HomeOpinionsDeaths under socialism and communism: Fact Check

Deaths under socialism and communism: Fact Check

Editor’s Note: I’d like to acknowledge the damage done to TPUSA’s exhibit counting the deaths under communism and socialism. The day the signs were put up, the organization posted on their Instagram story alleging signs directing students toward the quad where the exhibit was posted were thrown into the trash can by another student. These sorts of actions damage our American right to exercise free speech under the First Amendment, and destruction of any sort of signage is considered a form of vandalism. A police report was filed for this incident.

The contentious topic of communism (and, relatedly, socialism) has been
a subject of fear in America following its hostile relationship with the Soviet Union and the Cold War. It comes to no surprise that, long after the era of McCarthyism, truculent attitudes towards communism is still the norm. It is not my intention to defend or attack either socialism or communism. Rather, my determination is to distinguish fact and fiction, and understand the nature of the claims made recently concerning communism and socialism, specifically the total number of deaths that occurred due to the economic systems.

To advertise the “Experiencing Socialism” panel reflecting on the personal experiences of individuals living in socialist countries, Turning Point USA installed signs in the quad with claims taken from the “Black Book of Communism” written by Stéphane Courtois and various other authors in 1997. The signs posted made claims of the number of deaths resulting in the past century, though with the publication of the book taking place in 1997 and the numbers having not been updated since, it would be more apropos to claim these are the number of deaths taking place in the 20th Century rather than the 21st. While I do not condone the actions of those vandalizing the display, I feel it is important to tackle the issue of where these numbers originate from and the author’s current opinions 26 years after the publication of the book.

In conjunction with the signs, there were a number of red flags placed, each one symbolizing 94,360 deaths under communism and socialism. The book cited points to communism and socialism being responsible for roughly 94 million deaths. This number is the crux of Courtois’s thesis, the number he seeks to reinforce time and time again throughout his book, and the subject of criticism from both his co-authors and historians alike.

“Crimes against citizens is the essence of the socialist and communist phenomenon,” Jackson Hug, president of the TJC chapter of TPUSA, said. “These crimes fit a recognizable pattern: execution by various means (firing squads, hanging, drowning, battering, gassing, poisoning), destruction of the population by starvation (man-made famine or withholding food), deportation/ exile where death occurred during travel, and forced labor.”

Defined in this way, a case can be made for the death toll that these signs
claim as their thesis. With the broad number of means one can implicate to
countries under communism and socialism, a strong set of data must be present
for each claim in order to support the idea that these countries constitute a
massive fatality of their citizens. Such data is scarce in Courtois’s book– though
some of the numbers are consistent with data I was able to find later, they were
not sourced within the Black Book of Communism. Readers are intended to
believe the work of these authors without giving pause as to where these numbers come from, and why they are reported in this manner.

Even still, many of the numbers posted are incorrect or exaggerated, with many former authors speaking to Courtois’s desire to reach the figure of nearly 100 million deaths, an endeavor that causes miscalculation and discredits the objectivity of the book. For example, J. Arch Getty, a historian specializing in the history of Russia and the Soviet Union, claims that “one gets the impression that he is including every possible death just to run up the score” in his article “The Future Did Not Work” written for The Atlantic and further validated by former co-author Andrzej Paczkowski in his book, “The Storm over the Black Book.” Jean-Louis Margolin and Nicolas Werth criticize Stéphane Courtois’s victim count for being “obsessed with arriving at a total of 100 million” as claimed by Nikolas K. Gvosdev in this book, The Strange Death of Soviet Communism: A Postscript (and again by his colleagues for Le Monde.) I reached out to Hug over email for a comment about the denunciation of The Black Book of Communism by multiple authors, but did not receive a response.

This is not the only instance of a former author denouncing the works of “The Black Book
of Communism.” Nicolas Werth, a co-author for the book, admitted in an article for French publication “Le Monde” that there were “formally contradicting the results of the co-authors
on the USSR, Asia and Eastern Europe” and that “from their studies, we can draw an overall ‘range’ ranging from 65 to 93 million; the average 79 million is only purely indicative.” Jean-Louis Margolin, another co-author of the book, is credited by Courtois with the figure of 1 million deaths under communism in Vietnam, a statement which Margolin claims he never made in a article for Le Monde.

Courtois claims 6 million people died in the man-made Holodomor famine of the Soviet Union; modern analysis conducted by Harvard University indicates the number was closer to 4.5 million. The book claims 3 million people died in Soviet Union gulags, while analysis conducted by Arch Getty, Gabor T. Rittersporn and Viktor N. Zemskov claims that 1 million people died in the gulags,

and 800,000 were executed starting in 1921 and spanning to 1953, the year Stalin died. Nicholas Werth, a co-author of the book, counted 15 million deaths in the USSR, while Courtois added five million additional deaths for a total of a claimed 20 million deaths due to communism in the Soviet Union.

The book also claims that 65 million people died under Maoist China. China officially came under communist rule in October 1949. It is estimated that 400,000 individuals died as a result of the Cultural Revolution of China spanning from 1967 to 1977. Varying numbers have been proposed as to how many Chinese citizens died as a result of China’s “Great Leap Forward” famine, though many historians cite an estimated 30 million people (and up to 45 million) died as a result of the government’s inability to handle the famine under the communist regime of China.

With such inconsistencies in numbers, the academic authority of these claims are called into question. Authors disagreeing on the publications, arbitrary and baseless numbers, and in writing this article, I did not even get the chance to touch on the comparisons of Nazism to socialism and communism rampant in Courtois’s writing. “The Black Book of Communism” cited in TPUSA’s signs is misguided at best and dismissive of context at worst, exaggerating statistics and creating ambiguity around the horrors of conditions such as those living under Maoism in China or Stalin’s rule in Soviet Russia.

No matter what political opinion you are of, disinformation such as this affects and harms everyone. It is our right as citizens of the United States of America to practice our First Amendment right to free speech, meaning claims such as this, incorrect as they may be, are disseminated freely and with legality. It is up to those hearing and understanding these facts to do their due diligence and read the sources and background information of these claims, where they may come from, and the purposes authors have for writing information.

I found these sources to be immensely helpful in my attempt at understanding the Black Book of Communism and its claims. Some, such as The Atlantic and Le Monde, required me to subscribe to their website in order to access the information. Though they weren’t completely necessary to understand the information presented, I found the articles to give a broader elaboration into the discrepancies experienced between authors of the novel in question.

“The Black Book of Communism” by Stéphane Courtois

“The Future Did Not Work” by J Arch. Getty for The Atlantic

“The Storm Over The Black Book” by Andrzej Paczkowski, a journal article in the Wilson Quarterly

“The Strange Death of Soviet Communism: A Postscript” by Nikolas K. Gvosdev

“Le Livre noir du communisme : retour à l’histoire” by Jean-Louis Margolin and Nicolas Werth for Le Monde

“Les divisions d’une équipe d’historiens du communisme” by Ariane Chemin for Le Monde

“Demography of a Man-Made Human Catastrophe: the Case of Massive Famine in Ukraine 1932–1933” by Omelian Rudnytskyi et. al

“Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence” by J. Arch Getty, Gabor T. Rittersporn and Viktor N. Zemskov

“Who Lost China?” from the Truman Library

“Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic, Third Edition” by Maurice Meisner

“China’s Great Leap Forward” by the Association for American Studies

“China’s great famine: 40 Years Later” by Vaclav Smil

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