Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 12, 2010

North Star: a tribute to Peter Camejo

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,socialism,Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:36 pm

North Star
A Tribute to Peter Camejo
by Louis Proyect

Book Review

ed. Louis Proyect’s tribute is based on his own experience and recollection as well as his reading of Peter Camejo’s unfinished memoir published posthumously, North Star: a Memoir, Haymarket Books, 2010, ISBN 978-1931859-92-9.

(Swans – July 12, 2010)   In November 1969, I was ready to drop out of the Socialist Workers Party in New York City just two years after I joined. Although I had no political disagreements, I felt alienated from the organization. I was in a kind of limbo that most people with regular jobs experienced. Unless you were a student at a place like Columbia University where all the action was going on or a full-timer with a sense of mission about being a “professional revolutionary” in Leninist terms, it was easy to feel like a fifth wheel.

Just before I had steeled myself to turn in my resignation and become a “sell-out” to bourgeois society, the organizer called me into his office to ask me to take on an important assignment. The Boston branch was out of step with the rest of the party and required reinforcing with “solid” people who would work with the organizer Peter Camejo to “turn things around.” Feeling a sense of validation that had escaped me before, I said yes on the spot. This would be my introduction to a comrade who I can describe as one of the major influences on my political evolution over the past 30 years. It was thus with a keen sense of anticipation that I turned to his posthumous memoir North Star, a book that not only captures his winning personality but also the ideas that transformed me.

Before moving up to Boston, I knew Peter only by reputation. Apparently, he was one of the few Socialist Workers Party (SWP) members who had won a following among the broad left, especially in Berkeley where his leadership in the Telegraph Avenue struggle of June 1968 had helped to cement his reputation. After the cops had attacked a rally in support of the French strikers, the movement mounted a counter-attack to defend the constitutionally protected right to protest. Although there was a considerable amount of violence, Peter played an important role in making it clear that the cops were responsible and not the protesters. His description of the confrontation would be especially useful to young people today grappling with the problems of black block machismo that have served to muddle the message of anti-globalization protests.

After seeing the power of a united left in the battle of Telegraph Avenue that included the Black Panther Party, the Peace and Freedom Party, and thousands of unaffiliated radicals and progressives, Peter began to think about how “out of touch” the left, and Trotskyism in particular, was with “the reality of what it would take to build a mass current for social justice.” He found himself becoming more and more aware of how detached it was from American realities:

We were so disconnected from our own history that to join our organization and remain active, a member had to become interested in and invested in the internal factional struggles of socialism in Russia and Europe. This was important but couldn’t serve as the framework for a mass movement for social change.

He doubted that a single party member could name the first candidate of the Liberty Party, the original third party in American history formed to oppose slavery. It was also unlikely that any had ever read Frederick Douglass’s newspaper “The North Star” that would eventually become a symbol of the kind of broad left that Peter sought to build.

read full at: http://www.swans.com/library/art16/lproy62.html


  1. Thanks for the review, Louis.

    Those of us who were active in the US Socialist Workers Party during its high point in membership in the 1960s and 1970s will certainly find much food for thought in Peter Camejo’s NORTH STAR. Those who weren’t in the SWP can learn much from the book as well, though they won’t know the individuals nor therefore get the “feel” of Peter’s informed portraits of the various people he encountered and described.

    As we try to understand why the political left, especially those parts which describe themselves as “revolutionary” have experienced – for the most part – a steady decline in membership and influence, Camejo’s book offers many, many challenging questions which those who remain politically active have to try to address.

    Louis’s favorable review should encourage those who haven’t yet ordered or read the book to do so as soon as possible. Immense wealth and privilege which still characterize the life of the United States of America today. Thess brings with them various attitudes which contribute toward a deep conservatism, even of a “revolutionary kind”.

    It’s a good thing for those who remained active that Peter didn’t decide to return to private life, though he had to find a way to make a living after he was excluded from the Socialist Workers Party by an organizational maneuver.

    Peter left us an admirable political legacy. From it we can try to assimilate elements of history and try to draw useful lessons for moving ahead to build a better, more effective political movement toward the goal of bringing about socialism.

    Comment by Walter Lippmann — July 12, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

  2. Peter’s book is an invaluable contribution to the history of the social movements of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Frankly, I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more “inside dope” on the SWP. There are already a couple of books on the subject (Les Evans’s & Barry Sheppard’s) but there’s plenty more to be said. But his emphasis is understandable – Peter was always more of a “movement” person than a “party” person. That was his strength and his weakness.

    Still beating the Cochranite drum, I see, Lou. If Cochran & company were so smart, why did nothing come of their project? Instead it was the “rigid, dogmatic Cannonites” led by the “routinist Dobbs-Kerry machine” that went on to make a real difference in the ’60s and ’70s. For that matter, nothing Camejo did after he was turfed out of the SWP amounted to much either.

    Comment by David Altman — July 12, 2010 @ 9:21 pm

  3. What came out of the Socialist Union was the American Socialist magazine, a place where Harry Braverman’s original considerations on automation can be found. They dissolved their group in 1959 because of a lack of opportunities. If they had split with the SWP 5 years later, they would have made a much bigger impact in terms of action. In politics timing is everything, as Peter discovered when he spent a year in Venezuela rather than organizing a split out of the SWP.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 12, 2010 @ 9:32 pm

  4. Re: “nothing Camejo did after he was turfed out of the SWP amounted to much either”

    I wouldn’t exactly call Camejo’s standing up for radical politics independent of the Democrats “nothing.” His campaign speeched in 2002 and 2004 were every bit as educational and exciting as his debating Michael Harrington in 1976 over “lesser evilism” was.

    Camejo was a hundred times better than the saintly Chomsky and Zinn, both of whom supported Kerry and then Obama, or the opportunist ISO who grovelled after their mentors.

    Hell, if any of them had the balls and the backbone that Camejo had, maybe his endeavors would have “amounted to much” more since he (and Nader) wouldn’t have been so isolated.

    Comment by Roy Rollin (MN Roy) — July 12, 2010 @ 9:55 pm

  5. Well, I don’t want to beat this dead horse, but it’s rather absurd to say there were no opportunities in 1959. McCarthyism was on the wane, the civil rights movement was on the rise. There was all kinds of ferment in the Communist Party milieu following the Khrushchev revelations, etc. All of which the SWP was involved in. I understand the “Cochranites” did play a positive role in the socialist regroupment project (which led in part to the founding of the YSA), but there weren’t many of them left by the late ’50s. Whatever contributions they made were as individuals, not as an organized tendency.

    Some of the Cocranites’ criticisms of the SWP were valid. One thing the “Cannonites” said holds true, though. They said the Cochranites were retreating from political life under the pressure of McCarthyite reaction, and they were right.

    P.S. Camejo supported Mondale in 1984, something he doesn’t mention in his book.

    Comment by David Altman — July 12, 2010 @ 10:19 pm

  6. P.S. Camejo supported Mondale in 1984, something he doesn’t mention in his book.

    And you voted for Obama. Big fucking deal.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 12, 2010 @ 10:36 pm

  7. Thanks for writing this review. I’m going to get the book immediately.

    Being a Canadian socialist, I find we have similar problems. The Canadian far left, with some important exceptions, has oriented its entire understanding of theory, history and practice around Marxist debates rooted elsewhere, especially Europe and even the United States. We talk about the Russian Bolsheviks, the Spartakist League, the Minneapolis general strike, the Black Panthers, SDS – anything but what has actually happened in Canada.

    The experiences, lessons and history of the left and social and labour movements that have been generated out of Canada itself are completely absent from how the Canadian far left operates. My six year experience in the Canadian IST group and decade-long experience on the left in general has been completely devoid of an analysis of the current situation in Canada. I’d be surprised if Canadian socialists could do better than most Canadians on basic history tests, even if it is naming Prime Ministers and “big events.”

    This has contributed to an unacknowledged sectarianism that is, ultimately, just as disabling as the overt sectarianism which plagues groups like the Sparts or Bolshevik Tendency. The far left has been completely caught off guard and unable to relate to spontaneous opposition campaigns to “reformist” issues like Prime Minister Harper’s recent suspension of parliament when faced with inquiries into the conduct of Canadian officials in Afghanistan. In contrast to your description of what Camejo saw in Nicaragua, the Canadian far left can’t talk to “ordinary” Canadians in a non-socialist language with a firm conception of profoundly Canadian conditions and history.

    Anyway, thanks for the review. I’m buying the book and going to read up on the Socialist Union.

    Comment by Doug — July 14, 2010 @ 4:31 pm

  8. […] memoir is played mostly for laughs, but it shares the analysis found in Peter Camejo’s “North Star” and the article on democratic centralism by Joaquin Bustelo posted to this blog yesterday, namely […]

    Pingback by Barry Sheppard, Peter Camejo, and the role of the revolutionary party « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 18, 2010 @ 11:42 pm

  9. Camejo’s most significant contribution was as an elogquent and articulate spokesperson for Socialism and specific single issue campaigns he supported. On the other hand, he was no great organizing genius, which is no great sin. People have different talents and shouldn’t be required to be experts in everything. There was no shortage of people in the SWP during the period when Camejo began to develop his differences with the leadership who would have agreed with him if we had known of his disagreements. In 1984, in San Francisco, another former SWP member asked Camejo why we didn’t make public these differences within the party ranks. His reply was that he wanted to limit the discussion to the national leadership level. Sounds a bit elitist to me. Even before the 1984 presidential election, he was talking about “creative entry” into the Democratic party, what ever that means. During the 1984 presidential campaign who was it actively supporting Mondale, Peter Camejo or Barry Sheppard? Yes, in the privacy of the voting booth, I have no doubt many Socialists voted for Barack Obama, which is a far cry from publicly and actively supporting a capitalist presidential candidate.

    Comment by Ken M — July 23, 2010 @ 8:19 pm

  10. #9 deftly avoids the entire “vanguard” party question. Nice evasion there.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 23, 2010 @ 9:24 pm

  11. #10 deftly avoids any points mentioned in #9. Nice evasion there.

    Comment by Ken M — July 24, 2010 @ 6:32 pm

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