The Red Plague
This essay was originally posted in 2005 and is being republished today as a reminder of the scope of the communist tragedy. R. J. Rummel, Professor Emeritus at the Univerisity of Hawaii, writes about the size of the sheer numbers of the victims of communism during the 20th century. He is the author of Death by Government, and his website provides the evidence in detail for what he writes here.
The bubonic plague that in 1347-1353 depopulated Europe has horrified historians and surely all those who have read about it. Death. Death everywhere. Cities and towns devastated. Whole families of several generations gone. About 25,000,000 people perished.
Yet, we have had a different kind of plague in the last century, one over four times more deadly, and historians shy away from writing about it. Indeed, most contemporaries did not even know it was occurring, for the media and politicians that were not affected by it, tended to ignore it. It was a Red Plague. A plague of democide.
As the concept of murder defines individual killing in domestic society, democide is murder by government, and includes genocide, massacres, politicide, atrocities, assassinations, extrajudicial executions, and so on. And it is focusing on this democide, rather than the genocide that is one of its components, which uncovers the true dimensions of the Red Plague that inflicted humanity, even in the life of many readers.
For about eight years, I sifted through thousands of sources trying to determine the extent of democide in this century. Because of that effort (see my Death By Government and Statistics of Democide), I am able to give some conservative figures on what is an unrivaled communist hecatomb, a Red Plague, and to compare this to overall world totals.
Table 1 below lists all communist governments that have committed any form of democide and gives their estimated low, mid-estimate (what I call the prudent estimate), and estimated high. It also shows the total for communist guerrillas, including quasi-governments, as of the Mao soviets in China prior to the communist victory in 1949.
Of course, even though systematically determined and calculated, all these figures are only rough approximations. Even were we to have total access to all communist archives we still would not be able to calculate precisely how many the communists murdered. Consider that even in spite of the archival statistics and detailed reports of survivors, the best experts still disagree by over 40 percent on the total number of Jews killed by the Nazis. We cannot expect near this accuracy for the victims of communism. We can, however, get a probable order of magnitude and a relative approximation of these deaths within a most likely range. And that is what the figures in Table 1 are meant to be. Their apparent precision is only due to the total for most communist governments being the summation of dozens of subtotals (as of forced labor deaths each year) and calculations (as in extrapolating scholarly estimates of executions or massacres).
As you can see, the total mid-estimate is about 110,286,000, an incredible total. It is around 65 percent of all democide over the same period, and is about three times greater than all the international and domestic war deaths, including the two world wars, Vietnam, Korea, and the Iran-Iraq War, to mention the bloodiest. This is the Red Plague driven by ideological fervor. The Black Plague, carried by fleas from rats and not by ideology, killed a quarter of the number the communists murdered.
There is much to dwell on in the table, if your stomach is up to it, and I will only note the most incredible estimates. The Soviet Union appears the greatest megamurderer of all time, apparently killing near 61,000,000 people. Stalin himself is responsible for almost 43,000,000 of these (I know you’ve read the toll as 20,000,000, but it was only for the 1930s and has been mistaken applied to Stalin’s full and bloody reign 1928-1953). Most of the Soviet deaths, perhaps around 39,000,000 are due to lethal forced labor in gulag and transit thereto.
Communist China up to 1987, but mainly from 1949 through the Cultural Revolution, which alone may have seen over 1,000,000 murdered, is the second worst megamurderer (I excluded the great famine of 1959 to about 1961 as nondemocidal – it alone cost about 27,000,000 lives). Then there are the lesser megamurderers, such as North Korea and Tito's Yugoslavia.
Obviously, the population that is available to kill will make a big difference in the total democide, and thus the annual percentage rate of democide is revealing. By far, the most deadly of all communist countries and, indeed, in this century by far, has been Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot and his henchmen likely killed some 2,000,000 Cambodians from April 1975 through December 1978 out of a population of around 7,000,000. This is an annual rate of over 8 percent of the population murdered, or odds of an average Cambodian surviving Pol Pot's rule of slightly over 2 to 1.
How can we understand all this killing by communists? It is the marriage of an absolutist ideology with the absolute power. Communists believed that they knew the truth, absolutely. They believed that they knew through Marxism what would bring about the greatest human welfare and happiness. And they believed that power, the dictatorship of the proletariat, must be used to tear down the old feudal or capitalist order and rebuild society and culture to realize this utopia. Nothing must stand in the way of its achievement. Government--the Communist Party--was thus above any law. All institutions, cultural norms, traditions, and sentiments were expendable. And the people were as though lumber and bricks, to be used in building the new world.
Constructing this utopia was seen as though a war on poverty, exploitation, imperialism, and inequality. And for the greater good, as in a real war, people are killed. And thus, this war for the communist utopia had its necessary enemy casualties, the clergy, bourgeoisie, capitalists, wreckers, counterrevolutionaries, rightists, tyrants, rich, landlords, and noncombatants that unfortunately got caught in the battle. In a war millions may die, but the cause may be well justified, as in the defeat of Hitler and an utterly racist Nazism. And to many communists, the cause of a communist utopia was such as to justify all the deaths.
The irony of this is that communism in practice, even after decades of total control, did not improve the lot of the average person, but usually made their living conditions worse than before the revolution. It is not by chance that the greatest famines have occurred within the Soviet Union (about 5,000,000 dead during 1921-23 and 7,000,000 from 1932-3) and communist China (about 27,000,000 dead from 1959-61, as mentioned). In total almost 55,000,000 people died in various communist famines and associated diseases, a little over 10,000,000 of them from democidal famine. This is as though the total population of Turkey, Iran, or Thailand had been completely wiped out. And understandably, something like 35,000,000 people fled communist countries as refugees. It is as though the countries of Argentina or Columbia had been totally emptied of all their people. This was an unparalleled vote against the utopian pretensions of Marxism.
But communists could not be wrong. After all, their knowledge was scientific, based on historical materialism, an understanding of the dialectical process in nature and human society, and a materialist (and thus realistic) view of nature. Marx has shown empirically where society has been and why, and he and his interpreters proved that it was destined for a communist end. No one could prevent this, but only stand in the way and delay it at the cost of more human misery. Those who disagreed with this worldview and even with some of the proper interpretations of Marx and Lenin were, without a scintilla of doubt, wrong. After all, did not Marx, Lenin, Stalin, or Mao say that. . . . In other words, communism was like a fanatical religion. It had its revealed text and chief interpreters. It had its priests and their ritualistic prose with all the answers. It had a heaven, and the proper behavior to reach it. It had its appeal to faith. And it had its crusade against nonbelievers.
What made this secular religion so utterly lethal was its seizure of all the state's instrument of force and coercion and their immediate use to destroy or control all independent sources of power, such as the church, the professions, private businesses, schools, and, of course, the family. The result is what we see in Table 1. The result was the Red Plague.
Communism has been the greatest social engineering experiment of all time. It failed utterly and in doing so it probably killed the number of men, women, and children, totaled in Table 1, not to mention the near 30,000,000 of its subjects that died in its often aggressive wars and the rebellions it provoked. But there is a larger lesson to be learned from this horrendous sacrifice to one ideology. That is that no one can be trusted with power. The more power the center has to impose the beliefs of an ideological or religious elite or impose the whims of a dictator, the more likely human lives are to be sacrificed. This is but one reason, but perhaps the most important one, for fostering democratic freedom and assuring a democratic peace.