Karel Bartosek, Jean-Louis Margolin
Harvard University Press, 1999
Review by Tom Gallagher
Exposes of communism are not new—they date back to the Russian Revolution.
Yet, The Black Book of Communism caused a sensation when it first appeared
in France. The stir, however, had less to do with past crimes, terror,
and repression than with contemporary politics.
For lead author Stephane Courtois, communism’s brutal history dictates
that the French Communist party, so long an apologist for the Soviet Union,
not be allowed into a governing coalition. Nazis are banned from respectable
politics, why not Communists as well? After all, communism’s death toll—100
million, in his estimation—greatly exceeded that of Nazism. With most political
forces attempting to bar Jean Le Pen’s National Front from government,
the implications of shunning the Communists would not be merely academic.
The book will not produce a comparable reaction everywhere, but the issues
it raises are central to 20th century politics. Is communism the moral
equivalent of Nazism? Does the book dispose of “the fable of good Lenin/bad
Stalin,” as its American introduction claims? Are all forms of communism
essentially the same—“criminal enterprises in their very essence?”
The book’s 11 authors, who appear to have differing opinions on these questions,
endeavor to tell the stories of all the Communist countries in one volume.
Its bulk and strength, however, lie in the section utilizing material newly
available from Soviet archives.
After reading the grim rendering of Stalinism, the reader may wonder why
any current political group would still adopt the name “Communist.” Seemingly
the word has been rendered worse than useless—probably for the next 100
years. But strangely, like those who persist in its use, Courtois also
believes that the name is of central importance. He writes that, “There
will always be some nitpickers who maintain that actual Communism has nothing
in common with theoretical Communism,” but “It was not without reason that
the Russian Social Democrats, better known to history as the Bolsheviks,
decided in November 1917 to call themselves Communists.”
Indeed, there was a reason, but it had less to do with “theoretical communism”
than the Bolsheviks’ desire to distinguish themselves (in 1918, actually)
from contemporary Social Democratic parties. (Similarly, Marx and Engels
wrote a “Communist ” rather than “Socialist” Manifesto to differentiate
themselves from their era’s “Socialists,” a coincidence that has fostered
the impression of a direct link between Marx and the Bolsheviks, as opposed
to their Social Democratic rivals.)
But what of the claim that Stalin “was the logical result of the movement
begun by Lenin,” and his “worthy heir?” Certainly Lenin’s conception of
his own role was closer to that of a general than a democrat—ruthless and
effective. This book will only enhance the sense of that ruthlessness,
while simultaneously tracing the origins of the brutality of at least the
early stages of the Russian Revolution to the unprecedented massacre that
European governments conducted in the “Great War.”
Lenin’s break with the more democratic western European socialist parties
is discussed, but not the fact that those parties supported their governments
in the slaughter, while the Bolsheviks did not. In a sense, the Bolsheviks
argued, along with Woodrow Wilson, that they were fighting “the war to
end all wars.”
As Courtois writes, “Politics was reduced to a civil war in which two opposing
forces, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie were in conflict.” The Black
Book reveals new levels of Bolshevik brutality, even extending into the
period of the New Economic Policy, but the fact remains that “this pause
in the confrontation between society and the new regime” represented a
tacit admission of government error—practical, if not moral—in its prior
relationship to the peasant majority. At this point Bolshevik policy might
have turned in a number of directions. This book will probably not change
strongly-held opinions on the question of the moral equivalence of “Leninism”
At over 800 pages, The Black Book seems destined to be more talked about
than read, and many of the claims made for it are actually undermined within.
In his section on Central and Southeastern Europe, Karel Bartosek writes
that “Nazism never had a Khrushchev, nor men like Imre Nagy, Alexander
Dubcek, or Mikhail Gor- bachev.” The astute reader will note that Khrushchev
crushed Nagy’s government in Hungary just months after denouncing Stalin.
Although this only further illustrates how far removed Soviet communism
was from its moral core, Bartosek’s point is that it had one—small consolation
that this would provide to its victims.
As for the claim that all Communist states are essentially the same, Courtois
exempts “Cuba and the Nicaragua of the Sandinistas” from some of his worst
charges. But what of a country like Vietnam? Did the Vietnamese Communists
ever engage in the execution of their political opponents? Yes, so Vietnamese
communism is far from utopia, even if the predicted post-war massacres
used to justify the American war effort never actually materialized.
Former U.S. presidential candidate, Senator John McCain recently displayed
a profoundly one-sided view of Vietnam: The north Vietnamese who imprisoned
and allegedly tortured him are brutal “gooks,” whom he cannot forgive.
But the lives ruined or snuffed out by the bombs his plane dropped before
being shot down don’t seem to register with him at all.
This book frequently seems similarly one-sided. In concentrating solely
on the misdeeds of the current Vietnamese government, those of France and
the U.S., and the Saigon governments it supported are necessarily ignored,
as is the fact that, as one foreign aid program manager recently put it,
“Vietnam is one of the best performers at poverty reduction in the developing
Some see this book as proof that all attempts to stay the “invisible hand”
of the capitalist system must come to no good. As the American introduction
says, “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.)”
The story of how the dream of a few has turned into a nightmare for the
many certainly deserves to be told. But The Black Book of Communism might
best be read in conjunction with another volume currently in the works
in Germany—The Black Book of Capitalism.
Tom Gallagher is a freelance writer and activist.