Red Inside, Green Outside: Our Great Loss
Peter Camejo (1939-2008)
by Louis Proyect
(Swans - September 22, 2008) Peter Camejo, one of the outstanding
leaders of the U.S. left, died after an 18-month battle with lymphoma
on September 13, 2008, at the age of 68. As a testament to the
respect he had earned far and wide, the mainstream media praised him
as a fallen warrior, including The New York Times:
Active in the Free Speech Movement and in protests against the
Vietnam War as a student at UC Berkeley in the late 1960s, Mr. Camejo
landed on then-Gov. Ronald Reagan's list of the 10 most dangerous
people in California. School officials eventually expelled him, two
quarters shy of a degree.
The spark of activism stayed with him as he became a leader in the
movement to give voice to third-party candidates. He fought for
universal health care, election reform, farmworker rights, living
wage laws and against the death penalty and abortion restrictions.
Missing from these obits, however, is any engagement with Peter's
revolutionary socialist beliefs that remained with him as he ran as a
candidate for the Green Party and even while holding down a day job
as a stockbroker. For Peter, the transformation of American society
would not take place by waving a magic wand and uttering some words
about the need for communism. He always understood that radical
politics were useless unless you could get people to listen to you,
and getting people's attention was one of his greatest gifts.
Peter came from a wealthy family in Venezuela of the sort that serves
as a breeding ground for the politics that have been manifested in
periodic uprisings against Hugo Chávez. But he was outraged by the
injustices he saw all around him, just as Che Guevara turned against
class inequality in Argentina a few years earlier, and decided to
cast his lot with the working people.
Once at a dinner party hosted by his father that included top
officials from the Venezuelan government, Peter made some disparaging
remarks about Perez Jimenez, the dictator who ran the country with an
iron fist. Everybody was shocked by Peter's intervention, which his
father tried to dismiss as the words of an impetuous youth. The
Camejo family was fortunate not to face reprisals from the
dictatorship since not even wealthy families were spared in this
period. When Perez Jimenez was overthrown in 1958, Peter was
impressed by the power of a mobilized people.
That year Peter was a freshman at M.I.T. and a new member of the
Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), the youth group of the Trotskyist
Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Despite his initial orientation to the
Communist Party (CP), Peter joined the Trotskyists because of the
Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt two years earlier.
Soon one of the most important developments for the revolutionary
movement would tap Peter's talents as a skilled debater. After the
triumph of the Cuban revolution, some of the top leaders of the Young
Socialist Alliance would develop a hostile attitude toward Fidel
Castro and Che Guevara, who they regarded as typical caudillos, the
Spanish term for paternalistic strongmen. Peter argued convincingly
for the pro-Cuban position and the victory of his faction helped
orient the Trotskyists to new openings on the left. Support for Cuba,
the civil rights movement, and opposition to nuclear arms were issues
that many young campus activists were responding to and the SWP and
YSA tried as best as it could to relate to these developments despite
being hampered by sectarian conceptions. In a conversation I once had
with Peter in the early 1980s, I raised the question of whether he
would have benefited from leaving the SWP earlier. I expected him to
say something like the mid-1970s, but he told me that he should have
quit in 1959 -- one year after joining. That was his way of saying
that he lost opportunities to build a genuine movement. As political
people fully understand, hindsight is 20-20 vision.
Camejo dropped out of M.I.T. and moved out to Berkeley, California,
in 1966 where he became a student at the university that was emerging
as a hotbed of radical politics. That is where his skills as a mass
leader were honed. For example, Peter was on the steering committee
of the Vietnam Day Committee, an early student antiwar formation that
also included Jerry Rubin as a member.
Peter emerged as the leader of one of the most militant struggles
that ever occurred in the city of Berkeley in 1968, the so-called
Battle of Telegraph Hill. In May and June of that year, the students
and workers of France had risen up against Charles de Gaulle and the
capitalist system in a general strike involving all sectors of the
population, including prostitutes!
When a rally was called by the YSA, the Black Panther Party, the
Peace and Freedom Party, and others in solidarity with the French
students and workers, the mayor of Berkeley refused to issue a
permit. A meeting of 500 people discussed how to proceed and Peter
proposed that they exercise their constitutional rights to protest.
In solidarity with the French cops, the Berkeley cops attacked local
students and workers, which led to street fighting, including the
erection of barricades.
Over 1,000 protestors showed up at City Hall the next day to confront
the mayor and demand that he allow the rally to take place. Peter
wrote in the Militant newspaper:
It was a meeting where people reassured themselves that they were
completely right just by listening to each other, by each person
getting up and giving their personal experiences. Most people didn't
know what happened because everyone just witnessed one or another
aspect of the events. As the general picture began to dawn on people,
it became absolutely clear to everyone: We were completely right in
By the mid-1970s a lot of the energy of the previous decade had
disappeared, largely as a result of the end of the war in Vietnam and
women winning the right to abortion. These two victories had the
paradoxical effect of removing the irritant that had propelled so
many to take action against the system. Meanwhile, a combination of
repression and co-optation through poverty programs had reduced black
militancy as well.
In trying to adjust to the new period, the SWP leadership decided to
bank everything on a working class radicalization based in the trade
union movement -- clearly an illusory prospect.
Camejo did not speak out against the turn, but was never a forceful
spokesman either. His energy in that period was devoted mainly to
studying and writing about the Sandinista revolution as the party's
representative in Managua.
The contrast between the living revolution in Nicaragua and the
sterile workerism of the SWP in the U.S. was just too great for Peter
to accept. Something told him that the FSLN (National Liberation
Front) understood the dynamics of social change and how to organize a
revolutionary movement much better than his own party. He decided to
take a leave of absence from the party and live with his father in
Venezuela in order to get to the bottom of what was wrong. This
involved reading Lenin and trying to understand the Bolshevik project
in context. His conclusion was that the small self-declared vanguard
groups like the SWP had nothing in common with Lenin's Bolsheviks. He
also became convinced that groups like the July 26th movement in Cuba
and the FSLN were much closer to the spirit of the Bolsheviks even
though (or perhaps because) they eschewed the hammer and sickle
iconography. His new goal was to try to help launch a movement in the
U.S. that could express the same kind of non-sectarian and
Sensing that Peter had broken with the SWP ideologically, the party
leadership prevented him from reassuming his leadership role. After
25 years he was on his own.
His first step was to launch something called the North Star Network,
a loose association of ex-SWP members and Maoists who had reached a
similar conclusion. Within a year or two the network petered out (no
pun intended) and Peter joined the Committees of Correspondence, a
Euro-communist type formation that included many leading ex-CPers who
had broken with Gus Hall. Like Peter, they wanted to dump the
"Marxist-Leninist" nonsense, but unlike Peter they thought that the
Democratic Party had a future.
Peter then decided to put all of his efforts into building the Green
Party. His public record as a candidate is well established and there
is no need to recount his breakthroughs, important as they are.
Perhaps the most important thing about Peter's role on the left is
his grasp of the larger historical tasks that face the U.S. Unlike
the small sectarian groups that amount to nothing on the political
landscape and whose model seems to be the small corporation more than
anything else, Peter was always the visionary who connected to his
Peter decided to adopt the name North Star for his network since this
was the name of abolitionist Frederick Douglass's newspaper. He
believed that the American left should adopt symbols that were part
of our heritage rather than some other country's, like the Soviet
Union. His attachment to North Star remained with him until the very
end of his life, now serving as the title of his anxiously awaited memoir.
The Civil War was particularly important to Peter since it was
perhaps the only genuine social revolution the country had ever
experienced. Although he was much more of a speaker than a writer,
his Racism, Revolution, Reaction, 1861-1877: The Rise and Fall of
Radical Reconstruction is one of the best introductions to the period
that has ever been written.
Showing an astute ability to connect our period to the earlier
period, Peter wrote a very important article titled "The Avocado
Declaration" that made these connections explicit:
Since the Civil War a peculiar two-party political system has
dominated the United States. Prior to the Civil War a two-party
system existed which reflected opposing economic platforms. Since the
Civil War a shift occurred. A two-party system remained in place but
no longer had differing economic orientation. Since the Civil War the
two parties show differences in their image, role, social base and
some policies but in the last analysis, they both support essentially
similar economic platforms.
This development can be clearly dated to the split in the Republican
Party of 1872 where one wing merged with the "New Departure"
Democrats that had already shifted towards the Republican platform,
which was pro-finance and industrial business. Prior to the Civil
War, the Democratic Party, controlled by the slaveocracy, favored
agricultural business interests and developed an alliance with small
farmers in conflict with industrial and some commercial interests.
That division ended with the Civil War. Both parties supported
financial and industrial business as the core of their programmatic outlook.
(The full text of the Avocado Declaration can be read on Swans.)
History will one day record that Peter had as much of an impact on
his age as Frederick Douglass had on his own. His example as a
revolutionary leader who put the needs of the movement over any
petty, narrow concerns will also serve him well as the continuator of
a largely misunderstood figure, Karl Marx:
The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working
They have no interests separate and apart from those of the
proletariat as a whole.
They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own by which to
shape and mould the proletarian movement.
Peter Camejo -- Presente!
A life spent in the struggle
Todd Chretien celebrates the life of Peter Camejo and his
contribution to building a revolutionary socialist movement in the U.S.
September 22, 2008
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
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
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
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,
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
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!"
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
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
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.