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How Third World Students Liberated the West

In a twist to mainstream tropes of radical student movements of the 1960s, and their impact on the history of political thought and action, Pedro Monaville argues that the terrains of the Third World, and particularly the history of student movements in Congo, are vital to explore if we are to makes sense of how that period informs the present.

The late 1960s witnessed a wave of youth uprisings and student protests of a rare intensity. Despite their obvious differences, students throughout the world felt that they were participating in a common movement of rebellion. Ideas, books, and people circulated widely in what the historian Geoff Eley calls the global village of late-1960s student politics. Yet, the memorialisation of these events tends to privilege some corners of that global village at the expense of others. While the role of European and American youths in challenging and changing their societies is well acknowledged, memories of the late 1960s often fail to register the fact that Third World students also inhabited the global village of protests.

Narratives about May 1968 in France are a particularly good example of the historical distortions that derive from an exclusive focus on the best-known neighbourhoods of the global village. Memories of that time often account for the transnational dimension of the event, but usually in a restrictive and limited fashion. From Turin to Amsterdam, Prague, Chicago and Berkeley, European and transatlantic dimensions often emerge. They are mentioned in reference to the French uprisings’ echoes in the various locations where students experimented with radical democratic practices and attempted to create new alliances outside of old party politics and traditional labour activism.

Yet today, media-sanctioned narratives of the general strike and of the occupation movement that paralysed France more often than not reduce its political amplitude to a generational conflict that simply sought to liberalise French society. The inscription of May 1968 in networks of transnational solidarity with the Third World, and in colonial and postcolonial histories that transcended the narrow framework of the nation-state, is often erased from these accounts. The same observation about the silencing of the fully transnational dimension of student protests in France can be made about other visible corners of the global village in Europe and North America.

To fully make sense of how that period of history informs our present, it is necessary to go off the beaten track, off the most visited streets in the global village, to explore new terrains in the history of the most spectacular world student uprising. The Congo, which so often played the role of underground and alternative axis of the movement of capitalist modernity, is a good place to start.

Many names and faces spontaneously come to mind when one thinks about the global youth protests of the late 1960s: Jan Palach, Rudi Dutschke, Angela Davis, Mao Zedong, and Che Guevara, to name a few. Hubert Humphrey, the United States’ vice president from 1965 to 1968, might seem an unlikely addition to that list. But Humphrey became one of the most powerful, even if involuntary, symbols of the global character of 1968 – a label that, well beyond the calendar year, now serves to embrace the long chain of uprisings and protests that spanned the world at the dusk of the 1960s. A multiplicity of effects, images, slogans, and ideological fragments entered into the making of that global sequence. From Rio to Tokyo, students and other protesters shared the same opposition to state violence, rigid bureaucracies, and the alienation of the everyday. Yet, opposition to US imperialism and its destructive effects in the Third World was the single most widely shared feeling that engineered the world protests of 1968. Travelling the world in 1967 and 1968, Humphrey served as a symptom of that global imperialism. Wherever he went, from Tunis to Paris, Nairobi, Berlin, and Chicago, he was met with demonstrations, protests, and riots.

In Kinshasa, too, where Humphrey spent a few days at the beginning of January 1968, his visit incensed the youth. The Congolese autocrat President Mobutu had invited his American guest to visit the Patrice Lumumba monument, a modest stele erected to honor the memory of the country’s first prime minister. Like their peers around in the world, Congolese students held Humphrey accountable for US interventionism in Vietnam and elsewhere. Yet the specifics of Humphrey’s visit in the Congo added insult to injury. For Congolese students, the US government had been one of the main instigators of Lumumba’s assassination. In that context, Humphrey’s visit to a monument built in acknowledgement of Lumumba’s status as the country’s martyr of independence was sheer provocation. Responding to a call issued by the Congolese Student Union, three hundred protesters gathered near the monument, pelted vegetables at Humphrey’s motorcade, burned the American flag, and chanted pro-Vietnam slogans.

The Congolese police cracked down on students throughout the city. Scores of young Congolese were arrested, including André N’Kanza Dolomingu, the president of the Congolese Student Union. Security forces also kidnapped François Tshiabola Kalonji, a student at the Catholic University of Lovanium. Kalonji was not a leader in the student movement, but the police had found copies of communist newspapers in his bedroom on campus. Kalonji was tortured for several hours and then presented to President Mobutu as the mastermind of an imaginary Maoist conspiracy. The government used that so-called conspiracy to ban the Congolese Student Union.

After his coup of November 1965, Mobutu had sought the support of activists in the student movement. Many of them served as his close advisors in the following years and participated in orienting the new regime’s rhetoric toward the left. Humphrey’s visit to Kinshasa marked the abrupt end of that fragile alliance. State repression increased over the rest of the year and culminated in the police opening fire on peaceful protesters during a student demonstration in June 1969.

The anecdote about Humphrey’s visit to Kinshasa and its repercussions says much about the entangled political geographies of the 1960s. The question of power in a newly independent Third World country such as the Congo was always directly dependent on foreign mediations. To use a vexed vocabulary, the contest over power was both local and global. Congolese students took inspiration from the activism of their peers elsewhere in Africa and on other continents to organise their own critique of their government, while joining their voices in the global opposition against imperialism. In parallel, the Congolese government used the global connections of 1968 – for instance an imagined Maoist plot – to legitimise its violent suppression of dissent.

What Humphrey’s visit should also make clear is the full participation of young Africans in Global ’68. The place of the Third World, and of Africa, in the memory and history of 1968 is indeed quite paradoxical. It is mostly Western experiences – and episodes of student protests in Paris, Rome, Berlin and New York – that continue to shape narratives of that global event. From the Algerian war of independence to the Cuban and Vietnamese guerrillas and the wave of liberation movements in Africa, the Third World has been acknowledged as a central source of inspiration in the outrage of Western students in the 1960s. It is much less often remembered that Third World students themselves followed the same trajectories of radicalisation in Latin America, Asia and Africa. These students also played a crucial role in the global circulation of political effects and energies by travelling between their home countries and universities in Europe and North America.

To come back to the case of the Congo, university students, still a relatively small elite by the late 1960s, were instrumental in laying out the programme of cultural decolonisation that was carried out by the regime of President Mobutu. For all its transgressions and rapaciousness, Mobutu effected a significant transformation of Congolese society by promoting the expression of a collective identity rooted in local cultures. While the so-called politics of authenticity served as an ideological smokescreen for his autocratic excesses, they did address some very real issues in Congolese society and its unfinished decolonisation. Before its appropriation by the regime and its translation into state-imposed regulations of language, clothing, and identity, the discourse of authenticity first emerged from students’ intellectual stitching together of alienation, negritude and the politicisation of the everyday. First tested in student newspapers, literary experiments, radical political pamphlets and discussions in social psychology, the discourse of authenticity later found its way into state institutions through the mediation of former student activists turned political advisors to the new regime.

Congolese students should be remembered as key political actors in the 1960s for at least two other reasons. One is their role of mediation in the development of the so-called Mulelist and Simba rebellions of the mid-1960s, the guerrilla movements started by former sympathisers of Patrice Lumumba who sought to overthrow the “neocolonial” regime in place in Kinshasa. The other is their contribution to the radicalising of political dissent in Global ’68. The students’ cosmopolitan aspirations and access to international mobility were central in these two fields of action, which can both be defined as attempts to connect the Congo to the world.

The political acumen and capital of Congolese students in the 1960s derived directly from the Belgian colonial system and its enforced isolationism. The Belgians attempted to limit the mobility of the Congolese within the colony, prevent them from travelling beyond the colonial borders and control their communications with the outside world. Starting in the 1920s, colonial authorities developed the fantasy of sealing off the Congo from foreign influences and the global circulation of subversive ideas. A chain of insurrectionary movements was then indeed crisscrossing Africa, carrying the distant echoes of the Bolshevik Revolution and of the martial pan Africanism of Marcus Garvey and his followers across the black diaspora. In the words of the historian Nancy Rose Hunt, colonial Congo was a “nervous state”.

Colonial security archives and the profusion of alarmist reports about the dangers of international and local subversion fully support that trope. In the eyes of the coloniser, it became crucial to preserve the very small elite of educated Congolese from pernicious foreign manipulations through an active monitoring of their exposure to the outside world. From the relative seclusion of missionary schools to the policies of postal censorship, Belgian paternalism was moved by a desire to shield the Congolese from the world. Needless to say, the Belgians never succeeded in silencing the murmurs of global emancipatory discourses in the Congo. But dreams of ideological sanitation continued to animate colonial policies until the late 1950s. Congo’s access to independence on 30 June  1960 marked a real rupture and a much wider opening up to the world. Better equipped to navigate that new world, Congolese students found themselves suddenly unencumbered in their communications with international interlocutors and their ability to travel abroad.

The disaster of the transition of power in June and July 1960 produced an internationalisation of Congolese politics. The intervention of a broad military coalition under the flag of the United Nations and the full development of Cold War politics dramatised the new opportunities of circulation and communication that opened up to Congolese. With Lumumba’s assassination, the Congo became a key battlefield in the struggle against neocolonialism and for the liberation of the Third World. Lumumba’s aura radiated particularly over the Congolese students. Next to the global multiplication of streets and avenues named after the dead Congolese prime minister, the launching of Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow – an institution specifically opened to welcome students from Third World countries – was probably the best example of the symbolic charge associated with the Congolese label in the 1960s. Already benefiting from the end of the colonial restrictions on education, Congolese students capitalised on the many opportunities afforded to them by their country’s dramatic entry onto the stage of international politics.

When attempts to restore a Lumumbist regime in the Congo morphed into a more radical “struggle for the second independence”, a rural Marxist-inspired guerrilla movement, it was Congolese students in Europe who advertised this new “Congolese revolution” to the world. In poems, newspapers and rallies, they sought to profile the Lumumbist rebellion as a “second Vietnam”. In doing so, they also succeeded in securing moral, intellectual and sometimes material support for the movement. The most committed of these revolutionary publicists joined the ranks of the guerrillas, in the supported training camps established in Brazzaville or directly in the “maquis” established by Pierre Mulele and other Lumumbist politicians in different regions of the Congo.

“Africa is shaped like a gun, and Congo is the trigger.” That sentence, attributed to Frantz Fanon, encapsulates perfectly the critical position of the Congo in the world after independence. The Congo’s inherent geo-strategic importance as a Cold War battlefield was sufficient to bring the Mulelist and Simba rebellions to the attention of a diversity of international actors. Yet, without the intellectual labour of student activists in the Congolese diaspora, these rebellions would certainly not have gained the same international visibility, capturing the imaginations of anonymous leftist activists, or of luminaries such as Che Guevara and Guy Debord. In 1966, while he was completing the manuscript for The Society of the Spectacle, Debord composed a treaty on the “Congolese Revolution”. The treaty remained unpublished at the time. Yet it is emblematic of the importance of Third World radicalism in the imagination of the Situationists and, by extension, of the rebel youth in France and elsewhere that they influenced in 1968. Trying to make sense of the meaning of the Congolese revolution, Debord situated it within an anarchist register. His treaty concluded with the following paragraph:

“The Congolese revolutionary movement of today does not place itself in the history of négritude, but it enters universal history. It is a part of the revolutionary proletariat that is going to rise towards all countries’ surface. As such, it must combat Johnson and Mao. It must avenge Lumumba and Liebknecht, Babeuf and Durruti.”

Debord’s vision of the Congo was a détournement of sorts, seeking to introduce a Situationist germ into a foreign environment in order to reroute it. Yet it was also the product of the intellectual work and imagination of young Congolese students, most notably Joseph Mbelolo ya Mpiku and Simon Lungela Diangani, who collaborated with the Situationists and allowed Debord to project his revolutionary dreams onto the Congolese stage.

The efforts to generate broad international support for the struggle for the second independence did not result in a victory for the Congolese rebels. The counter-insurrection led by foreign mercenaries and supported by the Belgian and US armies put an end to the Lumumbist dream of taking over Kinshasa. Guevara noted when he reached the rebellion in eastern Congo that the revolutionary rhetoric advertised by Congolese students did not materialise on the ground, where the rebels were suffering from disorganisation and eroded motivation.

But the effectiveness of the Congolese students’ actions on the “information front” should not be judged solely by the ultimate collapse of the rebellion. By advertising their revolution abroad, students also impacted upon the broader processes of political radicalisation in play during the 1960s, as evidenced by Mbelolo and Lungela’s involvement with the Situationist International. The Situationists and other radical activists in the West imagined themselves as part of the same globe as denizens of the Third World, and as part of the same fight against alienation and imperialist oppression. That act of imagination operated at an existential and affective level and transformed Western activists’ vision of history, creating a sense of urgency and outrage that rendered the revolutionary outburst of 1968 thinkable.

The presence of African students in Europe contributed to validating the Third Worldist orientation of radical groups and avant-gardes, by rooting activists’ internationalism in actual relationships with nationals from the Third World. It also enriched the repertoire of action of European protest movements. In his study of the West German student movement, Quinn Slobodian shows for example how students from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East contributed to the transformation of student protests toward more direct actions and violent happenings. The protest campaign organised by Congolese, Haitian, and German students against the screening of Africa Addio in Berlin in August 1966 was one of the foundational moments in that history. Shot by the Italian filmmakers Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, the film is a sensational documentary about violence in Africa. A long sequence focuses on the Simba rebellion of eastern Congo, and on its quelling by white mercenaries, including former Nazi soldiers. Africa Addio arrived in Germany in the wake of accusations that the filmmakers had staged a scene showing the extrajudicial execution of a Congolese rebel by a mercenary. Regardless of the veracity of these allegations, it was clear to African students and their comrades in Berlin that Jacopetti and Prosperi’s film recycled old colonial clichés regarding the inherent violence of Africa and used shocking images of dead bodies for commercial purposes. The student campaign to ban the film from German screens encompassed not only the traditional picketing and distribution of pamphlets; students also stormed theatres and did not refrain from committing material damage while doing so. The virulence of these protests had rarely been seen before, but it would soon become recurrent, as student groups radicalised their opposition to the establishment in the years that followed.

Not all contributions by African youths to Global ’68 can be placed within narratives of transformation like the one about the Africa Addio protests. Africans’ impact on the evolution of global political expressions and forms of activism in the 1960s sometimes circulated through highly convoluted webs that still evade full readability today. The publication of Il sangue dei leoni (Blood of the Lions), the most popular book ever published by the Italian leftist publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, is a good example of the intricate machinery of global circulation at the end of the 1960s. Originally written in French by a former Congolese rebel exiled in Cuba, and then translated into Italian for its publication by Feltrinelli, Il sangue dei Leoni is a narrative of the armed struggle in eastern Congo, and as such it was part of the effort to establish the relevance of the conflict and gather international support for the Congolese revolution. Edouard-Marcel Sumbu’s text did not constitute the entirety of the book. It was followed by a very long document, presented as the manual of the US army’s special forces, used for the secret training of counter-insurrection commandos at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. It is not very clear how the manual reached Feltrinelli or if it was part of Sumbu’s original manuscript, but Il sangue dei leoni remains a milestone in the history of the acceleration of the cycles of violence in the Italian Sessantotto and beyond.

The reason for the success of the book was its very practical and detailed explanations of the organisation of guerrillas, which even included a whole section on the making of bombs. Reportedly, Il sangue dei leoni ended up on the bedside table of every Red Brigade member. Furthermore, some sources indicate that Israeli forces found copies of its Arabic translation on the dead bodies of Palestinian Al Fatah fighters in 1970 – a surprising testimony to the far-reaching repercussions of the intellectual labour of the young Congolese who advertised the post-Lumumbist revolution to the world in the global 1960s.

The different vignettes mentioned here – Humphrey’s troubled reception in Kinshasa, the protests over Africa Addio in Germany, the lives of Il sangue dei leoni – teach us not only that the global turmoil of 1968 inflected the political trajectory of African countries (in this case the Congo), but that young African activists and students also shaped the event.

Reading about the Congo of 50 years ago, it is difficult not to think about the heroic upheavals of 2010 and 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt, and their many echoes in the wave of Occupy movements, from Oakland to Istanbul. The political, social, economic and diplomatic contexts that informed student politics in the 1960s differ significantly from the conditions in which new social movements are currently emerging. But in Africa as elsewhere, memories of Global ’68 are now part of the past struggles that new generations can mobilise in their attempts to regain control of their collective destiny.

This story features in the Chronic (April 2016).
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