Blogs > Cliopatria > Historical Irresponsibility; or, Is Tom Reeves Educable?

Dec 25, 2006 12:42 am

Historical Irresponsibility; or, Is Tom Reeves Educable?

Almost two years ago, now, we had one of Cliopatria's occasional donnybrooks, when I challenged fellow HNN blogger, Tom Reeves's abuse of historical sources. It was a particularly irritating offense, because one of his readers had corrected him, but Reeves always ignores comments at his blog. So his error went uncorrected until I made an issue of it. Since then, I've largely ignored him, as most readers of HNN seem to do, as well. It has, however, happened again. Here's Reeves"On Inequality":
Mao Tse-Tung's Communist regime was directly responsible for the death of 120 million people.

In comments, HNN assistant editor and former Cliopatrician, Jonathan Dresner, writes:

I know Mr. Reeves isn't the sort to source his claims, but the 120 million deaths under Communism is beyond absurd. Even Chang and Halliday, those most uncompromising chroniclers of Maoist sins real and imagined, only credit him with 70 million, and that figure doesn't stand up to even the slightest scrutiny.
So, Mr. Reeves: where do you get that number, or are you just making stuff up again?

Reeves will not provide a source for his information because he systematically ignores comments on his blog. He will not correct himself because he doesn't know he's been corrected by someone who – well, you know – actually knows what he's talking about. It's sad to see a once credible historian destroy his reputation in his dotage. It's also sad to see HNN continue to serve as the venue for that self-destruction.

Update: After I notified him of his error via e-mail, Professor Reeves has changed"120 million" to"70 million," without thanks either to Professor Dresner or to me. I don't expect him to begin reading or responding to comments at his blog any time soon.

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More Comments:

Jonathan Otto Pohl - 12/26/2006

I admit that the body count figures used by Reeves appear to be inaccurate. But, given that it was not an article devoted to excess mortatlity under Mao, I am not sure if an accurate figure should be expected. The Chinese archives are not open and the demographic work results in a wide range of figures. I am not sure it will be possible in the near future to come up with a reliable figure. My guess is that including the famine from the GLF the excess deaths must be over 20 million. But, I am only guessing like everybody else.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/25/2006

There's no need to take what I said personally. Did you miss that some people were irate about Bellesiles's book? To say that they were is a bit of understatement. Beyond that, to dismiss the numbers as "not that important," compared with the repeated evidence that "Communism and socialism" are "evil" signals your lack of interest in historical reality. So far as you're concerned, the important thing is getting the ideology right. The older he gets the more Reeves agrees with you. Sad, sad, sad.

Grant W Jones - 12/25/2006

Jonathan, thanks for the link.

Ralph, I’m not “real irate.” Nor was I “defending” Reeves except to point out that the second number he used has been in common circulation for some time. And Reeves does qualify the 70 million number with a “perhaps.”

As to the real number, I agree with Tom Worger. It’s not that important. Whatever the number murdered by Mao, the evil nature of Communism and socialism has been repeatedly demonstrated by its history.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/24/2006

Oh, I think you're entirely correct and it's one reason why I've always felt that it was very important to read outside the range of what we're predisposed to agree with.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/24/2006

Cherry-picking scholarship outside your own field based on bias is not limited to the right, I'm afraid. I'm not sure that it's entirely a deliberate bias, as much as it is a failure to read publications that review and draw from works outside one's partisan range.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/24/2006

It's odd how some people get real irrate when historians pick numbers our of a hat to make an argument in re gun ownership and, then, defend historians picking numbers out of a hat to make an argument in re death's in Mao's China. Reeves picked a number that wasn't even _in_ the hat and then, when hit over the head for it, settled for the most extreme, and indefensible, number that's been in print. Utterly indifferent to what is true.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/24/2006

The Chang/Halliday figures are absurd , and any scholarship "based on" them shares in the absurdity. Rummel's original numbers, on which Chang/Halliday based their numbers, are a model of demographic demagoguery.

Reeves' decision to revise his number down to 70 million means only that he's using other people's made up data to fit his argument, rather than making up his own. Yippee.

Grant W Jones - 12/24/2006

Stephane Courtois in "The Black Book of Communism places the figure at 65 million killed by Mao, with a Commie grand total of 100 million.

R.J. Rummel revised the Mao body count up from 35 to 78 million based on Chang and Holliday: