The Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, D.C. It is modeled after the “Goddess of Democracy” papier mache that was erected during the protest against the Communist government of China in 1989 at Tiananmen Square.
Many Americans, especially younger ones, do not fully understand the history of communism, one of the world’s great evils. Communism and its influence over much of the world during the 20th century led to the death or enslavement of hundreds of millions of human beings. It is important that Americans gain an understanding of communism in all its gruesome details. By doing so, It will give us all a better understanding and appreciation of American history and more respect for American values. Communism is a stark reminder that evil starts when the individual human life stops being respected.
Communism was the theory of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), both of German decent. In 1848, they wrote their beliefs for how societies should be governed in their work The Communist Manifesto (Marx is credited with the final version). In basic terms, this was a philosophy that all of human history was really one long class struggle between the bourgeois or upper class and the proletariat or working class. The working class would rise up in a world wide revolution and eliminate the upper classes, creating a utopian society where “each will produce according to his ability and each will receive according to his need.” By eliminating class struggles, there would be no further need for God, family, or private property. According to Marx, a “dictatorship of the proletariat” would bring the world fairness and equality.
The Communist Manifesto has ten basis planks outlined below:
- Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes
- A heavy progressive or graduated income tax
- Abolition of all rights of inheritance
- Centralization of the property of all emigrants and rebels
- Centralization of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly
- Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state
- Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state; bringing into cultivation of waste lands, and the improvements of the soil generally in accordance with a common play
- Equal liability of all to labor. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
- Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, but a more equable distribution of the population over the country
- Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factories labor in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc.
Although some of the above tenants may sound appealing for some, the reality of their application was something very different.
Karl Marx was born to Jewish parents in Trier, Prussia in 1818, although his father converted to Lutheranism in 1816 due to anti-Jewish laws that existed at the time. Marx was baptized in the Lutheran Church but would later become an atheist.
He began his life studying law but after his father’s death, he turned his attention to philosophy and the construction of a new social order he hoped would start a revolution. He studied at multiple universities and moved to different European countries throughout his life, including France, Belgium, and England.
Although married with children, Marx’s family life was often tumultuous. He typically spent his nights at the library working on his theories without much concern for earning a living. As a result, his family suffered through poverty and difficult living conditions. His one true friend, Friedrich Engels, often sent him money to survive. Tragically, of the seven children he fathered with his wife Jenny, only three would survive into adulthood. Two of those children would eventually commit suicide.
Marx was able to get the attention of European socialists during his life. He joined various communist organizations including one called the Communist League. In 1847, the Communist League asked Marx and Engels to write a manifesto. The Communist Manifesto was published a year later in 1848.
Karl Marx appeared to have a difficult time working with and relating to other people which limited his ability to make his communist philosophy a reality. He spent his life immersed in his writings at the expense of his family and all those around him. Before his death in 1883, he published other works, most notably Das Kapital, an anti-capitalist work that promoted the virtues of the communist system.
Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin
Marx and The Communist Manifesto appeared destined to be nothing more than a curiosity until a series of events led to the rise of Vladimir Lenin and the Russian Communist Party in 1917. A revolutionary who had been exiled by the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, Lenin returned to Russia in 1917 with the help of German agents who hoped his return would lead to the withdraw of Russia from World War I. While this German goal was achieved, history took a dark turn.
Lenin was successful in overthrowing the tsar and ultimately gained power after a bloody civil war. Lenin gave communism a home with the creation of the Soviet Union at the end of 1922 (a “soviet” is a word for a workers’ council). He and his government seized private property, seized and collectivized farms, many that had been in families for generations, took control of Russian industries, stopped paying workers wages, assigned jobs for the good of the state, forced the lower classes to work the land, and restricted the selling of retail goods to the state. The Russian economy quickly collapsed. Being a good communist, Lenin responded by attacking the people. Lenin ruthlessly suppressed and killed his enemies or those that opposed him with the assistance of the Cheka or secret police. From the spring of 1921 through 1922, Russia was in a famine and an estimated 5 million people starved to death.
Fearing a loss of power, Lenin had little choice but to ease some of his policies. He initiated a “New Economic Program” that began to increase private ownership, reestablished pay to workers, and allowed the selling of grain on the open market. These capitalist principles put Russia on a better economic course. Soon after this period, Lenin suffered a series of strokes. He died in January 1924.
The death of Lenin was another opportunity for communism to die a slow death to irrelevancy. This is not what happened. Instead, some of history’s greatest monsters used communism to spread death, imprisonment, police states, and the suppression of the human spirit.
After Lenin, Joseph Stalin took control of Russia. Like all good totalitarian dictators, he quickly used whatever propaganda tools were available to him to portray himself as a champion of the Russian people. Ordinary Russians, especially children, were indoctrinated to treat Stalin as an iconic figure who Russia could not live without. In fact, Stalin’s legacy is nothing more than mass murder, imprisonment, and despair.
To consolidate his power, Stalin first targeted his political adversaries, then the Russian people themselves. The figures on his reign of terror will never be truly known but Stalin is responsible for at least 20 million deaths, including the starvation of up to 5 million Ukrainians. The starvation was in response to a Ukrainian uprising after one of Stalin’s plans to collectivize their farms and seize their property. In response, Stalin starved them to death. Another estimated 18 million Russians were sent to forced labor camps known as gulags where millions more died. These figures do not count the estimated 20 million Soviet civilian and military deaths during World War II. Stalin eventually ordered his own soldiers killed during battle if they retreated.
It is difficult to know the true number of deaths ordered by Stalin. Acclaimed Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote extensively on the Soviet gulag system, believes the true number of victims might be closer to 60 million. What is clear is that Stalin had no regard for human life. He had approximately 20 luxurious houses spread throughout Russia while his people suffered. He would give out his orders to his henchmen while spending time in his one of his many gardens. A quote attributed to Stalin summarizes the man. “One death is a tragedy, one million is a statistic.”
Communism spreads throughout the world…
Despite killing tens of millions of his fellow Chinese, a portrait of Mao Zedong hangs in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China
In China today, the portrait of Communist leader Mao Zedong hangs above Tiananmen square in Beijing. During his reign, up to 43 million Chinese died of starvation during Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” another communist attempt to collectivize agriculture. The victims were poor and working-class Chinese, the very people communism is purported to help. Mao’s policies of collectivization led to the worst man-made famine in world history.
Mao did not stop at starving his people. Like Stalin, he set up prison camps known as the laogai throughout China for innocent political prisoners. Approximately 20 million Chinese died in these camps. He initiated the “Cultural Revolution” where indoctrinated young men and women, usually between the ages of 14 to 21, known as Red Guards were unleashed upon anyone Mao considered an enemy of the state. Their chief targets included monks, educated Chinese and especially teachers. Approximately 1 million Chinese died during this period. Many who survived were subjected to public humiliation. All of this to instill fear and keep Mao in power.
Mao Zedong stated, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Historians seem to agree that of all the 20th century killers that include Joseph Stalin and Adolph Hitler, it is Mao that is responsible for the most deaths.
In 1975, Communist leader Pol Pot and his regime known as the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. French educated Pol Pot had a vision to transform the country into one consisting of only a peasant class. Everyone else had to be eliminated. To accomplish this, Pol Pot turned to genocide. An estimated one quarter of the entire population of the country or somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million people were murdered between 1975 and 1979. They were put in mass graves known as “the killing fields.”
In Vietnam, North Korea, Eastern Europe, Cuba, parts of Central and South America and other places around the world, millions more died in the name of communism. All of these countries deserve their own stories be told but they are too long to give them their proper respect here. Their stories are similar. One leader or a small group of leaders took power with all the privileges that entailed while innocent men and women were sent to prison camps, starved to death or killed. Citizens who were not in the Communist Party elite did the best they could to make a living for their families while under the watchful eye and control of a police state.