Readings in Chapter X
The United States of Europe
Evolution of the State-Idea
The tenth chapter titled "The United States of Europe" written an year before the Russian revolution of 1917 is a landmark article that envisaged the setting up of the European Union as a logical outcome of world-events cruising towards trans-national unity en route the global vision of an united mankind.
The Ideal of Liberty
Sri Aurobindo traces the seeds of this trans-national movement to the French Revolution (1787-1799) when the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" proclaimed "Liberty-Equality-Fraternity" as the new mantra of the Time-Spirit. Such an Utopian ideal needs a time-frame to be worked out, a matrix to be manifested and a political mind-set to be implemented. The nineteenth century welcomed the ideal of "Liberty" leading to the evolution of the free democratized nation as the governing idea of the era. "The dominant idea of the French Revolution was the formula of the free and sovereign people...this idea became in fact the assertion of the free, independent, democratically self-governed nation".(The Ideal of Human Unity, pg 344) Thus, "DEMOCRACY" and "NATIONALISM" arose as guiding ideals to triumph in America and Europe and the spirit of DEMOCRATIC NATIONALISM ignited the progressive mind-set in the East, in Turkey, Persia, India and China even though they "were not fortunate in their first attempts at self-realisation".(Ibid)
The Ideal of Equality
Sri Aurobindo notes that even before the ideal of liberty could consolidate in nineteenth century Europe, the second term of the great French revolutionary formula; "Equality" began to assert itself. This was because though the ideal of liberty helped to attain a certain kind of political equality, it could not deal with economic disparity. "An incomplete social leveling still left untouched the one inequality and the one form of political preponderance which no competitive society can eliminate, the preponderance of the haves over the have-nots, the inequality between the more successful in the struggle of life and the less successful which is rendered inevitable by difference of capacity, unequal opportunity and the handicap of circumstance and environment". (Ibid, pg 345) If the ideal of liberty manifested through democracy, the ideal of equality manifested through socialism. "Socialism seeks to get rid of this persistent inequality by destroying the competitive form of society and substituting the cooperative." (Ibid)
In the zeal to form a co-operative form of society, the votaries of socialism had two options. The first was to return to the ancient idea of the commune that existed in the villages as well as in the form of the old city-state. An year before the Bolshevik Revolution, Sri Aurobindo wrote that the ancient type of commune was no more feasible with "the larger groupings and greater complexities of modern life". (Ibid) This was exactly Lenin's argument during that period when a section of Russian intellectuals, in an attempt to envisage an alternative view of social reconstruction, favoured a resurrection of the ancient institution of the mir or the village commune. Lenin argued that the mir as a institution was in the process of decay and moreover a socialistic set-up in the modern era had to take cognizance of the industrial proletariat for which the simple village commune would not suffice.
The second option left to realize the socialist idea was to design "the rigorously organized national State". Indeed, this new idea of the perfectly organized State based on the ideal of equality influenced the progressive mind of humanity even before the nineteenth century impulse of liberty could manifest fully in the political psyche of Europe. "To eliminate poverty, not by the crude idea of equal distribution but by the holding of all property in common and its management through the organized State, to equalize opportunity and capacity as far as possible through universal education and training, again by means of the organized State, is the fundamental idea of modern Socialism".(Ibid)
From Democratic Socialism to Totalitarianism
The success of socialism depends upon the abrogation or diminution of individual liberty. There is of course the concept of Democratic Socialism which "still clings indeed to the nineteenth-century ideal of political freedom; it insists on the equal right of all in the State to choose, judge and change their own governors, but all other liberty it is ready to sacrifice to its own central idea".(Ibid, pg 345-346) Sri Aurobindo hinted that the progress of the socialistic idea had to surpass the limits of Democratic Socialism to "a perfectly organized national State which would provide for and control the education and training, manage and govern all the economic activities and for that purpose as well as for the assurance of perfect efficiency, morality, well-being and social justice, order the whole or at any rate the greater part of the external and internal life of its component individuals. It would effect, in fact, by organized State control what earlier societies attempted by social pressure, rigorous rule of custom, minute code and Shastra....It is true that in order to realize it even political liberty has had to be temporarily abolished; but this, it may be argued, is only an accident of the moment, a concession to temporary necessity." (Ibid, pg 346)
Thus, Sri Aurobindo anticipated that the Socialist ideal would finally find its culmination in "a nation, self-governing, politically free, but aiming at perfect social and economic organization and ready for that purpose to hand over all individual liberty to the control of the organized national State".(Ibid, pg 346-347) In other words, this could lead to a classical totalitarian State. Indeed, totalitarianism became a hallmark of the paramount State as evidenced later in Bolshevist Russia, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. But the seeds of social democracy were already sown in Germany in the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century when it served as "the chief propagandist and the experimental workshop of the idea of the organized State. There the theory of Socialism has taken rise...there also the great socialistic measures and those which have developed the control of the individual by the State for the common good and efficiency of the nation have been most thoroughly and admirably conceived and executed. It matters little that this was done by an anti-socialistic, militarist and aristocratic government; the very fact is a proof of the irresistible strength of the new tendency, and the inevitable transference of the administrative power from its past holders to the people was all that was needed to complete its triumph".(Ibid, pg. 347)
While Lenin was busy planning to seize State power on behalf of the working class so as to build up socialism and eventually communism, Sri Aurobindo, in 1916, was looking ahead of times and speculating that if the success of socialism necessitated a temporary suspension of individual liberty, a grouping of free nation-states would yet be inevitable in Europe and be a stepping-stone towards unity of mankind even if the perfectly organized socialist State failed to hold its fort.
The United States of Europe: Preliminary thoughts
The idea of the organized State and the theory of Socialism which germinated in Germany began to influence other European countries, even England, "the home of individualism". (Ibid, pg 347) The defeat of Germany did not mean a defeat of her socialistic idea, on the contrary, emboldened it. The evident result of the World War I was that even nations opposed to Germany were forced to move rapidly to the perfectly organized socialistic State. (Ibid, pg 347-348) Sri Aurobindo opined that as a corollary, a federation of free nations would logically evolve: "...the natural development of things aided by the frustration of the German form of imperialism would lead logically to a new ordering of the world on the basis of a system of independent but increasingly organized national States associated together more or less closely for international purposes while preserving their independent existence. Such is the ideal which has attracted the human mind as a yet distant possibility since the great revolutionary ferment set in; it is the idea of a federation of free nations, the parliament of man, the federation of the world".(Ibid, pg 348)
Sri Aurobindo was simultaneously aware that this dream was not immediately feasible in the aftermath of World War I. He explained that the nationalistic, democratic and socialist ideas were not alone in the political psyche; imperialism was equally and forcefully present. There were European countries that cherished their free nationhood and eulogized democratic ideals and yet had no inhibitions in dominating other human groupings who were not free or partially free colonies. Even small European countries had big colonies: Belgium had Congo, Portugal had faraway colonies, Holland had dependencies in the Eastern Archipelago; little Balkan States had imperialistic ambitions while Mazzini's Italy had ventures in Tripoli, Abyssinia, Albania and the Greek islands. Sri Aurobindo forewarned in 1916: "This imperialistic tendency is likely to grow stronger for some time in the future rather than to weaken. The idea of remodeling even of Europe itself on the strict principle of nationality, which captivated liberal minds in England at the beginning of the war, has not yet been made practicable and, if it were effected, there would still remain the whole of Asia and Africa as a field for the imperialistic ambitions of the Western nations and Japan".(Ibid)
Despite the continuation of imperialism, it was also interesting that the United States had decreed "the liberation of the Philippines and restrained the desire to take advantage of the troubles of Mexico". (Ibid) Sri Aurobindo explains that the disinterestedness of USA to maintain colonies was because it represented a fresh energetic mind-set in contrast to "the mentality of the Old World" though he doubted how long the USA would remain free of the "imperialistic sentiment". We know today that the imperialistic sentiment can still prevail in a decolonized world in new garbs. He also opined that there could be a resurgence of "national egoism" even if restrained by higher motives and a better national morality, retarding the process of world-unity. How true! One is reminded how Yugoslavia, a socialist and secular multi-ethnic State, just ceased to exist when the national ego of each ethnic group began to be assertive turning neighbors into arch enemies.
Human Unity cannot be imposed from above by a theoretically sound idea; it has to evolve from below winding its perilous way through the vagaries of collective life. Nationalism cannot just be blotted out to pave in internationalism, its quality and direction has to be changed so as to provide conducive conditions for global unity. A federation of free nations would be one such step forward to international unity and in the post World War I scenario; Europe offered a perfect field for such an experiment. However there were three impediments to that vision:
(a) Inequality between nations;
(b) Absence of a global culture; and
(c) In the co-existence of the imperialistic instinct with the principle of nationalism, the former tended to dominate.
Yet the Time-Spirit demanded a larger vision towards global unity that surpassed imperialism. Hence Sri Aurobindo commented in the aftermath of World War I, "All that can be hoped is that the old artificial, merely political empire may be replaced by a truer and more moral type, and that the existing empires, driven by the necessity of strengthening themselves and by an enlightened self-interest, may come to see that the recognition of national autonomy is a wise and necessary concession to the still vital instinct of nationalism and can be used so as to strengthen instead of weakening their imperial strength and unity. In this way, while a federation of free nations is for the present impossible, a system of federated empires and free nations drawn together in a closer association than the world has yet seen is not altogether impossible; and through this and other steps some form of political unity for mankind may at a more or less distant date be realizable." (Ibid, pg 349-350)
In a footnote added after World War II, Sri Aurobindo had commented, "The appearance of Hitler and the colossal attempt at German world-domination have paradoxically helped by his defeat, and the reaction against him entirely altered the world circumstances: the United States of Europe is now a practical possibility and has begun to feel towards self-accomplishment".(ibid) It took nearly five decades for the European Union to evolve through the Maastricht Treaty in 1993.
The United States of Europe: Concept-Formation
In the aftermath of World War I, Sri Aurobindo conceptualized how the formation of a United States of Europe could logically evolve as a historical necessity. One way that was already being suggested "was the elimination of war by a stricter international law administered by an international Court and supported by the sanction of the nations which shall be enforced by all of them against any offender" (Ibid, pg 350).It would however be difficult to enforce the law delivered by such a Court as an unholy alliance of rival groupings could sabotage justice and unity. It is in this background of the "Concert of Europe" that Sri Aurobindo pointed out , "The Law within a nation is only secure because there is a recognized authority empowered to determine it and to make the necessary changes and possessed of a sufficient force to punish all violation of its statutes. An international or an inter-European law must have the same advantages if it is to exercise anything more than a merely moral force which can be set at naught by those who are strong enough to defy it and who find an advantage in the violation. Some form of European federation, however loose, is therefore essential if the idea behind these suggestions of a new order is to be made practically effective, and once commenced, such a federation must necessarily be tightened and draw more and more towards the form of a United States of Europe".(Ibid, pg 350-351)
True to Sri Aurobindo's anticipation, the European Union formalized through the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, promised an era of peace and abolition of war among member-States who arch-enemies were for centuries (like Germany and France, France and England) and the European Court of Justice, one of the principal organs of the European Union gained credibility. In fact, though the European Union was primarily meant to oversee the economic and political integration of member-States, the law-based integrative perspective has perhaps till date held more resilience than the economic and political perspectives as events in 2012 started exposing financial chinks in the Euro-armour.
It would be interesting to recall some of Sri Aurobindo's apprehensions about the envisaged European unity which he voiced in 1916:
1. The European unity would have to be "maintained and perfected against the many forces of dissolution, the many causes of quarrel which would for long try it to the breaking point". (Ibid, pg 351) Indeed, the economic crisis in Greece brought it close to a near breaking from Eurozone in May, 2012 and the temporary crisis management has only emboldened the idea that in the absence of a real political unity, the credit rating agencies will call the shots. As Europeans discover that the bond markets have more power over their destinies than they have themselves, the conflict between democracy and capitalism gets fresh leverage. David Marqand, an ex-official in the European Commission (Deccan Chronicle, 12th July,2012, published by arrangement with New York Times) succinctly explains that this conflict can take a toll in the democratization of Europe as recent elections are marked by a steady fall in voter turn-outs with the far-Right and far-Left gaining significantly. It would be a tragedy if the democratization of Europe was affected as the European Union was established after settling of age-old disputes between arch-enemies like Germany and France, abolition of Fascist regimes that once ruled Spain, Italy and Portugal and abolition of Soviet puppet regimes that had once an important sway over Europe.
2. Sri Aurobindo also foresaw that a strong European unity would "inevitably awaken in antagonism to it an idea of Asiatic unity and an idea of American unity, and while such continental groupings replacing the present smaller national unities might well be an advance towards the final union of all mankind, yet their realisation would mean cataclysms of a kind and scope ...in which the hopes of mankind might founder and fatally collapse rather than progress nearer to fulfilment". (Ibid) It would be significant to read the chain of events that followed this statement written in 1916. Firstly, third world countries shed off their colonial past to form significant regional supra-national groupings viz. ASEAN in Asia, UNASUL in Latin America, African Union and ECOWAS in sub-Saharan Africa. Such regional groupings are expected to facilitate best practices in economic co-operation and political unity at regional levels which can later be elevated to a global level when a consensus on best practices emerges. Secondly, supra-national groupings can effectively try to dominate other human groupings as in the case of OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) which increased oil prices in retaliation of Western preference of Israel resulting in a huge increase in income during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Thirdly, the creation of a single European currency, the euro, was the most important development in the International monetary system in recent times to become a real competitor of the dollar which had long surpassed the pound sterling. In fact, the euro has given Eurozone an increased autonomy in monetary affairs in the context of a market economy dominated by the USA. That despite problems, the dollar continues to dominate the euro needs an appreciation of non-financial factors like national security concerns. Fourthly, with the growing importance of regional supra-national groupings, the financial world cannot be maintained in a strictly bipolar fashion between the dollar and the euro; China has already expressed its agenda to enter this arena by promoting her currency. Fifthly, it has also been speculated that the world can move to a leaderless currency system one day with different currencies competing for international use and recognition, the competition dictated by counter-productive political rivalries instead of a globally unifying vision.
Despite these concerns, European unity emerging from that part of the globe which gave to mankind the principles of liberty and equality as well as the clarion call to unite all working comrades and elevate the status of the proletariat is a historically significant step and forerunner towards international unity.
The European Union
The idea of a European Union was not new; it was present in the realm of ideas from as early as 17th century based on multifarious considerations like regional peace, Christian unity and political unification. However, Sri Aurobindo envisaged a European Union not for consolidation of Pan-European power and prestige but as an intermediary and transitional step towards a broader global unification of all mankind. Naturally a European Union could not be a final dream as such a continental consolidation would be "a reactionary step of the gravest kind and might be attended with the most serious consequences to human progress" (Ibid, pg 351).
Among the many factors guiding the collective destiny of mankind, the Time-Spirit or the Zeitgeist has its unenviable significance. In 1916, in the backdrop of World War I, the major European nations had colonies in Asia, Africa and Latin America and a United States of Europe at that stage "would therefore mean a federation of free European nations dominant over half-subject Asia and possessor of parts of America and thereby standing in uneasy proximity to nations still free and necessarily troubled, alarmed and overshadowed by this giant immiscence. The inevitable result would be in America to bring together more closely the Latin Centre and South and the English-speaking North and to emphasise immensely the Monroe Doctrine with consequences which cannot easily be foreseen, while in Asia there could be only one of two final endings to the situation, either the disappearance of the remaining free Asiatic States or a vast Asiatic resurgence and the recoil of Europe from Asia. Such movements would be a prolongation of the old line of human development and set at nought the new cosmopolitan conditions created by modern culture and Science; but they are inevitable if the nation-idea in the West is to merge into the Europe-idea, that is to say, into the continental idea rather than into the wider consciousness of a common humanity." (Ibid, pg 352-353) [The Monroe doctrine was the first US foreign policy statement issued in 1823 to discourage European nations from establishing footholds in USA. In 1904, this doctrine was further emboldened with the Roosevelt Corollary that declared that the USA had the right to interfere in the internal affairs of any Latin American State if it overstepped its boundaries. True to Sri Aurobindo's speculation, the Monroe doctrine began to signify the Western Hemisphere as a US "sphere of influence", once USA became a superpower.]
Such an outcome would not be conducive for the global unification of mankind and a 'free association of free human aggregates'. In fact, even if the European Union had colonizing, imperialistic set-ups, the subject people would rebel and revolts and revolutions would occur once a threshold of oppression was crossed. A somewhat better solution could happen if a subject-nation was held for a time till it attained a capacity for self-administration. After all, even a "healthy political, social and economic foundation" needs a "natural unfolding of the spiritual and ethical progress of the race" so as to "enable mankind to turn from its preoccupation with these lower cares and begin at last that development of its higher self which is the nobler part of its potential destiny or, if not that, -- for who knows whether Nature's long experiment in the human type is foredoomed to success or failure, -- at least the loftiest possibility of our future which the human mind can envisage."(Ibid, pg 353-354)
In fact, Sri Aurobindo had suggested a United States of Europe formed at that turbulent post-World War I phase would not be able to function in isolation without acknowledging the increasing importance of America in world-politics, the importance of Japan and China and the renewed stirrings of life in Asia. He therefore suggested
(I) The notion and definition of Europe could be expanded to mean not only Europe "but all nations that had accepted the principles of European civilization as the basis of their polity and social organisation. This more philosophical formula has its obvious or at least the specious advantage that it ... recognizes all the actually free or dominant nations in the circle of proposed solidarity and holds out too the hope of admission into the circle to others whenever they can prove...that they too have come up to the European standard."(Ibid, pg 352)
(II) If a new supra-national order evolves in the aftermath of World War I, it should ideally combine free nations like Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the United States, the Latin republics together with the imperial and colonizing nations of Europe,(Ibid, pg 353). A mere union of imperialistic and colonizing nations of Europe would be vehemently reactionary.
The Time-Spirit came as a saviour and the European Union began actually to crystallize at an opportune time in history when imperialism had receded, colonization had become a past phenomenon and the Soviet puppet regimes ceased to exist after the dissolution of the USSR. Finally, when the idea of European Union started materializing, economic and cultural considerations became equally as important as military and political prowess. In the post World War II backdrop, it was a question of European survival with strength between the two super-powers, the USA and the USSR. After the disintegration of USSR and with unprecedented economic crisis not sparing even the USA in the second decade of the 21st century, the European Union has also to take into cognizance emerging powers like China and India and cannot overlook the strength of the Arab world. In this context, it is interesting to note that Sri Aurobindo, even in 1916 was worried about "the often expressed resentment of the continual existence of Turkey in Europe and the desire to put an end to this government of Europeans by Asiatics, -- yet as a matter of fact it is inextricably tangled up with America and Asia ". (Ibid, pg 352) That controversy still persists after a century and the entry into a new millennium with the European Union still not unambiguous about the acceptance of Turkey in its intrinsic fold. Critics differ on the Turkey affair speculating whether European values are synonymous with Christian values in modern Europe where Christianity has become more ornamental than reflective. Perhaps this controversy could be resolved if the European Union decided to define Europe in the way Sri Aurobindo conceived.
Nevertheless, the European Union is an important stepping stone towards a global governance of a free universal association of free human aggregates.
Postscript: European Union and Russia-Ukraine conflict of 2022
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has been unfolding a new consolidation of the European Union when it joined the USA to sanction Russia and decided to help Ukraine with armaments. This was quite a swift action as the European Union had been often criticized for being slow in taking decisions. For the first time the European Union declared that it would finance the purchase and delivery of arms to a country. Though Russia has a permanent representative in the European Union, it did not join the Union. The European Union also has an Association-Agreement with Ukraine though it has not yet granted a membership to Ukraine. It remains to be seen how much global initiative can be garnered to restrict the damage. This unique situation could also give the European Union an opportunity to introspect whether it could have its own defense system which is still a nascent idea.
Date of Update: 21-Mar-22
- By Dr. Soumitra Basu