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You Don’t Play With Revolution: The Montreal Lectures of C.L.R. James — Book Excerpt

Posted on October 25th, 2009 in AK Book Excerpts

Four years after editor David Austin first suggested the project to us, You Don’t Play With Revolution: The Montreal Lectures of C.L.R. James is finally a reality. We got it back from the printer last week, to much fanfare in the warehouse.

This collection is amazing, not simply for the lectures themselves, but for the window onto a particular cultural and political moment it provides. The occasion for this “moment” was an invitation from a group of West Indian students in Montreal—The C.L.R. James Study Circlefor James to deliver a series of lectures. Some of the lectures were public and others were just for the study circle’s members. All of them are James at his incisive (and personable) best…a perfect introduction to his work and a treasury of insights for those already familiar with it. But the real fascination, for me, of this book is the sense of living, vibrant context it manages to transmit.

James was invited to Montreal in the late 1960s less as a lecturer than as a respected elder who could contribute to the practical work of people devoted to revolutionary change in Canada and the Caribbean. Through transcribed Q&A sessions (especially in the private lectures) and the copious correspondence that preceded the event, David Austin manages to translate, across four decades, the feeling of significance and radical potential shared by all the participants.

Robert A. Hill, currently the Literary Executor of The C. L. R. James Estate, was one of the students who brought James to Montreal. Below, I’ve pasted an excerpt from his preface to the book. And, below that, is the table of contents.

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From the Preface…

There was a powerful sense of recognition in our encounter with James’s work, liberating our sense of what was possible when history moved. Moreover, embodied in James’s work was not only an extraordinary vision of the creative power of ordinary people as the shapers of history, but also a method of getting at it, of where to look for it, and how to go about documenting it. It was this combination of political concept and pedagogy or method that provided a language with which to express what we were about as West Indians seeking to fashion a relationship with our Canadian community as well as our home communities in the Caribbean. The fusion of intellectual seriousness and political purpose was what defined this new burst of energy that propelled us through the exciting, if perilous, decade of the 1960s.

The key to James’s political vision and his intellectual identity was the idea of emancipation. In fact, James was always fond of reminding audiences that the West Indian people have been the most rebellious people in history. The idea comes through strong and clear in these lectures and letters assembled by David Austin in the present collection. As a West Indian abroad, David Austin emerges out of the same political bloodline, by way of the late Alfie Roberts, his close friend and mentor, whose life-story appears in an earlier edited volume (A View for Freedom: Alfie Roberts Speaks on the Caribbean, Cricket, Montreal, and C.L.R. James [Montreal: Alfie Roberts Institute, 2005]).

What difference does this collection make to our understanding and estimation of James? At the time that we invited James to Canada, he was at a particularly low point in his career. The Workers’ and Farmers’ Party (WFP), the vehicle which James had spearheaded and helped to organize in Trinidad as a means of challenging the political stranglehold of Eric Williams and the People’s National Movement (PNM), had collapsed. Between 1965 and 1968, James seemed to be marking time. Then came the epic political confrontations of 1968 which, one could argue, had been anticipated by James’s theory of self-organization and mobilization from below. Throughout the world, East and West, North and South, the established political order was confronted by new movements and new social subjects that existing political theory had no way of accounting for but which James had been pointing to for years.

The conjunction of the turbulent events of 1968 and the renewal of James’s legacy is what makes this collection so valuable and timely. The reader will discover here not only the excitements accompanying the early days of the West Indian awakening in Canada, but also a clear exposition of the political ideas of James that guided and engaged our thinking. There is no more valuable resource for grounding the solidarities and spontaneities of those times, both for West Indians as well as others, than the lectures now made available in this book.

To understand that the ideas of C. L. R. James are a still vital and important legacy, as he himself demonstrated in these lectures on the legacy of the great thinkers that he discusses, is the challenge of the current generation of Caribbean activists. James’s exemplary attentiveness to the rich and diverse traditions of revolutionary thought traced throughout these lectures represents a gold-mine from which today’s students and activists can draw. As they feel their way towards the future, even as we who helped to inaugurate the Caribbean movement in Canada in the 1960s did before them, they will contest the reigning system and its ideas. With these texts, they can avail themselves of the intellectual legacy of James and be confident that they are not acting alone.



Preface, by Robert A. Hill
Introduction: In Search of a National identity:
C.L.R. James and the Promise of the Caribbean, by David Austin


The Making of the Caribbean People
The Haitian Revolution in the Making of the Modern World
Shakespeare’s King Lear


Existentialism and Marxism
Rousseau and the Idea of the General Will
Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte and the Caribbean
Marx’s Capital, the Working-Day, and Capitalist Production
Lenin and the Trade Union Debate in Russia
–Part One
–Part Two
–Part Three


On Literature, Exile, and Nationhood
Interview by Robert A. Hill for “CBC Tuesday Night”
You Don’t Play with Revolution
McGill Daily interview, Congress of Black Writers


Alfie Roberts & Mervyn Solomon to C. L. R. James, March 28, 1964
Martin Glaberman to C.L.R. James, July 12, 1965
Robert A. Hill to Martin Glaberman, August 7, 1965
Martin Glaberman to Robert A. Hill, August 22, 1965
Robert A. Hill to Martin Glaberman, August 30, 1965
Martin Glaberman to C.L.R. James, October 13, 1965
Robert A. Hill to Alfie Roberts, November 6,1965
C. L. R. James to Robert A. Hill, December 31, 1965
Tim Hector to Robert A. Hill, March 29, 1966
Robert A. Hill to Tim Hector, April 1, 1966
C.L.R. James to Martin Glaberman & Robert A. Hill, June 24, 1966
Robert A. Hill to Martin & Jessie Glaberman, July 7, 1966
Martin Glaberman to Frank Monico, October 13, 1966
Martin Glaberman to C.L.R. James, November 14, 1966
Alfie Roberts to Martin Glaberman, January 27, 1967
Alfie Roberts to C. L. R. James, December 8, 1967
Alfie Roberts to C. L. R. James, May 3, 1968
Rosie Douglas to C. L. R. James, June 9, 1968
C. L. R. James to Rosie Douglas, June 27, 1968


C.L.R. James: The Man and His Work, by Martin Glaberman


Beyond the Mournful Silence, by Robert A. Hill


On the Banning of Walter Rodney from Jamaica, by C.L.R. James