Forward Ever, Backward Never: Remembering Maurice Bishop
Thirty years ago today, the leader of the Grenadian Revolution, Maurice Bishop, was gunned down by his own comrades, the result of a disastrous split within the governing New Jewel Movement.
There are many stones still to be unturned in connection with the revolution’s collapse and the anti-popular coup that paved the way for US invasion, but it’s clear that the movement fell victim to the sectarianism, dogmatism and individualism that emerge with frustrating frequency on the left. Combined with the systematic campaign of destabilisation and psychological warfare waged by the US, these factors led to the destruction of one of the most promising political processes of the latter part of the 20th century.
Maurice Bishop was a popular, creative and intelligent revolutionary, with an intuitive grasp of where the masses were at. The clear leader of the Grenadian Revolution of 1979 that overthrew the corrupt and pro-imperialist administration of Eric Gairy, Bishop was a brilliant communicator, and his mutual empathy with the masses of the people was one of the major driving forces of the revolution – not unlike the relationship between Fidel and the Cuban people, or Chávez and Venezuelan people. In many ways, Bishop could be considered as the Hugo Chávez of his time. The Cuban government’s statement on the day after his death sums him up nicely:
“Bishop was one of the political leaders best liked and most respected by our people because of his talent, modesty, sincerity, revolutionary honesty and proven friendship with our country.”
In addition to leading the fight for economic, political, social, racial, gender and cultural justice in Grenada; and in addition to working tirelessly to improve the lot of ordinary Grenadian people; Bishop was also a great friend to the socialist and anti-imperialist world. Fidel Castro saw him as a true brother and comrade, and Cuba embraced Grenada whole-heartedly, giving desperately-needed aid and expertise. Grenada built up close relations with (Sandinista) Nicaragua, the Soviet Union, Vietnam, East Germany, DPR Korea, Mozambique, Libya and Syria. Grenada also became a pole of attraction for black power activists from the US. Little wonder it was considered such a threat by the forces of imperialism. An example had to made of the first English-speaking country in the western hemisphere to walk the road of socialism.
Hugh O’Shaughnessy writes: “[Washington’s] rage reached paranoiac proportions when Grenada started close co-operation with Cuba and the USSR. Grenada’s action challenged the hegemony that Washington was expecting to extend throughout the Caribbean after the withdrawal of the British who had dominated it for two centuries.” (‘Grenada – Revolution, Invasion and Aftermath’)
The arrest and murder of Bishop and his close comrades by members of the Grenadian armed forces created a favourable context for the US to enact its invasion plans, which had been “nursed in secret at the State Department and the Pentagon for four and a half years” (O’Shaughnessy). The assassination was carried out by army officers acting under the instructions of the NJM faction centred around Bernard Coard. This group considered itself the ‘Marxist-Leninist’ trend to counter Bishop’s ‘petit bourgeois’ trend; however, its supposedly revolutionary actions were to set Grenada back by decades.
Fidel commented on this issue in some detail at the time:
“Today no one can yet say whether those who used the dagger of division and internal confrontation did so motu proprio or were inspired and egged on by imperialism. It is something that could have been done by the CIA – and, if somebody else was responsible, the CIA could not have done it any better. The fact is that allegedly revolutionary arguments were used, invoking the purest principles of Marxism-Leninism and charging Bishop with practising a personality-cult and drawing away from the Leninist norms and methods of leadership. In our view, nothing could be more absurd than to attribute such tendencies to Bishop. It was impossible to imagine anyone more noble, modest and unselfish. He could never have been guilty of being authoritarian; if he had any defect, it was his excessive tolerance and trust. In our view, Coard’s group objectively destroyed the Revolution and opened the door to imperialist aggression … Look at the history of the revolutionary movement, and you will find more than one connection between imperialism and those who take positions that appear to be on the extreme left.”
The Cuban government’s statement of 20 October 1983 predicted: “Now imperialism will try to use this tragedy and the serious mistakes made by the Grenadian revolutionaries to sweep away the revolutionary process in Grenada and place the country under imperial and neocolonialist rule once again.”
A week later, this prediction was proven painfully correct, as Reagan sent tens of thousands of troops to ensure that the Grenadian Revolution was comprehensively wiped out.
There is much research still to be done on the Grenadian Revolution, and many lessons to be learned. Such lessons are all the more relevant in today’s context of several Latin American and Caribbean countries pursuing their own roads to socialism. The US and their allies would love to do to Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina what they did to Grenada. Destabilisation continues in a thousand different ways.
Meanwhile, the successes of Grenadian socialism – even if short-lived – continue to inspire progressive people around the world. The legacy of Maurice Bishop and the New Jewel Movement must be kept alive.
What follows is a selection of interesting quotes from Bishop, sourced from:
- “In Nobody’s Backyard” (a fantastic volume of Bishop’s speeches edited by Chris Searle and published by Zed Books, ISBN 0862322480)
- Hugh O’Shaughnessy: “Grenada – Revolution, Invasion and Aftermath.” (Sphere Books, ISBN 0722165617)
- This New Internationalist interview
On the danger of Grenada’s example
“We are obviously no threat to America. Nor is Cuba for that matter. I think Washington fears that we could set an example for the rest of the region if our Revolution succeeds. In the Caribbean region you’re talking about small countries with small populations and limited resources, countries that over the years have been classic examples of neo-capitalist dependencies. Now you have these new governments like Nicaragua and Grenada that are attempting a different experiment. They are no longer looking at development as how many hotels you have on the beach but in terms of what benefits people get. How many have jobs? How many are being fed, housed, and clothed? How many of the children receive education? We certainly believe in Grenada that the people of the English-speaking Caribbean want to see an experiment like that succeed. They want to see what we are trying to build come about. America understands that and obviously if we are able to succeed where previous governments following different models failed, that would be very, very subversive.”
On revolutionary spirit and vigilance
“Revolutionaries do not have the right to be cowards. We have to stand up to fight for our country because, the country is ours. It does not belong to anybody else”
“When will imperialism learn? Yes, they can kill our bodies but they can never kill the spirit of a people fighting for their liberation, they can never kill the spirit of a people fighting for their country and fighting to push their country forward.”
“As we have said so often, imperialism never rests and so we must continue to be on our guard, continue to be vigilant, continue to expand and strengthen our revolutionary People’s Militia. We must keep our eyes open for new tricks, for new variations of the enemy’s plan, for new devious twists and turns on the propaganda, and on the economic and the military fronts.”
“We saw how the CIA actually succeeded in turning back the progress of the organised workers’ movement in Chile, by both open and covert activity, and we in the Caribbean must be particularly vigilant in recognising their position and subversion of the workers’ cause, for imperialism will never rest in its resolution to crush the onward march of the progress and emancipation of our struggling people”
On propaganda, education, cultural imperialism and decolonisation
“We hold the truth itself to be revolutionary and we shall stand firm by its side.”
“Backwardness in the field of information is a fundamental reason for the fact that the international exchange of information is only a one way process. Basically, a veritable flood of information flows from the major imperialist cities to all corners of the globe, whereas there is a mere trickle in the opposite direction.”
“It is imperative to eliminate psychological warfare and cultural neocolonialism from intercourse between states and peoples.”
“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.”
On free speech, human rights and democracy
“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.”
“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 mechanismsand 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.”
“The right of freedom of expression can really only be relevant if people are not too hungry, or too tired to be able to express themselves. It can only be relevant if appropriate grassroots mechanisms rooted in the people exist, through which the people can effectively participate, can make decisions, can receive reports from the leaders and eventually be trained for ruling and controlling that particular society. This is what democracy is all about.”
“We don’t just speak about their kind of limited human rights but we talk about the human rights that the majority has never been able to enjoy, the human rights that they believe only the minority is entitled to: the human rights to a job, to decent housing, to a good meal when the day comes, to be able to form and to join a trade union, to be able to ensure that you can live a life of dignity and decency. All of these human rights have been the human rights for a small minority over the years in the Caribbean and the time has come for the majority of the people to begin to receive those human rights for the first time.”
“We have a very different conception of human rights than so-called Western democracies. We see human rights much more in terms of economic rights: people having the right to jobs, housing, health and education. Civil and political human rights of course we have no quarrel with. We support them, but we take a different political and class position on these questions than Western clemocracies. When you raise the question of political prisoners people have to be very frank about this and admit a number of things. First, many Western democracies have thousands of political prisoners. Consider the UK in relation to Northern Ireland. In America Andy Young after all has said that blacks in American jails are political prisoners. I could not agree more with regard’ to the system that tries them and the racism that is endemic in it. Our position is that people who are threats to national security have to be kept away from society – both in their own interests, and more fundamentally in the interests of the new society we are trying to build.”
“Destabilisation is the name given to the most recently developed (or newest) method of controlling and exploiting the lives and resources of a country and its people by a bigger and more powerful country through bullying, intimidation and violence. In the old days, such countries – the colonialist and imperialist powers – sent in gunboats or marines to directly take over the country by sheer force. Later on mercenaries were often used in place of soldiers, navy and marines. Today, more and more the new weapon and the new menace is destabilization. This method was used against a number of Caribbean and Third World countries in the 1960s, and also against Jamaica and Guyana in the 1970s. Now, as we predicted, it has come to Grenada. Destabilisation takes many forms – there is propaganda destabilization, when the foreign media, and sometimes our own Caribbean press, prints lies and distortions against us; there is economic destabilization, when our trade and our industries are sabotaged and disrupted; and there is violent destabilization, criminal acts of death and destruction… As we show the world – clearly and unflinchingly – that we intend to remain free and independent; that we intend to consolidate and strengthen the principles and goals of our revolution; as we show this to the world, there will be attacks on us.”
“Destabilisation can work only when the people do not know that it is happening. It is a total failure when it is exposed and when the people see it for what it is. The people of Grenada must learn what this destabilization is, because then we cannot be fooled by it.”
“We think of the scientific way in which they have evolved a new concept which they have called destabilization: a concept aimed at creating political violence, economic sabotage; a concept which when it fails, eventually leads to terrorism. We think of the attempts to use local opportunists and counter revolutionaries—people who try to build a popular base, people who fail in building that popular base, and people who as a result of having failed to fool the masses then turn to the last weapon they have in desperation: the weapon of open, naked, brutal and vulgar terror—having given up all hope of winning the masses, these people now turn their revenge on the masses. They now seek to punish the masses, to murder them wholesale; to plant bombs in the midst of Rallies; to try to break the back of the popular support of the Revolution; because imperialism was frightened and terrified by the Grenadian masses on March 13, 1980 when 30,000 of our people gathered in one spot to celebrate one year of People’s Victory, People’s Progress, People’s Benefits. They were terrified by that, and as a result they now seek to intimidate, to brow beat, to frighten and terrorise the masses to get them to be afraid to assemble, to get them to be afraid to continue to build their own country in their own image and likeness.”
(NB. All of this extremely apt in the context of the current onslaught against Syria)
“Grenada is a sovereign and independent country, although a tiny speck on the world map, and we expect all countries to strictly respect our independence just as we will respect theirs. No country has the right to tell us what to do or how to run our country or who to be friendly with. We certainly would not attempt to tell any other country what to do. We are not in anybody’s backyard, and we are definitely not for sale. Anybody who thinks they can bully us or threaten us clearly has no understanding, idea, or clue as to what material we are made of. They clearly have no idea of the tremendous struggles which our people have fought over the past seven years. Though small and poor, we are proud and determined. We would sooner give up our lives before we compromise, sell out, or betray our sovereignty, our independence, our integrity, our manhood, and the right of our people to national self-determination and social progress.”
“We are a small country, we are a poor country, with a population of largely African descent, we are a part of the exploited Third World, and we definitely have a stake in seeking the creation of a new international economic order which would assist in ensuring economic justice for the oppressed and exploited peoples of the world, and in ensuring that the resources of the sea are used for the benefit of all the people of the world and not for a tiny minority of profiteers. Our aim, therefore, is to join all organizations and work with all countries that will help us to become more independent and more in control of our own resources. In this regard, nobody who understands present-day realities can seriously challenge our right to develop working relations with a variety of countries.”
On Chile and the hypocrisy of imperialism
“Has Reagan ever been interested in elections and democracy? When did Reagan ever call on Haiti to hold elections? When did Reagan ever call on the butcher Pinochet in Chile or on South Korea to hold elections? Is he calling upon racist South Africa to hold elections? No! Even when Allende in Chile had in fact won power through elections what did the American President – Nixon at the time do? Nixon, Kissinger and Helms sat down the night after Allende won the elections in September 1970 and they worked out their plan of aggression and destabilisation against President Allende. Allende didn’t say no more elections. He didn’t arm working people to try to close down the reactionary paper El Mercurio as he should have done. Allende relied on the parliamentary form that they wanted him to rely on. But because he was a socialist and was independent and was bringing benefits and justice to his people, the American elite went out of their way to crush him ruthlessly. And the criminal they put into power has yet to be told by the so-called democratic United States to call an election.”
(NB. Eric Gairy, the Grenadian President overthrown by the NJM, was a strong supporter of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile)
“Your revolution, comrades, has also provided the region and the world with a living legend in your great and indomitable leader, Fidel Castro. Fidel has taught us not only how to fight, but also how to work, how to build socialism, and how to lead our country in a spirit of humility, sincerity, commitment and firm revolutionary leadership.” (before a crowd of 1.5 million people on May Day in Havana, 1980)
On the role of repression under socialism
“All revolutions involve temporary dislocations and, for a period, it is always necessary to restrain the abuses and excesses of a violent or disruptive minority in the interests of consolidating the revolution and bringing concrete benefits to the long-suffering and formerly oppressed majority.”
On the long path towards socialism
“It took several hundred years for feudalism to be finally wiped out and capitalism to emerge as the new dominant mode of production and it will take several hundred years for capitalism to be finally wiped out before socialism becomes the new dominant mode.”