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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.


How did Fordism and Bolshevism interact?

13 Apr

How did Fordism and Bolshevism interact?


       While Henry Ford’s disdain for Bolshevism and communism has been well document by Greg Grandin and other historians, I hope this post will initiate some comparisons between the industrialization and cultural paternalism undertaken by the very different systems.   In Fordlandia, Grandin dubs Ford’s social and economic engineering project “Fordism,” best defined as a “kind of holism, where the extraction and processing of raw materials, integrated assembly lines, working class populations, and consumer markets created vibrant economies and robust middle classes.”[1] Mixed into Ford’s practical goals was an odd mix of internationalism, anti-Semitism, nativism, passivism, progressive equality, and various personal vendettas against the Jazz Age and cows.  While capitalist consumerism was certainly not a Bolshevik goal, the all-encompassing Fordist project in Brazil at times seems eerily similar to Stephen Kotkin’s study of Stalin’s attempt to create a new “Soviet Man” and a steel industry on the desolate Russian steppe in Magnetic Mountain. Interestingly enough, Lenin and Trotsky both admired Ford’s industrial progress because, as Marxists, a quick and efficient capitalist stage was a positive step towards reaching communism.  In addition, Ford’s impressive manufacturing model would be replicated during Stalin’s time, as the dictator brought in Western specialists to help organize Soviet industry.

Furthermore, the ideological divide between Bolshevism and the capitalist West did not stop Ford Motor Company from doing business with the USSR and helping establish the Soviet automotive industry by building a factory in Nizhni-Novgorod as agreed upon in a 1929 contract.  For Ford, his capitalist machine was a way to combat Bolshevism by displaying capitalist prowess and he even provided executives and engineers for the Soviet factory project.  In fact, the extent to which Western corporations participated in providing technological assistance to the Stalinist regime is only now being thoroughly researched by historians.  Also notable is the fact that, despite the apparent problems and Western help, the Soviets were keen on presenting their progress to the West.  Much of that exposure came through a journal titled SSSR na sroike (USSR in Construction).  As illuminated by Erika Wolf, this journal had a wide readership, from George Bernard Shaw to Henry Ford’s son Edsel.  Not only did Edsel request a subscription to the journal, he was even kind enough to give it a positive review. By contrast, several other Western capitalists lambasted the journal’s ideological tinge.[2]  In sum, although the two “isms” certainly contained irreconcilable ideological differences, the emphasis both Bolshevism and Fordism placed on industrialization led to some fruitful and ironic interaction.

Further Reading:

Douglas Brinkley, Wheels for the World (Penguin 2004).

Greg Grandin, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City (New York, Picador 2009).

Stephen Kotkin, Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization (Berkeley, University of California Press 1997).

Erika Wolf, “When Photographs Speak, To Whom Do They Talk? The Origins and Audience of SSSR na stroike (USSR in Construction), Left History, Vol 6, No 2 (1999) 53-82.

[1] Grandin, 357

[2] Wolf, 64.