Theses Doctoral

Youth Radicalism in Senegal and Congo-Brazzaville, 1958–1974

Swagler, Matthew Paul

This work argues that youth and student organizations in Senegal and Congo became the primary catalysts for mass social struggles that challenged new national governments between 1958 and 1974. From the mid-1950s, young activists in both countries (along with many trade union leaders) debated emerging African political leaders over what constituted “independence.” These debates sharpened after the control of political institutions was devolved from French to African authorities between 1958 and 1960. As I show, rather than celebrating formal independence, many youth, student, and trade union organizations claimed that new African state leaders were complicit in the ongoing foreign domination of politics, education, and their national economies. Young activists contrasted formal independence with their demands for “real independence,” which included criteria such as the expulsion of French troops, an end to French and missionary influence over the education system, and the nationalization of foreign-owned businesses. In the context of this conflict, a subset of activists in each country became known as “radicals” due to their demands for “real independence” and their call to reorganize the state along Marxist principles.
This work is based on archival research in Senegal, Congo, and France, as well as fifty-six interviews with Senegalese and Congolese militants of the period. The new presidents of Senegal and Congo, Léopold Senghor and Fulbert Youlou, both moved to consolidate control of their respective states after 1958. They attempted to isolate rival political organizations and young critics through a combination of repression and cooptation. “Youth Radicalism” explores how student, youth, and trade union organizations defended their autonomy from the new regimes and became centers of political opposition. I show that these organizations sparked urban rebellions in the capital cities of Brazzaville and Dakar, most notably in 1963 and 1968, respectively. In Congo, the protests in 1963 overthrew the government of Fulbert Youlou and allowed radical youth and student activists to declare themselves the leaders of a “revolution.” By building mass youth organizations, they were able to assume positions of authority and to successfully push for elements of “real independence” and “scientific socialism.” In Senegal, the strike in 1968 did not overturn Senghor’s government, but prompted a myriad of labor, educational, and democratic reforms in the years that followed. This work ends by looking at how the independent youth and student organizations of the 1960s were eliminated in both countries in the early 1970s due to internal divisions and state repression.
Considering Congo and Senegal in the same study illustrates that youth and student leaders’ political strategies intersected through shared connections within the Francophone world, as well as Third World and Communist networks. The demands raised by young radicals emerged in response to specific local and national political conflicts, but this work argues that they were also fundamentally shaped by their links abroad. Finally, “Youth Radicalism” assesses how young radicals’ ability to create lasting structural change in Senegal and Congo was affected by the common political frameworks that guided their actions.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Mann, Gregory
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 22, 2017