Wilsonian Versus Bolshevik Self-Determination

14 Apr

Wilsonian Versus Bolshevik Self-Determination: A Review of Erez Manela’s Wilsonian Moment

                Erez Manela argues that from autumn 1918 to spring 1919 the world experienced the “Wilsonian Moment” during which fledgling anti-colonial movements deployed Wilson’s liberal ideal of self-determination to make demands at the Paris Peace Conference.  As a victorious president making the unusual voyage to Europe, America and Wilson’s language from his “fourteen points” were projecting America’s newfound power to all corners of the world thanks to new technologies and an effective propaganda machine.  However, inspiring a world-wide anti-colonialism was unintended by Wilson, who had envisioned the idea for small European nations that had been under the control of the defeated Central Powers.  Despite Wilson’s intentions, Manela asserts that the idea of self-determinism was just too useful of an ideology for non-European nationalist leaders to ignore, and they quickly adapted the term to their individual struggles.  Furthermore, the author makes the crucial point that, although anti-colonial nationalism is often associated with Bolshevik-style revolutions, many nationalist leaders only turned to the radical left after the failure of Wilson’s liberal self-determination in liberating non-Western areas.  Finally, even though the “Wilsonian Moment” failed to achieve gradual and liberal anti-imperialist goals, Manela believes that the brief period did mark the beginning of the end for the old imperial order as the idea of self-determination fused with more radical politics.

Manela begins his study by placing Wilson in the larger international context of World War One and the Bolshevik Revolution, underlining how a combination of weakened imperial states and a still uncertain future for the Bolsheviks created the opportune window for his ideas and leadership.  Along with the global perspective, the author discusses Wilson’s own personal convictions and hypocrisies.   Manela then constructs the body of his argument by focusing on how the nationalist movements in Egypt, India, China, and Korea all perceived Wilson’s new leverage in the world and made direct pleas to the president.  While the author admits that only four examples is a fraction of the national movements that took Wilson’s words seriously, narrowing down to these four movements is necessary because Manela has the space to trace each of the disparate stories and show how all their fates converged during the “Wilsonian Moment.”  Also, the author correctly warns the reader to not assume that the nationalist leaders like Lajpat Rai and V. K. Woon were naïve to put stock in Wilson’s ideas, rather they were wisely taking advantage of the first real outlet for colonial peoples that was not entirely dominated by pro-imperialist voices.

Manela stumbled upon a subject that is an international historians dream and would make Bayly proud: a point in time when a growing international movement was created by people all over the world who used each other as “examples to project their own future” (207).  At the same time, the author’s ability to intertwine local histories as evidence reminds all historians of how micro and macro historical perspectives, to a certain extent, depend on one another.  In addition, Manela’s study raises several relevant questions.   For example, a Niall Ferguson counterfactual might ask:  what if Wilson really had paid attention to Ho Chi Minh or sided with the Chinese nationalists?  Did Wilson really have the power to pressure the British or French?  Also, how popular was the “Wilsonian moment” among colonial populations?  Manela admits that British accusation that nationalists did not represent popular sentiment was not baseless.  Even in areas that did gain independence like Czechoslovakia, historians Tara Zahra and Pieter Judson have argued that most people remained indifferent to nationalist aspirations until World War Two, at least outside of the government.  Finally, if Wilson believed that his liberal self-determination would counter more radical movements like the Bolsheviks, can we then argue that he was partially successful?  Lenin and Trotsky were disappointed when the international socialist revolution did not materialize in Europe, and the nationalists in Czechoslovakia consolidated their power while the newly independent Poles were able to defeat the Red Army in battle.

Further Reading:

Manela, Erez. The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Trotsky, Leon. Leon Trotsky on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970.


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