Year XXXII, 1990, Number 2 - Page 168



Attempts to define and to realize the principle of self-determination reveal the ambiguities of this notion. There are many reasons for this: self-determination can be referred to many subjects (individuals or populations); applied to political action, it can become either an instrument of progress or conservatism; it has assumed and often assumes an emotional connotation which can hardly be controlled by rational evaluations; the values it brings to mind (freedom, justice, peace) have often been and often are denied in the name of that very principle.
In spite of these difficulties and these contradictions, self-determination, and in particular the self-determination of nations, has been a very vital principle starting from the French Revolution and today it is still a password which evokes sentiments and emotions and causes upheavals. Faced with the choice between accepting or refusing the principle of self-determination, most people declare themselves to be in favour of it. And it is significant that even those who are against any attempt at achieving it, for reasons of power, do not deny the principle as such. A clear example of this is the position of Gorbachev with respect to the Baltic countries and other Soviet republics which want to separate from Moscow: while denying it with facts, in words he affirms the right to secession in the name of that principle. But is it possible, coherent, right, progressive today to accept the concept of the self-determination of nations tout court?
To answer this question we must reflect on the fact that whoever poses himself the problem of realizing values and ideals to change the world must be able to think of his action within the historical process; he must at the same time interpret the past and analyse the present while looking toward the future; he must be able to answer the question: where is the world going?
The historical events of the past century show there is an inseparable link between self-determination and fights for national independence, between self-determination and nationalism. And in the 19th century, because of the degree of development of the mode of production, nationalism certainly played a progressive role wherever it served to make the necessary unification processes advance.
Today this link is no longer acceptable. Worldwide interdependence and the need to create conditions of global safety place us before a need to revise the category of self-determination. If it causes disgregation (while the historical process shows us the way towards unification), if in its name a by now outdated model of society organization (the sovereign nation-state) is perpetuated, then that principle is objectively a factor of regression or conservatism. If instead one manages to avoid the trap of nationalism, if, as Emery Reves has written, one manages to “understand that the ‘self-determination of nations’ is today the insuperable obstacle to the ‘self-determination of the people’”, this concept will lead us to seek new institutions which really allow everyone to be the master of his own destiny.
Reves’ considerations on this problem, expounded in a chapter, which we here publish partially, of his famous book Anatomy of Peace (London, Penguin Books, 1947) show how noxious are the attitude and action of whoever interprets a new reality with outdated categories, of whoever, to use Reves’ words, is tied down to political and social “Ptolemaic”, natiocentric concepts, in a “Copernican” world.
“Self-determination is an anachronism. It asserts the sacred right of every nation to do as it pleases within its own frontiers, no matter how monstrous or how harmful to the rest of the world. It asserts that every aggregation of peoples has a sacred right to split itself into smaller and ever smaller units, each sovereign in its own corner. It assumes that the extension of economic or political influence through ever-larger units along centralised interdependent lines is, in itself, unjust.
Because this ideal once held good – in a larger, simpler, less integrated world – it has a terrific emotional appeal. It can be used and is being used by more and more politicians, writers, agitators, in slogans calling for the ‘end of imperialism’, the ‘abolition of the colonial system’, ‘independence’ for this and that racial or territorial group.
The present world chaos did not come upon us because this or that nation had not yet achieved total political independence. It will not be relieved in the slightest by creating more sovereign units or by dismembering interdependent aggregations like the British Empire that have shown a capacity for economic and political advancement. On the contrary, the disease now ravaging our globe would be intensified, since it is in large measure the direct result of the myth of total political independence in a world of total economic and social interdependence.
If the world is to be made a tolerable place to live in, if we are to obtain surcease from war, we must forget our emotional attachment to the eighteenth-century ideal of absolute nationalism. Under modern conditions it can only breed want, fear, war and slavery.
The truth is that the passion for national independence is a leftover from a dead past. This passion has destroyed the freedom of many nations. No period in history saw the organisation of so many independent states as that following the war of 1919. Within two decades nationalism has devoured its children – all those new nations were conquered and enslaved, along with a lot of old nations. It was, let us hope, the last desperate expression of an ideal made obsolete by new conditions, the last catastrophic attempt to squeeze the world into a political pattern that had lost its relevance.
Quite certainly, independence is a deep-rooted political ideal of every group of men, be it family, religion, association or nation.
If there were only one single nation on Earth, the independence of its people could very well be achieved by its right to self-determination, by its right to choose the form of government and the social and economic order it desired, by its right to absolute sovereignty.
Such absolute national self-determination might still guarantee independence if in all the world there were only two or three self-sufficient nations, separated from each other by wide spaces, having no close political, economic or cultural contact with each other.
But once there are many nations whose territories are cheek by jowl, who have extensive cultural and religious ties and interdependent economic systems, who are in permanent relations by the exchange of goods, services and persons, then the ideal of self-determination – of each nation having the absolute right to choose the form of government, the economic and social systems it wishes, of each having the right to untrammelled national sovereignty – becomes a totally different proposition.
The behaviour of each self-determined national unit is no longer the exclusive concern of the inhabitants of that unit. It becomes equally the concern of the inhabitants of other units. What the sovereign state of one self-determined nation may consider to the interest and welfare of its own people, may be detrimental to the interests and welfare of other nations. Whatever counter-measures the other self-determined sovereign nations may take to defend the interests of their respective nationals, equally affect the peoples of all other national sovereign units.
This interplay of action and reaction of the various sovereign states completely defeats the purpose for which the sovereign nation-states were created, if that purpose was to safeguard the freedom, independence and self-determination of their peoples.
They are no longer sovereign in their decisions and courses of action. To a very large extent they are obliged to act the way they do by circumstances existing in other sovereign units, and are unable to protect and guarantee the independence of their populations.
Innumerable examples can be cited to prove that, although maintaining the fiction of independence and sovereignty, no present-day nation-state is independent and sovereign in its decisions. Instead, each has become the shuttlecock of decisions and actions taken by other nation-states.
The United States of America, so unwilling to yield one iota of its national sovereignty, categorically refusing to grant the right to any world organisation to interfere with the sovereign privilege of Congress to decide upon war and peace, was in 1941 forced into war a decision made exclusively by the Imperial War Council in Tokyo. To insist that the declaration of war by Congress following the attack on Pearl Harbour was a ‘sovereign act’ is the most naive kind of hair splitting. Nor was the entrance of the Soviet Union into the Second World War decided by the sovereign authorities of the USSR. War was forced upon the Soviet Union by a sovereign decision made in Berlin. The failure of national sovereignty to express self-determination and independence is just as great in the economic field, where every new production method, every new tariff system, every new monetary measure, compels other nation-states to take counter-measures which it would be childish to describe as sovereign acts on the part of the seventy-odd sovereign, self-determined nation-states.
The problem, far from being new and insoluble, is as old as life itself.
Families are entirely free to do many things they want to do. They can cook what they like. They can furnish their home as they please. They can educate their children as they see fit. But in a Christian country no man can marry three women at the same time, no man living in an apartment house can set fire to his dwelling, keep a giant crocodile as a pet or hide a murderer in his flat. If a person does these things or similar things, he is arrested and punished.
Is he a free man or is he not?
Clearly, he is absolutely free to do everything he wants in all matters which concern himself and his family alone. But he is not free to interfere with the freedom and safety of others. His freedom of action is not absolute. It is limited by law. Some things he can do only according to established regulations, other he is forbidden to do altogether.
The problems created by the ideal of self-determination of nations are exactly the same as the problems created by the freedom of individuals or families. Each nation can and should remain entirely free to do just as it pleases in local and cultural affairs, or in matters where their actions are of purely local and internal consequence and can have no effect upon the freedom of others. But self-determination of a nation in military matters, in the fields of economic and foreign affairs, where the behaviour of each nation immediately and directly influences the freedom and safety of all the other nations, creates a situation in which self-determination is neutralised and destroyed.
There is nothing wrong with the ideal of self-determination.
But there is something very wrong indeed with the ideal of ‘self-determination of nations’.
This concept means that the population of this small world is to be divided into eighty or a hundred artificial units, based on such arbitrary and irrational criteria as race, nationality, historical antecedents, etc. This concept would have us believe that the democratic ideal of self-determination can be guaranteed and safeguarded by granting people the right of self-determination within their national groups, without giving corporate expression of self-determination to the aggregate of the groups.
Such a system can preserve self-determination of the people only so long as their national units can live an isolated life. Since the nations today are in contact, with their economic and political lives closely interwoven, their independence needs higher forms of expression, stronger institutions for defence. In absolute interpretation, the many self-determined national units cancel out each other’s self-determination.
What was the use of the ‘self-determination of Lithuania’ when self-determined Poland occupied Vilna? And what was the use of ‘Polish self-determination’ when self-determined Germany destroyed Poland? Unquestionably, self-determination of nations does not guarantee freedom and independence to a people, because it has no power to prevent the effects of actions committed by other self-determined nations. If we regard the freedom and self-determination of peoples as our ideal, we must do our utmost to avoid repeating the mistakes of 1919 and realise that self-determination of nations is today the insurmountable obstacle to self-determination of the people.”
Nicoletta Mosconi


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