The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
NOTE: The following post is largely adapted from last year's November 7 post on the same subject.
Since 2007, I have advocated designating May 1 as an international Victims of Communism Day. The May 1 date was not my original idea. But I have probably devoted more time and effort to it than any other commentator. In my view, May 1 is the best possible date for this purpose because it is the day that communists themselves used to celebrate their ideology, and because it is associated with communism as a global phenomenon, not with any particular communist regime, such as that of the USSR. However, I have also long recognized that it might make sense to adapt another date for Victims of Communism Day, if it turns out that some other date can attract a broader consensus behind it. The best should not be the enemy of the good.
As detailed in my May 1 post from 2019, November 7 is probably the best such alternative, and in recent years it has begun to attract considerable support. Unlike May 1, this choice is unlikely to be contested by trade unionists and other devotees of the pre-Communist May 1 holiday. While I remain unpersuaded by their objections on substantive grounds, pragmatic considerations suggest that an alternative date is worth considering, if it can sidestep objections and thereby attract broader support.
The November 7 option is not without its own downsides. From an American standpoint, one obvious one is that it will sometimes fall close to election day, as is the case this year. On such occasions, a November 7 Victims of Communism Day might not attract as much attention as it deserves, because many will – understandably – be focused on electoral politics instead. Nonetheless, November 7 remains the best alternative to May 1.
For that reason, I am – once again – doing a Victims of Communism Day post on November 7, in addition to the one I do on May 1. If November 7 continues to attract more support, I may eventually switch to that date exclusively. But, for the time being, I reserve the options of returning to an exclusive focus on May 1, doing annual posts on both days, or switching to some third option should there be another date that attracts a broader consensus than either May 1 or November 7.
In addition to its growing popularity, November 7 is a worthy alternative because it is the anniversary of the day that the very first communist regime was established in Russia. All subsequent communist regimes were at least in large part inspired by it, and based many of their institutions and policies on the Soviet model.
The Soviet Union did not have the highest death toll of any communist regime. That dubious distinction belongs to the People's Republic of China. North Korea has probably surpassed the USSR in the sheer extent of totalitarian control over everyday life. Pol Pot's Cambodia may have surpassed it in terms of the degree of sadistic cruelty and torture practiced by the regime, though this is admittedly very difficult to measure. But all of these tyrannies – and more – were at least to a large extent variations on the Soviet original.
Having explained why November 7 is worthy of consideration as an alternative date, it only remains to remind readers of the more general case for having a Victims of Communism Day. The following is adopted from this year's May 1 Victims of Communism Day post, and some of its predecessors:
The Black Book of Communism estimates the total number of victims of communist regimes 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.
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 greatly 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.
In Russia, the authoritarian regime of former KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin has embarked on a wholesale whitewashing of communism's historical record. Putin's brutal war on Ukraine is primarily based on Russian nationalist ideology, rather than that of the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, the failure of post-Soviet Russia to fully reckon with its oppressive Soviet past is likely one of the reasons why Putin's regime came to power, and engaged in its own atrocities.
In China, the Communist Party remains in power (albeit after having abandoned many of its previous socialist economic policies), and has become less tolerant of criticism of the mass murders of the Mao era (part of a more general turn towards greater repression). The government's brutal repression of the Uighur minority, and cruel "Zero Covid" policies are just two aspects in which it seems bent on repeating some of its previous atrocities. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, the government has also increasingly reinstated socialist state control of the economy.
Here in the West, some socialists and others have attempted to whitewash the history of communism, and a few even attribute major accomplishments to the Soviet regime. Cathy Young has an excellent critique of such Soviet "nostalgia" in a recent Reason article.
In sum, we need Victims of Communism Day because we have never given sufficient recognition to the victims of the modern world's most murderous ideology or come close to fully appreciating the lessons of this awful era in world history. In addition, that ideology, and variants thereof, still have a substantial number of adherents in many parts of the world, and still retains considerable intellectual respectability even among many who do not actually endorse it. Just as Holocaust Memorial Day serves as a bulwark against the reemergence of fascism, so this day of observance can help guard against the return to favor of the only ideology with an even greater number of victims.