With the fall of the Soviet Union and communist governments in Eastern Europe, too many have the impression that Marxism, the religion of communism, is dead. Hardly. It is alive and well in many countries still, such as North Korea, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, a gaggle of African countries, and in the minds of many South American political leaders. However, of most importance to the future of democracy, communism still pollutes the thinking of a vast multitude of Western academics and intellectuals.
Of all religions, secular and otherwise, that of Marxism has been by far the bloodiest – bloodier than the Catholic Inquisition, the various Catholic crusades, and the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants. In practice, Marxism has meant bloody terrorism, deadly purges, lethal prison camps and murderous forced labor, fatal deportations, man-made famines, extrajudicial executions and fraudulent show trials, outright mass murder and genocide.
In total, Marxist regimes murdered nearly 110 million people from 1917 to 1987. For perspective on this incredible toll, note that all domestic and foreign wars during the 20th century killed around 35 million. That is, when Marxists control states, Marxism is more deadly then all the wars of the 20th century, including World Wars I and II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
And what did Marxism, this greatest of human social experiments, achieve for its poor citizens, at this most bloody cost in lives? Nothing positive. It left in its wake an economic, environmental, social and cultural disaster.
The Khmer Rouge – (Cambodian communists) who ruled Cambodia for four years – provide insight into why Marxists believed it necessary and moral to massacre so many of their fellow humans. Their Marxism was married to absolute power. They believed without a shred of doubt that they knew the truth, that they would bring about the greatest human welfare and happiness, and that to realize this utopia, they had to mercilessly tear down the old feudal or capitalist order and Buddhist culture, and then totally rebuild a communist society. Nothing could be allowed to stand in the way of this achievement. Government – the Communist Party – was above any law. All other institutions, religions, cultural norms, traditions and sentiments were expendable.
The Marxists saw the construction of this utopia as a war on poverty, exploitation, imperialism and inequality – and, as in a real war, noncombatants would unfortunately get caught in the battle. There would be necessary enemy casualties: the clergy, bourgeoisie, capitalists, "wreckers," intellectuals, counterrevolutionaries, rightists, tyrants, the rich and landlords. As in a war, millions might die, but these deaths would be justified by the end, as in the defeat of Hitler in World War II. To the ruling Marxists, the goal of a communist utopia was enough to justify all the deaths.
The irony is that in practice, even after decades of total control, Marxism did not improve the lot of the average person, but usually made living conditions worse than before the revolution. It is not by chance that the world's greatest famines have happened within the Soviet Union (about 5 million dead from 1921-23 and 7 million from 1932-3, including 2 million outside Ukraine) and communist China (about 30 million dead from 1959-61). Overall, in the last century almost 55 million people died in various Marxist famines and associated epidemics – a little over 10 million of them were intentionally starved to death, and the rest died as an unintended result of Marxist collectivization and agricultural policies.
What is astonishing is that this "currency" of death by Marxism is not thousands or even hundreds of thousands, but millions of deaths. This is almost incomprehensible – it is as though the whole population of the American New England and Middle Atlantic States, or California and Texas, had been wiped out. And that around 35 million people escaped Marxist countries as refugees was an unequaled vote against Marxist utopian pretensions. Its equivalent would be everyone fleeing California, emptying it of all human beings.
There is a supremely important lesson for human life and welfare to be learned from this horrendous sacrifice to one ideology: No one can be trusted with unlimited power.
The more power a government has to impose the beliefs of an ideological or religious elite, or decree the whims of a dictator, the more likely human lives and welfare will be sacrificed. As a government's power is more unrestrained, as its power reaches into all corners of culture and society, the more likely it is to kill its own citizens.
As a governing elite has the power to do whatever it wants, whether to satisfy its most personal wishes, or as today's Marxists desire, to pursue what it believes is right and true, it may do so whatever the cost in lives. Here, power is the necessary condition for mass murder. Once an elite has full authority, other causes and conditions can operate to bring about the immediate genocide, terrorism, massacres or whatever killing the members of an elite feel is warranted. But it is power – unchecked, unconstrained, uncontrolled – that is the killer.
Our academic and intellectual Marxists today are getting a free ride. They get a certain respect because of their words about improving the lot of the worker and the poor, their utopian pretensions. But when empowered, Marxism has failed utterly, as has fascism. Instead of being treated with respect and tolerance, Marxists should be treated as though they wished a deadly plague on all of us.
The next time you come across or are lectured by one of our indigenous Marxists, or almost the equivalent, leftist zealots, ask them how they can justify the murder of over a hundred million their absolutist faith has brought about, and the misery it has created for many hundreds of millions more.
R.J. Rummel, professor emeritus of political science and Nobel Peace Prize finalist, has published 29 books and received numerous awards for his research.