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Book Review: North Star: A Memoir, by Peter Camejo

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Image: Haymarket Books
Image: Haymarket Books

Peter Camejo was a well-known political activist from his work in the Vietnam anti-war movement to his challenging of the two-party system with the Green Party and Ralph Nader. Two years after his death from lymphoma, his autobiography North Star: A Memoir has been published. It’s a good read, covering his whole life. In both its strengths and weaknesses, his life provides valuable lessons for future political activists.

He was born in 1939 in New York to Venezuelan parents and he grew up in both Venezuela and the United States. He describes how his childhood experiences in these countries resulted in his early political development:

“…at about thirteen, I was talking to my Aunt Milagro in Barquisimeto, and I told her I wished Venezuela were run by the United States because in the United States there were no poor people. She informed me that there were indeed poor people in the United States and that I had it exactly backward: people in Venezuela were poor because the United States did in fact run Venezuela by supporting our local dictator and controlling our economy.”

He was faced with a similar contradiction in that the dictionary definition of socialism: “production for use, not for profit, democratically run”, was very appealing – but the Soviet Union was a totalitarian dictatorship. These contradictions drew him to Trotskyist ideas and in 1958, he joined the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and its youth organization, the Young Socialist Alliance, while studying at MIT.

The SWP was the main Trotskyist party in the United States, having played an important role in the workers movement in the 1930s. By 1958, the party had gone into serious decline because of its wrong perspectives regarding the character of the postwar period. The SWP kept repeating mechanically the forecast of Leon Trotsky of imminent revolution and counterrevolution after World War II while in fact capitalism in the advanced countries and Stalinism were temporarily strengthened and stabilized on the basis of the massive postwar economic upswing. By the early 1960s the SWP was starting to revive on the basis of the emerging civil rights movement, and eventually the Vietnam anti-war movement.

Camejo got involved in civil rights organizing, where he marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama, and met with Malcolm X when he was still viewed as a pariah. He developed a reputation as a good public speaker during campaigns in defense of Cuba. By the time of the Vietnam anti-war movement he became the public face of the SWP.

His public speaking abilities were described by, Ken Hurwitz, a Democrat opponent during the anti-war movement, referring to “Peter Camejo, the Venezuelan revolutionary [who] had us all ready to write a press release of disassociation . . . People were listening. 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.”

Vietnam War

Camejo first came to prominence during the movement against the Vietnam War. In 1965, he moved to Berkeley and became active in the Vietnam Day Committee (VDC), founded by Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman.

Within the anti-war movement, there was a liberal trend that wanted to water down the anti-war content of the protests in favor of supporting Democratic candidates. There were also several smaller, sectarian trends that insisted on the movement adopting a full revolutionary program.

The SWP tried to use a coalition policy where different groupings and individuals would agree on a minimal program—in this case an immediate end to the war—in order to build a mass antiwar movement.

By 1966, the VDC had seriously declined as its founders retreated from the anti-war movement to support Democrats in the midterm elections and Camejo worked mostly in Berkeley in order to revive the antiwar movement. This hard work gave Camejo and the SWP prominence in the antiwar movement at the time.

Telegraph Avenue

The event that most prominently brought Camejo to the public eye was what became known as the “Battle of Telegraph Avenue.” On June 28, 1968, Camejo was involved with an SWP-initiated demonstration on Telegraph Avenue in support of the French general strike. This demo was attacked by the police which he describes in great detail in his autobiography North Star:

“This was probably one of the most preordained confrontations of the 1960s. Each side was waiting for the other to make a move. The police assumed we would give them a pretext for attacking. We had every intention not to give them one, so they would have to make a blatantly unprovoked assault.”

He knew that the police would attack the anti-war movement and that it was necessary to defend demonstrations from the police. However, he also understood that many people had illusions in the police and would take their side in a conflict. To defeat the police it was necessary to win people over.

He also had a similar understanding of the role of the Democratic Party as representative of big business. During the anti-war movement, he points out in North Star, that “the two-party system went to work, with the Democrats acting as though they supported the antiwar movement while they maneuvered to turn antiwar sentiment into electoral support for a party that would not only demobilize the movement but betray it.”

The media and Democratic politicians distorted the events to portray the demonstrators as the aggressors. Camejo and the SWP called further demonstrations against the police repression and he made sure they were carefully stewarded and only engaged with the police in self-defense. When the Democratic politicians tried to talk him in to stopping, he refused. He also skillfully used the increased media attention to put forward his views, and eventually won mass support.

On July 4, 1968, the city council allowed a demonstration without police interference. Despite, or because of, the lack of police, there was no violence.

Conflict With the SWP

After the Vietnam War ended, Camejo came into increasing conflict with the SWP leadership. As he writes in North Star:

“The crisis had begun in 1970 over which way the SWP would go: forward, evolving into an organization connected with the realities of national and international living struggles of real people; or inward, self-isolating from realities because those realities did not correspond to a preconceived idea ordained as the unchangeable truth.”

Although the SWP had played a positive role in the anti-war movement, it had problems dating back to its mistaken analysis at the end of World War II and had zig-zagged between various forms of opportunism and ultra-leftism.

An example of this was the SWP’s uncritical attitude towards Fidel Castro and Malcolm X, failing to explain the shortcomings of their positions. In Martin Luther King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963, the SWP made an ultra-left call for “an independent African-American political party” instead of launching a campaign for a mass workers party.

In 1972, Jack Barnes became national secretary of the SWP, and along with his political clique ran an increasingly bureaucratic and cultish internal regime. This exacerbated the political problems and lead to various twists and turns in policy. This caused conflict between Camejo and the party leadership that came to a head during Camejo’s 1976 Presidential election campaign.

By the 1980s, the SWP made a completely mistaken “turn to industry” where they came up with an arbitrary definition of “working class” that emphasized industrial workers. The leadership put tremendous pressure on the mostly student or former student members of the SWP, without any union organizing experience, to get jobs as meat packers, textile workers, or coal miners where they were expected to stir their co-workers into action. In practice, this left them isolated.

Camejo had been involved with immigrant rights work in the 1970s and the new policy meant giving that up in order to organize garment workers he had never met before. This is when he left the SWP. This was part of a larger exodus and splits from the SWP in reaction to the Barnes clique and the “turn to industry.”

Those who left the party, Camejo included, became demoralized by the party’s arbitrary policy shifts and they drew the mistaken conclusion that the task of building a revolutionary party inherently leads to a top-down, anti-democratic culture.

Camejo concluded that the problems with the SWP stemmed from something “intrinsic” in the nature of Trotskyism and revolutionary Marxism, specifically the idea of a program. Trotsky worked on the basis of a transitional program. This meant a program that would include minimal, readily achievable demands, but also more advanced demands pointing in the direction of socialism and workers’ control.

For such a program to work it has to be rooted in the actual material conditions of the time and the increasingly radicalized mass consciousness of the working class in a period of intensified class struggle. Under the leadership of Jack Barnes, the SWP’s program was handed down from on high, and bore little relationship to reality. From this, Camejo concluded erroneously that any program must inherently be “dogmatic” and without basis in reality.


Ironically, it was Camejo’s support for some of the opportunist turns of the SWP that also ultimately led him to leave the party.

In 1979, the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua had been overthrown by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), commonly known as the Sandinistas. Camejo and the SWP saw their role in Nicaragua as being to give support to the Sandinistas and condemned as “sectarian” any left criticism of their ideas or activities.

Camejo visited Nicaragua during this time for solidarity work and was inspired by their activities. He describes his work with the Sandinistas as the turning point that ultimately convinced him to leave the SWP, saying:

“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.”

However, it should be noted that, ultimately, the Sandinistas didn’t win. They attempted to go half-way to socialism by nationalizing some sectors of the economy, while leaving others under capitalist control, and failed to spread the revolution in Central and South America. This meant they weren’t able to resist the pressures of imperialism and bring about lasting change, and by 1990, the counterrevolutionary right-wing National Opposition Union was able to win the elections and undo most of what the Sandinistas accomplished.

Unfortunately, the features that Camejo most admired in the Sandinistas, such as their lack of a clear socialist program, also played a key role in their ultimate defeat.

Life Without a Program

After leaving the SWP Camejo drifted to the right, toward left liberal politics. He tried to bring about change by convincing big business to behave more responsibly. He got a job at Merrill Lynch, where he came up with the slogan “The IRA That Cares”. He set up programs like Progressive Asset Management, Inc. and the Eco-Logical Trust that tried to encourage socially responsible investment.

He made earnest efforts to get people to invest in environmentally-friendly businesses, to encourage businesses run by minorities and to get labor representatives on pension boards.

None of Camejo’s work was able to prevent Merrill Lynch from doing dirty deals with Enron among numerous other corporate crimes, however. Nor did it prevent Merrill Lynch from collapsing in the recent financial crisis and participating in the various scandals. As much as he would have liked to turn Merrill Lynch into a socially responsible company, he was still working within capitalism where the need for profit trumps good intentions.

Ralph Nader and the Green Party

When Ralph Nader ran for president in 2000 under the Green Party ticket, Camejo described the campaign as representing “the end of the Ice Age”. For the first time since the 1920s, a genuinely independent candidate was able to have a nation-wide impact in a presidential election.

This was connected with the rise in the anti-globalization movement, initiated by the protests against the World Trade Organization in 1999. Nader and the Green Party came to be seen as the political expressions of this movement. Through the Green Party, Camejo returned to active radical politics.

In 2003, California’s corrupt governor Gray Davis grew so unpopular that he became subject to a recall vote, resulting in a new election. Camejo ran for the Green Party on a left populist platform and he was the most successful third-party candidate in the election. He was also active in Matt Gonzalez’s left populist campaign for Mayor of San Francisco.

But the Green Party is a socially and politically heterogeneous organization. It includes genuine activists, as well as a large section of careerist, pro-business and NGO types. Even in 2000, Green Party councilors in Seattle defected to the Democrats to support Al Gore. And this happened at a time when Nader was leading super-rallies across the country with tens of thousands.

In 2004, Camejo ran for vice president as Nader’s running mate, and the Democrats went seriously on the offensive. They sent activists to Nader rallies for the sole purpose of blocking people from signing ballot papers. Ad campaigns were launched accusing Nader of being funded by the Republicans. Liberal celebrities, like Michael Moore and Bill Maher, attacked Nader. Camejo describes the attack:

“With the progressives as their front-line soldiers the Democrats then launched a multimillion-dollar onslaught of disruption against Nader. They brought more than twenty frivolous lawsuits simultaneously against the Nader campaign to tie us up in litigation we could not afford . . . Lawyers went to the homes of Nader campaign supporters and made false threats of possible arrests for backing Nader. They harassed petitioners, threatening them with legal actions. In Ohio they forced Nader volunteers to go to city hall to prove where they lived.”

In this situation the divisions within the Green Party became apparent. Right-wing Greens used undemocratic methods to get the Green Party to endorse David Cobb instead of Nader, despite the majority support for Nader among the party rank-and-file. Cobb himself refused to campaign in swing states because he didn’t want to “hurt the Democrats.” The result was that the federal funds for the Green Party were used to fund a non-campaign.

This attack on the Nader campaign pushed both Nader and Camejo to the left. During the election, Camejo worked to consolidate the left wing of the Green Party and published the “Avocado Declaration” calling on the Green Party to stick to its principles. Perhaps reflecting something from his youth, Camejo himself confessed that he considered himself to be a “watermelon: green on the outside, red on the inside”. He continued working to build the left in the Green Party until his death.

Breaking the Two-Party System

If there’s a unifying thread in the life of Peter Camejo, it’s his hostility to the big business two-party system. The title of his memoir, North Star, comes from the newspaper of the Liberty Party, an abolitionist party that fought the previous Democrat/Whig two-party system. The book also includes a well-written appendix on the origins of the modern two-party system and the various attempts to break it.

Socialist Alternative and Justice newspaper calls for the establishment of a mass party based on the working class, drawing together workers, young people, and activists from workplace, community, civil rights, environmental, and antiwar campaigns, to provide a fighting, political alternative to the pro-big business parties. This is not merely an electoral aim but must be linked to building struggle and a mass movement.

Unfortunately, Camejo never held this position. His opposition to “programs” meant that he focused on a vague electoral opposition to the Democrats and Republicans. This resulted in serious mistakes during the 2004 presidential election, such as Nader accepting the ballot lines of the right-wing Reform Party in some states.

Nonetheless Camejo was a tireless fighter against big business until the end. Even without a worked-out program, his electoral work with Nader represented a step in the right direction towards independence from the parties of big business. He also demonstrated an admirable perseverance against pressures from those parties, from the antiwar movement to the Nader campaign.

Under the two-party system, workers, young people, immigrants, the anti-war movement, environmental and gay rights movements, are effectively silenced. Camejo believed in the need to provide working people with a voice. Armed with the ideas of Marxism and the Committee for a Workers’ international (CWI), that’s what we must continue to do.

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