Mises on Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Right of Self-Determination

For Mises, liberalism first emerged and expressed itself in the nineteenth century as a political movement in the form of “peaceful nationalism.” Its two fundamental principles were freedom or, more concretely, “the right of self-determination of peoples” and national unity or the “nationality principle.” The two principles were indissolubly linked. The primary goal of the liberal nationalist movements (Italian, Polish, Greek, German, Serbian, etc.) was the liberation of their peoples from the despotic rule of kings and princes. Liberal revolution against despotism necessarily took on a nationalist character for two reasons. First, many of the royal despots were foreign, for example, the Austrian Hapsburgs and French Bourbons who ruled the Italians, and the Prussian king and Russian Czar who subjugated the Poles. Second, and more important, political realism dictated “the necessity of setting the alliance of the oppressed against the alliance of the oppressors in order to achieve freedom at all, but also the necessity of holding together in order to find in unity the strength to preserve freedom”. This alliance of the oppressed was founded on national unity based on a common language, culture, and modes of thinking and acting. 

Even though forged in wars of liberation, liberal nationalism was for Mises both peaceful and cosmopolitan. Not only did the separate national liberation movements view each other as brothers in their common struggle against royal despotism, but they embraced the principles of economic liberalism, “which proclaims the solidarity of interests among all peoples.” Mises stresses the compatibility of nationalism, cosmopolitanism, and peace:

[T]he nationality principle includes only the rejection of every overlordship; it demands self-determination, autonomy. Then, however, its content expands; not only freedom but also unity is the watchword. But the desire for national unity, too, is above all thoroughly peaceful. . . . [N]ationalism does not clash with cosmopolitanism, for the unified nation does not want discord with neighboring peoples, but peace and friendship.1

As a classical liberal, Mises is careful to specify that the right of self-determination is not a collective right but an individual right: “It is not the right of self determination of a delimited national unit, but rather the right of the inhabitants of every territory to decide on the state to which they wish to belong.” Mises makes it crystal clear that self-determination is an individual right that would have to be granted to “every individual person . . . if it were in any way possible.” It should also be noted in this respect that Mises rarely speaks of the “right of secession,” perhaps because of its historical connotation of the right of a government of a subordinate political unit to withdraw from a superior one. 

While championing of self-determination as an individual right, Mises argues that the nation has a fundamental and relatively permanent being independent of the transient state (or states) which may govern it at any given time. Thus he refers to the nation as “an organic entity [which] can be neither increased nor reduced by changes in states.” Accordingly, Mises characterizes a man’s “compatriots” as “those of his fellow men with whom he shares a common land and language and with whom he often forms an ethnic and spiritual community as well.” In the same vein, Mises cites the German author J. Grimm, who refers to the “natural law . . . that not rivers and not mountains form the boundary lines of peoples and that for a people that has moved over mountains and rivers, its own language alone can set the boundary.” The nationality principle therefore implies that liberal nation-states may comprise a monoglot people inhabiting geographically non-contiguous regions, provinces and even villages. Mises contends that nationalism is thus a natural outcome of and in complete harmony with individual rights: “The formation of [liberal democratic] states comprising all the members of a national group was the result of the exercise of the right of self determination, not its purpose.”2

It should be noted here that, in contrast to many modern libertarians who view individuals as atomistic beings who lack emotional affinities and spiritual bonds with selected fellow humans, Mises affirms the reality of the nation as “an organic entity.” For Mises the nation comprises humans who perceive and act toward one another in a way that separates them from other groups of people based on the meaning and significance the compatriots attach to objective factors such as shared language, traditions, ancestry and so on. Membership in a nation, no less than in a family, involves concrete acts of volition based on subjective perceptions and preferences with respect to a complex of objective historical circumstances. According to Murray Rothbard, who shares Mises’s view of the reality of the nation separate from the state apparatus:

Contemporary libertarians often assume, mistakenly, that individuals are bound to each other only by the nexus of market exchange. They forget that everyone is necessarily born into a family, a language, and a culture. Every person is born into one of several overlapping communities, usually including an ethnic group, with specific values, cultures, religious beliefs, and traditions. . . . The ‘nation’ cannot be precisely defined; it is a complex and varying constellation of different forms of communities, languages, ethnic groups or religions. . . . The question of nationality is made more complex by the interplay of objectively existing reality and subjective perceptions.

Colonialism as the Denial of the Right of Self-Determination

Unlike many late 19th– and early 20th-century liberals, Mises was a passionate anti-colonialist. As a radical liberal, he recognized the universality of the right of self determination and the nationality principle for all peoples and races. He wrote powerful and scathing indictments against the European subjugation and mistreatment of African and Asian peoples and demanded a quick and complete dismantling of colonial regimes. It is worthwhile quoting Mises on this at length:

The basic idea of colonial policy was to take advantage of the military superiority of the white race over the members of other races. The Europeans set out, equipped with all the weapons and contrivances that their civilization placed at their disposal, to subjugate weaker peoples, to rob them of their property, and to enslave them. Attempts have been made to extenuate and gloss over the true motive of colonial policy with the excuse that its sole object was to make it possible for primitive peoples to share in the blessings of European civilization. . . . Could there be a more doleful proof of the sterility of European civilization than that it can be spread by no other means than fire and sword?

No chapter of history is steeped further in blood than the history of colonialism. Blood was shed uselessly and senselessly. Flourishing lands were laid waste; whole peoples destroyed and exterminated. All this can in no way be extenuated or justified. The dominion of Europeans in Africa and in important parts of Asia is absolute. It stands in the sharpest contrast to all the principles of liberalism and democracy, and there can be no doubt that we must strive for its abolition. . . . European conquerors . . . have brought arms and engines of destruction of all kinds to the colonies; they have sent out their worst and most brutal individuals as officials and officers; at the point of the sword they have set up a colonial rule that in its sanguinary cruelty rivals the despotic system of the Bolsheviks. Europeans must not be surprised if the bad example that they themselves have set in their colonies now bears evil fruit. In any case, they have no right to complain pharisaically about the low state of public morals among the natives. Nor would they be justified in maintaining that the natives are not yet mature enough for freedom and that they still need at least several years of further education under the lash of foreign rulers before they are capable of being, left on their own.

In those areas where native peoples were strong enough to mount armed resistance to colonial despotism, Mises enthusiastically supported and cheered on these national liberation movements: “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.” 

To completely phase out colonialism, Mises proposed the establishment of a temporary protectorate under the aegis of the League of Nations. But he made it clear that such an arrangement was “to be viewed only as a transitional stage” and that the ultimate goal must be “the complete liberation of the colonies from the despotic rule under which they live.” Mises based his demand for the recognition of the right of self-determination and respect for the nationality principle among colonized peoples on the bedrock of individual rights:

No one has a right to thrust himself into the affairs of others in order to further their interest, and no one ought, when he has his own interests in view, to pretend that he is acting selflessly only in the interest of others.

The Breakdown of Liberal Nationalism: Majority Rule and Nationality Conflicts

This bring us to Mises’s key insight into the irreconcilable “conflict of nationalities” bred by majority rule—even under liberal democratic constitutions. As a keen observer of the pre- and post Great War polyglot states of Central and Eastern Europe, Mises noted that “national struggles can only arise on the soil of freedom.” Thus as prewar Austria approached freedom, “the violence of the struggle between the nationalities grew.” With the collapse of the old royalist state, these struggles were “carried on only more bitterly in the new states, where ruling majorities confront national minorities without the mediation of the authoritarian state, which softens much harshness.” Mises attributes such a counterintuitive outcome to the fact that the nationality principle was not respected in the creation of the new states. Mises’s point is illustrated in the modern ethnic conflicts that erupted in the wake of the collapse of Communism and the breakup of the Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia.3

Mises maintains that two or more “nations” cannot peacefully coexist under a unitary democratic government. National minorities in a democracy are “completely politically powerless” because they have no chance of peacefully influencing the majority linguistic group. The latter represents “a cultural circle that is closed” to minority nationalities and whose political ideas are “thought, spoken, and written in a language that they do not understand.” Even where proportional representation prevails, the national minority “still remains excluded from collaboration in political life.” According to Mises, because the minority has no prospect of one day attaining power, the activity of its representatives “remains limited from the beginning to fruitless criticism . . . that . . . can lead to no political goal.” Thus, concludes Mises, even if the member of the minority nation, “according to the letter of the law, be a citizen with full rights . . . in truth he is politically without rights, a second class citizen, a pariah.”

Mises characterizes majority rule as a form of colonialism from the point of view of the minority nation in a polyglot territory: “[It] signifies something quite different here than in nationally uniform territories; here, for a part of the people, it is not popular rule but foreign rule.” Peaceful liberal nationalism therefore is inevitably stifled in polyglot territories governed by a unitary state, because, Mises argues, “democracy seems like oppression to the minority. Where only the choice is open oneself to suppress or be suppressed, one easily decides for the former.” Thus, for Mises, democracy means the same thing for the minority as “subjugation under the rule of others,” and this “holds true everywhere and, so far, for all times.” Mises dismisses “the often cited” counter-example of Switzerland as irrelevant because local self-rule was not disturbed by “internal migrations” between the different nationalities. Had significant migration established the presence of substantial national minorities in some of the cantons, “the national peace of Switzerland would already have vanished long ago.”

With respect to regions inhabited by different nationalities, Mises therefore concludes, “the right of self-determination works to the advantage only of those who comprise the majority.” This is especially true, for example, in interventionist states where education is compulsory and “peoples speaking different languages live together side by side and intermingled in polyglot confusion.” Under these conditions, formal schooling is a source of “spiritual coercion” and “one means of oppressing nationalities.” The very choice of the language of instruction can “alienate children from the nationality to which their parents belong” and “over the years, determine the nationality of a whole area.” The school thus becomes the source of irreconcilable national conflict and “a political prize of highest importance.” With respect to the debate over compulsory education, Mises emphasizes, the only effective solution is to depoliticize schooling by abolishing both compulsory education laws and political involvement with schools, leaving the education of children “entirely to parents and to private associations and institutions.”

Compulsory education is only an extreme example of how interventionism exacerbates the inevitable conflict between different nationalities that are living together under the jurisdiction of a single state. In such a situation, Mises argues: “Every interference on the part of government in economic life can become a means of persecuting the members of nationalities speaking a language different from that of the ruling group.” Perhaps Mises’s most important insight, however, is that even under a laissez-faire system, where government is rigorously restricted to “protecting and preserving the life, liberty, property and health of the individual citizen,” the political arena will still degenerate into a battleground between disparate nationalities residing within its geographical jurisdiction. Even the routine activities of the police and judicial system in this ideal liberal regime “can become dangerous in areas where any basis at all can be found for discriminating between one group and another in the conduct of official business.”4 This is especially true in states where “differences of religion, nationality, or the like have divided the population into groups separated by a gulf so deep as to exclude every impulse of fairness or humanity and to leave room for nothing but hate.” Mises gives the example of a judge “who acts consciously, or still more often unconsciously, in a biased manner” because he believes “he is fulfilling a higher duty when he makes use of the powers and prerogatives of his office in the service of his own group.”

Not only is the member of a national minority subjected to ingrained and routine bias in the political sphere, he is unable to grasp the thought and ideology that shape political affairs. His social and political worldview as well as his cultural and religious attitudes reflect ideas formulated and discussed in the national literature of a foreign language, and these ideas diverge, possibly radically, from those of the majority linguistic group. According to Mises even though political and cultural ideas are transmitted and shared among all nations, “every nation develops currents of ideas in its own special way and assimilates them differently. In every people they encounter another national character and another constellation of conditions.” Mises gives the example of how the political ideal of socialism differed between Germany and France, and between the latter two and Russia.

The result of this natural “nationalizing” and differentiating of even similar ideas and intellectual trends is that the member of the minority nation confronts a linguistic and intellectual barrier that prevents him from meaningfully participating in the political discussion that shapes the laws under which he lives. Explains Mises:

Cast into the form of statute law, the outcome of [the majority’s] 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 petition, he stands before men whose political thought is foreign to him because it developed under different ideological influences. . . . 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. 

The result of the political impotence of the national minority in a majoritarian democracy is that it perceives itself to be a conquered or colonized people. For as Mises points out: “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. . . .” In the 1920s Mises had already identified the phenomenon of what today is misleadingly called “institutional racism”— because the problem lies not with all institutions, only political ones — but is better described as “democratic subjugation.” In the1960s, Malcolm X (1963) gave poignant expression to the yearning for self-determination on the part of minority African nationalities in the U.S., saddled with an interventionist state controlled by peoples of European extraction:

This new type of black man, he doesn’t want integration; he wants separation. Not segregation, separation. To him, segregation . . . means that which is forced upon inferiors by superiors. . . . In the white community, the white man controls the economy, his own economy, his own politics, his own everything. That’s his community. But at the same time while the Negro lives in a separate community, it’s a segregated community. Which means it’s regulated from the outside by outsiders. The white man has all of the businesses in the Negro community. He runs the politics of the Negro community. He controls all the civic organizations in the Negro community. This is a segregated community. . . . We don’t go for segregation. We go for separation. Separation is when you have your own. You control your own economy; you control your own politics; you control your own society; you control your own everything. You have yours and you control yours; we have ours and we control ours.

In analyzing the causes and solution of nationality conflicts, Mises coined the terms “militant” or “aggressive” nationalism, which he contrasted with “liberal” or “peaceful” nationalism. Thus for Mises, the choice was never between nationalism and a bland, atomistic “globalism”; the real choice was either nationalism that was cosmopolitan and embraced universal individual rights and free trade or militant nationalism intent on subjugating and oppressing other nations. He attributed the rise of anti-liberal nationalism to the failure to apply the right of self-determination and the nationality principle consistently and to the utmost degree possible in the formation of new political entities in the wake of the overthrow of royal despotism by war or revolution. The consequence was peoples differentiated by language, heritage, religion, etc. artificially and involuntarily bound together by arbitrary political ties. The inevitable outcome of these polyglot, mixed-nation-states was the suppression of minorities by the majority nationality, a bitter struggle for control of the state apparatus, and the creation of mutual and deep-seated distrust and hatred.5 A more euphonious term than “mixed-nation-states” for these political entities would be “multinational states” but given its current connotation, the latter term is likely to be misleading. This state of affairs often culminated in state-sanctioned physical violence, including the expropriation and expulsion and even the murder of minority populations.

Further Reading

Mises, Ludwig von. 1983. Nation, State, and Economy: Contributions to the Politics and History of Our Time. Trans. Leland B. Yeager. New York: New York University Press.

_____. 1985. Liberalism in the Classical Tradition. Trans. Ralph Raico. 3rd ed. Irvington-on-Hudson, NY and San Fancisco: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc. and Cobden Press (co-publishers)

_____. 1996. Critique of Interventionism. Trans. Hans F. Sennholz. 2nd ed. Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.

_____. 1998. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. Scholar’s Edition. Auburn, AL: The Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Rothbard, Murray N. 1993. “Hands Off the Serbs.” RRR: Rothbard-Rockwell Report. Pp. 1-5.

_____. 1994. “Nations by Consent: Decomposing the Nation-State.” Journal of Libertarian Studies 11:1 (Fall): 1-10.

[This essay is a selection from “Mises on Nationalism, the Right of Self-Determination, and the Problem of Immigration” first published in 2017.]

  • 1. Mises (1983, p. 34) gives the charming example of the Italian nationalists who shouted to the imperial Austrian soldiers: “Go back across the Alps and we will become brothers again.”
  • 2. However, Mises (1983, p. 37) concedes that in rare cases, “where freedom and self government already prevail and seem assured without it,” such as Switzerland, the right of self determination may not result in a nationally unified state.
  • 3. On the ethnic-religious conflicts in the former Yugoslavia see Rothbard (1993; 1994).
  • 4. Rothbard (1994, pp. 5-6) makes a similar point about the unavoidable political conflicts that arise in a situation where different nationalities are bound together under the jurisdiction of a single, laissez-faire liberal government: “But even under the minimal state, national boundaries would still make a difference, often a big one, to the inhabitants of the area. For in what language . . . will be the street signs, telephone books, court proceedings, or school classes of the area? 
  • 5. A more euphonious term than “mixed-nation-states” for these political entities would be “multinational states” but given its current connotation, the latter term is likely to be misleading.