Note that I completed this study in November 1993 while still engaged in collecting democide data. Not all the democide totals I mention here may be complete, therefore. For final figures on communist megamurderers, see my summary Table 1.2 in my Death by Government. For all final estimates, see the summary table in Statistics of Democide
With the passing of communism into history as an ideological alternative to democracy it is time to do some accounting of its human costs.
Few would deny any longer that communism--Marxism-Leninism and its variants--meant in practice bloody terrorism, deadly purges, lethal gulags and forced labor, fatal deportations, man-made famines, extrajudicial executions and show trials, and genocide. It is also widely known that as a result millions of innocent people have been murdered in cold blood. Yet there has been virtually no concentrated statistical work on what this total might be.
For about eight years I have been sifting through thousands of sources trying to determine the extent of democide (genocide and mass murder) in this century. As a result of that effort** I am able to give some conservative figures on what is an unrivaled communist hecatomb, and to compare this to overall world totals.
First, however, I should clarify the term democide. It means for governments what murder means for an individual under municipal law. It is the premeditated killing of a person in cold blood, or causing the death of a person through reckless and wanton disregard for their life. Thus, a government incarcerating people in a prison under such deadly conditions that they die in a few years is murder by the state--democide--as would parents letting a child die from malnutrition and exposure be murder. So would government forced labor that kills a person within months or a couple of years be murder. So would government created famines that then are ignored or knowingly aggravated by government action be murder of those who starve to death. And obviously, extrajudicial executions, death by torture, government massacres, and all genocidal killing be murder. However, judicial executions for crimes that internationally would be considered capital offenses, such as for murder or treason (as long as it is clear that these are not fabricated for the purpose of executing the accused, as in communist show trials), are not democide. Nor is democide the killing of enemy soldiers in combat or of armed rebels, nor of noncombatants as a result of military action against military targets.
With this understanding of democide, Table 1 lists all communist governments that have committed any form of democide and gives their estimated total domestic and foreign democide and its annual rate (the percent of a government's domestic population murdered per year). 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) and the world total for all governments and guerillas (including such quasi-governments as of the White Armies during the Russian civil war in 1917-1922). Figure 1 graphs the communist megamurderers and compares this to the communist and world totals.
Of course, even though systematically determined and calculated, all these figures and their graph 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).
With this understood, the Soviet Union appears the greatest megamurderer of all, apparently killing near 61,000,000 people. Stalin himself is responsible for almost 43,000,000 of these. Most of the 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. 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 crew 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 just over 2 to 1.
In sum the communist probably have murdered something like 110,000,000, or near two-thirds of all those killed by all governments, quasi-governments, and guerrillas from 1900 to 1987. Of course, the world total itself it shocking. It is several times the 38,000,000 battle-dead that have been killed in all this century's international and domestic wars. Yet the probable number of murders by the Soviet Union alone--one communist country-- well surpasses this cost of war. And those murders of communist China almost equal it.
Figure 2 shows the major sources of death for those murdered under communism and compares this to world totals for each source for this century. A few of these sources require some clarification. Deaths through government terrorism means the killing of specific individuals by assassination, extrajudicial executions, torture, beatings, and such. Massacre, on the other hand, means the indiscriminate mass killing of people, as in soldiers machine gunning demonstrators, or entering a village and killing all of its inhabitants. As used here, genocide is the killing of people because of their ethnicity, race, religion, or language. And democide through deportation is the killing of people during their forced mass transportation to distant regions and their death as a direct result, such as through starvation or exposure. Democidal famine is that which is purposely caused or aggravated by government or which is knowingly ignored and aid to its victims is withheld.
As can be seen in the figure, communist forced labor was particularly deadly. It not only accounts for most deaths under communism, but is close to the world total, which also includes colonial forced labor deaths (as in German, Portuguese, and Spanish colonies). Communists also committed genocide, to be sure, but only near half of the world total. Communists are much less disposed to massacre then were many other noncommunist governments (such as the Japanese military during World War II, or the Nationalist Chinese government from 1928 to 1949). As can be seen from the comparative total for terrorism, communists were much more discriminating in their killing overall, even to the extent in the Soviet Union, communist China, and Vietnam, at least, of using a quota system. Top officials would order local officials to kill a certain number of "enemies of the people," "rightists", or "tyrants".
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). 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 that something like 35,000,000 people fled communist countries as refugees, as though the countries of Argentina or Columbia had been totally emptied of all their people, was an unparalleled vote against the utopian pretensions of Marxism-Leninism.
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 world view and even with some of the proper interpretations of Marx and Lenin were, without a scintilla of doubt, wrong. After all, did not Marx or Lenin or 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.
But communism does not stand alone in such mass murder. We do have the example of Nazi Germany, which may have itself murdered some 20,000,000 Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Yugoslaves, Frenchmen, and other nationalities. Then there is the Nationalist government of China under Chiang Kai-shek, which murdered near 10,000,000 Chinese from 1928 to 1949, and the Japanese militarists who murdered almost 6,000,000 Chinese, Indonesians, Indochinese, Koreans, Filipinos, and others during world War II. And then we have the 1,000,000 or more Bengalis and Hindus killed in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971 by the Pakistan military. Nor should we forget the mass expulsion of ethnic Germans and German citizens from Eastern Europe at the end of World War II, particularly by the Polish government as it seized the German Eastern Territories, killing perhaps over 1,000,000 of them. Nor should we ignore the 1,000,000 plus deaths in Mexico from 1900 to 1920, many of these poor Indians and peasants being killed by forced labor on barbaric haciendas. And one could go on and on to detail various kinds of noncommunist democide.
But what connects them all is this. As a government's power is more unrestrained, as its power reaches into all the corners of culture and society, and as it is less democratic, then the more likely it is to kill its own citizens. There is more than a correlation here. As totalitarian power increases, democide multiplies until it curves sharply upward when totalitarianism is near absolute. As a governing elite has the power to do whatever it wants, whether to satisfy its most personal desires, to pursue what it believes is right and true, it may do so whatever the cost in lives. In this case power is the necessary condition for mass murder. Once an elite have it, other causes and conditions can operated to bring about the immediate genocide, terrorism, massacres, or whatever killing an elite feels is warranted.
Finally, at the extreme of totalitarian power we have the greatest extreme of democide. Communist governments have almost without exception wielded the most absolute power and their greatest killing (such as during Stalin's reign or the height of Mao's power) has taken place when they have been in their own history most totalitarian. As most communist governments underwent increasing liberalization and a loosening of centralized power in the 1960s through the 1980s, the pace of killing dropped off sharply.
Communism has been the greatest social engineering experiment we have ever seen. It failed utterly and in doing so it killed over 100,000,000 men, women, and children, 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 liberal democracy.
* Unpublished essay, November 1993.
** Note as of 1998: the case studies resulting from that effort were published in Death By Government; the statistics and statistical analyses are in Statistics of Democide.