29 December 2011

Why RJ Rummel Shouldn't Be Taken Seriously

RJ Rummel is a political scientist best known for his contribution to the "democratic peace theory". He is also the author of the book Death by Government where he claims that states in the 20th century were responsible for killing around 174 million people. Interestingly this figure is frequently quoted by libertarians who are dismissive of the rest of his output; his "democratic peace" and his advocacy of aggressive foreign policy. It can be quickly shown his work on "calculating" the number of victims of governments calls for the same treatment.

We can ignore the fact his "most probable estimate" of deaths the responsibility of the Soviet Union presupposes 40 million deaths in the gulag, which happens to be twice the number of people who passed through the camps. We can also ignore his "high estimate" of the number of people killed by the USSR presupposes the murder of a fantastic 115 million Soviet citizens — a number of deaths sufficient to demographically break a far more populous nation than the Soviet Union (148 million people in 1926). Ignore also his having "calculated" that Soviet Union extinguished 2.38 million lives in the gulag between 1961 and 1982, and an additional 200,000 lives between 1983 and 1987. Ignore, because there is an even better way to showcase the level of his scholarship than debunking any of these. Better because it is made by Rummel himself.

In Death by Government Rummel claimed 174 million killed by government, but has since revised the figure to 262 million. This is partly the outcome of his changing his estimate of the number of people killed by colonial regimes from 870,000 to 50,870,000! Rummel explains this revision became necessary when, having read a book on Belgian colonialism in Congo, he realized he had been ignorant of a huge state-caused loss of life in that African territory. That seems like an honest explanation, but should he really be left of the hook this easily?

To begin with, the enormous loss of life in colonial Congo is hardly new (or obscure) information that was not available before. Rummel himself gives examples of sources (including Encyclopedia Britannica) that speak about it and were published well before Death by Government:
  • "Britannica, 'Congo Free State' claims that the population declined from 20 or 30 million to 8 million."
  • "A 1904 report by Roger Casement’s estimated that as many as 3 million Congolese died since 1888 (cited in Gilbert’s History of the Twentieth Century; also in Colin Legum, Congo Disaster (1972)."
  • "Peter Forbath (The River Congo (1977) claims that at least 5 million killed."
  • "John Gunther (Inside Africa (1953) estimates 5-8 million deaths."
  • "Fredric Wertham, A Sign For Cain: A Exploration of Human Violence (1966) estimates that the population of the Congo dropped from 30M to 8.5M, a loss of 21.5 million."
    Also, it is not the case Rummel found 50 million victims he was not previously aware of in Congo. No, it is the case that having read a book on one specific colonial experience he became aware of the level of atrocity colonialism rested on and so he now figures the number of victims in Congo and elsewhere could add up to something like 50,870,000. This means he could have easily picked up a study on any number of brutal colonial regimes besides the one in Belgian Congo and it could have had the same effect of convincing him his figure of deaths caused by Western colonialism was off.

    In other words, Rummel admits that at the time of writing Death by Government he was ignorant of the true nature of colonialism, but in a manner of a dilettante gave the 870,000 figure anyway. Professor Rummel can be commended that having learned something new he admitted to his delusion and revised his claim. However, if an author is going to make errors of this magnitude he probably should not be merely "reevaluating" estimates, he should be reevaluating whether he has any business writing books on the topic.


    1. Huh. I guess you don't have to actually know anything any more to write a book on just about anything you choose.

      My wife keeps pushing me to give it a try myself. Perhaps I will, considering that it doesn't seem to be much work these days at all.

      1. Sounds like it. But I think it only works that way if you have a PhD in hot air, uhm I mean political science. ;)

      2. This comment has been removed by the author.

      3. Found this post through google, not sure why considering it's immensely useless and written by some unknown blogger. But you have a really solid theory, don't you? Yes, lets disregard everything Rummel has to say because he didn't include a set of statistics, the inclusion of which, actually strengthens his overall premise. He was right before he added numbers from the Congo, and he was even more validated after he added them. Clearly, time to disregard everything the man has written, my eyes have been opened. Hero of Crappy Town with a crappy intellect.

      4. Not to be an ass, but you're an idiot. If you think reading a review about Rummel's numerous books makes you an expert enough to say he didn't do any work, then you're delusional. He has done an immense amount of research and has put years into his study. But go ahead and write your book, maybe I'll find it in a dumpster somewhere

    2. Coming up with an exact number of people murdered by totalitarian regimes is of course very difficult and accuracy uncertain. These types of governments don;t give out those number and don't have a free press to investigate. But Rummel did a very substantial amount of research and goes into great length on how he made his estimates. They are close enough for government work and show how amazingly bad Communist Governments were. Who knows or cares if a total is a few million high or low? Still horrible http://worldwarcoldwarvietnam.blogspot.com/

    3. A person who describes himself as a, "Rothbardian anarchist and history buff posting from Ljubljana," ought to be praising Rummel for his original and unique contribution to the eventual demise of the State by being the first to call attention to the fact that governments murders innocent people by the hundreds of millions. Your critique sounds like jealousy of scholarship beyond your ken.

    4. If anything, the Congo famines weren't caused by Belgians. Given the state of Congo and the Congolese, it is very possible that the mass deaths were caused by warlords trying to make a quick profit off of the poor and needy.