National Self-Determination

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article first appeared in the August 1990 issue of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
under the title “The Nationalities

Upon the
collapse of centralizing totalitarian Communism in Eastern Europe
and even the Soviet Union, long suppressed ethnic and nationality
questions and conflicts have come rapidly to the fore. The crack-up
of central control has revealed the hidden but still vibrant “deep
structures” of ethnicity and nationality.

To those
of us who glory in ethnic diversity and yearn for national justice,
all this is a wondrous development of what has previously lived
only in fantasy or longing: it is a chance in Europe at long last,
to begin to reverse the monstrous twin injustices of Sarajevo
and Versailles. It is like being back in 1914 or 1919 again, with
a chance for the map of Europe and near Asia to be righted and

For the first
time since the end of World War II, or arguably since Versailles,
the world is in a “revolutionary situation.” There are many problems
and costs to such a revolutionary situation, costs that are well-known
and need not be repeated here; but there are also many benefits:
currently, not only the collapse of Socialism-Communism, but the
sense that all things are possible, and that justice may come
at last to a long-suffering area of the world.

Most Americans,
however, are puzzled and disturbed rather than delighted at the
re-emergence of the nationalities question. We can separate the
worried or hostile reactions into four groups: (a) the average
American; (b) Marxist-Leninists; (c) global democrats, which include
the liberal and neoconservative wing of the ruling American Establishment;
and (d) modal libertarians.


First, the
average American is uncomprehending of the very problem. Why can’t
all these groups live-and-let-live, and join peacefully together
as has the United States in its “melting pot” of varied immigrant
groups? In the first place, this Pollyanna view of America overlooks
the black question, which has scarcely settled into any melting
pot, and is more mired in deep conflict now than at any time since
the late nineteenth century. But even setting that aside no peaceful
“melting pot” existed in the nineteenth century. From the 1830s
until after World War I, northern, “Yankee,” mainstream Protestants
(with the exception of old-style Calvinists and high-church Lutherans)
were captured by an aggressive and militant post-millennial pietism
whose objective was to use government to stamp out “sin” (especially
liquor and the Catholic Church), and who made the lives of Catholic
and German Lutheran immigrants miserable and put them under constant
attack for nearly a century. Finally, the pietists succeeded in
imposing immigration restrictions and national origin quotas after
World War I.

But even
setting all that aside, the United States of America was a unique
development in the modern world: a roughly “empty” land (with
the notable exception of American Indians), peopled by a large
number of mainly European religious, ethnic, and national immigrant
groups, within the framework of a mainly free, constitutional
Republic under the rubric of English as the common, public language.

Other nations
in Europe and Asia developed very differently, often with native
nationalities conquered and dominated by “imperial” nations. Instead
of one public language, the oppressor nationalities invariably
tried to obliterate the languages and even the names of conquered
nationalities. One of the most moving cries during last year’s
implosion of Communism came from the suppressed Turkish minority
in Bulgaria and the conquered “Moldavians”
(i.e., Romanians) in Soviet Moldavia, grabbed from Romania after
World War II: “give us our names back!” The Moldavians want to
shed the hated Russian names imposed by the Soviet state, as well
as the even more hated Cyrillic forced upon them in place of their
Latin alphabet. And this national obliteration is not just a product
of Communism. It is an age-old practice: “imperial” France still
forbids the Celts of Brittany to name their children according
to Celtic nomenclature; and the Turks, still not admitting their
genocidal massacre of the Armenian minority during World War I,
also refuse to acknowledge the very existence of their Kurdish
minority, referring to them contemptuously as “mountain Turks.”


The Marxist-Leninists
are a dying breed, but it is fascinating to consider their now
vanishing role on this issue. Their reputation as “anti-imperialists”
has nothing to do with classical Marxism. In fact, Marx and Engels,
consistent with their pro-modernizing approach, aggressively favored
Western imperialism (especially that of the Prussians as against
the hated Slavs). This stance accorded with their view that the
faster capitalism and “modernization” advance, the sooner the
“inevitable final stage” of history, the proletarian communist
revolution, will take place.

Lenin, however,
pragmatically junked Marxism to side with the Third World and
other peasantry, which he saw perceptively as far riper for revolution
than the advanced capitalist nations. In practice, however, Leninism,
while giving lip-service to the right of national self-determination
(enshrined on paper in the Soviet Constitution but always ignored
in practice), was a centralizing universalist creed transcending
nationalities. More important, the actual Leninist cadre in every
country were deracinated intellectuals (often colonials educated
by Marxist-Leninist professors in the imperial centers of London,
Paris, and Lisbon), who were generally ignorant of, and contemptuous
or hostile toward, ethnicity, religion, and culture. The official
compulsory atheism of Marxist-Leninists was only the most overt
example of this hostility.

This riding
roughshod over national cultures in the name of universalist Leninist
ideology is most starkly evident in the regimes of Africa. The
Marxist centralizing governments of Africa are descendants of
the regimes of Western imperialism established in the late nineteenth

France, and Portugal marched into Africa and carved it up into
provinces totally heedless and uncaring of the realities of the
varied and highly diverse tribes which constituted the African
polity. Many tribes, most of which hated each other’s guts, and
had nothing – neither culture, language, customs, nor tradition
– in common, were coercively incorporated into “colonies”
with arbitrary borders imposed by the imperial Western powers.
In addition to this forced marriage, many of the artificial borders
split tribal regions into two or more parts, so that tribesmen
seasonally migrating into age-old occupied regions, found themselves
stopped at the border and accused of being “illegal immigrants”
or “aggressors.”

The tragedy
of modern Africa is that the imperial powers did not simply withdraw
and allow the natural tribal formation to resume their original
occupation of the continent. Instead, the coercive centralizing
regimes of these so-called “nations” were turned over to the deracinated
Marxist intellectuals educated in the imperial capitals, who soon
became a parasitic bureaucratic class taxing and oppressing the
peaceful peasantry who constitute the bulk of the actual producers
in Africa.


The most
significant negative reaction to the recent eruption of the nationalities
question is that of our “global democracy” Establishment. Theirs
is the most significant because they constitute the dominant opinion-molding
force in American life. Essentially theirs is a far more sophisticated
version of the reaction of the average American. The concerns
and demands of nationalities are dismissed as narrow, selfish,
parochial, and even dangerously hostile per se and aggressive
toward other nationalities. Above all, they interfere with the
most sanctified value in the global-democratic canon: “the democratic
process,” which inherently means “majority rule,” albeit sometimes
limited by the restraints of “human” or “minority” rights. Therefore,
the ultimate curse leveled against nationalities and their demands
is that they are perforce “undemocratic” and hence not suitable
for the modern world.

Thus, there
is a deeper reason than realpolitik for the seemingly strange
coolness of the Bush administration toward the heroic national
independence movement of the Lithuanians and the other Baltic
nations. It’s not just that the United States is supposed to sacrifice
them on the altar of “saving Gorby.” For there was unalloyed joy
at the liberating of Officially “Acredited Nations, such as Poland,
Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, from Soviet and Communist yokes.
But the Baltic nations, after all, are different: they are “part”
of the Soviet Union, and therefore their unilateral secession,
against the will of the majority of the USSR, becomes an affront
to “democracy,” to “majority rule,” and, last but far from least,
to the unitary, centralizing nation-state that allegedly embodies
the democratic ideal.

The fact
that the United States had never recognized the forcible incorporation
of the Baltic nations into the USSR in 1940, is now demonstrated
to be a Cold War sham to win the votes of East European ethnics
living in the United States. For when push comes to shove, how
can little parts of a great nation be permitted to secede in opposition
to the “democratic will” of the larger nation? Not only the Bush
and Establishment coolness toward the Baltics, but also their
palpable relief when Gorby sent troops in to Azerbaijan, allegedly
to stop Azeris and Armenians from killing each other, shows that
far more is at stake here than helping Gorby against the Stalinists.

For the U.S.
global democrats had gotten worried that Gorby might fail to carry
out the alleged fundamental responsibility of a great modernizing
nation: to use force and violence to settle disputes among its
various regions and nationalities. That is, in fact, to maintain
the unitary force of the central “imperial” power against the
nationalities within its periphery.

The clinching
argument of the global democrats in all this may be summed up
as “after all, didn’t Lincoln?” The most sanctified figure in
American historiography is, by no accident, the Great Saint of
centralizing “democracy” and the strong unitary nation-state:
Abraham Lincoln. It is fascinating and no accident, and reveals
the vital importance of history and of historical myth even in
as amnesiac a nation as the United States, that a major reason
that the neocons and their stooges have tried to read such paleocons
as Mel Bradford and Tom Fleming out of the conservative movement
is that they are highly critical of “honest Abe.”

And so didn’t
Lincoln use force and violence, and on a massive scale, on behalf
of the mystique of the sacred “Union,” to prevent the South from
seceding? Indeed he did, and on the foundation of mass murder
and oppression, Lincoln crushed the South and outlawed the very
notion of secession (based on the highly plausible ground that
since the separate states voluntarily entered the Union they should
be allowed to leave).

But not only
that: for Lincoln created the monstrous unitary nation-state from
which individual and local liberties have never recovered: e.g.,
the triumph of an all-powerful federal judiciary, Supreme Court,
and national army; the overriding of the ancient Anglo-Saxon and
libertarian right of habeas corpus by jailing dissidents
against the war without trial; the establishment of martial rule;
the suppression of freedom of the press; and the largely permanent
establishment of conscription, the income tax, the pietist “sin”
taxes against liquor and tobacco, the corrupt and cartelizing
“partnership of government and industry” constituting massive
subsidies to transcontinental railroads, and the protective tariff;
the establishment of fiat money inflation through the greenbacks
and getting off the gold standard; and the nationalization of
the banking system through the national Banking Acts of 1863 and

It is particularly
fascinating that many conservative defenders of Lithuania and
the other Baltic nations, try themselves to preserve the Lincoln
myth and the general U.S. hostility to secession. They argue that
since the Baltic states were forcibly incorporated by Stalin in
1940, they at least should be allowed to secede without the punishment
of Lincoln-style repression!

Let us set
aside the fact that most of the other incorporations of nations
into the Soviet Union were just as compulsory albeit more venerable:
e.g., the Ukraine, Armenia, or Georgia in the early days of the
Bolshevik Revolution. Let us instead cut to the heart of the democratic
political theory that is involved in the pervasive hostility to
secession. For democratic theory, including the theory of most
“minarchist” laissez-faire libertarians, holds that government,
whether broadly social-democratic or confined to police, defense
and the judiciary, should be chosen by majority rule in free elections.
Minority secession movements are accused of violating democratic
majority rule. But the crucial and always unanswered question
is: democratic rule over what geographical area?

Let us put
the problem another way: minarchist or democratic theory says
that the State should have a monopoly of force in its territorial
area. Let us agree for the sake of argument. But then the big
unasked, and unanswered, question arises: what should be the territorial
area? To paraphrase a favorite gambit of Ayn Rand’s, the near-universal
response is: Blankout!

secessionists are implicitly challenging this pervasive blankout
as a serious response to their concerns. So far, whether under
Lincoln or, to a much lesser extent under Gorby, their crucial
question has been met only by violence and force majeure: by the
unquestioned mystique of might-makes-right and the coercive unitary
nation-state. But the inner logic of that mystique, and the basic
logic of minarchist political theory, is at once simple and terrifying:
unitary world “democratic” government. The minarchist argument
against anarcho-capitalist libertarians is that there must be
a single, overriding government agency with a monopoly force to
settle disputes by coercion. OK, but in that case and by the very
same logic shouldn’t nation-states be replaced by a one-world
monopoly government? Shouldn’t unitary world government replace
what has been properly termed our existing “international anarchy?”

libertarians and conservatives balk at the inner logic of world
government for obvious reasons: for they fear correctly that world
taxation and world socialization would totally and irreversibly
suppress the liberty and property of Americans. But they remain
trapped in the logic of their own position. Left-liberals, on
the other hand, are happy to embrace this logic precisely because
of this expected outcome. Even the democratic Establishment, however,
hesitates at embracing the ultimate logical end of a single world
democratic state, at least until they can be assured of controlling
that monstrous entity.

Short of
the world State of their dreams, how does our global democratic
Establishment deal with the crucial problem of where State boundaries
should be? By sanctifying whatever State boundaries happen to
exist at the time. Sanctifying status quo boundaries has been
the axiom of the foreign policy of every U.S. administration since
Woodrow Wilson, and of the League of Nations and its successor
the United Nations, all based on the incoherent and disastrous
concept of “collective security against aggression.” It was that
concept that underlay U.S. intervention in World Wars I and II,
and in the Korean War: first we determine (often incorrectly)
which is the “aggressor state,” and then all nation-states are
supposed to band together to combat, repel, and punish that aggression.

The theoretical
analogue of such a concert against “aggression” is held to be
combating criminal action against individuals. A robs or murders
B; the local police, appointed defenders of the right of person
and property, leap to the defense of B and act to apprehend and
punish A. In the same way, “peace-loving” nations are supposed
to band together against “aggressor” nations or states. Hence,
Harry Truman’s otherwise mystifying insistence that the U.S. war
against North Korea was not a war at all but a “police action.”

The deep
flaw in all this is that when A robs or murders B, there is a
general agreement that A is in the wrong, and that he has indeed
aggressed against the person and just property rights of B. But
when State A aggresses against the border of State B, often claiming
that the border is unjust and the result of a previous aggression
against country A decades before, how can we say a priori
that State A is the aggressor and that we must dismiss its defense
out of hand? Who says, and on what principle, that State B has
the same moral right to all of its existing territory as individual
B has to his life and property? And how can the two aggressions
be equated when our global democrats refuse to come up with any
principles or criteria whatsoever: except the unsatisfactory and
absurd call for a world State or blind reliance upon the boundary
status quo at any given moment?


What, then,
is the answer? What national boundaries can be considered as just?
In the first place, it must be recognized that there are no just
national boundaries per se; that real justice can only
be founded on the property rights of individuals. If fifty people
decided voluntarily to set up an organization for common services
or self-defense of their persons and properties in a certain geographical
area, then the boundaries of that association, based on the just
property rights of the members, will also be just.

boundaries are only just insofar as they are based on voluntary
consent and the property rights of their members or citizens.
Just national boundaries are, then, at best derivative and not
primary. How much more is this true of existing State boundaries
which are, in greater or lesser degree, based on coercive expropriation
of private property, or on a mixture of that with voluntary consent!
In practice, the way to have such national boundaries as just
as possible is to preserve and cherish the right of secession,
the right of different regions, groups, or ethnic nationalities
to get the blazes out of the larger entity, to set up their own
independent nation. Only by boldly asserting the right of secession
can the concept of national self-determination be anything more
than a sham and a hoax.

But wasn’t
the Wilsonian attempt to impose national self-determination and
draw the map of Europe a disaster? And how! But the disaster was
inevitable even assuming (incorrectly) good will on the part of
Wilson and the Allies and ignoring the fact that national self-determination
was a mask for their imperial ambitions. For by its nature, national
self-determination cannot be imposed from without, by a foreign
government entity, be it the United States or some world League.

The whole
point of national self-determination is to get top-down coercive
power out of the picture and, for the use of force to devolve
from the larger entity to more genuine natural and voluntary national
entities. In short, to devolve power from the top downward. Imposing
national self-determination from the outside makes matters worse
and more coercive than ever. Moreover, getting the U.S. or other
governments involved in every ethnic conflict throughout the globe
maximizes, rather than minimizes, coercion, conflict, war, and
mass murder. It drags the United States, as the great isolationist
scholar Charles A. Beard once put it, into “perpetual war for
perpetual peace.”

back to political theory, since the nation-state has a monopoly
of force in its territorial area, the one thing it must not do
is ever try to exercise its force beyond its area, where it has
no monopoly, because then a relatively peaceful “international
anarchy” (where each State confines its power to its own geographical
boundary) is replaced by an international Hobbesian chaos of war
of all (governments) against all. In short, given the existence
of nation-states, they should (a) never exercise their power beyond
their territorial area (a foreign policy of “isolationism”), and
(b) maintain the right of secession of groups or entities within
their territorial area.

The right
of secession, if fearlessly upheld, implies also the right of
one or more villages to secede even from its own ethnic nation,
or, even, as Ludwig von Mises affirmed in his Nation, State,
and Economy, the right of secession by each individual.

If one deep
flaw in the Wilsonian enterprise was its imposition of national
self-determination from the outside, another was his total botch
of redrawing the European map. It is difficult to believe that
they could have done a worse job if the Versailles rulers had
blindfolded themselves and put pins arbitrarily in a map of Europe
to create new nations.

Instead of
self-determination for each nation, three officially designated
Good Guy peoples (Poles, Czechs, and Serbs) were made masters
over other nationalities who had hated their guts for centuries,
often with good reason. That is, these three favored nationalities
were not simply given ethnic national independence; instead, their
boundaries were arbitrarily swollen so as to dominate other peoples
officially designated as Bad Guys (or at best Who Cares Guys):
the Poles ruling over Germans, Lithuanians (in the Lithuanian
city of Vilnius/Vilna), Byelorussians, and Ukrainians; the Czechs
ruling over Slovaks and Ukrainians (called “Carpatho-Ruthenians”);
and the Serbs tyrannizing over Croats, Slovenes, Albanians, Hungarians,
and Macedonians, in a geographical abortion called “Yugoslavia”
(now at least in the process of falling apart).

In addition,
the Romanians were aggrandized at the expense of the Hungarians
and Bulgarians. These three (or four if we include Romania) lopsided
countries were also given the absurd and impossible task by the
U.S. and the Western allies of keeping down permanently the two
neighboring great “revisionist” powers and losers at Versailles:
Germany and Russia. This imposed task led straight to World War

In short,
national self-determination must remain a moral principle and
a beacon-light for all nations, and not be something to be imposed
by outside governmental coercion.


One practical
way of implementing self-determination and the right of secession
is the concept of a partition referendum in which each village
or parish votes to decide whether to remain inside the existing
national entity or to secede or join another such nation. The
much-disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh, for example, would undoubtedly
vote overwhelmingly to leave the hated Azerbaijan Republic and
join Armenia. But what of the fact that Nagorno-Karabakh is not
contiguous with greater Armenia, that there is a sliver of ethnically
Azeri land in-between? But surely good will on both sides (which
of course is obviously non-existent at this point) could permit
a free zone or free entry across that zone. Not only an airpath,
but also a road corridor proved to be viable for decades after
the explosive Berlin crisis.

referenda were used fitfully after World War I; the most renowned
case was the separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of the
country. Unfortunately, the British deliberately promised referendum
for a second partition was never carried out by the British government.
As a result, a large amount of Catholic territory in the north
was forcibly incorporated into the Protestant state, and the existence
of that Catholic minority, which undoubtedly would vote to join
the South, has been responsible for the tragic and unending violence
and bloodshed ever since. In short, a genuine partition based
on referenda, would probably lop off from Northern Ireland the
territories of counties Tyrone and Fermanagh (including the city
of Derry) and South Down. Essentially, Northern Ireland would
be much reduced in land area, and left with a belt around Belfast
and county Antrim. The only substantial Catholic minority would
then be in the Catholic section of Belfast.

One criticism
of partition by referendum is that parishes and villages are often
mixed, so that there could not be a precise separation of the
nationalities. In the vexed region of Transylvania, for example,
Hungarian and Romanian villages are intermixed in the same region.
No doubt; no one ever said that such referenda would provide a
panacea. But the point is that at least the degree of voluntary
choice would be enlarged and the amount of social and ethnic conflict
minimized, and not much more can be achieved. (Transylvania, by
the way, is largely Hungarian, especially the northern part, and
the wrong done to Hungary after World War I should be rectified.)

There is
one criticism of the referendum approach that is far more cogent
and troublesome. The Azeri claim to Nagorno-Karabakh rests on
the thesis that, while the Armenians are now admittedly in the
overwhelming majority, the region was, centuries ago, a center
of Azeri culture. This claim from history may properly be dismissed
as the dead hand of the past ruling the living, perhaps with the
proviso that ancient Azeri shrines be protected under Azeri care.

But more
troubling is, say, the current situation in Estonia and Latvia,
where the Soviets deliberately tried to swamp and destroy native
culture and ethnic nationalism by shipping in a large number of
Russians after World War II to work in the factories. In Latvia,
the Russian minority is only slightly under 50 percent. Here,
I believe the recency of this migration and its political nature
tip the scales in favor of maintaining native nationalism. In
fact, libertarians believe that everyone has the natural right
to self-ownership and ownership of property, but that there is
no such thing as a natural “right” to vote. Here, it would make
sense not to allow Russians to vote in Latvia and Estonia, to
treat them as guests or immigrants of indefinite duration, but
not with the voting privileges of citizenship.


are, by and large, as fiercely opposed to ethnic nationalism as
the global democrats, but for very different reasons. Libertarians
are generally what might be called simplistic and “vulgar” individualists.
A typical critique would run as follows: “There is no nation;
there are only individuals. The nation is a collectivist and therefore
pernicious concept. The concept of ‘national self-determination’
is fallacious, since only the individual has a ‘self.’ Since the
nation and the State are both collective concepts, both are pernicious
and should be combated.”

The linguistic
complaint may be dismissed quickly. Yes, of course, there is no
national “self,” we are using “self-determination” as a metaphor,
and no one really thinks of a nation as an actual living entity
with its own “self.”

More seriously,
we must not fall into a nihilist trap. While only individuals
exist, individuals do not exist as isolated and hermetically sealed
atoms. Statists traditionally charge libertarians and individualists
with being “atomistic individualists,” and the charge, one hopes,
has always been incorrect and misconceived. Individuals may be
the only reality, but they influence each other, past and present,
and all individuals grow up in a common culture and language.
(This does not imply that they may not, as adults, rebel and challenge
and exchange that culture for another.)

While the
State is a pernicious and coercive collectivist concept, the “nation”
may be and generally is voluntary. The nation properly refers,
not to the State, but to the entire web of culture, values, traditions,
religion, and language in which the individuals of a society are
raised. It is almost embarrassingly banal to emphasize that point,
but apparently many libertarians aggressively overlook the obvious.
Let us never forget the great libertarian Randolph Bourne’s analysis
of the crucial distinction between “the nation” (the land, the
culture, the terrain, the people) and “the State” (the coercive
apparatus of bureaucrats and politicians), and of his important
conclusion that one may be a true patriot of one’s nation or country
while – and even for that very reason – opposing the
State that rules over it.

In addition,
the libertarian, especially of the anarcho-capitalist wing, asserts
that it makes no difference where the boundaries are, since in
a perfect world all institutions and land areas would be private
and there would be no national boundaries. Fine, but in the meantime,
in the real world, in which language should the government courts
hold their proceedings? What should be the language of signs on
the government streets? Or the language of the government schools?
In the real world, then, national self-determination is a vitally
important matter in which libertarians should properly take sides.

nationalism has its disadvantages for liberty, but also has its
strengths, and libertarians should try to help tip it in the latter
direction. If we were residents of Yugoslavia, for example, we
should be agitating in favor of the right to secede from that
swollen and misbegotten State of Croatia and Slovenia (that is,
favoring their current nationalist movements), while opposing
the desire of the Serb demagogue Slobodan Milosevic to cling to
Serb domination over the Albanians in Kosovo or over the Hungarians
in the Vojvodina (that is, opposing Great Serbian nationalism).
There is, in short national liberation (good) versus national
“imperialism” over other peoples (bad). Once we get over simplistic
individualism, and this distinction should not be difficult to

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was the author of Man,
Economy, and State
, Conceived
in Liberty
, What
Has Government Done to Our Money
, For
a New Liberty
, The
Case Against the Fed
, and many
other books and articles
. He was
also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report

Rothbard Archives

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