Grenada 30 years after U.S. invasion

November 17, 2013


by Bob McGuire

Revolution in Grenada caught the world’s attention in 1979. The New Jewel Movement, which linked itself to the Black Power movement, had upset Britain’s neo-colonialist succession (though Grenada stayed in the British Commonwealth) and appeared to be a beacon for revolutions to follow in the Caribbean.

Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada in October 1983 was promoted as more than merely defeating a country the size of Flint, Michigan, by force of arms. His supporters claimed that Grenada put an end to the era of defeatism since Vietnam and turned around the failed Bay of Pigs 1961 invasion of Cuba.

Maurice Bishop meeting with Grenada's healthcare workers

Maurice Bishop meeting with Grenada’s healthcare workers

What happened on one tiny island 30 years ago raised issues at the time that transcended the borders of Grenada to the idea of revolution throughout the Caribbean, the Third World and beyond. In place of the post-World War II struggle between the U.S. and state-capitalist Russia, Reagan now asserted single world mastery. He went further than the post-war practice of barely-covert overthrows of populist and socialist governments in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1956 and Chile in 1973 to claim the right to a state of permanent war.


Reagan met with resistance to his next target, overthrowing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. But in Grenada, he permanently altered the stage of U.S. imperialism to what Raya Dunayevskaya called in 1986 “the Changed World.” Later, in the name of “anti-terrorism,” political opponents of George W. Bush’s wars feared failing to endorse them, and avowedly anti-Iraq war Obama felt compelled to continue managing them.

Grenada represented for Dunayevskaya a reason to look back at “30 years of movements from practice that were themselves forms of theory.” Grenada: Revolution, Counter-revolution, Imperialist Invasion contains Dunayevskaya’s lead-editorial for News & Letters from December 1983 and her Political-Philosophic Letter of Nov. 28, 1983. (Portions of the pamphlet are available as an appendix to Frantz Fanon, Soweto and American Black Thought published in 1986, and as an appendix to John Alan’s Dialectics of Black Freedom Struggles in 2003.) The original pamphlet contained as well an eyewitness account of the counter-revolution and invasion of Grenada, critical to combating the collective amnesia of much of the Left over events when facts don’t fit their narrative.


From the 1979 revolution on, and particularly after Reagan took office, Grenada had been in the crosshairs of U.S. imperialism. Candidate Reagan in 1979 had declared that “the Caribbean is rapidly becoming a Communist lake in what should be an American pond.”

Upon assuming office in 1981 Reagan immediately decreed that it was “morning in America.” His words and actions declared that it was morning in white America, seizing on racist divisions even within the labor movement.

Reagan immediately crushed PATCO, the union of air traffic controllers, with the nominally left-leaning IAM (International Association of Machinists) as his stooge. The IAM directed their members to cross PATCO picket lines. Crushing the PATCO strike signaled the end of the New Deal era reliance on trade unions as junior partners against the working class, and eased the way toward general union busting.

Continuing his policies of retrogression beyond U.S. borders, how could Reagan not have targeted Grenada? Not just as a revolution in the Caribbean, which, long before Reagan, the U.S. had considered its own lake, but as an avowedly Black revolution, and as a government forming closer ties with Cuba, Grenada was an irritant to Reagan in inverse proportion to its size and military power.


The pretext for the invasion of Grenada in October 1983 was the supposed necessity of ensuring the safety of American medical students. But what really gave Reagan his opening to order an invasion was the counter-revolution within the Grenada ruling Army-Party-State that culminated in the murder of Premier Maurice Bishop. The invasion became the opening chapter of a restoration of Pax Americana.


Just four months earlier Maurice Bishop, in a June 28, 1983, Village Voice interview, hinted at the early influences on leaders of the New Jewel Movement of the writings coming from the Black Power movement, mentioning Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X by name. Bishop alluded to leaders in the early 1970s beginning to take up the “classical socialist works” and moving to a “materialist conception of the world.” He famously answered the interviewer’s inquiring about the man, Karl Marx, the centenary of whose death was 1983, by saying, “I’m trying not to say his name.”

What was said with a laugh had serious bearings on the beginnings of the Grenada Revolution and its end. According to Bishop’s account, New Jewel Movement leaders were studying Karl Marx and his successors while working out their relationship to Marxism, including their relationship to Castro. But the party manifesto, issued in 1973 on the eve of independence under the neo-colonialist government headed by onetime labor leader Eric Gairy, shared no such philosophic underpinnings with the workers and peasants of Grenada.

The Manifesto of the New Jewel Movement began with: “All This Has Got to Stop,” and concluded the introduction with: “To create the new life for the new man in the society, it is necessary that we reject the present economic and political system which we live under.” But the manifesto had not gone beyond stoking dissatisfaction over corruption, prices and a widening gap between haves and have-nots.

Poster of New Jewel Movement slogan

Poster of New Jewel Movement slogan

The New Jewel Movement was not the first revolutionary group to have one message for the leadership, and another for the people. By mistrusting the masses and hiding full internal debates on revolution, these parties hardly surpass conventional ask-for-your-vote bourgeois politicians.

New Jewel Movement leaders might have thought that the revolution of 1979 under their banner that overthrew Gairy’s government, with mass support, vindicated their rigid confinement of the debate on Marxism to an inner circle. In reality, excluding the masses from debating the aims of the revolution left them as taken for granted, and allowed the disagreements among the leaders to degenerate into the worst kind of state-capitalist dead ends.

The rest of the leadership had actually censured Bishop in October 1982, while co-leader Bernard Coard had been stripped of some authority. Yet Bishop and the rest of the New Jewel Movement maintained a public united front, all the while excluding the masses from the privately kept disputes of the leadership.

The leadership rift became public knowledge on Oct. 12, 1983, when the army arrested Bishop. Agitation of the masses freed Bishop from jail, but only in time to watch the army under Gen. Hudson Austin fire on the crowd that had liberated him. Bishop responded, “My God, my God, they have turned the guns against the people” before he himself was murdered.


Bishop had been the New Jewel Movement’s popular face to the Grenadian masses. Yet despite their spontaneous intervention to free him after his arrest revealing their involvement in revolutionary thought and activity, he had kept Party disputes within the leadership—disputes that ultimately were settled with his blood and the blood of those killed in the rally at the jail.

Unlike the counter-revolution within the revolution under Stalin after the 1917 Russian Revolution, there was no class basis in Grenada for counter-revolution. Yet in a state-capitalist world, counter-revolution deepened to the point of the shooting of both Bishop and the masses. That counter-revolution took place apart from, and prior to, Reagan’s counter-revolutionary interventions.

Grenada had been receiving aid from Cuba, and the model of the Cuban state loomed larger than the 1959 Revolution itself. Fidel Castro had spoken after Batista had been toppled, declaring the Cuban Revolution to be a Humanistic revolution. Later, by aligning Cuba with state-capitalist Russia as a counter to the imperialist U.S., Castro had allied with those who since the 1956 Hungarian Revolution had propagandized and acted against the very concept of Marxism as a humanism.

Yet Castro still positioned himself as a supporter of international revolution, from Angola to Bolivia. Cuba’s material support for Grenada included not only food and equipment, but also medical and technical personnel.

Castro’s contribution to political disputes after the Grenadian Revolution, far from being a theory of revolution, much less Marx’s theory of permanent revolution, was confined to the “principle of non-interference in internal affairs.”

In Grenada, that meant confining all questions and decisions of revolution to a Central Committee, with the rank and file reduced to muscle—and ultimately, to cannon fodder. Castro praised Bishop for not taking the disagreements among the leadership to the masses.

Castro’s “principle” ignored the history of actual revolutionaries: Karl Marx not only included in the International Workingmen’s Association revolutionaries of the Paris Commune, including even non-Marxists, but saw to the burial of the IWA when it had ceased to be revolutionary. Lenin had threatened the Politburo in 1917 that he would go over their heads and appeal to the rank and file of the workers and sailors if revolution were not placed on the agenda.


For most of the 20th century the Caribbean had been a vital incubator for the African revolutions and for developing Marxist theory. But in the face of the trajectory of the Grenadian Revolution, some theories fell short. Bukka Rennie followed C.L.R. James’ form of state-capitalist theory to conclude that, despite the class basis of state-capitalism, in the Caribbean, Caribbean Stalinism and Revolutionary Marxism were not hostile to each other.

C.L.R. James had been co-leader with Dunayevskaya between 1941 and 1955 in the Johnson-Forest Tendency, which had not only projected the organization’s critique of Russia as a state-capitalist society, but had been working out new forms of revolutionary organization in place of the discredited vanguard party. But in a 1964 appendix to his study of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, James identified Castro with Toussaint L’Ouverture. In 1983 Dunayevskaya found that James had strayed so far from his roots as to justify the army attacking the people of Grenada. He claimed the army was meeting the demands of the masses for leadership.

Dunayevskaya’s analysis of Grenada has become more important in the intervening 30 years. In 1983, “experts” like Ramsey Clark rewrote history so as to blame Reagan alone for the end of the Grenadian Revolution, and to whitewash New Jewel Movement Leaders Coard and Austin. After further practice, Ramsey Clark has reappeared in Syria and gone to bat for the butcher Assad.

History shows that it is the task of revolutionaries to make sure that working out a philosophy of revolution involves the revolutionary masses and solidarity across borders, to avert yet more failed revolutions.

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