P. Monaville: Students of the World

Students of the World. Global 1968 and Decolonization in the Congo

Monaville, Pedro
Theory in Forms
368 S.
$ 104.95 (cloth), $ 28.95 (paperback)
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Ismay Milford, Research Centre Global Dynamics, Universität Leipzig

Students of the World presents a global history of the Congolese student movement and its entanglements and confrontations with state power. The book focuses on the years either side of 1968, placed within a longer history stretching from the post-war Belgian Congo to the present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo. Monaville charts the decisive shift to the Left among the student body in the aftermath of the murder of Patrice Lumumba in 1961 and reconstructs this complex political terrain over the course of the decade that followed, in the context of the political upheavals that became known internationally as the „Congo Crisis“ and Cold War-era protests across the globe, notably relating to the war in Vietnam.

The book’s central argument is that Congolese student politics in the 1960s, for all its ideological diversity and critical self-reflection, was defined by a „distinct worldedness“ (p. 208) that can be understood with reference to late colonial and decolonising Congo. What was lost in the pivotal moment of 1969, when Mobutu’s regime massacred protesting students in Kinshasa, was not the existence of a radical or revolutionary student body, Monaville suggests, but this specific „cosmopolitan edge“ (p. 4). Student worldedness takes shape for the reader through correspondence and political writings, histories of education institutions and political groupings, and geographically far-ranging life stories in the Cold War world.

This highly innovative book, based on extensive research during and since Monaville’s PhD, locates Congolese students centre stage in new social, intellectual and cultural histories of the global Cold War. If political scientists have long looked to 1960s Congo to analyse state, ethnicity and violence, Monaville’s account is refreshing different. The author takes seriously the projects, hopes and strategies of these young, mainly male actors on their own terms, and convincingly explains why they mattered: from the perspective of outside observers, these students „rewrote the Congo into global revolutionary narratives“ (p. 160) in the late 1960s; in terms of national politics, Mobutu’s first years in power owed much to the backing and experience of this highly educated generation (Chapter 8).

Students of the World is structured around nine short chapters divided into four sections by interludes that focus on emblematic life histories. The longest and most rigorously researched third section (Chapters 5–7) is the most critical to the book’s overall intervention. It is here the reader sees clearly how the revolutionary visions of Congolese students at home and abroad cut across Cold War ideological camps rather than being derivative of them, from the pro-love Maoism in the anonymous manifesto of the Proletarian Brotherhood published in Paris (pp. 140–142), to correspondence with the post-surrealist Situationist International (pp. 157–158). Monaville is equally attentive to the structural realities of the Cold War: Chapter 5 encounters much-cited scholars of African politics, James Scott and Crawford Young, as visitors to 1960s Congo, backed by CIA funding, observing the shift from „a liberal to a revolutionary cosmopolitanism imaginary“ (p. 124) among students after 1960. One of the book’s greatest achievements is to elucidate the political and affective logics of the numerous political groupings that were often dismissed as „chaotic“ by external observers of the Simba and Muleleist rebellions.

Building the conceptual foundations for Monaville’s elaboration of student worldedness, Chapters 1 and 2 focus on letter writing in the colonial and Cold War context, outlining the significance of postal infrastructure (in part by way of Lumumba’s Oriental Province Native Postmen Association). Thinking through the Lingala term mukanda (pp. 31–32), which refers to paperwork (from correspondence to legal notices) Monaville compellingly shows that the practice of sending and receiving letters internationally was in many ways more important than their content, although the strategic use of Cold War rhetoric or of letterheads also mattered in student correspondence with the Belgian Communist Party or the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Chapters 3 and 4, on education in its symbolic and institutional guises, set the scene for Monaville’s account of the formation of the Union Générale des Étudiants Congolais in the 1960s. These chapters can be usefully read alongside Daniel Tödt’s recent book, The Lumumba Generation.1 Both books suggest productive ways to think about the making of elites while identifying the importance of gender, specifically the „ideal of cosmopolitan masculinity“ (p. 120) in Monaville’s case. The book’s fourth and final section charts the decline of student cosmopolitanism, showing how the continued violent repression of student protests, punishments in the form of military service and the eventual nationalisation of higher education in 1971 represented Mobutu’s determination to sever the many links between students and the world.

Students of the World makes exemplary use of oral histories, namely over one hundred interviews conducted by the author since 2007, the majority in Kinshasa. On several occasions, the reader is brought into the room with the interviewer and interviewee, made aware of the space, the background noise, the interviewee’s tone of voice and their present-day standing in their community (for example Paul Kabongo Wa Misasa and Kalixte Mukendi Wa Nsanga in Interlude III). While more discussion on the language(s) that interviews were conducted in would have been welcome, Monaville reflects openly on his own positionality as an interviewer: he notes that his mother being Congolese made a difference to how he was welcomed, but that his university background was deemed equally as important by a generation whose involvement in international student politics was so formative (pp. xi–xii). Details from interviews are seamlessly interwoven with archival documents from state, university and personal collections in the US, Europe and Congo (a less central source base for the book), and a large body of published work. Given the well-known limitations of traditional archives for studying 1960s and 70s Africa, Monaville’s interviews underpin the book’s meandering breadth and personalise the many acronyms of student politics.

Monaville’s writing is evocative and absorbing, each story unravelling from a carefully chosen epigraph, anecdote or conceptual reflection. Readers seeking concise narrative threads in each chapter may struggle, but Monaville’s stylistic choices form an argument in their own right: a rejection of an all-embracing account in favour of plurality and ambivalence. The flow of the text is never interrupted for long with discussions of secondary literature or conceptual interventions, but Students of the World is richly referenced in the endnotes and stands as an example of the creative possibilities of scholarly monographs.

Students of the World will prove an enduring reference point for global histories of Cold War-era activism. As Monaville notes, opportunities for higher education for Congolese were exceptionally limited before 1960 and especially broad thereafter, given the international stakes of the Congo Crisis. But if the Congolese case was extreme in this regard it was anything but unique in the context of the continent. This book thus opens up avenues for researching how particular „ways of being in the world“ (p. 207) were closed off to actors elsewhere on the African continent in a similar timeframe, for reasons that were never reducible to external dynamics or Cold War metanarratives.

1 Daniel Tödt, The Lumumba Generation. African Bourgeoisie and Colonial Distinction in the Belgian Congo, Berlin 2021.

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