Charismatic legitimacy

In pre-revolutionary China, the Emperor’s legitimacy was said to derive from the ‘mandate of heaven’. On the one hand, proof that an Emperor had such a mandate came from his success. On the other hand, if the Emperor was unsuccessful, that was evidence that he did not have a mandate from heaven, in which case rebellion against him was justifiable.

In an article commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the February (March, new style) revolution, Russian conservative thinker Boris Mezhuev has developed a somewhat similar theory regarding the legitimacy of Russian government. Mezhuev notes that the revolution of February/March 1917 went beyond overthrowing Tsar Nicholas II and resulted in the complete destruction of the monarchy. Theoretically speaking, this didn’t have to happen, he says. It should have been possible to replace Nicholas with somebody else. Indeed, that was most people originally had in mind – some sort of revolution or coup d’etat which would result either in a change of government under the same Tsar, or in a substitution of one Tsar for another, while at the same time possibly producing a new more democratic form of constitutional monarchy. Why then, Mezhuev asks, did the revolution instead result in the creation of a republic?

The answer, he says, lay in Russians’ shallow understanding of monarchy and political legitimacy. Mezhuev calls this a ‘weakness of institutional thinking’. Russian government, he claims, was based upon a form of legitimacy which he terms ‘charismatic legitimacy’. This was focused on the personality of the ruler and perceptions of his success. A successful Tsar was legitimate. An unsuccessful one wasn’t.

Nicholas II’s fateful mistake, according to Mezhuev, was taking personal command of the army in August 1915. Although the Russian army ceased to retreat soon afterwards, and did win a major victory in 1916 in the form of the Brusilov Offensive, overall it failed to make significant progress with the Tsar as Supreme Commander. Nicholas thus came to be seen as illegitimate, in essence as lacking the ‘mandate of heaven.’ More than this, though, the monarchy as a whole lost its legitimacy. Failure in war ensured its downfall.

The same pattern repeated itself in Soviet times. The legitimacy of the Soviet system came to be associated with the head of the Communist Party. When the Party was led by someone who was clearly failing – Mikhail Gorbachev – not just Gorbachev, but communist rule as a whole lost its legitimacy. ‘People will look at the existing ruler’, Mezhuev writes, ‘and at the regime they lead, and ask: if you are like that, Mikhail Sergeevich, then we don’t need the USSR, and if you are like that, Nicholas II, then down with the monarchy’.

‘The problem’, continues Mezhuev, ‘is the idea that victory beats everything, that the victor should receive all. This idea destroys all institutions in a country, both democratic and monarchical. … Charismatic legitimacy is a recognition of the supremacy of the truth of revolution over the truth of historical legality’. A system founded on charismatic legitimacy carries the seeds of revolution within itself. Mezhuev concludes:

I am convinced that a republic can arise in Russia only as a result of a restoration, or more precisely, some sort of restoration or renewal of traditional monarchical legitimacy. Whether a monarch is restored or not isn’t important. What’s important is that people recognize that the power of tradition is more important than the power of force.

There is, I think, something to this. Basing the legitimacy of an entire system upon perceptions of a given ruler’s success is extremely risky. Furthermore, other sources of legitimacy such as elections can only go so far. Factors such as history, tradition, culture, and religion (which I imagine would fit within Mezhuev’s definition of ‘traditional monarchical legitimacy’) are extremely important.

Unfortunately for modern Russia, charismatic legitimacy remains an extremely important foundation of the political system. Indeed, the system almost guarantees this by concentrating so much power in the hands of the president. So far, Vladimir Putin’s enormous popularity has ensured that the political order established by Boris Yeltsin can survive. But what would happen if Russia had a president who not only lacked Putin’s charisma but was also an obvious failure? At that point, there is a danger that the whole system might come tumbling down.

If Mezhuev is right, therefore, the lesson of the Russian revolution may be that Russia’s long-term stability depends on how successful its rulers are in creating sources of legitimacy other than themselves. Given the catastrophic results of the revolutions of 1917, we must hope that they succeed.

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10 thoughts on “Charismatic legitimacy”

  1. In pre-revolutionary China, the Emperor’s legitimacy was said to derive from the ‘mandate of heaven’.

    Well yeah, exactly, the tsar, the king, the emperor, they are anointed by god. Standard pre-enlightenment concept, nice and simple. Their legitimacy is determined and declared by the priesthood, which is the highest social strata. The Brahmins.

    The modern mechanics are quite similar, actually.

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  2. Mezuev is literally full of it. I mean – no proof. Only appeal to emotions. But for a certain category of people’ that’s enough.

    “Unfortunately for modern Russia, charismatic legitimacy remains an extremely important foundation of the political system.”

    When in the “Civilised Europe” clear loosers entrusted with the political leadership are re-elected by the cheerful populace time after time! I mean – look at Francois Hallande! Oh, wait…

    The great and beloved by any Russia who bothered to read his “Accursed Kings” series Moris Druon said that, “In the genetic lottery of the monarchy some people do expect to win more than in the lottery of the ballor box”. – while implying that both are fraud.

    “Indeed, the system almost guarantees this by concentrating so much power in the hands of the president.”

    Plox, remind me which totally kosher (by the West) president did enjoy this perk to begin with?

    “So far, Vladimir Putin’s enormous popularity has ensured that the political order established by Boris Yeltsin can survive”

    What? We are still ruled over by Semibankirschina?!

    Page this to Haifa (Israel) and NY (US of A) – so that they can safely come back to Russia!

    But what would happen if Russia had a president who not only lacked Putin’s charisma but was also an obvious failure?

    The sa,e thing that would happened in any so-called demcratic country when they do elect “a president who lack’s charisma and is an obvious failure” – the people will vote fo someone else. Or, waht, you, Professor, consider, us, Russians, to be untermechnes incapable of such a feat? Tell us!

    “At that point, there is a danger that the whole system might come tumbling down.”

    Did you become a convert to the church of “Crussionality”, Professor? Do they have a free booze? ‘Cuase, I see no other reasons to become one.

    “Given the catastrophic results of the revolutions of 1917, we must hope that they succeed.”</em

    Wow. What a deep-thought concept! "Don't screw up or else". Clearly, nobody would have come to this realization on their own!

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  3. For what it is worth, I agree strongly with your last two paragraphs, even if we don’t really need Mezhuev to make those conclusions. Fortunately, not all Russian analysts/thinkers have their heads in the sand. Sergey Karaganov, when asked “Do you think Putin’s Russia is on a trajectory of strength and success?”, answered “At this juncture, not yet. Hopefully, it will.”

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    1. “For what it is worth, I agree strongly with your last two paragraphs”

      I think that Paul here finally fell into the “Crussionality” pit, that have been waiting for him for so long.

      What the hel is this “legitimacy” he’s talking about? Can you define it for us, Professor?

      And what are the sources of said “legitimacy”? Is the government of the United States legitimate, or is the British monarchy still the legitimate sovereign of North America? Was the American Revolution a case of sinful sedition? I mean. seeing as China is already mentioned – which China is a legitimate one? The one in Taiwan, aka “The Republic of China”? So the mainland, “communistic” China is, what – illegitimate? A “rebellious province”? So, the source of legitimacy is one’s handshakability vis-a-vis the West and sedtions and Revolutions are a priori illegitimate?

      But wasn’t the ROC one such rebellion and revolution? Or did they, somehow, snatched the Mandate of Heaven in process? Or they didn’t – and then the only “legitimate” China was the Japan’s puppet of Manchukuo and, therefore there is NO legitimate China at the moment! Yee-haw! Quick, page the Republican and Democratic Hawks – tell them that now they can bomb China wit impunity!

      Or maybe the legitimacy is a different beast all together?

      If the monarchy just a “charismatic dictatorship” steped in this or that mystical mumbo-jumbo? No – this is very simplistic way to think, albeit there is a grain of truth in it. In the monarchy the legitimacy is continuous. “The king is dead – long live the king!” is magical formula, saying that the Monarch never really dies. This not only ensures that the powertransfer runs smoothly – this basically precludes any power transfer in the first place!

      This also deprives the Monarch of any need for charisma. Doesn’t matter who’s on the throne wrapped in the purple – Justinian of Mikhail III, Luis XI or Luis XIII Eduard I Longshanks or Eduard II the Bugger – wars are foguht, taxes are collected, treaties and laws are upheld, and the local civil servants steal as they were stealing.

      In 2007 there was this kind of talk about “legitimacy” as well – nearly word for word! There were also talks about the inevitable “Crussionality” of the post-Putin’s Russia – a wishful thining for the most part. People can’t really reallize that no matter what there will be no post-Putin’s Russia, because Putin is no longer just a himself .he is not a “charismatic dictator”, a monarch steeped in the mysticism and the tradition. He is not really a populist demagogue, who can rile up millions with the impassionate speech.

      Putin is just a Symbol of the Strong Ruler. But he’s one not because he is an Anoited by God, not because he slayed his predecessor and can easily slay all other claimants. He is made strong by the State and its institutions – and he assures that said institutions are well maintained. There is no need for the future ruler of Russia to be a military genius, or an economic whiz, or the impassionate speaker holding over minds and souls of the people with his (or her!) speeches, No – he (or her!) must only have the competent parts of the State who are competent in said fields, and the history will remeber that Ruler to be one instead.

      And what’s wrong with being a strong one? How is that a bad thing? Who in their right mind can seriously claim that Russian State Power can by anything, but strong, no matter how it’s called or the current iteration of “Russia”?

      So I once again suggest not to single out Russia and its history, and, instead, look at the so-called “civilized” world more often – to see, that Russia is hardly any special or truly unique (in the bad sense, of course!). I’d also humbly suggest separate one’s fantasies delivered in the passive agressive tone of the “lament” or “hope”, from the reality, (given to us in the sensations)

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      1. I have discussed the issued of legitimacy a little bit elsewhere, see here: http://www.cips-cepi.ca/2014/05/15/political-legitimacy-is-what-matters-in-ukraines-popular-referendums/ and will do so a bit more in an article which is due to be published soon by the Ottawa Citizen. Suffice it to say that legitimacy is subjective; there is no objective measurement of what renders a government legitimate. It’s legitimate to you if you consider it legitimate, but others may think the opposite. The question then is what makes a sufficient number of people in a given polity consider their rulers legitimate. That depends on a lot of factors, many of which may be culturally determined. So, this is not a question with an easy answer.

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      2. ” Suffice it to say that legitimacy is subjective; there is no objective measurement of what renders a government legitimate. It’s legitimate to you if you consider it legitimate, but others may think the opposite. The question then is what makes a sufficient number of people in a given polity consider their rulers legitimate. That depends on a lot of factors, many of which may be culturally determined. So, this is not a question with an easy answer.”

        Tl;dr: the legitimacy is an abstract. The entire concept of “legitimacy”, as in the idea that some political authorities are legitimate and others illegitimate, is incoherent and nonsensical. More ofthen than not all talks about it (or, to be precisely, about the lack of it) are lies, serving this or that group of interests, Ordinary people (who, btw, are the real sources of any legitimacy – and not the the Qualified Minority of the Adorables and the People with Good Faces, let alone the World Capital(s).of the West) deal with the lack of legitimacy very shortly – look at the “honorary White Western” South Korea right now. Or better, yet, look at all political loosers, whose parties/political platforms lost the favor of the electorate. When even all efforts of brainwashing already docile and unimaginative populace to vote “correctly” fails, it surely shows the loss of legitimacy of the current “democratic” Regime – inderstood as the combination of the mostly pro-liberal party apparatchiks and particular big capitals lobbyst, who exercise their power in accordance with the norms and rules of the burgeoise democracy.

        The West proves itslef a collective hypocritical lying ass, when it arbitrarily decides whether this or that “Regime” is legitimate or not. Is Dutertere a legitimate leader of his country? Why, his country proves to be a superagrarian state – there not only rice and pineaplles are planted – but drugs at someone’s belongings as well! What about Erdogan and his neo-Ottoman dreams of removing Kurds from premises? What about the whole long-lasting Regime in Pakistan – are they “democratic enough” not to warrant smart-bombing into FreeDoom? Oh, and while we are at it – is this whole affair against dear, shy and modest Park Geun-hye just an example of mysoginistic world, punishing stronK and independent woman?

        Now, adressing your old-ish article (Referendun in Britain? Oh, how it did turn out, my-my! 😉 )

        ” If enough people choose of their own free will to vote for something, then their choice has real political meaning regardless of the legal status of the process.”

        and

        “Western states accepted the independence referendums held in many Soviet states in 1991, even though those were contrary to the Soviet constitution.”</em

        Splendid! Jolly good! What a vaunted ideal! Now, what will you, Professor, say about that official, legitimate referendum? And about what then happened at the end of the year?

        OTOH, you don’t really say anything about what constitutes the legitimacy as the concept, besides the abstract “perception”.

        “[M]aking Kiev and the West realize that what is happening in eastern Ukraine is not insurrection by a small number of terrorists taking their orders from Moscow, but true mass discontent with a government that the population does not recognize”

        Yeah, about that… in the 2017 AD, nearly 3 years later, they are none the wiser.

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  4. This article would have a point about present Russia if it was written in 2000s. Right now, it seems outdated.

    Re: Gorbachev

    He was only a part of the part of the problems of the late USSR, in fact he was a lesser problem compared to the systematic problems that plagued the country. That is why Gorbachev, ruler of the USSR lasted only 6 years instead of decades, unlike the last ruler of Imperial Russia. At the end, the system was that fragile.

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    1. I.e. there was a structural, institutional crisis in both cases. The system became fragile. Which actually rules out the entire concept of “charismatic legitimacy”. No matter how one’s “charismatic”, its the system, acting as a prop, a fail-safe and the damage control, that ensures whether you will stay in power.

      The core problem here is the terminology. As I keep saying, we are constantly engaged in the se,antic warfare with each other. The West(erners) understand by the concept of “institutions”, as in “institutional legitimacy” something different than the majority of other people aroud the globe. For the West(erers) said institutions are cpvered by the ambgious terms like:

      – “Free and Independent Media”. Oh, show me, show me such fabled, unicorn like beast!

      – “Accountability of the Powers That Be”. The most recent revelation about CIA’s Net arsenal and the general apathy with which it’s been met demonstrates aptly the verity of Russian proverb “им хоть ссы в глаза – скажут “Божья роса””,

      – “The Civil Society”. Other states a priroi lack it and need constant inflows of money and agitation and propaganda materials to develop one. Even then, only certain, handshakable events and actions can be considered as the “Civil Society in action”. Say, hundreds of thousands in pussy-hats and vagina costumes are good and handshakable examples of the “proper civil society”. The fact that said Civil Society failed to prevent foreign adventurism of their own government is, OTOH, not a big deal. Its when in other countries local (“suppressed”, yeah) Civil Society fail to do that what amounts for some grounds of concern and tut-tutting.

      In Russia “institutions” are understood as the “Insitutions of Power”. I.e. various governmental ministries, local andministrations and services and co-optation of various local elites into the halls of power. “Institutions of Power” provide legitimacy because they have real force to enforce it – not some abstract ideas and words, words, words. I know – what o horrible and alien idea for some Westerners! The mere thought that Russians don’t trust into made-up chimeras, easily dispelled by any child bold enough to proclaim their sky-clad status, is enough to make a Westerner dislike Russia and Russians with passion.

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  5. The “charismatic legitimacy” vs “institutional legitimacy” does seem like it often turns into a debate between power for head-of-state and legislature or other bodies. Countries do it both ways. Countries succeed and fail at times, doing it both ways.

    Obviously a strong (or dominant) executive has potential for authoritarianism. A democracy has potential to be manipulated by paid advertisers, demagogues, or both. A technocracy has potential to be elitist. A constellation of interlocking institutions can degenerate into the epistemic closure of think-tank mode of policymaking as we have in the US. Our elections don’t effect policy that much, and we now have a demagogue as a result of a bistable system that had a botched advertising campaign as its only alternative. And everyone hates congress. But I still prefer a decentralized democracy. Then again, this isn’t Russia so a direct comparison leaves out too much.

    Ever since the current wave of whatever the heck western policymaking is trying to do, the concept of legitimacy has been abused to pass judgment on the quality of democratic systems with ulterior motives. It remains a useful concept but it needs rescuing.

    (steps off soapbox)…

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