Sunday, 31 July 2016


In this essay I wish to summarize, quote, and comment on what I found in some of the works of Poul Anderson on the issue of political legitimacy. One very important point to be found in his thought where it touches on politics is his insistence on the need for the state, any state, to be LEGITIMATE, for it to believe itself having the right to govern and for its people to also believe it is legitimate.  And it does not matter what form, republic or monarchy (or any other form), a state has--it still needs to be regarded as legitimate if it is to govern reasonably well (or at least not too badly).

In THE REBEL WORLDS we see Dominic Flandry doing his best to ruin the revolt of an Imperial admiral, Hugh McCormac, against the reigning Emperor, Josip III.  And this despite McCormac being a vastly better and more able man than Josip.  In Chapter XV we see Flandry explaining to McCormac himself why a successful usurpation would have been disastrous for the Empire: "You'd have destroyed the principle of legitimacy.  The Empire will outlive Josip.  Its powerful vested interests, its cautious bureaucrats, its size and inertia, will keep him from doing enormous harm.  But if you took the throne by force, why shouldn't another discontented admiral do the same in another generation?  And another and another, till civil wars rip the Empire to shreds.  Till the Merseians come in, and the barbarians.  You yourself hired barbarians to fight Terrans, McCormac.  No odds whether or not you took precautions, the truth remains that you brought them in, and sooner or later we'll get a rebel who doesn't mind conceding them territory.  And the Long Night falls."

I quoted the bit about the principle of legitimacy to Poul Anderson in my first letter to him and asked why Flandry later supported a usurper who had seized the throne by force.  In a letter dated 8 May 1978 Anderson replied: "As a matter of fact, you are not the first to point out the inconsistency in Flandry's remarks about legitimacy as the basic necessity of government, in THE REBEL WORLDS,  and the fact that later he supported Hans Molitor, whose only claim to the throne was sheer force.  Perhaps I should have spelled out in more detail what was left implicit: that Flandry was making the best of a bad situation."

An admirably clear statement of Flandry's views about legitimacy can be found nearly forty years later in Chapter VI of A STONE IN HEAVEN: "Once as a young fellow I found myself supporting the abominable Josip against McCormac--Remember McCormac's Rebellion?  He was infinitely the better man.  Anybody would have been.  But Josip was the legitimate Emperor; and legitimacy is the root and branch of government.  How else, in spite of the cruelties and extortions and ghastly mistakes it's bound to perpetrate--how else, by what right, can it command loyalty?  If it is not the servant of Law, then it is nothing but a temporary convenience at best.  At worse, it's raw force."

As a conservative/libertarian Poul Anderson was very skeptical of the state and frequently warned in his works of how easily tyranny can arise.  And he declared democracies were more prone in some ways to becoming tyrannical than other forms of government.  A good example of one of his characters expressing libertarian skepticism about the state or a society can be found in Chapter XXI of OPERATION CHAOS,  Steven Matuchek speaking: "I wouldn't think much of a youngster who never felt an urge to kick the God of Things As They Are in his fat belly.  It's too bad that most people lose it as they get old and fat themselves.  The Establishment is often unendurably smug and stupid, the hands it folds so piously are often bloodstained."  I immediately thought of "legalized" abortion as one of those bloody horrors we tolerate too easily and smugly.

However, Poul Anderson was also a conservative and realist who knew the state was a necessity, as this additional quote from the same Chapter XXI of OPERATION CHAOS shows: "And yet...and's the only thing between us and the Dark Ages that'd have to intervene before another and probably worse Establishment could arise to restore order.  And don't kid yourself that none would.  Freedom is a fine thing until it becomes somebody else's freedom to enter your house, kill, rob, rape, and enslave the people you care about.  Then you'll accept any man on horseback who promises to bring some predictability back into life, and you yourself will give him his saber and knout."  In other words, every state has bloody origins or will have blood on its hands. And I argue that one means for any state becoming less tyrannical is for it to become accepted as legitimate.

In the Introduction he wrote for the Gregg Press (1978) edition of THE LONG WAY HOME, one of his earlier novels, Poul Anderson said on page v: "You'll note where a born-and-bred slave, intelligent and well-educated, argues in favor of slavery as an institution with the shocked hero.  I intended the incident as a touch of character and background.  After all, people usually do support the regimes under which they live, if only passively.  No government which lacked that kind of acceptance would last a day.  It is a sad commentary on our species--a commentary I thought I was making--that by and large, the most monstrous tyrannies have been endured, yes, excused by their most immediate victims."  The points I'm stressing being how that ACCEPTANCE fits in with what I quoted from OPERATION CHAOS and how it's a necessary condition before any government can survive and be thought legitimate.  I want to prevent a possible misunderstanding about THE LONG WAY HOME: the regime ruling Earth in that book, the Technon, is NOT that bad.  It compares favorably to many actually existing regimes in our real world.

It's my belief that what matters is whether a government rules not too intolerably badly, more or less respects the rights of all its people, and accepts limitations on its powers, not what form it has.  If a republic or monarchy is accepted by its people as rightful and governs not too badly, then I have to say that kind of government is legitimate for that nation. Which means I disagree with dogmatists who rigidly insist that only ONE kind of government is right for everybody, for every nation.  And Poul Anderson would agree with me as this additional bit quoted from his letter of 8 May 1978 shows: "...I've long felt that legitimacy is the basic problem of any government and demand ["insist" might have been a better word, SMB] upon it.  Legitimacy can have any number of sources in different societies, such as tradition, religion, or heredity; in our country [the USA],  the Declaration [of Independence] and the Preamble [to the US Constitution] spell out  quite explicitly the basis on which the government claims its own rights.  But what does one do when this set of principles is no longer taken into account?  I doubt that much is possible except supporting whatever strong-arm contender seems likeliest to give the people a breathing spell."

In his letter of 31 December 1978, Poul Anderson wrote to me discussing, among other things, responses to my comments and questions in a letter I had written asking why so many in the Flandry stories despised (somewhat unfairly, in my opinion) the Terran Empire.  Part of his reply was a summarizing of the American theory of legitimacy in greater detail: "Perhaps the most succinct formulation is in the Declaration of Independence--though it takes for granted a contractual theory of legitimacy, whereas in fact governments have claimed legitimacy on many different bases.  The ultimate point is that most people will accept their government as rightful, and be prepared to make great sacrifices for it, as long as they perceive it as serving--however imperfectly--the larger interests of its society.  When it ceases to do that, it loses all claim on their loyalty, and any service it gets is mostly from expediency or, still more, fear."

I discussed the Chinese Confucian theory of legitimacy, the Mandate of Heaven, in a later letter (dated 18 November 1979)  to Poul Anderson, who responded (21 November 1979) that he was aware of the Chinese theory of legitimacy.  Anderson said that the Maoist conquest of mainland China fitted the Mandate of Heaven pattern in many ways, despite the Communists denying that and trying (for many years, SMB) to "scrub" (PA's term) Confucius from the culture. He even wondered if, even then (about 1979), the  Mandate of Heaven theory was not yet dead.  I mentioned the Confucian theory of legitimacy to give another real world example of a theory of rightful government.  Only time will tell if the old Chinese theory of legitimacy is dead or not.

Poul Anderson was a masterful writer deeply knowledgeable not only in the sciences but also in history and philosophy.  All of which gives unusual depth and  nuance to his works. Who were some of the saints and philosophers who helped to shape his beliefs about history?  To answer that question I'll again quote from his letter of 31 December 1978: "Turning to less profound matters, you ask why my imaginary Terran Empire is so despised by so many characters in the stories.  To explain in detail would require a book on the philosophy of history, with references to authors as diverse as St. Thomas Aquinas, Rousseau, Locke, Toynbee, Voegelin...well, the list alone would take longer to write down than I have time for." Anderson would soon include the work of John K. Hord as a major influence shaping his philosophy of history, especially as regards how civilizations rose and fell (see Anderson's article: "Concerning Future Histories," BULLETIN OF THE SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS OF AMERICA, Fall 1979, pages 10-11).

(I have argued with Poul Anderson that he was sometimes too hard on the Terran Empire.  I gave arguments  in others of my letters for believing it was not as bad as some of his characters thought it was.  I wrote that compared to many actually existing regimes, the Empire looks far better, even very GOOD, compared to them.)

I must urge readers not to be deceived by my ponderous commentary on some of the works of Poul Anderson--they are FUN to read, well written, and with very plausibly described backgrounds and character development.  Anderson never let his deep and learned interest in philosophy and history to get in the way of what he modestly called his primary job: telling stories readers will enjoy and want to read and reread.