The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Today is May Day. Since 2007, I have defended the idea of using this date as an international Victims of Communism Day. I outlined the rationale for this proposal (which is not my original idea) in my very first post on the subject:
May Day began as a holiday for socialists and labor union activists, not just communists. But over time, the date was taken over by the Soviet Union and other communist regimes and used as a propaganda tool to prop up their [authority]. I suggest that we instead use it as a day to commemorate those regimes' millions of victims. The authoritative Black Book of Communism estimates the total at 80 to 100 million dead, greater than that caused by all other twentieth century tyrannies combined. We appropriately have a Holocaust Memorial Day. It is equally appropriate to commemorate the victims of the twentieth century's other great totalitarian tyranny. And May Day is the most fitting day to do so….
Our comparative neglect of communist crimes has serious costs. Victims of Communism Day can serve the dual purpose of appropriately commemorating the millions of victims, and diminishing the likelihood that such atrocities will recur. Just as Holocaust Memorial Day and other similar events help sensitize us to the dangers of racism, anti-Semitism, and radical nationalism, so Victims of Communism Day can increase awareness of the dangers of left-wing forms of totalitarianism, and government control of the economy and civil society.
Sadly, recent political trends show that this year is an especially important time for Americans, in particular, to recall the crimes of communism. The front-runner for the presidential nomination in one major party has praised the authoritarian leadership of of ex-KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin and and the "strength" displayed by the Chinese communists when they massacred thousands of students at Tiananmen Square. A leading candidate in the other party has extolled the supposed virtues of the brutal communist regimes of Cuba and Nicaragua, including even their bread lines, ideological indoctrination, and censorship of the media. The situation in this country is not nearly as bad as the wholesale whitewashing of communism that Vladimir Putin's regime seeks to accomplish in Russia. But the fact that people who say such things can be serious contenders for the presidency is disturbing nonetheless.
In a 2012 post, I explained why May 1 is a better date for Victims of Communism Day than the available alternatives, such as November 7 (the anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia) and August 23 (the anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet Pact). I also addressed various possible objections to May Day, including claims that the date should be reserved for the celebration of labor unions.
However, as I emphasized in my 2013 May Day post, I would be happy to support a different date if it turns out to be easier to build a consensus around it. If another date is chosen, I would prefer November 7—not because Russia was the site of the greatest communist crimes (Mao's regime in China killed even more people than the Soviet Union), but because the Soviet experiment was the principal model for all the later communist states. The communist takeover of Russia also greatly boosted the ideology's prospects elsewhere.
We should not forget the tens of millions of victims of communism—both for their sake and for our own.
NOTE: Some parts of this post have been adapted from previous Victims of Communism Day posts.
UPDATE: I have made a few minor modifications to this post.