Jamaica Today: The Legacy of Michael Manley

I recently visited the Caribbean island of Jamaica to deliver the fifth annual Michael Manley Memorial Lecture, in Kingston. It was, for me, a wonderful “homecoming.” I first visited Jamaica back in 1983, when I spoke as the “International Speaker” at Manley’s People’s National Party annual conference. I became friends with Manley, who served as Jamaica’s Prime Minister from 1972 to 1980, and again from 1989 to 1992. After combating prostate cancer, Manley died in 1997.


Through our friendship, I came to understand why Michael Manley became beloved by so many millions of people throughout the world. As a champion of the poor and disposed, as a visionary spokesman for the politics of social justice, Michael Manley continues to inspire all who struggle for a more democratic, egalitarian social order.


Although Manley’s commitment to democratic socialism began in the years after the Second World War, when he studied with Harold Laski at the London School of Economics, his real passion for the disposed and the disadvantaged really took root during the years he spent as a union organizer of Jamaica’s National Workers Union (NWU). During the 1950s and 1960s, Manley learned first-hand the trials and tribulations of ordinary working people, and he deeply identified with their plight. An important turning point in his development occurred in 1964, when Manley led NWU workers in a famous, 97-day strike against the state television company. Through the many marches and public protests Manley personally led, he rallied workers with the cry to “bring down the walls of Jericho,” and workers responded by calling Michael “Joshua.” Less than a decade later, as leader of the People’s National Party, “Joshua” would lead his party to victory.


During the 1970s, few Third World leaders personified the aspirations of nonaligned nations better than Michael Manley. Along with Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Manley preached “self reliance” and “self sufficiency”, themes that resonated favorably with Jamaica’s rural peasantry. Manley called for both a “South-South” dialogue building practical coalitions between and among Third World nations in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, as well as a new “North-South” dialogue between Europe and North America with the developing world. Manley identified “democratic socialism” with “love,” and envisioned a Jamaican society where all members could become meaningful participants.


Since Manley’s retirement from national politics in 1992, the People’s National Party has won three successive parliamentary elections. Manley’s immediate successor, Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, was a capable technocrat and administrator, but he lacked Manley’s charisma, or commitment to Jamaica’s oppressed. Under Patterson, the PNP’s political and ideological focus degenerated. The PNP adopted the economic model of “neoliberalism” required by the World Bank, leading to a sharp devaluation of Jamaica’s currency, severe economic shortages, and spiraling unemployment. By the early 21st century, the PNP was widely viewed as being incapable of managing, much less resolving, Jamaica’s crisis. Unfortunately, the opposition Jamaica Labor Party (JLP), led for decades by conservative demagogue Edward Seaga, was even more unpopular and distrusted than the PNP.


After Patterson’s retirement, a power struggle for leadership erupted within the PNP. The current PNP Prime Minister, Portia Simpson, previously served as Patterson’s Minister of Labour. Nearly all of the PNP’s parliamentary members, and the party’s middle-class, brown-skinned elite base, opposed and distrusted Simpson’s populist-style appeals to rural voters and the working poor. She has been criticized for her lack of professionalism, habitual lateness at important governmental and public functions, and lack of consultation with members of her own cabinet on vital decisions. Yet Simpson also possesses the charisma and gift of oratorical style reminiscent of Manley. Her grassroots, poor working class appeal may be sufficient to save a number of PNP parliamentary seats in next year’s elections.


BC Editorial Board member Manning Marable, PhD is one of America’s most influential and widely read scholars. Since 1993, Dr. Marable has been Professor of Public Affairs, Political Science, History and African-American Studies at Columbia University in New York City. For ten years, Dr. Marable was founding director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, from 1993 to 2003. Dr. Marable is an author or editor of over 20 books, including Living Black History (2006); The Autobiography of Medgar Evers (2005); Freedom (2002); Black Leadership (1998); Beyond Black and White (1995); and How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America (1983). His current project is a major biography of Malcolm X, entitled Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, to be published by Viking Press in 2009. Click here to contact Dr. Marable.



“Along The Color Line”, written by Manning Marable, PhD and distributed by www.BlackCommentator.com, is a public educational and information service dedicated to fostering political dialogue and discussion, inspired by the great tradition for political event columns written by W. E. B. Du Bois nearly a century ago.

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