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

Readings in Chapter XXXII



The growth of Internationalism as an Idea

Internationalism is understood today as a political principle that transcends nationalism. In its radical form, it is a dynamic idea that not only outgrows the national idea and form but can also destroy it in the "interest of the larger synthesis of mankind". (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.548)

Such a radical idea must be coeval with a dynamic force or power for effectuation. But if it has to compromise with interests and prepossessions of powerful conglomerates, it can suffer diminution or even distortion. (Ibid) At present such a principle in a somewhat diluted form subsists on the attempt for a greater political or economic co-operation among nations and people, relegating the term somewhat similar to the concept of globalism and cosmopolitanism.

Sri Aurobindo traces the idea of internationalism to the 18th century European mind that constructed the idea from the matrix of life-experience and the idea, without going deeper, was then projected to life to change its outward forms and institutions. The idea was then subsequently allotted a space in the initial idealistic stages of the French Revolution. However, Sri Aurobindo points out that the French Revolution did not culminate in internationalism, at best it was "a complete and self-conscious nationalism". (Ibid)

Sri Aurobindo describes how the idea of internationalism was subsequently taken up by nineteenth century thinkers in different ways:

(a) in the mode of "pure idealism"; (Ibid)

(b) in a "modified way". (Ibid) Richard Cobden and John Bright of UK were liberal internationalists. Cobden believed that Free Trade would bring interdependence in the world which he expressed in his famous 1843 speech at Covent Garden, an idea also stressed by Adam Smith in his The Wealth of Nations;

(c) in being allied "with the growing forces of socialism and anarchism". (Ibid) Socialists viewed the concept of Free Trade with suspicion as they considered the links between economic competition and imperialism to be the base for world conflict. It is to the credit of the working class socialists and communist political activists (including Karl Marx) that the International Working men's Association, referred as the First International was formed in 1864 as one of the first international organizations and dedicated to the promotion of working class political interests across national boundaries. It was ideologically opposed to liberal internationalism that advocated free trade and capitalism.

(d) In its absolute form, the idea became "the internationalism of the intellectuals, intolerant of nationalism as a narrow spirit of the past, contemptuous of patriotism as an irrational prejudice, a maleficent corporate egoism characteristic of narrow intellects and creative of arrogance, prejudice, hatred, oppression, division and strife between nation and nation, a gross survival of the past which the growth of reason was destined to destroy."(Ibid, pg. 549)

Sri Aurobindo viewed the heuristic value of internationalism from a consciousness perspective that was more basic than the liberal and socialist considerations:

"It [internationalism] is founded on a view of things which looks at man in his manhood only and casts away all those physical and social accidents of birth, rank, colour, creed, nationality, which have been erected into so many walls and screens behind which man has hidden himself from his fellow-man; he has turned them into sympathy-proof shelters and trenches from which he wages against him a war of defence and aggression, war of nations, war of continents, war of classes, war of colour with colour, creed with creed, culture with culture. All this barbarism the idea of intellectual internationalist seeks to abolish by putting man face to face with man on the basis of their common human sympathy, aims, highest interests of the future. It is entirely futuristic in its view; it turns away from the confused and darkened good of the past to the purer good of the future when man, at last beginning to become a truly intelligent and ethical being, will shake away from him all these sources of prejudice and passion and evil. Humanity will become one in idea and feeling, and life be consciously what it now is inspite of itself, one in its status on earth and its destiny". (Ibid)


Problems with Internationalism

Internationalism is a great and noble, albeit a Utopian idea with the potentiality to make mankind "a better, purer, more peaceful and enlightened race". (Ibid, pg.549) Like all other pure ideas, the idea of internationalism has a mighty strength but also a great weakness. Its strength is that it can overwhelm a subject with its magnificent inspiration and can be embodied as a living value and a global mind-set. However it is not easy to embody such a noble idea because ordinary human life and customary mentality is besieged with sensational vibrations that considers the world of ideas to be remote and abstract. Like all other pure ideas, the idea of internationalism seems quite unreal and abstruse and "in that abstractness and remoteness lies its weakness". (Ibid)

The idea of internationalism also elicited a partial response due to the mind-set of the classical intellectual. As an overwhelming ideal, it captured the progressive minds who in their zeal to propagate the ideal for a greater and united humanity overlooked the fact that the masses were not ready to embody such an idea. Indeed, the common people, zealously identified with their sects, groups, classes, religions and nations were in no hurry and in no obligation to de-link from their sectarian attachments and prejudices. The proponents of internationalism were in a hurry and did not appreciate that such an idea has to flower organically in the social psyche as well as in the individual psyche, it has to grow from within and cannot be imposed arbitrarily. The idea to succeed should classically "have confidence in its strength and be content to grow, to insist, to impress itself till it got well into the spirit of man, it might conceivably become a real part of his soul-life, a permanent power in his psychology and might succeed in remoulding his whole life in its image".(Ibid)

As a result of the hasty attempt to be propagated, the idea of internationalism got in a sense hijacked by allied powers which exploited it to gain strength (Ibid) - powers like Socialism and Anarchism (Ibid, pg.551). In the process, the allied powers and movements gained while the idea of internationalism got relegated to a "mixed, impure and ineffective form". (Ibid, pg.550). Internationalism has become a casual idea: "Life accepts it as a partial habit, but not completely, not quite sincerely". (Ibid)

Though the march towards internationalism is slow at present, it can very well gather momentum one day. The forces of communication are geared to turn the world into a global village. Science per se is international in nature; "there can be no such thing as a national science, but only the nations' contributions to the work and growth of science which is the indivisible inheritance of all humanity. Therefore it is easier for men of science or those strongly influenced by science to grow into the international spirit and all the world is now beginning to feel the scientific influence and to live in it." (Ibid, pg.550-551) The growth of knowledge has broken social and cultural barriers and there is now a more universal appreciation of each other's art, culture and religion that overrides the prejudices and exclusivity of old nationalistic and regional sentiments. Religion could have led the way but being more dependent on outer forms and infrarational roots became more a sower of discord than a teacher of humanity (Ibid). Of course, religion has started to acknowledge, though a bit dimly and ineffectively that "spirituality is after all its own chief business and true aim and that it is also the common element and the common bond of all religions".(Ibid)

The path is not smooth because the human mind is still geared to exclusivism in the realm of the idea. That is why in spite of being a harbinger of internationalism, science can come equally to the service of secessionism and discord. What is required is a real psychological modification of the human psyche so that it is geared to the yet unmanifest ideal of a perfect and united human race. If that change takes place, the momentum can pick up at an optimal time and one day move with an irresistible rapidity to "prepare a real and fundamental change in the life of humanity"(Ibid).


Internationalism, Anarchism and Socialism

Writing in April, 1918, in the aftermath of the World War 1, Sri Aurobindo noted that the idea of internationalism attempted to identify with two contemporary movements which were gaining an internationalist appeal, Socialism and Anarchism. However, when the principles of socialistic and anarchistic internationalism were put to the fiery test of the Great War, they failed to generate any internationalist appeal. (Ibid, pg.551)

Anarchism (which advocated a government-free society based on voluntary co-operation and free association of individuals and groups and rejected social hierarchies) indeed had an international perspective for in the early 20th century, it was supportive of the concept of "anationalism" and the Esperanto language. It is believed that anarchism, more tied up to abstract and Utopian principles could not effectively segregate the camp of capital from the camp of proletariat. The result was that the anarchists could not defend the interests of the proletariat during the World Wars and instead largely gave away to bourgeois nationalism. (Anarchism would re-emerge in a new denouement in the 1950s and 1960s, influencing the Civil Rights movement and the student movements in USA and Europe; it also influenced the radical Ecology movement in the 1970s).

Internationalism was an important component of the theory of socialism because it was based on the principle that working-class people of the world must transgress national boundaries to oppose nationalism and war in order to overthrow capitalism. Long discussions took place in the 2nd International (Copenhagen, 26-27 August, 1910) among French, German and Italian socialists on internationalism, antiwar engagement and anti-militarism but the majority of socialists could not transcend their patriotism. French and German socialists voted for war credits on 4 August 1914 while Italy entered the war on 24 May 1915. The 2nd International's socialists' pacifism failed to prevent World War I, ostensibly because no one was sincere to keep peace. After the War, a small minority in each country remained passionately attached to the principles of international socialism (also known as Proletarian internationalism) and later the majority also attempted a sensible turn to the same direction as the general awareness of the devastating massacre grew but Sri Aurobindo astutely describes that this development "was rather the fruit of circumstance than of principle".(Ibid,pg.552)

Sri Aurobindo muses on Russia's position in the aftermath of the War:

"Russian socialism, it may be said, has, at least in its extremer form, shown a stronger root of internationalistic feeling. But what it has actually attempted to accomplish is a development of Labour rule on the basis of a purified nationalism, non-aggressive except for revolutionary purposes and self-contained, and not on the larger international idea. In any case, the actual results of the Russian attempt show only up to the present a failure of the idea to acquire the vital strength and efficiency which would justify it to life; it is possible to use them much more as a telling argument against internationalism than as a justification of its truth or at least of its applicability in the present stage of human progress." (Ibid) Exactly a year after Sri Aurobindo wrote this piece, the Third International was established in March 1919 where Lenin and Trotsky firmly embraced the concept of national self-determination for tactical reasons, validating Sri Aurobindo's foresight.

Sri Aurobindo raises a pertinent question as to why the idea of internationalism, so eulogized by socialism, suffered a total bankruptcy during the strong test of life in the Great War. His incisive reply in the aftermath of the World War I is worth quoting in full:

"Partly it may be because the triumph of socialism is not necessarily bound up with the progress of internationalism. Socialism is really an attempt to complete the growth of the national community by making the individual do what he has never yet done, live for the community more than for himself. It is an outgrowth of the national, not of the international idea. No doubt, when the society of the nation has been perfected, the society of nations can and even must be formed; but this is a later possible or eventual result of Socialism, not its primary vital necessity. In the crises of life it is the primary vital necessity which tells, while the other and remoter element betrays itself to be a mere idea not yet ready for accomplishment; it can only become powerful when it also becomes either a vital or a psychological necessity. The real truth, the real cause of the failure is that internationalism is as yet, except with some exceptional men, merely an idea; it is not yet a thing near to our vital feelings or otherwise a part of our psychology. The normal socialist or syndicalist cannot escape from the general human feeling and in the test he too turns out, even though he were a professed sans-patrie in ordinary times, in his inner heart and being a nationalist. As a vital fact, moreover, these movements have been a revolt of Labour aided by a number of intellectuals against the established state of things, and they have only allied themselves with internationalism because that too is an intellectual revolt and because its idea helps them in the battle. If Labour comes to power, will it keep or shed its internationalistic tendencies? The experience of countries in which it is or has been at the head of affairs does not give an encouraging answer, and it may at least be said that, unless at that time the psychological change in humanity has gone much farther than it has now, Labour in power is likely to shed more of the internationalist feeling than it will succeed in keeping and to act very much from the old human motives." (Ibid, pg.552-553)

A century after Sri Aurobindo penned these lines, the old labour movement that sought to seize power for workers through political mobilization had already become outdated while NSMs (New Social Movements) like NGOs initiated a trend to operate within civil society, seeking changes in values through more innovative methods.(Josseline Daphne[2001]:Back to the frontline? Trade unions in a global age [online]:LSE Research Online,

Sri Aurobindo acknowledged that the World War I had effectuated an urge for internationalism but he was also cautious to point out that ideas and resolutions that arise under the stress of exceptional circumstances need time for consolidation and have to wait for an optimal social maturity to manifest. At the best it could push for a more convenient international order and juster principles in international dealings but such developments would still be external adjustments serving mixed and egoistic purposes. This was inevitable until the idea of humanity grew organically in the psyche of man. "Until man in his heart is ready, a profound change of the world conditions cannot come; or it can only be brought about by force, physical force or else force of circumstances, and that leaves all the real work to be done. A frame may then have been made, but the soul will have still to grow into that mechanical body". (The Ideal of Human Unity, pg.553)


Date of Update: 20-Feb-24

- By Dr. Soumitra Basu