Editorial: Hungary and self-determination

The member-states of the United Nations are pledged to uphold “the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples,” but at the same time the U.N. Charter forbids intervention “in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any State.” So all that any government needs to do when flouting the first clause is to appeal to the second, by claiming that their action is a domestic matter, or that what they are doing is by invitation of the “legitimate” government. Thus, the British Government in Cyprus, the Indian Government in Kashmir, and the Russian Government in Hungary.

The charges against the Russian Government at U.N. Assembly in September 1957 were levelled to the accompaniment of much indignation and speechmaking, but the matter ended “with nothing more forceful that another appeal to the Soviet Union to withdraw her troops and relax the grip of her puppet regime.” (Manchester Guardian, 11th Sept., 1957). It was a foregone conclusion, for no government is at present willing to make war on Russia over Hungary, though the excuse will be stored away to be brought out again if occasion demands.

Louis Kossuth, 1848
It has all happened before, in 1848. Hungarian Liberals and Nationalists revolted to secure independence from Austria, and after initial successes, were crushed with the help of troops sent in by Russia. Then, as now, there was much talk about the so-called right of self-determination, and later on, when the Hungarian leader, Louis Kossuth, as a refugee, visited America, he was given a great welcome by, among others, the American lawyer who later became Republican President—Abraham Lincoln. In the early stages while fighting was still going on in Hungary, the following resolution was drafted by a small committee, with Lincoln as chairman, and passed at a meeting in Springfield, Illinois, on September 12,1849. (Reproduced from an article on Hungarian parallels between 1849 and 1957, in Saturday Review, New York, 16th Feb., 1957):

“That in their present glorious straggle for liberty, the Hungarians command our highest admiration and have our warmest sympathy: that they have our prayers for their speedy triumph and final success; that the government of the United States should acknowledge the independence of Hungary as a nation of free men at the very earliest moment consistent with our amicable relations with the government against which they are contending: that, in the opinion of this meeting, the immediate acknowledgment of the independence of Hungary by our government is due from American free men to their struggling brethren, to the general cause of republican liberty, and not violative of the just rights of any nation or people.”

The resolution, like the resolutions of U.N. assemblies today, was merely an expression of sympathy; the only positive action it asked for was the recognition of Hungary as an independent State, subject, however, to not offending Austria, “the government against which” the Hungarians were rebelling.

A Lawyer’s Definition
In January 1852, when the fight was over and the Austrian Government was in control again, Kossuth toured America, and another meeting was held at Springfield, Illinois, addressed by Lincoln. The long resolution showed Lincoln’s thoroughness in his attempt to define in legally precise language what he called the right of national independence, the opening clause read: “That it is the right of any people, sufficiently numerous for national independence, to throw off, to revolutionize, their existing form of government, and to establish such other in its stead as they may choose.” This was the most forthright part of the resolution and, as we shall see, it was the part Lincoln was to throw overboard 10 years later.

In the other paragraphs of the resolution Lincoln declared that if such a movement for independence takes place, no other government has the right to intervene either to help or to hinder the struggle, and that the intervention of Russia in Hungary against Kossuth was, therefore, “ illegal and unwarrantable,” but as it had taken place, it would have been legitimate and meritorious for America or any other government to have resisted Russian intervention in Hungary. At this point the resolution cautiously lapsed into the non-committal:—

“That whether we will, in fact, interfere in such a case, is purely a question of policy, to be decided when the exigencies arise.”

Circumstances alter cases
As often happens, the leader of the Opposition, when he gets into power, can hardly recognise the things he has been saying. In 1861 Abraham Lincoln became President and then refused to acknowledge the right of the Southern States to secede (notwithstanding clause one of his 1852 resolution on Hungary). He waged the bloodiest war of a 100 years to prevent secession. Lincoln did not pretend, as his admirers sometimes pretend, that the war was being fought to destroy slavery. He saw, however, that in the world as it really is admission of the right of any American State to go its own way would have reduced powerful united America to a disunited medley of small and weak States. This is true of the world today, and will remain true so long as capitalism is allowed to continue. Capitalist trade and the maintenance of private property demand central government with powerful military forces and defensible frontiers, and against this the so-called “natural right” and “international principle” of self-determination are merely fanciful; along with U.N. protests, they have no deterrent effect on the governments of the world. The nationalist movements organized to gain independence are not striving for any abstract principle, but for the power of a propertied class to operate capitalism within territory under their own control. High-flown talk about “principles of self-determination” may be an incidental aid in the struggle, but has no bearing on the conduct of affairs once independence has been won. There is, therefore, no real inconsistency in the action of one group achieving independence and then forcibly suppressing movement for independence on the part of another minority within the country. Britain, America, India. Pakistan, Ghana, Russia, and all the other national capitalist groups which pleach “self-determination” and flout it whenever important economic or strategic interests are involved, are all being true to the vital belief they have in common, belief in the necessities of capitalism.

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