Tag Archives: Boris Mezhuev

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.

Kissinger and Civilization

The Russian think tank ‘Rethinking Russia’ has published an article I wrote about Henry Kissinger’s recent meeting with Vladimir Putin. This follows a piece on the same subject by Russian political philosopher Boris Mezhuev, which the think tank published a couple of days earlier. You can read my piece here and Mezhuev’s here.

In my article, I take the opportunity of Kissinger’s visit to Moscow to call for a return to pragmatism in Russian-Western relations. In my view, the neoconservative obsession with the analogy of 1930s appeasement has led to an unhealthy belief that talking to those with whom one has disagreements is a sign of weakness which will invite aggression. But whereas I support the idea of dialogue between Russia and the West and a more pragmatic approach to foreign policy, Mezhuev favours separating Russia and the West and adding a new ideological element to their relationship.

Mezhuev suggests that if a Republican wins the next US presidential election, he will have to take heed of Kissinger’s Realist advice. But any attempt to put a Realist policy into effect will inevitably founder on the rocks of the appeasement analogy. As Mezhuev writes, the response to such a policy will be: ‘Why does the West have to cave in? … Prudence, as we know, implies the appeasement of hotheads … Ted Cruz or even young Latino Marco Rubio will hardly wish to gain the reputation of a new Chamberlain.’

According to Mezhuev, the only way of avoiding conflict between Russia and the West is to separate them with a buffer zone including Ukraine. For that, he says, ‘we need something else besides prudence, some ideological trigger that will justify a buffer zone. … We need a new discourse, which will portray these concessions as indispensable, as inalienable to the very nature of phenomena. To put it crudely, we need the language of civilizational geopolitics’. In other words, we must adopt Samuel Huntington’s civilizational discourse. Mezhuev ends by saying:

I am afraid that is the only option available. Either a new American administration will regard Russia as a distinct civilization marked by its own value code and special rights sanctified by history, or it will treat Russia just as a target. … We [Russia and the West] both need to understand that the language of civilizational geopolitics guarantees Europe’s survival, it is a diplomatic tool to avert World War III.

This is certainly an interesting thesis, and I see where Mezhuev is coming from. Westerners often seem far more upset by Russia’s failure to become a fully-fledged liberal democracy and by its opposition to Western foreign policy than they are by much more despotic and uncooperative regimes elsewhere in the world. Sinopobia, for instance, seems much less intense than Russophobia. I suspect that this is because people in the West recognize that China is different. They don’t expect the Chinese to behave like them and so aren’t particularly cross when they don’t. This isn’t true with Russians – they are thought to be if not exactly Western then at least not unWestern. Recognizing Russia as a separate civilization would allow us to tolerate each other more easily.

The problem with this idea is that it is based on a fiction. The reason why Westerners do not for the most part consider Russia to be a distinct civilization is because it isn’t. Yes, there are definite differences between Russia and, say, Canada, but there almost equally pronounced differences between countries in what is called the ‘West’. For instance, American attitudes towards guns, God, health care, and imprisonment (such as locking up a man in solitary confinement for over 43 years) completely baffle many Canadians. The ‘West’ is not a monolith, and Russia has a great deal in common with much of it. You can’t just declare Russia to be a separate civilization and expect everyone to believe it.

More precisely, I don’t think for one instant that neoconservative appeasement-analogy thinkers would go along with it. They believe that ‘American values’ are universal. If they were to accept the idea that there are different civilizations with distinct values, they would have to abandon this core belief. I see no way that American leaders will ever accept the ‘language of civilizational geopolitics’.

In any case, Mezhuev’s position is far too pessimistic for me. It suggests that Russia and the West cannot live together, and need to be physically separated. I do not see why this should be the case. Current crises will pass. American exceptionalism and universalism will decline. New opportunities for working together will arise. We should be speaking to one another in order to improve our relations, not making it harder to do so.