Swans Commentary » swans.com July 12, 2010  



North Star
A Tribute to Peter Camejo


by Louis Proyect


Book Review



ed. Louis Proyect's tribute is based on his own experience and recollection as well as his reading of Peter Camejo's unfinished memoir published posthumously, North Star: a Memoir, Haymarket Books, 2010, ISBN 978-1931859-92-9.


(Swans - July 12, 2010)   In November 1969, I was ready to drop out of the Socialist Workers Party in New York City just two years after I joined. Although I had no political disagreements, I felt alienated from the organization. I was in a kind of limbo that most people with regular jobs experienced. Unless you were a student at a place like Columbia University where all the action was going on or a full-timer with a sense of mission about being a "professional revolutionary" in Leninist terms, it was easy to feel like a fifth wheel.

Just before I had steeled myself to turn in my resignation and become a "sell-out" to bourgeois society, the organizer called me into his office to ask me to take on an important assignment. The Boston branch was out of step with the rest of the party and required reinforcing with "solid" people who would work with the organizer Peter Camejo to "turn things around." Feeling a sense of validation that had escaped me before, I said yes on the spot. This would be my introduction to a comrade who I can describe as one of the major influences on my political evolution over the past 30 years. It was thus with a keen sense of anticipation that I turned to his posthumous memoir North Star, a book that not only captures his winning personality but also the ideas that transformed me.

Before moving up to Boston, I knew Peter only by reputation. Apparently, he was one of the few Socialist Workers Party (SWP) members who had won a following among the broad left, especially in Berkeley where his leadership in the Telegraph Avenue struggle of June 1968 had helped to cement his reputation. After the cops had attacked a rally in support of the French strikers, the movement mounted a counter-attack to defend the constitutionally protected right to protest. Although there was a considerable amount of violence, Peter played an important role in making it clear that the cops were responsible and not the protesters. His description of the confrontation would be especially useful to young people today grappling with the problems of black block machismo that have served to muddle the message of anti-globalization protests.

After seeing the power of a united left in the battle of Telegraph Avenue that included the Black Panther Party, the Peace and Freedom Party, and thousands of unaffiliated radicals and progressives, Peter began to think about how "out of touch" the left, and Trotskyism in particular, was with "the reality of what it would take to build a mass current for social justice." He found himself becoming more and more aware of how detached it was from American realities:

We were so disconnected from our own history that to join our organization and remain active, a member had to become interested in and invested in the internal factional struggles of socialism in Russia and Europe. This was important but couldn't serve as the framework for a mass movement for social change.

He doubted that a single party member could name the first candidate of the Liberty Party, the original third party in American history formed to oppose slavery. It was also unlikely that any had ever read Frederick Douglass's newspaper "The North Star" that would eventually become a symbol of the kind of broad left that Peter sought to build.

When I arrived in Boston, it was understood immediately that I and a few other imported members were there to take Peter's side in a bitter factional struggle over the anti-war movement. Larry Trainor, a veteran of the 1930s movement who had recruited Peter to the SWP in 1959 and who was suspicious of the "middle class" peace movement, had influence over a layer of young leaders in the branch. They had adapted to the Maoist wing of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) led by Jared Israel that was "colonizing" the hospital workers union where the "real action" was. Ironically, it was exactly this kind of senseless colonization strategy adopted by the SWP majority in the 1970s that would lead to Peter's resignation, my own, and that of hundreds of others.

Before long he had convinced most of Trainor's supporters that the antiwar movement was not only in the interests of the SWP as a way to gain new members but also in the interests of the Vietnamese who needed a powerful mass movement to force the withdrawal of American troops.

Although Peter says nothing about this faction fight in a memoir understandably devoted mostly to events not taking place in the smoke-filled rooms of the SWP, it had a major impact on my own political education. He had a way of bringing political clarity to discussions that would serve as a guideline to others, including me. One debate in particular will remain with me forever, so much so that it is recounted in my own memoir scheduled for publication in 2011 by the grace of Random House.

In early 1970 a fight broke out at a branch meeting over whether to support the Shea Bill. James Shea, a 31-year-old state legislator, proposed that Massachusetts authorize residents to refuse combat duty in undeclared wars. Larry Trainor's supporters denounced the bill as sowing illusions in the possibility of stopping the war through legislation rather than the direct action of a working class that had not yet showed any kind of real militancy.

Peter replied to this in a way that I had never heard from an SWP leader. He explained that Lenin used to stay up late at night studying the repressive Czarist law codes to look for loopholes that workers could exploit to go on strike legally. Like Lenin, we had to take advantage of any and every law in order to advance the class struggle. If the ruling class was divided over the war, including a politician at the lower ranks like James Shea, we want to deepen that division, not stand aside from it with our arms folded.

Peter's grasp of both the true history of our movement and his ability to connect that understanding with the concrete problems of the mass movement stunned me. When a vote was taken, the branch voted in favor of supporting the Shea Bill.

In a tragic aftermath of this controversy that was probably missed by most party members, James Shea became despondent after the bill was declared unconstitutional. On May 8th, he locked himself in his bedroom and shot himself in the head with a pistol. He died immediately.

The debate in the Boston branch spilled out to the rest of the party and became the focus of the 1971 SWP convention. Peter organized the discussion in the Boston branch by assigning supporters of the majority position to speak about different aspects of the debate. He decided to have me explain the relevance of the "Cochranite" fight of the early 1950s to the 1971 divisions in the party.

I prepared a report that gave some background on Bert Cochran and his followers who were organized as the Socialist Union. These were almost exclusively industrial workers of the sort that Larry Trainor doted on. According to the official SWP version, the Cochranites had become bought off by post-WWII prosperity and lost their militancy. The lesson of the Cochranites was that factory work would not necessarily prevent accommodating yourself to the system. Years later when I ran into Sol Dollinger, a Socialist Union veteran then in his 80s, I discovered that the official version was untrue. Most had remained active in the radical movement, trying in their own way to implement the non-sectarian vision that came to Peter after the battle of Telegraph Avenue.

Ironically, a teenaged Peter Camejo came into contact with the Cochranite group in the 1950s but did not really understand what they were about by his own admission. This good-natured, self-deprecating, and whimsical account should be sufficient to motivate the serious reader to read North Star without delay:

At fourteen I told my mom I was a socialist. She told me to go out and play. I asked permission to go from our home in Great Neck in Long Island to New York City to attend a meeting of the Socialist Union. To my amazement, as I look back, my mother said it was okay but that I had to be back by 10 pm. I traveled alone on the Long Island Rail Road to my first meeting. I'd imagined that it would be in a huge hall with red banners or something along those lines. As it turned out I was the first person to show up, so I sat and waited. Only about fifteen people came. I later learned that the Socialist Union, led by Bert Cochran, had broken off from the Socialist Workers Party in 1953. They were very nice to me. I couldn't understand anything they were talking about but I could tell they supported the poor and were in favor of equality. The small size of the meeting didn't turn me off. On the contrary, I thought, I need to find a way to help because the socialists are so outnumbered.

It is too bad that Peter was a bit too young to understand what the Socialist Union was about because if he had he might have been spared a losing battle fought with the SWP leadership over the years. Ten years ago I scanned many articles from Bert Cochran's magazine The American Socialist and posted them to the Marxism Internet Archives. They were as much of a revelation as Frederick Douglass's newspaper was to Peter, who read every issue of North Star on microfilm from the UC Berkeley library in the early 1980s.

In 1955 Bert Cochran gave a speech announcing the launching of American Socialist that set down an orientation very similar to the one that Peter would embrace later on. Peter spoke about being "so disconnected from our own history that to join our organization and remain active, a member had to become interested in and invested in the internal factional struggles of socialism in Russia and Europe," while Cochran put it this way:

If I may be permitted to draw my own design of the consensus that I believe has been achieved, I would state as the first proposition that the day of organizing a radical movement in this country as a branch office of the Russian concern is over; and thank God! And that is true whether it is a branch office that gets its instructions from Stalin or Khrushchev or Lenin or Trotsky. This country is too big, too diversified, too self-sufficient and self-confident, it has too many people, it has too powerful a tradition of its own to tolerate a radicalism whose source of inspiration or whose hidden allegiances reside abroad. We can be friends of socialist achievements wherever they take place, and we can practice international labor solidarity on behalf of a common cause without surrendering the dignity of our independence and without losing our bearings that socialism in this country, as in all major countries, will only be won as a manifestation of its own national will.

Since so much of North Star is related to Peter's relationships with people other than on narrow political consideration (his list of people described as friends would put most Facebook lists to shame), it behooves me to say some words about my personal contacts with him.

When he discovered that I was a squash player, he made time to play with me at the Cambridge YMCA whenever his busy schedule permitted. Peter was an avid athlete who was proud of competing in the yachting races in the 1960 Olympics. This was a welcome break from the monastic existence he was living in the slums of the Lower East Side of Manhattan on $40 per week. In some ways squash was as much of an aristocrat's game as yachting, even though it originated in a British debtor's prison in the early 1800s. Deeply competitive but a step slower than me, Peter was lucky to win one out of four games. That did not prevent him from seeking me out for matches at Oberlin College in the 1970s at yearly gatherings of the Trotskyist tribe. I always noted to myself that when we chatted after the games were finished, party business never came up. I had the feeling that he saw me as a welcome break from the shoptalk that dominated life among the apparatus.

In 1973 I left for Houston, Texas, once again on a party assignment to wage factional warfare against a minority that had formed around support for urban guerrilla warfare in Latin America as well as the Larry Trainor workerist orientation, an odd combination to say the least. While we were in a majority in the USA, we were in a minority in the world Trotskyist movement that under economist Ernest Mandel's leadership had staked everything on a group in Argentina that routinely carried out hijackings and kidnappings.

Peter had a new assignment as well, doing "international work" to line up groups against Mandel's line. The passages in North Star that deal with this work are like something out of an Eric Ambler novel, including narrow escapes from the security forces in Argentina and Colombia that could have led to torture or death in the most extreme outcome.

Eventually, Peter ended up in Sandinista Nicaragua where a guerrilla band had taken power in defiance of the "classical Marxism" of the SWP but not exactly in conformity with Ernest Mandel's guerrilla warfare strategy. The key to victory in Nicaragua, just as had been the case in Cuba under Fidel Castro, was a fusion between armed detachments and the broader mass movement. Ironically, despite the infatuation of the Mandel-led groups with guerrilla warfare, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was viewed initially as lacking in revolutionary credentials. The European Trotskyists even lent their support to an armed band called the Simon Bolivar Brigade that was trying -- senselessly -- to overthrow the FSLN. They took their cue from Nahuel Moreno, an Argentine Trotskyist who had formerly been allied with the SWP against Mandel and his Guevarist allies in Argentina who hated Moreno. As they say, you can't keep track of revolutionary politics without a scorecard. [See Author's Note added July 18, 2010.]

Nicaragua had a profound impact on Peter, helping to clarify thoughts that had been with him since the days of Telegraph Avenue. Seeing the FSLN in operation was an enormous contrast to the petty sectarian politics of the SWP, especially the example of a young organizer who understood how to relate to ordinary working people of the Managua slums. Peter writes:

The FSLN gathered people together for block meetings by setting a tire on fire as a way to let everyone on the block know that a meeting was about to happen. One day I came across such a meeting by accident. I can't remember who was with me but we decided to stay. A young man, probably no more than twenty-four, stood on a box and began speaking to the whole neighborhood that had come out to listen.

As he spoke it dawned on me. The way he communicated, the message he gave, was what I had always tried to say; but he used only clear, understandable words and his message built on the living history of Nicaragua and the consciousness of the workers and their families who were listening.

He explained how Nicaragua belongs to its own people. How rich foreigners had come and taken their country from them but that they were the people who worked and created the wealth of their nation. They had the right to run it and to decide what should be done. He spoke about the homeless children in the streets and how under the U.S.-backed dictatorship nothing was done for them. He described in detail how the FSLN was trying to solve each problem. That it would take time. That Nicaragua was still in danger of foreign intervention. To never forget those who gave their lives so that Nicaragua could be a free nation. At each mention of the departed, the crowd shouted, "Presente," to affirm that the missing ones were still with them, here. At every meeting of the Sandinistas, regardless where it was held, someone would read off the names of people from that block, school, or union who had given their lives for freedom. Everyone at the meeting would shout "Presente."

My mind began to race. Of course this young man was not going to use terms that would lead to confusion; he would place these issues in the culture, history, and language of his people. It dawned on me -- that is why this movement had won. They didn't name their newspaper after some term from European history; they didn't speak of "socialism" or "Marxism." While the rest of the left of the 1960s and '70s was in decline throughout Latin America, caught up in the rhetoric of European Marxism and the influence of Stalinism, the FSLN had delivered a great victory for freedom.

I thought about the United States -- the great traditions of our struggles for justice, our symbols, our language -- and how disconnected the left was from that reality. I am not sure if it was on that night or another that I had the concrete thought, "We need a paper called the North Star," the greatest symbol of our nation's struggle for freedom. I remember keeping these thoughts to myself. I didn't talk to Fred about it. Possibly I told Gloria, I can't remember. But etched in my memory forever is that block meeting with the fire in the middle of street and some unknown youth changing my life.

Just around the time that Peter was experiencing this epiphany, I was finishing up my career in the SWP, such as it was. I had moved to Kansas City in 1978 under instructions to get a factory job as part of the "turn toward industry." After a Chaplinesque adventure as a spot welder, I decided to return to private life. A year or so later Peter went through a similar experience as a garment worker in NY and found himself on a collision course with the SWP leadership that viewed this kind of missionary work as more important than opposing Reagan's war on Central America and other more urgent forms of struggle.

After spending an extended period in Venezuela with his family, he returned to the USA in order to implement his vision of the North Star that was influenced by the Sandinista experience as well as the best traditions of the American class struggle, from Frederick Douglass to Eugene V. Debs. Peter died much too young from lymphoma on September 13, 2008, leaving the final chapter of his memoir uncompleted. It is up to our generation to help finish that chapter through our commitment to the living struggle for social justice that kept Peter active every single day of his life.


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Author's Note added on July 18, 2010

It came to my attention that Peter was in error when he described Ernest Mandel as supporting an ultraleft armed group in Nicaragua called the Simon Bolivar Brigade. For further explanation, see the last few paragraphs of "Barry Sheppard, Peter Camejo, and the role of the revolutionary party" posted on my Blog The Unrepentent Marxist on July 18, 2010.  (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published July 12, 2010