The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Bob Marley:
Which "emancipation"?

Jun 25, 2001

The following article is a translation of an article written by the comrades of Combat Ouvrier, a West Indian Trotskyist group active in Guadeloupe and Martinique.

The anniversary of the death of Bob Marley was celebrated in many corners of the globe. In Jamaica and the Caribbean, there were numerous commemorative events. In Guadeloupe and Martinique, artistic events, TV programs and commentaries marked the occasion.

It has been 20 years since the Jamaican reggae singer passed away. Bob Marley was a singer, musician, and songwriter of great talent. He also represented the youth of the poor ghettos. He himself came from the ghettos of Kingston, the capital of Jamaica. In a good number of his songs, he expressed not only the misery, but also the revolt which the young people of these ghettos knew –and still know. It's not an accident that he was particularly popular in the poor neighborhoods where a good number of the youth recognized themselves in his music, and in part in his rastafarianism.

This religion consists of a belief in "Jah," that is, god who is reincarnated in the person of Haile Selassie, the former emperor of Ethiopia. It was of little importance to the rastas that Haile Selassie was a dictator, a very bloody one, in one of the poorest countries in the world. For them, Haile Selassie was a black messiah. His divine mission was to unify all black people in the world, starting first with unifying them in Africa. This rastafarian belief was accompanied by various daily rituals. Rastafarians are vegetarians, they praise the use of drugs, especially ganga, "the liberating herb" (marijuana), they put their hair in dreadlocks. Many live in rural communes. They protest against the society and its established order, which they call "Babylon."

Nevertheless, this protest remains passive. They do nothing which really calls it in question.

In Jamaica, the People's National Party, the PNP, to this day understands the political gains it can make by addressing the rasta milieu and the youth in the ghettos. Electorally, the PNP benefitted enormously. When Bob Marley brought together the leader of the PNP and the leader of the JLP, the Jamaican Labor Party, which was the other major party, on the same stage in Kingston in April, 1978, it was, he said, to boost reconciliation, peace and reunification in Jamaica.

But this episode, which became famous and "historic" in Jamaica, showed very well the limits of the protests of Bob Marley and of the rastafarian milieu. Manley and Seaga, the leaders of the PNP and the JLP, were the representatives of the Jamaican bourgeoisie. Obviously, the bourgeoisie plays on the differences between those two parties, as it does in a number of countries. But both parties are directly or indirectly responsible for the misery, the ghettos and the violence which reigns there.

Bob Marley and the rastas, by their music, their marginal life-style, their non-conformism give illusions to the youth of the ghettos. Willingly or not, they mask reality in a profound social conservatism.

In the poor countries, the bourgeoisie gives the poor youth no chance to "make it." Some of the young look for a way out by a sort of flight into dreams, music, drugs. From time to time, one of them, like Bob Marley, is able to get out of the misery.

Yet thousands of young and less young in the ghettos make up a potentially revolutionary force. But they are not able to emancipate themselves and all the poor except by the revolutionary path, that calls in question capitalist society, whether post-colonial or imperialist. It is the capitalists who always, in searching to make more profits, create more poverty. And it is this poverty which makes millions of people live in immense ghettos. In the poor countries of the Caribbean or Africa, the poverty spreads out as far as the eye can see. From this is often born the music of the poor, like reggae. But it is again the capitalists –producers, managers of record houses and other millionaires –who enrich themselves the most from this music.

"Emancipate yourself from mental slavery," sang Bob Marley. Yes, but one should add, from capitalist slavery, from wage slavery.

Because the real liberation will result from the destruction of these criminal parasites, the capitalists. The day when the working class creates a revolutionary party will be the day when it will lead all the youth in these ghettos to bring down the capitalist "Babylon" and create a new world. A world without exploitation of class and of race, without rich and poor.