Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 22, 2008

Red Inside, Green Outside: Our Great Loss

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,socialism — louisproyect @ 12:41 pm

Red Inside, Green Outside: Our Great Loss
Peter Camejo (1939-2008)

by Louis Proyect

(Swans – September 22, 2008)   Peter Camejo, one of the outstanding leaders of the U.S. left, died after an 18-month battle with lymphoma on September 13, 2008, at the age of 68. As a testament to the respect he had earned far and wide, the mainstream media praised him as a fallen warrior, including The New York Times:

Active in the Free Speech Movement and in protests against the Vietnam War as a student at UC Berkeley in the late 1960s, Mr. Camejo landed on then-Gov. Ronald Reagan’s list of the 10 most dangerous people in California. School officials eventually expelled him, two quarters shy of a degree.

“The spark of activism stayed with him as he became a leader in the movement to give voice to third-party candidates. He fought for universal health care, election reform, farmworker rights, living wage laws and against the death penalty and abortion restrictions.

Missing from these obits, however, is any engagement with Peter’s revolutionary socialist beliefs that remained with him as he ran as a candidate for the Green Party and even while holding down a day job as a stockbroker. For Peter, the transformation of American society would not take place by waving a magic wand and uttering some words about the need for communism. He always understood that radical politics were useless unless you could get people to listen to you, and getting people’s attention was one of his greatest gifts.

Peter came from a wealthy family in Venezuela of the sort that serves as a breeding ground for the politics that have been manifested in periodic uprisings against Hugo Chávez. But he was outraged by the injustices he saw all around him, just as Che Guevara turned against class inequality in Argentina a few years earlier, and decided to cast his lot with the working people.

Once at a dinner party hosted by his father that included top officials from the Venezuelan government, Peter made some disparaging remarks about Perez Jimenez, the dictator who ran the country with an iron fist. Everybody was shocked by Peter’s intervention, which his father tried to dismiss as the words of an impetuous youth. The Camejo family was fortunate not to face reprisals from the dictatorship since not even wealthy families were spared in this period. When Perez Jimenez was overthrown in 1958, Peter was impressed by the power of a mobilized people.

That year Peter was a freshman at M.I.T. and a new member of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), the youth group of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Despite his initial orientation to the Communist Party (CP), Peter joined the Trotskyists because of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt two years earlier.

Soon one of the most important developments for the revolutionary movement would tap Peter’s talents as a skilled debater. After the triumph of the Cuban revolution, some of the top leaders of the Young Socialist Alliance would develop a hostile attitude toward Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, who they regarded as typical caudillos, the Spanish term for paternalistic strongmen. Peter argued convincingly for the pro-Cuban position and the victory of his faction helped orient the Trotskyists to new openings on the left. Support for Cuba, the civil rights movement, and opposition to nuclear arms were issues that many young campus activists were responding to and the SWP and YSA tried as best as it could to relate to these developments despite being hampered by sectarian conceptions. In a conversation I once had with Peter in the early 1980s, I raised the question of whether he would have benefited from leaving the SWP earlier. I expected him to say something like the mid-1970s, but he told me that he should have quit in 1959 — one year after joining. That was his way of saying that he lost opportunities to build a genuine movement. As political people fully understand, hindsight is 20-20 vision.

full: http://www.swans.com/library/art14/lproy48.html

1 Comment »

  1. I remember Camejo talking to a Venezuelan activist after speaking at the plenary of an ISO conference in 2004(?). I remember the look on his face – concerned, inquisitive – as he asked the young comrade questions, and did a lot of listening. That a man with such a wealth of experience of his own through decades of struggles would sit and just listen to someone on the ground in the middle of an unfolding revolutionary process says a lot about the kind of man and the kind of revolutionary Camejo was. He always struck me as humble and human, even when he seemed superhuman in his abilities as a speaker, and seeing that just confirmed it. At the time, I had no idea he himself was Venezuelan.

    Comment by Binh — September 22, 2008 @ 6:03 pm

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