Art by Yousef Amairi

Art by Yousef Amairi
the struggle continues

January 17, 2014

"The Future Did Not Work", a review by J. Arch Getty, March 2000, The Atlantic Monthly

(the image: ‘Raising the Banner: artist, Geli Korzhev)

Blogger's note:

The following article is  J. Arch Getty's March 2000 review of 2 decidedly anti-Soviet works written by former Marxists (inter alia) in response to the collapse of the USSR. In his review Getty reflects upon these works : 1) THE PASSING OF AN ILLUSION: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century, by François Furet. Univ of Chigaco; and 2) THE BLACK BOOK OF COMMUNISM: Crimes, Terror, Repression by Stéphane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, and Jean-Louis Margolin. Harvard.

While Dr. Getty is not a Marxist his pioneering works based on access to the Soviet Archives in Moscow corrects many of the crude and schematic caricatures of The USSR contrived since the dawn of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR by ex-devotees and old foes alike. For this service the communists with all those interested in The Soviet Experience are indebted to Getty, while not necessarily agreeing with all his premises or considerations on the 20th century's 'really existing socialism(s)'.


ALONG with self-congratulation and relief, the fall of the Soviet Union has

stimulated an abundance of postmortems on communism and its place in

the twentieth century. Though communism in its classic form may be

extinct, we sometimes seem to be fighting it almost as fiercely today as we

did when it threatened us.

Near the end of his life François Furet (1927-1997), one of the best

historians of the French Revolution, turned his formidable intellect to the

study of communism. In The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism

in the Twentieth Century, his last book, Furet presents the Soviet experience

as an illusion -- one that retained a fascination and an allegiance in the

West far beyond the time when its essence should have been clear. Furet,

like many other French intellectuals embued with a leftist activism and an

ideological passion dating from the French revolutions of 1789, 1848, and

1871, turned for a time to communism. He was a member of the French

Communist Party from 1949 to 1956. Although his text is not in the first

person, it provides an implicit chronicle of his own illusion, and disillusion.

It was an illusion on several counts. First, for Furet, communism was based

on an ultimately false linear philosophical view of history as Reason, in

which a superior phase of historical development -- socialism -- was

scientifically bound to follow "bourgeois" (Furet's term) liberal capitalism.

The Passing of an Illusion is brilliant, and one would be hard pressed to find

better writing of history than the first chapter, which traces the roots of

modern political thinking back to the nineteenth century. The liberal

bourgeois quest for competitive individualism in the eighteenth and

nineteenth centuries did not appeal to those who valued social and

economic equality, or to those seeking a sense of community that

transcended the isolation of the individual. The conflict between individual

and collective rights still motivates politics today, and Furet believed that

these limits to the bourgeois ideal would provide breeding grounds for

fascism and communism, both of which had egalitarian and collectivist


Second, the geopolitical accident of its alliance with the Western

democracies against Hitler created a wartime illusion of the Soviet Union as

a democracy. The universal revulsion for the Nazis enabled the Communists

for many years to enjoy a reputation for anti-fascism and thereby evade

close scrutiny or objective evaluation by Western intellectuals, who yearned

for social justice, were made uncomfortable by capitalist materialism, and

felt moral outrage against fascism.

Furet is particularly eloquent about what he considers to be communism's

ill-deserved image as fascism's opposite; he believes that the two were

identical in every significant way. Both were born of the violence of the First

World War, when millions of men, betrayed by their leaders, were embittered

by the sacrifice forced upon them and angry at the war's pointlessness.

Trench warfare brought the masses to the fore of European history, in a

setting of violence, extremist passion, and anger. It was soldiers, Furet

believed, who overthrew the Russian czar, eased Lenin's takeover, and made

up the angry membership of fascist parties elsewhere. Fascism and

communism were both mass movements (which Furet tends to dislike) that

became one-man dictatorships.

Yet Furet may draw some criticism when he closely links Communist and

fascist regimes. There is sharp debate about this today among historians,

and many of them are uncomfortable putting communism and fascism into

the same category. Clearly, both Hitler's and Stalin's regimes sought to

exercise total control over their populations and deprive people of the

possibility to organize or even exist outside the officially prescribed forms

and institutions. Recent research shows, however, that much as they may

have wanted to, the Stalinists were never able to build the coldly efficient

machine of Orwell's 1984; much of the Stalinist system worked as the

Russian government had worked in 1884. Clumsy implementation of vague

plans wreaked havoc with attempts to pursue policies. Moscow had little

information about what was really happening in the far-flung provinces,

where regional satraps used distance and poor communications to insulate

themselves from Moscow's control and build their own power. There was not

even a telephone line to the Soviet Far East until the eve of World War II.

Research in newly available Soviet archives has also documented widespread

Stalin-era dissent, passive and active resistance, strikes, and even full-

scale peasant revolts of a kind and scale that Hitler never faced.

What's more, Nazi Germany and the USSR had radically different social and

economic systems. Hitler, despite his populist rhetoric, largely preserved

and defended private property, the market economy, and existing elites.

Stalin utterly destroyed capitalism and physically annihilated the social and

economic elites. Although both regimes used terror, they used it differently,

against different targets. Hitler's terror was designed to be finite and to

exterminate particular ethnic groups (Jews and Gypsies, for example).

Stalin's terror mainly sought to turn social groups such as peasants and

businessmen into a slave labor force that would be a permanent part of the

Soviet economy. During the Cold War, when the USSR supplanted Nazi

Germany as the enemy of the West, journalists and political scientists began

to associate the two regimes. Furet could dig up only a few observers who

tried to make an analogy between the two dictatorships before 1945.

LESS concerned with the subtleties of illusion, Stéphane Courtois and some

of his co-authors are eager to associate Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in a

different way. The Black Book of Communism, an 800-page collection of

essays about the human toll exacted by Communist regimes in the twentieth

century, reaches a much simpler conclusion: the Germans and the Russians

were merely terrible criminals who were members of a huge Communist

gang. Examining the records of repression in the USSR, Eastern Europe,

China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Latin America, Africa, and

Afghanistan, Courtois et al. arrive at a figure of 100 million deaths

attributable to Communist regimes, as compared with 25 million attributable

to the Nazis. In his essay Courtois makes the point that the Soviet terror

was greater than the Nazis' and also, because it was systematic and

genocidal, violated the Nuremberg Laws and the "unwritten code of the

natural laws of humanity." The actions of Communist Parties thus qualify

communism, like the Nazi Party, as a "criminal organization."

A controversial British writer, David Irving, has instigated a libel suit

against an American historian for calling him "one of the most dangerous

spokespersons for Holocaust denial." The trial, just beginning in Britain, will

almost inevitably be used by some to claim legitimacy for Holocaust

"revisionism" -- as if the Holocaust as a historical fact were open to debate.
    No sane person can rise to the defense of mass terror. The moral

point has been clear for decades, although some may be troubled that

Courtois relates the problem to ignoring the ideals of "Judeo-Christian

civilization," which has no monopoly on morality. To frame our

understanding of these events as numerical counts attributable to particular

ideologies is even more problematic.

Courtois writes that he is not trying to present a "macabre comparative

system for crunching numbers, some kind of grand total that doubles the

horror." Yet there is a lot of arithmetic in his presentation, and one gets the

impression that he is including every possible death just to run up the

score. That impression troubled his distinguished co-authors; Nicolas Werth

and Jean-Louis Margolin sparked a scandal in Paris when they publicly

disassociated themselves from Courtois's opinions about the scale of

Communist terror, asserting that his introduction was more a diatribe than a

balanced scholarly treatment. They felt that he was obsessed with

attributing a body count of 100 million to communism, and like several

other scholars, they rejected his equation of Soviet repression with Nazi

genocide. Werth, a well-regarded French specialist on the Soviet Union

whose sections in the Black Book on the Soviet Communists are sober and

damning, told Le Monde, "Death camps did not exist in the Soviet Union."

Stalin's camps were different from Hitler's. Tens of thousands of prisoners

were released every year upon completion of their sentences. We now know

that before World War II more inmates escaped annually from the Soviet

camps than died there. Research shows that Stalin's camps and

deportations, unlike their Nazi extermination counterparts, were planned

components of the Soviet economy, designed to provide a stable slave-labor

supply and to populate forbidding territories forcibly with involuntary

settlers. Rations and medical care were substandard, but were often not

dramatically better elsewhere in Stalin's Soviet Union and were not designed

to hasten the inmates' deaths, although they certainly did so. Similarly, the

overwhelming weight of opinion among scholars working in the new archives

(including Courtois's co-editor Werth) is that the terrible famine of the

1930s was the result of Stalinist bungling and rigidity rather than some

genocidal plan.

Are deaths from a famine caused by the stupidity and incompetence of the

regime (such deaths account for more than half of Courtois's 100 million) to

be equated with the deliberate gassing of Jews? Courtois's arithmetic is too

simple. A huge number of the fatalities attributed here to Communist

regimes fall into a kind of catchall category called "excess deaths":

premature demises, over and above the expected mortality rate of the

population, that resulted directly or indirectly from government policy.

Those executed, exiled to Siberia, or forced into gulag camps where

nutrition and living conditions were poor could fall into this category. But

so could many others, and "excess deaths" are not the same as intentional


Such arithmetical history sacrifices historical accuracy by lumping different

events into the same category. Jerry Hough, of Duke University, has

suggested just how ambiguous such calculations can be. Using the

dramatically rising death rates in Russia in the 1990s, and with perhaps a

bit of tongue in cheek, Hough calculated that 1.5 million "extra deaths"

occurred in Russia in just the first four years of Yeltsin's tenure -- a total

that, Hough points out, is "considerably larger than the number Stalin killed

in the Great Purge" of the 1930s. The real problem with the books under

review is a facile categorization in order to fix blame or make political

points. It would be more polemical than accurate to equate famine deaths,

victims of police terror, and deaths in Nazi gas chambers with the plight of

Russians unable to buy food and health care today. One could place many of

the century's deaths in any of several categories, according to the political

point one wanted to make. Should we blame premature deaths in Russia

today on the legacy of communism or on the failed policies of reformers?

For how many deaths under Stalin should we blame communism? Stalin's

personal paranoia? Backwardness or ignorance? We might do better to try to

understand these grisly statistics in their contexts, rather than positing

large polemical categories and then filling them up with bodies. Good

history is about balanced interpretation and is usually more complicated

than categorization or blame.

The Black Book attributes all these deaths to an ideology: Marxist-Leninist

communism. Courtois's introduction and Martin Malia's foreword posit a

single world Communist movement in the twentieth century within a

"Leninist matrix" with a single "genetic code." Thus ideologies can be

blamed for deaths, and all the terror in this case belongs to just one.

WAS there a single "communism" in this century? After Marx's First

International association of Communists came three more Internationals.

Each of them bitterly denounced its predecessors as the bearers of a false

ideology. Regimes calling themselves Communist installed a bewildering

variety of economic and social systems and constantly attacked one another

for all kinds of ideological deviations; one party's Marxist-Leninist faith

was another's vile heresy. They rarely acted as allies and frequently fought

one another on the battlefield. The USSR and China fought steadily along the

Amur River. Communist Vietnam invaded Communist Kampuchea, and then

Communist China attacked Communist Vietnam.

Historically speaking, what did Stalin's disciplined, urban-based

industrializing system have in common with Mao Zedong's reliance on the

rural peasantry and the wild Cultural Revolution? Did the fanatical Mao and

the pragmatic Deng Xiaoping share a genetic code? Pol Pot, who massacred

his countrymen in Cambodia, had more in common with the anti-Communist

Idi Amin than with the Communist Fidel Castro. The impulses and historical

conditions giving rise to these regimes in various countries were vastly

different. Even their terrors were dissimilar: Chinese and Vietnamese

repression stressed re-education; the Khmer Rouge massacred categories of

people; Stalin permanently transplanted real and imagined enemies. The only

thing linking the Communist regimes was that each constantly attested that

it was Marxist-Leninist -- and that other Communist regimes were not.

After all, Ethiopian colonels and Yemeni bandits used to claim that they

were Leninists too, and nothing was easier than calling one's country a

"people's republic."

IF we want to categorize the unprecedented violence and terror of the past

century, we could just as well use templates that have less to do with left-

wing or right-wing isms. Backward countries driven to modernize quickly

were (and are) often scenes of repression and sickening mass killing,

whether they were self-proclaimed Communists or not. In addition to

modernization, one could use religion, nationalism, economic competition,

or the technology of war to group the century's deaths. If we want to play

this scorecard game with isms, we could post a huge number of deaths to

the account of capitalist and nationalist competition, starting with

imperialism and two world wars and ending with excess deaths in Yeltsin's

democratic Russia.

The Passing of an Illusion can be seen as a testament to the Western

intellectual view of communism, and it might seem unfair to criticize Furet

for the weakness of his coverage of Russian history. But in presenting the

Western view Furet feels obliged to provide a good bit of that history. In the

process he rejects several decades of historical research on the Soviet Union

-- as does Courtois -- and insists on views that were current decades ago.

These days the weight of historical and archival evidence is against both

authors: they depict the 1917 October Revolution as a mere coup rather than

the social upheaval that historians study today. To them the famine of

1932-1933 was simply a planned Ukrainian genocide, although today most

see it as a policy blunder that affected millions belonging to other

nationalities. Yes, at the end of World War II, Stalin incarcerated returning

Soviet prisoners of war, but now we know that most of them were released

quickly after routine processing in temporary camps.

Furet writes that the "beginning of the end" for the Soviet regime was Nikita

Khrushchev's anti-Stalin secret speech of 1956, which "overturned the

universal status of the Communist idea." For Furet and other intellectuals,

this was truly a crack in the ideological façade of the Soviet Union (Furet

himself broke with communism that year), and the rest of Soviet history

resolves itself into steady decomposition. Ideas matter intensely for Furet,

and from the limited point of view of ideology he is right. The break with

Stalinism did in fact disorient and begin to disillusion Western Communist

intellectuals. French former Communists often date their own defection and

the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union together, and argue about who

left the Party at the most correct time, thus confounding Soviet history with

their own. Furet's view ignores the fact that the USSR existed for another

thirty-five years after 1956 -- more years than Stalin ruled. Economically

and technologically these were actually among the best years for the long-

suffering Soviet people.

Similarly, Furet's book in particular proposes an old-fashioned kind of

personalized history that encompasses not only the play of ideas but also

the deeds of famous people. Absent here is any real consideration of society

or economics or the roles of masses of people, except as categories

manipulated by leading personalities. Perhaps because of his lack of

expertise in modern history, Furet has written a kind of nineteenth-century

version of great men making history. I doubt that many modern historians

would agree that Lenin, Hitler, and Mussolini "took power by breaking weak

regimes with the superior force of their wills." Surely more than that was


Yes, French intellectuals were disappointed by the Soviet Union. But many

others were not, and not everyone is concerned solely with ideas,

ideologies, and great men. It is instructive to remember that only nine

months before Yeltsin dissolved the USSR, an overwhelming majority of

Soviet voters, in a referendum, were in favor of maintaining the union. For a

surprising number of people today in the former Soviet Union, the terror

does not wholly negate achievements such as universal literacy, one of the

best technological-education systems in the world, the first man in space,

free education and health care, and security in old age. Maybe these social

gains, too, were an illusion, but we risk another kind of illusion by not

including the few but important pluses with the mountains of minuses. The

West need not be generous in its victory over communism, but we might be

more balanced in our obituaries.

FURET sees communism as a kind of flash in the pan of modern history.

When the illusion passed, he writes, it left virtually no traces and no

enduring legacy. This is preposterous. Admittedly, besides its moral failure,

communism failed in its crusade to convert the whole world and in the end

succeeded in lastingly converting no significant part of it. But communism's

impact was and still is enormous. In addition to provoking significant

changes in capitalist economies, such as vastly increased military spending

and the growth of a military-industrial complex, the USSR's existence

changed Western social development in fundamental ways.

Labor reform in the West in the past century came about under the threat of

a radicalized international labor movement protected and supported by the

USSR. President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was in part meant to steal the

thunder of radicals who looked to Moscow and therefore could not be

ignored. Social goals that are commonplace today, including women's rights

and racial integration, were planks of the Communist Party platform long

before mainstream American parties took them seriously. It was Communists

who first went to the American South and began organizing African-

Americans and poor whites around issues of social justice. The more

politically acceptable young people who followed them in the sixties are

heroes today. On the international scene the Soviet Union provided support

for Nelson Mandela and other reformers. Communism made life difficult for

Western establishments, and it is doubtful that reforms would have come

when they did if the USSR had not existed. Communists always rejected

reform in favor of revolution. Ironically, however, the existence of the Soviet

Union helped the capitalist West reform itself and avoid the bloody

revolutions of the East. Twentieth-century communism was no passing

illusion; its legacies are everywhere.

Why are we seeing books like these now, when communism is gone and

there are no more dragons to slay? Their authors tell us that there have been

no "probing examinations" of Communist horrors, and that communism has

to date received no "fair and just" assessment. This comes as a surprise,

given that the field of Soviet studies in the West before the late 1970s did

little more than detail Soviet crimes. Most writing about the Soviet Union

then was about totalitarian terror, and Soviet specialists provided us with a

full menu of Communist atrocities. One could read about these horrors in

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's masterly Gulag Archipelago decades ago. And it

has been seven years since I and others published the actual figures on

Soviet gulag inmates and executions from the KGB archives of the notorious

gulag system. From 1921 to Stalin's death, in 1953, around 800,000 people

were sentenced to death and shot, 85 percent of them in the years of the

Great Terror of 1937-1938. From 1934 to Stalin's death, more than a million

perished in the gulag camps. A few years ago these figures were confirmed

by KGB archivists and published in the Yeltsin Administration's official

gazetteer. No, the books under review are not responses to any failure to

study these questions. A more cogent justification for these works lies in

their presentation of factual material from newly available archives. In

particular, Werth's chapters on the Soviet Union provide a wealth of

historical details. It is unfortunate that they are presented more as polemic

than as balanced, carefully analyzed history.

Such books, which use obsolete concepts to tell part of a story, are less

about history than about politics. French tradition does not favor objective

history for history's sake. Every history book in France is immediately

understood as its author's political declaration. Because the French

Communist Party is still a force in politics, historical books about

communism inevitably become today's polemics. Courtois himself has said,

"In France, history is politics." But Furet's erudition and the Courtois team's

800 pages of single-minded fine print are unlikely to produce a similar

impact in the United States, where much more has been known of Soviet

crimes and where the Communist Party has never been part of the

respectable intellectual establishment.

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