Reflections on a Ravaged Century
by Robert Conquest
W.W. Norton / 336 pages / $26.95

The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression
by Stephane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louise Panne, Adrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartooek, and Jean-Louis Margolin.
Translated by Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer
Harvard University Press / 858 pages / $37.50

The American Spectator Online Bookshelf
15 February 2000
Reviewed by Josh London

The End of Communism
by Josh London"One death," Joseph Stalin was said to have remarked, "is a tragedy, one million is a statistic." What about, one must wonder, 80 or 100 million deaths? In reading the "Black Book of Communism," a groundbreaking effort by a group of French scholars to document the human costs of communism in the 20th century, one is immediately confronted with such discomfited figures. Stephane Courtois, in his introduction, crunches the numbers:

U.S.S.R.: 20 million deaths; China: 65 million deaths; Vietnam: 1 million deaths; North Korea: 2 million deaths; Cambodia: 2 million deaths: Eastern Europe: 1 million deaths; Latin America: 150,000 deaths; Africa: 1.7 million deaths; Afghanistan: 1.5 million deaths; The international Communist movement and Communist parties not in power: about 10,000 deaths… The total approaches 100 million people killed.

The book is, essentially, a lengthy report somewhere between formal history and a human accounting ledger. The sheer scope and horror of this monstrous body count, is not only mind-numbingly difficult to comprehend, but mind-bogglingly difficult to emotionally and morally cope with or express. Like the deaf-mute child of Ambrose Bierce's Civil War short story, "Chickamauga," the human psyche is ill-prepared to deal with such evil. In Bierce's story, the child, excited by a fire that turns out to be flames from his own house, stumbles upon the grotesquely shelled corpse of his own mother. The story ends with the deaf-mute child's strangled cry -- "something," Beirce almost gleefully reports, "between the chattering of an ape and the gobbling of a turkey."

Which helps elucidate the problem that The Black Book of Communism sets out to address: the inability and -- for a great many -- the outright refusal to recognize the unmitigated evil that communism was and is. When it was first published in France in 1997, The Black Book of Communism touched off a storm of controversy that continues to rage today. This was due, in part, to internecine political and ideological squabbles in France, and in part to an editorial outlook which asserts that Communism, in all its historical forms, is morally equivalent to Nazism. What many found particularly irksome was the clear asseveration that Communism's freely expressed penchant for homicide was and is an integral trait. Communism's philosophy and practical politics, which promised to erase class distinctions, necessarily entailed erasing classes and the living humans that populated them.

The clearest picture to emerge from these pages is that the history of Communism is, at its simplest, little more than the history of an all-out assault on society by a series of conspiratorial cliques. These groups have, invariably, been led by excruciatingly cruel dictators who were revoltingly drunk on their own foolish ideology and power. The book is more an academic reference work than a popular history to be read by laymen, but it is no less valuable for it. Encyclopedic in scope, the scholarship is mostly good, though some contributions stand out as significantly better than others. Indeed, Nicolas Werth's study of Russia, (which is, itself, the length of a short book) and Jean-Louis Margolin's survey of Mao's blood-drenched China are particularly worthwhile. There are also, as one might expect, some contributions that are less significantly worthwhile: Courtois's and Panne's contributions on the Comintern and the Spanish civil war, and Remi Kauffer's essay on "Communism and Terrorism" are a tad arbitrary, weak and, at times, polemical. And since a great deal of scholarly work has yet to be done, the sections on "Communism in Latin America," "Afrocommunism," "Communism in Afghanistan," and the essay on North Korea are all largely exploratory and more than occasionally perfunctory. All things considered, however, The Black Book of Communism is a compelling and impressive attempt to take account of the crimes and actions of global Communism.

But what accounts for these crimes? How is one to understand the 20th century? This past century was, as the book ably demonstrates, clearly the bloodiest in recorded history. More people have died for notions of a socialist utopia than for any other explicit political ideology. Is the world, one wonders, now safe for democracy, liberty, and capitalism?In Reflections on a Ravaged Century, historian Robert Conquest tries to answer such questions and concerns. The book is a fine collection of erudite essays on Marxism, nationalism, imperialism, the Russian revolution, and the state of education in the West. Throughout one finds literary and historical references joined with sharp comment on international affairs past and present. His style, which is a bit dry and meticulous, but sustained throughout by an unmistakable and unerring wit, is the ideal counterpart to his scholarly work:

Once when I referred to the 1939 Soviet census as a "fake," one expert replied that no census was perfect, but that I was not thereby entitled to pick and choose which census I accepted. My objections to the 1939 census were: that the census taken in 1937 had been suppressed and the Census Board shot for "diminishing the population of the Soviet Union" so that the new Census Board had some incentive to exaggerate the numbers; that these new figures were announced in 1939 before the new Census Board had delivered its figures, and so on.

It is the laconic "and so on" that is so perfect; it signals some reserves of research and learning that ought to dissuade revisionists from further pestering Conquest. Ignoring this, more than one doltish academic has challenged him with laudatory euphemisms about the Russian "experiment"; their outlines can, thankfully, be found in these pages like those of random insects on a windshield.

Reflections on a Ravaged Century is, at its core, a mediation on why, and how, intellectuals and academics deceive themselves about the uses of power and ideology. The book is divided into two parts: "Mindslaughter" and "Facing the Consequences." In part one, there are nine engaging essays on aspects of totalitarianism and the Western response. Not surprisingly, Conquest focuses much more of his efforts on Communism than on Nazism. In the first instance, he is an acknowledged expert on Soviet Communism and, in the second, comparatively few Western intellectuals became enraptured believers in Nazism. It is worth noting that, on the issue of moral equivalence, Conquest differs with Courtious: The Holocaust is somehow worse than the Gulag, because he feels it to be so, and would not quite trust the opposite perception. Unscientific, yes, but Conquest surely scores points for expressing such intuitive honesty.

There are also, in this first part of the book, two essays of particular value on the origins and development of the Cold War. Conquest reminds those of poor or selective memory that, not so long ago, the accepted line on the Cold War, in academic circles, was that American Imperialism had caused an understandable defensive reaction in Moscow. That, indeed, America had caused the Cold War and that Uncle Joe Stalin wasn't such a bad guy. This is, of course, pure tripe. The Cold War was, straightforwardly, induced by strong signals of Soviet belligerence and, more significantly, the fact that the Soviet Union initiated a vast armaments program. In the 1950s, the West responded in kind; in the 1970s, however, the United Sates had a bout of "self-doubt" which initially meant that the Soviets gained military superiority.

Conquest also reminds us of those that, in the 1970s, made much of Western "self doubt" -- which initially meant that the Soviets gained military superiority over the U.S. The "self doubt" was, of course, fostered by the activities of several commentators on Soviet affairs, who made reputations (and still, of course, hold down tenured appointments) by recycling Soviet lies. Conquest rather mercifully dispenses with some of this rabble. The essential "beef" that these baloney-mongers peddled was that Soviet totalitarianism could be explained quite rationally, that the number of its victims had been greatly exaggerated, and that "totalitarianism" was not in any event the right description of what was really a "pluralist" society in disguise. Indeed, such nonsense and idiocy was de rigueur among many Western commentators and Sovietologists in the 70s and 80s.

The second part of Reflections on a Ravaged Century examines all this in the light of the present. Conquest humbly remarks that the Communist inheritance in Russia was such that he never imagined that there could be a successful "transition to democracy and all that"; as ever, he is cruelly funny about the "vast kleptocracy" that had developed in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. But he is far more worried about the persisting habits of mind (circa the 1970s) in the West: There is a "varied caste of bureaucracy, large-scale capitalism and government, all tending to a new corporatism."

Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek pointed out over fifty years ago that "Socialism has never and nowhere been at first a working-class movement. It is by no means an obvious remedy for an obvious evil which the interests of that class will necessarily demand. It is a construction of theorists, deriving from certain tendencies of abstract thought with which for a long time only the intellectuals were familiar; and it required long efforts by the intellectuals before the working classes could be persuaded to adopt it as their programme." Though unquoted by Conquest, Hayek's insight is exactly what worries him most about the 20th century and the prospects of life in the 21st century. Conquest's work in this section constitutes an inquiry into the intellectual's temperament and, in particular, the intellectual ingenuity required to go on believing when all is lost.

There follows an excellent and absorbing chapter on what is happening in education: A great many just swipes are taken at the academic intelligentsia who subvert it. Conquest reviews the rise of pseudo-science, and the application of quantitative methods and measurements in social science. Conquest also laments the influence of half-baked, trashy European ideas in Western, specifically American, academic thought: "At a recent seminar on the much resented influx of certain American movies in France, my old friend Alain Besancon remarked that a hundred soft-porn products of Hollywood did less harm in his country than a single French philosopher had done in the United States."

Conquest also recalls his own personal experience of "how a set of irrelevant facts may be put together to support an absurd theory." Conquest, who has a significant career as a poet, translator, novelist, and literary critic -- besides being one of the foremost historians of the Soviet Union, once wrote, as a lark, a spoof article for the Critical Quarterly journal. The article, "Christian Symbolism in Lucky Jim," included such spurious references as "The Phallus Theme in Early Amis" and much more, very obvious, parody. "However, the journal had to print a note in its next issue disavowing serious intent because it had received numbers of letters from English teachers, students and so on taking it at face value (it still turned up years later in German journals)."

He also laments the academic unwillingness to be seen to criticize colleagues or step outside of the many and varied leftist solidarities rampant throughout academia. Attending a meeting of the American Modern Language Association, Conquest notes how he had "a strong feeling that they knew only too well that they were caught up in something worthless…scuttling about like beetles in some Sartrean hell." History is subverted in the same way, and films distort it even more: "Even worse [than Braveheart, a 'haggis western'] is the Ted Turner series on the Cold War, much of it ludicrously tilted against the West, and now seeking acceptance as a teaching tool in the American educational system."

As Conquest's essays demonstrate, we, the victors of the Cold War, have thrown away a great part of what should have been a victory for Western values. The Cold War has been won, but the ideas that produced Communism still go marching on in their well-organized, corrupting way, even though the people advocating them are a minority.

The Historian Edward Gibbon once wrote that "There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times." Yet, standing from his vantage point at the end of the 20th century, surveying the history of the last 100 years, Conquest is probably right to end his book, as he soberly does, with a warning. Although we are now living through an exceptionally optimistic historical moment, he reminds us that the "past is full of eras of progress that ended in darkness." We should not fool ourselves: "The power of fanaticism and of misunderstanding is by no means extinct."