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

Readings in Chapter XXX

The Principle of Free Confederation


Free Confederation

In early 1918, Sri Aurobindo, musing on the principle of free confederation was studying the Russian idea of a confederation of free self-determining nationalities in the aftermath of the Russian revolution. Following the revolution in 1917, four socialistic republics were substituted as a sort of confederation for the Russian Empire: the Russian Soviet Federated Soviet Republic, the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. (These four constituent republics established the USSR in 1922 to which other republics were added).

However Sri Aurobindo, even in that nascent hour, struck a cautionary note. He pointed out two unique features:

(a) The Russian experience, like that of the preceding French revolution, sought to immediately transform the whole basis of government and society to a new radicalization without passing through intermediate stages.

(b) The idea of a federal structure that was to replace the Empire was carried out rather arbitrarily and in haste "under the pressure of a disastrous war" and thus lacked a thorough homework. (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.533)

The end result "led inevitably to an unexampled anarchy and, incidentally, to the forceful domination of an extreme party which represented the ideas of the Revolution in their most uncompromising and violent form". (Ibid) It was indeed a faux pas to skip intermediate and preparatory stages to regional unity. In the grand melee, the free choice of national identities had to succumb to a governance by force.

Sri Aurobindo compared the Bolshevik despotism with Jacobin despotism of the French Reign of Terror. "The latter lasted long enough to secure its work, which was to effect violently and irrevocably the transition from the post-feudal system of society to the first middle-class basis of democratic development. The Labourite despotism in Russia, the rule of the Soviets, fixing its hold and lasting long enough, could affect the transition of society to a second and more advanced basis of the same or even to a still further development". (Ibid) The comparison was relevant. The Jacobins who ostensibly were supposed to protect the French Revolution's gains against possible aristocratic reactions, actually in association with Robespierre instituted the Reign of Terror in 1793-94, during which tens of thousands were put to trial and many executed for political reasons. Likewise, the USSR witnessed the phenomenon of purging in the late 1930s that led to the imprisonment and execution of millions of people considered dangerous to the State.

Sri Aurobindo had great praise for the anti-imperialistic standpoint of the Russian revolution and yet could predict the Russian scenario that would later unravel with accuracy because he noted that instead of securing a confederation on the basis of free nationality, the Bolsheviks had resorted to "the principle of government by force". (Ibid) He visioned that such a raw approach ushered a contradictory element that would not only be not beneficial for the Russian experiment but would weaken the greater cause of world-union. This is exactly what happened later.

The principle of "Free Confederation" was a psychological postulate and had an overture of collective morality. It was a Utopian idea and a futuristic dream. In contrast, the Bolshevik attempt of combining and governing other nations by force was a contemporary idea that arose from the past and was "radically inconsistent with the founding of the new world arrangement on the basis of free choice and free status". (Ibid, pg.534) Sri Aurobindo opined that the Russian attempt was bound to be "curbed and imperfect", an observation that came true when the USSR was formally dissolved in December, 1991, decades after Sri Aurobindo's musings that appeared in February, 1918.



In the background of events unfolding in Russia during and after the great Revolution, Sri Aurobindo was observing the emergence of Nation-States. Both the nation-idea and the State-idea had a basic physical and vital foundation in terms of a "geographical, commercial, political and military basis". (Ibid, pg.534) Naturally the first unity aimed was a geographical, commercial, political and military union which superseded the earlier vital principle of clan and race.(Ibid) The Nation-idea was built on a shared heritage pivoting around ethnicity, race, religion and culture with many fusions over time resulting in a psychological idea of unity. The State was an independent and sovereign government controlling a spatially defined area with its own bureaucracy. There were attempts to form Nation-States revolving around the idea of a homogeneous nation governed by its own sovereign State which implies that each State contains one nation. It is an Utopian idea and there are doubts whether it can be achieved.

Sri Aurobindo observed that "the nation idea and the State idea do not everywhere coincide, and in most cases the former has been overridden by the latter". (Ibid) In fact, "In the conflict between the two, force, as in all vital and physical struggle, must always be the final arbiter" (Ibid). However in the background of the early years of 20th century, a new phenomenon started consolidating itself. It was recognized by the Allies as the principle of self-determination though it was disregarded at first. " But the new principle proposed, that of the right of every natural grouping which feels its own separateness to choose its own status and partnerships, makes a clean sweep of these vital and physical grounds and substitutes a purely psychological principle of free-will and free choice as against the claims of political and economic necessity. Or rather the vital and physical grounds of grouping are only to be held valid when they receive this psychological sanction and are to found themselves upon it".(Ibid, pg.534-535)

The Russian Experiment

Sri Aurobindo watched with curiosity at how the two rival principles -the principle of self-determination underlying the nation-idea and the principle of political and economic necessity underlying the State idea were operating in Russia. Incidentally, Russia had never been an ideal nation-State (like France, Spain, Italy, Great Britain or modern Germany) but was "a congeries of nations, Great Russia, Ruthenian Ukraine, White Russia, Lithuania, Poland, Siberia, all Slavic with a dash of Tartar and German blood, Courland which is mostly Slav but partly German, Finland which has no community of any kind with the rest of Russia, and latterly the Asiatic nations of Turkistan, all bound together by one bond only, the rule of the Tsar". (Ibid, pg.537)

Could such a diverse array of nations be psychologically united? Sri Aurobindo observed that the old Russian regime had an idea of a future fusion into a single nation "with the Russian language as an instrument of culture, thought and government". (Ibid)The only way to implement this idea would be governmental force. Could such a ploy succeed? Such a technique was attempted by England in Ireland and by Germany in German Poland and Lorraine. An alternative would be tactful manoeuvring by giving concessions and administrative half-autonomy as Austria tried with Hungary though the success was small.

Sri Aurobindo points out a truth that the idea of a federation cannot succeed unless nations and sub-nations are united by some common heritage; "such conditions existed in the American States and in Germany and they exist in China and in India, but they have not existed in Austria or Russia". (Ibid) An alternative Russian nation-State could have been constructed with "the Tsar as the symbol of a supra-national idea and bond of unity" but the conditions of the world did not make that practicable. (Ibid)

Thus the only way the Russian nation-State could achieve unity was a "resort to force, military, administrative and political" (Ibid, pg.536) - a ploy that succeeded in the past. Writing in 1918, Sri Aurobindo observed that the attempt to forge a nation-State by force would not be smooth;

(a) It would proceed slowly "as far as the Slavic portions of the Empire were concerned";(Ibid)

(b) it would "probably have failed much more irretrievably" in Finland and perhaps in Poland". (Ibid)

In contrast, the pressure of governmental force to forge an artificial unity took a long time to be effective in Ireland. Sri Aurobindo opined that this might have been due to the fact that a Russian or German autocracy would not be as brutal as a Cromwell or Elizabeth. (During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, men, women and children were slaughtered mercilessly in Ireland and in 1582, an estimated 30,000 Irish people starved to death. Cromwell's ruthlessness and ethnic cleansing in Ireland during his stay in Ireland from 15th August 1649 to 26th May 1650 still hangs over Anglo-Irish relations in the 21st century.) However Sri Aurobindo modified his views decades later when the world witnessed the unparalleled brutalities of Nazi Germany. Stalin also came up with his massive purging in Soviet Russia.

Sri Aurobindo also admitted that Ireland resisted the pressure of forcible union by an increasing nationalism "that had become too self-conscious and capable of an organized passive resistance or at least a passive force of survival". (Ibid)Could such a scenario erupt in some or other sub-nation comprising the Russian Nation-State?

One wonders whether the Russian leaders ever thought of a disintegration. The Soviet Union was actually disintegrated into fifteen separate countries in December, 1991.


The cases of Finland and Poland

Writing in early 1918, Sri Aurobindo mused that the case of an united Russia, not excluding Finland, even before the Russian Revolution had a significance, having been founded by the Peters and Catherines on a strong political, military and economic necessity. (Ibid, pg.536) (Peter the Great whose rule spanned from 1682 to 1725 introduced modern reforms in Russia that replaced the medieval socio-political systems. Catherine who ruled from 1762 to 1796 continued that tradition of modernizing Russia). Sri Aurobindo felt that the Slavic nations would have benefited by union with Russia; disunited, they would be exposed to the oppression of powerful neighbours, Sweden, Turkey, Poland (while Poland was hostile and powerful) or Germany and Austria.(Ibid) A united Russia as a geographically compact and resource-rich State would have a great role to play if properly organized and would have acted as an armed arbiter or champion of oppression as in Austro-Hungary or in the Balkans. (Ibid, pg.536-537)

However the principle of self-determination that became active during the Revolution acted contrary to the spirit of an united Russia. Sri Aurobindo cites the example of Finland. In 1809, Finland was incorporated into the Russian Empire. Prior to that, it was under Swedish influence from the late 13th century. Sri Aurobindo observed that the incorporation of Finland into Russia benefited both: " ..a free Finland would have left Russia geographically and economically incomplete and beset and limited in her narrow Baltic outlet, while a Finland dominated by a strong Sweden or a powerful Germany would have been a standing military menace to the Russian capital and the Russian empire. The inclusion of Finland, on the contrary, made Russia secure, at ease and powerful at this vital point. Nor, might it be argued, did Finland herself really lose, since, independent, she would be too small and weak to maintain herself against neighbouring imperial aggressiveness and must rely on the support of Russia. All these advantages have been destroyed, temporarily at least, by the centrifugal forces let loose by the Revolution and its principle of the free choice of nationalities."(Ibid, pg.537)

Sri Aurobindo's observations were validated when Finland which declared itself independent following the Russian Revolution in 1917, got entangled in a civil war shortly after Sri Aurobindo penned these lines in 1918 itself with Soviet Russia and the German Empire supporting the conflicting parties. In World War II, Finland had to lose parts of Karelia, Salla, Kuusamo and Petsamo to the Soviet Union.

Sri Aurobindo's observations about Poland were also interesting. "The union of the Ukraine Cossacks with Russia was indeed brought about by mutual agreement as a measure of defence against Poland. Poland itself, once weakened, stood a better chance by being united with Russia than by standing helpless and alone between three large and powerful neighbours (Hapsburg Austria, Kingdom of Prussia and the Russian Empire), and her total inclusion would certainly have been a better solution for her than the fatal partition between these three hungry powers." (Ibid, pg.536) Though Poland which was partitioned for 123 years regained independence in 1918 just after Sri Aurobindo's wrote these lines, it had to face successive onslaughts that culminated in September 1939 when World War II started with the invasion of Poland by Germany followed by the Soviet Union. More than six million Polish citizens including 50% of the country's Jews died in the war. If, in accordance with Sri Aurobindo's observations, Poland had been united with Russia, its fate might have been otherwise.

Sri Aurobindo's astute observations about Finland and Poland were not aimed for prophesizing events but a rational outlook studying how the idea of self-determination can act as centrifugal force to a greater unity.


The Russian Ideal

A free confederation should ideally be based on two perspectives:

(a) moral and psychological principles; and

(b)vital and physical necessities.

Ideally, the moral and psychological principles should dominate and the vital and physical necessities should adjust themselves to the new ideal.

However, history was replete with examples where the vital and physical necessities were used to construct confederations with little or no regards to the moral and psychological principles. Glaring examples were Austria's past domination of Trieste and Slavic territories, England's holding of Ireland against Irish resistance and Germany's scheme of Pan-Germanism. Even the moral and psychological idea (like the idea of an unified Russian culture or the pre-war German ideal of some sort of world unity) could be used to impose imperial expansion in the disguise of universalizing European civilization by annexation and governmental force. However the vital necessity could not be totally disregarded as the world is not ideal and the law of force prevails in some form or other. Besides, as Sri Aurobindo noted in 1918, there were natural geographical unities like Russia, the United Kingdom and Austria. (Ibid, pg.537-538) In fact, three decades later, Sri Aurobindo added in a footnote that the disregard of the natural geographical unity of Austria resulted in disastrous economic results when the Austrian empire was broken into smaller nations. (Ibid, footnote, pg.538)

The Fate of Russia

Sri Aurobindo writing in 1918 appreciated the sincerity expressed in Russia where the idea of free confederation arose so that the moral and psychological principles triumphed over vital and physical necessities. However such a "naked and unarmed idea" was ridiculed by "autocratic and militarist Germany" with expansionist zeal. (Ibid, pg.538)

Sri Aurobindo compares the Russian idealists with the French revolutionists who believed that the beauty and truth of the Ideal would be accepted not by the government but by the people who could then force the government to acceptance or overturn the government if opposed. However like the French, the Russians discovered that the Ideal would be ineffectual without "a prepondering vital and physical force". (Ibid) Even the French Jacobins had to impose their ideal of "Unitarian nationalism" by force (The Reign of Terror during 1793-1794 when thousands of people were put on trial and executed). Nevertheless, Sri Aurobindo considered that the Russian ideal of a larger denouement of unity was more advanced "than the aggressive nationalism which was all the international result of the French Revolution; it has a greater meaning for the future". (Ibid, pg.539) Yet, all said and done, the Russian Ideal had an inherent weakness to implement its own agenda within its own boundaries because the "dissolution of the old Russian fabric" made an "united and organised action" difficult. (Ibid)

Sri Aurobindo, even in that nascent hour of 1918 expressed the hope that if the Russian ideal could arrive at some principle of common action "even at the cost of that aggressive force which national centralisation can alone give, it would mean a new moral power in the world". (Ibid) He also doubted whether the Russian Ideal would survive though even if it failed, its seed-idea would remain in the psyche of the race and would have "its part to play in a better prepared future". (Ibid) In fact, three decades later, he commented, "The idea was sincere at that time, but has lost its significance because of the principle of revolutionary force on which Sovietism till rests". (Ibid, footnote)

Yet, Sri Aurobindo was emphatic that the principle of Free Confederation was worthy to be pursued. "For it belongs to a future of free world-union in which precisely this principle of free self-determination must be either the preliminary movement or the main final result, to an arrangement of things in which the world will have done with war and force as the ultimate basis of national and international relations and be ready to adopt free agreement as a substitute". (Ibid)


Date of Update: 22-Dec-23

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu