The life and work of the the Latino activist and Marxist Peter Camejo should be an enduring inspiration for the US left
North Star: Challenging the Power of Money Over People
2010, Haymarket Books
364 pages, plates
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
VENEZUELA has produced many great sons, some of whom since the time of Independence have clearly had the dream of liberty hardwired into their genes.
Peter Camejo – a Venezuelan-American activist in the US prominent in leftwing circles, but less well known outside the country – was among the greatest. He is perhaps best remembered as a candidate for the US presidency in 1976 for the Socialist Workers’ Party, and as a vice-presidential candidate alongside the independent Ralph Nader for the Reform Party in 2004. Indeed, he undoubtedly walked in the footsteps of a namesake: the great Pedro Camejo, a great hero of Independence who died at the Battle of Carabobo in 1821 and is featured on a five Bolívar bill.
Camejo’s stirring autobiography, which he was working on at the time of his death in 2008, gives us a first-hand account of the many struggles undertaken by a giant of Latino, and in many ways, Latin American, activism. He was working on the manuscript on the day he went into hospital for the last time.
As the title suggests, it should offer a beacon of hope to the American left today, providing them an archetype of self-sacrifice and considered opposition in a culture more overtly dedicated to capitalist self-gratification and empty fulfilment. Camejo was a tireless champion of peace, social justice and human rights, and a lifelong enemy of racism and capitalist exploitation. To him, profit was fundamentally problematic if it was put before people – and he was not afraid to say so.
Camejo begins his autobiography with a dramatic tale that puts into clear relief the dangers facing leftwing activists in the US – how, while he was on a tour in Colombia, the CIA and the country’s murderous secret police plotted to arrest him at an airport with unknown, but presumably predictable, consequences. This is how US repression works: secret police using their allies in friendly countries where it is possible to rid themselves of enemies. Dirty work done far from the view and reach of US society.
Ultimately, in this case, it was Camejo’s extensive network of contacts that saved him – the lesson being that leftwing politics in the Americas should represent more of a unity than a terrain fragmented by nation-states, those convenient territorial inventions of a cynical bourgeoisie, but that the beating heart of the enemy will be found in Washington.
We learn the very personal story of his embrace of the hated socialism while a schoolboy – remarkably, through his own reading. His book then becomes a fascinating and highly illuminating journey through the socialist politics of the US and the various traditions and groups that have existed. Camejo gravitated to the Socialist Workers’ Party, and stayed until 1980 when strategic disputes, and his own commitment to social democracy, led to a parting of ways. His many journeys in this period spawned extensive links with the Latin American left – from Cuba, to Nicaragua and El Salvador – and Camejo’s story offers important insights into the geopolitics of the 1960s and 70s and the role played within it by the US left in a key period in the region when Washington was waging a cold war against progressive forces through its brutal military allies.
Those strategic differences in the SWP came into the open following the Nicaraguan Revolution, when Camejo found himself at odds with a strategy that he regarded as misplaced to embed its members in unions throughout the US and abandon mass-oriented political mobilisation, and began a low period in his life when his own sacrifices – no career, no college degree – began to bear down upon him. Amid a broader splintering of the US left, he gravitated back towards progressive liberalism and the rainbow politics that accompanied the Democratic Party, and became skilful in developing vehicles for economic solidarity for progressive causes through ethical investing, leading to the establishment of Progressive Asset Management in 1987.
His politics eventually took him in the 1990s into the Green Party and he described himself in terms that many greens today will recognise and are becoming increasingly evident, particularly in Europe, as the contradictions in the class-based positions that began to wither in earnest following the end of the Cold War reach their natural conclusion.
Camejo described himself as a “watermelon” – green outside, red outside – and it was the coincidence of a long-term vision that eventually aligned him with such towering figures as Ralph Nader and Dan Hamburg. The importance of this cannot be underestimated in historical terms: Nader’s candidacy for presidency not only heralded the emergence of the greens as a credible political force, but more importantly also demonstrated both that progressives no longer had to dance to the tune of the Democrats, and that the real ideological foe in US democracy was corporate America with all its corruption and vice.
Camejo would go on to stand three times as a Green Party gubernatorial candidate in California, most recently in 2006 when he gained 2.3 per cent of the vote against the incumbent Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democratic Party nominee Phil Angelides.
More disputes followed in the labyrinthine and fractious world of progressive causes, with the Camejo-Nader axis alienating itself from many greens with its tactical footwork, and Camejo vociferously resisting attempts by the greens to cozy up to the newly-formed Progressive Democrats of America.
But to the very end, he lived by his leftwing credentials, most recently through his vociferous and active opposition to Bush’s Iraq War. And it is this faithfulness to his ideals that will seal Camejo’s unassailable position in the pantheon of the US left, as a veritable “North Star” by which to guide others.
The North Star was an important symbol for him, deriving from the expression that signified heading for freedom as slaves tried to escape northward. We get an insight into his unshakeable beliefs in the conclusion to his book in which he makes a reasonable, but flexible, defence of Marxism. Marx the scientist, he argues, was generally right – but scientists make mistakes and Marxism was turned into a religion. The great thinker’s comments about the Venezuelan character proved particularly irritating to him, but he was easily able to dismiss them because they were made out of character and context. Camejo writes:
“So the fundamental point I want to make – and repeat and repeat – is that you have to think for yourself. When theory comes into conflict with reality it is best to drop or adjust the theory, not deny the reality. Human society is full of contradictions. Sometimes trying to explain things through formulas will simply separate you from reality. That is another fundamental lesson from Marx, a lesson he drew from the ideas of others – that reality is always in flux and is full of contradictions.”
Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books