Peter Camejo

    Empty rhetoric is a form of capitulation.
    – Peter Camejo

I have just finished reading Peter Camejo’s memoir, North Star, which is available from Haymarket Books. Camejo is mostly remembered for having run as Ralph Nader’s running mate in the 2004 presidential election. However, he had a long and varied career before that. Although he was born in the U.S., he came from a wealthy Venezuelan family. He was a member of Venezuela’s yachting team at the 1960 Olympics. During the 1960’s, he was active in the anti-war movement. He played a leading role in the Battle of Telegraph Avenue, in which UC students fought with the Berkeley police. He became a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 1970 (he debated Ted Kennedy) and for the presidency in 1976. (He reports that there were 66 undercover FBI agents working in his presidential campaign.) He was also involved in international work for the Fourth International. He tells of an incident in which he tried unsuccessfully to persuade a guerilla group in Argentina to release a businessman they had kidnapped. As I read about this, it occurred to me that under current “anti-terror” laws that exist in the U.S., he could have gone to prison for this. A striking example of how our freedoms have been eroded in recent years.

In the 1980’s he was expelled from the Socialist Workers Party. He founded a short-lived group called the North Star Network. He then moved into the field of socially responsible investing. In the 1990’s, he became involved in the Green Party. He ran for governor of California three times on the Green Party ticket.

I found the book fascinating. HIs accounts of his anti-war work provide insights into how to build broad coalitions, as well as how to confront police violence. However, I found his account of his time doing investment work less interesting, although he does give a revealing discussion of pension funds. He points out these funds are mostly managed by businessmen who are hostile to workers and to unions. He also points out that many environmental and conservation groups invest their money in companies that pollute, including oil companies. His account of the 2003 California recall election is amusing. (He gives an unflattering portrait of Arianna Huffington. Among other things, he points out that her attacks on Schwarzenegger made it easier for him to avoid discussing the issues.) I was disappointed that he never really discusses why the North Star Network never took off. I would think that might have been enlightening.

There are two aspects of this book that may well prove controversial. The first is his critique of Trotskyism. The second is his discussion of the left’s capitulation to the Democrats during the 2000’s. Camejo argues that during the 1930’s, when the Trotskyists were trying to differentiate themselves from the Stalinists, they became obsessed with having the “correct” interpretation of Marx and Lenin, as well as of events in the Soviet Union. The result, Camejo argues, is that they developed a rigid view of the world. (I have met Trotskyists who did seem to me ideologically rigid and obsessed with having the “correct” line on everything.) However, Camejo does admit that Trotskyists have played useful roles in political struggles – as his own participation in the 1960’s anti-war movement shows.

Camejo sees the left’s capitulation to the Democrats as an unmitigated disaster. It has paralyzed the left and made it easier for the Democrats to pursue pro-war and pro-corporate policies. Camejo has harsh words for Michael Moore, Medea Benjamin and others who threw their principles away to elect politicians whose positions they oppose. On this point, I agree completely with Camejo. It is going to take a long time to overcome all the damage that has been done.

Another of Camejo’s arguments concerns language. He argues that words such as “socialism” have acquired too much political and historical baggage, and that leftists must find new ways of explaining their ideas to people. I think Camejo may be right here, although I’m not sure how we would go about developing this new language. Camejo also urges leftists to study America’s radical history (such as the abolitionist movement) and to draw inspiration from it. I think this is an excellent idea.

One thing that struck me about this book is Camejo’s unwavering optimism, even after the collapse of the 2000’s. He expresses confidence that there will one day be a “Third American Revolution”. I certainly hope he was right about that.

Peter Camejo, presente!

4 Responses to “Peter Camejo”

  1. Bob Morris Says:

    Camejo’s 2004 “Avocado Declaration” details precisely how the Democratic Party functions to channel genuine dissent and protest into itself where it is then co-opted and rendered meaningless.

  2. Richard Estes Says:

    As someone who is not a Trotskyite, the scholarly approach criticized by Camejo (and rightly so) has had a positive aspect. Trotskyites have published a lot of great works on a variety of subjects as true internationalists. They have kept alive an alternative left intellectual tradition as have, in their own way, anarchists like those who run PM Press and AK Press. But, it is true, as an approach to political organization, it failed.

    Camejo possessed a clarity of thought and purpose that contrasted markedly with those like Benjamin and Moore, people who found themselves looking more and more confused and incomprehensible with the passage of time. To advocate for a clear left alternative, you have to accept the marginalization and social ostracism that comes with that, and Camejo was one of the few capable of it.

    Camejo is spot on when it comes to Arianna Huffington. I heard some of the gubernatorial debates in 2003, and while he tried to focus public attention on the ideological alternatives, and the social consequences, Arianna was running interference for Schwarzenegger, clearly seeking to undermine the most popular Democratic opponent, Cruz Bustamonte. She was particularly odious when she maligned Bustamonte for taking money from Native American tribes involved in casino gambling. She was playing to white fears of a Latino governor funded by other non-whites. Really despiccable. She’s always been a phony, as most recently evidenced by her news site that pushes a Zionist form of progressivism (she was strong voice in support of the Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006).

  3. Douglas Jordan Says:

    Its a pity in an otherwise good comment Richard Estes has to use the term ‘Trotskyite’ which was used by the Communist Parties as an abusive term.

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