Nationalism and Imperialism

Nationalism and Imperialism
Profile photo of Ludwig von Mises

[This article is excerpted from Liberalism, Chapter 3]

4. Nationalism

As long as nations were ruled by monarchical despots, the idea of adjusting the boundaries of the state to coincide with the boundaries between nationalities could not find acceptance. If a potentate desired to incorporate a province into his realm, he cared little whether the inhabitants?the subjects?agreed to a change of rulers or not. The only consideration that was regarded as relevant was whether the available military forces were sufficient to conquer and hold the territory in question. One justified one’s conduct publicly by the more or less artificial construction of a legal claim. The nationality of the inhabitants of the area concerned was not taken into account at all.

It was with the rise of liberalism that the question of how the boundaries of states are to be drawn first became a problem independent of military, historical, and legal considerations. Liberalism, which founds the state on the will of the majority of the people living in a certain territory, disallows all military considerations that were formerly decisive in defining the boundaries of the state. It rejects the right of conquest. It cannot understand how people can speak of “strategic frontiers” and finds entirely incomprehensible the demand that a piece of land be incorporated into one’s own state in order to possess a glacis. Liberalism does not acknowledge the historical right of a prince to inherit a province. A king can rule, in the liberal sense, only over persons and not over a certain piece of land, of which the inhabitants are viewed as mere appendages. The monarch by the grace of God carries the title of a territory, e.g., “King of France.” The kings installed by liberalism received their title, not from the name of the territory, but from that of the people over whom they ruled as constitutional monarchs. Thus, Louis Philippe bore the title, “King of the French”; thus too, there is a “King of the Belgians,” as there was once a “King of the Hellenes.”

It was liberalism that created the legal form by which the desire of the people to belong or not to belong to a certain state could gain expression, viz., the plebiscite. The state to which the inhabitants of a certain territory wish to belong is to be ascertained by means of an election. But even if all the necessary economic and political conditions (e.g., those involving the national policy in regard to education) were fulfilled in order to prevent the plebiscite from being reduced to a farce, even if it were possible simply to take a poll of the inhabitants of every community in order to determine to which state they wished to attach themselves, and to repeat such an election whenever circumstances changed, some unresolved problems would certainly still remain as possible sources of friction between the different nationalities. The situation of having to belong to a state to which one does not wish to belong is no less onerous if it is the result of an election than if one must endure it as the consequence of a military conquest. But it is doubly difficult for the individual who is cut off from the majority of his fellow citizens by a language barrier.

To be a member of a national minority always means that one is a second-class citizen. Discussions of political questions must, of course, be carried on by means of the written and spoken word?in speeches, newspaper articles, and books. However, these means of political enlightenment and debate are not at the disposal of the linguistic minority to the same extent as they are for those whose mother tongue?the language used in everyday speech?is that in which the discussions take place. The political thought of a people, after all, is the reflection of the ideas contained in its political literature. Cast into the form of statute law, the outcome of its political discussions acquires direct significance for the citizen who speaks a foreign tongue, since he must obey the law; yet he has the feeling that he is excluded from effective participation in shaping the will of the legislative authority or at least that he is not allowed to cooperate in shaping it to the same extent as those whose native tongue is that of the ruling majority. And when he appears before a magistrate or any administrative official as a party to a suit or a petition, he stands before men whose political thought is foreign to him because it developed under different ideological influences.

But even apart from all this, the very fact that the members of the minority are required, in appearing before tribunals and administrative authorities, to make use of a language foreign to them already handicaps them seriously in many respects. There is all the difference in the world, when one is on trial, between being able to speak in court directly to one’s judges and being compelled to avail oneself of the services of an interpreter. At every turn, the member of a national minority is made to feel that he lives among strangers and that he is, even if the letter of the law denies it, a second-class citizen.

All these disadvantages are felt to be very oppressive even in a state with a liberal constitution in which the activity of the government is restricted to the protection of the life and property of the citizens. But they become quite intolerable in an interventionist or a socialist state. If the administrative authorities have the right to intervene everywhere according to their free discretion, if the latitude granted to judges and officials in reaching their decisions is so wide as to leave room also for the operation of political prejudices, then a member of a national minority finds himself delivered over to arbitrary judgment and oppression on the part of the public functionaries belonging to the ruling majority. What happens when school and church as well are not independent, but subject to regulation by the government, has already been discussed. .

It is here that one must seek for the roots of the aggressive nationalism that we see at work today. Efforts to trace back to natural rather than political causes the violent antagonisms existing between nations today are altogether mistaken. All the symptoms of supposedly innate antipathy between peoples that are customarily offered in evidence exist also within each individual nation. The Bavarian hates the Prussian; the Prussian, the Bavarian. No less fierce is the hatred existing among individual groups within both France and Poland. Nevertheless, Germans, Poles, and Frenchmen manage to live peacefully within their own countries. What gives the antipathy of the Pole for the German and of the German for the Pole a special political significance is the aspiration of each of the two peoples to seize for itself political control of the border areas in which Germans and Poles live side by side and to use it to oppress the members of the other nationality. What has kindled the hatred between nations to a consuming fire is the fact that people want to use the schools to estrange children from the language of their fathers and to make use of the courts and administrative offices, political and economic measures, and outright expropriation to persecute those speaking a foreign tongue. Because people are prepared to resort to violent means in order to create favorable conditions for the political future of their own nation, they have established a system of oppression in the polyglot areas that imperils the peace of the world.

As long as the liberal program is not completely carried out in the territories of mixed nationality, hatred between members of different nations must become ever fiercer and continue to ignite new wars and rebellions.

5. Imperialism

The lust for conquest on the part of the absolute monarchs of previous centuries was aimed at an extension of their sphere of power and an increase in their wealth. No prince could be powerful enough, for it was by force alone that he could preserve his rule against internal and external enemies. No prince could be rich enough, for he needed money for the maintenance of his soldiers and the upkeep of his entourage.

For a liberal state, the question whether or not the boundaries of its territory are to be further extended is of minor significance. Wealth cannot be won by the annexation of new provinces, since the “revenue” derived from a territory must be used to defray the necessary costs of its administration. For a liberal state, which entertains no aggressive plans, a strengthening of its military power is unimportant. Thus, liberal parliaments resisted all endeavors to increase their country’s war potential and opposed all bellicose and annexationist policies.

But the liberal policy of peace which, in the early sixties of the last century, as liberalism swept from one victory to another, was considered as already assured, at least in Europe, was based on the assumption that the people of every territory would have the right to determine for themselves the state to which they wished to belong. However, in order to secure this right, since the absolutist powers had no intention of peacefully relinquishing their prerogatives, a number of rather serious wars and revolutions were first necessary. The overthrow of foreign domination in Italy, the preservation of the Germans in Schleswig-Holstein in the face of threatening denationalization, the liberation of the Poles and of the South Slavs could be attempted only by force of arms. In only one of the many places where the existing political order found itself opposed by a demand for the right of self-determination could the issue be peacefully resolved: liberal England freed the Ionian islands. Everywhere else the same situation resulted in wars and revolutions. From the struggles to form a unified German state developed the disastrous modern Franco-German conflict; the Polish question remained unresolved because the Czar crushed one rebellion after another; the Balkan question was only partially settled; and the impossibility of solving the problems of the Hapsburg monarchy against the will of the ruling dynasty ultimately led to the incident that became the immediate cause of the World War.

Modern imperialism is distinguished from the expansionist tendencies of the absolute principalities by the fact that its moving spirits are not the members of the ruling dynasty, nor even of the nobility, the bureaucracy, or the officers’ corps of the army bent on personal enrichment and aggrandizement by plundering the resources of conquered territories, but the mass of the people, who look upon it as the most appropriate means for the preservation of national independence. In the complex network of antiliberal policies, which have so far expanded the functions of the state as to leave hardly any field of human activity free of government interference, it is futile to hope for even a moderately satisfactory solution of the political problems of the areas in which members of several nationalities live side by side. If the government of these territories is not conducted along completely liberal lines, there can be no question of even an approach to equality of rights in the treatment of the various national groups. There can then be only rulers and those ruled. The only choice is whether one will be hammer or anvil. Thus, the striving, for as strong a national state as possible?one that can extend its control to all territories of mixed nationality?becomes an indispensable requirement of national self-preservation.

But the problem of linguistically mixed areas is not limited to countries long settled. Capitalism opens up for civilization new lands offering more favorable conditions of production than great parts of the countries that have been long inhabited. Capital and labor flow to the most favorable location. The migratory movement thus initiated exceeds by far all the previous migrations of the peoples of the world. Only a few nations can have their emigrants move to lands in which political power is in the hands of their compatriots. Where, however, this condition does not prevail, the migration gives rise once again to all those conflicts that generally develop in polyglot territories. In particular cases, into which we shall not enter here, matters are somewhat different in the areas of overseas colonization than in the long-settled countries of Europe. Nevertheless, the conflicts that spring from the unsatisfactory situation of national minorities are, in the last analysis, identical. The desire of each country to preserve its own nationals from such a fate leads, on the one hand, to the struggle for the acquisition of colonies suitable for settlement by Europeans, and, on the other hand, to the adoption of the policy of using import duties to protect domestic production operating under less favorable conditions against the superior competition of foreign industry, in the hope of thereby making the emigration of workers unnecessary. Indeed, in order to expand the protected market as far as possible, efforts are made to acquire even territories that are not regarded as suitable for European settlement. We may date the beginning of modern imperialism from the late seventies of the last century, when the industrial countries of Europe started to abandon the policy of free trade and to engage in the race for colonial “markets” in Africa and Asia.

It was in reference to England that the term “imperialism” was first employed to characterize the modern policy of territorial expansion. England’s imperialism, to be sure, was primarily directed not so much toward the incorporation of new territories as toward the creation of an area of uniform commercial policy out of the various possessions subject to the King of England. This was the result of the peculiar situation in which England found itself as the mother country Of the most extensive colonial settlements in the world. Nevertheless, the end that the English imperialists sought to attain in the creation of a customs union embracing the dominions and the mother country was the same as that which the colonial acquisitions of Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, and other European countries were intended to serve, viz., the creation of protected export markets.

The grand commercial objectives aimed at by the policy of imperialism were nowhere attained. The dream of an all-British customs union remained unrealized. The territories annexed by European countries in the last decades, as well as those in which they were able to obtain “concessions,” play such a subordinate role in the provision of raw materials and half-manufactured goods for the world market and in their corresponding consumption of industrial products that no essential change in conditions could be brought about by such arrangements. In order to attain the goals that imperialism aimed at, it was not enough for the nations of Europe to occupy areas inhabited by savages incapable of resistance. They had to reach out for territories that were in the possession of peoples ready and able to defend themselves. And it is here that the policy of imperialism suffered shipwreck, or will soon do so. In Abyssinia, in Mexico, in the Caucasus, in Persia, in China?everywhere we see the imperialist aggressors in retreat or at least already in great difficulties.

Profile photo of Ludwig von Mises

Ludwig von Mises was one of the most notable economists and social philosophers of the twentieth century. In the course of a long and highly productive life, developed an integrated, deduct­ive science of economics based on the fundamental axiom that in­dividual human beings act purposively to achieve desired goals. Even though his economic analysis itself was "value-free" — in the sense of being irrelevant to values held by economists — Mises concluded that the only viable economic policy for the human race was a policy of unrestricted laissez-faire, of free markets and the unhampered exercise of the right of private property, with government strictly limited to the defense of person and property within its territorial area.

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