|Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will go on living|
The Carillon, November 9, 2017
Fall 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the beginning of a grand experiment in communism. This social experiment had bitter fruit that shouldn't be forgotten.
Influenced by Karl Marx, the leaders of Soviet communism—Lenin, Stalin, and Co. (Comrades)—strived to create a utopian society. After taking power, the communists abolished private property and took control of the means of production (factories, farms). Their promise was that state control (a “dictatorship of the proletariat”) would be temporary. Eventually, new men and women would come into being.
Moreover, these men and women would be transformed from self-oriented to other-oriented. Their lives would be characterized by this mantra: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” A socialist heaven would finally come to earth.
Apparently, however, nobody seemed to be aware of the saying, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
It turns out that the temporary dictatorship by the communist elite wasn’t temporary. And the Soviet experiment was a disaster.
In fact, Soviet communism's killing of its own people makes Nazi death camps pale in comparison. Whereas 6 or 7 million died in the Nazi holocaust, multiple millions more died as a result of Soviet communism.
Some historians estimate the Soviet death toll was 20 million, whereas Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (who lived in the Soviet Union) estimates 60 million.
Of this total, approximately 5 or more million died at a result of the Soviets’ 1932-33 deliberate starvation of Ukraine (some say the number was 3 million, others say 7 or more million; this genocide is known as the “Holodomor” or “Death by Hunger”).
Millions of Soviets also died in slave labour camps (a.k.a. Gulags, made famous by Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago). Underfed and living in sub-zero temperatures, citizens were worked to death or were murdered in the woods.
In addition, many Soviet citizens were simply arrested, tortured, and shot. Why? Often times only for criticizing government or for suspicion of being a saboteur, other times to fill government quotas.
Was the Soviet disaster merely peculiar to the Soviet Union’s attempt at communism? Apparently not.
According to The Black Book of Communism (Harvard University Press 1999), other communist regimes had similar disastrous results.
- China: 65 million deaths
- Vietnam: 1 million deaths
- North Korea: 2 million deaths
- Cambodia: 2 million deaths
In total, over the past 100 years communist regimes have been responsible for about 100 million deaths (of their own people).
At this juncture, one might object that western capitalist societies are not wholly innocent and we should, for comparison’s sake, account for the evils done by capitalist societies.
In reply, we should keep in mind that capitalist societies have done wrong, of course. (And crony capitalism is especially problematic.)
Nevertheless, whereas communism requires total government control, governments in capitalist societies tend to be limited in their power. They protect private property, voluntary exchange, and individual freedoms; they do not tend to murder their own people en masse.
It remains, then, that the killing of one's own people has been extraordinarily huge in—and a salient feature of—communist societies such as the Soviet Union (Gulags), China (under Mao), Cambodia (Pol Pot's killing fields), etc.
When I was an undergraduate student, I was enamored (briefly) by Marx. I wrote an essay for my Marxist philosophy professor in which I critiqued capitalism with its emphasis on self-interest (though I failed to distinguish between selfishness and self-interest, I failed to discern selves whose interest included doing business for the good of others, and I failed to notice how free markets could harness the selfishness of some/ many for the benefit of others). I received an A+ for the essay.
I showed that essay to my late uncle [Oom George], a businessman, whose only comment was this: Isn’t it great that we live in a society that allows us to criticize it?
My late uncle was right.
The 2008 film The Soviet Story (available on YouTube) provides additional historical perspective on the bitter fruit of the 1917 Russian Revolution, bitter fruit that should never be forgotten.
Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College. The views expressed in this column do not always represent the views of Providence.
For further thought:
- The Soviet Story (1.5 hours)
- The Black Book of Communism
- The Gulag Archipelago
- Defending the Free Market (see especially chapter 5: “Why greed is not good—and why you can get more of it with socialism than with capitalism”)