I read Erez Manela's The Wilsonian Moment: Self-determination and the Intellectual Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism over the weekend.
As far as Intellectual Histories go, this is quite a gripping read. Focused on a short span of time, primarily between January 1918 when Wilson laid out his fourteen points and June 1919 when the treaty of Versailles was signed, the narrative brings together an extraordinary cast of characters, pettiness and foresight, idealism and intrigue, optimism and disappointment in good measure. Interspersing the biographical narratives of many leading figures of anticolonial nationalism, Saad Zaghloul, Syngman Rhee, Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Wellington Koo among them, this is an attempt to present the radicalisation of anticolonial nationalism in four nations - Egypt, India, China and Korea - around the 'Wilsonian Moment', the hopes generated by Wilson's proclamation of Fourteen points and particularly the promise of 'self-determination'.
Indeed, one may as well tell the story of the 'Wilsonian Moment' as one that has never really been. Wilson never made the world people expected him to, and by his own admission, quoted in the book, he never meant to extend his promise beyond the narrow geopolitical considerations of the multi-ethnic Central European and Ottoman empires. The American war propaganda made him the giant he became - someone to be compared with Budhdha and Christ by commentators given to bombast, or the liberator of the world for those who were desperate for his goodwill for their national causes - but he was, as Mr Manela pointed out, very much a politician of his time, committed to the imperial mission of United States in Philippines, a believer of racial segregation, a Gladstone-admiring Liberal from another day and age. That Wilson eventually disappointed is no surprise at all, but Mr Manela argues that his rhetoric had a transformational impact on nationalist discourse in the four countries studied here.
The book shows both the promises and problems of doing 'global history'. The approach of focusing on Wilsonian impact opens up new discussions, outside the usual closed-world explanations of nationalist upheavals to be found within the confines of respective histories of nations. These new perspectives are immensely valuable, not only because Empire was a global business by definition, but also because the telling of national histories inevitably leave out the connections and contributions from the outside. Not just Wilson, but Lala Lajpat Rai and his American exile become a marginal story in the Indian Nationalist discourse, which needed correction.
At the same time, however, it is difficult to escape the temptation of overstating the case. To make the case that there was a 'Wilsonian Moment', one may be tempted to present this as the only, rather than one of the many, possible narratives. This means selective scoping of the narrative: Mao and Gandhi, who never had much time for the rhetoric of the American President, take a somewhat background role (admittedly, they were just getting started in 1919), ceding the space to others who anchored their hopes on Wilsonian vision, at least for that fleeting moment. Such an argument also reorders the narrative somewhat: The Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 1919 becomes an incident - a significant one - in the narrative of Wilsonian radicalisation of Indian nationalism, rather than a turning point, as one would usually view it to be. Even more contentiously, the March 1st movement become the real turning point for the Korean nation, and not the other, more indigenous, movements, which North Koreans today would anchor their stories to.
These are indeed matters of perspective, and one could argue that a Historian always have to be selective to some degree. However, I shall argue that this particular piece of global history has another challenge to overcome. The narrative of Wilsonian Moment is, by definition, Eurocentric: It is perhaps indisputable that the Paris Peace Conference did indeed elicit great hopes among various subject nations. The question, however, is whether this is the real beginnings of internationalisation of anti-colonial nationalism, and therefore, the start of later attempts of non-aligned movement and third world solidarity. Mr Manela's case rests on exactly that: While Wilson's promises came to nothing, its significance remained in the later international efforts of creating anticolonial platforms. However, this line of argument ignores the earlier strands of thought - Pan-Islamic or Pan-Asian ideologies, for example - and other events of competing significance, such as Mutafa Kemal and Turkish War, that shaped the global imagination of Anti-colonial nationalism. In a way, the narrative here is very much of Centre and Periphery, whereas the emergence of nationalist solidarity (which is a better term than nationalist internationalism) may be better understood as a network of ideas, connections and thinkers. The Wilsonian Narrative, though important, privileges one single strand among the various connections and conversations that brought it about.
The other implicit argument of the book is that the failure of the Wilsonian moment indicates a failure of Liberal Internationalism, a space that would be later filled by Bolshevik influence. Indeed, many nationalists in Egypt, India, China and Korea would look at Russia, and indeed, that is true for Ho Chi Minh, then a Pastry Chef under Escoffier, who would pin his hopes on Wilson, before finding his ideological mentor in Lenin. However, Russian influence somewhat came with Russia's economic success, and that narrative was as much about economic modernisation (costs of which were not visible to the nationalists at the time) as the ideology.
In the end, Wilson was a bitter failure. He could never get United States join the League of Nations, and the world order the peacemakers in Paris created collapsed spectacularly only in a few years time. With hindsight, their extraordinary naivety was rather apparent. The real significance of Wilsonian Moment is in its non-being, that it really never came about. And, in that, there is a powerful lesson.
Popular posts from this blog
A friend has recently forwarded me a quote from Lord Macaulay's speech in the British Parliament on 2nd February 1835. I reproduce the quote below: "I have traveled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in this country, such high moral values, people of such calibre, that I do not think we would ever conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and, therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their native self-culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation." The email requested me to forward me to every indian I know. I was tempted, but there were two oddities about this quote. First, the language, which
Nations are ideas. We try to fashion them as territories. But how can a river, a mountain ridge or sometimes an imaginary line in the middle of a field can explain the wide division in the lives, thoughts and futures of the people who live on different sides? Nations are not the people too. Indeed, people build nations and become its body. But the soul of the nation is an idea: People come together on an idea to build a nation. While that's what a modern nation is - an idea - and that way exceptionalism is not an American exception, very few nations are as completely defined by an idea as Pakistan. There was hardly any political, geographic or military rationale of Pakistan other than the idea of an Islamic homeland in South Asia. [In that way, the ideological brother of Pakistan in the family of nations is Israel] This, abated by the short term political calculations of some backroom colonialists, created a modern state which must be solely sustained on that singular idea. Religi
Today, Helen Goddard, 26, a highly popular music teacher of a City School for Girls, has been sentenced to 15 months in prison. Her crime was to carry out a year long lesbian affair with one of her pupils, who appeared in the court and admitted that the affair was consensual and it was she who pressured Helen into the affair. For Helen, a bright musician and a devout Chistian, this is an extraordinary lapse of judgement. Also, she was teaching in the £13,000 private girls only school in London. She was surely aware what the consequences of her action will be. The fact that she still could not stop herself tells us that lovers do not always act rationally, something we always knew. There is more in this affair than personal tragedies. For a start, this has all the dramatic elements: a bright, beautiful teacher more in Julia Roberts mould [as in Mona Lisa Smile], a stiff upper lip school [not unlike Wellesley] and a story like Notes On A Scandal with an added twist. Indeed, Helen was gui
Introduction : The Business of Gift Giving Business gift giving has always been common and contentious at the same time. Business gifts are usually seen as an ‘advertising, sales promotion and marketing communication medium’ (Cooper et al , 1991). Arunthanes et al (1994) points out that such gifting is practised usually for three reasons: (a) in appreciation for past client relationships, placing a new order, referrals to other clients, etc.; (b) in the hopes of creating a positive, first impression which might help to establish an initial business relationship; and (c) giving may be perceived as a quid Pro quo (i.e. returning a favour or expecting a favour in return for something). The practitioners of gift-giving generally argue that doing business is often an aggregation of personal interactions and relationships, and gift-giving should be seen as a natural way of maintaining and enhancing these relationships. ‘Business gifts, especially one given in the course of the festive s
This post is a reaction to Aatish Taseer's evocative obituary of secular India in the Atlantic ( read here ). While I agree with it mostly - and share the reservations about the direction and the future of India - I differ with the author on one key aspect: I do not agree with his portrayal of a resurgent Bharat eating up a secular India. In fact, I believe while Mr Taseer regrets the Indian elite's loss of connection with the realities of day to day life of the country, his very presentation of Bharat and India as oppositional entities stems from that incomprehension. While I understand that he is only using these categories as RSS uses them - to effectively other the English-speaking elites and non-Hindus - I believe it is a mistake to describe the profound changes in contemporary India as the ascendance of Bharat. I grew up in Bharat. I never learnt English until late in life, when I started working. My growing-up world was one of small-town India, vernacu
In most societies today, making profits are accepted as moral, if not especially praiseworthy. This was not as obvious as it appears today – people used to be embarrassed about making a profit not so long ago. Crazy as it seems today, it is worth thinking why it was so. Profits, as economists will put it, is the reward for risk-taking, for putting a business enterprise together in the pursuit of an objective. In this definition, remember, profits are not what it is commonly understood to be – the gross middle-line towards the bottom – but a figure net of entrepreneur’s earning [wages for his labour], dividends and interests on borrowed capital, and provisions for building and other physical assets [a sort of rent, offsetting what these assets could have earned if leased out]. This pure profit – surplus – accrues to a business as a reward to its organisation, for the act of entrepreneurship itself. Economists were divided on how this surplus comes about. The conventional wisdom was, as
Introduction: Hastings in the history of Indian Education Whether or not one includes Warren Hastings in the history of Education in India is a matter of perspective. If writing the history of education means writing the history of schools, the impact of Hastings' administration would be quite limited. If anything, the rapid implosion of local rulers in Eastern, Southern and Northern India during Hastings' tenure had meant a bleak period for the indigenous education system, as patronage and funds would have dwindled away for many of them. The Company administration really concerned itself with the schooling of the natives only after 1813, as Nurullah and Naik rightly pointed out ( see my earlier post ) and one can legitimately start the story at this point. However, if history of Education in India is to encompass the transformation of Indian Scholarship, on which foundation the new, colonial, system of Education would be built, the story must start with Warren Hast
Buzzwords have disadvantages. Right now, experiential learning is one, and that means we put the label on everything and it stops to mean anything. Also, this means reasonable conversation about experiential learning becomes difficult - at times such as this, either you preach experiential learning or you are traditional, antiquarian and hopelessly out of touch. But, overlooking the limitations of experiential learning can cause big problems. Experiential Learning does many things - putting practice at the heart of learning is an important paradigm shift - but not everything, and it is important to be aware what it does not do. Usually, we equate the terms Project-based Learning (the method) with Experiential Learning (the idea) and Learning from Experience (the ideal), treating them as one and the same and using the terms interchangeably. Any talk about distinctive meaning of these terms is usually seen as pedantic, but really represent very different ideas about education.
Introduction Erna Petri née Kürbs, a farmer’s daughter from Herressen in Thuringia, arrived in Ukraine with her three year old son to join her husband Horst in June 1942. Horst, an SS leader inspired by Nazi ideologue Dr Richard Walter Darré, settled in the plantation of Grzenda, just outside today’s Lviv, to become a German Gentleman-Farmer. Erna saw Horst beating and abusing the workers in the plantation within two days of arriving there, which was, as Horst explained, necessary for establishing authority. Erna joined in enthusiastically, settling into a combination of roles of ‘plantation mistress, prairie Madonna in apron-covered dress lording over slave labourers, infant-carrying, gun-wielding Hausfrau.’  However, there were clear rules in the plantation, and Erna was very much expected to play the woman’s role of being a Cake-and-Coffee hostess. When four Jews were caught in the estate while trying to escape from a transport to a death camp, Horst told Erna and her female
As India's democracy reaches a critical juncture, with a very real danger of a authoritarian take-over, Rabindranath Tagore's birth anniversary is a perfect occasion to revisit the founding idea of India once again. There are many things in his politics that we may need to dust up and reconsider: Tagore's political ideas, because of his inherent aversion of popular nationalism and enthusiasm about Pan-Asianism and universalism, were outside the mainstream of the Indian National Movement, seen as impractical and effectively shunned. He was seen mostly as the Poet and the mystic, someone whose politics remains in the domain of the ideas rather than action. Tagore himself, after a brief passionate involvement in politics during the division of Bengal by Lord Curzon in 1905, withdrew from political action: He never belonged to the political class, despite his iconic status and itinerant interventions, such as returning the Knighthood after the massacre of Amritsar in 1919.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.