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Friday, August 11, 2006
The Architecture of Atrocity: What The Legacy of Communism Tells Us About Life and Liberty

Though the 19th and 20th century will be remembered for many things, the most important normative development of those two centuries was the development of sophisticated thoughts about authoritarianism and mass atrocities. At the center of that development lies the Cold War struggle between communist and democratic politics. As Rudolf Rummel has argued, in 'Death by Government", non-democratic countries, in their tyranny, have overseen some of the most atrocious excesses of barbarism and most callous disregard for human life. The hands of Communist governments, in particular, have a fair share of blood on them; in the mass famines, the political purges, the war crimes, the endless revolutions, and the systematic liquidation of human and dignity, the litany of communist crimes continued, from its bloody inception to its quiescent and reluctant collapse.

Many of the worst famines in the 20th century were the results of Communist activity. We have systematic evidence that Stalin and Mao used the weapon of food and collectivization to target and suppress those segments of the population who resisted their rule. Indeed, dispossessing millions of people of their property (to say nothing of their liberty) leads most often to their deaths. (The Amerindians, Armenians, and Jews all discovered the mystic connections between liberty, property, and their lives.) And let's not forget the purges: the attempts by many communist bosses to maintain control of the party's members and functionaries through state-sponsored terror.

Communist crimes, while numerous, do not, of course, make either the ideology or the regimes inherently, or even particularly, murderous. In fact, communism is only truly murderous under specific conditions which are the same conditions that lead any regime to commit mass atrocities. Though the ideology itself was not responsible for all the excess, but it helped. The ambitious scope and callous certitude of Communism certainly created conditions in which despotic leaders felt justified in "breaking a few eggs to make an omelet." Isaiah Berlin one remarked that if a solution to all the world's problems were possible, "surely no cost would be too high to obtain it: to make mankind just and happy and creative and harmonious forever-- what could be too high a price to pay for that? To make such an omelet, there is surely no limit to the number of eggs that should be broken-- that was the faith of Lenin, of Trotsky, of Mao...of Pol Pot." Rather than ideology, communist murderousness stemmed from the attempt to exercise control over a territory with sharply limited resources available over a reluctant, or even resistant, people. (The same story explains United State's atrocities in Vietnam and the Philippines, and, Nazi Germany's atrocities in France, Poland, and Italy, for instance.)

For all the excesses of Communism's humanitarian record, for which their is neither justification nor excuse, we should remember that there were less violent communist governments as well. In brief: Czechoslovakia, Cuba, Laos, Nicaragua, and to a lesser extent North Vietnam to name a few. This suggests that the ideology of Communism alone can not explain the massive violence. To explain the violence requires the presence of the other factors I mentioned; specifically, a situation of limited resources against a perceived strong threat. This situation, I believe, is the root behind a whole host of other atrocities as well from counterinsurgencies to war-time state-sponsored terrorism and is not unique, or, even peculiar to, communist regimes.

Communism's record on political liberty is worse than its human rights record. This is because one of the key features of communist governance is single-party rule. Singly party states, whether communist or not, is a a formula for authoritarian government. (Indeed, party states are more stable as authoritarian regimes than military-based dictatorships (Chile. Pakistan, Fascist Spain, Turkey at times) (and, even perhaps, dynastic (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco) dictatorships,) but that's another talking point.) Let's briefly consider some of the non-communist data: Algeria, Egypt, Tanzania, the Second Republic of Rwanda, Iraq, Syria, Singapore, Indonesia, Taiwan (before the democratic transition), and Mexico. Party-states do not tend toward democracy. After all, Lord Acton didn't observe that power tends toward moderation and sharing, did he?

The idea of the central, governing revolutionary party is a central tenant of Leninism, and, the idea of the party-state was formulated by Trotsky. (Some would say that Ataturk invented both, but I believe that more radicals copied Lenin than they patterned themselves after Ataturk. I could be wrong.) Stalin perfected the method of a centralized party boss within a governing structure. Mao and Ho Chi Minh added the nationalist dimension to Communist parties (but did not go the route of national socialism.) Since those innovations in what parties and organized revolutions can do for you, many Communists and non-Communists have opted for the single party model when they could consolidate control of the regime under their party. Communist parties more committed to stability, or, who did not face the threat of liquidation-- many early communist parties turned to violence because they believed that they either had to seize power or die--often governed through leftist parliamentary coalitions with labor, socialists, and in the latter part of the 20th century, environmental parties.

The take-away message: Communism as ideology might have authoritarian "tendencies." That is a political theoretic argument with good arguments both in favor and against that proposition. Communism, as an institutional reality and regime type, is authoritarian because of the nature of single-party governance. This statement is as true as any statement about institutional forms can be because the historical evidence from both Communist and non-Communist party states in various regions of the world and in various stages of development. This evidence rules out governing ideology ( i.e Communism), region of the world, "culture", and levels of economic development as an explanatory factor for why Communist policies were murderous and why their regimes were despotic.

There is nothing at the theoretical level in Communism which necessitates single party rule. In fact, a communist governing party, or a communist-led coalition, is entirely compatible with parliamentary democracy. (I don't think Communist political organization is suited for presidential democracy.)

Confronting the political and ethical legacies of Communism exposes the power, promises, and, sadly, limitations on revolutions, states, and ideologies to promote change at the expense of discretion. Having won the Cold War, and having become distant from the immediately euphoria, scholars in the non-Communist nations should use the historical record as opportunity to make the 21st century more humane than the 19th and 20th. Disaggregating the reasons for Communist failures and excesses gestures, indictingly, toward single-party rule and low-resource ambitious foreign and domestic policies as the source of terror, deprivation, and, concern.