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Peter Camejo remembered: tributes from the left
Below are number left tributes to Peter Camejo, who died on September 13: from Green Left Weekly (Australia); Ralph Nader, US presidential candidate; veteran US socialist Barry Sheppard; Socialist Worker (USA) and Louis Proyect, moderator of the Marxism List (USA).
As a tribute, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal has also republished two of Peter's most influential and enduring lectures (at http://links.org.au/node/625), talks that continue to educate young revolutionary socialists to this day.
Green Left Weekly: Peter Miguel Camejo — 1939-2008
By Stuart Munckton
September 24, 2008 -- Green Left Weekly -- Supporters of social justice around the world were devastated to receive the news that renowned US socialist and fighter for a better world Peter Camejo had succumbed to cancer and passed away on September 13.
Camejo, of Venezuelan descent, spent much of his childhood in that country and in 1960 represented Venezuela in the Rome Olympics. He studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley.
As a student he joined the Young Socialist Alliance and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), becoming a leader of both. He was a leader of the US anti-war movement, and in 1967 was suspended by Berkeley campus authorities for “unauthorised use of a megaphone”. Then-governor Ronald Reagan listed him as one of the ten “most dangerous” people in California.He ran for president for the SWP in 1976. An interview he gave during that campaign can be found HERE.
However, by the late 1970s, the SWP under its central leader Jack Barnes was taking an increasingly sectarian turn, insisting that only struggles led by the industrial working class were of significance and refusing to participate in the existing struggles tainted by “petty bourgeois” leadership. This turn was accompanied by an increasingly undemocratic internal regime.
Camejo was one of many “dissidents” expelled and he wrote a devastating critique of the direction of the SWP in a 1983 piece entitled “Against Sectarianism”, which argued against a retreat from the outward looking orientation based on seeking to unite with and mobilise the greatest numbers of people in struggle — a perspective that had allowed the SWP to play a central role in the movement against the Vietnam War.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, he travelled to Australia and spoke around the country in tours organised by the socialist youth organisation Resistance and the Socialist Workers Party (now the Democratic Socialist Perspective), the organisations that launched and still help sustain Green Left Weekly.
Camejo ran at the Greens’ candidate for governor of California in 2002, in the 2003 recall vote and in 2006. He was Ralph Nader’s vice-presidential candidate in the 2004 election on an independent ticket after failing to win a battle with more right-wing pro-Democrat Greens leaders about the need for the Greens to endorse Nader as they had in 2000.
In an interview with Canadian socialist Ernest Tate published in GLW #602, Camejo responded to the accusations in the 2004 race that Nader was “stealing votes” from the pro-war Democrat candidate John Kerry, and therefore a “vote for Nader is a vote for Bush” by pointing out that all of Bush’s hated policies of war and attacks on civil liberties that Kerry had supported, Nader opposed.
He turned the argument on its head: “We think a vote for Kerry is a vote for Bush; a vote for Bush is a vote for Bush, so we think it’s really Bush versus Nader … In reality, Kerry is stealing all of Nader’s votes.”
Camejo’s legacy outlives him. His brilliant pamphlet, How to Make a Revolution in the United States — a combination of two speeches given in 1969 and 1970 — is published by Resistance Books in Australia and is used by Resistance activists as a popular introduction into how social change can be achieved. The text has been published at Links.
In his many talks, Camejo’s sharp wit cut to the heart of the corporate system, exposing its hypocrisy and injustice with a healthy sense of the ludicrous.
He had the rare knack of taking seemingly complex concepts and making them simple.
In a September 14 post on the Marxmail e-list, Tom O’Lincoln, who belonged to a rival US socialist organisation, recalled watching Camejo explain the concept of social class in a speech to students around 1970: “Want to know what social class you’re in? Simple. Take a six-month vacation in resorts in the Carribean and pay with a cheque. If the cheque bounces, you’re a member of the working class.”
Understanding, as he repeatedly argued, that all progressive change is won through the actions of ordinary people, Camejo constantly advocated the need to take advantage of, and searched tirelessly for, political openings that enabled radicals to reach out to working people and involve them in the struggle for a better world.
To the end, Camejo remained a powerful proponent both for the rights of the oppressed but also for the need, in order to advance those rights, to break with the corporate two-party system and create a political force that serves ordinary people.
As the Rudd Labor government continues the policies of the former Howard government in its essentials, the same lessons apply for us here.[Stuart Munckton is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective national executive and co-editor of Green Left Weekly.]
From Green Left Weekly issue #768 24 September 2008.
Ralph Nader: In honour of Peter Miguel Camejo
An abridged message issued on September 13 by Ralph Nader, currently running for president as an independent.
* * *
Peter Miguel Camejo, a civil rights leader, socially responsible investment pioneer, and magnanimo caballero for third party politics in the US, peacefully passed away early Saturday morning, September 13, at his home in Folsom, California with his wife Morella at his side — only days after completing his autobiography.
Peter was a student leader, civil rights advocate, leader in the socially responsible investment industry with his own investment firm, Progressive Asset Management, Inc., and author of books including Racism, Revolution, Reaction, 1861-1877: The Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction, California Under Corporate Rule, and his recent book, The SRI Advantage: Why Socially Responsible Investing Has Outperformed Financially.
Peter used his eloquence, sharp wit, and barnstorming bravado to blaze a trail for 21st century third party politics in the US. He was a third party candidate for state and national office, making three gubernatorial runs in California as a Green, including one in the 2002 election when he earned 5.3% of the vote.
In the 2003 recall election, he debated Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis, and in the 2004 presidential election, he was my running mate.
Among the many causes Peter forcefully championed were a living wage, health care for all, and making the US the world leader in renewable energy.
He was also a passionate advocate for electoral reform, pressing for proportional representation and instant run-off voting (allows voters to rank their top choices) in an effort to overturn the “200-year-old dysfunctional money-dominated winner take-all system that disrespects the will of the people”.
Peter was a friend, colleague and politically courageous champion of the downtrodden and mistreated of the entire Western Hemisphere. Everyone who met, talked, worked or argued with Peter will miss the passing of a great American.
When his autobiography (with the working title Northstar) is published, we will all be able to get a vivid sense of the great measure of Peter Camejo as a sentinel force for civil rights and civil liberties, and expander of democracy.
His lifework will inspire the political and economic future for a long time.
Barry Sheppard: Pedro (Peter) Miguel Camejo, 1939 - 2008
By Barry Sheppard
Peter Camejo, a Venezuelan-American revolutionary socialist his entire life from when he was a teenager, died on September 13, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Area. The cause was cancer.
I first met Peter in 1958 when we were both students at MIT, I a senior and he a freshman. He had already joined the Young Socialist Alliance the year before, and I was a member of the Young People's Socialist League. Despite our differences, we reached out to a broad range of students from the many campuses in the Boston area who considered themselves socialists of one kind or another to form a discussion club in the spring of 1959.
By the fall of 1959, we had both concluded that an activist organization was needed. I had become disillusioned with the YPSL for its support to the Democratic Party, and joined the YSA. Soon we also joined the Socialist Workers Party. We set out to build a YSA chapter in Boston, and our chapter's first activity was to spearhead the formation of student committees on campuses in the area to organize picketing of stores of the Woolworth's chain, in solidarity with the wave of lunch counter Sit-Ins Black students had launched in the South. Woolworth's was one chain of stores the Black students had targeted to break down the Jim Crow laws preventing Blacks and whites from eating together in public places.
Another focus was defense of the Cuban Revolution. The SWP and YSA worked with Cuban supporters of the July 26th Movement to launch a Boston Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Support to revolutionary movements in Latin America was a hallmark of Peter's political career his whole life. He was an active participant in the many discussions and debates that occurred in the ups and downs of those movements, from the Cuban's attempts to spread the revolution through supporting rural guerrilla warfare in Latin America in the 1960s, on up to the Venezuelan revolutionary process which he was a partisan of the day he died.
In the summer of 1960 Peter was part of the YSA delegation to a Latin American Congress on Youth, where a speech by Fidel Castro indicated the direction of the Revolution, after public debate on the island. The Stalinists held the position that the Revolution had to stay within the bounds of capitalism, but in October the revolutionary leadership announced the expropriation of the Cuban capitalists as well as of the imperialists. I telephoned Peter that night, and we were excited. We concluded that Cuba had become a workers' state. The leadership of the SWP had come to the same conclusion.
There was a minority in the SWP which rejected this view. This minority was led by three central leaders of the YSA, Tim Wohlforth, James Robertson and Shane Mage. The discussion in the SWP was democratic and thorough, and culminated in a convention in the summer of 1961 where the position of the leadership majority was upheld. A discussion then ensued in the YSA, in which Peter and I were the main spokespeople for the pro-Cuba position, which carried the day in a convention over the New Year's holiday. The result is that I was elected the YSA National Chairman and Peter its National Secretary.
The collaboration between us that had begun in Boston continued in New York in the YSA national office. We made a good team. He had a very spirited temperament, made many imaginative suggestions for our work, some of which were very good and some not so good, and he relied on me to filter them. My temperament was more even, and at the time I knew more about Marxism. This made for a good balance.
He was one of our people who marched in Selma, Alabama together with Rev. Martin Luther King and SNCC leader John Lewis for voting rights for Blacks in the South, one of the turning points of the civil rights movement.
Peter was an excellent public speaker through to the end of his life. A few weeks before he died he got up from his sick bed to make an impassioned speech at a Peace and Freedom Party convention backing the nomination of Ralph Nader to be the P&F candidate for President in California.
Peter was the best public speaker of our generation in our movement. In fact, he was among the best of the public speakers that emerged in the youth radicalization as a whole. He was equally fluent in both Spanish and English. He spoke without notes, and had the ability to explain ideas in terms wide audiences could grasp, and a quick wit. He communicated his enthusiasm to his listeners, who knew that he passionately believed in what he was saying.
In the mid-1960s, Peter moved to the San Francisco Bay Area at the request of the SWP to strengthen our work there. He quickly became an important leader of the student and antiwar movements at the University of California at Berkeley. He was singled out by then Governor Ronald Reagan as one of the "most dangerous men" in the state because he was in the thick of every major demonstration. The University expelled him for using a University microphone at an antiwar action.
Following the great May-June, 1968 student-worker uprising and general strike -- near socialist revolution -- in France, Peter initiated a broad coalition of Berkeley left groups in solidarity. A peaceful demonstration of 1,000 was attacked by the police without provocation. The demonstrators fought back, which initiated three days and nights of mass meetings and fighting with the police. The YSA headquarters became a first-aid station. Peter was the central leader and public spokesman of the movement and helped steer it toward militant mass action around the single issue of defending the democratic right of freedom of assembly. All decisions were made in mass meetings which heard different proposals. Peter always carried the day.
Demonstrators overwhelmingly approved his proposal to continue to assert their right to assembly, defying the police if necessary. The demonstrators took this position with full knowledge of the possible consequences because it was thoroughly debated. They were fully prepared to defend their rights against any attack, and organized accordingly. In the court of public opinion among the residents of Berkeley, the demonstrators began to be supported as the issue became generally known, and the city administration became isolated. When it became clear that thousands were going to assert their rights by gathering in the street, prepared for self-defense, the city finally relented and the demonstration turned into a victory rally with all the groups who had supported the movement, from the Black Panthers to the SWP and YSA. Peter was the main speaker as the acknowledged leader.
Peter then took an assignment to go to Boston to strengthen the SWP and YSA, which were playing a leading role in the antiwar movement there as well as nationally. In October 1969 there was a massive outpouring of antiwar actions called the Moratorium. The major action in Boston was a mass meeting on the Commons of 100,000. More moderate pro-Democratic Party forces tried to keep Peter from speaking. They finally relented, but put him as the last speaker on a long list. The crowd began to disperse before Peter started speaking, but was electrified and regrouped. One of his points was to humanize the Vietnamese "enemy." He finished to a standing ovation. The press and even Democratic Party people admitted that Peter's speech was the best received of the day.
During the great student antiwar strike in May 1970, decisions on what to do next were made in mass meetings. Peter spoke at many of these meetings as did other members of the SWP and YSA. Various ultralefts would propose "militant" actions. Our mass action perspective, actually more militant than their infantile proposals for street theater, carried the day almost everywhere, not only in Boston but across the country. Peter was especially persuasive in these meetings.
In 1969, a faction struggle emerged in the Fourth International, the world-wide organization of Trotskyist groups, which was to last for seven years. The initial issue was whether our parties in Latin America should launch rural guerrilla war throughout the continent. The majority position was to support this perspective. A minority, which the SWP supported, opposed this orientation. The minority said it was wrong to project a tactic, rural guerrilla war, as a strategy for a whole continent regardless of the concrete situation in each country. In fact, attempts to carry out this perspective met with disaster in Bolivia and Argentina, the countries singled out to begin the process. Peter played a leading role in this debate, traveling throughout the continent, and as one of our leaders in the discussions in the bodies of the FI in the early 1970s.
One of the supporters of the minority was Hugo Blanco, who had become famous as a peasant organizer in the Cuzco region of Peru. The peasant's demand was for land, and they began to take over land from the semi-feudal landowners, who attacked the peasants with private armies. Blanco helped lead the organization of armed defense squads to fight back. When the national government sent the army in to crush the movement, Blanco led a guerrilla that was rooted in the masses of the region, so he was quite knowledgeable about the tactic. With the support of the peasantry, has band held out for a time, but the army finally captured him. The SWP and the FI launched a defense campaign to save his life. Peter met with Blanco in prison. The defense campaign eventually resulted in Blanco being freed, and he later was elected to the parliament.
Peter had many exciting moments in his Latin American travels.
Following the disclosures of government dirty tricks that began to come out in the wake of the Watergate scandal, the SWP and YSA launched a lawsuit in 1973 against the government and its different political police agencies. Besides these organizations themselves, there were a few named plaintiffs, including Peter. He was the main speaker at the rally that publicly launched the suit. We eventually won.
In the 1976 elections, Peter was our presidential candidate, the overwhelming choice of the membership. His running mate was Willie Mae Reid, a Black woman who had been active in the Black struggle for some years, especially in Chicago. We launched the campaign early in 1975, to maximize the time it could be utilized to popularize our views. Peter and Willie Mae criss-crossed the country in many speaking engagements for nearly two years. This was the largest election campaign the SWP has held, before or since, and we recruited many new members as a result.
When the Nicaraguan revolution triumphed in 1979, Peter was part of a team we sent to size up the events. He came back in time to address the SWP convention in August. His first word were, "The socialist revolution has begun in Nicaragua!" In September I went with Peter to Nicaragua, with other SWP members, as part of an international team, which included Hugo Blanco. We concluded that a workers' and peasants' government had been established. We also rented a house -- cheap because the owner didn't want to stay in the new situation. Peter, then others, was assigned to live there to help us follow the revolution.
Certain negative features had begun to appear in the SWP in the 1970s. By 1978 the leadership was on its way to becoming a cult around the central leader who had emerged from the party's work in the radicalization of "The Sixties," Jack Barnes. By 1980, the Party began to degenerate. In 1981 Peter went on a visit to Venezuela. While he was absent, a meeting of the National Committee was held. At that meeting we were told that Peter had resigned. I didn't find out until some years later after I had left the SWP that this was an outright lie, orchestrated by Jack Barnes. Jack had always been jealous of the fact that Peter was the darling of the party membership. Over the next years in the 1980s most of the central leaders were forced out one way or another.
So this is how Peter was removed from the SWP. He tried to build a new organization, North Star Network, named after the paper put out by the great abolitionist Frederick Douglas. When he was in the party Peter had taken an interest in American radical history, including the Civil War. He wrote a book, "Racism, Revolution, Reaction, 1861-1877" which we published during the 1976 election campaign.
While North Star attracted other former members of the SWP, most were in the process of drifting away from politics, and it slowly fell apart. In subsequent years, Peter kept trying to find a way to rebuild. He had come to the conclusion that the times were not propitious to launch a new democratic-centralist organization like the SWP had been. He also began to question whether the program of the SWP was sectarian in and of itself. While his views on this vacillated, and were never clearly spelled out, this led to a difference between us. He had moved to the Bay Area, as I and my companion Caroline Lund had done later in 1991, so I kept in touch with him.
In the 1980s and '90s he worked with the Australian Democratic Socialist Party, which had succeeded in maintaining itself as a democratic centralist organization, unlike many other groups around the world who became sects or collapsed in the face of the retreat of the radicalization of "The Sixties." He made many trips to Australia to speak for the DSP. He also worked with a group around Matt McCarten, a Maori and labor leader in New Zealand.
For a time he worked with a group led by Max Elbaum that came out of the Maoist Line of March, but which had evolved away from Maoism and Stalinism. For a time I worked with Peter in this endeavor, but when it became clear that Elbaum was sticking to one aspect of American Stalinism, support to the Democratic Party, we both broke off political relations with this tendency.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the US Communist Party split. One side formed the Committees of Correspondence. The CoC was particularly strong in California, and Peter was an early participant in its formation in its first, fluid years. Its first national gathering was held at the U of C Berkeley campus, and was billed as open to all tendencies. Some 2,400 from around the country attended. The event included many workshops that were characterized by free-flowing discussions, as well as plenary sessions. I met many former members of the SWP there.
Prominent former CP leaders rejected the crimes of Stalinism, as well as some of their own. An example was Herbert Aptheker, who rejected his own role in justifying such things as the Kremlin's crushing of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and others.
It appeared that emerging from this promising beginning a new socialist organization could be built of many thousands of members. Such an organization would necessarily be multi-tendency, and would contain revolutionists as well as reformists, many in between, and many new to socialist ideas. To go forward, a national speaking tour of teams representing the various forces at the Berkeley meeting could have signed up members across the country. Also, a national newspaper would have to be started up, with positions all agreed on as well as full public debates of differences. But neither of these things happened. Over time, if the CoC had gone in this direction, such debates would clarify areas of agreement as well as differences, and probably lead to splits.
The CoC gradually wasted away, and the initial enthusiasm dissipated. It became clear that what was behind this evolution was that a grouping of ex-CP leaders around Charlene Mitchell in New York was dead set against the participation in any meaningful way of other tendencies. Their central political position which they held inviolate was support to the Democratic Party. Peter, myself and others began to realize this and became less involved, and then quit.
While participating in the early years of this development, Peter also helped found the California Green Party in 1991. He became one of the best-known Greens nationally. His objective was to build an electoral vehicle capable of challenging the Democratic Party from the left. He was also seeking to further the ecological movement. He had become more and more convinced that humanity was facing an ecological catastrophe under capitalism.
The 2000 Presidential elections put the Green Party on the map when it ran Ralph Nader. Two revolutionary socialist groups, the International Socialist Organization and Solidarity, supported the Nader campaign, and Peter, who was instrumental in nominating Nader, worked with both. The anti-globilization demonstrations in Seattle had occurred in 1999, radicalizing a new generation of young people. These poured into the Nader campaign, and brought their energy and enthusiasm into it.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 handed the Bush administration what it had been looking for, a "Pearl Harbor" excuse for a sharp turn toward war and greater authoritarianism. In this atmosphere, Peter ran for Governor of California in 2002, as the candidate of the Green Party. Peter used his campaign to speak out against the war. Under his influence, the California Green Party had adopted a pro-working class platform, which included defense of undocumented migrant workers, a large number of whom worked in the California fields, restaurants, and construction. Peter made important inroads into coverage by Latino radio and newspapers, and among Mexican-American political groups.
One demonstration Peter spoke to was in Santa Rosa, a center of immigrant workers. The action was called by immigrant rights groups, and was endorsed by the Green Party. Hardly any Greens showed up, however, a reflection of the party's organizational weakness, something Peter was quite aware of. Caroline Lund and I participated in a march of some 500 immigrant workers which culminated in a rally where Peter was the featured speaker. He spoke Spanish, and was enthusiastically received by the workers.
Peter received five percent of the vote state-wide, a large vote for any third party in some time. In San Francisco, he got 16 percent!
In 2003, Governor Gray Davis (an appropriate name for this center-right dull Democrat) was recalled in a referendum initially backed by the Republican right, but which garnered wide support. A special election was called, and Peter was again the Green candidate. A Latino Democrat was running, as well as Arnold Schwartzenegger for the Republicans. There were other minor candidates. A televised debate was held, which Arnold boycotted. The debate was seen across the country. The media commentators concluded that Peter had won the debate hands down. He refrained from personal attacks, unlike the other candidates, and had the facts and figures at hand to back his policies.
After Bush stole the 2000 election from Al Gore, the Democrats launched a campaign to blame Nader for their loss. Nader stayed firm against the Democrats, but many in the Green Party started to fold. This became clear at the Green Party convention in 2004, when, through undemocratic manipulations, the delegates rejected nominating Nader. They nominated an unknown instead, who ran a low-key campaign and urged a vote for himself only in "safe" states, with a vote for Democrat Kerry where the election was close.
Peter became Nader's vice-presidential candidate in 2004. They ran as independents. The Democratic Party went all out to deny the Nader-Camejo ticket space on the ballot. The lesser-evil mood was deep, and Nader this time received many fewer votes than in 2000.
Peter opened up a fight inside the Green Party for internal democracy and for independence from the Democrats. His popularity among Greens in California resulted his being nominated for Governor once again in 2006. He began to have health problems during the campaign, and he resolved that it would be his last.
He hoped that his fight inside the Green Party would result in a left wing forming. He told me he thought this could result in a new Green-Labor Party to emerge. However, there just wasn't enough juice in the party for this to happen.
Soon after the 2006 election, he found out that he had cancer. In his remaining time he concentrated on a book about his political career. He completed the drafts of the final chapters shortly before he died. It is to be hoped that this book appears after the editing process, so that the remarkable story of this outstanding revolutionists can be told in full for the new generations of fighters who will emerge to fight this degenerating system. The book will be titled North Star.
In August 2006, Caroline Lund and I held a party to celebrate our fortieth anniversary. She was dying from ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease, and the party was also to say goodbye to her. I have a wonderful photo of myself, Peter and Caroline in her wheelchair that was taken at the party.
Goodbye my dear friend. Goodbye my comrade. I will remember you until I can no longer remember anything. Goodbye.
Socialist Worker (US): A life spent in struggle
By Todd Chretien
September 22, 2008 -- Socialist Worker (USA) -- Once named one of the 10 most dangerous people in California by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, Peter Miguel Camejo lost his long struggle with cancer on September 13, 2008, at the age of 68, leaving behind a lifetime of struggle for a better world.
Measured by the prominent obituaries written by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle, it seems that Reagan wasn't the only one who realized Peter's potential as a leader.
I only met Peter in 2003 during the California gubernatorial recall race, but quickly developed a deep appreciation for his political talents and his historical knowledge. I also came to consider him a dear friend. We worked together on a practically daily basis from 2003 until he got sick in 2007, and even then, we were in very close touch.
Of course, his family and the comrades who knew him for much longer than I did will miss him even more. But perhaps because I am from a different generation, but hold very similar political ideas, I feel his loss in a particularly acute way.
One of the greatest weaknesses of the American left is the break in continuity from the revolutionaries of prior generations passing their knowledge and experience on to the next. Peter was one of the few leaders of the 1960s who actively maintained his commitment to the need to build a new revolutionary movement based on the mass of working-class people and students in this country.
I can't help but feeling that the development of the new left-wing upsurge that Peter felt was too long deferred is finally beginning to emerge. But the fact that we will not have him around to learn from will make our path one step longer.
No doubt, more leaders will rise, although few will match his political skills or his knack for crafting accessible and hilarious speeches.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
PETER JOINED the movement in the late 1950s as a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and soon became one of its most important leaders. From defense of the Cuban Revolution to organizing against the war in Vietnam to marching for civil rights, Peter participated in every stage of the great political upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s.
Even his political opponents, from Ronald Reagan to liberal Democrats to other socialists, instantly recognized his unique gift for inspiring students and workers to take action and the way he made socialist ideas immediately accessible and sensible.
In a speech in May 1969 called "How to Make a Revolution in the United States," Peter used that gift to explain the importance of understanding the nature of capitalist power. Anyone who ever had the privilege of seeing him speak in person only has to recall Peter's energy, smile and timing to make the following passage come to life. It's classic Camejo:
Rockefeller would never come to your campus and say: "Hi, how're you doing? Are you studying hard, getting your degrees so you can come to work for me and make me richer?" No, they don't do that. They go around saying that there aren't classes in America, that everybody's middle class, only that some are a little more middle class than others. In other words, they are ashamed of their own existence. They have to hide it. And there are good reasons for that. One of their problems, of course, is that they're so small.
Now, how do they maintain their rule? To find this out, you can try an experiment. Get all dressed up, put on a jacket and tie, and walk into some corporation and say: "Hello, I'm a sociologist, I'm here to do a study. Could I just walk around and talk to people?" And then you walk up to somebody and say: "Who's your supervisor?" And he'll point to someplace, and you find someone with a little nameplate, and it's a supervisor. And you ask him: "Who's your supervisor?"
And he'll point to a different place, and you walk in, and there'll be a rug. And you say to him: "Who's your supervisor?" And he'll point to a different floor, and you'll find it gets harder and harder to get in the doors. There's more and more secretaries, and phones, and the rug gets thicker and thicker.
Eventually, you have to make appointments. And then you hit the sound barrier. Here is where you switch from the people who carry out decisions to people who make the decisions. And that's your local ruling class.
In 1967, after being expelled from the University of California at Berkeley for "using an unauthorized microphone" at an antiwar protest, Peter was elected to the student government with the highest total vote of any candidate. Through the course of the 1960s, Peter helped build the SWP into one of the most important forces on the American left.
While the SWP and its youth group grew to a membership of several thousand activists, Peter always maintained that the job of socialists was to involve ever larger numbers of workers and students in the struggle. A political party had to organize and offer leadership, but it was the millions of ordinary people who eventually had to take matters into their own hands in any serious revolution--"the self-emancipation of the working class," as Marx had put it.
Even while Peter reveled in leading huge student street marches and outwitting the Berkeley police who wanted to throw him in jail, he always understood that mass student protests by themselves would not be powerful enough to challenge American capitalism. Peter expounded on this idea in 1970 in the wake of Nixon's invasion of Cambodia, the murder of students at Kent State and Jackson State by the National Guard, and the May student general strike:
The working class and the oppressed nationalities are mass social layers, and they can only realize their potential power when they organize as a massive social force. The ruling class can deal with any one individual or any small group; it's only masses that can stand in their way. So the potential power of the working class to stop the war is a big threat.
Now, the people who run this country are not stupid. They are not going to continue blindly along a course when they know there are dangers ahead. No one has to go up to Nixon or Kennedy and say: "If the mood that exists among students were to spread to the workers, and instead of a general student strike there was a general strike of the working class, well, then you would lose more than Vietnam and Cambodia."
No one has to tell them that. They know that. And that's why they don't just keep pushing ahead, saying to hell with the students and workers, send in another million soldiers and invade Cambodia. Send troops into Cuba, send them into Indonesia and into China. Drop the bomb on China.
They know better than to just keep pushing ahead. What they have to do is get rid of that danger, the danger that actions will bring a response from the masses who actually have power to stop them. They're not so stupid as to just go blindly forward. Because where there's real power, and real stakes, people don't play games.
You see, you can take 200 or 300, or even a few thousand people and fight in the streets, throwing rocks at windows and putting on a big show. You can play revolution, not make revolution. But when you're talking about 15 million workers who control basic industry in this country, you don't play games. Because they don't run around throwing things at windows. They do things like stop production, period.
The postmen, for instance--all they had to do to tie up the economy was to go home [during the 1970 wildcat postal strike]. That's all. Just go home. That's power.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
BY THE early 1970s, millions of young workers and students called themselves radicals, and millions sang about "revolution in the air." But as the war in Vietnam ended, thus winding down the movement, and the postwar economic boom came to an end, there was a growing debate about the meaning of "revolution" and how to make one.
Some radicals retreated into increasingly isolated action or lifestyle communes. However, the vast majority was pulled back toward the idea that the Democratic Party offered the only "realistic" means to change the system. In 1976, Peter jumped into the middle of this debate by running for president as the SWP candidate.
Peter used the campaign to fight for the idea that the great historical stumbling block to the building of any genuine revolutionary alternative organization was the misplaced hope that the Democratic Party could be taken over by the left and used as a vehicle to advance toward socialism.
Surprisingly, even among socialists in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, this idea was in the minority, as the Communist Party, many Maoist groups and the forerunners of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)--Sen. Bernie Sanders being their most prominent member--backed Democrat Jimmy Carter for president.
In a widely publicized debate, Peter took on social democratic activist and DSA founder Michael Harrington over this fundamental question, arguing:
I'll tell you the problem with this country...Carter and Ford are both for the rich, both for the corporations, for this system...and the problem is that no other point of view is heard.
We are a tiny minority. Michael Harrington says you have to go with the workers [and vote for Carter]. The majority of workers were for the war in Vietnam. Does that mean we should have been for it? Sometimes the majority is wrong. A majority in this country was once for slavery, but the abolitionists went outside the two-party system, didn't they?
Now when we look back in history, what do we say about these abolitionists? They were right! They did the right thing...preaching to everyone, "No, both parties are wrong. Both parties are for slavery. Even though one says they'll hit the slave with a mild whip, and the other says with a heavy whip." The abolitionists said, "That's not the real issue. The problem is, we've got to build a movement, we've got to build a new mass party that will fight slavery."
Let's have no illusions. Whether you vote for Carter or Ford, you are not making any decision about who runs this government. That is a myth. We must fight that myth.
We must go out and tell people the truth about the Democratic Party. It's a war party; it's a racist party; it's a sexist party; and it's anti-labor. And the minute you start telling people to join such a party, you've undermined your entire ability to have a strategy for social change.
Anyone familiar with Peter's later campaigns knows that he returned again and again to the history of the fight to abolish slavery as means to ground socialist politics in American history. This was not just a rhetorical device, but flowed from a profound knowledge of this historical period, based on the research he did for a book that deserves a much wider audience called Racism, Revolution, Reaction, 1861-1877: The Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction.
While he received just 90,000 votes in 1976, his message found such a receptive audience that the FBI sent literally hundreds of agents into his campaign to disrupt it and spy on the SWP. Over the years, the FBI paid over $1.5 million to its infiltrators.
Peter was rightly proud of the SWP's successful lawsuit against the FBI as well as their ability to force the spies to do party work, even as they were trying to undermine the organization. "If you're going to have spies in your organization," he would say, "make sure you make them work extra hard putting up posters for meetings!"
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BY 1980, the radical wave of the 1960s and '70s was beaten back, and the SWP, like most of the international left, went into crisis. Peter and hundreds of other dedicated socialists left the SWP as the group retreated into an ever more sectarian approach. In 1983, he founded the North Star Network with fellow ex-SWPers and other activists in order to organize solidarity campaigns and material aid deliveries for the Nicaraguan revolution.
Having left the SWP where he'd spent his entire political career, Peter embarked on the unexpected path of becoming a broker for Merrill Lynch. He used to laugh when he'd tell the story of how he figured it wouldn't be too hard to make some money because he'd read Marx's Capital, and he was good at math. Although his supervisor quickly found out who he was, he wasn't purged from his job because Peter made money on his trades, so the guy protected him from red-baiting in defense of the bottom line.
Ironically, Merrill Lynch outlived Peter by less than a week, a fact that would no doubt have delighted him.
In the years that followed, Peter became a proponent and leading pioneer in what he called "socially responsible" investing. But his real passion was political movements.
In 1991, Peter helped found the California Green Party, hoping it might become a vehicle for a new generation of opposition, but he played a modest role for years. After Ralph Nader's barnstorming run for president in 2000, Peter decided to it was time to step up. He entered the race for governor of California in 2002, and ended up winning a surprising 5 percent of the vote.
Peter's campaign proved that, despite the attempts to blame Nader for the election that Bush stole in Florida in 2000 and the nationalist backlash after September 11, there remained a large audience for a left-wing alternative to the two-party system.
In 2003, voter disgust with Democratic Gov. Gray Davis' budget cuts led to a recall election that opened the door to a wild, seven-way election, which allowed Peter to get into the half-dozen televised debates as the Green Party candidate. Millions of people watched those debates as Peter presented a clear, common-sense argument about how the state budget deficit could be filled by making the richest 5 percent of the population pay as much of their income in taxes as the average worker.
Later that fall, Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez came within a few points of winning the mayoral race in San Francisco. Peter loved the campaign and admired Matt's even temper, plain-speaking radicalism and political creativity. In many ways, Peter and Matt's 2003 campaigns were the high point of Green Party influence and organization in California.
In 2004, a sharp debate broke out in the Green Party between those who argued that the party had to bow to the "Anybody But Bush" doctrine and those who wanted to continue to fight to break the two-party system. The debate was fought out over the question of supporting Ralph Nader's campaign or running a "safe state" race that wouldn't challenge the Kerry campaign.
Peter came down squarely on the side of political independence from the Democrats' John "Reporting for Duty" Kerry, and accepted Nader's request to run as his vice presidential candidate on a decidedly antiwar platform. Although the crowds were smaller than in 2000, everywhere Peter went, he spoke powerfully and plainly about the right of the Iraqi people to defend themselves from American occupation.
You often hear that people get more conservative as they grow older, but if you compare Peter's arguments in opposition to voting for the lesser evil against Michael Harrington in 1976, what he said in his 2004 stump speech will sound awfully familiar:
There is a mystery to the 2004 presidential election; a silence has fallen on America regarding a glaring contradiction. As we enter the second half of 2004, there is massive popular opposition to the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act--possibly a majority of Americans. Yet these same people are about to vote in overwhelming numbers for John Kerry for president.
But John Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, gave President Bush 18 standing ovations in January [at the Bush's State of the Union], voted for the war, say the war was right, insist on continuing the occupation of Iraq against its peoples' desires, want to increase the number of troops and nations occupying Iraq, voted for "unconditional support to Bush" for his conduct of the war, and backed Bush by voting against the U.S. Constitution for the Patriot Act.
The only explanation for tens of millions voting against their heartfelt opinions is the lack of free elections in America. There are no runoff elections. Without runoff elections, people are trapped. They fear expressing their true opinions.
If they vote for what they are for, they are told they will only elect Bush. They must learn to vote against themselves, to accept the con game of the two-party system. People are taught not to vote for what they believe in but against an individual.
Then Peter would smile and ask everyone in the audience who was planning on voting for Kerry to do him a favor. He would say, "When you vote for Kerry, put your hand to your forehead and see if you can feel your soul leaving your body." Peter's humor was so fine-tuned that even those who were still planning on voting for Kerry would sit back and laugh because they realized that Peter was laughing with them, trying to win them over, not ridiculing them or laughing at them.
Through the course of the 2004 campaign and after, Peter developed a genuine respect and warmth for Ralph and his principled refusal to bow before the avalanche of lies, scorn and abuse that liberal politicians and writers heaped on him simply because he believed in the need to challenge the two-party system. And the feeling was mutual.
As Ralph wrote of Peter after his death, "He was a friend, colleague and politically courageous champion of the downtrodden and mistreated of the entire Western Hemisphere. Everyone who met Peter, talked with Peter, worked with Peter, or argued with Peter, will miss the passing of a great American."
Peter's last major political effort before he got sick was helping to organize the mass immigrant rights May Day marches of 2006. He helped convene the San Francisco meeting that built what turned out to be a march of over 200,000 Latino workers taking over San Francisco for the biggest labor action in decades.
If Peter loved speaking and debating during his electoral campaigns, the outpouring of immigrant workers power standing up for their rights sparked a remarkable energy that gave one a glimpse of the kind of mass, radical leader he had the potential to be. Even at the age of 66, his fluent, rapid-fire Venezuelan Spanish and Latino roots made him instantly popular with organizers and crowds alike.
A true fighter right up until the end, Peter launched a campaign in 2006 to demand freedom for Santos Reyes, a Mexican immigrant who was sentenced to 25 years in California prison because he took a written driver's license test on behalf of his cousin. Perhaps the best tribute we can pay Peter is to do what we can to keep Santos' case alive, and to redouble our fight for the world Peter believed was not only possible, but necessary.
Louis Proyect: Reflections on Peter Camejo (1939-2008)
By Louis Proyect
September 13, 2008 -- Unrepentant Marxist, Marxism List -- Even though I had steeled myself in anticipation of Peter Camejo’s death, I was still shaken by the news that he was gone. For a period of time between 1981 and 1987, I considered Peter to be a very good friend. More importantly, he was the one person who helped me understand a revolution could be made in the U.S. notwithstanding American Trotskyism’s tendency to create all sorts of obstacles in the way to that understanding. Despite his long-time membership in a group that he would eventually regard as an obstacle to the creation of genuine revolutionary movement, Peter always had an ability to transcend sectarian frameworks.
In early 1970, I was in the New York branch of the SWP and kicking around the idea of going back to graduate school and putting this organization behind me. After 3 years I felt alienated from the membership and many of the arbitrary norms and was ready to pack it in. When I broached the subject with the SWP organizer in New York, he told me that the party was about to ask me to move up to Boston and work with Peter to overcome dogmatic objections in the branch to working in a “petty bourgeois” antiwar movement. I felt flattered that the higher ups would see any value in my skills and agreed to move there in a few weeks.
As some of you know, I have been working on a comic book memoir for the past few months and Peter looms large throughout the story. Here’s what I wrote about one branch meeting:
In early 1970 a memorable fight broke out at a branch meeting over what position to take on the “Shea Bill”. The 31 year old James Shea, a state legislator, had proposed that Massachusetts authorize residents to refuse combat duty in wars that were undeclared by Congress, including Vietnam. It would also authorize the state Attorney General Robert Quinn to use the powers of his office to defend soldiers who challenged the military and indeed Quinn filed suit against the war on February 12, 1970 on behalf of 12 local soldiers who refused orders to go to Vietnam.
Someone took the floor and spoke against the Shea Bill:
“Comrades, it puts undue faith in the bourgeois state to back such a law. It fosters pacifist illusions about the war ending through legislation. We know that it will take the power of the working class to end the war, not the Shea bill. We all know that Shea is only interested in getting people off the streets and supporting the Democratic Party.”
Peter got up next to reply. I remember his comments vividly now after 36 years, just like it was yesterday.
Comrades, Lenin used to stay up late at night reading the Czarist law codes to look for a loophole that would allow workers to go out on strike legally. We must take advantage of any opening that would make it more difficult for the war to continue. If the ruling class is divided over the war, we want to deepen that divide. The Shea Bill should not be seen as opposed to antiwar demonstrations, but complementary to them.
Peter’s motion to support the Shea Bill carried that evening, but in the end it was academic since the courts ruled it unconstitutional. In any case, the notion that James Shea was some kind of Machiavellian schemer trying to defuse the antiwar movement was belied by subsequent events. On May 8, 1970, in deep despair over the war, he went upstairs to his bedroom. His wife, who was worried about his depressed state, opened the door to see him raise a gun and fire a bullet into his head. He died immediately.
For the two years Peter was branch organizer, I felt that there was no better way to live one’s life than as a revolutionary socialist, which meant as a member of the SWP.
I have to confess that I developed a kind of hero worship for Peter and he probably knew it. He was five years older than me and seemed to enjoy my company. When we were up in Boston, we used to play squash together at the Cambridge Y. And when conventions or conferences were held in Oberlin, Peter and I always found time to spend on the courts. Besides his acute political intelligence, Peter was one of the funniest people I ever knew in my life. Although I don’t put myself in his league politically, I did feel that my own sense of humor helped sustain our friendship.
In late 1978, I decided to quit the SWP. I felt that the party was still going to lead the working class to socialism, but I was too burned out by the “turn” to stick around. I was going to go back to N.Y. and write the Great American Novel. (That’s my sense of humor kicking in again.)
For a couple of years I read the Militant with a mounting sense that the SWP was not really involved with actions against the U.S. war in Central America even though the paper was filled with articles about the growing conflict. After a N.Y. Times article written by Leslie Gelb predicting a new Vietnam in the region appeared in 1981, I called an old friend who was still in the party to demand an explanation. How could the party that I joined in 1967 largely on the basis of its antiwar activity sit on the sidelines, even if in the name of looming trade union struggles (that never materialized, I should add.)
In 1980 I ran into a guy named Ray Markey in a pizza parlor across from my building on the Upper East Side and asked him if he could explain the party’s abstention. I had no idea what he thought of the “turn” to industry but I always remembered Ray as a straight shooter. Ray was a colorful Irish-American with a temper worse than mine and a long-time leader of the librarian’s union in N.Y. I would eventually learn that he refused to work in a New Jersey auto plant that the party was colonizing, understanding that his leadership in the librarian’s union counted for a lot more, even if the party brass disagreed.
He told me that Peter Camejo had written something that would answer my questions. It was titled appropriately enough “Against Sectarianism“. He would send me a copy even though that broke party rules. Ray understood that he would be booted out before long himself and really didn’t care about the consequences.
“Against Sectarianism” hit me like a bolt of lightning. Peter used the same brilliant political analysis that I saw at work in Boston and applied to the party that he had belonged to for more than 20 years. It was powerfully argued and used the rapier like wit that defined him. Here is a passage that had hit home for me as an unreconstructed “petty bourgeois” element who had failed to make the turn to industry.
Barnes continued: “That is without doubt what is happening on the U.S. left as the blows against the working class come down, as the polarization deepens, and as the imperialist war pressure mounts. The difference between conditions and consciousness borne of being a worker and that produced by being immersed in a petty-bourgeois milieu is widening. And the ranks of the North American marielitos- with Susan Sontag and her ilk leading the scramble for the boats-are growing.”
At an earlier date, Barnes used the example of Jerry Rubin as an example of the marielito phenomena. Rubin, a colorful protester during the anti-Vietnam war period who was associated with the “Yippies,” took a job on Wall Street and argued in defense of capitalism. The New York Times made a great deal of Rubin’s new job and gave him plenty of space to explain his views. The New York Times was overjoyed to find at least one figure from the radicalization of the ’60s who would speak in favor of capitalism. The Times’ campaign around Rubin fooled only a few people, probably because the Times did not follow up with other examples or any comments supporting or endorsing Rubin’s outlook by other well-known leaders of the ’60s.
The radicals of the ’60s have not, as a whole, turned to the right. Caught in the beginnings of a class polarization, the generation of the ’60s has gone in various directions. Some, under the pressures of bourgeois society and without any clear orientation, have abandoned political activity or become conservatized. Others have not, and their views cover the spectrum of positions existing at this stage of the radicalization in North American society.
Sensing that Peter had developed such a critique of the party, he was prevented from assuming his duties after a year long stay at his father’s ranch in Venezuela which he understood to be a leave of absence and nothing else. He went to Venezuela to read Lenin and try to figure out how the SWP had developed a caricature of what the Bolsheviks were trying to do. Peter thought that the Bolsheviks were nothing like the SWP. For one thing, they had expelled only one person in their entire history unlike the purge-happy Trotskyist movement.
When he got back to N.Y. to begin work with the party again, they told him to get lost. They actually had a beefy ex-football player from the University of Minnesota block Peter from entering a national committee meeting.
I called Peter immediately after reading the article and asked him what he had planned next since I wanted to be a part of it. It turned out that he was starting something called the North Star Network and I began to organize meetings at my house for people who were interested. More importantly, he advised me to join CISPES (the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) since that was where the action was. Peter had a keen sense of what Karl Marx once wrote to Bracke: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”
Eventually my involvement with Central America led me to a trip to Nicaragua in 1986 and participation in Tecnica, a radical version of the Peace Corps that played a critical role in Nicaragua and Southern Africa in the late 80s and early 90s.
Whenever I made it out to Berkeley to consult with Tecnica board members, I always would hook up with Peter and talk about where the movement was going. Those conversations were as precious to me as any that I have had in my lifetime and some can be found in my own memoir.
In a very real sense, everything that I am politically today was shaped directly by my apprenticeship/collaboration with Peter in the SWP and afterwards. I understand that Peter died with only half of the final chapter of his memoir unwritten. Thank god for that since I am quite sure that it will succeed both as politics to live by as well as great entertainment. Peter was a great person to be around when he was alive and his book will keep our memories of him alive as long as we live as well.