Grenada's 'big revolution in a small country'

New Jewel Movement billboard. The economic and social progress made during the 1979-83 Grenadan revolution can largely be attrib
Saturday, October 11, 2014

We Move Tonight: The Making of the Grenada Revolution
By Joseph Ewart Layne
St. George’s, Grenada: Grenada Revolution Memorial Foundation, 2014
Paperback 203 pp.

“A big revolution in a small country” is allegedly how Fidel Castro described the overthrow of Grenada’s authoritarian government when being questioned on the matter back in 1979.

Grenada, a country that has a population of no more than 110,000 and a land mass of only 133 square miles, certainly is small. Yet the revolutionary transformation of the island between the years of 1979 and 1983 sent profound shockwaves throughout the Caribbean and beyond; well into the metropolitan centres of imperial power.

The economic and social progress made in those years is well documented. It can largely be attributed to a state-led development strategy, expansion of participatory welfare programs and an independent foreign policy.

These features of the revolution, which made it a beacon for all those struggling against colonial and neo-colonial practices, are what made it “big”. It was also these features, rather than any illusionary threat, which undoubtedly led the US to invade Grenada in 1983.

Joseph Ewart Layne was a key member of the New Jewel Movement, which overthrew the dictatorship of Eric Gairy on March 13, 1979. The NJM governed Grenada until the US invasion of October 25, 1983.

In We Move Tonight: The Making of the Grenada Revolution, he provides a fascinating first-hand account of the events leading to the revolution along with personal reflections on its failure to survive.

We Move Tonight is divided into three sections. The first section, which is by far the most substantial part of the book, was written in 1988; five years into the 26-year period that the author would spend imprisoned following the US invasion.

This section is a highly personal narrative of Layne’s progression from an initial induction into the armed wing of the NJM, right through to his role in the confrontation that toppled the dictatorship.

The second section of the book, written in 1999, contains the author’s interpretation of the historical context from which the revolution emerged, focusing in particular on the rise of Eric Gairy and his social bases of his support.

Gairy’s background as an audacious leader of the labour movement, his militancy in fighting for better pay and an early policy of agrarian reform as prime minister, are brought to contrast sharply with his later corrupt and authoritarian behaviour.

The third and final section comprises of Layne’s “reflections” composed between 1999 and 2009 when he was released from prison.

The most captivating and valuable section of We Move Tonight is Layne’s inside account of the preparations preceding the 1979 revolution. Chronicling the progress of the NJM over a two-year period, Layne gives insights into the movement’s key internal debates, organisational methods and external relations.

Here we learn that the decision to overthrow the government by force of arms in one fell swoop, a “war of movement”, was only cautiously agreed to after Gairy conclusively sealed off other options by rigging elections and expanding his repression of political opposition.

In comparison to his and many of his comrades' youthful naivety, Layne portrays the NJM’s core leadership as strategically focused and immensely anxious about the possibility of large-scale bloodshed; only giving the go-ahead after meticulous planning.

At times, the writing can be overly descriptive, as a plethora of names and locations are cited one after the other. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to remain enthralled by the narrative, and the fine detail is likely to be of great use to those researching the Grenada Revolution.

Unfortunately though, it is impossible to avoid feeling that Layne has deliberately avoided tackling one of the most difficult and controversial issues surrounding the revolution. The boundaries of the first two sections are clearly delineated to the pre-revolutionary period right from the off, and apart from a few sensitive fine points, we appear to receive a full picture.

Yet in the final section, which comprises the author’s reflections on the revolution as a whole, Layne misses a clear opportunity to address the issue of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop’s death in a frank and comprehensive manner.

The killing of Bishop during a tumultuous period of ideological splits within the NJM leadership is likely to remain the most controversial aspect of the revolutionary period for many years to come. As one of the jailed “Grenada 17”, Layne was formally charged with responsibility for the murder of Bishop, and in his reflections he does express remorse for his role in the “destruction” of the revolution.

I have no doubt that these apologies are sincere and meaningful, but they do little to help clarify the events surrounding the killing of Bishop. Of course, this may be a painful and delicate matter to address, but without insights from primary observers such as Layne, it will be impossible to fully understand what led the cautious NJM leadership characterised in We Move Tonight to fracture in such bloody fashion.

Despite this criticism, We Move Tonight remains a compelling and worthwhile read which provides unique insights into a successful revolutionary movement. A sequel that deals with the period of People’s Revolutionary Government 1979-1983 in a similar manner would be most welcome.

[This article first appeared at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Laurence Goodchild is a member of the Green Left, an ecosocialist current in the Green Party of England and Wales, and Unite the Union.]

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Issue