Nationalism as National Liberation: Lessons from the End of the Cold War


Ryan McMaken – March 10, 2020

During the early 1990s, as the world of the old Soviet Bloc was rapidly falling apart, 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 won de facto independence for the first time in decades. Other groups began to demand full blown de jure secession as well.

Rothbard approved of this, and he set to work encouraging the secessionists over the opposition of many foreign policy “experts.”

“Nationalism” versus Powerful States

For example, when it became clear in early 1990 that the Baltic states were preparing to secede from the rapidly fading Soviet state, the Soviets asked the West for help. As the Los Angeles Times noted at the time, “Soviet officials are stressing in their warnings…the danger of unleasing [sic] new and difficult-to-control forces through the separation of not only the Baltics but other Soviet republics.”

Unfortunately, the Bush administration expressed similar misgivings and the “‘global democracy’ establishment,” as Rothbard called it, set to work trying 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 toward other nationalities.”

Thus, it was presumed that it was better for the Baltic-state nationalists to remain under Russian control and submit to the “democratic ideal.” Rothbard summed up the endgame favored by the antinationalists:

The Baltic nations…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.

Rothbard was forced to return to the topic in 1991, when Slovenia seceded from Yugoslavia in a nearly bloodless maneuver that led to a ten-day war with fewer than one hundred deaths. This all occurred, Rothbard noted “despite the U.S. and other powers moaning about the ‘territorial integrity of Yugoslavia.'” 1

Again in 1993, Rothbard had to defend secession for “national” groups when in late 1992, the Czechoslovakian state began talking about breaking itself up into two countries. 2 Once again, the New York Times and other guardians of the “respectable” foreign policy establishment objected. When the separation finally took place, the Times was sure to run a one-sided editorial contending that the dissolution of the country was greeted with “wide regret” and ominously predicted that the move would add “new potential trouble spots to a Central Europe already convulsed by nationalism.” 3

Again and again, defenders of powerful centrally controlled states wrung their hands over the possibility that states might be broken up into smaller, independent, and more locally controlled pieces.

It should be noted that in all of these cases—from the Baltics to Prague, to Budapest and down to Slovenia—secession took place with very limited bloodshed, and certainly far less bloodshed than occurred under earlier communist strongmen. This, of course, is all studiously ignored today. Instead, national liberation is today denounced as “balkanization” and said to be synonymous with what happened in the minority of cases, namely, the bloodshed of the Yugoslav Wars.

In most cases, for all the warnings about Central Europe being “convulsed by nationalism,” the fact remains that there were no massacres of Czechs by Slovenians, or vice versa. Outside Yugoslavia the travails suffered by ethnic minorities in the wake of the Soviet retreat were miniscule compared to what had been standard operating procedure under Soviet domination. The new Baltic ethnic majorities in the 1990s were not especially liberal toward the Russian-speaking minority, but in the nearly thirty years since the Baltic secessions, the Russian minorities have not been subjected to anything even approaching the same magnitude of terrors, killings, and Siberian deportation endured by the Baltic peoples under the Soviet state.

Yet, had the foreign policy elites had their way thirty years ago Lithuanians, Estonians, and Latvians would still today be forced to live as a tiny minority within the Russian state. It’s not hard to guess which way majority rule would go under those conditions. Yet democracy, we were told, would ensure that everything would turn out fine.

But, as Rothbard pointed out in 1994, in his essay “Nations by Consent,” the prodemocracy, antisecession party failed even on its own terms. After demanding respect for the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia (by then known as Serbia) the prodemocracy party ended up calling for secession after all:

Take, for example, the current mess in Bosnia. Only a couple of years ago, Establishment opinion, Received Opinion of Left, Right, or Center, loudly proclaimed the importance of maintaining “the territorial integrity” of Yugoslavia, and bitterly denounced all secession movements. Now, only a short time later, the same Establishment, only recently defending the Serbs as champions of “the Yugoslav nation” against vicious secessionist movements trying to destroy that “integrity,” now reviles and wishes to crush the Serbs for “aggression” against the “territorial integrity” of “Bosnia” or “Bosnia-Herzegovina,” a trumped-up “nation” that had no more existence than the “nation of Nebraska” before 1991. But these are the pitfalls in which we are bound to fall if we remain trapped by the mythology of the “nation-state” whose chance boundary at time must be upheld.

The Logic of National Liberation

Although Rothbard returned to this issue in the 1990s because of the Soviet crack-up, his work in that period closely reflects his earlier writings on political independence movements.

Writing in September 1969, he frequently supported secession for the purpose of “national liberation,” since “Aside from being a necessary condition to the achievement 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 Quebecois nationalists, stating his hope that separatism and secession would lead to a “domino principle” in which secession would breed even more secession. 

It was very much in this line of thinking that Rothbard described the America Revolution as a case of national liberation:

The American Revolution was radical in many other ways as well. It was the first successful war of national liberation against western imperialism. A people’s war, waged by the majority of Americans having the courage and the zeal to rise up against constituted “legitimate” government, actually threw off their “sovereign.” A revolutionary war led by “fanatics” and zealots rejected the siren calls of compromise and easy adjustment to the existing system.

Not in this case or 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 Baltics, and of ethnic Serbs in Slovenia. But defending the mythical sanctity of the nation-state’s status quo borders takes us down a road that is even more problematic. According to Rothbard, those who take this position “mistakenly scorn the idea of national liberation and independence as simply setting up more nation-states”—end up “becom[ing] in the concrete, objective supporters of the bloated, imperialistic nation-states of today.”

After all, if secession in the name of national liberation is bad, we end up on principle supporting the Soviet Union, and every empire or two-bit dictator who manages to hammer together a variety of disparate groups under a single national banner.

Originally published at Ryan McMaken is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. He has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

Image source: Getty

  1. Murray Rothbard, “Welcome, Slovenia!,” in The Irrepressible Rothbard (Burlingame, CA: Center for Libertarian Studies, 2000), pp. 238–41.[]
  2. Murray Rothbard, “Ex-Czechoslovakia,” in The Irrepressible Rothbard (Burlingame, CA: The Center for Libertarian Studies, 2000), pp. 242–44.[]
  3. Stephen Engleberg, “Czechoslovakia Breaks In Two, to Wide Regret,” New York Times, Jan 1, 1993.[]

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