings us back to the vexed–and vexing–question raised by Stephane Courtois in The Black Book: What of the moral equivalence of Communism with Nazism? After fifty years of debate, it is clear that no matter what the hard facts are, degrees of totalitarian evil will be measured as much in terms of present politics as in terms of past realities. So we will always encounter a double standard as long as there exist a left and a right–which will be a very long time indeed. No matter how thoroughly the Communist failure may come to be documented (and new research makes it look worse every day), we will always have reactions such as that of a Moscow correspondent for a major Western paper, who, after the fall, could still privately salute the Russian people with: “Thanks for having tried!”; and there will always be kindred spirits to dismiss The Black Book, a priori, as “right-wing anti-Communist rhetoric.” For more mundane observers, however, it is at last becoming clear that our current qualitative judgments are scandalously out of line with the century’s real balance sheet of political crime.

And this very absurdity perhaps brings us to a turning point. Ten years ago, the authors of The Black Book would have refused to believe what they now write. And exploration of the Soviet archives–and eventually those of East Asia–will continue to redress the balance. This comes at a time, moreover, when historical writing is turning increasingly to retrospective affirmative action, to fulfilling our “duty of remembrance” to all the oppressed of the past–indeed, when governments and churches formally apologize for their historic sins. Surely, then, the Party of humanity can spare a little compassion for the victims of the inhumanity so long meted out by so many of its own partisans.

Even so, such an effort at retrospective justice will always encounter one intractable obstacle. Any realistic accounting of Communist crime would effectively shut the door on Utopia; and too many good souls in this unjust world cannot abandon hope for an absolute end to inequality (and some less good souls will always offer them “rational” curative nostrums). And so, all comrade-questers after historical truth should gird their loins for a very Long March indeed before Communism is accorded its fair share of absolute evil.

Excerpt from Introduction: the crimes of communism by Stéphane Courtois

November 22, 2006

[pg. 3] However, the memory of the terror has continued to preserve the credibility, and thus the effectiveness, of the threat of repression. None of the Communist regimes currently in vogue in the West is an exception to this rule–not the China of the “Great Helmsman,” nor the North Korea of Kim Il Sung, nor even the Vietnam of “good old Uncle Ho” or the Cuba of the flamboyant Fidel Castro, flanked by the hard-liner Che Guevara. Nor can we forget Ethiopia under Mengistu Haile Mariam, Angola under Agostinho Neto, or Afghanistan under Mohammed Najibullah.

Incredibly, the crimes of Communism have yet to receive a fair and just assessment from both historical and moral viewpoints. This book is one of the first attempts to study Communism with a focus on its criminal dimensions, in both the central regions of Communist rule and the farthest reaches of the globe. Some will say that most of these crimes were actions conducted in accordance with a system of law that was enforced by the regimes’ official institutions, which were recognized internationally and whose heads of state continued to be welcomed with open arms. But was this not the case with Nazism as well? The crimes we shall expose are to be judged not by the standards of Communist regimes, but by the unwritten code of the natural laws of humanity.

The history of Communist regimes and parties, their policies, and their relations with their own national societies and with the international community are of course not purely synonymous with criminal behavior, let alone with terror and repression. In the US.S.R. and in the “people’s democracies” after Stalin’s death, as well as in China after Mao, terror became less pronounced, society began to recover something of its old normalcy, and “peaceful coexistence”–if only as “the pursuit of the class struggle by other means”–had become an international fact of life. Nevertheless, many archives and witnesses prove conclusively that terror has always been one of the basic ingredients of modern Communism. Let us abandon once and for all the idea that the execution of hostages by firing squads, the slaughter of rebellious workers, and the forced starvation of the peasantry were only short-term “accidents” peculiar to a specific country or era. Our approach will encompass all geographic areas and focus on crime as a defining characteristic of the Communist system throughout its existence.

Exactly what crimes are we going to examine? Communism has committed a multitude of crimes not only against individual human beings but also against world civilization and national cultures. Stalin demolished dozens of churches in Moscow; Nicolae Ceausescu destroyed the historical heart of Bucharest to give free rein to his megalomania; Pol Pot dismantled the Phnom Penh cathedral stone by stone and allowed the jungle to take over the temples of Angkor Wat; and during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, priceless treasures were smashed or burned by the Red Guards. Yet however terrible this destruction may ultimately prove for the nations in question and for humanity as a whole, how does it compare with the mass murder of human beings–of men, women, and children?

Thus we have delimited crimes against civilians as the essence of the phenomenon of terror. These crimes tend to fit a recognizable pattern even if the practices vary to some extent by regime. The pattern includes execution by various means, such as firing squads, hanging, drowning, battering, and, in certain cases, gassing, poisoning, or “car accidents”; destruction of the population by starvation, through man-made famine, the withholding of food, or both; deportation, through which death can occur in transit (either through physical exhaustion or through confinement in an enclosed space), at one’s place of residence, or through forced labor (exhaustion, illness, hunger, cold). Periods described as times of “civil war” are more complex–it is not always easy to distinguish between events caused by fighting between rulers and rebels and events that can properly be described only as a massacre of the civilian population.

Nonetheless, we have to start somewhere. The following rough approximation, based on unofficial estimates, gives some sense of the scale and gravity of these crimes:

U.S.S.R.:                                                                                  20 million deaths
China:                                                                                              65 million deaths
Vietnam:                                                                                             1 million deaths
North Korea:                                                                                      2 million deaths
Cambodia:                                                                                          2 million deaths
Eastern Europe:                                                                                   1 million deaths
Latin America:                                                                                     150,000 deaths
Africa:                                                                                                 1.7 million deaths
Afghanistan:                                                                                         1.5 million deaths
International Communist parties not in power:                                  about 10,000 deaths
The total approaches             100 million people killed.

The immense number of deaths conceals some wide disparities according to context. Unquestionably, if we approach these figures in terms of relative weight, first place goes to Cambodia, where Pol Pot, in three and a half years, engaged in the most atrocious slaughter, through torture and widespread famine, of about one-fourth of the country’s total population. However, China’s experience under Mao is unprecedented in terms of the sheer number of people who lost their lives. As for the Soviet Union of Lenin and Stalin, the blood turns cold at its venture into planned, logical, and “politically correct” mass slaughter.

This bare-bones approach inevitably fails to do justice to the numerous issues involved. A thorough investigation requires a “qualitative” study based on a meaningful definition of the term “crime.” Objective and legal criteria are also important. The legal ramifications of crimes committed by a specific country were first confronted in 1945 at the Nuremberg Tribunal, which was organized by the Allies to consider the atrocities committed by the Nazis. The nature of these crimes was defined by Article 6 of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal, which identified three major offenses: crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. An examination of all the crimes committed by the Leninist/Stalinist regime, and in the Communist world as a whole, reveals crimes that fit into each of these three categories.

Crimes against peace, defined by Article 6a, are concerned with the “planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of wars of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements, or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing.” Unquestionably, Stalin committed such a crime by secretly negotiating two treaties with Hitler–those of 23 August and 28 September 1939 on the partition of Poland and on the annexation of the Baltic states, northern Bukovina, and Bessarabia to the U.S.S.R., respectively. By freeing Germany from the risk of waging war on two fronts, the treaty of 23 August 1939 led directly to the outbreak of World War II. Stalin perpetrated yet another crime against peace by attacking Finland on 30 November 1939. The unexpected incursion into South Korea by North Korea on 25 June 1950 and the massive intervention in that war by the Chinese army are of comparable magnitude. The methods of subversion long used by the Moscow-backed Communist parties likewise deserve categorization as crimes against peace, since they began wars; thus a Communist coup in Afghanistan led to a massive Soviet military intervention on 27 December 1979, unleashing a conflict that continues to this day.

War crimes are defined in Article 6b as “violations of the laws or customs of war. Such violations shall include, but not be limited to, murder, the ill-treatment or deportation of civilian residents of an occupied territory to slave labor camps or for any other purpose, the murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, the killing of hostages, the plunder of public or private property, the wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, and any devastation not justified by military necessity.” The laws and customs of war are written down in various conventions, particularly the Hague Convention of 1907, which states that in times of war “the inhabitants and the belligerents remain under the protection and the rule of the principles of the law of nations, as they result from the usages established among civilized peoples, from laws of humanity, and the dictates of the public conscience.”

Stalin gave the go-ahead for large numbers of war crimes. The liquidation of almost all the Polish officers taken prisoner in 1939, with 4,500 men butchered at Katyn, is only one such episode, albeit the most spectacular. However, other crimes on a much larger scale are habitually overlooked, including the murder or death in the gulag of tens of thousands of German soldiers taken prisoner from 1943 to 1945. Nor should we forget the rape of countless German women by Red Army soldiers in occupied Germany, as well as the systematic plundering of all industrial equipment in the countries occupied by the Red Army. Also coveted by Article 6b would be the organized resistance fighters who openly waged war against Communist rulers and who were executed by firing squads or deported after being taken prisoner–for example, the soldiers of the anti-Nazi Polish resistance organizations, members of various Ukrainian and Baltic armed partisan organizations, and Afghan resistance fighters.

The expression “crime against humanity” first appeared on 19 May 1915 in a joint French, British, and Russian declaration condemning Turkey’s massacre of the Armenians as a “new crime by Turkey against humanity and civilization.” The atrocities committed by the Nazis obliged the Nuremberg Tribunal to redefine the concept, as stated in Article 6c: “Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.”

In his arguments at Nuremberg the French prosecutor general, Francois de Menthon, emphasized the ideological dimension of these crimes: “I propose today to prove to you that all this organized and vast criminality springs from what I may be allowed to call a crime against the spirit, I mean a doctrine that, by denying all spiritual, rational, or moral values by which nations have tried for thousands of years to improve human conditions, aims to plunge humanity back into barbarism, no longer the natural and spontaneous barbarism of primitive nations, but into a diabolical barbarism, conscious of itself and using for its ends all material means put at the disposal of humanity by contemporary science. This sin against the spirit is the original sin of National Socialism from which all crimes spring. This monstrous doctrine is that of racism. . . .Whether we consider a crime against peace or war crimes, we are therefore not faced by an accidental or an occasional criminality that events could explain without justifying it. We are in fact faced by systematic criminality, which derives directly and of necessity from a monstrous doctrine put into practice with deliberate intent by the masters of Nazi Germany.”

Francois de Menthon also noted that deportations were meant to provide additional labor for the German war machine, and the fact that the Nazis sought to exterminate their opponents was merely “a natural consequence of the National Socialist doctrine for which man has no intrinsic value unless he serves the German race.” All statements made to the Nuremberg Tribunal stressed one of the chief characteristics of crimes against humanity–the fact that the power of the state is placed in the service of criminal policies and practice. However, the jurisdiction of the Nuremberg Tribunal was limited to crimes committed during World War II. Therefore, we must broaden the legal definition of war crimes to include situations that extend beyond that war. The new French criminal code, adopted on 23 July 1992, defines war crimes in the following way: “The deportation, enslavement, or mass-scale and systematic practice of summary executions, abduction of persons following their disappearance, torture, or inhuman acts inspired by political, philosophical, racial, or religious motives, and organized for the purpose of implementing a concerted effort against a civilian population group” (emphasis added).

All these definitions, especially the recent French definition, are relevant to any number of crimes committed by Lenin and above all by Stalin and subsequently by the leaders of all Communist countries, with the exception (we hope) of Cuba and the Nicaragua of the Sandinistas. Nevertheless, the main conclusions are inescapable–Communist regimes have acted “in the name of a state practicing a policy of ideological hegemony.” Thus in the name of an ideological belief system were tens of millions of innocent victims systematically butchered, unless of course it is a crime to be middle-class, of noble birth, a kulak, a Ukrainian, or even a worker or a member of the Communist Party. Active intolerance was high on the Communists’ agenda. It was Mikhail Tomsky, the leader of the Soviet trade unions, who in the 13 November 1927 issue of Trud (Labor) stated: “We allow other parties to exist. However, the fundamental principle that distinguishes us from the West is as follows: one party rules, and all the others are in jail!”

The concept of a crime against humanity is a complex one and is directly relevant to the crimes under consideration here. One of the most specific is genocide. Following the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis, and in order to clarify Article 6c of the Nuremberg Tribunal, crimes against humanity were defined by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide of 9 December 1948 in the following way: “Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

The new French criminal code defines genocide still more broadly: “The deed of executing a concerted effort that strives to destroy totally or partially a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, or a group that has been determined on the basis of any other arbitrary criterion” (emphasis added). This legal definition is not inconsistent with the philosophical approach of Andre Frossard, who believes that “it is a crime against humanity when someone is put to death purely by virtue of his or her birth.” And in his short but magnificent novel Forever Flowing, Vasily Grossman says of his hero, Ivan Grigorevich, who has returned from the camps, “he had remained exactly what he had been from his birth: a human being.” That, of course, was precisely why he was singled out in the first place. The French definition helps remind us that genocide comes in many shapes and sizes–it can be racial (as in the case of the Jews), but it can also target social groups. In The Red Terror in Russia, published in Berlin in 1924, the Russian historian and socialist Sergei Melgunov cited Martin Latsis, one of the first leaders of the Cheka (the Soviet political police), as giving the following order on 1 November 1918 to his henchmen: “We don’t make war against any people in particular. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. In your investigations don’t look for documents and pieces of evidence about what the defendant has done, whether in deed or in speaking or acting against Soviet authority. The first question you should ask him is what class he comes from, what are his roots, his education, his training, and his occupation.”

Lenin and his comrades initially found themselves embroiled in a merciless “class war,” in which political and ideological adversaries, as well as the more recalcitrant members of the general public, were branded as enemies and marked for destruction. The Bolsheviks had decided to eliminate, by legal and physical means, any challenge or resistance, even if passive, to their absolute power. This strategy applied not only to groups with opposing political views, but also to such social groups as the nobility, the middle class, the intelligentsia, and the clergy, as well as professional groups such as military officers and the police. Sometimes the Bolsheviks subjected these people to genocide. The policy of “de-Cossackization” begun in 1920 corresponds largely to our definition of genocide: a population group firmly established in a particular territory, the Cossacks as such were exterminated, the men shot, the women, children, and the elderly deported, and the villages razed or handed over to new, non-Cossack occupants. Lenin compared the Cossacks to the Vendee during the French Revolution and gladly subjected them to a program of what Gracchus Babeuf, the “inventor” of modern Communism, characterized in 1795 as “populicide.”

The “dekulakization” of 1930-1932 repeated the policy of “de-Cossackization” but on a much grander scale. Its primary objective, in accordance with the official order issued for this operation (and the regime’s propaganda), was “to exterminate the kulaks as a class.” The kulaks who resisted collectivization were shot, and the others were deported with their wives, children, and elderly family members. Although not all kulaks were exterminated directly, sentences of forced labor in wilderness areas of Siberia or the far north left them with scant chance of survival. Several tens of thousands perished there; the exact number of victims remains unknown. As for the great famine in Ukraine in 1932-33, which resulted from the rural population’s resistance to forced collectivization, 6 million died in a period of several months.

Here, the genocide of a “class” may well be tantamount to the genocide of a “race”–the deliberate starvation of a child of a Ukrainian kulak as a result of the famine caused by Stalin’s regime “is equal to” the starvation of a Jewish child in the Warsaw ghetto as a result of the famine caused by the Nazi regime. Such arguments in no way detract from the unique nature of Auschwitz–the mobilization of leading-edge technological resources and their use in an “industrial process” involving the construction of an “extermination factory,” the use of gas, and cremation. However, this argument highlights one particular feature of many Communist regimes–their systematic use of famine as a weapon. The regime aimed to control the total available food supply and, with immense ingenuity, to distribute food purely on the basis of “merits” and “demerits” earned by individuals. This policy was a recipe for creating famine on a massive scale. Remember that in the period after 1918, only Communist countries experienced such famines, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and in some cases millions, of people. And again in the 1980s, two African countries that claimed to be Marxist-Leninist, Ethiopia and Mozambique, were the only such countries to suffer these deadly famines.

A preliminary global accounting of the crimes committed by Communist regimes shows the following: The execution of tens of thousands of hostages and prisoners without trial, and the murder of hundreds of thousands or rebellious workers and peasants from 1918 to 1922; The famine of 1922, which caused the deaths of 5 million people; The extermination and deportation of the Don Cossacks in 1920; The murder of tens of thousands in concentration camps from 1918 to 1930; The liquidation of almost 690,000 people in the Great Purge of 1937-38; The deportation of 2 million kulaks (and so-called kulaks) in 1930-1932; The destruction of 4 million Ukrainians and 2 million others by means of an artificial and systematically perpetuated famine in 1932-33; The deportation of hundreds of thousands of Poles, Ukrainians, Balts, Moldovans, and Bessarabians from 1939 to 1941, and again in 1944-45; The deportation of the Volga Germans in 1941; The wholesale deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1943; The wholesale deportation of the Chechens in 1944; The wholesale deportation of the Ingush in 1944; The deportation and extermination of the urban population in Cambodia from 1975 to 1978; The slow destruction of the Tibetans by the Chinese since 1950.

No list of the crimes committed in the name of Leninism and Stalinism would be complete without mentioning the virtually identical crimes committed by the regimes of Mao Zedong, Kim Il Sung, and Pol Pot.

A difficult epistemological question remains: Should the historian employ the primarily legal categories of “crime against humanity” and “genocide”? Are these concepts not unduly time specific–focusing on the condemnation of Nazism at Nuremberg–for use in historical research aimed at deriving relevant medium-term conclusions? On the other hand, are these concepts not somewhat tainted with questionable “values” that distort the objectivity of historical research?

First and foremost, the, history of the twentieth century has shown us that the Nazis had no monopoly over the use of mass murder by states and party-states. The recent experiences in Bosnia and Rwanda indicate that this practice continues as one of the hallmarks of this century.

Second, although it might not be appropriate to revive historical methods of the nineteenth century, whereby historians performed research more for the purpose of passing judgment than for understanding the issue in question, the immense human tragedies directly caused by certain ideologies and political concepts make it impossible to ignore the humanist ideas implicit in our Judeo-Christian civilization and democratic traditions–for example, the idea of respect for human life. A number of renowned historians readily use the expression “crime against humanity” to describe Nazi crimes, including Jean Perre Azema in his article “Auschwitz” and Pierre Vidal-Naquet on the trial of Paul Touvier. Therefore, it does not seem inappropriate to use such terms and concepts to characterize the crimes committed by Communist regimes.

In addition to the question of whether the Communists in power were directly responsible for these crimes, there is also the issue of complicity. Article 7(3.77) of the Canadian criminal code, amended in 1987, states that crimes against humanity include infractions of attempting, conspiring, counseling, aiding, and providing encouragement for de facto complicity. This accords with the definition of crimes against humanity in Article 7(3.76) of the same code: “attempting or conspiring to commit, counseling any person to commit, aiding or abetting any person in the commission of, or being an accessory after the fact in relation to the act” (emphasis added). Incredibly, from the 1920s to the 1950s, when hundreds of thousands of people served in the ranks of the Communist International and local sections of the “world party of the revolution,” Communists and fellow-travelers around the world warmly approved Lenin’s and subsequently Stalin’s policies. From the 1950s to the 1970s, hundreds of thousands of people sang the praises of the “Great Helmsman” of the Chinese Revolution and extolled the virtues of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Much closer to our time, there was widespread rejoicing when Pol Pot came to power. Many will say that they “didn’t know.” Undoubtedly, of course, it was not always easy to learn the facts or to discover the truth, for Communist regimes had mastered the art of censorship as their favorite technique for concealing their true activities. But quite often this ignorance was merely the result of ideologically motivated self-deception. Starting in the 1940s and 1950s, many facts about these atrocities had become public knowledge and undeniable. And although many of these apologists have cast aside their gods of yesterday, they have done so quietly and discreetly. What are we to make of a profoundly amoral doctrine that seeks to stamp out every last trace of civic-mindedness in men’s souls, and damn the consequences?

In 1968 one of the pioneers in the study of Communist terror, Robert Conquest, wrote: “The fact that so many people ‘swallowed’ [the Great Terror] hook, line, and sinker was probably one of the reasons that the Terror succeeded so well. In particular, the trials would not be so significant had they not received the blessing of some ‘independent’ foreign commentators. These pundits should be held accountable as accomplices in the bloody politics of the purges or at least blamed for the fact that the political assassinations resumed when the first show trial, regarding Zinoviev in 1936, was given an ill-deserved stamp of approval.” If the moral and intellectual complicity of a number of non-Communists is judged by this criterion, what can be said of the complicity of the Communists? Louis Aragon, for one, has publicly expressed regret for having appealed in a 1931 poem for the creation of a Communist political police in France.

[… pg. 14] Before World War II, crackdowns against the Jews were widespread; persecution reached its peak during Kristallnacht, with several hundred deaths and 35,000 rounded up for internment in concentration camps. These figures apply only to the period before the invasion of the Soviet Union. Thereafter the full terror of the Nazis was unleashed, producing the following body count-15 million civilians killed in occupied countries, 6 million Jews, 3.3 million Soviet prisoners of war, 1.1 million deportees who died in the camps, and several hundred thousand Gypsies. We should add another 8 million who succumbed to the ravages of forced labor and 1.6 million surviving inmates of the concentration camps.

The Nazi terror captures the imagination for three reasons. First, it touched the lives of Europeans so closely. Second, because the Nazis were vanquished and their leaders prosecuted at Nuremberg, their crimes have been officially exposed and categorized as crimes. And finally, the revelation of the genocide carried out against the Jews outraged the conscience of humanity by its irrationality, racism, and unprecedented bloodthirstiness.

[… pg. 16]  Efforts to draw parallels between Nazism and Communism on the basis of their respective extermination tactics may give offense to some people. However, we should recall how in Forever Flowing Vasily Grossman, whose mother was killed by the Nazis in the Berdychiv ghetto, who authored the first work on Treblinka, and who was one of the editors of the Black Book on the extermination of Soviet Jews, has one of his characters describe the famine in Ukraine: “writers kept writing. . . Stalin himself, too: the kulaks are parasites; they are burning grain; they are killing children. And it was openly proclaimed “that the rage and wrath of the masses must be inflamed against them, they must be destroyed as a class, because they are accursed.” He adds: “To massacre them, it was necessary to proclaim that kulaks are not human beings, just as the Germans proclaimed that Jews are not human beings. Thus did Lenin and Stalin say: kulaks are not human beings.” In conclusion, Grossman says of the children of the kulaks: “That is exactly how the Nazis put the Jewish children into the Nazi gas chambers: ‘You are not allowed to live, you are all Jews!'”

Time and again the focus of the terror was less on targeted individuals than on groups of people. The purpose of the terror was to exterminate a group that had been designated as the enemy. Even though it might be only a small fraction of society, it had to be stamped out to satisfy this genocidal impulse. Thus, the techniques of segregation and exclusion employed in a “class-based totalitarianism” closely resemble the techniques of “race-based totalitarianism.” The future Nazi society was to be built upon a “pure race,” and the future Communist society was to be built upon a proletarian people purified of the dregs of the bourgeoisie. The restructuring of these two societies was envisioned in the same way, even if the crackdowns were different. Therefore, it would be foolish to pretend that Communism is a form of universalism. Communism may have a worldwide purpose, but like Nazism it deems a part of humanity unworthy of existence. The difference is that the Communist model is based on the class system, the Nazi model on race and territory. Thus the transgressions of Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, and the Khmer Rouge pose a fresh challenge for humanity, and particularly for legal scholars and historians: specifically, how do we describe a crime designed to exterminate not merely individuals or opposing groups but entire segments of society on a massive scale for their political and ideological beliefs? A whole new language is needed for this. Some authors in the English-speaking countries use the term “politicide.” Or is the term “Communist crimes,” suggested by Czech legal scholars, preferable?

How are we to assess Communism’s crimes? What lessons are we to learn from them? Why has it been necessary to wait until the end of the twentieth century for this subject to show up on the academic radar screen? It is undoubtedly the case that the study of Stalinist and Communist terror, when compared to the study of Nazi crimes, has a great deal of catching-up to do (although such research is gaining popularity in Eastern Europe).

One cannot help noticing the strong contrast between the study of Nazi and Communist crimes. The victors of 1945 legitimately made Nazi crimes– and especially the genocide of the Jews–the central focus of their condemnation of Nazism. A number of researchers around the world have been working on these issues for decades. Thousands of books and dozens of films–most notably Night and Fog, Shoah, Sophie’s Choice, and Schindler’s List–have been devoted to the subject. Raul Hilberg, to name but one example, has centered his major work upon a detailed description of the methods used to put Jews to death in the Third Reich.

Yet scholars have neglected the crimes committed by the Communists. While names such as Himmler and Eichmann are recognized around the world as bywords for twentieth-century barbarism, the names of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, Genrikh Yagoda, and Nikolai Ezhov languish in obscurity. As for Lenin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and even Stalin, they have always enjoyed a surprising reverence. A French government agency, the National Lottery, was crazy enough to use Stalin and Mao in one of its advertising campaigns. Would anyone even dare to come up with the idea of featuring Hitler or Goebbels in commercials?

The extraordinary attention paid to Hitler’s crimes is entirely justified. It respects the wishes of the surviving witnesses, it satisfies the needs of researchers trying to understand these events, and it reflects the desire of moral and political authorities to strengthen democratic values. But the revelations Concerning Communist crimes cause barely a stir. Why is there such an awkward silence from politicians? Why such a deafening silence from the academic world regarding the Communist catastrophe, which touched the lives of about one-third of humanity on four continents during a period spanning eighty years? Why is there such widespread reluctance to make such a crucial factor as crime–mass crime, systematic crime, and crime against humanity–a central factor in the analysis of Communism?

[… pg. 28]  It is untenable to draw a veil over the issue to ensure that the history of Communism is narrowed to its national, social, and cultural dimensions. The justice of this argument is amply confirmed by the fact that the phenomenon of totalitarianism was not limited to Europe ‘and the Soviet period. The same applies to Maoist China, North Korea, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Each national Communism has been linked by an umbilical cord to the Soviet womb, with its goal of expanding the worldwide movement. The history with which we are dealing is the history of a phenomenon that has spread throughout the world and that concerns all of humanity.

The second purpose of this book is to serve as a memorial. There is a moral obligation to honor the memory of the innocent and anonymous victims of a juggernaut that has systematically sought to erase even their memory. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism’s center of power in Moscow, Europe, the continent that played host to the twentieth century’s many tragedies, has set itself the task of reconstructing popular memory. This book is our contribution to that effort. The authors of this book carry that memory within themselves. Two of our contributors have a particular attachment to Central Europe, while the others are connected by firsthand experience with the theory and practice of revolution in 1968 or more recently.

This book, as both memorial and history, covers very diverse settings. It touches on countries in which Communism had almost no practical influence, either on society or on government power–Great Britain, Australia, Belgium, and others. Elsewhere Communism would show up as a powerful source of fear–in the United States after 1946–or as a strong movement (even if it never actually seized power there), as in France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal. In still other countries, where it had lost its decades-long grip on power, Communism is again reasserting itself–in Eastern Europe and Russia. Finally, its small flame is wavering in countries in which Communism still formally prevails–China, North Korea, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam.

Others may have different perspectives on the issues of history and memory. In countries in which Communism had little influence or was, merely dreaded, these issues will require a simple course of study and understanding. The countries that actually experienced the Communist system will have to address the issue of national reconciliation and decide whether the former Communist rulers are to be punished. In this connection, the reunified Germany may represent the most surprising and “miraculous” example–one need only think of the Yugoslav disaster by way of contrast. However, the former Czechoslovakia–now the Czech Republic and Slovakia–Poland, and Cambodia alike confront considerable trauma and suffering in their memory and history of Communism. In such places a modicum of amnesia, whether conscious or unconscious, may seem indispensable in helping to heal the spiritual, mental, emotional, personal, and collective wounds inflicted by a half-century or more of Communism. Where Communism still clings to power, the tyrants and their successors have either systematically covered up their actions, as in Cuba and China, or have continued to promote terror as a form of government, as in North Korea.

The responsibility for preserving history and memory undoubtedly has a moral dimension. Those whom we condemn may respond, “Who has given you the authority to say what is Good and what is Bad?”

According to the criteria proposed here, this issue was addressed well by the Catholic Church when Pope Pius XI condemned Nazism and Communism respectively in the encyclicals Mit Brennender Sorge of 14 March 1937 and Divini redemptoris of 19 March 1937. The latter proclaimed that God endowed humanity with certain rights, “the right to life, to bodily integrity, and to the necessary means of existence; the right to pursue one’s ultimate goal in the path marked out for him by God; the right of association, and the right to possess and use property.” Even though there is a certain hypocrisy in the church’s pronouncement against the excessive enrichment of one class of people at the expense of others, the importance of the pope’s appeal for the respect of human dignity is beyond question.

As early as 1931, Pius XI had proclaimed in the encyclical Quadragesimo anno: “Communism teaches and seeks two objectives: unrelenting class warfare and the complete eradication of private ownership. Not secretly or by hidden methods does it do this, but publicly, openly, and by employing any means possible, even the most violent. To achieve these objectives there is nothing it is afraid to do, nothing for which it has respect or reverence. When it comes to power, it is ferocious in its cruelty and inhumanity. The horrible slaughter and destruction through which it has laid waste to vast regions of Eastern Europe and Asia give evidence of this.” Admittedly, these words originated from an institution that for several centuries had systematically justified the murder of non-Christians, spread the Inquisition, stifled freedom of thought, and supported dictatorial regimes such as those of General Francisco Franco and Antonio Salazar.

However, even if the church was functioning in its capacity as a guardian of morality, how is a historian to respond when confronted by a “heroic” saga of Communist partisans or by a heartbreaking account from their victims? In his Memoirs Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand wrote: “When in the silence of abjection, no sound can be heard save that of the chains of the slave and the voice of the informer; when all tremble before the tyrant, and it is as dangerous to incur his favor as to merit his displeasure, the historian appears, entrusted with the vengeance of the people.

Excerp from Conclusion: Why? By Stephane Courtois

November 22, 2006

[ pg. 727]  This book has attempted to look beyond blind spots, partisan passions, and voluntary amnesia to paint a true picture of all the criminal aspects of the Communist world, from individual assassinations to mass murder. It is part of a more general process of reflection on the phenomenon of Communism in the twentieth century, and it is only one stage, but it comes at a key moment, with the internal collapse of the system in Moscow in 1991 and the consequent availability of rich new sources of information that until recently had been inaccessible. Better knowledge of the events is indispensable, but no matter how sophisticated our knowledge may become, it will never on its own satisfy either our intellectual curiosity or our conscience. The fundamental question remains: Why? Why did modern Communism, when it appeared in 1917, almost immediately turn into a system of bloody dictatorship and into a criminal regime? Was it really the case that its aims could be attained only through such extreme violence? How can one explain how these crimes came to be thought of as part of normal procedure and remained such for so many decades?

Soviet Russia was the first Communist regime. It became the heart and engine of a worldwide system that at first established itself slowly, and then expanded rapidly after 1945. The Leninist and Stalinist U.S.S.R. was the cradle of all modern Communism. The fact that it became a criminal regime so quickly is extremely surprising, particularly given the manner in which the socialist movement had developed until then.

Throughout the nineteenth century, theories about revolutionary violence were dominated by the founding experience of the French Revolution. In 1793-94 the French Revolution went through a period of extreme violence that took three distinct forms. The most savage were the “September massacres,” during which 1,000 people were spontaneously killed by rioters in Paris, with no intervention by the government, and no instructions from any party. The best-known form of violence was carried out by revolutionary tribunals, surveillance committees, and the guillotine, accounting for the death of 2,625 people in Paris and 16,600 in the provinces. Long hidden was the terror practiced by the “infernal columns” of the Republic, whose task was to put down the insurrection in the Vendee, and who killed tens of thousands of innocent and unarmed people in that region. But these months of terror, bloody though they were, were only one episode in the long history of the country’s revolution, which ultimately resulted in the creation of a democratic republic with a constitution, an elected assembly, and genuine political debate. As soon as the Convention regained its courage, Robespierre was deposed and the terror ceased.

Francois Furet has demonstrated how a particular idea of revolution was then born. This concept was inseparable from extreme actions: “The Terror was government by fear, which Robespierre theorized as government by virtue. Invented to destroy the aristocracy, it soon became the means to dispose of the wicked and to combat crime. It became an integral part of revolution and appeared to be the only means of forming the future citizens of the republic. . . . If the republic of free citizens was not yet a possibility, it must be because certain individuals, corrupted by their past history, were not yet pure enough. Terror became the means by which revolution, the history yet to be created, would forge the new human beings of the future.”

In several respects, the Terror prefigured a number of Bolshevik practices. The Jacobin faction’s clever manipulation of social tensions, and its political and ideological extremism, were later echoed by the Bolsheviks. Also, for the first time an attempt was made in France to eliminate a particular section of the peasantry. Robespierre laid the first stones on the road that spurred Lenin to terror. As the French revolutionary declared to the Convention during the vote on the Prairial Laws: “To punish the enemies of the fatherland, we must find out who they are: but we do not want to punish them; we want to destroy them.”

Yet this founding moment of terror did not inspire any other followers among the main revolutionary thinkers of the nineteenth century. Marx himself accorded it relatively little attention. Admittedly, he emphasized and defended the “role of violence in history,” but he saw it more as a general proposition than as a systematic program of violence against particular people. There were of course ambiguities in Marx’s writings that were seized on by a number of believers in terror to justify the violent resolution of social conflict. At the same time, Marx was extremely critical of the disastrous experience of the Paris Commune and the resulting bloody repressions, in which more than 20,000 workers died. During the early debates in the First International, which saw Marx opposed to the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, it was clear that Marx came out on top. Hence on the eve of World War I, debate within the socialist and workers’ movements about terrorist violence seemed nearly closed.

In parallel to these events, the rapid development of parliamentary democracy in Europe and the United States represented a new and fundamental factor for socialist strategists. Parliamentary practice enabled socialists to become a genuine force within the political system. In the elections of 1910, the French Section of the Workers’ International obtained 74 seats. An additional 30 independent socialists were also elected, including their leader, Etienne Millerand, who had entered a “bourgeois” government for the first time in 1899. Jean Jaures was another figure who managed to combine revolutionary rhetoric and reforming democratic action in everyday matters. The best-organized and most powerful socialists were undoubtedly the Germans. On the eve of World War I they had more than 1 million members, 110 deputies, 220 provincial Landtag representatives, 12,000 municipal councilors, and 89 other delegates. The British Labor movement was also numerous and well-organized, with strong support from powerful unions. The Social Democratic Party rapidly gained strength in Scandinavia, where it was highly active, influential in reforms, and well represented in parliament. In general, socialists hoped that they would soon have an absolute parliamentary majority in many different countries, which would allow them to implement fundamental social reforms peacefully in the near future.

This evolution found its theorist in Eduard Bernstein, one of the most influential Marxist thinkers of the late nineteenth century, who, together with Karl Kautsky, was one of the great interpreters of Marx. He argued that capitalism was not showing the signs of collapse that Marx had predicted, and that what was required was a progressive and peaceful move toward socialism, with the working classes slowly learning the processes of democracy and liberty. In 1872 Marx had expressed hope that the revolution could take a peaceful form in America, England, and Holland. This view was developed further by his friend and disciple Friedrich Engels in the preface to the second edition of Marx’s Class Struggles in France, published in 1895.

Socialists often had an ambivalent attitude toward democracy. When the Dreyfus affair erupted in France at the turn of the century, they took some contradictory positions: Jaures came out in favor of Dreyfus, whereas Jules Guesde, who was the central figure in French Marxism at the time, declared with disdain that the proletariat would do well to keep out of the internal squabbles of the French bourgeoisie. The left in Europe was far from united, and some currents within it–particularly anarchists, syndicalists, and supporters of Louis Auguste Blanqui–were still strongly inclined to reject all aspects of the parliamentary process, often through violent means. Nonetheless, on the eve of the 1914 war, the Second International, which was officially Marxist, endorsed a series of peaceful solutions, relying on mobilization of the masses and universal suffrage.

The extremist wing of the International, which had coalesced around the turn of the century, included the most hard-line Russian socialists–Lenin’s Bolsheviks. Although the Bolsheviks were clearly descended from the European Marxist tradition, they also had strong roots in the revolutionary Russian land movement. Throughout the nineteenth century one section of this revolutionary movement was linked to violent activity. The most radical proponent of violence within the movement was Sergei Nechaev, whom Dostoevsky used as a model for the revolutionary protagonist of The Devils. In 1869 Nechaev published a Revolutionary Catechism in which he defined a revolutionary as “a man who is already lost. He has no particular interest, no private business, no feelings, no personal attachments, and no property; he does not even have a name. Everything in him is absorbed by one interest to the exclusion of all others, by a single thought, a single passion . . . .revolution. In the depths of his being, not simply in words but in his actions as well, he has broken all links with society and the world of civilization, with its laws and conventions, with its social etiquette and its moral code. The revolutionary is an implacable enemy, and he carries on living only so that he can ensure the destruction of society.”

Nechaev then set out his objectives: “The revolutionary never enters the political or social world, the so-called educated world, and he lives with faith only in its swift and total destruction. No one who feels pity for anything can truly be called a revolutionary.” His plan of action argued that “this whole sick society must be divided into several categories. In the first category are the people who are to be killed immediately. . . .The second should include individuals who are to be allowed to continue living for a while, so that by their monstrous acts they merely accelerate the inevitable uprising of the people.”

Nechaev had several imitators. On 1 March 1887 an attempt was made on the life of Tsar Aleksandr III; it failed, but the perpetrators were arrested. Among them was Aleksandr Ilich Ulyanov, Lenin’s older brother, who was hanged together with his four accomplices. Lenin’s hatred for the regime was thus deep-seated, leading him personally to decide and to organize the massacre of the imperial Romanov family in 1918 without the knowledge of the rest of the Politburo.

For Martin Malia, this violent action by one faction of the intelligentsia represented “a fantasy reenactment of the French revolution [that] was the beginning of political terrorism (as opposed to isolated acts of assassination) as a systematic tactic in the modern world. Thus, the populist strategy of mass insurrection from below, in conjunction with that of elite terror from above, combined in Russia to lend further legitimacy to political violence over and above the initial legitimation provided by the Western revolutionary tradition from 1789 to 1871.”

This political violence on the margins of society was fueled by the violence that for centuries had been a common feature of life in Russia, as Helene Carriere d’Encausse emphasizes in her study The Russian Syndrome: “This country, in its unparalleled misfortune, remains an enigma for students of its history. In trying to shed light on the underlying causes of this age-old tragedy, a specific–and always damaging–link has emerged between the seizure or maintenance of power and the practice of political murder, be it individual or mass, real or symbolic. . . This long tradition of murder has doubtless created a collective consciousness that has little hope for a pacified political world.”

Tsar Ivan IV, known to posterity as Ivan the Terrible, was only thirteen when in 1543 he had his prime minister, Prince Chuisky, devoured by dogs. In 1560 his wife’s death threw him into a murderous rage, leading him to suspect everyone of being a potential traitor and to exterminate his real or imagined enemies in ever-widening circles. He created a new guard with sweeping powers, called the Oprichnina, which set about sowing terror among the populace. In 1572 he liquidated the members of the Oprichnina and then killed his own son and heir. Peter the Great was scarcely more compassionate toward Russia’s enemies, the aristocracy, or the people, and he also killed his own son with his own hands.

From Ivan to Peter, a solid tradition arose that linked progress under absolute power to the enslavement of the people and the elite to the dictatorial and terrorist state. As Vasily Grossman noted regarding the end of serfdom in 1861: “This act, as the following century showed, was more genuinely revolutionary than the October Revolution. Emancipation shook the millennial foundations of Russian life, as neither Peter nor Lenin could shake them: the subjection of progress to slavery.” And as always, the slavery had been held in place for centuries through a high level of permanent violence.

Tomas Masaryk, a great statesman and the founder in 1918 of Czechoslovakia, who visited Russia frequently during the revolution and consequently knew the country well, was quick to draw a link between tsarist and Bolshevik violence. He wrote in 1924: “The Russians, including the Bolsheviks, are all sons of tsarism: this has been their culture and their education for centuries. They got rid of the tsar, but they cannot get rid of tsarism overnight. They still wear the uniform of tsarism, even if it is back-to-front. . . The Bolsheviks were not ready for a positive, administrative revolution. What they wanted was a negative revolution whose doctrinal fanaticism, meanness of spirit, and general lack of culture they could use as a pretext for any number of acts of destruction. One thing I hold against them above all is the pleasure they took in murder, just like the tsars before them.”

The culture of violence was not uniquely the preserve of the powerful. When the peasant masses began to revolt, they engaged in massacres of the nobility and truly savage terror of their own. Two such revolts that left a deep imprint on the Russian consciousness were the Stenka Razin revolt of 1667-1670 and the Pugachev rebellion of 1773-1775, which spread quickly and posed a serious threat to the reign of Catherine the Great, leaving a long and bloody scar all across the Volga region. After his capture, Emelyan Pugachev was executed in an atrocious manner–quartered, cut into pieces, and fed to dogs.

Maksim Gorky was a great interpreter of pre-1917 Russian culture, and if he is to be believed, the violence emanated from society itself. He disapproved of the Bolsheviks’ methods, and in 1922 he wrote a long, almost visionary text: “Cruelty has stupefied and tormented me all my life. What are the roots of human cruelty? I have thought much about this and I still do not understand it in the slightest . . . But now, after the terrible madness of the European war and the bloody events of the revolution . . . I am forced to remark that Russian cruelty appears not to have evolved at all; its forms have remained the same. A chronicler from the turn of the seventeenth century recorded that in his day the following tortures were practiced: ‘The mouth was filled with gunpowder, and then set alight; others have their nether regions filled with powder. Holes were made in women’s breasts and ropes passed through the wounds, and the women were suspended by the ropes.’ In 1918 and 1919 the same practices were used in the Don and the Urals; men had dynamite placed in their rear and blown up. I think the Russians have a unique sense of particular cruelty in the same way that the English have a unique sense of humor: a cold sort of cruelty that seeks to explore the limits of human resistance to suffering and to study the persistence and stability of life. One can sense a diabolical refinement in Russian cruelty; there is something quite subtle and refined about it. This quality cannot fully be explained by words like ‘psychosis’ or ‘sadism,’ words that in essence explain nothing at all. . . If such acts of cruelty were the expression of the perverse psychology of a few individuals, they would not concern us here; they would be material for the psychiatrist rather than for the moralist. But I am concerned here with human suffering as a collective entertainment . . . .Who are the more cruel, the Whites or the Reds? They are probably equal, as they are both Russians. In any case, history answers quite clearly–the most cruel is the most active.”

Despite this tradition of violence, Russia by the mid-nineteenth century seemed to have adopted a more moderate, Western, and democratic course. In 1861 Tsar Aleksandr III abolished serfdom and established zemstvos, which were local centers of power. In 1864 he approved judicial independence as the first step toward the rule of law. The universities, the arts, and the press all flourished. A civilizing current flowed through society, and violence decreased everywhere. Even the failed revolution of 1905 had the result of stirring up the democratic fervor of society. Paradoxically, it was precisely at the moment when reform seemed to have conquered violence, obscurantism, and old-fashioned ways that the process was interrupted by the outbreak of the worst mass violence ever seen in Europe, on 1 August 1914.

As Martin Malia has written, “The burden of Aeschylus’ Oresteia is that crime begets crime, and violence violence, until the first crime in the chain, the original sin of the genus, is expiated through accumulated suffering. In similar fashion, it was the blood of August 1914, acting like some curse of the Atreidae on the house of modern Europe, that generated the chain of international and social violence that has dominated the modern age. For the violence and carnage of the war were incommensurate with any conceivable gain, and for any party. The war itself produced the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik seizure of power.” Lenin would not have rejected this analysis. From 1914 on he constantly called for the transformation of “the imperialist war into civil war,” prophesying that the socialist revolution would emerge from the capitalist war.

The violence of the world war was extreme and went on for four years, a continuous massacre that seemed totally insoluble, leading to the death of 8.5 million soldiers. It was a new type of war, which General Ludendorff labeled “total war,” bringing death not only to soldiers but also to civilians. Yet the violence, which reached a level never before seen in the history of the world, remained constrained by a whole series of laws and international conventions.

The daily slaughter, often under terrible conditions–gas, men buried alive under earth thrown up by explosions, the long agony between the lines–weighed heavily on the consciousness of everyone concerned and weakened the psychological defenses of the men who faced death every day. Many people were completely desensitized by these events. Karl Kautsky, the main leader and theorist of German socialism, returned to that theme in 1920: “The real cause of the change. . . into a development toward brutality is attributable to the world war. . . When, therefore, the war broke out and dragged in its train for four years practically the whole of the healthy male population, the coarsening tendencies of militarism sank to the very depths of brutality, and to a lack of human feeling and sentiment. Even the proletariat could no longer escape its influence. They were to a very high degree infected by militarism and, when they returned home again, were in every way brutalized. Habituated to war, the man who had come back from the front was only too often in a state of mind and feeling that made him ready, even in peacetime and among his own people, to enforce his claims and interests by deeds of violence and bloodshed. That became, as it were, an element of the civil war.”

None of the Bolshevik leaders actually took part in the war, either because, like Lenin, Trotsky, and Zinoviev, they were in exile or because they had been sent to Siberia, as was the case with Stalin and Kamenev. Most of them were inclined to work in the bureaucracy or to make speeches at mass rallies. Most had no military experience, and they had never really seen combat or the deaths that it involved. Until they took power, all they knew was the ideological and political war of words. Theirs was a purely abstract vision of death, massacre, and human catastrophe.

This personal ignorance of the horrors of war was perhaps a factor that itself engendered more brutality. The Bolsheviks developed a largely theoretical analysis of class, which ignored the profoundly national, not to say nationalistic, aspects of the conflict. They made capitalism the scapegoat and sanctioned revolutionary violence against it in advance. By hastening the end of capitalism, the revolution would put an end to massacres, even if it meant disposing of a certain number of the capitalist leaders. This was a macabre gamble, based on the theory that evil should be fought with evil. But in the 1920s, a certain degree of pacifism arising from revulsion toward the war was often strongly influential in converting people to Communism.

It is still the case, however, as Francois Furet emphasizes in The Passing of an Illusion, that “war is waged by regimented civilian masses, who have gone from the autonomy of citizenship to military obedience for a time of unknown duration, and who are plunged into a raging inferno where staying alive rather than being intelligent or courageous is the main objective, and where even victory is a distant abstraction. Military service can rarely have seemed less noble than it did to the millions of men plucked from civilian life and trapped in the trenches . . . War is the political state furthest removed from normal civilian life . . . It is a purely instinctive business totally removed from other interests and intellectual pursuits . . . . An army at war is a social order in which individuals no longer exist, and whose inhumanity creates a sort of inertia that is almost impossible to break.”

The war gave a new legitimacy to violence and cheapened the value of human life; it weakened the previously burgeoning democratic culture and gave new life to the culture of servitude.

In the early years of the twentieth century the Russian economy entered a period of vigorous growth, and society gradually became more autonomous. But the exceptional constraints imposed on people and on the means of production by the war suddenly highlighted the limitations of a political regime that clearly lacked the energy and foresight required to save the situation. The revolution of February 1917 was a response to a catastrophic situation and put society on a classic course: a “bourgeois” democratic revolution with the election of a constituent assembly, combined with a social revolution among workers and peasants. Everything changed with the Bolshevik coup of 7 November 1917, which was followed by a considerably more violent phase. The question that remains is why, of all the countries in Europe, did the cataclysm take place in Russia?

The world war and the tradition of violence in Russia are undoubtedly factors that allow some understanding of the context in which the Bolsheviks seized power; but they do not explain the Bolsheviks’ propensity for extreme violence. This violence was apparent from the outset, all the more so in comparison with the largely peaceful and democratic February revolution. This violence was imposed on the Party by Lenin himself as soon as it seized power.

Lenin established a dictatorship that quickly revealed itself to be both bloody and terrorist in nature. Revolutionary violence no longer appeared to be a reactive defense mechanism against tsarist forces, since the latter had disappeared months before, but an active process that reawakened the old Russian culture of brutality and cruelty, sparking the latent violence of social revolution. Although the Red Terror was not officially inaugurated until 2 September 1918, it existed in practice from November 1917. Lenin employed it despite the absence of any genuine manifestation of overt opposition from other parties and social movements. For example, on 4 January 1918 he broke up the first Constituent Assembly, which had been elected by universal suffrage, and opened fire on anyone who protested in the streets.

The first phase of the terror was immediately and forcefully denounced by a leading Russian socialist, Yuri Martov, the head of the Mensheviks, who wrote in August 1918: “From the first day of their coming into power, having proclaimed the abolition of the death penalty, the Bolsheviks began to kill. They killed prisoners captured in the battles of the civil war. They killed enemies who surrendered on the condition that their lives would be spared . . . .These wholesale murders, organized at the instigation of the Bolsheviks, were followed by murders at the direct behest of the Bolshevik government . . . Having assassinated tens of thousands of men without trial, the Bolsheviks started their executions by verdicts of the courts. They established a supreme revolutionary tribunal to convict enemies of the Soviet regime. . . .The beast has licked hot human blood. The man-killing machine is brought into motion. Messrs. Medvedev, Bruno, Peterson, Veselovsky, and Karelin [the judges of the Supreme Revolutionary Tribunal] have turned up their sleeves and set to work as butchers. . . But blood breeds blood. The reign of terror established by the Bolsheviks since October 1917 has filled the air of Russian fields with vapors of human blood. We witness the growth of the bitterness of the civil war, the growing bestiality of men engaged in it. The great principles of true humanity that formed the basis of socialist teachings have sunk into oblivion.”

Martov then went on to attack Karl Radek and Christian Rakovsky, two socialists who had joined the Bolsheviks, one of whom was a Polish Jew, the other a mixture of Romanian and Bulgarian: “You came to us to cultivate our ancestral barbarism, long nurtured by the tsars, and to place offerings on the antique Russian altar to murder, to elevate disdain for the life of others to a degree the like of which has never been seen; you came to bring the rule of the executioners throughout the country. . . The executioner is now again the chief figure in Russia!”

Unlike the terror of the French Revolution, which with the exception of the Vendee touched only a small section of the population, terror under Lenin was directed at all political parties and at all the layers of society: nobles, the bourgeoisie, soldiers, policemen, Constitutional Democrats, Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries, and the entire mass of the population, including peasants and workers. Intellectuals were treated especially badly. On 6 September 1919, after the arrest of several dozen members of the intelligentsia, Gorky sent a furious letter to Lenin: “For me, the richness of a country, the power of a people is to be measured by the quantity and quality of its intellectual development. Revolution is a useful enterprise only if it favors such development. Scholars should be treated with care and respect. But in trying to save our own skins, we are decapitating the people, destroying our own brain.”

The brutality of Lenin’s response matched the lucidity of Gorky’s letter: “We would be wrong to equate the ‘intellectual strength of the people’ with the strength of the bourgeois intelligentsia. . . The intellectual strength of workers and peasants grows in the struggle to overturn the bourgeoisie and their acolytes, those second-rate intellectuals and lackeys of capitalism who think they are the brain of the nation. They are not the brain of the nation. They’re shit.” This response on the subject of intellectuals is one of the first indicators of the profound disdain that Lenin felt for his contemporaries, even the most eminent among them. And he quickly passed from disdain to murder.

Lenin’s primary objective was to maintain his hold on power for as long as possible. After ten weeks, he had ruled longer than the Paris Commune, and he began to dream about never letting go of the reins. The course of history was beginning to change, and the Russian Revolution, under the direction of the Bolsheviks, was to take humanity down a previously untraveled path.

Why should maintaining power have been so important that it justified all means and led to the abandonment of the most elementary moral principles? The answer must be that it was the only way for Lenin to put his ideas into practice and “build socialism.” The real motivation for the terror thus becomes apparent: it stemmed from Leninist ideology and the utopian will to apply to society a doctrine totally out of step with reality.

In that respect one may well ask exactly how much pre-1914 Marxism there was to be found in pre-1914 or post-1917 Leninism. Lenin of course used a number of Marxist axioms as the basis for his theories, including the class struggle, the necessity of violence in history, and the importance of the proletariat as the class that brought meaning to history. But in 1902, in his famous address What Is to Be Done? he proposed a new conception of a revolutionary party made up of professionals linked in an underground structure of almost military discipline. For this purpose, he adopted and further developed Nechaev’s model, which was quite different from the great socialist organizations in Germany, England, and France.

In 1914 Lenin made a definitive break with the Second International. At the moment when almost all socialist parties, brutally confronted with the power of nationalist sentiments, rallied around their respective governments, Lenin set off on an almost purely theoretical path, prophesying the “transformation of the imperialist war into civil war.” Cold reason led him to conclude that the socialist movement was not yet powerful enough to counter nationalism, and that after the inevitable war he would be called on to regroup his forces to prevent a return to warfare. This belief was an act of faith, a gamble that raised the stakes of the game to all or nothing. For two years his prophecy seemed sterile and empty, until suddenly it came true and Russia entered a revolutionary phase. Lenin was sure that the events of this period were the confirmation of all his beliefs. Nechaev’s voluntarism seemed to have prevailed over Marxist determinism.

If the prediction that power was there to be seized was correct, the idea that Russia was ready to plunge into socialism, making progress at lightning speed, was radically wrong. And this was one of the most profound causes of the terror, the gap between a Russia that wanted more than anything to be free and Lenin’s desire for absolute power to apply an experimental doctrine.

In 1920 Trotsky predicted the turn that events were to take: “It is quite clear that if our problem is the abolition of private property in the means of production, the only road to its solution lies through the concentration of state power in its entirety in the hands of the proletariat, and the setting up for the transitional period of an extraordinary regime . . . Dictatorship is necessary because this is a case not of partial changes, but of the very existence of the bourgeoisie. No agreement is possible on this basis. Only force can be the deciding factor . . . Whoever aims at the end cannot reject the means.”

Caught between the will to apply his doctrine and the necessity of retaining his grip on power, Lenin created the myth of a worldwide Bolshevik revolution. In November 1917 he wanted to believe that the revolutionary fire was going to engulf all countries involved in the war, and Germany above all others. But a worldwide revolution did not come about, and after Germany’s defeat in November 1918, a new European order emerged that seemed to care little for the abortive revolutions in Hungary, Bavaria, and Berlin. This was already obvious when the Red Army was defeated in Warsaw in 1920, but it was not admitted until 1923, after the failure of the German October. The failure of the Leninist theory of European and worldwide revolution left the Bolsheviks quite isolated and in a head-to-head conflict with an increasingly anarchic Russia. In a desperate attempt to hold onto power, the Bolsheviks made terror an everyday part of their policies, seeking to remodel society in the image of their theory, and to silence those who, either through their actions or by their very social, economic, or intellectual existence, pointed to the gaping holes in the theory. Once in power, the Bolsheviks made Utopia an extremely bloody business.

This double gap–a gap both between Marxism and Leninism and between Leninist theory and reality–led to one of the first fundamental debates about the meaning of the Russian and Bolshevik revolution. Kautsky was quite clear about it in August 1918: “In no case need we anticipate that in Western Europe the course of the great French Revolution will be repeated. If present day Russia exhibits so much likeness to the France of 1793, this shows only how near it stands to the stage of middle-class revolution.” Kautsky saw 1917 not as the first socialist revolution, but as the last bourgeois revolution.

Following the Bolshevik seizure of power, the status of ideology within the socialist movement changed radically. Before, 1917 Lenin had already demonstrated his adamant conviction that he was the only one who truly understood the doctrine of socialism and who could decode the “true meaning of history.” The outbreak of the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik seizure of power appeared to Lenin as portents from above and as an incontestable confirmation that his ideology and his analyses were infallibly correct. After 1917 his policies and the theoretical elaboration that accompanied them became gospel. Ideology was transformed into dogma and absolute, universal truth. This conversion of ideology into sacred writ had immediate consequences, which were noted by Cornelius Castoriadis: “If there is one true theory in history, if there is a rationality at work in things, then it is clear that its development should be entrusted to specialists in that theory and technicians of that particular rationale. The absolute power of the Party. . . has a philosophical status; its foundation is a function of the materialist conception of history. . . If that concept is true, power should be absolute, and democracy is a concession to the human fallibility of the leaders, or a pedagogical procedure that they alone can measure out in the correct dosages.”

This transformation of ideology and politics into absolute, “scientific” truth is the basis of the totalitarian dimension of Communism. The Party answered only to science. Science also justified the terror by requiring that all aspects of social and individual life be transformed.

Lenin affirmed the verity of his ideology when proclaiming himself to be the representative of the numerically weak Russian proletariat, a social group he never refrained from crushing whenever it revolted. This appropriation of the symbol of the proletariat was one of the great deceptions of Leninism, and in 1922 it provoked the following outburst from Aleksandr Shlyapnikov, one of the few Bolshevik leaders who really did have proletarian origins. At the Eleventh Party Congress he addressed Lenin directly: “Vladimir Ilich affirmed yesterday that the proletariat as a class in the Marxist sense does not exist in Russia. Allow me to congratulate you for managing to exercise dictatorship on behalf of a class that does not actually exist!” This manipulation of the symbol of the proletariat was common to all Communist regimes in Europe and the Third World, as well as in China and Cuba.

The manipulation of language was one of the most salient characteristics of Leninism, particularly in the decoupling of words from the reality they were supposed to represent, as part of an abstract vision of society in which people lost their real weight and presence and were treated as no more than pieces in a social and historical erector set. This process of abstraction, closely linked to ideology, is another key factor in the birth of the terror. It was not human beings who were being killed, but “the bourgeoisie,” “capitalists,” or “enemies of the people.” It was not Nicholas II and his family who were killed, but “the representatives of feudalism,” “bloodsuckers,” “parasites,” or “lice.”

This transformation of ideology gained considerable weight thanks to the Bolsheviks’ swift seizure of power, which immediately brought legitimacy, prestige, and the necessary means for taking action. In the name of Marxist ideology, the Bolsheviks passed from symbolic violence to real violence while establishing a system of absolute and arbitrary power that they called “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” reusing an expression Marx had once used in a somewhat oft-handed manner in his correspondence. They also began a formidable process of proselytism, which brought new hope and seemed to purify their revolutionary message. That message of hope quickly resonated among those driven by a desire for revenge at the end of the war, and among those who dreamed of a reactivation of the revolutionary myth. Bolshevism quickly acquired a universal relevance and attracted imitators throughout the world. Socialism had come to a crossroads: democracy or dictatorship.

In his book The Dictatorship of the Proletariat, written during the summer of 1918, Kautsky turned the knife in the wound. Although the Bolsheviks had been in power for only six months and there had been only a few hints of the dreadful massacres that were to follow, Kautsky already saw what was at stake: “The antagonism of the two socialist movements . . . is the clashing of two fundamentally distinct methods: that of democracy and that of dictatorship. Both movements have the same end in view: to free the proletariat, and with it humanity, through socialism. But the view taken by one is held by the other to be erroneous and likely to lead to destruction. . . We place ourselves, of course, by asking for the fullest discussion, firmly on the side of democracy. Dictatorship does not ask for the refutation of contrary views, but the forcible suppression of their utterance. Thus, the two methods of democracy and dictatorship are already irreconcilably opposed before the discussion has started. The one demands, the other forbids it.”

Putting democracy at the center of his argument, Kautsky continued: “A minority dictatorship always finds its most powerful support in an obedient army, but the more it substitutes this for majority support, the more it drives the opposition to seek a remedy by an appeal to the bayonet, instead of an appeal to the vote that is denied them. Civil war becomes a method of adjusting political and social antagonisms. Where complete political and social apathy or dejection does not prevail, the minority dictatorship is always threatened by armed attack or constant guerrilla warfare . . . The dictatorship is then involved in civil war, and lives in constant danger of being overthrown. There is no greater obstacle to the building of a socialist society than internal war . . . In a civil war, each party fights for its existence, and the vanquished are threatened with complete destruction. The consciousness of this fact is why civil wars are so terrible.”

This prophetic analysis demanded a response, and Lenin wrote an angry rejoinder that became famous in its own right, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. The title was a fair indication of the tone of the discussion therein, or, as Kautsky argued, the refusal to conduct a discussion. Citing Engels, Lenin made clear what was at the center of his thought and his actions: “In reality the state is nothing but a machine for the suppression of one class by another.” This reductive concept of the function of the state was accompanied by an analysis of the essence of dictatorship: “Dictatorship is rule based directly on force and unrestricted by any laws. The revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat is rule won and maintained through the use of violence by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, rule that is unrestricted by any laws.”

Faced with the central question of democracy, Lenin evaded it with an intellectual pirouette: “Proletarian democracy, of which Soviet government is one of the forms, has brought a development and expansion of democracy hitherto unprecedented in the world, precisely for the vast majority of the population, for the exploited and toiling people.” The expression “proletarian democracy,” it should be remembered, was used for decades afterward to cover up a large number of terrible crimes.

The quarrel between Kautsky and Lenin highlights exactly what was at stake in the Bolshevik revolution. The quarrel was between Marxism, which claimed to be the codification of “the inevitable laws of history,” and an activist subjectivism that was willing to use anything to promote revolutionary action. The underlying tension in Marx’s writings between the messianic rhetoric of the Communist Manifesto of 1848 and the clinical analysis of social movements to be found in Das Kapital was transformed by the triple influence of the world war, the February revolution, and the October Revolution into a profound and irreparable split between socialists and Communists that brought them into conflict throughout the twentieth century. The choices underlying the quarrel were no less important: democracy or dictatorship, humanity or terror.

Completely in thrall to revolutionary fervor and confronted by a whirlwind of events, Lenin and Trotsky, the two main actors in this first phase of the Bolshevik Revolution, theorized their actions extensively. Or, rather, they transformed conjecture into ideological conclusions. They invented the idea of a “permanent revolution,” which they based on the Russian case, in which the bourgeois February revolution supposedly led straight into the proletarian October Revolution. They dressed up this situation in ideological terms as the transformation of a “permanent revolution” into “permanent civil war.”

The importance of the war can be gauged by the impact it had on the revolutionaries. As Trotsky wrote, “Kautsky sees one of the reasons for the extremely bloody character of the revolution in the war and in its hardening influence on manners.” But Trotsky and Kautsky did not come to the same conclusion: The German socialist, faced with the weight of militarism, was ever more open to the question of democracy and the defense of the rights of the individual. For Trotsky, “the development of bourgeois society itself, out of which contemporary democracy grew, in no way represents the process of gradual democratization that figured before the war in the dreams of the greatest socialist illusionist of democracy–Jean Jaures–and now in those of the most learned of pedants, Karl Kautsky.”

Generalizing from this, Trotsky went on to speak about the “unpitying civil war that is unfolding the world over.” He believed that the world was entering an era in which “political struggle is rapidly turning into civil war” between “two forces: the revolutionary proletariat under the leadership of the Communists, and counterrevolutionary democracy headed by generals and admirals.” There was a double error of perspective at work here. On the one hand, subsequent events demonstrated that the desire for representative democracy and its realization was a worldwide phenomenon, reaching even the U.S.S.R. in 1991. On the other hand, Trotsky, like Lenin, had a strong tendency to develop general conclusions based on the Russian experience, which in any case was often exaggerated in his interpretation. The Bolsheviks were convinced that once the civil war had begun in Russia–largely because of their own efforts–it would spread to Europe and the rest of the world. These two major errors would serve as the justification for Soviet terror for decades to come.

Trotsky drew definitive conclusions from these premises: “It could, and must, be explained that in the civil war we destroyed White Guards so that they would not destroy the workers. Consequently, our problem is not the destruction of human life, but its preservation . . . .The enemy must be made harmless, and in wartime this means that he must be destroyed. The problem of revolution, as of war, lies in breaking the will of the foe, forcing him to capitulate and to accept the conditions of the conqueror . . . The question about who will rule the country–that is, about the life or death of the bourgeoisie–will be decided on either side not by reference to the paragraphs of the constitution, but by the employment of all forms of violence.”

Trotsky’s rhetoric uses many of the same expressions that are found in Ludendorff’s explanation of the concept of total war. The Bolsheviks, who believed themselves to be such great innovators, were in fact very much a product of their time and of the highly militarized atmosphere that surrounded them.

Trotsky’s remarks about freedom of the press demonstrate the pervasiveness of a war mentality: “During war all institutions and organs of the state and of public opinion become, directly or indirectly, weapons of war. This is particularly true of the press. No government waging a serious war will allow publications to exist on its territory that, openly or indirectly, support the enemy. Still more so in a civil war. The nature of the latter is such that each of the struggling sides has in the rear of its armies considerable circles of the population who support the enemy. In war, where both success and failure are repaid by death, hostile agents who penetrate into the rear are subject to execution. This is inhumane, but no one ever considered war–or, all the more, civil war–to be a school of humanity.”

The Bolsheviks were not the only group implicated in the civil war that broke out in Russia in the spring and summer of 1918, beginning a four-year-long orgy of killing by all sides, with people crucified, impaled, cut into pieces, and burned alive. But they were the only group to theorize civil war, and to seek it openly. Under the joint influence of their doctrine and the new modes of behavior created by the world war, civil war became for them a permanent form of political struggle. The civil war between Whites and Reds hid a different war of far greater significance: the war of the Reds against the majority of the working population and a large part of the peasantry, who after the summer of 1918 began to rebel against the Bolshevik yoke. The war was not a traditional confrontation between two opposing political groups, but a conflict between the government and the majority of the population. Under Stalin, the war put the Party-state in opposition to society as a whole. This was a new phenomenon, which could exist only because of the ability of the totalitarian system, backed by mass terror, to control all spheres of activity in society.

Recent studies based on the newly opened archives show that the “dirty war” (the expression is taken from Nicolas Werth) of 1918-1921 was the founding moment of the Soviet regime, the crucible in which the people who would develop and continue the revolution were formed. It was an infernal caldron in which the mentality peculiar to Leninism and Stalinism originated, with its unique melange of idealist exaltation, cynicism, and inhuman cruelty. The Bolsheviks hoped that the civil war would spread across the country and throughout the world and would last as long as it took for socialism to conquer the planet. The war installed cruelty as the normal means by which people were to relate to one another. It broke down traditional barriers of restraint, replacing them with absolute, fundamental violence.

From the earliest days of the Bolshevik Revolution, the issues raised by Kautsky were a thorn in the side of the revolutionaries. Isaac Steinberg, a left Socialist Revolutionary allied to the Bolsheviks, who was the people’s commissar for justice from December 1917 to May 1918, spoke in 1923 about a “methodical system of state terror” used by the Bolsheviks. He posed the central question about the limits of violence in the revolution: “The overturning of the old world, and its replacement by a new life in which the same old evils are kept in place, a life that is contaminated by the same old principles, means that socialism is forced to make a crucial choice during the decisive struggle about whether to use the old-fashioned violence of the tsars and the bourgeoisie, or to resort instead to revolutionary violence. . . Old-fashioned violence is merely a protection against slavery, while the new violence is the painful path toward emancipation . . . That is what should be decisive in our choice: We should take violence into our own hands to be sure that we bring about the end of violence. For there is no other means of fighting against it. Such is the gaping moral wound of the revolution. Therein lies the central paradox, the contradiction that will be the inevitable source of much conflict and suffering.”

He added: “Like terror, violence (considered both as a means of constraint and as deception) will always contaminate the soul of the conquered first, before affecting the victor and the rest of society.”

Steinberg was well aware that this experiment represented a huge risk for “universal morals” and “natural law.” Gorky clearly felt the same way when he wrote to the French novelist Romain Rolland on 21 April 1923: “I have not the slightest desire to return to Russia. I would not be able to write a thing if I had to spend the whole time returning to the theme of ‘Thou shalt not kill’ time and again.” The scruples of non-Bolshevik revolutionaries and the last concerns of the Bolsheviks themselves were all swept away by Lenin’s and Stalin’s enthusiasm. On 2 November 1930 Gorky, who had just aligned himself with the “genius leader” himself, again wrote to Romain Rolland: “It seems to me, Rolland, that you would judge events inside the Soviet Union more evenhandedly if you admitted one simple fact: that the Soviet regime, together with the avant-garde of the workers, is locked in a civil war, which takes the form of a class war. The enemies they fight–and must fight–are the intelligentsia, who are desperately attempting to bring back the bourgeois regime, and the rich peasants, who are desperate to look after their own interests in the traditional capitalist manner and are preventing the advance of collectivization. They are also using terror, killing collectivists, burning collective goods, and the like. War is all about killing.

Russia then entered a third revolutionary phase, which until 1953 was incarnated in Stalin. It was characterized by widespread terror, which found its strongest expression in the Great Purge of 1937 and 1938. Thereafter Stalin found ever more groups to eliminate, targeting not only society as a whole, but also the state and Party apparatus. This terror had no need of the exceptional circumstances of a war to start it rolling; it came about in a time of peace.

Hitler rarely played a personal role in repression, leaving these ignoble tasks to trusted subordinates such as Himmler. By contrast, Stalin always took a strong personal interest in such matters and played a central role in the process. He personally signed lists of thousands of names of people to be shot and forced other members of the Politburo to do the same. During the Great Terror, in fourteen months of 1937 and 1938, 1.8 million people were arrested in forty-two huge, minutely prepared operations. Nearly 690,000 of them were killed. The climate of civil war varied considerably, but it remained a fixture of everyday life. The expression “class war,” often used in place of “class struggle,” had nothing metaphorical about it. The political enemy was not a named opponent or even an enemy class: it was society as a whole.

It was inevitable that the terror, whose aim was the destruction of society, would ultimately, in a process of contagion, reach the counter-society formed by the Party itself. Although it is true that under Lenin, beginning in 1921, anyone who deviated from the Party line suffered punishment, the main enemies had always been people who were not actually Party members. Under Stalin, Party members themselves became potential enemies. The Kirov assassination provided Stalin with the excuse he needed to begin applying capital punishment inside the Party. In doing so he moved closer to Nechaev, whom Bakunin had addressed at the time of their break with the following warning: “The basis of our activity should be simple ideals like truth, honesty, and trust among revolutionary brothers. Lying, cheating, mystification, and–of necessity–violence should be employed only against the enemy. . . Whereas you, my friend–and this is where you are most gravely mistaken–you have fallen under the spell of the systems of Loyola and Machiavelli. . . You are enamored of police tactics and jesuitical methods, and you are using such ideas to run your organization. . . so you end up treating your own friends as though they were enemies.”

Under Stalin, the executioners eventually became victims. Bukharin, after the execution of his old Party comrades Zinoviev and Kamenev, publicly declared: “I am so happy that they have been shot like dogs.” Less than two years later, Bukharin himself was shot like a dog. This characteristic of Stalinism was to become widespread in Communist states throughout the world.

Before exterminating his enemies, Stalin had them displayed in public in a show-trial. Lenin had introduced this strategy in 1922, with the show-trial of the Socialist Revolutionaries. Stalin merely improved on the formula and made it a permanent feature of his apparatus of repression, applying it widely in Eastern Europe after 1948.

Annie Kriegel has shown how these trials served as a terrible mechanism of social cleansing and how, in an atheist state, the trials came to replace the hell that religion had traditionally promised. They also served to reinforce class hatred and publicly to stigmatize the enemy. Asian Communism took this procedure to its logical extreme, going so far as to organize “hate days.”

Stalin added mystery to the pedagogy of hatred: total secrecy shrouded the arrests, sentences, and fates of the victims. Mystery and secrecy, closely linked to terror, brought terrible anguish to the entire population.

Considering themselves to be at war, the Bolsheviks installed a vocabulary of “the enemy” such as “enemy agents” and “populations lending support to the enemy.” In accordance with the war model, politics reverted to simplistic terms. The binary “friend/foe” opposition was applied across the board as part of a relentless “us versus them” mentality and the military term “camp” turned up repeatedly: the revolutionary camp was opposed to the counterrevolutionary camp. Everyone was forced to choose his camp, on pain of death. The Bolsheviks thus returned to an archaic form of politics, destroying fifty years of democracy and bourgeois individualism.

How was the enemy to be defined? Politics was reduced to a civil war in which two opposing forces, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, were in conflict, and the former had to exterminate the latter by any means necessary. The enemy was no longer the ancien regime, the aristocrats, the bourgeoisie, and the military officers, but anyone opposed to Bolshevik policy. Those who expressed opposition were immediately designated “bourgeois” and treated accordingly. To the Bolshevik mind, an “enemy” was anyone, regardless of social category, who presented an obstacle to the Bolsheviks’ absolute power. This phenomenon appeared immediately, even earlier than terror, in the electoral assemblies of the Soviets. Kautsky foresaw this development when he wrote in 1918 that the only people allowed to elect deputies to the Soviets were to be those “who procure their sustenance by useful or productive work.” What is “useful and productive work”? This is a very elastic term. No less elastic is the definition of those who are excluded from the franchise. They include any who employ wage laborers for profit. . . One sees how little it takes, according to the Constitution of the Soviet Republic, to be labeled a capitalist, and to lose the vote. The elasticity of the definition of the franchise, which opens the door to the greatest arbitrariness, is due to the subject of this definition, and not to its framers. A juridical definition of the proletariat that is distinct and precise is impossible to formulate.”

The word “proletarian” played the same role here that the term “patriot” had for Robespierre. “Enemy” was also a totally elastic category that expanded or contracted to meet the political needs of the moment, becoming a key element in Communist thought and practice. As Tzvetan Todorov put it, “The enemy is the great justification for terror, and the totalitarian state needs enemies to survive. If it lacks them, it invents them. Once they have been identified, they are treated without mercy. . . . Being an enemy is a hereditary stain that cannot be removed . . . . As has often been pointed out, Jews are persecuted not for what they have done but for what they are, and Communism is no different. It demands the repression (or in moments of crisis, the elimination) of the bourgeoisie as a class. Belonging to the class is enough: there is no need actually to have done anything at all.”

One essential question remains: Why should the enemy be exterminated? The traditional role of repression, in Foucault’s terminology, is to “discipline and punish.” Was the time of discipline and punishment over? Had class enemies become “unredeemable”? Solzhenitsyn provides one response by showing that in the Gulag common criminals were systematically treated better than political prisoners. This was the case not solely for practical reasons–that they helped run the camps–but also for theoretical reasons. One of the aims of the Soviet regime was to build new men, and doing this implied the reeducation of the most hardened criminals. It was also a key propaganda issue in the Soviet Union under Stalin, as well as in China under Mao and in Cuba under Castro.

But why should the enemy be killed? The identification of enemies has always played an important role in politics. Even the gospel says: “He who is not with me is against me.” What was new was Lenin’s insistence not only that those not with him were against him, but also that those who were against him were to die. Furthermore, he extended this principle outside the domain of politics into the wider sphere of society as a whole.

Terror involves a double mutation. The adversary is first labeled an enemy, and then declared a criminal, which leads to his exclusion from society. Exclusion very quickly turns into extermination. The friend/foe dialectic no longer suffices to solve the fundamental problem of totalitarianism: the search for a reunified humanity that is purified and no longer antagonistic, conducted through the messianic dimension of the Marxist project to reunify humanity via the proletariat. That ideal is used to prop up a forcible unification–of the Party, of society, of the entire empire–and to weed out anyone who fails to fit into the new world. After a relatively short period, society passes from the logic of political struggle to the process of exclusion, then to the ideology of elimination, and finally to the extermination of impure elements. At the end of the line, there are crimes against humanity.

The attitude of Communists in Asia–in China and Vietnam–was sometimes a little different. Because of the Confucian tradition, greater allowance was made for the possibility of reeducation. The Chinese laogai was run on the expectation that prisoners–described as “students” or “pupils”–would reform their thinking under the instruction of their guard-teachers. But in the final analysis such thinking was even more hypocritical than straightforward assassination. Forcing one’s enemies to change their ways and submit to the discourse of their executioners might well be worse than simply killing them. The Khmer Rouge, on the other hand, from the outset adopted a radical policy. Believing that the reeducation of an entire section of the population was an impossible task (since these enemies were already too corrupt), they sought to change the people. To this end, they carried out a massive extermination of intellectuals and the urban population, seeking to destroy their enemies psychologically by breaking up their personalities and by imposing on them a constant process of self-criticism, which forced them to suffer acute dishonor while still in all likelihood being subject to the supreme punishment.

The leaders of totalitarian regimes saw themselves as the moral guardians of society and were proud of their right to send anyone they chose to his death. The fundamental justification was always the same: necessity with a scientific basis. Tzvetan Todorov, reflecting on the origins of totalitarianism, writes: “It was scientism and not humanism that helped establish the ideological bases of totalitarianism . . . The relation between scientism and totalitarianism is not limited to the justification of acts through so-called scientific necessity (biological or historical): one must already be a practitioner of scientism, even if it is ‘wild’ scientism, to believe in the perfect transparency of society and thus in the possibility of transforming society by revolutionary means to conform with an ideal.”

Trotsky provided a clear illustration of this “scientific” approach in 1919. In his Defense of Terrorism he claimed: “The violent revolution has become a necessity precisely because the imminent requirements of history are unable to find a road through the apparatus of parliamentary democracy.” In support of this claim he advanced “proofs”: “The proletariat is the historically rising class . . . The bourgeoisie [by contrast] today is a falling class. It no longer plays an essential part in production and by its imperialist methods of appropriation is destroying the economic structure of the world and human culture generally. Nevertheless, the historical tenacity of the bourgeoisie is colossal. It holds to power, and does not wish to abandon it. It thereby threatens to drag after it into the abyss the whole of society. We are forced to tear off this class and chop it away. The Red Terror is a weapon used against a class that, despite being doomed to destruction, does not wish to perish.”

Trotsky thereby made history into a divine force to which everything must be sacrificed, and he displayed the incurable naïveté of a revolutionary who imagines that a more just and humane society will emerge out of a dialectical process, despite the criminal nature of the methods employed. Twelve years later, Gorky was considerably more brutal: “Against us is a whole outmoded society that has had its day, and that should allow us to think of ourselves as still being in a civil war. So quite naturally we can conclude that if the enemies do not surrender, it is up to us to exterminate them.” That same year found Aragon writing lines of poetry such as “The blue eyes of the Revolution burn with cruel necessity.”

Unlike these writers, Kautsky in 1918 faced the issue squarely, with courage and honesty. Refusing to be taken in by the revolutionary rhetoric, he wrote: “To be exact, however, our goal is not socialism as such, which is the abolition of every kind of exploitation and oppression, be it directed against a class, a party, a sex, or a race . . . Should it be proved to us that . . . somehow the emancipation of the proletariat and of humanity could be achieved solely on the basis of private property, we would discard socialism without in any way giving up our objective. On the contrary, this would be conducive to our objective.” Kautsky, though one of the most eminent advocates of Marxism, put his humanism before his Marxist belief in science.

Putting people to death required a certain amount of study. Relatively few people actively desire the death of their fellow human beings, so a method of facilitating this had to be found. The most effective means was the denial of the victim’s humanity through a process of dehumanization. As Alain Brossat notes: “The barbarian ritual of the purge, and the idea of the extermination machine in top gear are closely linked in the discourse and practice of persecution to the animalization of the Other, to the reduction of real or imaginary enemies to a zoological state.”

There were many examples of this process. During the great trials in Moscow, the procurator Andrei Vyshinsky, who was an intellectual with a traditional classical training, threw himself into a veritable frenzy of animalization: “Shoot these rabid dogs! Death to this gang who hide their ferocious teeth, their eagle claws, from the people! Down with that vulture Trotsky, from whose mouth a bloody venom drips, putrefying the great ideals of Marxism! Let’s put these liars out of harm’s way, these miserable pygmies who dance around rotting carcasses! Down with these abject animals! Let’s put an end once and for all to these miserable hybrids of foxes and pigs, these stinking corpses! Let their horrible squeals finally come to an end! Let’s exterminate the mad dogs of capitalism, who want to tear to pieces the flower of our new Soviet nation! Let’s push the bestial hatred they bear our leaders back down their own throats!”

Jean-Paul Sartre also crudely remarked in 1952 that “any anti-Communist is a dog!” This demonizing animal rhetoric seems to support Annie Kriegel’s remarks about the public instructive function of the rigged show-trials. As in medieval mystery plays, everything was arranged so that the good people were in no doubt about the real identity of the bad Trotskyite heretics or “cosmopolitan Zionists”: they represented the devil incarnate.

Alain Brossat recalls that European shivarees and carnivals had begun a long tradition of the animalization of the other, which resurfaced in the political caricatures of the eighteenth century. This metaphoric rite allowed all sorts of hidden crises and latent conflicts to be expressed. In Moscow in the 1930s, there were no metaphors at all. The animalized adversary really was treated like a prey to be hunted, before being shot in the head. Stalin systematized these methods and was the first to use them on a large scale, and they were adopted by his heirs in Cambodia, China, and elsewhere. But Stalin himself did not invent these methods. The blame should probably rest on Lenin’s shoulders. After he took power, he often described his enemies as “harmful insects,” “lice,” “scorpions,” and “bloodsuckers.”

During the rigged spectacle known as the “Industrial Party trial,” the League for the Rights of Man sent a protest petition signed by, among others, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. Gorky responded with an open letter: “In my opinion the execution was entirely legitimate. It is quite natural that a worker-and-peasant regime should stamp out its enemies like lice.”

Brossat draws the following conclusions about this process of animalization: “As always, the poets and butchers of totalitarianism reveal themselves first of all by the vocabulary they use. The ‘liquidation’ of the Muscovite executioners, a close relative of the ‘treatment’ carried out by the Nazi assassins, is a linguistic microcosm of an irreparable mental and cultural catastrophe that was in full view on the Soviet stage. The value of human life collapsed, and thinking in categories (‘enemies of the people,’ ‘traitors,’ ‘untrustworthy elements,’ etc.) replaced ethical thought. . . In the discourse and practice of the Nazi exterminators, the animalization of the Other, which could not be dissociated from the obsession with cleanliness and contagion, was closely linked to the ideology of race. It was conceived in the implacably hierarchical racial terms of subhumans and supermen . . . but in Moscow in 1937, the discourse about race and the totalitarian measures associated with it were quite different. What mattered instead was the total animalization of the Other, so that a policy under which absolutely anything was possible could come into practice.”

Some, however, did not hesitate to cross the ideological barrier and move from social to racial concerns. In a 1932 letter, Gorky (who it should be remembered was a personal friend of Genrikh Yagoda, the head of the GPU, an organization for which his son also worked) wrote: “Class hatred should be cultivated by an organic revulsion as far as the enemy is concerned. Enemies must be seen as inferior. I believe quite profoundly that the enemy is our inferior, and is a degenerate not only on the physical plane but also in the moral sense.”

Taking these ideas to their logical extreme, he favored the creation of the U.S.S.R. Institute of Experimental Medicine. Early in 1933, he wrote that “the time is nearing when science will imperiously address normal people and say, would you like all diseases, handicaps, imperfections, senility, and premature death of the organism to be studied minutely and precisely? Such study cannot be carried out solely with experiments on dogs, rabbits, and guinea pigs. Experiments on human beings are indispensable, for what must be studied are the human mechanisms of the functioning of the organism, intracellular processes, hematopoiesis, neurochemistry, and all the processes that go on inside the organism. Hundreds of human guinea pigs are required. This will be a true service to humanity, which will be far more important and useful than the extermination of tens of millions of healthy beings for the comfort of a miserable, physically, psychologically, and morally degenerate class of predators and parasites.”

The worst aspects of sociohistorical scientism thus rejoined those of biological scientism.

This biological or zoological strain of thinking enables us to understand better why so many of the crimes of Communism were crimes against humanity, and how Marxist-Leninist ideology managed to justify these crimes to its followers. Considering legal decisions about recent discoveries in biology, Bruno Gravier writes: “Legal texts about bioethics. . . act as signposts about some of the more insidious threats linked to the progress of science, whose role in the birth of ideologies linked to terror (J. Asher’s ‘law of the movement’) has yet to be fully recognized. The fundamentally eugenic thrust of work by well-known doctors such as [Charles] Richet and [Alexis] Carrel clearly paved the way for Nazi extermination and the wayward actions of Nazi doctors.”

In Communism there exists a sociopolitical eugenics, a form of social Darwinism. In the words of Dominic Colas, “As master of the knowledge of the evolution of social species, Lenin decided who should disappear by virtue of having been condemned to the dustbin of history.” From the moment that a decision had been made on a “scientific” basis (that is, based in political and historical ideology, as well as in Marxism-Leninism) that the bourgeoisie represented a stage of humanity that had been surpassed, its liquidation as a class and the liquidation of the individuals who actually or supposedly belonged to it could be justified.

Marcel Cohn, speaking of Nazism, refers to “classifications, segregation, exclusions, and purely biological criteria that are brought in by this criminal ideology. We are thinking of scientific ideas (heredity, hybridization, racial purity) and the fantastic, millenarian, or apocalyptic aspects that are clearly also the product of a particular historical moment.” The application of scientific presuppositions to history and society–such as the idea that the proletariat is the bearer of the meaning of history–is easily traceable to a millenarian cosmological phantasmagoria, and is omnipresent in the Communist experience. It is these presuppositions that lie behind so much of the criminal ideology in which purely ideological categories determine arbitrary separations, like the division of humanity into bourgeoisie and proletariat, and into classifications such as petit- and grand-bourgeois or rich or poor peasant. By reifying these categories, as though they had long existed and were, utterly immutable, Marxism-Leninism deified the system itself, so that categories and abstractions were far more important than any human reality. Individuals and groups were seen as the archetypes of some sort of primary, disembodied sociology. This made crime much easier: The informer, the torturer, and the NKVD executioner did not denounce, cause suffering, or kill people; they merely eliminated some sort of abstraction that was not beneficial to the common good.

The doctrine became a criminal ideology by the simple act of denying a fundamental fact: the unity of what Robert Antelme calls the “human species,” or what the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights described in 1948 as “the human family.” The roots of Marxist-Leninism are perhaps not to be found in Marx at all, but in a deviant version of Darwinism, applied to social questions with the same catastrophic results that occur when such ideas are applied to racial issues. One thing is certain: Crimes against humanity are the product of an ideology that reduces people not to a universal but to a particular condition, be it biological, racial, or sociohistorical. By means of propaganda, the Communists succeeded in making people believe that their conduct had universal implications, relevant to humanity as a whole. Critics have often tried to make a distinction between Nazism and Communism by arguing that the Nazi project had a particular aim, which was nationalist and racist in the extreme, whereas Lenin’s project was universal. This is entirely wrong. In both theory and practice, Lenin and his successors excluded from humanity all capitalists, the bourgeoisie, counterrevolutionaries, and others, turning them into absolute enemies in their sociological and political discourse. Kautsky noted as early as 1918 that these terms were entirely elastic, allowing those in power to exclude whomever they wanted from humanity whenever they so wished. These were the terms that led directly to crimes against humanity.

In discussing biologists such as Henri Atlan, who “recognize that the notion of humanity extends beyond the biological approach, and that biology ‘has little to say about the human person,'” Mireille Delmas-Marty concedes: “It is true that it is perfectly possible to consider the human species an animal species like any other, a species that man is learning to make himself, as he already makes other animal and vegetable species.” But is this not in fact what Communism tried to do? Is the idea of a “new man” not at the heart of the Communist project? Did Communism not have a series of megalomaniacs such as Trofim Lysenko who tried to create not merely new species of tomato or corn but also a new human species?

The scientific mentality of the late nineteenth century, which emerged at the time of the triumph of medicine, inspired the following remarks by Vasily Grossman concerning the Bolshevik leaders: “This sort of person behaves among other people as a surgeon does in the wards of a hospital. . . His soul is really in his knife. And the essence of these people lies in their fanatical faith in the surgeon’s knife. The surgeon’s knife–that is the great theoretician, the archphilosopher of the twentieth century.” The idea was taken to its furthest extreme by Pol Pot, who with a terrifying stroke of the knife excised the gangrenous part of the social body–the “New People”–while retaining the “healthy” peasant part. As insane as this idea was, it was not exactly new. Already in the 1870s, Pyotr Tkachev, a Russian revolutionary and worthy heir of Nechaev, proposed the extermination of all Russians over twenty-five years old, whom he considered incapable of carrying out his revolutionary ideal. In a letter to Nechaev, Bakunin objected to this insane idea: “Our people are not a blank sheet of paper on which any secret society can write whatever it wants, like your Communist program, for instance.” The International demanded that the slate of the past be wiped clean, and Mao famously compared himself to a poetic genius writing on a blank sheet of paper, as though he genuinely believed that thousands of years of history could simply be ignored.

Most of the mechanisms of terror discussed above originated in the U.S.S.R. under Lenin and Stalin, but some of their features are to be found, with differing degrees of intensity, in all regimes claiming to be Marxist in origin. Every Communist country or Party has its own specific history and its own particular regional and local variations, but a linkage can always be traced to the pattern elaborated in Moscow in November 1917. This linkage forms a sort of genetic code of Communism.

How can we possibly understand the people who took part in this terrifying system? Did they have specific psychological features? Every totalitarian regime seems to find a segment of the population that has a special calling for such behavior, and it actively seeks them out and promotes them within its ranks. Stalin’s own case is representative. In terms of strategy, he was a worthy heir of Lenin, capable of expediting business with ease on either a local or a global scale. To the eyes of history he might well appear as one of the great men of the century, transforming the weak Soviet Union of 1922 into one of the two world superpowers, and for decades causing Communism to appear to be the only real alternative to capitalism.

But he was also one of the greatest criminals in a century in which great criminals have been all too easy to find. As far back as 1953 Boris Suvarin and Boris Nikolaevsky labeled Stalin the century’s Caligula, and Trotsky always believed that he was a paranoid maniac. But, more than that, Stalin was an extraordinary fanatic with a particular talent for politics, and a man with no belief in democracy. Stalin was the logical result of the movement begun by Lenin and dreamed of by Nechaev: a man using extremist means to implement extremist policies.

The fact that Stalin so deliberately engaged in crimes against humanity as a means of governance returns us to the specifically Russian aspects of his personality. A native of the Caucasus, he was surrounded during his childhood and adolescence by tales of brigands with hearts of gold, and of abreks, mountain dwellers who had been expelled from their clan or who had solemnly sworn bloody vengeance–stories, in short, of men filled with despairing courage. He used the pseudonym Koba, which was the name of one such mythical brigand prince, a local Robin Hood figure who came to the assistance of widows and orphans. Bakunin, in his letter disavowing Nechaev, wrote: “Do you remember how angry with me you became when I called you an abrek, and described your beliefs as a sort of abreki catechism? You said that all men should be made so, and that the abandonment of the self and the renunciation of personal needs and desires, all feelings, attachments, and links should be a normal state, the everyday condition of all humanity. Out of that cruel renunciation and extreme fanaticism you now want to make a general principle applicable to the whole community. You want crazy things, impossible things, the total negation of nature, man, and society!”

Despite his total commitment to the ideal, as early as 1870 Bakunin had understood that even revolutionary action had to submit itself to a number of fundamental moral constraints.

Communist terror has often been compared to the great Catholic Inquisition. Here novelists are probably of more use than historians. In his magnificent novel La tunique d’infamie, Michel del Castillo remarks: “The purpose is not to torture or to burn the victim: the aim is to ask the right question. No terror without truth, which is its foundation. Without truth, how can error be recognized? . . . If one is certain that one possesses the truth, how can one leave one’s neighbor in error?”

The Church promised the remission of original sin, and salvation or eternal damnation in another world. Marx had a redemptive belief in the Promethean destiny of mankind. This was the messianic dream of the Great Evening. But for Leszek Kolakowski, “the idea that the world we see is so totally corrupt that it is beyond improvement, and that accordingly the world that will follow will bring plenitude, perfection, and ultimate liberation is one of the most monstrous aberrations of the human spirit. . . Of course this aberration is not an invention of our own time, but we should recognize that religious thought, which opposes all temporal values to the force of supernatural grace, is much less abominable than doctrines that tell us we can assure our salvation by jumping from the edge of the abyss to the glorious heights of the heavens.”

Ernest Renan was probably quite correct when he claimed in his Philosophical Dialogues that the sure way to guarantee oneself absolute power in an atheist society was not to threaten people with some mythological inferno, but to institute a real hell–a concentration camp to punish insurgents and to frighten all others, with a special police force made up of beings devoid of conscience and entirely devoted to the government in power–“obedient machines, unencumbered by moral scruples and prepared for every sort of cruelty.”

After the liberation of most of the prisoners in the Gulag in 1953, and even after the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, when some forms of terror seemed to have disappeared, the principle of terror retained its function and continued to be extremely effective. The memory of the terror lived on and paralyzed people’s wills, as Aino Kuusinen recalled: “The memory of the terror weighed on people’s minds; no one could believe that Stalin had really gone for good. There was scarcely a family in Moscow that had not suffered in some way from persecution, yet no one ever talked about it. I, for instance, would never talk about my experiences in the camps in front of my friends. And they never asked about it. The fear was too deep-rooted in everyone’s minds.” If the victims carried their memories of the terror wherever they went, their executioners were just as dependent on those memories. In the middle of the Brezhnev period, the Soviet Union brought out a postage stamp to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Cheka, and published a book in homage to its memory.

In conclusion, the last word should go to Gorky and his homage to Lenin in 1924: “One of my old friends, a worker from Sormov, a kind-hearted man, complained that it was hard to work for the Cheka. I answered him: ‘It seems to me that it’s not for you. It’s just not in your character.’ He agreed, sadly. ‘No, not at all.’ But after thinking for a moment, he added, ‘But when I think about it, I’m sure Ilich often also has to hold his soul back by its wings and that makes me ashamed of my weakness’ . . . Did Lenin really have to ‘hold his soul back by its wings’? He paid so little attention to himself that he never talked about himself with others; he was better than anyone at never revealing the storms that blew inside his mind. But he told me once as he was stroking some children, ‘Their lives will be better than ours: they’ll be spared many of the things we have been forced to live through. Their lives will be less cruel.’ He stared off into the distance, and added dreamily: ‘Mind you, I don’t envy them. Our generation will have carried out a task of tremendous historical importance. The cruelty of our lives, imposed by circumstances, will be understood and pardoned. Everything will be understood, everything!'”

We are beginning to understand it, but not quite in the manner that Lenin imagined. What remains today of this “task of tremendous historical importance”? Not the illusory “building of socialism,” but an immense tragedy that still weighs on the lives of hundreds of millions of people, and that will mark the entry into the third millennium. Vasily Grossman, the war correspondent from Stalingrad, the writer who saw the manuscript of his magnum opus confiscated by the KGB and who died a broken man as a result, still drew an optimistic lesson from his experiences that is well worth repeating: “Our century is the century of the greatest violence ever committed against human beings by the state. But it is precisely here that the strength and hope of humanity lie. It is the twentieth century that has at last shaken the Hegelian concept of the historical process whereby ‘everything real is rational.’ It was this concept, violently debated for decades, that Russian thinkers of the past century finally accepted. But now, at the height of the state’s triumph over individual freedom, Russian thinkers wearing padded camp jackets have dethroned and cast down the old Hegelian law and proclaimed their new, supreme, guiding principle of world history: ‘Everything inhuman is senseless and worthless’ . . . Amid the total triumph of inhumanity, it has become self-evident that everything effected by violence is senseless and worthless, and that it has no future and will disappear without a trace.”