Martyr by Choice

Lumumba Speaks: The Speeches and Writings of Patrice Lumumba 1958-1961

edited by Jean Van Lierde, translated by Helen Lane, with an Introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre
Little, Brown, 433 pp., $12.50

It is now twelve years since Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Congo, was killed. Time enough, one would think, for the passions he aroused to have died down. And yet the name of Lumumba still signifies for many people either the height of African heroism or the personification of the darkness and disorder of African independence. But though these public images exist (and probably always will), material is now available which makes it possible to go behind them and make a more searching analysis of Lumumba’s situation and the role he played.

Lumumba Speaks is a collection of Lumumba’s speeches and writings from December, 1958, when he suddenly emerged at the All African Peoples Conference in Accra as an outstanding leader, to January, 1961, shortly before his death. The collection was first published in France in 1963, and has only now been translated into English. It contains all of Lumumba’s published speeches and writings, together with a number of personal letters and transcripts of speeches not otherwise available.

Inevitably a collection of this kind raises the question whether one can make any just assessment of a person through his public utterances, designed as they often are to project an image and to conceal reality. Certainly this collection conveys a very vivid picture of the immediate situation and Lumumba’s response to it, and also of the development of Lumumba’s thinking. But obviously one needs to know a great deal more about the historical context, the situation within which he was working, the nature of his support, and so on. This book is exceptional in containing, as well as the direct voice of the man, exactly this kind of analytical material, supplied in the introduction by Jean-Paul Sartre, which, in spite of having been written as early as 1963, remains the best assessment so far of Lumumba and deserves to be much better known.

The basic question posed by this collection and by Sartre’s analysis is as follows: How did this man, whose outlook was petty bourgeois, who believed firmly in law and order, and whose program (where it existed) was reformist rather than revolutionary, come to be so feared by the Western world that he had to be first ousted from power and then killed? Some comments by Arghiri Emmanuel in a recent article raise the same question. As he sees it, Lumumba’s style of leadership (strong enough to project an image of unity and nationalism but without a radical base or any really radical program) was in fact very well suited to the needs of international capitalism. It was Moise Tshombe, as the representative of the white settlers, who by attempting to establish the rich province of Katanga as a separate state posed the real threat to the big capitalist interests.

This goes a long way to explain Lumumba’s initial situation and why Katanga secession was eventually so ruthlessly destroyed, but it does not explain why Lumumba himself …

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