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Did over 100 million people die under communism during the 20th century? 

A meme that has been shared over 100,000 times on Facebook claims that communism is “the ideology that killed over 100 million the last century”. 

The meme includes pictures of Mao Zedong, the former leader of communist China, the hammer-and-sickle symbol of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and a pile of human skulls and bones.

A banner across the bottom of the meme says “Publication authorised by Senator Fraser Anning”, next to the logo of Katter’s Australian Party. This makes it look like the meme is an election campaign poster. 

The meme also includes the logos of two universities and two socialist political parties, and says that communism is “now being praised at our universities today”. 

Who is Fraser Anning and where does this meme originate?

This meme is being shared widely on Facebook, particularly in the US, but it seems to originate from former Australian senator Fraser Anning

He posted the meme on Twitter on 2 October 2018, with the tweet: “Cultural Marxism and communism is being peddled in our universities. This is a dangerous sign of the times.” 

At the time Anning was a senator and member of Katter’s Australian Party, but he was expelled from the party later in October 2018 for remarks he made about race and immigration. He subsequently started his own political party, but lost his senate seat in elections in May 2019. 

Is the politician correct? Did communism cause the death of over 100 million people in the course of the 20th century?

Communism, socialism and capitalism: what’s what

Communism is a political, social and economic ideology that promotes economic equality, based on the writings of Karl Marx. It aims to destroy social classes, like the upper, middle and working classes. 

It also promotes collective ownership by the people of the “means of production”, which means both the raw materials and the tools and machinery used in production processes. 

In the course of the 20th century there were many self-described communist countries, most notably the USSR, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the People’s Republic of China. 

Capitalism encourages private ownership of property. This philosophy is closely linked to the politics of liberalism and was originally based on the writings of Adam Smith. Many consider capitalism to be the opposite of communism. 

Communism is similar to and sometimes used interchangeably with socialism. There are some differences though, and socialism could be described as a combination of communism and capitalism, with a mix of public and private property. 

(Note: North Korea and China still call themselves socialist countries, though it is open to debate how accurate this is.)

There have also been many countries that describe themselves as capitalist, but also implement various forms of socialist policies. These can include public (free) healthcare and education, and social security and welfare benefits for citizens.

But did communism, an ideology that promotes equality, kill 100 million people in the last century?

Figure comes from controversial book published in the 1990s

The allegation that over 100 million people were killed under communism originates from The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, originally published in France in 1997.

The book is a collection of essays that use historical data to count all the deaths recorded or estimated under self-described communist governments in China, the USSR, Cambodia, North Korea, Africa, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Eastern Europe and Latin America. 

According to the book more than 94 million people died. This includes victims of deaths by execution, war, man-made hunger, famine, forced labour and forced relocations. 

The book’s editor, Stéphane Courtois, who wrote the introduction, suggested that communism killed more people than nazism in the 20th century.

The book has been the subject of much debate and criticism since its publication. As the Russian historian, Martin Malia, noted in the foreword of the US edition of the book, “the debate divides the book’s own authors”. 

Disputes about body counts and comparisons with Nazism

Historians Nicolas Werth, who wrote the chapter on the USSR, and Jean-Louis Margolin, who wrote about China, both publicly distanced themselves from some of Courtois’s conclusions. 

Werth and Margolin thought that Courtois was obsessed with reaching a body count of 100 million victims of communism and was including every possible death just to reach that total. 

Since then there have been continued accusations that the numbers of victims were mostly just estimations. Werth and Margolin also rejected Courtois’s equating of communism with nazism, saying there was no single “bloody essence of communism” to denounce. 

Deliberate or incompetent?

Professor of history at the University of California Los Angeles J. Arch Getty wrote in the Atlantic magazine that there was not one overarching kind of communism in the 20th century – many different regimes called themselves communist. 

Most of the governments defining themselves as “communist” implemented a variety of social and economic systems and even went to war with one another over what they considered to be ideological differences.

Starvation and famine caused more than half of the 100 million victims and Getty said that a famine caused by the incompetence of a government wasn’t the same as the deliberate murders that occurred under nazism. 

The American philosopher Noam Chomsky also questioned blaming a particular ideology for deaths, especially related to famine. He quoted the work of the Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen who proved that famines are made worse by social and economic inequalities and are very common in colonial and non-democratic countries.    

According to economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, despite the millions of famine-related deaths in communist China, the country still had lower regular death rates than democratic, capitalist India, where deaths were because of persistent regular starvation.

Or is it just propaganda?

Chomsky’s main criticism was that the book, The Black Book of Communism, repeated old Cold War propaganda

Chomsky said that by the same logic where one blamed communism for famine-related deaths in communist China, one could conclude that capitalism has killed millions more people in India alone, than all those killed under communism.  

The claim that communism killed 100 million people in the 20th century is still up for debate by historians, political scientists and economists. It’s not an easy claim to fact-check, and is ultimately a matter of opinion. – Naphtali Khumalo 

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