Why the left must stop defending communist regimes

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Photo by Марьян Блан | @marjanblan on Unsplash

In early 2016, in a crowded student union hall on a warm East Anglian day, the Cambridge women’s society was hosting a launch event for a new ‘zine’. The room was filled with people much like myself — left-wing humanitarians with connections to various human and minority rights campaigns. A fairly stereotypical scene in any student town.

Theoretically these were ‘my people,’ and yet, as the separate conversations around the room predictably turned to politics, I began to feel alien. Many of them were communists, and many more were deeply sympathetic to communist regimes. One member of my huddle strenuously argued that the Soviet Union was a victim of American imperialism, and, as proof, bumbled through a condemnation of some enormous ‘wall’ that the Americans supposedly wanted to build to block Soviet inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Confused, I asked if she was referring to ‘Star Wars,’ the nickname given to the 1980s US Strategic Defence Initiative. This did not involve a wall (which would be a rather comical way to block ICBMs), but it did controversially propose armed military satellites. ‘I don’t care about Star Wars,’ she shot back, presumably thinking of the film. Befuddled by the numerous layers of incomprehension, I dropped it and watched as the others remained captivated by her tall tales of American capitalist evil-doing.

This strange mindset, which fuses modern concepts of social and economic justice with communism, has an iron grip on certain pockets of young left-wing dialogue. Similar conversations punctuated my entire undergraduate experience, but I never came close to understanding it due to what appears to be a fundamental contradiction between the humanitarianism of left-wing and socially progressive movements, and the total disregard for human life that characterized practically every communist regime.

Why, I have always wondered, would people who spend their lives fighting for human rights and social justice — people who abhor violence and in some cases are pacifists; people who condemn the demeaning cruelty of market-driven politics; people who rightly shine a light on cases police brutality and the death-toll of Western military adventures — also be attracted to an ideological inheritance which gave rise to several of the deadliest regimes in history? It seems so utterly incongruous.

In the years since graduating, I have learned that part of the answer lies in the simple fact that communism isn’t capitalism. It’s the go-to alternative; a fleshed-out social and economic system that is readily available for adoption by those disgruntled with the status quo. This has been the case for many decades.

During the 1950s, for example, the Chinese Communist Party’s vocal denunciation of Western capitalism’s predatory behaviour in China, enabled by the weakness of the late-Qing and early-Republican state, was among its most attractive features. When young people lose confidence in the ability of the existing governmental system to provide them with a better future, changing that system becomes imperative. As one student from Chongqing recalled of his communist fervour in the 1950s:

Faith in communism as ‘the alternative’ sometimes leads idealistic young minds to defend the indefensible. Kang Chol-hwan, who spent 10 years in North Korea’s Yodok concentration camp and escaped the country in 1992, found many left-wing students in the South who sympathized with the authoritarian Kim regime.² ‘They always tried to make me see the shortfalls of the South Korean system of government,’ he recalls. ‘At least the North wasn’t corrupted by a fierce, never-ending battle for profit! Though I lacked the theoretical arguments to counter their claims, I wasn’t impressed.’³

Many young communists, however, are not conscious apologists for Marxist regimes; rather, they are ideologically indisposed to believe that anyone acting on the inspiration of Marx could possibly commit the unspeakable atrocities of which they are accused. Wishful thinking results in ignorance.

So, while none of the following will come as news to the historically conscious, it is worth reiterating the facts — starting with the Soviet Union, by far the most vociferously defended of the deceased communist ‘utopias’.

It is commonly assumed that the Russian Revolution in 1917 was an expression of egalitarian idealism in the face of a corrupt and oppressive state, which only later gave way to a bastardized form of communism during the brutal reign of Joseph Stalin. Lenin, the father of the revolution whose legacy is still celebrated in Western Marxist circles, is thus purged of blame for the mass killing of later years.

This, however, is inaccurate. Disregard for human life and a deliberate regime of terror was fused into the DNA of the Soviet project from the very beginning. The Soviet state, Lenin said, was ‘a system of organized violence’ which should be used to exact revenge on the ‘looters’ of the Tsarist days.⁴

The extent of the indifference towards humanity is demonstrated by one event in 1919. During a meeting Lenin passed Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka state security organization, a note asking how many counter-revolutionaries were being held in prison. When the note was returned with the figure of 1,500, Lenin marked the paper with a cross — as he usually did to signify that he had read a document. Dzerzhinsky, without seeking any clarification, assumed that the cross was an instruction to kill them and summarily executed all 1,500 prisoners that same night.⁵

Leon Trotsky, another key architect of the early USSR, celebrated the ‘mass terror realized by the revolutionary class,’ and hoped that this would ‘put an end once and for all to the papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life.’ In his 1920 work Terrorism and Communism, Trotsky wrote that the ascendancy of the working class could not exist without the use of terror.⁶

The government, then, was filled from the very beginning with tyrants and blood-letters whose froth dripped down to every level of society. On the ground, this translated into an open license to settle even the pettiest personal rivalries and grievances. Peasants who had done well for themselves, or who owned more farm equipment than was usual, were treated as enemies of the people. With the sanction of the state, open talk of ‘extermination’ was common. Lenin himself blessed this localized terror, calling on people to ‘[cleanse] the Russian land of all vermin, of scoundrel fleas, the bedbug rich and so on.’⁷

While the Stalin years were far deadlier in terms of the sheer number of victims, then, they were not particularly out of step with Lenin’s ideology.

Stalin exercized no mercy against those he viewed as political enemies, regardless of their social status. Wave after wave, entire sections of the Soviet population were marked as ‘traitor peoples’ and murdered. In the Ukraine, for instance, a man-made famine killed around 4 million people in the early 1930s.⁸ A few years later, during ‘Stalin’s Terror’ (1936–38), 1 million people were executed and 10 million sent to the gulag prison camps as part of an enormous purge.⁹ During the Second World War, half-a-million ‘traitor peoples’ in the Caucasus regions were forcibly evicted from their homes and sent to Siberia.¹⁰

Even facts became enemies of the state, or ‘class enemies’. In 1937, when a census was conducted across the Soviet Union, the statisticians who compiled the data were executed when it turned out that the population was 14–15 million lower than expected.¹¹ Suppression of facts continued to characterize Soviet policy right up to its dying days. In 1986, when Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, government secrecy about flaws in the reactor and a refusal to acknowledge the true extent of the crisis contributed to the premature deaths of at least 4,000 people and the permanent dislocation of almost 120,000 people.¹²

Aside from the tens of millions of murders committed by the Soviet state, the aspect of Soviet policy that modern humanitarians ought to find most objectionable is its intense military-first focus. Money and food stocks were routinely diverted from the general population to pay for the Cold War with the United States. Even in the 1980s, during a time of relative détente between the USA and USSR, estimates of Soviet military spending range from 15% to 25% of GDP,¹³ compared to the 2–5% average among major countries today. The Soviet nuclear arsenal was also the largest in the world. In terms of peace and proliferation, the Soviet system was a plague to the world.

China under Mao Zedong followed much the same pattern as the USSR after the Communist Party took over in the late-1940s. Many of those executed in the ‘Great Terror’ were not counter-revolutionaries in any meaningful sense; as in the Stalinist USSR, the state’s real intention was to terrorize its citizens into submission. The whole campaign was conducted with mathematical coldness. ‘So in Beijing,’ Mao mused during one extermination initiative, ‘with its population of about 2 million, over 10,000 have already been arrested and 700 of these have been killed, while another batch of 700 is scheduled for execution. Killing roughly 1,400 should be enough.’¹⁴

These numbers were dwarfed, though, by the Great Famine in 1959–61, which was a direct result of agricultural inefficiencies caused by government policy. Private farming was replaced by collectivization, with workers forced to contribute to a state-owned farm over which they had no real control. The government also took away the vast majority of produce, much of it being sent to the USSR in exchange for heavy machinery and foreign currency, thus reducing the incentive of farm workers to perform better.

In 1959 the whole collectivized system collapsed in one of the worst episodes of mass death in human history. Up to 45 million people lost their lives¹⁵— more than the entire global death toll of World War I.

Those victims of the Maoist purges who were not killed were sent to prison camps — a policy that is still employed today. China continues to run a network of forced labour camps in which, among others, hundreds of thousands of Uigher Muslims are held without trial and subjected to torture and ‘re-education’.¹⁶

Most communist states have a comparably atrocious human rights record. Even Cuba, perhaps the most popular communist state among present-day students, has a similar history of political executions, failed reforms, forced prison labour, and the suppression of effective political opposition.¹⁷ These common themes should give pause to any aspiring young communist today. As Orlando Figes writes:

None of this, of course, necessarily discounts the possibility of a different kind of communism — one more in line with humanitarian standards. But the refusal of so many young communists to acknowledge the non-existence of a single communist regime that isn’t swimming in a pool of blood does not inspire confidence that they can learn from the past. Instead, they come across like stereotypical mad scientists, insisting that this time — this time — their experiment will work out.

The real question, anyway, is whether a ‘new’ communism is actually desirable in the first place. Many of the happiest, healthiest, and most comfortable people on the planet now live in mixed-market societies that place human rights front-and-centre. The Nordic countries, for instance, are much closer than any communist state ever was to the humanitarian and egalitarian values that I and most young left-wingers, Marxists included, share. They aren’t perfect, but they are infinitely preferable to the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, or Yugoslavia.

Given the availability of other (more humane) political options, why would anyone want to excavate communism from the mass-grave in which it currently lies? As Jack Luzkow wrote regarding the fall of the USSR: ‘Utopia was dead. And moreover, it deserved to be dead.’¹⁹

It’s time to move on.


1 Frank Dikötter, The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945–1957, (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 176.
2 North Korea is only a pseudo-communist regime, having developed its own paternalist-authoritarian ideology. Its existence, however, was made possible by funding and protection from the USSR and China, and until the 1970s it was lauded as an example of a successful communist state. See B. R. Meyers, The Cleanest Race, (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2010) ; Daniel Tudor and James Pearson, North Korea Confidential, (Rutland: Tuttle, 2015).
3 Kang Chol-hwan, The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, (New York: Basic Books, 2001), p. 228.
4 Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 100th anniversary edition, (London: The Bodley Head, 2017), pp. 524–5.
5 Ibid, p. 647.
6 Robert Service, Trotsky: A Biography, (London: Pan Books, 2009), p. 267.
7 Figes, A People’s Tragedy, p. 524.
8 Anne Applebaum, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, (London: Allen Lane, 2017).
9 Peter Kenez, A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to its Legacy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), pp. 104–11.
Alex Marshall, The Caucasus under Soviet Rule, (Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, 2010).
Kenez, History of the Soviet Union, p. 117.
12 Serhii Plokhy, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy, (London: Allen Lane, 2018).
13 Kenez, History of the Soviet Union, p. 233.
14 Dikötter, Tragedy of Liberation, p. 97.
15 Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe 1958–62, (London: Bloomsbury, 2011).
16 Human Rights Watch, ‘China: Free Xinjiang “Political Education” Detainees,’ 10 September 2017. [https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/09/10/china-free-xinjiang-political-education-detainees].
Human Rights Watch, ‘Cuba: Fidel Castro’s Record of Repression,’ 26 November 2016. [https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/11/26/cuba-fidel-castros-record-repression]
Figes, A People’s Tragedy, p. 823.
Jack Luzkow, What’s Left?: Marxism, Utopianism, and the Revolt against History, (Lanham: University Press Of America, 2006).

Historian of modern Britain, popular culture, and queer identities. PhD student, trans activist, and Quaker from South Wales. She/her pronouns.

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