by Louis Proyect
(Swans - September 22, 2008) Peter Camejo, one of the outstanding leaders of the U.S. left, died after an 18-month battle with lymphoma on September 13, 2008, at the age of 68. As a testament to the respect he had earned far and wide, the mainstream media praised him as a fallen warrior, including The New York Times:
Active in the Free Speech Movement and in protests against the Vietnam War as a student at UC Berkeley in the late 1960s, Mr. Camejo landed on then-Gov. Ronald Reagan's list of the 10 most dangerous people in California. School officials eventually expelled him, two quarters shy of a degree.
The spark of activism stayed with him as he became a leader in the movement to give voice to third-party candidates. He fought for universal health care, election reform, farmworker rights, living wage laws and against the death penalty and abortion restrictions.
Missing from these obits, however, is any engagement with Peter's revolutionary socialist beliefs that remained with him as he ran as a candidate for the Green Party and even while holding down a day job as a stockbroker. For Peter, the transformation of American society would not take place by waving a magic wand and uttering some words about the need for communism. He always understood that radical politics were useless unless you could get people to listen to you, and getting people's attention was one of his greatest gifts.
Peter came from a wealthy family in Venezuela of the sort that serves as a breeding ground for the politics that have been manifested in periodic uprisings against Hugo Chávez. But he was outraged by the injustices he saw all around him, just as Che Guevara turned against class inequality in Argentina a few years earlier, and decided to cast his lot with the working people.
Once at a dinner party hosted by his father that included top officials from the Venezuelan government, Peter made some disparaging remarks about Perez Jimenez, the dictator who ran the country with an iron fist. Everybody was shocked by Peter's intervention, which his father tried to dismiss as the words of an impetuous youth. The Camejo family was fortunate not to face reprisals from the dictatorship since not even wealthy families were spared in this period. When Perez Jimenez was overthrown in 1958, Peter was impressed by the power of a mobilized people.
That year Peter was a freshman at M.I.T. and a new member of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), the youth group of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Despite his initial orientation to the Communist Party (CP), Peter joined the Trotskyists because of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt two years earlier.
Soon one of the most important developments for the revolutionary movement would tap Peter's talents as a skilled debater. After the triumph of the Cuban revolution, some of the top leaders of the Young Socialist Alliance would develop a hostile attitude toward Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, who they regarded as typical caudillos, the Spanish term for paternalistic strongmen. Peter argued convincingly for the pro-Cuban position and the victory of his faction helped orient the Trotskyists to new openings on the left. Support for Cuba, the civil rights movement, and opposition to nuclear arms were issues that many young campus activists were responding to and the SWP and YSA tried as best as it could to relate to these developments despite being hampered by sectarian conceptions. In a conversation I once had with Peter in the early 1980s, I raised the question of whether he would have benefited from leaving the SWP earlier. I expected him to say something like the mid-1970s, but he told me that he should have quit in 1959 -- one year after joining. That was his way of saying that he lost opportunities to build a genuine movement. As political people fully understand, hindsight is 20-20 vision.
Camejo dropped out of M.I.T. and moved out to Berkeley, California, in 1966 where he became a student at the university that was emerging as a hotbed of radical politics. That is where his skills as a mass leader were honed. For example, Peter was on the steering committee of the Vietnam Day Committee, an early student antiwar formation that also included Jerry Rubin as a member.
Peter emerged as the leader of one of the most militant struggles that ever occurred in the city of Berkeley in 1968, the so-called Battle of Telegraph Hill. In May and June of that year, the students and workers of France had risen up against Charles de Gaulle and the capitalist system in a general strike involving all sectors of the population, including prostitutes!
When a rally was called by the YSA, the Black Panther Party, the Peace and Freedom Party, and others in solidarity with the French students and workers, the mayor of Berkeley refused to issue a permit. A meeting of 500 people discussed how to proceed and Peter proposed that they exercise their constitutional rights to protest. In solidarity with the French cops, the Berkeley cops attacked local students and workers, which led to street fighting, including the erection of barricades.
Over 1,000 protestors showed up at City Hall the next day to confront the mayor and demand that he allow the rally to take place. Peter wrote in the Militant newspaper:
It was a meeting where people reassured themselves that they were completely right just by listening to each other, by each person getting up and giving their personal experiences. Most people didn't know what happened because everyone just witnessed one or another aspect of the events. As the general picture began to dawn on people, it became absolutely clear to everyone: We were completely right in our accusations.
By the mid-1970s a lot of the energy of the previous decade had disappeared, largely as a result of the end of the war in Vietnam and women winning the right to abortion. These two victories had the paradoxical effect of removing the irritant that had propelled so many to take action against the system. Meanwhile, a combination of repression and co-optation through poverty programs had reduced black militancy as well.
In trying to adjust to the new period, the SWP leadership decided to bank everything on a working class radicalization based in the trade union movement -- clearly an illusory prospect.
Camejo did not speak out against the turn, but was never a forceful spokesman either. His energy in that period was devoted mainly to studying and writing about the Sandinista revolution as the party's representative in Managua.
The contrast between the living revolution in Nicaragua and the sterile workerism of the SWP in the U.S. was just too great for Peter to accept. Something told him that the FSLN (National Liberation Front) understood the dynamics of social change and how to organize a revolutionary movement much better than his own party. He decided to take a leave of absence from the party and live with his father in Venezuela in order to get to the bottom of what was wrong. This involved reading Lenin and trying to understand the Bolshevik project in context. His conclusion was that the small self-declared vanguard groups like the SWP had nothing in common with Lenin's Bolsheviks. He also became convinced that groups like the July 26th movement in Cuba and the FSLN were much closer to the spirit of the Bolsheviks even though (or perhaps because) they eschewed the hammer and sickle iconography. His new goal was to try to help launch a movement in the U.S. that could express the same kind of non-sectarian and non-dogmatic approach.
Sensing that Peter had broken with the SWP ideologically, the party leadership prevented him from reassuming his leadership role. After 25 years he was on his own.
His first step was to launch something called the North Star Network, a loose association of ex-SWP members and Maoists who had reached a similar conclusion. Within a year or two the network petered out (no pun intended) and Peter joined the Committees of Correspondence, a Euro-communist type formation that included many leading ex-CPers who had broken with Gus Hall. Like Peter, they wanted to dump the "Marxist-Leninist" nonsense, but unlike Peter they thought that the Democratic Party had a future.
Peter then decided to put all of his efforts into building the Green Party. His public record as a candidate is well established and there is no need to recount his breakthroughs, important as they are.
Perhaps the most important thing about Peter's role on the left is his grasp of the larger historical tasks that face the U.S. Unlike the small sectarian groups that amount to nothing on the political landscape and whose model seems to be the small corporation more than anything else, Peter was always the visionary who connected to his forefathers.
Peter decided to adopt the name North Star for his network since this was the name of abolitionist Frederick Douglass's newspaper. He believed that the American left should adopt symbols that were part of our heritage rather than some other country's, like the Soviet Union. His attachment to North Star remained with him until the very end of his life, now serving as the title of his anxiously awaited memoir.
The Civil War was particularly important to Peter since it was perhaps the only genuine social revolution the country had ever experienced. Although he was much more of a speaker than a writer, his Racism, Revolution, Reaction, 1861-1877: The Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction is one of the best introductions to the period that has ever been written.
Showing an astute ability to connect our period to the earlier period, Peter wrote a very important article titled "The Avocado Declaration" that made these connections explicit:
Since the Civil War a peculiar two-party political system has dominated the United States. Prior to the Civil War a two-party system existed which reflected opposing economic platforms. Since the Civil War a shift occurred. A two-party system remained in place but no longer had differing economic orientation. Since the Civil War the two parties show differences in their image, role, social base and some policies but in the last analysis, they both support essentially similar economic platforms.
This development can be clearly dated to the split in the Republican Party of 1872 where one wing merged with the "New Departure" Democrats that had already shifted towards the Republican platform, which was pro-finance and industrial business. Prior to the Civil War, the Democratic Party, controlled by the slaveocracy, favored agricultural business interests and developed an alliance with small farmers in conflict with industrial and some commercial interests. That division ended with the Civil War. Both parties supported financial and industrial business as the core of their programmatic outlook.
(The full text of the Avocado Declaration can be read on Swans.)
History will one day record that Peter had as much of an impact on his age as Frederick Douglass had on his own. His example as a revolutionary leader who put the needs of the movement over any petty, narrow concerns will also serve him well as the continuator of a largely misunderstood figure, Karl Marx:
The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working class parties.
They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.
They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.
Peter Camejo -- Presente!
[ed. Louis Proyect also wrote a few personal and political reflections about Peter Camejo on his blog, The Unrepentant Marxist, which readers will welcome in addition to this obituary.]
If you find our work useful and appreciate its quality, please consider making a donation. Money is spent to pay for Internet costs, maintenance and upgrade of our computer network, and development of the site.