Michael Mann has long been the most interesting exponent of what might be called British post-Marxist sociology.  In his essays in the Archives européennes de sociologie, his Sources of Social Power (two volumes), and other writings, Mann has applied a four-power model (ideological, political, military, and economic) to historical studies, seeking thereby to overcome Marxist “economic” reductionism.  Mann’s approach works rather well as the basis of a flexible historical sociology, but I cannot defend it here.

In his latest work, Mann brings his four-power model to bear on ethnic cleansing and genocide.  He seeks patterns instead of absolute, predictable correlations.  His disdain for rational-choice theory—today’s near-universal fad in economics, sociology, and political science—seems clear; he calls it “rat. theory,” calling to mind Arthur Koestler’s and Noam Chomsky’s rude comments on the “rat psychology” of behaviorism.

Somewhat simplified, Mann’s causal scheme runs along these lines: Pre-existing ethnic distinctions (and even new ones) become central to potentially violent struggles once activists awaken and mythologize them in a contest for sovereignty over the same territory, where both sides have plausible claims and a perceived chance of victory; a destabilizing international environment, with potential external allies for one side, plus international war, can radicalize key bureaucracies and their social allies.  Ideologists and specialists in violence develop “plans” to resolve the ethnic issues at hand.  The failure of initial, moderate plans calls forth new plans, whose failure drives the radicals toward genocide.

Mann keeps timing, contingency, and ideology always in view.  Once a struggle over territorial sovereignty arises, escalation and radicalization are likely; but early and conscious planning of cleansing or genocide is not found.  The radicalization of bureaucracies and allied strata under conditions of modern ideology—democracy and nationalism—can yield those results.  Thus, ethnic cleansing and genocide are the “dark side” of democracy.  Once it is universally believed that the people are sovereign and should “rule,” defining who “the people” are becomes a matter of supreme importance.  Once middle-class activists demand their “own” state, the issue passes beyond negotiation, and compromise via federalism or “consociation” with entrenched minority rights is seldom entertained until after a major disaster.

In the wake of World War I, such competition for sovereignty—stimulated, in part, by Woodrow Wilson’s theses on national self-determination—ran out of control, a situation made worse because “respectable conservatives were moving toward organic nationalism” and “began to compete with the left by mobilizing the people behind nationalism.”

After three chapters detailing this model, Mann unfolds his account—as both application and “test” of the theses—in a chapter on genocidal settler democracies; two on the Armenian genocide; three on Nazi genocide, with another on German allies; one on communist class cleansing in the Soviet Union, China, and Cambodia; two on ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia; two on the Rwandan genocide; and one making counterfactual comparisons with India and Indonesia.  A final chapter restates the theses, with modifications, and gives some policy recommendations.

There is enough blood, gore, mayhem, and ideology in these chapters to keep us preoccupied for years.  Since summary is impossible, I shall stick to the author’s main causal claims.

Mann writes that in democratic, English-speaking colonies, settlers got what they wanted, which was to be rid of native inhabitants, whom they did not need for cheap labor and with whom they had no incentive to assimilate.  Australians and Americans “cleansed”—killed or expelled—a lot of natives.  Later, their politicians would lecture others on how to treat the help.

For Mann, the key point is the connection between democracy and ethnic cleansing.  But he writes that “property rights also required settlers to claim exclusive legal sovereignty over the territory . . . possessed by natives.”  Certainly, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, vacating in 1823 a claim based on purchase from Indians.  Mann sees, but doesn’t entirely exploit, the insight that settlers expanded their holdings in the shadow of organized states.

Elsewhere, Mann can be surprisingly unorthodox, writing that

murderous cleansing does not occur among rival ethnic groups who are separate but equal . . . If South Africa had actually lived up to its own apartheid claim to produce separate but equal development . . . Africans would not have revolted.

Mann’s critique of the “democratic peace” hypothesis is to his credit.  On his showing, democracy—as a part of modernity—is very ambiguous as a force for peace.

In the Armenian genocide—with perhaps “1.2-1.4 million killed”—it was precisely the modernizing Young Turk elements who were most implicated.  Turkish liberals had been marginalized, Mann writes, because they favored “the same types of reform as those demanded by the foreign powers” and so were easily “labeled as stooges of the imperial oppressors”—a point that should be considered by present-day imposers of free trade and westernization.  The radicals were “a highly educated generation of youngish men staffing the middle levels of the civilian and military bureaucracy,” who saw Turkey as a “proletarian nation” needing a strong, purely Turkish state to build an “organic” national bourgeoisie and counteract Christian economic power.  In the crisis of World War I, when Armenians were perceived as a disloyal foreign presence, modernizers pressed on through local massacres and “wild deportations” to genocide.  Here, the Entente powers had made a contribution by encouraging Armenian aspirations and then leaving “them to their fate.”

In Germany, early Nazi Party members were

disproportionately drawn from military, police, and public sector backgrounds . . . outside the key class conflict zones between capital and labor . . . ; the highly educated middle classes; lost and threatened territories; and . . . Protestants rather than . . . Catholics.

Mann continues, “Such backgrounds had tended to favor extreme nationalism or extreme statism.”  During World War II, as cleansing plans grew more radical, the same groups provided the sources from which genocidal “perpetrators” were drawn, to whom were added more Catholics (“probably lapsed”), reflecting perhaps an influx of Austrian Nazis.  In any case, “Professionals and public sector were extraordinarily overrepresented.”  Mann does attempt to ease up on the latter category, writing: “Bureaucratic states do not commit murderous cleansing; radicalized ones do.”

This last generalization applies, mutatis mutandis, to communist cleansings, which Mann calls “classicide”: massive liquidation of class enemies.  In Russia and China, he argues, “cleansing generated the powerful state, not vice versa.”  His description of Soviet collectivization is interesting: “The surplus could be taken if peasants were moved away from their own household economy into state-controlled collective farms.”  This amounted to a counterinsurgency strategy in the “economic” struggle, with the collective farm functioning as a strategic hamlet.

All this makes for a lot to chew on, without even getting into Yugoslavia, Rwanda, etc.  Mann has written an important book, one which may well become a classic.  However, he sometimes fails to pursue his own evidence as far as he might.  Failed plans leading to worse ones may be a recurring human problem, but surely it is most damaging in political affairs.  Despite his telling critique of modernity, Mann does not fully engage the state in his account, even if he sees that ethnic conflicts often center on “economic power” and that such conflicts arise from state control and distribution of wealth—i.e., political power serving economic purposes.

But Mann minimizes similar practices of Western liberal states, on the ground that they, having ethnically cleansed themselves at an earlier stage in their development, now creatively regulate mere class conflict through Keynesianism, industrial unionism, and corporatist “social bargaining.”  He may be right, but that will not forever stave off the consequences of internal bureaucratic expansion—and, in the peculiar American case, expansion at home and abroad.  Yet, Mann can write, “Hitler’s military Keynesianism brought jobs, created order, and cleaned up streets.”  He also notes that, for the purpose of identifying Jewish citizens among the Gentile population, Nazis consulted welfare records “in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and other countries.”

We might wish to look more critically at the modern state itself, as well as the role played therein by democracy.

While social democratic (re)distributions are tolerated in modern democratic countries, they amount nonetheless to state-induced “social” conflict.  An ethnic dimension might rouse passions sooner, yet the principle of passion raising in both cases seems much the same.  In 1919, Ludwig von Mises wrote that, in former Habsburg domains, ethnic questions could be somewhat defused if state administrations would exercise administrative restraint.  Today, as mass immigration intersects with activist government in Western countries, that option is off the table.  Similarly, social engineering in the United States, focused on race, exemplifies a state’s ability to create conflict that it then strides forth to “manage.”  Such considerations undercut Mann’s optimism regarding prospects for social peace in the already cleansed First World, while calling for a greater ambivalence than he shows.


[The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing, by Michael Mann (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press) 529 pp., $70.00]