Mises Daily

Intellectual Roots of Terror

“Further evidence of some basic affinity between communism and modern liberalism is the latter’s frequent coverups and apologies for the former.”

As zebras are fascinated by lions, libertarians are fascinated by communists, their polar opposites and sworn enemies for the last 150 years. If one believes that society should function with an absolute minimum of governmental coercion, one is curious to know the results of a philosophy which places its faith in the maximum possible use of governmental coercion, force, and violence, to achieve its goals. If communism worked, we libertarians would be forced to check our premises and watch our backs.

Can the laboratory of communism also shed light on the viability of a related political philosophy, which also relies on centralized governmental coercion to achieve its goals: modern liberalism? The communists did all at once what stealthy left-liberals apparently intend to do piece by piece while we sleep. We just lived through a century in which liberals enacted several recommendations of the Communist Manifesto and transformed a night-watchman state into a welfare/warfare state with a continual flow of “progressive” legislation and various “Democrat wars” and crusades with the result that no one in my law school class in 1983 could identify, in response to Professor Henry Mark Holzer’s query, any aspect of life that was not in some way regulated or controlled by the state. Seventeen years later, are they through?

Has liberalism closed up shop? Will they ever be through? Not until they have established an egalitarian utopia where virtually all responsibility for living has passed from the individual to the state. In the liberal utopia, if I may pilfer Paddy Chayefsky’s words, “all necessities [will be] provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.”

If you think I exaggerate, consider that liberals and communists share five critical premises: egalitarianism, utopianism (the use of impossible “ideals” as a guide to policy), the efficacy of force in accomplishing positive goals, hostility to civil society (nonstate institutions, e.g., Boy Scouts, private schools), and the individual’s inability to govern himself.

In light of the recent attempted coup d’élection, I am tempted to add a sixth similarity — willingness to win political fights at all costs. Further evidence of some basic affinity between communism and modern liberalism is the latter’s frequent coverups and apologies for the former. Finally, communists and liberals share a tendency to expressly support “mass democracy” while they in practice concentrate power in secretive elite bodies such as politburos and appellate courts.

The Black Book

In that spirit of fascination with the enemy, I recently read The Black Book of Communism, a clinical and relentless dissection of the crimes of communism in the 20th century — defined by “the natural laws of humanity” — written by several ex–fellow travelers led by Stephane Courtois.

It is not a book to be read before, during, or after a meal. You would not want to spoil a good meal with the image of Bolshevik troops throwing live human beings into a blast furnace. The Black Book is a story of mind-numbing and mindless brutality. Mao Zedong, one of the stars of the book, said, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

One wonders, after reading this book, whether political power actually grows out of the depraved minds of solipsistic, megalomaniacs like Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. It seems that if you hypnotize yourself into discarding all known ethics and morality, and are willing to use any and all ruthless means to achieve power, then you can have it. A Bolshevik newspaper wrote in 1919, “Our morality has no precedent … everything is permitted … Let blood flow like water.” And it did.

The Rap Sheet

When Khrushchev said, “We will bury you,” he meant it. Communists buried 85 million people in the 20th century, give or take the number of people who live in New York State. What is really interesting, however, is not the sheer number of victims. After all, as Stalin said, “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.” And what a statistician Stalin proved to be.

But even more awesome is the incredible variety of their murderous means. In pursuit of utopia, the communists were forced to outdo themselves in continually discovering ever more ways to separate the bourgeoisie from their souls. They murdered people by hanging them, whipping them, slitting their throats, carving them up with axes, boiling them, crucifying them, beheading them, drawing and quartering them, stoning them, forcing them to fight to the death against other prisoners, massively drowning them, throwing them from helicopters, asphyxiating them, starving them, poisoning them, burying them alive, and making life unbearable leading to mass suicides. When creativity was absent, the communists fell back on their old standby — the banal bullet to the base of the brain.

Communists killed all types of people but focused their most intense fury on entrepreneurs, community leaders, and the highly educated. They made some half-hearted efforts to abolish money and decried “speculators,” “rich bastards,” and, “shopkeepers.” Lenin said that “speculators … deserve … a bullet in the head.” As the Nazis later would, the communists recruited many of their murderous thugs from the dregs of society. Thus, communism may be defined as the execrable executing the exceptional.

Communists were not merely satisfied with manufacturing ghosts; they wanted to teach their class enemies a lesson or two first. It is not clear what that lesson was since, according to Marxist doctrine, capitalists’ capitalist ideas are strictly determined by their relationship to “the means of production.” I suppose the answer to that quibble is that the communists’ hatred of the bourgeoisie was also a class-determined fact beyond their control. There was no time for arcane debates, however; there was only politically incorrect flesh to be fried, literally.

Leaving aside being forced to read all three volumes of Das Kapital, the communists’ means of torture included partial asphyxiation, burning with red hot irons, confinement in tiny cells without plumbing, systematic rape and forced prostitution of “bourgeois women,” mock execution, beatings, near starvation, being forced to eat the flesh of recently executed family members, forced marches, electric shocks, kneeling on broken glass, being manacled in tight handcuffs, hanging by the wrists or thumbs, and prolonged sleep deprivation leading to madness. Cannibalism, while not strictly speaking a form of torture, was also a common occurrence in communist countries due to their felonious collectivization of agriculture and resulting famine. The things communists did to priests and seminarians were so despicable that I cannot bear to describe them.

When communists were not destroying individual persons, they were busy destroying individual personality. They made heavy use of concentration camps and transported prisoners there in cattle trucks (sound familiar?). Prisoners were deprived of all privacy and were forced to confess their innermost thoughts. Spies were everywhere. No one could be trusted. There was only the “brutish imposition of a heavy-handed ideology” and the “permanent saturation with the message of orthodoxy.” The result was an “abdication of the personality.”

To rationalize their mass murder and torture, the communists first used the technique usually associated with the National Socialists — rhetorically dehumanizing their enemies. The communists exhorted their thugs to “shoot them like dogs,” and referred to the bourgeoisie as “vultures,” “pygmies,” “foxes,” “lice,” “insects,” and “pigs.”

Thus, communism meant mass murder; mass famine; mass torture, physical and psychological; dehumanization; and widespread cannibalism. With that kind of record, we can say about the death of communism what Pol Pot’s troops said to those about to experience death by communism: “Losing you is not a loss, and keeping you is no specific gain.” Lenin said, “The cruelty of our lives, imposed by circumstances, will be understood and pardoned.” Not!

There Was Good Stuff Too

Don’t get me wrong. Not all was bad under communism. There were elements of life under the dictatorship of the proletariat that would appeal to today’s liberals and conservatives. Left-liberals, who on economic issues favor a dictatorship of the majority, would have been happy with socialized medicine, communal day care, and the total abolition of private firearms. Lenin, in a cautiously worded policy analysis, recommended “immediate execution for anyone caught in possession of a firearm.” He understood that “gun control” means the control that an armed citizenry has over a tyrannical government. The Bolsheviks systematically disarmed the peasants before systematically starving millions of them to death. Peasant pitchforks proved no match for Bolshevik machine guns.

Liberals also would have been ecstatic over the enshrinement of their moronic slogan “People over Profits” by the communists. There was not a capitalist profit to be made in communist countries, other than a few rubles for waiting in line to buy toilet paper for a comrade. Communists knew, perhaps instinctively, that all human action, not just capitalist action, is profit-seeking behavior. That is, all human action aims at achieving satisfaction from the attainment of goals more highly valued than the resources expended to attain them. Thus, the only way to stop people from putting “profits over people,” was to murder them en masse. However, since the communist thugs’ murderous behavior was itself profit seeking, they logically erred by neglecting to commit suicide.

A certain type of conservative would have approved of the communist legal system. There were no lawyers to speak of, except in graveyards: no criminal lawyers “getting people off”; no “ambulance chasers”; and no namby-pamby civil-rights lawyers filing suits over prison conditions. Habeas was a corpse. Communist prison reform consisted of cleaning out the raw sewage from tiny prison cells at least one a month. Knee-jerk lawyer-bashing conservatives would have loved it there — right up until the moment when government agents broke down their doors in the middle of the night, arrested them for some imaginary crime, locked them up, and tortured them until they not only confessed to the imaginary crime but asked for forgiveness and literally thanked the government for prosecuting them, minutes before they were taken out, without appeal, put up against the nearest wall, shot, and buried in an anonymous grave — while their families were sent a bill for the bullets.

Under communism, “People were not arrested because they were guilty; they were guilty because they were arrested.” Stalin eloquently expressed his own philosophy of criminal procedure when he commented about a tiresome lackey recently executed, “The old fellow couldn’t prove his innocence.” Instead of the right to remain silent, interrogations lasted as long as 3,000 hours. Rule of thumb: any country that kills people to use them as fertilizer probably has no lawyers.

I Did Not Know That

I knew that the communists killed millions. There were surprises in the book, however. In the winter of 1939–40, many Polish Jews fled east to escape the advancing German army. They ran into the heroic Red Army, which five years later would boast of liberating the Jews from concentration camps. The Red Army greeted the fleeing Jews with bayonets and machine-gun fire. Many Jews returned to the German sector. Ultimately, 400,000 Polish Jews who ended up in Soviet-controlled territory died during deportation, brutal concentration camp life, and forced labor.

Ideas Have Consequences

The Black Book of Communism is a brilliant description of the crimes of communism. Its concluding chapter, written by Courtois, which attempts to explain “Why?” faces a more difficult challenge. The “why?” will perhaps never be fully understood. Courtois points to a number of factors, many of which are related to the philosophical similarities between communists and left-liberals previously discussed.

The inability of the individual to govern himself without coercive direction from the state. Courtois locates the genesis of Leninist terror in the French Revolution. Robespierre ruled by fear and terror because the people “were not yet pure enough” to grasp the wisdom of the revolution. All left-wing thought is premised on the individual’s inherent inability, intellectually and morally, to function without continual direction from the state.

Elitism. Of course, if people are incapable of successful living without external guidance, that implies the need for a small elite, the “moral guardians of society” — Courtois’s words describing the Bolsheviks’ self-image — to give them their marching orders.

Utopianism. This concept is critical to understanding the crimes of communism. Utopians posit some imagined, allegedly ideal state of affairs, which, not being grounded in human nature and the human condition, cannot be achieved. Yet, it must be achieved, and since it is the ultimate moral value, any and all means necessary to achieve this ideal are sanctioned. As Courtois writes,

the real motivation for the terror … stemmed from … the utopian will to apply to society a doctrine totally out of step with reality. … 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 their very social, economic, or intellectual existence, pointed to the gaping holes in the theory. … Marxism-Leninism deified the system itself, so that categories and abstractions were far more important than any human reality.

Egalitarianism. The primary targets of communism were persons of accomplishment: businessmen, successful farmers, intellectuals, and priests. It was easy to harness the natural envy of the masses toward their betters, particularly when this age-old envy was dressed up in utopian and moralistic terms.

The efficacy of force. Naturally, at the heart of Leninism was a fervent belief in the use of force and violence. Society can be improved by killing, starving, torturing and generalized terror. Trotsky said it best: “only force can be the deciding factor … Whoever aims at the end cannot reject the means.”

Violence begets violence. Courtois deems it significant that communism first emerged from the wreckage of World War I. The war “to make the world safe for democracy” made it safe for a murderous communist dictatorship in Russia. The senseless violence of the war habituated the Russian people to the senseless violence of Leninism and Stalinism. Later communist regimes were nurtured in the womb of other senseless wars. Courtois quotes Martin Malia:

crime begets crime, and violence violence, until the first crime in the chain, the original sin of the genus, is expiated through accumulated suffering… 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.

None of these factors, however, can fully explain why a human being would throw another human being into a blast furnace. In the end, we are left with the words of Maksim Gorky: “What are the roots of human cruelty? I have thought much about this and I still do not understand it in the slightest.”

[The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression • By Stéphane Courtois and Mark Kramer • Harvard University Press, 1999 • 858 pages]

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