Le Livre noir du communisme: Crimes, terreur, répression
Stéphane Courtois, Nicolas Werth Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, Jean-Lous Margolin
Robert Laffont (Paris), 846 pages; paper 189fr.

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

American Book Review, 20.1 (November/December 1998): 16-17.

The end of the war did not bring liberation to the Poles. In that mournful central Europe, it meant only the exchange of one night for another, the henchmen of Hitler exchanged for those of Stalin. At the moment when in the Parisian cafes noble souls celebrated with jubilant song “the emancipation of the Polish people from the feudal yoke,” in Poland the same lit cigarette simply changed hands and continued to burn the same human flesh
Witold Gombrowicz, Testament[1]

[Figures forthcoming]

The photographs above look like Holocaust pictures, and so they are—except that the Holocaust in question is not Hitler’s but Lenin’s Terror in the years between the October Revolution (1917) and his death in 1924. The first photograph depicts recently dead children in the countryside near the Volga, victims of the forced famine of 1921-22 in which an estimated five million peasants died. An additional 70,000 or more persons were consigned to the concentration camps, the Gulags to be. But peasants weren’t the only victims of Leninism. The second picture comes from Kiev in 1919: the caption reads “After the retreat of the Red Army, the cadavers of the victims of the Cheka [the Secret Police, later known as the KGB] were exhumed at 5 Sadovaia Street where the ‘instrument of Bolshevist terror’ had one of its centers.” [2] An instance of this terror occurred near Kiev in the two-day period March 12-14, when, in response to a General Strike of the factory workers, between 2,000 and 4,000 workers were shot to death (p. 101).

These numbers are part of the absorbing and terrifying narrative that makes Le Livre Noir du Communisme such a powerful book—one that you won’t want to read before bedtime. Its authors are all research scholars associated with the Centre d’Etude d’Histoire et de Sociologie du Communisme and its review Communisme. Many, like its editor in chief Stéphane Courtois, are former Communists. All have had access to the newly opened Soviet archives, including the Lenin archive in Moscow. Although much of the information in Le Livre Noir has been known to historians for some time— witness the studies of François Furet, Annie Kriegel, Richard Pipes, and Robert Conquest—the book’s publication last fall caused a sensation in France where it has sold, at the latest count, 170,000 copies. Since the PCF (the Parti communiste français) has played a large role in post-World War II France and since even now the Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, needs Communist votes to assemble a parliamentary majority, Le Livre Noir has trigged a heated debate as to the place of Communism—global as well as within France itself– in the twentieth-century. Those interested in this debate may consult the Internet where scathing articles about Jospin with titles like “La politique du Père Ubu” (from the newspaper Démocratie libérale) alternate with proud defenses of the PCF in the columns of the official Communist newspaper L’Humanité. Meanwhile, plans for an English translation are supposedly underway although publication has not yet been announced.

What makes Le Livre Noir so controversial is that Courtois claims moral equivalence for the two great totalitarianisms of the century. The title The Black Book of Communism alludes to The Brown Book of Nazi Terror, published in the mid-1930s by Willi Münzenberg and written largely by Arthur Koestler and Otto Katz. [3] The world’s Communisms (the book includes, besides the USSR, China, Vietnam, North Korea, Cambodia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Afghanistan), Courtois argues, are responsible for the deaths of between 85 and 100 million people, as compared to the 25 million victims of Nazi Germany. Communism in Russia (here the estimated figure of victims is 20 million) preceded the rise of Nazism and continued long after the latter was destroyed; its “class genocide” was not necessarily more benign than the “race genocide” of Nazism. “The death from hunger of the child of a Ukrainian peasant,” writes Courtois, “deliberately produced by famine instigated by the Stalin regime, is equivalent to the death of a Jewish child in the Warsaw Ghetto” (p. 19). This is an incendiary statement, and it should be noted right away that some of Courtois’s collaborators, for example Nicolas Werth, the author of the section on the USSR, and Jean-Louis Margolin, who writes on China, have publicly dissociated themselves from it.

But never mind the question of moral equivalence or the competition for being First among Evils. The incidents recorded in Le Livre Noir are quite hair-raising enough on their own account, and they raise some fascinating issues for writers and literary scholars in the West. For a major question the book poses is why, in contrast to their (deserved) outrage over the Nazi Holocaust, Western intellectuals have been relatively silent on the issue of the Soviet terror, a terror which by no means began nor ended with Stalin. Why, as the Berkeley historian Martin Malia asks in his excellent discussion of Le Livre Noir, does the status of “ex-Communist” carry no stigma whereas “Past contact with Nazism . . . no matter how marginal or remote, confers an indelible stain?” [4] Why, to bring the discussion closer to home, are Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot so often accused of fascism and racism, whereas Louis Aragon, for years a Stalinist and editor of the French Communist Party’s literary magazine, is treated with great respect and Pablo Neruda, also a Stalinist in later life, has become a kind of folk hero (witness the film Il Postino)? Again, why, as Malia asks, have “no Gulag camps in the East been turned into museums to commemorate their inmates”? Why does “Lenin’s statue still dominate most city centres, and his mummy repose honourably in its mausoleum”? And why have no former Communist leaders in the former Iron Curtain countries been put on trial?

I shall come back to these questions below. For the moment, it should be noted that even sympathetic reviewers have criticized Le Livre Noir for treating all the so-called Communisms of the century as a unit, regardless of their national or historical identities. But if it is true that the Courtois team is guilty of overkill, the heart of the book, the 300-page section on the USSR, written by Nicholas Werth, stands on its own as a powerful revisionary statement. For “The State against its People,” as Werth’s section is called, makes a clear case against the notion, widely accepted, at least until the eighties, that the “bad” Stalin must be contrasted to the “good” Lenin, whose lofty and noble ends justified his violent and ruthless means. Stalinism, one still reads in various reference books, was a perversion of Leninism and hence Communism. Had Lenin not died so prematurely, this scenario would have it, things might have been very different. After reading Werth’s account of the October Revolution and its aftermath, it is difficult to maintain the good Lenin / bad Stalin fable. The point had already made by Richard Pipes in The Unknown Lenin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), but where Pipes puts before us the actual archival material, keeping his own comments to a minimum, Werth and Courtois present the full drama of Lenin’s consolidation of power in a richly detailed narrative.

Werth reminds us that at the time of the Revolution, barely 3% of the Russian population made up the urban working class. And even this working class, committed as it was to various forms of socialism, was by no means friendly to the Bolsheviks. Accordingly, in order to attain and maintain power, Lenin had to suppress almost every element of the population including the urban proletariat. To accomplish this amazing feat, he relied, from the very beginning on the abrogation of all freedoms (press, assembly, property), an abrogation that could be achieved only by force. Thus, on 10 August 1918, Lenin issued an order to the Executive Committee of the Soviet in Penza, urging them to “crush without pity” any possible kulak uprising. To convince the people not to resist, he urged the Penza committee to “Hang (hang without fail, so that the people see) no fewer than one hundred known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers,” to “Take from them all their grain,” and to “designate hostages”—all this so that “for hundreds of versts around, the people will see, tremble, know, shout: they are strangling and will strangle to death the bloodsucker kulaks.” [5] Once begun, this system rapidly spawned the concentration camps, overseen by the Cheka. Made up of former criminals, convicts, deserters, and military personnel, the Cheka was a fearful outfit. “To be a good Communist,” Lenin declared, “is equivalent to being a good Chekist” (p. 92). That autumn, 10,000 to 15,000 executions took place—more than in the entire century before—and forced labor camps sprung up everywhere. The number of camp inmates grew from 16,000 in May 1919 to 70,000 by September 1921 (see p. 93).

Who were the victims? Werth reminds us how many of them were themselves urban industrial workers. Three years before the famous Kronstadt rebellion (in which a large number of the civil and maritime workers of the Northern port city were executed), there was a General Strike on the part of the Socialist-Revolutionary party in Petrograd (Petersburg, later Leningrad). On March 10,1919, the general assembly of workers of the Poutilov factories, adopted, in the presence of 10,000 participants, a proclamation condemning the Bolcheviks. “This government,” they declared, “is nothing but the dictatorship of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which governs with the aid of the Cheka and the revolutionary tribunals.” (p. 99). The proclamation demanded all power to the soviets, free elections to the soviets and factory committees, the lifting of the limits on food rations that the workers could obtain from the nearby countryside, the liberation of all political prisoners of “authentic revolutionary parties,” and especially of Maria Spiridonova, the party’s leader, who had been jailed. To squelch this uprising, Lenin himself came to Petrograd on March 12. Shouted down by the people, he quickly turned to the Cheka. On March 16, its detachments stormed the Poutilov factories, easily overcoming its unarmed workers. Approximately 900 people were arrested. Within the next few days, about 200 strikers were imprisoned in the fortress of Schlüsselburg, 50 kilometers frm Petrograd. They were not released until they confessed their crime and accused “counter-revolutionaries” of having led them astray. Thus began the method of forced confession on the part of those accused of any crime.

Such incidents became commonplace. In Astrakhan, in the spring of 1919, a workers’ strike was brutally suppressed, and, when the prisons became too full to hold the strikers, they were thrown, with stones around their necks, by the hundreds, into the Volga. By 1921, the workers had largely learned their lesson, they now worked—but under the most brutal conditions. The mining industry is a good example. The adoption of the NEP (New Economic Policy) in 1921 demanded a level of production that could not be met—at least not by any sort of normal means. The Donbass industrial region in the Eastern Ukraine, a region that produced more than 80% of the coal and steel for the nation, managed, under the rule of Director Giorgij Piatakov, to quintuple coal production within a single year. How did they do it? The miners had to work seven days a week on near-starvation food rations. Any slacking off—even a ten minute break— was punishable by death, and a few dozen miners were executed. Further: to lower the number of mouths to feed, the ration cards of the miners’ families were taken away so that they had a choice of starvation or of leaving the area. (131). Such “militarization” of the work place recalled the the slave galleys of the Roman Empire. And all of it took place by decree from above—specifically, from the great Head of State, Lenin, whose writings enjoyed the status of Holy Scripture in the Soviet Union for decades to come.
The carefully engineered famines that destroyed the peasantry—first in 1921-22 under Lenin, then in the early thirties under Stalin are now a familiar story as are the tales of the Gulag. But the early Soviet treatment of the proletariat as well as of the intellectuals, whom Lenin held in the greatest contempt (see pp. 146-47), deserves to be studied by anyone who still has illusions about the idealism of early Soviet rule. In his epilogue “Pourquoi?”, Stéphane Courtois goes back to basics and tries to understand how and why the Communism of 1917 turned so quickly into a bloody dictatorship and then a criminal regime. How is it, he asks, that crime was perceived by the Soviet leaders as a normal, and indeed perfectly ordinary measure—and this for decades? (p. 795).
The idea that Revolution demands a phase of terror, comes, of course from the French Revolution and that revolution is often cited as the foundational experience for the men of 1917. But, as Courtois rightly argues, throughout the nineteenth century, notions of the Terror were replaced by the prospects of the peaceful and inevitable victory of Socialism. Marx himself, after all, repeatedly stated that the desired dictatorship of the proletariat would result from the mobilization of the masses and the achievement of universal suffrage.

A second “explanation” of the brutality of Russian Communism is that the Soviet leaders simply carried on the autocratic and authoritarian principles of the Tsars. Again, Courtois and his colleagues find this too simple. The novelist Vassili Grossman has remarked that the emancipation of the serfs by Alexander II in 1861 was, in fact, much more “revolutionary” than the so-called Revolution, which turned “progress” itself into a form of slavery. If the liberal reforms begun by Alexander II had continued into the twentieth century, Russia, as the archives now show, might have actually evolved into a parliamentary democracy committed to a measure of social welfare.

But here the situation becomes complicated by the eruption of World War I. The Great War, which normalized violence and crime, obviously paved the way for the crimes perpetrated by the young October Revolution, the irony being, as Courtois notes (p. 802), that none of the Bolshevik leaders participated in the war, either because, like Lenin, Trotsky, and Zinoviev, they were in exile or because, like Stalin and Kamenev, they were imprisoned in Siberia. Both Martin Malia in The Soviet Tragedy (1994) and François Furet in The End of an Illusion 1995) have demonstrated that the exposure of ordinary Russian civilians to the “anything goes” morality of war crime, plunder, and gratuitous violence set the stage for the Cheka atrocities that followed.

But if World War I thus provided the context for the crimes of the Revolution, those crimes, Courtois believes, could not have occurred in quite as extreme a form, had it not been for the person of Lenin himself:
Lenin installed a dictatorship that very quickly revealed itself to be terrorist and bloody. Revolutionary violence was no longer a reactive violence, the reflex of self-defense against the Czarist forces that had vanished months earlier. . . . from November 1917 on, Lenin deliberately organized the Terror and this in the absence of any manifestation of opposition from other parties and other components of society. On 4 January 1918, he dissolved the Constitutional Assembly elected, for the first time in the history of Russia, by universal suffrage, and killed its partisans who were protesting in the streets. (804)
Indeed, Courtois goes on to argue, there was little Marxism in the Leninism of 1917. True, Lenin paid lip service to certain elementary Marxist notions—class struggle, historical determinism, the role of the proletariat. But as early as 1902 in his classic text What is to be Done?, he proposed a new conception of the revolutionary party, as a cadre of professionals, whose secret organization would be based on a quasi-military discipline. The military model, derived by Lenin from the doctrines of Serge Netchaiev, bore no resemblance to the socialist organizations in Germany, France, or Britain. (pp. 805-06). Netchaievian militarism quickly triumphed over Marxist determinism and ideology was soon frozen into dogma, an absolute and universal Truth that could not be violated. The rest, Courtois writes, is history.

Whether or not this thesis is overstated, the evidence marshaled in Le Livre Noir is impressive. The larger question—to come back to the ethics of Western responses to Nazism and Communism—is why intellectuals have treated—and continue to treat– the latter with what can only be called benign neglect, if not often outright approval? It was Jean-Paul Sartre, after all, who declared as late as 1952 that “All anticommunists are dogs!” (p. 819) and who later insisted that one should keep silent about the Soviet camps so as not to “désésperer Billancourt,” so as not, in other words, to undercut the French Communist Party. And Adorno’s famous statement that one cannot write poetry after Auschwitz has nothing to say about the possibilities of writing poetry after the Gulag. When in the 1980s Reagan called the Soviet Union the “evil empire,” American artists and intellectuals reacted with bemused scorn. Evil empire indeed! What inane and reactionary Cold War rhetoric! And even when, after 1989, the world had a chance to see what that “evil empire” had done to the nations of Eastern Europe—the ecological devastation, the destruction of all infrastructure—we Americans have remained skeptical, unwilling to be “judgmental.” Meanwhile, the study of Fascism—Fascinating Fascism, as it is sometimes called– has become an academic growth industry, the subject of dozens of literary monographs and conferences.

How to explain this phenomenon? In “The lesser evil?”, Martin Malia gives four reasons for the longtime Sovietophilia of the West. First and most obviously, the Russians were our allies in the “popular front” against Fascism in World War II. Nazism was an immediate and well-understood threat whereas later on, in the Cold War, the Communist menace was far away. When in ’89 the “evil empire” finally distintegrated, its last General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, was depicted in the papers embracing that ultimate Cold War warrior Ronald Reagan. The “defeat” of Soviet Communism brought with it no Nuremberg trials and hence, as Malia notes, “no de-Communization to solemnly put Leninism beyond the pale of civilization” (TLS 3).

Secondly, “defeat cut Nazism down in the prime of its iniquity, thereby eternally fixing its memory in full horror.” By contrast, Communism, at the moment of its worst crimes in the 1940s, was rewarded with an epic victory, thereby gaining time and momentum to avoid exposing itself for what it was. And the Soviet archives have only recently been opened, while those of Cuba and East Asia remain closed. (TLS 3)

Thirdly, Malia points out, the Holocaust is considered as “the historically unique crime of seeking the extermination of an entire people,” unique too in being perpetrated by a culture supposedly among the most “civilized” in the world. There can never be, most of us would argue, a parallel to the Final Solution, and in any case, by the time Soviet Communism collapsed, it had become so inefficient, so overtly unsuccessful that its dangers did not seem (and in fact were not) comparable to those of Nazi Germany in the 30s and 40s.

But of course the most important reason we distinguish between the two totalitarianisms is that, as even such fervent enemies of Communism as Raymond Aron and François Furet have admitted, there is, in Malia’s words, a distinction “between extermination practiced to achieve a political objective, no matter how perverse, and extermination as an end in itself.” From this perspective Communism can never be as bad as Fascism, for its Utopian ideals were noble, however fully they were perverted, whereas Nazism had no ideals except sheer centralized power, brute force, nationalist expansion, and the cleansing of the German race from the Jewish pollution.

Even this argument is not necessarily foolproof: East European dissidents, as Malia notes, have argued that, on the contrary, mass murder in the name of a lofty ideal may well be worse than in the name of a base one, for that lofty ideal has deceived people for decades and continues to deceive them today in many parts of the world. “Totalitarianism,” writes Tzvetan Todorov in L’Homme depaysé (1996), “would not have lasted this long if it didn’t have the support of so many individuals. It is on the contrary a machine of amazing efficiency. Communist ideology proposes the image of a better society and incites us to aspire to it: the desire to transform the world in the name of an ideal, isn’t this an integral part of human identity? Moreover, communist society frees the individual of his/her responsibilities: it is always ‘they’ who decide”(22-23). And the combination of idealism and the absence of choice or responsibility has proved to be fatal.
Still, there are now grounds for hope. French intellectuals, as the response to Le Livre Noir suggests, seem to have turned the corner so far as Communism is concerned. From Aron, Furet, and Kriegel to Alain Finkelkraut and now Stephane Courtois and his team of scholars, the Sartrean refusal to criticize the Soviets, is no longer acceptable, and the PCF has been at pains to dissociate itself from its Soviet roots as have Communist parties all over Europe. The same is true among U.S. historians and political scientists: since 1989, there has been a spate of important studies- – Malia’s The Soviet Tragedy, Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow and The Great Terror, Richard Pipes’s The Unknown Lenin, Harvey Klehr’s Secret World of American Communism– that anticipate (and indeed complicate) the narrative of Le Livre Noir.

But literary intellectuals and artists have remained largely indifferent, if not silent, about the Great Russian Experiment and its implications. Courses on Fascism in Literature and Art, now common in the American university, have no equivalent in the case of Communism. Perhaps this is because the first decade of the Revolution is associated in our minds with such wonderful art works—the poems of Mayakovsky, the Proun paintings of El Lissitsky, the constructions of Rodchenko, the stagecraft of Meyerhold, the costume designs of Olga Popova. There was, in fact a short time lag between the suppression of ordinary citizens (especially the peasantry) and the soon-to-come suppression of the artistic avant-garde. And art, as we all know, may flourish precisely in times of intense political conflict and crisis.

As for American Communist writers and artists of the 1930s and 40s—for example, Edwin Rolfe or Malcolm Cowley– the common wisdom among critics is that they were noble idealists, who didn’t (and couldn’t) know what was happening in the Soviet Union, Stalin’s crimes remaining quite secret until Khruschhev’s famous repudiation speech of 1956. One important contribution of Le Livre Noir is that it shows this contention to be wholly specious. As early as 1924, S. P. Melgounov’s The Red Terror in Russia, 1918-1924, published in London, detailed what was happening in the Soviet Union. Indeed, the “How was I to know?” stance turns out to be not all that different from the defense of Heidegger and de Man as ostensibly “unaware” of Auschwitz and Dachau and “shocked” when they were confronted by the truth. As if the brutality of “Kristallnacht” and related events, or the Nazi edicts and proclamations of the early thirties weren’t openly there for all to see.

It is not a pretty picture. But the phase of what we might call “TT” (tolerance of totalitarianism), now seems to be on the wane, although the recent well-meaning but curiously naive debates about increasing “Human Rights” in the People’s Republic of China suggest that the understanding of how totalitarian states operate still has a way to go. In this context, the publication—and huge readership— of Le Livre Noir marks a milestone in its clear-eyed assessment what is increasingly known as the totalitarian century—a century we may be happy to see come to its end.


Witold Gombrowicz, Testament. Entrietiens avec Dominique de Roux. (Paris: Folio, 1996), p. 109, cited by Stéphane Courtois, Le Livre Noir, p. 33.

Here and throughout, the translations are mine.

Otto Katz was subsequently hanged by the Communist regime after the Slansky trial in 1952 where Katz “confessed” to being a Gestapo agent: see Mark Lila, “Were Communism and Fascism Equivalent: Two Debates—Two Views,” in “Newsletter: Committee on Intellectual Correspondence,” 2 (Spring/Summer 1998): 13.

Martin Malia, “The Lesser Evil?”, Times Literary Supplement, 27 March 1998, p. 3.

Livre noir, p. 84. Lenin’s letter to V. V. Kuraev et. al. Is also reproduced in Pipes, The Unknown Lenin, p. 50.