MCViewPoint

Opinion from a Libertarian ViewPoint

Mises on Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Right of Self-Determination | Mises Wire

Posted by M. C. on May 27, 2021

As a classical liberal, Mises is careful to specify that the right of self-determination is not a collective right but an individual right: “It is not the right of self determination of a delimited national unit, but rather the right of the inhabitants of every territory to decide on the state to which they wish to belong.” Mises makes it crystal clear that self-determination is an individual right that would have to be granted to “every individual person . . . if it were in any way possible.” It should also be noted in this respect that Mises rarely speaks of the “right of secession,” perhaps because of its historical connotation of the right of a government of a subordinate political unit to withdraw from a superior one. 

https://mises.org/wire/mises-nationalism-colonialism-and-right-self-determination

Joseph T. Salerno

For Mises, liberalism first emerged and expressed itself in the nineteenth century as a political movement in the form of “peaceful nationalism.” Its two fundamental principles were freedom or, more concretely, “the right of self-determination of peoples” and national unity or the “nationality principle.” The two principles were indissolubly linked. The primary goal of the liberal nationalist movements (Italian, Polish, Greek, German, Serbian, etc.) was the liberation of their peoples from the despotic rule of kings and princes. Liberal revolution against despotism necessarily took on a nationalist character for two reasons. First, many of the royal despots were foreign, for example, the Austrian Hapsburgs and French Bourbons who ruled the Italians, and the Prussian king and Russian Czar who subjugated the Poles. Second, and more important, political realism dictated “the necessity of setting the alliance of the oppressed against the alliance of the oppressors in order to achieve freedom at all, but also the necessity of holding together in order to find in unity the strength to preserve freedom”. This alliance of the oppressed was founded on national unity based on a common language, culture, and modes of thinking and acting. 

Even though forged in wars of liberation, liberal nationalism was for Mises both peaceful and cosmopolitan. Not only did the separate national liberation movements view each other as brothers in their common struggle against royal despotism, but they embraced the principles of economic liberalism, “which proclaims the solidarity of interests among all peoples.” Mises stresses the compatibility of nationalism, cosmopolitanism, and peace:

[T]he nationality principle includes only the rejection of every overlordship; it demands self-determination, autonomy. Then, however, its content expands; not only freedom but also unity is the watchword. But the desire for national unity, too, is above all thoroughly peaceful. . . . [N]ationalism does not clash with cosmopolitanism, for the unified nation does not want discord with neighboring peoples, but peace and friendship.1

As a classical liberal, Mises is careful to specify that the right of self-determination is not a collective right but an individual right: “It is not the right of self determination of a delimited national unit, but rather the right of the inhabitants of every territory to decide on the state to which they wish to belong.” Mises makes it crystal clear that self-determination is an individual right that would have to be granted to “every individual person . . . if it were in any way possible.” It should also be noted in this respect that Mises rarely speaks of the “right of secession,” perhaps because of its historical connotation of the right of a government of a subordinate political unit to withdraw from a superior one. 

While championing of self-determination as an individual right, Mises argues that the nation has a fundamental and relatively permanent being independent of the transient state (or states) which may govern it at any given time. Thus he refers to the nation as “an organic entity [which] can be neither increased nor reduced by changes in states.” Accordingly, Mises characterizes a man’s “compatriots” as “those of his fellow men with whom he shares a common land and language and with whom he often forms an ethnic and spiritual community as well.” In the same vein, Mises cites the German author J. Grimm, who refers to the “natural law . . . that not rivers and not mountains form the boundary lines of peoples and that for a people that has moved over mountains and rivers, its own language alone can set the boundary.” The nationality principle therefore implies that liberal nation-states may comprise a monoglot people inhabiting geographically non-contiguous regions, provinces and even villages. Mises contends that nationalism is thus a natural outcome of and in complete harmony with individual rights: “The formation of [liberal democratic] states comprising all the members of a national group was the result of the exercise of the right of self determination, not its purpose.”2

It should be noted here that, in contrast to many modern libertarians who view individuals as atomistic beings who lack emotional affinities and spiritual bonds with selected fellow humans, Mises affirms the reality of the nation as “an organic entity.” For Mises the nation comprises humans who perceive and act toward one another in a way that separates them from other groups of people based on the meaning and significance the compatriots attach to objective factors such as shared language, traditions, ancestry and so on. Membership in a nation, no less than in a family, involves concrete acts of volition based on subjective perceptions and preferences with respect to a complex of objective historical circumstances. According to Murray Rothbard, who shares Mises’s view of the reality of the nation separate from the state apparatus:

Contemporary libertarians often assume, mistakenly, that individuals are bound to each other only by the nexus of market exchange. They forget that everyone is necessarily born into a family, a language, and a culture. Every person is born into one of several overlapping communities, usually including an ethnic group, with specific values, cultures, religious beliefs, and traditions. . . . The ‘nation’ cannot be precisely defined; it is a complex and varying constellation of different forms of communities, languages, ethnic groups or religions. . . . The question of nationality is made more complex by the interplay of objectively existing reality and subjective perceptions.

Colonialism as the Denial of the Right of Self-Determination

Unlike many late 19th- and early 20th-century liberals, Mises was a passionate anti-colonialist. As a radical liberal, he recognized the universality of the right of self determination and the nationality principle for all peoples and races. He wrote powerful and scathing indictments against the European subjugation and mistreatment of African and Asian peoples and demanded a quick and complete dismantling of colonial regimes. It is worthwhile quoting Mises on this at length:

The basic idea of colonial policy was to take advantage of the military superiority of the white race over the members of other races. The Europeans set out, equipped with all the weapons and contrivances that their civilization placed at their disposal, to subjugate weaker peoples, to rob them of their property, and to enslave them. Attempts have been made to extenuate and gloss over the true motive of colonial policy with the excuse that its sole object was to make it possible for primitive peoples to share in the blessings of European civilization. . . . Could there be a more doleful proof of the sterility of European civilization than that it can be spread by no other means than fire and sword?

No chapter of history is steeped further in blood than the history of colonialism. Blood was shed uselessly and senselessly. Flourishing lands were laid waste; whole peoples destroyed and exterminated. All this can in no way be extenuated or justified. The dominion of Europeans in Africa and in important parts of Asia is absolute. It stands in the sharpest contrast to all the principles of liberalism and democracy, and there can be no doubt that we must strive for its abolition. . . . European conquerors . . . have brought arms and engines of destruction of all kinds to the colonies; they have sent out their worst and most brutal individuals as officials and officers; at the point of the sword they have set up a colonial rule that in its sanguinary cruelty rivals the despotic system of the Bolsheviks. Europeans must not be surprised if the bad example that they themselves have set in their colonies now bears evil fruit. In any case, they have no right to complain pharisaically about the low state of public morals among the natives. Nor would they be justified in maintaining that the natives are not yet mature enough for freedom and that they still need at least several years of further education under the lash of foreign rulers before they are capable of being, left on their own.

In those areas where native peoples were strong enough to mount armed resistance to colonial despotism, Mises enthusiastically supported and cheered on these national liberation movements: “In Abyssinia, in Mexico, in the Caucasus, in Persia, in China—everywhere we see the imperialist aggressors in retreat, or at least already in great difficulties.” 

To completely phase out colonialism, Mises proposed the establishment of a temporary protectorate under the aegis of the League of Nations. But he made it clear that such an arrangement was “to be viewed only as a transitional stage” and that the ultimate goal must be “the complete liberation of the colonies from the despotic rule under which they live.” Mises based his demand for the recognition of the right of self-determination and respect for the nationality principle among colonized peoples on the bedrock of individual rights:

No one has a right to thrust himself into the affairs of others in order to further their interest, and no one ought, when he has his own interests in view, to pretend that he is acting selflessly only in the interest of others.

The Breakdown of Liberal Nationalism: Majority Rule and Nationality Conflicts

See the rest here

Author:

Contact Joseph T. Salerno

Joseph Salerno is academic vice president of the Mises Institute, professor emeritus of economics at Pace University, and editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: