Saturday, December 24, 2011

Why Do Leading Leftists Deny the Rwandan Genocide of 1994?

Bodies of Rwandans murdered in the 1994 genocide, washed up on the
Ugandan shores of Lake Victoria.
(Photo by David Blumenkrantz)
by Adam Jones, Ph.D.

John Pilger is one of my heroes. Indeed, reading Heroes, his classic 1986 book on resistance to mass violence and oppression worldwide, was a formative experience. Together with works by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, Pilger's book persuaded me of the need to defend defenseless victims of power wherever they are found.

So why on earth has Pilger -- together with Chomsky -- warmly endorsed a tract co-authored by none other than Edward Herman, which brazenly denies the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994?

Herman and David Peterson’s slender volume The Politics of Genocide was published in mid-2010 by Monthly Review Press -- one of the longest-established and most prestigious leftist publishing houses. In the Rwanda section of their book, and in various online posts, Herman & Peterson allege that the "mainstream" depiction of events in Rwanda in 1994 "turns perpetrator and victim upside-down." Rather than a genocidal "Hutu Power" regime massacring members of the Tutsi minority en masse (along with many oppositionist Hutus), they contend the regime was not "in control of anything" at the time of the mass killing; that the invading, Ugandan-based Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by Tutsi exiles, was "the only well-organized killing force within Rwanda in 1994"; and that therefore, "the chief responsibility for Rwandan political violence belonged to the RPF, and not to … any Hutu-related group."

Let us be clear. In the Rwandan context, this is the equivalent of asserting that the Nazis never killed Jews in death camps -- indeed, that it was really Jews who killed Germans. It is the most naked denial of the extermination of at least half a million Tutsis by agents of "Hutu Power" that I have ever read in an ostensibly scholarly source. And it relies on "evidence" that, even on cursory examination, proves to be the sheerest gossamer, when it is not simply hearsay and idle speculation -- based on the declamations of "a tiny number of long-time American and Canadian genocide deniers, who gleefully drink each other’s putrid bath water," as Gerald Caplan memorably phrased it in a critique for

There is no space here to examine Herman & Peterson’s claims in depth; I have done so in a lengthy piece, "Denying Rwanda," available online. Their myth-making is repudiated far more effectively by the dozens of specialist books, and the thousands of pages of witness and survivor testimony, that have made the Rwandan genocide of 1994 the best-known and best-studied instance of systematic mass murder since the Jewish Holocaust.

Yet for John Pilger, the denialist pap of The Politics of Genocide constitutes a "brilliant exposé of great power’s lethal industry of lies." Herman & Peterson, he proclaims without apparent irony, "defend the right of us all to a truthful historical memory." Diana Johnstone, Norman Solomon ("a grim classic"), David Barsamian ("a riveting and penetrating study ... meticulously researched and documented") -- all these leftist luminaries weigh in with high praise for Herman & Peterson’s jeremiad.

Most surprisingly and disturbingly, perhaps, Noam Chomsky supplies a foreword to the book -- declaring it a "powerful" work, and thereby lending the unequalled authority of his name to Herman & Peterson’s fabrications. In the 1970s, Chomsky wrote a brief essay defending the right of Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson to air his views, on classic Enlightenment grounds of free speech and open debate. The essay was used by Faurisson’s French publisher -- apparently without Chomsky’s prior knowledge -- as the foreword to one of the denier’s works. Many of us supported Chomsky’s defense of the execrable Faurisson’s rights; many of us consider Chomsky one of the greatest intellectual and moral influences of our age. We will be hard-pressed, though, to explain or excuse his endorsement of Herman & Peterson’s denialist tract. With a heavy heart, I will not even try.

As for Pilger, I have called on him, in a personal communication and an open letter, to "clarify, on the record, [his] stance on whether Tutsis were systematically murdered by agents of 'Hutu Power' and their supporters in Rwanda between April and July 1994" -- as all responsible authorities agree they were. I have received no response; apparently a journalist famous for asking hard questions shrinks when they are directed at him.

What might explain the willingness, indeed eagerness, of so many prominent leftists to endorse this shocking effacement of the genocide of hundreds of thousands of defenseless civilians?

In part, the answer seems to lie in a skein of personal friendships and relationships -- a kind of reflexive "solidarity" -- combined with a basic ignorance of the core events of the Rwandan genocide and the forces that implemented it. Chomsky and Herman, of course, co-authored three major works before Herman’s decline set in during the early 1990s: his Rwanda denial is merely an extension of his support for the Milosevic regime in Serbia and its genocidal depredations throughout the former Yugoslavia (most of which, in Herman's view, likely never occurred).

Equally significant, perhaps, is the fact that the Tutsi-dominated regime in Rwanda after 1994 enjoyed the staunch support of the United States and other great powers. Almost by definition, then -- at least at this puerile level of "analysis" -- that regime must be the arch-villain, and the supporters of "Hutu Power" its innocent victims. Anyone able to twist the facts to fit this framework seems to merit the enthusiastic support of at least some on the left.

It is a cringeworthy performance -- one that will sully the reputations and legacies of all involved, as it should. But so far, only a small handful of progressive voices have publicly confronted and denounced it. Who else will stand up and be counted?

[Adam Jones, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of British Columbia Okanagan in Kelowna, Canada. He is author of Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction (2nd edition, Routledge 2010) and author or editor of fifteen other books, including Genocide, War Crimes & the West: History and Complicity (Zed Books, 2004). This article may be freely reposted and reprinted.]

Text may be considered final. January 25, 2012.


  1. Reluctantly I have to agree with you Adam. I was also quite disappointed to see my intellectual hero, Noam Chomsky, lend his name to this rubbish.

  2. An excellent question at the end of this piece and powerful statement!

  3. Anonymous9:18 AM

    A year later, do you have any insights into this depressing affair?

    Hermann is still out there, spreading his stuff, and being taken seriously by people who don't know any better – including a friend of mine, a fellow academic social scientist, who happens not to know anything about Rwanda.

    I've read several articles making variations on the theme of "Chomsky has been one of my heroes and I'm shocked by his behaviour on this issue", but I haven't found anything by Chomsky modifying the really weak position he took in his correspondence with Monbiot.

  4. Thanks for your question. Herman is indeed still out there, unmolested though fortunately very aged. Chomsky, for his part, has been stunningly ignorant in his comments, even craven. I share Monbiot's gut-wrench at Chomsky's abdication of intellectual and moral responsibility on this subject.

  5. Chomsky and Herman have both been on the genocide denial circuit since the 1970s when they co-authored articles (and eventually a book, After The Cataclysm, published in 1979) denying the Cambodian Genocide. Neither of them have recanted their conclusions.

    The point being that this craven behavior is not a recent thing for either of them. The criterion for them is whether the atrocity makes the enemies of American power look bad not whether or not there is conclusive evidence.


Please be constructive in your comments. - AJ