The landslide victory of Edward Seaga’s Jamaica Labour Party (jlp) in the October 1980 general elections brought an abrupt end to the People’s National Party’s (pnp) eight-year-old experiment in ‘Democratic Socialism’.footnote The fall of Michael Manley, the Socialist International’s most important representative in the Third World, has dealt a serious, if not fatal, blow to the gradualist strategy of social change advocated by broad sectors of the Caribbean left and somewhat hesitantly endorsed in recent years by the Cuban leadership. At the same time, the restoration of the stalwartly anti-communist jlp provides the Reagan Administration with an invaluable collaborator in its crusade to contain and roll back the wave of revolutionary mobilization that has swept the Caribbean and Central America since 1979. In particular it increases the grave dangers of intervention against the unfolding revolutions in Grenada and Nicaragua, both of which had enjoyed Jamaican support in their efforts to escape the noose-hold of us economic and political isolation.

The defeat of Manley has been widely compared with the overthrow of Allende, and, indeed, many of the same counter-revolutionary forces—imf, cia, North American mineral corporations, etc.—which conspired against Unidad Popular were also busy subverting the pnp. Yet there is an obvious and decisive difference between the Chilean and Jamaican cases: despite economic sabotage and rampant inflation, the Chilean popular classes continued to stand behind Allende, who could in the end only be toppled by one of the most bloody putsches of the twentieth century; Manley, on the other hand, was voted out of power by sections of the same super-exploited mass of ‘sufferers’ whose plight he had promised to change forever. Although in Jamaica there was an attempted coup, as well as a state of de facto civil war in the slums of Kingston and other towns,footnote1 there is no way to deny the fact that the ultimate weakness of the pnp was its failure to unite and mobilize the small peasants, farmworkers, urban wage-earners and casual labourers who comprise the overwhelming social and political majority of Jamaican society.footnote2 A Marxist balance-sheet of the Manley experiment therefore, must be more than a narrative of imperialist machinations, imf ultimatums and internal intrigues. It must confront the huge obstacle to social. revolution constituted by Jamaica’s neo-colonial political system with its singular contraposition (on the right) of an oligarchic ‘labour party’ with a powerful trade-union base and (on the left) a bourgeois nationalist-populist party with a Fabian façade. The pnp’s inability to overthrow economic dependency was centrally determined by its failure to use the favourable conjuncture of the seventies to transform its own traditional structure and ideology.

The present political system in Jamaica emerged in the wake of the generalized labour unrest which swept the island in 1938. The nationalist dimension of Jamaican politics crystallized in the formation of the People’s National Party under the leadership of the Oxford-trained barrister, Norman Manley, in this same year; but the workers’ rebellion found its most striking expression in the rise of the ‘Bustamante Industrial Trade Union’ under the authoritarian charisma of Alexander Bustamante. Initially the pnp hoped to enroll the support of ‘Labour Leader Number One’, but after a brief flirtation, Bustamante (with prompting from the Colonial Office) established the competing Jamaica Labour Party on the eve of home-rule in 1944. Bustamanteism was essentially a reflection of the nascent character of the Jamaican working class, the bulk of which still lived in the border line between wage labour and peasant small-holding.footnote3 The bitu’s personalism was also related to the extreme casualization of the workforce, its lack of stable mass organization, and the pervasiveness of clientelism. In contrast, the early programme of the pnp reflected the interests of the urban petty bourgeoisie, middle peasants and small traders against the encroachments of the big landholding class and comprador bourgeoisie. Manley advocated the establishment of a Marketing and Industrial Board to provide easy credit to small capitalists and middle peasants, the curtailment of large-scale capitalist agriculture and the formation of rural cooperatives. The pnp’s nationalism was extremely moderate in character; proposing a two-stage framework in which universal adult suffrage and an indigeneous civil service would be established before seeking internal self-government within the British Commonwealth.

In the first general elections under universal suffrage in 1944, the jlp swept to victory in a dramatic demonstration that it, rather than the pnp, was seen by the masses as representing the militant tradition of 1938. Yet ironically it was the pnp, with its fraternal ties to the British Labour Party and its blending of moderate nationalism with elements of Fabianism, that was viewed as the greater threat by the island’s ruling oligarchy (the ‘Twenty-One Families’).footnote4 Since the oligarchy’s own political project, the Jamaica Democratic Party, had been completely routed in the elections, it turned toward the volatile and co-optable Bustamante as the political instrument of its interests. Despite the fact that to this day the bitu is empowered to appoint sixteen members of the jlp executive, the labourism of the party has become a pendant to its domination by the oligarchy. In office between 1944 and 1955 Bustamente became a slavish defender of the interests of British and American imperialism. For example, during the 1949–52 period when Atlee’s Labour government made proposals to nationalize the operations of Tate and Lyle, the giant sugar monopoly which dominates Jamaican agriculture, Bustamente threatened to call strikes all over the island in opposition. The jlp government’s provocatively conservative policies gave rise to a new proletarian radicalization in the form of the Trade Union Congress (tuc), representing mainly public sector workers. The tuc had close links with the pnp, and in 1959 it was transformed into blanket union with formal ties to the party in order to mount a more effective challenge to the bitu-ilp complex. A pattern was thus established for political difference between the two parties to be automatically transformed into intense inter-union rivalries—a paramount feature of modern Jamaican politics.

The economic strategy of the jlp-oligarchy alliance was based on the model of Puerto Rico’s ‘Operation Bootstrap’ and its open-door invitation to transnational capital to take advantage of tax holidays and cheap labour. By 1950 the great North American aluminium monopolies were investing millions in the exploitation of Jamaica’s bauxite reserves, then estimated as the world’s largest. This bauxite boom together with the prevailing Cold War climate stimulated attacks by the pnp’s right wing against the left-wing and ‘anti-imperialist’ leaders of the tuc. Bending to these pressures in 1952 the pnp Executive broke off relations with the tuc and expelled four of its leading members from the party. The pnp set up a new trade union, the National Workers’ Union (nwu), which was sponsored by us imperialism through the United Steelworkers of America (uswa).footnote5 The nwu was, in fact, headed by Michael Manley, who in the capacity of Island Supervisor, made frequent trips to Canada and the us in order to attend uswa meetings. Henceforth, the nwu served as the industrial arm of the pnp while the tuc declined in support. In 1955 the pnp was elected to office. By this time the party had become dominated by a fraction of the industrial bourgeoisie which had emerged in the island under the impetus given to construction and manufacturing activity by the mining of bauxite. The pnp continued the jlp’s open-door policy towards foreign capital. Throughout its term in office the pnp failed to develop any mass movement in favour of independence, and allowed the colonial government to dictate the pace of decolonization. By 1962 even Bustamante was in favour of independence, so that there was a consensus between the two parties.