Representing a special analytical category of political mass violence, the term “classicide” was only recently coined by Michael Mann (2005). He describes with it the intentional elimination of one or several social classes, presented as opposed to the order established by the governing class. Mann’s theoretical explanation and empirical examples refer exclusively to the killings executed by three socialist states in the 20th century: Stalin’s mass killings of free peasants, Mao’s measures against landlords, and Pol Pot’s destruction campaign targeting all “enemy classes”. He explains his limited number of examples by arguing that communist regimes are historically more easily associated with “political cleansing” policies, based on class discourses: “Marxists generated an organic view of the people, defined not by ethnicity but by class. The people was the proletariat, and classes opposed to the proletariat were enemies of the people.” (Mann, 2005: 320) As the communist dogma predicts a final order without any class hierarchy, “classicide seems to be distinctive to leftists, since only they are tempted to believe they can do without opposed (‘exploiting’) classes.” (Mann, 2005: 17)
Etymologically, the term is composed of two meanings: the first part, “class”, denotes a group sharing a common economic status within a society; the term has its most prominent status in the Marxist theory which differentiates between the “capitalist” and the “proletarian” classes. The second part, the suffix “-cide”, is derived from the Latin verb “caedere” which stands for “to kill”. Thus, “classicide” marks amongst other terms such as “politicide” or “ethnocide” an analytically more precise alternative to the general term “genocide”, often criticized for being simultaneously too unclear and restrictive.
Mann justifies the creation of the term with the observation that the existing analytical categories do not allow a sufficient distinction between the targets of mass violence. On the one hand, classicide differs from genocide because only a pre-defined part of the population – namely identified by its social status – is subject to being eliminated. On the other hand, since the members of a given class are being targeted independently from the degree of their political activity and ambitions, the term politicide would be too restrictive (Mann, 2005: 17). Therefore, the author establishes classicide as a form of partial “premeditated mass killing” within his own matrix of mass violence (Mann, 2005:12).
Different aspects of Mann’s conception have been criticised: as his position suggests that, apart from the ‘partial’ character of the aimed destruction, massacres based on ethnic as well as on class distinctions follow the same pattern. This argumentation can be instrumentalised in order to claim a fundamental equivalence between the violence of fascist and communist regimes. According to Sémelin, there is, however, an important difference concerning the way the respective “enemy” is perceived: communist regimes were aiming, above all, to establish and maintain political control of a society; consequently the enemy class was persecuted as long as it represented a – real or suspected – threat to the regime. According to fascist thought however, especially in the National Socialist ideology, the eradication of the pre-defined “other” was an integral part of the political programme and was therefore not exclusively connected to the establishment of political authority (Sémelin, 2005: 57-62). This is illustrated by the fact that the Nazis “only” punished and intimidated political opponents but systematically deported and killed the European Jews.
A second criticism concerns the empirical persuasiveness of Mann’s argument. Shaw stresses that, historically, classicide certainly doesn’t represent a phenomenon systematically related to socialist or communist revolutions. In fact, Marxist theory never called for the destruction of enemy classes, but for their disempowerment, including their complete integration in the communist order. Consequently, the three historical cases described by Mann can be considered as exceptions, limited to Stalinist types of dictatorships, rather than events justifying the coining of a specific analytical term. In all the cases quoted by Mann, the violence against a specific social class was always combined with violence against other groups, based on ethnic, nationalist or religious motives (Shaw, 2007: 121-124).
Therefore, whereas the destruction of a whole class is only rarely the unique objective of a mass killing, “class” as well as “gender” or “political power” are often underlying factors in cases of “ethnic” or “national” genocide (Shaw, 2007: 126) – an observation which makes a sharp analytical differentiation between “true” and other classicides even more difficult. Especially communist regimes have regularly transformed their theoretically universalistic ideology of class struggle into a narrow nationalist discourse by means of political daily-life propaganda: they didn’t so much represent the abstract class of “capitalists” as a concrete threat to the rule of “the people,” but rather focused on foreign powers and inner minorities, once again defining “the people” in traditional nation-state terms (Maleševič, 2006: 399-400).
MALEŠEVIČ, S., 2006, “Between the macro- and micro-sociology of ethnic cleansing – reflections on The Dark Side of Democracy”, in: Breuilly, J. / Cesarani, D. / Maleševič, S. / Neuberger, B. / Mann, M., “Debate on Michael Mann’s The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing”, Nations and Nationalism, 12 (3): 389-411.
MANN, M., 2005, The Dark Side of Democracy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
SEMELIN, J., 2005, Purifier et détruire, Paris: Editions du Seuil.
SHAW, M., 2007, What is Genocide?, Cambridge: Polity Press.