Criticisms of communist party rule

Criticisms of communist party rule
This article only discusses criticisms that are specific to communist states and not necessarily to other forms of socialism. See Criticisms of socialism and Criticisms of Marxism for discussions of literature and viewpoints objecting to socialism and Marxism, respectively, in general. In addition, see Criticisms of Marxism for information on perspectives relating Marxism-Leninism to totalitarianism.

Criticisms of communist party rule have been known since the first days of the first communist government in Soviet Russia, established after the October Revolution of 1917.



Differentiated from both liberal democracy and traditional forms of autocratic rule such as tsarism, communist party rule, notably in the Soviet Union, one of two world superpowers for nearly four decades after the end of World War II, and the People's Republic of China, the world's most populous state, has represented an important and distinct type of modern political regime.[1] Criticisms of these regimes have related to their effects on the domestic development of various states, and their role in international politics, including the Cold War, and the collapse of the Eastern bloc and later the Soviet Union itself in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

After the Russian Revolution, communist party rule was consolidated for the first time in Soviet Russia (later the largest constituent republic of the Soviet Union, formed in December 1922), and criticized immediately domestically and internationally. During the first Red Scare in the United States, the takeover of Russia by the communist Bolsheviks was considered by many a threat to free markets, religious freedom, and liberal democracy. Meanwhile, under the tutelage of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the only party permitted by the USSR constitution, state institutions were intimately entwined with those of the party. By the late 1920s, Joseph Stalin consolidated the regime's control over the country's economy and society through a system of economic planning and five-year plans.

Between the Russian Revolution and the Second World War, Soviet-style communist rule only spread to one state that was not later incorporated into the USSR; in 1924, communist rule was established in neighboring Mongolia, a traditional outpost of Russian influence bordering the Siberian region. However, throughout much of Europe and the Americas, criticism of the domestic and foreign policies of the Soviet regime among anticommunists continued unabated. After the end of World War II, the spread of communist rule throughout Eastern Europe coincided with the early years of the Cold War. In the West, critics of communist rule pointed out that the Soviets were imposing Stalinist regimes on unwilling populations in Eastern Europe. Following the Chinese Revolution, the People's Republic of China was proclaimed in 1949 under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. Between the Chinese Revolution and the last quarter of the 20th century, communist rule spread throughout East Asia and much of the Third World, and new communist regimes became the subject of extensive local and international criticism.

Western criticisms of the Soviet Union and Third World communist regimes have been strongly anchored in scholarship on totalitarianism, which points out that communist parties maintain themselves in power without the consent of the populations they rule by means of secret police, propaganda disseminated through the state-controlled mass media, repression of free discussion and criticism, mass surveillance, and state terror. These studies of totalitarianism influenced Western historiography on communism and Soviet history, particularly the work of Robert Conquest and Richard Pipes on Stalinism, the Great Purge, the Gulag, and the Soviet famine of 1932-1934.

Western criticisms of communist rule have also been grounded in criticisms of socialism by economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, who argued that the state ownership and economic planning characteristic of Soviet-style communist rule were responsible for economic stagnation and shortage economies, providing few incentives for individuals to improve productivity and engage in entrepreneurship.

Ruling communist parties have also been challenged by domestic dissent. In Eastern Europe, the works of dissidents Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Václav Havel gained international prominence, as did the works of disillusioned ex-communists such as Milovan Đilas, who condemned the "new class" or "nomenklatura" system that had emerged under communist rule.

Communism: Promise and Practice (1973) detailed what its author termed flagrant gaps between official Soviet policies of equality and economic justice and the reality of the emergence of a new class in the U.S.S.R. and in other communist countries, which thrived at the expense of the remaining population; see Nomenklatura.

Areas of criticism

Criticisms of communist regimes have centered on many topics, including their effects on the economic development, human rights, foreign policy, scientific progress, and environmental degradation of the countries they rule.

Political repression is a topic in many influential works critical of communist rule, including Robert Conquest's accounts of Stalin's purges in The Great Terror and the Soviet famine of 1932-1934 in The Harvest of Sorrow; Richard Pipes' account of the "Red Terror" during the Russian Civil War; R. J. Rummel's work on "democide"; Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's account of Stalin's forced labor camps in The Gulag Archipelago; and Stéphane Courtois' account of executions, forced labor camps, and mass starvation in communist regimes as a general category, with particular attention to the USSR under Stalin and China under Mao Zedong.

Soviet-style central planning and state ownership has been another topic of criticism of communist rule. Works by economists such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman argue that the economic structures associated with communist rule resulted in economic stagnation. Other topics of criticism of communist rule include foreign policies of "expansionism", environmental degradation, and the suppression of free cultural expression.

Criticisms of anticommunist accounts of political repression and economic development under communist rule are diverse. On one hand, supporters of various ruling communist parties have argued that accounts of political repression are exaggerated by anticommunists, that repression was unfortunate but necessary to preserve social stability, and that communist rule provided some human rights not found under liberal democracies. They further claim that countries under communist party rule experienced greater economic development than they would have otherwise, or that communist leaders were forced to take harsh measures to defend their countries against the West during the Cold War. On the other hand, some noncommunist academic historians have argued that various attacks on communist rule should be more strongly contextualized, while not denying their factuality or concerning themselves with justifying the actions of ruling communist parties.

Political repression

Large-scale political repression under communist rule has been the subject of extensive historical research by scholars and activists from a diverse range of perspectives. A number of researchers on this subject are former Eastern bloc communists who become disillusioned with their ruling parties, such as Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev and Dmitri Volkogonov. Similarly, Jung Chang, one of the authors of Mao: The Unknown Story, was a Red Guard in her youth. Others are disillusioned former Western communists, including several of the authors of The Black Book of Communism. Robert Conquest, another former communist, became one of the best-known writers on the Soviet Union following the publication of his influential account of the Great Purge in The Great Terror, which at first was not well-received in some left-leaning circles of Western intellectuals. Following the end of the Cold War, much of the research on this topic has focused on state archives previously classified under communist rule.

The level of political repression experienced in states under communist rule varied widely between different countries and historical periods. The most rigid censorship was practiced by the Soviet Union under Stalin (1927–53), China under Mao during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), and the communist regime in North Korea throughout its rule (1948–present).[2] Under Stalin's rule, political repression in the Soviet Union included executions of Great Purge victims and peasants deemed "kulaks" by state authorities; the Gulag system of forced labor camps; deportations of ethnic minorities; and mass starvations during the Soviet famine of 1932-34, caused by either government mismanagement, or by some accounts, caused deliberately. The Black Book of Communism also details the mass starvations resulting from Great Leap Forward in China, and the Killing Fields in Cambodia.

Although political repression in the USSR was far more extensive and severe in its methods under Stalin's rule than in any other period, authors such as Richard Pipes, Orlando Figes, and works such as the Black Book of Communism argue that a reign of terror began within Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin immediately after the October Revolution, and continued by the Red Army and the Cheka over the country during the Russian Civil War. It included summary executions of hundreds of thousands of "class enemies" by Cheka; the development of the system of labor camps, which would later lay the foundation for the Gulags; and a policy of food requisitioning during the civil war, which was partially responsible for a famine causing three to ten million deaths.[3]

Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev's critiques of political repression under communist rule focus on the treatment of children, which he numbers in the millions, of alleged political opponents. His accounts stress cases in which children of former imperial officers and peasants were held as hostages and sometimes shot during the civil war. His account of the Second World War highlights cases in which the children of soldiers who had surrendered were the victims of state reprisal. Some children, Yakovlev notes, followed their parents to the Gulags, suffering an especially high mortality rate. According to Yakovlev, in 1954 there were 884,057 "specially resettled" children under the age of sixteen. Others were placed in special orphanages run by the secret police in order to be reeducated, often losing even their names, and were considered socially dangerous as adults.[4]

Other accounts focus on extensive networks of civilian informants, consisting of either volunteers, or those forcibly recruited. These networks were used to collect intelligence for the government and report cases of dissent.[5] Many accounts of political repression in the Soviet Union highlight cases in which internal critics were classified as mentally ill (suffering from disorders such as sluggishly progressing schizophrenia) and incarcerated in mental hospitals.[6] The fact that workers in the Soviet Union were not allowed to organize independent, non-state trade union has also been presented as a case of political repression in the Soviet Union.[7]

Various accounts stressing a relationship between political repression and communist rule focus on the suppression of internal uprisings by military force, such as the Tambov rebellion and the Kronstadt rebellion during the Russian Civil War, and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in China.

Ex-communist dissident Milovan Djilas, among others, focused on the relationship between political repression and the rise of a powerful "new class" of party bureaucrats that had emerged under communist rule, and exploited the rest of the population. (see nomenklatura)

Critics claim that communist states provided low standards of living and committed numerous human rights violations, including millions of deaths caused directly or indirectly by the government. Estimates of the number of such deaths, in particular those that occurred in China and the Soviet Union, vary greatly depending on the source and methodology, with numbers ranging from under 30 million to 145 million worldwide. Critics argue that the Soviet Union experienced a severe economic downturn in the 1970s and 1980s, which contributed to its collapse, and that China has been reforming since towards a more market-oriented economy.[citation needed]

Alternative accounts

Throughout the Cold War, each side in the ideological struggle between Soviet-style socialism and U.S.-style capitalism cast itself as the champion of 'freedom' while accusing the other side of 'oppression.' Western Cold War critics of communist rule stressed abridgments of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, and equality before the law in the Soviet Union. Soviet Cold Warriors responded with arguments asserting that civil liberties under capitalism existed only for the ruling classes, and that they were irrelevant to the lower classes that they argued lacked the economic capacity to exercise them in any meaningful way.

Some noncommunist accounts argue that various attacks on political repression under communist rule in anticommunist narratives should be more strongly contextualized. Academic specialists on social revolutions and Soviet development highlight continuities of political culture and social structure between communist regimes and the old regimes they uprooted.[8] From this view, as the Bolsheviks struggled against the White army and foreign armies during the civil war, they ensured the survival of their own regime by sweeping away the tsarist secret police and replacing it with a new political police, though of considerably greater dimensions. The new regime continued practices of censorship institutionalized under the old regime; indeed, the communists themselves had most often been the targets of this previous censorship.

These continuities were not unnoticed by Bolshevik leaders. In Bolshevik commentaries on war tactics in the civil war, revolutionary leaders asserted that they were fighting the former ruling class using its own weapons, in order to prevent it from staging a counterrevolution. In later years, communist leaders defended restrictions and suppression of dissent as defensive measures against external subversion. During the Cold War, communist leaders at times claimed that their states were assaulted by propaganda campaigns and infiltration by the intelligence agencies of Western 'imperialist' powers. Western scholars of international relations do not discount the role of international influences on domestic political development.[9] However, international relations scholars do not consider international forces the sole, or even necessarily the principal or a major determinant of domestic political development under certain conditions.

Some Western academics argue that anticommunist narratives have exaggerated the extent of political repression and censorship in states under communist rule. Albert Szymanski, for instance, draws a comparison between the treatment of anticommunist dissidents in the Soviet Union after Stalin's death and the treatment of dissidents in the United States during the period of McCarthyism, claiming that "on the whole, it appears that the level of repression in the Soviet Union in the 1955 to 1980 period was at approximately the same level as in the U.S. during the McCarthy years (1947-56)."[10] Szymanski's arguments have received unfavorable reviews by U.S. historians of the period. Amnesty International estimated the number of political prisoners in the Soviet Union in 1979 at a little over 400.[11]

Personality cults

Both anticommunists and communists have criticized the personality cults of many communist rulers, especially the cults of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il Sung. In the case of North Korea, the personality cult of Kim Il Sung was associated with inherited leadership, with the succession of Kim's son Kim Jong-il in 1994. Cuban communists have also been criticized for planning an inherited leadership, with the succession of Raúl Castro following his brother's illness in mid-2006.[12]

Freedom of movement

The Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961 to stop emigration from East to West Berlin. In the last phase of the wall's development, the "death strip" between fence and concrete wall gave guards a clear shot at would-be escapees from the East.

In the literature on communist rule, many anticommunists have asserted that communist regimes tend to impose harsh restrictions on the freedom of movement. These restrictions, they argue, are meant to stem the possibility of mass emigration, which threatens to offer evidence pointing to widespread popular dissatisfaction with their rule.

Between 1950 and 1961 2.75 million East Germans moved to West Germany. During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 around 200,000 people moved to Austria as the Hungarian-Austrian border temporarily opened. From 1948 to 1953 hundreds of thousands of North Koreans moved to the South, stopped only when emigration was clamped down after the Korean War.

In Cuba, 50,000 middle-class Cubans left between 1959–1961 after the Cuban Revolution and the breakdown of Cuban American relations. Following a period of repressive measures by the Cuban government in the late 1960s and 1970s, Cuba allowed for mass emigration of dissatisfied citizens, a policy that resulted in the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. In the 1990s, the economic crisis known as the Special Period coupled with the United States' tightening of the embargo led to desperate attempts to leave the island on balsas (rafts, tires, makeshift vessels).[13] Many Cubans currently continue attempts to emigrate to the U.S. In total, according to some estimates, more than 1 million people have left Cuba, around 10% of the population.[13] Between 1971-98, 547,000 Cubans emigrated to the U.S. alongside 700,000 neighboring Dominicans, 335,000 Haitians and 485,000 Jamaicans.[14] Since 1966, immigration to the U.S. was governed by the 1966 Cuban adjustment act, a U.S. law that applies solely to Cubans. The ruling allows any Cuban national, no matter the means of the entry into the US, to receive a green card after being in the country a year.[15] Havana has long argued that the policy has encouraged the illegal exodus, deliberately ignoring and undervaluing the life-threatening hardships endured by refugees.[16]

After the victory of the communist North in the Vietnam War, over a million people in former South Vietnamese territory left the country (see Boat People) in the 1970s and 1980s. Another large group of refugees left Cambodia and Laos.

Restrictions on emigration from states ruled by communist parties received extensive publicity. In the West, the Berlin wall emerged as a symbol of such restrictions. During the Berlin Wall's existence, sixty thousand people unsuccessfully attempted to emigrate illegally from East Germany and received jail terms for such actions; there were around five thousand successful escapes into West Berlin; and 239 people were killed trying to cross.[17] North Korea currently imposes strict restrictions on emigration.

Albania and North Korea perhaps imposed the most extreme restrictions on emigration. From most other communist regimes, legal emigration was always possible, though often so difficult that attempted emigrants would risk their lives in order to emigrate. Some of these states relaxed emigration laws significantly from the 1960s onwards. Tens of thousands of Soviet citizens emigrated legally every year during the 1970s.[18]

Alternative accounts

During the period of renewed Cold War tensions of the 1980s, American sociologist Albert Szymanski argued that the level of human rights in the USSR in areas such as emigration, civil liberties, civil and economic rights, and treatment of women and national minorities was not as poor as it was painted in Western Cold War accounts. Szymanski challenged accounts stressing a relationship between communist rule and high levels of nation emigration, pointing to other factors explaining patterns of human migration. Szymanski noted that restrictions to emigration were in force in many societies that had been shaped by capitalist development in the late 19th century. France, Spain and Portugal even limited their citizens' travel to their own colonies.[19] The various German principalities allowed only emigration to Slavic lands in the east prior to the 18th century, and many of them banned emigration altogether from the 18th century to the mid-19th. Austrian authorities did not allow commoners to move beyond the empire's borders before the 1850s. While most European states relaxed or even completely eliminated their restrictions on emigration by the early 20th century, largely due to their population explosion, there were some exceptions. Romania, Serbia, and tsarist Russia still required their citizens to obtain official permission for emigration up to World War I. During the war, all European countries re-introduced strict restrictions on migration, either temporarily or permanently.[20] However, when looking at the Cold War period, many Americans considered these restrictions on emigration violations of human rights, and the United States did not have such restrictions.

Szymanski reached the conclusion that restrictions imposed by communist regimes on the emigration were no more intense than state restrictions that had been imposed in capitalist societies in the past. In Poland, for example, the communist regime maintained the same emigration laws that had been in force under the old regime since 1936.[21] Nevertheless, East Germany, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea experienced increasing levels of control of emigration under communist rule. Their official explanations claimed that their societies needed as much labor as possible for either postwar reconstruction or economic development.[22] Third World communist leaders did not deny Western countries reached higher standards of living, but they argued that they were in the process of catching up; such claims have been received with skepticism in the West, especially with respect to countries that have not adopted market reforms such as North Korea.

International politics and relations


As an ideology, Marxism-Leninism stresses militant imperialism. Vladimir Lenin considered imperialism "the highest stage of capitalism" and, in 1917, made empty declarations of the unconditional right of self-determination and secession for the national minorities of Russia. Later, during the Cold War, communist states exercised imperialism by giving military assistance and in some cases intervening directly on behalf of Communist movements that were fighting for control, particularly in Asia and Africa.

However, Western critics accused the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China of practicing imperialism themselves, and communist condemnations of Western imperialism hypocritical. The attack on and restoration of Moscow's control of countries that had been under the rule of the tsarist empire, but briefly formed newly independent states in the aftermath of the Russian Civil War (including Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan), have been condemned as examples of Soviet imperialism.[23] Similarly, Stalin's forced reassertion of Moscow's rule of the Baltic states in World War II has been condemned as Soviet imperialism. Western critics accused Stalin of creating satellite states in Eastern Europe after the end of World War II. Western critics also condemned the intervention of Soviet forces during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the Prague Spring, and the war in Afghanistan as aggression against popular uprisings. China's reassertion of central control over territories on the frontiers of the Qing dynasty, particularly Tibet, has also been condemned as imperialistic by some.

World War II

According to Richard Pipes, the Soviet Union shares some responsibility for World War II. Pipes argues that both Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini used the Soviet Union as a model for their own regimes, and that Hitler privately considered Stalin a "genius". According to Pipes, Stalin privately hoped that another world war would weaken his foreign enemies and allow him to assert Soviet power internationally. Before Hitler took power, Stalin allowed the testing and production of German weapons that were forbidden by the Versailles Treaty to occur on Soviet territory. Stalin is also accused of weakening German opposition to the Nazis before Hitler's rule began in 1933. During the 1932 German elections, for instance, he forbad the German Communists from collaborating with the Social Democrats. These parties together gained more votes than Hitler and, some have later surmised, could have prevented him from becoming Chancellor.[24]

Support of terrorism

Some states under communist rule have been criticized for directly supporting terrorist groups, such as the PFLP, the Red Army Faction, and the Japanese Red Army.[25] North Korea has been implicated in terrorist acts such as Korean Air Flight 858

Forced labor and deportations

A number of communist states also held forced labor as a legal form of punishment for certain periods of time, and, again, critics of these policies assert that many of those sentenced to forced labor camps such as the Gulag were sent there for political rather than criminal reasons. Some of the Gulag camps were located in very harsh environments, such as Siberia, which resulted in the death of a significant fraction of inmates before they could complete their prison terms. Officially, the Gulag was shut down in 1960, though they remained de facto in action for some time after.

Many deaths were also caused by involuntary deportations of entire ethnic groups. (see population transfer in the Soviet Union). Many Prisoners of War taken during World War II were not released as the war ended and died in the Gulags. Many German civilians died as a result of atrocities committed by the Soviet army (see Evacuation of East Prussia) and due to the policy of ethnic cleansing of Germans from the territories they lost due to the war. (see expulsion of Germans after World War II).

Loss of life

Scholars such as Stephane Courtois, Steven Rosefielde (in Red Holocaust), Banjamin Valentino[26] and R.J. Rummel have argued that communist regimes were responsible for tens of millions of deaths. These deaths mostly occurred under the rule of Stalin and Mao. Therefore, these particular periods of communist rule in Russia and China receive considerable attention in The Black Book of Communism, though other communist regimes have also caused high number of deaths.

These accounts often divide their death toll estimates into two categories:

  1. Executions of people who had received the death penalty for various charges, or deaths that occurred in prison.
  2. Deaths that were not caused directly by the regime (the people in question were not executed and did not die in prison), but are considered to have died as an indirect result of state or communist party policies. Courtois, among others, argues that most victims of communist rule fell in this category, which is often the subject of considerable controversy.

In most communist states, the death penalty was a legal form of punishment for most of their existence, with a few exceptions. (The Soviet Union, for example, formally abolished the death penalty between 1947 to 1950, though this did nothing to curb executions and acts of genocide).[27] Critics argue that many of the convicted prisoners executed by authorities under communist rule were not criminals, but political dissidents. Stalin's Great Purge in the late 1930s (from roughly 1936-38) is given as the most prominent example of the hypothesis.[28]

With regard to deaths not caused directly by state or party authorities, The Black Book of Communism points to famine and war as the indirect causes of what they see as deaths for which communist regimes were responsible. The Soviet famine of 1932-34 and the Great Leap Forward, in this sense, are often described as man-made famines. These two events alone killed a majority of the people seen as victims of communist states by estimates such as Courtois'. Courtois also blames Mengistu Haile Mariam's regime in Ethiopia for having exacerbated the 1984-1985 famine by imposing unreasonable political and economic burdens on the population.


The authors of the Black Book of Communism, R.J. Rummel, Norman Davies, and others have attempted to give estimates of the total number of deaths for which communist rule of a particular state in a particular period was responsible, or the total for all states under communist rule. The question is complicated by the lack of hard data and by biases inherent in any estimation.

The number of people killed under Joseph Stalin's rule in the Soviet Union by 1939 has been estimated as 3.5-8 million by G. Ponton,[29] 6.6 million by V. V. Tsaplin,[30] and 10-11 million by Alec Nove.[31] The number of people killed under Joseph Stalin's rule by the time of his death in 1953 has been estimated as 13-20 million by Steven Rosefielde,[32] 20 million by The Black Book of Communism, 20 to 25 million by Alexander Yakovlev,[33] 43 million by R. J. Rummel,[34] and 50 million by Norman Davies.[35]

The number of people killed under Mao Zedong's rule in the People's Republic of China has been estimated at 19.5 million by Wang Weizhi,[36] 27 million by John Heidenrich,[37] between 38 and 67 million by Kurt Glaser and Stephan Possony,[38] between 32 and 59 million by Robert L. Walker,[39] 50+ million by Steven Rosefielde,[32] 65 million by The Black Book of Communism, well over 70 million by Mao: The Unknown Story, and 77 million by R.J. Rummel.[40]

The authors of The Black Book of Communism have also estimated that 9.3 million people were killed under communist rule in other states: 2 million in North Korea, 2 million in Cambodia, 1.7 million in Africa, 1.5 million in Afghanistan, 1 million in Vietnam, 1 million in Eastern Europe, and 150,000 in Latin America. R.J. Rummel has estimated that 1.6 million died in North Korea, 2 million in Cambodia, and 2.5 million in Poland and Yugoslavia.[41] Valentino estimates that 1 to 2 million were killed in Cambodia, 50,000 to 100,000 in Bulgaria, 80,000 to 100,000 in East Germany, 60,000 to 300,000 in Romania, 400,000 to 1,500,000 in North Korea, and 80,000 to 200,000 in North and South Vietnam.[42]

Between the authors Wiezhi, Heidenrich, Glaser, Possony, Ponton, Tsaplin, and Nove, Stalin's Soviet Russia and Mao's China have an estimated total death rate ranging from 23 million to 109 million.

The Black Book of Communism asserts that roughly 94 million died under all communist regimes while Rummel believes around 144.7 million died under six communist regimes. Benjamin Valentino claims that between 21 and 70 million deaths are attributable to the Communist regimes in the USSR, The People's Republic of China and Democratic Kampuchea alone.[26]

Jasper Becker, author of Hungry Ghosts, claims that if the death tolls from the famines caused by communist regimes in China, the USSR, Cambodia, North Korea, Ethiopia, and Mozambique are added together, the figure could be close to 90 million.[43]

These estimates are the three highest numbers of victims blamed on communism by any notable study. However, it should be noted that the totals that include research by Wiezhi, Heidenrich, Glasser, Possony, Ponton, Tsaplin, and Nove do not include other periods of time beyond Stalin or Mao's rule, thus it may possible, when including other communist states, to reach higher totals.

In a January 25, 2006, resolution condemning the crimes of communist regimes, the Council of Europe cited the 94 million total reached by the authors of the Black Book of Communism.

Explanations have been offered for the extreme discrepancies in the number of estimated victims of communist regimes:

  • First, all these numbers are estimates derived from incomplete data. Researchers often have to extrapolate and interpret available information in order to arrive at their final numbers.
  • Second, different researchers work with different definitions of what it means to be killed by a regime. As noted above, the vast majority of victims of communist regimes did not die as a result of direct government orders, but as an indirect result of state policy. There is no agreement on the question of whether communist regimes should be held responsible for their deaths and if so, to what degree. The low estimates may count only executions and labor camp deaths as instances of killings by communist regimes, while the high estimates may be based on the argument that communist regimes were responsible for all deaths resulting from famine or war.
  • Some of the writers make special distinction for Stalin and Mao, who all agree are responsible for the most extensive pattern of severe crimes against humanity, but include little to no statistics on losses of life after their rule.
  • Another reason is sources available at the time of writing. More recent researchers have access to many of the official archives of communist regimes in East Europe and Soviet Union. However, in Russia many of archives for the period after Stalin's death are still closed.[44]
  • Finally, this is a highly politically charged field, with nearly all researchers having been accused of a pro- or anti-communist bias at one time or another.

Economic policy

Both critics and supporters of communist rule often make comparisons between the economic development of countries under communist rule and noncommunist countries, with the intention of certain economic structures are superior to the other. All such comparisons are open to challenge, both on the comparability of the states involved and the statistics being used for comparison. No two countries are identical, which makes comparisons regarding later economic development difficult; Western Europe was more developed and industrialized than Eastern Europe long before the Cold War; World War II damaged the economies of some countries more than others; East Germany had much of its industry dismantled and moved to the USSR for war reparations.

Advocates of Soviet-style economic planning have claimed the system has in certain instances produced dramatic advances, including rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union, especially during the 1930s. Critics of Soviet economic planning, in response, assert that new research shows that the Soviet figures were partly fabricated, especially those showing extremely high growth in the Stalin era. Growth was impressive in 1950s and 1960s, in some estimates much higher than during 1930s, but later declined and according to some estimates became negative in the late 1980s.[45] Before collectivization, Russia had been the "breadbasket of Europe". Afterwards, the Soviet Union became a net importer of grain, unable to produce enough food to feed its own population.[46]

China and Vietnam achieved much higher rates of growth after introducing market reforms (see socialism with Chinese characteristics) starting in the late 1970s and 1980s; higher growth rates were accompanied by declining poverty.[47]

The communist states do not compare favorably when looking at nations divided by the Cold War: North Korea versus South Korea; and East Germany versus West Germany. East German productivity relative to West German productivity was around 90 percent in 1936 and around 60-65 percent in 1954. When compared to Western Europe, East German productivity declined from 67 percent in 1950 to 50 percent before the unification in 1989. All the Eastern European national economies had productivity far below the Western European average.[48]

Nevertheless, some countries under communist rule with socialist economies maintained consistently higher rates of economic growth than industrialized Western countries with capitalist economies. From 1928 to 1985, the economy of the Soviet Union grew by a factor of 10, and GNP per capita grew more than fivefold. The Soviet economy started out at roughly 25 percent the size of the economy of the United States. By 1955, it climbed to 40 percent. In 1965 the Soviet economy reached 50% of the contemporary US economy, and in 1977 it passed the 60 percent threshold. For the first half of the Cold War, most economists were asking when, not if, the Soviet economy would overtake the U.S. economy. Starting in the 1970s, and continuing through the 1980s, growth rates slowed down in the Soviet Union and throughout the socialist bloc.[49] The reasons for this downturn are still a matter of debate among economists, but one hypothesis is that the socialist planned economies had reached the limits of the extensive growth model they were pursuing, and the downturn was at least in part caused by their refusal or inability to switch to intensive growth. Further, it could be argued that since the economies of countries such as Russia were pre-industrial before the socialist revolutions, the high economic growth rate could be attributed to industrialization. Also, while forms of economic growth associated with any economic structure produce some winners and losers, anticommunists point out that high growth rates under communist rule were associated with particularly intense suffering and even mass starvation of the peasant population.

Estimates of national income (GNP) growth in the Soviet Union, 1928 - 1985 (source:[50])
Khanin Bergeson/CIA TsSu
1928–1980 3.3 4.3 8.8
1928–1941 2.9 5.8 13.9
1950s 6.9 6.0 10.1
1960s 4.2 5.2 7.1
1970s 2.0 3.7 5.3
1980-85 0.6 2.0 3.2

Unlike the slow market reforms in China and Vietnam, where communist rule continues, the abrupt end to central planning was followed by a depression in many of the states of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe which chose to adopt the so-called economic shock therapy. For example, in the Russian Federation GDP per capita decreased by one-third between 1989 and 1996. As of 2003, all of them have positive economic growth and almost all have a higher GDP/capita than before the transition.[51]

In general, critics of communist rule argue that socialist economies remained behind the industrialized West in terms of economic development for most of their existence, while others assert that socialist economies had growth rates that were sometimes higher than many non-socialist economies, so they would have eventually caught up to the West if those growth rates had been maintained. Some reject all comparisons altogether, noting that the communist states started out with economies that were generally much less developed to begin with.[49]

Social development

Starting with the first five-year plan in the USSR in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Soviet leaders pursed a strategy of economic development concentrating the country's economic resources on heavy industry and defense rather than on consumer goods. This strategy was later adopted in varying degrees by communist leaders in Eastern Europe, and the Third World. For many Western critics of communist strategies of economic development, the unavailability of consumer goods common in the West in the Soviet Union was a case in point of how communist rule resulted in lower standards of living.

The allegation that communist rule resulted in lower standards of living sharply contrasted with communist arguments boasting of the achievements of the social and cultural programs of the Soviet Union and other communist states. Soviet leaders, for instance, boasted of guaranteed employment, subsidized food and clothing, free health care, free child care, and free education. Soviet leaders also touted early advances in women's equality, particularly in Islamic areas of Soviet Central Asia.[52] Eastern European communists often touted high levels of literacy in comparison with many parts of the developing world. A phenomenon called Ostalgie, nostalgia for life under Soviet rule, has been noted amongst former members of Communist countries, now living in Western capitalist states, particularly those who lived in the former East Germany.

However, the effects of communist rule on living standards have been harshly criticized. Jung Chang stresses that millions died in famines in communist China and North Korea.[53] Some studies conclude that East Germans were shorter than West Germans probably due to differences in factors such as nutrition and medical services.[54] According to some researchers, life satisfaction increased in East Germany after the reunification.[55] Critics of Soviet rule charge that the Soviet education system was full of propaganda and of low quality. U.S. government researchers pointed out the fact that the Soviet Union spent far less on health care than Western nations, and noted that the quality of Soviet health care was deteriorating in the 1970s and 1980s. In addition, the failure of Soviet pension and welfare programs to provide adequate protection was noted in the West.[56]

After 1965, life expectancy began to plateau or even decrease, especially for males, in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe while it continued to increase in Western Europe.[citation needed] This divergence between two parts of Europe continued over the course of three decades, leading to a profound gap in the mid 1990s. Life expectancy sharply declined after the change to market economy in most of the states of the former Soviet Union, but may now have started to increase in the Baltic states.[citation needed] In several Eastern European nations life expectancy started to increase immediately after the fall of communism.[citation needed] The previous decline for males continued for a time in some Eastern European nations, like Romania, before starting to increase.[57]

In The Politics of Bad Faith David Horowitz painted a picture of horrendous living standards in the Soviet Union. Horowitz claimed that in the 1980s rationing of meat and sugar was common in the Soviet Union. Horowitz cited studies suggesting the average intake of red meat for a Soviet citizen was half of what it had been for a subject of the Tsar in 1913, that blacks under apartheid in South Africa owned more cars per capita, and that the average welfare mother in the United States received more income in a month than the average Soviet worker could earn in a year. The only area of consumption in which the Soviets excelled, according to Horowitz, was the ingestion of hard liquor. Horowitz also noted that two-thirds of the households had no hot water, and a third had no running water at all. Horowitz cited the government newspaper, Izvestia, noting a typical working class family of four was forced to live for eight years in a single eight by eight foot room, before marginally better accommodation became available. In his discussion of the Soviet housing shortage, Horowitz stated that the shortage was so acute that at all times 17 percent of Soviet families had to be physically separated for want of adequate space. A third of the hospitals had no running water and the bribery of doctors and nurses to get decent medical attention and even amenities like blankets in Soviet hospitals was not only common, but routine. In his discussion of Soviet education, Horowitz stated that only 15 percent of Soviet youth were able to attend institutions of higher learning compared to 34 percent in the U.S.[46]

Artistic, scientific, and technological policies

David King's The Commissar Vanishes documents examples of the falsification of photos in Stalin's Soviet Union. Nikolai Yezhov, the man to the right of Stalin in the original (top) version of this photograph, was shot in 1940. King reveals that the later version (bottom) was altered by censors, removing all trace of his presence.[58]

Criticisms of communist rule have often centered on the censorship of the arts. In the case of the Soviet Union, these criticisms often deal with the preferential treatment afforded to socialist realism. Other criticisms center on the large-scale cultural experiments of certain communist regimes. In Romania, the historical center of Bucharest was demolished and the whole city was redesigned between 1977 and 1989. In the Soviet Union, hundreds of churches were demolished or converted to secular purposes during the 1920s and 1930s. In China, the Cultural Revolution sought to give all artistic expression a 'proletarian' content and destroyed much older material lacking this.[59] Advocates of these policies promised to create a new culture that would be superior to the old. Critics argue, however, that such policies represented an unjustifiable destruction of the cultural heritage of humanity.

There is a well-known literature focusing on the role of the falsification of images in the Soviet Union under Stalin. In The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs in Stalin's Russia David King writes, "So much falsification took place during the Stalin years that it is possible to tell the story of the Soviet era through retouched photographs."[60] Under Stalin, historical documents were often the subject of revisionism and forgery, intended to change public perception of certain important people and events. The pivotal role played by Leon Trotsky in the Russian revolution and Civil War, for example, was almost entirely erased from official historical records after Trotsky became the leader of a Communist faction that opposed Stalin's rule.

The emphasis on the "hard sciences" of the Soviet Union has been criticized.[61] There were very few Nobel Prize winners from Communist states.[62]

Soviet research in certain sciences was at times guided by political rather than scientific considerations. Lysenkoism and Japhetic theory were promoted for brief periods of time in biology and linguistics respectively, despite having no scientific merit. Research into genetics was restricted, because Nazi use of eugenics had prompted the Soviet Union to label genetics a "fascist science". Research was also suppressed in cybernetics, psychology and psychiatry, and even organic chemistry. (see suppressed research in the Soviet Union)

Soviet technology in many sectors lagged Western technology. Exceptions include areas like the Soviet space program and military technology where occasionally Communist technology was more advanced due to a massive concentration of research resources. According to the CIA, much of the technology in the Communist states consisted simply of copies of Western products that had been legally purchased or gained through a massive espionage program. Some even say that stricter Western control of the export of technology through COCOM and providing defective technology to Communist agents after the discovery of the Farewell Dossier contributed to the fall of Communism.[63]

Environmental policy

According to the United States Department of Energy, the Communist states maintained a much higher level of energy intensity than either the Western nations or the Third World, at least after 1970. Energy-intensive development may have been reasonable. The Soviet Union was an exporter of oil; China has vast supplies of coal.

Other criticisms of Communist rule focus on environmental disasters. One example is the gradual disappearance of the Aral Sea and a similar diminishing of the Caspian Sea because of the diversion of the rivers that fed them. Another is the pollution of the Black Sea, the Baltic Sea, and the unique freshwater environment of Lake Baikal. Many of the rivers were polluted; several, like the Vistula and Oder rivers in Poland, were virtually ecologically dead. Over 70 percent of the surface water in the Soviet Union was polluted. In 1988 only 30 percent of the sewage in the Soviet Union was treated properly. Established health standards for air pollution was exceeded by ten times or more in 103 cities in the Soviet Union in 1988. The air pollution problem was even more severe in Eastern Europe. It caused a rapid growth in lung cancer, forest die-back, and damage to buildings and cultural heritages. According to official sources, 58 percent of total agricultural land of the former Soviet Union was affected by salinization, erosion, acidity, or waterlogging. Nuclear waste was dumped in the Sea of Japan, the Arctic Ocean, and in locations in the Far East. It was revealed in 1992 that in the city of Moscow there were 636 radioactive toxic waste sites and 1,500 in Saint Petersburg.[64] Besides, according to the US Department of Energy, socialist economies maintained a much higher level of energy intensity than either the Western nations or the Third World. This analysis is confirmed by the Institute of Economic Affairs: According to Mikhail Bernstam from the IEA, economies of the Eastern Bloc had an energy intensity between twice and three times higher as economies of the West.[65] Some see the aforementioned examples of environmental degradation are similar to what had occurred in Western capitalist countries during the height of their drive to industrialize, in the 19th century.[66] Others claim that Communist regimes did more damage than average, primarily due to the lack of any popular or political pressure to research environmentally friendly technologies.[67]

Some ecological problems continue unabated after the fall of the Soviet Union and are still major issues today, which has prompted supporters of former ruling Communist parties to accuse their opponents of holding a double standard.[68] However, other environmental problems have improved in every studied former Communist state.[69] Some researchers have argued that part of improvement was largely due to the severe economic downturns in the 1990s that caused many factories to close down.[70]

Left-wing criticism

Communist countries, states, areas and local communities have been based on the rule of parties proclaiming a basis in Marxism-Leninism, an ideology which is not supported by all Marxists and leftists. Many communists disagree with many the actions undertaken by ruling Communist parties during the 20th century.

Elements of the left opposed to Bolshevik plans before they were put into practice included the revisionist Marxists, such as Eduard Bernstein, who denied the necessity of a revolution. Anarchists (who had differed from Marx and his followers since the split in the First International), many of the Socialist-Revolutionaries, and the Marxist Mensheviks supported the overthrow of the Tsar, but vigorously opposed the seizure of power by Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

Criticisms of Communist rule from the left continued after the creation of the Soviet state. The anarchist Nestor Makhno led an insurrection against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War and the Socialist-Revolutionary Fanya Kaplan tried to assassinate Lenin. Bertrand Russell visited Russia in 1920, and regarded the Bolsheviks as intelligent, but clueless and planless. In her book about Soviet Russia after the revolution, My Further Disillusionment in Russia, Emma Goldman condemned the suppression of the Kronstadt rebellion as a 'massacre.' Eventually, also the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries broke with the Bolsheviks.

By anti-revisionists

Anti-revisionists (which includes Marxist Leninists, Hoxhaists and Maoists) criticise the rule of the communist states by claiming that they were state capitalist states ruled by revisionists.[71][72] Though the periods and countries defined as state capitalist or revisionist varies among different ideologies and parties, all of them accept that the Soviet Union was socialist during Stalin's time. Maoists believe that the Peoples Republic of China became state capitalist after Mao's death. Hoxhaists believe that the Peoples Republic of China was always state capitalist and uphold Socialist Albania as the only socialist state after the Soviet Union under Stalin.[73]

By left communists

Left communists[74][75] claim that the "communist" or "socialist" states or "people's states" were actually state capitalist and thus cannot be called "socialist". Some of the earliest critics of Leninism were the German-Dutch left communists, including Herman Gorter, Anton Pannekoek and Paul Mattick. Though most left communists see the October Revolution positively, their analysis concludes that by the time of the Kronstadt Revolt, the revolution had degenerated due to various historical factors.[74] Rosa Luxemburg was another communist who disagreed with Lenin's organizational methods that eventually led to the creation of the Soviet Union.

By Trotskyists

After the split between Leon Trotsky and Stalin, Trotskyists have argued that Stalin transformed the Soviet Union into a bureaucratic and repressive one-party state, and that all subsequent Communist states ultimately followed a similar path because they copied Stalinism. There are various terms used by Trotskyists to define such states, such as "degenerated workers' state" and "deformed workers' state", "state capitalist" or "bureaucratic collectivist". While Trotskyists are Leninists, there are other Marxists who reject Leninism entirely, arguing, for example, that the Leninist principle of democratic centralism was the source of the Soviet Union's slide away from communism. Maoists view the Soviet Union and most of its satellites as "state capitalist" as a result of destalinization, some also view modern China in this light.

By Anarchists

Anarchists have been among the most vocal critics of contemporary and historical Communist party rule. The Irish anarchist organization, Workers Solidarity Movement, states:

The Soviet Union is a nightmare form of Capitalism where weapons systems and heavy machinery proliferate but basic consumer needs cannot be met.

Absence of private property in the Soviet Union is often put forward as evidence that Stalinist countries are not Capitalist but some new "Post-Capitalist " property form. However property forms (who owns what in law) can be a convenient legal fiction concealing the essential relations of production. The so called Asiatic Mode of Production. This was a description of the system pertaining in China and many parts of the Far East up to late feudal times. In theory property was collective but in practice it was held "for the people" by a small Oligarchy and passed from father to son. So all rents and profits (beyond what was needed to keep body and soul together) passed to them. State Capitalism employs a similar rouse to conceal its exploitative nature.[76]

See also


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