The Volokh Conspiracy
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Victims of Communism Day—2023
May Day should be a day to honor victims of an ideology that took tens of millions of lives. But we should also be open to alternative dates if they can attract broad enough support.
NOTE: This post largely reprints last year's Victims of Communism Day post, with some modifications.
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 comparably 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 the lion's share of the horrors perpetrated by communist regimes were inherent flaws 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. Some of these other factors, especially the last, 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 virtually inevitable in a socialist economic system whire 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.
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 and indefensible invasion of Ukraine probably owes more to Russian nationalist ideology than communism. But it is nonetheless fed in part by his desire to recapture the supposed power and glory of the Soviet Union, and his long-held belief that the collapse of the USSR was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." It is also telling that most communists in Russia and elsewhere have joined with far-right nationalists in largely backing Putin's line on the war.
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).
The Chinese regime's repressive policies also played a major role in its initial attempts to cover up the coronavirus crisis, which probably forestalled any chance of containing it before it became a massive pandemic. The brutal mass lockdowns entailed by the government's "zero Covid" policies also had much in common with the communist totalitarian legacy.
Perhaps worst of all its recent atrocities, China's horrific repression of the Uighur minority is reminiscent of similar policies under Mao and Stalin, though it has not—so far—reached the level of actual mass murder. But imprisoning over 1 million people in horrific concentration camps is more than bad enough.
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 three state legislatures.
If this approach continues to spread, I would be happy to switch to November 7, even though May 1 would be still more appropriate. For that reason, I have adopted the practice of also commemorating the victims of communism on November 7.
I would also be happy to back 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.