Head of the class

By Kelly Baker Josephs

You Don’t Play With Revolution: The Montreal Lectures
of C.L.R. James
, ed. David Austin
(AK Press, ISBN 978-190485-993-2, 256 pp)

Illustration of C.L.R. James

C.L.R. James. Image courtesy AK Press

In a 1967 interview with the historian Robert Hill, C.L.R. James stated: “I want to say, without having any national pride or national faith or anything of the kind, that a great deal of the West Indies is in every book that I have written, although I have written as widely as a history of the Communist International, a book on cricket, a novel, and so forth.” Reprinted in You Don’t Play With Revolution: The Montreal Lectures of C.L.R. James, this short interview between Hill and James gives readers one route via which to approach the variety of genres and topics included in the book. As its subtitle indicates, this new collection is based on three months (between December 7, 1966, and March 8, 1967) James spent delivering a mix of public and private lectures in Canada. The topics of the lectures are broad, covering Caribbean nationalism, the Haitian Revolution, Shakespeare, Lenin, and more. This range is, of course, to be expected from a multi-dimensional figure like James; but, as he indicates in the quote from the interview above, his diverse interests are always somehow connected to and by his thinking about the Caribbean.

As all but one of these lectures are published here for the first time, I expect this volume will be invaluable for C.L.R. James scholars and enthusiasts. For me, however, this collection is as much about the audience for James’s Montreal lectures as it is about James’s ideas. Edited by David Austin, You Don’t Play With Revolution is divided into four parts. The first section contains what one might call the expected “James voice,” in three public lectures (and here I must insert one quibble with the book: the lack of contextual information, the “when, where, who, etc” information that Austin might easily have provided in a short introduction to each lecture). Part two, which comprises the bulk of the book, contains transcripts of five private lectures — the fifth in three parts — that James delivered to small groups. These “classes” primarily included members of the Caribbean Conference Committee (CCC) and the C.L.R. James Study Circle (CLRJSC), the main organisers of James’s Montreal tour. The Vincentian activist Alfie Roberts, Grenadian Franklyn Harvey, Antiguan Tim Hector, Jamaica-born Robert Hill — these are some of the young men for whom James tailored these private talks. (Anne Cools — born in Barbados, later a Canadian senator — was the only prominent female member of these organisations, but she was not present at James’s lectures.) These were men who would later become recognisable names in their own right.

James’s investment in developing these future Caribbean notables is evident throughout the book; not just in the mere giving of private lectures, but in his knowledge of and catering to the various particular, individual interests of his audience members. Through these lectures, readers may glimpse some of James’s logic in envisioning the Caribbean as a connecting thread for his various interests. As, for example, when he closes his private class at the end of a three-part lecture on “Lenin and the Trade Union Debate in Russia” with the following advice: “I recommend to you Lear — Shakespeare in the seventeenth century. Rousseau in the eighteenth century. Marx in the nineteenth century. And Lenin in the twentieth century. Then you have to master and tackle the West Indian problem.” Question-and-answer sessions are included for three of the private lectures, giving readers insight into the relationship between James and the members of what Austin terms his “Aristotelian Lyceum” in Montreal. Although James clearly occupied the position of authority in the group, there was a spirit of collaborative thinking, as he not only provided access to his own works — many of which were difficult to obtain — and references to relevant texts by other thinkers, but also seriously considered his audience members’ questions and concerns, fostering a collective intellectual growth.

Parts three and four of You Don’t Play With Revolution contain interviews and correspondence, respectively. Both sections extend the intimacy of the private lectures, giving the reader a glimpse behind the formality of James’s published work. The letters, especially, give interesting indications of the circles and connections surrounding James in the mid to late 1960s. Even this small selection of correspondence between these few actors gives the sense of how “things worked” (and possibly still work) in academic and political circles. As with collections of other public figures’ letters, there is a small thrill of voyeurism. But because recipients like Hill and Martin Glaberman often copied letters they received from James to share his words with their colleagues, there is less a feeling of violating James’s privacy than of viewing a collection of archived documents that carry with them traces of personal lives bound up in the social and political events of the time. The small intimacies to be found in the letters and interviews, along with the informality of parenthetical asides and the question-and-answer periods — what one might call the “marginalia” of the public and private lectures — open new perspectives on James, his audience members, Trinidadian politics, and Caribbean Canada.

The C.L.R. James in You Don’t Play With Revolution is still an advocate of the “to take part” philosophy that Hill describes in his preface to the collection. In one of the private lectures — “Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire and the Caribbean” — James informs his listeners, “I am always trying to draw conclusions for the Caribbean.” So those readers looking for the insightful, inspirational, invested James will find him still eminently visible. But, as Austin notes in his introduction, these lectures, interviews, and letters also showcase a James who was increasingly disheartened by the way the Caribbean’s post-independence leaders were “taking part” in West Indian politics and society, and wished to spur challenges to their continued allegiance to foreign powers. This James was not quite as confident about the potential sovereignty of the West Indies as the man who wrote the appendix to the 1962 reissue of The Black Jacobins. Having tried, and failed, to take part via the political route in his home country Trinidad, having witnessed the failure of Federation, having been exiled by his former protégé Eric Williams, the James who lectured in Montreal in 1966–67 was perhaps less sanguine, though still positive about the change that the young people in his audience might yet engender. As the title indicates, James still believed in the potential for revolution in the Caribbean, but was now tentative in his predictions about its future.

Another small quibble with the book: the appendices, which consist of a 1965 speech by Glaberman, a 1966 speech by Hill, a 1968 speech by James. It’s not clear why these three pieces are included in You Don’t Play With Revolution. The first two are about James, yes, and possibly shed some light on his philosophies via two men intimately involved with his work at the time. But the connection between these speeches and the book’s conception of a “Montreal James” is tenuous. Even the third speech, from James himself, on Jamaica’s banning of Walter Rodney, seems like a questionable inclusion. Of course, appendices are just that: extra-textual information; but these speeches are glaringly superfluous, because they do not directly add much, if anything, to the main collection. At best, the speeches seem to be included in an effort to leave the reader with a more cohesive picture of James and his influence on events occurring after his Montreal tour; but James himself warns against this drive to conclusions about public figures. In one of the question-and-answer periods after a private lecture, he tells Franklyn Harvey: “I want to make clear that there is a certain stage in the psychology of a great individual that you do not know. If you study the man’s work, if you study his biography carefully, and you read up all the letters and so forth, you may get somewhere. But I am usually very scared of that.” We ought perhaps to take James at his word, and leave as much room as possible for circuitous, and fortuitous, connections between the various topics and lives delineated among these lectures, interviews, and letters.


The Caribbean Review of Books, July 2010

Kelly Baker Josephs is an assistant professor of English at York College, City University of New York, and the managing editor of Small Axe.