The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Victims of Communism Day 2019
Why May 1 should be a day to honor the victims of the ideology that took more innocent lives than any other.
Today is May Day. Since 2007, I have advocated using this date as an international Victims of Communism Day. I outlined the rationale for this proposal (which was 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 promote awareness of 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 domination of the economy and civil society.
While communism is most closely associated with Russia, where the first communist regime was established, it had equally horrendous effects in other nations around the world. The highest death toll for a communist regime was not in Russia, but in China. Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward was likely the biggest episode of mass murder in the entire history of the world.
November 7, 2017 was the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia, which led to the establishment of the first-ever communist regime. On that day, I put up a post outlining some of the lessons to be learned from a century of experience with communism. The post explains why most of the horrors perpetrated by communist regimes were intrinsic elements of the system. For the most part, they cannot be ascribed to circumstantial factors, such as flawed individual leaders, peculiarities of Russian and Chinese culture, or the absence of democracy. The latter probably did make the situation worse than it might have been otherwise. But, for reasons I explained in the same post, some form of dictatorship or oligarchy is probably inevitable in a socialist economic system in which the government controls all or nearly all of the economy.
While the influence of communist ideology has declined since its mid-twentieth century peak, it is far from dead. Largely unreformed communist regimes remain in power in Cuba and North Korea. In Venezuela, the Marxist government's socialist policies have resulted in political repression, the starvation of children, and a massive refugee crisis—the biggest in the history of the Western hemisphere. The regime continues to hold on to power by means of repression, despite growing international and domestic opposition. The struggle for freedom in Venezuela continues even as I write these words.
In Russia, the authoritarian regime of former KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin has embarked on a wholesale whitewashing of communism's historical record. In China, the Communist Party remains in power (albeit after having abandoned many of its previous socialist economic policies), and has recently become less tolerant of criticism of the mass murders of the Mao era (part of a more general turn towards greater repression). In the West, only a small minority advocates communism. But many more tend to downplay its evils, or are simply unaware of them.
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 using May Day, including claims that the date should be reserved for the celebration of labor unions.
But, as explained in my 2013 Victims of Communism 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 out of any desire to diminish the significance of communist atrocities in other nations, but because it marks the establishment of the very first communist regime. November 7 has in fact been declared Victims of Communism Memorial Day by the Virginia and Utah state legislatures, and similar resolutions have been passed by the lower houses of the Illinois and Missouri legislatures. The president issued similar declarations in 2017 and 2018 (though he does not have the authority to make it a permanent national holiday through executive action alone). If this approach continues to spread, I would be happy to switch to November 7, even though May 1 would be still more appropriate.
But I am more than willing to endorse almost any other date that could command broad support. Unless and until that happens, however, May 1 will continue to be Victims of Communism Day at the Volokh Conspiracy.
NOTE: Much of this post is adapted from last year's Victims of Communism Day post.
UPDATE: I have slightly revised this post to take account of recent progress towards making November 7 a day of commemoration for victims of communism. The trend is not (yet) far enough advanced to make me give up on the idea of using May 1. But if it continues, that will indeed be the best approach.