I have an article in Saturday’s edition of the Ottawa Citizen, which further examines ideas of political legitimacy with reference to the Russian Revolution. You can read it here.
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.
‘The primary struggle in an internal war is to mobilize people in a struggle for political control and legitimacy,’ says the American army’s pamphlet FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency. ‘Legitimacy is the main objective,’ it explains.
The Atlantic Council of Canada has just published a report on the conference at which I spoke last week on the subject of the war in Ukraine. The report notes correctly that several speakers criticized some of the actions of the Ukrainian government, but the author, Olga Radchenko, then counters this criticism with the comment that ‘Panelists failed to sufficiently address what alternative methods the central government could have employed to deal with an armed insurgency.’ Radchenko’s comment deserves an answer.
Governments naturally want to have a monopoly on the use of force within their territory. No self-respecting state is likely to sit back and do nothing about armed insurgency. It may therefore appear to be unfair to criticize the Ukrainian government for resorting to force to quell the uprising which took place in Donbass last year. But although that argument in favour of violence is superficially appealing, both the ethics of war and the optimal method of dealing with insurgency dictate that other alternatives be explored first.
Most (although not all) just war theorists would accept that there is a ‘presumption against war’. War is considered to be unjust unless the opposite can be proven. The burden of proof is therefore not upon those who would oppose it to show that there are better alternatives; rather it is on those who would wage it to show that there are none. Moreover, even though restoring order can be considered a ‘just cause’ for war, just cause alone is insufficient. Other criteria must also be met, such as having the legitimate authority to wage war, having a reasonable chance of success, and using violence only as a last resort.
Let us, however, put aside the ethics of the issue, and focus instead on the practicalities. What practical alternatives did the Ukrainian authorities have in spring 2014? In line with the advice of FM 3-24, the best alternatives would have been ones which enhanced the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of the people of Donbass. That would have meant, among other things, broadening the make-up of the government to include people who could reasonably be said to represent the rebellious areas; clearly disassociating the government from the far right groups, such as Right Sector, which had helped bring it to power; and giving firm assurances about the status of the Russian language.
Once protestors in the East seized buildings and weapons, and especially after the referendums in support of the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics on 11 May 2014, the situation changed. The measures above would still have been useful, but more would have been required, in particular an effort to talk with the rebel leadership to find a political solution. That leadership was far from united, with a range of ambitions running from union with Russia to merely some concessions from Kiev about the Russian language and decentralization of power. The mass of the population probably stood far closer to the latter than the former. By striking a deal with the latter, the government had a good chance of detaching the population from the more extreme elements, and leaving them isolated. At that point, the insurgency would have been doomed. The opportunity for such a deal still existed even in late June when talks began between former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma and representatives of the DPR and LPR. Instead, the talks were abandoned when President Poroshenko annulled his first ceasefire in early July, apparently in the belief that his army was strong enough to win a military victory.
Rodchenko’s use of the phrase ‘armed insurgency’ implies that what the Ukrainian government faced (and still faces) was from the outset a military problem, which therefore required (and requires) a military solution. But if we follow the advice of FM 3-24, then it is better to view it as having been (and still being) a legitimacy problem. In a similar analysis, Robert Thompson, author of the classic text Defeating Communist Insurgency wrote that insurgency is a political problem and that the solution must be political too. Military action which undermines the political solution is to be avoided, even if it is militarily advantageous. That implies that the wisest option for the Ukrainian government would have been to avoid military action and take measures to convince the population of the government’s legitimacy.
This remains true even today. The Ukrainian authorities maintain that the primary cause of the war in Donbass is Russian interference. But if the people of Donbass were to decide that the legitimate government of their region was the one in Kiev, then the Russians, deprived of any popular support, would have to leave. As FM 3-24 remarks, ‘Victory is achieved when the populace consents to the government’s legitimacy.’