The political theoretical literature often focuses its attention on the dialectics between two core ideas of political thought, the idea of justification and legitimation. At least in principle, the two ideas should be seen as complementary since they should represent two faces of a same coin. However, this is true if we consider the pluralism typical of liberal-democratic societies, in which there can exist different potential justifications in reciprocal conflict but still laying within a common institutional and moral framework that upholds legitimation, especially regarding human rights, civil liberties, intellectual freedom, political diversity, etc. Nevertheless, what would be the case of a non-democratic regime? Would justification and legitimation still be complementary and convergent, at least in moral means, in an authoritarian country? In other words, may legitimation tolerate, or even support, justification in a country where human rights and liberties are challenged or perhaps banned? Additionally, an even more worrisome question could be whether legitimation could be extorted by the political ruling elite that legitimizes its power through a specific justification – an ideology, for instance – through the means of mental manipulation and the thorough use of propaganda for the purposes of fostering consent. The issue is delicate and troublesome, as we can imagine, but to start dealing with it is best to stress the meaning of the words legitimation and justification, as conceived in political theory.
Legitimation represents the way to provide political and institutional legitimacy, which implies an historical and cultural process through which institutions become legitimate in the eyes of a given social group because it connects to them a system of norms, values, customs and behaviours that accepts as valid. Throughout history, the idea of legitimation gave birth to different kind of societies: democratic societies legitimized by the people’s will, revolutionary societies legitimized by an ideology, transcendental societies legitimized by divine right, traditional societies legitimized by hereditary succession, and so on. Today, the liberal-democratic model typical of Western civilization seems to have created at least the spectre of a common worldwide majoritarian form of legitimation that focuses on the respect of basic human rights, tolerance, freedom of thought and rule of law. As we can see, legitimation implies a bottom-up approach, which starts from the subjects to reach the ruling institutions.
On the contrary, justification represents a top-down and subjective substantive, which denies pluralism and other means other than a single one to interpret the world and to discern the truth. Justification is a typical philosophical approach claiming that there is only one correct interpretation of reality and all others are wrong. As we can detect, justification alone is insufficient to create a complete normative conceptual standard, because it also needs legitimation in order to gain social consensus. For instance, some concepts like the forbiddance of murdering or stealing are generally supported by social consensus because they are both justified by political institutions through common sense and legitimized by public opinion. Thus, it is only through the combination of justification and legitimation that a society can develop pluralism. The very idea of pluralism itself is based upon the idea that there is not a single truth, but many potential truths that may be likewise correct.
Now, let us imagine living in a country where the political elite and ruling class or party upholds a strong justification that considers as the basis for its legitimacy, but that contrasts in a manifest way some basic standards of justice and equality, and that nonetheless enjoys the legitimation of the majority of its population. In this country, the masses have been politically and culturally indoctrinated by means of propaganda or mental manipulation and thus consider perfectly valid and fair, from a positivistic point of view – albeit not from a naturalistic one – the justification of its political elite. So being things, how can legitimation transform itself into a tool that counterbalances, refines or accomplishes justification if it becomes an instrument subjected to justification? In other terms, is legitimation a still effective parameter to identify pluralism if it has been subordinated and shaped for the purposes of upholding and making cohesive the political justification that leads a society?
Historically speaking, many examples can be quoted. First of all, let us think of the Nazi regime in Germany, a regime supported by a deeply articulated ideology founded on racism and intolerance – the final political output of a European tradition rooted at least already in the 18th century – that profited of a strong popular legitimation due to the spirit of revanchism subsequent to the German defeat in World War One on one hand and to the sophisticated propaganda machine built by the Nazi political elite on the other. Although from a naturalistic point of view, human beings consider as negative and undesirable the idea of discriminating or murdering other human beings, in the Nazi state and satellites the people legitimated the elite’s justification of getting rid, for instance, of the Jews, because the positivistic ideology on which the Nazi legitimacy based was made fair by propaganda and rhetoric. Similarly, the Stalinist conceptual justification based on a violent application of the Leninist-Marxist ideology, which for instance considered as enemies of the people the relatively affluent farmers – the kulaks –, enjoyed the legitimation of the people, which had been extorted by the regime through means of terror and methodical distorted propaganda. Moreover, let us recall the horrible operations of ethnic cleansing in the Balkan region, which repeatedly occurred at least twice during the 20th century: Serbian chetniks, Croatian ustashas and Bosnian Islamic fundamentalists, just to quote the majoritarian groups of former Yugoslavia, engaged in an unbelievable campaign of mass murdering in the name of religion and territorial hegemony despite belonging to the same ethnic group and speaking a common language. Same considerations can be drawn when considering the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the Turkish genocide of the Armenians during World War One, and, nowadays, the horrible violence perpetrated by the jihadists of the Islamic state against ethnic minorities and other religious groups.
All of the above-mentioned cases – but many more could be quoted – show us treacherously that a political-theoretical justification, even when patently violating the main principles of human rights and pluralism, can somewhat enjoy a legitimation by the people, or at least by an influent group of it, that can transform a totalitarian or one-sided ideology into a valid model advocating a polity. In conclusion, this is why we believe that justification alone cannot be sufficient as a conceptual standard to legitimize a state or regime because it bears a one-way oriented view of the truth and of reality. At the same time, we also reckon that legitimation alone too cannot suffice, because there is a risk that it may be manipulated or extorted by an apparently reasonable ideological justification that hides intolerance or violence. Hence, in order to obtain a naturalistically fair, equal and just polity, we think that justification and legitimation should surely combine, but that this combination should be based upon the principles of pluralism, tolerance, civil liberties and rule of law. If that is not, then the risk is to create political entities careless of naturalistic principles that upkeep only their positivistic, unilateral, view of things, leading directly to tyranny and ferocity.