Rudy Rummel – a Many-Faceted Scholar

Self-portrait of RJ Rummel, from his website

From mathematics to democide

Rudolph J Rummel always published just as RJ Rummel but was well known in the profession as Rudy. He was a man of many talents, and to some of his readers he may also have seemed to present many different faces.

  • He came from a broken home, yet became a devoted husband and father.
  • He had an extensive academic publication record, but he also wrote six novels.
  • He was an academic loner, but acquired a wide following, which has continued to expand after he withdrew from the academic scene and promises to continue to grow even after his death.
  • He interacted with many leading scholars in international relations, but developed troubled relations with several.
  • He started out as a socialist but became a libertarian or, as he himself eventually phrased it, a ‘freedomist’.
  • He became a pioneer among liberal international relations scholars in his pursuit of the democratic peace, but he joined the neoconservative wing of the realists in his work on the nuclear arms race in the mid-1970s and in his support for the Iraq War in 2003.
  • His work on democide was embraced by liberals and realists alike, but also harshly criticized by writers of varying backgrounds.

A new book just published under my editorship reviews his work and assesses the development of his views. Several contributors relate his academic and political views to his personal life story.

The authors of the volume share the view that despite what quibbles or even quarrels they might have with some of his writings, Rummel stands as a very significant contributor to the empirical and theoretical study of human conflict. At the same time, he was an intensely political person who has influenced the moral compass of many scholars in the profession.

Rummel published two autobiographical accounts and a third is added in this book in the form of a long interview conducted by his former student Dug Bond on the occasion of Rummel’s retirement from teaching. His checkered childhood and youth features in these accounts and also in the personal recollections of his older daughter, Dawn Akemi.

From the start of his education, Rummel embraced mathematics – apparently, a youthful interest in science fiction influenced this choice. Indeed, his first academic work was heavily mathematical, with empirical studies of conflict and a major textbook on factor analysis, even today his most-cited work.

But as his former colleague Richard Chadwick explains, for Rummel factor analysis was not just a methodological tool but also a key part of a theoretical framework that came to be known as social field theory. While many other scholars adopted and elaborated empirical findings that emerged from these projects, in particular those relating to the relationship between internal and external conflict, few others attributed the same theoretical importance to factor analysis.

Rummel’s reputation as a quantitative scholar of note grew rapidly in the scholarly community and in policy circles. He received extensive funding from the US Department of Defense, through the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which funded a number of conflict research projects in the 1960s and 1970s. Rummel’s projects, in particular the large Dimensionality of Nations (DON) Project, also involved substantial data collection, and the data were used by a wide range of scholars.

A second phase of Rummel’s work started when, according to his own recollections he took a step back from data collection and hypothesis-testing to look at the broader theoretical preconditions and implications of his work. He started what he has called an ‘intensive and extensive liberal self-education’ in philosophy, history, and the social sciences. This eventually led to the massive oeuvre collectively titled Understanding Conflict and War, published in five volumes between 1975 and 1981. As James Lee Ray argues, it is in many ways an overlooked classic. Rummel himself, while not expecting it to be a hit was unprepared for its being so widely ignored. The sales were poor. Only a few years later, however, an article in Journal of Conflict Resolution was to change the landscape dramatically. This article, published in 1983 at the same time as a two-part article by Michael Doyle, launched the democratic peace on the mainstream agendas of peace research and international relations. A number of other scholars joined in. Rummel once again became a household name.

Over a decade later, the debate was extended to a broader liberal peace, involving the Kantian triangle of democracy, economic interdependence, and international organization, notably by Bruce Russett and John Oneal. In one of his books, Rummel had expressed skepticism about the peacebuilding effects of trade and international organizations. He did not enter the new debate about the liberal peace, which started after he had retired from the university and stopped publishing articles in academic journals. His 1983 article on the democratic peace – and indeed, in four follow-up articles published in the next three years – referred to libertarianism rather than democracy. The same is true of Understanding Conflict and War. Libertarian was defined along two dimensions, political (where, of course, democracy featured prominently) and economic. In his articles on libertarianism and international violence, the term democratic peace does not occur at all. In his later work, however, even as the attention of the field moved to broader aspects of the liberal peace, Rummel focused on democracy. On his website, democratic peace is one of the main headlines. In some ways, his work can be seen as a precursor of the more recent discussion of the capitalist peace. But as far as I have been able to ascertain, Rummel himself never used the term, and some of his work was critical of unbridled capitalism or liberalism. From 2009, his blog was labelled freedomist rather than libertarian.

Although Rummel’s work on the democratic peace focused mainly on the interstate democratic peace, he also eventually concluded that ‘democracies are most internally peaceful’, that ‘democracies don’t murder their citizens’, and that democratic freedom promotes wealth and prosperity and prevents famines. This was to lead Rummel into yet another phase of his work and another major series of books on what he came to call democide, a concept that was deliberately chosen to be wider than genocide and politicide. Separate volumes examined the Soviet Union, China, and Nazi Germany, before he summed it all up in Death by Government (1994) and Statistics of Democide (1997). In Power Kills (1997), he tied together his work on democracy and the various kinds of human conflict. The subtitle of this book was Democracy as a Method of Nonviolence. It underscored Rummel’s long-standing commitment to a less violent world, even though, as Erica Chenoweth points out, he never commented directly on non-violent action as a substitute for insurgency and war. The work on democide is probably the part of Rummel’s work that currently captures most attention. It was also to be his last major research effort, even though he continued to publish shorter articles and blog posts.

In this brief attempt at a periodization of Rummel’s work, I have omitted a book that does not fall clearly into any of the major periods. This is his 1976 book on the nuclear arms race, discussed in this volume by Matthew Kroenig & Bardia Rahmani. In Peace Endangered: Reality of Détente, Rummel critiqued détente, expressed skepticism about arms control, and called for a policy that would give the West a clear nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union.

Published at a time when liberals were hopeful about détente and arms control, it created a significant distance between himself and scholars who might have been receptive to his message about freedom and peace. Instead, it probably reinforced the prejudice, still common in peace research at the time, that much of the talk about democracy involved rehashing old enemy images of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and propaganda for ‘the free world’. Richard Chadwick notes in an aside an estrangement between Rummel and himself. It dates to this period, though not exclusively to this issue. Intriguingly, Rummel relates that his hawkish message was not well received in the national security establishment either, which led to a cut-off of his long-term funding from DARPA.

Frequently cited

Rummel’s work is frequently cited, and remains influential nearly two decades after he withdrew from academic publishing. The annual citation rate to his articles reveals three humps. The first (which peaks in 1972) relates to his early work on methods and on the relationship between internal and external conflict.

The next hump peaks in 1997 and is probably linked to the democratic peace.

The final and highest peak occurs in 2007, and includes citations to his work on democide. However, it is not the case that his earlier work remains uncited in later periods. In fact, his 1967 factor analysis article has been cited more than 20 times since 2010. The citation data underline the wide impact of Rummel’s work on factor analysis as well as the importance of Journal of Conflict Resolution throughout his career. Half his top-cited articles appeared in that journal. The close personal relationship between Rummel and Bruce Russett, related by Russett in his preface to the book, is only partly relevant here, since two of the top articles were published before Russett took over as editor of JCR. In turn, Rummel’s authorship was probably important to the reputation of the journal, too.

Although the number of article citations is currently the main indicator of success for quantitative social scientists, Rummel was a more traditional scholar who published much of his most significant work in books. His somewhat contrarian stance may have caused him some trouble with journal editors and referees. Indeed, in one of his autobiographical articles, Rummel hints at getting a number of rejections for articles dealing with the topics discussed in Peace Endangered. His books did not always travel a simple road to publication either, but nine books found a home at Sage and later six with Transaction.

Applied Factor Analysis is his most widely book. Current Contents eventually listed it as a ‘citation classic’. His more recent work on democide is also widely cited and has maintained high visibility in the current debate about the waning of war and violence. For instance, in his widely-cited book on the decline of violence, Steven Pinker makes extensive use of Rummel’s work on democide. Rummel’s magnum opus Understanding Conflict and War is not as widely cited as one might expect. The overall importance of Rummel’s books, however, is evident: he has five times as many citations on Web of Science as Cited author (which includes his books) than as Author (which includes only articles). Comparable scholars like Johan Galtung and Bruce Russett have more citations as Author, because their articles are so widely cited.

Another striking thing about Rummel’s work is that he had extremely limited co-authorship. Only one co-authored article just barely makes into the top-ten article list, and he has no co-authored books. By contrast, leading scholars of the same generation such as Johan Galtung, J David Singer, and Bruce Russett have numerous co-authored articles and books.

Co-authorship, although much less frequent than in the natural sciences where articles can have several hundred co-authors, is becoming increasingly common in the social sciences. One plausible reason why Rummel has few co-authors is that – as his daughter reminds us – he was a rather private person and perhaps not temperamentally well suited to share the process of writing, although he maintained an active network of academic collaborators and contacts and frequently discussed his work with his students. He had a relatively low number of PhD students, but he was a very influential force in their professional lives, as his former student Sang-Woo Rhee explains, and Doug Bond describes him as the most supportive teacher he ever had. Whether or not he encouraged or discouraged his students to publish while working on their dissertations is not entirely clear, but he certainly shared the prevailing notion that the dissertation had to come first. So did J David Singer, but unlike Rummel he co-authored extensively, including with former students. And so did Russett and Galtung.

Friendly and unfriendly critics

Rummel’s work has been subjected to extensive examination by other scholars, leading to praise as well as harsh criticism. The DON Project has been subjected to close scrutiny in several publications dealing with its philosophy of science and research design of the project, its methodology and statistical practices, and its substantive findings.

Some of the points raised in these reviews have been bypassed by the rapid theoretical and empirical progress in social science since that time. Others, such as the role of theory in international relations research, how to deal with missing data, and the relative role of national attributes and relational characteristics in accounting for international interaction, remain.

James Lee Ray was always a constructive critic, who carefully read all five volumes of Understanding Conflict and War, which he characterized as one of the most energetic and comprehensive contributions to the scientific study of international relations. Despite criticism of many of Rummel’s answers, he credited him with asking the right questions. Another friendly critic was Warren R Phillips, who had himself obtained his PhD under Rummel and had served as assistant director of the DON Project. He was generally quite critical of the lack of theory in the international relations discipline but found Rummel’s field theory to be a promising island of theory. Several years later, he was more critical in reviewing Peace Endangered. While Rummel had done valuable work in mapping objective aspects of power (capabilities) his attempt to deal with the subjective aspects (interests and capability) were judged to be inadequate.

An equally well-read but more critical commentator was Håkan Wiberg. While acknowledging the extraordinarily prolific nature of Rummel’s scholarship, he criticized Rummel for the tautological nature of his comprehensive field theory, for biased summaries of some major schools in social science (such as frustration-aggression theory and Marxism), and particularly for questionable judgments in his wide-ranging literature review as to whether or empirical results from published articles support his theoretical framework, Rummel responded briefly and later took up Wiberg’s challenge in a new article that summarized how published articles supported his libertarian propositions on violence.

Rummel’s long-time colleague at the University of Hawaii, Michael Haas, had found in an early article ‘a slight but consistent tendency for democratic countries to have less foreign conflict’, but later became a vocal critic of the democratic peace program.

Of great continuing interest is the debate about Rummel’s democide estimates. Rummel created these on a country-by-country basis using published studies, concluding with three figures, a high estimate, a low estimate, and a most probable estimate. These could vary significantly. For the Soviet Union, for instance, Rummel in 1990 estimated a most probable democide of 62 million people, but with a range from 28 million to 127 million. In most of his work on democide, he focused on the most probable estimates, leaving himself somewhat vulnerable to criticism for excessive precision in these numbers. However, he also noted that he would be amazed if future research did not come up with figures that deviated significantly from his own. His figures should be viewed as rough approximations.

His volume on the statistics of democide, however, as well as the books on the four ‘deka-megamurderers’ (the Soviet Union, China under Kuomintang, China under Mao, and Nazi Germany), contain all the sources and all the numbers and extensive comments on how he selected his own numbers.

A critic of Rummel’s democide estimates for Yugoslavia argued, on the basis of considerable documentation, that Rummel’s estimates for democide in Yugoslavia during World War II and in the immediate aftermath of the war were much too high. He also questioned whether similar data problems might occur in other democide estimates. In a response, Rummel dismissed the overall claims of the critique and argued that it is not enough to criticize his numbers; critics should feel a responsibility to come up with their own.

Rummel’s work on democide was not only a gigantic data collection effort, but also admirable in its transparency – long before the replication requirement became a standard feature of empirical work in international relations. Some critics, including Barbara Harff argued that ‘Rummel chooses numbers of deaths that almost always are skewed in the direction of the highest guesses’. In this volume, Harff cites but does not reiterate this criticism. Rather, in discussing Rummel’s numbers for Cambodia, she finds that given his wide definition of democide, his estimates are consistent with established estimates in the literature and she also acknowledges his ‘monumental job in collecting data and information’. A reviewer of Rummel’s volume on democide in the Soviet Union chides him for not using Russian-language sources and for assuming citing a range of secondary sources ‘as if they were all of equal worth’. He also faults Rummel for assuming ‘that the entire labour camp population was innocent’ although some of those who died in the camps ‘were common criminals or actual Nazi collaborators’.

The novelist and the artist

After closing his career as an author of academic books and journals, Rummel published six novels, in direct continuity of the main themes from his research and under the general heading of ‘Never again’. I have only read the first, but that puts me ahead of most of the other contributors to the Rummel volume. The book is packed with love, sex, and action, and written in a rather macho style. The hero, Rudolph Rummel himself in only a slight disguise, enters the past through a time-machine with a female partner, to create an alternative world where major wars and democides have been avoided. Through a mixture of bribery and assassinations, they derail the Mexican revolution, dispose of Hitler, Lenin, and Stalin long before they are anywhere near political power, and prevent the two World Wars as well as the Sino-Japanese War and the democide in China. One might wonder what is left to save the world from in the following volumes, but it appears that the time travelers ran into some unexpected problems in their new and manipulated future.

Rummel’s novels were probably too closely tied to his academic and political pursuits to stand much of a chance in the mass market of paperback fiction. The books are still available in electronic form from Llumina Press and from Rummel’s website, and hard copies can be obtained from Llumina is a self-publishing press, and the publisher notes that sales of such books depend on the author’s ability to promote and market them. In Rummel’s cases, the sales were very limited. Apart from their merits as fiction, the six novels reinforce the picture of an exceptionally diligent writer. Each book is 200–300 pages, and all six were published in a two-year period, along with a nonfiction supplement.

Rummel was also an artist and in his later years spent a large part of his time painting. I am even less qualified to comment on his art than on his novels. But as someone who did know Rummel personally, I can attest that his self-portraits – one of is found at the head of this blog post – are good likenesses.

Personal recollections

I worked as research fellow for the Dimensionality of Nations Project in the spring of 1969. My visit had been arranged by correspondence between Johan Galtung and Rudy. At the time their relations were friendly. Rummel was interested in Galtung’s work relating status inconsistency to conflict. Indeed, he actively tried to incorporate what he called status theory into his field theory.

But as H-C Peterson relates, the cordiality got lost along the way. For many years, they were colleagues in the Department of Political Science at the University of Hawaii, By this time, Galtung held the view that ‘international relations US style’ was bankrupt and when cut to pieces, it could be deconstructed as self-serving US ideology. Rummel, on the other hand, came to see Galtung’s concept of structural violence as a socialist theory of peace within a neomarxist theory of exploitation. The two colleagues hardly interacted. Rummel’s relationship to Singer was much less acrimonious, although the two had a life-long disagreement on the prospects of explaining international relations, at least in part, on the basis of national indicators, as noted by Frank Whelon Wayman. As Erich Weede suggests, Rummel’s particular mix of realism and liberalism may have made it difficult for him to form lasting alliances with other scholars.

I recall two ‘friendly quarrels’ with Rummel. One was over his Nobel Peace Prize nomination. For years, Rummel advertised on his homepage that he had been shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize. Although the list of nominations is not made public by the Norwegian Nobel Committee, many nominators publicize their nominations. It was certainly on public record that Rummel had been nominated several times by former Swedish deputy prime minister Per Ahlmark. I tried to convince Rummel that the nomination itself was not necessarily such an unambiguous honor; indeed Adolf Hitler and Fidel Castro had also been nominated. Furthermore, there was absolutely no reliable evidence regarding the composition of the committee’s shortlist. I was pretty certain that Rummel had never been shortlisted and succeeded in getting the committee’s secretary to confirm that there was no evidence for it. Evidently, Rummel had confused a news report that talked about a final list (i.e., a list of all nominations received before the deadline) with a shortlist. Eventually, he stopped referring to his having been ‘a finalist’, following as he said ‘advice from a colleague who I highly respect, is a friend who supports my research, and who is knowledgeable about the workings of the Nobel Committee’.

A second friendly quarrel occurred when in 1995 I served as guest editor for a special issue on democracy and peace in the European Journal of International Relations. Rummel published an article on the monadic democratic peace. In a previous much longer and widely circulated version, Rummel had promoted the argument that if democracies don’t fight each other, the world must necessarily become more peaceful as the number of democracies increases. Although the two referees had not picked up this point, I argued in my decision letter, as I have done elsewhere, that this was not necessarily the case. We went back and forth. I was prepared to concede the point, which was not central to the article, but not without a struggle. Therefore, I set out to explain my argument in some detail. Finally Rummel wrote back to me. ‘Nils, you did it’ (or something to that effect, I can no longer find the correspondence). I have always felt that scholars should not give up their cherished views too easily. For that reason, I valued Rummel’s persistence, although some surely would call it stubbornness.

Finally, one of the perks of being president of the International Studies Association is the power to award the Susan Strange award to the scholar ‘whose singular intellect, assertiveness, and insight most challenge conventional wisdom and intellectual and organizational complacency in the international studies community’. Nothing would have pleased me more than to give this award to Rudy when I served my term in ISA in 2009 – but he had already received the award! In fact, he was the first, in 1999. I can think of no one more qualified in terms of challenging conventional wisdom and intellectual complacency.

A final assessment

Rudy Rummel was a many-faceted scholar. It was not difficult to find things that you could disagree with. But there was also much to admire. His scholarly productivity. His enormous contributions to data on democide. His consistent commitment to freedom and his marriage of research and policy advocacy. His pioneering commitment to making data and research procedures transparent. His early use of the internet and his comprehensive homepage, matched by few if any social scientists of his generation. Hopefully, this little volume will inspire some readers to go back to Rudy’s own work, for inspiration and for contradiction, but above all to follow his lead in seeking new knowledge for a better world.

  • This text is based on Nils Petter Gleditsch’s introduction to a new edited volume: RJ Rummel: An Assessment of His Many Contributions. SpringerBriefs on Pioneers in Science and Practice (37). Cham: Springer, 2017. 138 pp. ISSN 2194-3125 (hc), 2194-3133 (electronic), ISBN 978-3-319-54462-5 (hc), 978-3-319-54463-2 (eBook). The book is an open access publication, licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. It can be accessed here.