Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 10 No. 1


Peter ‘Pedro’ Miguel Camejo (1939–2008)

PETER Camejo’s story is that of a student who became politically active in the late 1960s, joined the US Socialist Workers Party, where his talents developed and were recognised. There also he acquired some of the undesirable organisational habits endemic in (but by no means restricted to) that party, but having been expelled from the SWP fought to find a politics of dedication to social justice and freedom that addressed the masses and resolutely eschewed all sectarianism. A happy counter-example to the dreary procession of renegade Trotskyists into neo-conservatism in the USA and its New Labour Siamese twin in the UK. Compiling these notes from the many informative obituaries on the internet has been a short voyage of discovery for one who was in political youth taught to despise Camejo as the very worst of all that was wrong with the SWP.

Camejo was born in the USA of Venezuelan descent, and spent most of his childhood in Venezuela. This accident of birth ensured that later in life he was eligible to contest elections for the US Presidency. In 1960, he competed at the Rome Olympics as a yachtsman, representing Venezuela. With the benefit of hindsight it is possible to see in this youthful Camejo a gift for strategic navigation. The name North Star, ever the sailor’s friend, was often to be associated with him in later life.

He studied first at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he first became involved in left-wing politics. Barry Sheppard has described how in 1958 he, as a member of the social-democratic Young People’s Socialist League, was able to work with Camejo who was then already in the SWP’s youth organisation, the Young Socialist Alliance (Camejo’s initial interest in the Communist Party of the USA was broken by the Stalinist suppression of the Hungarian uprising). One of their first activities was to picket Woolworths stores, where racial segregation at the lunch counters was practised. Sheppard was soon to join the YSA, and thereafter the SWP. Together Camejo and Sheppard played a major role in the SWP’s recognition in the summer of 1961 that a workers’ state had been established in Cuba, following the decision by the 26 July movement to expropriate the capitalists.

Camejo studied history at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was elected to the student council. He was suspended from the University for ‘using an unauthorised microphone’ during a demonstration against the Vietnam War in 1967. Ronald Reagan, at that time state governor, described him as one of California’s 10 most dangerous citizens. He was soon to be found engaged with the mass civil rights campaign, marching at Selma, Alabama. His talent as a public speaker was recognised very early, and he was fluent equally in Spanish and English.

In the Berkeley spin-offs from the battles of May 1968 in Europe, Camejo was engaged in creating an effective coalition of left groups among students, and organising the fight-back against police violence on and around the campus.

The SWP’s successes in recruiting newly-radicalised students brought their own problems, specifically those of the dilution of the proletarian component in the membership, which was to have inevitable consequences for the political line. The Proletarian Orientation Tendency (POT), led by Larry Trainor and Alan Wald, warned that the working-class line would come under pressure to change from the energetic, coherent middle-class students. The POT urged a turn towards industry, and in the Boston area pre-emptively led it by taking blue-collar jobs. (The fact that they had to take such jobs and were not already in them speaks volumes.) Camejo was despatched to Boston to take control of the situation.

The Boston branch lagged behind the rest of the country in building the mass anti-war movement. As branch organiser, and a rising young leader, the task was allotted to Camejo of destroying the POT and redirecting the branch towards the student movement. Camejo succeeded locally, and Jack Barnes succeeded nationally, in displacing the industrial proletariat from the centre of their politics and enthroning the new mass movements. At the same time, however, Camejo deployed his oratorical skills to great effect in the student anti-war campaigns in Boston. He also played a leading role in rallying the SWP membership against the guerrillaist mood that assailed the Trotskyist movement under the popular influence of Che Guevara. He was also one of the named litigants in the SWP’s successful lawsuit against the CIA, launched in 1973.

Such had Camejo’s status become in the SWP that in 1976 he was their candidate in the presidential election. He polled no more than 91,000 votes, a derisory figure arithmetically, but one that was to provide him with a resource of experience of huge value. It also substantially aided the SWP’s recruitment and propaganda.

As is frequently the case, the victorious leadership, after a decent interval, adopted almost all the positions of the vanquished ‘workerists’, and conducted a (mainly botched) ‘turn toward industry’. Not so Camejo; he had spent time in Nicaragua witnessing a living revolution, having been sent by the SWP to study and report. He duly reported to the August 1979 SWP Convention: ‘The socialist revolution has begun in Nicaragua!’

Camejo continued to look outwards from what he was increasingly clearly seeing as Trotskyist sectarianism, arguing for work with non-Trotskyist socialist groups and parties, groping and grasping his way towards a more popular mass basis for socialism. This difference was eventually to lead to his expulsion. During his absence in Venezuela, Barnes, by then the SWP’s leader, announced that Camejo had resigned. This is now known to have been a lie. He continued as a member of the International Executive Committee of what called itself the ‘Fourth International’ for another two years. His important document from 1983, Against Sectarianism, recognised the SWP’s sectarianism while misdiagnosing its origins in ‘workerism’, and not, as Louis Proyect has made admirably clear, in a wrong conception of party building and a mistaken view of ‘Bolshevism’.

In 1983, Camejo founded the North Star Network (NSN), named after the abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ newspaper, describing it as a ‘revolutionary but anti-sectarian’ group, critical of the SWP under the Barnes/Carleton College leadership for its sectarianism, and for its inadequate support of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. The NSN took a positive view of Jesse Jackson’s ‘rainbow coalition’, and called for a re-evaluation of the ‘official’ communist parties in the light of what the NSN viewed to be their positive contributions in Cuba and Nicaragua. Although mainly a West Coast phenomenon, the NSN recruited significant figures such as Carl Boggs and Myra Tanner Weiss. However, the NSN eventually proved to be an organisation only of the disaffected, and it inevitably disintegrated. At this point Camejo was less clear-sighted than at most points in his political career.

In the remainder of the 1980s, Camejo was casting about for opportunities for fruitful political work. He put considerable effort into working with allies in Australia and New Zealand, and with limited success discussed with the once promising ‘Line of March’ group that emerged apparently sane from US Maoism. In 1991, the fallout from the disintegration of the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe seemed about to pay dividends as the CPUSA broke apart, creating an opening for reviving a discussion of the socialist line among the Committees of Correspondence (CoC). Eventually this too was to prove an ignis fatuus. In 1992, Camejo committed substantial personal resources into establishing the Progressive Alliance of Alameda County, an organisational effort that failed to sustain itself.

In 1987, Camejo co-founded Progressive Asset Management Inc, an Oakland investment firm that steered its clients’ money into socially responsible funds. He remained its board chairman until his death. He argued that microelectronic technology had massively increased labour productivity, stabilising capitalism and laying the basis for a new phase of capitalist expansion. From this he developed an approach to fund management based on ‘Socially Responsible Investment’ (SRI), and published a book The SRI Advantage that argued that SRI-based investment strategies outperformed others. He also served as a board member of Earth Share, a federation of more than 400 environmental organisations, where he worked to promote solar energy.

Time had taught Camejo not to put all his eggs in one political basket, and not to allow anybody’s grandmother to suck them all. While chasing down all the opportunities that the CoC offered, he had also participated in the foundation of the California Green Party in 1991, having come to recognise the force of those arguments that proposed there was a major threat to the future of humanity in the ecological crisis. Also, he correctly saw in the Green Party the only realistic chance for an attack from the left on the two-party hegemony, a chance to rewrite the political agenda.

When in 2000 the Green Party ran Ralph Nader as their presidential candidate, Camejo had a key role in winning and retaining support from the International Socialist Organization and Solidarity. This skilful positioning maximised the gains from the anti-globalisation demonstration in Seattle in 1999. (Camejo was quoted in 2002 as claiming that he was a watermelon – green on the outside but red on the inside.)

In 2002, Camejo stood in the state gubernatorial election in California for the Greens, on a clear anti-war programme, and in support of the rights of undocumented workers. With a five per cent share of the state-wide vote, peaking at 16 per cent in San Francisco, this campaign was a major success, out-polling the Republicans in some areas. (Predictably he came under repeated criticism from those who thought the 1938 Transitional Programme of the Fourth International’s founding conference was a full and sufficient platform for the 1990s.) His reputation as an impressive political speaker was boosted by every media appearance, and he built further on this in the recall referendum in 2003. One of his achievements during these campaigns was substantially to raise the level of interest in and understanding of ecological problems among ‘communities of color’. This line of advance was blocked in 2004, however, when the Greens in effect backed down from the challenge to the Democrats and rejected Nader as their candidate. Camejo remained indefatigable, and again won the gubernatorial nomination in 2006, but by then his health was failing under the onslaught of the lymphoma that was eventually to conquer him. The Greens had come under severe criticism from 2004 onwards, in particular for taking votes away from John Kerry, who presented himself as the anti-war candidate. There were tendencies developing among the Greens to seek an alliance with ‘progressive democrats’. Camejo succeeded in rallying the core of the Greens sufficiently to maintain an independent challenge.

The final phase of his political life was to complete his autobiography, under the title North Star, which has not yet been published.

Peter Camejo is survived by his wife Morella, his daughter Alexandra, his son Victor, three brothers Antonio, Daniel and Danny, and three grandchildren Andrew, Daniel and Oliver. He was a prolific writer, of articles, pamphlets and books. The following indicate the range of his concerns:

  • How to Make a Revolution in the United States, 1969.
  • Liberalism, Ultra-Leftism or Mass Action, 1970.
  • Guevara’s Guerrilla Strategy: A Critique and Some Proposals, 1972.
  • The Racist Offensive Against Busing: The Lessons of Boston: How To Fight Back (with Willie Mae Reid and others), 1974.
  • Who Killed Jim Crow? The Story of the Civil Rights Movement and its Lessons for Today, 1975.
  • Racism, Revolution, Reaction, 1861–1877: The Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction, 1976.
  • Stop the Deportations, 1977.
  • The Lesser Evil: The Left Debates the Democratic Party and Social Change, 1978.
  • The SRI Advantage: Why Socially Responsible Investing Has Outperformed Financially (with Geeta Alyer and Samuel Case), 2002.

Bridget St Ruth

Updated by ETOL: 1.11.2011