The Lessons of the Grenada Revolution

 

Introduction-Purpose for Writing

 

One of the most common arguments against  communism rests on the methods by which it must be achieved. Communists understand that the capitalist class will never allow us to vote away their property. Indeed, the entire legal system of the United States was founded in order to prevent this from occurring. James Madison admitted as much in a 1787 debate, when he said that the senate “ought to be so constituted as to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” [1]  In other words, the parliamentary system of the United States was built with the explicit purpose of preventing the working class from seizing the property of, at that time, the landed interests. Today, this extends to industrial interests as well. This proves that the destruction of capitalism, and with it the empowerment of the working class, can never come about by electoral means. Communism requires a revolution.

This fact is undeniable, which leads many to oppose communism. These people argue that a revolution can only make things worse than they were before. Despite all the atrocities capitalism is responsible for, it will always be preferable to the bloodshed and uncertainty of revolution.

Because of the hold this argument has over the masses, it is vital that communists dedicate time and effort to refuting it. One way to do this is to analyze situations in which conditions improved immediately after the revolution. In this way, we can prove that revolutions do not mean chaos. A revolution is not about wanton violence, it is about struggle. The concrete results of this struggle show that the outcome of a revolution will in actuality be preferable to the pre-revolutionary society.

In this article, I would like to use the Grenada Revolution as a case study. I choose to do this for two reasons. The first is that Grenada is rarely discussed. When people think of socialism, they envision China, the Soviet Union, or Cuba. While all three of these societies are superlative examples of socialism, I feel that it is necessary to broaden our conception of socialism as much as possible. The Grenada model is similar to the Soviet one, but with (as we will see), a number of important differences. Most notably, these differences concern institutions of direct democracy and “people’s power.” While it is a myth that the Soviet Union and other socialist experiments were not democratic, Grenada is the most democratic of them all. Democracy is an important concept for the working masses, particularly in the United States. Highlighting this unique aspect helps to encourage working people to think of socialism in terms other than those forced down their throats by the capitalist class. This, in turn, may inspire people to take up the cause of socialism as their own. With capitalism increasingly putting the planet in existential danger, this is of the utmost importance.

The second reason is that Revolutionary Grenada lasted a mere four years, a far cry from the Soviet Union’s seventy. While this is often cited as a disadvantage by both communists and anti-communists alike, I feel that in this case it is actually beneficial. Because of the relatively short time span in  question, we can make the point that the gains of the revolution are essentially immediate. The working class does not have to wait decades for improvement. When they understand this, working people will be more willing to undertake the risks that come with revolution.

 

  1. Avalon Project – Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, Taken by the Late Hon Robert Yates, Chief Justice of the State of New York, and One of the Delegates from That State to the Said Convention.” Avalon Project – Notes of the Secret Debates of the Federal Convention of 1787, Taken by the Late Hon Robert Yates, Chief Justice of the State of New York, and One of the Delegates from That State to the Said Convention.

 

Pre-Revolutionary Grenada

 

An analysis such as this can begin at no other place than Grenada prior to the revolution. This, of course, is for the purpose of comparison. One cannot claim that Grenada improved as a result of revolution unless one understands the conditions the revolution grew out of. By the early 1950’s the Grenadian colonial economy was a classic example of a small-scale plantation type economic system. The economy, based on small-sized plantations of cocoa, nutmegs and sugar, was owned by the very small, light-skinned elite group. [1] The peasantry eked out a living on their small plots of land or on seasonal employment offered by the export-oriented plantations. With a per capita income at about $250, unemployment and underemployment caused serious hardships for the Grenadian majority. [2]

This colonial economic system went hand in hand with a Crown Colony government in which power resided in the hands of the British Governor assisted by his civil servants. Until the granting of universal adult suffrage in 1951, the majority of the Grenadian population did not participate in the political process. [3] Eric Gairy came to power on the back of strikes organized by his trade union but quickly betrayed the working class. [4] Gairy’s title was Premier as Grenada became an Associated State in free association with Britain. In general, this new relationship meant that Grenada, led by Gairy, controlled its internal welfare, with Britain responsible for defense and external relations. [5] In this sense, Grenada was a client of the British State, a colony built for exploitation.

By 1967, Eric Gairy had emerged as an extremely controversial figure who generated strong feelings both for and against his leadership. His appeal was based on a curious admixture of a charismatic-type personality; a skillful manipulation of religious symbols including his involvement in voodoo-type worship; and ultimately, the emergence of the “Mongoose gang.” This latter group comprised largely of thugs, roughly akin to the Tonton Macoute of Haiti, emerged during the 1967 elections and were not disbanded until the NJM coup twelve years later. [6]  Gairy’s cavalier attitude toward leadership and administration of state affairs contributed during this period to his ultimate downfall. This administration was characterized by personal corruption, financial mismanagement, fiscal inefficiency, and the emergence of arrogant and somewhat dictatorial leadership. [7] There was little discernible government planning. While the land reform program permitted the government to acquire twenty-six estates, very little of this was redistributed to the poor and landless. [8]

Moreover, the ever present threat provided by Gairy’s Mongoose gang did not contribute to open participation in the democratic process. Between 1974 and December 1976, Gairy’s party controlled 14 of the 15 seats in parliament. The lone opposition member was rarely in attendance. [9] During the second phase from December 1976 until the coup in March 1979, there was a strong opposition party since the government now controlled 9 of the 15 seats. [10] However, during both periods, the Parliament was a mere “rubber stamp for the government decisions that had already been made elsewhere.” [11]  And moreover, because of Gairy’s decision-making style, “questions in Cabinet were not always resolved by debate and majority resolutions (since) Cabinet members merely echoed the views of the Prime Minister.” [12]

It is also interesting to note that during the entire duration of the second independence parliament, a period of twenty-seven months, the Parliament met for a total of eighteen days even though the constitution demanded more frequent meetings. [13] While the formal structure of democratic institutions and processes existed, decision-making over the five year period became increasingly concentrated in the hands of Prime Minister Gairy. This concentration persisted to such a degree that Gairy’s own personal idiosyncrasies became serious issues of policy. At the United Nations, Gairy’s Grenada made significant issues of UFOs, psychic research, and the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle. [14]  

It was this climate of fear and intimidation of the increasingly economically depressed masses that provided the setting for the New Jewel Movement. In short, the Grenada revolution occurred because of the complete immiseration of the masses. [15] [16]

 

  1. H. Gill, The Grenada Revolution. Mimeo. July, 1983. p. 3.
  2. EPICA Task Force, “Grenada: The Peaceful Revolution.” Washington, 1982, p. 45.
  3. D. Webster, “The Role of ‘Leader Personality’ in The Foreign Policy of Grenada.” M.A. Thesis, University of the West Indies, Trinidad. October, 1983, pl. 19.
  4. Ibid., p. 18
  5. Radio broadcast was quoted in EPICA op. cit.
  6. “To Construct from Morning: Making the People’s Budget of Grenada.” St. George’s, Fedon publishers, 1982,
  7. As recorded in H. Gill op. – – cit., p. 12.
  8. Current Economic Position and Prospects of Grenada. Documents of the World Bank. April, 1989,
  9. Speeches of Maurice Bishop. pathfinders Press, New York, 1983, p. 294.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., p. 295
  12.  Ibid.
  13. Ibid., p. 302
  14. For a detailed discussion see D. Webster, op cit, summarized from H. Gill, op. Cit
  15. “Grenada : The Birth and Death of a Revolution (Dialogue #34)” Ken I. Boodhoo. Florida International University, Department of International Relations, 1984
  16. Grenade, Wendy C. The Grenada Revolution: reflections and lessons. Jackson: U Press of Mississippi, 2015.

 

The Revolution Itself

 

A revolutionary movement was bound to arise from the conditions described above. In this case, this was a movement called the New Jewel Movement (NJM). What eventually became known as the NJM actually had its beginnings with the return of Unison Whiteman, a young economist, to Grenada in 1964. Whiteman was disturbed by the conditions in Grenada’s working class. He organized a small discussion group confined largely to the strongly agricultural parish of St. David. [1] In 1972, this group was formalized as the Joint Endeavor for Welfare, Education and Liberation – “Jewel.” After legal training and involvement in the West Indian minority politics in England, Maurice Bishop–the son of a middle-class St. George’s businessman–returned to Grenada in 1969. He immediately became involved in domestic politics, protesting with and later successfully defending a group of nurses. The nurses took to the streets to dramatize the deplorable conditions at the government hospitals. [2] In 1972, at Bishop’s initiative, the Movement for the Assemblies of the People (MAP) was formed. The MAP opposed the existing Westminster model of government as non-functional to the needs of the society. The MAP instead suggested a radical alternative:the establishment of People’s Assemblies. The latter was viewed as a practical method for permitting the broader mass of the society to have more meaningful input into the state’s decision-making process. The NJM explicitly wished to expand democracy. It also wanted to improve education, schooling, healthcare, and women’s rights. [3]

Confrontation between the NJM and Gairy’s government was swift and, in most cases, violent. In late 1973, when the NJM was engaged in a brief alliance with the GNP while both organized a series of strikes, Gairy responded with state force. Gairy invoked physical abuse of the opposition, the jailing of its leadership, and eventually, the killing of several NJM sympathizers. [4] The events of “Bloody Sunday” became a foremost example of state violence against the opposition; and eventually, they became the turning point of opposition against Gairy. The revolution gained mass popular support, even among the middle class who had formerly allied themselves with Gairy. This was the climate in which the revolution succeeded. [5]

It should be noted that, although there were violent confrontations in the lead-up to the revolution, the coup in which the NJM took power was bloodless. [6]. This deals a decisive blow to the idea that revolutions are inherently violent. Although there must always be some bloodshed, the idea that a revolution involves indiscriminate murder and war is false. The Grenada Revolution proves this to be the case.

 

  1. Meeks, Brian. Caribbean revolutions and revolutionary theory: an assessment of Cuba, Nicaragua and Grenada. London: MacMillan, 1993. P. 142
  2. “Grenada revolution: history of Maurice Bishop.” Grenada Carriacou and the Grenadines.
  3. As recorded in H. Gill op. – – cit., p. 12.
  4. S. Dabreo, The Grenada Revolution. Castries: M.A.P.S. Publications. 1979, p. 304.
  5. “BLOODY SUNDAY, 18 November 1973.” Bloody Sunday NOW Grenada
  6. Prof. Gus John The Grenada Massacre: Lest We Forget

 

The Achievements of the Revolution

 

Now that this foundation is laid, we can begin to examine the gains of the Grenada revolution. The New Jewel Movement quickly got down to the serious work of improving the lives of Grenada’s long-suffering people. As Bishop said in his first broadcast on Radio Free Grenada after the capture of power on 13 March 1979, “This revolution is for work, for food, for decent housing and health services, and for a bright future for our children.” [1]

Pre-revolutionary Grenada suffered with unemployment levels upward of 50%. Through the development of cooperatives, the expansion of the industrial base, the diversification of agriculture, the expansion of the tourist industry, and the creation of massive public works programmes, unemployment dropped to 14% and the percentage of food imports dropped from over 40% to 28% “at a time when market prices for agricultural products were collapsing worldwide.” [2]

Paulo Freire was invited to design and lead the implementation of a literacy program, which all but eliminated illiteracy (the literacy rate increased from 85% to 98%). [3] The leaders of the revolution realised that an educational system must be established that broke away from the British colonial tradition and the inferiority complex that it sought to instil in its ‘subjects’. As Bishop elaborated, The colonial masters recognised very early on that if you get a subject people to think like they, to forget their own history and their own culture, to develop a system of education that is going to have relevance to our outward needs and be almost entirely irrelevant to our internal needs, then they have already won the job of keeping us in perpetual domination and exploitation. Our educational process, therefore, was used mainly as a tool of the ruling elite.” [4]

Chris Searle observed an intense, widespread desire and demand for learning:

“One of the first overwhelming truths and discoveries of the Revolution was that education was everywhere, it was irrepressible! It came at once from every side and at every moment. The dammed-up flood of four centuries of the people’s urge to know, to understand, to learn, to connect, to criticise, to express themselves, was unstoppable. At meetings, at rallies, at panel discussions, through songs, poems, plays and calypso, the message poured down upon the revolutionary leaders: Teach us, we want to know! Young and old, farmer and urban worker, fisherman and the woman cracking nutmegs, seamstresses and road-workers, all clamoured for more education, giving the cue for the slogan: Education is a must – from the cradle to the grave.” [5]

By 1983, 37% of the national budget went to education and health. School fees were abolished; schools were repaired. “Free books, school uniforms and hot lunches were provided for the first time for the poor. Health care was made free and the number of doctors and dentists doubled.”  [6]

For the first time, Grenadians had a very real say as to how public funds were allocated. They chose via a People’s Budget that preempted the celebrated Porto Alegre participatory budget by more than a decade. [7] Meanwhile, the economic growth rate averaged 10% during the years of the revolution. A World Bank memorandum on the Grenadian economy in 1982 stated: “The government which came to power in March 1979 inherited a deteriorating economy, and is now addressing the task of rehabilitation and of laying better foundations… Government objectives are centred on the critical development issues and touch on the country’s most promising development areas.”  [8] The World Bank is an institution whose sole goal is to perpetuate capitalism, so it is unlikely that it would admit such a thing unless it was accurate.

Regarding agriculture, Searle writes that “there was increased enthusiasm to work on the land. The old pattern of the plantocratic estate, the hierarchical control of the expatriate landlord or the man in the ‘great house’ and the living death of laborious daily-paid work on land which was not theirs – all this was changing. The growth in cooperatives on the land and the collective stake in production and profit had brought many young people back to the land, and three farm training schools had been established to give these young farmers some basic expertise in agriculture and cooperative management techniques.” [9]

The revolution was strongly focused on women’s empowerment and participation. The first decree of the revolution was to outlaw sexual victimization, and women’s unions constituted a large part of the grassroots democracy discussed below. [10]

The changes in society were reflected by a massively invigorated national culture, expressed through calypso, poetry, dance and drama. “The shyness and reticence that characterised many of the Grenadian people before the Revolution, the self-consciousness of being a ‘small island’, second-rate or unnoticed was replaced by an explosion of national self-assertion through the revolutionary culture… More Grenadians were writing poetry and performing calypso than ever before, and receiving publication and air-play.” [11]

One of the most remarkable accomplishments of the revolution was the construction of an international airport – the first airport to be built by a post-colonial Caribbean state, built by the Grenadian people themselves. In an impressive show of international solidarity, Cuba, Angola, and Bolivia provided money and labor for the construction of what would come to be known as the Bishop International Airport. [12]

Revolutionary Grenada came under criticism from many angles for not holding parliamentary elections – particularly since Bishop’s first broadcast after the seizure of power had promised the restoration of “all democratic freedoms, including freedom of elections.” [13] This lack of elections was constantly used by the US and its regional proxies to besmirch the New Jewel government, and there are plenty of people – even those broadly sympathetic to the revolution – who feel that the whole experience was tainted through lack of democracy.

Why weren’t elections held? After all, there was never any doubt that the NJM would comfortably win at the polls. Given that Bishop promised elections in the first broadcast, there is no reason to assume that he refused to hold elections because they would have threatened his power. On the contrary, he initially argued in favor of them. This should lead us to conclude that specific material conditions prevented the NJM from holding elections after the revolution.

Bishop discussed this issue in an interview with New Internationalist in 1980:

“We don’t believe that a parliamentary system is the most relevant in our situation. After all, we took power outside the ballot-box and we are trying to build our Revolution on the basis of a new form of democracy: grass­roots and democratic, creating mechanisms and institutions which really have relevance to the people, If we succeed it will bring in question this whole parliamentary approach to democracy which we regard as having failed in the region. We believe that elections could be important, but for us the question is one of timing. We don’t regard it now as a priority. We would much rather see elections come when the economy is more stable, when the Revolution is more consolidated. When more people have in fact had benefits brought to them. When more people are literate and able to understand what the meaning of a vote really is and what role they should have in building a genuine participatory democracy.” [12]

Speaking at an event to mark the first anniversary of the revolution – an event at which the guests included Daniel Ortega and Michael Manley – Bishop highlighted some of the obvious flaws of the Westminster system:

“There are those (some of them our friends) who believe that you cannot have a democracy unless there is a situation where every five years, and for five seconds in those five years, a people are allowed to put an ‘X’ next to some candidate’s name, and for those five seconds in those five years they become democrats, and for the remainder of the time, four years and 364 days, they return to being non-people without the right to say anything to their government, without any right to be involved in running their country.” [13]

In place of a such a pseudo-democracy, there was instead a system of grassroots democracy that, by any reasonable standard, must be considered far more democratic than the pretend democracy in place in Britain and the US. [14] Organs of power sprung up everywhere, and nearly everyone was involved in some level of organisation and decision-making: the Zonal Councils, the Workers’ Parish Councils, the Farmer Councils, the Youth Movement or the Women’s Movement, and many more which met at least once a month. Free facilities were made available for all such meetings, and they were often attended by senior government figures. These government figures would have to answer directly to the people [15].

In 1981, the People’s Revolutionary Government established a Ministry of National Mobilisation, headed up by senior NJM leader Selwyn Strachan. This was a whole government ministry dedicated to devising means of continually spreading and improving popular participation in the running of the country and ensuring maximum levels of accountability for those in positions of power. [16]

Searle points out that the army was expected to be at the service of the people, and was deeply involved in helping to carry out decisions made by the organs of popular power. He states: “The army was involved and was extremely popular. if repairs [were] needed or houses [had to be] built, soldiers would be there.” [17]  In Grenada, the Army was built to serve the people. This is quite different from the army in a typical bourgeois pseudo-democracy, which lords above the people rather than moving among them.

I would like to mention here that the democratic institutions analyzed above constitute an excellent translation of the mass line from theory to practice. I have written about this theory in depth here, but it is enough to say here that the mass line is about strengthening the ties between the state and the people. This tie between the people and the state shows that socialist states, while repressive in some limited senses, are substantially more democratic than capitalist ones. Socialism (as well as democracy) gives the masses power. Revolutionary Grenada is a brilliant example of that power.

 

  1. “A Bright New Dawn (13 March 1979).” Grenada Revolution Online
  2. Zunes, Stephenie “Global Policy Forum.” The US Invasion of Grenada
  3. Ibid
  4. Bishop, Maurice Education in New Grenada. July 1979. Grenada Revolution Online
  5. Searle, Chris, and Tony Benn. Grenada morning: a memoir of the ‘revo’ London: Karia Press,
  6. Mills, Stephanie “Welcome to Bishop International Airport” Workers.org
  7. To Construct from Morning: Making the People’s Budget of Grenada. St. George’s, Fedon publishers, 1982,
  8. Current Economic Position and Prospects of Grenada. Documents of the World Bank. April, 19/9,
  9. Searle, Chris, and Tony Benn. Grenada morning: a memoir of the ‘revo’ London: Karia Press Op. Cit.
  10. Bishop, Maurice. “Maurice Bishop Speaks to US Working People” Grenada Revolution Online
  11. Searle, Chris, and Tony Benn. Grenada morning: a memoir of the ‘revo’ London: Karia Press Op. Cit.
  12. “Interview with Maurice Bishop.” New Internationalist. 1980
  13. Bishop, Maurice. “Forward Ever.” March 13, 1980 Grenada Revolution Online
  14. Hart, Richard. “Grenada: An Assessment of the Revolution”
  15. Ibid
  16. Ibid
  17. Searle, Chris The Struggle Against Destabilization. 1983.

 

Conclusion-Learning from Grenada

I wrote this essay with the explicit intent to prove a point regarding revolution. I make no attempt to hide my ideological persuasion. I am a Marxist-Leninist, and I advocate a proletarian revolution to overthrow capitalism. This view places me far outside mainstream political discourse, due in large part to its aforementioned revolutionary content. In the popular consciousness, revolutions are portrayed as violent, bloody affairs that result only in the misery of the masses. The Grenada Revolution solidly proves this portrayal to be a myth, intended to pacify the working classes and frighten them from revolution. In just four short years, the people of Grenada liberated themselves from a brutal, repressive autocracy. With this came the dramatic expansion of social, political, and economic rights, in addition to a sharp rise in standard of living.

Revolution, far from being a hellish nightmare, is a deeply liberating process that improves the lives of those who undertake it. Therefore, the fact that socialism requires a revolution is not a  factor in determining whether it is desirable.

Revolutionary Grenada also has lessons to teach us regarding the relationship between the state and the community. Many proponents of decentralization argue that centralism necessarily involves taking power away from communities and concentrating it in the hands of the state. Revolutionary Grenada shows us that this is not the case. As I said above, lawmaking during the revolution was carried out on a democratic basis. Community councils and interest groups came together to decide what they needed, and then proposed their plans to the state. The state did its best to unify these goals into a plan that everyone could agree on. The councils could then review the plans and recommend any needed changes. The process would then continue from there as needed. In this sense, law-making remained central, while also empowering communities. The Grenada Revolution shows us that the two are not mutually exclusive and, in so doing, helps to win the masses over to Marxism-Leninism. Returning to the point I made in the introduction, the experience of Revolutionary Grenada helps the masses to think of socialism as a participatory cause which gives them a voice. This will likely inspire them to adopt it for themselves, and therefore hasten its arrival.

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