"Great Objectives and Grand Strategies"

Legitimacy Crisis and Revolutionary Crisis--
"Legitimate" Armed Force and "Illegitimate" Armed Force

By Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1135, January 10, 2002, posted at http://rwor.org

The RW is currently running this series of excerpts from an unpublished work by RCP Chairman Bob Avakian, "Great Objectives and Grand Strategy." Although written over a year ago, this work--and these excerpts in particular--contain much that is very relevant to the current crisis and war. This is the ninth in this series.

The question of legitimacy crisis is discussed in "Notes on Political Economy" and in our Party's last Central Committee Report. In those documents, legitimacy crises were discussed somewhat "in their own right"--what constitutes a legitimacy crisis, how they come about, and so on--as well as in relation to revolutionary crises. The point was made that legitimacy crises are not identical with, but are generally a key ingredient in, revolutionary crises. Now, in this regard, it is important to keep in mind that the concentrated expression of "legitimate power" by any class or regime (representing a class) is the exercise of state power, and more particularly the monopoly of armed force which is exercised by all states. Another way to say this is that all states claim for themselves a monopoly of legitimate armed force and that this is very important in relation to legitimacy crises and, beyond that, revolutionary crisis.

In this regard, the book America's Army in Crisis (written in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam war) cites the following statement by two U.S. military career officers (Zeb B. Bradford and James R. Murphy): the armed forces are "an unconditional servant of lawful state authority" (p. 161, emphasis in original) Now, that is a rather pithy formulation, and just about every word in that formulation is important ("an unconditional servant of lawful state authority"). This is a statement that actually does concentrate a number of important points, and it is worthwhile "unraveling" what's involved here a bit, as part of developing our conceptual and theoretical understanding. And, here again, it is important to keep in mind that, even though all legitimacy crises are not necessarily part of--and do not necessarily lead to--actual revolutionary crises, in certain circumstances they do; and they are, generally speaking, an important element of a revolutionary crisis.

America's Army in Crisis also cites another formulation, employed by David Hackworth (a kind of "maverick" retired U.S. military officer), which is relevant to understanding the dynamic of legitimacy crisis and how this relates to the question of launching--and the successful waging and winning--of an armed insurrection (and civil war): war (says Hackworth) must consist of "The 'ordered application of force in resolution of a social problem.' " (p. 183) Related to this, it is also worth thinking about the many important dimensions to and the largest significance of the following:

"A group of people unclear about just whom they are (and are not) allowed to kill, for what ends, under what circumstances, and by what means is not an army but a mob. Though there have always been mobs, usually when confronted by an effective fighting organization they have scattered like chaff before the wind.... Killing is an activity no society can tolerate unless it is carefully circumscribed by rules that define what is and is not allowed. Always and everywhere, killing done by certain authorized persons, under certain specific circumstances, and in accordance with certain prescribed rules is saved from blame and regarded as praiseworthy. Conversely, killing that ignores the rules or transgresses them usually provokes punishment--often the killing of the transgressor.... Where this distinction is not preserved, society will fall to pieces and war will become mere indiscriminate violence." ("The Gulf Crisis and the Rules of War," by Martin Van Creveld, in Experience of War, p. 573)

This statement is pregnant with a lot of important meaning--important principles that it is crucial to grasp and apply from the standpoint of the revolutionary proletariat. It involves the ways in which the other side's legitimacy--and in particular the legitimacy of its armed forces and the killing and destruction they bring down--can become unraveled and they begin to be seen, by broad masses of people, as forces who are killing without legitimacy. And it is extremely important to keep in mind that this distinction between legitimate and illegitimate violence is a socially established distinction, of course, and accordingly is dynamic and can undergo qualitative change.


The essence of dictatorship--all dictatorships, all forms of the state--is the monopoly of armed force, of armed force legitimated through the prevailing political system and the prevailing "social compact" and the attendant "ideological norms." When, again, the legitimacy of this monopoly of armed force is significantly called into question--and particularly when this becomes widespread in society, affecting broad strata, not just among the proletariat and basic masses but extensively among the "middle class" as well--then this can be a crucial part of the development of one of the key elements making possible a revolutionary struggle, the emergence of a revolutionary people, of millions and millions determined to make revolutionary change.

This leads into the broader question of the sharpening of social contradictions--including those within the ruling class--and the relation of this to legitimacy crisis and to an actual revolutionary crisis. If we look at the Clinton impeachment and things bound up with that, for example, we can see some of the elements of what would go into this phenomenon--this "Humpty Dumpty" phenomenon--the system coming "unraveled" and "the center" not being able to hold--the consensus in the ruling class breaking down. And this relates particularly to the "three conditions for insurrection" that Lenin speaks of. What I want to focus on here is the third of these three conditions--that is, the political vacillation and "paralysis" within the ruling class itself, and also among the weak, half-hearted and irresolute friends of the revolution, as Lenin put it--and how this relates to a revolutionary crisis, and more particularly a crisis in which the revolutionary proletariat and its program can come to the fore and take the lead.

Now, in connection with all I've been saying here, including this point about the de-legitimizing of the monopoly of armed force on the part of the ruling class, we can think back to the experience of the 1960s and early '70s and how very broadly in U.S. society--with the Vietnam war as well as the surging Black liberation movement and other revolutionary trends and radical movements of opposition--the use of armed force by the ruling class, and indeed even the very armed forces of the ruling class, came to be seen by millions of people as not representing a legitimate use of armed force, or a legitimate monopoly on force. They lost that sense, that "aura," of being invested with legitimacy, for huge numbers of people, for very significant sections of U.S. society.

Henry Kissinger commented on this general phenomenon in his memoirs of his years in the White House (as a part of the Nixon administration in particular). He talks about how there was a sort of "vacuum" created where, in effect, the ruling class was torn by serious internal conflict, especially over Vietnam after a certain point, and over other major social questions and upheavals. The ruling class was paralyzed politically to a significant extent at the same time as the phenomenon of the de-legitimizing of their use of armed force, and even of their very armed forces, was occurring on a very large scale. This created a situation in which, as Kissinger characterized it, a small radical minority was able to gain the initiative. And, as we know, while this didn't fully develop into a revolutionary crisis in that period of the late '60s and early '70s, what Kissinger is describing represents crucial ingredients of what does go into not only a legitimacy crisis but a revolutionary crisis.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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