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East European Perspectives: April 18, 2001

18 April 2001, Volume 3, Number 8

In the course of 1995, the managing editor of the Paris publishing house Robert Laffont detected an unsatisfied demand on the market for books about Communist atrocities. The editor, Bernard Fixot, anticipated that the opening of archives in the East would soon result in publications, probably originating in the United States, that would meet that demand. To get in before the competition, Fixot invited two French historians of the Communist world, Stephane Courtois and Jean-Louis Panne, to assemble a team that could inventory "crimes, terror, and repression" in the USSR, Eastern Europe, China, Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America. Running to more than 800 pages and published in 1997 to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Bolshevik takeover in Russia, the "Black Book of Communism" was an instant best-seller in France. It was swiftly translated into more than 20 languages, with the English version published by Harvard University Press in 1999.

On 21 February 2001, the Centre for the Study of Central Europe at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES) in London hosted a round-table discussion of the "Black Book." The discussion was prompted by the realization that, in contrast to France, Germany, and Romania, in the English-speaking world the "Black Book" has received relatively little attention. It has been reviewed in a number of major American and British newspapers and journals, often by quite prominent figures, most of whom have endorsed the book's damning indictment of Communist atrocities while noting that it actually tells us little that we did not already know. The discussion's participants felt that the real significance of the book lies not so much in its empirical originality (or lack of it), but in its attempt to conceptualize the Communist idea and movement as intrinsically criminal and inevitably terroristic. This enterprise raises a number of issues that a two-hour symposium could only begin to tackle, but which deserve more consideration than they have received hitherto in the U.S. and U.K.

The speakers included Jon Beasley-Murray, lecturer in Latin American studies at the University of Manchester; Tim Beasley-Murray, lecturer in Slovak studies at SSEES; Mary Fulbrook, professor of German history at University College London; Claudio Ingerflom, director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris and resident at the Maison Francaise in Oxford; John Klier, the Corob Professor of Modern Jewish History at University College London; George Kolankiewicz, professor of sociology at SSEES; and Kieran Williams, a political scientist at SSEES.


At the outset, Williams located the "Black Book" against several trends, the conjuncture of which partly explains why its appearance aroused such controversy in parts of Europe. One such trend was the return to evil in continental philosophy, especially the reworking of Kant's conception of "radical evil." Unsatisfied with the reach of Hannah Arendt's notion of banal evil in totalitarian bureaucracies, thinkers like Joan Copjec and Jacob Rogozinski have raised the possibility of an active, conscious will to evil and the challenges this raises for moral and political thought. The "Black Book," while philosophically uninformed, plainly attributes the violence of Communism to the willful evil inherent in Lenin's ideas. This claim, stated most forcefully in Courtois's now-notorious introduction and conclusion, is supported by numerous excerpts from orders issued by Lenin from the very beginning of the revolution, which show a callous indifference to any human life that might impede his project. According to the "Black Book," Lenin thus set a decisive example, which was emulated and often exceeded by all subsequent Communist leaders who claimed the Leninist legacy.

A number of problems with this voluntaristic interpretation of Communist violence were identified by the other speakers. Jon Beasley-Murray and Fulbrook showed that the "Black Book" itself provides ample counter-evidence, such as in the sections on Nicaragua and (in the German edition only) East Germany: In neither country did the regime resort to wholesale terror. Fulbrook challenged the very use of numbers to indict regimes, since the GDR from 1945 to 1982 executed 372 people, of which 136 were former Nazis, while there are currently more than 3,500 people on death row in the U.S., with a disproportionate number from poor and minority backgrounds. Jon Beasley-Murray also noted that any attempt to make terror the very essence of Communism could work in a Latin American context only by omitting regimes like Allende's Chile and including movements that were never in power, such as Peru's Shining Path.

A second problem, raised by Claudio Ingerflom and John Klier, is that the "Black Book" is replete with haphazard attributions of violence to factors other than Lenin's evil idea, such as the pressure of a hostile international environment, the demands of modernization, anti-colonial nationalism, atavistic village feuds, and even aspects of East Asian religions. These alternative explanations are never developed systematically and smack of several of the authors' own youthful Marxism or a vulgar orientalism. In this regard, chief editor Courtois fails to impart a coherence to the vast text and that task, as noted by John Klier, falls to the foreword by American historian Martin Malia, which was not part of the French text and was originally a review in the "Times Literary Supplement."

Even more surprising, given Courtois's attempt to locate the propellant of terror within the very radical idea, is how lightly Marx and Marxism get off. As the chain of blame starts with Lenin, there is no exploration of the violent or dictatorial tendencies in some of Marx and Engels's writings, or in the evident tension within Marxian thought between its Romantic and scientific elements. While Tim Beasley-Murray expressed the concern that the "Black Book" strives to impose what Slovene cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek calls a "Denkverbot," a foreclosure of serious consideration of alternatives to liberal capitalism, Williams felt that the "Black Book" could be read as leaving open space for non-Leninist radical projects.

Fulbrook, however, worried that the "Black Book" had broken down certain taboos in Germany concerning the Holocaust that the historians' debates of the 1980s had left intact and it thereby licenses forces of the right to express extreme views under the guise of anti-Communism. This opportunity arose almost entirely because of Courtois's provocative introduction, which strove to establish a moral equivalence between the evil of the Holocaust and that of Communism. In general, the speakers at this round table were left unconvinced, especially as Courtois relies so heavily on the large (possibly inflated) numbers of victims of Communism to support his case. A comparison should address not just the numbers killed, but above all the means and motives. The "Black Book" offers no basis on which to commensurate the evil of the systematic extermination of targeted groups and the evil of indiscriminate, arbitrary slaughter and malign neglect; the two forms of mass death remain distinct and the reader of the "Black Book" is left no better placed to decide whether they are truly comparable or whether one form is more, less, or equally worthy of condemnation.


Since none of the speakers questioned the need to honor the millions of victims of Communism, much of the discussion explored alternatives to the approach offered by the "Black Book." Four stand out as possibilities to take forward.

One approach, presented by Ingerflom and supported from the audience by Pete Duncan, a political scientist at SSEES, would focus on the variety of forms of Communism that the Black Book inadvertently depicts, and try in particular to explain why violence was stronger in some contexts and periods than in others. A recent collective work in France, Le siecle des communismes (Paris: Les Editions de l'Atelier/Editions Ouvrieres, 2000), to which Ingerflom contributed, tries to do exactly that but has not yet received the attention in the English-speaking world that it deserves.

Another, argued for by Fulbrook, would explore the social history of Communism and try to reconstruct a sense of the every day, the normal and the abnormal as experienced by people both affected and unaffected by terror and discrimination. A significant distinction would have to be made between the time of high Stalinism and that following it, especially the more predictable 1970s and 1980s, but in all likelihood the totalitarian model that is enjoying a revival in German historiography would not be very helpful.

George Kolankiewicz cited a recent exchange in the Polish daily "Gazeta Wyborcza" between its editor-in-chief, Adam Michnik, and a former high official of the Communist regime involved in martial law and the round-table talks of 1988-89, General Czeslaw Kiszczak. The exchange was remarkable for the efforts of Michnik, a prominent non-Communist intellectual and activist in the Solidarity movement, to understand the formative process by which Kiszczak became a dedicated member of the Communist regime who nevertheless contributed actively to its undoing. Professor Kolankiewicz suggested that these attempts by surviving victims to look at things from the perspective of their former gaolers, which may lead to reconciliation and forgiveness or at least to an understanding of their motivations, are far more useful to social scientists than encyclopedias of horror like the "Black Book."

Ultimately, Jon Beasley-Murray questioned the very attempt at a definitive statement on something as large and varied as the global experience of Communism. Such efforts could easily become the equivalent of a show trial, offering a complete, watertight explanation of events, mimicking justice but unable to enact it, savoring the spectacle of terror yet adopting a dryly legalistic, often monotonous tone to avoid seeming voyeuristic. Jon Beasley-Murray recommended "gray books," by which he meant any form of representation or dialogue that would allow greater ambiguity, openness, and respect for the agency of the victims rather than portraying them as passive and incomplete.

Kieran Williams is a lecturer in politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London.