Museum of Communism FAQ

by Bryan Caplan


Version 1.3

  1. What is the Museum of Communism?
  2. What is the purpose of the Museum of Communism?
  3. What were the most significant human rights violations committed by Communist regimes, and who was responsible for them?
  4. What were the most important human rights violations committed under Lenin's rule?
  5. What were the most important human rights violations committed by Stalin?
  6. What were the most important human rights violations perpetrated by the Soviet Union during the post-Stalin era?
  7. What were Mao's greatest crimes against humanity?
  8. What about the post-Mao years in Communist China?
  9. What were the greatest abuses of Communist regimes outside of the USSR and China?
  10. To what extent did Communist totalitarianism derive from Lenin's political and philosophical theories? From Marx's political and philosophical theories? From the broader socialist tradition?
  11. Were Communism and Nazism "morally equivalent" movements?
  12. Some common objections answered:
    1. Aren't you ignoring or defending American human rights violations?
    2. What about the oppressive policies of the 'White' regimes that were often the only alternative to Communism?
    3. Weren't repressive policies forced upon Communist regimes by the hostility of the West?
    4. Americans have been raised on anti-Communist propaganda. Isn't there really a need to balance out this one-sided treatment, rather than reinforce it as your Museum does?
  13. What are the main resources currently available at the Museum of Communism?
  14. What museum expansions are currently being planned?
  15. How can I contribute exhibits to the Museum of Communism?
  16. Communism is dead or dying all over the world. Given this, does the history of Communism retain any practical political implications?


  1. What is the Museum of Communism?
  2. The Museum of Communism is an online, "virtual" museum that provides historical, economic, and philosophical analysis of the political movement known as Communism; it may be found on the World Wide Web at http://www.gmu.edu/departments/economics/bcaplan. An overwhelming consensus of historians from a wide range of political viewpoints concludes that the human rights violations of Communist regimes have been enormous - often greater, in fact, than those of the infamous Nazi Germany. Yet public awareness of the major crimes of Communist regimes remains minimal. The purpose of the Museum of Communism is to disseminate this information, combining high scholarly standards with an entertaining format.

    The founder and curator of the museum is Prof. Bryan Caplan, who recently received his Ph.D. in economics from Princeton University, and has just joined the economics department of George Mason University. The study of Communism and webpage design have been two of his long-time avocations; unless otherwise stated, he is the sole author of all material in the Museum of Communism. Outside contributions of exhibits to the museum are welcomed; see the museum's exhibit guidelines.

  3. What is the purpose of the Museum of Communism?
  4. The purpose of the Museum of Communism is to for Communism what the Holocaust Memorial Museum does for Nazism: namely, to educate the public about mass murder, widespread slave labor, and other human rights violations committed by Communist regimes. As the curator of the museum, I strive for high standards of objective scholarship; but the historical facts - enjoying the widespread agreement of scholars whatever their political orientation - ensure that the museum's exhibits will almost invariably place Communism in an extremely negative light.

    The horrors of Nazi Germany prompted many concerned observers to vow that "Never again" would such a regime be allowed to exist. This has prompted an energetic effort to publicize Nazi atrocities, an effort which has been singularly successful. Unfortunately, while equally solid and damning historical evidence on the behavior of Communist regimes exists, there has been surprisingly little effort to convey this information to a broader audience. It would be tragic if Communism were to collapse without intellectually immunizing future generations against similar movements.

    As it currently stands, a fair percentage of the Western population knows almost nothing of the human rights record of Communist regimes, considering Communism a noble ideal that people weren't virtuous enough to practice. Another segment is vaguely aware of the abuses of Communist regimes, but drastically underestimates their magnitude. The comparatively well-informed know of the aggressive foreign policy of Communist regimes - of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.

    What the public knows least about is the internal policies of Communist countries. While many countries in the world have had imperialistic foreign policies comparable to e.g. the Soviet Union's, the crimes inflicted by Communist governments against their own populations find almost no historical parallel. In particular, using almost any scholarly tabulations (and even official Communist pronouncements), the government of the USSR murdered more non-combatants than any other in the 20th-century. Communist China comes in second. Out of the top ten most murderous regimes in this century, five were Communist, according to the ranking provided by R.J. Rummel in his Death By Government (Communist regimes indicated in bold):

    1. Soviet Union
    2. Communist China
    3. Nazi Germany
    4. Nationalist China
    5. Imperial Japan
    6. Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge
    7. Turkey under the Young Turks
    8. Communist Vietnam
    9. Communist Poland
    10. Pakistan under Yahya Khan
    (N.B. Others have taken issue with some of Rummel's calculations, but not with his basic conclusions. For a reproduction of Rummel's tabulations, go to Freedom's Nest).

    One might note that out of this hall of shame, probably only Nazi Germany widely enjoys the reputation it deserves. Each of these regimes - along with many lesser offenders - deserves to have its crimes exposed. But the enduring willingness of many in the West to minimize Communist atrocities, combined with the enormous magnitude of their crimes, to my mind makes human rights violations by Communist regimes especially worthy of attention.

  5. What were the most significant human rights violations committed by Communist regimes, and who was responsible for them?
  6. All Communist governments have practiced widespread killing of non- combatants. The extermination of the bourgeoisie and wealthy "as a class" has been most loudly proclaimed, although in actual fact peasants have been by far the majority of the victims. In addition, Communist governments have ordered the genocide of numerous ethnic minorities deemed disloyal or anti- Communist. Finally, Communist governments have frequently killed large numbers of rival Communists. In most cases, the official reasons given for mass killings have been economic or political rather than racial, but punishment has rarely been inflicted for individual infractions of the law. Rather, Communist governments would judge "enemies of the people" to be common in one's class, family, or ethnicity, and respond with blanket repression of the entire suspect group. As the democratic socialist historian Carl Landauer notes in his discussion of Stalin's "dekulakization" campaign:

    Whether it is more immoral to persecute people because of their opinions than to victimize them because of their former position or their descent may be arguable... But whether a child is made to perish because his parents were Jewish or because his father had a few cows too many and therefore was regarded as a kulak, or whether a man is excluded from jobs because he is a Negro or because he used to be a merchant - in all these cases the victim is penalized for something that has nothing to do with moral guilt and that originated in the past, so that it cannot now be changed. If Communists argued that the incidence of counterrevolutionary designs was greater among kulaks or former bourgeois than among workers, we may remember Hitler's argument that the incidence of some types of crimes was higher among Jews than among non- Jews, and similar arguments of American racists with regard to Negroes or Orientals.(European Socialism: A History of Ideas and Movements)

    Unnatural deaths ordered by Communist regimes fall into three fairly distinct categories: deaths due to extreme hardship conditions in slave labor camps; deaths due to man-made famine, usually closely connected to forced collectivization of agriculture; and lastly, straightforward executions. Later sections of the FAQ discuss the composition and quantity of killings in different nations and time periods, but since similar patterns repeat themselves, here are some general remarks:

    Needless to say, mass murder was not the only human rights violation found in Communist regimes. As indicated, widespread use of slave labor has been common. The freedom to migrate - even within national borders - has frequently been severely restricted. Freedom of speech, conscience, and religion have been ruthlessly suppressed - although occasional "thaws" during e.g. part of Khrushchev's reign permitted writers such as Solzhenitsyn to expose some of the most egregious of their government's prior human rights violations. Communist regimes rejected on principle the economic freedom to own property, engage in business, or choose one's occupation, although sometimes these have been permitted on pragmatic grounds.

    It is safe to say that there is scarcely a single human freedom that Communist regimes have not suppressed as a matter of official policy. While later sections will continue to focus on Communist mass murder and slave labor, the magnitude of the worst atrocities is also a fairly good indicator of the severity of lesser rights violations.

  7. What were the most important human rights violations committed under Lenin's rule?
  8. V.I. Lenin was the founding father of the Soviet Union and its dictator during the Russian Civil War that followed. A series of strokes after the Civil War, and his early death in 1924, gave him a mere five years to reign. The brevity of his tenure led many to assume that subsequent human rights abuses in the Soviet Union were not Lenin's fault. Oppression did intensify after Stalin replaced Lenin as the absolute ruler of the USSR. But Lenin did everything that Stalin would later do, except execute fellow Communists. As Richard Pipes notes, this "is not as significant as it may appear at first sight. Towards outsiders, people not belonging to his order of the elect - and that included 99.7 percent of his compatriots - Lenin showed no human feelings whatever..." (Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime)

    Lenin repeatedly indicated that large-scale killing would be necessary to bring in his utopia, and did not shrink from this realization. His speeches and writings overflow with calls for blood: "Merciless war against these kulaks! Death to them." "We'll ask the man, where do you stand on the question of the revolution? Are you for it or against it? If he's against it, we'll stand him up against a wall." As Pipes sums up, "Lenin hated what he perceived to be the 'bourgeoisie' with a destructive passion that fully equaled Hitler's hatred of the Jews: nothing short of physical annihilation would satisfy him." Moreover, "The term 'bourgeoisie' the Bolsheviks applied loosely to two groups: those who by virtue of their background or position in the economy functioned as 'exploiters,' be they a millionaire industrialist or a peasant with an extra acre of land, and those who, regardless of their economic or social status, opposed Bolshevik policies." (Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime) Lenin used all three of the tools of mass murder that his successors and imitators would later perfect.

  9. What were the most important human rights violations committed by Stalin?
  10. Joseph Stalin won a leading role in the Communist Party during Lenin's failing years, and after a few years of power-sharing he obtained dictatorial powers that exceeded even those of Lenin. In recent years, historians have gradually recognized that Stalin was personally responsible for the murder of more people than any other human being in the 20th century - and probably any other century. Stalin took Lenin's system of slave labor camps and turned it into a vast secret empire in the depths of Siberia. Lenin chose to let millions starve to death in order to sustain his war effort, but Stalin went further by deliberately engineering famines on an even greater scale. Finally, Stalin crossed the one line that Lenin would not, by ordering the executions of fellow Communists on a massive scale.

  11. What were the most important human rights violations perpetrated by the Soviet Union during the post-Stalin era?
  12. In comparison with Stalin's hellish regime, the rule of his successors seemed benign. But even compared to Czarism, the rule of Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and later leaders remained bloodthirsty. There were no significant man-made famines in the post-Stalin era. The number executed for political offenses from 1953-1991 was perhaps one or two hundred thousand, many of them Hungarians and Czechs who opposed Soviet rule.

    The significant post-Stalin mass killings were in the slave labor camps. While living conditions in the camps greatly improved over the decades, the death rate remained enormous: while Stalin's camps had annual fatality rates in the range of 10-30%, the rates fell to 5-15% in the late 50's, 2-6% in the 60's, and still lower in later periods. The slave labor population declined, but even in the 1980's was numbered in the millions. The unnatural fatality rate and the large population in camps add up to a major, albeit drawn-out, crime against humanity: at least 3 millions during the later part of the 50's, and 2 million more during the 60's. Certainly even a fatality rate of 4% is high enough to qualify as reckless endangerment of human life and therefore murder - consider that with an annual fatality rate of 4%, 1 in 3 inmates (generally healthy young men) would not survive a decade. There is a line-drawing problem for later periods - a 1% fatality rate for young men is high, but probably not murder. Ironically, Western focus on Soviet human rights abuses under the Carter and Reagan administrations began only after mass murder in the USSR had largely ceased. This unfortunately left the impression that prison, emigration restrictions, and censorship were the most heinous crimes ever committed by the Soviet leadership.

  13. What were Mao's greatest crimes against humanity?
  14. Mao, like Stalin, indisputably murdered more people than Hitler. He tyrannized the world's most populous nation for more than a quarter century; and while by most counts his victims were somewhat less numerous than Stalin's, the range of error makes it quite possible that Mao Zedong was the greatest mass murderer of the century. Mao was both the Lenin and the Stalin of Chinese Communism: not only did he found the system, but he raised it to lethal maturity. While Mao waited a few years to antagonize the peasants with forced collectivization, the killing began immediately. As Laszlo Ladany observes in his The Communist Party of China and Marxism: 1921-1985:

    There are few parallels in history for what the [Chinese] Communists did [when they first came to power]. The French Revolution had many victims, but it did not institute a lasting political system. The October Revolution in the Soviet Union was not a peaceful affair, but the mass killings did not come till years later, during Stalin's collectivisation... In China, the terror - what else can one call it? - was widespread and saw the beginning of a lasting system.

    After Stalin's death, Khrushchev and his successors eliminated some of the most horrific aspects of his regime. Mao denounced these reforms as "revisionism," studiously repeating each of Stalin's horrors. Unlike Stalin, Mao never fully succeeded in utterly crushing internal opposition within the Chinese Communist Party, which is probably why Mao's policies were not even more deadly than they were.

  15. What about the post-Mao years in Communist China?
  16. Far more Westerners are familiar with the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 than have heard of the millions slaughtered by Mao. An estimated 2-3,000 - and possibly as many as 12,000 - protesters may have been killed in 1989 on the orders of Deng Xioaping. Plainly, Mao's death has not eliminated widespread killing by the Chinese government. It has, however, allowed the death toll to drastically decline. The population of the slave labor camps is difficult to ascertain, but there are probably fewer prisoners living under better conditions than during Mao's reign. There have been no important famines since Mao's death. Executions of political prisoners continue, but on a much smaller scale. All told, the Chinese government has probably killed somewhat less than one million people in the twenty years since Mao's death. The toll in human terms remains incalculable, but China's share of the world's state-sponsored killings has drastically declined. Former prisoners of the Chinese slave labor camps such as Harry Wu have done much to investigate their secret history and their persistence into the modern era. In his work Laogai: The Chinese Gulag, Harry Wu estimated that the Chinese government still commands about 16-20 million forced laborers of one sort of another, although in the afterward to this work Wu indicates that his continuing research reveals this estimate too high. Of these, Wu classifies 10% as "political offenders," although it is far from clear how many of the other 90% are "criminals" in the narrow Western sense of the word. According to Wu, as Mao's ideological fervor has waned, China has focused less on totalitarian "re-education" of inmates and more on their frank exploitation as state-owned assets.

  17. What were the greatest abuses of Communist regimes outside of the USSR and China?
  18. Deadly slave labor camps, man-made famine, and mass executions have played a major role in almost every Communist state. It is not possible to discuss each country's experience in detail here. Rather, this section limits itself to a brief examination of other Communist nations guilty of at least 1 million killings in cold blood.

  19. To what extent did Communist totalitarianism derive from Lenin's political and philosophical theories? From Marx's political and philosophical theories? From the broader socialist tradition?
  20. Were Communism and Nazism "morally equivalent" movements?
  21. Both Stalin and Mao's Communist governments indisputably murdered more people in cold blood than even Hitler's Nazi regime did. This certainly establishes a powerful prima facie case for the proposition that Communism and Nazism are "morally equivalent." Once it is granted that a regime deliberately murdered millions of innocent people, it is difficult to see how any other achievement - the world's best highway or the world's biggest dam - could change one's final evaluation.

    Probably the most common distinction made between the Communists and the Nazis is that the former were misguided idealists, while the later were brutal thugs. Alternately, one might argue that the Communists ultimately wanted a world where all people would live together in harmony, while the Nazis wanted a world where the master race reigned supreme over a world purged of inferior races. In short, the difference between Communist and Nazi is supposed to be one of intentions. Joseph Davies, the pro-Stalin US Ambassador to the USSR, gave this point of view its classic expression:

    Both Germany and Soviet Russia are totalitarian states. Both are realistic. Both are strong and ruthless in their methods. There is one distinction, however, and that is as clear as black and white. It can be simply illustrated. If Marx, Lenin, or Stalin had been firmly grounded in the Christian faith, either Catholic or Protestant, and if by reason of that fact this communistic experiment in Russia had been projected upon this basis, it would probably be declared to be one of the greatest efforts of Christian altruism in history to translate the ideals of brotherhood and charity as preached in the gospel of Christ into a government of men... That is the difference - the communistic Soviet state could function with the Christian religion in its basic purpose to serve the brotherhood of man. It would be impossible for the Nazi state to do so. The communistic ideal is that the state may evaporate and be no longer necessary as man advances into perfect brotherhood. The Nazi ideal is the exact opposite - that the state is the supreme end of all. (Journal entry, July 7, 1941)

    This "argument from intentions" needs to be answered on two levels:

  22. Some common objections answered:
    1. Aren't you ignoring or defending American human rights violations?
    2. Absolutely not, and I frankly find it extremely puzzling that anyone would make such an inference. Does a condemnation of Nazi genocide indicate an indifference to American atrocities? Surely not. History is not a race with a single victor, but a courtroom able to try each suspect for his own crime.

      Unfair accusations of this kind have dogged the would-be exposers of Communist human rights violations at least since 1930's. Thus, Eugene Lyons, in his The Red Decade: The Stalinist Penetration of America, published in 1941, pointedly observed that:

      Certain of my colleagues, having lived in Nazi Germany and learned to recognize Hitler's methods, have written books exposing the Nazi regime and its intrigues on American soil. As far as I am aware they have not been reprimanded for not saving the Southern share-croppers instead. No book reviewer or liberal commentator has sneered at them, "Why must you carry on about concentration camps and political murder in Germany? What about Sacco and Vanzetti and Negro lynchings?" It is assumed, sensibly, that they happen to know more about Germany.

      But this gracious leeway is denied to writers hostile to Stalinist Russia and its foreign conspiratorial empire. When they mention millions of corpses in a Ukrainian famine, they are told off neatly with a scathing reference to the Okies in California. Should they allude to the Soviet purges, they are hit over the head with Mooney and Billings. Until the Soviet-Nazi Pact made the procedure a bit awkward, their indictment of terror in Soviet Russia was instantly canceled out by reference to Nazi terror in Germany.

      There is a grim irony in the mistaken inference that a person concerned with Communist atrocities somehow excuses U.S. human rights violation. The truth is that the most egregious crimes committed by the United States government in this century occurred while the United States was in alliance with the Soviet Union. Indiscriminate terror bombing of Germany and Japan during World War II probably cost several hundred thousand civilian lives. Arguably as a result of this alliance, much of Asia and eastern Europe came under Communist control. Thus, much of the history of Communism indirectly condemns the United States as well. A myopic focus on the Cold War era loses sight of the bulk of harm the American government has inflicted on the world.

    3. What about the oppressive policies of the "White" regimes that were often the only alternative to Communism?
    4. In the midst of civil wars, Red and White forces' level of indiscriminate killing tends to be roughly proportional to the number of people under their control. During the Chinese Civil War, Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists killed more people than the Communists, mainly because they had control of more of the country for a longer period. During the Russian Civil War, the Whites were outnumbered, so the Communists' killings were not surprisingly greater. (It is also worth pointing out that frequently Communists, including Lenin, began their revolution not against "rightist" Whites but against moderate democratic socialists).

      When the serious killing starts, and where the important differences reveal themselves, is after one side is victorious. Communist regimes usually escalate the killing after victory, and typically keep it high for one or two generations. White forces usually execute and imprison many of their opponents after victory, but rarely set up massive slave labor empires or impose man-made famines. In consequence they normally murder far fewer people in total, as a glance at the list of leading mass murdering regimes confirms.

    5. Weren't repressive policies forced upon Communist regimes by the hostility of the West?
    6. It is difficult to see how this could be so. Did the West force Communists to collectivize agriculture, producing mass starvation? Or urge them to set up deadly slave labor camps? During the Russian Civil War, Allied powers did intervene in favor of the Whites, but on an extremely small scale - Britain, France, and the United States each lost a few hundred soldiers. It is hard to see any connection between this and subsequent Soviet policy. Western alliance with Stalin during World War II enabled Communism to greatly expand; thus, if anything, the West often assisted the spread of repressive policies by Communist regimes rather than forcing them to adopt them.

    7. Americans have been raised on anti-Communist propaganda. Isn't there really a need to balance out this one-sided treatment, rather than reinforce it as your Museum does?
    8. To the contrary, an overwhelming majority of Americans know nothing about the millions murdered by Communism. They may have heard of the 1956 invasion of Hungary, or of Czechoslovakia in 1968, or the Berlin Wall, or the Tiananmen Square massacre. They may have seen spy movies, or even the Rambo trilogy. But only a tiny minority know that Stalin and Mao both killed more people than Hitler did. Knowledge of the greatest crimes of the 20th-century ought to be universal, or at least a basic requirement of culturally literacy. The resurgence of Nazism has undoubtedly been curtailed by an energetic educational effort to tell the world about Hitler's crimes. It would be a tragedy if Communism passed away without burning a single message into conscience of the world: "Never again."

      No apologies are necessary for the "one-sidedness" of the Museum's focus. A movement that deliberately kills millions of innocent people can possess only one side.

  23. What are the main resources currently available at the Museum of Communism?
  24. There are currently three main exhibits running. The first two discuss the origins of Communism in both the Marxist and the Czarist traditions. In addition, the Museum has recently opened the first of a fifteen part sequence surveying the history of Communism. The exhibit currently on display provides an in-depth look at Lenin, his ideas, and the consequences of his seizure of power.

  25. What museum expansions are currently being planned?
  26. Parts II-XV of the survey of the history of Communism will appear gradually, in sequence. Several new interactive features will soon be added, along with some Special Exhibits.

  27. How can I contribute exhibits to the Museum of Communism?
  28. So far, the Museum has been my personal project. But I would very much like to receive exhibits relevant to the Museum's mission. Whether you would like to write about the effect of Communism upon your life, the history of your mother country, or a broader topic, I would very much like to hear about it. Write to me at bcaplan@gmu.edu to tell me about your ideas.

  29. Communism is dead or dying all over the world. Given this, does the history of Communism retain any practical political implications?
  30. Communism is in serious decline today, but history has a way of repeating itself. For this reason alone, it is important for the future of the world that the basic facts about Communist regimes become common knowledge. While admirers of Hitler's Germany still exist, the public knows enough about the Holocaust to make a revival of Nazism far less likely than it otherwise would be. Greater awareness of the crimes of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao could similarly inoculate the world against any future Communist revival.

    I would also suggest a stronger and more controversial set of practical implications:


For comments, corrections, or questions about exhibits, write to Bryan Caplan at bcaplan@gmu.edu.