Power Kills, Absolute Power Kills Absolutely
Power gradually extirpates for the mind every humane and gentle virtue.
Power, like a desolating pestilence, Pollutes what'er it touches.
Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The conclusion that "power corrupts" is the message emerging from the work on the causes of war and comparative study of genocide, politicide, and mass murder — what I call democide, or the killing of masses of people — in this century.
The more power a government has, the more it can act arbitrarily according to the whims and desires of the elite, the more it will make war on others and murder its foreign and domestic subjects. The more constrained the power of governments, the more it is diffused, checked and balanced, the less it will aggress on others and commit democide, At the extremes of Power, totalitarian communist governments slaughter their people by the tens of millions, while many democracies can barely bring themselves to execute even serial murders.
These assertions are extreme and categorical, but so is the evidence so far accumulated. Consider first war. Table 1 shows the occurrence of war between nations since 1816. In no case has there been a war involving violent military action between stable democracies, although they have fought, as everyone knows, nondemocracies. Most wars are between nondemocracies. Indeed, we have here a general principle that is gaining acceptance among students of in international relations and war, namely that democracies rarely make war on each other. To this I would add that the less democratic two states, the more likely that they will fight each other.
Table 1 Wars between Democracies and Nondemocracies 1816-1991
|Democracies vs. democracies||0|
|Democracies vs. nondemocracies||155|
|Nondemocracies vs. nondemocracies||198|
a Stable democracies. This only excludes the war between and ephemeral republican France and republican Rome in 1849.
b Defined as any military action in which at least 1,000 persons are killed. [From Small, M., and Singer, J. (1976). The war proneness of democraticregimes, 1816-1965. Jerusalem Journal International Relations, 1 (summer), 50-69; Small, M., and Singer, J. (1982). Resort to Arms: International and Civil Wars, 1816-1980. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage; more recent estimates from the author.]
Moreover, this is historically true of democracies as well. If one relaxes the definition of democracy to mean simply the restraint of Power by the participation of middle and lower classes in the determination of power holders and policy-making, then there have been many democracies throughout history. And whether considering the classical Greek democracies, the forest democracies of medieval Switzerland, or modern democracies, they did or do not fight each other (depending on how war and democracy are defined, some might prefer to say that they rarely fought or fight each other). Moreover, once those states that had been mortal enemies, that had frequently gone to war (as have France and Germany in recent centuries), became democratic, war ceased between them. Paradigmatic of this is Western Europe since 1945. The cauldron of our most disastrous wars for many centuries, in 1945 one could not find and expert so foolhardy as to predict not only forty-five years of peace, but that at the end of that time there would be a European community with central government institutions, moves towards a joint European military force by France and Germany, and zero expectation of violence between any of these formerly hostile states. Yet such has happened. All because they are all democracies.
Even if all to be said about absolute and arbitrary Power was that it causes war and the attendant slaughter of the young and most capable of our species, this would be enough. But the reality is much worse, as case studies attest. Even without the excuse of combat. Power also massacres in cold blood those helpless people it controls — in fact several times more of them than it kills in wars. Consider Table 1 and Figure 1: the list and its graph of this century's megamurderers — those states killing in cold blood, aside from warfare, I million of more men, women, and children. These fifteen megamurderers have wiped out over 151 million people, almost four times the almost 36,500,000 battle dead from all this century's international and civil wars up to 1987. The most absolute Powers — namely, communist USSR, China, and preceding-Mao guerillas; Khmer Rouge Cambodia, Vietnam, and Yugoslavia, and fascist Nazi Germany — account for nearly 128 million of them, or 84 percent.
Table 2 also shows the annual percentage democide rate (the percent of its population that a regime murders per year) for each megamurderer; Figure 1 graphically overlays the plot of this on the total murdered. Massive megamurderers such as the Soviet Union and communist China had huge populations with a resulting small annual democide rate. Lesser megamurderers were far more lethal to their own populations.
Table 3 lists the fifteen most lethal regimes, and Figure 2 bar graphs them. As can be seen, no other megamurderer comes even close to the lethality of the communist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during their 1975 through 1978 rule. In less than four years of governing they exterminated over 31 percent of their men, women, and children; the odds of any Cambodian surviving these four long years was only about 2.2 to 1.
Then there are the kilomurderers, or those states that have killed innocents by the tens or hundreds of thousands, such as the top five listed in Table 2: China's Warlords (1917-1949), Ataturk's Turkey (1919-1923), the United Kingdom (primarily due to the 1014-1919 food blockade of the Central Powers in and after World War I, and the 1940-1945 indiscriminate bombing of German cities), Portugal (1926-1982), and Indonesia (1965-1987). Some lesser kilomurderers were communist Afghanistan, Angola, Albania, Romania, and Ethiopia, as well as authoritarian Hungary, Burundi, Croatia (1941-1944), Czechoslovakia (1945-1946), Indonesia, Iraq, Russia, and Uganda. For its indiscriminate bombing of Germany and Japanese civilians, the United States must also be added to this list. These and other kilomurders add about 15 million people killed to the democide for this century, as shown in Table 2.
Table 2 Twentieth-Century Democide
|Regimes||Years||Democide (000)a||Annual Rate (%)h|
|China (Mao Soviets)c||1923-49||3,466||3,466||nil||.05e|
a Includes genocide, politicide, and mass murder; excludes war dead. There are most probable mid-estimates in low to high ranges. Figures may not sum due to rounding.
b The percent of a population killed in democide per year of the regime.
c Guerilla period.
e The rate is the average of that for three successive periods.
f The world annual rate is calculated for the 1944 global population.
Figure 1 Megamurderers and Their Annual Rate of Democide (from table 2)
Of course, saying that a state or regime is a murderer is a convenient personification of an abstraction. Regimes are in reality people with the power to command a whole society. It is these people that have committed the kilo- and megamurders of our century, and we must not hide their identity under the abstraction of "state," "regime," "government," or "communist." Table 4 lists the men most notoriously and singularly responsible for the megamurders of this century.
Stalin by far, leads the list. He ordered the death of millions, knowingly set in motion events leading to the death of millions of others, and as the ultimate dictator, was responsible for the death of still millions more killed by his henchman. It may come as a surprise to find Mao Tse-tung next in line as this century's greatest murderer, but this would only be because the full extent of communist killing in China under his leadership has not been widely known in the West. Hitler and Pol Pot are of course among these bloody tyrants, and there are others whose names may appear strange but whose megamurders have been documented. The monstrous bloodletting of these nine men should be entered into a Hall of Infamy. Their names should forever warn us of the deadly potential of Power.
Table 3 Fifteen Most Lethal Regimes
|Cambodia (Khmer Rouge)||1975-79||3.83||C||8.16||2,000||6.399|
|Poland (Post-World War II)||1945-48||3.33||A||1.99||1,585||23,930|
|Turkey (Young Turks)||1909-18||9.17||A||.96||1,752||20,000|
|Czechoslovakia (Post-World War II)||1945-48||2.83||A||.54||197||12,916|
Key: A = authoritarian; C = communist.
a State regimes older than one year and having a population greater than 750,000.
b Percent of citizens killed through democide per year of the regime.
e For 1944.
The major and better-known episodes and institutions of which these and other murderers were responsible are listed in table 5. Far above all is gulag — the Soviet slave-labor system created by Lenin and built up under Stalin. In some 70 years it likely chewed up almost 40 million lives, well over twice as many as probably died in some 400 years of the American slave trade, from capture to sale in an Arab, Oriental, or new World market.
Figure 2 Democide Lethality
Table 4 The Twentieth Century's Bloodiest Megamurderers
|Josip Broz Tito||C||Yugoslavia||1941-87||1,172c|
Key: C = communist; F = fascist; M/F = militarist/fascist; M = militarist
a These are the most probable estimates from a low to high range. Estimates are from or based on Rummel 1990, 1991, 1992 and Statistics of Democide.
b Citizens only.
c Includes his guerilla period.
d Includes his warlord period.
e Includes one-third the democide for the NEP period 1923-28.
f Estimated as one-half the 1937-45 democide in China plus the World War II democide.
In total during the first eight-eight years of this century, almost 170 million men, women, and children were shot, beaten, tortured, knifed, burned, starved, frozen, crushed, or worked to death; buried alive, drowned, hanged bombed, or killed in any other of the myriad ways governments have inflicted death on unarmed, helpless citizens and foreigners. Depending on whether one uses high or more conservative estimates, the dead could conceivably be nearly 360 million people. It is as though our species has been devastated by a modern Black Plague. And indeed it has, but a plague of Power, not germs.
The souls of this monstrous pile of dead have created a new land, a new nation, among us. In Shakespeare's words, "This Land be calle'd The field of Golgotha, and dead men's skulls." As is clear from the megamurderers listed in Table 2 alone, this land is multicultural and multiethnic. Its inhabitants followed all the world's religions and spoke all its languages. Its demography has yet to be precisely measured.
Table 6 summarizes the most prudent estimate of democide and contrasts them to this century's battle dead. Figure 3 gives a bar chart of these totals. Note immediately in the figure that the human cost of democide is far greater than that of war for authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Democracies show a reverse pattern; however, they suffer far fewer deaths than do other regimes. In evaluating the battle dead for democracies, also keep in mind that most of these dead were the result of wars that democracies fought against authoritarian or totalitarian aggression, particularly World War I and II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Table 5 Some Major Democide Episodes and Cases
|Jewish Holocaust||5,291||1942-45||European Jews||Hitler|
|Intentional famine in Ukraine||5,000||1932-33||peasants||Stalin|
|China land reform||4,500||1949-53||rich/landlords||Mao Tse-tung|
|Cambodian Hell||2,000||1975-79||Cambodian people||Pol Pot|
|German expulsion||1,583||1945-48||German ethnics||Poland|
|Armenian genocide||1,404||1915-18||Turkey's Armenians||Young Turks|
|Serbian genocide||655||1941-45||Serbs/Jews/Gypsies||Croatian Ustashi|
|Indonesian massacre||509||1965-66||Communists/sympathizers||Indonesian army|
|Ugandan massacres||300||1971-79||Critics/opponents/tribesmen||Idi Amin|
|Spanish Civil War||200||1936-39||Republicans/Nationalists||
Spanish Republican Government/
|Rape of Nanking||200||1937-38||Chinese||Japanese army|
|Tribal massacres||150||1971-72||Hutu educated/leaders||Burundi Tutsi|
|East Timor massacres||150||1975-87||Timorese||Indonesian army|
|colonial massacres||132||1900-18||Hereros/Hottentots/others||German Kaiser|
a Most probable estimates from a low to high range. Estimates are from or based on Rummel 1990, 1991, 1992, and various tables of sources and estimates published in Statistics of Democide.
Note: These statistics do not include recent cases of democide, even when reported elsewhere in the Encyclopedia, such as genocide in the Former Yugoslavia (1991–1995) or Rwanda (1994). –Ed.
Putting the human cost of war and democide together, a midrange estimate is that Power has killed over 203 million people in this century. If one were to sit at a table and have this many people come in one door, walk at three miles per hour across the room with three feet between them (assume generously that each person is also one foot thick, navel to spine), and exit another door, it would take over five years and nine months for them all to pass, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year. If all these dead were laid out head to toe assuming each to be an average of five feet tall, they would reach from Honolulu, Hawaii, across the vast Pacific and then the huge continental United States to Washington, DC, on the East Coast, and then back again almost twenty times.
Now, as shown in Table 6 and Figure 3, democracies themselves are responsible for some of the democide. Almost of this, however, is foreign democide during war, and consists mainly of those enemy civilians killed in indiscriminate urban bombing, as of Germany and Japan in World War II. Democide by democracies also includes the large-scale massacres of Filipinos at the beginning of this century, deaths in British concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer War, civilian death due to starvation during the British blockade of Germany in and after World War I, the rape and murder of helpless Chinese in an around Peking in 1900, the atrocities committed by Americans in Vietnam, the murder of helpless Algerians during the Algerian War by the French, and the unnatural deaths of German prisoners of war in French and US POW camps after World War II.
All this killing of foreigners by democracies may seem to violate the Power Principle, but really it underlines it. For, in each case the killing was carried out in a highly undemocratic fashion: in secret, behind a conscious cover of lies and deceit, and by agencies and power holders that had the wartime authority to operate autonomously. All were shielded by tight censorship of the press and control of journalists. Even the indiscriminate bombing of German cities by the British was disguised before the House of Commons and in press releases as attacks on German military targets. That the general strategic bombing policy was to attack working men's homes was kept secret still long after the war.
Table 6 Democide and Power
|Killed (000)b||Rate (%)c|
a These are regimes in states, quasi-states, and nonstate groups. Classification of regimes is based on Small and Singer 1976 and Ted Robert Gurr's Polity I and II data.
b Figures for democide are the sums of the most probable mid-values in a low-high range over the period 1900–1987. Figures for war are a regime's battle dead in excess of 1,000 for 1900–1980 based on Small and Singer 1982, modified by additional data. Figures may not add up due to rounding.
c "Overall" is the average of each regime's percent of mid-period population killed through democide during the period 1900-1987. "Annual" is this average per year.
d These are groups for which a regime could not be specified, such as international terrorists and domestic guerillas.
e The world rate is calculated for the 1944 global population.
f Average regime's battle dead per foreign war.
g Average percent of a regime's population killed in international wars.
h Percent of the world's 1944 population killed in all wars, 1900-1980. The annual percentage is .018.
i Percent of the world's 1944 population killed in democide, 1900-1987, and wars, 1900-1980.
So Power kills, and absolute Power kills absolutely. What then can be said of those alleged causes or factors in war, genocide, and mass murder favored by students of genocide? What about cultural-ethnic differences, ingroup-outgroup conflict, misperception, frustration-aggression, relative deprivation, ideological imperatives, dehumanization, resource competition, etc.? At one time or another, for one regime or another, one or more of these factors plays an important role in democide. They are essential for under-standing some genocides, as of the Jews or Armenians; some politicides, as of "enemies of the people," bourgeoisie, and clergy; some massacres, as of competing religious-ethnic groups; or some atrocities, as of those committed against poor and helpless villagers by victorious soldiers. But they do not explain all the killing. They only accelerate the likelihood of war or democide once some trigger event occurs and absolute or nearly absolute Power is present. That is, Power is a necessary cause for war or democide. When then elite have absolute power, war or democide follows a common process.
However, relative power never remains constant. It shifts as the interests, capabilities, and wills of the parties change. The death of a charismatic leader, the outrage of significant groups, the loss of foreign support by outgroups, the entry into war and the resulting freedom of the elite to use force under the guise of wartime necessity, and so on, can significantly alter the balance of power between groups. Where such a shift in power is in favor of the governing elite, Power can now achieve its potential. Where also the elite has built up frustrations regarding those who have lost power or feels threatened by them; where it sees them as outside the moral universe, or where it has dehumanized them; where the outgroup is culturally or ethnically distinct and perceived by the elite as inferior; or where any other such factors are present. Power will achieve its murderous potential. It simply waits for an excuse, and event of some sort, an assassination, a massacre in a neighboring country, an attempted coup, a famine or a natural disaster, to justify the beginning of murder en masse. Most democides occur under the cover of war, revolution or guerilla war, or in their aftermath.
Figure 3 Deaths from Democide Compared to Deaths from International War (from table 6)
The result of such violence will be a new balance of power and attendant social contract. In some cases this may end the democide, for example by eliminating the "inferior" group (as the Turks did to the Armenians). In many cases this will subdue the survivors (as happened with the Ukrainians who lived through Stalin's collectivization campaign and intentional famine). In some cases, this establishes a new balance of power so skewed toward the elite that they may throughout their reign continue to murder at will: Murder as public policy becomes part of the new social order. Consider the social orders of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and their henchmen.
It is not apparent, however, why, among states where Power is limited and accountable, war and significant democide are much less likely to take place. Two concepts explain this: (1) Cross-pressures and (2) the associated political culture. Where Power is diffused, checked, and accountable, society is driven by myriad independent groups, disparate institutions, and multiple interests. These overlap and contend: they section loyalties and divide desires and wants. Churches, unions, corporations, government bureaucracies, political parties, the media, special interest groups, and such, fight for and protect their interests.. Individuals and the elite are pushed and pulled by their membership in several such groups and institutions. It is difficult for any one driving interest to form. Interests are divided, weak and ambivalent; they are cross-pressured. For the elite to sufficiently coalesce so as to commit itself to murdering its own citizens, there must be a nearly fanatical, driving interest. But even were such to be present among a few, the diversity of interests across the political elite and associated bureaucracies, the freedom of the media to dig out what is being planned or done, and the ever-present potential for leaks and fear of such leaks from disaffected elite to the media brake such tendencies.
As to the possibility of war between democracies, diversity and resulting cross-pressures operate as well. Not only is it very difficult for the elite to unify public interests and opinion sufficiently to make war, but there are usually diverse economic, social, and political bonds between democracies that tie them together and oppose violence.
But there is more to these restraints on Power in a democracy. Cross-pressure is a social force that operates wherever individual and group freedom predominates. It is natural to a spontaneous social field. But human behavior is not only a matter of social forces — it also depends on the meanings, values, and norms that are present. That is, democratic culture is also essential. When Power is checked and accountable, when cross-pressures limit the operation of Power, a particular democratic culture develops. This culture involves debate, demonstrations, and protests as well as negotiation, compromise, and tolerance. It involves the art of conflict resolution and the acceptance of democratic procedures at all levels of society. The ballot replaces the bullet, and people and groups come to accept a loss on this or that interest as only an unfortunate outcome of the way the legitimate game is played. "lose today, win tomorrow."
This picture of Power and its human costs are new. Few are aware of the sheer democide that has been inflicted on our fellow human beings.
Even more, our appreciation of the incredible scale of this century's genocide, politicide, and mass murder has been stultified by lack of concepts. Democide is committed by absolute Power; its agency is government. The discipline for studying and analyzing power and government and associated genocide and mass murder is political science. But except for a few special cases, such as the Holocaust and Armenian Genocide, and a precious few more general works, one is hard put to find political science research specifically on this topic.
What is needed is conceptualization of politics and government consistent with what we now know about democide and related misery. New concepts have to be invented, old ones realigned to correct—dare I write "modernize" — our perception of Power. We need to invent concepts for governments that turn their states into a border-to-border concentration camp, that purposely starve to death millions — millions! — of their citizens, and that set up quotas of those that should be killed from one village or town to another (although murder by quota was set up by the Soviets, Chinese communists, and Vietnamese, I could not find in any introductory or general political science literature even a recognition that governments can be so incredibly inhumane). We have no concept for murder as an aim of public policy, determined by discussion among the governing elite in the highest councils, and imposed through government.
In any case, the empirical and theoretical conclusion is this: The way to end war and virtually eliminate democide appears to be through restricting and checking Power, that is, through fostering democratic freedom.
One university course I teach is Introduction to Political Science. Each semester I review several possible introductory texts (the best measure of the discipline) for the course. I often just shake my head at what I find. At this stage of my research on democide, the concepts and views promoted in these texts appear grossly unrealistic. They just do not fit or explain, or are even contradictory to the existence of a Hell-State like Pol Pot's Cambodia, a Gulag-State like Stalin's Soviet Union, or a Genocide-State like Hitler's Germany.
References and Recommended Reading
Works of R.J. Rummel
Rummel, R.J. (1990). Lethal Politics: Soviet genocide and Mass Murder Since 1917. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Rummel, R.J. (1991). China's Bloody Century: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Rummel, R.J. (1991). Democide: Nazi Genocide and Mass Murder. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Rummel, R.J. (1992). Power kills, Absolute power kills absolutely. Internet on the Holocaust and Genocide, Special Issue 38. Jerusalem Institute on the Holocaust and Genocide.
Rummel, R.J. (1994). Death by Government. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Rummel, R.J. (1999). Statistics of Democide: Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1900. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Rummel, R.J. (1997). Power Kills: Democracy as a Method of Nonviolence. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Elot, Gil (1972). Twentieth Century Book of the Dead. London: Penguin.
Harff, Barbara, and Gurr, Ted Robert (1988). Toward empirical theory of genocide and politicides: Indentification and measurement of cases since 1945. International Studies Quarterly, 32(4), 359–371.
Horowitz, Irving Louis (1997). Taking Lives: Genocide and State Power. Fourth Edition Expanded and Revised. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Lemkin, Raphael (1944). Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government Proposals for Redress. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
R.J. Rummel, "Power Kills, Absolute Power kills Absolutely", in: Charny (ed.), Encyclopedia of genocide, vol. 1, pp. 23-34.