The Road To Hell Was Paved With Bad Intentions
Professor Bryan Caplan of the Department of Economics at George Mason University writes about the double standard in the treatment of communist atrocities relative to their Nazi counterparts. He maintains a website at which he hosts an online Museum of Communism and blogs at EconLog. Look for his book on voter irrationality next year.
Like the Nazis, the Communists murdered tens of millions. But even today, few people hold both movements in equal contempt. Citizens of the West remain largely ignorant of the crimes of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. But even those who know what happened shy away from the thesis that the two movements were morally equivalent. Why is this?
Admittedly, there are a few who still deny that the death counts were really comparable. Seumas Milne, in a recent editorial in the Guardian, manages to get the Soviet death toll down by almost a factor of ten by excluding the man-made famines of Lenin and Stalin. This is an underwhelming response, however: Is it any surprise that the Germans mass murdered in a cold, methodical way, while the Russians mass murdered in a chaotic, barbaric way?
One might also argue that the Nazis were worse because they had a higher death rate. Hitler packed the bulk of his crimes into a six year period; Lenin and Stalin together spread theirs out over thirty six. Perhaps this shows that if the Nazis had won, they would have been even worse than the Communists. But this projection is shaky. Hitler waited for six years and the cover to war to start killing millions; the Communists started killing millions almost immediately, and continued during peacetime. Hitler's peace might have been even bloodier than Stalin's peace, but it's anybody's guess.
In any case, this argument is too subtle to explain why the world judges Communism less harshly than Nazism. In my judgment, the main reason for the double standard is that, even today, people believe that the Communists had better intentions than the Nazis. Perhaps the most eloquent statement of this position comes from Joseph Davies, the pro-Stalin U.S. ambassador to the U.S.S.R.:
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.(Journal entry, July 7, 1941)
But while the argument from good intentions is probably the main reason why people think that Communism was better than Nazism, the argument is at best half-baked. The Nazis dreamed of "perfect brotherhood" too - an Aryan utopia. Even in his Final Political Testament, Hitler placed "every single person under an obligation to serve the common interest and to subordinate his own advantage to this end." And both Nazis and Communists had the same basic road map to perfect brotherhood: killing everyone unfit to be their brothers.
In short, both ideologies began with the creepy demand that human beings stop being the diverse, self-interested animals that we are, and eagerly jumped to the conclusion that a bloodbath was in order. How could their intentions be any more comparable - or any worse?
Perhaps the parallel is hard to see precisely because, even in the West, anti-capitalist propaganda has successfully dehumanized the bourgeoisie, landlords, money-lenders, and "the rich." So when we hear Communists chant "Death to the bourgeoisie," we don't feel the same way we do when we hear Nazis chant "Death to the Jews."
What is worth remembering every May Day, then, is that the people murdered by the Communists were, by and large, as blameless as the farmer who grows your food, the banker who lends you money, or the landlord who rents your apartment. Like the Jews of Europe, they were scapegoats - and anyone who genuinely had good intentions could have seen it at the time.