Remembering Michael Manley

Against the Current, No. 70, September/October 1997

Brian Meeks

MY LASTING MEMORY of Michael Manley is a sepia-toned image taken from late October of 1980 at a mass meeting in Spanish Town, site of the old capital of Jamaica. The long 1980 election was drawing to its bloody finale over the bodies of some 800 Jamaicans.

Manley’s governing People’s National Party (PNP) had been crippled by a collapsing economy, which had suffered debilitating loss of capital over the previous seven years, and by widespread violence which had reached epidemic proportions. For more than two years, these harsh realities, driven home to the people in graphic detail by the premier and right-wing newspaper The Daily Gleaner, ;had contributed to the unpopularity of his government and the growing prestige of Edward Seaga’s pro-American Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).(1)

But on this moonless night, the party faithful had gathered in Spanish Town Square to sing together, to “stand firm” with their leader “Joshua” and to tell the “Labourites,” imperialists and CIA that they “knew where they were going.”

Tonight, however, was not going to be like hundreds of other meetings that had been taking place across the length and breadth of the small island. As Michael rose to address the adoring throng, suddenly there was the unmistakable, heavy industrial rattle of submachine gun fire.

It was pandemonium. People were running; shoes were everywhere. Local and national party leaders who had been sitting on the raised platform were flat on their bellies, except Michael. Three members of his personal security detachment were struggling, pleading, to pull him to the floor, but he, with his full six feet plus stature, refused to bow.

Poised between heroism and foolhardiness, Manley in that moment, atop that stage, in that photographic still shot, became a metaphor for Jamaica and, simultaneously, a metaphor for himself.

Little can be understood about what brought Michael Manley to this point without an appreciation of his peculiar place in Jamaican society. Born in Kingston in 1924, the son of the Rhodes Scholar and brilliant barrister Norman Manley and his vivacious English-born, first cousin wife and sculptress, Edna, the young Manley’s childhood was in many ways typical of the privileged Jamaican upper middle classes.

But this is only a partial insight. In the layered and color-conscious hierarchy of Jamaican society, Michael was also a “brown man,” with the contradictory privileges assigned to this categorization. His mother for all intents and purposes could pass for white and his father, though swarthy, was in his overall phenotype distinctly “brown.”

But even these powerful markers of identity are insufficient to gain a handle on the young Manley. To understand his particular niche is to appreciate that his mother, though of partial Jamaican descent, was not a “product” of the island and did not bring to the Jamaican matrix that complacency of privilege and color far more typical of someone of her social position.

Instead, both herself and Norman–who had been educated in the trenches of the Great War [World War I–ed.] and later at Oxford–brought with them egalitarian sensibilities,(2) if filtered through Fabian socialist lenses, which would have a profound effect on both Michael and his elder brother Douglas.

This complex twist in the “typical” middle class trajectory served both to somewhat marginalize Manley from the mainstream of his peers, and to instill in him that sense of compassion and call to service which lasted through his life. He was thus from the middle class, but not of it; and as Michael, the student at Jamaica College and then the London School of Economics evolved into Manley the militant trade unionist, and finally Joshua the “Comrade Leader,” he was for the people, but never quite “of” the people.

This tension between a patrician sensibility arising from the Camelot-like atmosphere of the Manley compound at Drumblair, and a democratic egalitarian impulse, probably incubated more by his mother and nurtured on a close interaction with the harsh and unforgiving Jamaican class structure, was probably the central factor explaining the course of his life.

It contributed to a certain restlessness(3) about his character, in which he could, in mercurial fashion, appear at one moment aloof, contemplative and “above” those around him, and in another become the populist on whose every word tens of thousands of people listened intently, or rose, fists in the air, in tumultuous adulation.

Michael Manley returned to Jamaica in 1951, after a brief stint at the British Broadcasting Corporation, at a critical time for his father. The left wing of the Party led by the “Four H’s”(4) had been purged in an inner-party struggle, which was at least in part generated by the gathering Cold War pressures from the United States and Britain.

The PNP was in disarray, for the Left had been in great measure responsible for the party organization, especially its powerful urban contingents and its working class support in the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

Michael returned as a journalist for the weekly newspaper Public Opinion, but soon left this job in order to build the Party’s new affiliate, the National Workers Union (NWU). Under his leadership, the new union grew rapidly, outflanking the TUC and undermining any possibility of the Left establishing an independent political base outside the framework of the two dominant parties.

On the one hand then, his early intervention into Jamaican politics can be interpreted as anti-radical, even anti-communist, given the flavor of the times. Yet at the same time Manley, through the NWU, built a trade union organization which in its democratic structures and bargaining skills, evident in its organization of the new bauxite/alumina industry, far outshone its immediate rival, the hierarchical and personalist Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU, founded by his father’s cousin and nemesis, Alexander Bustamante).

This, however, was only the beginning of Manley’s long and ambivalent relationship with the small but vocal Jamaican Left.

In 1969, on his father’s retirement, Michael became President of the PNP. A year before, the capital Kingston had erupted in an afternoon of violence. University students had staged a demonstration after the Hugh Shearer-led JLP Government had declared Walter Rodney, a radical Guyanese lecturer at the multi-national University of the West Indies persona non grata.

When the defenseless students were attacked by riot police in the city with batons and teargas, things rapidly deteriorated as thousands of unemployed young people commandeered the public transport system and took over the streets of Kingston. The violent protests were soon brought under control, but signalled the upsurge of a new wave of black consciousness and social awareness, much of which remained unchanelled though important individuals were coalescing around a radical newspaper called Abeng.

The new PNP President was keenly aware of the currents which were shaking the colonial and white-biased foundations of Jamaican society, and he acted astutely. Not only did Manley tap into the popular mood with his reggae and Rastafari(5)-influenced campaign for the 1972 elections, but he was able to convince key members of the newly coalescing Left to abandon an independent path and seek the political kingdom through the structures of the PNP.

Young radicals like D.K. Duncan, Arnold “Scree” Bertram and Hugh Smal came into the party and brought with them a level of energy and new thinking which, along with Manley’s own process of evolution, would help transform the character of the PNP and of Jamaican politics itself in those tumultuous eight years in the Seventies.

Manley won the election in 1972 with his “Rod of Correction” given to him by Rastafarian leader Claudius Henry and with the powerful slogan “Better Must Come.” Hundreds of thousands of Jamaicans, who had listened with baited breath to his every word, in the ghettoes of Kingston and in the poor rural districts in the hilly countryside, waited with great expectations for a change.

And even though it is easier to conclude, gazing backwards over the past two decades, that nothing has changed, what is evident on closer scrutiny is how much of what Manley set out to do was actually accomplished.

If one reads The Politics of Change(6), which first appeared in 1972–effectively a manifesto for his first term as Prime Minister–it can essentially be interpreted as a program for “nationalist modernization.” Manley sought to forge a broad alliance of the middle and working classes with what he saw as a new stratum of modern and forward-thinking industrialists, to drag Jamaica from its colonial moorings into the late Twentieth Century.

Nothing at this stage in his thinking refers to socialism, so much as ‘social justice.’ In this book Manley deplores the poverty in Jamaican society, the widening gap between the rich and the poor and calls for greater national control, if not ownership, of foreign capital. All of this, he argues–in a position which remained consistent throughout his career–should be addressed within the confines of parliamentary democracy, though he called for a more participatory politics and greater self reliance.

This, importantly, was linked to a foreign policy which he proposed should be more Third World-oriented with multiple linkages and alliances instead of the traditional fealty to the West.

Eight years after, despite the defection of the “new industrialists” and a significant part of the middle class, much of this had been achieved. Jamaica’s educational system had been overhauled with a school feeding program for primary school children and free education up to university level.

New laws were approved to change the typical masculine bias of British common law. Thus, the old bastardy laws had been replaced by new legislation giving children born out of wedlock equal rights of inheritance, etc. Women were granted equal pay for equal work, and an innovative maternity leave law gave new mothers job security and three months paid maternity leave.

An energetic and unprecedented housing program delivered more houses for the poor and middle classes than all previous regimes together had done. A new “Land-Lease” Programme was established which accelerated the delivery of arable land to the rural poor. A literacy program called “JAMAL” was implemented with significant success in reducing the country’s high rates of illiteracy.

And the Bauxite Levy was negotiated, which at once dramatically increased the taxes earned by the country from its only significant mineral resource. Before the Levy, the government’s revenues from the transnationals had been a mere $35 million per annum; immediately after, it skyrocketed to $200 million.(7)

The effect of these programs–many concentrated in the first three years of the new regime–was profound. For the first time in a decade, unemployment in Jamaica fell. Between 1971 and 1976, 35,000 new jobs were created and the numbers of unemployed decreased by some 11,000 persons.(8)

There was also a significant redistribution of income from the top down, somewhat altering the previous, highly skewed picture. The share of wages and salaries as a percentage of National Income, for example, increased from 58% to 64% between 1971 and 1976.

But the costs which were paid for these noteworthy accomplishments were inordinate. From the earliest days of the Manley regime, capital began to leave the country.

In an interesting debate with Canadian economist Kari Levitt shortly before his death,(9) Manley took her to task for suggesting that the reason why capital flowed so rapidly out of the country was at least in part a heightened “rhetoric” that accompanied the Party’s “rededication” to Democratic Socialism in 1974.

In an impassioned argument, Manley proposed that the drift had begun before, when the local upper classes got wind of a relatively mild property tax adjustment which was to be made in 1973, after which applications to live in the United States rose dramatically. Further, questioning the notion that active “destabilization” of the country had begun only when the United States had been drawn into the picture, Manley again argues for an earlier, locally-based resistance:

“More importantly, beginning in 1975, the opposition began its calculated programme of violence. This was a full year before the CIA became involved as a punishment for our support of Cuba’s defense of Angola against South Africa.”(10)

Be that as it may, by the middle of 1976, Jamaica was in turmoil. Organized violence, primarily directed against strongholds of the ruling party in Kingston’s inner city, had reached unprecedented levels. Entire communities such as lower Jones Town and parts of Trench Town had to be evacuated, creating internal refugee colonies such as the appropriately titled “Sufferer’s Heights” in St. Catherine.

Something had to be done. Manley’s decision, since stridently condemned by his opposition, was to call a state of emergency and to arrest suspected perpetrators of violence–including members of his own party, though the largest contingent came from the rank and file and some leaders of the JLP.

In the national elections of that December, called even while the Emergency was still in effect, the PNP swept home to a second term with an increased parliamentary majority of 11 seats, gaining 47 to the JLP’s 13. But the victory proved to be a pyrrhic one. Even as the party faithful were recovering from the celebration hangover, other events had conspired to bring the economy to the point of collapse.

A growing panic that Jamaica was on the road to communism had consolidated among the already skittish Jamaican upper middle and upper classes. Some 14,000 trained people had migrated to the United States and Canada between 1972-4 alone–the earliest phase of the flight.

By the end of 1976, it was discovered that some $300 million had, by various means, left the country and the government was faced with a negative net foreign reserve situation for the first time in Jamaica’s history.

In a long series of negotiations which stretched through 1977, the Government at first appeared to be searching for some novel, radical alternative to address its debt problems, but eventually succumbed and went to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to negotiate the best possible loan terms. The eventual engagement with the IMF set the stage for the rapid and tragic downfall of Manley’s government.

But even as Michael Manley’s national prospects appeared increasingly dim, his prestige on the broader international stage continued to rise. Jamaica’s support for the Cuban involvement in Angola, which Manley suggests brought the Americans into the destabilization campaign wholesale, nonetheless served to increase the country’s prestige in the Non-Aligned Movement.

In Africa, in particular, Manley became a pivotal player in the negotiations for Zimbabwe’s independence and a leading spokesman against apartheid in South Africa. Manley, with his multiple contacts in the Socialist International, Africa, the Non-Aligned Movement and the Caribbean, for a critical period in the Seventies was a central player in advancing the debate for a New International Economic Order, with emphases on debt relief and enhanced economic and technical redistribution of resources to poor countries.

In the Caribbean, he was a leading spokesman for deeper integration through the Caribbean community (Caricom) and along with Trinidad, Guyana and Barbados, brought Cuba back into the fold, by jointly recognizing that isolated Caribbean state in 1974.

By May 1977 the first IMF agreement, which proved to be surprisingly mild was in place. But then, in December, the regular “test” was failed on a minor technicality and the screws were tightened. In May 1978, the new Extended Fund Facility was implemented and the real economic contraction began.

Between 1978 and 1980, under the aegis of the IMF program, the Cost of Living index increased by some 40%; real wages declined by some 20-30% and unemployment again began to increase. From a figure of some 22.8% unemployed in 1972, it had increased to 26.8% by 1980.(11)

By this stage, Manley and his party were in the pincers of a multi pronged destabilization campaign. At the center of it was the Daily Gleaner, which sought every opportunity to attack the government’s relationship with Cuba and Manley’s close personal friendship with Fidel Castro, as an indication that the country was about to “go communist.”

But though some members of the Left in the PNP and their erstwhile allies in the small Marxist Leninist Worker’s Party of Jamaica had visions of Jamaica on a path of “socialist orientation,” the mainstream of the population, including Manley himself, remained committed to a parliamentary democratic path.

This, however, was evidently not the only channel which his opposition believed appropriate to achieve their political objectives. In a series of sustained and increasingly heinous attacks, armed and trained gunmen largely from the opposition Jamaica Labour Party were able to undermine the rule of law and bring Jamaica to the brink of civil war.

It is true that the PNP, with its significant mass base in the city, did indeed join the battle, but a close reading of the political geography of urban Jamaica quickly suggests to all but the most naive that the brunt of the offensive was against PNP strongholds,(12) with the twin purposes of demoralizing the hardcore democratic socialist support and discrediting Manley’s ability to govern.

The effect was devastating. In October 1980, the PNP tumbled to its worst ever electoral defeat, preserving only nine seats and conceding 51 to Edward Seaga and his JLP. It is of interest to note, for the historical record, that of the nine seats won, eight were in constituencies where the violence of the previous months had been at its worst. At least here, the wanton shedding of blood seemed to have had the opposite effect, strengthening the resolve to resist against seemingly overwhelming odds.

Manley then, who had entered the decade of the Seventies with so much hope for changing Jamaica, departed bitterly at the end of it, with the victorious bells of the Jamaica Labour Party ringing in his ears along with the words of Seaga’s inaugural speech in which he committed himself to “eradicating radicalism” from Jamaica, once and for all.

Nine years later he was back in power, though this time with an agenda and a program substantially different from that with which he had dominated Jamaican politics in the previous decade. By then, a paradigm shift had taken place: The Soviet Union was still months away from collapse, but a certain Reagan/Thatcher neo-liberalism had swept the World before it.

The new Manley/PNP government, in a manner not dissimilar to ideological shifts which would later lead to Bill Clinton’s and Tony Blair’s ascendancy, seemed to subscribe fully to the new paradigm. Manley on many occasions personally defended the efficacy of market relations and the government embarked on an energetic policy of privatization and import and currency liberalization.

In the aforementioned debate with Levitt, Manley defended his 1989 policies on the grounds that he had few available options in a new world order and, in an adverse situation, had sought to maintain key egalitarian components, including a program of worker participation, a push to spread ownership through the redistribution of shares to workers, the establishment of a “Micro Industry Development Agency” out of funds obtained from state privatization, to help the poor establish small businesses, and the resumption of the land reform programx.(13)

Manley resigned as a result of ill-health in 1992 and since then a PNP government led by P.J. Patterson has been in power, winning reelection in 1994. Throughout this period, the market-oriented policies initiated in 1989 have either remained in place or have been enhanced. And while the debate in Jamaica rages on their effectiveness, this damning comment by Kari Levitt in her exchange with Manley is worth considering:

“I think it is now clear that the neo-liberal model has failed to deliver either stability or growth. Floating exchange rates and perpetual devaluations proved to be disastrous, and have mercifully been abandoned in favour of exchange rate stability. They failed to close the trade gap, which has now been aggravated by the reduction in duty on motor vehicles, and the encouragement of the importation of used cars, and is out of control. Last year, two thirds of bank credit was allocated to consumption expenditures. The manufacturing industry is in decline, unable to compete with imports from higher wage Caricom countries. Equipment is run down. Plants are closing. The “mopping up of liquidity” by issue of CDs has acted as an engine of redistribution from the poor to the rich…the model is not working. Perhaps it can work in other countries where political democracy was suspended for long periods of time–as in Chile. Be that as it may, it is not working in Jamaica.”(14)

In the last years of his life, Manley, now the elder statesman and married for the fifth time, never really slowed down. He played a somewhat low-profiled, though important role in mediating the Haitian crisis and negotiating President Aristide’s return to power.

He revised his passionate book on West Indian Cricket,(15) reflective of his lifelong love affair with sport. He worked as a consultant on Caribbean tourism and continued to show an interest in a variety of issues, including the cause of Caribbean migrants in the United States, Britain and Canada, the African American struggle for civil rights, to which he had always paid keen attention, and his own personal obsession with horticulture and music.

For those who knew the vibrant Michael on the stage at his fiery best and were fortunate to encounter him in this new phase, it was indeed illuminating. Here was a humble, soft-spoken, almost shy person, with a willingness to listen to criticism, though also retaining a dogged ability to defend his former policies when he felt it appropriate.

In these last years, much of which were spent in pain, bedridden with prostate cancer, Michael virtually disappeared from the Jamaican political stage, his name barely a whisper on the incessant talk radio circuit. Then, on March Sixth, the announcement of his death came.

It was as if a hidden well from deep underground had suddenly burst through the surface. For those who were there and whom I have been fortunate to speak with, it is evident that the grief was genuine, widespread and palpable. Tens of thousands flocked to the National Arena to view the body lying in state. Prominent among them were the poor of Kingston and the rural areas.

Kumina dancers with their traditional African rhythms came down from St Thomas; “Nine Nights’–the traditional ceremony in honor of the dead–were held by the dozen across the island. At the funeral, the people overwhelmed the official ceremonies and created, in the words of The Daily Observer reporter, a “security nightmare:”

“The masses have come down,” quipped a finely dressed woman in the formal procession while diplomats attempted to evade the throng. Meantime, large numbers of people, who complained about being kept away from ‘the leader’ scaled the fence to Heroes Park. ‘My Father bawl living eye water when he hear that Michael Manley dead,’ said a young woman from Vineyard Town in Kingston, ‘And look I come here and they keep me from Michael.’ Another declared, Michael wouldn’t check for this. He would say “give my people way.”(16)

And the interviews in the papers, too many to list, spoke of deep affection:

“The two middle aged women standing nearby said they too owed Michael Manley a lot. But wary of the violent possibility of Jamaican politics they declined to give their names. The one, of McIntyre Villa in East Kingston, Manley’s former constituency, looks weathered beyond her 53 years. ‘He put me in a house,’ she said of Manley. ‘Manley did look out for poor people.’ She paused, looked around, then declared with assertion: ‘Me born in PNP. I have to come out to say goodbye to the leader.’ Tears welled in the eyes of her 51 year old friend, who lives on Mountain View Avenue, who herself did not get the home. Her mother did, in Waterford. Her children got free education and she had a ‘maternity leave with pay baby.’ ‘We lose a good man, a good leader,’ said this woman. She could not hold back the tears any more.”(17)

What the mourners from St. Thomas, Mountain View, McIntyre Villa, Jones Town,  North Gully and all across the island were grieving for, was not only the loss of the man, though this was a great part of it; it was the loss of the Seventies, an entire era when for the first time poor, black people in Jamaica were beginning to have a voice, even though that voice, still muted, had to be amplified through Joshua’s trumpet.

And it is in this very act of grief that there is the suggestion of a growing consciousness of what this loss of voice has meant and, perhaps, even as the wailing from the last “nine nights” subsides, the beginning of a popular awakening. For henceforth there will be no Joshua to bravely stand in the face of the deadly bullets and speak for the people, who will now, increasingly, have to speak for themselves.


  1. See Carl Stone, The Political Opinions of the Jamaican People: 1976-81, Blackett, Kingston, 1982: 6, in which his own remarkably accurate polls indicate that the PNP had conceded its lead to the JLP from March, 1978.
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  2. I thank Rachel Manley, Michael’s eldest daughter, for her profound insights into the lives of her grandparents in her memoir of early childhood, Drumblair: Memories of a Jamaican Childhood, Ian Randle Publishers, Kingston, 1996.
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  3. Darryl Levi in his insightful biography recognizes this restlessness, which he thinks in part might explain Manley’s many marriages–five in all. See Michael Manley: The Making of a Leader, Andre Deutsch, London, 1989.
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  4. Richard Hart, the Hill brothers, Ken and Frank and Arthur Henry were the leading lights of the Left. See for an interpretation of this period, Trevor Munroe, The Marxist Left in Jamaica: 1940-50, ISER, Mona, 1977.
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  5. See Olive Senior, The Message is Change, Kingston Publishers, Kingston, 1972, for an examination of the themes of the 1972 general election.
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  6. See Michael Manley, The Politics of Change: A Jamaican Testament, Andre Deutsch, London, 1974.
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  7. Details on the PNP’s programs are to be found in a number of sources. An easily accessible one is Michael Kaufman, Jamaica Under Manley, Zed Books, London, 1985.
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  8. See Kari Levitt, Jamaica: Lessons From the Manley Years, maroon Pamphlets no.1, Kingston, 1984: 5.
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  9. See “The Michael Manley/ Kari Levitt Exchange”, Small Axe, No 1, 1997.
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  10. Ibid., 82.
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  11. See Levitt, 1983, 11 and Carl Stone,  Politics vs Economics: The 1989 Elections in Jamaica, Heinneman Publishers, Kingston 1989, vii.
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  12. I stand by this assessment, based on my first hand observation as a journalist working with the local television station, of many scenes of carnage shortly after violent attacks in 1980. Laurie Gunst in her recent study of Jamaican “posses” in the United States in the Eighties comes to much the same conclusion. See Laurie Gunst, Born Fi Dead: A Journey Through the Jamaican Posse Underworld, Henry Holt, New York, 1995.
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  13. See Small Axe, 1997, 101.
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  14. Ibid., 107.
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  15. See Michael Manley, A History of West Indies Cricket, Andre Deutsch, London, 1989.
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  16. The Daily Observer, March 17, 1997: 3.
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  17. The Jamaica Observer, March 21-27, 1997: 5.
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ATC 70, September-October 1997