The Growth of the Imperial Tendency and Its Limitations

Sri Aurobindo, in describing the period prior to the start of the First World War, saw the rise of great imperial powers systematically undermining the standing of individual nation-states.  The British Empire controlled vast territories throughout the globe, while the French, Germans, Dutch all had their own colonial holdings and control.  The advent of the First World War, however, weakened these imperial powers and allowed nationalism to once again gain strength to compete with the empire-building that preceded the war.  The tension between empire and nation represented the development of a larger unity versus the historical presence and compact societal grouping of the nation-state.

Sri Aurobindo notes:  “The two forces in action before the war were imperialism … and nationalism.  They were the two sides of one phenomenon, the aggressive or expansive and the defensive aspects of national egoism.  But in the trend of imperialism this egoism had some eventual chance of dissolving itself by excessive self-enlargement, as the aggressive tribe disappeared, for example the Persian tribe, first into the empire and then into the nationality of the Persian people, or as the city state also disappeared, first into the Roman Empire and then both tribe and city state without hope of revival into the nations which arose by fusion out of the irruption of the German tribes into the declining Latin unity.  In the same or a similar way aggressive national imperialism by overspreading the world might end in destroying altogether the nation-unit as the city state and tribe were destroyed by the aggressive expansion of a few dominant city states and tribes.  The force of defensive nationalism has reacted against this tendency, restricted it and constantly thwarted its evolutionary aim.  But before the war, the separative force of nationalism seemed doomed to impotence and final suppression in face of the tremendous power with which science, organisation and efficiency had armed the governing States of the large imperial aggregates.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Ideal of Human Unity, Part Two, Chapter 29, The Idea of a League of Nations, pp. 254-255