Moving Towards South Asian Confederation
Ideal of Human Unity - Revised draft of the Readings of Chapters

Readings in Chapter XXIII

Forms of Government


Practicable form of political unity

A psychological unity of the human race is the bedrock on which the true unitary consciousness can manifest. However nothing concrete can be erected merely on the basis of psychological unity unless there is effectuated a "practicable form of political unity". (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg. 465) Such a political unity can be an expression of psychological unity but it can also be an initiator of psychological unity. As the human psyche yearns for freedom and as the early collectivity was in one sense an anarchy, "free and unsocial", "an instinctive animal spontaneity of free and fluid association"(Ibid, pg. 292); it is logical to assume that a final culminative collectivity would represent an enlightened, intuitive spontaneity , a higher order anarchy without any chaos or disharmony. It is in the extension of this thinking that upholds harmony based on the twin principles of freedom of choice and unity in diversity that Sri Aurobindo visualized that a world union of free nations and empires could be ideally achieved on the principle of liberty and free variation. True, that such a world-union would appear to be initially loose and in a flux; it would lack the compactness of a centralised and formalized set-up; it would be too variegated and complex; it would always be more vulnerable to fissures from within than from without though with time, this loose formation could grow close-knit primarily in terms of consciousness rather than through exigencies and externalities.

The truth of human psychology is that one has to bear not only joy but also anguish. Thus the human being loves and yearns for freedom but paradoxically, one is in love with one's chains. We talk of freedom but we are never used to its catholicity. We are more comfortable to follow experimented, trodden, secure, macadamized pathways in life; our reasonableness functions well when we follow mapped guidelines, we are most secure when we put reigns on our own outrageousness. This is why it is yet Utopian to think of a world-union based on free variation; it would be more rational (and easier) to build a world-union based on the principle of centralisation and uniformity. This is why the State idea is still dominant in human psyche. "The State has been the most successful and efficient means of unification and has been able to meet the various needs which the progressive aggregate life of societies has created for itself and is still creating. It is, besides, the expedient to which the human mind at present has grown accustomed, and it is too the most ready means for both its logical and practical reason to work with because it provides it with what our limited intelligence is always tempted to think its best instrument, a clear-cut and precise machinery and stringent method of organization". (Ibid, 465)

In fact the centripetal trend of the collective formation is so strong that even if the world-union of free nations was ventured, there would be every risk of the centralizing tendency to consolidate itself at the slightest signs of dissidence and mistrust. The world-union of free nations would then be an aborted attempt and give way to the all-powerful State of uniformity, regimentation and inter-relations based not on cultural variations but on formal interests. "Therefore it is by no means impossible that, even though beginning with a loose union, the nations may be rapidly moved by the pressure of the many problems which would arise from the ever closer interworking of their needs and interests, to convert it into the more stringent form of a World-State". (Ibid) The real challenge would be thus to maintain freedom without regimentation, unity without uniformity.


The resurgence of the Caliphate idea

Despite the ideal of a global human unity that espouses freedom and spontaneity and is bound neither by regimentation nor by uniformity, the world at large seems yet to be ready for a truly internationalistic outlook. Otherwise it would be difficult to explain the resurgence of the Caliphate movement in the beginning of the 21st century where rationalists expect science to rule every facet of human consciousness.

It would be interesting to recount Sri Aurobindo's observations in 1917 in the background of World War I and the looming disintegration of the Ottoman Empire: "The Moslem Caliphate, originally the head of a theocratic democracy, was converted into a political institution by the rapid growth of a Moslem empire, now broken into pieces". (Ibid, pg. 468-469). In fact, the title "Caliph" had metamorphosed from religious to political overtones when the Ottoman Empire made its peace treaty with Russia in 1774 while it retained moral authority over an area whose sovereignty was vested in Russia. In a travesty of righteousness, the British propagated the view that the Ottomans were the actual Caliphs of Islam (inheritors of the Prophet's heritage) among Muslims in colonial India and the Ottoman Sultans reciprocated this gesture by asking Indian Muslims to support the British rule. The rise of the Caliphate movement in the 21st century which threatens to disrupt universal values in general and Western culture specifically demonstrates the remarkable shortsightedness of the erstwhile British administration in colonial India.

Sri Aurobindo continued in that 1917 write-up: "The Caliphate now abolished could only have survived as a purely religious headship and even in that character its unity was threatened by the rise of new spiritual and national movements in Persia, Arabia and Egypt". (Ibid, pg. 469) Nearly seven years later, precisely on the 3rd of March, 1924, Mustafa Kemal, President of the Turkish Republic, as part of secular measures, constitutionally abolished the institution of the Caliphate. Interestingly, in 1926, the same year Sri Aurobindo had the realization of the global cognition (the Noosphere) of the Overmind, efforts to revive the Caliphate failed in the Cairo summit where most Muslim countries did not participate.

However Sri Aurobindo was pragmatic enough to warn as early as 1917 that though the old forms of Asiatic monarchy and theocracy were bound to disappear and seemed not to resurface in the aftermath of World War I, yet, there could be a chance of revival in new figures in future (Ibid). His foresight is a testimony to the fact that the Hizb ut-Tahrir and Muslim Brotherhood want a re-establishment of the Caliphate while the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) actually declared itself a Caliphate on 29th June, 2014 under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The long-term goal of the ISIS seems to construct a gigantic State in the form of an Islamic Caliphate that would include the whole of the Middle-East.

What would be the future of such revival attempts of the Caliphate? Analysts who are worried over the gravity of the menace still harbour hopes that the revival won't succeed in the long run. The ISIS rips apart the Shia - Sunni divide, is a victim of internecine conflicts within various extremist groups while the sustained modus operandi through genocide, beheadings, kidnappings, and targeting soft objects like masses in a church would find little global sympathy. However the ISIS does not seem to be perturbed by the doubts of the rational analysts. Sri Aurobindo pointed out long back that the real future of the Caliphate movement would be decided not by theocracy or aristocracy but by a "new intelligentsia", "increasing in energy and the settled will to arrive and bound to become exceedingly dynamic by reason of the inherited force of spirituality". (Ibid) He was confident that a new spirituality determined by the mentality of the new intelligentsia would certainly surpass the old ideas and symbols. One might add that this new intelligentsia with its new spiritual understanding has to arise within the folds of the willing perpetrators of the Caliphate idea as well as the unwilling victims of the unleashed terror. That can only happen through a dynamic spiritual change fostered initially by a small group but with the potentiality of wider repercussions; a mere rational approach would not suffice to counter the irrationality that has its moorings in the inconscience of the formidable past.


The collapse of the monarchy

Amidst the political turmoil of World War I, the doomsday of the monarchy was accelerated. The monarchy had served a purpose in ancient times with the rule of the conquering race as the initiating point but had become increasingly irrelevant in a new world-order under changing circumstances. Sri Aurobindo wrote in 1917: "The monarchical idea itself is beginning to pass away after a brief and fallacious attempt at persistence and revival. Almost it seems to be nearing its final agony; the seal of the night is upon it....The social aggregates have ripened into self-conscious maturity and no longer stand in the need of a hereditary kingship to do their governing work for them or even to stand for them - except perhaps in certain exceptional cases such as the British Empire - as the symbol of their unity.... Its (the monarchy's) prestige and popularity tend therefore not to increase but to decline, and at some crisis when it comes too strongly into conflict with the sentiment of the nation, it falls with small chance of lasting survival.... When it disappears, it will be truer to say of it that it has ceased to survive than to say it has ceased to live".(Ibid, pg. 466-467)

In fact the twentieth century witnesses a rapid collapse of the monarchy, sometimes through revolutions and wars, sometimes through decolonization or sometimes through conflicts within the monarchy itself. Sri Aurobindo continued in that 1917 write-up: "Even in these days it has fallen in Germany and Austria, in China, in Portugal, in Russia; it has been in peril in Greece and Italy; and it has been cast out of Spain". (Ibid, pg. 467) Sri Aurobindo's observations during the World War I acquire significance as historians now unanimously agree that the greatest spate of abolition of monarchies occurred during that period. Of especial importance is how the monarchy was toppled in Russia culminating in the institution of the Marxist-Leninist government. However constitutional monarchy was surprisingly restored in Spain in 1978 after the death of General Franco but hopefully the existence of the absolute monarchy has not been revived. After all, a constitutional monarchy restricts the power of the monarch and does not allow the monarch to define public policy or choose political leaders. Very recently, between 2007 and 2008, Bhutan transited from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. The United Kingdom and fifteen of its former colonies exist as constitutional monarchies while three states, Malaysia, Cambodia and the Holy See have elective monarchies where rulers are periodically selected by sophisticated electoral collegiums.

While Sri Aurobindo in 1917 had pointed that the monarchy was at peril in Italy, in a footnote added during 1949-50 he commented "Now in Italy too it is gone with practically no hope of return". This was in reference to the famous referendum on the 2nd of June, 1946 where 54.3% of the electorate who comprised 89% of the citizens voted for the end of the monarchy and the victory of the republic. In a desperate attempt not to lose the monarchy, the King, Victor Emanuel III had abdicated his throne in favour of his son barely a few weeks before the referendum but the victory of the republic led to the exile of the new king and his family. The die was cast.


The Rise of the Republican Tendency-1

The collapse of the monarchical idea in modern times collated with the rise of the republican tendency that began in the Western world since the late 18th century. The civil humanism of the res publica of classical times was cast in a new die in the modern republic, a non-monarchical sovereignty characterized by suffrage and constitution that derives power from the populace. While debates range if there is really a continuum between the classical, medieval and modern republics, it is an undisputed fact that the universally republican trend of the two Americas became a trend setter for European nations to follow.

In the early decades of 20th century, there was speculation about how much the republican trend originating from the West could influence Asia or whether the monarchical idea could recover some strength in Asia to find new avenues of expression, especially as in Asia kingship had non-materialistic dimensions being invested with spiritual and sacrosanct symbolism. Yet Sri Aurobindo was confident in his 1917 write-up: "But in Asia no less than in Europe, monarchy has been a historical growth, the result of circumstances and therefore subject to disappearance when those circumstances no longer exist". (Ibid, pg. 467)

Sri Aurobindo explains that with the exception of Japan which has deep-rooted monarchic sentiment, the general trend of the true Asiatic mind "has always remained, behind all surface appearances, not political but social, monarchical and aristocratic at the surface but with a fundamental democratic trend and a theocratic spirit". (Ibid, pg467-468) However, what actually prevailed in the ground reality of the Asian tradition was not political democracy as we know today but social democracies. Such social democracies were unable to counter the monarchical power. With the Western influence of the Republican trend touching Asia, the innate democratic Asian sentiment became "invigorated by the acceptance of a democratic form for the supreme government, the one valuable contribution of Western experience to the problem at which the old purely social democracies of the East were unable to arrive". (Ibid, pg. 468)

A few years before Sri Aurobindo wrote this piece in 1917, a republic had already been established in China, precisely on the 1st of January, 1912 ending over two thousand years of imperial rule. "China, always a democratic country at bottom though admitting in its democratic system an official aristocracy of intellect and symbolic imperial head, is now definitely republican"... "In breaking with the last of its long succession of dynasties China had broken with an element of her past which was rather superficial than at the very centre of her social temperament and habits".(Ibid, pg. 468) However the old seeds of dissonance and corruption, a legacy of imperialism still persisted leading to the subsequent establishment of the People's Republic of China on the 1st of October, 1949.

In India, the monarchical sentiment "coexisted with but was never able to prevail over the theocratic and social except during the comparatively brief rule of the Moghuls, was hopelessly weakened, though not effaced, by the rule of a British bureaucracy and the political Europeanising of the active mind of the race". (Ibid) In 1949, Sri Aurobindo added a footnote stating that with the liberation of India and the establishment of a republican and democratic constitution, "the ruling princes have either disappeared or become subordinate heads with their small kingdoms becoming partly or wholly democratized or destined to melt into a united India".(Ibid) It was as late as 1971 that the 26th Amendment Act of the Constitution of India was promulgated stating "The concept of rulership, with privy purses and special privileges unrelated to any current functions and social purposes, is incompatible with an egalitarian social order. Government have therefore, decided to terminate the privy purses and privileges of the Rulers of former Indian States". The break with not only the monarchy idea but with the sentiment of monarchy was complete.

In Western Asia, Turkey had already got free from the monarchical idea during the World War I scenario while in the East of Asia, the imperfectly democratized sentiment that surrounded the Mikado was visibly weakened though his prestige survived in Japan. Sri Aurobindo postulated in 1917 that even in Japan "the growth of democracy and socialism is bound to aid the weakening and limiting process and may well produce the same results as in Europe" (Ibid).Emperor Hirohito's 1946 New Year's speech renouncing his status as a divine ruler set the ball rolling for a ceremonial presence in a set-up where the emperor did not possess powers related to the government.


The Rise of the Republican Tendency-2

The rise of the republican idea reigned over the monarchical idea but the latter remained in the mind-space of the collectivity. The question at the end of World War I was whether the monarchical symbol could be retained as a "convenient symbol" for the unity of heterogeneous conglomerates which were so long comfortable with the monarchical identity. However except in England where the monarchical idea has been rather innocuous and sustained by some general feeling, hitherto traditional monarchies which became republics were able to shrug off the vestiges of the empire tag. France and Russia had already dispensed with that tag and Austria was to follow suit. The British Empire remained the most powerful monarchical state in the aftermath of World War I raising hopes that even if it were to "become the nucleus or the pattern of the future unification, there might be some chance of the monarchical element surviving in the figure - and even an empty figure is sometimes useful and centre for future potentialities to grow and fill with life" (Ibid, pg. 470). However the very strong republican sentiment of USA and the increasing speed with which the republican idea had started to spread negated the possibility of a nominal kingship to be acceptable in the general unification of mankind.

The question is that if psychoanalysis permits the resurgence of repressed materials in the individual, can it be vouchsafed that the repressed idea of monarchy will not surface again in the heterogeneity? However the repressed elements in the individual do not surface in the old way but take new forms. The monarchical idea would also need a new form to resurface in a world where the republic idea reigns. Sri Aurobindo opines that it would be "some new form of a democratic kingship" and hastens to add that "a democratic kingship, as opposed to a passive figure of monarchy, the modern world has not succeeded in evolving".(Ibid) The emperors of UK and Japan are passive monarchs but it is difficult to find a single democratic kingship throughout history. The only democratic kingship adored in the world is in the fiefdom of Jesus Christ in the devotional space of Christians. Does that strike a chord somewhere that a spiritual element can one day become a nucleus of a broader human unity?


Forms of Government-1

Sri Aurobindo's musings on the Forms of Governments came out in the Arya during the historical July Days of 1917. The year 1917 itself was a momentous year in the history of civilization for two great events; the entry of the United States into World War I and the Russian Revolution that changed the course of history. The February (March in new style) revolution at Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg) saw the end of the 300 years old monarchy in Russia and the setting up of the Provisional Government. Lenin who had left the country in 1900 returned in April to present his April Theses with the agenda that the Provisional Government needed to be usurped as the workers alone should be in power. Lenin geared up the Bolsheviks for massive protests in July, 1917 (eulogized as the July Days) exploding the Russian sky with the famous slogan; All Power to the Soviets. The protests misfired and Lenin went underground and prepared his famous treatise titled State and Revolution in Finland during August and September. He returned in October (November in new style) 1917 to bring the Bolshevik Party to power and establish the Soviet Communist Government. Henceforth the Bolsheviks came to be known as Communists. For the first time a regime would be formed without capitalists, feudal landlords and money-lenders. Lenin was determined to uphold Marx's doctrine of class hatred and systematic atheism to establish the dictatorship of the proletariate. It is against this background that Sri Aurobindo went on unperturbed unfolding his vision of world unity.

In lines which echo Lenin's sentiments during the same period, Sri Aurobindo expressed that modern democracy did not guarantee real liberty for at the ground level, the sole democratic elements were "public opinion, periodical elections and the power of the people to refuse re-election to those who have displeased it". (Ibid, pg. 471) He added 'The government is really in the hands of the bourgeoisie, the professional and business men, the landholders, -- where such a class still exists, -- strengthened by a number of new arrivals from the working-class who very soon assimilate themselves to the political temperament and ideas of the governing classes". (Ibid) Three decades later Sri Aurobindo admitted that the situation had changed as "Trade Unions and similar institutions have attained an equal power with the other classes". (Ibid, footnote) It is true that following the events in 1917, trade unions became popular all over the world and the class consciousness of the oppressed proletariate began to be elevated. However despite its pioneering success in Russia, the presence of poverty in other parts of Europe did not necessarily correlate with world-wide class hatred. Moreover despite social factors, there was no psychological barrier as to why the working class would not move towards the bourgeoisie. Bernard Shaw quipped: "The working man respects the bourgeoisie and wants to be a bourgeois: Marx never got hold of him for a moment".

The July Days in 1917 demonstrated a greater consolidation of Bolsheviks but bore no success and Lenin had to come back in October to complete the unfinished agenda that led to the establishment of the Communist regime. It is interesting how Sri Aurobindo speculated how things would unfurl as his July, 1917 write-up described two possible ways in which the Russian unrest would lead to "a new form of modified oligarchy with a democratic bias" (Ibid, pg. 472) as every new step towards State Socialism needed to match with the increasing complexity of State machinery with specialized knowledge, competence and faculties:

(a) Either "some modern form of the old Chinese principle of government, a democratic organization of life below, above the rule of a sort of intellectual bureaucracy , an official aristocracy of special knowledge and capacity recruited from the general body without distinction of classes. Equal opportunity would be indispensable but this governing elite would still form a class by itself in the constitution of the society". (Ibid)

(b) Or , "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 of the society".(Ibid)

Within three months of this write-up, the foundation of a sort of guild socialism was actually laid in Russia with a purported cosmopolitan outlook. Sri Aurobindo was particularly interested as he was speculating whether the Soviet model would give some indications for movement towards a World-State through evolution of a similarly innovative governing body. After all, Sri Aurobindo was especially concerned that the "probable consummation" of the movement towards human unity must not be a bourgeois World-State. (Ibid, pg. 471)

Lenin ruled Russia for six critical years and due to his laborious ascetism, he and his ministers drew small salaries and earned loyalty of the people. However he was pragmatic to acknowledge that the rule of the proletariate had its limitations too. He permitted private trading in 1921 when he realised that unchecked communism could be disastrous. He did not approve Trotsky's and Zinoveiff's proposal for revolutionary propaganda in foreign countries and favoured a consolidation of the system initially in Russia without any inhibition of receiving aid from capitalist countries to elevate the status of the proletariate. Accordingly he made commercial agreements with capitalist countries, with England in 1921 and with Germany in 1922. Sri Aurobindo added a footnote in 1949-50 to his1917 write-up on guild socialism: "Something of the kind was attempted in Soviet Russia for a time. The existing conditions were not favorable and a definite form of government not revolutionary and provisional is not anywhere in sight. In Fascist Italy a cooperative State was announced but this too took no effectual or perfect shape". The USSR collapsed in 1991, Italy became a republic in 1946.

It would be pertinent to recall that Sri Aurobindo was watching the developments in Russia in 1917 with great interest as he was particularly interested to extract clues that would be useful in the formation of a World-State at some later stage. Though it is to be researched to understand the contribution of that revolution that would be useful for a futuristic World-State, what did happen was a conglomeration of adjacent countries that made up the USSR in 1922, an achievement of no mean value though the USSR had to be dissolved in 1991. Perhaps half-way experiments of this kind are needed before the Utopian dream of World-Union actually materializes.


Forms of Government-2

While Sri Aurobindo was closely studying the development of socialism in Russia in 1917 and trying to understand that if a World-State could evolve under a governing body representing a guild socialism of sorts, he was simultaneously aware that such an attempt would have resistance from the great psychological issue of nationalism which would invariably create conflicting interests and tendencies. He therefore also considered the possibility that a future World-State could be alternatively built through the evolution of "a sort of world Parliament in which, it is to be presumed, the freely formed and freely expressed opinion of the majority would prevail".(Ibid, pg. 472).

Sri Aurobindo applauded Parliamentarism while considering its shortcomings in nation-units which could get magnified if a Parliament of nations was to be formed to govern a World-State. As he wrote: "Parliamentarism, the invention of the English political genius, is a necessary stage in the evolution of democracy, for without it the generalized faculty of considering and managing with the least possible friction large problems of politics, administration, economics, legislation concerning considerable aggregates of men cannot easily be developed. It has also been the one successful means yet discovered of preventing the State executive from supporting the liberties of the individuals and nations. Nations emerging into the modern form of society are therefore naturally and rightly attracted to this instrument of government". (Ibid, pg. 472-473) These characteristics are still relevant. Researchers in political studies have demonstrated that in the post-World War II era, the majority (practically two thirds) of third World countries who established parliamentary governments made successful transition to democracy. In contrast, no Third World presidential system successfully made the transition to democracy without having coups or similar constitutional devastations!(source: on Parliamentary System).

Sri Aurobindo also listed the shortcomings of Parliamentarism:

1. Parliamentary procedures are characterized very often by "immense waste of time and energy". (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg. 473).

2. Parliamentary decisions often go through "confused, swaying and uncertain action that "muddles out" in the end some tolerable result". (Ibid) This can be somehow handled in nations but lack of stringent ideas and any compromise in efficiency of administration would be disastrous in a World-Parliament as "it might be fatal to efficiency in anything so complicated as the management of the affairs of the world". (Ibid)

3. Parliamentarism also implies in practice "the rule and often the tyranny of a majority, even of a very small majority, and the modern mind attaches increasing importance to the rights of minorities. And these rights would be still more important in a World-State where any attempt to override them might easily mean serious discontents and disorders or even convulsions fatal to the whole fabric".(Ibid)

4. There is also the disconcerting yet realistic fact that "it has not yet been found possible to combine Parliamentarism and the modern trend towards a more democratic democracy; it has been always an instrument either of a modified aristocratic or of a middle-class rule". (Ibid)

A Parliament of nations has to be different from that of a single nation in terms of magnitude, comprehensiveness, efficiency and catholicity, it has to arise above national egoisms and has to accommodate weaker nations with equal dignity as stronger nations without compromising on principles of uniformity. Sri Aurobindo explains that "a Parliament of the nations must necessarily be a united parliament of free nations" (Ibid) which needed a background to evolve that was not immediately possible in the flux and chaos following the World War I and needed a level-playing field not only in Western continents but also in non-Western contexts otherwise the inequalities and anomalies would be "all-pervasive and without number". (Ibid)

Sri Aurobindo also muses that another alternative to guild socialism as well as a Parliament of nations would be a supreme council of free and mighty nations though such an endeavour was fraught with great resistance from nationalistic upsurges. Obviously such a system would have to be initially worked out by an oligarchy of few powerful nations "whose voice and volume would prevail at every point" over the more numerous but smaller groupings of nations and could only endure "by a progressive and, if possible, a peaceful evolution from this sort of oligarchy of actual power to a more just and ideal system" in which powerful nations could "merge their separate existence into that of a unified mankind".(Ibid, pg. 473-474) He also cautioned : "How far national egoism would allow that evolution to take place without vehement struggles and dangerous convulsions , is, in spite of the superficial liberalism now widely professed, a question still fraught with grave and ominous doubts". (Ibid, pg. 474)

Sri Aurobindo knew that the time when he was musing on the World-State in 1917 in the aftermath of the Great War was premature considering the fluid state of world affairs but great ideas always manifest before time to maintain the continuity of creative thinking. At that moment, there were seemingly insoluble difficulties arising both from the "surviving sentiments and interests of the past" as well as "some menace from the rapidly developing revolutionary forces of the future". (Ibid, pg. 474) He hoped that such difficulties could be solved in the future. After all it was not the form of government that was of supreme importance for the "real problem is that of the unification of powers and the uniformity which any manageable system of a World-State would render inevitable". (Ibid, pg. 474)


Date of Update: 22-May-23

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu