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

Readings in Chapter XXIX

The Idea of a League of Nations


Nature's balancing of Imperialism and free Nationality

At the end of World War I, in the beginning of 1918, Sri Aurobindo was musing that a unification of the human race that did not obliterate group-freedom could preferably take the form of "a free, elastic and progressive world-union" rather than "a closely organized World-State". (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.523) Naturally, such a trajectory could not evolve in the way a nation-State evolved. But there would be a necessity to revive the "force of idealistic nationalism" which before the war seemed to be crushed on one side by "the increasing world-empires of England, Russia, Germany and France" and on the other side by the ideal of internationalism that denounced the nation and "the evils of nationalistic patriotism". (Ibid) In a piquant situation where both Imperialism and Internationalism were detrimental to the idea of free nationality, the challenge was that the separative sentiments had to be aligned naturally and spontaneously to the ideal of world-union.

Sri Aurobindo searches cues from "the natural principle of compensating reactions". (Ibid) The physical law of action and reaction is replicated in socio-political life too. It is a philosophical necessity and experiential truth that to every active force there is an opposite or variative force that may not be immediately explicit but eventually appear with a total or partial compensatory movement. Nature always balances and if a dominant tendency is allowed to operate, its exaggeration is checked by reactivation of a past force or a awakening of a new force. "After long insistence on centralisation, she tries to modify it by at least a subordinated decentralisation. After insisting on more and more uniformity, she calls again into play the spirit of multiform variation. The result need not be an equipollence of the two tendencies, it may be any kind of compromise. Or, instead of a compromise it may be in act a fusion and in result a new creation which shall be a compound of both principles. We may expect her to apply the same method to the tendencies of unification and group-variation in dealing with the great mass-unit of humanity". (Ibid. pg.524)

The great risk at the end of the World War I was that Nature could destroy the nation-unit just as it had destroyed the tribe and clan for a new principle of grouping. Alternatively, it could infuse the nation with sufficient vitality and balance to preserve it so as to effectively counter a too heavy and repressive force of unification. (Ibid) This was a contingency that Sri Aurobindo preferred to probe.

The World War I was preceded by two opposing forces:

(a) Imperialism which was either rigid like Germany or more liberal like England; and

(b) Nationalism.

Sri Aurobindo explains that in the end, both are "two sides of one phenomenon, the aggressive or expansive and the defensive aspects of national egoism". (Ibid) It would seem that the egoism would be more durable in imperialism but ironically, the reverse can occur. He gives examples of the Persian tribe and the Roman Empire where the egoism dissolved after stretching itself too much. As he explained, "in the trend of imperialism this egoism had some eventual chance of dissolving itself by excessive self-enlargement, as the aggressive tribe disappeared, for example, the Persian tribe, first into the empire and then into the nationality of the Persian people, or as the city-state also disappeared, first into the Roman Empire and then both tribe and city state without hope of revival into the nations which arose by fusion out of the irruption of the German tribes into the declining Latin unity". (Ibid)

There was also a risk that as the ordinary city state and tribe were destroyed by more aggressive and dominant city states and tribes, the nation-unit could also be destroyed by aggressive national imperialism. The World War I experience showed that an opposing force of defensive nationalism would not be able to effectively withstand the tremendous power that science and technology conferred to the large imperial aggregates.

The case of the Protectorates

Sri Aurobindo explains that the phenomenon of labelling subjugated nations as "protectorates" by imperial aggregates was actually a ploy to destroy the nation-units and cleverly acquire them completely: "all experience shows that the beginning of a protectorate is also the beginning of the end of the protected nation; it is a euphemistic name for the first process of chewing prior to deglutition". (Ibid, pg.525). He gives examples relevant at the end of the World War I:

1. Asia: Korea had disappeared into the nascent Japanese empire while Persian nationalism had succumbed to a system that was a veiled protectorate. Tibet and Siam were too weak for their immunity to be sustained. China had escaped the World-Powers "by its size which made it an awkward morsel to swallow, let alone to digest. The partition of all Asia between four or five or at the most six great empires seemed a foregone conclusion".(Ibid)

2. Africa: "The European conquest of Northern Africa had practically been completed by the disappearance of Morocco, the confirmed English protectorate over Egypt and the Italian hold on Tripoli. Somaliland was in a preliminary process of slow deglutition; Abyssinia, saved once by Menelik (Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia who ruled between 1844 to 1913 and defeated Italy in the 1896 Battle of Adwa) but now torn by internal discord, was the object of a revived dream of Italian colonial empire. The Boer republics had gone under before the tide of imperialistic aggression. All the rest of Africa practically was the private property of three great Powers and two small ones".(Ibid)

3. Europe: There were few small independent nations in Europe, Balkan (South East Europe that included most of previous Yugoslavia) and Teutonic (pertaining to erstwhile Prussia) as well as two unimportant neutralised countries. "But the Balkans were a constant theatre of uncertainty and disturbance and the rival national egoisms could only have ended, in case of the ejection of Turkey from Europe, either by the formation of a young, hungry and ambitious Slav empire under the dominance of Serbia or Bulgaria or by their disappearance into the shadow of Austria or Persia.(Soon after Sri Aurobindo penned these lines, in 1918 itself, the Slavs established independent states of Czechoslovakia, the Second Polish Republic and the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs which merged into Yugoslavia that itself was to disintegrate in 1992) The Teutonic States were coveted by expanding Germany and, had that Power been guided by the prudently daring diplomacy of a new Bismarck, -- a not unlikely contingency, could William II have gone to the grave before letting loose the hounds of war, -- their absorption might well have been compassed." (Ibid, pg.525-526). Sri Aurobindo makes a humorous allusion to Bismarck (1815-1898) who unified Germany and is quoted for his famous aphorism, "Politics is the art of the possible"; and a sarcastic reference to the fate of the ambitious English monarch William II whose premature death in 1100 (never confirmed whether accidental or due to assassination) was followed immediately by his accompanying brother Henry to depart in haste and get himself crowned within a day leaving the corpse unattended at the New Forest to be discovered by villagers.

4. USA: In America, imperialism was "already emerging in the form of Rooseveltian Republicanism, and the interference in Mexico, hesitating as it was, yet pointed to the inevitability of a protectorate and a final absorption of the disorderly Central American republics; the union of South America would then have become a defensive necessity. It was only the stupendous cataclysm of the world war which interfered with the progressive march towards the division of the world into less than a dozen great empires".(Ibid, pg.526) Sri Aurobindo is referring to Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th President of the USA (1901-1909) and not to Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), the 32nd President. Theodore Roosevelt who held to his maxim "to speak softly and carry a big stick" graduated from an imperialist to a tactful diplomatist to earn the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 though his interest in influencing Latin America by sponsoring the Panama Canal led to the separation of Panama from Colombia in 1903.

However, as we shall study, despite the maneuverings of Imperialism, the World War I actually revived the idea of free nationality recalling the maxim of Nature's compensatory balance of opposite forces.


The Idea of free nationality in different denouements

Writing at the beginning of 1918, Sri Aurobindo examines how the World War I had revived the idea of free nationality in three different denouements that were distinct from each other:

(a) "First, in opposition to the imperialist ambitions of Germany in Europe the allied nations, although themselves empires, were obliged to appeal to a qualified ideal of free nationality and pose as its champions and protectors'.(Ibid, pg.526) Even though Germany would be defeated in the World War I, the idea of Pan-Germanicism as a pan-nationalist political idea would survive favouring ethnocentric and racial trends that would magnify years later with the foreign policy Heim ins Reich in Nazi Germany. After the World War II, Pan-Germanicism would be viewed as a taboo ideology justifying the relevance of the qualified ideal of free nationality mooted by the Allied powers during World War I.

(b) Second, "America, more politically idealistic than Europe, entered the war with a cry for a league of free nations".(Ibid) Even before the War began, President Theodore Roosevelt called for an international league and during his acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906, stated, "It would be a masterstroke if those great powers honestly bent on peace would form a League of Peace". It is another story that later, when the League would be formed, USA would not officially join the League.

(c) "Finally, the original idealism of the Russian revolution cast into this new creative chaos an entirely new element by the distinct, positive, uncompromising recognition, free from all reserves of diplomacy and self-interest, of the right of every aggregate of men naturally marked off from other aggregates to decide its own political status and destiny". (Ibid) In fact, during the tenure of the Great War itself, the Tsarist autocracy was terminated by the 1917 February revolution and the subsequent October revolution led to the creation of the Soviet Socialist Republic which would no longer be governed by imperialists, royal lineages, land sharks or business magnets but by the proletariat - an experiment hitherto un-attempted.

Sri Aurobindo explained that all these three positions had some relevance or other for the future:

(a) 'The first based itself upon the present conditions and aimed at a certain practical rearrangement".(Ibid) It would actually be a deterrent to aggressive pan-nationalism that arose from a false sense of subjectivism. (It must be remembered that the Indian nationalism that developed in the British period was an eulogizing of India's inclusive cultural and spiritual uniqueness while European nationalism was a over-zealous amplification of its status that cared for itself at the expense of others).

(b) "The second tried to hasten into immediate practicability a not entirely remote possibility of the future". (Ibid, pg.526-527) (In fact, the League of Nations was formally established two years after Sri Aurobindo had penned this line)

(c) "The third aimed at bringing into precipitation by the alchemy of revolution ...a yet remote end which in the ordinary course of events could only be realised, if at all, in a far distant future". (Ibid, pg.527) (Sri Aurobindo was writing this within three months of the October revolution).

Sri Aurobindo viewed that all three positions had some validity or the other but the Russian ideal, though "immediately ineffective" (Ibid) had nevertheless the possibility of an actual force capable of influencing the future of the race. He applauded the Russian idea: "A great idea already striving to enforce itself in the field of practice is a power which cannot be left out of count, not valued only according to its apparent chances of immediate effectuation at the present hour".(Ibid) The Russian idea would outlive that moment.


The Qualified Principle of Free Nationality

A peculiar scenario developed towards the end of World War I when the European section of the Allied Powers, namely England, France and Italy "contemplated a political rearrangement of the world" based on the principle of free nationalities and yet could not visualize any radical change of its existing order". (Ibid, pg.527).These powers themselves were thoroughly imperial in character and had their own colonies with their own vested interests. They could apply the principle of free nationality only if their own imperial interests were not affected. There were two situations where this could be done (Ibid, pg.528):

(a) In the forces representing the Central Powers (the German and Austrian interests and Turkish powers) for they had invited the clash (Sri Aurobindo writes this months ahead of the armistice that had been prepared by Britain and France and signed by Germany in November, 1918 agreeing to peace and no more fighting);

(b) In their own colonies, this principle of free nationality could not be applied in purity but in a qualified form - a concession of internal self-government or Home Rule.(In India, Annie Besant took the opportunity to attack the colonial government and call for self-rule. Also, in 1920, the Fourth Irish Home Rule Act would establish Northern Ireland as a home Rule entity within the United Kingdom but would not be successful in the case of Southern Ireland leading to the eventual partition of Ireland and Irish Independence through the Irish Free State Constitution Act of 1922).

Even before the World War I officially ended, Sri Aurobindo speculated what would happen if the Allied Powers applied the principle of free nationality in a qualified form to its colonies:

(a) Obviously, there would be no field of application in USA (Ibid, pg.528).

(b) In Africa where no nations existed "in the political sense of the word" except in Egypt and Abyssinia, the continent would be partitioned between "three colonial empires, Italy, France and England, with the continuance of the Belgian, Spanish and Portuguese enclaves and the precarious continuance for a time of the Abyssinian kingdom.(Ibid, pg.528-529) (In fact, in the post-war settlements, German colonies in Africa were divided between Britain, Belgium, Portugal and South Africa. By the 1960s, all German colonies in Africa had gained independence except Namibia which gained independence from South Africa in 1990).

(c) In Asia, it would mean "the appearance of three or four new nationalities out of the ruins of the Turkish Empire" foredoomed to remain temporarily under the influence of "one or other of the great Powers".(Ibid, pg.529) (Months after Sri Aurobindo penned these lines, the Ottoman Empire was partitioned with British, French and Italian troops occupying Constantinople and subsequently new States arose with the creation of the modern Arab world and the Republic of Turkey).

(d) In Europe it would imply "the diminution of Germany by the loss of Alsace and Poland, the disintegration of the Austrian empire, the reversion of the Adriatic coast to Serbia and Italy, the liberation of Czech and Polish nations, some rearrangement in the Balkan Peninsula and the adjacent countries".(Ibid) (Subsequent to this write-up in the beginning of 1918, the Austrian-Hungary empire was dissolved and new nations were created: Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. France gained Alsace-Lorraine from the German Empire and Poland was recreated from parts of the Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian Empires. Sri Aurobindo's astute speculations had come true.)

Sri Aurobindo also pointed out that these changes would be significant in the world map yet would not indicate any radical transformation in terms of free nationality, pure or qualified. Instead, a few new nations would be created and the already existing imperial aggregates would get extended further in terms of territory, influence and international responsibilities. (ibid)

Political Ideal

It is easier to proclaim a high political ideal like the principle of free nationality but it is difficult to implement it. "The pure application of ideals to politics is as yet a revolutionary method of action which can only be hoped for in exceptional crises; the day when it becomes a rule of life, human nature and life itself will have become a new phenomenon, something almost superterrestrial and divine. That day is not yet".(Ibid, pg.527). After a century, that day has not yet arrived.

Ironically, at that nascent hour of 1918, it was the Russian idea that maintained its idealism careless of all but the "naked purity" of its principle.(ibid, pg.528) That it could not be sustained would be another story.


From Free Nationality to a Free World-Union

Sri Aurobindo was musing on how the toying with the idea of free nationality by European nations towards the end of World War I could lead to the development of a free world-union. At that fluid point in early 1918, he noted four important points:

(a) The "disappearance of Russia as an aggressive empire and its transformation from an imperialist aggregate into a congeries or a federation of free republics" was the "result of the Russian Revolution born out of the war and its battle-cry of free nationality but contingent on the success and maintenance of the revolutionary principle". (Ibid, pg.529) It could be a pointer to world-union but, as Sri Aurobindo noted after three decades of writing this (1949-50) that the Bolshevik rule did not guarantee freedom in practice but as the principle was there, the possibility of a "freer future" was also there. (Ibid) Sri Aurobindo's emphasis on the term freer future is interesting as actually in the turn of events it came to signify a freedom from totalitarianism leading to disintegration of the USSR in 1989.(Ironically, when Gorbachev was to sign the official termination of USSR, his pen had no ink and he had to borrow a pen from the television crew!)

(b) The second important event at the end of the World War I seemed to be "the destruction of the German type of imperialism and the salvation of a number of independent nationalities which lay under its menace". (Ibid) Sri Aurobindo writes this in January 1918, more than an year before the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919. Sri Aurobindo's contention that this augured well for the movement to free world-union was justified when the Treaty of Versailles allowed the erstwhile German colonies to be transformed into League of Nation mandates though they would be divided among Belgium, UK, France and Japan. However Sri Aurobindo, in a footnote decades later commented on the unfortunate turn of events in Germany due "to the formidable survival of a military Germany under the Fuhrer". (Ibid)

(c) The third interesting development was "the multiplication of distinct nationalities with a claim to the recognition of their separate existence and legitimate voice in the affairs of the world, which makes for the strengthening of the idea of a free world-union as the ultimate solution of international problems". (Ibid)

(d) The fourth event had a definitive value and needed to be studied in details. It was the "recognition by the British nation of the qualified principle of free nationality in the inevitable reorganisation of the Empire". (Ibid)

Developments in the British Empire

Sri Aurobindo described how the qualified principle of free nationality that arose in the context of World War I led to two developments :

(a) the "recognition of the principle of Home Rule in Ireland and India" and

(b) the "recognition of the claim of each constituent nation to a voice, which in the event of Home Rule must mean a free and equal voice, in the councils of the Empire". (Ibid, pg.530)

The Indian Home Rule movement during 1916-1918 aroused nationalistic sentiments with leaders like Joseph Baptista, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, G. S.Kharparde, Subramania Iyer, Satyendra Nath Bose, Jinnah and Annie Besant deciding to organize a national alliance of leagues to demand Home Rule or self-government within the Empire. After Annie Besant's arrest in 1917, the Empire issued the Montague declaration on 20th August, 1917 that reiterated the British acknowledgement of progressive realisation of responsible government in India.

Meanwhile the British Empire was already conceding Dominion Status to semi-independent polities under the Crown beginning with Canada (1867) followed by Australia, New Zealand and Newfoundland in 1907, Union of South Africa in 1910 and the Irish Free State in 1922. The Statute of Westminster 1931 consolidated the legislative independence of the self-governing Dominions of the British Empire.

Writing in January,1918, Sri Aurobindo had foreseen such development and appreciated its importance as "it could mean in the end the application within certain limits of precisely that principle which would underlie the constitution, on the larger scale, of a free world union". (Ibid)

The movement towards unity inevitably faces obstacles as the human psyche, both individual and collective has a passionate perversion for divisibility. Sri Aurobindo comments on a footnote three decades later:

"Unfortunately, this recognition [of Home Rule later called Dominion Status] could not be put into force except after a violent struggle in Ireland and was marred by the partition of the country. After a vehement passive resistance in India it came to be recognized there but in a truncated form shifting the full concession to a far future. In Egypt also it was only after a struggle that freedom was given but subject to a controlling British alliance. Still the nationalistic principle worked in the creation of a free Iraq, the creation of Arab Kingdom and the Syrian republic, the withdrawal of imperialistic influence from Persia and, above all, in the institution of Dominion Status substituting an internally free and equal position in a commonwealth of peoples for a dominating Empire. Yet these results, however imperfect, prepared the greater fulfilments which we now see accomplished as part of a new world of free peoples". (Ibid)

It is also interesting that by the turn of the 21st century, many of these republics who could have extended their freedom to newer heights of development fell prey to the obscurantist forces of religious fundamentalism. This is an indication of the Time-Spirit or Zeitgeist pressing humanity to shake off the hold of the past. The political ideal of freedom cannot be successful in an isolated way unless it acknowledges the growth of consciousness as the sine qua non of progress.


Towards a League of Nations

Would a free world-union in the form of a global commonwealth be feasible? Would it be acceptable to the older mentality of conventional empires that employed dominant centralization to counter strong nationalistic upsurges? Sri Aurobindo muses that perhaps the English Parliamentary model with modifications could be adopted. He however raises another pertinent question. In a free world-union, what would be the relation between empires and non-imperial nations or republics? How could they be protected from imperialistic advances by overshadowing empires? In that nebulous hour of 1918 at the end of World War 1, the American idea of the League of free nations seemed to offer a justification in principle though realistically, it was "difficult to know what exactly this idea would mean in practice".(Ibid, pg.530-531) This was because the utterances of the original spokesman, President Wilson, "were marked by a magnificent nebulous idealism full of inspiring ideas and phrases, but not attended by a clear and specific application". (Ibid, pg.531)

Sri Aurobindo analyses President Wilson's advocacy of the League of Nations in the light of the history and temperament of the American people. The United States was "pacific and non-imperialistic in sentiment and principle" but its "undertone of nationalistic susceptibility" could take an imperialistic turn. This unique characteristic led to two or three wars "ending in conquests whose results it had then to reconcile with its non-imperialistic pacifism" (Ibid):

(a) Thus, the USA annexed Mexican Texas by war and made it a "constituent State of the union, swamping it at the same time with American colonists".(The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had earlier led to Mexico's loss of the State of Texas and inspired great patriotism in USA. Ironically, several American intellectuals including Emerson later viewed that the war with Mexico had its bad karma in bringing punishment on the United States in the form of the American Civil War fought between 1861 to 1865)

(b) The USA "conquered Cuba from Spain and the Philippines first from Spain and then from the insurgent Filipinos and, not being able to swamp them with colonists, gave Cuba independence under the American influence and promised the Filipinos a complete independence". (Ibid)

Opportunism and Idealism

It is interesting to note how American idealism was interspersed with intrinsic opportunism. As it could swamp Texas with colonists, it had no problems in annexing it while it could afford to be liberal in granting independence to Philippines only because it could not swamp its territory with American immigrants. Sri Aurobindo commented: "American idealism was always governed by a shrewd sense of American interests, and highest among these interests is reckoned the preservation of the American political idea and its constitution, to which all imperialism, foreign or American, has to be regarded as a moral peril". (Ibid)

Thus American pacifism coupled with the qualified aim of its World War 1 allies (Britain, France, Russia and Italy) could support a League of Nations that would be simultaneously opportunistic and idealistic :

(a) "The opportunist element was bound to take in its first form the legalisation of the map and political formation of the world as it emerged from the convulsion of the war". (Ibid, pg.531-532)

(b) The "idealistic side, if supported by the use of the influence of America in the League, could favour the increasing application of the democratic principle in its working and its result might be the final emergence of a United States of the world with a democratic Congress of the nations as its governing agency ". (Ibid, pg.532)

Law and Harmony

Sri Aurobindo opined that a legalisation emanating from a real League of Nations could minimise chances of war but would also have a negative effect in stereotyping "a state of things which must be in part artificial, irregular, anomalous and only temporarily useful".(Ibid)

Law cannot be the sole base for world-unity. "Law is necessary for order and stability, but it becomes a conservative and hampering force unless it provides itself with an effective machinery for changing the laws as soon as circumstances and new needs make that desirable. This can only happen if a true Parliament, Congress or free Council of the nations becomes an accomplished thing." (Ibid)

Could the democratic American ideal in the proposed League of Nations or British Parliamentarianism foster a universal harmony? That would be doubtful as a world-order would have to satisfy influences interested in preserving the status quo as well as influences still interested in imperialistic ambitions. Sri Aurobindo, writing in early 1918, opined that the Russian ideal which made a headway in the October Revolution of 1917 was also an anti-imperialistic movement which could be applied and made a force "to reshape the human earth-mass for a yet unforeseen purpose".(Ibid)

It is interesting that the same month (January, 1918) when this write-up by Sri Aurobindo was published in the Arya, American President Woodrow Wilson's peace proposals appeared (outlined in his January 8th speech) as the famous Fourteen Points of which the 14th point read: A general association of nations must be formed under specific covenants for the purpose of affording mutual guarantees of political independence and territorial integrity to great and small states alike.

The League of Nations was finally formed on 10th January 1920 but had to be dissolved on 20th April, 1946. Its credibility was not maintained as the USA never joined it officially and the Soviet Union joined late for a brief period. Sri Aurobindo commented three decades after his initial write-up: "The League was eventually formed with America outside it and as an instrument of European diplomacy, which was a bad omen for its future". (Ibid, footnote)

[It is also interesting to note that President Woodrow Wilson's eldest daughter, Margaret sought refuge in Sri Aurobindo's Ashram and was named as Nistha (meaning dedication). She arrived in the Ashram in 1938 and remained till her demise in 1944.]


Date of Update: 20-Nov-23

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu