A life spent in the struggle

September 22, 2008

Todd Chretien celebrates the life of Peter Camejo and his contribution to building a revolutionary socialist movement in the U.S.

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.

Peter Camejo
Peter Camejo

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!"

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.

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