When nationalism fuels decentralization


This article is chapter 6 of “Breaking Away: The Case for Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities” and is published with permission from Mises Wire.

By Ryan McMaken

During the early 1990s, as the world of the old Soviet bloc rapidly fell apart, economist and historian Murray Rothbard saw it all for what it was: a trend of mass decentralization and secession unfolding before the world’s eyes.

The old Warsaw Pact states of Poland, Hungary and others gained both de jure and de facto independence for the first time in decades. Other groups within the Soviet Union also began to demand full de jure independence.

Rothbard approved of this trend, and began working to encourage the secessions, contrary to many foreign policy experts.

“Nationalism” as decentralization

For example, when it became clear in early 1990 that the Baltic states were preparing to break away from the rapidly declining Soviet state, the Soviets asked the West for help. Like the Los Angeles Times noted at the time: “Soviet officials emphasize in their warnings (…) the danger of unleashing new and difficult-to-control powers through the secession of not only the Baltic countries, but other Soviet republics.”

Unfortunately, the Bush administration expressed similar reservations and the “global democracy establishment”, as Rothbard called it, began working to try to convince the world that these “nationalist” liberation movements were a threat to global peace.

The playbook then was similar to what it is now: “The concerns and demands of nationalities are dismissed as narrow, selfish, parochial and even dangerously hostile per se and aggressive towards other nationalities.”

It was therefore assumed that it was better for the Baltic state nationalists to remain under Russian control and submit to the “democratic ideal”. Rothbard summarized the end game favored by the anti-nationalists:

“The Baltic nations (…) are ‘part’ of the Soviet Union, and therefore their unilateral secession (against the majority will of the Soviet Union) becomes an insult to ‘democracy’, anti ‘majority rule’ and last but far from least, to the unitary , centralizing nation-state that is said to embody the democratic ideal.”

Rothbard was forced to return to the subject in 1991, when Slovenia seceded from Yugoslavia in an almost bloodless maneuver that led to a ten-day war with fewer than a hundred deaths. All this happened, Rothbard noted, “despite the US and other powers moaning about the ‘territorial integrity of Yugoslavia'”.

Again in 1993, Rothbard had to defend secession for “national” groups when the Czechoslovak state began talking about breaking itself into two countries in late 1992.

Again the New York Times and other guardians of the “respectable” foreign policy establishment objected. When the secession finally took place, the Times made sure to publish a one-sided editorial claiming that the dissolution of the country was met with “wide regret” and ominously predicted that the move would “add new potential trouble spots to a Central Europe already experiencing convulsions of nationalism”. .

Again and again, defenders of powerful centrally controlled states raise the possibility that states can be broken up into smaller, independent and more locally controlled pieces.

It should be noted that in all these cases – from the Baltic countries to Prague, to Budapest and down to Slovenia – secession occurred with very limited bloodshed, and certainly much less bloodshed than under earlier communist strongmen.

Of course, this is all carefully ignored today. Instead, national liberation today is denounced as “balkanization” and is said to be synonymous with what happened in the minority of cases, namely the bloodshed of the Yugoslav wars.

In most cases, however, the fact remains that there was no massacre of Czechs by Slovaks, or vice versa – this despite all the warnings about Central Europe “having convulsions of nationalism”. Outside of Yugoslavia, the hardships suffered by ethnic minorities in the wake of the Soviet refuge were negligible compared to what was standard operating procedure under Soviet rule.

The new Baltic ethnic majorities in the 1990s were not particularly liberal towards the Russian-speaking minority, but in the nearly thirty years since the Baltic secessions, the Russian minorities have not been subjected to anything on the same scale of terror, murder and Siberian deportation as the Baltic peoples under the Soviet state were not tolerated.

But if the foreign policy elite had their way thirty years ago, Lithuanians, Estonians and Latvians would still be forced to live as a small minority under the Russian state today. It is not difficult to guess which way majority rule would go under those conditions. Yet, we were told, democracy would ensure that everything would turn out well.

But, as Rothbard pointed out in 1994, in his essay “Nations by Consent,” the pro-democracy, anti-secession party failed even on its own terms. After demanding respect for the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia (then known as Serbia), the pro-democracy party eventually called for secession.

The logic of national liberation

Although Rothbard returned to this issue in the 1990s as a result of the Soviet crackdown, his work in that period now reflects his earlier writings on political independence movements.

Writing in September 1969, he frequently supported secession for the purpose of “national liberation”, since “besides being a necessary condition for the attainment of justice, national liberation is the only solution to the great world problems of territorial disputes and oppressive national rule”.

Rothbard supported the secession of Biafra from Nigeria in an editorial in 1970. In 1977 he supported Quebec nationalists and expressed his hope that separatism and secession would lead to a “domino principle” in which secession would produce even more secession.

It was very much in the same vein that Rothbard described the American Revolution as a case of national liberation:

“The American Revolution was also radical in many other ways. It was the first successful national liberation war against Western imperialism. A people’s war, waged by the majority of Americans who had the courage and zeal to stand up against the constituted ‘legitimate’ government, actually rejected their sovereignty. A revolutionary war led by ‘fanatics’ and zealots rejected the siren calls of compromise and easy adaptation to the existing system.”

Neither in this nor in any other case did Rothbard deny or ignore that there were those who ended up on the losing side as a result of secession. This was true of the loyalists in America, of Russians in the Baltic countries, and of ethnic Serbs in Slovenia. But the defense of the mythical sanctity of the nation-state’s status quo borders takes us down a path that is even more problematic.

According to Rothbard, those who take the position that “the idea of ​​national liberation and independence simply amounts to the establishment of more nation-states” will eventually end up as “the concrete, objective supporters of the bloated, imperialist nation-states”.

After all. If secession in the name of national liberation is bad, in principle we support the Soviet Union and every rich or self-important dictator who succeeds in hammering together a variety of disparate groups under a single national banner.