Learning from a revolutionary

PETER CAMEJO opens his gripping, page-turner of a memoir, North Star, by recounting his 1979 escape from a CIA-instigated arrest in the airport in Cali, Colombia. “To be arrested in Colombia is very dangerous—the rule of law is not one of Colombia’s traditions,” he notes. In order to “neutralize” this revolutionary activist, the CIA had fingered him as a “drug dealer.”

Airport workers, like him part of the revolutionary socialist movement, got him out of there.

There is little mystery as to why Peter would have been a target. He was a militant in the Fourth International (founded by Leon Trotsky and other dissident communists in the 1930s), in contact with numerous left-wing groups and individuals throughout Latin America and at that time touring Latin American cities in support of the Nicaraguan Revolution and about to travel to Peru to meet with peasant leader Hugo Blanco.

He was already one of the most remarkable figures in the history of U.S. radicalism, helping to educate, mobilize, and radicalize tens of thousands of people in the sixties and seventies as a leading spokesperson for the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The SWP played a central role in building a mass opposition in the United States that was part of bringing the Vietnam War to an end.

After the SWP suffered a devastating, largely self-inflicted decline, Peter revised some of his perspectives while seeking to remain true to his core beliefs. Over the next three decades, experimenting with various forms of activism in California, he became associated with the Green Party.

As he wrote his memoir, Peter knew he was dying of cancer. He hastened to finish this book, working on the penultimate chapter even as he was taken to the hospital for the last time. He dedicated North Star “to the thousands upon thousands of people who have worked with me through the years for peace, for social justice, against racism, and for human rights.” He believed that yet another wave of radical activism was gathering now, as it had in the sixties, the thirties, and before the First World War. North Star is his last contribution—for “the children, the future participants of mass social struggles who will make the Third American Revolution.”

Trotskyist and antiwar leader 
Peter came from a Latin American family with deep roots in his country’s history. Yet he was born, almost by accident, in New York City, when his mother traveled there from her native Venezuela for medical treatment. Growing up in the l950s in Great Neck, a village east of New York City, he became interested in socialist ideas while still quite young.

When he was eighteen, his girlfriend’s grandmother (an old socialist who had run for Congress in l922) brought the two of them to a meeting sponsored by the SWP, the Communist Party, and the National Guardian newspaper to explore possibilities for a unified ticket of socialist candidates.

He met members of the SWP there and wrote “that meeting would change my life.” Not long after, he went off to college in Boston at MIT, rooming with Barry Sheppard, also a socialist. The two formed the Greater Boston Socialist Student Organization, which evolved into a chapter of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), the SWP’s youth group. They soon moved to New York City in l960 to become YSA national leaders.

Peter was in the SWP for more than twenty years. This was a revolutionary socialist organization rooted in the U.S. radical traditions of Eugene V. Debs’ Socialist Party, the heroic Industrial Workers of the World, and the early Communist Party. Its militant cadres had broken away in reaction to the increasingly authoritarian influences in the world communist movement emanating from Stalin’s bureaucratic dictatorship in the USSR. They had rallied to the ideas of Leon Trotsky, and through the 1930s and 1940s had played a role in militant and sometimes momentous working-class struggles, standing for “workers’ democracy” and Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.

By the mid-1950s, the organization had been weakened by a series of organizational splits, the ravages of Cold War anticommunism and an extended period of capitalist prosperity that had deradicalized the labor movement of which it had been part. Yet what had become a small, half exhausted, semi-sectarian group of radicals was soon to experience a rejuvenating influx of radicalized students, the beginning of a remarkable upswing.

Peter was part of this new wave. When he joined in 1959, there were maybe 150 active members in SWP branches in several major cities. By l975, the U.S. Trotskyists had 3,000 members, including the youth group, with a presence in almost every major U.S. city. The SWP had a weekly newspaper, The Militant, a monthly theoretical magazine (then called the International Socialist Review), a publishing house that put out hundreds of books and pamphlets (Pathfinder Press, a sort of predecessor to Haymarket Books), a high-tech printing press, even a large library, housed in the party’s own building, a five-story old ship equipment repair place on Manhattan’s West Side Highway. This was paid for and refitted by party members themselves.

Peter and other SWP activists believed they were preparing a force that could provide decisive leadership in the coming revolution in the United States. As was the case with so much of the U.S. left of that period, that was a story that didn’t end well. As if to signify the party’s virtual destruction in the early eighties, that building was sold for $16 million, knocked down, and replaced by two tony glass condos inhabited by hedge fund operators and movie stars.

And yet the story of the SWP cannot be simply shrugged off as a sad tale of inflated hopes and tawdry disappointments. It was an organization that drew together significant clusters of idealistic and dedicated activists, and they were able to accomplish much.
In the explosive year 1968, in Berkeley, California, Peter and other members of the YSA organized a demonstration and rally on Telegraph Avenue, in solidarity with the masses of French students and workers who were powerfully mobilizing to challenge the capitalist status quo, linking it to struggles against war, racism, and other forms of capitalist oppression in the United States. The police attacked the gathering, but many thousands of protestors fought back—initiating what came to be known as “The Battle for Telegraph Avenue,” lasting two nights, graphically described in this volume by the organizer who coordinated the struggle.

The National Guard was called in to occupy Berkeley, but Camejo and other radical activists were able to mobilize public opinion to force the Berkeley City Council (at that time dominated by prowar Republicans and Democrats) to grant them the right to demonstrate and rally on Telegraph Avenue on July 4.

“The Fourth of July was a celebration,” he writes. “We didn’t have to do much; the event organized itself…. The street was so packed with people you could hardly move…. There were no police and therefore no violence, just joy. This crowd was very young and the victory was in their hearts.”

He adds: “The TV stations and newspapers across the board recognized July Fourth on Telegraph Avenue as a victory for the student movement and reported that there was no violence, no one arrested, no property damage, and that freedom was in the air.” Noting that this was “but one small victory in an ocean of struggle nationally and internationally,” he emphasizes: “But it showed me, as well as countless others, the importance of winning over public opinion and having the courage to stand up for your rights in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.”

Peter was perhaps the greatest socialist speaker of his generation—absolutely captivating, full of humor and wit, likeable, without pretense, and thus immensely popular. This comes through in the account of a reformist opponent, Ken Hurwitz, describing Peter speaking in Boston to a crowd of 100,000 persons at the October 15, 1969, Moratorium Against the War. He could not be excluded by the organizers of the Moratorium like Hurwitz, but he had been put last on the speakers’ list, a liberal attempt at “damage control.” 
But let’s read Hurwitz’s account:

The last speaker of the day was Peter Camejo, the Venezuelan revolutionary who had had us all ready to write a press release of disassociation. Still a step or two away from the microphone, he started in on his speech. He didn’t want a single person to leave the Common before he had a chance to work his spell. The words came in high pitched, staccato cadence, and his whole body vibrated to the rhythm.

“Vietnam,” he said, “isn’t a mistake but an absolute inevitability of the system. And to those politicians who are joining the bandwagon this anti-war movement is not for sale now, not in 1970, and not in 1972.” I expected the next shot of the crowd (the rally was televised) to show five thousand people heading for the Park Street subway station. But that wasn’t so. People were listening and responding. Certainly the majority wasn’t agreeing entirely with the revolutionary stance, but they were listening…. It didn’t matter whether we were socialist revolutionaries or not. He made us hate the war perhaps more than we ever thought possible. It was a scourge, a plague—there could be no “timetable” for ending it, it had to be ended now. Camejo spoke with such easy power, it was demagogic and frightening. This was a day of peace, but he made me see how close the peace in the antiwar movement always is to something far more charged and militant. Our own latent emotionalism and contempt surprises us all. Camejo ended his speech at the peak, and the crowd applauded until their hands were weary. (Ken Hurwitz, Marching Nowhere, W. W. Norton & Company, 1971, 143–44)

The SWP rarely receives the credit it deserves for the indispensable roll it played in the antiwar movement. It out-organized and out-worked forces to its left and to its right and built a version of a united front that furthered the success of the Vietnamese revolution. Much from that period has relevance for our own time.

In describing how he spoke out against the war in Vietnam, Peter writes:

One of my crowd-pleasers described casualties in Vietnam. I would say, “When casualties are reported every night you will notice that on one side they say a nationality, the United States; on the other they say an ideology, communists. For instance they will say 20 Americans were killed, but they killed l,500 communists. If they were consistent and gave an ideological breakdown, it would be something like 30 conservatives, 42 liberals, 155 socialists, and 250 apoliticals were killed and 4 existentialists were missing.” … Today there are slightly different terms, such as…“terrorists,” used for the same purpose—to avoid having to say Americans killed Iraqis in Iraq.”

He describes three currents in the antiwar movement of that period:

One approach was to orient the movement to work inside the Democratic Party. At certain times this current supported united mass actions, namely in non-election years. These groups included the Communist Party and its youth wing, the W. E. B. Du Bois Clubs, the Social Democratic organizations, and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party itself. I belonged to the second current, a broad coalition. It called for a united, single-issue antiwar effort in order to reach the most people. At the same time all the groups in the coalition were free to promote their broader agendas separately—setting up literature tables, leafleting, or carrying banners for their particular views—but not to impose those views on others as a precondition for working together. The third, rather loose, current I called “ultraleft.” They tended to oppose mass actions, which they viewed as a waste of time, focusing instead on street theater or open confrontations with the police to attract media attention. This current drew many of its supporters from the burgeoning counterculture, although the counterculture was infinitely broader than this.

At first, it seemed to many that Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), one of the foremost “new left” formations with several thousand members, would be destined to lead the struggle against the U.S. war in Vietnam. It was not SDS, however, but the Student Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam (SMC), that was the backbone of the campus antiwar efforts.

The SMC was associated with the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, and later with the National Peace Action Coalition—each of which mobilized millions in opposition to the war. The SWP and YSA were deeply involved in these efforts. As Peter notes, the SMC “didn’t require its members to hold any particular beliefs outside of wanting the United States to immediately withdraw from Vietnam.

This open approach was supported by the SWP and the YSA, which worked to build the SMC in cities with SWP or YSA branches. The SWP understood that the development of a genuinely united mass movement against the war was of crucial importance and that people didn’t have to agree on the nature of capitalism, the two-party system, or other issues in order to work together to demonstrate against the war.” SDS disagreed. It called and built the first antiwar demonstration in 1965 in Washington, D.C., but after that, as Peter recounts, “abstained from large demonstrations and tried to assert its control over smaller more militant actions that demanded agreement on many other issues. The Communist Party wanted to orient the antiwar movement to support what they called the ‘liberal wing’ of the Democratic Party.”

Without this mass action approach the massive antiwar demonstrations in 1967, 1969, and 1971 would not have taken place. These demonstrations reverberated in the Army and between the GI resistance abroad, the mass movement at home, and above all, the heroic resistance of the Vietnamese, the U.S. lost the war and was driven out of Vietnam, after destroying much of the country and killing more than a million persons.

“Looking back some forty years later,” Peter reflected, “I remain convinced that without the SWP/YSA current, the antiwar movement in the United States would have been weaker and its effectiveness limited.” One of the “great secrets in American history,” as Peter described it, was the government losing control over its army in Vietnam. “Soldiers began to refuse orders, trying to find ways that would not result in their being immediately arrested or shot. One extreme example appeared: when officers tried to force soldiers to advance against their wills, the rank and file killed their officers. Such killings were known as ‘fraggings.’... Some 600 were killed and another l,400 died under mysterious circumstances.”

Reaching outward, opposing sectarianism
Peter ran for Senate in Massachusetts against Ted Kennedy in l970. Kennedy called him a worthy opponent, and Peter remembers him as “generous and kind” in their encounters, which included three debates. He then ran for president on the SWP ticket in 1976.

Peter wanted “to run an inclusive campaign, not explicitly socialist, built around the key issues affecting working-class people and other sectors, such as racial discrimination and equal rights for women and gays. In other words, I hoped to build a campaign that would not be focused on recruiting more members of the SWP, but one that would reach out to broader forces in the aim of making a real impact.” For sectarian reasons SWP party head, Jack Barnes, opposed his running, but Peter’s popularity in the party won out, at least for the time being. The SWP won ballot status in thirty states, including getting l50,000 signatures on petitions in California to get on the ballot.

The campaign brochure that was distributed was called “Bill of Rights for Working People.” It proposed eight rights: the right to a job, the right to an adequate income, the right to free education, the right to free medical care, the right to secure retirement, the right to know the truth about economic and political policies that affect our lives, the right of oppressed minorities to control their own affairs, and the right to decide economic and political policy. The response was “generally very positive,” although a majority of the leadership of the party, especially Barnes, “saw the campaign merely as an opportunity to reach a slightly larger audience to try to recruit to the SWP. Anything beyond that simple orientation was considered a waste of time—an attitude of self-importance that, at its essence, strikes me as elitist.”

On the failure of the SWP in the sixties and seventies to build a mass organization, Peter observed in a manner that recalls Howard Zinn’s work, that

instead of seeing ourselves as a continuation of the abolitionist, populist, and socialist organizations that made up our people’s historic struggles for justice, equality, and freedom, we asked new members to digest a huge amount of history about the rise of Stalinism and how it had destroyed the left. We were so disconnected from our own history that to join our organization and remain active, a member had to become interested and invested in the internal factional struggles of Russia and Europe. This was important but couldn’t serve as a framework for a mass movement for social change.

Peter increasingly became critical of what he came to see as the “trap of Trotskyism.” At one point SWP national secretary Farrell Dobbs told him, “The program has been developed. Our job is to implement it.” Peter came to see this as a defining aspect of Trotskyism. “Trotskyists across the globe focused on the internal debate over the degeneration of the Soviet Communist Party and its worldwide influence, rather than on the expressions of the living class struggles of their own country.... This idea of the defense of the program became detached from the real, material development in the mass movement. Among Trotskyists the idea of the true ‘program’ gradually became its own icon to be defended.”

Peter was transformed by the international work he did in Latin America in the late 1970s. Sent by the SWP to Nicaragua in 1979, he was able to see a mass, popular revolution up close and personal. He describes a young militant of the newly victorious FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front), addressing the laboring poor in a Managua barrio:

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 about 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.

Peter describes this experience as a “tipping point” for him. But he found it impossible to convey such insights to others in the leadership of the SWP. Instead of getting involved in mass work, like defending the revolution in El Salvador, or the budding ecological movement, the SWP members, under Barnes’ urging, went out in l981 and got jobs in basic industry. It was called “the turn.” Peter wrote that it was “like the second coming. Sooner or later labor will rise and we need to be there. Consequently if you questioned the view that the center of all politics was now in the industrial unions you had fallen from the true faith.” Peter got a job pushing clothing carts in the garment district in New York City. He thought this had nothing to do with politics, and he had to rethink everything.

He asked his branch organizer for a leave of absence. It was granted him, but it was reported that he had resigned. Then Barnes slammed the door and wouldn’t let him back in. Thus the SWP got rid of the most popular person in the party and the most well-known and respected socialist outside of it. Peter writes that

the SWP had gradually separated itself from all political activity, rendering the membership passive. Finding union jobs in auto, steel, or another industry allowed some members to maintain the illusion they were doing something political.... This disconnect from reality led to internal conflict, factionalism, and expulsions, until the SWP was reduced to a sect, a cult around Barnes.... They decided to refer to themselves publicly as “communists,” which they do to this day. In the world of political sects this is a conscious effort to remain isolated.

Losing confidence in the Trotskyist traditions that were its heritage, the Barnes leadership had shifted to a bizarre new “orthodoxy,” proclaiming the SWP to be “a sister party of the Cuban Communist Party.” A wave of purges eliminated all critics of its new course. It shrank to an estimated membership of l50, barely visible to the larger movements for social change.

The struggle continues
In the last half of his memoir, Peter recounts all too briefly a number of his own personal and political transitions and transformations. There was much experimentation. Mention is made of the North Star Network, made up of ex-SWPers and others, attracting a membership of 1,500, which sought to apply the kinds of nonsectarian lessons Peter felt he had learned from his Latin American experiences. There was a substantial amount of “mass movement” work, but the group soon threw itself into support for Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition. Hoping that this Black-led political development might have radical consequences, he comments that finally “I came to my senses and realized that, with few exceptions, the Rainbow Coalition was just another name for keeping progressives in the Democratic Party.” Other efforts to work with a split-off of the Communist Party, Committees of Correspondence, and a Maoist-influenced group called Line of March resulted in the conclusion that these too were dead-ends, and were also pulling radicals into the orbit of the Democratic Party.

In these final decades, we can see Peter restlessly, experimentally, consistently reaching for ways of reaching out to millions of people whose combined power will be necessary to bring about the momentous power shift necessary to end the stranglehold of the profiteering multinational corporations over our society. “I first met Ralph Nader in 1996,” he writes. “He was testing the waters to see what support there would be if he were to run for president in opposition to the two parties—his platform would be pro-labor, anti-imperialism, antiracist, in favor of independent political action, and green.” He adds that “no person with his popularity and public standing had ever made a move in this direction in my lifetime,” adding that “Nader’s 2000 campaign [for president] was the precursor of the inevitable wave that will engulf America for all the reasons he posed in his campaign.”

It was to the left wing of the Green Party that Peter made his final political commitment. He ran a dynamic campaign for governor and helped his Green Party comrade Matt Gonzalez run for mayor of San Francisco (he came very close to winning).

In 2004, the Green Party was at a crossroads in California on the question of supporting the “lesser of two evils” Democrats against Bush or forging on to build a party independent of the forces that control the Democrats and the Republicans. Peter wrote “The Avocado Declaration,” a magnificent statement appended to his memoir. He wrote: “We do not believe it is possible to defeat the ‘greater’ evil by supporting a shamefaced version of the same evil. We believe it is precisely by openly and sharply confronting the two major parties that the policies of the corporate interests these parties represent can be set back and defeated.”

Unfortunately, significant elements in the Green Party had come to feel otherwise. Many refused to back Nader as the Greens’ presidential candidate because they believed this would undermine the chances of Democratic candidate John Kerry. Unwilling to compromise, and already battling the illness that would bring his life to an end, Peter ran as Ralph Nader’s running mate for vice president in 2004. Four years later he died of lymphoma.

Yet he has left this account of his life and struggles. “Every major gain in our history,” he tells us, “even pre-Civil War struggles such as the battles for the Bill of Rights, to end slavery, and to establish free public education—as well as those after the Civil War, have been the product of direct action by movements independent of the two major parties and in opposition to them.”

At the end, Peter reflected on the main quest of his life—“to try to comprehend how we could build a movement to help bring about what I believe will be an inevitable Third American Revolution...to continue and complete what the First and Second Revolutions, for independence from Britain and for the end of slavery in the Civil War...that is, equality and social justice within a framework in which humans do not allow exploitation or any of the irrational, inhumane practices now so common throughout our planet.”

Whether or not one agrees with all his judgments, North Star is a resource for those who want to commit themselves to this struggle.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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