Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters

Chapter XXX Part II

The Principle of Free Confederation


In the background of events unfolding in Russia during and after the great Revolution, Sri Aurobindo was observing the emergence of Nation-States. Both the nation-idea and the State-idea had a basic physical and vital foundation in terms of a “geographical, commercial, political and military basis”. (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.534) Naturally the first unity aimed was a geographical, commercial, political and military union which superseded the earlier vital principle of clan and race.(Ibid) The Nation-idea was built on a shared heritage pivoting around ethnicity, race, religion and culture with many fusions over time resulting in a psychological idea of unity. The State was an independent and sovereign government controlling a spatially defined area with its own bureaucracy. There were attempts to form Nation-States revolving around the idea of a homogenous nation governed by its own sovereign State which implies that each State contains one nation. It is an utopian idea and there are doubts whether it can be achieved.

Sri Aurobindo observed that “the nation idea and the State idea do not everywhere coincide, and in most cases the former has been overridden by the latter”.(Ibid) In fact, “In the conflict between the two, force, as in all vital and physical struggle, must always be the final arbiter”(Ibid). However in the background of the early years of 20th century, a new phenomenon started consolidating itself. It was recognized by the Allies as the principle of self-determination though it was disregarded at first. “ But the new principle proposed, that of the right of every natural grouping which feels its own separateness to choose its own status and partnerships, makes a clean sweep of these vital and physical grounds and substitutes a purely psychological principle of free-will and free choice as against the claims of political and economic necessity. Or rather the vital and physical grounds of grouping are only to be held valid when they receive this psychological sanction and are to found themselves upon it”.(Ibid, pg.534-535)

The Russian Experiment

Sri Aurobindo watched with curiosity at how the two rival principles –the principle of self-determination underlying the nation-idea and the principle of political and economic necessity underlying the State idea were operating in Russia. Incidentally, Russia had never been an ideal nation-State (like France, Spain, Italy, Great Britain or modern Germany) but was “a congeries of nations, Great Russia, Ruthenian Ukraine, White Russia, Lithuania, Poland, Siberia, all Slavic with a dash of Tartar and German blood, Courland which is mostly Slav but partly German, Finland which has no community of any kind with the rest of Russia, and latterly the Asiatic nations of Turkistan, all bound together by one bond only, the rule of the Tsar”. (Ibid, pg.537)

Could such a diverse array of nations be psychologically united? Sri Aurobindo observed that the old Russian regime had an idea of a future fusion into a single nation “with the Russian language as an instrument of culture, thought and government”. (Ibid)The only way to implement this idea would be governmental force. Could such a ploy succeed? Such a technique was attempted by England in Ireland and by Germany in German Poland and Lorraine. An alternative would be tactful manoeuvring by giving concessions and administrative half-autonomy as Austria tried with Hungary though the success was small.

Sri Aurobindo points out a truth that the idea of a federation cannot succeed unless nations and sub-nations are united by some common heritage; “such conditions existed in the American States and in Germany and they exist in China and in India, but they have not existed in Austria or Russia”. (Ibid) An alternative Russian nation-State could have been constructed with “the Tsar as the symbol of a supra-national idea and bond of unity” but the conditions of the world did not make that practicable. (Ibid)

Thus the only way the Russian nation-State could achieve unity was a “resort to force, military, administrative and political” (Ibid, pg.536) – a ploy that succeeded in the past. Writing in 1918, Sri Aurobindo observed that the attempt to forge a nation-State by force would not be smooth;

(a) It would proceed slowly “as far as the Slavic portions of the Empire were concerned”;(Ibid)

(b) it would “probably have failed much more irretrievably” in Finland and perhaps in Poland”. (Ibid)

In contrast, the pressure of governmental force to forge an artificial unity took a long time to be effective in Ireland. Sri Aurobindo opined that this might have been due to the fact that a Russian or German autocracy would not be as brutal as a Cromwell or Elizabeth. (During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, men, women and children were slaughtered mercilessly in Ireland and in 1582, an estimated 30,000 Irish people starved to death. Cromwell’s ruthlessness and ethnic cleansing in Ireland during his stay in Ireland from 15th August 1649 to 26th May 1650 still hangs over Anglo-Irish relations in the 21st century.) However Sri Aurobindo modified his views decades later when the world witnessed the unparalleled brutalities of Nazi Germany. Stalin also came up with his massive purging in Soviet Russia.

Sri Aurobindo also admitted that Ireland resisted the pressure of forcible union by an increasing nationalism “that had become too self-conscious and capable of an organized passive resistance or at least a passive force of survival”. (Ibid)Could such a scenario erupt in some or other sub-nation comprising the Russian Nation-State?

One wonders whether the Russian leaders ever thought of a disintegration. The Soviet Union was actually disintegrated into fifteen separate countries in December, 1991.


Date of Update: 25-May-19

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu