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The New International, June 1944

Notes of the Month

Small Nations and Independence


From The New International, Vol. X No. 6, June 1944, pp. 170–172.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Is that necessarily a gloomy prospect, it has been asked in some quarters. Is it not high time we recognized that we live in a new age? Is it not a fact that the small and weak countries have not proved to be viable as independent nations? Are not all nations interdependent to the highest degree? Is political independence for a nation or a people so sacrosanct that it may not be abandoned or modified even if the result is protection of the people from aggression, a higher standard of living, security and peace? In any case, is not nationalism, outlived and reactionary, and compelled to give way to a concept, call it internationalism or a system of national interdependence, more in consonance with our times?

These alluring, even seductive, suggestions are now officially, if not formally, sanctioned by the very men who wrote the Atlantic Charter. They are embodied in Churchill’s plan, in Eden’s plan, in Roosevelt’s plan: the world must be dominated, the peace must be kept, by a Council of the Four (of the Three, for China is mentioned as a fourth as a sardonic gesture). If it is a “small nation,” as Mr. Eden explained in his March address to the Free Church Federal Council, it “must have a right to make its voice heard.” But no more than that. “When it comes to decide on action which only certain states by their military power are in a position effectively to take, we cannot simply count heads. The great powers [i.e., “the powers which signed the Moscow declaration,” the U.S.A., England and Russia] have and must have special responsibilities in the field of security.”

Here the idea of the partition of the world among three big policemen is presented cautiously and with as much elegance as possible under the circumstances. It is put much more bluntly, in more detail, and with much more “theoretical foundation,” in the article by Mr. Emery Reves to which we referred at the beginning of these notes.

A Challenge and an Answer

Mr. Reves does not beat around the bush. He calls his article A Challenge to the Atlantic Charter. He attacks the conception expressed in the Charter all along the line. Even if he is quoted here in considerable detail, what he has to say warrants it.

He really begins with a quotation of the third paragraph of the Charter, which promised the right of self-determination, sovereign rights and self-government to all peoples, including those “who have been forcibly deprived of them.”

”Here,” says Mr. Reves, “in one terse phrase, is the tragic misunderstanding pf our generation.” Why? His argumentation is set forth as follows:

We all assume it to be axiomatic that freedom and independence are inalienable rights of man, and we are seeking to create institutions to guarantee and safeguard these rights. In the eighteenth century our forebears found these guarantees and safeguards in the principle of national sovereignty, in the institutions of the sovereign nation-state, controlled by the people, and in the rights of all peoples to self-determination, to choose the form of government, the structure of their political and economic system within the territorial boundaries of their state, of their own free will without foreign interference.

These concepts and these institutions, in their absolute form, were perfectly capable of expressing national independence as long as contact between the established national units was either non-existent, unnecessary or loose.

Since modern industrialism, science and communications have shrunk this immense planet of ours into a sixty-hour flying trip; since no nation, not even the mightiest, is economically self-sufficient; since industry seeks to gain markets all over the world and can develop only within a framework where exchange and free communication are possible, these eighteenth century concepts, as expressed in the treaties of 1919 and in the Atlantic Charter, create, in their absolute form, conditions similar to a society in which individuals may act as they please, without any limitations on their impulses, without any considerations as to the effect of their actions on other members of that society.

In their absolute form, the principles of the Atlantic Charter lead straight to anarchy in international life.

* * *

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 one hundred artificial units, based on arbitrary criteria, such 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 give self-determination to the people only as long as their national units can live an isolated life. Since the nations today are in contact and their economic and political lives are closely interwoven, their independence needs higher form or expression, or stronger institutions for defense. In their 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? 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 as an ideal the freedom and the self-determination of peoples, we must do our utmost to prevent repeating the mistakes of 1919 and realize that “self-determination of nations” is today the insurmountable obstacle to “self-determination of peoples.”

If the present trend cannot be redirected, we are heading toward nationalism more exalted than ever before. If we cling to the principles of the Atlantic Charter, we shall have to face the claims of the innumerable nationalities in Europe, Asia, even in Africa, ‘to absolute sovereign states of their own. Since there will be no more than ‘three powers capable of creating and maintaining armed forces in the modern sense, small nations will be forced to become satellites of these powerful industrial and military powers.

Some utopians may believe that such a triangular power structure is possible, even desirable. Actually, it is the mathematical formula for the next war. It would be a tragedy if we were so completely to misunderstand the historic significance of this global war as to create again a world order based on the archaic principles of the pre-industrialized eighteenth century. We did this in 1919. And it collapsed rapidly and completely ...

The principle of “self-determination of nations” is a primitive and oversimplified expression of the concept of national independence. It is an anachronism. It is designed to work in laboratory conditions. Present-day realities, however, produce too many interfering elements to make possible the application of such a hypothetical formula without recurrent explosions ...

The authors of the Atlantic Charter unquestionably visualized a world with a maximum of liberty, a maximum of independence and a maximum of self-determination of all peoples. These ideals can be consummated only if we have the courage to accept the following lessons of recent history and to draw from them the principles of our future policy:

  1. All events since 1919 plainly show that “self-determination of nations,” absolute “national sovereignty,” as formulated in Wilson’s doctrines, in the covenant of the League of Nations and in the Atlantic Charter, have failed to insure freedom, independence and peace for’the peoples. Two world wars prove conclusively the mortal peril and the total fallacy of allowing the concepts of “self-determination of nations” and “national sovereignty” to chart our course. They have demonstrated to all nations the utter impossibility of maintaining peace, preserving their independence and safeguarding their security with policies based on these principles.
  2. Realizing that the security of one people results from the cooperation of all to secure the rights of each, we believe that real independence of nations can be attained only by the regulation of their interdependence.

* * *

Once this basic principle is proclaimed, understood by the majority of the peoples and established as the guiding principle of policy by our governments, it should not be too difficult for the duly elected representatives of peoples to arrive at detailed agreements, to define jurisdiction and set in motion international machinery of lawmaking and law enforcement under which we may look forward to another century of liberty and peaceful progress.

It is not yet time to settle the thousands of boundary disputes and other local problems. If we attempt a solution by applying the principles of the Atlantic Charter we shall create greater chaos than that existing today. Defending the Atlantic Charter against its critics, Secretary of State Hull declared in his recent broadcast: “The Charter is an expression of fundamental objectives toward which we and our allies are directing our policies ... It is not a code of law from which detailed answers to every question can be distilled by painstaking analysis of its words and phrases. It points the direction in which solutions are to be sought; it does not give solutions.”

The assumption that the Atlantic Charter “points the direction in which solutions are to be sought” is precisely the fundamental fallacy of our policies. Real national independence and peaceful international relationship are to be sought in a direction other than that to which the Charter points. Before we act we must have sound, realistic principles. The events of the past twenty-five years and all the national political ideological and economic forces at work today make it inexcusable for us to continue to delude ourselves and to listen to false prophets, no matter how good their intentions, which preach that we may have peace merely by patching up outworn systems and revising old doctrines that have always led and will continue to lead to war.

When events and realities conflict with proclaimed principles we must not always think that such events and realities are in “violation” of the established principles. Often the anomaly is caused by false principles and can be remedied only by giving up quixotic ideas and adapting principles to realities. The present political difficulties and two years of controversy over the Atlantic Charter – the weapon today of reactionary forces the world over – prove that a policy of expediency without principles can never be successful and durable. But, on the other hand, principles which cannot be applied in practice, which are Utopian because they belong to the past, are even more disastrous. The centrifugal force emanating from the Atlantic Charter must be replaced by a system of principles exercising a powerful centripetal attraction within the United Nations and around them.

The Heart of the Problem

In this own way, Mr. Reves has reached out to the heart of the problem, not only for Europe but for the entire world. How indeed shall we reconcile the “determination” of the small, economically and politically weak nations to have full national freedom with the not lesser “determination” of the large and strong nations to deprive them of their freedom? How shall we reconcile the determination of the small nations to be independent with the economic and political forces that impel them to dependence upon the big powers? If, “in their absolute form, the principles of the Atlantic Charter lead straight to anarchy in international life,” and if “real independence of nations can be attained only by the regulation of their interdependence,” then in what non-absolute form should the principles of the Atlantic Charter be applied? Just how is the “regulation of their interdependence” to be organized, and who is to organize it?

Mr. Reves shows’a profound glimpse, but no more than a glimpse, of the real problem, ‘the principles of the Atlantic Charter, “in their absolute form,” are no solution of the problem? Then what is to replace them? Mr. Reves’ impressive phrase – “regulation of the interdependence” of nations – has neither height, depth nor breadth, no shape, no flesh or bone or blood. It is so hollow that anything can be poured into it. England’s attempt to “regulate the interdependence” between herself and India led, not to order and peace, but to the “anarchy in international life” that Mr. Reves aims to eliminate. Germany’s attempt to “regulate the interdependence” between herself and the rest of Europe had the same consequences; and the same is obviously true of Japan and Asia. The whole history and practice’of imperialism, which has brought the world to such a state of disintegration, enslavement of peoples and nations, tumultuous anarchy and recurrent wars, are based upon a theory of the “regulation of the interdependence” of nations.

Yet there are such units as nations; they do have to live with each other, and should live peacefully and in prosperity; they are dependent one upon the other; and this interdependence must, obviously be subjected to regulation, to orderliness. To this extent, Mr. Reves is indisputably right, even if he is not another Columbus. But his answer to the problem advances us not one inch beyond the generalizations of the Atlantic Charter itself. He is not concrete, and in a sense, he cannot be. For him to specify how the “regulation” is to be organized and who is to organize it, would demand of him a super-imperialist candor and cynicism whose very extremeness would negate all his claims for the virtues of his conceptions.

Is there, then, no answer to the problem? There is one. It can not only be stated clearly, but more than that, it has already been tested in life and been proved efficacious and progressive. It is the answer given by scientific socialism, and applied in Russia by Lenin and the Bolsheviks – applied so successfully as to point the road plainly to the rest of the world. We will deal with it in detail next month.

In connection with the problem posed and the answer given by Bolshevism, we will have occasion to deal with other questions. It will prove worth while, we think, to dwell for a bit not only on Mr. Reves’ misunderstanding of the problem in general, but in particular his woeful failure to understand the conceptions of Mr. Hull, that is, of American imperialism, on the right of self-determination of nations. Mr. Reves seems to think that Cordell Hull is some sort of impractical idealist, whereas Winston Churchill is a man of realities. On this score, as we shall try to prove, Mr. Reves understands nothing at all, absolutely nothing at all.

Inasmuch as we, and our readers, are concerned with such as Hull and Churchill and Reves only from the standpoint of the interests of the working class and the revolutionary movement, our concluding comments on this subject next month will deal also with the problems now facing this movement. In that connection, a new and significant development has taken place in the Socialist Workers Party which merits comment. Even before that, however, it merits publication, for every effort has been made to suppress it! We refer to the differences that have arisen in (and been rigidly confined tol) the SWP leadership on the question of the struggle for democratic slogans in Europe and the struggle against the advancing “socialist” Russian army, in which a minority, represented by Morrow and Morrison, is showing that light is dawning in the SWP. The reader can surely afford to wait for one month in the knowledge that the membership of the SWP has already waited in vain for six!

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