Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 17, 2010

How a young Nicaraguan changed my life

Filed under: nicaragua,sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 5:38 pm

Back in the early 1980s, when I had my first face-to-face with Peter Camejo about his new ideas for building a revolutionary movement, I asked where he got them since they were so different from anything I had ever heard. He smiled and said, “I stole them from the Nicaraguans”.

Of course, he was just making a joke of the sort that I and so many others had enjoyed over the years. But beneath the joke there was a serious message that I got a much better understanding of over the years. He was trying to say that the Marxism of Carlos Fonseca and other Latin American rebels who had been influenced by the Cuban revolution, Mariategui and other currents indigenous to Latin America had replaced the kind of doctrinaire Trotskyism he had believed in for decades.

I have now discovered that while my interpretation of Camejo’s quip was true, on another level he was being literal. He did in effect steal (or appropriate) the political approach of a Nicaraguan but ironically it was not one of the top Sandinista leaders, but a young rank-and-filer. My experience in Nicaragua in the late 1980s was almost identical. I was always astonished by the high level of comprehension of ordinary men and women in the barrios who knew more about US politics than 99 percent of the people living there.

Reading the chapter in Peter’s memoir “North Star” finally revealed to me the source of his confession about “stealing from the Nicaraguans”. As anybody who has been reading my commentary online over the years, it will be obvious that I stole my ideas from Peter who stole them in turn from a Nicaraguan.

* * * *

From “North Star: a Memoir”

Sometimes even a small event in life can bring about much greater understanding. I had such an experience in Nicaragua, one that started a change in my life.

The FSLN gathered people together for block meetings by setting a tire on fire as a way to let everyone on the block know that a meeting was about to happen. One day I came across such a meeting by accident. I can’t remember who was with me but we decided to stay. A young man, probably no more than twenty-four, stood on a box and began speaking to the whole neighborhood that had come out to listen.

As he spoke it dawned on me. The way he communicated, the message he gave, was what I had always tried to say; but he used only clear, understandable words and his message built on the living history of Nicaragua and the consciousness of the workers and their families who were listening.

He explained how Nicaragua belongs to its own people. How rich foreigners had come and taken their country from them but that they were the people who worked and created the wealth of their nation. They had the right to run it and to decide what should be done. He spoke about the homeless children in the streets and how under the U.S.-backed dictatorship nothing was done for them. He described in detail how the FSLN was trying to solve each problem. That it would take time. That Nicaragua was still in danger of foreign intervention. To never forget those who gave their lives so that Nicaragua could be a free nation. At each mention of the departed, the crowd shouted, “Presente,” to affirm that the missing ones were still with them, here. At every meeting of the Sandinistas, regardless where it was held, someone would read off the names of people from that block, school, or union who had given their lives for freedom. Everyone at the meeting would shout “Presente.”

My mind began to race. Of course this young man was not going to use terms that would lead to confusion; he would place these issues in the culture, history, and language of his people. It dawned on me—that is why this movement had won. They didn’t name their newspaper after some term from European history; they didn’t speak of “socialism” or “Marxism.” While the rest of the left of the 1960s and ’70s was in decline throughout Latin America, caught up in the rhetoric of European Marxism and the influence of Stalinism, the FSLN had delivered a great victory for freedom.

I thought about the United States—the great traditions of our struggles for justice, our symbols, our language—and how disconnected the left was from that reality. I am not sure if it was on that night or another that I had the concrete thought, “We need a paper called the North Star” the greatest symbol of our nation’s struggle for freedom. I remember keeping these thoughts to myself. I didn’t talk to Fred about it. Possibly I told Gloria, I can’t remember. But etched in my memory forever is that block meeting with the fire in the middle of street and some unknown youth changing my life.


  1. Peter Camejo was a great loss, especially for those of us in California. I was unaware of this book, and I will try to find the time to read it.

    Comment by Richard Estes — June 17, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

  2. Nicaragua in the 1980s was a terribly inspiring place… it did amazing well considering the forces aligned against it.

    You might be interested in my article on gay life in Nicaragua in 1986, when I went there, which gets at some of the pluses and minuses of FSLN social policy.

    Lots more on Nicaragua, mostly focused on photos from that trip, here:

    Comment by ish — June 17, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

  3. Peter Camejo came to Madison, where I was a student at the University of Wisconsin, in 1962. He was on the national speaking tour in defense of Cuba described below. He was arguably the most effective socialist public speaker I’ve ever heard in person. The accounts written by Peter give the reader also a sense of his speaking ability, though hearing a sound recording would always give a much better sense. This book is one of the best I’ve seen describing that period by a participant who was part of many of the same groups and experiences I was.

    This book can be purchased from its publisher, Haymarket Books, or through Amazon or your local independent bookstore. I recommend this book with immense enthusiasm, having myself been unable to put it down once I turned the first page.


    Peter recruited me to the Young Socialist Alliance. That led me to Los Angeles and joining the Socialist Workers Party in 1967, in which I remained until my involuntary departure in 1983. Those were wonderful years and I have no regrets about them whatsoever.

    My political work and committment has always been connected with Cuba in one way or another, which is why I was ready to join what seemed to me a very serious group interested in actively defending Cuba in 1962. I was ready and Peter was there to recruit me.

    In the book he gives great descriptions of how Cuba influenced him personally and politically. I particularly like the way he went to Cuba and asked them challenging political questions. They didn’t take offense, just calmly responded. Peter was always very much like that: never afraid of opinions he didn’t agree with, always ready to discuss the issues with someone he hoped he could work with further.

    Finally, I’d like to say that given the political position of the International Socialist Organization toward Cuba, It’s definitely to their credit to have published his book with its strong support for the Cuban Revolution.


    A few points from the book:

    My grandmother was a figure from another place and time, like a character right out of One Hundred Years of Solitude by the famous Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In Marquez’s novel there is a grandmother with gold hidden throughout her house that no one can find. So it was with my own grandmother. While visiting Chita at her home in Barquisimeto in the early 1970s, I woke up to find a 1915 U.S. gold piece under my pillow. (My mother had the gold piece set into a tie clip for me; it is one of the few accessories I ever wore.) In the old colonial style, in Chita’s house the rooms opened onto long corridors that met in a central courtyard. Hammocks hung from the bedroom walls. Chita liked to spend hours napping in a hammock.

    My grandmother also slept with pictures of both Fidel Castro and Jesus Christ over her bed. I never asked about it but waited for her to offer an explanation, which she never did. My Aunt Milagro, the only political progressive in my family until I came along, told me, “She likes Fidel because he is good to the peasants.”
    The Cuban Revolution

    In January 1959 the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship in Cuba fell and the July 26 Movement, led by Fidel Castro, came to power.* In the summer of 1960 I went to Cuba in a delegation of six YSAers. For me it was a joyous experience to witness a country, brutally ruled for years on behalf of America’s corporations, that was now in the hands of people who aspired to eliminate the corruption, exploitation, and poverty that had been the hallmarks of the Batista dictatorship.

    The six of us YSAers got on a train and traveled from Havana to Santiago de Cuba for a huge July 26 rally. All the international guests going to the event were aboard the train. We made a sign to put in the window that said, “Americans for Cuba.” At each station stop I climbed out onto the platform, overlooking crowds that came out to cheer the visitors, and gave a speech on behalf of Americans who believed in the right of the Cuban people to rule their own country. At every stop we got enthusiastic cheers.

    In Santiago de Cuba the rally took place in a huge open field. We were led up to the stage. Sitting with us were some of the original twelve July 26 Movement survivors who started the revolution to liberate Cuba from Batista’s pro-corporate dictatorship. Later Fidel Castro arrived and wanted to shake hands with all the international guests. Everyone lined up to shake his hand. I didn’t because I thought it disrespectful to waste his time. Now I wish I had.

    Two helicopters circled above us to protect the crowd and the Cuban leaders. There was constant fear the CIA would try to assassinate Castro or others. Of course the whole world knows they have tried but failed for many decades. With the helicopters buzzing you couldn’t hear the speakers so the crowd started waving up at the helicopters. It took a while for the pilots to figure it out and fly off a distance so the rally could begin.

    The commitment level of the youth we talked to was overwhelming. I was struck by their massive support for the revolution and how it must feel when people oppressed their whole lives suddenly had a government that aimed to represent them. I would wager that every one of them would have given their lives on the spot to protect what they viewed as their liberation from U.S. domination.
    pp. 76-80
    Trip to Cuba

    As 1968 closed I went to Cuba with a YSA delegation to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the revolution. I stayed for three months. The United States would not allow American citizens to travel directly to Cuba, so the rest of our delegation was flying to Mexico first. But because I had been legally banned from Mexico* (* A permanent ban on my visiting Mexico was legally established by my deportation; sometime later I just went back to Mexico and it was as though the ban had never existed.) following my deportation in 1967, my trip started with a flight to Spain on December 25 from New York’s Kennedy airport.

    About three hours out over the Atlantic one of the left engines caught fire. I could see the flames coming out of the wing. Many of us wonder, when we fly on an airplane, what our reaction would be if a catastrophe were to happen. I can tell you firsthand. My immediate feeling was of deep depression—not panic, but a profound sadness. I thought I was about to die.

    The pilot came on the speaker system with a calm voice and said something like, “One of our left engines has caught on fire. We can’t put out the fire so we will begin to return to Boston for an emergency landing. The stewardesses will prepare the plane for this situation. Please cooperate with them.” He was amazing. His voice was utterly calm and unhurried. Next thing I knew, the plane dropped rapidly until it was just above the water. I knew you couldn’t last long in the North Atlantic even if you succeeded in getting into the water alive.

    A flight attendant became overwhelmed and the others sat her down and buckled her up. Then they began removing seats from the exits so people could deplane more rapidly. A woman seated in front of me started praying, not too loud, but I could hear her; at first it annoyed me. But then a feeling of sadness and compassion for all the other passengers, especially the children, came over me. I found this interesting because in the first moment my depression had been only about myself. After another twenty minutes of steady, relatively uneventful flight I could feel my body chemistry change as hope that I might live entered my head.

    The entire time everyone remained quiet. The pilot started taking the plane back to a higher altitude. During all this I could see the flames licking around the dead engine. After about an hour or more the pilot came back on the speaker and explained that the plane no longer had brakes so it couldn’t land in Boston. Instead, he said, we would have to head back to Kennedy airport in New York, where we had started.

    It took about another hour to reach New York City. As the plane approached the landing strip I could see fire trucks moving alongside the airplane at a high speed. Even before the plane touched the ground, firefighters, looking like gunners in a World War II movie, fired sheets of foam at the flaming wing. Before the airplane hit the ground they had put the fire out.

    In the early hours of the morning we boarded another aircraft and took off for Spain a second time. I had known it would be a challenge to get to Cuba, but this was more than I had bargained for.

    I thought it remarkable that I could get to Cuba from a country run by fascists, but not from the United States. The flight to Cuba from Madrid was actually routed through Canada; imagine flying to Europe and back, just to arrive ninety miles south of Florida. When we arrived in Cuba, at 3:00 in the morning, customs officials took our passports and kept them. I retired to the Habana Libre hotel, where I had a great room—these many years later I still remember it was room number 716.

    The next day, New Year’s Eve, I met up with the other YSAers in the delegation. According to my diary this included Joel Britton (from the L.A. branch), Robin Maisel, Linda Wetter, Danny Rosenshine, Evelyn Kirsch, Maureen Jasin, Dave Prince, Paul McKnight, Derrel Myers (from Berkeley), Will Reissner, Derrick Morrison, and two others from Madison and Cleveland whose names I did not write down. Later that day Eva Chertov, an SWPer living in Cuba, joined us, as did Robert Scheer, one of the many North Americans visiting Cuba at that time. In the evening we all went to the Copacabana, where we stood and sang the Internationale as the clock struck midnight. That marked the end of one of the greatest and most tumultuous years in history, 1968; it was also my twenty-ninth birthday.

    I stayed in Cuba until early March 1969, traveling throughout the island, visiting factories, farms, and the very site where the liberation forces of the July 26 Movement launched their guerrilla war to end the Batista dic­tatorship and U.S. control over their country. Prior to the Cuban revolution approximately 60 percent of Cuba’s territory had been owned by North Americans or Canadians.

    On Sunday, January 5, 1969, the YSA delegation had the opportunity to hear Fidel Castro speak. It was outside Havana, with a crowd of mostly agricultural workers. I wrote in my diary:

    Castro started talking at 5:30 p.m. His talk was excellent. His style reflects such deep conviction, sincerity, and honesty. He does not talk down to the people but is extremely honest. He came down real hard on the real­ities of that region. Giving facts on how little existed and how little had been accomplished and the problems and concepts of how to change it. He speaks with the confidence of someone who feels full support in the masses for his position. It rained heavily … We were all full of mud. Got back at 11:45 p.m. We ate and went straight to sleep.

    At the time of my visit Cuba was, as it remains today, a society run by a one-party system. I raised this issue with Cubans I met throughout my stay on the island. Their responses were interesting—no one claimed it was a good thing. Rather, they maintained it was a necessity, due to the ongoing terrorist attacks and threats of invasion by the United States, as well as the never-ending U.S. blockade of Cuba. They argued that if the system were to be opened up, the CIA would pour in billions of dollars to organize an opposition and eventually would stage an invasion or incite a civil war in order to retake Cuba. As it turns out that is exactly what the United States did when its puppet dictator, Somoza, was overthrown in Nicaragua. So the argument has a great deal of validity.

    Our delegation met with lower-level officials of the Cuban Communist Party. I posed the question whether it would be a good thing for the Chinese government to let their people read the writings of Che Guevara. The party officials responded, yes, of course. Then, I countered, why not allow the people in Cuba to read the writings of Mao? Their response was that, un­fortunately, Cuban realities were complicated. I took that as a reference to Cuba’s dependence on the Soviet Union for survival in terms of oil, arms, and more; of course the USSR was in heavy conflict with China. No one, neither party officials nor ordinary citizens, seemed hostile as I asked these questions. Over and over what I witnessed was a deep commitment to the creation of an egalitarian society, and a genuine sense of solidarity with all working people across the world, especially the Vietnamese.

    Throughout my travels I was struck by the real-life practice of this egal­itarianism. What follow are some examples that stood out when I recall this trip. I attended a trial for a young woman who had stolen shoes from a store. The judge explained to her that, unlike in most other countries, in Cuba no one person could own hundreds of shoes while others had few or none. She needed to understand that stealing was not allowed because all Cubans were sharing what was available. She was permitted to keep the shoes but was re­quired to work on an agricultural project for two weekends to compensate the economy for what she had taken. The sentencing judge worked along­side her and others.*

    * What a difference from California, where a seventeen-year-old, Santos Reyes, received a sentence of one year in prison for stealing a radio and, later in life, was sentenced twenty-six years to life for cheating on a driver’s license test (he had taken the written test for an illiterate cousin). See more about this case in chapter 20.

    The city of Havana had developed block committees to deal with very local issues. One of the block committees’ innovations was to station two people on each block to sit outside at night as a neighborhood watch. I be­lieve they were armed, because Cuba had armed its people to be able to re­sist a U.S. invasion. So a person walking alone at night in Havana was protected on any given block by citizens sitting outside to make sure no crime was committed. I think Havana became the safest city in the world.

    I visited a tobacco factory. Workers received full pay if ill and full pay after retirement. There was one month of paid vacation each year. In all the factories I visited, decisions were made by workers’ committees along with the manage­ment appointed by the various government departments that coordinated the economy. No corporations existed, no stock market, and no owners.

    On the very spot where the guerrilla war for liberation had begun, I met a peasant whose home had been given to him by Castro. In the early days of the revolution the peasant had risked his life to help the guerrillas, and in return Castro had promised him this house. It was beautiful. He lived with his doors wide open and chickens running around inside.

    Nelson, one of the Cubans who drove me around during my stay, had fought against the U.S. invasion at Playa Girón in April 1961 (also referred to as the Bay of Pigs invasion ). He took me there to show me the museum and the battle site. Visiting the Museo Girón was a profound experience for me, as I could see so clearly that the people back home in the United States had no idea of the truth. During the invasion the U.S. media had reported nothing but lies prepared by the CIA. Adlai Stevenson, the liberal Democrat serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, got up in front of the UN and lied, denying that the United States was attacking Cuba—while it was happening.

    I was deeply moved to learn what had happened at a small children’s school on the very beach of the invaders’ landing. Teachers had packed the schoolchildren onto on a bus and driven them away from the beach to safety. But a group of teachers refused to abandon their school. They all had rifles and military training, and they were determined to hold back the invaders until reinforcements could come. Tragically they all died in the attempt. One teacher, with his blood, wrote “Fidel” on the wall as he died. The first rein­forcements on the scene were young recruits from a police training school. They had only light weapons but fought off the invaders until Cuban army troops arrived. Those Cuban army troops included Fidel Castro himself.

    I left Cuba on March 4, 1969, and flew back to Madrid to make a con­nection to Brussels. There was no burning aircraft on this leg of the journey, but I had a tough time getting back as well. At the airport in Madrid there was an eighty-cent charge to board a plane, an “airport exit charge.” I had run out of money and had only sixty cents. I asked the official to please let me on the plane for sixty cents because I was physically, materially unable to pay the remaining twenty cents. The official refused to let me board. Finally the person behind me said, okay, for God’s sake, here is the other twenty cents, let him on the plane.

    Walter continues:
    Some more of Peter’s writings, and transcripts of some of his debates in the California gubernatorial campaign of 2002 may be found here, along with a very nice photo of Peter which I took in 2002:


    Comment by Walter Lippmann — June 17, 2010 @ 9:44 pm

  4. As U.S. political leaders (and Bill Gates) pretend to debate ways to improve education they should look a bit south of Florida.

    Comment by purple — June 18, 2010 @ 4:44 am

  5. Did he also learn about “socially responsible investing” from the same young man? Or was that just a natural outgrowth of his time yaughting, attending MIT, and playing the stock market (all while being an “activist” of course)?

    Comment by The Idiot — June 18, 2010 @ 8:28 am

  6. What’s that old literary proverb: good poets borrow, great poets steal….

    Comment by m.c. — June 18, 2010 @ 4:57 pm

  7. #5:
    We could by the same standard dismiss the contributions of a certain fox-hunting partner of a Manchester factory…

    Comment by sam w — June 23, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

  8. Except that Engels:

    1. Emerged in the period of capitalist ascendancy, before class relations had fully jelled and when individual members of the upper classes could bring to educative elements to the workers movement.

    2. Never attempted to take control of the workers movement (and in fact he and Marx refused several leading positions because they were not workers).

    3. Tried to break from his class background and insisted others from the propertied classes who wanted to join the workers movement do the same.

    4. Never headed up a bourgeois political party or pretended that playing the market could be progressive.

    5. Made real and lasting contributions to the workers struggle to eliminate wage slavery.

    In all those ways, and a million more, he differed from Louis’s idol.

    Comment by The Idiot — June 23, 2010 @ 4:56 pm

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