Pedro (Peter) Miguel Camejo, 1939-2008
By Barry Sheppard
Peter Camejo, a Venezuelan-American and life-long revolutionary, died on September 13 in the San Francisco Bay area. The cause was cancer.
I first met Peter in 1958, when we were both students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He had joined the Young Socialist Alliance, politically aligned with the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, the year before, and I was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League, politically aligned with the social-democratic Socialist Party. Despite our differences, we reached out to a broad range of socialist students from the many campuses in the Boston area to form a discussion club in the spring of 1959.
By the autumn of 1959, we had both concluded that an activist organisation was needed. I had become disillusioned with the YPSL for its support for the Democratic Party, and joined the YSA. Soon we also joined the SWP. We set out to build a YSA chapter in Boston, and our first activity was to form university student committees to organise picketing of Woolworth stores in solidarity with the lunch counter sit-ins that black students had launched in the south to break down the “Jim Crow” segregation laws.
Another focus was defence of the Cuban Revolution. The SWP and YSA worked with Cuban supporters of the July 26 Movement to launch a Boston Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Support to revolutionary movements in Latin America was a hallmark of Peter’s political career his whole life. In the summer of 1960 Peter was part of a YSA delegation to a Latin American Congress on Youth, at which a speech by Fidel Castro indicated the direction of the revolution, after public debate on the island. The Stalinists held that the revolution had to stay within the bounds of capitalism, but in October the revolutionary leadership announced the expropriation of the Cuban capitalists as well as of the imperialists.
I telephoned Peter that night, and we were excited. We concluded that Cuba had become a workers’ state. The leadership of the SWP had come to the same conclusion. A minority in the SWP — led by three central leaders of the YSA, Tim Wohlforth, James Robertson and Shane Mage — rejected this view. The discussion in the SWP was democratic and thorough, and culminated in a convention in the summer of 1961 at which the position of the leadership majority was upheld. A discussion then ensued in the YSA, in which Peter and I were the main spokespeople for the pro-Cuba position, which carried the day in a convention over the New Year’s holiday. The result is that I was elected the YSA national chairperson and Peter its national secretary.
Our collaboration continued in New York in the YSA national office. He had a very spirited temperament, made many imaginative suggestions for our work, some of which were very good and some not so good, and he relied on me to filter them. My temperament was more even, and at the time I knew more about Marxism. This made for a good balance. He was one of our people who marched in Selma, Alabama, with Martin Luther King and Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee leader John Lewis for voting rights for blacks in the south, one of the turning points of the civil rights movement.
Peter was an excellent public speaker. A few weeks before he died, he got up from his sick bed to make an impassioned speech at a Peace and Freedom Party convention backing the nomination of Ralph Nader to as the party’s candidate for president in California. Peter was the best public speaker of our generation in our movement. In fact, he was among the best public speakers who emerged in the entire youth radicalisation. He was equally fluent in both Spanish and English. He spoke without notes, and had the ability to explain ideas in terms wide audiences could grasp, and a quick wit. He communicated his enthusiasm to his listeners, who knew that he passionately believed in what he was saying.
In the mid-1960s Peter moved to the San Francisco Bay area to strengthen SWP work there. He quickly became an important leader of the student and anti-war movements at the University of California at Berkeley. He was singled out by then-governor Ronald Reagan as one of the “most dangerous men” in the state because he was in the thick of every major demonstration. The university expelled him for using a university microphone at an anti-war action.
After the May-June 1968 student-worker uprising and general strike in France, Peter initiated a broad coalition of Berkeley left groups in solidarity. A peaceful demonstration of 1000 was attacked by the police. The demonstrators fought back, which initiated three days and nights of mass meetings and fighting with the police. The YSA headquarters became a first-aid station. Peter was the central leader and public spokesperson of the movement and helped steer it toward militant mass action around the single issue of defending freedom of assembly. All decisions were made in mass meetings that heard different proposals. Peter always carried the day.
Demonstrators overwhelmingly approved his proposal to continue to assert their right to assemble, defying the police if necessary. The demonstrators were fully prepared to defend their rights, and organised accordingly. Among Berkeley residents, the demonstrators began to be supported as the issue became known, and the city administration became isolated. When it became clear that thousands were going to assert their rights by gathering in the street, prepared for self-defence, the city relented and the demonstration turned into a victory rally. Peter was the main speaker as the acknowledged leader.
Peter then took an assignment to go to Boston to strengthen the SWP and YSA, which were playing a leading role in the anti-war movement. In October 1969 there was a massive outpouring of anti-war actions called the Moratorium. The major action in Boston was a meeting of 100,000 on the Commons. Pro-Democratic Party forces tried to keep Peter from speaking. They finally relented, but put him as the last speaker on a long list. The crowd began to disperse before Peter started speaking, but was electrified and regrouped. One of his points was to humanise the Vietnamese “enemy”. He finished to a standing ovation. The press and even Democratic Party people admitted that Peter’s speech was the best received of the day.
During the great student anti-war strike in May 1970, decisions on what to do next were made in mass meetings. Ultralefts would propose “militant” actions. Our mass action perspective, actually more militant than their proposals for street theatre, carried the day almost everywhere. Peter was especially persuasive in these meetings.
In 1969, a faction struggle emerged in the Fourth International, the international organisation of Trotskyist groups, which was to last for seven years. The initial issue was whether our parties in Latin America should launch rural guerrilla war throughout the continent. The majority supported this perspective. A minority, which the SWP supported, said it was wrong to project a tactic, rural guerrilla war, as a strategy for a whole continent regardless of the concrete situation in each country. Peter played a leading role in this debate, travelling throughout the continent, and as one of our leaders in discussions in the bodies of the FI in the early 1970s.
Following the disclosures of government dirty tricks that began to come out in the wake of the Watergate scandal, the SWP and YSA launched a lawsuit in 1973 against the government and its different political police agencies. Besides these organisations, there were a few named plaintiffs, including Peter. He was the main speaker at the rally that publicly launched the suit. We eventually won.
In the 1976 elections, Peter was our presidential candidate, the overwhelming choice of the membership. His running mate was Willie Mae Reid, a black woman who had been active in the black rights struggle for some years, especially in Chicago. We launched the campaign early in 1975, to maximise the time it could be utilised to popularise our views. Peter and Willie Mae criss-crossed the country in many speaking engagements for nearly two years. This was the largest election campaign in the history of the SWP.
When the Nicaraguan revolution triumphed in 1979, Peter was part of a team we sent to size up the events. He came back in time to address the SWP convention in August. His first words were, “The socialist revolution has begun in Nicaragua!”. In September I went with Peter and other SWP members to Nicaragua, as part of an international team. We concluded that a workers’ and peasants’ government had been established. Peter was assigned to live there to help us follow the revolution.
Negative features had begun to appear in the SWP in the 1970s. By 1978 the leadership was on its way to becoming a cult around Jack Barnes, the central leader who had emerged from the party’s work in the radicalisation of the ’60s. In 1981 Peter went on a visit to Venezuela. While he was absent, a meeting of the SWP national committee was held. At that meeting, we were told that Peter had resigned from the party. I didn’t find out until some years later, after I had left the SWP, that this was an outright lie, orchestrated by Barnes, who had always been jealous of Peter’s popularity with the party membership. Over the next years in the 1980s, most of the central leaders were forced out.
Seeking to rebuild
Peter tried to build a new organisation, North Star Network, named after the paper put out by the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass. When he was in the SWP, Peter had taken an interest in US radical history, including the Civil War. He wrote a book, Racism, Revolution, Reaction, 1861-1877, which we published during the 1976 election campaign.
While North Star attracted other former members of the SWP, most were drifting away from politics, and it slowly fell apart. In subsequent years, Peter kept trying to find a way to rebuild. He had come to the conclusion that the times were not propitious for a new democratic-centralist organisation. He also began to question whether the program of the SWP was sectarian. While his views on this vacillated and were never clearly spelled out, this led to a difference between us.
In the 1980s and ’90s he worked with the Australian Democratic Socialist Party, which had succeeded in maintaining itself as a democratic-centralist organisation despite the retreat of the radicalisation. He made several trips to Australia to speak for the DSP. He also worked with Matt McCarten, a Maori and labour leader involved in the New Zealand New Labour Party.
For a time he worked with a group led by Max Elbaum that came out of the US Maoist organisation Line of March, which had evolved away from Maoism and Stalinism. I worked with Peter in this endeavour, but when it became clear that Elbaum was sticking to support for the Democratic Party, we both broke off political relations with this tendency.
When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the US Communist Party split. One side formed the Committees of Correspondence. The CoC was particularly strong in California, and Peter was an early participant. Its first national gathering was held at the Berkeley campus, and was open to all tendencies. Some 2400 people from around the country attended. I met many former members of the SWP there. It appeared that, emerging from this promising beginning, a new multi-tendency socialist organisation of many thousands of members could be built. A national speaking tour of teams representing the various forces at the Berkeley meeting could have signed up members across the country. Also, a national newspaper would have to be started, with positions agreed on as well as full public debates of differences. But neither of these things happened.
The CoC gradually wasted away, and the initial enthusiasm dissipated. Behind this evolution was a grouping of ex-CP leaders that was dead set against the meaningful participation of other tendencies. Their central position, which they held inviolate, was support to the Democratic Party.
While participating in the early years of this development, Peter also helped found the California Green Party in 1991. He became one of the best-known Greens nationally. His objective was to build an electoral vehicle capable of challenging the Democrats from the left. He was also seeking to further the ecological movement, having become more and more convinced that humanity was facing an ecological catastrophe under capitalism.
The 2000 presidential election put the Green Party on the map when it ran Ralph Nader. Two revolutionary socialist groups, the International Socialist Organisation and Solidarity, supported the Nader campaign, and Peter, who was instrumental in nominating Nader, worked with both. The anti-globalisation demonstrations in Seattle had occurred in 1999, radicalising a new generation of young people who poured into the Nader campaign.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, handed the Bush administration what it had been looking for, a “Pearl Harbor” excuse for war and greater authoritarianism. In this atmosphere, Peter ran for governor of California in 2002, as the candidate of the Green Party. He used his campaign to speak out against war. Under his influence, the California Greens had adopted a pro-working class platform, which included defence of undocumented migrant workers. Peter made important inroads into coverage by Latino radio and newspapers, and among Mexican-American political groups.
One demonstration Peter spoke to was in Santa Rosa, a centre of immigrant workers. The action was called by immigrant rights groups, and was endorsed by the Green Party. Hardly any Greens showed up, however, a reflection of the party’s organisational weakness, something Peter was quite aware of. My partner Caroline Lund and I participated in a march of some 500 immigrant workers that culminated in a rally at which Peter was the featured speaker. He spoke in Spanish and was enthusiastically received by the workers. In the ballot, Peter received 5% of the vote state-wide, a large vote for any third party. In San Francisco, he got 16%!
In 2003, Governor Gray Davis was recalled in a referendum initially backed by the Republican right, but which garnered wide support. A special election was called, and Peter was again the Green candidate. A Latino Democrat was running, and Arnold Schwarzenegger for the Republicans. There were other minor candidates. A televised debate was held, which Schwarzenegger boycotted. The debate was seen across the country. The media commentators concluded that Peter had won the debate hands down. He refrained from personal attacks, unlike the other candidates, and had the facts and figures at hand to back his policies.
After Bush stole the 2000 presidential election, the Democrats launched a campaign to blame Nader for their loss. Nader stayed firm against the Democrats, but many in the Green Party started to fold. This became clear at the Green Party convention in 2004, when, through undemocratic manipulations, the delegates rejected Nader and nominated an unknown who ran a low-key campaign and urged a vote for himself only in “safe” states, with a vote for Democrat John Kerry where the election was close.
Peter became Nader’s vice presidential candidate in 2004. They ran as independents. The Democratic Party went all out to deny the ticket space on the ballot. The lesser-evil mood was deep, and Nader this time received many fewer votes than in 2000.
Peter opened up a fight inside the Green Party for internal democracy and for independence from the Democrats. His popularity among Greens in California resulted in his being nominated for governor once again in 2006. He began to have health problems during the campaign and resolved that it would be his last. He hoped that his fight inside the Green Party would result in a left wing forming. He told me he thought this could result in a new Green-Labor Party. However, there just wasn’t enough juice in the party for this to happen.
Soon after the 2006 election, he found out that he had cancer. In his remaining time he concentrated on a book about his political career. He completed the drafts of the final chapters shortly before he died. It is to be hoped that this book appears soon, so that the remarkable story of this outstanding revolutionist can be told in full for the new generations of fighters who will emerge to fight this degenerating system. The book will be titled North Star.