For “Against Self-Determination”

This post is part of a symposium on Joseph Massad’s essay “Against Self-Determination.” All contributions to the symposium can be found here.

Self-determination has been impressively well studied by international jurists, political philosophers, and, more latterly, as a renascent source of inquiry for historians.[1] Joseph Massad’s work contributes to what is a daunting field, and also, interacts with the more austere scholarly terrain on the subversive functioning of the discourse.[2] It also, more obliquely, confirms the salience of the recent pursuit of more globally oriented studies of anti-colonial organizing, outside of a classical national frame.[3] Massad posits a coupled quality to anticolonial nationalism and self-determination in historical study. While the proposition of a “coeval history” as the dominant approach in prior scholarship is perhaps debatable, the implied lexical confusion between anti-colonialism and self-determination is unmistakable (161). “Against Self-Determination” does not promise a systematic history of the evolutionary line of the term, but rather an exposition of “the major shifts and discontinuities in the meaning of the concept since the nineteenth century” (162). The socialist milieu that generated one isomer of the term, transmitted forward via Rosa Luxembourg and Lenin, finds particular attention—and a means for navigating competing claims from two nations.[4] Lenin’s heuristic, of a contest between oppressed and oppressor nation, is an appealingly elegant resolution to the parity that is often accorded to two collective assertions. While ripe with intellectual promise, Massad’s observation on “Lenin’s commitment to the right of self-determination inside Russia and the Soviet Union” (166) seems somewhat too charitable, even allowing for the context in which he built the foundations of the Soviet empire.

More provocative is Massad’s assertion that “the dominant form of self-determination” seemed, especially in the settler context, “to be a principle designed to limit the claims of anticolonial nationalism and to enhance the claims of colonialism.” It was no less, he argues, than a mechanism that “would effectively obstruct any path towards those goals” (161). Although I am unsure the extent to which this can be sustained in the general case—much pivots on the definitional limit of self-determination—this intervention is certainly one which encourages greater reflection on both the turbidity that has inhered in the terminology. Its flagship case, Palestine, shows the lack of a reliable assurance that self-determination would produce much by way of collective national agency, or individual freedom. Fractionating these repressive potentials is an important task, and not commonly pursued in the historical frame.

Fundamentally, Massad’s piece invites further consideration of the paradoxes and perversities of self-determination, particularly in those instances where there was the most substantial asymmetry in power between the controlling political authority and the collective people seeking its sovereignty. Noting the competition between the settler “nation” asserting a claim to self-determination and the indigenous inhabitants claim of the same, Massad identifies the way in which the category has functioned—notably in Palestine. The South African case, particularly in the terminal decade of apartheid and the ever more elaborate promulgation of a collective white group right, illustrates a similar phenomenon.[5] Self-determination’s Janus-faced quality as both creed of emancipation and empty credo of authoritarians is abundantly registered in the twentieth century. The spectre of Pan-Germanism was an easy rejoinder to any international legal recognition of a right to self-determination in the post-war period, deployed until facts on the ground made it less useful. There is at least some evidence of a white settler self-determination claim as distant as the French Revolutionary period, with the planters of Saint Domingue in the revolutionary period invoking collective white right to rule against any suggestion of an individuated universalism.[6] “Lost Cause” myths and their endless re-authoring and laundering in terms of “heritage” offer a similar dynamic, of white collective self-determination for deeply repressive ends, in the United States.[7]

The challenge Massad has faced, with considerable élan, is that of parsing out a language that was endlessly complex and multi-valent to begin with—and became still more so once invoked by specific nationalist and liberationist figures. Whatever the imperial powers thought of the term (which itself is not always clear, and varied with convenience), there is immense cumulative, historically contingent meaning poured into self-determination as a discursive frame. There was doubtless a canonical colonial variant proposed at various moments, but this was hardly a constraint for how it was conceived of by anti-colonial leaders, nor was there a reliable axis of distinction between Lenin or Wilson. At the much-mythologized 1955 Asian-African Conference in Bandung, enthusiasm for self-determination was one of the very few terms that attracted practically universal enthusiasm, even from ardently anti-Soviet figures. Its content was vague, an admixture of Wilson, some more Lenin-type features here and there, and a new global element of Third World self-assertion.[8] This latter dimension was a renovation of the category, and a realization that national independence, in political terms, also demanded a wider revision in the international balance of power.[9] Bandung held a kind of fractal Third World nationalism, granulated first as particular peoples against particular imperialisms, and second as assembled Third World peoples against the tectonic arrangements of imperial power. Regional anti-imperialisms, notably Pan-Africanism, were interposed as a conceptual mezzanine between national and international.[10]

Massad describes the Bandung synthesis as a rediscovery of sorts of the Leninist model. This approach seems to risk understating the endogenous features of post-war Third Worldism. Lenin-inflected philosophies were certainly invoked—and Nkrumah in particular is a good case—but most nationalists were generally aversive to embracing doctrinaire positions of any species, Lenin-esque, Wilsonian, or exotic.[11] Even where Lenin was an explicit source, local appropriation and re-fashioning was manifest, into African Socialism, Ujamaa and Uhuru, or the awkwardly conjugated Nkrumahism. Their propositions were built for conditions and contexts: emancipatory visions that were fit for purpose, and not inclined to defer to any schema.[12] Bandung’s taxonomy of an imperialist world system mapped as readily to J.A. Hobson’s model as to a distinctively Lenin-oriented position. The 1960 Declaration on Colonialism, which Massad discusses briefly and insightfully, was a fine example of independent, syncretic Third World self-determination, eschewing the Soviet text, and adopting a purely Western liberal Wilsonian model.[13] The adoption of unitary equal rights universalism as the road to freedom in the United States, in preference to the well-advertised Soviet vision of African-American independent nationhood, suggests that an unalloyed Lenin was not well-suited to export.

Whether self-determination as a rhetorical and ideological canard was ever sufficient to “obstruct,” safely canalize, or even mildly inconvenience, the demand for liberation of itself seems open to question. Massad’s principle area, Palestine, presents a compelling and salient case. Its extensibility seems less persuasive. The limited, and often profoundly disappointing, gains of self-determination were a perennial subject of both understandably bitter protest and volumes of diagnostic work from nationalists and academics. Very rarely did securing the “political kingdom” furnish more than an austere political agency. More rarely still did it produce the economic power to radically transform a new nation state’s relationship with the imperial system that once trapped it. By the mid-1960s, there was near unanimity of the gulf between formal attainment of sovereignty, and a serious capacity to collectively navigate destiny. Few identified this as a defect of the concept: instead, it was the insufficient exercise of self-determination, and the compromises and structural impediments to its promise being delivered.

Agitation for Permanent Sovereignty Over Natural Resources, and later, the New International Economic Order (NIEO), which garnered almost unanimous support from the decolonized world, were a recognition that self-determination was only partially successful.[14] The Bandung project had delivered, almost, full success in terms of formal dismemberment of empires. Its associated refiguration of global power had gone nowhere. The answer was a more thorough self-determination across the international order. Massad ascribes a kind of closing down of radical potential in the 1970 Declaration on Friendly Relations, citing the excellent summation from Bradley Simpson. For Massad, the 1970 Declaration was a caesura, when “the short-lived hegemony of the post-Bandung era of Lenin’s definition of self-determination ended.” This periodization seems problematic; and so too does its attendant description of the Bandung decade as defined by Lenin’s self-determination. While radicalism was perhaps drained from national self-determination, it was transposed into revivified projects like the NIEO, and in the nascent project to revise the laws of armed conflict to privilege anti-colonial violence. In the remnants of formal empire, notably in Southern Africa, the mood was arguably more Leninist than ever—in Angola and Mozambique, and within the growing cadres of Umkhonto we Sizwe. At least some vestigial life was left in self-determination as a utopian cause, expressed in the Algiers statement on the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Peoples, promulgated on July 4, 1976.

“Against Self-Determination” advances a sufficiently bold and vast claim that it tends to leave a reader grasping, desperately, frantically, for counter-arguments. There is no singe riposte, and that serves as one of the article’s great successes. Aside from Palestine, where Massad gives comprehensive treatment, there remains the telling, pathological edge case, that of apartheid.[15] The expression of white nationalism here is an intriguing demonstration of how self-determination could be stitched into a repressive apparatus—and indeed, as the constitutive feature of a particular settler colonial system.[16] As self-determination reached its global zenith as a rhetorical and political claim in the 1960s, Grand Apartheid, redenominated as “separate development,” was boldly advertised by National Party diplomats.[17] Apartheid was purported by the National Party to be a response to the “winds of change,” a constellation of collective national self-determinations.[18] The claim of South African “separate development” won, at best, a modest reception even to sympathetic ears; it was perhaps a partially occluding fig leaf for the EC, the United States, and the old Commonwealth. Nevertheless, the proliferation of social science and legal literature treating the intellectual edifice somewhat seriously was not readily countered with a countervailing “self-determination.” “Separate development” and “multi-national” determination required other elements and languages, particularly individual rights, to be falsified as any kind of emancipation.

The central impulse that might be drawn from Massad is to take greater care in determining what constitutes an emancipatory scheme, and the abuse liability that might inhere within a celebrated discourse. Insofar as there are only weak and opaque tests for those whose freedom properly prevails in its logics, self-determination is a fine candidate. Much of this potential inequity, and plenty more, remained under-addressed in the Committee on Friendly Relations deliberations that circled around self-determination’s meaning in 1966 through 1969 and concluded with the 1970 text. Examination of self-determination on its emancipatory merit was simply too perilous for many new nation states, who were troubled not merely by their economic marginality, but also by secessionism and sovereignty. In some contexts, self-determination, defined as collective sovereignty expressed in a nation state, promised little, and delivered less. It did so not through any especial subtly subversive potential in the concept, but through obvious fraudulent utilization of the category. A Lesotho or a Lithuania in the 1960s did not reflect the trap of self-determination, but rather its very marginal, cosmetic realization, and its limits when set within grossly unfavourable conditions. Wonderfully Orwellian deployment in the expansive catalogue of “Bantustans” proposed by the National Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s deceived no one. The invented “citizens” of Transkei, Ciskei, and Venda, particularly once they were to be stripped of any connection to the Republic of South Africa, had not exercised self-determination.[19] Nor had the “Asian” and “Coloured” peoples of South Africa found self-determination in the 1983 Tricameral Constitution. Neither diversionary measure did anything much to attenuate those freedom struggles, let alone exsanguinate them. Liberation struggles were variously partitioned, with national self-determination a prime vehicle for the 1950s and 1960s and less obviously so thereafter. Whether it can be renovated for the present is, I deduce from Massad’s strikingly bold paper, very much an open question.


[1] The catalogue of relevant studies here is too voluminous to provide, for a sweeping and impressionistic selection, see Rupert Emerson, From Empire to Nation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962); Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Brad Simpson, “Self-Determination, Human Rights, and the End of Empire in the 1970s,” Humanity 4, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 239–60; Simpson, “The United States and the Curious History of Self-Determination,” Diplomatic History 36, no. 4 (September 2012): 675–94; Simpson, “The Many Meanings of National Self-Determination,” Current History 113, no. 766 (November 2014): 312–17; and Lydia Walker, “Decolonization in the 1960s: On Legitimate and Illegitimate Nationalist Claims-making,” Past & Present 242, no. 1 (February 2019): 227–64,

[2] Tracey Banivanua Mar, Decolonisation and the Pacific: Indigenous Globalisation and the Ends of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016);

[3] A raft of scholarship has steadily begun to reframe the conventional presumption of a self-determination—national independence correspondence in anti-colonialism, see notably Ravi De Costa, A Higher Authority: Indigenous Transnationalism and Australia (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2006); Fiona Paisley, The Lone Protestor: A.M. Fernando in Australia and Europe (Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, 2012); Jane Carey and Jane Lydon, Indigenous Networks: Mobility, Connections and Exchange (London: Routledge, 2014); Frederick Cooper, Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa (Princeton: Princeton, 2014); Michael Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Kristen Stromberg Childers, Seeking Imperialism’s Embrace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); and Gary Wilder, Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization, and the Future of the World (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2015); Patricia M. E. Lorcin and Todd Shepard, French Mediterraneans: Transnational and Imperial Histories (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of Nebraska Press, 2016).

[4] For a sibling thread, see Talbot Imlay, “International Socialism and Decolonisation during the 1950s: Competing Rights and the Postcolonial Order,” American Historical Review 118, no. 4 (October 2013): 1105–32.

[5] On the operation of group rights and self-determination categories in the apartheid system, see Saul Dubow, Apartheid 1948–1994 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); and Dubow, South Africa’s Struggle for Human Rights (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2012), 80–109.

[6] Philip Curtin, “The Declaration of the Rights of Man in Saint-Domingue, 1788-1791,” The Hispanic American Historical Review 30, no. 2 (May 1950): 157–75.

[7] For exhibits of nationalist claim making of the Confederacy, see Andre Fleche, Revolution of 1861: The American Civil War in the Age of Nationalist Conflict (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2015), 80–105.

[8] Impressionistic survey of the proceedings, as reproduced in to Asian-African Conference, Bandung, Indonesia, 18th– 24th April 1955: Speeches and Communiqués (Jakarta: Ministry of Information, Republic of Indonesia, May 1955).

[9] On the nature of Bandung, see generally Antoinette Burton, Augusto Espiritu, and Fanon Che Wilkins, “The Fate of Nationalisms in the Age of Bandung,” Radical History Review 95 (Spring 2006): 145–48; Robert Vitalis, “Midnight Ride of Kwame Nkrumah and Other Fables of Bandung,” Humanity 4, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 261–88; and Roland Burke, “‘The Compelling Dialogue of Freedom’: Human Rights at the 1955 Bandung Conference,” Human Rights Quarterly 28, no. 4 (November 2006): 947–65.

[10] Pan-Africanism itself certainly held close affinities and intersections with communism, further pursued in Minkah Makalani, In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2011). See also, on its counterpart, Cemil Aydin, The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

[11] Kwame Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism (New York: International Publishers, 1965).

[12] See Robert Taylor, ed., The Idea of Freedom in Asia and Africa (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002); on the features of resistance in the interwar, see Jonathan Derrick, Africa’s “Agitators”: Militant Anti-Colonialism in Africa and the West, 19181939 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008).

[13] Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, Gen. Ass. Res.1514 (XV), December 14, 1960; on its features, and relationship with Bandung, see Burke, Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 35–56.

[14] Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order, Gen. Ass. Res. 3201, May 1, 1974,; and ideas latent within preceding resolutions, Declaration on Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources, Gen. Ass. Res. 1803 (XVII), December 14 1962, and the earlier Gen. Ass. Res. 523 (VI), January 12, 1952, and Gen. Ass. Res. 626 (VII), December 21, 1952.

[15] On the remarkable configuration of concepts at issue here, see Ryan Irwin, Gordian Knot: Apartheid and the Unmaking of the Liberal World Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[16] Self-determination was very rapidly recognized by the apartheid regime as a potential means for contesting liberation in South Africa. See Deputy Permanent Representative, New York, to Secretary of External Affairs, Pretoria, “Human Rights: The Right to Self-Determination,” September 5, 1952, with enclosure: excerpt of an article from Charles Malik, “Self-determination,” published in the September 1952 issue of UN Journal. BVV 24, Human Rights Commission–11/4/3, 1951, SAB, Pretoria.

[17] For the arc of this rhetorical strategy, which was elaborated across countless pamphlets, see Hendrik Verwoerd, Separate Development: The Positive Side (Pretoria: Department of Native Affairs, 1958); Information Service of South Africa, Progress through Separate Development: South Africa in Peaceful Transition (New York, 1968); Department of Information, Multi-national Development in South Africa: The Reality (Pretoria, March 1974).

[18] On the reception of Harold Macmillan’s speech in SA, see Saul Dubow, “Macmillan, Verwoerd and the 1960 ‘Wind of Change’ Speech,” The Historical Journal 54, no. 4 (December 2011): 1087–114.

[19] For contemporary coverage, see Merle Lipton, “Independent Bantustans?,” International Affairs 48, no. 1 (January 1972): 1–19; and Henry Richardson, “Self-Determination, International Law and the South African Bantustan Policy,” Columbia Journal Transnational Law 17 (1978): 185–220.

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About Roland Burke

Roland Burke is a lecturer in history at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. He is one of the leading historians of human rights in the world, best known for his pathbreaking book, Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights (Pennsylvania, 2011). Roland was also the recipient of the R.M Crawford Medal from the Australian Academy of the Humanities (2010), and the La Trobe Excellence in Research Award for Early Career Researchers (2010). His recent research has been focused on transnational organizations and institutions, principally the United Nations and the Group of 77.