Journal review: Nam Kyu Kim, “Revolutionary Leaders and Mass Killing,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 1-29 (2016): accessed June 22, 2016. [Sage link]
When people remark to me that “we need a revolution,” depending on my mood and or our relationship, I usually remark sardonically something to the effect of “so you want blood, violence, and potentially a decades-long civil war?”
They usually then stare at me agape like I said something not true.
This, I argue, is the truth: Revolutions strongly correlate with wanton violence.
A Study on Revolutionary Leaders And Mass Violence
A recent article published in the critically-respected Journal of Conflict Resolution examines claims that revolutionary leaders are more violent than counterrevolutionary leaders and the results are stark. This study particular grabbed me for its uniqueness, scope, and breadth. Kim states that “this article is an attempt to fill th[e] gap by providing rare cross-national evidence showing the importance of individual leaders in explaining mass violence.” Not many articles have directly done this before, it seems (I write “it seems” because I am just now beginning my graduate studies and am in no way an expert on this, but Kim does mention the uniqueness of his study.)
Nam Kyu Kim, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln examined almost 80 different revolutionary leaders and 748 country-years (sum of all of the years that any dictator was in power) regarding perpetuating mass violence. National data sets from over 162 countries from 1955 to 2004 were utilized. The basic question studied was: do revolutionary leaders distinctly commit more acts mass violence than nonrevolutionary leaders? This study even factored in those who took power through extra-judicial means (coup d’état, rebellions).
Leaders who took power through coups or rebellions but who didn’t have an exclusionary revolutionary ideology didn’t commit acts of violence at the level that revolutionary leaders did. Revolutions are unique and distinct situations. One could also argue that this adds evidence to the Great Man theory column of debate regarding just how important individuals are in the grand scheme of history. People – specific leaders (and their ideologies) – matter tremendously.
The results paint a pretty stark picture: yes, revolutions are violent and revolutionary leaders commit more acts of wanton destruction than other leader-types regardless of the situation on the ground:
“These results indicate that the violent behaviors of revolutionary leaders are not entirely attributable to the political turmoil surrounding revolutions but are also a factor of the leaders’ personal attributes.”
This is precisely why authoritarian ideology terrifies me. Narrow exclusionary notions of who belongs to the “us” group make it easier to dehumanize the “other” and the results are often ugly (see 1994 Rwanda genocide).
Revolutions Call For and Create…
Kim does focus on individual leaders but he also briefly breaks down and muses on the fact that the very properties of revolutions produce situations that are more prone to violence because they categorically create opposition movements. “The radical transformation of society produces large dissatisfied groups whom leaders may view as a serious threat to their goals,” writes Kim. Justifications run amok and groups outside the “universe of obligation” (Fein, 1993, according to Kim) are scapegoated as opponents of the movement. For fear of a counterrevolution, any forms of stopping such a movement are justified in ideological terms. It’s easy to see how subjects can easily turn into objects. In fact, recent understandings of the brain show that this switch can, unfortunately, happen quite swiftly.
Kim’s Main Findings
“There are substantial differences in the behavioral tendencies of political leaders to initiate mass violence; revolutionary leaders are more likely to commit genocide or politicide than nonrevolutionary leaders.”
Kim even tested differences within revolutionary leaders; those “with an exclusionary ideology are more likely than revolutionary leaders with no exclusive ideologies to commit mass atrocities.”
“The risk of genocide or politicide is high in the immediate postrevolutionary period when regime change occurs; even after their hold on power stabilizes, revolutionary leaders are still more likely to commit genocide or politicide.”
This means that the potential and propensity for mass violence doesn’t decrease the longer the leader is in power, which speaks a lot about the individual’s ideas rather than any external happenings. In fact, evidence shows that “risk of mass killing outbreak rises after 6 years in office.” The “importance of ideology and religion” is stressed here.
It’s important to note the caveats here which highlight just how tentative such studies are. It doesn’t make for good headlines or quite digestible InfoFood but we would all be better off if we ended each conversation with “…but more study is definitely needed, of course.” Kim: “My findings cannot provide a definite conclusion about the relative significance of the ideological ambitions of the revolutionary leaders versus their past experience of violence or attitudes toward risk and violence.” Maybe it’s just the fact that these leaders have experienced victory or certain discrete goals in the past and that is why they were more likely to use violence. The author also states that he only found weak evidence (though statistically significant) in support of the hypothesis that revolutionary leaders are more likely to commit mass atrocities than others. Also, revolutionary leaders are less likely to engage in mass attacks when “faced with interstate conflicts.”
Regardless of how this study will stand up in the subsequent years, this is an important first step in systematically analyzing the potential escalation factors regarding mass violence.