The brutal killings of Maurice Bishop and a number of his closest friends and supporters, and the subsequent us invasion of the island in October this year, brought a sudden and tragic end to the Grenadian revolution. Coming at a time when the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua is embroiled in armed conflict with us-backed counter-revolutionaries, and in the midst of dissension within the ranks of the Salvadorean revolutionary movement due to the political stalemate in that country, it is a major setback for progressive forces throughout Central America and the Caribbean. In the English-speaking Caribbean, the events in Grenada are being used by rightwing regimes to launch a vicious anti-communist campaign, paralleled only by that which was carried out at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s. The invasion of Grenada has provided the us with its first clear-cut counter-revolutionary victory since the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965. It has also boosted Ronald Reagan’s standing in the polls and increased the possibility of direct us military intervention in Nicaragua. This short essay provides some biographical information on Maurice Bishop, briefly discusses his role in carrying out the Grenadian revolution, and lists certain achievements of, and problems faced by, the four-year experiment in revolutionary transformation that he led.

Born in 1944, the son of a Grenadian merchant who made his money working in the oilfields of Aruba, Maurice Bishop began his political career as a student activist at Presentation College, one of the main secondary schools in Grenada. In 1963 he went to London to study law and continued his political involvement with the West Indian Students Union and the Standing Conference of West Indian Organizations. In this formative period of his political development he was influenced by the writings of Kwame Nkrumah, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The Black Power revolts in the us in the late 1960s and the Black Power uprising in Trinidad and Tobago in 1970 created a lasting impression on the young lawyer, and the New Jewel Movement (njm) that he founded in March 1973 adopted many themes of the international Black Power movement. During the popular unrest which took place in late 1973 and early 1974 against the Gairy regime in Grenada, Rupert Bishop, Maurice’s father, was shot dead by Gairy’s henchmen. In addition, Maurice Bishop and several other njm leaders were brutally beaten. Some time afterwards Bishop began to embrace a more overtly Marxist ideology as the njm consistently and unequivocally opposed the repression and idiosyncracies of the Gairy regime. By 1979 the njm had managed to win the support of senior officers in the army and police force, and on 13 March of that year, with the assistance of these sympathisers, carried out a popular insurrection in which only three people lost their lives.

The political path adopted by the Bishop regime was considered to be a concrete application to Grenadian reality of the official communist theory of ‘socialist orientation’.footnote1 Given the tiny size of the island,footnote2 the predominantly peasant and petty-bourgeois configuration of Grenada’s social structure, and the degree of integration of the economy with the Caribbean Community (caricom) and the capitalist world market, Bishop considered a strategy of gradual reforms and progressive disengagement from imperialism to be the most appropriate line of march for a determinate period of time. Expropriations were only to be carried out in certain well-chosen circumstances. The real centre of power on the island was the Central Committee of the njm, whose members occupied the leading posts in the People’s Revolutionary Army (pra) and the other security forces, and effectively controlled the ‘Mass Organizations’ (the trade unions, the People’s Revolutionary Militia, the National Women’s Organization, the National Youth Organization, and the National Students’ Council) and Grenada’s organs of popular power: the Parish and Zonal Council Meetings. The People’s Revolutionary Government (prg) was vested with all legislative and executive powers, but essentially served to implement decisions already taken by the njm; though the ideas and recommendations of the Mass Organizations and organs of popular power were taken into account in the deliberations of the prg. Composed of party members, representatives of the business class and various other prominent individuals, the prg was established to mobilize the broadest possible support for the regime at home and abroad.

In four years the prg acquired an international status out of all proportion to the tiny size of the island. On account of Bishop’s fervent and astute oratory, and the energy and originality devoted by the regime to Third World issues, Grenada emerged as a leading force in the non-aligned movement. The prg consistently spoke out in support of national liberation movements throughout the world, and was audacious in its opposition to the aggressive designs of us imperialism in the Caribbean. Moreover, by keeping certain local institutions intact, and remaining within the framework of regional and international organizations such as caricom and the Commonwealth, the prg successfully thwarted us attempts to isolate the revolution and scored a series of propaganda victories over Washington. At home, the Bishop regime introduced a number of important reforms in favour of the working class and poor peasants. These included: free medical care, free milk and school lunches, free secondary education, soft loans for housing repair, the exemption of some 30 per cent of Grenadian workers from income tax, land reform, maternity leave for women, and the establishment of co-operatives in agriculture, fishing and handicrafts. The prg stimulated economic activity on the island by making the most efficient use of aid provided on highly concessional terms by Western governments and lending agencies, the socialist countries, certain member states of opec and private voluntary organizations such as Oxfam and War on Want. Grenada’s infrastructure was greatly improved, unemployment was reduced from around 50 per cent under Gairy to less than 14 per cent, and, in each year after the revolution the island’s economy grew. The ‘aid boom’ also allowed the comprador bourgeoisie to increase its profit margin, and this enabled the regime to retain the support of a number of capitalists in spite of the apprehensions they had over the Marxist ideology of the njm. Probably the most celebrated aspect of the ‘New Jewel revolution’, however, was the impetus it gave to the self-organization of society at large. The Mass Organizations and the organs of popular power played a key role in popularizing the goals of the revolution, organizing voluntary labour brigades, raising the level of political consciousness of the masses and developing their capacity to defend the island against counter-revolution.

The difficulties which faced the Bishop regime were varied in character. The prg’s inability to eradicate unemployment led to frustration among the island’s youth, and many resorted to praedial larceny and hustling as a means of survival. Undoubtedly, the prg was overambitious in its attempt to use Western aid to develop the island’s infrastructure. Unable to find sufficient counterpart funds, and beset with difficulties in recruiting skilled personnel, it registered a somewhat desultory performance in the actual implementation of development projects. These problems of project completion, as well as the inefficiency still encumbering the state administration, left the workers subject to extreme fluctuations in the availability and duration of employment, and to considerable delays in the payment of wages. The two major industries on the island, agriculture and tourism, remained depressed in spite of the prg’s strenuous efforts, and many of those who were employed in these sectors experienced hardships. Owing to the strategy of alliance with the bourgeoisie, substantial inequalities remained in income, housing and education and socialist class consciousness was on a much lower level than the anti-imperialist consciousness of the masses. The major defect of the regime, however, and the one that seems to have led to its dramatic destruction, was the heavy-handed manner in which it treated dissent. While the prg bore no resemblance to the totalitarian image projected by Washington, and the regime was under perennial threat of invasion from the us administration, there was a somewhat lax attitude towards the question of democratic rights. There existed a de facto ban on political activities outside the control of the party. Grenada’s only capitalist newspaper, Torchlight, was closed down and the prg failed to work out a formula that would allow the production of independent publications.footnote3 Despite its overwhelming popularity and support, the prg displayed tardiness in institutionalizing the organs of popular power and soliciting a popular mandate. In hindsight one can say that the calling of elections would have increased the prg’s legitimacy inside Grenada, improved the status of the revolution internationally and deprived the Reagan administration of an important propaganda weapon. Finally, there was a dangerous tendency to label as ‘counter-revolutionary’ anybody who expressed public and organized disagreement with the prg.footnote4 A good number of those imprisoned by the prg were former supporters of Bishop, and in many cases were held without trial. As it was, on 13 October this year, following rumours of a dispute between Bishop and the deputy Prime Minister, Bernard Coard, Maurice Bishop was himself labelled a ‘counter-revolutionary’ and placed under house arrest.

The nature of the disagreement between the two men, and the exact sequence of events that followed, are still not fully known. It seems that Coard, who commanded a majority of supporters in the Central Committee, wanted to make Bishop more accountable to the party, and a formula to divide responsibilities between the two men was worked out. Bishop rejected this arrangement, and it was this that led to his arrest. As chief theoretician of the party, Coard had over the years secured the loyalty of the principal army officers, and, in anticipation of the dispute, had taken steps to disarm Bishop’s supporters in the pra and the militia. Thus, the move against Bishop bore all the hallmarks of a carefully planned putsch. Apart from the question of division of labour, it has been suggested that there were differences over the issue of Grenada’s constitutional status.footnote5 In June this year a Constitutional Commission, composed of West Indian legal figures, had been set up to prepare a draft constitution that would prepare the way for general elections. The Commission was given clear guidelines to come up with a draft that would confer legitimacy upon the Mass Organizations and the organs of popular power. The decision to move ahead on the constitutional issue at this time was to a certain extent forced upon the prg by the increasing pressure of important trade partners such as Trinidad and Tobago and the uk. This was an illustration of what was probably the central contradiction of the Bishop regime: namely, that it was a Marxist leadership with the clear objective of establishing a socialist state of some kind, and yet, at the same time, it was closely tied to the Caribbean and the West in terms of its economic relations. It has been argued that Coard saw the constitutional exercise as a tactical manoeuvre to placate Grenada’s trade partners, whereas Bishop genuinely wanted to devolve real powers to the Mass Organizations and the organs of popular power. In addition, so the argument runs, Bishop expressed increasing displeasure at abuses of the power of the security forces, and wanted to introduce firm guarantees that the type of repression which existed under the Gairy regime would not return to the island. While we are still unsure about the validity of this argument, what we do know is that an uprising took place in opposition to the arrest of the island’s leader. Bishop was freed and this popular movement then confronted the pra. During the confrontation with the security forces, which included an elite squad apparently sent from Coard’s house, Maurice Bishop, three other Cabinet ministers, two trade-union leaders and more than a hundred of Bishop’s supporters were killed. The most senior officers in the pra established a Revolutionary Military Council, a military curfew was imposed on the island, and warnings were given that people seen on the streets would be shot on sight.

Maurice Bishop had understood that, owing to the limited defence capacity of Grenada and the political complexion of the neighbouring states with which it had important historical, cultural and economic ties, the only real protection from us imperialism was regional and international public opinion. It was therefore imperative that the revolution was humane, and solicitous of foreign visitors, and that the prg governed by consent rather than coercion. Projecting an image of ‘peaceful revolution’, the njm consciously played down its Marxist ideology and its close political ties with Havana and Moscow. The repression carried out by the forces loyal to Coard and the subsequent us invasion of the island showed in a negative and catastrophic fashion just how correct this assessment was.footnote6 The outrage felt in the Caribbean and elsewhere over the atrocities committed by the security forces facilitated Grenada’s expulsion from caricom. Then it was only a matter of time before Washington sought to exploit this regional and international revulsion for its own purposes. Thus, on 25 October, in collusion with governments in the Eastern Caribbean, the Reagan administration carried out the invasion which it had been planning for four years but had previously been unable to put into operation.footnote7 It is something of an irony that the very institutions and individuals which had supported, and provided a cover for, the New Jewel experiment—the Governor-General, caricom, the St. George’s University School of Medicine—were in turn used by Washington to provide a pretext for, and give legitimacy to, the landing of the marines. The Cuban internationalist workers fought heroically to defend themselves and the airport they had worked so diligently to construct. There was strong resistance from the pra, deliberately played down by the western media; however, it was soon overwhelmed by superior numbers and weaponry, and forced to take up guerrilla positions in the mountains. It was clear that the potential for armed opposition to the invasion was severely handicapped by the Military Council’s earlier recourse to domestic repression and the steps it had taken to disarm the masses. In carrying out their so-called ‘rescue operation’ in the name of democracy, us soldiers have committed a number of atrocities of their own—the full magnitude of which is still unclear—and the puppet regime installed has placed severe restrictions on civil liberties.