The Continued (if Limited) Emancipatory Potential of 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.

Joseph Massad’s article “Against Self-Determination” offers a passionate, even polemical critique of what he calls the Wilsonian vision of self-determination. This is not the Wilsonian vision as laid out by Erez Manela, however, but rather a legitimizing ideology for the “right of conquest” of settler-colonial nations and peoples, as against the more emancipatory vision of Lenin and like-minded anticolonial nationalists. “Settler-colonists would only accede to a recognition that the indigenous peoples whose lands they usurped are nations,” Massad writes, “on condition that self-determination not only would not lead to the declared goals of ‘independence’ and ‘liberation’ from settler-colonialism, but would effectively obstruct any path towards those goals,” either politically or economically.

In order to make this argument, Massad surveys the history of settler colonies in the twentieth century and the various means by which they absorbed and deflected indigenous demands for self-determination to maintain effective control over land and resources, even while at times offering various forms of truncated sovereignty or self-rule. He argues that twentieth century Zionism offers the most illuminating—though hardly exceptional example—of a self-determination movement founded on a “right of conquest” and premised on the simultaneous dispossession and erasure of the co-equal rights of indigenous people.

While anti-colonial nationalists after 1945 successfully promoted a more expansive vision of self-determination as national liberation, embodied most fully in the UN Resolution 1514 of 1961, the passage of the 1970 “Declaration of the Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States” suggested that the United States and other settler colonial powers had successfully contained its emancipatory potential in favor of a more limited vision that could accommodate myriad forms of self-rule short of independence.

Though Massad contends that anticolonial movements and thinkers resuscitated the Leninist vision of self-determination after 1945, he provides few examples of their actual engagement with early-twentieth-century Marxist-Leninist thought and the ways in which they accepted or modified it, though this represents (in my view) the single greatest historiographical and interpretive gap in the growing literature on self-determination. Works by Lenin, Luxemburg, and Stalin, among others, were widely translated throughout the decolonizing world, and mobilized in support of a seemingly infinite range of outcomes, including national independence, federation, or secession by sub-national groups, sometimes in the same place (Nigeria, India/Pakistan, Indonesia, among others). If we take “Wilsonian” and “Leninist” visions of self-determination as starting points for debate rather than fixed concepts, it becomes clear that both settler-colonial states and their anticolonial counterparts deployed the concept quite flexibly.

South Africa, which Massad repeatedly invokes, illuminates some of the tensions involved in multiple, competing invocations of self-determination. He rightfully notes settler-colonial states often invoked Jan Smuts and Woodrow Wilson’s vision of self-determination as “self-rule” to justify the denial or narrowing of meaningful sovereignty to colonized and indigenous peoples, as in Southwest Africa, which South Africa unsuccessfully tried to annex in 1946. Yet Smuts’ collapsing of the categories of nation and race as the “unit” of self-rule over and against the “peoples” of heterogeneous postcolonial nation-state also performed essential intellectual labor. The concept of “race-nation” carried water not just for white South African and Rhodesian officials after 1945, justifying the creation of white minority regimes and racially segregated homelands, but also for sub-national “minorities” throughout the decolonizing world who feared permanent subjugation in postcolonial states and demanded autonomy or independence from them. Self-identified members of the “minorities” that constituted a problem in the minds of so many postcolonial leaders and the scholars who studied them saw in Smuts formulation a useful description of their own plight.

Black South Africans, dating back to at least the 1920s, invoked both “Leninist” and “Wilsonian” self-determination flexibly. The South African Communist Party program of 1929 called for self-determination “in the Leninist sense of underlining the prime importance of supporting movements for complete national liberation of colonial peoples … restoring to them lands and liberties taken away from them by foreign conquerors, settlers and financiers, and vindication of their right … to equality, emancipation, independence and self-determination and hence (for freedom here means power) to predominant political power in their own country—on a basis however of equal rights for Europeans and other minorities as ‘most favoured nations.’” The African National Congress, responding in 1943 to the Atlantic Charter, distinguished between colonies deserving of outright independence and “other parts of Africa where there are the peculiar circumstances of a politically entrenched European minority ruling a majority African population.” Here, the ANC invoked “Wilsonian” or internal self-determination to mean that “the demands of the Africans for full citizenship rights and direct participation in all the councils of the state should be recognized.” This recognition necessarily included economic sovereignty. The ANC maintained this position virtually unchanged for the next half century, using it to call for multiracial democracy as well as to denounce the “fake” independence of the Bantustan homelands established by the Apartheid-era government in the early 1960s.

Massad’s argument that settler colonial states sought to contain the meaning of self-determination within narrow political and economic bounds, whether during the League of Nations Mandate period or after 1945 is persuasive (having made it myself). But Massad goes further, suggesting the Wilsonian conceptions of self-determination represented a diminution of the emancipatory potential of their Leninist predecessor, which enjoyed a brief heyday between 1945 and 1970 before a modified Wilsonianism displaced it. Adom Getachew makes a somewhat similar case, arguing that anticolonial nationalists advanced a revolutionary vision of self-determination as a prerequisite for the creation of a non-hierarchical world in which postcolonial economic and political sovereignty could have real meaning, and that the failure of the NIEO project signified its fall.[1]

Massad rightfully notes, as have other scholars, that colonial settler states rejected the idea of economic self-determination as exemplified by the NIEO, and sought via constitution writing and transitional arrangements to preserve the privileged position of both foreign capital and non-indigenous land and property owners in decolonizing states. Here too, however, the “settler colonial states”—United States, Britain, France, Australia, etc.— often disagreed on the goals of political self-determination shorn of full economic sovereignty. The European colonial powers sought first to maintain exclusive economic ties to their former colonies as they transitioned to independence, while U.S. officials instead sought to guarantee their full integration into a U.S-.led trading and financial system on open terms, believing (rightfully in many cases) that U.S. firms and capital would benefit as a result. Moreover, arguably the primary cause of the collapse of the NIEO project (so fervently desired by the settler-colonial powers) was the “sovereign rights” movement that Chris Dietrich has written so eloquently about.[2] This movement, pursued overwhelmingly by transnational elites from oil producing postcolonial states, “won” their right to economic self-determination and forced, as Dietrich notes, the largest peaceful transfer of wealth in world history through nationalization and effective price control. But as we now know, oil was not like other commodities, and efforts by NIEO supporters to establish similar commodity cartels failed. The oil price hikes of the 1970s, moreover, also resulted in a massive transfer of wealth from poor, oil-importing countries to their rich brethren, laying the foundation for the debt crisis of the 1980s and the total collapse of the NIEO.

Both Massad and Getachew agree that this emancipatory vision of self-determination had a brief shelf-life, roughly from 1945 to 1970.[3] For Massad, the fate of the indigenous sovereignty movements, which seemed to abandon independence for limited self-rule, the seeming resignation of the international community to permanent Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and continued white economic domination of South Africa after the end of Apartheid suggest the hegemony of settler-colonial vision of self-determination. Regarding South Africa and Palestine I can only sigh in agreement. But with indigenous self-determination claims, again, the record is mixed. The international indigenous rights movement, which helped to eventually win the UN Covenant on Indigenous Rights, was divided over both goals (independence vs autonomy or some other political formation) and epistemology (how to define and categorize indigenous peoples for the purpose of international legal claim-making, as “nations,” “tribes,” “peoples,” or something else), for reasons often independent of the desires of settler-colonial states to limit their options.

Many indigenous movements drew inspiration from both anticolonial movements and the legal framework of the 1966 human rights covenants and saw the limits of each, especially since many postcolonial states whose leaders were “Leninist” in their views on self-determination were “Wilsonian” when it came to indigenous peoples in their own countries. These movements have wrenched considerable (if still insufficient) sovereignty concessions, not from colonial systems and states in advanced crisis, but from otherwise stable settler-colonial states and an international system forced to acknowledge them as legal sovereigns with enforceable rights, an impressive achievement given their virtually non-existent military capacities. My point here is to suggest that we should neither minimize the gains made by indigenous movements nor assume that self-determination as an idea has power independent of those who make claims in its name, and the power and agency they themselves and the structures they represent wield.

Finally, the argument that self-determination “failed” or “fell” in the 1970s with the end of decolonization mistakenly assumes that the two are co-equal. While self-determination “began” as a set of sovereignty and rights claims primarily deployed by anticolonial movements, it has long since escaped those constraints. Since 1975, which more or less marks the end of the colonial era (important exceptions notwithstanding), self-determination movements and claims have continued to proliferate, and mostly against long-established states, including postcolonial states. The means of adjudicating such disputes through means short of catastrophic violence or civil war (such as autonomy, federation, resource sharing, decentralization, and even secession) have also proliferated, such that self-determination claims pose less threat to the interstate system than at any time in modern history. Massad may rightfully view this as confirmation of his argument. My hunch is that this has more to do with the changing nature of global capitalism and changed understandings of the political and economic viability of small states. But I’m moving too far afield. Massad’s essay is provocative, polemical, and mostly convincing, though I believe its emancipatory potential remains far from exhausted.


[1] Adom Getachew, Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019).

[2] Christopher R. W. Dietrich, Oil Revolution: Anticolonial Elites, Soverign Rights, and the Economic Culture of Decolonization (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).

[3] Adom Getachew, “When Jamaica Led the Postcolonial Fight Against, Exploitation,” Boston Review, February 9, 2019, (accessed July 1, 2019).

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