Readings in Chapter XV
International Unity: Some Lines of Fulfilment
The basic step towards international unity would obviously be based on a progressive harmony between the two great and equally important principles of "nationalism" and "internationalism" (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 395). In an ideal State, the individual's liberty and free growth is harmonized with the natural growth and organic perfection of the nation. As each individual is unique, an acknowledgement of individual variations would contribute towards a multifariously rich nation instead of the institutionalized stereotypy of a totalitarian State. In the international scenario, "national liberty and free national growth and self-realization ought in the same way to be progressively harmonized with the solidarity and unified growth and perfection of the human race". (Ibid, pg 396) Moreover, such an orchestra of nations would provide a richly variegated unity as each nation is unique and therefore would stress on one or another dimension of development with "sometimes a stress on liberty and at others a stress on efficiency and order". (Ibid) If the growth of the national aggregate is pursued from the very beginning with a nation-surpassing global outlook, then the harmony of nationalism and internationalism could be pursued more reasonably "with much less friction and violence in the process". (Ibid)
Sri Aurobindo was aware that in that amorphous state of affairs in Europe towards the end of the World War I, ideal conditions for global unity could not be expected in the lack of "a psychological clarity, a diffused reasonableness and scientific intelligence and, above all, a moral elevation and rectitude" (Ibid) to which neither the intelligentsia, masses or political leaders had made any approach. The only option left to build up the motivation of international unity was the march of historical events, the pressure of circumstantial forces, the knell of the Time-Spirit:
"Forces take the first place in actual effectuation; moral principles, reason, justice only so far as forces can be compelled or persuaded to admit them or, as more often happens, use them as subservient aids or inspiring battle-cries, a camouflage for their own interests. Ideas sometimes leap out as armed forces and break their way through the hedge of unideal powers; sometimes they reverse the position and make interests their subordinate helpers, a fuel for their own blaze; sometimes they conquer by martyrdom: but ordinarily they have to work not only by a half-covert pressure but by accommodation to powerful forces or must even bribe and cajole them or work through and behind them. It cannot be otherwise until the average and the aggregate man become more of an intellectual, moral and spiritual being and less predominantly the vital and emotional half- reasoning human animal. The unrealized international idea will have for some time at least to work by this secondary method and through such accommodations with the realized forces of nationalism and imperialism". (Ibid, pg 397) In fact the pressure of circumstances rather than visionary foresight brought about the formation of the League of Nations by the Allied powers at the end of World War I in 1919, three years after Sri Aurobindo wrote down these lines.
The pressure of forces motivating the move towards global unity does not only suffice to act as a crystallizing factor for harmony as there are many intervening variables between national growth and international perfection that have to be simultaneously worked through. Within a single nation itself, the harmony between the individual and the State needs a working through the individual egoism and corporate egoism of the society which in turn needs a resolution of the clash between intermediate variables - "class strife, quarrels of Church and State, king and nobles, king and commons, aristocracy and demos, capitalist bourgeoisie and labour proletariate". (Ibid, pg 396) Similarly the harmony between nationalism and internationalism needs a working through troublesome intermediate variables that range from commercial interests, cultural or racial sympathies, movements of Pan-Islamism, Pan-Slavism, Pan-Germanism, Pan-Anglo-Saxonism, "with a possible Pan-Americanism and Pan-Mongolianism looming up in the future" (A forewarning in 1916 that proved true later) and the great intermediate factor of the mind-set of Imperialism (Ibid, pg 396-397). To ignore the importance of these intervening variables would be akin to building "symmetrical castles on the golden sands of an impracticable idealism". (Ibid, pg 397)
Sri Aurobindo wondered that given the World War I scenario, would internationalism be something more than a mere respect for the principle of free nationalities as it would require a massive pressure by intellectuals and thinkers to force States and governments its acceptance. After all, "States and governments yield usually to a moral pressure only so far as it does not compel them to sacrifice their vital interests. No established empire will easily liberate its dependent parts or allow, unless compelled, a nation now subject to it to sit at the board of an international council as its free equal. The old enthusiasm for liberty is an ideal which made France intervene to aid the evolution of a free Italy or France and England to create a new Greek nation".(Ibid, pg 397-398) However, equations changed as the idea of nationalism became less rigid. The established nations expected respect for their national liberties as they considered having still the right to exist. "All that was proposed beyond that limit was the restoration to already existing free States of men of their own nationality still under a foreign yoke. It was proposed to realize a greater Serbia, a greater Rumania, the restoration of "unredeemed" Italy, and the return of Alsace-Lorraine to France. Autonomy under Russian sovereignty was all that was promised to Poland till the German victory over Russia altered the interest and with it the idealism of the Allies". Through all these actions, nationalism began losing its exclusivity.
Despite all hurdles to international unity, the World War I backdrop thus witnessed that "National liberty as absolute ideal has no longer the old general acceptation and creative force".(Ibid, pg 398) This trend became explicit when a portion of the elite in certain subjugated nations were considering subordinate autonomy under imperial sovereignty, protection or influence as more pragmatic than the restoration of national freedom. Sri Aurobindo pointed out that this trend was perhaps an obscure indication of the federated alignment of the future world-order. (ibid, pg 398) However at the same time this trend also demonstrated the success of the imperial aggregate to impress "its figure on the freest imaginations as an accomplished power in human progress". (Ibid) Sri Aurobindo wondered if such a sentiment would move to " insist on the rearrangement of States in a system of large imperial combines and not on the basis of a status quo of mixed empires and free nationalities" (Ibid, pg 399). In a footnote added after World War II, he quipped "If the ambitions of Italy, Germany and Japan and the Fascist idea generally had triumphed, such an order of things might have been eventuated".(Ibid)
One real problem with any proposed international council would be that in some pretext or other the great Powers would dominate while the others would "merely exist by sufferance or by protection or by alliance". (Ibid, pg 399). Even if such an international council would have an outwardly democratic constitution, the position of a minor State standing against the dictates of great Powers would be worse than that "of a private company surrounded by great Trusts". (Ibid) A real democracy is rare; it is usually the propertied and professional classes and the bourgeoisie who governed in the name of the people. So too in any international council or control it would be a few great Powers that would govern in the name of humanity. (Ibid, pg 400) If a small nation or even a group of small nations tried to be assertive against the aggression of a single dominant Power, there could be some sympathy generated but if the assertiveness was tried against a coterie of giant Powers, a breakthrough was nearly impossible. The non-aligned movement of comparatively weak nations could never make any tangible impact against the might of the American and Soviet Blocs during the Cold War. The Cold War did not end by pressure from the non-aligned group, it was the in-built drawback of large aggregations that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union signaling the end of the Cold War.
Towards the end of World War I, a tendency towards large imperial aggregations started becoming dominant and if this trend could be somehow arrested by new evolving forces, there would be no respite to a state of confusion - "a great criss-cross of heterogeneous, complicated, overlapping and mutually inter-penetrating interests, a number of smaller Powers counting for something, but overshadowed and partly coerced by a few great Powers, the great Powers working out the inevitable complications of their allied, divided and contrary interests by whatever means the new world-system provided and using for that purpose whatever support of classes, ideas, tendencies, institutions they could find. There would be questions of Asiatic, African, American fiefs and markets; struggles of classes starting as national questions becoming international,; Socialism, Anarchism and the remainder of the competitive age of humanity struggling together for predominance; clashes of Europeanism, Asiaticism, Americanism. And from this great tangle some result would have to be worked out. It might well be by methods very different from those with which history has made us so familiar; war might be eliminated or reduced to a rare phenomenon of civil war in the international commonwealth or confederacy; new forms of coercion, such as the commercial which we now see to be growing in frequency, might ordinarily take its place; other devices might be brought into being of which we have at present no conception". (Ibid, pg. 401)
Sri Aurobindo speculated that such a state of affairs could culminate in a division of the world into a few great aggregates consisting "partly of federal, partly of confederate commonwealths or empires". (Ibid) The world would be divided into a few main blocs. "America seems to be turning dimly towards a better understanding between the increasingly cosmopolitan United States and the Latin republics of Central and South America which may in certain contingencies materialize itself into a confederate inter-American State. The idea of a confederate Teutonic empire, if Germany and Austria had not been entirely broken by the result of the war, might well have realized itself in the near future; and even though they are now broken it might still realize itself in a more distant future. Similar aggregates may emerge in the Asiatic world". (Ibid, pg 401-402) Three decades later, in a footnote, he commented on his own 1916 musings, 'The Nazi Third Reich in Germany seemed for a time to be driving towards the realization of the possibility in another form, a German empire of central Europe under a totalitarian hegemony". The march of historical forces prevented that disastrous possibility. However traces of Sri Aurobindo's description of the amorphous state of world-affairs did actually exist in the Post World War II Cold War period with the American and Soviet Blocs along with a weak non-aligned movement in between. His contention that war would be replaced or reduced by newer modes of conflict, notably, commercial coercion has become a stark reality in the global market economy of 21st century.
Sri Aurobindo was speculating about different types of alignments the impulse towards internationalism could take in the post World War I scenario. It is a trend in nature that in the clash of equally potential powers, the one predominant among equals emerges to call the shots. Thus the clan chiefs were replaced by the feudal king who in turn was replaced by a centralized monarchy. Sri Aurobindo extended this line of thinking to explain that a king-nation could emerge from the conflict of nations and empires : "so, conceivably, if the empires and nations of the world failed to arrive at a peaceful solution among themselves, if the class-troubles, the inter-commercial troubles, the conflict of various new ideas and tendencies resulted in a long confusion and turmoil and constant changing, there might emerge a king-nation with the mission of evolving a real and settled out of a semi-chaotic or half-order".(Ibid, pg 402) The USA had not yet emerged as a super-power at time of this writing in 1916, it was still the British Empire where the sun never sets. Hence England had the potential to emerge as a king-nation: "an imperial nation, such as England for example, spread all over the world, possessing the empire of the seas, knowing how to federate successfully its constituent parts and organize their entire potential strength, having the skill to make itself the representative and protector of the most progressive and liberal tendencies of the new times, allying itself with other forces and nations interested in their triumph and showing that it had the secret of a just and effective international organization, might conceivably become the arbiter of the nations and the effective centre of an international government. Such a possibility in any form is as yet extremely remote, but it could become under new circumstances a realizable possibility of the future". (Ibid, pg 402-403)
Another alternative for organizing a global world order would have been the emergence of a group of powerful nations or a combine of two to three imperial Powers "sufficiently near in interest and united in idea to sink possible differences and jealousies and strong enough to dominate or crush all resistance and enforce some sort of effective international law and government". (Ibid, pg 403) Sri Aurobindo cautioned that such an alignment would proceed through the "brutality of moral and economic coercion" but could still gather optimal support to be the starting-point for freer and better forms of global unification.
Sri Aurobindo makes an interesting speculation at the end of this chapter written when World War I was coming to its end regarding the future trends of the much eulogized class-conflict that had the potential to usurp any "inter-governmental and political evolution" towards an unified world-order. Indeed, he wondered that if such speculations proved worthwhile, there would be a dynamic change in the ideas and life of men and breaking down of barriers between countries. "Labour internationalism broke down, like every other form of internationalism - scientific, cultural, pacific, religious - under the fierce test of war and during the great crisis the struggle between Labour and Capital was suspended...The hope of a concert between Labour and Capital idyllically settling all their acute causes of conflict in amoebaean stanzas of melodious compromise for the sake of the higher national interests is likely to be as treacherous and delusive. Even the socialization of governments and the increasing nationalization of industry will not remove the root cause of conflict. For there will still remain the crucial question of the form and conditions of the new State socialism, whether it shall be regulated in the interests of Labour or of the capitalistic State and whether its direction shall be democratic by the workers themselves or oligarchic or bureaucratic by the present directing classes. This question may well lead to struggles which may easily grow into an international or at least an inter-European conflict; it might even rend each nation in two instead of uniting it". (Ibid, pg 403- 404)
In a footnote added after three decades, he commented on his own observations:
"This hypothetic forecast was fully justified - and tended to become more and more so - by the post-war developments of national and international life. The internecine butchery in Spain, the development of two opposite types of socialism in Russia, Italy and Germany, the uneasy political situation in France were examples of the fulfilment of these tendencies. But this tendency has reached its acme in the emergence of Communism and it now seems probable that the future will belong to a struggle between Communism and a surviving capitalistic Industrialism in the New World or even between Communism and a more moderate system of social democracy in the two continents of the Old World. But generally speaking, speculations noted down in this chapter at a time when the possibilities of the future were very different from what they are now and all was in a flux and welter of dubious confusion, are out of date since an even more stupendous conflict has intervened and swept the previous existing conditions out of existence. Nevertheless, some of them still survive and threaten the safe evolution of the new tentative world-order or, indeed, any future world-order". (Ibid, pg 404)
Despite his modest reappraisal of his own thoughts, the disintegration of USSR, the fate of East European Leftist regimes, the breaking down of Berlin Wall and the phenomenal glorification of Capitalism in Communist China and even Vietnam validate his visionary foresight.
Date of Update: 11-Aug-22
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu