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."
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.