Another World is Possible

You Don’t Play with Revolution: the Montreal Lectures of C.L.R. James. AK Press, 2009.

David Austin (ed).

You Don’t Play With Revolution is a thought-provoking and challenging collection of writings and lectures by one of the most important public intellectuals of the 20th century: Marxist theorist, anti-colonial activist and cultural critic C.L.R. James. Edited by David Austin, the book is comprised of James’ lectures, correspondence between Caribbean students and others who studied his work, and two interviews, one of which James gave while participating in the 1968 Black Writers’ Congress in Montreal.

Recordings of the lectures were initially delivered to the C.L.R. James Study Circle. Study Circle member Alphonso Roberts (or, Alfie, as he was affectionately known in Montreal’s Black community) shared the recordings with Austin, intending to co-edit the lectures. Alfie died before they could undertake this project, and the task was thus left to Austin who was in his early twenties at the time. Austin accomplished the task over a decade, during which time he also became an activist, writer, and scholar in his own right. Though Austin would likely wince at being labeled an “academic,” he has arguably become one of the foremost scholars on James and the Caribbean radical tradition in Canada. Currently, he teaches in the Humanities, Philosophy and Religion Department at John Abbott College in Montreal. The book is the result of Austin’s steadfast commitment to keep his promise to Alfie that the collection would serve as a practical resource and critical historical reference, particularly for students and activist-academics interested in knowing more about James’ connection to Canada.

Most of the lectures were delivered in Montreal to a small but visionary group of young women and men from the Caribbean (including Franklyn Harvey, Robert Hill, Alphonso Roberts, Tim Hector, and Anne Cools) who were studying and working in Canada. The group was inspired by the work of the Trinidadian-born James and was intent on engaging with it in the context of the intensifying post-colonial crisis in the Caribbean. As Professor Robert Hill notes in the preface to the book, in 1966 (prior to James’ arrival in Canada), the group organized the C.L.R. James Study Circle in order to “systematically study and discuss the body of James’s writing that was available to us at the time.” The Study Circle debated and discussed many of James’ classic works, as well as “obscure political tracts” that James had written and lectures he had delivered to other small groups. These students were likely drawn to James’ work because they were inspired by independence struggles in Asia, the Caribbean, and Africa – as were many students in the ‘60s. Moreover, they wanted to participate in creating a new world founded on socialism and anti-colonialism – one free from the vestiges of slavery and servitude.

In James, they found both a role model “from back home” and a gifted Marxist theorist who could assist them in developing a rigorous approach to engagement in Caribbean politics at home and abroad. In these Caribbean students, James found a captive and diligent audience for his work at what was a particularly difficult time in his personal and political life. At sixty-five, James had just participated in a stressful and disastrous political campaign with the Workers’ and Farmers’ Party in Trinidad, during which there was at least one attempt on his life.

By organizing with a philosophy grounded in James’ work, the young women and men of the Study Circle formed the basis of a new Caribbean left that emerged in Canada following a wave of immigration from the Caribbean in the 1960s. In 1966 this same group created the Caribbean Conference Committee in Montreal which brought together activists, writers, and academics to examine the state of the Caribbean in terms of political independence, social development, and the way forward. Many of the students in the Study Circle returned to the Caribbean and became involved in building radical left organizations like the Antigua Caribbean Liberation Movement and The Outlet newspaper in Antigua, as well as the New Jewel Movement that spearheaded the Grenada Revolution. These former members of the Study Circle also helped to nurture a host of trade union organizations and left-leaning workers’ parties and leaders throughout the English-speaking Caribbean.

Because this collection is primarily directed at an audience familiar with and deeply engaged in James’ work, some passages are difficult to read. Nonetheless, it is an invaluable activist resource. As Hill (who is also executor of the C.L.R. James estate) notes in the preface to the book:

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… James’s exemplary attentiveness to the rich and diverse traditions of revolutionary thought traced through these lectures represents a gold-mine from which today’s students and activists can draw.

Lecture topics vary from the “Making of the Caribbean” to examinations of Shakespeare’s King Lear and Marx’s Capital. The sheer variety of topics reflects the sharpness of James’ roving mind, which never appeared to be constrained by prevailing social norms or customs, including prejudices about what a true Marxist, Black revolutionary, or Caribbean sports critic ought to discuss. All of the lectures are infused with James’ love for humanity and his commitment to examining and changing the contradictory social conditions in which we live through the creation of a just society built on socialist values and the liberation of the working class.

The collection includes two seminal lectures on the Caribbean, which are essential reading: “The Making of the Caribbean People” and (now more relevant than ever) “The Haitian Revolution in the Modern World.” In both lectures, James seeks to explain how the “Caribbean” came into being, starting with its beginnings in the transatlantic slave trade that forcibly displaced Africans to the Western hemisphere to work primarily on sugar plantations for European slave masters.

James concisely covers two hundred years of history, from 1600 to 1800, explaining how the Africans, though forcibly removed from their homes, came to the New World with tremendous skills, which they were forced to use on the plantations. Indeed, James shows how the plantation economy simply would have collapsed without their capabilities and how, in fact, they laid the foundations for Western Civilization in the Caribbean. He further shows how these enslaved Africans laid the groundwork for a new liberation struggle that would culminate in the Haitian revolution at the dawn of the 19th century. In San Domingo (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), a group of enslaved African people managed to organize themselves to defeat a Spanish army of some 50,000 soldiers, a British army of 60,000, and another 60,000 French troops sent by Napolean to re-establish slavery.

What is perhaps most instructive about these lectures is that James uses this Caribbean history as a platform to discuss the absurdity of colonial reports and post-colonial attitudes about the Caribbean which describe its people as “primitives” lacking culture and thus incapable of governing themselves. He uses this Caribbean history to say, “we have made history” and to inspire his audience, encouraging them to undertake what history has prepared them for – building a new revolutionary society.

In “Shakespeare’s King Lear,” James’ lectures on a classic text that remains a mainstay of Canadian secondary school curricula, he brings a refreshing analysis to the text, which should be read by every high school teacher who is serious about making Shakespeare relevant to today’s youth. James points out that, in this play, Shakespeare makes a number of progressive social and political statements about Elizabethan society that should not be ignored. As James sees it, Shakespeare comments on people living in poverty, the conditions in which the unemployed lived, how the agricultural enclosures produced displaced vagrants, and the role of the peasants in the crisis of Elizabethan society. In essence, as James states, “King Lear is a critique of Elizabethan society … [that is,] of the society that was and of the society that was coming into being….”

A significant portion of this book is devoted to three of James’ Study Circle lectures on Lenin and the 1920-21 trade union debate in Russia. Here, James takes his students through Volume IX of Lenin’s Selected Works, in which Lenin examined the conflict that had arisen in the Communist Party on the question of how the trade unions and party leadership should approach the masses. This was a major conflict between Lenin and Trotsky (among others). State power had been consolidated with the winning of the civil war and the Bolsheviks now had to decide, as James notes, “what they were going to do with the revolution.” James stresses that Lenin argued (contrary to the assumptions of many who thought he was an authoritarian vanguardist) that the masses must be centrally involved in the creation of the new society, for any other option would mean despotism and dictatorship.

James argues that Lenin thought that the trade unions must not become part of the government, but must instead serve as the workers’ check against the workers’ government. Throughout the lectures, James examines the challenges that Lenin faced as an actor on the stage of history. He shows how these challenges were strikingly similar to those faced by many other revolutionaries in Africa and the Caribbean, who also had to confront such questions as “what are we going to do with the country now that we have won the revolution?,” and “what is the plan, program, and how can we involve the masses in participating in the building of the new society?” It is worth mentioning that James’ questions remain as relevant today as when he first articulated them, especially given the more recent experiments with 21st century socialism that we see emerging in countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, and to a lesser extent, Brazil.

Austin’s book also includes an interview (which shares the book’s title, “You Don’t Play With Revolution”) that James gave to Michael Smith of the McGill Reporter during the 1968 Congress of Black Writers. Smith questions the role of the artist in society, to which James responds by noting that each artist is a particular artist who works in terms of her own ability, and her own responses to the world. He argues further that the greater the artist is, the more of the social environment she embraces in her work. What James appears to be suggesting is that the artist who is deeply engaged in the social environment in which she lives is more able to understand it and critically reflect upon it.

Overall, this collection of lectures provides a glimpse into James’ great skill as a writer, communicator, and anti-colonial advocate. What it lacks as a tool for activists is a more detailed account of how the Study Circle came together, how they organized themselves internally, and the ways in which they organized both on and off campus to engage in a meaningful dialogue about self-reliance and independence for Caribbean people. Many of the members of the Study Circle became great activists. For example, Tim Hector became a writer and editor of The Outlet (a daily newspaper) in Antigua and a staunch supporter of socialism and socialist movements within the Caribbean. Robert Hill returned to Jamaica for a time, where he became a central contributor to Abeng, a short-lived weekly radical newspaper. He later became a professor of history at University of California, Los Angeles, where he still teaches today. Alfie Roberts became a community activist, mentor, and unofficial political advisor to several Caribbean leaders.

As a student of the late Alfie Roberts, Austin collected the writings in the book to remind readers of the work that remains to be done to build the New Society. This “New Society” is the society that the Haitian Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the anti-colonial movements of the 1960s imagined but were unable to realize.

In Alfie’s memory, Austin and others founded the Alfie Roberts Institute (ARI), a community development organization based in Montreal that comprises some of the materials in Alfie’s vast library, to provide the community with a research and documentation centre. The ARI also offers community activities that focus on the social, economic, and spiritual development of communities of African and Caribbean descent, including “grounding,” film screenings, book events, and critical African art classes for children. Much like the Study Circle, the ARI seeks to share the ideas of James and other radical Black thinkers and activists with a wider audience, as well as to contribute to building a new world in which marginalized people – especially those of African descent – are able to fully participate and realize their human potential. In this way, Austin’s important publication of James’s Montreal lectures remains grounded in a community in which he is actively engaged.