What is Legitimacy? Hayts

Hayts 7

We fully regard civil wars, i.e., wars waged by the oppressed class against the oppressing class, slaves against slave-owners, serfs against land-owners, and wage-workers against the bourgeoisie, as legitimate, progressive and necessary.

Vladimir Lenin, Socialism and War (1915)

What is Legitimacy?

         Much is made about the distinction between legitimate struggles and illegitimate ones, legitimate nations and their illegitimate counterparts; what, however, is legitimacy in the first place? For a concept of such fundamental importance, the definition – outside of the purely bourgeois-legalistic pronouncements of the UN – remains hazy for the majority of people. This group encompasses both liberals and Marxists, although the former are greater in number and proportion, the basis of their thought being bourgeois in every aspect. This essay hopes to dispel myths based on a fundamentally bourgeois conception of legitimacy, that is to say an undialectical and un-Marxist conception, and create a new, scientific basis for legitimacy.

         Although the form taken by the implementation of liberal-bourgeois ideas of legitimacy, arbitrated by the UN and subservient to the foreign policy of key Western powers (the US, UK etc.), is corrupted, supporting many dictatorships and eschewing other (bourgeois) democracies, its core is far more palatable at first sight. Recognising that the state is a social relation, they say that the legitimacy of a state is governed primarily by its constituent people, with due recognition given to a legal basis and at least a minimal level of recognition by other governments. Thus it follows: a struggle against a state is only legitimate if it is supported by the majority, as a minimum, of its populace. This seems to be impenetrable reasoning, but falls apart at the seams when historical materialism is applied to it.

         The state, impartial only in appearance, arose with class society to legitimise the rule of the ruling class, and has continued to serve this function throughout every epoch in which it has featured up to modernity. This brings us to the first problem of the so-called “democratic” conception of legitimacy, that all hitherto existing states have been founded upon illegitimacy by their very nature. Legitimisation, then, is necessarily retroactive in this view, since otherwise every state in existence is illegitimate by its pedigree, having been founded on illegitimate principles. How, then, do these liberals justify their retrospective opposition to the progressive changes that were brought about by past revolutions? They cannot.

Every bourgeois revolution, and every feudal revolution before that, was in the interests of the many only unconsciously, but led by – and directly, concretely supported by – a lesser number. The false consciousnesses of those that led these revolutions, and their places in history as merely subjects, rather than subject-objects like the proletariat, mean that they did not consciously try to include the vast masses in their activity, waiting until they had seized power (did the French Revolutionaries of 1789 number over half of the population of France?). The apathetic majority would therefore shift to agreement with them, crystallising their political hegemony into ideological hegemony.

Legitimacy as a necessarily retroactive aspect, if the liberals’ ideas are to be followed to their logical conclusions, is incoherent and based entirely in capitalist realism. Although merely a phase of human history, the liberals – unable to see that anything has ever been otherwise than capitalism – assume that the current legitimacy (by their definitions) of the bourgeois democracies has always been so. Thus, their reasoning produces an insoluble aporia; legitimacy always springs from illegitimacy in their logic, and – as in the case of Nazi Germany and many other such dictatorships – illegitimacy can spring from legitimacy without a break. What, then, would be a superior, materialist, conception of legitimacy?

It is based in the historical role of a given struggle or nation, of course. Insofar as a movement is genuinely progressive, it is legitimate, regardless of the mass-psychological consensus of the populace; consent given under duress, or under the influence of strong propaganda, is no consent at all. Avoiding as it does the contradictions of liberal thought, this conception of legitimacy is above petty moralising based upon the fetishization of abstract democracy – that is to say, bourgeois democracy with its formal equalities and actual burning inequality – and instead views legitimacy is something which is not retroactive but proactive; the legitimacy of a revolution is decided during its struggle, not after its victory.

To conclude, it is not that the liberal conception of legitimacy is merely flawed, but based on entirely incorrect principles and utopian fantasies of the absolute free will of people in deciding whether they view a regime as legitimate or not. Thus, in all of our estimations, it must be replaced with the materialist one. 

7 thoughts on “What is Legitimacy? Hayts

  1. What exactly is the point of having a materialist conception of legitimacy?
    It’s not harmful or outright wrong in any way, but it seems entirely useless.

    1. It is useful because it gives us a consistent and coherent basis to assign movements legitimacy. That is always our first consideration upon deciding upon the distribution of our support to various movements; are they legitimate, or illegitimate? From there, it is much easier to give material aid, solidarity, or other such things – thus advancing the revolutionary movement whilst avoiding the pitfalls of Marxist-Leninist(-Maoist) anti-imperialism, or bourgeois views on the almost-total illegitimacy of armed struggle.

      1. But if the standard for legitimacy is just that the movement is genuinely progressive, why is it necessary to have a concept of legitimacy? How does adding an extra term to express progressive-ness make it easier to identify movements deserving of support when you could just distribute support based on progressive-ness?

        1. Sorry this is so late; I only just realised that there were further replies in this conversation!
          Your question on whether or not there is any “point” to an extra term for progressive-ness arguably strikes at a much deeper lingustic problem: is there any point in synthesising new language (or meaning) for things that can be expressed already, if not perfectly in one word – in this case, “progressiveness” is a little vague without clear politico-historical context – or with a little ambiguity, such as my usage (or reappropriation) of “legitimacy”?
          The answer to this question is twofold.
          First, “legitimacy” is a much clearer term than “progressiveness”, as well as simply being shorter and therefore easier to use – though this is something of a petty reason to use language in a different way. As well as this, legitimacy is different from mere progressiveness in any context because it is necessarily radically, historically progressive rather than simply progressive; thus, although national-liberation movements are progressive, going from a greater to a lesser oppression, they are not legitimate. As well as this, it is (as Edwin has said) very common for bourgeois-liberals to proclaim certain movements and governments as legitimate, and decry others as legitimate: this should be countered with a materialist understanding of legitimacy as set out in the above essay.
          Thank you for your interest!

    2. To further Hayt’s reply, the concept of ‘legitimacy’ is something used by both liberals and leftists to erroneously justify their beliefs. For example, a liberal might dismiss riots or armed struggle against the state due to the fact that the government has been democratically elected, or is recognised as a legitimate state by the UN. Similarly, leftists will frequently argue that we should support supposedly anti-imperialist governments such as Syria because they are ‘legitimate’, whereas the (usually) US backed rebels are not, thus conferring moral weight on the ‘anti-imperialist’ government. Therefore, a materialist conception of legitimacy is useful in demonstrating the shortfalls of these aforementioned arguments.

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The second version of this text, serialised in 'Workers Dreadnought' in 1923, outlying basic positions of the Communist Left in its early days, written by suffragette and communist Sylvia Pankhurst.