Radical democracy, left politics, and the PNP: A tribute to D K Duncan

Radical democracy, left politics, and the PNP: A tribute to D K Duncan

Anthony Bogues

Sunday, November 22, 2020

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Jamaican politics in the 1970s produced remarkable political figures. D K Duncan was one such figure. Passionate, committed, and courageous, his political activism was intertwined with the People's National Party (PNP). It was an activism that oftentimes made some members of the party uncomfortable, as he engaged with Herculean organisational efforts to transform the party from a “distributor of scarce benefits” into a political organ that would transform neo-colonial Jamaica.

Invited to join the party by Michael Manley, Duncan became the most recognised and vocal political figure for the PNP left and its acknowledged leader. In paying tribute to him and his political life I tell a story of the party, DK, and Jamaican politics.

The 1960s were watershed years in Jamaican politics and society. In 1962 the island was granted constitutional independence after over 300 years; first as a slave colony under the Spanish, and then British rule. From 1838, after the formal abolishing of slavery, until 1962, the island was a British colony. The colony was constructed on the grounds of various forms of plantation servitude, anti-black racism, and a class/colour social structure in which the vast majority of the black population were considered to be perpetual hewers of wood and drawers of water. In such a society the economy was owned and controlled externally, and internally was owned, managed, or controlled by a group that had its roots in structures of old wealth created by a white planter class. This group was later joined by a light-skinned (brown) elite.

Constitutional independence did not change these structures. So stark was this situation that even the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report on Jamaica in the 1970 had to admit “that political independence has not significantly altered the socio-economic structures… the plantation economies from the days of colonialism persist". So although political independence generated hope, and Derrick Morgan sang Forward March, by 1968 the Ethiopians would proclaim Everything Crash.

And as things “come up to bump", the Jamaican society experienced a series of convulsions with a deep striving towards full decolonisation as ordinary Jamaicans began to both dream and engage in activities which demanded social and economic transformation of the society.

When D K Duncan returned to Jamaica, back to his birthplace, Brown's Town, from his dental studies in Canada, he set up a practice. There he involved himself with the PNP in the constituency of St Ann North Western, particularly with the campaign of Elon Wilson. But this was not his only political involvement. While in St Ann D K met Walter Rodney. He and Arnold Bertram became close to the radical Black Power newspaper Abeng. The newspaper published 35 issues in 1969, with a circulation between 15,000 and 20,000 copies for nine months before it folded. Inspired by the emergence of the black power movement, the growth of Rastafari, and the disenchantment of many Jamaicans with life under constitutional independence and the Jamaica Labour Party, the newspaper emerged as a radical voice for social change.

In the wake of the Walter Rodney October 1968 riots the newspaper became a gathering ground for Rastas, youth groups from urban areas like Youth for Social Change, university students, and middle class intellectuals like Garvey scholars Robert Hill, Rupert Lewis, and late political economist George Beckford. Also involved were individuals like the former PNP General Secretary Vernon Arnett and the late human rights lawyer Dennis Daley. So D K's first major political involvement that permanently marked his political ideas and activism were local PNP constituency engagements and political affinities with a movement which espoused transformation of Jamaican society, while putting at the centre the aspirations and lives of ordinary black people.

Abeng never advocated socialism of any kind, but instead, as it made clear in an editorial, it stood for 'Bread, Work and Human Dignity'. In a country of high unemployment and deep poverty, this resonated. Crucially, the editorial made the point that there was the “need of popular energies to get the… effort started”. These two ideas — centring on the aspirations of ordinary black Jamaicans and a deep attentiveness to popular energies — became central features of D K's political thought and activism. This was combined with a passion for political organisation as one lifeblood of social transformation.

However, in D K's mind, political organisation was only a tool that made it possible for ordinary, black Jamaicans to live a decent, material lives with dignity, and a vehicle through which the masses of people could mobilise themselves and reach for their own liberation. This made him a consistent advocate for mass democracy, both as a form of rule and the necessary structure of a political party which advocated change. In this he was a radical advocate for mass democracy.

It is 1981, and a group of us are at the Press Club, located then on Surbiton Road. It's late and most of us who are there had been fired from Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) by the Edward Seaga regime. In that moment the Press Club was a venue where we could exchange notes and talk through the afternoon, until late at night, about the events of the day and, importantly, there were typewriters that we could use to write various stories, as some of us tried to make a living as freelance writers for local and foreign news outlets.

One night D K and Beverley Manley arrived to simply check on those of us who had been fired. Fired at the time, I belonged neither to the PNP nor the Workers Party of Jamaica (WPJ), although I had left views. These views had not stopped the British Broadcasting Corporation ( BBC) from hiring me as a freelance features journalist in the 1970s covering the Caribbean and Africa. Anyway, in the toxic political atmosphere of the 1980s election, driven by false claims about Jamaica becoming communist, platform speeches were made that myself and others would never again work in Jamaica. When D K and Beverley Manley visited the club there ensued a long political conversation and Duncan made the point that, after the October 1980 election, one key political consequence was an opportunity to build a mass democratic political party. In expressing this political conviction he was deploying the arguments used by Michael Manley to persuade him to fully enter the PNP. He was also putting forth arguments that had been made earlier in the 1960s by C L R James, the Trinidadian historian and political thinker, in his seminal work on Caribbean politics, Party Politics in the West Indies. However, for Duncan, these were not just arguments, they formed one core of his political belief.

In his resignation letter of October 1977, when D K first resigned from the post of party general secretary and minister of mobilisation, he writes about Michael Manley: “He can attest to the fact that I was drawn to the People's National Party because of the future he painted… beginning to prepare the party masses for their role as leaders of the socialist process.” Duncan formally joined the PNP because it promised fundamental social changes in post-colonial Jamaica. History will recall that the PNP in the 1970s under the leadership of Michael Manley implemented the most extensive social reform programme in the country's history. That it instituted and consolidated a social process of “smaddisation"; transforming the sufferer into a somebody. But, as Chronixx and Buju Banton would say, it was not “an easy road", and the party was wracked by internal conflict as the power of the elite began to be eroded.

These internal conflicts led D K to resign from the leadership of the party again in 1982, as he made an attempt to establish an “activist secretariat" that would implement agreed-on party programmes. He was to return fully in 1992 after the Shell wavier crisis to support the leadership run of Portia Simpson, and then remained an active member of the party, including becoming the Member of Parliament for Hanover Eastern. In-between he was a member of the New Beginning Movement and co- founding member, in the 1980s, of the Participatory Research Group, a group of PNP activists and non-PNP citizens who spent a great deal of time studying Jamaican politics. The findings of that group can be summarised by its first publication — 'A non tribal path to democratic development'.

This idea became central to his political thinking. In the 1980s, when I began to work with the PNP Secretariat and later on worked closely in St Andrew East Central with the late Arthur Jones, we followed a model of political work which D K had began to lay down with the creation of a constituency development plan. This plan included inputs from party groups within the constituency, but also paid great attention to areas in the constituency which voted for the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). In other words, the rationale for political constituency organising work was how to develop a non-tribal economic and social plan for a constituency. The idea for this was born out of the Emergency Production Plan created in the 1970s, which his Ministry of Mobilisation and Human Resources was deeply involved with.

Writing in Small Garden, Bitter Weed: Struggle and Change in Jamaica, political economists Michael Witter and the late George Beckford, who were both deeply involved in the making the plan, noted that in creating it “over 10,000 responses were received from the public in a two-week period”. That this vast set of ideas about possible economic growth and development emerged from the Jamaican population signalled that democracy was not simply an electoral game, but needed other forms of participation.

'Revolutionary democrat'

What accounts for D K's turbulent relationship with the PNP, his chosen political vehicle?

Formed in 1938, the PNP was an anti-colonial, social democratic party which in the 1940s espoused a form of socialism. When the party was formed a group of left-wing individuals, including Richard Hart, the Marxist lawyer; the radical activist and journalist Ken Hill; the radical journalist Frank Hill; and the trade union organiser Arthur Henry, amongst others, joined. Notably, Hugh Buchanan, who many historians consider to be Jamaica's first Marxist, did not join. Hart, in particular, had been close to Buchanan. This left grouping were loyal to the PNP and the anti-colonial nationalism of the party, because in the words of Richard Hart they saw that the first stage of the Jamaican struggle as that of political independence. Their political conception was that after the political independence the party would split. That was not to be, and even though the historical records show that it was this left that built the working class and trade union base of the party, and when Ken Hill's political popularity was second only to Norman Manley, particularly after wining the Kingston Western seat in 1949, other tendencies within the party felt uncomfortable with the growing popularity of the left.

In the 1950s, driven by the politics of the Cold War, things came to a head, and what Norman W Manley called the "sleepy centre" got mobilised and the left was expelled. It is said that N W Manley regretted that decision. However, we take from this that the PNP has always been a party of tendencies. This is not uncommon in social democratic parties.

In the 1960s a left again emerged within the party and produced for the 1964 election the most radical political manifesto ever produced in the politics of the country. The manifesto included a radical demand for land reform. As a party with tendencies, in the political hurly burly one tendency becomes dominant.

D K joined the PNP because he believed that with Michael Manley as political leader the party would transform itself and become, over time, the political vehicle for the transformation of Jamaica. If in 1974 that meant pushing for and working with others to create the political platform of democratic socialism, then that was the ideological guide of the party.

When it became clear that the party was moving away from elements of the 1974 Principles and Objectives, Duncan defined himself in 1985 an interview with Franklyn McKnight as a “revolutionary democrat”, meaning he said that he was a democrat who believed in revolution. He did not define revolution as violence, but rather a kind of activism which would transform the class-colour hierarchy of Jamaican society.

D K can be seen as working within a radical left tradition inside the PNP one that is not communist, but more shaped by ideas of radical decolonisation, social change, and mass democracy. What did he bring to this political practice and tradition? For D K Duncan, mobilisation was not about elections. He understood better than most how to build an electoral machine, polling division by polling division, runner by runner, and a deep understanding of what a canvass meant.

For D K, canvass training was not simply about building an electoral machine, it was about putting in place political organisation that would sustain a mass party. As well, mobilisation was not about political manipulation, but rather creating the basis for politically educated masses because social and economic transformation needed to be accompanied by education.

D K had an extraordinary confidence in the capacity of the ordinary Jamaican. His advocacy of a cultural week for the so-called Crash programme workers led to the formation of one of the most seminal theatre groups in Jamaica, Sistren. All of this, and his tremendous activism to create mass organisational structures, make him not only a radical democrat, but one of the leading left political personalities of Jamaican politics.

What D K did for political organisation in Jamaican politics was to raise it from the mechanics of electoral contest to a theory of political action. When I think of Duncan I often recall how, in the 1980s, along with others, after political meetings we all listened to Bob Marley singing, “ Coming in from the cold..." and shouted in our discordant voices, “Would you let the system make you kill your brother man? No, no, no, no, no, no!”

For D K, the ordinary men and women of Jamaica were the foundation stones of our society. His struggle was to make their lives a decent and humane one with dignity. It is a struggle which has not yet ended.

Walk good, mi Breddren.

Anthony Bogues is professor of humanities and critical theory, director of the Center for the Study of Slavery & Justice, and professor of Africana Studies at Brown University. He also serves as visiting professor and curator for University of Johannesburg and senior visiting research fellow of the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer of anthony.bogues@gmail.com.

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