Over the past 100 years, communism has blazed a trail of dead and broken bodies stretched around the globe in its relentless, benighted march toward the ash heap of history.
From the frozen gulags of Siberia to the killing fields of Cambodia and the jungles of Nicaragua, communists have massacred more than 100 million people in service to an ideology that promised freedom and equality but delivered only tyranny and scarcity.
A group of scholars, diplomats and dissidents gathered Wednesday in Washington to reflect on the lessons about human nature, power and markets on the centennial of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Marion Smith, executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which hosted the centennial commemoration at the Library of Congress, said communism is at root the belief that human nature can be altered “through the coercive power of the state.”
“Therefore, they made mistakes about human nature of the type that our American founders did not,” Mr. Smith said. “Communists ignored basic truths about the concentration of power. They ignored the foundational importance of individual liberty in the economic and cultural fields.”
On Thursday, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation will host a dinner to honor Israeli statesman and former Soviet political prisoner Natan Sharansky.
PHOTOS: Communism victims remembered on Bolshevik Revolution centennial
While the American founders sought to create a government that would restrain the passions of the people and itself, the Bolsheviks saw the state as the central actor on the path toward utopia. Any hindrances on government would necessarily impede the liberation of the masses, said Alan Charles Kors, professor emeritus of history at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Having proclaimed the abolition of tyranny and the self-government of the workers whose objective interest they alone embodied, why would the communists ever concern themselves with checks, balances, separation of powers, all of which they had denounced as a bourgeois facade over human wage slavery?” Mr. Kors said.
The White House commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution on Tuesday, proclaiming Nov. 7 the “National Day for the Victims of Communism.”
“Today, we remember those who have died and all who continue to suffer under communism,” the White House said in a statement. “In their memory and in honor of the indomitable spirit of those who have fought courageously to spread freedom and opportunity around the world, our Nation reaffirms its steadfast resolve to shine the light of liberty for all who yearn for a brighter, freer future.”
The statement came the same day that President Trump visited South Korea, which is facing a nuclear threat from its communist neighbor to the north.
The reaction to the Bolshevik Revolution’s centennial in Russia was more muted. A parade made its way Tuesday across Red Square, but only to commemorate the World War II Battle of Moscow, in which Soviet forces repelled the invading German armies. The Soviet troops happened to begin their march to the front lines on Nov. 7, 1941.
Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian pro-democracy activist, said his country has not fully come to terms with its history.
“On the anniversary, of course, officially there’s nothing,” Mr. Kara-Murza said. “A few years ago, about 10 years ago now, on Nov. 7, which was, of course, a public holiday back in Soviet days and remained so for the first few post-Soviet years, [the celebration] was changed to Nov. 4, which is supposed to commemorate the victory over the Poles in the 17th century. The only reason is because people were used to having some sort of a holiday at the beginning of November. So they looked at the calendar and said, ‘Why not do this one?’ No one knows what it means. But officially, of course, there’s no commemoration.”
There is no consensus among historians as to how many lives were lost to communism. One of the most often-cited figures comes from “The Black Book of Communism,” which was published in 1997 by several French intellectuals who were former Marxists.
Their tally puts the number at 94 million: 65 million in the People’s Republic of China, 20 million in the Soviet Union, 2 million in Cambodia, 2 million in North Korea, 1.7 million in Ethiopia, 1.5 million in Afghanistan, 1 million in the Eastern Bloc, 1 million in Vietnam, and hundreds of thousands in Latin America.
More recent estimates have pushed that figure north of the 100 million mark.
Mr. Kara-Murza said the commonly accepted number for the Soviet Union alone is now 30 million dead.
“If we include those who were executed, those who were killed in the famines and deportations and collectivizations, and those who were forced to emigrate from Russia, the most oft-cited figure is usually about 30 million people,” he said. “That is about one-fifth of the total population of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1920s. History knows few crimes of such magnitude.”
Despite communism’s bloody track record, the ideology and its cousin, socialism, still have significant support in the West, especially among young people.
A survey released by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation last month found the majority of American millennials would rather live under socialism or communism than capitalism. Fifty-one percent chose either socialism or communism as their preferred arrangement, while 42 percent said they were in favor of capitalism and 7 percent in favor of fascism.
Polish Secretary of State Anna Maria Anders said there has been a dearth of education about the horrors wrought by communism over the past 100 years.
“I am stunned by people who come to me in Poland to my office and really how clueless they are, absolutely clueless they are, about the Second World War, about what happened,” Ms. Anders said. “Young people — the idea of communism is wonderful. Socialism, everybody, no poor people, no rich people, everybody is the same. We know it doesn’t work. But I think it’s a lack generally worldwide to see what a mistake it is.”