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January 15, 2001 -- Vol.6, no.1

When and Why to Use the Term Democide for “Genocide”
by R. J. Rummel

It is impossible to dissociate language from science or science from language, because every natural [or social] science always involves three things: the sequence of phenomena on which the science is based; the abstract concepts which call these phenomena to mind; and the words in which the concepts are expressed.

----Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, 1789

The field of “genocide” studies is growing rapidly, research is diversifying, and our knowledge of individual “genocides” is multiplying and deepening (I will soon make clear why I use the quotation marks). Many related institutes are now at work on “genocide” and a variety of web sites have been constructed. There are very good people at work on one form of “genocide” or another and there soon should be the methods and works to justify “genocide” as an independent, academic discipline. Still, comparative works on “genocides” are rare and usually follow the cafeteria approach, unsystematically picking and choosing among “genocides” according to the interest of the writers. But I have no doubt that this will change in the next decade or so.

I look forward to the time when all this work can be connected by a web ring: a reciprocal linking of internet web sides presenting the major research for those involved in the field, as well as for practitioners, students, and the general public. Given the state of “genocide” research two decades ago, the field of “genocide” studies has undergone revolutionary growth and such a web ring is now overdue (I am not writing about cross-linking sites per se, but about interlinking sites containing full research results, reports, and books).

But with such a fast growth the field must now undergo integration and rationalization. And this is hampered by multiple and confusing uses of the term genocide. To call all government murder genocide is to leave us without a concept for the killing of people because of their indelible group membership. To call attempts to destroy a culture without killing its members genocide is also to leave us without a clear concept for killing people because of their group membership. I believe it best to limit the term to such killing, but if we do we must also recognize that genocide so understood is a small percentage (even considering the Holocaust) of those murdered by government for other reasons (about 38,000,000 of the total near 170,000,000 murdered 1900-1987, as detailed in my Death By Government and Statistics of Democide). To avoid this confusion in my own work and to be clear about what I was analyzing, I invented the term democide. This then fills the void created by necessarily limiting genocide to killing by virtue of group membership. What do we call murder by quota, then? Democide. What about killing political opponents? Democide (or politicide as a type of democide). And the Holocaust? Genocide (as another type of democide).

What are the differences and similarities between democide and genocide? As defined, elaborated, and qualified in Chapter 2 of Death By Government, democide is any murder by government--by officials acting under the authority of government. That is, they act according to explicit or implicit government policy or with the implicit or explicit approval of the highest officials. Such was the burying alive of Chinese civilians by Japanese soldiers, the shooting of hostages by German soldiers, the starving to death of Ukrainians by communist cadre, or the burning alive of Japanese civilians purposely fire-bombed from the air by American airmen.

Genocide, however, is a confused and confusing concept. It may or may not include government murder, refer to wholly or partially eliminating some group, or involve psychological damage. If it includes government murder, it may mean all such murder or just some. Boiling all this down, genocide can have three different meanings.

One meaning is that defined by international treaty, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This makes genocide a punishable crime under international law, and defines it as:

any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Note that only the first clause includes outright killing, while the other clauses cover non-killing ways of eliminating a group. I will call this definition of genocide the legal meaning, since it is now part of international law.

Regardless of this definition and doubtlessly influenced by the Holocaust, ordinary usage and that by students of genocide have tended to wholly equate it with the murder and only the murder by government of people due to their national, ethnical, racial or religious (or, what is called indelible) group membership. This way of viewing genocide has become so ingrained that it seems utterly false to say, for example, that the United States committed genocide against ethnic Hawaiians by forcing their children to study English and behave according to American norms and values. Yet, in the legal view of genocide, this is arguably true. The equating of genocide with the killing people because of their indelible group membership I will label the common meaning of genocide.

In some usage and especially among some students of genocide, the concept has been redefined to fill a void. What about government murdering people for other reasons than they’re indelible group membership? What about government organized death squads eliminating communist sympathizers, assassinating political opponents, or cleansing the population of antirevolutionaries? What about simply fulfilling a government death quota (as in the Soviet Union under Stalin). None of such murders are genocide according the legal and common meanings. Therefore, some students of genocide have stretched its meaning to include all government murder, whether or not because of group membership. This may be aptly named the generalized meaning of genocide.

As obvious, the problem with the generalized meaning of genocide is that to fill one void it creates another. For if genocide refers to all government murder, what are we to call the murder of people because of their group membership? It is precisely because of this conceptual problem that I created the concept of democide.

We now have three meanings of genocide: legal, common, and generalized. How do these related to democide? Let me try to make this clear through Venn Diagrams. Figure 1A shows two circles, one containing all cases of democide, the other all cases of genocide. Outside of the two circles are all other forms of behavior that is neither democide nor genocide. Now, for the legal meaning of genocide, only part of the circle of genocide will overlap that of democide, as shown in the figure. This is because the legal meaning includes nonkilling, while democide includes only killing. The overlap portion of the circles comprise those cases of democide that are the genocidal murder of people in order to eradicate their group in whole or part. That part of the democide circle outside of the overlap contains those murdered for other reasons.

Figure 1B shows the circle of genocide in its common meaning. Then the genocide circle is a smaller one inside the democide circle. That is, in this meaning genocide is a kind of democide, but there are other types of democide as well, such as politicide or the bombing of civilians (see Table 2.1 of Death By Government).

Now referring to Figure 1C for the generalized meaning of genocide, the genocide and democide circles are the same: democide is genocide and genocide is democide. One of the concepts is then redundant against the other. But then, as I so often point out, what do we call the murder of people because they are, say, Moslems, Jews, or Armenians? This surely is a kind of murder that must be discriminated and understood.

The progress of our knowledge of government murder depends fundamentally on the clarity and significance of our concepts. Especially, these concepts should refer to real world behavior and events that can be clearly and similarly discriminated regardless of the observers and their prejudices. For if any area of social study is laden with predispositions and biases, it surely has to do with the who, why, when, and how of government murder (the meaning of "government" and "murder" are themselves concepts that require clarification, as I tried to do in aforementioned Chapter 2).

For these reasons I believe that both genocide in its common meaning and democide as I have defined it have an important role in understanding government murder. The legal view of genocide, however, is too complex and subsumes behavior too different in kind, such as government murder, government induced psychological damage, government attempting to eliminate a group in whole or in part (what empirical meaning can we give to "in part "?), or government removing children from a group (removing what percentage constitutes genocide?), and so on.

In the case of democide, the vast majority of government killing is manifestly murder--the intent to commit murder is inherent in the act itself. For example, soldiers lining up civilians against a wall and shooting them to death without a fair trial is manifestly government murder. And in its common meaning, most cases of genocide can be equally discriminated, as in the Holocaust or of the Armenian genocide in Turkey during 1915-1916.

In sum, genocide should ordinarily be understood as the government murder of people because of their indelible group membership (let the international lawyers struggle with the legal meaning) and democide as any murder by government, including this form of genocide.

Besides this conceptual issue, the field of democide studies, to now use this term in place of “genocide”, is also retarded by a lack of concern with research methods and quantitative analysis. A few, such as Helen Fein in her Accounting for Genocide (1979), have done quantitative research, but if hypotheses and theories about democide or genocide are to be tested and such research accumulated, then methodology and quantitative techniques must be in the field’s toolbox. This is not to say that historical scholarship, case studies, and sociological analysis are to be ignored. No. These are essential, and I have done many myself. I am only saying that we must add to them -- complement them -- if well-rounded research is to be accomplished on democide. Even simple statistics can be most helpful and qualitatively important. Just consider the monumental significance of just two numbers: the 170,000,000 people probably murdered by government compared to the near 38,000,000 combat dead in all foreign and domestic wars over the same period.

In any case, lets first clean up this conceptual problem that so bedevils this field so extraordinarily crucial to the lives and welfare of our fellow human beings.