Readings in Chapter XXIV
The Need of Military Unification
It might appear strange that a great apostle of spirituality like Sri Aurobindo, hailing from the same land as that of the apostle of peace, Mahatma Gandhi could write about the necessity of military unification and that too in 1917 at the aftermath of World War I. But India also represents the presence of the Lord, Sri Krishna in the battlefield and Sri Aurobindo draws from the light of the Gita the principle that an evil cannot be destroyed unless much that lives by the evil is destroyed (Evening Talks, pg 300).In this chapter of The Ideal of Human Unity, the "evil" is however represented by the forces opposing global unity. Sri Aurobindo here is interested in the role of military in implementing global unity.
The classical utility of military serves two ends:
(a) external for the defence of the nation against disruption or subjection from without, and
(b) Internal for its defence against civil disruption and disorder. (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg. 475)
Any nation and especially a great nation have to deal with centrifugal separatist tendencies that try to eulogize local, racial and clan instincts on the plea of self-determination. But a broader unity has to surpass such fissiparous trends in the greater interest. True such divisive forces have to be tackled by the central authority at the onset by "moral force and psychological suggestion". (Ibid) A point may yet come when "these motives may at any moment fail when revolting interests or sentiments are strong and passions run high, the governing body must have always the greatest military force at its command so as to overawe the constituent elements and prevent the outbreak of a disruptive civil war. Or if the civil war or rebellion comes about, as can always happen...then it must have so great a predominance of force behind it as to be morally sure of victory in the conflict. This can only be secured to the best possible perfection, -- it cannot be done absolutely except by an effective disarmament, -- if the whole military authority is centred in the central body and the whole actual or potential military force of the society subjected to its undivided control".(Ibid, pg. 475-476)
So long we have been dealing with the importance of military in maintaining the unity, integrity and security of a single nation or State. If we project the need of military unification from the life of a single nation to a global or World-State or to a global federation of nations, then its scope and denouement changes. A globalized world-order necessities a voluntary fusion of cultures, a marginalization of local sectarian sentiments, a transcending of national egoisms. " The peoples of the world already possess a loose and chaotic unity of life in which none can any longer lead an isolated , independent and self-dependent existence. Each feels in his culture, political tendencies and economic existence the influence and repercussion of events and movements in other parts of the world. Each already feels subtly or directly its separate life overshadowed by the life of the whole. Science, international commerce and the political and cultural penetration of Asia and Africa by the dominant West have been the agents of this great change".(Ibid, pg. 476) Sri Aurobindo noted that the time had come for the chaotic subconscious unity of the peoples of the world to be transcended by a more "visible and consecrated unity" for such a loose unity would be unable to prevent great wars. In fact, he practically prophesized the Second World War when he wrote in August 1917: "Even in this loose unacknowledged and underlying unity the occurrence or possibility of great wars has become a powerful element of disturbance to the whole fabric, a disturbance that may one day become mortal to the race".(Ibid)
Sri Aurobindo also makes an interesting observation that there were some loose and feeble and practically blundering devices that were construed prior to the European imbroglio which if even had been "tolerably effective" would have minimized the collision of World War I but the disadvantage was that "the world might long have remained content with its present very unideal conditions and the pressing need of a closer international organization would not have enforced itself on the general mind of the race".(Ibid) He then gave a hint of an international organization needed to prevent the repetition of a global strife: "A means of keeping international peace and of creating an authority which shall have the power to dispose of dangerous international questions and prevent what from the new point view of human unity we may call civil war between the peoples of mankind, had somehow or other to be found or created". (Ibid) The League of Nations was subsequently created on 10th January, 1920 and though it was short-lived (ceased operations in 1946), it did actually prevent a number of severe conflicts of which the notables were
(a) The conflict between Finland and Sweden over the ownership of the Aaland Islands by adjudicating that the island would remain with Finland but no weapons should ever be stored there(1921);
(b) The conflict between the citizens of Upper Silesia over the issue of being part of either Germany or Poland was settled by splitting Upper Silesia between Germany and Poland (1921);
(c) The conflict over the ownership of the Mermel port was settled by giving the area surrounding Mermel to Lithuania in lieu of making the port itself an international zone(1923);
(d) The border dispute between Greece and Bulgaria was mitigated by ordering both armies to stop fighting each other and asking the Greeks to pull out of Bulgaria and imposing fine on them(1925);
(e) The League failed to stop a bloody war in Turkey but for the first time unprecedented relief was administered to 1,400,000 refugees majority of whom were women and children (1923).
German Militarism of World War I and World-Unity.
While pursuing the formation of the World-State, it would be necessary to destroy certain forms of nationalistic militarism. It was the issue of German militarism of World War I that led to such speculation towards the end of that Great War. Sri Aurobindo, writing in 1917 considered that such solutions would be oversimplified for the real issue at stake was that of national egoism masquerading "under the sacred name of patriotism".(Ibid,pg.477) A destruction of Germany's militarism would not automatically imply the annihilation of this deeply entrenched psychological trend. After all, the external reasons of Germany's complicity in the War like her political and commercial ambitions, her geographical confinement, and her unfriendly encirclement were only triggers that in a particularly piquant international scenario successfully brought out the psychology of national life to the forefront with a vengeance that surprised everyone.
Sri Aurobindo succinctly describes that every national ego like every organic life desired a double self-fulfilment:
(a) Extensive or expansive (Ibid) and
Expansive Nationalistic Egoism
For any nation, the "deepening and enriching of its culture, political strength and economic well-being within its borders is not felt to sufficient if there is not, without, an extension or expansion of its culture, an increase of its political extent, dominion, power or influence and a masterful widening of its commercial exploitation of the world...But it can be satisfied only to a very limited degree by peaceful and unaggressive means. And where it feels itself hemmed in by obstacles that it thinks it can overcome, opposed by barriers, encircled, dissatisfied with a share of possession and domination it considers disproportionate to its needs and its strength, or where new possibilities of expansion open out to it in which only its strength can obtain for its desirable portion, is at once moved to the use of some kind of force and can only be restrained by the amount of resistance it is likely to meet. If it has a weak opposition of unorganised or ill-organised peoples to overcome, it will not hesitate; if it has the opposition of powerful rivals to fear, it will pause, seek for alliances or watch for its moment".(Ibid) Great Britain displayed such expansive national ego which was quintessentially expressed in that famous boast that the sun never set in the British Empire!
Intensive National Egoism
Unlike Britain, Germany's egoism was not that expansive as it was deeply intensive. "Germany had not the monopoly of this expansive instinct and egoism; but its egoism was the best organized and least satisfied, the youngest, crudest, hungriest, most self-confident and presumptuous, most satisfied with the self-righteous brutality of its desires". (Ibid, pg. 477-478) No wonder the increasing control of the military over the policy making of the civilian government resulted in the German Army to be described at that period as a "State within the State". There was no civilian opposition when Germany increased her defence expenditure during 1910 to 1914 by 73% while France increased by 10%, Britain by 13%, Russia by 39% during the same period. Militarism has been now recognized as one of the main causes of the Great War.
The survival of Militarism
No doubt, Germany's aggressive nationalistic ego proved disastrous for the War which led analysts to wonder if the destruction of German militarism would be a prerequisite for World -Unity. Sri Aurobindo in his 1917 write-up dismissed such wishful thinking: "The breaking of German militarism might ease for a moment the intensity of the many-headed commercial wrestle but it cannot, by the removal of a dangerous and restless competitor, end it. So long as any kind of militarism survives, so long as fields of political or commercial aggrandizement are there and so long as national egoisms live and are held sacred and there is no final check on their inherent instinct of expansion, war will always be a possibility and almost a necessity of the life of the human peoples". (Ibid, 478) The subsequent turn of events proved his apprehensions to be true.
The idea of a League of Nations
Of the various ideas that floated to ensure future peace in the world in the aftermath of World War I, one was the idea of "a league of free and democratic nations which would keep the peace by pressure or by the use of force if need be".(The Ideal of Human Unity, pg. 478) Sri Aurobindo commented that it was a less crude idea than the oversimplified notion of ensuring world peace by the destruction of German Militarism. He also commented that it was not a new idea. "It is an old idea, the idea Metternich put into practice after the overthrow of Napoleon; only in place of a Holy alliance of monarchs to maintain peace and monarchical order and keep down democracy, it was proposed to have a league of free - and imperial - peoples to enforce democracy and to maintain peace".(Ibid) Indeed Clemens von Metternich established a system of periodic Congresses where mighty monarchs of great prowess and worth could hold parleys to stifle democratic voices and strangulate revolutionary attempts.
Sri Aurobindo wrote in 1917 that such a proposed league would eventually collapse in three different ways;
(a) Firstly, it could "break up as soon as the interests and ambitions of the constituent Powers became sufficiently disunited" (Ibid);
(b) Secondly, if "a new situation arose such as was created by the violent resurgence of oppressed democracy in 1848". (Ibid) Metternich who was a major arbiter of European political affairs for a period twice as long as Napoleon's dominance was initially successful with his league idea but was compelled to resign in March, 1848 due to the revolution in Vienna. After all, Metternich was against revolution, liberalism and nationalism and his idea of stability depended on the quenching of the restlessness of the proletariate. The revolutions that started on 23rd February, 1848 in France and affected more than 50 countries were essentially democratic in nature aimed to remove old feudal structures;
(c) Thirdly, an impasse could "be created by the inevitable future duel between the young Titan, Socialism, and the old Olympian gods of a bourgeois-democratic world. That conflict was already outlining its formidable shadow in revolutionary Russia, has now taken a body and cannot be very long delayed throughout Europe".(Ibid) It is interesting that Sri Aurobindo penned these lines in August, 1917, the same time when Lenin after the failed July uprising that followed the usurpation of the Tsar in February/March 1917 fled to Finland and wrote his famous Treatise State and Revolution before returning in October to complete the Revolution and install a communist government. In his treatise, Lenin called for a new form of government based on worker's councils elected and revocable any moment by the workers themselves.
Sri Aurobindo was not optimistic in 1917 that a league of nations would have any durability. "One cause or the other or both together would bring a certain dissolution. No voluntary league can be permanent in its nature. The ideas which supported it, change; the interests which made it possible and effective become fatally modified or obsolete". (Ibid) Incidentally, the League of Nations founded on January 10th, 1920 had to cease operating on April 18th, 1946.
Democracy and War
It is believed that democratic states are hesitant to make war with each other. It is a fact that unlike totalitarian governments, there have been no instances of democracies killing their own citizens en masse. Both domestic violence and foreign violence are inversely related with democratic institutions. Democracies being pluralistic accommodate dissenting voices and a build-up of escalation can get constrained or diluted. Though the first statistical research to validate this concept was published by Dean Babst, a criminologist in 1964, it was as early as the 1700s when Immanuel Kant, the legendary philosopher and Thomas Paine, political theorist commented on how constitutional republics would ensure perpetual peace. In the middle of the 19th century, French historian Alexis de Tocqueville argued that democratic nations were less likely to conduct war with each other. However democracies as we know today are recent phenomena and even in 1900, there was no independent state with universal suffrage. Hence it would be naive to jump at the conclusion that democracies would always be pure harbingers of peace.
Sri Aurobindo in 1917 echoed the same concerns. He wrote: "The supposition is that democracies will be less ready to go to war than monarchies; but this is true only within a certain measure". (Ibid, pg. 478-479) He also describes that democracies are actually "bourgeois States in the form either of a constitutional monarchy or a middle-class republic".(Ibid, pg. 379) Truly, it is the upper middle class with cultural and financial capital who represent the bourgeois and not the proletariat who rule democracies. It is thus not surprising that "everywhere the middle class has taken over with certain modifications the diplomatic habits, foreign policies and international ideas of the monarchical or aristocratic governments which preceded them". (Ibid) The erstwhile USSR was no exception and had in fact taken from the Czars habits and ideas with little modification , harbouring expansionist trends and eyeing the possession of Constantinople; while "in Germany it was the aristocratic and the capitalist class combined that constituted the Pan-German party with its exaggerated and almost insane ambitions" (Within a year of this write-up by Sri Aurobindo, Adolf Hitler met Heinrich Class in 1918 and the stage would soon be set up for sharing pan-German visions with the Pan-German league though there would be rivalry between the two groups).
It is believed that democracies are hesitant to go at full-scale war with each other due to their pluralistic nature and capacity to harbour conflicting voices and divergent view-points. However the bourgeois controlling the democracies are more motivated by commercial expansion rather than territorial expansion and wars are also averted if perceived to clash with commercial interests. Thus it is not only peace for the sake of peace but peace in the interest of not spoiling commercial interests that might motivate bourgeois democracies not to fight each other. Sri Aurobindo writes: "The monarchical or aristocratic State is political in mentality and seeks first of all territorial aggrandisement and political predominance or hegemony among nations, commercial aims are only a secondary preoccupation attendant on the other. In the bourgeois State there is a reverse order; for it has its eyes chiefly on the possession of markets, the command of new fields of wealth...and on political aggrandisement only as a means for this more cherished object". (Ibid)
It would be natural therefore for the bourgeois statesman to weigh multiple options to avoid a war that could spoil commercial interests or would drain away hard-earned capital. The monarchical statesman would immediately resort to war if diplomacy failed, the bourgeois statesman would bargain with a longer rope to diplomacy. The latter would only resort to war if every diplomatic effort failed and there was a strong speculation of a sure chance of success or solid profit.
Sri Aurobindo however makes a terse yet strikingly meaningful observation: "..the bourgeois-democratic State has developed a stupendous military organisation of which the most powerful monarchs and aristocracies could not dream. And if this tends to delay the outbreak of large wars, it tends too to make their final advent sure and their proportions enormous and nowadays incalculable and immeasurable". (Ibid, pg. 480) This statement made in 1917 in the aftermath of World War I not only gave an inkling of World War I I but remains portent in the 21st century.
Democracy and War
A lot of expectation was put on democratic institutions after the World War I so that nations could carve their own destinies and would be governed through the cherished and eulogized ideal of liberty. "There was a strong suggestion at that time that a more truly democratic and therefore a more peaceful spirit and more thoroughly democratic institutions would reign after the restoration of peace by the triumph of liberal nations". (Ibid, pg. 480). However the entire world was not ready at that time for being governed by free consent, the colonial nations were still in chains in many parts of the world and liberty was yet a chimera. Still it was expected that at least the European nations who had championed the cause of liberty (though some of them were very particular to deny the same liberty to the nations they had colonized) would themselves attempt to work out the principle of liberty to ensure peace and healthy competition among nations. It was widely expected among the intelligentsia that the consolidating the principle of liberty would be the first step to prevent another Great War. Sri Aurobindo writes in 1917, "Certainly, democracy of a certain kind, democracy reposing for its natural constitution on individual liberty would be likely to be indisposed to war except in moments of great and universal excitement. War demands a violent concentration of all the forces, a spirit of submission, a suspension of free-will, free action and of the right of criticism which is alien to the true democratic instinct". (ibid) Yet Sri Aurobindo was not optimistic that the enshrinement of democracy in Europe would prevent wars and he categorically stated "The democratization of the European peoples affords no such guarantee". (Ibid)
On one hand, war is a deterrent for any type of liberty and free consent. "War demands a violent concentration of all the forces, a spirit of submission, a suspension of free-will, free action and of the right of criticism which is alien to the true democratic instinct". (Ibid) On the other hand, a mechanism had to be found whereby under the facade of liberty, a relative suppression of freedom could be effectuated for the sake of equality. Sri Aurobindo contemplated in the aftermath of World War I, "But the democracies of the future are likely to be strongly concentrated governments in which the principle of liberty is subordinated to the efficient life of the community by some form of State socialism. A democratic State of that kind might well have a greater power for war, might be able to put forward a more violently concentrated military organization in event of hostilities that even the bourgeois democracies and it is not at all certain that it would be less tempted to use its means and power".(Ibid) In other words, if a democracy with socialistic overtures gathers sufficient power to suppress liberty for the sake of war, it can be more aggressive than a bourgeois democracy which weighs commercial options before embarking on a war.
What would be the possibility of the waging of war in socialism where equality takes precedence over liberty? It can be theoretically assumed that as the capitalists who initiate wars would be absent, a socialistic State would be a deterrent to war. However the psychological concentration of vital power in socialism used to suppress liberty for the sake of equality can become a Frankenstein. Such a vital power can become gigantic and demand complete obeisance from other nations, not excluding other weaker socialist nations. Sri Aurobindo writes in 1917, "Socialism has been international and pacific in its tendencies because the necessity of preparation for war is favourable to the rule of the upper classes and because war itself is used in the interests of the governments and the capitalists; the ideas and classes it represents are at present depressed and do not grow by the uses or share visibly in the profits of war. What will happen when they have hold of the government and its temptations and opportunities has to be seen but can easily be forecast. The possession of power is the great test of all idealisms and as yet there have been none religious or secular which have withstood it or escaped diminution and corruption".(Ibid)
Barely a couple of months after this write-up appeared in the August issue of Arya in 1917, Lenin consolidated power and formed the first communist government in Russia. Within a few years, the authoritarianism implicit in the Soviet style socialism would raise eyebrows and by 1920, G.D.H. Cole would envision a socialist alternative in the form of guild socialism* (a political movement advocating worker's control of industry through trade-related guilds in implied contractual relationships with the public).
*Sri Aurobindo had written about 'guild socialism' earlier, in July, 1917 while speculating the course of events that would occur due to the unrest in Russia in the interval between the February and October revolutions: "Equal opportunity would be indispensable but (the) governing elite would still form a class by itself in the constitution of the society. On the other hand, if the industrialism of the modern nation changes, as some think it will, and develops into a sort of guild socialism , a guild aristocracy of Labour might well become the governing body in the society".(Ibid, pg. 472)
A League of Peace
The League of Nations was formally proposed in the aftermath of the World War I at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 though the idea of a peaceful community of nations was in vogue for a long time. Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, a political thinker of Great Britain had coined the term "League of Nations" in 1914 and in 1915 he wrote in a pamphlet titled "After the War" about his concept of the "League of Peace" which would be an umbrella organization of several nations for arbitration and conciliation. Sri Aurobindo who even amidst his intense mystical pursuit kept himself abreast of contemporary political events mused on "A League of Peace" in 1917 as a means of establishing a military unification of the world despite the uncertainty of resolving conflicting national egoisms. He of course had the practical sense that such a league would merely prevent armed strife for a temporary period and the whole foundation could tumble under certain exigencies:
(a) Firstly, any system of enforced arbitration, "even with the threat of a large armed combination against the offender may minimise the chance of war and may absolutely forbid it to the smaller or weaker nations; but a great nation which sees a chance of making itself the centre of a strong combination of peoples interested in upsetting the settled order of things for their own benefit, might always choose to take the risks of the adventure in the hope of snatching advantages which in its estimation outweighed the risks". (Ibid, pg. 481)
(b) Secondly, "in times of great upheaval and movement when large ideas, enormous interests and inflamed passions divide the peoples of the world, the whole system would likely to break to pieces and the very elements of its efficacy would cease to exist".(Ibid)
Sri Aurobindo speculated, "The creation of a real, efficient and powerful authority which would stand for the general sense and the general power of mankind in its collective life and spirit and would be something more than a bundle of vigorously separate States loosely tied together by the frail bond of a violable moral agreement is the only effective step possible on this path. Whether such an authority can really be created by agreement, whether it must not rather create itself partly by the growth of ideas, but still more by the shock of forces, is a question to which the future alone can answer". (Ibid, pg. 481-482).
Psychological assent and Moral authority
A league of nations to be successful needed to subsist on the psychological assent of the populace of the nations covered and this would in turn determine both the nature and power of the moral authority exercised on the peoples constituting the league. This moral authority over nations would be a smooth sailing affair if the socio-cultural milieu and political patronage was psychologically conducive for reconciliation of national egoisms. If such a conducive psychological build-up was not forthcoming, a League of Nations would have to maintain its viability and credibility by a twin programme of "greater concentration and show of military force at its back" on one hand and on the other hand by increased activism aimed at the socio-cultural development of the masses akin to the type of intensive socio-cultural services rendered by Imperial Rome to its consenting subjects overriding the differences of myriad nations constituting the empire.
Thus constituted, a League of Peace would not only "be a symbol and a centre of the unity of the race, but make itself constantly serviceable to the world by assuring the effective maintenance and development of large common interests which would outweigh all separate national interests and satisfy entirely the sense of need that had brought it into existence. It must help more and more to fix the growing sense of a common humanity and a common life in which the sharp divisions which separate country from country, race from race, colour from colour, continent from continent would gradually lose their force and undergo a progressive effacement. Given these conditions, it would develop a moral authority which would enable it to pursue with less and less opposition and friction the unification of mankind". (Ibid, pg. 482)
The League of Nations and the Nobel Peace Prize
Subsequent events vindicated Sri Aurobindo's musings and extensive efforts by President Woodrow Wilson of USA along with Lord Robert Cecil, lawyer and diplomat and Jan Smuts, a Commonwealth statesman contributed to the creation of the League of Nations which Sri Aurobindo had termed in consonance with Dickinson as the League of Peace. The final covenant of the League of Nations was signed by 44 states on the 28th of June, 1919.President Wilson won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919 for his efforts though the USA could not join the League due to opposition of the American Senate.( It is another unrelated but significant fact with unseen mystic implications that President Wilson's eldest daughter Margaret later became a close associate of Sri Aurobindo and an inmate of his Ashram where she was re-named in Sanskrit as Nistha - the dedicated).
Sri Aurobindo in his 1917 musings on "A league of Peace" discussed how a total disarmament of the nations would characterize a World-State. He was forthright in explaining that disarmament of nations needed to be maintained by the military power and strength of a World-Body, ideally a League of Nations or a League of Peace. It was of course doubtful if such a Utopian ideal of disarmament would be successful for three main reasons:
(a) firstly, the presence of "strong national egoisms",
(b) secondly, the inevitable "mutual distrust" between governments,
(c) Thirdly, "distrust of the assured impartiality of the international government". (Ibid, pg. 483).
However Sri Aurobindo surmised that unless human beings had changed in terms of consciousness, a global disarmament of nations in conjunction with a militarily strong international body or league could prevent human beings to enter into armed conflicts to some extent:
"Yet such a disarmament would be essential to the assured cessation of war - in the absence of some great and radical psychological and moral change. If national armies exist, the possibility, even the certainty of war will exist along with them. However small they might be made in times of peace, and international authority, even with a military force of its own behind it, would be in the position of the feudal king never quite sure of his effective control over his vassals. The international authority must hold under its command the sole trained military force in the world for the policing of the nations and also - otherwise the monopoly would be ineffective - the sole disposal of the means of manufacturing arms and implements of war. National and private munition factories and arms factories must disappear. National armies must become like the old baronial armies a memory of past and dead ages. This consummation would mark definitely the creation of a World-State in place of the present international conditions." (Ibid)
World-State and Force
To have a viable World-State, the international authority should have broad-based powers so as not only to be "the arbiter of disputes, but the source of law and the final power behind their execution".(Ibid, pg. 484) A strong and viable World-State would neither be sustained on the propagation of peace and championing of fraternity or eulogizing of ideals nor on social and economic equality or blurring of cultural boundaries but on the concentration of all force, all power in its ambit.
Force or energy or power could exist among people in a new international dispensation in two poises: it could be diffused in the populace to "fulfil the free workings of Nature" or concentrated to serve the regulating authority, to become "the guarantee of organization and the bond of order". (Ibid)
It is still a long way to the cherished ideal of global disarmament but Sri Aurobindo's views of 1917 got echoed decades after United Nations General Assembly defined General and complete disarmament in 2015 as the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction coupled with the "balanced reduction of armed forces and conventional armaments, based on the principle of undiminished security of the parties with a view to promoting or enhancing stability at a lower military level, taking into account the need of all States to protect their security". It is of course the issue of nuclear disarmament that preoccupies the contemporary mind-set today.
Date of Update: 24-Jun-23
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu