Caribbean Politics and the 1930s Revolt

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

Cecilia Green

SHOULD MICHAEL MANLEY be judged as visionary or traitor?  Either singlehanded assessment would be based on an overly idealized and individualized conception of the man.

Certain images persist in my brain and in my breast: the trade union/party “boss” (and all that this implies); the David-vs-Goliath-reformer-who-dared; the Caribbean and Third World leader who made me swell up and weep openly with nationalist pride during the 1970s; the “latest” Third World leader to go down to defeat by global capitalist forces; the politician who eventually conceded to that defeat and to his class interests.

And yes, the visionary who may or may not have lost the courage of his convictions, but who, fortunately, recorded them in his many books over which we are now free to establish our own kind of intellectual ownership.

A proper analysis of Michael Manley’s historic significance is best done by one armed with intimate knowledge of Jamaican society over the last forty or so years (see Brian Meeks’ article in this issue, summarizing Manley’s political biography). Here I will explore the roots of his development and politics in an earlier critical turning point: the anti-colonial and social rebellion of the 1930s that shaped the modern Caribbean.

During the 1930s all Britain’s major island and continental colonies in the Caribbean exploded in rebellion. Only Grenada and Dominica–which “lacked factories and was a peasant based society” (Honychurch, 1984: 127)–seemed relatively untouched by the upheaval.

In Barbados alonewhere it was said that workers had not revolted in such a violent manner since 1876–fourteen rioters were killed. The rebellions were essentially fuelled by a combination of acute economic distress and the diffusion of radical anti-imperialist ideologies (both Marxist and nationalist) throughout the Americas, especially along the well-worn paths of border-crossing workers, seamen and soldiers.

A number of more specific reasons have been given for the outbreak of the riots, and in particular the most sustained, destructive, and widespread of these, the 1938 rebellion in Jamaica. The most obvious causal factor was the worldwide recession that contributed to a situation whereby “the prices of the principal West Indian exports were on the average almost halved between 1928 and 1933, and workers were forced to submit to drastic wage cuts, increased taxation, and unemployment” (Lewis, 1977 [1938]: 18).

In Jamaica, the island-wide rebellion was sparked by a strike-turned-riot-after police shot and killed a number of strikers and innocent bystanders–at WISCO’s Frome sugar estate in Westmoreland.

Holt (1992: 375) provides a grim picture of working conditions in the island’s plantation sector in 1938: There were 381 estates of all crop types on the island in 1938, including 117 sugar and 94 banana properties. A survey of all properties recorded a total of 2,513 barracks accommodating a maximum of 22,620 persons in 8,596 rooms, fewer than half of which were judged to be in acceptable condition.

Of the 2,513 barracks, 258 had no latrines and 567 others were unsanitary. Only about 1 of every 8 barracks was supplied with water, either piped or drawn from wells; 38 percent made no provision at all, and about half received water from open rivers and ponds. Worst of all were the sugar properties, whose facilities, reported the surveyors, “almost beggar description.” And in practically all respects, Westmoreland Parish, the site of the Frome factory complex, was the worst offender.

In addition to generalized immiseration, joblessness and political disfranchisement, the economic and social frustrations specifically experienced by returning war veterans and repatriated workers (from U.S.-owned plantations elsewhere in the region) and those they displaced were full of explosive potential. This was especially true in the context of the heightened political consciousness enjoyed both by the returnees, who had suffered racial discrimination and militaristic and bureaucratic-industrial labor relations in their various forms of service overseas, and by Caribbean locals who had been exposed to and stimulated by the ideas of Marcus Garvey and other anti-colonial champions.

The returning war veterans and migrant laborers, an overwhelmingly male group, felt that their experience of military and labor service overseas had furnished them with irrevocable and conclusive proof of manhood and that they were now entitled to full citizenship and membership in the Jamaican political and property-holding community. It was inconceivable to them that they might be expected to retreat back into positions of propertylessness, political disfranchisement and social dependency upon their return.

“Renewed” peasants who had returned as workers but had become small landholders “recognized their class position and felt strong ties with workers”. They bonded with other returnees, for example, those “who sought fulltime jobs in urban transport and service sectors” and who also “recognized the role of ‘large capital’ in the exploitation of both peasants and workers” (Poole, 1981: 68-69).

Most of the returning migrants had aspirations to be more than dependent workers and invariably tried to establish themselves as peasant farmers or independent artisans. Many of them bought land and settled mainly in those rural parishes dominated by peasant cultivation or with mixed sources of livelihood, exacerbating the high densities and ecological stresses in these areas and displacing local rural people, who were pushed towards Kingston and suburban St. Andrew (Poole, 1981).

Heightened expectations of political and economic empowerment, the characteristic bottlenecks and impediments experienced in attempts at small-scale commercial farming in a context of plantation monopoly, land hunger among those with little or no land, and rural and urban working class destitution all combined to produce a powder keg of frustrations that eventually ignited.

The “rebellion of 1938 linked the banana workers of Portland and St. Mary, the sugar workers of Westmoreland, St. Thomas and Clarendon, the dock workers of Kingston, Port Antonio and Oracabessa, to form a revolutionary brigade demanding social change” (Beckford and Witter, 1982: 61).

Middle-Class Leadership of Party and Union

The protests of the 1930s ushered in political changes that led to representative government, mass parties, strong trade unions, “and a gradual drift towards political decolonization and democratization” (Stone, 1991: 249). The Jamaican racial-class tableau was occupied by remnants of the old plantocracy, predominantly Anglo-Jamaicans; a fast rising nouveau-bourgeois class of “ethnic intermediaries” (Jews, Browns, Chinese and Lebanese), who converged towards symbolic and social whiteness; the “brown” (and increasingly black) middle classes; and a vast majority of black peasants and workers (with a tiny minority of East Indians, who would experience social mobility at a much faster pace than blacks in the coming decades).

The old plantocracy had been challenged for some time on its own turf (agribusiness) from two fronts: powerful (British and American) transnational corporations and the emerging hegemonic national bourgeoisie rooted (traditionally or recently) in urban commercial capital.

The challenge from below would be mediated by the brown middle class, especially personnel from the “brown lawyer stratum”. A version of this class had thrust itself forward a century earlier, on the eve of slave emancipation in the 1830s, as a political and cultural sub-hegemonic group with claims of being the only “true” representatives of the emerging Jamaican nation.

Leading descendants of this class would secure for themselves the leadership of the new political parties and trade unions formed out of the rebellion, ultimately edging out both popular (often Garveyite) working-class leaders and middle-class Marxist movement ideologues.

The two men to emerge as the “fathers of the nation” were, coincidentally, first cousins whose rivalry provided token and convenient proof of political pluralism. The two converged upon the mid-center, Norman Manley from its left and Alexander Bustamante from its right. Bustamante, by profession a moneylender, was the more idiosyncratic; Manley, the respectable lawyer with an unsullied reputation, was the “perfect” representative of his class. The center that they occupied was fraught with compromise and class conciliation:

“With the deep distrust of the more privileged ethnic minorities by the majority Blacks, the black and brown middle class political leaders assumed a dual role: bargaining for the Blacks while protecting the interests of aspiring and economically powerful intermediary ethnic groups (Jews, Browns, Chinese, and Lebanese) whom they saw as providing the enterprise and entrepreneurial dynamism to move the economy forward.” (Stone, 1991: 250)

The Jamaican governing apparatus evolved into a twoparty system in which working-class support for the two major parties was institutionalized through their respective trade union affiliates and political patronage at all levels, including that of neighborhoods within the boundaries of electoral districts.

Both parties continued to bear the ideological stamp of the personalities and politics of their founders, both men of the “high brown” middle class: Norman Manley of the People’s National Party, an Oxford-educated, moderate anticolonial nationalist-intellectual and Fabian Socialist, and Alexander Bustamante of the Jamaica Labour Party, a self-invented, flamboyant and highly individualistic political conservative and social populist (see Bakan, 1990: 115).

Although the two parties had somewhat different ideological orientations, they were both “cross-class electoral alliances,” dependent on the subordinate classes for mass electoral support and political quiescence and on local capitalist strata for financial support and political cooperation. The JLP held greater appeal for the more traditional bourgeoisie (including the planter class), the peasantry and the urban lumpenproletariat, while the balance was tipped in the PNP’s favor among the modernizing, national (typically “intermediary ethnic”) bourgeoisie, the urban professional middle classes and the industrial proletariat.

Jamaica’s Postwar Modernization

In the postwar era, Jamaica pursued economic modernization through a program of “industrialization-by-invitation”, with a focus on import substitution. As a result, the country experienced spectacular growth, with gross domestic product increasing at an annual rate of 7.2 percent between 1950 and 1965. Much of this growth occurred from investments in manufacturing, tourism and most significantly bauxite mining, as both local and foreign investors (but especially the latter) took advantage of the generous incentives being offered by the government.

Once the initial boom period was over, the negative impact of disconnected, enclave-type development on a dependent economy manifested itself in myriad ways (Bernal, 1984: 13-18).

These included the outflow or repatriation of profits, which quickly exceeded the inflow of capital; the high and costly import content of production; the subordination of the domiciled subsidiary to the requirements of the centralized transnational corporate economy rather than to those of the local economy of producers and consumers; the concomitant reduction of the state’s ability to manage and plan the national economy; the nontransfer or non-sharing of technology and expertise; low job creation, as a result of inappropriately capital-intensive production methods; limited local ability to purchase the high-cost products, generating and strengthening dualistic patterns of consumption as well as production.

Moreover, the combination of bauxite mining in the countryside and this kind of industrial development in the urban areas led to massive rural-to-urban migration, unemployment and lumpen-proletarianization. This later provided the context for the bankrolling and arming of party thugs who occupied the front lines of an artificially created intra-class battle over turf and the rise of “garrison constituencies.”

A significant bureaucratic and professional black middle class emerged with the expansion of the economy and state and the emphasis on industrialization and education, but Blacks failed to challenge the entrenched economic positions of the intermediary-ethnic elites.

A new urban capitalist class had developed, dominated by the Jews, the Lebanese and the whites, and to a lesser extent by the Browns and the Chinese (Stone, 1991).  Indeed, corporate power was concentrated in twenty-one families who, “through their interlocking networks, controlled much of the Jamaican economy into the 1970s and beyond” (Keith and Keith, 1992: 113).

The Jewish subfraction played the dominant role, exercising a level of control far in excess of their numbers: Jews numbered less than 0.025 percent of the Jamaican population but accounted for roughly 23 percent of the entrepreneurial elite. Seven of the 21 Families were Jewish, of whom four–Ashenheim, Henriques, DaCosta, and Matalon–accounted for twenty-two of the forty-seven corporate boards for 1971 and 1974 stock exchange companies. (Ibid.: 136)

The postwar policy of diversification into mineral export, manufacturing, and tourism was predicated to some extent on the neglect and devaluation of domestic agriculture and the rural population, which still provided the bulk of the island’s labor force. Economic frustration and disfranchisement led large numbers of peasant and working class Blacks to participate in “a massive outward migration to Britain and a large-scale exodus from rural to urban areas, which translated rural poverty into urban ghettoes and urban poverty.” (Stone, 1991: 252)

According to Beckford (1987: 1), “the coming of the bauxite-alumina transnational corporations after World War II aggravated a situation that had originally been created by the monopoly control which the sugar plantations had on the most fertile and accessible land areas of the country.”

Bauxite mining encroached precisely on the hilly interior borderlands onto which the peasantry had been forced by estate land monopoly and out of which they had painstakingly carved settled rural communities. Canadian and U.S. transnational corporations were allowed by the colonial government to freely acquire ore-bearing lands, causing a massive displacement of peasant farmers.

The latter were thus faced with the choice of relocating to new farmlands, becoming tenants on TNC-owned short-term reserve land or on restored “mined-out” land, or becoming part of the urban proletariat. Most became “dependent wage workers or unemployed urban dwellers, thousands of whom used their compensation money to join the contemporary migration stream to Britain before 1962.

The bauxite-alumina companies themselves operated as a capital-intensive raw material-export enclave within the rural environment, employing less than one percent of the Jamaican labor force. The overwhelming majority of those employees were semi-skilled or skilled, unionized, male workers from outside of the communities that had been disrupted.

These enclaves also pulled in an expatriate, white managerial elite whose lower and middle ranks were slowly replaced over the years by brown and black Jamaican men (Beckford, 1987: 21). The bauxite enclaves became a new microcosm of the white-brown-black color/class/culture structure of colonial society.

In parallel economic terms, the bauxite-alumina subsidiaries had limited linkages with the national economy, contributing only 8.7% of GDP in 1972, even though they accounted for 62.7% of total exports in that same year. All the industry exports were in raw or semi-processed form.

One element of the modernizing trend that was to clearly distinguish itself in the post-independence (1962) era was the development and expansion of a new professional and clerical middle class constituted through social mobility out of the black peasant and working classes on the basis of educational and professional qualification.

In a recent article, Brown (1994) distinguishes this new stratum in clear and simple terms as a “post-independence middle class” as opposed to the traditional middle class that was in place in the earlier “post-war” period. The latter “were identified by much more than occupation, income and education,” they “were also identified by a combination of family background and connections (the Caribbean version of aristocracy), colour, political affiliation, and inherited income, to name the more important determinants” (ibid.: 60).

By contrast:

“[h]owever, with the emergence of an independent Jamaica and the nationalist fervour which accompanied it, there emerged a new middle class which claimed legitimacy on the basis of their education and occupation. These were primarily the children of peasants, who could not claim legitimacy on the basis of family background, and more often than not, could not claim legitimacy on the basis of colour. Nevertheless, by reaffirming the basic values of the traditional middle class … this educated elite was eventually able to legitimise itself. In the meantime, the socio-cultural and political dynamics of the Jamaican society in the post-independence period, led to a decline in the number and relative power of the post-war traditional middle class.” (Ibid.: 60-61)

Increasingly, the loosening up of the traditional class structure and the rapid process of modernization would ensure that income join education and occupation as a relatively independent determinant of class and as the source of both frustrated aspirations and a bid for power more commensurate with newfound status.  

The post-independence middle class became the nursery of an aspiring entrepreneurial fraction which, along with most of its fellow class members, provided the PNP under Michael Manley (Norman’s trade unionist son) with the party’s most solid base of support, at least initially. As Keith and Keith (1992) point out below the demands this fraction would make on the government would be new ones.

The Social Base for “Democratic Socialism”

It was a focus on the maldevelopment described above and an appeal to the nationalist sense of outrage regarding it that formed the basis for the “democratic-socialist” government of Michael Manley, elected in 1972 on a wave of anti-imperialist sentiment that had been growing since the 1960s.

The early seventies’ leftward turn of the People’s National Party (PNP), the traditionally more liberal of the two multi-class, multi-ethnic mass parties to emerge out of the pre-war anti-colonial class struggles, has to be seen in the context of increasingly volatile race- and class-based disparities and frustrations. These frustrations had been given new expression during the 1960s through militant and radical-nationalist intellectual and grassroots cultural and social movements which had facilitated and reflected the growing politicization of urban-based male youth in particular.

Orthodox and Third World marxism, radical dependency theory and its more popular offshoots in Black Power manifestos rubbed shoulders with Rastafarianism, news from the frontlines of various national liberation struggles around the world, and even remnants of “Rudie boy” ghetto culture in an unprecedented, if contentious, rendezvous that took place both on and off the university campus. This was an atmosphere and underlying set of demands to which the PNP could not remain oblivious.

In an important departure from the tendency to dismiss the significance of ideology and of the “new” black middle class each as a social force, Keith and Keith (1992) give pride of place to both these phenomena in coming to terms with the historical specificity of the Manley regime and conjuncture. The PNP capitalized on and promoted an ideological detente, convergence and, indeed, temporary unity between frustrated sections of the brown and black middle classes and previously vilified adherents/fractions of the subordinate classes.

This rapprochement (and “momentary suspension of class antagonism”), around the broad symbolism and ideological and cultural thrust of Rastafarianism, was possible because of the ambiguity/elasticity of Rastafarianism on the one hand, and the genuine (although self-interested) sense of racially based exclusion from economic power felt by the black middle class on the other.

Rastafarianism is, after all, an antiimperialist and restorative “religion of the oppressed” (it is also patriarchal); it is not a revolutionary working class ideology; it is programmatically more oriented towards parallelist extracapitalism than anti-capitalism. By the same token, the heterogeneous and divided character of the subordinate classes stymied any potential there might have been for the development of a focused, revolutionary working-class force.

In addition to the artificial political divisions created by the two-party system, we are reminded that “[i]n 1973 some 120,000 industrial workers were flanked by 130,000 peasants and 230,000 small business people and petty traders” (ibid.: 156). The other part of the two Keiths’ argument is that, notwithstanding an alliance with the “forward-looking” industrial fraction of the bourgeoisie, the distinction of the regime’s “national popularism” lay in the opportunity it provided for the ascendance of a “strategic middle class fraction.”

The latter had its source in the “middle class meritocrats, most of whom were black,” and who were nurtured on education and the Jamaicanization and expansion of the state sector (149). Unlike traditional civil servants, they had economic ambitions, partly facilitated by their roles in the semi-autonomous statutory corporations or parastatals (“parallel organizations”) that were multiplied under the Manley regime.

According to Keith and Keith, this group constituted “an emergent bureaucratic/entrepreneurial fraction of the middle class that attempted to use state power to join the ranks of the capitalists” (50). The fraction is characterized by “its ability and willingness to move in and out of government and to use state access to support entrepreneurial activities;” moreover, “unlike the coloreds, they were probably more favored. They had access to financing institutions such as the JDB [Jamaica Development Bank]” (150).

Other writers have confirmed the unprecedented growth of a black entrepreneurial fraction under Manley, among them, Stone (1991: 253), who, however, does not fail to point out that the opportunities for growth came partly from the exodus of a whole section of the “economically dominant ethnic minorities [who] retreated in fear … exported capital, closed down enterprises, and migrated in large numbers to the USA and Canada.”

The resulting vacuum earned middle class blacks (and men in particular) mostly top management jobs in the corporate sector but also some modest success at the lower levels of the entrepreneurial field (in small and medium-sized businesses). The downfall of the Manley regime, which saw the return of many of the entrepreneurs who had bailed out earlier, reversed the conditions favoring the growth and survival of black business but did not completely dislodge the new bureaucratic/entrepreneurial fraction.

The story of the 19721980 (twice elected) Manley government has been amply documented elsewhere and requires only the briefest of rehearsals in concluding this introduction (see Kaufman, 1985; Stephens and Stephens, 1986; Keith and Keith, 1992; and Brian Meeks account in this issue of ATC).

During the “democratic-socialist” experiment, Jamaica suffered devastating local effects of the oil crisis simultaneously with an unstable and zigzagging trajectory through intense class confrontation and an imperialist backlash against the new regime’s early nationalist initiatives.

The linchpin of the government’s strategy was a relatively bold move to increase domestic retention of earnings from bauxite-alumina by imposing a production levy on the bauxite companies. This levy increased the exploitatively low tax revenue from bauxite from J$25 million to J$200 million in a single year. The government also nationalized all bauxite lands (with full compensation) and acquired an interest in the mining and alumina operations.

In a nutshell, the reforms undertaken by the government, some of them relatively bold, were variously aimed at multiplying the domestic retention of bauxite earnings, expanding the productive base and strengthening national control over the economy, increasing real wages, reducing poverty and raising levels of social protection, literacy and culture. It was a program of state-led development in alliance with the industrial fraction of local capital.

The reforms eventually backfired as a result of a combination of “objective” global conditions (the oil crisis), external and internal “destabilizing” pressures and interventions, and perhaps most importantly, an ultimate lack of political resolve and infrastructural commitment to the socialist project and its supposed beneficiaries, the subordinate classes.

Conclusion: The End of the Reform Road

Jamaica’s economy went into a steep decline after 1973 as a result of the huge increase in the oil bill and a politically motivated cutback in the production and export of bauxite and alumina. In July 1977, during Manley’s second term in office, the Jamaican government signed an agreement with the IMF, which was suspended in December of that year for failure to meet the IMF conditionality test by a tiny margin.

By May 1978, the government had succumbed to a new IMF agreement that went much further in the sacrifices it exacted from the Jamaican people and in ensuring the reversal of all the fundamentals of the PNP’s “deficit expansion” program of 1972-76. After failing in December 1979 to meet three of the major performance criteria in yet another renegotiated IMF agreement, Manley’s government broke with the IMF in March 1980, but was unable to salvage enough credibility and popular support to win the election in October of that year.

Instead, a pro-business, proU.S., free-market regime was restored in Jamaica under the newly elected Jamaica Labour Party government of Edward Seaga. In 1980, Jamaica’s real GDP was 9% less than it had been in 1976. Kaufman (1985: 186) reports that “[between] October 1976 and November 1980, real wages of male workers fell by 85% and those for females by 109 percent.” Jamaica’s total net debt had increased from J$331.5 million in 1972 to J$3,884.9 million in 1980 (ibid.: Table Appendix-3, 246).

Between 1977 and 1990 Jamaica would negotiate eight stabilization loans with the IMF, “each new loan [bringing] with it more stringent conditions so as to force the government to make policy changes desired by the Fund” (Anderson and Witter, 1994: 12).

Although even Seaga would come to resent and protest some of these more stringent conditions, his unwavering commitment to a “free trade”, exportoriented model of development, coupled with IMF- and World Bank-imposed restraints, put Jamaica firmly on the gruelling path to a “liberalized” economy.

When the People’s National Party regained power in 1989, a chastened, refurbished and “reformed” Michael Manley, although soon to resign on the grounds of ill health, led the way in speeding up the deregulation of the Jamaican economy and keeping a lid on social welfare.

Under Manley’s successor, the PNP has established full currency liberalization and steadfastly intensified the privatization of state enterprises. The PNP’s return, in short, proved to be not a revival of the hopes of the ’70s, but a cyclical electoral swing that is mundanely typical of Jamaica’s political history.

ATC 70, September-October 1997