Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Chapters

Chapter XXXII Part III


Internationalism, Anarchism and Socialism

Writing in April, 1918, in the aftermath of the World War 1, Sri Aurobindo noted that the idea of internationalism attempted to identify with two contemporary movements which were gaining an internationalist appeal, Socialism and Anarchism. However, when the principles of socialistic and anarchistic internationalism were put to the fiery test of the Great War, they failed to generate any internationalist appeal. (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.551)

Anarchism (which advocated a government-free society based on voluntary co-operation and free association of individuals and groups and rejected social hierarchies) indeed had an international perspective for in the early 20th century, it was supportive of the concept of "anationalism" and the Esperanto language. It is believed that anarchism, more tied up to abstract and utopian principles could not effectively segregate the camp of capital from the camp of proletariat. The result was that the anarchists could not defend the interests of the proletariat during the World Wars and instead largely gave away to bourgeois nationalism. (Anarchism would re-emerge in a new denouement in the 1950s and 1960s, influencing the Civil Rights movement and the student movements in USA and Europe; it also influenced the radical Ecology movement in the 1970s).

Internationalism was an important component of the theory of socialism because it was based on the principle that working-class people of the world must transgress national boundaries to oppose nationalism and war in order to overthrow capitalism. Long discussions took place in the 2nd International (Copenhagen, 26-27 August, 1910) among French, German and Italian socialists on internationalism, antiwar engagement and anti-militarism but the majority of socialists but could not transcend their patriotism. French and German socialists voted for war credits on 4 August 1914 while Italy entered the war on 24 May 1915. The 2nd International's socialists' pacifism failed to prevent World War I, ostensibly because no one was sincere to keep peace. After the War, a small minority in each country remained passionately attached to the principles of international socialism (also known as Proletarian internationalism) and later the majority also attempted a sensible turn to the same direction as the general awareness of the devastating massacre grew but Sri Aurobindo astutely describes that this development "was rather the fruit of circumstance than of principle".(Ibid,pg.552)

Sri Aurobindo muses on Russia's position in the aftermath of the War:
"Russian socialism, it may be said, has, at least in its extremer form, shown a stronger root of internationalistic feeling. But what it has actually attempted to accomplish is a development of Labour rule on the basis of a purified nationalism, non-aggressive except for revolutionary purposes and self-contained, and not on the larger international idea. In any case, the actual results of the Russian attempt show only up to the present a failure of the idea to acquire the vital strength and efficiency which would justify it to life; it is possible to use them much more as a telling argument against internationalism than as a justification of its truth or at least of its applicability in the present stage of human progress." (Ibid) Exactly a year after Sri Aurobindo wrote this piece, the Third International was established in March 1919 where Lenin and Trotsky firmly embraced the concept of national self-determination for tactical reasons, validating Sri Aurobindo's foresight.

Sri Aurobindo raises a pertinent question as to why the idea of internationalism, so eulogized by socialism, suffer a total bankruptcy during the strong test of life in the Great War. His incisive reply in the aftermath of the World War I is worth quoting in full:

"Partly it may be because the triumph of socialism is not necessarily bound up with the progress of internationalism. Socialism is really an attempt to complete the growth of the national community by making the individual do what he has never yet done, live for the community more than for himself. It is an outgrowth of the national, not of the international idea. No doubt, when the society of the nation has been perfected, the society of nations can and even must be formed; but this is a later possible or eventual result of Socialism, not its primary vital necessity. In the crises of life it is the primary vital necessity which tells, while the other and remoter element betrays itself to be a mere idea not yet ready for accomplishment; it can only become powerful when it also becomes either a vital or a psychological necessity. The real truth, the real cause of the failure is that internationalism is as yet, except with some exceptional men, merely an idea; it is not yet a thing near to our vital feelings or otherwise a part of our psychology. The normal socialist or syndicalist cannot escape from the general human feeling and in the test he too turns out, even though he were a professed sans-patrie in ordinary times, in his inner heart and being a nationalist. As a vital fact, moreover, these movements have been a revolt of Labour aided by a number of intellectuals against the established state of things, and they have only allied themselves with internationalism because that too is an intellectual revolt and because its idea helps them in the battle. If Labour comes to power, will it keep or shed its internationalistic tendencies? The experience of countries in which it is or has been at the head of affairs does not give an encouraging answer, and it may at least be said that, unless at that time the psychological change in humanity has gone much farther than it has now, Labour in power is likely to shed more of the internationalist feeling than it will succeed in keeping and to act very much from the old human motives." (Ibid, pg.552-553)

A century after Sri Aurobindo penned these lines, the old labour movement that sought to seize power for workers through political mobilization had already become outdated while NSMs (New Social Movements) like NGOs initiated a trend to operate within civil society, seeking changes in values through more innovative methods.(Josseline Daphne[2001]:Back to the frontline? Trade unions in a global age [online]:LSE Research Online,

Sri Aurobindo acknowledged that the World War I had effectuated an urge for internationalism but he was also cautious to point out that ideas and resolutions that arise under the stress of exceptional circumstances need time for consolidation and have to wait for an optimal social maturity to manifest. At the best it could push for a more convenient international order and juster principles in international dealings but such developments would still be external adjustments serving mixed and egoistic purposes. This was inevitable until the idea of humanity grew organically in the psyche of man. "Until man in his heart is ready, a profound change of the world conditions cannot come; or it can only be brought about by force, physical force or else force of circumstances, and that leaves all the real work to be done. A frame may then have been made, but the soul will have still to grow into that mechanical body". (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.553)


Date of Update: 25-Mar-20

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu