Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters


The Idea of a League of Nations

Nature’s balancing of Imperialism and free Nationality

At the end of World War I, in the beginning of 1918, Sri Aurobindo was musing that a unification of the human race that did not obliterate group-freedom could preferably take the form of ‘a free, elastic and progressive world-union’ rather than ‘a closely organized World-State’ (The Ideal Of Human Unity, pg.523). Naturally, such a trajectory could not evolve in the way a nation-State evolved. But there would be a necessity to revive the ‘force of idealistic nationalism’ which before the war seemed to be crushed on one side by ‘the increasing world-empires of England, Russia, Germany and France’ and on the other side by the ideal of internationalism that denounced the nation and ‘the evils of nationalistic patriotism’ (Ibid). In a piquant situation where both Imperialism and Internationalism were detrimental to the idea of free nationality, the challenge was that the separative sentiments had to be aligned naturally and spontaneously to the ideal of world-union.

Sri Aurobindo searches cues from ‘the natural principle of compensating reactions’ (Ibid). The physical law of action and reaction is replicated in socio-political life too. It is a philosophical necessity and experiential truth that to every active force there is an opposite or variative force that may not be immediately explicit but eventually appear with a total or partial compensatory movement. Nature always balances and if a dominant tendency is allowed to operate, its exaggeration is checked by reactivation of a past force or a awakening of a new force. ‘After long insistence on centralisation, she tries to modify it by at least a subordinated decentralisation. After insisting on more and more uniformity, she calls again into play the spirit of multiform variation. The result need not be an equipollence of the two tendencies, it may be any kind of compromise. Or, instead of a compromise it may be in act a fusion and in result a new creation which shall be a compound of both principles. We may expect her to apply the same method to the tendencies of unification and group-variation in dealing with the great mass-unit of humanity’ (Ibid. pg.524).

The great risk at the end of the World War I was that Nature could destroy the nation-unit just as it had destroyed the tribe and clan for a new principle of grouping. Alternatively, it could infuse the nation with sufficient vitality and balance to preserve it so as to effectively counter a too heavy and repressive force of unification (Ibid). This was a contingency that Sri Aurobindo preferred to probe.

The World War I was preceded by two opposing forces:

(a) Imperialism which was either rigid like Germany or more liberal like England; and

(b) Nationalism.

Sri Aurobindo explains that in the end, both are ‘two sides of one phenomenon, the aggressive or expansive and the defensive aspects of national egoism’ (Ibid). It would seem that the egoism would be more durable in imperialism but ironically, the reverse can occur. He gives examples of the Persian tribe and the Roman Empire where the egoism dissolved after stretching itself too much. As he explained, ‘in the trend of imperialism this egoism had some eventual chance of dissolving itself by excessive self-enlargement, as the aggressive tribe disappeared, for example, the Persian tribe, first into the empire and then into the nationality of the Persian people, or as the city-state also disappeared, first into the Roman Empire and then both tribe and city state without hope of revival into the nations which arose by fusion out of the irruption of the German tribes into the declining Latin unity’ (Ibid).

There was also a risk that as the ordinary city state and tribe were destroyed by more aggressive and dominant city states and tribes, the nation-unit could also be destroyed by aggressive national imperialism. The World War I experience showed that an opposing force of defensive nationalism would not be able to effectively withstand the tremendous power that science and technology conferred to the large imperial aggregates.

The case of the Protectorates

Sri Aurobindo explains that the phenomenon of labelling subjugated nations as ‘protectorates’ by imperial aggregates was actually a ploy to destroy the nation-units and cleverly acquire them completely: ‘all experience shows that the beginning of a protectorate is also the beginning of the end of the protected nation; it is a euphemistic name for the first process of chewing prior to deglutition’. (Ibid, pg.525). He gives examples relevant at the end of the World War I:

1. Asia: Korea had disappeared into the nascent Japanese empire while Persian nationalism had succumbed to a system that was a veiled protectorate. Tibet and Siam were too weak for their immunity to be sustained. China had escaped the World-Powers ‘by its size which made it an awkward morsel to swallow, let alone to digest. The partition of all Asia between four or five or at the most six great empires seemed a foregone conclusion’.(Ibid)

2. Africa: ‘The European conquest of Northern Africa had practically been completed by the disappearance of Morocco, the confirmed English protectorate over Egypt and the Italian hold on Tripoli. Somaliland was in a preliminary process of slow deglutition; Abyssinia, saved once by Menelik (Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia who ruled between 1844 to 1913 and defeated Italy in the 1896 Battle of Adwa) but now torn by internal discord, was the object of a revived dream of Italian colonial empire. The Boer republics had gone under before the tide of imperialistic aggression. All the rest of Africa practically was the private property of three great Powers and two small ones’.(Ibid)

3. Europe: There were few small independent nations in Europe, Balkan (South East Europe that included most of previous Yugoslavia) and Teutonic (pertaining to erstwhile Prussia) as well as two unimportant neutralised countries. ‘But the Balkans were a constant theatre of uncertainty and disturbance and the rival national egoisms could only have ended, in case of the ejection of Turkey from Europe, either by the formation of a young, hungry and ambitious Slav empire under the dominance of Serbia or Bulgaria or by their disappearance into the shadow of Austria or Persia.(Soon after Sri Aurobindo penned these lines, in 1918 itself, the Slavs established independent states of Czechoslovakia, the Second Polish Republic and the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs which merged into Yugoslavia that itself was to disintegrate in 1992 ) The Teutonic States were coveted by expanding Germany and, had that Power been guided by the prudently daring diplomacy of a new Bismarck, -- a not unlikely contingency, could William II have gone to the grave before letting loose the hounds of war, -- their absorption might well have been compassed.’(Ibid, pg.525-526).Sri Aurobindo makes a humorous allusion to Bismarck (1815-1898) who unified Germany and is quoted for his famous aphorism, ‘Politics is the art of the possible’; and a sarcastic reference to the fate of the ambitious English monarch William II whose premature death in 1100 (never confirmed whether accidental or due to assassination) was followed immediately by his accompanying brother Henry to depart in haste and get himself crowned within a day leaving the corpse unattended at the New Forest to be discovered by villagers.

4. USA: In America, imperialism was ‘already emerging in the form of Rooseveltian Republicanism, and the interference in Mexico, hesitating as it was, yet pointed to the inevitability of a protectorate and a final absorption of the disorderly Central American republics; the union of South America would then have become a defensive necessity. It was only the stupendous cataclysm of the world war which interfered with the progressive march towards the division of the world into less than a dozen great empires’.(Ibid, pg.526) Sri Aurobindo is referring to Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th President of the USA (1901-1909) and not to Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), the 32nd President. Theodore Roosevelt who held to his maxim ‘to speak softly and carry a big stick’ graduated from an imperialist to a tactful diplomatist to earn the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 though his interest in influencing Latin America by sponsoring the Panama Canal led to the separation of Panama from Colombia in 1903.

However, as we shall study, despite the manoeuvrings of Imperialism, the World War I actually revived the idea of free nationality recalling the maxim of Nature’s compensatory balance of opposite forces.


Date of Update: 19-Nov-18

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu