Which has a higher body count: Imperialism or Communism?
July 5, 2009 10:48 AM   Subscribe

Which has a higher body count: Imperialism or Communism?
posted by Jairus to Society & Culture (30 answers total)
Depends on what you mean by "imperialism." Does any state with ambitions for conquest count as imperialistic (i.e., Hitler)?
posted by paultopia at 10:54 AM on July 5, 2009

The problem is that both of those words have extremely varied meanings depending on who is using them and what their agenda is.

At this point both words have become pejoratives.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:00 AM on July 5, 2009

This is an extremely difficult question to answer, for many reasons. As paultopia mentioned, the definitions of “imperialism” and “communism” are slippery from the start. Is the EU imperialist any more than modern China is communist? Furthermore, many deaths resulted from wars between communist and imperialist powers: for example, how would you count deaths in Vietnam during communist resistance to French colonial rule? Moreover, it is not exactly clear what a “bodycount” is. Were poverty-related deaths in the US during the Great Depression part of the imperialist bodycount? What about starvation in the Soviet Union due to collectivization—is that part of the communist bodycount?
posted by Ptrin at 11:11 AM on July 5, 2009

Communism, to use the term loosely, has killed more within its given totalitarian system -- the destruction of the kulaks, Stalin's larger holodomir, Mao's Great Leap Forward, Pol Pot's regime accounting for another 2M or so bringing the Stalinist-Maoist side up to around 100M dead people from these two actors alone.

But WW I and II were imperialist wars so there's 20M dead for the first and around 75M for WW 2. It's actually rather uncertain who killed more Chinese in the 20th century, Mao or the Imperial Japanese Army, the latter I think we can all agree qualifies as "Imperialist".

Given the slow grinding of poverty around the periphery where naked Imperialism has had its way, eg. Leopold liquidating 8-15M of his subjects in the Congo Free State, the millions of Indians that perished under British Colonial rule over the decades, not to forget the millions of Native Americans killed under the Spanish imperial system, I'd say the honor goes to the Imperialists.
posted by @troy at 11:14 AM on July 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: For a point of reference, the Canadian prime minister says that over 100 million people died because of Communism.
posted by Jairus at 11:21 AM on July 5, 2009

Is the expansion of the USSR imperialist? Obviously depends on how you want to define imperialism, but most of the definitions I'd use say "yes." So now we have a pretty substantial overlap. Then there's the ongoing issue of whether the USSR and China are actually Communist, or just totalitarian oligarchies with a populist veneer.

Then, "Imperialism" as such was much more common before the 20th century, before which "Communism" as such didn't have a whole lot of sway. The rise of Socialism and the fall of traditional imperialism and colonialism - the breakup of the British Empire, for example - happened around the same time. And the world population exploded in the 20th century. So there's been a lot more people around for Communism to have a shot at killing than Imperialism could have killed on its best day.
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:24 AM on July 5, 2009

This is a difficult question to answer. You need to be clear what is meant by imperialism and communism and how do you attribute deaths. Do deaths that resulted from incompetence (e.g., bad planning) count? Or does it have to be intentional?

The Black Book of Communism

The Black Book of Communism (Wikipedia link). See section 4.2 (criticism)

Nazism And Communism: Evil Twins? (PDF format) By Alain de Benoist, This paper discusses issues related to intentionality of deaths.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 11:30 AM on July 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Is the expansion of the USSR imperialist?

Most of its expansion came under the Tsars, no?

Imperialism is pretty simple, it's the extension of a state's military power to take over somebody else's part of the world and run in the operations of private/public capitalist/state enterprise backed by force for said state's benefit.

Stalin moving back into the Baltic states was an example of imperialist expansionism, but compared to the British seizure of Hong Kong in the 19th century (a model Imperialst action), communist expansion of the 20th century was rather low-key and diffuse through internal revolutionary movements, themselves usually fighting for the eviction of Imperialist or Imperialist-backed strongmen/dictators.

Do deaths that resulted from incompetence (e.g., bad planning) count? Or does it have to be intentional?

Does it matter to the dead?
posted by @troy at 11:43 AM on July 5, 2009

If the question is "can you easily beat the 100 million number?" I think the answer is yes. Just doing New World disease mortality added to either the African slave trade or the various famines in India under British rule that were discussed in this thread I think could hit the 100 million mark and obviously there's much more that could be added to those.
posted by XMLicious at 11:45 AM on July 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Smallpox killed 300 million people in the 20th Century alone. And it could be debated the Germany lost the Great War, because of the Spanish flu -- since they outnumbered the Allied forces four to one in 1918, after the troops on the Russian front could go West.

Viruses have been a lot more lethal than ideas.

Now, would you add the people that died through natural causes, as viruses, in Communist prison camps, or colonies, to your body count? Or do you just mean the ones directly killed by their governments?
posted by ijsbrand at 11:54 AM on July 5, 2009

Does it matter to the dead?

The issue is whether it matters to the OP.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 12:16 PM on July 5, 2009

For the most part, Marxism-Leninism was a kind of Imperialism. Think about the Soviet wars of conquest and the way countries were brought into the orbits of the Soviet Union and later China.
posted by Electrius at 12:20 PM on July 5, 2009

@Troy, please note that Russia != USSR.

The Soviet Union was founded after the Tsars were gone.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:21 PM on July 5, 2009

I'm going to go with imperialism, largely because it's been around a lot longer.
posted by box at 12:35 PM on July 5, 2009

Even if you can squarely define "imperialism", the comparison is going to be unfair because of the dramatic increase in population over time. By the time communists were in power, there were a lot more people available to kill.

Also, though "imperialism" has been around longer, it's hardly a unified concept. Sargon, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, and Shi Huangdi each killed a bunch of people, but they're not representatives of a single ideology or culture.
posted by zompist at 1:36 PM on July 5, 2009

The Soviet Union was founded after the Tsars were gone.

yeah, but when I think of expansion I think of the Tsarist period. The Bolsheviks inherited the Tsarist empire, adding very little to it; E Poland, Kaliningrad in the aftermath of WW2 (and restoring the Balkan states lost after WW I).

For the most part, Marxism-Leninism was a kind of Imperialism

yeah, the differences between the Russians moving into Afghanistan in 1980 and the US in 2001 are vanishingly small; the "Northern Alliance" was a re-tread of the pro-soviet tribal militias that were fighting the mujahideen in the 80s.

I think to judge how "Imperialist" an action is one must analyze the economic disadvantage suffered by the natives under the boot of the imperialists who have taken over, which can be measured by analyzing the flow of natural resources and agricultural extracted from client state in question.

The US railed at Japanese imperial expansion, but their initial moves were against the British in Malaysia, the Dutch in Indonesia, the US in the Philippines, Guam, and Hawaii.

The Japanese imperialist actions differed in severity but not necessarily in kind in comparison to the imperial powers they attempted to displace.

Imperialism evolved over time; what was acceptable in the late 19th century, eg. the British militarily seizing Hong Kong and forcing Beijing to grant it a 99 year lease, the brutal Philippine Insurrection, the banana wars involving US marines in Latin America, then in the postward cold war order we saw a softer neo-colonial pattern of native military juntas, favorable to US trade interests, seizing power and being supported by the US throughout the third world.

And in this neo-colonial imperialism the Soviet bloc (and later Chinese) supported opposing "popular movements". I think Vietnam and Cuba are good examples of the popular movements winning and replacing a less creditable imperialist order, although this also brought in the attendant expansion of the Soviet trading bloc at the western imperialist (ie US's) expense.
posted by @troy at 1:44 PM on July 5, 2009

Also, there's a sense in which the Stalinist USSR could be described as both "imperialist" and "communist."
posted by paultopia at 2:04 PM on July 5, 2009

Also, also, it might be worthwhile to consider killings as a percentage of population -- when the Athenians put the city of Melos to the sword (well, killed the men and enslaved the women) in the Peloponnesian War, for example, they almost certainly killed fewer people than were killed in 9/11, or in a single bad day of Stalin's -- but they wiped out a whole political community.
posted by paultopia at 2:07 PM on July 5, 2009

Yes, politicians do this. You could call it a diversion. By getting you to focus on their supposed gored ox, you will focus less on your own. I treat rhetoric like this for what it is, meaningless entertaining fluff.
posted by telstar at 2:35 PM on July 5, 2009

The great period of Soviet imperialism was 1945-1975. They added Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Modolva to their empire. Then they destabilized China and turned it Communist, and expanded into Viet Nam and Cambodia and North Korea. They got Cuba. They got Yugoslavia and Albania. They almost got Greece. They tried to get Nicaragua. They tried to get El Salvador. They nearly got several South American nations. They had great influence in large parts of sub-Saharan Africa. (They almost got Angola.) They turned Nasser's Egypt into a client state.

Their stated goal was world domination.

That period of imperialism dwarfs anything the Tsars achieved.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:51 PM on July 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not only should you consider killings as a percentage of population (whether national or world population depends on what effect you'd like to gauge), but also killings per unit time. The USSR existed for less than a century, after all.
posted by Krrrlson at 3:02 PM on July 5, 2009

I would assume, since Communism has been around for just one century whereas Imperialism has been around practically forever, that Imperialism would almost certainly have more kills.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:14 PM on July 5, 2009

The OP really needs to clarify what he means by "imperialism" because the question was obviously getting at something else, like "communism vs. first world empires" or such.
posted by fatbird at 3:21 PM on July 5, 2009

Then they destabilized China and turned it Communist, and expanded into Viet Nam and Cambodia and North Korea. They got Cuba...

You're simply listing off Communist countries here. The Soviets definitely dominated Eastern Europe and Cuba was a satellite state (though Cuba got that way because of Castro and Guevara and as a reaction against the U.S.'s post-Spanish domination there far more than because of anything particular the Soviets did) but China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and North Korea weren't conquests of the USSR.

The Soviets were not what destabilized China nor what turned it Communist, at all. The Communism in China wasn't coming from the Soviet Union, it was coming there from Europe just as in Russia. Zhou Enlai became a committed Marxist as a student in France, for example. Declaring the Communist Revolution in China to be a Soviet conquest is like calling the French Revolution an American conquest.
posted by XMLicious at 4:02 PM on July 5, 2009

XML, I prefer the "follow the money" approach to identifying colonial/imperial conquests.

Cuba was something of a ward of the Soviet empire and as such benefitted more via the petroleum aid than it traded away to the Soviets. The Soviets couldn't really afford any more imperial conquests of the Cuban model.

Vietnam under France was the textbook imperial conquest, with much wealth being exported out of the country with limited benefits accruing to the natives.

But in the American stage of the war the American way of war -- vast investment in infrastructure and "Hearts & Minds" actually made our effort there rather non-economic and more of a long-term "soft-power", "safe for democracy" imperial project than an immediate imperial conquest. Same thing after 1975, the Russians were able to use Cam Ranh Bay but other than that strategic port they did not realize much benefit in their putative imperial overlordship over the Vietnamese.

The Warsaw Pact was less an empire of the Soviets than a "self-defense" bloc. I use the scare-quotes because what was being defended against was the encroachment of the economic and personal freedoms of the Free World.
posted by @troy at 6:13 PM on July 5, 2009

Response by poster: The OP really needs to clarify what he means by "imperialism" because the question was obviously getting at something else, like "communism vs. first world empires" or such.

I mean the doctrine of Imperalism with a capital I, the same way many people mean Communism with a capital C. If Communism has enough victims that we should have a national monument to remember them, are there enough victims of Imperialism that would necessitate a similar monument?
posted by Jairus at 7:38 PM on July 5, 2009

There isn't any "doctrine of Imperialism with a capital I" in the sense you mean. That's part of the problem with this question.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:58 PM on July 5, 2009

I mean the doctrine of Imperalism with a capital I, the same way many people mean Communism with a capital C.

There's no such thing that I'm aware of or can find reference to. Nor can I think of any country/nation/empire that somehow uniquely embodies it, at least in any way that excludes the Soviet Union such that a body count can't be put into both columns. The Soviet Union was obviously imperialistic and communist at the same time while its tanks were rolling into Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan.

If we're going to compare body counts, we need a definition of Imperialist that doesn't overlap with Communist.
posted by fatbird at 8:54 PM on July 5, 2009

Does the Armenian Genocide count as an act of Imperialism? What about the Indonesian occupation of East Timor or the Rwandan Genocide of 1994?
posted by iviken at 4:01 AM on July 6, 2009

To be fair, the "doctrine of Imperialism" did exist in segments of Victorian Britain (for instance, Joseph Chamberlain was a strong exponenent of imperialism) so if you want to limit it to self-professed imperialism you might take that era of the British Empire to start off with, but that's a fairly small slice of what most people would call "imperialism" in history.
posted by SamuelBowman at 3:07 AM on July 7, 2009

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