Counting the Bodies - Noam Chomsky

The arrival in power of Jörg Haider's far right Austrian Freedom Party, and the generally horrified reaction to this, provoked a familiar and predictable response from many on the right. Weren't 'Communism's' crimes just as bad as those of the Nazis? This comparison is presented in its most systematic form in the recently published French work, The Black Book of Communism, now available in English and many other languages. Below, Noam Chomsky, the leading voice of American radical social comment and, in the past, a staunch critic of the Soviet Union, takes a look at the arguments.

Let's begin with the familiar litany about the monsters we have confronted through the century and finally slain, a ritual that at least has the merit of roots in reality. Their awesome crimes are recorded in the newly-translated Black Book of Communism by French scholar Stephane Courtois and others, the subject of shocked reviews at the transition to the new millennium. The most serious, at least of those I have seen, is by political philosopher Alan Ryan, a distinguished academic scholar and social democratic commentator, in the year's first issue of the New York Times Book Review (Jan 2).

The Black Book at last breaks "the silence over the horrors of Communism," Ryan writes, "the silence of people who are simply baffled by the spectacle of so much absolutely futile, pointless and inexplicable suffering." The revelations of the book will doubtless come as a surprise to those who have somehow managed to remain unaware of the stream of bitter denunciations and detailed revelations of the "horrors of Communism" that I have been reading since childhood, notably in the literature of the left for the past 80 years, not to speak of the steady flow in media and journals, film, libraries overflowing with books that range from fiction to scholarship…all unable to lift the veil of silence. But put that aside.

The Black Book, Ryan writes, is in the style of a "recording angel." It is a relentless "criminal indictment" for the murder of 100 million people, "the body count of a colossal, wholly failed social, economic, political and psychological experiment." The total evil, unredeemed by even a hint of achievement anywhere, makes a mockery of "the observation that you can't make an omelette without broken eggs."

The vision of our own magnificence alongside the incomprehensible monstrosity of the enemy - the "monolithic and ruthless conspiracy" (John F. Kennedy) dedicated to "total obliteration" of any shred of decency in the world (Robert McNamara) - recapitulates in close detail the imagery of the past half century (actually, well beyond, though friends and enemies rapidly shift, to the present). Apart from a huge published literature and the commercial media, it is captured vividly in the internal document NSC 68 of 1950, widely recognised as the founding document of the Cold War but rarely quoted, perhaps out of embarrassment at the frenzied and hysterical rhetoric of the respected statesmen Dean Acheson and Paul Nitze; for a sample, see my Deterring Democracy, chap. 1.

The picture has always been an extremely useful one. Renewed once again today, it allows us to erase completely the entire record of hideous atrocities compiled by "our side" in past years. After all, they count as nothing when compared with the ultimate evil of the enemy. However grand the crime, it was "necessary" to confront the forces of darkness, now finally recognised for what they were. With only the faintest of regrets, we can therefore turn to the fulfilment of our noble mission, though as New York Times correspondent Michael Wines reminded us in the afterglow of the humanitarian triumph in Kosovo, we must not overlook some "deeply sobering lessons": "the deep ideological divide between an idealistic New World bent on ending inhumanity and an Old World equally fatalistic about unending conflict." The enemy was the incarnation of total evil, but even our friends have a long way to go before they ascend to our dizzying heights.

Nonetheless, we can march forward, "clean of hands and pure of heart," as befits a Nation under God. And crucially, we can dismiss with ridicule any foolish inquiry into the institutional roots of the crimes of the state-corporate system, mere trivia that in no way tarnish the image of Good versus Evil, and teach no lessons, "deeply sobering" or not, about what lies ahead -- a very convenient posture, for reasons to obvious to elaborate.

Like others, Ryan reasonably selects as Exhibit A of the criminal indictment the Chinese famines of 1958-61, with a death toll of 25-40 million, he reports, a sizeable chunk of the 100 million corpses the "recording angels" attribute to "Communism" (whatever that is, but let us use the conventional term). The terrible atrocity fully merits the harsh condemnation it has received for many years, renewed here. It is, furthermore, proper to attribute the famine to Communism. That conclusion was established most authoritatively in the work of economist Amartya Sen, whose comparison of the Chinese famine to the record of democratic India received particular attention when he won the Nobel Prize a few years ago. Writing in the early 1980s, Sen observed that India had suffered no such famine. He attributed the India-China difference to India's "political system of adversarial journalism and opposition," while in contrast, China's totalitarian regime suffered from "misinformation" that undercut a serious response, and there was "little political pressure" from opposition groups and an informed public (Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, Hunger and Public Action, 1989; they estimate deaths at 16.5 to 29.5 million).

The example stands as a dramatic "criminal indictment" of totalitarian Communism, exactly as Ryan writes. But before closing the book on the indictment we might want to turn to the other half of Sen's India-China comparison, which somehow never seems to surface despite the emphasis Sen placed on it. He observes that India and China had "similarities that were quite striking" when development planning began 50 years ago, including death rates. "But there is little doubt that as far as morbidity, mortality and longevity are concerned, China has a large and decisive lead over India" (in education and other social indicators as well). He estimates the excess of mortality in India over China to be close to 4 million a year: "India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame," 1958-1961 (Dreze and Sen).

In both cases, the outcomes have to do with the "ideological predispositions" of the political systems: for China, relatively equitable distribution of medical resources, including rural health services, and public distribution of food, all lacking in India. This was before 1979, when "the downward trend in mortality [in China] has been at least halted, and possibly reversed," thanks to the market reforms instituted that year.

Overcoming amnesia, suppose we now apply the methodology of the Black Book and its reviewers to the full story, not just the doctrinally acceptable half. We therefore conclude that in India the democratic capitalist "experiment" since 1947 has caused more deaths than in the entire history of the "colossal, wholly failed...experiment" of Communism everywhere since 1917: over 100 million deaths by 1979, tens of millions more since, in India alone. The "criminal indictment" of the "democratic capitalist experiment" becomes harsher still if we turn to its effects after the fall of Communism: millions of corpses in Russia, to take one case, as Russia followed the confident prescription of the World Bank that "Countries that liberalise rapidly and extensively turn around more quickly [than those that do not]," returning to something like what it had been before World War I, a picture familiar throughout the "third world." But "you can't make an omelette without broken eggs," as Stalin would have said. The indictment becomes far harsher if we consider these vast areas that remained under Western tutelage, yielding a truly "colossal" record of skeletons and "absolutely futile, pointless and inexplicable suffering" (Ryan). The indictment takes on further force when we add to the account the countries devastated by the direct assaults of Western power, and its clients, during the same years.

The record need not be reviewed here, though it seems to be as unknown to respectable opinion as were the crimes of Communism before the appearance of the Black Book. The authors of the Black Book, Ryan observes, did not shrink from confronting the "great question": "the relative immorality of Communism and Nazism." Although "the body count tips the scales against Communism," Ryan concludes that Nazism nevertheless sinks to the lower depths of immorality. Unasked is another "great question" posed by "the body count," when ideologically serviceable amnesia is overcome.

To make myself clear, I am not expressing my judgements; rather those that follow from the principles that are employed to establish preferred truths -- or that would follow, if doctrinal filters could be removed.

This article originally appeared in Spectre No.9, which also features a dossier on biotechnology and the interview with Susan George which you will find elsewhere on this site. Copies of Spectre No.9 are available from Spectre, BP5, Bxl 46, rue Wiertz, 1047 Brussels, Belgium, for 2 UK pounds or the equivalent in any tradable currency.