The best books to understand the history of communism

Jasper Becker Author Of Made in China: Wuhan, Covid and the Quest for Biotech Supremacy
By Jasper Becker

The Books I Picked & Why

The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine

By Robert Conquest

The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine

Why this book?

The British historian of the Soviet Union wrote a number of extra-ordinary books about the horrors of the Soviet Union but this was the best one. It pulls together the story of the second great man-made famine in the Soviet Union when Stalin pushed through the second collectivisation campaign. It was the first book to bring together why and how Stalin’s policies deliberately killed so many people.

He also describes how many people in the West chose to ignore the evidence and the eye-witness accounts of the suffering. Reading it inspired me to research the Great Leap Forward famine. The parallels are astonishing. Did Mao know what happened under Stalin, or did he know but not care when he followed the same path?


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The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression

By Stéphane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, Jean-Louis Margolin

The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression

Why this book?

This was the first real effort to bring together a picture of the whole story of the global Communist movement and the many famines it created. It covers the whole-scale of the misery in regimes in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, Europe, Russia, India, China, and southeast Asia. It’s a lot of ground to cover but the narrative does not flag. Although the opening of the archives had produced more information, this is still a very impressive book however sobering it might be.


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A Poisoned Arrow. The Secret Report of the 10th Panchen Lama

By Bskal-bzaṅ-tshe-brtan

A Poisoned Arrow. The Secret Report of the 10th Panchen Lama

Why this book?

I once saw the 10th Panchen Lama give a very rare press conference in Beijing. This remarkable Tibetan endured years of imprisonment for writing a report describing mass arrests, political executions, and man-made starvation in Tibet in the early 1960s. The report makes it clear that the famine and the eradication of religion was a deliberate policy. It was quite likely that more than any other group the Tibetans suffered more than any other group in China. Although he was at times criticised as a collaborator, compared to the Dalai Lama, who escaped to India, the report reveals that there was no escape from this genocide for any Tibetan.


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Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao's Great Famine

By Yang Jisheng

Tombstone: The Untold Story of Mao's Great Famine

Why this book?

Yang Jisheng is a Chinese journalist who worked for the state news agency, Xinhua reporter, but diligently spent many years researching the archives to pull together a detailed story of the Great Leap Forward famine, on a province-by-province basis. It is extremely rare for anyone in China who works for the state to paint such an unflinching look at the Chinese Communist Party’s actions. It gives the account unassailable credibility. However, Yang struggles to place the story in the context of the full global history of communism, and attributes the folly to China’s culture and Mao’s shortcomings.


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Epistemological Problems of Economics. Ludwig Von Mises

By Ludwig von Mises

Epistemological Problems of Economics. Ludwig Von Mises

Why this book?

This book written in 1922 by the Austrian economist at the University of Vienna is one of the few truly foundational works in political economy. Mises takes apart the theory of the Marxist moneyless planned economy which Lenin and then Stalin tried to apply to the Soviet Union. Mises lucidly explains why not only that it could never work but would lead to catastrophic and unending shortages, dictatorship, repression, and arbitrary rule enforced by a militarized one-party state. Although Mises had no knowledge of China, it is the best book to read in order to understand what happened in China in the 20th century.


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