Readings in Chapter IX
The possibility of a World - Empire
The Imperialistic idea in the psyche of the race
Throughout history we find that attempts have been made to form a political and administrative unity through the imperial idea of an expansionist empire. This idea has even been extended to dream of a single world-empire. Whether such an artificially constructed formation can be psychologically sustainable in a world of differentiation and variability is one thing. But that this imperial idea is still present in the collective unconscious, buried in the race-memory and has the potentiality to rise up in the political psyche as a vision or ambition is a psychological fact. If the collective unconscious is the repository of all our past ideas, then it is a fact "that the old gods are not dead, the old ideal of dominant Force conquering, governing and perfecting the world is still a vital reality and has not let go its hold on the psychology of the human race".(The Ideal of Human Unity, pg. 338) The paraphernalia and denouement may differ, military strategies may be replaced by economic manipulation, trade embargoes and political arm-twisting but the force of domination prevail in one garb or the other.
Sri Aurobindo cites the example of the German dream of world-domination. It was Germany which broke the Napoleonic spirit of imperialism during the War of the Sixth Coalition, especially in 1813 that saw the beginning of the end of Napoleon. It was Germany which broke the remnants of the French leadership in Europe by 1870. And it was the same Germany which "became the incarnation of that which it had overthrown" (Ibid, pg. 339).
It is interesting to note that in 1815, the German Confederation was formed with 34 signatories (afterwards 5 were added) with delicately balanced differential voting rights in the Federal Assembly. Besides the Austrian Empire and Kingdom of Prussia, even foreign monarchs like the King of Denmark, the King of Netherlands and the King of Great Britain had one vote each in the Federal Assembly alongside smaller States and Free Cities who had proportional representation. The confederation was strengthened in 1834 by establishing the Zollverein, a customs union aimed towards economic integration, modern industrial capitalism and the triumph of a centralized set-up that would over-ride the localized guilds in small princely states. After the Austro-Prussian conflict that began in 1866, the turn of events led to the emergence of the German Empire in 1870 where the "confederation-idea" was gradually replaced by a mind-set outrageously imperialistic. The German Empire was dissolved in 1918 with its defeat in World War I. Two years before that event, Sri Aurobindo had anticipated the trend of history that would subsequently lead to the German defeat and had poignantly pointed out that if Germany had prevailed in the war as she first expected, she would have embarked on the endeavour to build a World-Empire to satiate her giant ego. "For she would have enjoyed a dominant position such as no nation has yet possessed during the known period of the world's history; and the ideas which have recently governed the German intellect, the idea of her mission, her race superiority, the immeasurable excellence of her culture, her science, her organization of life and her divine right to lead the earth and to impose on it her will and her ideals, these with the all-grasping spirit of modern commercialism would have inevitably impelled her to undertake universal domination as a divinely given task." (Ibid, pg. 338).
Sri Aurobindo pointed out an important psychological truth in the same 1916 write-up. He wrote that the defeat of Germany (which took place in 1918) would not necessarily kill the spirit of world-domination then incarnate in Germany. On the contrary, it would have led to "a new incarnation of it, perhaps in some other race or empire, and the whole battle would then have to be fought over again. So long as the old gods are alive, the breaking or depression of the body which they animate is a small matter, for they know well how to transmigrate" (Ibid, pg. 339). Sri Aurobindo's prophesy of "the new incarnation" as well as "the battle...to be fought over again" were both proved true when Adolf Hitler established the Third Reich in 1933 and pursued his mega-agenda of world-domination till World War II brought his ignominious fall in 1945.
In the same 1916 write-up, Sri Aurobindo compared the imperialistic perspective of Napoleon's France with the pre-World War I German Empire:
1.Despite having the strongest military, scientific and national organization which other nations lacked, Germany "lacked the gigantic driving impulse which alone could bring an attempt so colossal to fruition, the impulse which France possessed in a much greater degree in the Napoleonic era." (Ibid)
2. German statesmanship miscalculated its military strength by not complementing overwhelming land-power with overwhelming sea-power (to which overwhelming air-power was to be latter added) needed for global control. Even ancient Rome had a better vision as "it could only hope for something like a world-empire after it had destroyed the superior maritime force of Carthage" (Ibid).It was unwise for Germany to have "entered into the struggle with the predominant maritime Power of the world already ranked in the coalition of its enemies." (Ibid, pg. 340)
3. Germany lacked "the successful diplomatic genius which creates the indispensable conditions of success."(Ibid, pg. 339). Instead of utilizing "the old hostility of Russia and France against England, its maladroit and brutal diplomacy had already leagued these former enemies against itself; instead of isolating England, it had succeeded only in isolating itself....In its one-sided pursuit of a great military concentration of Central Europe and Turkey, it had even wantonly alienated the one maritime Power which might have been on its side." (Ibid, pg. 340).
Napoleon's imperialism was propelled by a desire for world-unity but his dream was utopian, his charisma romantic, his vision of unity was to be based on human equality. Only his millennium old modus operandi was bound to fail in an era where the future of human unity was destined to proceed rather fast, albeit within two centuries, through an increasing global co-operation, through peace and concord, through the eradication of global poverty, through the upliftment of weaker nations, through the universalization of education, through a global economic order, through the restoration of human rights. In contrast, the pre-World War I German Empire was already dreaming of a World-Empire where the world was to be forcibly united in subservience to a superior German racial and cultural hegemony. This mind-set was exaggerated further when Hitler consolidated the Third Reich in 1933. The brute agenda of German imperialism prompted Sri Aurobindo to compare Napoleon and Hitler in a moving poem written on 16th October, 1939, where he visualizes the doom of the human race if providence would allow Hitler to build a World-Empire:
Napoleon's mind was swift and bold and vast,
His heart was calm and stormy like the sea,
His will dynamic in its grip and clasp.
His eye could hold a world within its grasp
And see the great and small things sovereignly...
Far other this creature of a nether clay,
Void of all grandeur, like a gnome at play...
The prophet of a scanty fixed idea,
Plays now the leader of our human march; ...
The crude dwarf instrument of a mighty Force.
Hater of the free spirit's joy and light,
Made only of strength and skill and giant might,
A Will to trample humanity into clay
And unify earth beneath one iron sway,
Insists upon its fierce enormous plan.
Trampling man's mind and will into one mould
Docile and facile in a dreadful hold,
It cries its demon slogans to the crowd;
But if its tenebrous empire were allowed,
Its mastery would prepare the dismal hour
When the Inconscient shall regain its right,
And man who emerged as Nature's conscious power,
Shall sink into the deep original night
Sharing like all her forms that went before
The doom of the mammoth and the dinosaur...'
(Excerpted from "The Dwarf Napoleon. Hitler, October 1939 ", Sri Aurobindo, Collected Poems, pg. 110-111)
The difficulty in resurrecting a World-Empire
Even before the end of World War I, Sri Aurobindo had opined, "The idea of a world-empire imposed by sheer force is in direct opposition, as we have seen, to the new conditions which the progressive nature of things has introduced into the modern world." (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg. 337). Indeed, "new conditions" arose from gigantic scientific-technological advances and dynamic mutations in the cultural mind-set of the 20th century. The difficulties of resurrecting a world-empire were manifold:
(a) An imperial enterprise must have a sufficiently subtle diplomatic genius (coupled with good luck) to prevent the coalition of possible rivals. In ancient times, Rome could successfully use diplomatic maneuvering to prevent a coalition of its enemies. In the contemporary era, such back-office diplomacy cannot succeed "under the conditions of modern publicity and swift world-wide communication." (Ibid, pg. 340)
(b) An imperial Power moving towards world-domination would at some point in time be invariably opposed "by almost all the Powers capable of opposing it and this with the sympathy of the world at its back. Given even the happiest diplomacy, such a moment seems inevitable" (Ibid, pg. 341). The modern empire then has to have an exceptional predominance in all areas of military might. Even then it is doubtful if such military possibilities can be worked out to gain control in under-developed regions with formidable masses rejuvenated with the democratic spirit.
(c) An imperial set-up can try to "prevail over the coalition of its opponents by a superior science"(Ibid, pg. 342) but in the contemporary era, Science cannot be the monopoly of a particular nation or set-up and any new invention can be replicated elsewhere wherever there are points of receptivity. "..in the modern world Science is a common possession and even if one nation steals such a march on the others as to leave them in a position of great inferiority at the beginning, yet experience has shown that given a little time,... the lost ground can be rapidly made up or at least methods of defence developed which will largely neutralize the advantage gained."(Ibid) This is still relevant today when unexpectedly, small countries attempt to manufacture nuclear arsenal much to the embarrassment of superpowers.
(d) Another tool for dominance of a nation vying to be a super-power is "a more skilful use of its resources."(Ibid) However, a resultant exploitation can also be outmaneuvered today with the scientific spirit and temper as well as increased ecological awareness and universalization of the human rights movement. Thus the aggressive stance of the syndicate of oil-producing nations propelled the search for new fuels and increased use of solar power. The attempt to impoverish weaker nations by arm-twisting them to accept genetically modified seeds is being effectively countered only because of increased global ecological awareness. One of the many reasons that China is a super-power today is the skilful use of its enormous human resources but that the process has also meant explicit exploitation of cheap labour has now caught global attention.
All these factors make the idea of uniting mankind through a world-empire an impractical possibility. "That it may again be attempted, is possible; that it will fail, may almost be prophesied." (Ibid) Yet, Sri Aurobindo also commented that the resurgence of the empire-idea might not be "an absolute impossibility" (Ibid) as it can rise like a phoenix from the collective unconscious holding traces of the race-memory. Unable to replicate a world-empire, the imperial idea still lurks today within the urge to be a super-power, a member of the Security Council of The United Nations with the formidable instrument of veto-power.(In fact, in this chapter written an year prior to the Bolshevik revolution, Sri Aurobindo had estimated that Russia would rise to be a military super-power to which Germany would be a trifle. (Ibid, pg. 341) However, "the gradual unification of the world by the growth of great heterogeneous empires forming true psychological unities is only a vague and nascent possibility, its unification by a single forceful imperial domination has passed ...out of the range of possibilities." (Ibid, pg. 343) Sri Aurobindo opines that it would be more prudent to convert the old ideal of a single world-empire into "the opposite ideal of a free association of free nations." (Ibid, pg. 337)
Date of Update: 18-Feb-22
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu