The yardstick of democracy

John Murphy outlines ten democratic principles which underpin progressive opinion on the nation, state sovereignty and the European Union


We are internationalists on the basis of our solidarity as members of the human race. As internationalists we seek the emancipation of humankind.

The human race is divided into nations. Therefore we stand for the self-determination of nations. First proclaimed in 1789 in the Declaration of the Rights of Man of the French Revolution, the right of nations to self-determination is now a basic principle of international law, enshrined in the United Nations Charter.

As democrats and internationalists we assert the right of those nations that wish it to have their independence, sovereignty and a nation state of their own, so that they may relate to one another internationally on the basis of equal rights with other nations.

The democratic principle of internationalism does not mean that we are called upon to urge people of other nations to assert their right to self-determination; but that we respect their wishes and show solidarity with them if they decide that.

Separation, mutual recognition of boundaries, and mutual respect -- i.e. political equality -- are the pre-requisite of free and friendly cooperation, of internationalism in other words.


Nations exist as communities before nationalisms and nation states. To analyse nations and the national question in terms of ‘nationalisms’ is philosophical idealism, looking at the mental reflection rather than the thing it reflects.

Nations evolve historically as stable, long-lasting communities of people, sharing a common language and territory, and the common culture and history that arise from that. On this basis develop the solidarities, mutual interests and mutual identification that distinguish a people from its neighbours.

Some nations are ancient, some young, some in process of being formed. Like all human groups -- for example the family, clan, tribe -- they are fuzzy at the edges. The empirical test is to ask people themselves. If they have passed beyond the stage of kinship society where the political unit is the clan or tribe, people will invariably know what nation they belong to. That is the political and democratic test too.

If enough people in a nation desire its independence, they should have it. For democracy can exist normally only at the level of the national community and the nation state. Within the national community alone exists sufficient solidarity, mutual identification and mutuality of interest among people as to induce minorities freely to consent to majority rule and obey a common government based upon that.

Such solidarity is the basis of shared citizenship. It underpins a people’s allegiance to a government as ‘their’ government, and their willingness to finance that government’s tax and income-transfer system.

The solidarities that exist within nations do not exist between them, although other solidarities may exist, international solidarity.


Fewer that a dozen contemporary nation states are more than a few centuries old. The number of states in the United Nations has gone from 60 or so in 1946 to nearly 200 today. The number of European states has gone from 30 to 50 since 1989.

This process is not ended even in western Europe, where people have been at the business of nation-state formation for centuries.It is still ongoing in eastern Europe. It has scarcely begun in Africa and Asia, where the bulk of humankind lives, where most people still identify significantly with clan-tribal society, and where state boundaries were drawn by the colonial powers after World War II, with little consideration for the wishes of indigenous peoples.

There are some 6000 distinct languages in the world. At their present rate of disappearance there should still be 600 or so left in a century’s time. These will survive because in each case they are spoken by several million people. There clearly are many embryonic nations and dozens of new nation states are likely to come into being during the 21st century.


The right to self-determination of nations does not require that a nation must seek to establish a separate state. Nations can amicably co-exist with other nations inside a multinational state, but only if their national rights are respected and the smaller nations do not feel oppressed by the larger ones, especially culturally and linguistically.

If that condition breaks down, political pressures are likely to develop to break-up the multinational state in question. The historical tendency seems to be for multinational states to give way to national ones, mainly because of the breakdown in solidarity between their component nations and the development of a feeling among the smaller ones that they are being put upon by the larger.

Historically, multinational federations, such as the USSR, the Russian Federation, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Malaysia, are all 20th century creations. For a variety of reasons they lack, or have come to lack, the stability and popular legitimacy acquired by centuries of tradition. Some have already dissolved, others may do in time, as various peoples within them assert their right to national independence.


It is the absence at the EU level of anything like the underlying national solidarity which binds Europe’s peoples and nation states that makes the EU project, and especially the euro-currency scheme, so problematic and therefore unlikely to endure.

For the EU is fundamentally undemocratic, a creation of powerful political, economic and bureaucratic elites, without popular legitimacy and authority. The reason why this is so is that there is no European ‘demos’, no European people, that is bound together by similar solidarities to those that bind the nation and nation state.

Rather, the EU is made up of western Europe’s several nations and peoples. The EU’s adoption of such traditional symbols of national statehood as an EU flag, EU anthem, EU passport, EU car number plates, EU Olympic games, EU youth orchestra, EU history books, EU citizenship etc., are doomed attempts to manufacture a European ‘demos’ artificially, and with it a bogus EU nationalism and supranational ‘national consciousness.’

They leave the real peoples of Europe indifferent, whose allegiance remains with their own countries and nation states.


Insistence on the sovereignty of one’s own state is a natural right as well as a social duty. Sovereignty has nothing to do with autarchy or economic self-sufficiency.

The national sovereignty of a democratic state is analogous to the freedom and autonomy of the individual. It means that one’s domestic laws and foreign relations are exclusively decided by one’s own parliament and government, which are elected by and responsible to one’s own people.

State sovereignty is a result of advancing political culture and is an achievement of modern democracy. It is not an end in itself but is an instrument of juridical independence, determining the possibility of a people deciding its own destiny and way of life in accordance with its own needs, interests, genius and traditions. It is a negation of every kind of subordination to a foreign power.

Without sovereignty a nations’s politics become provincialised, reduced only to marginal and unimportant issues. State sovereignty alone guarantees the political independence of a nation and creates conditions for its members enforcing and being able to accomplish their right to self-determination.

The sovereignty of a democratic state means at the same time the sovereignty of its people. The sovereignty of a state and of its people are democratically inalienable.


Concepts of ‘shared sovereignty’, ‘pooled sovereignty’ and ‘joined national sovereignties’ are but covers for domination by others and for one’s laws and policies being decided by EU bodies one does not elect, which are not responsible to one’e own people and which have significantly different interests from them.

In the EU it is impossible for a single country or people to make or change a single European law. In practice countries and peoples which surrender their sovereignty to the EU become ever more subject to laws and policies that serve the interests of the bigger EU states.

The claim that if a people or state surrenders their sovereignty, for example to the EU, they merely exchange the sovereignty of a small state for participation in decision-making in a bigger supranational EU, is untrue. The EU continually reduces the influence of smaller states in decision-making by limiting or abolishing national veto powers.

Equally false is the statement that membership of new states in the European Union and their surrender of sovereignty to the EU would increase their sovereignty in practice.

The nation which gives up its sovereignty or is deprived of it, ceases to be an independent subject of international politics. It is unable also to decide its own domestic matters.

Juridically, the EU project is an attempt to undo the democratic heritage of the French Revolution, the right of nations and peoples to self-determination. It is an historically doomed project because of its fundamentally undemocratic character.


Democrats acknowledge the possession of equal rights by all citizens of a state, as well as equality of rights between people of different sex, race, religion, age and nationality. Ethnic minorities too should have their rights protected within a democratic state.

Majority rights and minority rights are different, but are not in principle incompatible. The struggle against racism, sexism, ageism and national oppression are all democratic questions.

By contrast, the traditional issues that divide political right and left, proponents of capitalism and socialism, are concerned with inequality -- in ownership and control of society’s productive forces, in power, possessions, income and social function.

The political mass democracy first achieved under capitalism serves to legitimate and make more tolerable the inequalities of power and income characteristic of capitalism, while simultaneously creating the conditions for applying the principle of democracy to the economic sphere and social life.


The notion that ‘globalization’ makes the nation state out of date is an ideological one. Globalization can be at once a description of fact and an ideology. The word refers to significant contemporary world trends-- the internet, ease of travel, free trade, free movement of capital.

The effect of these on the sovereignty of states is often exaggerated. States have always been interdependent to some extent. There was relatively more globalization, in the sense of freer movement of labour, capital and trade, in the late 19th century, although the volumes involved were much smaller than today.

In those days, moreover, most states were on the gold standard, a form of international money.

Modern states do more for their citizens, are expected by them to do more, and impinge more intimately on peoples’ lives, than at any time in history.

Globalization refers to new constraints on modern states. States adapt to such changes, but they do not cause states to disappear or become less significant.

Globalization can also refer to the ideological interests of transnational capital, which wishes to be free of state control on capital movements and seeks minimal social constraints on the private interests that possess it.

The relation of transnational capital to sovereign states is often ambiguous. It may seek to erode the sovereignty of states in order to lessen their ability to impose constraints on profitability while looking to its own state, where the bulk of its ownership may be concentrated, to defend its economic and political interests internationally.

Within each state likewise, different social interests align themselves for and against the maintenance of state sovereignty, seeking either to uphold or to undermine national democracy. This is the central theme of the politics of our time.


The political right wish the state to legislate right-wing measures, the political left left-wing ones; but neither can get their wishes unless they are citizens of an independent state with the relevant power and competence in the first place.

Likewise, within each state different social interests align themselves for and against the maintenance of state sovereignty, seeking either to uphold or to undermine national democracy.

<< | Up | >>

This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-10-03 15:56:57.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2002 Connolly Publications Ltd