Reform or Revolution: Jamaica 1972–1980

The 1970s was one of the most tumultuous eras of Jamaican history. The island country was thrown into a period of intense class struggle not experienced since the Great Depression and the 1938 general strike. Ultimately, a bloody campaign of violence driven by US imperialism defeated the struggle for socialism in Jamaica. This momentous episode in the history of the Jamaican working class provides all workers and youth with stark lessons for the class struggle today.

In 1972, amidst rising class tensions, the People’s National Party stormed to power on a popular anti-imperialist and left-wing program. The PNP, led by the left-reformist Michael Manley, had the opportunity to break with capitalism, but the leadership faltered.

The crisis that enveloped Jamaica drew the masses out onto the streets in pitched battles between supporters of socialism, and those who defended the capitalist status quo. In the chaos, the opportunity to wage a concerted revolutionary struggle was avoided by the PNP’s reformist leadership, curtailing the revolutionary potential of the situation.

Post-independence crisis

Following independence in 1962, the right-wing Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) ruled for 10 years. The weak national bourgeoisie were incapable of developing industry under their own steam. As a solution, they fully embraced foreign capital.

Bauxite mining proved very profitable to US imperialism, and this industry grew rapidly. In fact, a quarter of the world’s bauxite mined in 1957 originated in Jamaica. The World Bank provided huge loans for the expansion of communications, transport and education services to facilitate this enterprise. Eventually, more and more of the economy came under the control of the imperialists.

The continued imperialist exploitation was a bitter pill for Jamaican workers and youth. They had pinned their hopes on a better life as a “free” independent nation. Instead, they found themselves working for foreign capitalists like in the pre-independence days. To paraphrase Irish revolutionary James Connolly, independent Jamaica was still ruled by the imperialists, through their markets and capitalists.

As the growing profits lined the pockets of the imperialists ($6.5m was pocketed by Canadian corporation Alcan in 1968 alone), the living conditions of Jamaican workers and peasants rapidly declined.

This phenomenon can be understood as an expression of the law of combined-and-uneven development. In other words, the springing up of developed, foreign-owned industry for export, alongside pre-existing relatively backward social conditions and underdeveloped parts of the economy related to the living conditions of the Jamaican people (particularly domestic agriculture and infrastructure). This gave the overall national economy a seemingly contradictory character, as well as driving greater disparities between rich and poor.

For example, secondary education was of a poor standard. In 1970, over 40% of students left school aged 15 unable to read or write. Squalor, hunger, and crime were rampant. Organized crime became a serious problem and the illegal import of guns from the US escalated street violence.

Throughout the 1960s, the JLP became synonymous with imperialist banditry, and the working class and rural poor rightly blamed them for the awful conditions they endured. Despite the restless mood of the masses, the PNP was stagnating under Norman Manley. In a 1967 rerun of the results of the 1962 general election, the JLP won with 50% of the vote compared to the PNP’s 49%.

The reasons for the defeat were, on the one hand, Manley had fought all of his life for national independence and sowed illusions in it bringing prosperity to ordinary people, when it actually appeared to bring the opposite. And on the other hand, he failed to put forward a socialist alternative to the JLP’s commitment to capitalism.

Michael Manley

The resignation of Norman Manley from the party leadership following the ‘67 election defeat presented an opportunity to transform the party in a revolutionary direction. Manley was eventually replaced by his son, Michael Manley, who was popular for his anti-imperialist rhetoric.

Michael Manley Image LSE Library Flickr
Manley’s anti-imperialist policies chimed with the working class and rural poor. / Image: LSE Library, Flickr

Michael Manley studied at the London School of Economics where, like his father, he was involved with the Fabian Society before returning to Jamaica in 1949. Once home, he worked his way through various trade union positions and eventually became First Vice President for the National Workers’ Union (NWU), before being elected to the Senate and then into the House of Representatives.

In 1970, he set out his manifesto for changing Jamaican society. He wrote of land reforms and Jamaica becoming economically self reliant of industrial development and increasing productive capacity; unemployment and opportunities for the young, calling for “radically different policies”; and tackling organized crime and the illegal arms trade.

But most of all he wrote on ending the foreign ownership of industry:

[What is needed is] a complete re-examination of the sort of foreign capital which should be invited to participate, and the relationship between foreign capital and national interest as regards ownership and control.

Manley’s anti-imperialist policies chimed with the working class and rural poor. As the world crisis of capitalism began to sharpen in the early 1970s, the working class saw the PNP as a socialist solution to their problems.

“Better Must Come”

In the 1972 general election, the PNP won 37 seats out of 53, and the JLP won 16 seats. However, as a percentage, the JLP still won 43% of the vote to the PNP’s 56%. This was only a 7% increase for the PNP compared to 1967.

The result revealed, firstly, a tentative shift towards Manley by the middle class, frustrated with the JLP’s inability to solve the economic crisis. And secondly, the working class were still mainly entrenched in the rivalry between the PNP and JLP, which was growing increasingly bitter and violent.

Manley, armed with a left-reformist rather than a revolutionary socialist program capable of fully addressing the burning needs of the day, failed to win over the majority of working-class voters on a clear class basis. Manley inherited a crumbling state and underdeveloped economy from the corrupt JLP. But instead of explaining why the capitalist system was to blame and therefore the need for socialism, Manley vacillated, stating:

I totally distrust these cliché words like socialism, capitalism and this, that, and the other. I don’t know any socialist country in the world that is not in fact employing a kind of capitalism as part of its total fabric. I don’t know any capitalist country that isn’t employing socialism. I think the labels have become totally irrelevant to the contemporary situation.

This garbled nonsense shows how he tried to avoid basic and decisive questions but, as history teaches us, it is impossible to do so for long.

Nevertheless, the poor state of the economy compelled Manley to pass radical reforms including repealing backward colonial laws. The reforms included:

  • The compulsory recognition of unions, laws against victimization and blacklisting, and the introduction of redundancy pay;
  • A minimum wage, and standardized working hours;
  • Equal pay between men and women;
  • Free uniforms for almost half a million schoolchildren, and free education for disabled children which was then expanded to universally free secondary education;
  • The Status of Children Act abolished the concept of illegitimacy.

On improving education, which was a key part of his program he said: “Education is the key to what must be an act of self transformation, the process of transformation from stratified to classless society must begin with the process of education.”

These reforms genuinely improved the living conditions of workers. In turn, the standing of the PNP was elevated in the eyes of the masses. Manley inspired a significant layer of the working class and rural poor, who had found a political expression for their class anger. Due to the increasing pressure from the masses, encouraged by these reforms, very quickly Manley began to adopt more radical language.

However, Manley’s political confusion did not abate. His policy was constrained by what he saw as the “special nature” of Jamaica. As he stated:

The People’s National Party has no intention of blindly copying any foreign formula for achieving a socialist society in Jamaica. We are constructing our own model of socialism which must grow out of the application of basic principles to the special nature of Jamaican society.

With this conception, Manley was clearly attempting to distance himself from the deformed workers’ states in the USSR, China and his Caribbean neighbors in Cuba. But rather than drawing the correct conclusions—that the problems in these societies reflected a lack of genuine workers’ democracy—Manley seemed to think they had gone “too far, too fast” in their break with capitalism.

The opposite was true. The Stalinist bureaucracies were a fetter on completing the tasks of socialist revolution, adapting themselves to narrow nationalism and reformism, rather than attempting to export their revolutions abroad and lay the basis for world revolution. This would have been the only road to achieving genuine socialism in the USSR, China, Cuba, Jamaica or anywhere else.

By emphasizing a vague “Jamaican path to socialism,” Manley ironically replicated the nationalist distortions of the Stalinist regimes he was trying not to emulate. The poverty and backwardness plaguing much of Jamaican society meant it was even more imperative to export the revolution beyond its borders (starting with the rest of the Caribbean), to avoid isolation. But this call never came.

As we will explain, this was partly because Manley was keen not to antagonize either pole in the Cold War, both of whom he appealed to for aid at various points, and neither of which was enthusiastic about the idea of an uncontrolled revolutionary wave. But ultimately, it revealed the limits of his reformist politics, and unwillingness to decisively break with capitalism.

The “special nature” of Jamaican society certainly did not inoculate it from the world capitalist crisis. The pressing question of how to achieve a socialist society was avoided time and again. Instead of “blindly copying foreign formulas,” Manley resigned himself to blindly fumbling around in the dark of the Jamaican wilderness for solutions. What he came up with was nothing more novel than reformism. Where he would have found real solutions was in the history and generalized experience of the international workers’ movement—Marxism.

As part of a wider socialist program that included nationalizing the majority of the economy and placing it under workers’ control, Manley’s reforms would have been very effective. But Manley never explicitly called for the expropriation of the banks, the plantations, or the bauxite and alumina industries.

If placed in the hands of the working class, on a democratic basis, the profits from those industries could have been used to fund further reforms and alleviate widespread poverty very quickly.

Although electricity and bus services were nationalized, this was on the basis of preventing these sectors from collapsing. In addition to the reforms granted to the working class and rural poor, the bulk of reforms carried out in 1974 were concessions to the petty bourgeois and national bourgeoisie.

For example, $2m was invested in “business complexes,” and the court’s powers were strengthened. Politicians’ pensions were increased at a far higher rate than the average worker, up to 50% in some cases. These reforms suggest Manley had illusions about strengthening the bourgeois state as a means to achieving socialism, rather than dismantling it to make way for a workers’ state.

As the world economic crisis wreaked havoc, the meandering progress of Manley’s regime frustrated the revolutionary wing of the PNP, and tensions bubbled over. Trevor Munroe, a Marxist, was expelled from the PNP and this resulted in a split in which the Workers’ Liberation League was formed in 1974.

At a crucial moment, the PNP was robbed of its communists.

The importance of theory

In Manley’s book Jamaica: Struggling on the Periphery (1982) he describes the process of how the PNP decided upon what “type” of socialism they adopt. In 1973, the Youth Organization and Women’s Movement played a significant role in forming a manifesto that was put to the party’s NEC before it went to the “top leadership.”

He says that, in the end, the top leadership, including himself, settled on democratic socialism. You get a sense of just how confused the party leadership was by the utopian and religious slogans they decided to use were “Socialism is Love” and “Socialism is Christianity in Action.”

The educational material that came out of this endeavor to clarify the party’s ideology only sowed confusion in the ranks of the PNP. Immediately, members of the Youth Organisation were asking fundamental class questions, which could not be answered by the leadership.

In Manley’s book, he cynically characterizes these young members as “ultralefts.” But in reality, the youth were merely the most militant and revolutionary layer of the party. Manley was a conciliator and compromiser who easily cowed when faced with an onslaught from the right-wing demanding he condemn “communists” in the PNP.

Marxism reveals the underlying class antagonisms in class society, and calls on the working class to fight independently for their interests against their class enemies. The petty bourgeois moralist wishes to abate these class antagonisms through conciliation with the oppressor and consolation of the oppressed. This is a reactionary fantasy.

Manley’s reformist illusions would prove literally fatal for the working class. In effect, he played the role of a consoling priest as his congregation went off to war.

The JLP and US imperialism

The JLP were willing to do the bidding of US imperialism at the drop of a hat. Edward Seaga (also known as “CIA-ga”) took over as party leader in 1974. He was one of Alexander Bustamante’s most ruthless right-hand men during the 1960s. In a speech in front of a hostile PNP crowd in 1965, he threatened them:

I can bring the crowds of west Kingston. We can deal with you in any way at any time. It will be fire for fire, and blood for blood (The Evolution of Political Violence in Jamaica 1940–1980 (2011), KF Williams, pg.41)

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The JLP were willing to do the bidding of US imperialism at the drop of a hat. / Image: public domain

The reactionary JLP was whipping up a hysteria about Manley’s reforms, as well as his courting of Cuba and USSR for aid. Seaga was willing to resort to misinformation and gang violence to oust the PNP in order to reassert the interests of Capital.

The world capitalist slump of 1974 led to a strike wave in the bauxite industry and other key sectors. Manley looked increasingly to Cuba and the USSR for support, recognizing Jamaica’s economic isolation. Manley also agreed on a bauxite trade deal with Mexico to lessen Jamaica’s dependence on exports to the US.

During a 1975 visit to Cuba, Manley had proclaimed: “Long live Cuba, long live the revolution and above all, long live the incomparable Fidel Castro.” These were positive steps towards breaking with capitalism and US imperialism.

Manley’s orientation towards Cuba and the Soviet Union incensed the US, who put immense pressure on the JLP to do whatever it took to prevent the reforms from going any further. A vicious press campaign against relations with Cuba and the Soviet Union was whipped up with a “communist scare.”

The economic crisis was used by the bourgeois press as a stick to beat the Manley regime. They cited economic mismanagement, incompetence, and corruption as reasons for the economic problems. Inflation leapt from 8.2% in 1972 to 26.9% in 1973.

The IMF, since giving Jamaica its first loan in 1963, had been a tool for US imperialism to enforce its economic interests in the country. With its interests in danger, the IMF now took on a new significance.

The Permanent Revolution

As already outlined, Jamaica’s economy developed in a combined and uneven manner. The belated bourgeois development of Jamaica explains why many of the unfinished tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution fell to Manley when the PNP came to power.

Manley carried out these tasks and strengthened the bourgeois state but, even though such a development was to the bourgeoisie’s advantage, a “democratic-socialist” government threatened to make inroads into bourgeois property relations, which they could not allow to happen, so they sabotaged Manley.

In these circumstances, the national bourgeoisie revealed themselves as counterrevolutionary. The only revolutionary and capable class was, therefore, the working class.

Rather than limiting the working class to developing the bourgeois state on behalf of the bourgeoisie, they must go beyond and carry out the tasks of the socialist revolution in their own interests. In other words, by carrying out bourgeois democratic tasks they could grow over into the socialist revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat, becoming a “permanent revolution,” to use Trotsky’s phrase.

This is what the national bourgeoisie and imperialists were afraid of.

Manley found himself at an impasse along the road of left reformism. The only way to overcome the impasse was to lead the working class in a revolution in the struggle for a socialist workers’ republic. But he delayed making a decision, as the forces of reaction conspired to drive him and the working class off the road.

1976: Manley’s second coming

In collaboration with the CIA, violent attacks were launched by JLP supporters against PNP members, especially the radical youth wing. Within a few months, a cabinet minister had been murdered and around 200 activists killed. The JLP was heavily involved in the illegal import of guns, which were then used in political attacks.

The 1976 election was held under an official state of emergency and the JLP strongly accused the PNP was preparing to fix the election. Seemingly against the odds, the PNP won 47 out of 60 seats compared to the JLP’s 13 seats. However, the percentage share between the PNP and JLP did not change from 1972 (43% and 56%). The working class was still relatively split.

Nevertheless, given the level of attack from US imperialism, the victory was a considerable vote of confidence for Manley’s left reforms and an example of the sacrifices that workers were willing to make to defend them. Manley now had a favorable situation in which to go on the offensive against the capitalists.

In fact, Seaga said that the JLP were “not inclined to contest another election without meaningful reform of the system mandated to provide oversight to elections.” Manley should have used Seaga’s words against him and dissolved Parliament, expropriated the commanding heights of the economy, and called for workers and peasants to elect democratic councils to democratically plan production.

However, while the working class had shown their strength against imperialist attacks, the government showed its weaknesses following the election.

MM JC Image Jimmy Carter Library Wikimedia Commons
Manley sought help from Washington as the economy slid further into crisis. / Image: Jimmy Carter Library, Wikimedia Commons

To placate the right wing of the PNP, Manley appointed a finance minister from the right. He banned marches and demonstrations, to appease the ruling class. And each time Manley tried to make gains against the foreign capital still dominating Jamaican industry, he did it with timid, partial nationalization, rather than through a socialist program of expropriations of industries, services and finance.

The turbulent period of the global capitalist crisis threatened to undermine the PNP’s reforms. Manley turned to capitalist institutions in an attempt to relieve some of the economic pressure. Manley sought help from Washington as the economy slid further into crisis. To turn to US imperialism for help was a monumental error for Manley and had disastrous consequences.

By mid-1978, the IMF had taken Manley’s government by the throat and was tightening their grip with a deal that included:

  • An immediate 15% devaluation of the currency, and a monthly 1.5% devaluation thereafter;
  • A wage restraint with a ceiling of 15%;
  • Guaranteed profits for the private sector with a floor of 20%.

In 1979, Manley devalued the currency and the minimum wage, introduced in 1974, was replaced by a wage restraint. The majority of Manley’s reforms were rolled back almost overnight.

Manley’s turn to the very imperialists he’d proclaimed to want to rid the country of totally undermined his authority in the eyes of his supporters. It was an unforgivable betrayal and a devastating blow, as the economic situation grew worse.

Unemployment rose to 45% and inflation was 47% by 1979. Manley flew to Moscow requesting aid, and even gave an enthusiastic speech at a Non-Aligned Movement (a bloc of countries not formally aligned with any major power) conference for … an alignment of the movement with the Soviet Union! Manley thought he could play a clever game of balancing between East and West, but he ended up losing badly.

In a desperate attempt to correct the course the PNP “top leadership” had taken, the rank-and-file voted in favor of a resolution at a special party conference in 1980 to cut ties with the IMF. But this was in vain. By this time, the economy was mired in crisis.

The Central Bank had been effectively looted by the imperialists. A serious flight of capital and labor commenced. Those workers were blameless—shortages of food and other basic goods left them desperate.

As the Marxist British newspaper Militant reported at the time:

Many peasants and unemployed rural farm workers now live in conditions of abject poverty. Tens of thousands of youth in the capital, Kingston, have been driven into the blind alley of petty crime as a result of the crushing unemployment. Prostitution has once again become widespread. Even the pampered middle classes have not escaped the crisis. (Militant No. 525, October 24, 1980, “Vital election for Jamaica”)

Factories closed, alongside some 10,000 small businesses, leading to an ever-higher unemployment rate. The economic crisis caused a ferocious backlash from the petty bourgeois, who established the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica with the sole purpose of attacking the PNP.

In June 1980, Jamaica United Front, a right-wing group operating with the assistance of the CIA, attempted a coup. Across Trenchtown’s walls as well as the newspaper front pages read: “IMF: It’s Manley’s Fault” and “Bitter Has Come.” Ironic that the former critical slogan emerged from a right-wing gang backed by the CIA!

And in October, the PNP Junior Minister, Roy McGann, was assassinated. The economic, social and political crises caused massive instability and a sharp polarization in society. Jamaica was in an effective state of civil war.

Drowned in blood

The vast supply of guns provided by US imperialism to JLP supporters had spiraled the vicious rivalry between them and PNP supporters into pitched battles in the streets. Gangs of armed JLP thugs would enter PNP-voting areas and attack activists, who would defend themselves with arms in hand.

Manley had totally lost control of the situation. Remarkably, in Struggle in the Periphery, he claims that the support from the “Marxist-Leninist’ Workers” Party of Jamaica for a PNP victory “did us real harm because it seemed to confirm the years of propaganda asserting that the PNP had ‘gone communist’.” (Struggle in the Periphery (1982), M. Manley, p.210)

But the damage from Manley was already done. The PNP was routed in the 1980 general election, as the JLP took 51 of 60 seats to the PNP’s pitiful 9 seats.

Grenada general strike Image GrenadaNOW
Jamaican troops were even sent to Grenada to join the US military occupation to defeat the Grenadian Revolution. / Image: GrenadaNOW

With such a dominant position, the JLP wasted no time in expelling the Cuban ambassador, demolishing what was left of the PNP reforms, and fully restoring foreign capital’s control of industry. Jamaican troops were even sent to Grenada to join the US military occupation against the People’s Revolutionary Army to defeat the Grenadian Revolution.

Within a few years, nothing remained of Manley’s radical reforms. As a US journalist noted on their visit in 1983:

The real seat of power in Jamaica these days, in fact, is not Jamaica House, the prime minister’s office, nor Parliament, nor the central bank. Rather, it is the Pegasus, a modern, deluxe structure that rises eighteen stories in the centre of Kingston. Here gather economists from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund; officials from the U.S. government; investors from Kansas, Israel, and Hong Kong; bankers, diplomats, journalists, and consultants with expertise on everything from exchange rates to water pumps.

While the capitalists carved up Jamaica, the workers were left in abject poverty. Unemployment was still over 25% and living conditions for the majority of people were living in a state of utter misery.

The JLP’s corruption and failure to update the electoral roll was deemed reason enough for the PNP to boycott the 1983 general elections. This decision gifted all sixty seats to the JLP, on an astoundingly low voter national turnout of just 2.7% (55% for the six contested seats, still dismally low).

This crushing defeat and the swift re-privatization of the industries and services that were nationalized under Manley were damning proof of the limits of left reformism. Left-wing reforms will never be guaranteed until the working class has wrested power away from the capitalists.

Reform and revolution

Manley’s program included many genuine left reforms but reforms alone are not enough. Revolutionary leadership is vital. His incredible vacillations—absolutely wild swings—themselves an organic reflection of his reformist politics, meant he bent at every critical moment.

Armed with a revolutionary socialist program, and a Bolshevik party prepared to carry it out, could the Jamaican working class have prevailed. But the PNP were no such party, and Manley was certainly no Lenin. Manley should have called on support from the international working class in defense against US imperialism, while placing the commanding heights of the economy, services, and banks into the hands of the working class.

To add, no isolated and underdeveloped socialist state could have withstood pressure from the imperialist force of the US alone. Victory for the working class in Jamaica would have only been more assured if it was fought on an international basis as part of an international socialist federation.

But, as proved by Manley, revolutionary leadership is vital. If the workers were given a clear and bold lead they would have responded. Something that Manley was not willing nor able to provide.

Where is Jamaica going?

Flying in a plane over the verdant island, it is not immediately obvious that Jamaica was formed by violent volcanic activity hundreds of millions of years ago. Now it is peaceful and its dormant volcanoes give the island its beautiful mountains.

The heightened class struggle of the 1970s has left its own mark. Bourgeois economists are quick to sing the praises of the Jamaican economy, but beneath the surface is an accumulation of pressure threatening to lead to social explosions.

Jamaica’s economic “success” has been based on a policy of brutal austerity and exploitation. Wages are extremely low, household bills are unmanageable, living conditions are squalid, homelessness is on the rise, and youth unemployment is 16.7%. Widespread gang violence plagues communities, with one of the highest murder rates in the world. Jamaican society is collapsing.

The discontent building up finds no expression in either the PNP or JLP, both of whom only represent the interests of the corrupt capitalist class. However, a revolutionary party armed with a Marxist program would give expression to this class anger and lead a militant struggle against capitalism.

The task facing the Jamaican working class, both in the 1970s and today, remains the same—the socialist revolution. The lessons of the Manley-led PNP regime show that a left-wing government must go beyond reforms to guarantee the working class those reforms. Only a revolutionary Bolshevik party with a Marxist program can provide the necessary leadership in the fight for communism.

This is what the International Marxist Tendency aims to build in every nation. There has never been a better time to overthrow capitalism and fight for communism. Join the communists in this task and build the forces of Marxism throughout the world.


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