Patrice Lumumba, murdered at the age of 35 in 1961, was prime minister of newly independent Congo for just seven months. The Belgian imperialists, desperate to eliminate him from history, had him shot and his body dissolved in acid. As the news came out, weeks later, mass demonstrations shook capitals across the world.
Malcolm X described Lumumba as “the greatest black man who ever walked the African continent”. Patrice Lumumba was a new icon of resistance.
Leo Zeilig’s biography charts the meteoric rise of a young man from humble rural origins to the heights of anti-imperialist struggle. Lumumba was not born to lead. By dint of extraordinary personal effort he clawed himself up the rigid hierarchy of 1950s Belgian racist colonialism and achieved the status of an “évolué” – formally registered as a member of the “civilised indigenous population” and one of a tiny caste of privileged Congolese.
He embraced his role as one of the Belgians’ chosen natives and, for example, insisted that his children went to private French-speaking schools. But he baulked at the racism inherent in colonialism, became involved in moderate political projects and was promoted as a representative of the Congolese by his colonial masters.
Lumumba, a loyal post office clerk, was not a revolutionary by choice.
But events moved fast and in the space of three short years his nationalist party, the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), the first in Congolese history, grew to 58,000 members and catapulted him into the leadership of the liberation movement.
He collaborated with all the great figures of the African anti-colonial struggle and moved from a willing reformer to an intransigent and eloquent exponent of anti-imperialism. His blistering speech at the Congo’s independence celebrations is alone worth buying this book for.
After Lumumba’s election as the first prime minister of the newly independent Congo, the Belgians successfully fostered ethnic and regional divisions to protect their mining interests and launched a military uprising.
Lumumba’s desperate appeals for military support to pan-Africanist comrades, such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, were rejected – lofty promises tragically betrayed. Too late he turned to his natural supporters to launch mass resistance, but failed.
For socialists, this is not just a heroic and tragic story, it is a vital lesson for struggles today and in the future. Zeilig brings to life Tony Cliff’s pathbreaking theory of “deflected permanent revolution” – which explains how middle class leaders rise to power on the back of popular aspirations.
The Congolese movement of 1958-61 showed yet again that urban workers and rural masses have the power to shatter imperialism and its local agents – but also require the political analysis and strategy to bring about victory.
This little book is an important addition to our history of the 20th century and essential reading for students of, and activists in, the African liberation struggle.
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