100 Years of Communism

The hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution has inspired countless retrospectives on communism in the twentieth century. Here at the College, the Dickey Center for International Understanding, along with the Political Economy Project and the Leslie Center for the Humanities, has run the “Centennial Series,” which commemorates the events including the US entry into the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution through lectures, artwork, and other projects. Most recently, Professor Christopher Snyder of the Economics Department delivered a lecture titled “The Origins of Unfreedom,” in which he spoke on confronting tyranny.

The national media has focused on this anniversary as well. The New York Times is running a slew of articles under the banner “Red Century.” These include pieces such as “How Mao Molded Communism to Create a New China,” in which author Roderick MacFarquhar traces Mao’s personal journey as an activist to his deadly Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Yet MacFarquhar does not describe these programs as those who lived through them might, instead glossing over the 45 million killed in the four years of the Great Leap Forward, many of them the peasants MacFarquhar seems to think Mao championed.

The New York Times’ choice to write generally positively about communism – articles such as “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism,” “Lenin’s Eco Warriors,” and “Why George Bernard Shaw Had a Crush on Stalin” illustrate the tone of most pieces – undoubtedly factors into a disturbing new study of millennial views on communism. An annual survey released by YouGov reveals that 44% of millennials would rather live under socialism, with an additional 7% making the full leap towards communism. Conversely, 42% supported a capitalist system and 7% favored fascism. Another survey funded by the Victims of Communism Memorial Fund found that 23% of Americans aged 21-29 consider Joseph Stalin a “hero.” These trends reveal that the younger generation is ignorant of the death toll caused by communism, which is over 100 million and still ongoing.

Apologists often excuse communism’s lethality by claiming that the ideology was “bastardized” by Stalin, Mao, and others. This is, in a sense, true. Nowhere in Marx’s writing does he call for yeoman farmers, or Kulaks, to be massacred and for harsh suppression of basic civil liberties. But is violent communism not the application of an ideology that strips individuals of their property? Between 1928 and 1940, Stalin centralized the Soviet agricultural sector into collective farms, while at the same time trying to centralize food production around the axis of Moscow. A very intentional result was the decimation of the rebellious Ukraine: in a one-year period from 1932 to 1933, anywhere from 2.4 to 12 million people died in a genocide by starvation, known as the Holodomor. What we learn from this is simple: collectivization, a hallmark of communist ideology, has manifestations that can be called genocidal.

Europe was the first to face the full brunt of the Red Menace. We are well aware of the October Revolution, but not of its immediate consequences and aftershocks. The revolution in the Russian Empire inspired revolutionaries in Germany, which was rapidly destabilizing following the 1918 Armistice. In January 1919, Marxist rebels, calling themselves the “Spartacus League,” rose up in Berlin and plunged the city into brutal street warfare for over a week. By the end of their brief reign of terror, these “Spartacists” and their abortive revolution caused the deaths of over 3,000 people. The immediate push of the fledgling Soviets to expand their evil empire was not so evanescent. With the intention of aiding communist movements in Germany and Western Europe in February 1919, the Red Army poured into newly-independent Poland as part of wider westward offensive. This provoked a Polish counter-invasion into the Ukraine with local support and two massive armies clashed in the bloodlands of Eastern Europe. By the time a ceasefire was called and peace terms agreed upon, most of the Ukraine had fallen to the Soviet Union. Though the Poles preserved their independence, over 100,000 people had been killed.

As the Soviet Union consolidated its power, communism was gaining power and popularity in the east in fractured post-imperial China under the leadership of Mao Zedong. At first the Chinese Communists cooperated with their Nationalist counterparts to re-establish order in the factionalized country, but by 1927, this alliance of sorts collapsed. Following this rift, Mao coined one of his most famous slogans: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” The Communists and the Nationalists engaged in brutal civil war for nearly a decade, resulting in the deaths of around 7 million people, a majority of which were civilians, by 1937. Though the Communists and Nationalists were united in combating the Japanese invasion and occupation, which lasted from 1937 until Japan’s capitulation to the United States in 1945, they quickly resumed violence after the Japanese surrender. The Communists successfully exiled the Nationalist government to Taiwan in 1949, but only after approximately 6 million people died in their devastating power struggle following the Japanese surrender.

In the midst of the process of communist domination in China, the Soviets extended their totalitarian authority into Europe at the expense of free and sovereign peoples. It is possible that many of communism’s modern-day supporters have forgotten that the Soviets were as much a part of the partition of Poland as the Nazis. The Soviet Union was one of two principals on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that provided for the division of Poland following the German military conquest which would occur in September 1939. Following the successful German blitzkrieg and subsequent annexation of Western Poland, the Soviets moved into the East of the defeated country, greeting their Nazi counterparts at the newly formed border with handshakes and smiles. In the period before the Germans turned on them in June 1941 and invaded the other half of Poland and beyond, the Soviets forcefully deported around 1.5 million people from Poland. From April to May 1940, Soviet authorities carried out purges of Polish elites and military officers in Russia’s Katyn Forest, shooting to death over 22,000 prisoners. Around the same time, Soviet forces illegally occupied and annexed the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, and then carried out mass deportations. The Baltic states were never officially recognized by the international community as a part of the Soviet Union.

Following the Second World War, the Soviet Union immediately seized the opportunity of Allied peace negotiations and leveraged their enormous military power to retain their antebellum territorial acquisitions and more. Soviet diplomats carved out a massive empire of satellite states for themselves in Eastern and Central Europe, which stretched from partitioned East Germany in the Northwest to Bulgaria in the Southeast. The Soviet Union maintained its chokehold on these European subjects by any means necessary. In 1956, Hungary tried to cast off the shackles of its Soviet-imposed communist regime; hundreds of T-54 tanks rolled into Budapest to crush the revolution, killing 3,000 Hungarian rebels in addition to 3,000 civilians. Czechoslovakia tried to abandon communism in 1968 and was met with invasion by all members of the Warsaw Pact, except for Albania and Romania. Over 70,000 Czechoslovaks immediately fled the country in the wake of their failed attempt at liberation.

The horrors of communism in China and North Korea are hopefully well-known to most of us; North Korea’s globally infamous famine killed anywhere from 200,000 to over 3 million people in the 1990s, and continues to cause unimaginable suffering. Often forgotten, however, are the devastating consequences of communism in other parts of Asia. Starting in the 1960s, the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge faction of communists wreaked havoc on the poor country of Cambodia. While in government power, the Khmer Rouge carried out a genocide, killing 1.5 to 3 million of their own people from 1975 to 1979. Though they were overthrown by a Vietnamese invasion, the Khmer Rouge persisted in armed conflict until 1991, causing over 100,000 additional civilian deaths. In nearby Burma, the so-called Burmese Way to Socialism greatly exacerbated national poverty and demolished once well-established democratic institutions. A decades-long civil war raged in Laos, waged by the communist Pathet Lao rebels against the nation’s constitutional monarchy. When it ended in 1975 with a communist victory, over 1 million civilians had been killed or wounded.

Throughout the latter half of the 20th-century, the plague of global communism began to spread to new parts of the world, previously untouched by Marx’s scourge. In 1970, Salvador Allende, an avowed ideological Socialist, was narrowly elected President of Chile, which possessed strong and long-standing democratic institutions. By 1973, Chile’s government was on the verge of collapse, with the country’s Congress declaring a “constitutional breakdown,” and its economy was in shambles following Allende’s policy of industrial nationalization and collectivization. Allende’s destruction of the Chilean state finally came to an end when a majority of the country’s Congress called for his ouster; he was removed by a military coup d’etat in September of 1973.

Even towards the decline of their empire, the Soviets attempted to force communism onto other sovereign nations.  In April 1978, members of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan allied with members of the military stormed the presidential palace in Kabul and killed Afghanistan’s sitting President, Mohammed Daoud Khan. A communist government was established, and it immediately made strides to limit the personal freedoms of Afghan citizens. The new Afghan communist government struggled desperately to retain power, executing an estimated 27,000 political prisoners in the process. The Soviet Union recognized the Afghan communists’ tenuous hold on power and in December of 1979, Soviet forces killed Afghanistan’s communist leader and replaced him with a puppet. Immediately thereafter, thousands of troops poured across the border from Soviet Central Asia and placed Afghanistan under occupation. The Soviet domination of Afghanistan lasted for nearly a decade and sparked a bold resistance from Afghanistan’s fiercely independent and devoutly Muslim population. Over the course of the Soviet-Afghan War, more than 100,000 combatants were killed, but that number pales in comparison to that of civilian deaths. An estimated 2 million Afghan civilians were killed, and millions more displaced by the years of brutal war.

In Africa, communism has led to untold suffering and countless deaths. Angola was torn apart by a civil war, fought from 1975 to 2002 and caused by the active, violent suppression of all dissent by its communist government. More than 500,000 civilians died in the lengthy conflict between Soviet and Cuban-supported communists and American-backed freedom fighters. Ethiopia was dominated from 1977 to 1991 by brutal dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam and his military regime, known as the Derg. Mengistu and the Derg imprisoned and executed tens of thousands of government opponents during their reign and drastically sought to reform the country. The end result was a catastrophic famine from 1983 to 1985 that killed roughly 400,000 people. Communism and other Marxist ideologies have played a disproportionate role in directing the politics of postcolonial African nations. In Congo-Brazzaville, in Mozambique, in Somalia, authoritarian regimes perpetrated serious human rights abuses under the guise of advancing a socialist state.

Despite an overwhelmingly negative balance sheet for the ideology, many who have been privileged enough to enjoy liberalism sport communist iconography. I was in the gym here at the College when I noticed a middle-aged man with a small hammer and sickle tattooed on his shoulder. Perhaps he had never learned about communism’s horrors, or perhaps he tattooed himself because he believed it represented a higher egalitarianism that has escaped every application of the ideology. Maybe he just wanted to virtue signal and demonstrate his contrarianism and supposed open-mindedness. We at The Review believe that communism should be just as taboo as fascism. Individuals display communist sympathies out of ignorance. The pervasive leftism in higher education and apologist voices in the media have irresponsibly led millennials astray and opened debate into an ideology that belongs in the dustbin of history. It is responsible for historians to question American action during the Cold War, but communism’s free pass and the media’s willful ignorance must end. If current attitudes persist we may suffer a repetition of the horrors caused by the most deadly ideology in human history.

  • Marvin Helionto

    This is a wonderful piece, but I do have one slight disagreement about the–qualified–claim that “nowhere in Marx’s writing does he call for yeoman farmers, or Kulaks, to be massacred and for harsh suppression of basic civil liberties.” Actually, he does call for “[a sweeping] away by force” and “despotic inroads on the rights of property” and “the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie” and “the middle-class owner of property must…be swept out of the way and made impossible.” And similar to what Bring and Thompson point out, atrocities can certainly result from the belief that “law, morality, religion [are] so many bourgeois prejudices.” And yes, the leftists will argue “you’re taking these passages out of context!” but I’d beg anyone to look at those words in context and see if they can find a shred of difference. It’s also worthwhile to look at death totals and atrocities from communist regimes during PEACETIME only. A conservative estimate is 85 million peacetime deaths ( communiststats.com ). Anyway…a good piece…I just wanted to add a few things.