Jamaican independence: 60 years on

On 6 August 2022, Jamaicans celebrated 60 years of formal national independence from British rule. The parasitic Jamaican ruling class attempted to use the pomp, ceremony and spirit of national fervour to distract from worsening economic and social crises. But the fact is that the tasks of Jamaica’s independence struggle have not been completed.

The death of Queen Elizabeth II and the accession of King Charles III in Britain has put the question of republicanism squarely on the table in the British Caribbean, including Jamaica. In the eyes of the majority of ordinary Jamaicans, now is the time to cut ties with these imperialist has-beens.

Jamaica’s real history is a litany of slavery, rebellion, and class struggle. From the first European landings in the 16th century, through the English invasion of the island in the 1670s, up until independence, Jamaica was crushed under colonial rule. Sugar cane plantations were worked by huge numbers of slaves toiling in unbearable conditions, and produced massive profits for the English colonialists. In the words of Trinidadian Marxist historian, CLR James:

“For three centuries the sugar economy and the slave trade dominated the West Indies and the world market.”

Jamaica’s history is filled with heroic uprisings, waged by black slaves and peasants against their slave masters. From Tacky’s Rebellion (1760-61); to the great slave revolt of 1831 following on from revolts in Barbados in 1816 and Demerara in 1823; to the Morant Bay rebellion of 1865.

National independence was not graciously bestowed by the British ruling class upon the Jamaican masses, but hard-fought for and ultimately won by the working class and peasantry, fearlessly resisting their imperialist oppressors.

Jamaica’s revolutionary traditions must be rediscovered by a new generation of trade unionists, conscious class fighters, and youth looking for a way out from the horrors of capitalism.

The Great Depression & 1938 general strike

After the abolition of slavery, the sugar trade and colonial oppression still endured in Jaimaica. The Great Depression of 1929 was a turning point, as it led to a slump in the price of luxury goods, including sugar, which had a huge impact on Jamaica. High unemployment and economic stagnation caused widespread discontent.

Jamaica strikes Image libcomDespite the banning of pickets, many strikes broke out throughout the 1930s — mainly among dockers and transport workers / Image: libcom

In fact, the radicalising mood of the masses throughout 1929 and 1930 led the British Armed Forces stationed on the island to disband a regiment of native Jamaicans and replace it with British troops, to avoid fraternisation during a possible uprising.

Jamaica was ruled under the Crown Colony system – a colony administered by the British monarchy who appointed a Governor. As such, political parties and parliamentary elections did not exist for ordinary Jamaicans, since the requirements to run for the administration were designed to make only upper-class Jamaicans eligible.

The anger in society, therefore, expressed itself in a radicalisation on the industrial front. Although the formation of unions were legal in Jamaica, peaceful pickets of workplaces were illegal. In spite of this, many strikes broke out throughout the 1930s, mainly among dockers and transport workers. Some even came to violent clashes between workers and the state forces. As Trinidadian Marxist George Padmore describes in 1931:

“One of the clashes with the police took place at Rio Cabre, near Spanish Town. The Government is constructing a bridge there [...], the men, realising how badly they were being exploited, formed a strike committee and downed tools.

“They demanded eight hours labour at 3/6 per day instead of 3/- [3 shillings and sixpence (42p a day or £2.10 a week) instead of 3 shillings (36p)]. The employers (Government contractors) refused and the men began to picket the bridge. The Government ordered armed police to the scene, and attempted to break the strike through intimidation. The labourers refused to return to work under the old conditions.

“Strike-breakers were brought in, and the strikers took active measures to see that the blacklegs did not work. Then the police sided with the strike-breakers, and a general pitched battle took place. The police used their rifles and bayonets, while the strikers kept up the offensive with bottles and stones. Only after reinforcement was rushed to the scene were the strikers outnumbered and dispersed by the superior arms of the police.”

Beginning in earnest with the dock workers organised in the newly formed Jamaica Workers and Transport Union (JWTU), the strike wave culminated in a general strike in 1938, which, as George Padmore wrote: “covered Kingston. City cleaners and wharf labourers ceased work. For days the garbage remained uncollected. Factories were closed, shops and offices were forced to shut; tram, bus and rail services ceased. Even the Fire Brigade threatened to strike.”

This was a tremendous demonstration of the power of a working class that had only lately arisen, out of a population that less than a century prior had been largely enslaved. In a demonstration of class solidarity, CLR James writes: “On May 23rd 1938, American sailors in the harbour of Kingston, Jamaica, refused to blackleg on the black dock-workers and collected subscriptions for the strikers.”

Alexander Bustamante

A prominent participant in the strike was an anti-colonial agitator organised in the Jamaican Workers’ Union (JWU), Alexander Bustamante. Bustamante’s agitation led to him being imprisoned, but, such was his popularity with the masses, the government was forced to release him. Winning the respect of the masses, Bustamante was then thrust to the head of the general strike.

Alexander Bustamente Image Robert KnudsenStrike agitator Alexander Bustamente was a right-wing trade union leader from the outset / Image: Robert Knudsen

To be sure, Bustamente was not a socialist, but a right-wing trade union leader from the outset. CLR James accurately described him as an unprincipled demagogue. Throughout his life he would repeatedly claim that he stood for no particular economic or social system over another.

His actions spoke for themselves and demonstrated his ultimate loyalty to maintaining the status quo of capitalist exploitation. Nevertheless, he commanded considerable authority over sections of the organised working class for his fiery opposition to British colonialism.

After the strikes, as a concession to achieve peace, significant efforts were made by the British colonial government to encourage land parcelisation among the peasantry. At the same time, in every sector of industry, the increasing weakness of British imperialism meant it was being usurped by US capitalism.

The PNP and JLP

The economic concessions from the British government could not contain the urgency felt by many Jamaicans for more political rights, such as organising political parties. It must be said that, without the development of the trade unions and the increasing confidence of the workers, the formation of the political parties would not have occurred.

Norman Manley Image Jamaica Information ServiceNorman Manley founded the People’s National Party, based on the reformist ideas of Fabianism / Image: Jamaica Information Service

For example, the Trade Unions Council (1938-52) was founded at the same time as the People’s National Party, as well as the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU).

The PNP, founded by Norman Manley, was based on Fabianism, a reformist tradition originating in Britain. This peculiarity can be partially explained by the fact that Manley had been educated as a lawyer in England at Oxford University. Fabianism appealed to Manley, as a petit-bourgeois intellectual.

Nevertheless, the PNP’s programme included nationalisation of sugar manufacturers such as British-owned Tate and Lyle, as well as abolishing the British monarchy as head of state, with Jamaica instead becoming a republic. In the eyes of the ruling class, who were always keen to stem the rising radical mood of the masses, this programme posed a major threat.

Although Bustamante and Norman Manley, who were also cousins, had worked in the labour movement together during the late 1930s, Manley found collaborating with Bustamante impossible. A clash of personalities – Bustamante the relaxed, charismatic rogue, in contrast to the formal and legalistic Manley – concealed the fact that their differences were fundamentally political; one was a defender of the status quo, while the other advocated reform.

In fact, Bustamante eventually split from the PNP in 1943 to form the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), tied to his union, the BITU. The PNP and JLP at that time clearly represented the left-wing and right-wing tendencies in the labour movement, respectively.

Following the labour unrest of the 1930s, in 1938 the British government ordered the West India Royal Commission to investigate the situation in the British Caribbean and propose solutions to a growing crisis. The findings were included in the Moyne Report, which described the widespread squalor and misery of the masses throughout the Caribbean.

After years of delay, in 1944 the British government issued the recommendations of the report including universal suffrage and a new expanded 32-member House of Representatives. That year’s general election brought Bustamante’s JLP to power, winning 22 seats. Manley’s PNP won only 5, with the remainder won by small parties. Bustamante’s victory was partly because of the personal authority he held over the masses but also because he was able to mobilise and organise his supporters through the BITU, something the PNP lacked.

In this period, Bustamante earned the moniker ‘the uncrowned king’ of Jamaica due to his considerable control over organised labour and unofficial leadership of the government.

In 1946, CLR James wrote:

“The People’s National Party controls a small association of unionists, but the mass power is in Bustamente’s hands…The masses of the people are not hostile to Manley and the PNP. They are, however, fanatically loyal to Bustamente and often express regret at the lack of unity. The PNP struggles to win the Jamaican masses to its program.”

However, the 1949 general election was much closer. The PNP received more votes than the JLP, but it was the JLP that actually secured more seats. At this point, a political stalemate existed – neither party was capable of winning a decisive victory against the other.

Manley, in a rightward shift under pressure from the capitalists who wanted to remove the revolutionary elements from the PNP, purged radicals from the party throughout the 1950s. The first wave in 1952 included Trevor Munroe, and in 1954 four prominent party members, including self-described Marxist, Richard Hart, were expelled for their communist sympathies.

In an attempt to break Bustamante’s stranglehold over the trade union movement, Manley founded the National Union of Workers in 1952 as an industrial wing of the PNP.

British imperialism and the West Indies Federation

Following the Second World War, the grip of British imperialism over the West Indies was the weakest it had ever been. As was the case in many colonial countries across the British empire, demands for Jamaican independence intensified.

West Indies Federation Image NuclearVacuumThe West Indies Federation was not based on working class internationalism, and so narrow nationalist interests came to the fore / Image: NuclearVacuum

By the 1950s, all of the ‘progressive forces’ in Jamaica backed independence in one form or another. Under Manley, Jamaica joined the West Indies Federation in 1958. The intention behind this federation was to combine 10 British-controlled Caribbean nations into one political and economic union.

However, this union was not based on working-class internationalism, and the nationalist interests of the respective leaders came to the fore. In almost every nation involved there were splits on the question of what the scope of the federation should be, what relationship it should take with British imperialism, and how members of the federation would avoid becoming dominated by the economically stronger islands.

Eventually, Bustamante opposed the federation and argued that it would harm the national economy of Jamaica. Driven by narrow, nationalist interests Bustamante wanted to protect the interests of the petit-bourgeoisie and appeal to reactionary layers within the working class who supported Anglo-US imperialism.

In contrast, Manley put forward the idea that a united West Indies Federation would remove barriers to economic development, and be a progressive step forward in breaking from British imperialism.

Manley called a referendum in 1961 on whether Jamaica should remain in the Federation. 54.1 percent voted “no", shattering Manley’s plans of a united British West Indies. Many who were in favour of the federation were concentrated in the urban areas, while many poor rural areas voted against – fearing they would have to foot the bill if the economy suffered.

Jamaica’s road to independence looked increasingly likely to come via an agreement with British imperialism, which found it difficult to maintain even a diminishing number of colonies.

Independence – Babylon gone?

After the defeat in the referendum, Manley negotiated with the British for Jamaican independence, and the following year the Jamaica Independence Act 1962 was passed in the UK House of Commons.

Jamaica Independence Act Image govukThe Independence Act of 1962 did not stop Jamaica being dominated by imperialism / Image: govuk

It stated that Jamaica would remain a member of the Commonwealth, with the Queen as the head of state over a Jamaican Parliament. Many old colonial elements remained in the Constitution enabling Britain to still rule Jamaica indirectly.

Effectively the independence granted by Parliament merely handed over the day-to-day tasks of managing capitalism to the now-trusted Bustamante/Manley regimes.

The bitter rewards of Manley’s failures were shown when the JLP under Bustamante won the first independent elections in April 1962 (26 seats for the JLP to 19 for the PNP). Manley would not be the PM to usher in the independence that he had spent decades fighting for.

Without a doubt, the lack of a bold, socialist programme as part of the deal for national independence and the timidity of Manley in the face of the imperialists, led to his defeat. Independence was met with large and jubilant celebrations by workers and youth but many had been sold the illusion that independence under capitalism could solve their economic and social problems.

Although independence had been formally declared, imperialism remained, and the US wasted no time in filling the gap left by British imperialism. This scramble by US imperialism led to a greater concentration of wealth developing over the next decade in the hands of US-owned businesses.

In Jamaica, the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution were carried out in a partial and uneven way over decades, because the Jamaican bourgeoisie was not strong enough to carry out these tasks by themselves. In the words of Ted Grant:

“The bourgeoisie of the colonial areas has come too late on the world arena to be enabled to play the progressive role which the Western bourgeoisie played in the development of capitalist society.”

For this reason, Anglo-US imperialism continued to dominate the Jamaican economy. In fact, following independence, the World Bank provided Jamaica with the biggest ever loan at the time to a developing country for ‘educational purposes’.

US imperialism, through the World Bank, began exploiting Jamaica’s natural resources and labour; expanding the bauxite industry and manufacturing sectors. This led to living standards for urban and rural workers to decline and a rapid increase in inequality.

Any illusions about independence on a capitalist basis being able to raise living standards, provide good quality free education, or even basic necessities like clean water and electricity, melted away.

Throughout the 1960s, and particularly following the impact of the world economic slump in the early 1970s, Jamaican workers and youth turned to revolutionary ideas – eventually bringing the PNP’s Michael Manley (Norman Manley’s son) to power on a popular left-reformist programme.

Unfortunately, Manley’s regime would fail to break from capitalism. After carrying out radical reforms and partial nationalisations, Manley came under immense pressure from US imperialism and the IMF to reverse these and cut ties with neighbouring Cuba. Manley’s regime was brought down in 1980 with hundreds of people killed in political violence stoked by US imperialist meddling.

Revolutionary leadership needed

60 years on and Jamaica is still dominated by Anglo-US imperialism with the British monarchy as head of state. For decades the PNP and JLP have promised referendums on becoming a republic. But why haven’t they materialised?

Since the 1980s the PNP and JLP have come to represent the interests of two wings of the ruling class; the left liberals and the right wing. Neither is willing to fully break with British or US imperialism, let alone capitalism.

Royals Jamaica Visit Image PrachataiPrince William and Kate's visit to the Caribbean helped strengthen the mood for republicanism / Image: Prachatai

However, there is mounting pressure on the Jamaican ruling class to follow Barbados’ example by holding a referendum on becoming a republic. The calamitous visits by the British monarchy to the Caribbean this year have only strengthened this mood for republicanism.

When Prince William and Kate met with Jamaican PM Andrew Holness, in front of cameras they politely listened to him inform them that his country was “moving on” from the monarchy.

Holness has started the process of removing the British monarchy as head of state by 2025, but after so many false starts, who is to say that they won’t break their promises again? And even if Jamaica does become a republic, what plan does Holness and the Jamaican establishment have to solve the dire economic and social conditions that millions of Jamaicans live under?

A Jamaican republic under capitalism offers nothing to workers and youth. It is only the struggle for socialism and abolition of capitalism that can guarantee true independence from both the feudal British monarchy and US imperialism.

Jamaica’s economy has in the last decade been lauded, with a relatively high GDP and profits flowing. But this wealth has not found its way to the working class. The rich enjoy all of life’s luxuries, while the poor live in squalor, unable to feed themselves on poverty wages, and denied basic essentials.

Capitalism in Jamaica has been a disaster. Corruption and violent crime are rife. Living standards haven’t improved for decades. And the environmental damage caused by Bauxite mining has left thousands with infertile land and poor health.

The parasitic presence of US, UK, and increasingly Chinese businesses exploiting Jamaican resources and workers provide the Jamaican ruling class with healthy profits from lucrative contracts. The government expects the value of bauxite mining exports to increase 7 per cent to US$507 million this year.

If nationalised alongside other major industries as part of a socialist plan of production, these profits could be used to solve the myriad of social and economic problems that blight the lives of the working class. Let alone the vast amounts of money that are paid to the IMF to service decades worth of loans.

The fight for genuine independence must also come with a struggle against capitalism, which has led the Jamaican working class down the path of misery, poverty, and destitution. In addition to casting off the colonial relic of the monarchy, Jamaicans must rediscover their revolutionary traditions, and fight for real freedom, which can only come with socialist revolution.