by Patrick van Schie
Communism as it presented itself in the twentieth century stems from Marxism. Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a German journalist who, in the industrializing Europe of the nineteenth century in which there were initially major contradictions in prosperity, with workers who had to work in poor conditions for wages with which they could barely support themselves and their families, put forward a salvation doctrine. Marx was certainly not the only one and not the first to criticize the social abuses. He did come up with his own analysis of the causes and with a distinctive “solution”.
Marx called his ideas “scientific socialism”, with which he wanted to indicate that his analysis showed how history would inevitably develop. His form of “socialism” was not just a utopia, like the others that were common at the time; Marx claimed to be right on the historical side. Every society started as one of hunters and gatherers. Then came an agricultural phase that was accompanied by a system of feudalism. In the subsequent phase of industrialization, under a capitalist system, the gap grew between the rich manufacturers, traders and other representatives of the “bourgeoisie” on the one hand and the increasingly poorer workers on the other. This was because the rich upper layer exploited the poor workers, and possessed added value in the form of profit. The middle groups (artisans, shopkeepers, etc.) were crushed in this process and, like the small capitalists who could not compete, fell back into the “proletariat”, the large mass of non-possessing workers.
Eventually the contradictions and the misery at the bottom would become so great that the proletariat would revolt: the great “Kladderadatsch”. This revolution would take a society to the next phase of history, that of socialism. It required another state that would guide the process towards greater equality and bring the means of production (machines etc.) into community hands. In the end, society would end up in the final phase of communism, in which the state would die subsequently, all property had become common, and from then on everyone would work according to their capabilities and earn according to their needs.
The Marx model is also called “historical-materialistic” because he stated that the “substructure” – the socio-economic relationships in society – determines the superstructure. Religion, (political) ideas, culture and other non-material aspects of life are, according to Marx, only a reflection of the underlying socio-economic relationships. That is, in a “capitalist” society, for example, religion, dominant ideas and culture do not stand on their own but are merely instruments with which the ruling class of capitalists oppress the masses: “religion is opium for the people” ( Marx meant here that the ruling class was using religion to lure the working class so that those workers will not be capable of noticing their real interests).
Marxism is a deterministic conviction: history has a fixed course towards an already established end goal. Man cannot change that, but he/she can speed up the process. This latter conviction has become the starting point for communist practice that those who stand in the way of history must be eliminated. Marx himself thought that history could be helped by using force. For Lenin, the leader of the first communist party who came to power (in Russia in 1917), this was the starting point for the conviction that the capitalist phase could be omitted in history: agricultural Russia would be taken directly from feudal phase to socialism. This to the horror of the so-called Mensheviks, Russian Marxists who believed that their country should first go through the phase of capitalism.
Social Democrats as we know them are also Marxists. But Social Democrats are “reformists”: they believe that in order to reach their ideal, no revolution is needed but the parliamentary path can be taken to gradually improve the conditions for the workers. The development of this ‘reformist’ variant is favored because on the one hand the second half of the nineteenth century showed economic growth with wage increases in Western countries (which proves the opposite to what Marx had predicted) and on the other (faster in one country than in another) democratization. There are many variants of Marxism and even more of Socialism, but the main classification in the twentieth century has become that between Communists and Social Democrats.
One important theory on which Communists lean, preceding Marx, is the idea that there is a “popular will.” This idea was developed by the eighteenth-century thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who saw the “volonté generale” as the justification for the political course of a country. The dangerous nature of this concept became apparent during the French Revolution, when in the most radical phase (1791-1794) the most extreme revolutionaries, with reference to the “general will of the people”, got rid of their opponents. Eventually, the Jacobins – the far left wing under Robespierre – would slaughter countless (alleged) opponents (relatively moderate revolutionaries, Catholic clergymen, nobility, etc.) under the guillotine during a reign of less than a year (The Terror). That the Communists admire the Jacobins, their Terror and the concept of popular will used by them was already an indication of what could be expected under Communist rule.
Marx and his followers expected the first revolution in a highly industrialized country, in the late capitalist phase. The most logical candidate was Germany, which at the beginning of the twentieth century also had the strongest (Marxist) socialist party. Or else Great Britain, where the Industrial Revolution had already started in the eighteenth century. In terms of economic development, “backward” Russia was one of the last areas in Europe where revolution was expected.
Yet Russia was the first country where, in 1917, communists came to power. The Russian Revolution of 1917 is divided into two stages. The first stage, in February (according to Western calendar March) was a spontaneous revolution. However, it did not bring the Communists to power (they played no role in it) but a broad coalition from liberals to non-Communist socialists. This revolutionary government was partly undermined by sabotage by the soviets (workers ‘and soldiers’ councils) in which communists (bolsheviki) became increasingly dominant in the two largest cities (Petrograd and Moscow). The second stage in October (according to the Western calendar in November) was not a revolution but a coup, carried out by the although grown but still relatively marginal Bolsheviki led by Lenin. The so-called “October Revolution” was not a spontaneous assault by workers and sailors, as the Soviet propaganda wanted to believe, but a carefully planned coup with military precision making use of armed Communist party members.
Lenin and his party members parted not only with the old Marxist dogma that the revolution had to take place in a highly industrialized – and not primarily an agricultural – country, but also with the idea of workers as the bearers of the revolution. Lenin, on the contrary, thought that the workers would always lack class consciousness, so that a (non-proletarian) “vanguard” had to take the lead. Moreover, Lenin was helped (physically, by smuggling him from Switzerland to Russia, and financially) by Imperial Germany, with which Russia was still at war. The German government hoped for chaos in Russia and with that for a seriously weakened enemy on its eastern front.
Prior to Lenin’s coup the broad-based Russian government had already planned general elections (with universal men’s and women’s suffrage) for a constitutional meeting. Despite intimidation by the communist government, these took place a month after the coup. But the Communists won less than a quarter of the voters. Because, through fair elections, communists by no means were able to get a majority of votes, the Communist government dismantled the new constitutional meeting one day after its first meeting. Earlier, the communists had already banned the liberal party (Constitutional Democrats). In the course of 1918 all political parties, including other socialist ones, would be banned. Immediately after the Communist seizure, the Cheka was also established, the secret police which was a precursor to the KGB. Already in the summer of 1918, the new Communist rulers had killed more than 15,000 political opponents, more than twice as many people as in a century of Tsar rule. It was only a faint prelude to the horrors that would follow.
Because the Russian Communists eventually won the civil war that broke out in 1920, Russia became the first and until the end of the Second World War (except for Mongolia) the only communist country in the world. In a few other European countries (Germany, Hungary), short-lived Communist regimes fell and other attempted revolutions failed in the period after the First World War. Attempts to “export” the revolution (that is, to have the Red Army pushed outside Russian borders to impose communism there) also failed, so that the regime opted for power-building in its own country.
For communists elsewhere, this meant that they were required to do everything they could to defend “socialism” in the motherland (Russia). In addition, they had to obey the decisions of Moscow (where the communists established their government). In the Russian Communist Party itself, Lenin introduced “democratic centralism”: some debate in the highest levels of the party was allowed, but not below, the decision was taken at the top; from that moment on, no opposition was accepted and only the opinion and decision of the top had to be blindly followed. Anyway, political views and activities outside the Communist Party were out of the question. Communists always want the monopoly of power and opinion, Lenin’s Bolsheviki immediately demonstrated. “Dissident” thoughts and actions are suppressed rücksichtlos under communism, including the assassination of opponents. This certainly also applied to those in whose name the Communists claimed to rule, as the Kronstadt uprising of Russian sailors in 1921 and the brutal crushing of the peasant revolts in the Tambov region in 1920-21 revealed, in which around 240,000 people were killed .
At the end of the Second World War, in a few years, Communists suddenly came to power in many more countries. In all those countries, the decisive factor was military power or violence deployed by the Communists. The outcome of free elections was not decisive, but the presence of the Red Army (of the Soviet Union) or in a few countries the autonomous success on the battlefield of a communist guerrilla movement.
In most of the countries that became communist, the presence of the Red Army was decisive. In Central / Eastern Europe, coalition governments were formed in which the Communists took over the departments associated with hard power (force): Defense (army) and Interior ((secret) police). Within a few years, the other parties forming the organisation either were removed from the government or transformed into the communist party’s organization. Examples are the peasant party in Poland Polish People’s Party the Christian Democrats and Liberal Democrats in the German East Zone (called the GDR from 1949). Other political parties were initially opposed and soon banned, entirely in line with the model that the Bolsheviki had followed in Russia. Non-communist politicians, but also communists who could possibly act “independently” of Moscow, were arrested and partially executed.
The fact that the presence of the Red Army was decisive for the coming to power of communist regimes does not mean that the communists did not score well anywhere after the war. In the fairly free elections in Czechoslovakia in 1946, they won 38% of the vote. In the also fairly free elections in Hungary at the end of 1945, the Communists scored only 17%. A few years later they were single rulers in both countries. In contrast, the Communists in France scored 26% of the vote in the first post-war elections. Here too they were part of a post-war coalition government, but because they did not get the chance to seize the crucial “violence” departments and no army and secret service controlled by communists supported them the French communists could not take over control. In most Western European countries, the Communists were considerably less popular. For example, the CPN in the Netherlands won 10.7% of the vote in the parliamentary elections of 1946, but this percentage dropped further to 2.4% in 1959 in each subsequent election, before fluctuating in the bandwidth between 4.5 % (1972) and 0.6% (1986).
Yugoslavia and China are the two most important countries where the Communists came to power after the Second World War without the help of the Red Army. In Yugoslavia, the communist partisans led by Tito emerged as the militarily strongest resistance movement, in China an autonomous communist army under Mao won the four-year civil war after the Japanese defeat. In those two countries too, Communist power, in Mao’s words, “came from the barrel of a gun.” In both countries the coming to power of the Communists under their own (military) power would eventually lead to a clash with Moscow. Yugoslavia was the first communist country to defy Stalin in the late 1940s. Communist China collided with the Soviet Union around 1960. This clash came from ideological disagreements (Mao blamed Moscow for not being “anti-imperialist” enough) but also from a long-standing strategic conflict of interest between Russia and China.
In both countries, the communist regime was “disobedient” to Moscow, but it was no less cruel than the regimes in the Soviet bloc. In Yugoslavia under Tito, more than 1 million civilians were killed by the Communist rulers. The communist regime in China under Mao has killed more people in absolute numbers than any other communist regime. Even in the most conservative estimates, it involves at least 50 million deaths; other estimates amount to twice the number.
According to the communist doctrine, all means of production must be in the hands of the community, which means: in the hands of the state and thus of the communist party. One of the disadvantages that, according to Communists, would be connected with market economy is that competition between companies leads to waste: companies that have to incur the same costs to produce something, advertising costs, etc. It would be better in that logic if it were centrally planned what must be produced to satisfy everyone’s needs.
In practice, a planned economy was found to have serious shortcomings. To begin with, Communist planners usually focused on heavy industry (the production of steel, etc. ) and on building a strong army, rather than on consumer goods. Even more fundamental was that a planned economy lacks the signals that indicate what consumers need. Moreover, the bureaucrats in the planning authorities focus on numbers, not quality. The result is that there are serious shortages of many products, and if a product appeared in stores, it was often immediately in over-abundance. Many consumer products appeared to be of poor quality due to the lack of competition (that is the absence of the possibility for consumers to opt for an alternative). Furthermore, there is no incentive for innovation. That is why the purchasing power of people in a planned economy is soon (seriously) lagging behind that of people in a free market economy, and why the quality of consumer products is much lower than that in Western economies. Very often there is scarcity of the most essential products for daily life. Planned economies are therefore characterized by queues in front of shops being formed as soon as some products are delivered. Ordinary citizens often walked with a shopping net in their pocket, so that if there was a line somewhere they could immediately connect to be able to purchase the suddenly available item.
There were, however, special stores with products of good quality, originating from the (“capitalist”) West. You were admitted to these stores (such as the State-owned PEWEX stores in Poland) if you were high enough in the party hierarchy (a strict class system, with privileged nomenklatoera on the one hand and the mass of ordinary residents on the other hand) or you could buy something only with Western currencies (which citizens were not allowed to have formally). These Western currencies were, of course, significantly more popular than the official currency of the communist country in question.
An additional reason for the lack of prosperity in communist countries in comparison with countries with a free market economy is that working in state or community companies did not provide an incentive for higher and even less for better production. For example, a farmer who worked in a kolchoz or sovchoz (a “community” or state-owned farm) did not get better if he worked harder, which differed a lot from the situation of the farmer who worked for his own company and the profit he made was for him and his family. In some countries (such as Poland and Hungary) there was so much opposition to the collectivization of agriculture that the government allowed farmers to keep part of the extra production themselves. But the only ones who are really economically well off in a communist country are the members of the rather closed “caste” of the nomenklatoera, the party elite (which also includes the management of companies and the army).
No matter how much the population in a communist country is brainwashed from an early age, there are always citizens who yearn for freedom and try to escape from the oppression and grayness of life. This is not limited to the first period in which most citizens still know what it is like to live in a free country. Later on, the urge to freedom is inherent enough to make citizens resist.
One of the means of resistance was armed struggle. What few know is that in the Baltic States and Poland, after the arrival of the Red Army in 1944-45 until the early 1950s, groups of armed civilians from forest-rich environments fought (guerrilla) in the hope that there would be help from the West. That aid was not forthcoming because the Western countries did not want to risk a new world war. Although such armed resistance – comparable to the underground resistance during the Second World War in many countries against the German occupiers – was, in retrospect, quite hopeless, it is indicative of their love of freedom how long many fighters lasted before they were eventually eliminated by the KGB.
A second way of resisting was by “voting with your feet”, i.e. by fleeing to a free country. For example, in the 1950s until the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961, several million East Germans left their homeland to build a better and, above all, a free life in West Germany. Fleeing was difficult and gradually became almost impossible, because nationals of Communist countries were not allowed to travel freely and because these countries started to shield their borders with barriers – high barbed wire fences, the Berlin Wall, and shooting border guards or automatic shooting systems and bombs – to prevent flight attempts in a brutal way.
Thirdly, there have been several major uprisings, starting with, in the Soviet Union, the workers and sailors uprising in Kronstadt (near St. Petersburg / Leningrad) in 1921 and the peasant uprising in Tambov in 1920-1921. After the Second World War, the first workers (!) uprising took place in the GDR in June 1953. In 1956 the Hungarians (following an uprising in Poznan, Poland, which was suppressed, resulting in dozens of deaths) attempted to pass on the power monopoly of the Communist Party, carry out free elections and abandon the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet Union struck the Hungarian Uprising hard and brutally. During two-week battles of with the Red Army, around 20,000 Hungarian civilians died and 200,000 Hungarians fled their country. Later, more peaceful attempts to break the power monopoly of the Communist party were invariably suppressed with blood: in Prague – the “Prague Spring” initiated by a reformist faction of the Communist Party – 1968 by the Soviet Union and some satellite states, in Poland in 1981 by the Polish army leader Jaruzelski (the Soviet Union was also ready to intervene) and in China in 1989 (against the peaceful protesters in the Tiananmen Square in Beijing, but also in dozens of other cities).
Fourthly, there was “silent” protest through the underground press or wrapped in critical literature and theater productions. After 1975 (the Helsinki Act, in which the countries of the Soviet bloc formally committed themselves to respecting human rights; an empty promise) there were human rights groups in communist countries who urged their own governments to comply with the treaty provisions. The best known of these groups is Charta 77, in Czechoslovakia, led by Vaclav Havel (who would become president after the fall of the communist regime). Often these “dissidents” had to pay for their criticism with imprisonment or imprisonment in psychiatric institutions – criticism of communism was labeled as a form of insanity.
Estimates of the number of civilians killed by communist regimes vary, partly because the victims are not always properly registered and partly because in addition to direct victims there are also indirect victims.
The most direct victims are the countless who died of torture, (whether or not after a sham trial) were executed or otherwise killed by the Communist rulers and their secret police. In addition, those who perished during deportations, during slave labor, whether or not in labor camps carried out by hunger, cold, diseases and exhaustion. Moreover, those who died of hunger as a result of collectivization of the farms (eg in the Soviet Union from 1929 and in Red China during the “Great Leap Forward”) can be victims of communist rule considered.
Not as such are usually considered the dead who fell unnecessarily in World War II due to the immense political-strategic mistake of Stalin. At the end of the 1930s, Stalin purged the almost complete summit of the Red Army and, after concluding the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in August 1939, wrongly trusted Hitler would not attack the Soviet Union in the coming years. As a result, he and the Red Army were completely taken by surprise when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Although this certainly led to additional fatalities, they are usually not attributed to communist rule. It would also be difficult to determine its size, because Hitler would have invaded the Soviet Union anyway, and even with good preparation millions of soldiers would have been killed anyway. That is why these deaths are not included in the figures given below.
Today it is assumed that at least 65 million people have been killed under all Communist regimes. The Black Book of Communism held it at 94 million in 1997; adding up the casualties since then (for example in North Korea), there are at least 100 million deaths. Other estimates are even higher, even up till above 160 million.
In absolute numbers, most people died in Communist China. The ‘Great Leap Forward ’in the late 1950s, alone cost the lives of between 20 and 55 million people. The killing began immediately after the communist takeover of power in 1949, when regional party leaders imposed quotas for the number of people to be executed: at least 1 in every thousand inhabitants, but many regional party bosses aimed much higher in their zeal and Mao encouraged them to do so: ‘In provinces where few have been killed, a large quota must be killed; the killings must not stop prematurely.” It is estimated that in the fall of 1952 more than 2 million people had been killed by the new Communist rulers (out of a population of around 550 million).
The Soviet Union effortlessly comes in second place, with at least 20 million dead. This includes 5 million victims of the famine created by the Communist robbery on farms in 1922, and 6 million from deportations of kulaks (so-called ‘large’ farmers; one could already be classified as such by the ownership of just 1 cow) in the late 1920s / early 1930s. The “Great Terror” of the 1936-38 period, which focused primarily on Communist party members themselves, is not even at all the bloodiest episode with probably estimated around 700,000 deaths.
The relatively most murderous regime is that of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, between 1975 and 1979. In 3½ years, Communist rulers led by Pol Pot killed an estimated one-third of all men and one-sixth of all women in the country life. Approximately 40% of them were killed immediately (for example, people wearing glasses were called “bourgeois” and were therefore shot immediately), the rest died of hunger, disease and exhaustion in agricultural labor camps.
Numerous as they are, the victims of Communist regimes are of course not only formed by those who have died. In addition to them, their family members, surviving relatives, are among the first victims. Plus all those who have been in prisons, labor camps and other terrible places, but have survived, have missed years of normal life and have had to live on with traumas. In essence, everyone who did not collaborate with the regime was a victim: a life full of missed opportunities, not just more prosperity but more important because of the lack of freedom and development opportunities; by having to live in fear, as being spied on, constrained rather than being able to live as free, independent citizens.
For more details about the number of victims per country, see the country reports.
Some suggestions for further reading
About communism in general
- Archie Brown, The Rise and Fall of Communism (Londen, 2009) 720 pp.;
- Stéphane Courtois e.a., The Black Book of Communism. Crimes, Terror, Repression (Camb./Mass., 1999) 912 pp.;
- Leslie Holmes, Communism. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2009) 155 pp.;
- Richard Pipes, Communism. A History (New York, 2001) 178 pp.;
- David Priestland, The Red Flag. Communism and the Making of the Modern World (Londen, 2009) 676 pp.;
- Geoffrey Stern ed., Communism. An Illustrated History from 1848 to the Present Day (Londen, 1991) 256 pp.;
About Russian Revolution
- Tony Brenton, Historically Inevitable? Turning Points of the Russian Revolution (Londen, 2016) 364 pp.;
- Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy. The Russian Revolution (London, 2017) 960 pp.;
- Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution (3rd rev. ed.; Oxford, 2008) 240 pp.;
- Sean McMeekin, The Russian Revolution. A New History (Londen, 2017) 446 pp.;
- Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution (New York, 1990) 946 pp.;
- Richard Pipes, Russia under the Bolshevik Regime 1919-1924 (Londen, 1994) 588 pp.;
- Adam B. Ulam, The Bolsheviks. The Intellectual and Political History of the Triumph of Communism in Russia (Camb./Mass. and Londen, 1965 and 1998) 598 pp.;
About repression in the USSR
- Anne Applebaum, Gulag. A History (New York, 2003) 720 pp.;
- Anne Applebaum, Red Famine. Stalin’s War on Ukraine (Londen, 2017) 482 pp.;
- Robert Conquest, The Great Terror. A Reassessment (New York en Oxford, 1990) 570 pp.;
- Orlando Figes, The Whisperers. Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (London and New York, 2007) 739 pp.;
About the imposition of communist regimes in Central / Eastern Europe
- Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain. The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956 (Londen, 2012) 614 pp.;
- Robert Gellately, Stalin’s Curse. Battling for Communism in War and Cold War (Oxford, 2013) 480 pp.;
- Thomas T. Hammond ed., The Anatomy of Communist Takeovers (New Haven, 1975) 664 pp.;
- Vojtech Mastny, Russia’s Road to the Cold War. Diplomacy, Warfare, and the Politics of Communism, 1941-1945 (New York, 1979) 409 pp.;
- Vojtech Mastny, The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity. The Stalin Years (New York and Oxford, 1996) 285 pp.;
About the People’s Republic of China
- Frank Dikötter, The Tragedy of Liberation. A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 (New York, 2013) 376 pp.;
- Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine. The History of China’s Most DEvastating Catastrophe, 1958-1962 (New York, 2010) 448 pp.;
- Frank Dikötter, The Cultural Revolution. A People’s History 1962-1976 (New York, 2016) 432 pp.