The Irrepressible Rothbard
Essays of Murray N. Rothbard
Edited by Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.
THE NATIONALITIES QUESTION
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 redrawn.
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.
HOSTILES: THE AVERAGE AMERICAN
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."
HOSTILES: THE MARXIST-LENINISTS
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
Britain, 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.
HOSTILES: THE GLOBAL DEMOCRATS
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 "ccredited 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
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 1864.
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!
Nationalities 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-tates be replaced by a one-world monopoly government? Shouldn't
unitary world government replace what has been properly termed our
existing "international anarchy?"
Minarchist 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?
JUST BOUNDARIES AND NATIONAL SELF-DETERMINATION
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.
National 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
Referring 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.
PARTITION AND REFERENDUM
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 inbetween? 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
Partition 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
THE HOSTILES: THE LIBERTARIANS
Libertarians 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.
Finally, 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 grasp.