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National Self-Determination and Federal Internationalism

The principles of isocracy demand universal freedoms and a federated free association of such individuals in communities; this much is obvious. But from this, the reality of existing states, nationalities and so forth, must be accounted for and requires a principled, non-politically partisan approach to international relations. For there can be little doubt of the terrible effects of both religious and national wars of history. As contemporary examples one can cite the conflicts in Chechnya, Palestine, Kurdistan, the Western Sahara, Kosovo, Tibet, Sri Lanka, Iraq and many others as wars of national liberation. The purpose of this document is to provide an initial sketch that can peacefully resolve such conflicts and empower individuals and communities.

Definitions on such matters are a cause of some confusion, not helped by the administrative imposition of state-defined terms. A nation means a group of human beings, whose membership is defined at birth, from the Latin natio. From the seventeenth century onwards it was strongly tied to ideas of commonality through "blood and soil", that members of a particular nation had shared descent and a common homeland and the gradual establishment of the nation-state. A more contemporary perspective emphasises use of shared symbolic values; thus national identity becomes very close to cultural and linguistic identity.

Nationality is different to country and to state. Countries are a region of land; a state is the institutional governance of that region. The matter is not helped by the insistence of states calling themselves "nations" or by bodies like the United Nations which is, in reality, a body of states. Or by such terms like "international law", which is invariably framed not between nations, but between states.

Formation of Independent States

The UN Charter argues that its purpose is "To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples." The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to a nationality and that no one should be arbitrarily deprived of a nationality or denied the right to change nationality." The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) read: "All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development."

As politics would have it however, none of these conventions or declarations specify that nations are allowed to form their own states. As an agreement between existing states, they all have vested interest to ensure their own territorial integrity, even when that territorial integrity is predicated on imperialist control; and by imperialism there can be no other definition that the political and economic control of another nation's country by a foreign power.

Although nominally Marxist regimes have been among the worst practitioners of real national self-determination, there can be little doubt they have provided among the best theories, from the first expressions of support by Marx and Engels of the bourgeois-national revolutions in overthrowing the archaic feudal regimes, to the realisation that independence was required in Ireland whilst the English working class persisted in deep ingrained anti-Irish prejudices. This set the stage for Lenin's classic analysis which argued that capitalism had reached a new stage; The stage of imperialism and that overthrowing imperialism through nations being allowed to establish their own states was a priority. Lenin argues, far more cogently than the covenants mentioned;

"... it would be wrong to interpret the right to self-determination as meaning anything but the right to existence as a separate state."

The problem of actually achieving independence is, of course, highly problematic. Some states will engage in irredentism, the annexation of other state's territories as a justification to expand the borders of a nation-state. Others will engage in expansionist nationalism regardless of the habitation of other nationalities with the desired countryside. With the onset of the second world war, Nazism used both claims; both to 'liberate' the Free City of Danzig (Gdansk) which had been refused the right of self-determination after the first world war, (with probable desired integration into Germany as some 95% of the population were Germans), in the former case and the proposal for lebensraum - the annexation of Eastern Europe, the destruction of the local Slavic populations and their replacement with reinrassig Germanic peoples in the latter.

Least one think that independence, or the integration into a nation-state necessitates violent conflict between states, civil war or international intervention (e.g., Timor-Leste), two particular methods are suggested to prevent this. Firstly, advanced liberal democratic regimes do show a degree of respect for local decision making of this nationalist variety; the most obvious example was Denmark willingly ceding independence to Greenland after the mostly Inuit population of that country expressed a desire for such status. Secondly, and referring to a previous article on isocracy, an regulated and armed citizenry instead of standing armies and state police, also certainly would ensure regional claims for independence without significant conflict.

Free Choices and Universal Rights

This does not mean of course that in every instance people should support or agree with independence movements. There may be very practical reasons why independence, in due consideration, may not be a viable option. For an outsider, arguing for national self-determination is very different to arguing for sovereign independence. All nations deserve the right of self-determination; through that right they may choose independence, federation etc. In this regard a distinction between the moral and political question of self-determination should be drawn from the social-technical question of independence or otherwise. Indeed, there should be no contradiction between advocating for national self-determination in a moral sense, whilst at the same time raising genuine concerns of viability in a social-technical sense.

Even more so, a caveat must be stated once again, on the basis of universal rights. The right to national self-determination is no excuse for an autocratic, totalitarian regime to engage in widespread and systematic abuse of human rights. The fact that the UN found itself paralysed by the rule of Pol Pot in Cambodia and the intervention by Vietnam is an indication of the explicit limitation of that organisation; it can only act when international security is threatened, and only then with agreement of the Security Council - in this case, both the United States and the Chinese governments preferred Pol Pot's horrendous regime, to the success of the Vietnamese.

In such a manner, the advocate for national self-determination must be even more an advocate of individual self-determination. Nations are imagined communities, for in all but the numerically smallest of nations not even the most socially integrated individual is aware of all the individuals which constitute that body. Thus for those directly involved in the question of national self-determination the first question that should be asked is whether the existing (foreign) government provides more or less civil freedoms than that proposed by independence movement with deference towards the former if the latter is lacking; in some cases it is 'better the devil you know'.

Technology and Evolutionary Federalism

Assuming civil rights and national independence, an isocratic position is one to use these as launching pads towards an internationalist orientation through evolutionary federalism. From the household to the ward, the ward to the council, the council to the locality, the development of higher social and systematic moral sense recognising the individual and local rights and the advantages of economies of scale, mutual support and cooperation. In the same sense technological developments also reduce the effective size of the world in terms of hours; ultimately the nation-state, it must be acknowledged, is a finite project. Nation-states which offer high levels of individual freedom and local autonomy must too evolve to a higher, more general, federal system and one which recognises the rights of the more local levels; but in the meantime, where foreign powers control the land, language and culture over the will of a local population, self-determination of those factors of life must be ensured.


I have been referred to the course Postcoloniality and the Nation in reference to this article. Overcoming the effects of colonialism is, of course, one of the most difficult questions of national self-determination, especially when the colonial population becomes numerically superior to the indigenous.